Literary Prize Posts

Books read during the lockdown, April 2020

It is not very easy to read while the lockdown is on but I have managed a wee bit. The following are only some of the books I managed to read in April. Many others that I read I wrote about in separate blog posts. As always it is an eclectic collection.

Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s The Universe: Everything you need to travel through Space and Time is a brilliant collection of essays about the universe. It begins with a beautiful but very brief essay by Professor Stephen Hawking, “The Creation of the Universe” where he simply and clearly tries to explain the origins of Universe, packing it with concepts too. The contributors to the volume consist of eminent scientists, some Nobel Prize winners too, and a school student, Nitya Kapadia. The range of topics is extraordinary — understanding the origin of life, the Big Bang theory, idea of Space, travelling through the Universe, the idea of Relativity, from the solar system, the planets, speculating about life in space, Zero-Gravity Flights, Time Travel, wormholes, the Goldilocks zone, the geographical structures on Earth, Artificial Intelligence, Robot Ethics, 3D Printing, Internet Privacy, Quantum Computers etc. The template set by the late Prof. Hawking is the blueprint for the subsequent essays in the book. It makes science so easily accessible for young and adults alike. ( Confession time: My 10 yo daughter and I have been taking turns to read this book as both of us are fascinated by complicated subjects explained ever so simply!)

Scientific discoveries do not necessarily happen always in a staid manner, in controlled laboratory conditions. S D Tucker’s fascinating book Forgotten Science attempts to uncover the backstories of some of the extraordinary scientific applications that we take for granted in modern times. For instance, figuring out the circulatory system within an individual and the effect of medication if taken orally or injected directly into the bloodstream was discovered after experimenting upon dogs. These experiments were conducted by Robert Boyle (1627-91), often described as “the father of chemistry”, and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the anatomist, architect and designer of St Paul’s Cathedral to test William Harvey (1578-1657), court physician to Charles I, hypothesis about the circulatory system of various living creatures. Another equally bizarre and immoral experiment was carried out by Nazi doctor, Dr Sigmund Rascher ( 1909 – 45) to test the effects of high altitude and how to recover from hypothermia. Taking advantage of his close proximity to SS Head Heinrich Himmler ( 1900-45), Dr Rascher got permission to conduct experiments upon prisoners in Dachau concentration camp. In 1942 Rascher was given a pressure chamber and began locking prisoners inside to simulate the effects of high altitude upon Nazi airmen and parachutists. By altering pressure changes quickly or slowly, Rascher could mimic both gradual ascents and total freefall, and see what such states did to the human body. The effect upon the prisoners varied from exploding lungs, while others began to rip their own hears apart with bare hands due to the unbearable stress they felt inside their skulls. He killed about eighty prisoners in this ghastly manner but dismissed it as saying they were ‘only’ Poles and Russians. Some of his other experiments were on hypothermia, discovering the blood-clotting agent called Polygal and developed the cyanide capsule which later even Himmler took to avoid capture by the British. Ultimately Rascher too was incarcerated at Dachau for publicising the falsehood that he had extended the childbearing age of women and as proof he said his wife, touching fifty, had given birth to three babies, when in truth they had been kidnapped. Rascher was shot in April 1945. Several scientists who had worked with Rascher ended up working at NASA.

The next three books belong loosely to the category of science fiction — The Flight of the Arconauts by Sophia Khan ( steampunk fiction); The Sin Eaters by Megan Campisi and Analog Virtual by Lavanya Lakshminarayan. The Flight of the Arconaut is written at a nice pace. Neat dialogues. Interesting attempt at blending names to denote cultural melting pots. But it seems to have been heavily influenced by contemporary scifi young adult literature. It is also very desi in its telling by cramming the main narrative with so many stories and backstories. I see no reason why all must exist in the forefront. It is also inexplicable why must SpecFic, or in this case Steampunk Fiction, be so obsessed with conservative social rankings especially along gender lines? Why not break free? Also why is birth and regeneration such a massive preoccupation. It is as if it is impossible to think beyond the writing of H G Wells, Aldous Huxley et al. Sophia Khan’s saving grace is the packed dialogue and a superb grasp of the English language — LOVE IT! The second volume in this trilogy should be fun.

The Sin Eaters and Analog Virtual are debut novels. Both the writers seem to be voracious readers. Keenly imaginative writers too but not sufficiently confident enough to create landscapes of their own. While theatreperson Megan Campisi creates a parallel reality to Elizabethan England in The Sin Eater to explore the rumours of Queen Elizabeth I having had an illegitimate child. Campisi builds the premise of her story upon the social mobility a Sin Eater has within society and is able to pick up bits of information. So this part-mystery, part-historical fiction, is thrilling to read in parts with the strongest moments in storytelling being different scenes, much like the scenes enacted on stage. Usually the best moments in the novel are when the sin eater is in an enclosed space like a bedroom or a chapel attending a recitation or funeral and there are onlookers, replicating a play being enacted on stage, watched by an audience. Megan Campisi’s forte is theatre and not long fiction. But if she persists at this craft and attempts to write what her heart tells her to, she has the potential to do well. Much of this holds true for Lavanya Lakshminarayan who need to break the shackles of a well-read reader of science fiction and create with the assurance that resides deep within her, an imaginary landscape with its distinctive vocabulary, unique social structures, and a clear inner logic to the society she creates so that any reader coming to it for the first time will fall in love with her story. For now Virtual Analog is competent storytelling but no more. It may also fit snugly on the joint imprint that her publishers Hachette India have with Gollancz but Lavanya Lakshminarayan is capable of much, much more than what is displayed in Analog Virtual. What shines through the books is their keen imagination. They are creative writers whose confidence will soar with their third books. If they persist at this craft and attempt to write what their hearts tell them to, they have the potential to do well.

And then there are the two works of fiction — Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers and Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule: Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. Established writers. Controlled writing. Immersive reading experience. Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers is an extraordinary reading experiment with parallel texts laid out on the pages — the main narrative and the interior monologue of the writer. Fascinating. It is a sophisticated cross between poetry and prose. Such books are meant to be experienced. In the old-fashioned sense. Linger over the pages. Dip into the text. Read along the margins. Shut the book. Mull over what one has read. Imbibe some more. Go back to a few lines. Meena Kandaswamy’s sense of rhythm as a poet has not left the prose. It is gorgeous! Her writings have always been infused with a ferocity that seems tto have been sharpened over the years but there is something special about this novel. Fifteen years down the line Exquisite Cadavers will be used a fine example of a literary text that will be read by the general reader as well as be a prescribed text. This is not a novel that will not be easily converted to an audio book — nor should it be. Likewise Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella about Morayo Da Silva, a seventy-five-year old Nigerian, living in San Francisco. She reflects upon her life as an academic, author and a diplomat’s wife. It is also a moving tale about ageing and suddenly being at the mercy of tender and well meaning care of others. Ladipo chooses an extraordinary literary technique of giving every character the first person narrative which at first is confusing but slowly adds up to the variety of perspectives and unsolicited advice Morayo gets upon her hospitalisation. The saddest part in the novel is when her kind young friend decides to tidy up Morayo’s apartment thereby ridding it off a clutter of books. Morayo is understandably upset, a hurt that many are unable to comprehend. It is a novel that criss-crosses continents — Africa, America and Asia. Irrespective of the land she is in, or when nostalgia hits her regarding Africa, Morayo’s levelheadedness always wins. It is a novel that cuts across cultures seamlessly and sensitively. There is never an awkward sense of looking at other cultures as “other”.

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women and Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do are ( to use cliches) — mind blowing books. Both by journalists-turned-authors whose books were written after many years of intensive research and recording testimonies. Both these books will influence women’s writing, women’s movements, and all aspects of feminism in a manner similar to that of Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer’s influence. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is about talking to three women about sex and desire for nearly eight years. It became a publishing sensation. While the subject itself would attract attention, it is the narrative, the confidence with which the subjects explore their own complicated reactions to sexuality. Significantly Three Women marks a watershed moment in contemporary women’s literature on how women talk about their sexual desires and needs. In many ways the strength of Lisa Taddeo’s is very similar to male writing, an unquestionable confidence. Jess Hill won the Stella Prize 2020 for Look What You Made Me Do. A title that probably gets lost as it is very similar to many of yalit and chiklit titles, but this title has a purpose with sinister underpinnings. It encapsulates the blame-game that inevitably every male perpetrator foists upon his female victim, usually said in a manner that fools the victim to believe the falsehood — she is too blame for the violence being meted out to her. In this particular book, Jess Hill focusses on domestic violence and her analysis of it is horrific. She breaks many myths about it being only restricted to certain socio-economic sections . Her profiling of the perpetrators is pathbreaking as she creates categories. Some of the men when they appear in court seem as if they can never hurt a fly and yet the incidents they are involved in are gut wrenching. Much of what she says is familiar to women activists and legal teams such as that violence is not necessarily always physical but emotional, psychological, financial etc. The manner in which the information is presented in Look What You Made Me Do will help this material in reaching to newer audiences. Women who either need help themselves or those close to victims. Both these powerful books are going to be seminal in the field of women/gender studies, human rights, manual for legal and counselling professionals.

The final book is the stupendously magical award-winning Lampie and the Children of the Sea. It has been written and illustrated by Dutch illustrator Annet Schaap. This is her first novel. It has already won the Woutertje Pieterse Prize, the Nienke van Hichtum prize, the Bookenleuw and the Gouden Griffel for the best Dutch children’s book of the year. It has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson. It is also the only translated book to have been shortlisted for the 2020 Carnegie Medal Award. It is a stunning modern fairy tale about a little girl, Lampie, living in a lighthouse with her father. Due to some unfortunate events Lampie is sent off to live in the Admiral’s home where it is rumoured a monster resides. It is a heartwarming tale as it is also a tale of Lampie overcoming prejudices and learning to live on her own terms, overcome hurdles and set goals for herself to achieve. The joy with which this story seems to have been written flows splendidly in the translation. It is truly magical to read it even in the moments when there is deep sadness and unnecessary violence. The imaginative plot matches the wild imagination that children are prone to creating for themselves. Yet Annet Schaap, an adult, an illustrator and a storyteller, pulls her strengths together of — an adult’s perspective on a child’s world sans judgement, creative imagination and a wide-eyed wonder at the power of stories to weave her magic. There are multiple layers to Lampie and the Children of the Sea. Whether the monsters in a child’s life are real or imaginary, they can be confronted and set free. It is a book that will appeal to adults and children alike!

14 May 2020

Interview with Siddhartha Sarma: “I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story”

Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and historian. He has covered insurgency, crime and law in the Northeast and other parts of the country and written for newspapers and magazines as an investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, 2009), received the Sahitya Akademi Award for children’s literature in English in 2011 and the Crossword Book Award in 2010. His second novel, Year of the Weeds (Duckbill, 2018) is based on the land rights agitation in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha. His latest published work, Carpenters and Kings (Penguin Random House India, 2019) is a history of Western Christianity in India.

  1. Why and how did you get into writing? Where do you find your stories? How long does it take from inception to completion?

A.:  When I was seven, my school was bringing out a commemorative magazine to celebrate an anniversary. I was told anybody could contribute anything they liked for it, so I wrote an approximately 400-word story based on real events. A bit of a tragedy. They printed the story with no edits on the first page, with my name on it. But what I remember now and in the intervening years is not the feeling of seeing my name in print, or of reading my story in printed form, but the joy of writing it, the process of slowly putting things together in my head and of banging it out, over several hours, on my father’s old typewriter, literally sitting on his desk because I was too short to type from the chair. The fear of making a typo (which is such a frustrating experience on a typewriter, unlike on a computer where a typing error is merely an inconvenience). I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story, of entering or discovering a world, and of narrating it for myself and for any reader I might find. That is how I began writing, and what I still try to do.

I began my career in journalism as a reporter. It is a much-repeated saying in the newsroom that a good reporter never runs out of story ideas. I have never had a problem thinking up story ideas. The problem is deciding which are worth taking up. One does not have this luxury of choice as a reporter, but a writer has to be very selective about which idea she will devote her time and energies to. If my time as a journalist has helped me as a writer in any manner, it is in two: I can be objective in deciding which stories to write and which to shelve, temporarily or permanently. And second: I can be objective in editing my own work. One of the criteria I have for deciding on a story is whether I have the competence to write it. There are many genres that I have a bit of an interest in, but I know I might not be able to execute a story in them very well. Such as fantasy or science fiction.

The complete arc from story idea to research to writing and editing and the final draft depends on the length of the work, its complexity, scope of research and treatment. My first novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, took me a year and half to research and seven months to write. My newest non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India took up nine years of research and eight months of writing. So it varies. But I do seem to spend more time thinking about a story than in actually writing it.

2. Is it only the long form of a novel that appeals to you? Would you ever consider other structures such as short stories or a series arc?

A.: My first work published in a book was a short story, in a humour anthology by Scholastic. Some other commissioned short stories have also been published. But, yes, I find the novel’s longer form more suitable for the kind of stories I have to tell. I have not yet thought of a series of books, although I can’t rule it out in the future. A standalone novel, however, suits the way I want to tell a story for one major reason. While working on a story, I spend a lot of time building the narrative arcs of individual characters. I go back in time, and also forward, into their futures. I create their backgrounds and populate it with other characters and circumstances. Most of these never get written in the final novel, but they do exist. So for me writing a novel is like baking a whole cake and cutting out just a slice of it for publishing. Or creating a tapestry and (again) cutting a slice of it. A short story might give me a much smaller, possibly unsatisfactory slice, while a series might need tough decisions about how many slices to make, or from which part of the cake or tapestry. So far, novels have worked for me.  

3. How much research do you delve into before you begin writing a book? How do you organise your notes? What is your writing routine?

A.: Researching for a book is among the most interesting parts of the writing process for me. Over time, I think I have become a bit more organized in my methodology. The Grasshopper’s Run caused me a lot of anxiety during the research process because I was not accounting for the volume of material I would end up having. For instance, I asked my sources for visual material to base my description of events and topography on, from the China-Burma-India theatre of World War II. I asked for un-curated photographs. I received some 1,800 photos, and most were directly relevant to my research. I had to sift through about 6,000 pages of correspondence and records from that theatre. For Carpenters and Kings, I examined 46 medieval and ancient manuscripts and translated seven of them from Latin because the previous translations were themselves dated. So gathering material is not a problem, particularly in these times. The more difficult part is knowing when to stop researching, or learning to leave out the peripheral or marginally relevant. Otherwise every book becomes a doctoral thesis.

I begin with a basic idea about the plot, in case of non-fiction the general outline of my argument. The notes I take from my research are based on their direct relation to this bare plot or argument. The most directly connected bits of evidence or material gets the highest weightage. Additionally, for fiction, any bit of non-fictional material which can help flesh out a character’s story arc or background (that part of the background which will get written rather than get left on the cutting room floor) also gets priority.

I have no particular routine. My best time is late in the night, but the slow cooking that happens before the physical act of writing can happen at any other time during the day.  

4. How did you decide to write historical fiction set in Nagaland during the Japanese invasion in WWII? And why write it for young adults?

A.: I wanted to base my first novel in the Northeast, as a mark of respect for my homeland. I thought a coming-of-age story during a conflict might work, because I had been asked to write a young adult novel by Sayoni Basu, then editor of Scholastic India. I did not want to base the story during any of the region’s numerous insurgencies, although I have covered them, because the political aspects of those insurgencies were too complex for a novel of the size I had in mind. That left the 1962 war and WWII. The actual fighting in 1962 took place in rather remote places where the human interest aspect did not play out much. WWII was, for my purposes, more suitable.

5. Did winning the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book for your debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run apart from pleasantly surprising you also put undue pressure on you to excel with your next book?

A.: ‘Pleasant surprise’ is very appropriate. I was surprised and gratified that readers and people who know a lot about children’s and YA literature liked the novel. It was very encouraging, and I met some noted writers afterwards and received valuable advice on writing from them. It was a very pleasant experience.

There has been no pressure. I have always been fortunate in the publishers and editors I have worked with. I just try to work on each story on its own merits, and don’t think much about expectations. The only expectation I have from myself is to write, at each stage, a better story than I have written before. If that happens, I am content. Ultimately, I have to write stories that I would like to read, and re-read.

6. Your second young adult novel, Year of the Weeds, is written nearly a decade later. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. How do you achieve this fine balance between journalistic writing and creating fiction for young adult readers?

A.: Year of the Weeds is indeed based on the Niyamgiri movement and was inspired by it, although the novel ended up containing elements from other similar peoples’ movements, while the workings of the government and companies is based on what I have seen across the country as a reporter. I follow peoples’ movements and Niyamgiri was inspirational and unexpected, so I wanted to commemorate it, even though I suspect it was just a provisional victory. While writing it, I was conscious that my treatment had to be that of a YA novel. However, I have also tried to include in it ideas and insights I have had as a journalist covering different aspects of India, such as how most Indians in the hinterland live, how the government interacts and often exploits or victimizes them, and what the true face of development is in these parts of the country. So, while it remained a YA novel throughout, with the frame of reference being mostly that of the two YA protagonists Korok and Anchita, I also tried to make sure these insights and ideas were properly written into the plot.

Around the time that I began researching for The Grasshopper’s Run, I realised I could not continue as a reporter and simultaneously as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I was increasingly not content with the limitations (as I saw it) of a reporter, at least in terms of autonomy. I wanted to tell stories which could not be accommodated within my work as a reporter. So I shifted to the desk and have worked as an editor ever since, while writing books. I chose writing at the expense of reporting. I have not regretted it.

7. You have an enthusiastic passion for the Crusades and yet your first narrative nonfiction was Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India. Why?

A.: I have studied the Crusades, and my thesis for an M Litt degree was on strategy during the Later Crusades. I find the Crusades very significant in understanding world history in general and European history in particular, because those conflicts sit at the centre of a wide range of connected events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Exploration.

There is a number of good, accessible and recent works on the Crusades by scholars from the West, so I did not intend to write a work of my own, which would not have made any significant contribution to the subject. However, something interesting happened during my research for the thesis, which was a study of three proposals for crusades by scholars in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. One of these scholars, a Dominican monk, wanted to launch a crusade from India. My supervisor suggested that I could refer to a secondary source on what these Europeans were doing in India in the period before the Age of Exploration. We discovered that there was no work which explained the political history of Western Christianity in India in the pre-colonial period. In December 2017, I realized I had enough material for a book which dealt with this subject, so I wrote Carpenters and Kings. And yes, I did include a brief history of the Crusades in it, and one of the chapters is about the Dominican who wanted a crusade from India, because all these are connected events. What was the Dominican doing in India? Also, much later, what was Vasco da Gama doing here? The answer to both questions is the Crusades.

8. You write young adult literature, travelogues and non-fiction. This is a diverse range of genres. How did this happen?

A.: Each book happened in a specific context and for unique reasons. The Grasshopper’s Run was meant to be a YA novel. While researching it, I travelled in the Northeast and Myanmar, and afterwards wrote a series of emails describing my travels, which I sent to friends. These were read by a publisher, who asked me to expand them into a travelogue, from which East of the Sun (Tranquebar, 2010) happened. Meanwhile, I wrote two books for the popular 103 series by Scholastic, one on great travellers I admire and the other on historical mysteries. And then I wrote Year of the Weeds followed by Carpenters and Kings. I guess one reason why this is an eclectic mix is I follow a story to its natural place and write it accordingly. So we have a situation where, although history is what I am academically suited to writing about, Year of the Weeds is contemporary political fiction. I am comfortable with chasing a story wherever and to whichever genre it leads. I think the only concern for a writer should be whether the story is told well or not. Having said that, I am still learning, so if I discover that I should stick to specific genres, I shall do that.

9. Do the methodologies of research and writing for young adult literature and narrative nonfiction vary?

A.: It is possible that some researchers might have different research methodologies depending on what genre they are planning to write in. I do not have different methodologies. I choose a subject, start reading about it, examine primary and secondary sources, select those sources which are suitable for the story I have in mind, and then sift through the material I obtain.

There are certainly differences in writing YA fiction and narrative nonfiction for general readers, including tone, scope, complexity of ideas, presentation of this complexity. In some ways, like channelling all the research into suitable concepts, narrative nonfiction is more challenging. In several other ways, like writing in a manner which holds the reader’s attention, and creating believable characters and plots, YA literature has its own set of challenges. Both are very rewarding genres to write in.

10. What are the kinds of books you like to read? Any favourites?

A.: I have followed several genres over the years, although now because of demands on my time I have to limit myself to those genres which I have consistently read. Of these, apart from literary fiction, I seem to have read crime and espionage fiction fairly consistently. Fantasy, which I was reading a lot of till some years ago, seems to have dropped off. I do not know if this is a temporary phase.

11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced you?

A.: These are among the writers I have liked almost consistently. In literary fiction: Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Nelson Algren, John Steinbeck. In crime: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, PD James, Janwillem van de Wetering. In espionage: John le Carre, John Buchan, Len Deighton.

12. What next? 

A.: Perhaps a dark story. One of the problems with India after 2014 has been we have been affected by the doings of the ideology and the people in power on a daily, personal level. On a daily, personal level, one finds it increasingly difficult to feel joy in most things, or to happily coast along choosing stories to read or tell at a leisurely, whimsical pace. I would have liked to write a story I was working on in 2013, but that will have to wait for some time. At the moment, we need stories that deal with or are related to the situation we have in India, or which go some way towards explaining things. We can’t ignore that. So, perhaps something dark, something angry.

17 August 2019

“The Overstory” by Richard Powers

They read about myrrh-tree transplanting expeditions depicted in the reliefs at Karnak, three thousand five hundred years ago. They read about trees that migrate. Trees that remember the past and predict the future. Trees that harmonize their fruiting and nutting into sprawling choruses. Trees that bomb the ground so only their own can grow. Trees that summon air forces of insects that come to save them. Trees with hollowed trunks wide enough to hold the population of small hamlets. Leaves with fur on the undersides. Thinned petioles that solve the wind. The rim of life around a pillar of dead history, each new coat as thick as the maker season is generous. 

Richard Powers The Overstory is a novel weaves through it stories of various families/individuals spanning more than a century. It is a fine example of eco-fiction that is preoccupied with discussing the perennial Man vs Nature argument. It is a vast novel not only for the subject it tackles but the vastness of the landscape Powers creates. It flits from an immigrant family to that of environmental activist to an Indian software entrepreneur who amasses a fortune by creating games to the most mesmerising character, dendrologist, Patricia Westerford. While all these lives are being described it is impossible not to draw comparisons with the peaceful and vibrant descriptions of Nature that Thoreau wrote about in the nineteenth century or even perhaps with the truly talented writer Nell Zink. But now we are at the brink of a possible ecological disaster, possibly manmade due to the wilful damage done upon the environment by man. The LitHub describes it perfectly as “Henry David Thoreau meet Georgia-Pacific“.

The genesis of this novel Powers describes in an interview to The Chicago Review of Books:

I was teaching at Stanford and living in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Just to one side of me was one of the greatest concentrations of wealth and technological might in history: the corporate HQs of Google, Apple, Intel, HP, Facebook, eBay, Cisco, Tesla, Oracle, Netflix, and so many more. To the other side were the Santa Cruz mountains, covered in redwoods. When the scramble for the future down in the valley was too much for me, I would head up to walk in the woods. These were the forests that had been clear-cut to build San Francisco, and it seemed to me that they had grown back wonderfully. But one day, I came across a single tree that had, for whatever reason, escaped the loggers. It was the width of a house, the length of a football field, and as old as Jesus or Caesar. Compared to the trees that had so impressed me, it was like Jupiter is to the Earth.

I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those forests that would not return for centuries, if ever. It seemed to me that we had been at war for a long time, trees and people, and I wondered if it might be possible for things ever to go any other way. Within a few months, I quit my job at Stanford and devoted myself full time to writing The Overstory.

Yet the gloomy moments of the book are more than compensated for by the hope written on the last page of this stunningly magnificent book.

His friends begin to chant in a very old language. It strikes Nick as strange, how few languages he understands. One and a half human ones. Not a single word of all the other living, speaking things. But what these men chant Nick half grasps, and when the songs are finished, he adds, Amen, if only because it may be the single oldest word he knows. The older the word, the more likely it is to be both useful and true. In fact, he read once, … that the word tree and the word truth came from the same root. 

The best compliment he could ever have received was from fellow novelist Barbara Kingsolver who reviewed his book for the New York Times. Upon reading her review he was ‘beside himself with gratitude to Kingsolver. “I just feel so lucky,” he says. “She makes a case for a broader way of reading me.” Taking issue with Powers’ reputation for cold, science-y novels, Kingsolver writes The Overstory “accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.” ‘

The Overstory is a powerful testimony to the decades of environmental activism and the damage man can cause. Yet it is not a novel meant for all readers. It is not an easy book to read and requires intense engagement. Even Powers has had to admit that it was a life-changing experience for him writing The Overstory, akin to a “religious conversion“. Award-winning novelist Powers is known to combine his passion for philosophy with science. In his 12th novel he has done much the same opting to talk about the environment, a subject that is not only dear to his heart but extremely relevant now. No wonder it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018.

To buy on Amazon India: 

Paperback

Hardback

Kindle

26 October 2018 

“Milkman” by Anna Burns

Man Booker Prize winner 2018 Anna Burn’s novel Milkman is about a nameless eighteen-year-old narrator, most often referred to as the “reading-while-walking” girl who prefers to read nineteenth rather than twentieth century literature because she does not like the twentieth century. Milkman is set in a nameless Irish city —-p robably Belfast just as the era is never confirmed. It is about the city caught in the battles between the IRA, the Renouncers and the British Army possibly during the 1970s judging by the clues peppered throughout the story. It is about the girl observing and commenting upon her neighbourhood. Unfortunately she begins to be stalked by the forty-one-year-old “Milkman” — not the real one. ( The IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk crates. ) Then to her dismay tongues begin to wag and even her mother is not willing to believe her — that there is no truth in the rumours being circulated. Immediately after winning the prize Anna Burns was quoted as saying “Although it is recognisable as this skewed form of Belfast, it’s not really Belfast in the 70s. I would like to think it could be seen as any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in similarly oppressive conditions … I see it as a fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, with longterm violence seen as the norm.”

Milkman was many years in the making and is the stuff literary legends are made of. The fifty-six-year-old Anna Burns acknowledging the fairy tale Booker win said “‘It’s nice to feel I’m solvent. That’s a huge gift’” It is an extraordinary novel for very early on in the story it is as if the reader is an invisible companion to the narrator observing the proceedings with insights into how they think. There are large portions of the narrative that are running text, a single paragraph that runs across pages, which at first may seem daunting to read but is not so. Very often Milkman is being referred to as being Beckettian but Anna Burns clarifies in her interviews that she only read Samuel Beckett once her novel had been written. Whereas in fact it would be worthwhile to notice how the form of her prose, the fluidity of it, the mildly digressing style while observing and reporting incidents dispassionately, and at other times conveying neighbourhood gossip and events as is, in a detached dead pan manner, without any analysis is ultimately a very womanly quality.

Milkman is much like the commentary many women inevitably internalise. The novel merely makes visible that which is mostly kept out of public spaces for women as it would be mostly perceived as idle chatter. It is also remarkable how effectively Anna Burns portrays a reading-while-walking girl who is in all likelihood absorbed in her book but is also able to observe the landscape and people around her as she walks past. There is violence which she acknowledges in many interviews post-Booker win were because of the Ireland she grew up in. There is a particularly horrific and violent scene involving the butchering of dogs and left in a pile. In The New Statesman interview she says:

… I remember seeing that as a child. It was down the bottom of our street. I was seven or eight, so I don’t really know how high the pile was, but it did look like a mound of dead dogs, with their throats cut – I couldn’t see any heads, so I thought all their heads were missing. It was one of those images that stay with you.

The remarkable effect Milkman has upon its readers is for its relevance to the #MeToo movement is purely coincidental as Anna Burns has reiterated this novel was completed in 2014, well before the movement began. At the same its powerful impact is for its visibilisation of the silences most women are trained to inculcate. Most often women across cultures are socially conditioned to keep their opinions to themselves and conform to what is expected of them. Also their word is very likely dismissed especially when it involves as in the case of a creepy, older man, a stalker, who also happens to belong to the IRA. So the young narrator gets pushed more and more into a corner with everyone including her mother disbelieving her about the false rumours being circulated about her and the milkman. Also by resorting to use the interior monologue style of writing for most part of the novel Anna Burns makes the reader privy to the innermost thoughts of the girl thereby stripping away any pretence the narrator may “normally” have adopted in real life.

There are so many portions in the story that will resonate with women readers while being revelatory to male readers. As novelist Idra Novey points out in her Paris Review essay “The Silence of Sexual Assault in Literature” ( 4 Oct 2018) it is the silences that are critical in literature — what is glossed over and that which is hidden from view.

Though the story [Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People”] was published over sixty years ago, the sick abuse of power is disturbingly similar to any number of testimonies that have emerged this past year. O’Connor artfully elides what exactly the Bible salesman does, or doesn’t do, to Hulga in the barn. That elision evokes the roaring silence that she will now endure, returning to this horrifying experience within the solitude of her mind.

It is exactly this silencing of the women that has remained quietly hidden away from the “public” view —- a view that has been mostly defined by patriarchal codes of conduct. Although these sorts of conversations, thoughts and ideas being expressed freely now in literature are and have always been familiar to women.

Milkman is a powerful book that begs to be read widely.

To buy the Milkman on Amazon India: 

Paperback

Kindle 

26 Oct 2018 

 

Elizabeth Strout “Anything is Possible”

It seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old—the more he understood that he would not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.

… 

She came to understand that people had to decide, really, how they were going to live. 

Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible is an exquisitely written novel about rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois. It is about the people of the town Lucy Barton had left behind when she moved to New York to become a successful writer. Lucy is the heroine of Strout’s equally well-told novel My Name is Lucy Barton. In Amgash as like any other settlement, irrespective of whether it is a small town or a big city, there is great diversity across the socio-economic spectrum. There are people like Lucy’s siblings all of whom grew up in abject poverty and somehow managed a decent life as grownups. Since rarely do these people move out of Amgash, the past just as the present of the townspeople is an open book. It is claustrophobic and debilitating as it does not allow individuals to grow. The shadow of the past always looms large. This is precisely the reason why Lucy Barton fled. Despite this people continue to live in Amgash making adjustments to their lifestyles with growing old age and some are even successful in their social mobility.

This was a matter of different cultures, Dottie knew that, although she felt it had taken her many years to learn this. She thought that this matter of different cultures was a fact that got lost in the country these days. And culture included class, which of course nobody ever talked about in this country, because it wasn’t polite, but Dottie also thought people didn’t talk about class because they didn’t really understand what it was.

In Anything is Possible Lucy Barton is on a book tour in Chicago and decides to return to Amgash after seventeen years to meet her siblings. Unfortunately the flood of unpleasant childhood memories hits her as soon as she enters her parents cottage. She has a panic attack and decides to return immediately to Chicago. In the interim she has had smattering of conversations with her siblings who have updated her on the lives of people they knew as kids. None of the people have had a predictable lifestyle and it is certainly stranger than the fiction Lucy Barton possibly writes. For instance her distant cousin Abel who along with his sister Dottie would sometimes be found scavenging for scraps of food in a dumpster went on to become one of the richest men in Chicago. This story was the least sad of all that are shared. On the surface of it Amgash inhabitants were living the typical homely small-town-American lives you would expect them to have except there was a murkier underbelly to this. But as Abel Blaine realises it is possible to live the American Dream and improve on one’s status just as Lucy and he did—-“Anything was possible for anyone”.

Elizabeth Strout is known for deftly creating these fictional landscapes that are as finely detailed as a miniature painting. The characters, their personality traits, their lives and the umpteen cultural references are so well packed in the sparingly told narratives that they continue to be with one for a long time after the book is closed. She conjures up the scenes so minutely and exactly that it is crystal clear in mind’s eye. It is not surprising that Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible was on President Obama’s list of favourite books of 2017. Anything is Possible is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist 2018.

Two legendary women writers have endorsed these books and truer words were never said:

Hilary Mantel on My Name is Lucy Barton: “Writing of this quality comes from a commitment to listening, from a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue.’

Ann Patchett on Anything is Possible: “Strout proves to us again and again that where she’s concerned, anything is possible. This book, this writer, are magnificent.”

Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 260 Rs 599

Elizabeth Strout My Name is Lucy Barton Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 699

28 March 2018 

 

 

 

“With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial” by Kathryn Mannix

Bereaved people, even those who have witnessed the apparently peaceful death of a loved one, ofen need to tell their story repeatedly, and that is an important part of transfering the experience they endured into a memory, instead of reliving it like a parallel reality every time they think about it. 

And those of us who look after very sick people sometimes need to debrief too. It keeps us well, and able to go back to the workplace to be reqounded in the line of duty. 

….

Cognitive therapist and palliative medicine pioneer Kathryn Mannix’s With the End In Mind is a collection of medico-narrative stories which focus on the stages of dying. Usually the stories focus on terminally ill patients as it is in such scenarios the patients and their families are anxious and fearful of impending death. The stories are based on decades of her experience with the NHS in UK. They are stories which work equally well as case studies and for the benefit of getting the point across well at times Dr Mannix has clubbed together experiences of more than one patient in one narrative. These are grouped in sections such as “Patterns”, “My Way”, “Naming Death”, “Looking Beyond the Now”, “Legacy” and “Transcendance”.

The stories included in the volume are extraordinary. It is not only the magical quality to the storytelling of experiences while sitting by a patient’s deathbed but it is the calm sense of peace and kindness that pervades every single story. Undoubtedly the crippling anxiety that grips every patient and their families as death approaches has its impact on the families. Every one has a different response mechanism in managing the situation. These may be defined by an individual’s choice of the cultural codes of behaviour they have learned to adopt while processing the dastardly news. The stories are about the experiences of all ages of patients including those who have died in hospitals or those who have died at home surrounded by family. It is always the conversations about dying with every person and their caregivers that may never be easy but has to be conducted.

Notice how often you hear euphemisms like ‘passed’, ‘passed away’, ‘lost’, in conversations and in the media. How can we talk about dying, plan our care or support those we love during dying, theirs or ours, if we are not prepared to name death?

There are many conversations recounted that are memorable for demonstrating to a lay person and the medical professional that certain bedside manners with a large dose of humility, patience, honesty, level headedness, cultural sensitivity, and empathy are required when on a death watch whether offering solace to keening mothers who have lost their babies or even the elderly.  There is one particularly straightforward conversation the “leader” ( head of the hospice where Dr Mannix worked as a young physician) had with a WWII French resistance woman called Sabine who wears her Resistance Medal and who withstood the terror of war and yet was afraid of death. She was an elegant eighty-year-old inmate who was always well mannered and well turned out. Kathryn Mannix was a young trainee in the new speciality of palliative medicine. Her trainer was the consultant in charge of the hospice who had a good rapport with Sabine as he was bilingual and would at times converse with her in French. So when he decided to have the conversation about dying with her in the presence of the nurse to whom she had confided her fears and the young physician Kathryn Mannix, no one was prepared for how the conversation would develop. For the young Kathryn Mannix this particular episode was transformative and has lived with her throughout her career as if on a cinema reel. It formed the basis of her future practice, teaching her to be calm in the face of other people’s storms of fear and “to be confident that the more we understand about the way dying proceeds, the better we will manage it”. She realised over decades of clinical practice that:

The process of dying is recognisable. There are clear stages, a predictable sequence of events. In the generations of humanity before dying was hijacked into hospitals, the process was common knowledge and had been seen many times by anyone who lived into their thirties or forties. Most communities relied on local wise women to support patient and family during and after a death, much as they did ( and still do) during and after a birth. The art of dying has become a forgotten wisdom, but every deathbed is an opportunity to restore that wisdom to those who will live, to benefit from it as they face other deaths in the future, including their own. 

It is curious that Dr Mannix refers to the “art of dying being a forgotten wisdom” as coincidentally historian and chronicler of Delhi and accomplished Urdu translator Rana Safvi mentioned that she has read an account of daily life within the Red Fort during Mughal times where existed a category of women called khair salla waaliyan. They were employed in the Red Fort presumably by the noble families. Their job was to look after well being of the family. They weren’t necessarily nurses or care givers but who could make people feel good.  She thinks their job was to look after the emotional well being of the people being left behind the dying person. None exist now. It is only the professional mourners like the rudalis who continue to exist in Indian society.

[bwwpp_book sku=’97815011732400000000′]

Preparation for death is culturally specific too as with the Swedish ‘Döstädning’, or ‘death cleaning’ which is the focus of Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning discussed beautifully in Christina Patterson’s essay “The ‘new hygge’: downshifting for death“. Journalist Arifa Akbar in her interview with Dr Mannix asked a pertinent question noticeable by its absence in the book itself:

AA: The people whose stories you tell in the book do not ever talk about God or an afterlife. Did you edit out these discussions? (You have said that you didn’t want to discuss religion in the context of end-of-life as it can be polarising and unhelpful.) Could you say if some patients do talk about this aspect and if it is helpful to them?

KM: People’s spirituality manifests in different ways. Where this is a religious faith, then people do discuss God and their hopes, anxieties and desires for an afterlife, as well as measuring their personal worth against the constructs of their faith. I’ve met people hopeful for heaven, fearful of hell, anticipating reincarnation, angry with God, or leaving their fate entirely in Divine hands; I’ve met people with no belief and at peace with the idea of oblivion, and others feeling sad at the ending of self-awareness; I’ve met people who have lost their longstanding faith in the face of the perceived injustice of illness; I’ve met people who discover a faith amidst the emotional storms of terminal decline.

Dr Mannix offers some thought provoking options to initiate conversations about dying as well as a way for the mourners to come to terms with their grief such as death cafes where people in similar situations could gather and share their experiences. She also provides template of a letter with possible points to consider for having a conversation about dying. She shares a list of resources that can be considered to prepare for this ultimate stage of life and recommends watching Australian intensive care specialist Dr Peter Saul’s TED Talk “Let’s Talk about Dying” ( Nov 2011). She also acknowledges Dr Atul Gawande’s books too.

With the End in Mind is a devastatingly powerful book of which extracts must be made available freely. It is certainly a book to be read cover to cover and take its learnings to heart, make them your own.  Persuade those who are anxious about the deteriorating health of their loved ones to read it. It is going to be a near-impossible task, but try nevertheless.  It is unsurprising that this book is on the Wellcome Book Prize 2018 longlist. Well deserved recognition!

Kathryn Mannix With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial ( William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.340 Rs 599 

12 March 2018 

 

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and the companion to it A Manual for Heartache is a gut wrenching experience. The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2016   for its an account of how Cathy Rentzenbrink’s younger brother Matt had a head injury and was for eight long years in a coma. The medical term for it is PVS or “permanent vegetative state” or as their mother says of Matt “living corpse”. Matt was a teenager in his prime when he met with an accident that left him in this horrific state. The Last Act of Love is a compassionate account of a sister trying to understand what her brother must be going through if he can feel anything. More importantly it is an account of how much of themselves caregivers have to give to ensure that a patient is cared for well.

Caregiving can be a thankless task since it is repititive with no breaks whatsoever. After a while the sympathetic circle of friends and relatives return to their lives but the immediate family of the patient is responsible for the daily courageous and relentless task of caregiving. At times it can become exceedingly lonely, stressful and mentally debilitating. For Cathy Rentzenbrick her escape mechanism was reading.

Reading was still my friend, though. I read continuously and compulsively, drowning out sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep — I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into. 

Most caregivers are caught in a cycle of maintaining systems that they forget to take care of themselves or share experiences about the roles they inhabit. These involve a bunch of questions about the quality of life the patient has to how effective are advancements in medical technology.

The Last Act of Love written  many years after her brother passed away takes its title from a phrase the author’s mother used in her sworn affidavit to the court seeking legal permission to discontinue nutrition and hydration given how poorly Matt was with a chest infection and recurring epileptic fits.

I have known for some time that there is nothing I can do for Matthew to enrich his life in any way. He needs to die. We had hoped it would happen with an infection and without the need to approach the court. But the sad irony is that his poor body, unable to do anything else, seems capable of fighting infection. So we are asking the court’s permission to cease nutrition and hydration so that Matthew can be released from his hopeless state. It is our last act of love for him. 

Writing The Last Act of Love may have been thereapeutic for Cathy Rentzenbrick but it certainly provides a much needed account of hope and a way of managing caregiving at home, many times the dilemma it presents. Sharing of stories is a relief for many in a similar situation but few have time to do so. Reading an account is possible.

Within months of the successful publishing of The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrick wrote A Manual for Heartache which can be viewed as a sequel to her memoir but works very well as a manual for managing grief and loss. It is full of wisdom and gently with big dollops of kindness shares wisdom garnered over the years of caregiving for Matt.

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do, and time will be an ally in this, is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. That’s what I wish someone had told me and that’s what I want to tell you. I think I’m finally doing it.

On etiquette of bad news

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behavious, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crepe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the “Baby on Board” sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy find ourselves unsure of what to do. 

….

I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling wiht a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness. People to whom the worst has happened can be out-of-control sad and unable to obey the normal rules of life. It mught be all they can do to hold on. If they are mean or cruel or temporarily incapable of good manners, we need to suspend our expectations around them and give them space and compassion as they splinter and behave badly and say the wrong thing. If they are behaving perfectly and holding themselves together, then that’s OK, too. 

Reading both the books together is highly recommended. Share, share, share these books.

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

The Guardian Longreads published a fascinating account of “How science found a way to help coma patients communicate“. It is worth reading!

Cathy Rentzenbrick The Last Act of Love Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2015. Pb. pp.248 Rs 450

Cathy Rentzenbrick A Manual for Heartache Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 499 

31 August 2017 

 

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fa43991b7 4453 4607 ab48 c9b60e498d5b inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2f7780d9e4 ea1a 4527 a38d c374c19851fc inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fc6eb0cba 6b25 4ce4 8aa8 8bd2f9b25771 inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2f54573804 57c3 4017 aade a11972735d4b inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

“She Came from Mariupol” by Natscha Wodinwas ( an extract)

Sie Kam Aus Mariupol by Natscha Wodinwas ( published by Rowohlt Verlag) which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Leipzig Book Fair Prize is by the daughter of deported Ukrainian labourers to Germany. Natscha Wodinwas is based in Berlin.

The following translated English excerpts were sent by Rachel Hildebrandt, translator and publisher, Weyward Sisters Publishing. The English translation of She Came from Mariupol is as yet unpublished.

These passages are being published with permission.

(p.38) The more research I did, the more atrocities I encountered about which hardly anyone seemed to be aware. I was not the only one who was learning about these for the first time. None of my German friends, many of whom I considered enlightened, historically knowledgeable individuals, had any idea how many Nazi camps had once existed within the boundaries of the former German Reich. Some of them guessed around twenty, while others estimated two hundred, a few up to two thousand. According to a study by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the number is actually closer to 42,500, not including the smaller and the satellite camps. In an interview with ZEIT published on March 4, 2013, the American historian Geoffrey Megargee, who had contributed to the study, remarked that the horrific number of camps confirmed that almost every German had to have known about the existence of these camps, even if they had not comprehended the extent of the camps or the conditions within them. It was the old story: Nobody knew a thing, despite the fact that with over 42,500 camps the entire country must have functioned like a single gulag.

****

 (pgs 248 to 251) The large-scale deportation of the Ukrainians to Germany was accompanied by a pervasive propaganda effort on the part of the occupiers. At every turn, the Soviet citizens were called to report for work duty in Germany. They were promised paradise there. The brainwashing occurred everywhere: during the opening programs at the cinemas, over all of the radio stations, in the workplaces, at the train stations, in the theaters, on public squares and streets. Large, colorful posters depicted happy Ukrainians working at progressive German workbenches. Smartly dressed Ukrainian domestic servants were pictured whipping up German Sunday cakes. Ukrainian women were especially popular as maids. In 1942, Hitler ordered that half a million of them be employed in German households, which resulted in many German women losing their jobs. The press circulated daily pleas, like this one:

UKRAINIAN WOMEN AND MEN

The Bolshevik commissioners have destroyed your factories and workplaces, and are cutting you off from work and bread. Germany is offering you useful, well-paid employment. In Germany, you will find excellent work and living conditions, and you will be paid according to the tariff and based on your productivity. We take especially good care of the Ukrainian workers. So that they can live in conditions that are suitable to them and can retain their cultural distinctness, separate settlements are being constructed for them. They will provide everything that you would need to live: cinemas, theaters, hospitals, radio stations, swimming pools, etc. The Ukrainians are living in bright, nicely furnished rooms, and they are given the same things to eat as the German workers. Furthermore, the factory canteens cook the specialties of all nations, which is why the Ukrainian workers will find Wareniki, Galuschki, Kwas, etc. on the menus.

Germany is waiting for you! Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are already working in free, happy Germany. What about you? During your stay in Germany, we will take good care of your family back home.

(reprinted from a Ukrainian newspaper)

The propaganda was initially effective. Not all of the so-called Ostarbeiter were forcibly deported. At the beginning, many of them reported voluntarily. Gradually the truth about the downright nightmarish work and living conditions in the German Reich trickled back home. At first, letters conveyed hidden messages, for example, in the form of flowers drawn in a letter from a sixteen-year-old to his mother. The flower was the agreed-upon signal that things were not going well for him. As time passed, more and more deported Ukrainians returned from Germany, physically destroyed and shoved off back home, because in their condition they were no longer useful. Their stories quickly cut off the hopeful rush of those volunteering for work duty: a serious problem for the German war industry, since the German men were at the front and no longer there to fill the workplaces.

Meanwhile, the war was requiring a sharp, unrelenting increase in productivity. Germany’s victory would rise or fall on the imported slave laborers from all over Europe, especially from the Soviet Union and particularly from Ukraine. Hitler appointed his model Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel as the General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment. The son of a Frankish postal worker and a seamstress, who was later described at the Nuremberg trials as the “greatest and cruelest slaver since the pharaohs,” Sauckel issued the order to “finally shake off the last dregs of sentimental humanitarianism.” And with this command, the human hunt began. Ukraine was the favorite region of operations for the hunters. The Ukrainians, who composed the largest percentage of the “Ostarbeiter,” were perceived as the Slavs of the lowest possible value. The only groups under them in the racial hierarchy were the Sinti, the Roma, and the Jews. They were attacked on the streets, in cinemas and cafes, at streetcar stops, in post offices, anywhere where they could be easily caught. They were hauled out of the homes in raids, dragged from the cellars and sheds where they had tried to hide. They were driven to the train station and transported to Germany in cattle cars. A countless number of them disappeared without a trace with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Able-bodied young men were particularly desirable – entire freight trains full of Ukrainian teenagers rolled daily toward the Reich. After a while, though, the forty- and fifty-year-olds were taken, and eventually, the elderly and weak. The populations of entire villages were deported, including the grandmothers with their grandchildren. The emptied villages were then burnt to the ground. At first, the minimal slave laborer age was twelve, but then it was dropped to ten. And not only that, but in the summer of 1942, all young people in Ukraine between the ages of eighteen and twenty were forced to serve two years of compulsory service in the Reich. Up to ten thousand future forced laborers were shipped to Germany on a daily basis, and according to Fritz Sauckel’s orders, all of these people had to be fed, housed, and treated as cheaply as possible in order to yield the highest possible productivity.

25 February 2017