Memoir Posts

“A Crackerjack Life” by Rajiv Tyagi

Ex-fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Rajiv Tyagi has built a formidable reputation on social media for his forthright opinions on contemporary politics. Apart from his posts being very informative, his is an influential and sane voice on social media where fake news goes viral rapidly. It is no wonder then that he has accrued more than 50,000 followers on Facebook alone.

Recently he published a collection of essays/stories that recalled incidents from his experience as an Air Force Officer and more. A Crackerjack Life is a memoir with a difference as it is not a straightforward narrative but a series of short pieces strung together, more or less chronologically, to chart the fascinating life Rajiv Tyagi has led. From being a little child who was travelling alone from Indonesia to his grandparents in Meerut so that he could then be sent on to boarding school in Mussorie, his passion for high altitude trekking, to later his absolutely fascinating accounts of serving in the IAF in various border postings, witnessing some incredible encounters that if he had not seen for himself would be relegated to modern myth making such as the convoys of Red Army and Blue Army suddenly finding themselves in together rather than on opposite sides but no one dared say or do anything but quietly parted ways. There are many more incidents some very personal and heartwarming such as the one about his classmate Virender whose leg had to be amputated after being diagnosed with cancer and how he was received by his classmates at school. Having said that the stories and experiences shared do to a large extent quell the annoying presence of editing mistakes but not necessarily overcome it. Perhaps the next edition of the book will be better edited. For now the brisk sales of this book since its release a few weeks ago are a testimony to Rajiv Tyagi’s passionate storytelling with a great eye for detail.

A Crackerjack Life is a delightful collection of memorably evocative stories. The stories are significant too for highlighting the richly diverse, secular, tolerant and democratic space that was newly independent India and hopefully will forever be.

With the author’s permission the following extract from the book is being published here.

****

PERSUASION

Thanks to an egalitarian, agnostic father and the Armed Forces, I did not know what a gotra was, till I reached my late twenties. Hindus assert that every single one of them, Chitra, Pappu and Manoj, are descended from an ascetic saint. My paternal line is said to descend from a Rishi Gautam. My gotra therefore is Gautam.

My father did his schooling in the Gurukul Kangri school and then college, in Hardwar in the 1940s. They wore dhotis and langot, spoke Sanskrit fluently, and wore wooden khadaaon (wooden slippers) on their feet. The day began at 4 AM, with a swim in the Ganga canal outside the college, followed with a bath, change and havan (Hindu congregational prayer), before breakfast and classes. Except for the discipline, which he maintained for himself all his life, despite failing miserably to instil any of it in his children, he found little to commend for his life in the Gurukul. For when he reached Germany to study Medicine at Munich University in 1950, he found his knowledge of Science and the world around him severely lacking in comparison to other students who had studied in Germany or in Anglo Indian schools in India. His edge over others, in conversational Sanskrit and his facility at reciting Vedic shlokas from memory, he found useful only as curiosities. He had to work extra hours to catch up on what he had missed of human knowledge, while he was learning what turned out to be mere trivia, useful only to regale the Sanskrit and Vedic illiterate.

A strapping, tall, athletic and handsome man, he exuded, on his occasional outings in churidaar-achkan and turban, the aura of an Oriental prince. He and his friends cultivated the image to the hilt, telling their German friends how shocked they were to see a poor nation like theirs, where everyone re-used crockery instead of throwing it away after use. The suggestion from a fellow Indian student, that they might be exaggerating just a wee bit, was met with the query how he would describe a ‘mitti ka shakora’! And if that would not constitute Indian crockery? And did he in his home, wash a shakora to re-use it?

He lived as a paying guest, in a room rented from a widow he called Mutter (Mother), dining with the family at their table; the family comprising his land lady and a pretty daughter, who Mutter was eager to marry off to this young man who would soon be Herr Doktor.

After graduating, on Mutter’s suggestion that he convert to Christianity, Herr Doktor escaped from pretty daughter and Germany, learned Italian while interning in a hospital in Italy, befriended some Catholic priests, who taught him enough Latin to show off to other Europeans and made his way back by ship to India, taking up his first job as a resident, at the Bhowali Sanatorium, in what is now Uttarakhand.

My Mother, Sharmaji ki chhoti beti (the younger daughter of Mr. Sharma), then an 18 year old beauty with impossibly thick tresses woven into two plaits, lived a few lanes away from my grand parents’ home in Meerut. It was a match made in heaven, said the astrologers from both families. Whereupon my father was summoned by means of telegram, to hurry home forthwith, as he was to be married to a girl they had chosen for him.

In my grand parents’ home, food was dropped from a height into the outstretched palms of the woman who came to clean the toilets and who they called the bhangan. In my parents’ home, infused with the liberal egalitarianism of a Western culture, the driver and maids used the same crockery and cutlery as we did. This dichotomy did not escape me, though I did not question it. My mother would tell us stories in Hindi, from the Ramayan and my father from the Mahabharat, interspersed now and then with long passages in Sanskrit, from some obscure version of the grand epic. But at no time do I remember being taught to pray, even though my Mother was a practising Hindu and a temple goer. She did tell us which god was which and how to recognize them.

My connect with prayer came only after I was admitted to a Catholic boarding school run by nuns in Mussoorie, in Class 2. Visits to the chapel and the whole atmosphere of religiosity were annoying to me. This improved when I moved to St. George’s College, inasmuch as there was never an air of religiosity within its environment. By Class 4, I had found a treasure trove of Greek mythology in the school library, along with some fascinating books for children, on magnetism and electricity. I consumed them voraciously, some even during Miss Dhillon’s classes! Sometime towards the end of Class 5, after a heavy diet of Greek mythology, magnetism and electricity, I experienced an epiphany – that religions are a collective and organized scam, propagated through stories that were pure fairy tales and fantasy. That was the beginning of my life as a rationalist, a humanist and an atheist.

To buy the book: Paperback and Kindle

13 July 2018

William Fiennes “The Snow Geese” and “The Music Room”

Best selling author William Fiennes The Snow Geese and The Music Room are two incredibly stunning pieces of literature. They are both meditative in quality.  The Snow Geese was written soon after he had been convalescing from a then unnamed disease but in his later book he reveals as Crohn’s Disease. While staying with his parents and taking long walks with his father, an avid birdwatcher, William Fiennes develops this urge to follow the snow geese on their migration to the Tundra. There is a slow, methodical and precise quality to the book which is extremely peaceful and restorative. It is as if the tiredness and exhaustion of this noisy daily existence slowly drains itself from one and is replaced by calmness, peace and quiet.

A similar reflective quality is found in The Music Room except that it is a very personal account of his family particularly of his brother Richard who has epilepsy. Richard is eleven years older to William.  Richard finally succumbs to it at the age of 41 when he is unable to breathe during an epileptic fit at night. William is overseas and receives a short message from his brother Martin to inform him of Richard’s death.  It is a deeply moving book about living with an epileptic patient. Anyone who has lived with an epileptic patient knows how to deal with the episodes of absence attacks and convulsions although Richard’s form of epilepsy was particularly violent and abusive. Despite the strong medication consisting mostly of sedatives Richard managed to be violent. In one instance he physically attacked a nurse at his epilepsy centre and a case had to be filed. When Richard and his mother went to the police station for the interview and was asked for details of the incident, Richard said truthfully he could not remember.  The Music Room is a moving testimony to having an epileptic brother while trying to live together as a family. Constantly the love and caring for the brother is what comes through in the book. Although they live in a medieval castle with plenty of rooms at times the family has to hide from Richard especially when is on a violent spree. Once William recalls he was locked up in a bathroom with his mother while Richard was on the other side of the door. Another time William spotted his father leaning against the wall of the house and when asked what he was doing, the older Fiennes said “seeking strength”.

After the success of these two magnificent books William Fiennes co-founded a charity with Katie Waldegrave — First Story: Changing lives through writing.

The charity runs writing workshops in schools across UK, hoping to encourage that revelatory process of ‘finding one’s own voice.’ Fiennes thinks that we all have our own unique voice, and he quotes Philip Pullman on the importance of discovering it: “Real writing can liberate and strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as almost nothing else can.”

So true!

Both the books have been published by Picador and continue to be available years after their publication.

7 May 2018 

“First Person” by Richard Flanagan

My review of award winning Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s latest novel First Person was published in The Hindu on Sunday, 4 February 2018. I am also c&p the text below. 

Flanagan examines the art and artifice of autobiography writing

Kif Kehlmann, a writer struggling to write his first book, is approached by his childhood friend Ray to ghost-write a memoir of Ray’s boss. The said boss is Australia’s most notorious conman Siegfried Heidl or Ziggy, who had swindled banks of 700 million dollars. Ziggy is out on bail.

This gives his publisher, Gene Paley of Schlegel Trans-Pacific Publishing, about six weeks to commission a “page-turner” and have it published in time for the trial.

For this Ziggy is to be paid the handsome sum of $250,000 whereas Kif is offered $10,000, with no royalties, to be paid in equal instalments upon submission of the manuscript and the publication of the book. If Kif failed to deliver he would be paid only the termination fee of $500.

Faustian pact

The book is about Kif attempting to get Ziggy to share incidents from his life which he could then convert into a saleable story. This Faustian pact is a soul-sapping task for Kif as Ziggy is evasive or spins incredibly fantastic tales that are impossible to verify.

There are rumours of Ziggy’s links to the CIA in Laos in the early 1970s, of him being hired by NASA to establish a rocket facility in the southern hemisphere, being involved in the deposition of Australian Prime Minister Whitlam and his alleged role in the Allende-Chile affair. Kif’s description of Ziggy is apt: “Even working with him it was hard to see him. I remember he didn’t have much hair and he was of indeterminate age, small, slightly stout, [a] hobgoblin… little sorcerer… From the beginning he was always there and never to be found.”

The novel traces Kif’s growing frustration with his elusive subject. Kif had hoped that the book would be his ticket out of writerly poverty and perhaps fetch him a better publishing contract. While those possibilities seem to recede, his current publisher becomes more and more difficult.

Paley dispels any notion Kif may have had about artistic freedom by mentioning that in France ghost-writers are called Nègres or slaves.

With such limiting conditions, Kif sets to work, inventing where he cannot find facts. He delivers the page-turner within the stipulated time by “learning to distract from the truth by amusing the reader; to flatter the reader by playing on what they believed to be their virtues — their idea of goodness and decency — whilst leading them even further into an alien darkness that was the real world and, perhaps, the real them; and, on occasion, I feared, the real me.”

In the early 1990s, Richard Flanagan had been hired by the fraudster John Friedrich to ghost-write his autobiography in six weeks as he awaited trial for a 300 million dollar fraud. Friedrich died during those six weeks, as does Siegfried in the story.

Writing the self

Although First Person is promoted as a novel, it closely follows Flanagan’s experience of ghost-writing a novel for a criminal. It brings into focus much-debated issues of craftsmanship, of remaining true to one’s art or capitulating to market forces.

Flanagan also questions the premise of autobiography as an art form. Autobiographies are trending now as they go well with the general preference for reality shows and intimate confessions made in the first person.

For Flanagan, an autobiography is a literary selfie.

When Kif dwells on the fine balance between truth and storytelling in an autobiography, he too concludes that “a memoir was a series of selected lies”. Kif is a nom de plume, a short for “keefer” — a substance, especially cannabis, smoked to produce a drowsy state.

Isn’t the reader expected to suspend her disbelief while reading the novel?

First Person; Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, ₹599

Judith Kerr

Since the Nazis came, we haven’t belonged in any place, only with refugees like ourselves. And we do what we can. I make soup and bake cakes. Your mother plays bridge and counts the miles of Konrad’s car. And Konrad — he likes to help people and to feel that they love him. It’s not wonderful, but it’s better than Finchley, and it’s a lot better than Theresienstadt. 

Judith Kerr A Small Person Far Away 


The Out of the Hitler Time trilogy by award-winning children’s writer Judith Kerr are novels that recount her escape from Berlin, days before Hitler came to power, their move to Switzerland, Paris and finally London.

She began writing these books — When Hitler Stole Pink RabbitBombs on Aunt Dainty, and A Small Person Far Away — for her children to give them some idea of her childhood and the challenges of living in war zones. Her children had been born and brought up in peaceful times  and were monolingual, absolutely different to their mother’s experience.  While writing the books she realised it was impossible to put herself as the central character and write about Nazi Germany and World War II, so she created the character of Anna. It is a literary device often used — consciously or unconsciously– by writers, particularly women, when trying to describe particularly traumatic events. They prefer to use the third person narrative voice. Reading the three volumes in quick succession is an interesting experiment. Although she wrote these once her kids were in their adolescence, its remarkable to see how the tenor of her writing is influenced by her memory. The first volume,  When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit , is about her as a nine-year-old escaping Nazi Germany and it has a gentle pace to it with an almost childlike wonderment to it. The second volume, Bombs on Aunt Dainty, is set in war-time London, where she witnessed the bombing and her beloved elder brother was taken away from Cambridge University and interned at a camp as he was still not a naturalised British citizen. The tone of this book is of a bewildered teenager who has plenty of her own opinions to share, though not always readily shared. It also marks her transition from a child to a responsible young woman who joins the workforce. The final book, A Small Person Far Away , is about the newly married Judith Kerr visiting her sick mother in Berlin and revisiting the places she grew up in. Since it was still soon after the war, links and memories to Nazi Germany are still fresh as evident in the drapes of the decrepit hotel she was staying in. It was a hotel, probably once upon a time a lively household, managed by an elderly woman who had presumably fallen on hard times. Despite having lived in the room for more than a week while visiting her ailing mother, Judith Kerr had not realised that the design woven in the drapes was of tiny swastikas — a chilling reminiscent of Nazi Germany which to her relief she discovered only on the day of her departure home.  A Small Person Far Away is the most mature in tone with a greater control of her prose as by this time she had become a professional writer too.

Like her successful writer father and her screen writer husband, Judith Kerr, too went on to become a successful writer when the picture book she wrote for her daughter sold favourably — The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Years later it continues to sell. In fact, now at the age of ninety-four she is still writing. Her latest publication is a picture book about her eleven-year-old cat Katinka’s Tail ( to be published by HarperCollins) . In fact she describes her writing day in a recent issue of The Guardian “Judith Kerr: ‘I’m still surprised at the success of The Tiger Who Came to Tea’” ( 25 November 2017).

I would be very sad and lonely if I didn’t work. I finished this book a few weeks after the last one was published, which is unlike me, and I’m already thinking about the next one. There is a new urgency to my working. Maybe it is like the disease, honey fungus, that trees get when they have an incredible display one year and look better than they ever have before. And then it kills them. Perhaps you get something like that at the age of 94, because, after all, I can’t rely on going on and on. 

Her joi de vivre is magical and infectious!

29 November 2017 

 

Amazon for Authors, KDP in Delhi, 30 November 2017

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing Author Academy is hosting an event over lunch at Hotel Le Meredien, New Delhi . It is to introduce and discuss their self-publishing programme– Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP.  The panel will include Sanjeev Jha, Director for Kindle Content, India, Amazon. I will moderate the conversation.

Anyone who is interested in selfpublishing their book online is welcome to attend. It could be a book or a manual ranging from fiction, non-fiction, self-help, parenting, career advice, spirituality, horoscopes, philosophy, first aid manuals, medicine, science, gardening, cooking, collection of recipes, automobiles, sports, finance, memoir, biographies, histories, children’s literature, textbooks, science articles, on Nature, poetry, translations, drama, interviews, essays, travel, religion, hospitality, narrative non-fiction, reportage, short stories, education, teaching, yoga etc. Any form of text that is to be made available as an ebook using Amazon’s Kindle programme.

In December 2016 Amazon announced that Kindle books would be available in five regional languages in India — Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam. This is a game changing move as it enables writers in other languages apart from English to have access to a worldwide platform such as the Kindle. Best-selling author Ashwin Sanghi called it an “outstanding initiative by Amazon India. It’s about time that vernacular writing moved out from the confines of paperback. It will also enable out-of-print books to be made available now.” Another best-selling author, Amish Tripathi, said this will address the inadequate distribution and marketing of Indian language books, for the much larger market is the one in Indian languages. “I am personally committed to this and am very happy that of the 3.5 million copies that have been sold of my books, a good 500,000 of them are in Indian languages.” Others remarked upon the best global practices it would bring to local publishing.

Sanjeev Jha
Director for Kindle Content, India, Amazon

cordially invites you for a session on

Amazon for Authors:

Navigating the Road to Self-Publishing Success

Hear how Indian authors have used Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to build and reach audiences across a variety of genres

Date: Thursday, 30 November 2017

Time: 12 -1pm (followed by lunch)

Venue: Hotel Le Meredien, Delhi

This event is free. Registration is mandatory. Please email to confirm participation: jayabhattacharjirose1@gmail.com .

 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
International publishing consultant

 

“The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life”

Ann Burack-Weiss’s The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life is a slim volume where she explores through women writer’s prose what it means to them getting old. For decades she herself has been a social work practitioner who focused from day one of her career on the caregiving of the elderly. It was unusual when she chose this vocation in the 1960s but four decades later it is not. ” I became a social worker with the aged because I was afraid for my life.” It gives her a perspective and an understanding in a particular phase of a woman’s life when she is inevitably relegated to grandparent duties whereas continuity theory states that as people age they do not change their patterns of thought or action but continue to approach life in the same way as they always have.

Ann Burack-Weiss has been fascinated with the memoir/ autobiography or the essentials of life-writing experience. It encompasses a range of forms such as the transcribed interview, dictation, journal, letter and auto-fiction. According to her since the 1960s feminist scholars have been explored the woman’s “agency” ( the ability to speak and act on her own behalf) or the lack thereof. “They note that, through the ages, most of the writing about women, in fiction and nonfiction, has been by men, and that the male lens inevitably leads to distortion.” But as she discovers that many of her quoted authors in the book — Colette, Fisher, Sarton, Florida Scott-Maxwell– had published compelling life writing well before the editors determined what was worthy of inclusion in their collections. “The only possible explanation for their exclusion is that the editors themselves had little interest in what the old women had to say.”

The writers included in this book are categorised according to arbitrary time divisions:

1862-1909 (Fin de Siecle) — Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, M.F.K. Fisher, Anai Nin, Florida Scott-Maxwell, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton

1910-1929 (Progressive Era) — Diana Athill, Maya Angelou, Marguerite Duras, Marilyn French, Doris Grumbach, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Madeline L’Engle, Gerda Lerner, Doris Lessing, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton

1930-1943 (Great Depression- World War II) — Isabel Allende, Mary Catherine Bateson, Joan Didion, Margaret Drabble, Annie Ernaux, Vivian Gornick, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Edna O’Brien, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, Anne Ropihe, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alix Kates Shulman

1944-1960 (Baby Boomers) — Diane Ackerman, Alison Bechdel, Terry Castle, Mary Gordon, Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Mairs, Nancy K. Miller, Alice Walker

It is interesting Ann Burack-Weiss chooses to quote Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize for Literature ( 2002) acceptance speech where Morrison focuses on “word-work” and being an old woman. Toni Morrison’s last novel God Help the Child ( 2015) which began life as a memoir but transformed into a slim novel explores these very themes. It reflects upon the cycle of life from the perspective of an older writer. What truly struck me at the end of 2015 was that none of the “Best of 2015” lists included this novel even though it was “Toni Morrison”. Perhaps old age is too stark a reminder of one’s mortality.

It is a slim volume but gives one much to think about.

Ann Burack-Weiss The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life Columbia University Press, New York, 2015. Pb. pp.190 

27 Sept 2017 

 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

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

On etiquette of bad news

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

….

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

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

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

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

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

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

31 August 2017 

 

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories by P. L. Travers is defined as “autobiographical notes” in her the book blurb. It may be so but are absolutely delightful vignettes of childhood spent in Australia in the early twentieth century. These three stories were written probably as gifts to be shared at Christmas time, printed privately, and are about people — fiesty Aunt Sass or Christina Saraset her great-aunt, loyal and ever resourceful Ah Wong their Chinese cook and colourful Johnny Delaney a farm hand — all of whom had a lifetime influence upon the writer. P. L. Travers is better known as the author of the Mary Poppins stories. Of her great-aunt Travers writes:

…with her died something that the world will not gladly lose, something strong and faithful and tender. A human being that had cast off its rough outer skin to stand forth at last in beauty. A mind that was proud and incorruptible and a heart compact of love. 

When I heard of it, I thought to myself, ‘Someday, inspite of her, I shall commit the “disrespectful vulgarity” of putting Aunt Sass in a book.’

And then it occured to me that this had already been done, though unconsciously and without intent. We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit. I suddenly realised that there is a book through which Aunt Sass, stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving, stalks with her silent feet. 

You will find her occasionally in the pages of Mary Poppins

In her introduction to the book Victoria Coren Mitchell says:

These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P.L. Travers’ great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories. Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations. 

The spirit is there too, and many of the ideas: predominantly, that children know darkness. P.L. Travers disliked the Disney version of Mary Poppins because she found it too cartoonish and sunny. Her own books made room for the fear and sadness of children, their natural and tragic awareness of impermanence. As she says here, in the story of Johnny Delaney: ‘Children have strong and deep emotions but not mechanism to deal with them.’ 

Written in the 1940s but a pleasure to read now seven decades later. Worth getting!

P. L. Travers  Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories Virago Modern Classics, London, 1941, rpt 2014. Hb. pp. Rs 599 

16 August 2017 

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

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

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

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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 

Maid in India

On 12 July 2017 a terrible incident happened in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. It involved the alleged illegal confinement overnight of a maid, Zohra, accused of having stolen money from her employers living in one of the recently constructed gated communities.  Early next morning people from the village where Zohra lived surrounded the housing complex where she was supposed to be. After that it became ugly — events on the ground and the narratives being circulated and published. One version says she says her employers had not paid her for months. Another one says she asked for a loan against her unpaid wages. Another version says the employers had suspected her of stealing earlier but were only able to confront her now and Zohra had confessed. Whatever the truth in this case ( as it is still under police investigation) the fact is such events expose the vast socio-economic divide which exists between employers and domestic staff, particularly the maids. There are many stories such as this that happen every day, most of which go unreported.

With growing demands and increasing number of nuclear families there is an exponential rise in the demand for maids. Also women from poorer families are being sent to work in middle-class homes as it is perceived as a “win-win” situation where the woman not only earns an income, saves money since her food is taken care of by the employer and she is also “safe” in the employer’s home. But it is far, far more complicated than that; impossible to analyse in one article or book.

Of late there have been books and articles published in India exploring the status of maids. These range from memoir, non-fiction to fiction. The first of these books about maids was Baby Haldar’s memoir A Life Less Ordinary. Baby was working as a maid in Delhi when her employer gave her a notebook and pen to write her story. She wrote it in Bengali and it was translated from Hindi to English by Urvashi Butalia to resounding international acclaim in 2006. Earlier this year Speaking Tiger Books published Pooranam Elayathamby’s Perhaps Tomorrow: The Memoir of a Sri Lankan Housemaid in the Middle East. Pooranam has co-authored it with her husband Richard Anderson.

Recently there have been other perspectives published as well. A seminal book is Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India just published by Aleph. It is a sobering and disturbing account of maids. It is based on innumerable interviews.

Award-winning fashion designer Wendell Roderick’s extraordinary collection of short stories Poskem: Goans in the Shadows It is about the Poskim of Goa. These were young children taken in by wealthy families and retained most often as servants. Through a bunch of short stories focused on events which he says are “all tragically true” though the names and characters are his creations Wendell Rodericks shows another side to this complicated relationship.  In the Winter 2015, Granta 130 issue which focused on writing from India, Deepti Kapoor wrote a hard-to-forget story, A Double-Income Family,  about a Mrs Mehra and her domestic living in a gated community. And then there is award-winning children’s literature writer Payal Kapadia’s first “grown-up” book Maidless in MumbaiIt has been published by Bloomsbury India and promoted with the blurb: “A funny, irreverent, tongue-in-cheek look at the maid-memsahib relationship on the cusp of social change: the horrifying prospect of being wholly dependent on those we employ; the terrifying notion that maids are a dying breed; and the spectre of surviving in a world without them!”

It is an extremely tangled socio-economic relationship that exists in Indian society today. As Veena Venugopal, journalist and author, wrote recently in “Pop goes the class bubble” ( Hindu Blink, 30 June 2017) :

Class and caste difference are, of course, endemic to India. Yet, never before in our history have so many people managed to employ so many others in their service. Predictably, we are unsure about the exact terms of that engagement. An Indian upbringing instinctively teaches us to negotiate for everything. And so we do, browbeating the maid to take ₹1,000 less in her salary, offering the driver an overtime and then arguing about the calculation of it. And then we go shopping, and hey! everything’s on sale, and we don’t even realise when the bill gets to ₹15,000. The maid sees this. She knows enough mathematics to calculate how many months’ salary that is. But we carry on — consumption is our entitlement, social parity is not our problem. Until, one day, we turn around and find two decades of resentment standing in our kitchen, bearing a knife that is not intended to be used for dicing potatoes. “Shocking”, we’ll all say when we hear that account.

For a while, a couple of years ago, with the intention of writing a book, I researched stories of housemaids in India. The accounts of employers — people like us — that I heard were horrific. No holidays, no food, no increments, no healthcare and, more often than you’d think, no pay even. In an ad that was running on television those days, Amitabh Bachchan scolded his help for buying the wrong brand of bulb, and said, “Please stop this habit of thinking”. Several helps I spoke to referred to this ad. “It’s bad for you when we think,” one said, “because in your hearts you know that you haven’t done anything to deserve happy thoughts from us.”

In this uneasy, mutually suspicious cohabitation lies the real future of the country’s social fabric. 

13 July 2017