Memoir Posts

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 4 October 2014 and in print on 5 October 2014. Here is the url  http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6471249.ece . I am also c&p the text below. 

Memoir is specifically an individual remembering their life as well as a period. It does not have a single narrative nor is it a teleological narrative as an epic is—it is episodic and a collection of personal anecdotes that the memoirist chooses to recall and share publicly. Ian Jack wrote in the Guardian ( 2003): “Writing one’s own personal history used to be called autobiography, Now, more and more, it is called memoir. The two words are often used interchangeably and the boundary between the two forms is fuzzy, but there are differences. An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment. … The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as “literary”, and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks – the tricks of the novel, of fiction – because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good.”

Some of the notable memoirs, each representative of a distinctive subject, in recent months have been Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister, Damian Barr’s Maggie & Me, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, Naseeruddin Shah’s And One Day, Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives; Pamela Timms’s Korma, Kheer & Kismet: Five Seasons in Delhi, Malala Yousafzai with Patrick McCormackMalala, Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18, David Omissi (editor), Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, by the singer’s security guards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, with Tanner Colby. The popularity of this genre has had an effect on contemporary writing in that they are in the oral form of storytelling and are dependent upon personal histories. For instance, journalist Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee is about the “story of Mill’s friendship with the Lee sisters”, but the author’s note states it is a “work of nonfiction”. A similar book is Veena Venugopal’s brilliant and disturbing The Mother-in-Law, it consists of experiences of daughters-in-law profiling their mothers-in-law to Veena over a series of interviews.

Many novels rely upon autobiographical experiences to create a story but as Akhil Sharma points out, “I think nonfiction requires an absolute commitment to the truth. In non-fiction I need to include things to present the situation and characters in a rounded way. I don’t know if I do that in my novel. Family Life is so completely a story that many boring but very important things were left out. All fiction draws on life but that does not mean all fiction should be viewed as managed non-fiction.”

The fact is memoirs sell at a brisk pace for traditional publishers and constitutes a large chunk of self-published books. On digital platforms too— Facebook status updates, longreads and blogs— posts that are read and discussed animatedly are those written from a personal point of view. For instance Sudhanva Deshpande’s moving tributes uploaded on to his Facebook wall as he watched his father, the noted Marathi playwright, G. P. Deshpande, lie in a coma or Vandana Singh’s blog post “Some musings on diversity in SF” about travel writing and scifi.  In fact, Andrew Stauffer of Book Traces (a crowd sourced web project to find drawings, marginalia, photos and anything else in copies of 19th and early 20th century books) says “It’s certainly true that readers used the margins of their books for a kind of journaling and memoir-writing, in the quasi-private, quasi-public space of the domestic book. I don’t know if that obviates the desire for long-form memoirs. You might think about our current digital culture of commenting and liking online, and how that incremental curation of a persona is a stand-in for autobiography.”

This raises the question of how do we classify biographies such as A.N. Wilson’s splendid Queen Victoria that draws heavily upon the Queen’s personal correspondence and diaries, making her at times speak in her own words—is it a memoir as well? But as Diana Athill, legendary editor who wrote an essay in the Guardian recently about death, while reflecting upon an incident from her childhood involving her mother says, “It was a shock to come up so suddenly against the fact that what to me was history, to her was just something from the day before yesterday.” For me this is the prime objective of a memoir—making the past accessible through a personal account.

6 October 2014

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin ShahThe same year I watched a play for the first time, in the Sem concert hall. It was called Mr Fixit and has faded from my memory almost entirely but while watching it the only thing I wanted was to be up there with those people. When a long limousine, which I later discovered to be plywood cutout on wheels, came gliding on to the stage, I was back in the same universe of wonder where I had watched ‘that man’ dancing on that stage a hundred feet high. And I have since steadfastly believe that the only magic that happens in this world happens on the stage. Films take you captive, they feed you everything on a plate, the legerdemain they create transports you into a state where you may as well be dreaming, but theatre takes you into a world where your imagination is stimulated, your judgement is unimpaired, and thus your enjoyment heightened. It is only in the theatre that there can be this kind of exchange of energies between actor and audience. The finest definition of theatre that I have come across is ‘one actor-one audience’. Implying of course that any meaningful interaction between two people anywhere fits the definition of ideal theatre, with the same qualities needed of both participants as are required from them in an actual theatre. Theatre really is a one-on-one experience.” ( p.13-14) 

Renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir, And Then One Day, is a fabulous example of what a memoir should be –an insight into the personal life of the man/memoirist combined with the vast understanding with their life/passion. A good memoir should not consist entirely of personal details and who said what to whom, where and when; given that it is about an individual who is admired and looked up to for the success they have achieved in their career, a reader wants to know more about the industry/niche the author represents. This is what Naseeruddin Shah does. This is a smartly written memoir which is not a necessarily sugar-coated description of success having come easily to the actor. He attempts to be as realistic in his telling with his love for theatre and films being apparent from childhood.

A life of performance is what he yearns for, knows it is hard work and is willing to do it. For instance after the disastrous workshop of Grotowski held in Poland, that Naseeruddin Shah fled from, made him realise “no one at all could in fact help, and whatever I wanted to learn I’d have to do on my own”. It is a love for films and theatre that seeps through the pages of the memoir, Naseeruddin Shah does not merely rattle off names of films he has seen, plays he has acted in or actors he has hobnobbed with, there is a reason why every person mentioned in the book is present. Whether it is Mr Kendal and his love for staging Shakespeare or Captain Hook in the animated Peter Pan, Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, Jose Ferrer in I Accuse!,  Peter O’Toole in Becket or appreciating Shammi Kapoor and “Hindi cinema’s certified nutcase Mr Kishore Kumar” and Mehmood, “one of the most skilful actors I’ve ever seen, was not quite up there with Chaplin in terms of ability but much ahead in terms of self-love”. Every description and analysis is filled with a love and understanding of the profession, it is as if being in the world of cinema is like oxygen to Naseeruddin Shah.

Also as a good memoir should be the historical background of newly-independent India, the growth of Bollywood, the emergence of alternative cinema and changing tastes of the audiences is neatly woven through And Then One Day. This is a book which will continue to sell well beyond the immediate buzz of a beloved and admired actor having written his memoirs since it is a rich repository of information about the profession, the literature and theories around it, without being dull.

Of the many, many news stories, reviews, blog posts about the memoir, so far the best interaction has been between Barkha Dutt in conversation with Naseeruddin Shah, NDTV, 14 September 2014 ( Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai) – http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/we-the-people/watch-master-s-take-in-conversation-with-naseeruddin-shah/338122 . As of this week, the publishers, Penguin Books India have collaborated with the Hindustan Times to release a series of short films called “Naseer on Naseer”. The first one was released on 22 September 2014 – http://www.hindustantimes.com/audio-news-video/AV-Entertainment/Naseer-on-Naseer-How-and-why-I-became-an-actor/Article2-1266974.aspx . These short films echo the sentiments of the actor as recorded in his memoir – his love for acting and the stage.

“I wanted more, I could happily have stayed on that stage forever, and in a sense I have. Whether I’d done well or badly was of no consequence. As an imitation of Mr Kendal it wasn’t too far off the mark, but the real revelation for me was the charge of energy I felt that day, and have continued to feel whenever I am onstage. I found myself doing things I hadn’t planned and doing them with complete certainty and to the approval of the audience. It was as if another hand was guiding me. This feeling has stayed with me till today; and therefore, though I am grateful for compliments, I never take full responsibility for either my successes or failures but do try to make sure that they ‘theatre god’ does not turn his back on me. ” (p. 60-1) 

Naseeruddin Shah And Then One Day: A Memoir Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Gurgaon, India, 2014. Hb. pp. 330 Rs 699

 

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”


Aleksander HemonThe situation of immigration leads to a kind of self-othering as well. Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past, with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances. The displaced person strives for narrative stability– here is my story!–by way of systematic nostalgia. p.17
 
I first came across Aleksander Hemon when I read his moving (and painful) essay, “The Aquarium”, in the New Yorker. ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium, 13 June 2011) It was about the loss of his second daughter, an infant, from a brain tumour. Then I read a brilliant interview by John Freeman published in How to read a Novelist: Conversations with writers ( First published in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/23/aleksandar-hemon, 23 February 2013 ). In it John Freeman observes that “Hemon has been widely praised for the unexpected images [ his] style creates, but it was not, he says, the hallmark of a writer trying to bridge here and there. It was deliberate, honed, and in some cases mapped out. ‘I wanted to write with intense sensory detail, to bring a heightened state.’ He is a sentence writer who counts beats as a poet does syllables.”

Aleksander Hemon was born in Sarajevo and has lived in Chicago since 1992. The Book of My Lives is his fourth book, but first nonfiction. It follows A Question for Bruno ( 2000), Nowhere Man ( 2002), The Lazarus Project ( 2008) and Love and ObstaclesThe Book of My Lives consists of 16 essays that were originally published elsewhere, such as The New YorkerGranta, and McSweeney’s. There were revised and edited for the memoir. The essays vary from time spent in Sarajevo, being with the family, eating his grandmother’s homecooked broth, to participating in a Nazi-themed birthday party for his younger sister and disappearing off to the family cabin on the mountain called Jahorina, twenty miles from Sarajevo, for weeks on end to read in solitude and peace. On one such visit, the American Cultural Centre called him to say he had been invited to America for a month. While he was there, the war broke out in Sarajevo and he could not return for many years. The second half of the book consists of essays documenting/coming to grips with the new life/experiences — of being an immigrant in America. 

The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legtimization fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn. Differences are thus essentially required for the sense of belonging: as long as we know who we are and who we are not, we are as good as they are. In the multicultural world there are a lot of them, which out not to be a problem as long as they stay within their cultural confines, loyal to their roots. There is no hierarchy of cultures, except as measured by the level of tolerance, which, incidentally, keeps Western democracies high above everyone else. ….p.16
 

I read this book while travelling through Kashmir. In fact it took me a day to read, completely engrossed in it. It was a little surreal reading the essays while on holiday in Kashmir, especially those describing the conflict in Sarajevo, since the presence of the security forces, the freewheeling conversations with the locals about recovering from many years of conflict, or the tedious security checks at the airport are constant reminders of how fragile any society affected by conflict is. It is a memoir I would recommend strongly. A must.

Here are some links related to Aleksander Hemon that are worth exploring: Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Hemon http://chicagohumanities.org/events/2014/winter/little-failure-gary-shteyngart-aleksandar-hemon

Aleksander Hemon interviews Teju Cole, Bomb http://bombmagazine.org/article/10023/teju-cole

An interview in the Salon http://www.salon.com/2013/03/23/aleksandar_hemon_i_cannot_stand_that_whole_game_of_confession_i_have_nothing_to_confess_and_i_do_not_ask_for_redemption/

Q&A in the NYT http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/waiting-for-catastrophes-aleksandar-hemon-talks-about-the-book-of-my-lives/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Review in The Economist http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21575736-essays-exile-writing-survive

Aleksander Hemon The Book of My Lives Picador, Oxford, 2013. Pb. pp. 250 Rs 450 
11 Sept 2014 

Podcasts

Podcasts

Razia Iqbal with Fiona Shaw, 2 May 2014, Testament of MaryTwo fabulous websites for podcasts on books.

The first is BBC Radio4 podcasts on book, literature, film, music, visual arts, performance, media and more.  Razia Iqbal is one of the presenters. Here is a link to the Front Row Daily podcasts from 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qsq5/podcasts

The second one is a collection of podcasts from Damian Barr’s Literary Salon, programmed Damian Barrand recorded at Shoreditch House, London. The few I have heard are utterly delightful. Worth listening to! According to the blurb on the website: “Damian Barr’s Literary Salon lures the world’s best writers to London to read exclusively from their latest greatest works. Star guests have included Brett Easton Ellis, David Nicholls, John Waters, Helen Fielding and Diana Athill OBE. It’s all in front of a live audience at London’s Shoreditch House with suave salonniere Damian Barr as host. Don’t worry it’s not a book club – there’s no homework.Salon Selective! Produced by Russell Finch”

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-literary-salon/id495583876?mt=2Maggie & MeMaggie and Meis Damian’s autobiographical tale about growing up gay on a tough Scotland estate in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s. From what I gather ( I have as yet not been able to get hold of the book in India) Damian Barr uses quotes from the former prime minister throughout and marks his story by the key events of her premiership. The book was listed as Book of the Year by several publications in UK including The Sunday Times, New Statesman, Evening Standard, The Independent and The Observer. He was awarded Writer of the Year at the Stonewall Awards. He also won the Political Humour and Satire Book of the Year award for at the Paddy Power Political Book Awards 2014.

6 May 2014 

Sanjaya Baru, “The Accidental Prime Minister”

Sanjaya Baru, “The Accidental Prime Minister”

I never planned to write a book about my eventful time in the PMO as Dr Manmohan Singh’s media adviser from 2004 to 2008. Sanjaya BaruThat is why I never kept a diary, though I did make notes on key events during my tenure. Right up to the end of 2012, I was clear in my mind that I would not write a book about that phase in my life, despite being coaxed by friends in the media and pursued by friends in the publishing world. …I have combined personal, admittedly subjective, accounts of what I regard as important events with an analysis, hopefully objective, of policies and issues. While the notes I have kept have come in handy, much of what I have written is based on memory, refurbished by newspaper archives I used to get my dates and facts right. I have also spoken to a few key players of that period– who will remain anonymous–to refresh my memory and I thank them for their time. All the quotations in the book are substantially correct but some may not be verbatim. 

(p. x, xiv-xv)

For a man “who never kept a diary” Sanjay Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister, is packed with detail. Its a fascinating retelling of a period in history, but not written absorbingly unless you are a political analyst. As with any memoir it is a fine line between presenting the facts as it happened and putting it together in a readable form, even if it requires a bit of polishing. Frankly there is far better narrative nonfiction being published in book form or as digital long reads. Yet this will go down in history as a seminal book since it is written by Sanjaya Baru who had access to the Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, who was also the architect of the liberalised economy introduced in 1991.

Sanjaya Baru The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh Viking, Penguin Books India, 2014. Hb. pp. 300. Rs. 599. ( E-book available.)

17 April 2014

Maria Aurora Couto “Filomena’s Journeys”

Maria Aurora Couto “Filomena’s Journeys”

 

Maria Couto book coverFilomena loved the house, and the company of her avo and sisters and the cook and maids. It was just that the strict discipline of indoor life, especially the indoor life expected of the women of her class, did not interest her very much. She would watch Avo and her elder sisters sitting upright for hours with their embroidery baskets, crochet needles and hairpins to produce fine  lace, but she was restless, she disliked the stillness. 

(p. 23 Filomena’s Journeys)

Filomena’s Journeys is about Maria Aurora Couto’s mother. It is a memoir that has been many years in the making. Filomena had a life that was not easy. She had been orphaned by the age of seven years old, married young, had seven children and had a fairly useless husband who ultimately abandoned the family. 

Putting together a woman’s life is never an easy task, especially within a family. It is like a patchwork quilt. Pieces of the woman’s life need to put together skillfully to create a narrative. There is a narrative that dominates family lore; plus many other experiences and stories that create an image of the person. Much of the life that she leads disappears into a silence, but to create a narrative requires immense patience, hard work and the author has to be prepared for an emotional roller coaster since it may involve unearthing stories that are disconcerting, apart from ruffling the feathers of some relatives. For instance while writing this book Maria Aurora Couto discovered that her father had practically handed over the family home to his brother in the selection of lots; her mother had somehow rustled up the required three thousand rupees to retain the property but it was too late — the deed was done. Surprisingly, whenever the author wishes to refer to herself in the book, it is always in the third person. Yet not an unheard of literary technique. It helps provide a distance and a perspective to the narrative being constructed. 

With Maria Aurora Couto, Goa, Aug 2013

In Filomena’s Journeys Maria Couto weaves together biographical details with the socio-political and cultural context of Goa admirably. The memoir is reads like a story, peppered with facts and analysis about Goa under Portuguese rule and post-Independence.There are details about the structure of Goan society and the transformations, details about cooking, village life etc that are fascinating. It makes an excellent companion to Goa: A Daughter’s Story published over a decade ago.

When Filomena’s Journeys was published I had a posed a few questions to Maria Couto via email. Here are extracts from the conversation:

Which point of the book did you begin the manuscript with?

Very difficult to write and I gave up when trying to write in the first person. After some months, tried the third person narrative and that worked better. It helped to divide the book into four sections each devoted to a period in time, Began with imagining Filomena’s childhood, tragic loss of parents, support from strong women in the family, grandmother and aunt, the bedrock of faith, tradition in an agricultural community.

How many revisions did it undergo?

Countless revisions

How did you achieve the balance between fact and telling a good story, for it to be accessible?

It was not a conscious effort. Rewriting must have smoothed the narrative.  

How many years in the making was it?

Three years.  But as my closest friends tell me, I have talked about their lives, their society for years….TRYING to understand through conversation over years—Goan society rather than just my parents. 

How has the family received it?

They are happy it has been so well received.

How did it, if at all, transform you as a writer and impact your relationship with your family?

We are very bonded, five sisters. So there has been discussion, argument and general acceptance of my narrative. Being the eldest, I have usually had my way!! 

Did you have to dig deep in archives for historical facts or is this reconstructed from family documents and memory?

Much time spent with Portuguese newspapers—1900-50 of the first five decades . Some gazetteers, conversations with 70- and 80-year-olds from the villages of my parents, along with memories shared by members of the family. 

Writing about women, especially ancestors, is never easy. They leave very little paper trails or even photo documentation. Much of the info of their lives is tucked into personal correspondence, cookbooks, and some photographs. Otherwise the impression that they leave in family lore. Many times reconstructing the real woman is tougher and at variance with what the subsequent generations recall. Did you also find it to be so?

No I did not because my mother’s life had such a strong impact on me—as the eldest, sharing and observing, it has been a questioning approach all my life. Trying to understand her modernity within a tradition which she respected and observed; within a faith that was so grounded in rigour at one level and yet so open to respect for all faith; her joy in life in the midst of unendurable experience—phenomenal. 

Maria Aurora Couto Filomena’s Journeys: A portrait of a marriage, a family & a culture Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 290 Rs. 495

4 March 2014

Amazon for Authors, KDP in Delhi, 16 Feb 2014

Amazon for Authors, KDP in Delhi, 16 Feb 2014

I am assisting Amazon to put together a 2-hour event in Delhi. It is to introduce and discuss their self-publishing programme– Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP. Jon P. Fine, Director of Author & Publishing Relations, Amazon.com will be present. 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, first aid manuals, medicine, science, gardening, cooking, collection of recipes, gardening, automobiles, finance, memoir, children’s literature, textbooks, science articles, on nature, poetry, translations, drama, interviews, essays, travel, religion, hospitality, etc. Any form of text that is to be made available as an ebook using Amazon’s Kindle programme.

This event is free, but registration before 13 Feb 2014 is a must. Please email me to confirm participation:  jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com . Details of the event are given below.

kdp-amazon

Jon P. Fine

Director of Author & Publishing Relations, Amazon.com

 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

Guest Speakers:

  • Ajay Jain, KDP author and founder of Kunzum Travel café
  • Rasana Atreya, KDP author of Tell A Thousand Lies
  • Sri Vishwanath, KDP author of books like Give Up Your Excess Baggage and The Secret of Getting Things Done

Event details:

  • Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
  • Time: High Tea,  4:00 PM – 6:00 PM,
  • Venue: Diwan-i-Khas, Taj Mansingh

RSVP

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

International Publishing Consultant

jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

waberi passage of tears

So I read Passage of Tears. My introduction to Abdourahman A. Waberi. What a writer! I am not sure if he worked on the English translation, but after a long time I felt as if I was reading a novel, not a translated piece of literature. It was originally written in French and has been translated brilliantly by David Ball and Nicole Ball. It is a novel set in Djibouti, told by Djibril. He opts to live in Montreal, from the age of 18, but returns to the country of his birth, to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. The story unfolds from there in two dimensions…one of the events happening to Djibril and the second, the life of Walter Benjamin that gets written instead of the testimony he has been asked to note down.

Waberi lulls you into expecting a straightforward novel. The beginning is classical, in it being an ordinary narrative, plotting, placing the framework etc. And then he slowly begins to spin a web around you of different narratives and experiences. And yet are they really? Before you know it, you are sucked into a frightening world where money reigns supreme, in the name of God (call Him by any name you will), relationships are ephemeral. Literature remains a constant. You discover it, you use it, you create it, but words depending on how you view them, they can be inspirational, they can convey stories and histories or they can be viewed as “agents of contamination”.

Waberi’s relationship with Walter Benjamin is extraordinary. How on earth does he vacillate in the narrative from a discovery, to a personal relationship, to being in awe and then coming closer to Walter Benjamin resulting in a conversation bordering on the confessional to that of a disciple with his God/mentor to writing a biography of the man? When Waberi realises some of the similarities in their lives, there is a perceptible calmness that infuses his jottings about “Ben”.

Fiction where the creative license blossoms from reality or a sharp understanding of it, retains a power that cannot be matched with any other. Waberi is such a brilliant writer. Sparing with his words but packs quite a punch. It is not surprising to discover that he was twice a jury member of the Ulysses award for reportage. Now he is due to publish a new novel early in 2014. A book worth buying.

Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears Seagull Books 2011, Hb. pg. 200
English translation by David Ball and Nicole Ball.
Jacket design by Sunandini Banerjee

Habib Tanvir: Memoir, translated from Urdu by Mahmood Farooqui

Habib Tanvir: Memoir, translated from Urdu by Mahmood Farooqui

Habib Tanvir
He had little time for the polished spic-and-span, design-heavy theatre that was being produced in the capitals of the country. Long before Jerzy Grotowski or Peter Brook came along there was Brecht, emphasizing the primacy of the actor on the stage and Habib Tanvir’s theatre was all about his actors. They were-are, rather- amazing actors. Completely at home at Raipur or Delhi or Edinburgh. They are intensely physical and mobile on stage, athletic, even acrobatic, and tremendous singers withal. Their comic timing is not easily surpassed by any group of actors in India, yet they can transform into great tragedians within minutes. They speak Chhatisgarhi which is not always understood verbatim but they will speak it with elan, regardless of which corner of the world they find themselves in.

(Extract from p. xlvii Habib Tanvir Memoirs )

Habib Tanvir began writing his memoir when he was past eighty in 2006. Despite being fluent in English, he chose to write in Urdu. He had planned a three volume memoir called Matmaili Chadariya (Dusty Sheet), but he was unable to complete it. He died in 2009. The Memoir published dwells upon his childhood in Raipur, then Central Provinces and now Chattisgarh; his trip to England to gain training in theatre (1955) and his discovery of the Brechtian style of theatre. All though prior to his departure he had already written and directed Agra Bazaar ( 1954) where he had used the locals from Okhla in the play. He returned (after having abandoned his training) to India and established Naya Theatre, and continued to be closely linked to it for more than fifty years. Now it is managed by his daughter, Nageena. He won many awards and was even nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1972. His plays were powerful, with a Chattisgarhi folk element, till then unheard of, became his signature. Also an influence of Brecht and his upbringing in Raipur.

The memoirs have now been translated into English by Mahmood Farooqui. He has also written a detailed and a fabulous introduction that details the theatre movement in India, documents the seminal influences on Habib Tanvir and his plays, the politics and of course the Chattisgarhi kind of performance. The essay that Mahmood Farooqui writes is formidable in the amount of knowledge and information it packs in about the different forms of theatre, singing, folk theatre etc. Given how dense the essay is with information, it does not seem so to be so since he wears his knowledge lightly. (Thank heavens for scholars like him!) I suspect that being one of the key performers of Dastangoi has helped polish and refine the skills that he learnt as a historian. There is something that seeps through the text of being a performer and a practitioner at the same time. Love it!

I find reading memoirs a revelatory exercise. Not necessarily about the life being unveiled or the people the author met, but its always an insight into what the person chooses to reveal. Habib Tanvir does not write about theatre / IPTA as much as you would have wanted/expected him to. His freewheeling and surprisingly chronological account of his life is charming. ( A trait not necessarily associated with women memoirists, who tend to meander.) With such ease he pulls you into his life, introduce a multitude of characters without making your head spin. Given that he began writing these memoirs at the age of 81+, it is surprising at the amount of detail he has retained. He is a good storyteller with a phenomenal memory. I have been discussing this book with my friend and noted theatre actor Sudhanva Deshpande. ( He knew Habib Tanvir well and made a short documentary on him too.) Sudhanva prefers to call the memoir a “confession”. Whereas I have been reveling in the marvelous storytelling and evoking a time in Indian history that has disappeared forever. Reading the memoirs also resounded on a personal note for me. Suddenly my mother-in-law’s penchant for breaking into song and dance, singing folk songs and rattling off in Chattisgarhi made so much sense. It was obviously part of the social fabric. She too grew up in Raipur in the 1930s and 40s. A period that is dwelt upon in detail in the book.

This is book that I would heartily recommend. Read it for the period in Indian history that is not always told in history books. Read it for the experience of reading a memoir of a noted performer. Even the act of writing this memoir, is a performance. (He makes the “characters” come alive by recalling tiny details about dress, their deportment, emotions etc.) Read it for the translation. A work of art, this is.
Habib Tanvir, IHC, 28 May 2013
Habib Tanvir – Memoirs will be released in New Delhi on May 28. At the launch (which is by invitation), Tanvir’s daughter is expected to sing some of the songs that lent her father’s theatre – Naya Theatre. It is to be followed the day after by a performance (open for all) at May Day Cafe.

Jan Natya Manch

Some links about Habib Tanvir:

A film on YouTube Gaon Ke Naon Theatre Mor Naon Habib (English) by Sanjay Maharishi / Sudhanva Deshpande. India
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4mmm846o24

Sudhanva Deshpande’s obituary for Habib Tanvir ( 3 July 2009) http://www.hindu.com/fline/fl2613/stories/20090703261310900.htm . I am also looking forward to reading his forthcoming review of the book in Caravan.

Habib Tanvir: Memoirs Translated from the Urdu with an introduction by Mahmood Farooqui. Penguin/ Viking New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp.348 Rs. 599

Imran Khan: Memoir ( Jan 2012, BusinessWorld online)

Imran Khan: Memoir ( Jan 2012, BusinessWorld online)


This review was published on 20 Jan 2012 in BusinessWorld online. The original link is: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/on-a-very-sticky-wicket/379203.0/page/0

As Pakistan is all set to face yet another political tempest, reading the memoirs of one of the key players in the drama — cricketing legend Imran Khan — is worth the effort. In Pakistan: A Personal History, Khan reflects upon the watershed moments in his life. The memoir addresses Pakistani youth — befuddled by existential questions pertaining to their state and their identity — and issues concerning the war on terror — when and how will it end? Are there any solutions? And this memoir is just that. Khan barely dwells upon the magnificent career he had as a sportsman, except to have an account of the memorable and miraculous 1992 World Cup Victory in Australia. He does mention his nine-year-old marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, the birth of his sons and the slander campaign that was instituted against his wife for being a Jew, insinuating that this marriage was the first step in the establishment of a Zionist state in Pakistan. But details of his personal life, except for those relevant to his political career including his growing identity as a Muslim, are relegated to the background. He does not spend too much time discussing Indo-Pak relations either, but he is clear that political dialogue can settle disputes.

For a man who belongs to the elite in Pakistan, with a Western upbringing, educated at Aitchison College, the English-medium public school in Lahore, followed by the Royal Grammar School in Worcester and Keble College, Oxford, and later a successful and legendary cricketer, to enter politics was a major turning point in his life. He established his party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf, nearly fifteen years ago. He decided to set up the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, Lahore to provide free care to the very poor. It required seed money of $ 22 million, apart from other funds to sustain it. During the long process of fund raising, the man who was considered powerful and invincible had to face funding fatigue, and learn humility, when the poorest of the poor, came forward and donated small sums of money.

Imran Khan also dwells upon Pakistan’s damaging relationship with US, especially the aid that it is given. “The greatest danger that we face today is if we keep pursuing the current strategy of taking aid from the US and bombing our own people, we could be pushing our army towards rebellion.” He is quite appalled by the impact that this financial lifeline has had on Pakistan. For him, post 9/11, Pakistan is “a country that has fought the US’s war for the last eight years when we had nothing to do with 9/11. Pakistan has over 34,000 people dead (including 6,000 soldiers), has lost over $68 billion (while the total aid coming into the country amounted to $20 billion) and has over half a million people from our tribal areas internally displaced, and with 50 per cent facing unprecedented poverty (while 140,000 Pakistani soldiers were deployed all along our border).” For him a turning point in the political history of Pakistan was 2 May 2011, the killing of Osama bin Laden by the Americans in Abbotabad, a mere 50 kilometres away from Islamabad, and a mile from Pakistan’s Military Academy.

He does not spend too much time discussing Indo-Pak relations, but he is very clear that the Pakistani “foreign policy has to be sovereign and needs to be reviewed with all our neighbours – especially India. All our disputes with India should be settled through political dialogue, and the activities of the intelligence agencies — of both countries — must be curtailed.” In fact, the book was recalled within a week of its release in London as the Partition-time map shows ‘Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’ shaded in the same colour as that of Pakistan. According to the press release that was issued by the publishers, “the mistake was made by the publishers as the map included in the book was not the one provided to them by Mr Khan”.

Pakistan: A Personal History is a memoir that reads like an election manifesto. It concludes with these lines, where Imran Khan is very sure about his political future. “Fifteen years after forming the party, I feel that my party and I are not only ready, but that mine is the only party that can get Pakistan out of its current desperate crisis. After fourteen years of the most difficult struggle in my life, my party is finally taking off, spreading like wildfire across the country, so that today it is the first choice of 70 per cent of Pakistanis under the age of thirty. … For the first time, I feel Tehree-e-Insaaf is the idea whose time has come.” It is not surprising that this book has been published in 2011, on the eve of elections that are being planned in Pakistan.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 30-01-2012)

Web Analytics Made Easy -
StatCounter