Mahabharata Posts

“Aranyaka: Book of the Forest” by Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik

Aranyaka is the first collaboration between mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik and writer-painter Amruta Patil. Amruta is also India’s first female graphic novelist. “Aranyaka” is a modern retelling of the Vedic concepts that are not always easy to communicate. The best medium to do so seemed to be using text and imagery for which the graphic novel is the ideal art form. More importantly it is the creative energy between the authors that has been the prime force in narrating this parable, a love story, a creation myth, yet weaving in the essential elements of learning which the over 3000-year-old Vedas emphasise. The beauty of any scripture is its ability to be retold in any age and in any form without losing its core idea. With “Aranyaka”, the two authors seem to have achieved this magnificently. It is impossible to tell who contributed to which part of the storytelling apart from the obvious ones of Amrut Patil’s artwork and Devdutt Pattanaik’s corporate speak — at times the latter makes its presence felt in the dialogue. Nevertheless there is a seamless unified quality to the story which gets straight to the point — of immersing the reader immediately and effectively into the story about the forest. It is not imperative to have read the original Vedas in order to appreciate this modern version. It reads smoothly. Not once does the collaboration seem clunky! This magical jodi of Devdutt Pattanaik and Amruta Patil is perhaps the ideal desi version of Neil Gaiman and late Terry Pratchett who are equally phenomenal in retelling the scriptures.

Read Aranyaka!

29 October 2019

Book Post 43: 7 – 24 Aug 2019

Book Post 43 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

26 Aug 2019

An interview with Cordis Paldano

Cordis Paldano’s debut novel for children The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is a must read. Story apart, the pace, the rhythm, the storytelling – everything comes together stupendously. This is a new voice to look out for in the coming years.

Here is an interview conducted via email:

1.    What is it about storytelling that fascinates you?

CP: For me, a good story is one that draws the audience in… It removes them from the banality of their everyday lives and transports them to another world. It moves them, outrages them, delights them… and then when the story is over and behind you, you are a little bit wiser than before.

We may not always succeed but I think that is what storytellers aim for. Because we have all been in the audience and we have all had great stories told to us and because you want the play to go on, at some point you get up and start telling a story of your own, because you don’t want to break the spell and because you really think that this is the most valuable thing you can do with your life – tell a story well.

I think of storytelling as a vocation, a calling, so I tend not to put it on a pedestal. But what I really find fascinating about it is how pervasive, ubiquitous and absolute it is! Honestly, I don’t really know if there is anything is this world which is not a story! Who you are is a story, your country is a story, your religion is a story… (This is not to deny the validity or the truths contained within those stories…on the contrary!)

I love the story you’d written some time ago of your little girl coping with the death of her great-grandmother. If I remember correctly, she finally comes to terms with her absence by concluding that her badi nani has become a bright star in the sky. The story never fails to move me for a host of reasons, but it also illustrates two things beautifully. One, that stories are how we make sense of the world around us and two, when we’re dead and gone, that is all that will remain of us, we shall have become stories too, to those left behind.

2.    How does your work in theatre inform your novel writing? What kind of theatre do you specialise in? 

CP: I do not do theatre any more. But for ten years of my life (soon after passing out of school), theatre is nearly all that I did. I am very much a child of theatre and so yeah, it does inform my novel writing in a big way. I approach writing the way a good actor approaches theatre — give centre stage to the characters and then wait patiently for them to tell their stories through you.

I guess the kind of theatre we specialised in could be called ‘Physical Theatre’ though we ourselves never used such jargon. The actors told stories mainly through their bodies. Make-up, costumes, sets and dialogues were all secondary, the primary storytelling tool was the actor’s body. So naturally all the actors received frequent training in Kathakali, Kalaripayattu and Therukoothu. The theatre company that I used to be a part of – Indianostrum Théâtre, continues to stage plays in Pondicherry under the aegis of the brilliant Franco-Indian director Koumarane Valavane. When we started out, Indianostrum was nothing more than a rundown shed near the beach, and now, it has become an indelible part of the cultural landscape of Pondicherry!

3.    Would you venture into adult fiction as well?

CP: Oh yeah, for sure, in a decade or two… once I’ve written some good children’s books!

4.    What drew you to children’s literature?

CP: I love children and I understand them best. I know dozens of kids who are crazy about books whereas I hardly ever meet an adult who gets excited about novels. So as far as I’m concerned, I don’t understand why any author would bother to write for adults at all!

Jokes apart, because I grew up speaking many languages (like most Indians do), the choice to write in English was neither obvious nor easy. Children’s literature still allows you to get away with a less than adequate grasp of the language. Of course, the quality of language matters in children’s fiction, but I don’t think authors necessarily have to master the language. Another reason I write for children is because the narrative structure of children’s novels closely resembles the Aristotelian dramatic structure that I am more familiar with.

5.    Every storyteller has a soft corner for a particular kind of story. There is a vast gamut of stories to be told but what are the few you wish to play with and retell?

CP: I’m not really sure, I’m still discovering myself as a writer. When I started writing my first novel, all I originally had were the true stories of three women from three different countries – one was a child, another a young lady and the third an old woman – I was inspired by these three women and really wanted to share their stories with others! So I then went on to weave a larger narrative encompassing these three stories — the story of a girl seeking to save her mother and rescue her goat, and this little girl draws strength from these three stories in her moments of crisis. And by the way, the central characters of my second and third novels (still in progress) are also strong-willed girls, so I think maybe that’s a story that I’d like to tell. Stories with strong female protagonists. Another theme that has emerged consistently in all three of the novels (much to my surprise) is collective violence. At some pivotal point in each of the three works, a mob goes berserk and threatens the safety of the main characters. So ‘collective violence’ also is a theme that I’m perhaps interested in or I don’t know… maybe that theme is just a reflection of the times we live in!

6.    Does the medium of communication impact the story being told? Do you make minor changes to your styles of narration depending on the medium?

CP: Oh yes, each medium is like a language of its own. So a story told on the stage would be very different from a story written on paper. Usually, the story grows organically from the medium and I’ve so far never had to translate a story from one medium to another. But if I had to, I guess major changes would be required – you’d have to rethink the story in the new language.

7.    Would you ever explore film to tell stories and I do not necessarily mean a mere recording of your story performances?

CP: What a delightful idea! I’d love to explore film but before that I’d like to gain some mastery over the craft of writing that I’ve just ventured into… By all appearances, it seems like it will take anyone a few lifetimes before they can achieve some level of mastery in this craft!

8.    How do you work on the voices of the characters? Do they play out as you write them out or do you see them first as dramatized versions before writing them? 

CP: Hmm…character voices… I don’t think I’m particularly good at it and it’s an area that I’d like to work on but I don’t really know how, because yes, I see the characters and the story as a dramatized version before writing them. Plot, setting, characters and their voices, all come in a large ‘take it or leave it’ bundle and I don’t know yet how to delicately unwrap the bundle, perform a surgical strike and then seal it up again. Maybe I’ll learn or better still – I won’t have to learn, it’ll all get better on its own as time goes on!

9.    The pace and timing of your debut novel for children The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is superb. Did you test parts of it on younger readers before publishing? 


CP: Thank you! Your words mean a lot to me… No, it wasn’t tested on younger readers before publishing.

10. What next? 

CP: I’m very familiar with the Mahabharata but not so much the story of Ram. And so I decided to go through Valmiki’s Ramayana and as I was reading it, I got the idea for my second novel – the story of a little girl who absolutely wants to play the role of Ram in her school’s Ram Leela. Her story is interspersed with tales from the Ramayana, of the adventures of Hanuman and others.

1 June 2019

An extract from “Indian Genre Fiction”

Indian Genre Fiction: Pasts and Present Futures (eds. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Aakriti Mandhwani and Anwesha Maity) is a fascinating collection of essays. There are articles on popular fiction in late colonial Tamil Nadu, to novels of Urdu, 19th-century Bengali chapbooks, science fantasy of Leela Majumdar and Sukumar Ray, Hindi pulp literature, retelling of the Mahabharata in Krishna Udaysankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva. But the essay that I read and re-read was Ira Pande’s tremendous “Hearts and homes: A perspective on women writers in Hindi”. Being the daughter of the very popular Hindi writer Shivani and a fluent speaker in English and Hindi, Ira Pande shares her fascinating perspective on inhabiting the Hindi literary world and what it means being bilingual.

With the permission of the publishers, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, here are two extracts from this brilliant essay. (pps. 94-95 and 96-97)

Allahabad in the ’60s was home to some of the greatest writers of those times. Harivansh Rai Bachchan had left Allahabad for Delhi by then, but there were other more famous chhayavad poets still around (Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Nirala), Firaq Gorakh-puri, Amrit and Sripat Rai (Premchand’s sons, both writers and publishers), Ilachandra Joshi, VDN Sahi and Usha Priyamvada, to name just a few. And of course, there was Shivani. However, along with others of her tribe, such as Salma Siddiqi and Mannu Bhandari, her kind of writing was passed off as romantic fluff or domestic sagas that housewives ordered by mail as part of a gharelu (domestic) library scheme. The very popularity of these women writers became a weapon to use against their literary output. To the supercilious self-styled critics who pronounced judgment on what was to be considered accept-able as literature, this space was only meant for those who wrote for a different audience, one that had a sophisticated palate developed on the ‘modern’ fare of European and contemporary American fiction. Certain subjects were taboo in this high-minded world: romance and bourgeois lives headed this list.

Somewhere by the ’70s, then, the small town became an object of ridicule: it was valourised in romantic literature and cinema but actually hated and mocked at in the real. Small wonder then, that its inhabitants (who suffered from a crippling form of low self-esteem since birth) ran into hiding and tried to ape the big-city culture by writing, speaking and dressing like the metropolitan sophisticates they yearned to become. When this happened, the country lost all those delightful rivulets that fed the creative river of the Grand National Dream. The homogenisation of culture took over: slogans replaced feelings. The joy went out of fun as its definition changed into something wrought by high-minded nationalist agendas. Political correctness has a lot to answer for.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that Shivani’s most prolific literary output and some of her most memorable and popular novels date to the years when Hindi magazines were avidly read across North India. Among these, Dharmyug (edited then by the formidable Dharmvir Bharati, a widely respected novelist and dramatist) occupied pride of place. Published by Bennett and Coleman (referred to henceforth as B&C), its owners (Sahu Jain and Rama Jain) promoted creative writing and later endowed the Gyanpeeth Award, the first privately endowed prestigious literary award for writers in various Indian languages. The Bennett and Coleman Group (later known as the Times of India group) also brought out a clutch of other magazines. Among these were Sarika (contemporary Hindi writing, edited by Kamleshwar) and Dinaman (a political and economic weekly, edited by Agyeya), both respected for their content and editorial gravitas. Filmfare, a film magazine, and the Illustrated Weekly of India were their popular English-language publications. The Hindustan Times group, owned by the Birlas, published Saptahik Hindustan (as a rival to Dharmyug), Kadambari (as an alternative to Sarika) and vied with each otherto publish serials by the most popular Hindi writers of those days. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, there was not a single library or reader in North India that did not subscribe to these magazines.

Almost all of Shivani’s novels – certainly her most popular ones – were first published as serials in one or the other magazines mentioned above. Her most well-known novel, Krishnakali, published as a serial in Dharmyug in the ’60s, was later published as a novel by Gyanpeeth (the publishing house run by the B&C group). In addition to these magazines, two others (Navneet and Gyanoday) I can recall from then were modelled on the popular American publication, Reader’s Digest. Shivani’s travelogues, essays and memorial tributes were regularly published in these Hindi digests.

….

Naturally, the serialised novel had its own effect on the writing it spawned. Fans wrote furious letters to Shivani when she betrayed their hopes (such as by killing off a character) or when she did not spend enough time on a particular strand of the narrative. This close bond between writer and reader was perhaps what contributed to the intimacy that readers developed over the years with their favourite writers. My sister Mrinal Pande (who edited Saptahik Hindustan in the ’90s) recalls how typists vied with each other to type out Shivani’s (always) handwritten manuscript when she sent in a fresh instalment so that he/she would be the first to read it! The circulation of magazines jumped by as much as 55 per cent when her novels were being serialised and siblings fought with each other to grab the magazine to read it first when it was delivered to private homes. Often they tore the pages out so that they could share it among themselves.

What gave this genre its enormous reach and popularity was that these stories were significant documentaries. I would say that that it was reality fiction based on real-life characters and episodes and invisible to the writers based in our up-and-coming metros who consciously distanced themselves from these provincial lives to become more acceptable to a wider, international literary world. This is a fact often overlooked when tracing the evolution of Hindi writing. As Vasudha Dalmia’s book on fiction and history reveals, novels located in Allahabad, Agra, Aligarh, Banaras or Lucknow give us an insight into the social landscapes that were shaping middle-class lives in the ’50s and ’60s.2 Beneath the romantic tales of young women and men were rich subplots that reveal the gradual breakup of orthodox joint families, the effect of education on the emancipation of women in provincial India and the effect of migration from small towns to industrial cities. The language of everyday conversation in middle-class homes and amongst families, the social terms of exchange between men and women, workers and employers are important markers of a world we seek today and cannot find because it no longer exists. What are often dismissed as kitchen tales and romantic fiction stood firm on a foundation because it was supported by religion and ritual, food and taboos, folk remedies and aphorisms that nourished clans and villages. In the tightly packed houses of our old shahars that were separated by narrow lanes, the smells and sounds that travelled across neighbours became rich lodes of narratives that had the authenticity of real lives. The bonds between Hindu and Muslim homes, or between upper- and lower-caste settlements were strong threads that wove the fabric of our social communities. A deep suspicion of the other community was balanced by an equally strong love for individual men and women. Look for these common narrative strains and you will find them in all writers who lived and thrived in little India.

3 Feb 2019

Book 21: 25 November – 1 December 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 21 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

3 December 2018

Akil Kumaraswamy’s “Half Gods”

“Refugees can’t be picky. . .   .” 

Akil Kumaraswamy’s debut Half Gods is a collection of interlinked short stories. These are stories revolving around a father-daughter duo who are Tamil Hindus of Sri Lankan origin and now based in the US. Along the way the daughter, Nalini, a nurse, has married a Punjabi Sikh and has two sons — Arjun and Karan, named after two demigods from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. They also have a circle of friends, consisting mostly of immigrants. It is a motley bunch that manages to share experiences and find some common ground to have conversations. It is only when their “back stories” are shared that it becomes clear their pasts have been traumatic. For instance, Nalini and her father fled Sri Lanka after their house had been attacked by mobs and her mother and twin brothers had been lynched. It is a horrific past to live with but they do and find a way to get across to the US.

In a fabulous interview with Sara Novic, Akil Kumaraswamy discussed Half Gods. In it Akil Kumaraswamy says she has never been to Sri Lanka but “the war has inhabited such a vast part of my consciousness growing up”. She agrees with Sara Novic when the latter says “I worry about most is how the war is being taught to this new generation of children who weren’t alive during the conflict or in its immediate aftermath. It’s such a complex tangle of money and power and hatreds, and it’s easy to flatten or try and ignore completely”. This is also Akil Kumaraswamy’s preoccupation with histories of conflict especially in South Asia, where many of the countries experienced horrific violence at the time of their establishment or subsequently too such as the Partition of the Indian subcontinent or the 1984 riots in Delhi upon the assassination of the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi.

The author’s rationale for writing Half Gods as interlinked stories is that “War messes with any conception of chronology, and the past can feel more lived-in than the present. Also, since the work deals with displacement, I knew it would not be fixed by one geographic location. I eventually found that the interlinked short story form allowed me both expansiveness and a tight construction for the work.” Interestingly enough Half Gods began life as “a play and it only focused on the family and the story of the Mahabharata ran tangentially to it. I had these large monologues where Gods in their full regalia talked about their lives on earth. It was strange but it opened up the book in my mind. There is a scene in Half Gods where Karna shows his class a picture of his family and one of the drawings is of the sun dressed up in a suit. I am interested in how the mystical or divine brush up against the ordinary—something that often happens when the pressure is building, when reality becomes unbearable.”

Every story is powerful and it is difficult to choose a particular favourite. But if one were to then it would be the hauntingly powerful “The Office of Missing Persons” ( LitHub, 5 July 2018) which is about the entomologist whose son suddenly disappears. It is eerie for it does not seem like fiction as such stories are constantly being repeated in conflict zones and often reported in the morning newspapers. Two of her other stories that can be read online are “At the Birthplace of Sound” ( Boston Review, 21 April 2015) and “Shade” ( Guernica, 1 June 2016) .

Akil Kumaraswamy is a promising new voice in the literary landscape. As with most debut writers it is always fascinating to know what will be their next piece of work — will it be fiction in a similar vein to their first book or will it be a leap of faith in to narrative non-fiction? Whatever it is to be, will be worth looking forward to since once a writer has waded into conflict literature there is no looking back.

To buy on Amazon India 

Hardback 

Kindle

3 November 2018 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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 

“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

An Interview with Award-Winning Indonesian Author Eka Kurniawan

( My interview with award winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017.  In India the books have been published by Speaking Tiger Books.) 

Award-winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, whose writing, often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an exceptional blend of myth-making, supernatural, fantastical, historical facts and horrendous amounts of violence. Told with such a flourish, his storytelling is unforgettable. Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia, in 1975 and has a degree in Philosophy. He writes novels, short stories, as well as non-fiction pieces. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are two novels set in unnamed places with all the characteristics of Indonesia. His third novel to be published in English,Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, will be available in July 2017. Eka Kurniawan kindly agreed to an interview for Bookwitty:

How and why did you get into writing fiction? What is your writing routine?

First of all, it was just for fun. I read some stories when I was a teenager, and I tried to write my own versions. I shared my stories with some of my friends. When I studied philosophy in University, sometimes I got bored with my study and skipped my class to go to library and read a lot of classic novels. And then I found a book by Knut Hamsun, Hunger. After I read it, I felt like I wanted to be a writer. So I started to write stories, seriously. My writing routine? I don’t write everyday. I always think that I am more a reader rather then a writer. I read anything every day, and only write something when I want to.

Who are the writers who have influenced you?

Like I already mentioned, Knut Hamsun. I love his deadpan humor and how he discovered his characters. And then there are three great Indonesian novelists: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Abdullah Harahap and Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo. The last two are a kind of genre writers. They wrote horror and martial art novels. I can make a very long list of writers that I believe have influenced me, but let me add these three writers: Miguel de Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Your storytelling is told with such a flourish that at times it is very visual or creates a strong physical reaction much like a response to watching a theatrical performance. While writing, how conscious are you of the reader’s response?

I am very conscious about the reader, but that reader is me. When I write something, at the same time, I always place myself there as a reader too.

“Magic realism” and “historical fiction” are how your books are described but how exactly would you like your special brand of storytelling to be known as?

I never think about it. People can give me any kind of label they please. But let’s be honest: in my novels, there are not only historical or magical elements, but you can find romance, saga, fighting, horror, adventure, even political and social criticism. I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

Your stories seem to rely heavily on the oral storytelling narrative form as the structural basis allowing you the flexibility to expand and repeat details and incorporate supernatural elements…

It is something inevitable. I grew up listening to a village storyteller when I was still a kid. And then there was also drama on the radio, told by one particular storyteller. I was very fascinated by all of these stories, especially because I had only read a small number of books at that time. The stories were usually about village legends, full of monsters, jinn, beautiful ladies and brave men. Many of these stories I actually retold in my novels, including the princess who married a dog.

There are so many brutal aspects of sexual violence which you explore in your stories. Why?

First, when you take a look into Indonesian history (maybe even world history), you can’t help but find yourself faced with this kind of violence. It can be sexual, physical, mental or political violence. Second, I wrote my first novel just two years after the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. It was time for us to be bolder in writing, to open all these scars in our history and face them. Third, I used to write stories in a “matter of fact” manner, I don’t want to hide things.

You write with the sensitivity and understanding of a woman, often sharing her point of view, making the stories seem more feminist than what some women themselves pen and yet the plots move with a predominantly male gaze. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

It was a conscious decision. Actually, my first two novels were inspired by some women, and they are really at the center of my novels. I tried to place myself from their point of view. It is always something important for me as a writer to be there, to know how they feel, how they see the world around them, and how they react to something.

 

The strong women characters  in Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound make choices which they follow through only to be labelled by society as insane. Why and how did you choose to create these women?

I think they just appeared like that in front of me. These two characters are very different from each other. They are strong, die-hard, but have different reactions. I never write stories with a plan. I usually just have a small idea, and develop it gradually. The characters come out one by one. I rewrite it several times, and the characters, including these two women, become more complex and have their own personality in the end.

Dewi Ayu (in Beauty is a Wound)  remarks “The best stories are in religious texts”. Your stories seem to imbibe a lot of storytelling elements from the Hindu epics, the Bible and the Quran. How have these stories influenced you? What are the challenges posed in transference of popular tales when trying to recreate or apply them in secular literature?

My grandmother used to tell me stories from the Quran, and my father taught me to read it. So I am very familiar with these stories, as well as stories from the Bible (I read it later) as they are close. I discovered Hindu epics from wayang (puppet) performances, that usually used Mahabharata or Ramayana epics. The challenges occur with the fact that these stories are very popular. Many writers and storytellers retold them. I just picked the basic ideas and retold them in my own stories that have nothing to do with religious aspects, but with a parallel allusion to them.

Are the English translations true to the original Bhasa texts? How closely did you work with the translators – Annie Tucker and Labodalih Sembiring? Also why did you choose separate translators for the books – it is a slightly unusual practice given how authors and translators tend to forge a long term relationship. 

It’s almost true. I worked very closely with the translators and we tried our best to render the original into English. Of course we faced some problems with grammatical and word nuances, as Indonesian and English are very different, and we discussed this a lot. Those two books were acquired by two different publishers. Verso and I approached Labodalih to translate Man Tiger after we tried some translators, and around the same time Annie Tucker proposed to translate Beauty Is a Wound, later acquired by New Directions. So, that’s why I have two translators.

Given the time lag between your novels being first published and then made available in English do you think having Indonesia as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 helped in discovering contemporary Indonesian writers and making them available to the English-speaking world?

To be honest, before the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, I knew nothing about that. My books were published in English translation the same year, but we prepared them three years before, in 2012. But of course, as guest of honor at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, this gave us an opportunity to be discovered, including my books. Publishers started to wonder about Indonesian literature…

Who are the Indonesian writers – based in the country or of the diaspora – that you would recommend for international readers?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, of course, and Seno Gumira Adjidarma.

7 February 2017 

Kiran Nagarkar, “Bedtime Story”

 
Bedtime Story coverDraupadi: You have all gone stark, raving mad. You’re going to share me just because Mummy said so? And you expect me to turn myself into a five-day roster to please you? I’m supposed to divide myself into five portions? Listen to me, Arjun, and listen well. If I stay here, I stay as your wife, not as the mistress of five brothers. Are you coming with me or aren’t you?  ( p. 38) 
 

Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story is a play in four acts. Each  of the acts is based on a well-known episode from the Mahabharata. These are of Eklavya cutting off his thumb for Dronacharya as guru dakshina; the swaymvara of Draupadi where every suitor had to try and shoot an arrow in the eye of a fish overhead that revolved from a high pole — not looking at the target directly but at its reflection in a cauldron of oil; the infamous dice game where the Pandavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas and they attempted to disrobe Draupadi, if it were not for Krishna who miraculously restored her garments to save her from shame and finally, on the eve of the battle between Kaurava and Pandavas, when Lord Krishna preached the doctrine of dharma to Arjuna which is enshrined in the most famous of Hindu texts, the Bhagvad Gita. This last act also has a conversation between Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas and Krishna.

Bedtime Story was written soon after the Emergency ( 1975-77), but it has been published for the first time, thirty-seven years later in 2015. The first time there was an attempt to perform it was actor and theatre director Dr Shreeram Lagoo. As Kiran Nagarkar writes in the introduction:

He [ Dr Lagoo] realized that the play was provocative and controversial material. He invited all the experimental theatre groups in Bombay for a reading in 1978 because he wanted the whole amateur theatre movement behind the play. In the meantime, the play had been sent to the censor board for certification, as the law in Maharashtra demands. It came back with seventy-eight cuts, some of them a page long, so that barely the jacket-covers were left. Eminent academics, M.P. Rege, Pushpa Bhave, and a couple of others argued the case for Bedtime Story at a meeting of the censor board. Many of the excisions the board demanded were risible ( e.g. drop the names of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi), some questions did not make any sense (e.g. why are you distorting the original myths?). I must admit I was hoping that the board would have at least some members from the Marathi literary elite who would have understood the thrust of the play. But I soon realized that I was deluding myself. The board was convinced that the play was a stain on our culture and needed to be severely sanitized. …When the director of the play finally got a letter from the board, the cuts had been reduced to twenty-four. But by then almost all the actors had withdrawn from the rehearsals because fundamentalist Hindu parties and organizations in Bombay, as it was known then, threatened the director, producer, actors and me, and even the first rehearsal was not allowed to take place. It helped enormously that none of these vociferous guardians of our culture had read Bedtime Story. ( p 6-7) 

The play was finally staged in 1995 by Rekha Sabnis’s theatre group, Abhivyakti, directed by Achyut Deshingkar. But it ran for only twenty-five performances. “The actors had such fun with the firecracker dialogue and the energy within the play and the difficult questions it raised that they pooled their money and revived the play two years later, this time in Hindi, and it had a few more performances. Sometime later, Vasant Nath staged the play in Cambridge, UK, and at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.” ( p.7) Noted journalist, Salil Tripathi wrote an excellent piece in The Mint about his first encounter with Bedtime Story. ( Salil Tripathi, “When Kiran Nagarkar said the unsayable” 28 February 2015, Live Mint, http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/2izXvQjOpQm0hFGPz0vdIK/When-Kiran-Nagarkar-said-the-unsayable.html)

I first came across Bedtime Story in 1982. The Emergency was still fresh in our minds, and the collapse of the Janata administration in 1979 and the triumphant return of Indira Gandhi in 1980 had chilled the mood, crumbling the illusion that the Janata years had represented, of being the harbinger of a cultural renaissance. Nagarkar’s play was drawn from the Mahabharata, “the living epic in the subcontinent”, as he describes it, because the epic became the “medium to drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy.” The play shows how the good guys—the Pandavas—are weak and subject to human follies, and the bad guys—the Kauravas—are no better. The choice is between dark and darker. …. 

I saw the play in 1982—or heard it, that’s more like it—at a private reading at the home of Rekha Sabnis, the actor (her group Abhivyakti would later stage the play, directed by Achyut Deshingkar in 1995, and it would have a limited run of 25 shows). But that Sunday morning at Sabnis’ home, we were spellbound as she read the script, along with writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, researcher Tulsi Vatsal, and Nagarkar himself. I was young then, fresh out of college, but I realized what it must have felt like in Eastern Europe, where samizdat performances of cutting-edge, political plays took place just that way. I wrote about it a week later in the now-defunct Sunday Observer.

Even though it is the twenty-first century, it is commendable this play has finally been published, given as Romila Thapar points out that India is, “…a highly patriarchal society such as our present-day society”. ( Romila Thapar, “The Real Reasons for Hurt Sentiments”, 13 March 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-real-reasons-for-hurt-sentiments/article6987156.ece ) In the recent past there have been innumerable instances of attempts censor literary works that can only be attributed to plain bullying by fundamentalist groups and the muzzling of free speech by powers that be, actions that are unacceptable in a thriving democracy like India. 

A play like Bedtime Story must have been revolutionary in its ideas when it was first presented in the mid-1970s. All though in 1975 the first Committee on the Status of Women in India had brought out the path-breaking report on the condition of women in the country, Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, written by legendary feminist-activists such as Vina Mazumdar and Latika Sarkar.  Yet the notion of having women in the play like Draupadi and Gandhari questioning the men’s actions and asserting themselves, rather than meekly accepting decisions made on their behalf could not have gone down easily with many people in 1970s. All the women portrayed in the play come across as strong women, who are on an equal footing with the men. The men, whether they are princes, kings or even gods, are strong too, but have their fair share of faults too. Such ideas continue to generate a debate among men and women, but at least these ideas are no longer uncommon or unheard of. Plus, after the hugely commercial success of books such as Chitra Divakurni’s Palace of Illusions, a fabulous retelling of the Mahabharata from the point-of-view of Draupadi, a play like Bedtime Story will be more than acceptable to the reading public. All though the recent furore over the telecast and ultimately imposing a ban of Leslee Udwin’s documentary, “India’s Daughter” shows that these patriarchal notions  of how much space, identity and freedom can a woman be given are deeply entrenched in this society, it will be a long while before the idea of equality between men and women become reality in India.

Bedtime StoryIt is befitting then that the first launch of this book was by noted feminist-activist-publisher, Urvashi Butalia in New Delhi on 11 March 2015, three days after Women’s Day.

Buy this book now. Who knows, a few months or years down the line Bedtime Story will be banned again. We live in uncertain times. If it comes to pass that this play too is pulled off the shelves, it will not be the first time. Just as was done with Perumal Murugan’s novel, One Part Woman, which was withdrawn by the author after being intimidated by fundamentalists, nearly two years after the English translation and four years after it had been published in Tamil. And many other authors/texts in recent Indian publishing history.

Buy it also for the fantastic dust jacket. It is stupendous. The cover concept is Kiran Nagarkar’s and the cover design is by Prashant Godbole.

Kiran Nagarkar Bedtime Story and Black Tulip Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Hb, pp. 300. Rs. 695 

16 March 2015