Memoir Posts

Nikesh Shukla’s “Brown Baby”

In 2019, en route to attending the Jaipur Literature Festival, Nikesh Shukla lost his necklace at Heathrow Airport. It was very precious as it contained some of his mother’s ashes. He was extremely distraught. I happened to meet him as well and his grief was palpable. I will not forget that shattered look of his. He was numb. He put out a tweet announcing the loss of his locket. The power of social media being what it is, after more than 10,000 retweets, the necklace was discovered. At least that is what this article states: https://www.indiatoday.in/…/author-loses-necklace-with…

Brown Baby is Nikesh Shukla’s memoir that’s opening line refers to his mother’s death. It is a powerful, all-consuming moment in his life and he forever returns to it in his book. The loss of a dear one, especially a parent, is devastating. Shukla’s mother passed away due to lung cancer and once the death knell had been sounded by the oncologist, the family was heartbroken. A grief and despair that took ages and ages to get back their lives to some semblance of normalcy. The structure of Brown Baby is ostensibly a conversation with his elder daughter, Ganga, who seems to have been born after his mother died but he also uses the book as a reason to talk about racism in UK in minute detail. It is an interesting space for him to explore as he realises the immense responsibility that comes with becoming a parent. How much does one teach the munchkins, how do they navigate their world, how do they straddle worlds etc? He reminiscences how his mother brought up his sisters and him — children of Asian origin growing up in a white country. How they learned to preserve their culture ( food forming a large part of their life) and yet learned how to survive racist slurs and develop identities of their own. While his anger in the first half of the book is understandable and how much of it defines him as an author, publisher and parent today, some of it is also self-defeating. His arguments for being a minority because of his skin colour in a country where white is privileged are based on firsthand experience and other facts he has collected, but he makes the same majoritarian mistake that he is accusing the whites of not recognising the variety of cultures that now exist in modern UK. For example, he falls into the same trap by eliding the definition of India being linked to Hinduism whereas Hindus constitute the majority. He says, “In India, the Ganges river is worshipped as representative of the goddess Ganga.” A true statement that would have read as a more powerful statement if he had clarified by adding that “In India, the Ganges river is worshipped [by the Hindus]…”. In this day and age, when everyone is super-sensitive about identity and cultures, it stands to reason that someone like Nikesh Shukla who is very influential globally in the world of letters would be a little more careful in the choice of his words. He has a responsibility not only towards his daughter who he is introducing to their Indian roots, but also to his multi-cultural readers and the Indian diaspora. His word would carry more weight if he recognised these finer distinctions. In India, all of us are different shades of brown, but thrive in a syncretic and casteist culture, so it is not as easy to make these distinctions between white and brown, but these different identities exist. Yet, we manage to live.

The second half of Brown Baby is far calmer and easier to read. He discusses in detail what it means to talk in Hindi, to be a Hindu in Britain, be an Asian etc. There is a fascinating anecdote he shares about submitting a manuscript to a literary agent who dismisses it for not being authentic Asian. Understandably it makes Shukla hopping mad. Anyone would be under such circumstances. Fortunately he puts this anger to good use and has established The Good Literary Agency with Julia Kingsford.

Inspired by a desire to increase opportunities for representation for all writers under-represented in mainstream publishing, we are focused on discovering, developing and launching the careers of writers of colour, disability, working class, LGBTQ+ and anyone who feels their story is not being told in the mainstream.

It also explains this passage in the concluding pages of Brown Baby:

What does it mean to be British when conversations around the subject have their core in protecting Britain’s whiteness? When the multiculturalism ‘debate’, if you wish to call it such doesn’t scratch any deeper than ‘saris, steel bands and samosas’. Where debate events by sixth form debate clubs like the Institue of Ideas present multiculturalism as a threat to the West, as something worth of debate, as if we never got past that basic point, as if the only conversation we can have about immigration and the place of people of colour in society is about their inherent threat to Western values, rather than how we come to a decision about what an inclusive Britishness looks like.

Nikesh Shukla’s heart is in the right place. He knows how to channel his anger that wells up due to the injustice and discrimination he has either faced or witnessed. He wishes to correct some of these social ills by ensuring that his daughters generation learns to be proud of their identities. A spirit his mother imbued him with as well. At the same time by speaking clearly on these issues and offering an inclusive and diverse publishing platform to others, he hopes to create enough of a difference in the mainstream that will enable everyone to be recognised as equals, irrespective of colour, religion, sexuality etc. The mantra in his memoir seems to be that it is imperative everyone learns to be humane to others. This sensitive understanding needs to prevail. It is only then racist/casteist/communal attitudes will be tackled. Otherwise they will continue to exist for generations.

This is a memorable book. Worth reading.

20 Feb 2021

“Little Boy” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti


How does one write about a book that has been published to mark the author’s centenary? A book that is promoted as the last will and testament of a figure who is giant in contemporary American cultural history. A man who is a poet, a bookseller, a literary star and iconic publisher whose circle of friends included the Beat poets etc. A man who exhibits a joi de vivre for life despite having had a complicated childhood where he was shunted from family to family as his own mother was incapable of looking after him. Lawrence Ferlinghetti says he writes about “my lonely self and the only plot of this book of my life being my constant aging”. It is an account of an extraordinary life. His sharply perceptive comments on the past and the present are a pleasure to read. It begins from the title itself that is a play on the name of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans on 6 August 1945 — “Little Boy”! Ferlinghetti’s presence in the American literary scene is no less explosive. He has certainly left his mark with his association with the Beat Poets and the City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, USA.

The format of the book is mindblowing. It is a single paragraph with sentence breaks occurring when the capital letters appear as they should at the beginning of a grammatically correct sentence. Otherwise the only way of recognising a break in the story is by reading out the text aloud as if it were poetry and the pauses are where the periods should exist but do not. There is a very strong rhythm that is in step with the episodes narrated. The bridges in the narratives happen with his commentary on his own life. There is no other way if explaining it. But there is a refreshing bold experimentation in the literary form that many of the younger writers can learn from a master like Ferlinghetti.

“Little Boy” is a fabulous book!

29 Sept 2020

Maya Shanbhag Lang’s “What We Carry”

Maya Shanbag Lang’s memoir What We Carry is an extraordinarily powerful memoir about looking after her mother. Dr Shanbag, Maya’s mother, was a doctor and a fiercely independent woman who always was in charge of her life. She was a very respected doctor in her professional circles. Her outstanding characteristic was that she lived life on her own terms. So much so, she decided when she would quit her marriage or take on a gruelling job at a hospital as it ensured her a pension. Maya describes her mother as being miserly with her money and scrimping and saving all the time. It is not as if Maya and her brother were in want of anything, their mother ensured that her children were well provided for. But it is when her mother begins to show signs of forgetfulness, lose alarming amounts of weight in a very short period of time, have mood swings etc that her children decide to have her medically evaluated. At the consultant’s room in a particularly lucid moment, Dr Shanbhag surprises everyone by acknowledging her dementia. Yet, as the doctor advises that the decline will happen and their mother will no longer able to live alone. She needs supervision and caregiving. This is when Maya decides to step in and take care of her mother. She moves her lock, stock and barrel into her own home. She merely informs her husband via a text message that she is bringing her mother home to live with them. He is so wonderfully accepting of his wife’s decision. While juggling her relatively new daughter, now her mother and her own professional commitments as a writer, Maya has her hands more than full. This memoir is about that one intense year of trying to manage everything singlehandedly and be on top of things. Yet at the same time Maya is perceptive enough to recognise the different stages of caregiving, the spiralling downwards of the patient and the transformation it wrought upon the entire family unit with a heartwarming scene of even the young granddaughter recognising her grandmother’s frailty and holding her hand. While combing through her mother’s papers, Maya discovers that her mother had the astute foresight to invest in an expensive insurance scheme that permitted her coverage indefinitely in one of the plushest old age homes. Maya was astonished and relieved to discover this fact but she reveals this with such grace and dignity in the memoir. Moving her mother to the home is done out of pure love as Maya chooses a place that is not too far from her own home. It also has all the amenities required for old age care but does not traumatise the patient with its forbidding interiors. On the contrary, it is warm and welcoming. Her mother takes to it happily.

You don’t have to be a caregiver yourself to appreciate this gem of a book. But if you are, it is overwhelming to read for its perceptiveness — the kindness it requires to look after a loved one especially a parent, the sharing of one’s grief at witnessing the deterioration of the person as they disappear into a fog from which there is no coming back, sharing also the frustration that relentless caregiving brings with it and most certainly the exhaustion that is never ending. Maya discovers her stress busting moments are frequenting the gym. It helps at times for primary caregivers to look the other way and indulge in a bit of self-presevation and self-care.

As Maya discovers caregiving for the two bookends of life can be brutal but it has its rewarding moments too. It is a very moving account of three generations of her family. It is played out in innumerable homes every day. It is the circle of life.

Read it. Gift it. 

23 November 2020

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: Travellers Among the Collectors of Iceland

The Museum Of Whales You Will Never See by A. Kendra Greene is an extraordinary book. It is going to become one of those books that will constantly sell and continue to mesmerise readers by occupying that magical space between reality and folklore. On the face of it, the book is a travelogue by an essayist, printer and maker of artist’s books. Greene travels to Iceland to visit some of the 265 museums and public collections that exist in a nation of 330,000 people. These are astonishing collections ranging from.the phallic to rocks. It is impossible to succinctly sum up what this book contains except to say that once done reading this book slowly, it is a satisfying read. Greene does a phenomenal job in promoting Iceland by delving into its history through the various collections browses through. In recent years, it has become fashionable to tell histories through “a object” as if that one object can symbolise a moment in time and culture. In many case by decontextualising the object and focussing upon it, scrubs away layers and layers of history that actually enrich the experience of appreciating the objet d’art. This is exactly what Greene happily undoes in this stupendous book by introducing the reader to various art forms or those that can be called and valued as art by the locals, but the true value of the objects emerges from the interactions of the tourists and locals. Greene also uses different stories as a springboard to go back in time to introduce readers to the vastly rich Icelandic cultural heritage. A past that has not been formed by religious considerations alone but by socio-economic concerns such as trade and the very particular glacial topography. She weaves it all together superbly with the abundant folklore. So much so that it does not seem unusual to move seamlessly between the real and imagined realms. Even the long book title that does hint at the magic that resides within the pages does not prepare the reader sufficiently for the beauteous prose and very fulfilling reading experience.

9 Nov 2020

Dom Moraes “Gone Away: An Indian Journal”

Much of Dom Moraes’s literary output is being made available by Speaking Tiger Books in collaboration with the writer’s literary estate whose executor is Sarayu Ahuja. As a result in recent years, a number of books by Moraes that were not easily available have been republished as affordable editions. A fabulous initiative to resurrect the writings of a prolific poet, writer, traveller and memorist.

“Gone Away” is part of the trilogy of autobiographies written by Dom Moraes. The publishers prefer to describe it as an “unconventional travelogue”. Whatever the descriptor used, this is a book not easily classified. Suffice it to say it is a fabulous testimony of a young man recently returned to India from Oxbridge. Moraes spends three months wandering the subcontinent for a large part accompanied by writer Ved Mehta. These three months prove to be significant in the history of the region. Moraes interviews the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru; he meets the young Dalai Lama who was still unable to speak fluent English as he does now but his signature laugh was memorable even then for Moraes to remark upon it; he visits Nepal and stays in the Rana’s palace where wild Himalayan bears roam the corridors much to the horror of Ved Mehta and Dom Moraes:

***

We sank into a sofa and the servants disappeared. We heard voices in the distance
‘I expect someone will come for us,’ I said.
At this point I became aware of an enormous Himalayan bear crouched next to the sofa. It glowered at me. I gasped.
‘Now what is it?’
‘There is a bear next to us. It must,’ I added, groping for common sense, ‘be stuffed.’
‘Honestly, Dommie, I know you have a fantasy life, but what do you think? Have you ever known anybody who kept a live bear in their drawing room?’
‘I only wondered,’ I was beginning lamely, when the bear rose, snarled at us, and shambled loosely out through the farther door.

( Later while exchanging pleasantries with their host’s wife, the general’s wife, the Rani with a soft, calming, dreaming voice, Moraes thought it prudent to mention the bear. )

…I even forgot the bear for a few minutes. Then I felt I should mention it.
‘There was a bear here a few minutes ago,’ I said, feeling idiotic.
‘Ah yes,’ said the Rani family. ‘Which bear?’
‘You have several?’
‘Oh yes. That is one thing you must be careful about: don’t go out at night; they don’t see very well in the dark, and they might not know you were guests.’

****

Another memorable incident, gut wrenching in fact, was the meeting arranged for Ved Mehta and Dom Moraes to meet the famous Nepali poet, Devkota, who was dying from cancer. The locals had a ritual that when a person was dying, he would be taken to the Pashupatinath Temple ghats, on the banks of the river Basumati, where the person would breathe his last. The account of three prominent and young writers of the subcontinent under these strange circumstances is very, very moving. Devkota was only 49. Even on his deathbed, Devkota’s hands were turning cold as was his forehead, covered by a dirty bed sheet that would later serve as his shroud, was pleased to meet the two writers. Moraes and Devkota were able to briefly converse about poetry, the merits of translation and recite some poetry.

***
‘The face that we saw was a mask, with thick dark hair drooping dryly above. Beneath the hair was a fine forehead, with large eyes that opened a little to look at us. Below the eyes the face had fallen in: the cheeks like craters, the lips sunken and wrinkled like a very old man’s. But from under the dirty sheet two long hands projected from stalklike, sand-coloured arms, crept slowly together, and made the namaskar.

One thin hand groped painfully over the mattress towards us.
I grasped the hand in both mine and squeezed it. It was very cold and dry. There was a long pause. Then the mouth unpuckered from its creases of pain. Very slowly, groping and whistling, it said: ‘Cosmic conflagration …’

The poets chatted some more before Dom Moraes closed the conversation by reciting Edna St Vincent Millay’s ‘For Any Dying Poet’:

Time cannot pluck the bird’s wing from the bird.
Bird and wing together
Go down, one feather.
No thing that ever flew,
Not the lark, not you,
Can die as others do

****
There are many more accounts in the book of Dom Moraes meeting prominent diplomats, politicians, writers and artists such as Malcolm MacDonald, Jayaprakash Narayan, Han Suyin, M F Hussain, Nirad Chaudhuri, Kishen Khanna, Buddhadeva Bose, Jamini Roy et al. Moraes also managed to reach Sikkim when the Chinese were closing in on the border. There is so much of rhe subcontinent’s socio-cultural history to soak up. The historical incidents and famous people are easily recalled from textbooks but to read this first hand experience is something special.

Do read. 

2 August 2020

On Sridhar Balan’s “Off the Shelf”

Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.

The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.

Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.

Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)

Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.

This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.

31 July 2020

Taslima Nasreen’s “Shameless”

In 1993 Taslima Nasreen wrote Lajja ( “Shame”) in Bengali. It was her response to the anti-Hindu riots that had broken out in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, India on 6 December 1992. The novel was published in Bengali and within six months sold over 50,000 copies. It brought the author “fame” that till then had been unheard of in the subcontinent. Prior to this, the only other author to have had fatwas issued against them was Salman Rushdie, an author of South Asian origin but residing in UK at the time. Lajja became one of the first books in translation to be talked about by many readers internationally and this was at a time even before the Internet. ( Dial-up modems, with limited email access, were introduced in India in 1996!) Lajja became a bestseller rapidly. The English edition for the subcontinent was published by Penguin India. Subsequently a new translation was commissioned by Penguin India in 2014-15. The translator of the later edition was Anchita Ghatak. The book was banned in Bangladesh and fatwas were issued against the author. Taslima Nasreen fled to Europe and later laid roots in India. At first she chose to live in Calcutta/ Kolkatta and is now based in Delhi. Years later, Taslima Nasreen still needs security cover wherever she travels.

Lajja was explosive when it was first published as it was a Muslim author, upset by the communal riots in her land, who was writing sympathetically about a Hindu family. The story details the progressive radicalisaion of Suranjan who firmly believes in a nationalist Hindu outlook. So much so it is a belief he continues to nurture even after he, along with his family, flee Bangladesh to become refugees in India. In India he becomes a member of a Hindu nationalist party. Pirated editions of Lajja were sold in India. It became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. Taslima Nasreen, a doctor by training, has become an established writer with more forty publications. She defines herself as “a secular humanist, a human rights activist, and a prolific and bestselling author, who has faced multiple fatwas calling for her death”.

More than twenty-five years later, Taslima Nasreen is back with a sequel to Lajja. It is called Shameless. Arunava Sinha, the translator, told me “the original title was Besharam but eventually the Bengali book was published, also in 2020, with a very tame title, e kul o kul. The book was written more than ten years though.” Nevertheless Shameless is a unique experiment in writing a novel. It has shades of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of An Author” with Suranjan as the protagonist but in conversation with Taslima Nasreen. The opening pages of the novel have Suranjan, the character, visit Taslima Nasreen, the author, and bring her up-to-date with the events in his life. It then develops into a fascinating narrative where a novel is obviously being drafted but it has so many overlaps with reality. With the author-turned-character (or is it character-turned-author?) providing pithy comments and at times intervening in the story by persuading the characters to act in one way or the other. It is a work of art. Shameless is a sequel to Lajja but seems more that that — Taslima Nasreen seems to have sort of trickled into the space between reality and fiction to put herself under the lens. But the conversation is more than that. It is a conversation between writer and character, commentary on the turbulent times. Taslima Nasreen’s was an emotional response to the increased communalisation in the subcontinent after the fall of the Babri Masjid. It was not necessarily literary writing. But in the intervening years Taslima Nasreen has evolved as a writer. With Shameless she has given herself space to speak frankly without hopefully attracting any more bounties for her head. Also the writing is very close to her memoir (Dwikhondito, 2003, translated into English as Split: In Two, 2018 — translated by Maharghya Chakraborty). Interestingly in recent years her voice as an author comes through very strongly in the English translations despite her experimentation with a gamut of translators. A testament to her strong writing. There are sufficient examples in the novel that indicate her belief in being a secular humanist stem from having experienced or witnessed firsthand many incidents in the name of religion. Much of this she distills into her writing of Shameless, exemplifying how much of the personal informs the political.

Arunava Sinha’s translation is superb. He is a renowned translator who has made available many Bengali writers in English but with Shameless his professional expertise as a translator par excellence is established. He channels Taslima Nasreen’s authorial voice beautifully. His past experience of working with Bengali authors has helped him tremendously to hone his expertise in being utterly respectful to the desire of the author to be heard in the original language and carry it forth impeccably into the destination language, enabling the readers in English to appreciate the text for what it is. It works brilliantly in a translation like Shameless where the author herself has a lot to say, much of it tricky.

The time lapse between the publication of Lajja (1993) and Shameless (2020) marks a significant period of socio-political history in the subcontinent as well. With Shameless Taslima Nasreen seals her place as a relevant author who creates political art, a need of the times when plainspeak is not necessarily always welcome.

6 May 2020

“A Woven Life” by Jenny Housego

Memoirs, autobiographies and biographies are a great introduction to a life. They also share a period through personal stories making history come alive. Memoirs are mostly a great story told from one person’s perspective — “my story”. As Eric Idle says to John Cleese while discussing the latter’s memoir in a public conversation, “well it is very hard to write about yourself” but a memoir is also only a slice of history or what you choose to tell.

In textile historian, entrepreneur and collector Jenny Housego discusses her childhood in England, her marriage to journalist David Housego and her passion for textiles that was ignited during her stint at V&A, London. She developed a fascination for “Anatolian carpets of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries … [she wanted to show in her research] that the so-called early Egyptian carpets had actually been made in Anatolia and displayed many examples of early Christian and Byzantine art which seemed to me to bear close similarities to the designs on these carpets.” Her husband, David, was soon posted to Iran, Afghanistan and later India. She accompanied him and sometimes on the tours he undertook. Along the way her love for textiles deepened. On her travels she was able to collect exquisite samples. When she came to India she developed an interest in the paisley designs of Kashmiri shawls. It sparked a lifelong love for the handloom. Jenny Housego managed to convert her keen interest in Indian handlooms into a successful business. At first she set up a company with her then husband, David Housego, called Shades of India. Subsequently when her marriage fell apart she set up another one — Kashmir Loom. This time focussing specifically on her interest for handlooms from Kashmir.

A Woven Life has been co-authored by Maya Mirchandani as Jenny Housego’s left side is paralysed due to a stroke she suffered some years ago. It is a memoir that is easy to read. It has tiny illuminating details that only reinforce how good art combined with talent can survive through the ages. For example, Jenny Housego’s granduncle was the famous American painter, John Singer Sargent. In one of his portraits uses a Kashmiri paisley shawl woven in India. Jenny Housego spotted it in the painting while searching for antique shawls whose motifs she could incorporate in the Kashmir Loom design library. She decided to find out if the shawl still existed. Sure enough. It did. She sent the image to Warren Adelson, a friend
and well-known art dealer in New York who specialized in Sargent paintings. The shawl had been used as a regular prop in many of Sargent’s paintings but he had decided to gift it to one of his clients. Incredibly the shawl was now owned by a British peer, Lord Cholmondeley, who kept it at his stately home.

Presumably, Sargent must have painted an ancestor of the lord’s wife with the shawl wrapped around her and then must have given it to her. Warren wrote to him on my behalf and his Lordship kindly agreed to bring it to London for me to see. In the hallway of his Mayfair home on a cold, dark rainy day, the shawl was brought to me and placed on a table. The hallway was badly lit and no one offered to hold it up for me to photograph properly. I remember draping it over a side table as well as I could, then my flash failed. The wool was coarse, clearly woven from local sheep, not pashmina at all, but the shawl was exquisite in spite of the rough wool. It had been looked after well. Woven using the technique called ‘kani’ for which Kashmir is renowned, it had patterns on a large border and on either end of the shawl were big paisleys in shades of blue with accents of kashmir loom: stepping out of another’s shadow reds and pinks. Each paisley was made up of tiny leaves and flowers woven to form the shape. Above the main border was another row of much smaller paisleys woven the same way, but set at an angle, slanting to the right. The outer border at the very end of the paisleys wrapped around the entire shawl like a vine of tiny blue-green leaves. Bent over it in that dark hallway, I knew I had to try and recreate it. I didn’t know if it would work, but I was certain it would become Kashmir Loom’s signature item if it did.

Her life with David Housego had very interesting moments. For instance, they were living in Iran in the period before the revolution, so the shift in sentiments from the Shah to the Ayatollah were palpable. Then as a prominent foreign correspondent, David Housego, had access to many sensitive stories. For instance, David had written in the Economist, saying that the Iranians were building a naval base at Chabahar on the eastern side of the Gulf coast. Husband and wife journeyed to Chabahar where the Iranian government representatives denied the existence of such a base until a night watchman who had obviously not briefed by the officials confirmed that David’s report was correct. Another terrifying moment is Jenny Housego’s account of David and her younger son, Kim’s, abduction by militants in Kashmir. Kim was taken away from his parents in Srinagar and there was no trace of him for seventeen days. Given that David was a well-known British correspondent based in South Asia, he knew relevant people across the subcontinent. These included politicians, diplomats, journalists etc. As a result, according to Jenny’s memoir, David was able to keep the pressure on the militants since he had activated all the channels and would hold regular press conferences. David too mentions the abduction of Kim in an article he published in 2011. ( David Housego, “An Indian Journey“, Seminar, 2011.)

A Woven Life has two very distinct narratives embedded in it. One is Jenny Housego’s passion for textiles particulary Kashmiri weaves. The second is her life with David Housego. In fact it was David who inadvertantly set her off on this journey of textiles by encouraging her to apply for a job as a museum assistant at the Victoria and Albert Museum ( V&A) in London. She was apprenticed to Dr May Beattie, a leading scholar of her time in
Oriental rugs and carpets. It obviously ignited a passion that Laila Tyabji, Chairperson, Dastkar, recognised upon meeting Jenny Housego for the first time. She recalls it in her foreword to the book:

... we settled down to watch her slide presentation of the Punja durries’ documentation and out came the second side of Jenny! Behind the diffident, very British, understated, rather shy exterior was an insightful, academically trained mind; the scholarship coupled with a passionate excitement about her subject. …I still remember Jenny’s illuminating exposition of ‘interlocking circles’ and how so many motifs and designs are based on combinations of this. After that I saw interlocking circles everywhere – on Etruscan mosaics, Celtic stone carving, Mughal jaali lattice work, Kutchi ajrakh block prints, rococo wrought iron, Indonesian wax resist batiks.

Despite her marriage falling apart after thirty years, Jenny Housego is unable to recount incidents in her memoir without mentioning David regularly. She comes across as bitter while talking about his non-existent parental duties when their sons were toddlers. Having said that David was an integral part of her life and to a large extent seems to have given her the opportunities to pursue her interests in textiles. In the book trailer for A Woven Life there are lovely snapshots recorded from Jenny Housego’s life, many of them are of the Housegos as a happy family — a bit at variance from what the text portrays. Regretfully it does not have sufficient details about textile histories and Kashmiri handlooms. The book would have been richer by offering more detailed insight into these traditional forms of weaving. Nevertheless A Woven Life is a quick read.

PS I read an advance proof of the book, given the current lockdown due to the Covid19 healthcare crisis. Sadly, it did not have a single photograph. But I am assured by the marketing team that the print edition will have photographs accompanying the text.

4 May 2020

Ariana Neumann “When Time Stopped”

…it was during a period he had so much time on his hands that he felt that time had stopped.

How could time have stopped?

‘Because,’ he said, ‘and you will understand this when you are older, sometimes you feel that everything around you has come to an end. You feel that you are completely alone, that time is frozen and that you are invisible. At first, you might feel exhilarated by the sense of freedom, but then you’ll be frightened that you are lost and you will never be able to go back.’

He explained that when he first felt this, he had been isolated and afraid and had prised open his watch case to verify that time was indeed passing. The rhythm of the watch might have been imagined. Sound was not enough, he needed to see and touch it. It was the first time that he had dismantled a mechanism. The turning wheels, ticking each second away, had reassured him.

It was then that he had comprehended the importance of time.

Ariana Neumann was raised in Caracas, Venezuela as a Catholic. Her father, Hans Neumann was an established businessman who was also seen as a patron of the arts. Ariana was Hans’ daughter by his second wife. Ariana had a fairytale upbringing. Living in a large home, stuffed with beautiful pieces of art. She had loving parents and had everything that she desired. It is evident in the book trailer which is based on a series of home movies.

Ariana Neumann’s debut book When Time Stopped is a memoir about uncovering the truth about her father’s past. Despite the idyllic childhood he gave her, there were certain topics that were taboo. One of these were questions about his past. It was during a “spying” game that nine-year-old Ariana had created with her friends that one of her friends/spies reported that they had witnessed her father carrying a cardboard box into the library. Later in the day she decided to investigate for herself. Ariana found the box. Ruffled through its contents. Found it contained only a slim collection of papers. Most written in a language she could not comprehend. Then she spotted an identification document with an unrecognisable name — Jan Sebesta– and a young man’s photograph, an unmistakable likeness to Hans, and stamped below it was also a picture of Hitler. She was startled. She ran to her mother distraught at her discovery. Her mother placated Ariana and told her not to worry. Yet it shook Arian’s world realising that her father was not who he was. After that the box disappeared. She never saw it again. Until her father passed away and she was clearing his drawers. She then discovered the box once more. This time it was stuffed with more papers, mostly in languages she could not read. Equally puzzling were the nightmares her father had when he would scream aloud in a language Ariana could not understand.

Berlin identity card dated October 1943 found by Ariana Neumann as a girl. It had a photo of her father Hans Neumann as a young man on it, but the name stated was Jan Šebesta.

When Time Stopped is a memoir that reads like a well told mystery story as Ariana uncovers the truth about her father. A beloved father who was exceedingly busy and built an extraordinary business empire established first in the paint industry. A father who was so immersed in his work that even his own daughter had to seek an appointment with his secretary in order to have some time alone with him. A father who threw himself into his work that he was effectively able to compartmentalise his life and seemingly not let anything deter him. It was this father whom she had persuaded to visit Prague as part of a business delegation in the early 1990s. She had accompanied him. At the time he had let his mask slip briefly when broke down at the fence of Bubny station.

Hans Neumann’s deportation ticket. He absconded and did not show up at Bubny station in Prague as ordered.

When Time Stops is a fascinating account of how Ariana uncovers her father’s past, discovers he was a Holocaust survivor, who had lost twenty-five members of his family in the pogrom conducted by the Nazis. He had managed to escape by extraordinarily living in Berlin, under the watchful eye of the Gestapo, as a Christian. He was convinced that “the darkest shadow lies beneath the candle”. From there he fled to Venezuela with his older brother. Unfortunately his parents and extended relatives perished in the gas chambers. The Neumann’s had a thriving painting business in Prague. They were Czech Jews whose lives had been upturned with the invasion of the Germans in March 1939.

While researching for this book, Ariana Neuman discovered that she had relatives spread acrosss the world. She contacted them. Also discovered that there was a list of Jews who had perished during the war posted on the walls of a synagogue in Prague. She found her father’s name that had a question mark against his death. When she called and asked him about it, he merely said, “I tricked them”. Ariana also discovers that her paternal grandparents had been sent to a concentration camp that ordinarily operated as a labour camp so rules governing its administration were relatively “freer” than the other camps. Hence her grandparents while being incarcerated inside were able to send letters and parcels to their sons and at times receive illicit parcels containing packets of food and bare essentials. Extraordinarily it is the emergence of these letters after more seventy years that for the first time reveals to many the manner in which these camps operated. They had a well-defined economy and administrative structure. Ariana’s grandparents letter shed light on these internal mechanisms as well as some of the despicable horrors, many of which they were unable to recount, yet alluded to them. Ariana stumbled upon these parcels while investigating into her past. As she reached out to newly found relatives she discovered that they had similar boxes of papers as she had. These contained letters and pictures. Using the services of a Czech translator, Ariana painstakingly translated and read all the correspondence. Then filled in the gaps with her research. Result is this book. This extraordinary memoir.

When Time Stops is about Ariana discovering that the stray remarks fellow students made at school and university questioning her Catholic upbringing and at times bluntly saying she was a Jew were all true. They knew. She did not. It is more than just the passionate love of her father’s for his 297 clocks that he so carefully cared for. He had his own workshop in a windowless room where he tinkered with his precious watches, some of them going back a few hundred years. Yet of all the beautiful pieces he owned, it was an ordinary dull gold one that he was most fond of as it reminded him of the time piece his own father possessed. A link that the daughter put together after her decades of investigation into her past.

While being an fascinating account of a life, When Time Stops is also a horrifying read for the many parallels it has with modern life. Many countries today are questioning the citizenship of their people and creating scenarios that are eerily similar to those described in this book. It is worth reflecting upon. How much of the past needs to be shared and kept alive through memories as a lesson to future generations on the horrors that humans can inflict upon their own? How much of the past that is kept alive is actually used by future perpetrators as case studies? It is a tricky balance to achieve in this grey and gloomy world. Having said that When Time Stopped is worth reading for it stands out as a very well written memoir, balancing extensive research with the personal stories.

*The pictures used in this blog post have been published in the book and on The Israel Times website.

9 March 2020

Hisham Matar’s ” A Month in Siena”

A picture changes as you look at it and changes in ways that are unexpected. I have discovered that a painting requires time. Now it takes me several months and more often than not a year before I can move on. During that period the picture becomes a mental as well as a physical location in my life. …This unveiling of new territory must be one of the most remarkable achievements that an artist can attain. By challenging the imagination they nudge our perception a little and, for an instant at least, the world is remade. …To look closely at their work is to eavesdrop on one of the most captivating conversations in the history of art, one concerned with what a painting might be, what it might be for, and what it could do and accomplish within the intimate drama of a private engagement with a stranger. You can detect them aksing how much a picture might rely on a viewer’s emotional life; how a shared human experience might change the contract between artist and viewer, and between artist and subject; and what creative possibilities this new collaboration might offer.

Pulitzer winner Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena is an intensely personal memoir. It is about spending a month in Siena, observing the Sienese School of paintings that he first was fascinated by as a nineteen year old. Now these paintings which covered the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and belonged to a “cloistered world of Christian codes and pleasure” somehow against his best intentions made him return over and over again to reflect upon them. A Month in Siena was written after he had spent more than three years researching into his father’s disappearance. Unfortunately it transpired that his father would not be returning home. The grief experienced would be inexplicable. As he says in this interview with Radio National that when his father first went missing, no one in the family could share or speak about their grief, worried that it may mar the prospect of their father returning home. But once the realisation dawns upon the family that there was to be no closure, Hisham Matar’s grief is acute. He needs time to recover. At first he spends most of his lunch hour visiting one paiting at a time at the National Gallery in London. He then decides to spend a month in Italy. It is therapeutic. And with him the reader too is transported, transfixed, transformed and transfigured as should be with any work of art. ” …rediscover our own powers of remembrance, and to finally find the consolation that lies between intention and expression, between the concealed sentiment and its outward shape.”

8 February 2020

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