obituary Posts

Jaya’s newsletter 8 ( 14 Feb 2017)

It has been a hectic few weeks as January is peak season for book-related activities such as the immensely successful world book fair held in New Delhi, literary festivals and book launches. The National Book Trust launched what promises to be a great platform — Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Guwahati. An important announcements was by Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair wherein she announced a spotlight on India at the fair, March 2017.  In fact, the Bookaroo Trust – Festival of Children’s Literature (India) has been nominated in the category of The Literary Festival Award of International Excellence Awards 2017. (It is an incredible list with fantabulous publishing professionals such as Marcia Lynx Qualey for her blog, Arablit; Anna Soler-Pontas for her literary agency and many, many more!) Meanwhile in publishing news from India, Durga Raghunath, co-founder and CEO, Juggernaut Books has quit within months of the launch of the phone book app.

In other exciting news new Dead Sea Scrolls caves have been discovered; in an antiquarian heist books worth more than £2 m have been stolen; incredible foresight State Library of Western Australia has acquired the complete set of research documents preliminary sketches and 17 original artworks from Frane Lessac’s Simpson and his Donkey, Uruena, a small town in Spain that has a bookstore for every 16 people  and community libraries are thriving in India!

Some of the notable literary prize announcements made were the longlist for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize, the longlist for the richest short story prize by The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the highest Moroccan cultural award has been given to Chinese novelist, Liu Zhenyun.

Since it has been a few weeks since the last newsletter the links have piled up. Here goes:

  1. 2017 Reading Order, Asian Age
  2. There’s a pair of bills that aim to create a copyright small claims court in the U.S. Here’s a breakdown of one
  3. Lord Jeffery Archer on his Clifton Chronicles
  4. An interview with award-winning Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan
  5. Pakistani Author Bilal Tanweer on his recent translation of the classic Love in Chakiwara
  6. Book review of Kohinoor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand
  7. An article on the award-winning book Eye Spy: On Indian Modern Art
  8. Michael Bhaskar, co-founder, Canelo, on the power of Curation
  9. Faber CEO speaks out after winning indie trade publisher of the year
  10. Scott Esposito’s tribute to John Berger in LitHub
  11. An interview with Charlie Redmayne, Harper Collins CEO
  12. Obituary by Rakhshanda Jalil for Salma Siddiqui, the Last of the Bombay Progressive Writers.
  13. Wonderful article by Mary Beard on “The public voice of women
  14. Enter the madcap fictional world of Lithuanian illustrator Egle Zvirblyte
  15. Salil Tripathi on “Illuminating evening with Prabodh Parikh at Farbas Gujarati Sabha
  16. The World Is Never Just Politics: A Conversation with Javier Marías
  17. George Szirtes on “Translation – and migration – is the lifeblood of culture
  18. Syrian writer Nadine Kaadan on welcoming refugees and diverse books
  19. Zhou Youguang, Who Made Writing Chinese as Simple as ABC, Dies at 111
  20. Legendary manga creator Jiro Taniguchi dies
  21. Pakistani fire fighter Mohammed Ayub has been quietly working in his spare time to give children from Islamabad’s slums an education and a better chance at life.
  22. #booktofilm
    1. Lion the memoir written by Saroo Brierley has been nominated for six Oscars. I met Saroo Brierley at the Australian High Commission on 3 February 2017. 
    2. Rachel Weisz to play real-life gender-fluid Victorian doctor based on Rachel Holmes book
    3. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda to star in Netflix’s adaptation of Kent Haruf’s incredibly magnificent book Our Souls at Night
    4. Saikat Majumdar says “Exciting news for 2017! #TheFirebird, due out in paperback this February, will be made into a film by #BedabrataPain, the National Award winning director of Chittagong, starring #ManojBajpayee and #NawazuddinSiddiqi. As the writing of the screenplay gets underway, we debate the ideal language for the film. Hindi, Bengali, English? A mix? Dubbed? Voice over?
    5. 7-hour audio book that feels like a movie: Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller and 166 Other People Will Narrate George Saunders’ New Book – Lincoln in the Bardo.
    6. Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson on creating those jaw-dropping visual effects

New Arrivals ( Personal and review copies acquired)

  • Jerry Pinto Murder in Mahim 
  • Guru T. Ladakhi Monk on a Hill 
  • Bhaswati Bhattacharya Much Ado over Coffee: Indian Coffee House Then and Now 
  • George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo 
  • Katie Hickman The House at Bishopsgate 
  • Joanna Cannon The Trouble with Goats and Sheep 
  • Herman Koch Dear Mr M 
  • Sudha Menon She, Diva or She-Devil: The Smart Career Woman’s Survival Guide 
  • Zuni Chopra The House that Spoke 
  • Neelima Dalmia Adhar The Secret Diary of Kasturba 
  • Haroon Khalid Walking with Nanak 
  • Manobi Bandhopadhyay A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi: A Candid Biography of India’s First Transgender Principal 
  • Ira Mukhopadhyay Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth & History 
  • Sumana Roy How I Became A Tree 
  • Invisible Libraries 

14 February 2017 

On “Dying” and “In Gratitude”

jenni-diski51hmou4betl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is what I am after. 

Jenni Diski In Gratitude 

Two women writers, Jenni Diski and Cory Taylor, are diagnosed with cancer and its inoperable. Trying to come to terms with the doctor’s grim prognosis is not easy. Suddenly time takes on a different meaning. Jenni Diski began a column for the London Review of Books once her cancer was diagnosed. It was a series a essays that were published reflecting on her life, her birth family, her writing, her school and most significantly her complicated relationship with the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who took fifteen-year-old Jennifer Simmonds under her wing. The Australian writer Cory Taylor too spends a while in her memoir, Dying, remembering her mother and the choices she made. In both the memoirs what comes across clearly is that the two dying writers are reflecting upon their past but are also hugely influenced by and acknowledge the presence of the women who made the writers what they are. Jenni Diski had always nursed a desire to be a writer but had not been very focused about it till she met Doris Lessing and was introduced to her world of writers and other creative minds who always made interesting conversation and had ideas to offer. Cory Taylor discovered that her mother had had a dream to be a writer but never achieved it. She writes in Dying : “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. …I’m never happier than when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or watching the world as a writer, and it has been this way from the start.” Three Australian writers including Benjamin Law wrote a beautiful obituary for Cory Taylor in the Guardian terming Dying as a “remarkable gift” for providing a vocabulary and invitation to speak about that “unmentionable thing”, a “monstrous silence” — death. ( 6 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2dPq0Mx ) These sentiments on writing and the gift of the memoir can probably be extended to Jenni Diski and In Gratitude too.

Apart from Jenni Diski’s and Cory Taylor’s preoccupation with writing and their evolution as writers what comes 41vdphgesjlthrough strongly in both memoirs is the tussle between secular and religious modes of coping with death and its rituals. Also how ill-prepared a secular upbringing makes an individual in understanding burial rites or managing one’s grief once a loved one departs. How does one mourn? The structures of religious rituals seem to take care of the moments of sorrow. There is much to do. Yet the challenge of speaking of death and the process of dying is not easy. Cory Taylor had even contemplated euthanasia and ultimately passed away in hospice care.

In Gratitude and Dying: A memoir put the spotlight on the magnificent leaps medicine and technology have made, in many cases it has prolonged life but with it is the baggage of ethics — whether it is possible to go through the agony of pain while dying a slow death or to end it all swiftly by assisted suicide or euthanasia. These are critical issues not necessarily the focus areas of both books although Cory Taylor confesses in having contemplated euthanasia. While reading the memoirs innumerable questions inevitably arise in a reader’s mind.

Some of the literature  published recently has been seminal in contributing to the growing awareness and need to discuss death increasingly in modern times when advancement in medical technology seems to prolong human suffering. Also in an increasingly polarised world between the secular and religious domains bring to the fore the disturbed confusion that reigns in every individual on how to deal with the dying, the finality of death, disposal of the mortal remains and the despair it leaves the distraught survivors in. Some links are:

  1. “Daughters of Australian scientists who took their own lives reflect on their parents’ plan” http://bit.ly/2dDfvc8 ( Jan 2016)
  2. Amitava Kumar’s essay “Pyre” published in Granta ( https://granta.com/pyre/ ) and recently republished in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
  3. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal ( 2015)
  4. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air ( 2016)
  5. Aleksander Hemon’s moving essay on his infant daughter’s brain cancer ( “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness” JUNE 13 & 20, 2011 ISSUE http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium )
  6. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture  ( 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo )
  7. Andrew Solomon’s essay on his mother’s decision to opt for euthanasia ( “A  Death of One’s Own” 22 May 1995 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/22/a-death-of-ones-own )

In Gratitude and Dying are strangely comforting while being thought provoking in raising uncomfortable questions about mortality, importance of time, maintenance of familial ties and doing that which pleases or gives the individual peace. Both the memoirs have a confident writing style as if by capturing memories in words the writers are involved a therapeutic process of facing their mortality while the urgency to their writing has an unmistakable strength to its tenor as if no one will have the time to dispute their published words.

Read these books.

Jenni Diski In Gratitude Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 250 £12.99 

Cory Taylor Dying: A Memoir Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. £12.99 

24 Oct 2016 

 

 

Tamil author Perumal Murugan stands tall, Bookwitty

(My article on Perumal Murugan and the magnificent judgement delivered by Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul on 5 July 2016. It was published on the wonderful European literary website Bookwitty.com on 2 August 2016. Here is the original url: https://bookwitty.com/text/tamil-author-perumal-murugan-stands-tall/579a0b24acd0d01df04c6447 . As an addendum to the published article I am adding three very significant quotes provided by eminent historian Romila Thapar, lawyer Lawrence Liang and Prof. Venkatachalapathy. Unfortunately due to lack of space these could not accommodated in the original article. Read on.)

 

 

Last July the Madras High Court made a landmark judgement about a book that was under threat of censorship. This had led to its author leaving his home and ceasing to write. At the judgement, Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul stated: “the choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book…the right to write is unhindered.” Using Biblical imagery he continued: “Let the author be resurrected for what he is best at, to write.”

It was the end of a two-year trial that was a sobering reminder of how easy it is to conduct a witch-hunt in modern times.

The author in question is the award-winning Perumal Murugan and the book is Madhorubhagan or One Part Woman, ( published by Kalachuvadu) set about a century ago in Tiruchengode, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Murugan, a teacher at the local government college, has a doctorate in Tamil Literature and is a highly respected chronicler on the Kongu region. One Part Woman is the story about Kali and Ponna, a childless peasant couple. It is an open secret that families on both sides are encouraging Kali to marry a second time, an idea he is deeply unhappy about. Meanwhile Ponna is persuaded by her family to participate in the Vaikasi Visakam chariot festival misleading her into believing that Kali would approve.

When the English translation by Anirrudhan Vasudevan was published, a growing buzz ensued because the crux of the novel focuses on a local practice that allowed for childless couples to participate in a carnivalesque gathering and on the 14th night have consensual sex with anyone under the cover of darkness. Children conceived on this night were considered to besami kodutha pillai or God-given children. This ancient tradition apparently had social sanction.

Ironically, the backlash against the novel began four years after it had been published in Tamil, demonstrating the impact a translation can make. It was the publication of the English edition that concerned the petitioners more for “a foreigner or people from other places who read this novelized history get a wrong notion that Tamil culture is lascivious and that a sexual orgy festival as portrayed in fact takes place in Arthanareeswarar Temple. The novel is thus alleged to be offensive and scandalous, and unless curtailed, would lead future generations to think that the events narrated in the novel are true.”

In late 2014 Murugan had just returned from a literary retreat in Bangalore where he had gone to work on the sequels to One Part Woman. A nightmare was to begin for him: abusive anonymous callers harassed him over the phone, accusing him of being a Christian, anti-Hindu, and anti-Kongu Vellar. A few days later, copies of One Part Woman were burned. Despite lodging a complaint with the police on the night of the book-burning incident, no action was taken. Muragan even issued a long clarification the next day explaining his art and promising to revise his text in all future editions and to scrub out all references to Tiruchengode.

But Hindu fundamentalists remained furious, arguing that Tiruchengode is a historical temple town and that writing about real places “relating it with unreal sexual orgy” is disrespectful to women, suggesting they are prostitutes. A ban of the novel was thus sought on three primary grounds: obscenity, defamation, and that it was derogatory and hurtful to the religious sentiments of the Hindus. A court case was filed against the author. Murugan fled with his family to Madras from where he issued his now famous “obituary”.

The case was then fought for more than a year in the Madras High Court.

In AR Venkatachalapathy’s article “Who Killed Perumal Murugan?” included in Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, an anthology on censorship and free speech edited by renowned poet K Satchidanandan, he writes that from a modern perspective Muragan’s description in One Part Woman of conceiving children may be considered exotic or even immoral but “Such practices are by no means unique. Any anthropologist would attest to similar practices in many pre modern societies with no access to assisted conception. Classical Hindu traditions refer to this practice as niyoga—it’s even termed niyoga dharma, an indication of its religious sanction.”

The recent Madras High Court judgement also documents how the hate campaign against Murugan included circulating eight pages extracted from the novel without any context. Furthermore, it lists sufficient literary evidence to prove many elements of One Part Woman are based upon folklore and older.

After the case was ruled in his favour, Murugan applied for a transfer back to the college where he had been teaching. And within three weeks his short story, Neer Vilayattu (The Well), newly translated by N Kalyan Raman was released for free by Juggernaut Books on their app.

Of the outcome, journalist and Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, Salil Tripathi concluded: “The judgment is terrific in stating clearly what common sense should have dictated all along. This isn’t surprising; after all Sanjay Kishen Kaul had written the wonderful judgment defending the late M.F. Husain’s right to paint. That judgment, and this, together are part of India’s jurisprudence defending the right of any creative person to imagine and create art. After all, art challenges our thinking and may even offend; the way to deal with it is to respond by countering it through argument, through expression (and not violence or intimidation), and even by choosing to avoid seeing it or reading that book. What Husain experienced in his last years was tragic; it is good that Perumal Murugan has received justice – it is now for the state to defend his right to express himself freely.”

Perumal Murugan’s large-hearted response to the judgement was “I will get up. It is just that my mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment. My thanks to friends who stood by me. My thanks also to friends who stood against me.”

***

Here are what some of the eminent academics, lawyers, historians and journalists I spoke to said. The following quotes could not be accommodated in the original article but I have reproduced them for their significance.

Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a Fellow of the British Academy and a recipient of the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, Romila Thapar said “It was a good judgement in support of the right to freedom of expression for writers. It can also be quoted as a precedent in future cases involving attempts to silence writers. As has been pointed out by others, we as citizens must also create public opinion in support of free speech and not leave its defence only to the judiciary.

Prof Venkatachalapathy wrote“… it’s also worrying how everything hinges on the judge. A reactionary judge could have, in the same legal language, upheld all the charges against Perumal Murugan.” He went on to caution that non-state actors who enforce censorship do not respect such judgement so “while such judgments strengthen democratic and liberal forces we need to keep vigil.”

Lawrence Liang adds:

So I see the judgment as belonging to a series of very good high court judgments (some of which are also cited in the PM judgment) including the Husain judgment by Sanjay Kaul, Justice Muralidhar’s judgment in the Kabir case (Srishti Design School)- all of which provide relief in the specific instance, while laying out a wider jurisprudence of free speech for future cases. The reason I point out to the fact that this is a high court decision is that we often rely only on Supreme court decisions (by nature of their binding value) and often in the  terrain of free speech, a lot of the SC judgments were laid down in the fifties and sixties. Further they were large benches which makes them difficult to overrule, so lower courts have to maouevere their way around the thicket of bad precedents.
In the specific case of the PM judgment
1. The court dismisses the argument of causing offensive to communities and explicitly states that any kind of contrarian opinion is met with the accusation that it offends
2. The court recognises the chilling effects principle (laid down in Shreya Singhal) by acknowledging harassment of writers as a threat to free speech
3. The court uses the idea contemporary community standards in concluding that the work is not obscene
For all the reasons cited above, it is a very welcome addition to free speech jurisprudence, and had there not been relief in a case like Perumal’s where an author was driven to the point of relinquishing writing, it would have been both a legal as well as grave literary injustice if the courts did not respond in adequate measure.
3 August 2016

 

 

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