Literature Posts

“Mahabharata”

DK India has published an incredibly sumptious edition of the classic epic Mahabharata. It was put together by a large in-house team working along with well-known mythologists and Mahabharata experts. It has resulted in this extraordinarily beautiful edition, impressive design, detailed page layouts where the text and illustrations complement each other well and incredible layers of information. In a sense the publishers have achieved practically the impossible of transfering the layered and embellished narrative style of oral storytelling into the fixed printed form.

The story is told through the 18 parvas as is in the familiar arrangement of the oral epic. As far as possible the structure of the oral narrative tradition has been adhered to in this print version. Every page a small portion of the story is narrated in simple English making it accessible to other cultures too. To accompany the text every page has been specially designed with different elements relevant to that particular context. These could vary from boxes on cultural details, mythology and folklore associated with the particular story, prayers and rituals passed through the ages, references to the versions of the epic/characters in art and literature, photographs of modern-day dance and theatre interpretations of the stories and a liberal sprinkling of historical artefacts and monuments that may help illustrate the text.

I interviewed Alka Ranjan, Managing Editor, Local Publishing, DK India who led the team which put together this book. Here follow edited excerpts of an interview published by Scroll.in on 20 August 2017:

1. Which version of the epic did you refer to?
We were keen to tell the entire story of the Mahabharata, including the Harivamsa, and, wherever possible, dip into the regional versions as well. To be true to the classical version, we referred to Bibek Debroy’s ten volumes of the Mahabharata, from where came some of the details of the stories and also the quotes. Ultimately for DK India it was the visual rendering of the epic which was more important, something that was not attempted before, and something that makes our book unique, setting it apart from the other books available in the market.

2. How long did this project take to execute from start to finish?
It took us almost 8 months to put together this book. To this we could also add 3 months of production. The entire team, including the technical members, reached 15, in some stages of the book.

3. Does DK have other religious texts illustrated in a similar fashion? Was there anything unique as a publishing experiment in this book?
DK has brought out the Illustrated Bible in the past. This book is in the same series style. Unlike our other reference books which work mostly like non-fiction with their dry, neutral tone, our version of the Mahabharata is yet another retelling of the epic. It was a challenge for the editorial team to adapt their skills to storytelling, to ensure the text flowed like a tale, weave in dialogues wherever needed, and inject drama to create impact.

4. It seems to be meant for the general market but the stories are easily told that a child too can read them. If that is the case then how did you manage such a gentle and easy style?
Our aim was to keep the stories accessible for a large readership, and in a lot of ways that is DK style. While we segregate our books in adult and children categories, depending on subject matter, comprehension level, interests, so on and so forth, the text for the adult ones is almost always aimed at ages 14 and above.

5. If you could have a section on “Mahabharata in art” why not have a section on the history of texts through the publication of this epic through the ages?

We could have done so many things with our book, but because it was going to be a visual retelling we decided to focus on art, showcasing the pervasive reach of the epic in our daily lives, and which made more sense, although a lot of our “boxes” talk about the different versions of the epic, including drawing parallels with Greek mythos.

6. This epic has been translated in other languages. Why not have images of those texts at well?

It was not always possible to get all images that we wanted, but we have used a couple of book covers to make the point about translations or different takes on the epic – mostly for latter. I can think of a book on Yudhishthira and Draupadi by Pavan K Varma which we used to discuss their relationship. We also used Mrityunjaya’s cover (Shivaji Sawant’s much celebrated book on Karna) on Karna’s profile. The choice of other retellings of Mahabharata invariably depended on the context of the stories we wanted to tell and the point we wanted to make and not the other way around. Some of the other books that find mention in ours are:

Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam
Tagore’s Chitrangada (with cover image)
Pavan K Varama’s Yudhisthira and Draupadi (with cover image)
Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s play Kichaka-Vadha
Dinkar’s Kurukshetra and Rashmirathi
Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya (with cover image)
Bhasa’s play performance by Japanese students – Urubhangam

7. It would have been fascinating if a chapter on myth-making in this epic had been included as a standalone chapter rather than inserting boxes in various chapters. Why not address myth-making?

I take your point, and it would have been certainly interesting to have such a chapter now that you point it out. However, when we conceptualized the book, we were sure that we wanted the focus of the book to be on retelling the epic and layering them by adding side stories in boxes. We also wanted to have a few chapters/spreads on Hindu gods and goddesses, and philosophies, mainly to facilitate the understanding of the non-Indian readers, people not familiar with our cultural ethos.

8. How did you standardise the spelling of the names? What’s the back story to it?
We wanted us to use the more common spellings of the popular characters (Draupadi instead of Droupadi), although we did finally add the vowel sound at the end of some names, for instance “Arjuna” instead of “Arjun”, “Bhima” instead of “Bhim”, which takes the names closer to their Sanskrit pronunciation, but stuck to “Sanjay” not “Sanjaya” because it was a more common spelling.

9. Does the text of the books mentioned conform to the original text or have some creative license liberties been taken to retell it for the modern reader?

While most of our stories came from the original, classical text, we also dipped into the regional versions to borrow a few. For instance, Iravan’s story (A Human Sacrifice) came from the Tamil Mahabharata. Few other stories borrowed from regional versions are : Pururava’s Obsession

Draupadi’s Secret, Gaya Beheaded, Divine Vessel, News of Home, The Talking Head

10. Would you be creating special pocket book editions of relevant chapters? For instance I see potential in the section on women. If you had to resize it to a pocket edition with an introduction +original shlokas, the sales would be phenomenal.

Thank you so much for the suggestions. The book does lend itself to several spinoffs, and we have thought of a few. However, we wanted the current book to run its course before bringing out another one.

20 August 2017

Guest post: Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair

( At the London Book Fair/British Council/Publishers Association reception held at the British Council, New Delhi held on 11 January 2017, Jacks Thomas announced the LBF 2017 edition will see a special Spotlight on India. Here is the full text of her speech reproduced with her permission. ) 

Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair

Thank you Alan, and indeed the British Council team who with Gill Caldicott have made this evening possible. Thank you also for attending our reception, held jointly with our strategic partners, the Publishers Association of the UK and British Council.

Last year, a year long-programme to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and UK cultural ties was announced by our Prime Ministers during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the UK.  Less significantly — but importantly — and said perhaps with a hefty dose of British irony — 2016 was also the year that I first visited India. Not just once, but twice.

My visits were all part of very much wanting to meet the Indian book community and to extend my knowledge of your interesting and talented industry. Imagine my delight therefore on discovering the plans for The Year of Culture which will see an exciting festival of events celebrating the vibrant cultural history and present of the 2 countries. As part of these celebrations, 2017 will now also see  a special Spotlight on India at The London Book Fair 2017.

Working with Capexil, there will be an exhibiting presence over three pavilions with many Indian publishers already

At the reception, 11 Jan 2017

having confirmed their participation. The Spotlight will feature an author programme to showcase selected authors from India, an especially curated Rights catalogue of Indian writing co-created by FICCI and LBF, a professional programme of trade seminars organised with the UK Publishers Association on the Department of International Trade Export Theatre, product demonstrations of Indian publishing and printing technology and expertise as well as a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the National Book Trust of India. All activity underpinned, of course, through the support of FIP and API.

Books and literature are significant  assets in our understanding of both a changing world and each other’s worlds. Getting the literature of one country into the hands of another’s is important.

I believe The Spotlight on India is important.

So, may I ask us simply to raise our glasses to our cross country literary collaboration.

Cheers!

12 January 2017 

Jaya’s newsletter 3 – 11 November 2016

( Please feel free to write with suggestions and comments: jayabhattacharjirose1 at gmail dot com )

Hello!

On 8 September 2016, the demonetization of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 was announced by the government of India. Newly designed currency, freshly minted with embedded chips will be brought into circulation. It is a move to counter black money in the country but it would be interesting to know how this impacts many of the publishers and booksellers in India, many of whom deal predominantly in cash. For now it is impossible to tell.

New Arrivals

  • Jorge Carrion Bookshops (MacLehose Press)
  • Cecilia Ahern Lyrebird ( HarperCollins India)
  • Jeff Kinney Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down ( Puffin, PRH India)
  • Twinkle Khanna The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad ( Juggernaut)
  • Bina Shah A Season for Martyrs ( Speaking Tiger)
  • Ritu Menon Loitering with Intent ( Speaking Tiger)
  • T.J.S. George Askew ( Aleph)
  • Anthony Horowitz Magpie Murders ( Hachette)
  • Jeffrey Archer This was a Man ( Pan MacMillan India )

Jaya Recommends:

  • Rajelakshmy, a physicist by training who published these extraordinary “feminist” stories in the weeklyimg_20161111_102225 Mathrubhumi and monthly Mangalodayam. She committed suicide in 1965 but the stories and the incomplete novel have been compiled together for the first time as A Path and Many Shadows& Twelve Stories  (Translated from Malayalam by R.K. Jayasree, Orient Black Swan)
  • oddny-eirOddny Eir’s incredibly stunning Land of Love and Ruins.  It is a semi-autobiographical reflection on nature, literature, philosophy and commerce. Oddny Eir has also written songs for Bjork.  (Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton, Restless Books)
  • Seirai Yuichi’s magnificent Ground Zero, Nagasaki : Short Stories . These22329531 chilling stories set in contemporary Nagasaki are about the  minority community of Japanese practising Catholicism and trying to survive the endless trauma of the atomic bomb. (Translated by Paul Warham. Columbia University Press)
  • Raina Telgemeier’s absorbingly brilliant graphic novel Ghosts. It is about ghostslittle Catrina who has cystic fibrosis and celebration of Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. It is to be released at the Comic Con, Bangalore. (Scholastic India)

Book Events

11 Nov: Sahitya Akademi symposium on Rajelakshmy at 5:30pm

11-13 Nov: Kathakar, Children’s Literature Festival, IGNCA New Delhi followed by 14 November at the IGNCA Bengaluru and on 17 November at the CSMVS, Mumbai

12-13 Nov: Comic Con, Bangalore

14 Nov: Simon & Schuster India will be celebrating 5 years in India (By invitation only)

15 Nov: Shauna Singh Baldwin will be in conversation with Amrita Bhalla to discuss the diasporic writings about shaunas-conversationSouth Asian life and culture and will also talk about and read from her latest book “Reluctant Rebellions”.

People & Jobs 

Rahul Dixit has been appointed Sales Director, HarperCollins India. He was earlier with PRH India.

gillon-aitken-and-v-s-naipaul

Gillon Aitken with V.S. Naipaul, Amer Fort, Jaipur. (C) Patrick French

A few days ago legendary literary agent, Gillon Aitken, passed away. Patrick French posted a short tribute on his Facebook page along with some marvellous photographs. Republished with permission.

A one-year vacancy of the books editor at The Caravan Magazine has been announced.

Prizes

  • The Order of the Rising Sun – Gold & Silver Ray, the highest civilian award by Imperial manorama-jaffa-2-japan-award manorama-jaffaMajesty of Japan, was conferred on Manorama Jaffa in recognition of her contribution to children’s writing in India. After Prof. Brij Tankha, Mrs. Jaffa is the second Indian to have been honoured.
  • SPARROW Literary Award 2016: The SPARROW panel of judges (N Sukumaran, Kannan Sundaram and Ambai) for SPARROW-R Thyagarajan Literary Award decided to choose the category of translation for award this year. Translations from one Indian language to another and direct translation from a foreign language (other than English) to Tamil were taken for consideration. The SPARROW-R Thyagarajan Literary Award 2016 will go to Kulachal S M Yoosuf for his translations from Malayalam to Tamil, Gowri Kirubanandan, for her translations from Telugu to Tamil and Sridharan Madhusudhanan for his translations from Chinese to Tamil.
  • French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani won the Goncourt, France’s top literary prize. The former journalist is only the seventh woman to have won the Goncourt in its 112-year history. The novel has been a best seller — more than 76,000 copies have been purchased so far.
  • Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Giller Prize ( $100,000)
  • Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Loves won the 2016 Canada-Japan Literary Award (English category). And Genevieve Blouin’s Hanaken: Le Sang des Samourais won in the French category.
  • orhan-pamukOrhan Pamuk won the 1million rouble (US$15,715) Russian Yasnaya Polyana Literary Prize, based at Leo Tolstoy’s estate. Pamuk’s novel A Strangeness in My Mind  translated into Russian in 2016, won in the “Foreign literature” nomination of the award, which aims to support both the traditions of classical literature and new trends in contemporary writing. ( http://bit.ly/2fnbDxT ) The Russian translator of Pamuk’s novel, Apollinaria Avrutina, receives a prize of 200,000 rubles (US$3,143). The Yasnaya Polyana Literary Prize was founded in 2003 by Samsung Electronics and the museum and estate of Leo Tolstoy in Tula. According to the jury chairman Vladimir Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s great grandson and cultural advisor to the Russian president, the award is meant to help readers find their way in the world of Russia’s literature and international contemporary books—a universal reply to the question “What to read?”

Meanwhile PEN America has released a revised version of its modified contract for literary translations . It is worth looking at.

Miscellaneous

walking-bookfairsBookshops: In Lucknow the iconic Ram Advani’s bookshop closed down on Sunday, 6 November 2016 as there was no one left to run it after his death. But there was good news with the resurrection of Walking Bookfairs, Bhubaneswar, Odisha. After the book shack was demolished the founders Satabdi Mishra and Bahibala Akshaya built a new bookstore saying “Bookstores around the world are closing down. And we are opening a new one. Because we are madly in love with books and bookstores. Long live bookstores!”

reemLondon-based publisher, Reem Makhoul, of Ossass gave a tremendous interview to Marcia Lynx Qualey, ArabLit on children’s literature where Reem says they wanted to give the children what they are familiar with, so began creating beautiful books in colloquial Arabic.  Amazon too seeing the potential of a reading habit has launched an app for children – Amazon Rapids Recently the Financial Times listed a series of smartphone reading apps or a mobile library such as The Pigeonhole, Alexi and Oolipo.

11 Nov 2016 

On Chetan Bhagat’s “One Indian Girl”

As a woman I seek justice in a patriarchal world. i-want-to-destroy-myself_website-480x748

Malika Amar Shaikh, I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir *

frontEnough outrage has been expressed on various platforms at Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, One Indian Girl . Critics, readers, journalists etc have ripped the novelist apart for  his attempt at portraying a feminist protagonist, Radhika Mehta. The story has been told in first person for which Chetan Bhagat says he interviewed and spoke to more than a hundred women. But alas, portraying a “feminist” does not a feminist make. Feminism is a way of living and it cannot be possibly imbibed to tell a story particularly in an attempt to capitulate to the current trend of being just and aware of women’s rights. The fact is patriarchal structures are far too deeply embedded in society and if popular writers like Chetan Bhagat who too remain shackled to these interpretations it will be challenging to progress further. What is alarming is that there is the distinct possibility of much of the space fought for and won by feminists will be rapidly lost.

If One Indian Girl is analysed within its contemporary literary milieu it becomes evident that the novelist is fairly clueless about how far the idea of a powerful woman is being explored. In fact much of the progressive interpretations of what constitutes a strong woman (whom some may interpret as a feminist) is being explored in fiction published nowadays — available in English and in translation. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism whether they chose to acknowledge it or not.

ratika-kapurSome of the modern writers to consider who are questioning, portraying, and contributing a significant amount to the conversation about who is a strong woman kiran-manraland what can be construed as woman power are:  Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni, Sremoyee Piu Kundu, Kiran Manral, Ratna Vira, Kota Neelima, Sowmya Rajendran, Sakshama Puri Dhariwal, Trisha Das, Vibha Batra and Ratika Kapur write in English. In translation there are a many who are now being made available such as Malika Amar Shaikh, Ambai, Lalithambika Antharajanam, K. R. Meera, Bama, Salma and Nabaneeta Dev Sen. This is a list that can easily be added to and it will bems-draupadi-kuru-b_090816092030
ratna-vira-books

ambai
self-evident how far women writers have evolved to depict the ordinary and how challenging the most seemingly innocuous task can be — such
as asking a man to love her as K. R. Meera does in The Gospel of Yudas or the horror of living with a famous man like Namdeo Dhasal who in his public life spoke of rights and was concerned for others but showed least sympathy for his own family as narrated by his wife, Malika Amar Shaikh, in her memoir  I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir.  Another writer to consider is Rupi Kaur whose self-published Milk and Honey has sold more than half a million copies and yesterday ( 12 October 2016) she signed a two-book deal with Simon and Schuster. Milk and Honey is erotic fiction which is remarkable for the strong feminine voice and gaze employed with which she narrates the tale. Rupi Kaur is also responsible for the photo-campaign which went viral recently on social media about a woman whose clothes were stained with blood during her period.

period

 

gospel-of-yudas

 

9780198097433-us-300

sitas-curse

 

 

 

 

agnisakshi

Ironically many of these women writers would fall into the same category of fiction as Chetan Bhagat of being commercial fiction writers and yet, there is a chasm of difference in how they view and portray women. But Chetan Bhagat is in good company of other commercially successful male writers like Novoneel Chakraborty who too employ the first person literary technique to write from a women’s perspective but alarmingly incorporating the “male gaze”. ( http://bit.ly/2eiUXuR ) Thereby regressing any gains the women’s movement may have made by getting women their due rights and space. It is a dangerous precedent being set in literature by male writers like Chetan Bhagat of appropriating women’s space in an insensitive manner with little understanding of how complicated women’s literature and writing is. It is irresponsible use of the immense influence these writers have upon new readers since they will create confusion in these minds about how to behave and respect women, what is right and wrong social behaviour amongst genders and not to undermine a woman’s choice by imposing a patriarchal construct on it. Good literature can only be seen as feminist through nuanced writing not via terrible conversation and aggressively marketing the protagonist as a feminist.

*Malika Amar Shaikh is the wife of Namdeo Dhasal, co-founder of the radical Dalit Panthers.

13 October 2016 

Note: All images are off the internet. I do not own the copyright to any of them. If you do or you know of anyone else who does please let me know and I will acknowledge them in this post.

Kitaabnama: Books and beyond, Ep#60

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseConceived by writer and literary activist Namita Gokhale, Kitaabnama has a participatory and inclusive format and showcase the multilingual diversity of Indian Literature. Addressing literary issues of contemporary through dialogue and conversation, Kitaabnama shall feature books, readings and encounters with writers from the spheres of Hindi, English and various Indian languages, as well as guest appearances from International names and voices. The programme is telecast by the Indian government television channel, Doordarshan.

In June 2014 Ravi Singh, Publishing, Speaking Tiger and I were interviewed by Jasleen Vohra on the world of publishing and literature. The programme was aired on 15 November 2014 and uploaded on YouTube on 5 December 2014. Here is the link:

The second half of this episode has an interview with Reza Aslan.

7 December 2014

Press Release, Literary event, Embassy of Ireland, India ( 16 Oct 2014)

Press Release, Literary event, Embassy of Ireland, India ( 16 Oct 2014)

Press Release

(L-R) Paro Anand, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amandeep Sandhu, Samanth Subramanian and H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

(L-R) Paro Anand, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amandeep Sandhu, Samanth Subramanian and H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

On Thursday, 16 Oct 2014, H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin of Ireland hosted a literary soiree at his residence. It was organized to commemorate the centenary of World War I.  The event consisted of an exhibition on the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”. The panelists were three Indian authors/journalists—Paro Anand, Samanth Subramanian and Amandeep Sandhu and the discussion was moderated by Ambassador McLaughlin. Ambassador of Ireland Feilim McLaughlin said the event was intended to explore the role of the writer in portraying or interpreting conflict, drawing parallels between the experience in Ireland and South Asia. The evening was curated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

Panel discussion on "Conflict and Literature", moderated by H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

Panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”, moderated by H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

It was a one-of-a-kind evening with the lovely ambience and Irish music playing in the background. The three panelists were authors who had lived, worked with or interviewed persons in conflict zones in different parts of South Asia. Their personal stories and reading of relevant portions from their published works were straight from the heart. The invitees were handpicked. The three Indian authors who spoke were Paro Anand whose YA novel No Guns at My Son’s Funeral is being turned into a film; Amandeep Sandhu, author of the critically acclaimed testimonial fiction Roll of Honour and Samanth Subramanian who has recently published The Divided Island, reportage from Sri Lanka. The select audience were mesmerized silent by the readings and interaction ofAt the Irish Embassy, New Delhi. 16 Oct 2014 the authors. Several shed a tear or two. Most had a lump in their throat. The topics or narrated experiences hit a raw chord in many, especially those with a background or family from Partition, ’84 riots and communal conflicts. Author, Dr Kimberley Chawla says, “In this day and age, one tends to forget or ignore conflict past or present that may be occurring just a few hundred kilometres away, but it continues to be relevant. This literary event brought it right back home and reminded all present how lucky we were to have what we have and that we or our families managed to survive.” Many in the audience were seen congratulating the Irish embassy for pulling off such a topic which actually left the audience sentimental and empathic and there were no accusatory or aggressively political arguments or comparisons with other countries.  Remarkably there was pin drop silence throughout the event.

Keki Daruwalla, Novelist, Poet and Chairperson, DSC Literature Prize 2014: “I feel it was a very fine evening. The Ambassador Mr. Feilim McLaughlin had done his homework. (One normally doesn’t see Their Excellencies getting into the nitty-gritty of a cultural event). The mix was perfect with Paro Anand speaking of the handicapped children. It was very moving. Amandeep Sandhu spoke of 1984. Wish he had read more from his book.”

M. A. Sikandar, Director, NBT ( National Book Trust of India) “A wonderful evening with Authors who highlighted the flip side if real India. I amazed by the intense of reading by these authors who are from diverse background and culture. Credit goes to the Irish Ambassador and Jaya.”

Paro Anand : “Trying to make sense of a long ago war through today’s conflicts brought three writers together. IN the peace of Delhi’s Diplomatic Enclave, we wove words of wars and conflicts that do and don’t belong to us….each telling of our engagement with wars without as much as within. It was a journey that none of us would choose to make, but most of us have to.”

Amandeep Sandhu: “it was a brilliant evening curated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose and hosted by the Irish Ambassador. I loved that I could meet and converse with a variety of writers, artists and people. I hope we have more such events in which we can discuss art and literature which is relevant to our times.”

Samanth Subramanian: “The event was a wonderful way to discuss the specificities of some conflicts, with the knowledge throughout that all conflicts have so much that in common. Even as we remember the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, we find its themes playing out in the world around us today.”

For more information, please contact:

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com

 *****

The featured panellists:

Paro Anand is one of India’s top writers. Best known for her writings for young adults, she has always pushed boundaries and challenged preconceived notions of the limits of writings for young people. She has been described as a fearless writer with a big heart. She works extensively for young people in difficult circumstances, especially with orphans of separatist violence in Kashmir. Using literature as a creative outlet, she provided a platform for the traumatized young to express their grief in ways that they had been unable to before. This release gave them the ability to move beyond and look into their future, instead of staying frozen in their very violent past. One of the over-riding feelings she came away with was the need to tell these stories to a wider audience and thus bring the alienated back into the mainstream consciousness.

Samanth Subramanian is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He has written op-eds and reportage for the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and book reviews and cultural criticism for the New Republic, the Guardian and Book forum. His first book, a collection of travel essays titled “Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast,” was published in India in 2010 and in the United Kingdom in 2013. “Following Fish” won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Andre Simon Book Award in 2013. Subramanian received a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. He has lived in the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, the United States and Sri Lanka. “This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War,” his second book, was published in July.

Amandeep Sandhu is currently a Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany (2013-15) working on his third novel which deals with how art shapes the historiography of a land. His Master of Arts, English Literature (1994-96) was from the University of Hyderabad and Diploma in Journalism (1997-98) from the Asian School of Journalism. In the late 1990s he was a journalist with The Economic Times. He has been a Technical Writer with top Information Technology companies for more than a decade: Novell, Oracle and Cadence Design systems. Over the last few years he has been actively reviewing books for The Hindu, The Asian Age, The Indian Express, BusinessWorld and writing a column in Tehelka on issues related to Punjab.

21 Oct 2014

Neamat Imam, “The Black Coat”

Neamat Imam, “The Black Coat”

The_Black_Coat_a_novel_by_Neamat_ImamThe language of rebellion is simple whereas the language of governance is very intricate. ( p.148)

Neamat Imam’s debut novel The Black Coat is about newly independent Bangladesh in 1970s. It is set during Sheikh Mujib’s rule. It is a chilling tale about power, money, greed and survival. It is set against the backdrop of a new nation struggling to survive, a terrible famine that cripples the nation, the never ending stream of refugees to contend with and the lawlessness that exists even in the cities. Thieves break into homes to carry away a grain of rice, poor and old women steal clothes hung out to dry, and anything that can be sold is sold, anything to earn a few coins. The novel is about journalist Khaleeque Biswas who has lost his job capitalising on the talent of an uneducated young man, Nur Hussain, for mimicking the famous speech of the prime minister Sheikh Mujib delivered on 7 March 1971. Soon they are speaking at roadside corners, public spots and earning as well before the ruling party hires them to deliver the speech for political rallies organised during campaigning. It is a technique to evoke the patriotic sympathies of the citizens. The reference to the black coat in the title is the coat made famous by Sheikh Mujib.

It is a dark and horrifying tale. If the events mentioned were confined to history books then it may be easier to read. But it is not to be. There is poverty, lawlessness, social structures crumbling and the greed and manipulation of politicians. A cycle that is often repeated.

Neamat Imam is a Bangladeshi-Canadian writer. This is his debut novel. His book has been received with critical acclaim such as in this review http://www.outlookindia.com/article/Father-And-Sons-Or-The-Lie-Of-The-Land/285600 ( Indi Hazra, “Father And Sons, Or The Lie Of The Land”, Outlook Magazine, 3 June 2013). Yet the homepage of his website ( http://neamatimam.com/ ) has a distressing tale to recount. Read his post about seeking reviewers for his book ( “Wanted: Reviewers”).

Publishing is often referred to as an eco-system, a term borrowed from biology, an organic and evolving system, dependent upon the organisms that exist within it and their symbiotic relationship with each other. Similarly with politics and literature.  Literature and politics have always been inextricably linked. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. Literature is created out of the times/environment it is written in. Black Coat is a book that must be read as an example of fine literature describing a politically turbulent time in Bangladesh’s history. It is taut, has a perspective to offer (whether you agree with it or not) and the words are used with care. Neamat Imam’s post on his homepage is testimony to how closely literature and politics are interlinked.

Read Black Coat

Neamat Imam The Black Coat Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 250. Rs. 499.

23 June 2014 

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Arctic Summer, AlephThe closer he came to those caves, the more he began to falter. He knew that something took place in the dark, a sexual attack across racial lines. The caves held that kind of power. But it wasn’t simply a question of the action; it was what the action arose from — what it meant. The problem was fundamental. No matter how he tried it, the words sat on top of the deed; they had no soil and no roots. There was something wrong with how he had imagined it, something essentially dishonest and out of balance, and as his narrative crept toward the threshold, the rock refused to open for him. ( p.142)

E. M. Forster is known for his novels Howards End and A Passage to India. He also left an unfinished novel Arctic Summer. He began writing it in 1909 but it was never published. More than a century later, South African writer, Damon Galgut has written a fictional biography of E. M. Forster. He says, “I have used actual dialogue recorded by Forster ( and others) in letters or diaries, I have sometimes altered the words a little, on the assumption that nobody recalls conversations, even their own, with complete certainty.”

Arctic Summer begins with a journey that Forster makes to India in October 1912. He was following a young Indian whom he had met in England — Syed Ross Masood, associated with the Aligarh Muslim University. The book is a well-researched account of E. M. Forster’s life, his search for love, living under the shadow of his mother even though he was beginning to be recognised as a successful author. Yet the novel is written so gently and with a great deal of sensitivity, it is also difficult to distinguish between the real and imagined worlds, a credit to Damon Galgut’s fine craftsmanship.

A bio-fic is one of the best ways to know a historical period, apart from getting to know the protagonist/figure intimately. It is probably one of the most demanding genres to be dabbling in. The author has to do extensive research to get the facts right, then creatively build a story, suitable for contemporary readers, bordering on historical fiction but focused upon one person ( in this case Forster) to carry the story forward. Prior to Arctic Summer the seminal biography of Forster was written by P. N. Furbank ( whom Damon Galgut met as well). Arctic Summer though accurate about many details of Forster’s life tends to make details public about his homosexual relationships than probably Forster would not want to acknowledge so openly; though many of his close friends knew of these liaisons.  Maybe Damon Galgut has the good fortune of being able to write Arctic Summer at a point of time when conversations about same-sex relationships are recognised and being discussed regularly in society, albeit some people continue to view such alliances with hostility, anger and outrage. So to take a respected author such as Forster, to discuss his sexual life as being an inextricable part of his career ( since for love he travelled to India the first time), Damon Galgut has taken on a bold aspect of Forster’s life — homosexuality— and created a fantastic story. It is also appropriate to publish Arctic Summer in 2014 when there is  a flood of literature on World War I; this will be top of that heap, probably even on the list of some literary awards. 

Damon Galgut Arctic Summer Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 360 Rs. 595

Saba Imtiaz “Karachi you’re killing me!”

Saba Imtiaz “Karachi you’re killing me!”

Saba Imtiaz“The literature festival is one of Karachi’s biggest cultural events, so everyone turns up. It’s free, there’s the chance to meet authors, listen to poetry, discuss books and get into long, passionate arguments that aren’t fuelled by alcohol. If only it wasn’t for the blasted diplomants who turn up in droves: every year, the organizers of the festival schedule at least two — or five — sessions on Afghanistan or Kashmir so it becomes ‘newsy’. And the diplomats always up a chunk of money, which means we have to sit through their unending speeches at the opening ceremony, which usually feature a variation of this quote: ‘Reading and books are how we will defy the extremists who want to destroy our way of life.’ 

( p. 48 Karachi you’re killing me!)

Ayesha is a reporter with Daily News where she “reports on everything from cupcake bakeries to clashes between warring gangs”. Kamran is her boss and owner of the newspaper; not exactly a brilliant pay master. Ayesha has a tight circle of friends which includes Zara, a reporter with Morning News TV and Saad an old friend, confidante and companion. Karachi you’re killing me! is told from Ayesha’s perspective, written in the diary format but not exactly so. The time span is less than five months. It moves at a trot, without ever getting tedious or fluffy. Karachi you’re killing me! may be loosely modeled on Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones but the similarity ends with a young workaholic heroine who is pining for her young Lochinvar. Saba Imtiaz has written a delightful story — it makes you chuckle and gurgle with its descriptions and tongue-in-cheek remarks.  The ease with which Ayesha flits in and out of different parts of Karachi society, the social and political milieu while trudging through the streets and in government hospitals, in search of stories is a constant reminder not only of the tough life a young reporter has, but also of the volatile mix of violence, politics, conservatism co-exist with an extremely hep, sophisticated younger generation. Ayesha, Zara, Saad and even Kamran negotiate these spaces deftly on a daily basis with some funny and some sobering tales to share.

A gorgeous debut. 

Saba Imtiaz Karachi you’re killing me! Random House India, Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 270. Rs. 299. Ebook available.

“Girls of India” series

“Girls of India” series

A Mauryan Adventure, Subhadra Sen GuptaPuffin, an imprint of Penguin Books India, launched the  “Girls of India” series. The idea is to introduce young readers to history, make it come alive and accessible, without confining it to history textbooks where history is dry, dull and boring. Far from it! The first three titles in A Chola Adventure ( Anu Kumar), A Harappan Adventure (Sunile Gupte) and A Mauryan Adventure ( Subhadra Sen Gupta) are the adventures of twelve-year-olds, Raji, Avani and Madhura in 990 CE, Tanjore; 2570 BCE, Bagasara village, Harappa and 3rd Century BCE, Pataliputra, India respectively. Well-told tales that immerse you immediately into the stories, the period and the antics of the girls. Of the three, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s A Mauryan Adventure is the finest, evident in the ease with which the story is told, details of the story come together and so do the facts from history– but then she has years of experience in making history accessible for children through tales.

I am delighted to see historical fiction being made available for younger readers. It definitely has its uses for the sheer pleasure of reading or being introduced as supplementary readers in schools, thereby giving trade publishers access to an age group of readers who usually fall of their radar, since exams and textbooks hog all their attention, only to re-emerge as readers in their early twenties. In fact Prof Narayani Gupta wrote “It is very important to have teachers use this as well as referring to dauntingly clever theses. My husband [ well-known historian Prof. Partha Sarthi Gupta] used to recommend specific Sherlock Holmes stories for European diplomatic history!” ( A comment she sent via email upon reading my article on Historical Fiction — http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/03/26/on-historical-fiction-my-article-published-in-hts-brunch-9-march-2013/  )

While I am all for encouraging young girls to be readers too, I do have reservations about restricting the series to “Girls of India” or having girls on the book covers. These are books that will be enjoyed by both boys and girls. Given that they are targeting the 12+ age-group, this is a very sensitive lot of youngsters. Details like making the book covers more amenable to girls for reading can quite easily deter the boys from picking up these titles. It is a fine balance to be achieved.  In March 2013, Dame  Jacqueline Wilson had commented upon publishers stopping the pink tide, of creating books dressed up in pink to lure young girls as readers. Her argument was based on the premise that “a boy is going to have to feel really quite confident if he is going to be seen in front of his mates with a book that is bright pink because it is immediately code for this being ‘girlie’.” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10039848/Dame-Jacqueline-Wilson-challenges-publishers-to-halt-the-pink-tide.html ) A valid argument for accessing boys as readers, I think, holds true here as well.

Bottomline. My verdict for the series. A thumbs up. Read. Recommend.

Girls of India Series, published by Puffin, Penguin Books India. June 2013.

17 Sept 2013