Muslim Posts

Zainab Priya Dala’s “What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa”

Like a white net veil worn over a red saree, or an ivory satin gown sleeve that borders ornate paisley mehndi patterns, the people of Indian origin in South Africa evolved from holding tightly onto the shreds of Indian culture that they came with inside locked boxes and sewn into hemlines. But, like all migrants, or perhaps refugees the world over, evolution is the Holy Grail, the ability to blend into the current social strata. The result became the South African Indian. A mix of names formed and re-formed, and clothing worn and then not worn, and eventually as apartheid was abolished, an identity searched for and still to be found. 

South African writer Zainab Priya Dala’s What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa is a collection of essays that are a mix of memoir, sharing opinions on the changing political landscape and the growth of Dala as a writer. These essays are sharply written detailing the complicated histories South African citizens of Indian origin have to contend with on a daily basis. It informs their identity. Even details such as if their ancestors came as “indentured labourers” or as “passenger Indians” makes a world of difference to their sense of identity in a foreign land. Zainab Priya is of mixed parentage as her father is a Hindu and her mother a Muslim. Later she married in to a well-established Muslim business family who had come to South Africa relatively recently but she regularly encounters variations between the families in their habits and living styles.

What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa is a slim collection of powerfully written essays. These essays by a South African Indian reflecting upon multiple aspects of her existence is much like this book being the sum of many parts of her life — mother, wife, daughter, writer, activist, migrant, political awakening etc ( and not necessarily in the given order of importance). Fact is the moment you are aware of your personal histories the complexities of one’s ancestry become evident and it is no longer quite as simple to speak of genealogies in puritanical terms or of political action in black and white terms of “us and they”. Zainab Priya Dala is sharply articulate about these complex inheritances and is very aware of the fine negotiations it demands of her on a daily basis which is a given way of life. And it is precisely these day-to-day exercises in living that also sharply bring home to her details in society that Gandhi was blinded by. The South Africa in which he honed his political activism was primarily aimed at the racist modes of governance and not necessarily at recognising the microcosm of South African or South African Indian society and its distinct threads of identity. Curious that Gandhi who otherwise was so very sensitive missed these finer distinctions of identity especially since he and the author both have links to the Gujarati community. Yet for Gandhi it was apartheid of far more importance and it remained so till the 1990s when many of the South African social structures were realigned. In the new era it is not so much as race governing lines of social separation but money. With money becoming the defining factor of ancestries and communal make-up become even more acutely apparent. And as in the jungle, it is the survival of the fittest, same holds true for civil society. Those who survive in the new socio-economic terrain are also confident of their identity while aware of their historical, soci-political and genetic inheritances — a fact that Zainab Priya Dala is clear she will spell out for her children.

What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa  is a sharp commentary on contemporary South Africa. It must be read. The thought-provoking essays will resonate with many readers especially women, across nations. Also for how smartly it puts the reader under the scanner and forces them to question and understand their inherited narratives better.

Read an extract from the book used with permission from the publishers — Speaking Tiger Books.

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My father, a third generation non-resident Indian, whose grandfather had come from a village near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, preferred not to talk much about his heritage. But, things changed when he reached sixty years of age. Why? I will never know. But what I do know is that everything about my heritage from my paternal side had been spoken of by others, including my father’s brothers and sisters, not him. Maybe, he suffered the affliction of a love marriage to a woman who was seen as superior to him, and he wanted to delete his inferiority in the eyes of his children. But, I am seeing now how I also do the similar thing to my children. My husband, like my mother,  comes from the big city of Durban, and his heritage is one of the Muslim business class that came to South Africa long after the indentured labourers** and anyway, let me just say it – he is considered higher class than I am, so we tend to appropriate this onto our children. Perhaps my father had done the same for many years.  And, perhaps he decided to speak openly about our mixed up heritage only after my sister and I were safely and happily stowed away into good marriages. Things are sometimes as ugly as that. But speak he did. It became a river that never stopped. One day a year ago we were at a fancy dinner party held by my cousin from my mother’s side of the family – a very rich and successful doctor amongst a family of doctors. He lived in an area we still call today a White Area, which means that before 1994, none of us would have ever dreamed of walking past a house there, let alone living in one. My father was quiet during this dinner, but perhaps a few glasses of expensive whiskey loosened his tongue, and he started talking about his childhood on the farm. My mother tried to quieten him, not because she was ashamed, but because she knew he was about to cry. The room went silent as if a spell had been cast by a mournful farm-accented voice ringing out among the posh “white” accents of my cousins and his friends. But, minutes into his monologue, my cousin’s husband blurted:“Oh really now, Babs, should we get you an audition for another ‘Coolie Odyssey’?” (‘The Coolie Odyssey’ was a play on the indentured labourers written, directed by,  and starring,  Rajesh Gopie, a South African Indian dramatist).

My father fell into silence, and my husband, who is sensitive to the point of extreme protection of my father at most times, ushered him outside. I was carrying my baby son, and looking at these two men, standing next to a Balinese-inspired swimming pool, sharing a cigarette and probably chatting about the price of fuel, it was not lost on me that I was carrying in my arms the actual reality of a class divide.  My son will always have to negotiate this divide and there is nothing I can do to protect him from it. Why would I need to protect him? Well, to put it as succinctly as I can, in South Africa, we let go of the caste system in the bowels of a ship in the 1800s, but we adopted a system that became very insidious. Fellow writers and historians, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed in their detailed opus, Inside Indenture, A South African Story 1860 – 1914, describe these people who dropped their caste into the Indian Ocean as “twice-born.” Here, they refer to the fact that in the shiphold, there was no room for caste or class. An Indian inside there was an Indian who ate and slept alongside all others. But once they arrived at the port, and the documents of demographics were being created, a lower caste could easily take himself up a few notches. Today, in contemporary South Africa, caste is obsolete. We all know enough by now to question the Maharaja and Singh surname with a studied eye for actual refinement in behaviour, language and of course education. This does not mean there are no divisions. The divisions go deep. They are based on religion, economics, language and colour. Of course, I know that these divisions are changeable ones much like dropping your caste at a shipyard, now you can change your religion, think and grow rich, lighten your skin and perfect your English. This malleability scares the ones who wielded class like gold crowns. I admit, my maternal family and my husband’s family are those that did. They are forgiven because they didn’t know they were doing it.

In South Africa, the business class came to the shores of Natal mainly from the villages of Gujarat. My father-in-law describes it well when he tells me in thick Gujarati: “One side of the street is Muslim Desai family. Opposite side of street is Hindu Desai family. Both Desais understand each other and get along better than even Muslim Urdu speakers or Calcuttiah people.”

I don’t look at anything he is saying as derogatory. The reason is that he is not insulting anyone, he is simply stating facts. The Gujarati community aggregated together in a code of business and called  each other “Aapra-wallahs’. They still use this term today. An acquaintance, who is a great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi,  once came over to my house to collect items I wanted to donate to a family rendered homeless after a fire. I had known him for some years, and had interacted with him many times on charitable or literary correspondence. But, within minutes of the mutual spotting of an Aapra-wallah in the room, I ceased to exist in the conversation. My husband, a Muslim,  and my associate, a Hindu, both spoke Gujarati that went far above my head. I had learned the basics of the language, to communicate with my husband’s family who spoke only Gujarati. My mother’s family were too high class to speak any vernacular, and only the Queen’s English would do. My father’s family spoke a combination of Urdu, Hindi and Bhojpuri. My best friend spoke Afrikaans and the children I grew up playing with spoke Zulu. Add to this mix the terms that each of us reserved for each grouping, which are as derogatory as being called Coolies, and it is no wonder that I cannot sleep some nights.

Indians who left as indentured labourers from the port of Calcutta are called Calcuttiahs, and Indians who left as indentured labourers from the port of Madras are called Madrasis. The Muslim community have their own lines of division and I find that these lines are deeply hurtful. Muslims who arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers are thought to come from Hyderabad. Although many chroniclers say that the majority of the Muslim community in South Africa who are not business arrivals are actually converts to Islam. This is how the Muslim community divide their people – colour and language. It used to be money, but now everyone is keeping up with the Joneses and the famous Gujarati Trust Funds** are running on empty, having cossetted very large and extravagant families for two generations.

The Memon Muslim community is a very small one, but they wield a large economic clout.  They are known to have come from different areas around India, originally from Kathiawar, but finally settled as a community near Porbandar in Gujarat, from where a number of them migrated to South Africa as traders and businessmen. Another batch of Gujarati Muslims came from different villages in Gujarat, and left for South Africa from the port of Surat. They proudly refer to each other as Surtis and use the term “Hedroo,” to describe any other Muslim who is not Gujarati or Memoni. Hedroos, a terrible term, is used to speak of the class of Muslims whom the Surti community look upon as low class and  poor. Inter-marriages between Surtis and Hedroos are still frowned upon. I am reminded of my own wedding day, when my husband’s aunt told me that in the history of the Dala family, it was the first time they had accepted a “mixed” girl for any of their boys. Their bloodline had remained pure Gujarati till 2006, the year of my nikkah. I responded to the aunt by a small nod that day, and replied to her: “Hahn ji.”

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Footnotes

**Over 100,000 Indians arrived as slaves from the subcontinent in 1684 and lived in Cape Town.  The first Indian indentured labourers arrived on 16 November 1860.The passenger/ trader Indians began arriving around 1875 to meet the need for commercial trade in the community, Black and  Indian as well as  Coloured.

**Gujarati Trust Funds were set up from the mid 1870s by wealthy Gujarati families, to cater for all educational, medical and housing needs of their community. When Gandhi arrived in South Africa, the Gandhi Trust was set up to cater for legal needs and to publish a newspaper called The Indian Opinion.

Zainab Priya Dala What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 150. Rs 499

27 November 2018 

 

Nazia Erum’s “Mothering a Muslim”

The azan was an alarm clock for parents, a curfew to get back home for us kids, a segue into night after a cluttered day filled with school, friends and random visits from relatives — it was a lot of things to a lot of people — but never a war cry or an announcement of faith. 

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Nazia Erum’s Mothering a Muslim was published a few weeks ago and within a few days sold out its first edition. It is based upon the fear that gripped her when she became a mother in 2014. It suddenly dawned upon her that mothers are the bridges between a child’s inner and outer world. Over the years there has been a tectonic shift in India with the country being divided along religious fault lines. How was she going to decode the world for her infant daughter particularly a world that was increasingly prejudiced towards certain communities. Nazia Erum’s distress began from when as a new parent she had to give her daughter a name, she fretted whether it was too “Muslim-sounding name”. Mothering a Muslim is about the journey she decided to embark upon to understand if a Muslim mother’s worry was in any way similar to that of her Hindu, Christian or Sikh counterparts.

Mothering a Muslim is based upon the innumerable interviews she conducted with adults and children to understand what constitutes a Muslim identity. How does it affect social relationships? What has been the transformation over the years? What has been extraordinary is the chilling discovery the bigotry towards Muslims is very deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. Unfortunately the indoctrination begins in childhood as she illustrates with children being bullied within schools — most of which are prominent middle class private schools.

The morphing of the secular fabric of the Indian democracy rapidly into a communal society is very unsettling. Ravish Kumar in his The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation refers to the “socialization of fear” which to his mind it “to be afraid is to be civilized in this democracy”. Nazia Erum’s Mothering a Muslim illustrates  this well. What is truly mindboggling is that this unfortunate transformation of Indian society has happened in living memory. If truth be told this in itself is unsurprising given that more than 40% of the Indian population is less than 25 years old. So this young Indian population has absolutely no recollection of the violent events of 1984/riots, the rath yatra, the Mandal commission riots, fall of Babri Masjid, the maha artis in Mumbai and the subsequent events, leading to 2002 / Godhra/ Gujarat pogrom and more…bringing us to present day where a panel is constituted by the Centre’s Cultural Ministry to rewrite 12,000 years of the Indian subcontinent history proving that Hindus descended from the earliest inhabitants of India.

It is a book meant to be read, to understand and to hope that the complete breakdown and deterioration of this country that we are hurtling towards does not happen.

We live in hope!

Nazia Erum Mothering a Muslim: The Dark Secrets in Our Schools and Playgrounds Juggernaut Books, Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 220 Rs 399

11 March 2018 

“The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation” by Ravish Kumar

The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation by renowned journalist Ravish Kumar is a collection of his essays on the state of the nation and he stresses the importance of how citizens of a functioning democracy must use every space available to them to speak out. Otherwise the new normal is that “the socialization of fear is complete. To be afraid is to be civilised in this new democracy”. Every single essay deserves to be read over and over again but there is a particularly chilling one which he wrote called “Wherever a Mob Gathers Is Hitler’s Germany” drawing parallels between the propoganda by right wing fundamentalists in Nazi Germany and conservative politicians of today, many of whom have a history of being responsibile for pogroms. “Any other narrative was allowed no existence at all. People were steadily moulded by the propoganda and they did not realize they had been transformed into a weapon. Propaganda has only one purpose — the construction of a mob. It is the mob which carries out the killings and blood splatters the clothes of those who make  up the mob. the government and the leaders all appear blameless. No one questions the role of propaganda in bringing mobs together.”

These essays have been translated from Hindi by Chitra Padmanabhan, Anurag Basnet and Ravi Singh. These essays are going to be discussed for a long time to come. Ideally the book should be released with the audio version of these essays being narrated in Hindi by Ravish Kumar. Or release the audio clips online.

The following is an extract from “Being the People” being published here with permission. It is an essay that encourages people to be active citizens of a democracy if they wish to protect their rights. “It is time to stop looking for all sorts of excuses for our ‘lack of strength’, or powerlessness, and face teh reality that this enfeeblement of citizens has come about because we have abandoned dissent and turned to supplication.”

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Now once again there is a move to drag history-writing back to the chronicles of kings and queens. It is reckless myth-making, fuelled by the idea of retribution—the ‘faithful’, the ‘true Hindus’, will avenge the deeds, real and imagined, of those who are no longer in our midst. The idea of vengeance persists even though those who exist in the present have nothing to do with that history and are not responsible for any of it.

Through these narratives of the new national curriculum, young hearts are being filled with the flames of hatred; they are being transformed into human bombs walking in our midst. Communalism turns human beings into bombs—we will see this change not just in our neighbour’s child but also in our own. When a youth filled with pure hatred chances upon an ordinary quarrel between two individuals who happen to be from different faiths, he can only see the incident with a communal eye and explode, human bomb that he is. He becomes a participant in the act of killing; part of the crowd that kills a Pehlu Khan or Muhammad Akhlaq or Junaid Khan, knowing he will never be punished by the powers that be. This is the kind of human bomb we have in our midst today. We are no longer a weak-hearted people; now that 1,200 years of slavery and sixty years of sickularism and bad governance are behind us, we have produced our own Jihadi John, who hacks and burns a man to death and releases the video on the internet.

As these human bombs increase in numbers in any society or nation, it is not the state that stands to lose but all of us—our status and power as citizens will correspondingly shrink. When we watch television images of a person beaten to pulp by a crowd—he may be of any religion—the moment at which the victim is overpowered by the crowd leaves us shaken and afraid even though we are watching the news in the safety of our home. We are wary of sharing our feelings on Facebook and hesitate to step out of the house at certain times. We feel intimidated and our civil rights as citizens get eroded.

Our minds are being filled with hatred not only for the sole purpose of perpetuating the hold of a particular party or ideology on power but to ensure the complete decimation of the power that comes with being the citizens of a democracy. I earnestly urge you to keep your child safe from the ill-effects of the new national curriculum on social media and prime-time television, and keep yourself out of its reach as well. The national curriculum is virulent in its theme, and unrelenting. It has a predictable pattern—wherever there is an election, it makes its presence felt. All of us need to have the self-confidence that is part of the consciousness of being the people of a strong civilization, a rich and diverse culture. Just as justice and injustice are part of our present, so it was in the past. We need to learn to deal with it. We should know how to negotiate history. But these debates are pushing us to the farthest extremes; consequently, we are moving inexorably towards communalization—an ever-widening gulf of mistrust with regard to a particular community.

In schools all over Germany, children are educated on how to deal with the blot on their past because of Hitler and his Nazi regime, one of the most evil in all history. This is a stigma that cannot be removed either by tearing out or burning those pages of history, or by running away and hiding from it. I once asked a German journalist if they were overcome by a sense of guilt.

Mentioning that politicians in my country didn’t think twice about casually branding anybody as Hitler, I asked her if that were so in Germany as well. She replied, ‘We are very careful about how we bring Hitler’s name into any debate; only an individual who loses the ability to offer a reasoned and human argument is thought to possess a Hitlerian streak.’

She recalled that around the time the film Schindler’s List, set in Nazi Germany, was released, their teacher spoke to them. This is what the teacher said: ‘The film dwells on the darkest chapter in the history of our nation. Yes, it did happen, but we are not to blame—neither your father nor mine. We ought to be ashamed of this dark chapter of our history and we are, but when we watch the film we shall not be wracked by guilt or anger. Rather, we shall experience a sense of self-confidence that we are no longer trapped in that time; we have come a long way from that juncture and are living in a new age.’

We in India have not educated our citizens on ways to negotiate history. On the contrary, the narrative that is being created as a ‘tradition’, especially through our television channels, is one of inhumanity. Perhaps many will dismiss these words of caution, calling me alarmist. But there will come a time when we will recall these words in distress—if not for ourselves, then for our children, for no one among us wants to see our child pick up a sword to kill a neighbour. Our child may well be saved by the party he owes allegiance to, but we will not get a moment’s sleep knowing that our child is a murderer.

When Pehlu Khan was lynched in Alwar, there was little reaction on the part of society and none from the government. When Junaid Khan was killed on a crowded railway platform, no one came to his aid, and later there were no witnesses, everyone claimed to have been somewhere else, or busy with something so consuming that the cries of a man being butchered and his brothers did not reach them. Examine the damage that was done: two men died, in terror and unimaginable pain. If that does not matter to us, do we think of those who killed and will not be punished? How many were they? Eight? Ten? Twenty? We don’t know, we make no effort to know. Those men, they must have gone home after they killed. What food did they eat that evening? Who cooked it for them? How many greeted them in their mohallas the next morning? There are eight, ten, twenty murderers roaming freely in our society. In another year there may be eight hundred, or twenty thousand. Murder will be normal then. It will be like any other job—like weaving a beautiful carpet or sari, driving a car, tending a garden, writing software or nursing the sick. Killers will emerge among us, kill and come back home after a day’s work. They might be our children, our siblings, our husbands or wives. Have we agreed to this? When we cast our vote, was this the world we chose?

Let us not turn away from what is happening. The future is grim. Due to the ongoing poisonous Hindu-Muslim discourse, human bombs are being prepared in large numbers, out of hatred among the Hindus and out of sheer fear among the Muslims. Our society is poised to reach its nadir. In places with dense populations, communalism will incubate more human bombs.

Ravish Kumar The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 180 Rs.499

11 March 2018 

Chhimi Tenduf-La, “Panther”

Chhimi Tenduf-LaSri Lanka is such a beautiful country. We have it all; the beaches, the history, the hills, the heritage, the food, the smiling faces, the hospitality — and now the peace. I am getting used to this. I think I can move on. …I call up some old friends; Gish and Gayan ( Sinhalese Buddhists), Khuzi (Muslim), Gajen ( Tamil Hindu), and Shoban ( mixed-race Christian). All different, but all very similar. All just young guys, enjoying life, enjoying peace. 

My batting technique is still strong, so the boys encourage me to take up cricket professionally. I am not too old, I know it, but do I have the heart? Is it my calling? Can I use my experience to make a difference, like one of the greatest cricketers of all time, Kumar Sangakkara? He said, ‘I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.’

Chhimi Tenduf-La’s second novel, Panther, is a cross between young adult fiction and a war novel. It is not necessarily because of the story plot and it being set in Sri Lanka, but it is also the style of writing. It has the gritty, bold experimentation in narrative, character sketches and issues often seen contemporary young adult fiction. At the same time it has the urgency and inexplicable situations often seen in war novels, surprisingly always taken in one’s stride since bizarreness is a way of life in war torn areas. So the explosively weird beginning to the novel where Prabu’s family is scattered, after which he is admitted to a posh private school given his wonderful cricketing skills is surreal, yet plausible — after all it is a society being reconstructed after civil strife.

As is common with a lot of contemporary South Asian literature there are intense conversations about identity. But it is not just about the conversations, it is the literary landscapes explored in novels like Panther  making it very clear that despite extreme fundamentalist forces in South Asia preferring to identifying a nation with a particular socio-religious entity, they are simply unable to make sufficient fissures in the community.  Panther has plenty of frank, honest and open conversations about religion, identities, attitudes — a characteristic trait of young adult fiction. It is perfect that the novel revolves around cricket, the national pastime game in many South Asian countries. Another aspect that sets this novel apart from contemporary Sri Lankan literature is the boldness with which it makes no qualms about identifying communities and mixed-races of the individuals. It plots places and people on a very real landscape unveiling the rich complexity of the nation rather than leaving it vaguely as a story about war-torn Sri Lankan, predominantly a conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese with some Buddhists too.

Chhimi Tenduf-La is half-English and half-Tibetan who grew up in Hong Kong, London, New Delhi and Colombo. He now lives in Colombo with his family.

Read Panther.

Chhimi Tenduf-La Panther Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, NOIDA, India. Pb.pp. 270 Rs 299

18 September 2015 

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’  Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’ Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

On 20 July 2014, The Hindu Literary Review carried an interview I had done with Zia Haider Rahman. A shortened version was published in print, a slightly longer version on the newspaper’s website ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/writing-is-really-an-interruption-of-reading/article6228449.ece ) and I reproduce below the complete and unedited version of the interview that the author sent and approved. The book is available in India with Picador India, PanMacmillan India. ISBN: 9789382616245

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanZia Haider Rahman’s novel, In the Light of What we Know, is a forceful debut. It is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first meet as students at Oxford. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008.

Zia was born in rural Bangladesh but migrated to the United Kingdom before his sixth birthday and was raised in a derelict squat before moving to state housing. His father was a waiter; his mother a seamstress. Zia won a scholarship to read mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford, and completed graduate studies at Cambridge, Munich and Yale universities. After working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, he turned to practising as an international financial lawyer before moving to human rights work.

1. What was the gestation period for this manuscript? How long was the first draft? How much time did it take from manuscript to printed book?

Many of the ideas and images in this novel have been percolating for rather a long time; some of the governing themes have grown out of preoccupations that have been with me for the whole of my life. I imagine this must be true of many authors and must hold for even books subsequent to their first.

The first draft was about the same in length as the final one, as I recall. Before I began revising anything, my editor made some helpful suggestions conceding that those comments might actually increase the length of the novel by ten or so per cent. In the end, I decided to make a few small cuts here and there and so the word count did not change much between the first draft and what is there now in the printed book. I find that certain writing is not improved by tinkering or revising, particularly passages or scenes of strongly emotional content: the rawness is a vital part of the energy.

From final manuscript to printed book, it took about three to four months. I made life a little difficult for myself by choosing to keep the British English version and the American English version distinct; the punctuation as well as vocabulary, of course, is different. The US version, for instance, has adopted the serial comma, which most non-American readers would find inhibitive to fluent reading.

2. How many notebooks did you maintain to create this novel or was it written directly on the computer? When and where was the research done? Does it ever cease?

As a matter of routine, I have always kept notebooks, jotting down ideas and things of interest. I used to try to keep track of them. Once I’m through a dozen or so, I sit down and take a few hours to type them up. This refreshes my memory but also allows me to discard ultimately uninteresting material. But the real reason I do it is that an electronic document is easy to search through.

While writing the novel, my note-taking activity increased hugely. I was quite itinerant at the time, so it was vital to have something to hand in which to record thoughts as they arose, if I was waiting for a train or plane, or if I woke up with a thought that I wanted to record. But when I was properly drafting any text for the novel, I did this on the computer. I type very much faster than I write long hand.

The research was done in various places. Some of it was done on the internet, although the internet is really only helpful as a starting point and also to confirm some fact or other. At one point, I used the internet to watch what felt like every US congressional hearing on the financial crisis, which was considerably more than was necessary for the novel, but I found them inherently fascinating and full of drama. The libraries I used were principally the British Library in London, the New York Public Library and the library of a small town in upstate New York, near Yaddo (a foundation for writers,  artists and composers, where I wrote most of the novel). The last library is actually plugged into the wider library system of upstate New York and has very swift access to the many books within the system. It’s quite extraordinary, actually, with large sunlit rooms and many shelves of books, as libraries used to have, and has not been overrun by technology, multimedia and so on.

It’s no doubt possible to do more research than necessary. But if the activity of research is in itself rewarding then one is not so much doing research as merely indulging oneself in the pleasure of reading.

3. Who are the authors and writing styles/ traditions that have influenced you?

Everything I read leaves something and I can no more identify my literary influences than I can point to particular meals I’ve had that have been exceptionally nourishing. Over the years, many, many books and authors have had an emotional impact on me, although whether and how they might have influenced my writing is, in most cases, harder to see. To name a few that spring to mind: Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sebald’s Austerlitz, many of Philip Roth’s novels and Coetzee’s, James Baldwin’s, and the list goes on and on, as one might expect of any author, because writing is really an interruption of reading and vice-versa.

4. You have a lot of epigraphs in the novel but they seem to be used in an unusual way. What is their purpose?

You’re right. There is something unusual about them. Ordinarily in novels, epigraphs are evidence of the writer peeking in from behind the curtain; here, the narrator has actively included them after retrieving them—or most of them—from Zafar’s notebooks, as he himself explains. There is also the fact that near the end of the book the epigraphs of a particular chapter are the venue for a disclosure: the epigraphs actually do a job of storytelling. Described in this way here—and not encountered in the course of reading—it might seem like the assignment of epigraphs to and by the narrator is a breach of a convention of the novel. After all, epigraphs typically stand above, aside, aloof. I have no aversion to breaches of convention, provided they are effective, but I’m not sure there is a breach here in any event. All that is happening is that the narrator is laying claim to real estate on the page ordinarily owned by the author.

5. At a time when it is easy to Google for information why did you introduce extensive footnotes in the text?

As you know, the narrator himself does precisely that—go to internet search engines in order to look things up. The narrator uses footnotes where he wants to elucidate something that Zafar says, without interrupting the flow of Zafar’s account. Having said that, there are also a couple of rather long footnotes, notably one likening map projections in cartography to the translation of poetry and another relating to the war of 1971, where one has the sense that the narrator simply doesn’t want to omit something that Zafar said or wrote and yet cannot justify to himself the inclusion of the material in the main body of text. The narrator, as one quickly gathers, is to a certain degree rather unreliable: he thinks he is smarter than he actually is, he has a rather undeveloped attitude to women, and, of course, he is fundamentally compromised by a certain set of circumstances which we cannot go into without issuing a spoiler warning. The footnotes—their presence, form and the kind of material they include—are an example of what emerges from the first person perspective here. In a third person narration, they might not have emerged in a necessary way.

6. How did your training in mathematics impact your manuscript drafts and plot structure?

Mathematics is fundamental to my outlook on very many things and in ways that I cannot easily measure. In my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that our species does, though I am no longer a part of the mathematical project.

The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my insistence on reasons for a claim—reasons that that are capable of yielding to interrogation. Mathematics gave me that. Other experiences might have left me with the same outlook, as I expect other things do to other people. But my debt is to mathematics. Nothing in life can be relied upon in the way that a mathematical proof can. Nothing anyone ever says or does or tastes or feels will so much as perturb the trust we have in a mathematical truth. And though elsewhere in life we cannot achieve the same conviction, the presence of this standard in one realm ought to be regarded as a beacon illuminating the dark poverty in the quality of reasoning we seem to settle for in other aspects of our lives, in the political and social especially.

I am unsure how to begin to answer your question—or even if I can—since thinking mathematically, day-in and day-out for a long time and at a formative age means that its effects are marbled into my foundations.

7. The analogy between cartography and translation is a fascinating concept on the art of representation via illustrations and word. How do you view your novel in the light of this theory?

In the novel, the narrator relates Zafar’s observations on one underlying similarity between map projections and the translation of poetry. There are many ways to represent the curved surface of the planet on a piece of paper. And there are many ways to go about translating a poem in one language into another. In cartography, for instance, you might choose to preserve relative areas or relative subtended angles. In poetry, you might choose to preserve rhyme or meter. The list of things to consider is actually quite long in both cases. Both involve choices about what to preserve and what to let go. Moreover—and this is crucial—in both cases a decision to preserve one thing limits or even destroys the freedom to preserve others. In both cases, also, the underlying need that drives the enterprise is that without either a map or a translation nothing would be knowable; after all, you cannot give someone a miniature globe with all the details of the earth’s surface along with a powerful magnifying glass and tell her to use these to navigate her journey across New York, London or Delhi, any more than you can give her a poem by a Hungarian poet along with textbooks to learn Hungarian and expect her to be moved to tears—assuming she’s not a native Hungarian speaker, of course!

The similarity of the two enterprises speaks to the pervasiveness of an underlying point: in order to gain access to the world, we undertake an activity of representing it that necessarily involves destruction. We are forced to abandon any hope of seeing some things in order to see anything at all. Zafar’s perspective is bleak, on one level, but on another it could be read as epistemic humility, an acknowledgement of one of the kinds of constraints on our perception of the world and on our access to knowledge. There are several themes in the novel but its backbone is to do with the status and nature and limits of knowledge.

8. There are so many identities that you mention in your novel whether defined by religion, nationality or language. Even within one religion there are many sub-categories such as Wahhabi and Sunni Muslims; Coptic, Arabic and Pakistani Christians, Anglicans and Catholics. Would you say that In the Light of What we Know is exploring the concept of a “global or an immigrant” novel?

I remember walking into a famous independent bookshop in New York a few years ago and discovering that under fiction they had an “Asian writers” section, as well as other ethnically or regionally defined categories. This sort of arrangement is not uncommon. But it is impossible to criticize the bookshops themselves; the industry of bricks and mortar booksellers is under enormous strain, with outlets folding by the day, not to mention whole chains of stores. Bookshops are simply responding to customer demands and preferences; in an environment in which margins are being squeezed, there is little room to do anything but organize books in a way that caters to customer tastes and maximizes sales. Some are throwing in the towel and have transformed into cafés or gift shops in all but name; if they can flog you a book on your way out, that’s a bonus.

The geographic and cultural categories into which novels are placed, often by people, other than the author, assigning her an identity, is driven by a market that has become habituated to conceiving of literature in terms of these categories. The root of the problem is a word: novel. The novel is such an expansive menagerie, holding such varied beasts, that a taxonomy is inevitable because it is useful. But the expansiveness of the idea of a novel gives rise to all manner of problems. For instance, it means that two novels might be compared that are fundamentally incommensurable. The label novel is misleading. But the publishing industry needs it in order to widen the market for every book it promotes: You like novels? Well, here’s a novel. I suspect that your question has more to do with aspects of my own particular novel. But I think that the question is related to the business of book-selling. The publishing industry is slightly schizophrenic in a certain respect. Discussions about lofty ‘literature’ rarely include matters of publishing industry realities.  I understand this—in fact, a little part of me dies when I hear talk about the art of novels and the business of publishing in the same breath. But—to bring us to your question—it seems to me that the current taxonomies are not responsive to the changing world and our changing understanding of the world. What happens twelve time zones away has as much impact on us as something happening on our doorstep. The geographic, economic, and social scope of the particular world each of us inhabits is widening, the perceptual field broadening. To return to the taxonomy analogy, even biologists have been introducing new taxonomies of living things that reflect better understandings of relationships between organisms.

9. Post-9/11 there have been a number of novels tackling the issues of identity, cultural politics, and new geo-political orientations, with literary conversations dissecting the rise of the Muslim novelists. Yet In the Light of What we Know focuses on “conflicts” happening along various fault lines—in the world of finance, within marriages or on real battlefields. The frightening truth to emerge in your story is the sense of wrongs and injustices of history being repeated over and over again, going against the popular theory of one particular community being responsible for terrorism. Please comment.

Every general election anywhere seems to mark a turning point, we’re told. Or something is a landmark event. Every military surge is a new initiative that will turn back the tide. The consumption of news would fizzle out if it did not bear the sense that what is happening is new in the sense that it is bringing in change, is going to alter the way things are. We all like to plan—we can plan like no other animal—but our ability to plan goes hand in hand with an appetite to learn what’s new, what’s news, what might affect our plans. News media feeds this appetite endlessly and would do itself out of a living if its reports ran along the lines of, say: Such and such happened today and it’s terribly similar to what happened ten years ago and also to what happened forty years ago and everybody thought then that it was going to change everything but it didn’t.

There is hubris in regarding ours as the pivotal moment in history—a shocking hubris given that every age has thought this way—but it is vital to the sale of news to maintain this pretence. To see the repeated patterns may not actually make it easier to resolve the problems we now face—after all, the most common repeated pattern is one of failure—but I have wondered whether it would lead to a feeling of familiarity, which would have a calming effect, a sense that we are not at the edge of a precipice without parallel. Of course, this is a nightmare to those who rely on us feeling frightened all the time.

10. During the Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict, London (June 2014) the birangonas stories were not shared in the official programme; a silence that was marked by protests. Whereas in your novel there are many epigraphs drawing the reader’s attention to the Bangladeshi women raped during conflict. Please comment.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? Tahmima Anam, the distinguished Bangladeshi novelist, has written evocatively about the plight of the Birangonas. But one finds oneself still asking: who is listening? Every aspect of the suffering that these women have been through at the hands of Pakistani soldiers and Bangladeshi collaborators is stomach-churning. But it galls me to think that after rape and violence during the war many of them returned to communities that turned their backs on them.

11.  How would you define yourself? By the country of origin or domicile or a bit of both like Zafar who is perceived as “Anglo-Bangla”?

I am often asked where I’m from—in Europe, mainly because of my skin color, and in the US, mainly because of my British accent. I know that this is the case because in the US when I say that I was born in Bangladesh, nine times out of ten, an American probes further to get an explanation of the accent. But if, instead, I tell Americans that I grew up in the UK, there seem to be no further questions. I’m explaining this because nobody ever actually asks me to define myself; the question is invariably “Where are you from?” and behind that question there is a desire to have something specific resolved—why the skin color or accent? Nor do I myself ever stand in the mirror and ask: Zia, how do you define your identity? Identity, per se, has not been an issue I have felt a need to resolve. Does a lion need to know that it is called a lion?

That said, I have long sought a sense of belonging to a place, something lacking in my psyche. The insufficiency is not without its advantages, of course. I think it keeps one a little removed from things, which is a helpful vantage from which to observe. And this slight dislocation can make for interesting personal experiences. But the cost is brutal. Human beings need roots, perhaps not all humans, but I rather suspect it is the norm to attach to a piece of land, to the ground that will one day take us back.

12. You are represented by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie, a dream beginning for a debut author. How did this come to pass?

I was introduced to the agency by a mutual acquaintance. I have been lucky in many ways over the years beginning with the enormous good fortune of having access to healthcare and schooling and libraries and, at least after the first few years, to a decent meal every day, all the way through to the sheer luck of living in a place where university education did not require me or my family to bring resources of our own. If humanity cared enough about fairness, then luck of this kind would have no place in determining the fate of a child.

22 July 2014 

 

 

Idris Ali: Daftari ( Bookbinder)

Idris Ali: Daftari ( Bookbinder)

Idris Ali, bookbinding

(Guest post by Prof. Aloke Kumar. Reposted with his permission. 10 Aug 2013. )

IDRIS ALI : Daftari

With Id passing away I missed Idris Ali, my father’s Daftari. For a very selfish reason. He used to bring a ‪‎Biryani‬ of Dumba Sheep on the Id day to celebrate the festival. Dumba sheep is a delicacy. This sheep has an extra fat pack on its tail beginning, adding extra oil and lanolin. Idris’s wife would prepare the Biryani but the preparation for the presentation was an elaborate affair. Idris would come in the morning with his son and prepare a ‘rasoi’ in the corridor, far from the kitchen as my grandmother would not allow entry of food cooked by Muslims to enter home.. Bricks were laid in a triangular formation with gaps and clay applied to seal them together. Then preparation would be made for a wood fire, without lighting it, just to throw in an ember. Then in the afternoon he would arrive in a rickshaw with a huge cauldron of Daccai Biryani with Dumba meat. This itself was a meal. What a feast. There would be enough for the neighbours to join in.

Idris came with his family during the ‎partition‬ from East ‪#‎Bengal‬ to settle in Baithakkhana Road. The home of the traditional book binders. My father discovered him in one of his sojourns in the area in search of a Muslim bookbinder. He had these quaint beliefs. Books and Man should be clothed by ‪#‎Muslim‬ ‘‪#‎Karighar‬’. So all his kurtas and books were taken care by them.

Idris Ali was a Daftari by tradition, a book-binder. He was a slim bodied man with a conic beard under his clean shaved upper lip. I always saw him in Pyjama and Kurta with a round Iraqi cap on his head. He reminded me of Tagore’s Abdul Maji who brought in turtle eggs for his brother Jyotirindranath. He wore a watch inside out presented by my father, not because he had no sense of time but on the contrary that he had a sense and continuously asked people the time in order to be punctual. In spite of his simplicity, his overall appearance reflected dignity and self-respect.

He addressed My father as Chachaa ji . My father liked and loved him. He said he was god gifted and could give life to ‘dead’ books. Whenever he came to my place, my father welcomed him warmly. My father was an antiquarian and a great book- lover. He collected rare books, manuscripts on palm leaf or on hand made paper old paper. He took care of these like his own children. Idris Ali helped him in preserving such books with his expertise in binding.

Idris made use of various methods to secure sheets of paper into a secure binding. As part of the process, a bookbinder will also attach front and back covers to the secured pages. With some methods of binding books, the final product includes the creation of a spine for the book. And this is most crucial as it held the book together,just like a human.

Bookbinder may employ several different approaches to creating a finished product. Sewing is the preferred method with hardcover books. With this approach, the bookbinder will sometimes use a process that is known as over sewing. Small holes are punched into the sheets and are then sewn together to create a secure bind. The cover can then be sewn to the pages. While very secure, over sewing does not make it possible to open the book and leave it laying flat on a desktop. It has to be accurate. Bookbinding is an art.

The art and craft of bookbinding originated in India, where religious sutras were copied on to palm leaves ,cut into two, lengthwise, with a metal stylus. The leaf was then dried and rubbed with ink, which would form a stain in the wound. The finished leaves were given numbers, and two long twines were threaded through each end through wooden boards, making a palm-leaf book. When the book was closed, the excess twine would be wrapped around the boards to protect the manuscript leaves. Buddhist monks took the idea through Persia, Afghanistan, and Iran, to China in the first century BC.

Idris developed a relation with our family. He came and collected the old books and wrapped them up in a shawl to carry it to his humble workshop cum home in Baithukhana. Sometimes my father would collect it from him or he would bring it back. He paid him handsomely and became my bone of contention. Why pay more? My father had this philosophy of philanthropy and always took care of the people who touched his life. He would not give alms of small coins to a beggar but parted with fortunes to take care of the education and marriages of many girls, irrespective of their religion. Idris had three daughters and all were married off by my father.

My grandmother was a orthodox Hindu and even did not allow the entry of chicken in our household as she believed they were reared by Muslims. So when her Ramcharitmanas was in tatters nobody could suggest that it be bound . But all the ‪#‎Ganges‬ water did take its toll and it was falling apart. So one day she relented. My father without much ado and wasting time for my grandmother to change her decision called me to take the manuscript to Idris. I went to his shop. It was morning time and he was reading a ‪#‎Urdu‬ newspaper. He looked at me and asked about the work silently by nodding his face upward. I showed him the book. He immediately asked: ‘Ramayan ji?’ Without caring to see the condition of the book or examining it he told me to bring it next week. I did not like, the way he refused to take up the job. I went back home and told my father that he has refused to take up the job. My father could not believe. He asked me to repeat, what exactly happened and I told him that he has asked me to bring it next week, though he was sitting idle, reading a newspaper. My father’s reaction was: ‘Don’t worry, he will do it,’. I could not appreciate his reaction.

After a week’s time Idris came home and took the Ramcharitmanas. After some days my father sent me to collect back the book. When I reached to his shop, he welcomed me smilingly and asked to wait a while. He went inside the attached room and brought the book wrapped in ‘red salu’ cloth. He gave it to me. I opened it and could not believe that it was the same book. It’s all torn and tattered pages were re adjusted with transparent paper, so accurately that they were looking better than the pages that were intact. The beautiful hard-bound coloured cloth cover was not only aesthetically satisfying, but it had whipped new breath of life into the dying book. It was a job well done.

I still had his last reaction in my mind. It was a proper time to ask him the reason for not accepting it the first time. He felt a little shy and told me that his son-in law had come. Variety of food was being prepared for him along with meat of animal, prohibited by Hindus. He also ate along with his family and his conscience did not allow him to touch my grandmother’s sacred book. After his son-in law left, he stopped eating beef and then one day he specially prepared himself by bathing in the morning and came to our house to collect the book. The book was in very bad condition. Generally, when its pages are corrected, it needs to be tightened for good and durable binding. A wooden piece is placed on the book and pressure is applied on it by foot. But, in this case he had to ask his wife to hold on with her hand while he did the work. It was a difficult job. But a job well done.

This was Idris Ali. In his old age Idris handed over the shop to his son and returned to ‪#‎Bangladesh‬ with his only ‘bibi’. My father had dissuaded him from taking many wives and he was faithful to Fatima . His son’s shifted premise to Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road where they took a dwelling attached to the shop. Ram Ray,the advertising genius, wanted a good binder and I had recommended Idris’s son. But I was told that the standard did not meet his expectation.

As for my own self I have hunted out another binder. But to be honest I do my own repairing of books which I learnt from my days in scouting from Errol Colaco which did earn me my merit badge in Bookbinding.

(C) Aloke Kumar, Professor of Communication.Faculty Member at University of Calcutta, Faculty Member at IIM Calcutta and Visiting Lecturer at National University of Singapore.