Pakistan Posts

Amitava Kumar’s “The Lovers”

My review of Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers was published in OPEN Magazine on 25 August 2017. Here is the original url titled “A Passage to America” . I am also c&p the text below. 

An immigrant finds his place of mind—like the author himself

The Lovers | Amitava Kumar | Aleph | 255 Pages | Rs 599

AMITAVA KUMAR’S The Lovers is about Kailash, born in Ara, Bihar, who moved to the US in 1990. At college he met his mentor Ehsaan Ali when Kailash enrolled in his ‘Colonial Encounters’ class. To earn a few extra dollars, Kailash worked in a university bookshop. Some of the women he met on campus became good friends, some his lovers. With every woman— Jennifer, Nina, Laura, Maya and Cai Yan—he learned a little more about himself as a man, a lover, a student, a reader and of his culture, whichever one it may be at a given moment. The Lovers works at multiple levels. Superficially the novel explores different shades of love— puppy love, sexual love and marital. At another level it is the platonic and nurturing love between teacher (Ehsaan Ali) and student (Kailash) that is the bedrock of the novel. Ever so slowly and gently, the promising student Kailash blossoms as a teaching assistant and later, writer. ‘The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.’ The narrator relies heavily upon memory to plot his journey and define his identity—tough since ‘he had become a translated man, no longer able to connect completely with his past.’

The Lovers is an autobiographical novel documenting the trajectory of Kailash aka Kalashnikov or AK47 or AK from the burning plains of India to an intellectual in America, a path very similar to that of the author himself. Kailash may not be Stephen Dedalus but he certainly grows in confidence, wherein his tastes in literature are concerned. It is evident in the structure of the novel. Over the years, from being an Indian student unsure about the literary canon he grew up with, Kailash becomes familiar with examples of international literature such as Gramsci, Tagore, Wittgenstein, Hanif Kureishi, Luis Borges, Agnes Smedley, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judith Butler, Virginia Woolf, Nazım Hikmet et al. Slowly he incorporates desi writers such as Ismat Chughtai too. He realises that the India he left in the 1990s has changed to become a new India which is disconcertingly unrecognisable and is now part of the global village.

The immigrant novel is in a category of literary fiction which straddles two cultures—the author’s land of birth and adopted country. In The Lovers, despite having had the privilege of getting an American citizenship, Kailash continues to feel lost in his adopted country. ‘My father had grown up in a hut. I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York.’ He tries to fit in, but falters at times. Even world literature that exposes him to various cultures fails to help, and leaves him yearning for the holy grail of the ‘hybrid culture that groups of people scattered across the world, removed from their roots, have created in response to alienation and a kind of collective loneliness?’ This is unlike his adventurous friend Pushkin Krishnagrahi, a Brahmin from Gwalior, a member of the new India who was now at home anywhere in the world.

It is significant that The Lovers has been released in the 70th year of Independence for India and Pakistan. As with two lovers, there is an intensely passionate relationship between the two countries which has historically been hostile. In the novel the two countries are represented by its citizens —Ehsan Ali (Pakistan) and Kailash (India) who away from their countries do not harbour any ill feelings towards each other and live in harmony. Ehsan Ali is probably modelled upon the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed, a prominent anti-war activist.

The Lovers is extraordinary craftsmanship, charting the blossoming of a timid new immigrant into a confident writer.

25 August 2017

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

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

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

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

To continue reading the essay please visit:  “India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

An Interview with Shandana Minhas of the New, Karachi-based Mongrel Books

( My interview with Shandana Minhas was published on the literary website, Bookwitty. )  

Award-winning writer Shandana Minhas and her husband, journalist and playwright Imran Yusuf recently founded Mongrel Books, a small press based in Karachi. Their first title, The Mongrel Book of Voices, Volume 1, Breakups was published in January 2017. It consists of different forms around the theme of breakups, very broadly interpreted, with work by 21 writers from 9 countries. It’s available in bookstores across Pakistan, and there is a Kindle edition too. Three more titles are to be published later this year.

Shandana Minhas’s first novel, Tunnel Vision, was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the second, Survival Tips for Lunatics, won the Karachi Literature Festival Fiction Prize. Daddy’s Boy is her third novel. She has also written for stage, screen, Op-Ed pages, and is an honorary fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her short fiction has appeared in The Indian Quarterly and Griffith Review. Imran Yusuf’s play Stumped won the first NAPA playwriting award in Pakistan and was staged in Delhi and Kolkata as well. He has also had readings in theatres in London.

An Interview with Shandana Minhas of the New, Karachi-based Mongrel Books - Image 1

Following is an interview with Shandana Minhas:

Why did you decide to found Mongrel Books? How did you choose the name?

We thought shelves in Pakistan had room for, and need of, books that might not otherwise make it to the market. And books that are affordable too. For instance, I am currently reading Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, which Imran bought from the local chain bookstore for Rs 2095. Which means that was the only book we could buy that month. Even second hand books in ‘old book stores’ now cost between 250-650 rupees. That’s the price range we would like to stay within.

I have always called myself a mongrel, in terms of being a little bit of this and a little bit of that. My father is Muslim, my mother is Christian and I’m not even going to start on the ethnic mix. We also had a lot of mongrels around the house when we were growing up, in Karachi, we’d spend all day on the streets and bring them home with us. When we were deciding on a name it was the first choice for us. There were others though. What made up my mind to stick with Mongrel was somebody I was brainstorming with telling me I shouldn’t call it Mongrel because a lot of Pakistanis didn’t like dogs and I would alienate potential customers. I heard a lot of that when I was a kid too, of course, when there were so many dogs around. ‘The angels won’t come to your house’ or ‘You can’t pray with them around’. I still say ‘Excellent!’ Seriously, the term reminds us of a kinder time, of a less homogenous or monolithic culture.

What is its focus? What are your first books about?

Mongrel Books’ focus in fiction is good story telling, and in non-fiction work that challenges or enriches contemporary ways of looking and seeing.

Will you be publishing only in English? Or in translation as well?

We will publish original work in English as well as translations into English. Pakistan itself has a vast reservoir of stories in Sindhi, Punjabi, Hindko, Seraiki and other languages, and we hope to build relationships with translators to bring some of those to people who might not otherwise know them.

What are the new projects you are working on?

We are set to publish a comedy of errors set in space, a first novel from talented Pakistani sci-fi writer Sidra F. Sheikh. And a non-fiction title from journalist Kamal Siddiqi, The Other Pakistanis, which bears anecdotal witness to the lives of non-Muslims here. Then there is another first novel about corporate life in Karachi from a highly original, unsettling writer who prefers to remain mysterious till the pages – and the bodies –cool. For next year, I’m collaborating with gifted illustrator Aziza Ahmad on a collection of graphic short stories, In Laws from Space and other tales of Domestic Woe, there is a novel and a short story collection from the reading pile I’ve got my beady eyes on, and fiction that children here can actually relate to as well. And of course we plan to do the second volume of The Mongrel Book of Voices.

Does your having previously published fiction in India have anything to do with launching a publishing house in Pakistan?

Peripherally, yes. Indian publishing is excellent; skilled, curious, open and vast. That vastness…there is a fine line between being embraced and being swallowed. Apart from a respite from the strangeness of being intellectually intimate with somebody you will never meet – your editor, your publisher, your agent, there is a practicality to local publishing for local writers as well. Distance, visa regimes, arbitration options and banking laws are not friends to Pakistani writers being published across the border. Even something as simple as receiving your royalties can become a Kafkaesque nightmare. For example, I still haven’t received a payment I was due in 2014.

What is the Pakistani readership like? Is there sufficient book hunger for local books in English?

All I can offer you is what has been offered to me, in spoken words. There is no centralized data collection. The circulation of Urdu digests featuring a steady diet of misogynistic moralizing to upwardly mobile women is in the hundreds of thousands. The number of people who go to the Karachi International Book fair – where sales actually happen – has climbed every year and might now be half a million, and though a lot of stalls there sell what might politely be dubbed literature of a religious persuasion, children’s books do well too, as do cookbooks – ring binding and all – and cheap editions of novels considered to be classics. Cookbooks, pulp piety, platonic romances, children’s books, nostalgia…it seems, then, that Pakistanis are hungry readers but they just might not have the most balanced diet.

…it seems, then, that Pakistanis are hungry readers but they just might not have the most balanced diet.

But figures are much lower for English titles. In chain bookstores, state-of-the-nation non-fiction sells the most. One bookseller tells me English language fiction only has to sell five hundred copies to be considered a bestseller. An internationally visible title from conglomerate publishing will have no trouble getting pre-orders. Other figures I have been given for what constitutes a bestseller in the English language in Pakistan are eight hundred and fifty and three thousand. Pricing does little to diminish the perception that English is just the language for the narcissistic preoccupations of a parasitic elite rather than, say, the language of a minority whose holy book might be the King James Bible. The more upmarket demographic happily invests thousands in the latest coffee table exceptionalism – Our ruins! Our textiles! Our jewellery! Our truck art! Our haemorrhoids!

So far, most books were routed through India but will having a local publishing program make a difference to the price points?

Absolutely. And that might have all kinds of interesting knock on effects. Like most other places in the world, here too there is an increasing gap between the haves and the have nots. If we persist in the perpetuation of a world where our children can’t eat, wear or drive the same things, or go to the same schools, maybe they can at least read the same books?

If we persist in the perpetuation of a world where our children can’t eat, wear or drive the same things, or go to the same schools, maybe they can at least read the same books?

 


What are your plans for the future?

The plan for the immediate future is financial survival, the acquisition of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of publishing, and Jedi level time management. It would be premature for us to project further than that.

Today in global publishing there is stress on ensuring free speech and it is not muzzled in any way. What are the pros and cons of publishing in Pakistan?

I note with sadness that the second question would not be prefaced by the first if Mongrel Books was, say, an Estonian press. But there are real dangers, and there is real loss. This makes the need for stories greater. Human beings, as far better writers than me have noted recently, think in stories, learn how to live and how to love from stories, which is why the control of storytelling seems to be a matter of such concern to fundamentalists. So it is a bittersweet truth that, as a pro, we know that what we do here matters.

The cons of publishing in Pakistan are the cons of running a small business in any developing economy. Our most pressing concerns are childcare for the working mother, sourcing quality paper, shoddy printing jobs, the ethics of unregulated labor practices in the binding industry, or that big academic publishers snap up and hoard what paper does come in its warehouses, uninterrupted electricity supply, and the bank manager having no internet access when we need to make international payments. So to temper any impulse to simply label us as yet another example of ‘defying the Taliban’ – something we see being used to market everything from T-shirts to bad filmmaking – please note that the only thing we are currently defying is common sense.

Will you be publishing in traditional print format or embracing ebooks and digital features such as audio, augmented reality etc.?

We will be publishing in traditional print format as well as e-books. As for augmenting reality, I will simply say that I still do not own or know how to use a smartphone. (But my partner does.)

Pakistani authors writing in English are very prominent internationally. Why do you think no other publishing house apart from OUP [Oxford University Press] has set roots locally to encourage literary talent?

OUP in Pakistan is primarily an academic publisher looking to engineer its own access to the cash cow of state curriculums, so its risk aversion makes business sense. The only reason we are actually even mentioning it in a conversation about literary talent is because in recent years it has muddied the waters by pitching its self-marketing fairs in Karachi and Islamabad as ‘literature festivals’, effectively capitalizing on lucrative sponsorship from imperialist powers struggling to maintain influence amongst suddenly speaking subalterns. Other older publishers seem comfortable with the grooves they are in, textbooks and backlists. And there are issues like piracy, lack of transparency in accounting and royalties keeping writers away too. An increasing amount are choosing to self-publish.

What is the history of independent publishing in Pakistan? Is there space for it now?

I can’t answer that. I don’t think anyone can! There is no way to tell what is going on or what has been going on in terms of publishing, beyond the surface of it, because as I mentioned earlier there has been no centralized data collection. And booksellers here still play things very close to the chest.

“Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?”

41DEZH1RXvL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_In the week when Kashmir is burning after the death of twenty-one-year-old Burhan Wani or as he is being referred in Indian media as “the poster boy of new militancy” ( http://bit.ly/29BWjgf ) it would be sobering to read Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? Published by Zubaan in March 2016 it is about the mass rape of women and the brutal sexual torture of men in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora by soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces. The book also includes the text of the confidential report of the then Divisional Commissioner Kashmir Wajahat Habibullah (along with the deleted paragraphs). Since the book was published there were more developments in the case but could not be included in the publication. 

I am posting extracts from the book. The sequencing is mine.

While I was composing this blog post noted human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover posted on Facebook the following: 

Our silence, as young protestors are being killed in Kashmir and many severely injured, is suffocating me.
Kashmir is a political dispute and needs a political engagement. We must protest and demand an end to this militarisation. After the 2010 killings of over 112 persons by security forces in Kashmir, 4 of us – Sukumar Muralidharan, Bela Somari and Ravi Hemadri and myself – traveled across Kashmir visted the families of those killed and the wounded. We documented the excessive and indiscriminate use of lethal force against unarmed protestors that led to the grievous loss of life; the pellet gun and catapults that caused blindness and multiple organ injuries; the hospital in Patan that was attacked by the CRPF where injured were being treated and a child shot dead in the hospital premises; children like Tufail Mattoo and Sameer Rah were killed. No FIR was ever lodged and no one was held accountable for these killings. https://kafila.org/2011/03/26/four-months-the-kashmir-valley-will-never-forget-a-fact-finding-report/
Death has rolled its dice again.”

“We knew that if we remained silent, they would do it again, if not in our village then somewhere else.” — A survivor 

 

This book is that you are about to read is unusual, special and quite extraordinary. It spans, traverses and tracks a long passage of time — 24 years — during which the truth of the mass rape of women and the brutal sexual torture of men in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora by soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces, was sought to be distorted, denied or buried by the Indian state and its many agencies. When a truth of this nature and magnitude is thus treated or suppressed, the quest for justice is boosted not only amongst the victims / survivors but also amongst large sections of the population; women and men, none of whom is unscathed or untouched by the mass violence surrounding them. They are in fact, witnesses.

Many have grown up in the midst of this violence; the myriad forms it takes, the fear and terror that it unleashes on a daily basis, the lies and lawlessness of the state; be it on a street or one’s home — it is their lived experience. So it is with the five young authors of this book. They were either not born or just born at the time of the ‘incident’ in early 1991.

When I met these young women in the summer of 2013 ( at the office of JKCCS, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society) in the course of my own work on sexual violence and impunity in J&K, each one of them was poring over various documents in English or Urdu in files that were scattered open; these were the documents that told and corroborated the ‘story’ of the mass rape in Kunan and Poshpora that JKCCS had accessed through several RTIs ( right to information) that they had filed in different government departments. There were also records of the victims’ / survivors’ testimonies that these young women had procured over a period of time. I was struck by the number of documents and the amount of information that was there, it reminded me of how different it was compared to fifteen years ago when hardly any information was available, either official or unofficial, particularly regarding sexual crimes/rape. Silence and fear had prevailed then but here were these young women fearlessly articulating the problem and determined to fight the state authorities for justice and accountability.

I was curious to know what had inspired them to look into a ‘case’ that took place so many years ago, even before some of them were born. What prompted them to take on this arduous journey, to undertake their frequent travels to Kupwara where these two villages are located? How did they manage to gain the trust and confidence of the victims / survivors such that they were willing to share their stories yet again, this time with a group of young, concerned women? One of them voiced it poignantly and succinctly: when a young woman physiotherapy student was gang-raped in a moving bus on the streets of Delhi in December 2012, the outrage among people was such that the entire country erupted into militant protests that demanded justice for the victim and punishment for the accused. How come the frequent rapes in J&K by the armed forces do not move the same Indians to protest this crime, not even when it is a mass rape of women as in Kunan and Poshpora? ‘We decided’, she told me, ‘that we have to raise our voice and wage our own struggle against such crimes. If we don’t, no one else will.’

This sentiment is reflected in the book when the authors ask: Is rape in India punishable but rape in Kashmir justifiable when committed by the men in uniform, the protestors of India’s honour in Kashmir? Is this the typical ‘face’ or attitude of the Indian authorities — of burying the truth and denying Justice? ‘In Kashmir, Justice is a hard thing to find’ say the authors at one point, reminding me of what a Sri Lankan woman in one of the IDP camps had once told me, ‘Justice is a dark room for us’.

The authors thus began to excavate the truth, by sifting it through a web of lies and botched-up investigations, by painstakingly building a bridge of trust and hope between the victims / survivors of Kunan Poshpora and the various courts of law where justice is meant to be dispensed.

These women were instrumental in re-opening the Kunan Poshpora case and demanding that it be re-investigated. They mobilized nearly a hundred women from different walks of life including a few women from their own families. Fifty of them joined these young women to file a PIL ( Public Interest Litigation ) at the lower court in Kupwara in 2013, even though the case had been closed as untraced by the JK police in 1991.

( From the ‘Preface’ by Sahba Husain. pp xxiii – xxvi)

The Sexual Violence and Impunity Project ( SVI) is a three-year research project, supported by the International Development Research Centre ( IDRC), Canada, and coordinated by Zubaan. Led by a group of nine advisors* from five countries ( Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), and supported by groups and individuals on the ground, the SVI project started with the objectives of developing and deepening their understanding on sexual violence and impunity in South Asia through workshops, discussions, interviews and commissioned research papers on the prevalences of sexual violence, and the structures that provide immunity to perpetrators in all five countries.

Our discussions began in January 2012, when a group of women from South Asia came together in a meeting facilitated by a small IDRC grant, to begin the process of thinking about these issues. We were concerned not only at the legal silences around the question of sexual violence and impunity, but also how deeply the ‘normalization’ of sexual violence and the acceptance of impunity, had taken root in our societies.

It became clear to use that women’s movements across South Asia had made important contributions in bringing the issue of sexual violence and impunity to public attention. And yet, there were significant gaps, …

Over the three-year period since this project began, there have been amendments in the criminal law of India and the definition of sexual assault has expanded, we have gained considerable grounds in our understanding on impunity for sexual violence and consequently are better able to speak about it and fight for justice. It is noteworthy that during the recent targeted violence in Muzzafarnagar in India in 2013, seven Muslim women who were brutally gang raped and sexually assaulted by men belonging to other communities, filed writ petitions for protecting their right to life under Article 21. In a landmark judgement in March 2014, recognizing the rehabilitation needs of the survivors of targeted mass rape, the Supreme Court of India ordered that a compensation of INR 500,000 each for rehabilitation be paid to the women by the state government.

The ‘Occupy Baluwatar’ movement of December 2012 which some see as the ripple effects of the Delhi protests against sexual violence and demands for justice, had sexual violence and impunity at its centre. One of the major outcomes of the movement was the 27 November 2015 amendment broadening the definition of rape, bringing same-sex rape and marital rape into the ambit of law.

In Pakistan too, small steps forward were taken in the shape of a parliamentary panel approval in February 2015 of amendments in the anti-rape laws, supporting DNA profiling as evidence during the investigation and prohibition on character assassination of rape victims during the trial. …

The eight volumes ( one each on Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, two on India, and two standalone books on impunity and on an incident of mass rape in Kunan Poshpora in Indian Kashmir) that comprise this series, are one of the many outcomes of this project. The collective knowledge built on the subject through workshops, discussion fora, testimonies and interviews is part of our collective repository and we are committed to making it available to be used by activists, students and scholars. …

( From the Introduction by Urvashi Butalia, Laxmi Murthy and Navsharan Singh. pp ix – xviii)

*The nine advisors are: Ameena Mohsin, Hameeda Hossain, Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, Kumari Jayawardena, Mandira Sharma, Nighat Said Khan, Saba Gul Khattak, Sahba Husain, Sharmila Rege and Uma Chakravarti.

Essar Batool, Irfah Butt, Samreena Mushtaq, Munaza Rashid, & Natasha Rather Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? ( Introduction by Urvashi Butalia, Laxmi Murthy and Navsharan Singh) Zubaan Series on Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia co-published with IDRC, Zubaan, 2016. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 395 

11 July 2016 

 

M. A. Orthofer’s “The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction”

My review of Michael Orthofer’s wonderful book The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction has been published in the award-winning website, Scroll, on 26 June 2016. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/810332/no-book-can-tell-you-about-all-books-but-this-one-comes-close . I am c&p the text below. 

The Complete Review website was established in 1999 by founder and managing editor Michael Orthofer. He has so far reviewed a staggering 3,760 books on that site. His goal is to read a book a day, but he averages about 260 a year. In a profile written for The New Yorker by novelist Karan Mahajan, Orthofer says, “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.”

The Complete Review is a literary salon, gathering reviews and essays about books and literature from all over the world in a short, curated format. Orthofer launched the website after spending more than five months writing the code for it. His rationale for this website was to take advantage of the tremendous reach and connectivity of the internet. His manifesto is laid out in the book of his website:

Suddenly, book reviews from print publications, new online resources, and individual readers from across the world were just a link away. Beyond reviews, an enormous amount of literary coverage, in both local languages and English, has been made available, from traditional newspaper stories to discussions in online forums to blogs devoted to every imaginable facet of reading. Professional websites – publishers’ foreign rights pages, the sites of national organisations promoting local literature abroad such as the French Publishers’ Agency or the Finnish Literature Exchange, and the sites of international literature agencies – provide additional up-to-date information and insights into contemporary fiction from many nations. The Complete Review is designed to help connect readers to much of this information.

Literature nations

Ironically, though, this wide-ranging coverage, because it’s organised chronologically and minutely, does not offer a countrywise bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape. Hence The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. It’s Orthofer’s attempt to provide an entry point as well as a foundation to help readers navigate the literatures of the world.

American readers, one might add, who live in a country where English is the super-dominant language of available books, and translated titles amount to the now legendary three per cent of all titles. One of Orthofer’s attempts in this extraordinary compendium of modern and contemporary fiction is to make these readers aware of what is being written right now in languages other than English.

Sensibly, therefore, Orthofer – who is an immigrant in the US of Austrian origin – has chosen to classify his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature geographically, with the books and authors arranged by nation and region. The sections are broadly divided into Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa, Middle East, and Turkey; Asia; Oceania; Latin America and North America. “Because writers and their fiction move across many borders and languages, national origin, domicile, and language are only rudimentary categories by which to arrange writers,” he writes.

What is very obvious is that Orthofer’s intimate engagement with books has resulted in this crystal clear understanding of the manner in which literature may be mapped. His organisation underlines the close proximity between literature and socio-political factors, a link which is often denied by many.

Talking of books available across geographies makes this a reader’s guide for an English-speaking audience. Orthofer astutely observes that a major drawback of looking only at literature available in English is that it can distort the view of national literatures, as there are many languages from which only a limited number of texts have been translated. “Many nations’ fiction is highly evolved, but because only a tiny amount of it is available in English, it may seem underdeveloped,” he observes.

Orthofer admits that though he has tried to map literature mostly after 1945, there are historical gaps primarily due to some older literature being inaccessible in English. He also rues his inability to list all the translators of all the editions of world literature he has referred to, but he makes up for it by offering resource tools in the appendices.

The view from America

Obviously, the perspective on world literature is an American one. So his fascinating commentary on books and authors focusses on what he is accessible in the US. Despite this constraint, he is able to weave a magical literary web that impressively contextualises authors.

So, given this point of view, can Indian readers trust Orthofer’s pronouncement on the literatures of the world and his assessments of individual writers? One way of judging this is to examine his observations on Indian writers, with whom readers in the country are already familiar.

This is where Orthofer proves how perceptive his readings are. For instance, he says that Amitav Ghosh’s first novel The Circle of Reason embodies the restless ambition that has come to define his work. That Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction is evocative, focusing on expression rather than invention. That Arundhati Roy’s colourful The God of Small Things is undeniably affecting, but Roy has a few too many tricks up her sleeves. One cannot but agree.

What does Orthofer have to say about literature from India’s neighbours? He points out that Pakistan’s Uzma Aslam Khan paints broad portraits of life that are personal and family-oriented, but she also mixes political and social commentary into her fiction. Tahmima Anam from Bangladesh uses the experiences and attitudes of her characters to reflect on Bangladesh’s post-war transition, without reducing them to simplistic types.

Interesting insights

Of course, you might wonder at the rationale for inclusion or omission – but that will only occur to those already familiar with the literature of a region. Thus, while prominent authors of south Asian origin but living in the West, like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam and Manjushree Thapa, are mentioned, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni or the multiple-award-winning Akhil Sharma are not.

Orthofer’s insights make for rewarding reading. For instance, that the lack of translations from Ethiopia may be due to political factors such as never having being colonised or the long spell of dictatorial rule. He observes the rise of the cell-phone novel (keitai shosetsu) in Japan, the setbacks to Russian-language fiction after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the limited exposure to contemporary fiction written in other Indian languages. Orthofer also points out, perceptively, that Indian authors living outside India continue to situate their fiction in their homeland. In his survey of Arabic literature, Othofer focusses on the recent increase in fiction titles despite political censorship, an underdeveloped and fragmented market, and a small book-buying public.

The appendices are gloriously packed with information regarding translations into English and with supplemental resources. The latter includes lists of periodical and online resources, many of which are dedicated to cross-cultural exchange. He also lists publishers who have carved out niches for themselves with translations, among them AmazonCrossing, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Europa Editions, Hispabooks, Open Letter Books, Pushkin Press and Seagull Books.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is that very rare thing: an extraordinarily detailed book where the information is easily accessed and understood. It is a splendid reference, a dependable guide, and a rich map of the world through its books.

M. A. Orthofer The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. Pb. pp. 486  $27.95

26 June 2016

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni “Before We Visit the Goddess”

ChitraOne day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my  hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away. … That’s what it really means to be a fortunate lamp. 

Before We Visit the Goddess is Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. Simply put it is in the fashionable mould of contemporary fiction to have a five-generation saga. It predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women — Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakurni’s novels are the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories every woman experiences and the cultural differences of living in India and USA.

To her credit Divakurni creates charmingly and deceptively “simple” women-centric novels. A utopian scenario is never presented which focuses only upon women at the exclusion of any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly develop their strong personalities. For instance, it could be timid homemaker Bela’s insistence of taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise winning. With the earnings she established a sweet shop in her mother’s name — Durga Sweets. Or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbour, Kevin, who by just being a good person helps her to establish herself as a food blogger successfully. Even bright Tara who disappears from her family’s life after her parents divorce except for a stray phone call or two has quite an adventurous decade. It includes working at a secondhand store called Nearly New Necessities, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs for being a kleptomaniac, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive” or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Pearland to equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. Yet what is admirable about these women is despite the humiliations and hardships they have borne, they strive on.

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without blunting or sentimentalising any of the experiences. For instance the hurt and pain of the young Bela is searing. So is the loneliness, whimsical and wretched behaviour of Leelamoyi, her wealthy benefactress. As with many successful writers they evolve with each book written. In Divakurni’s case her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but in this sixteenth book the inter-generational differences are created magnificently. Her book is also timely for it being published when a debate rages in USA whether to replace the word “India” with “South Asia” in school history textbooks. According to New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.” ( 4 May 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/us/debate-erupts-over-californias-india-history-curriculum.html?_r=0 ) Whereas Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s books elegantly examine identity — what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi. In Before We Visit the Goddess young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians– not ABCD any more but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had for generations. So a posting in this country is as much of an exciting new adventure as it is for anyone else visiting India for the first time.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s stories are ageing gracefully with her. Read Before We Visit the Goddess. 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

8 May 2016

 

Laurie Penny “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution”

Book cover‘Neoliberalism’ refers to the attempt to reorganise society and the state on the basis of an ideal of ‘the market’. Neoliberalism proclaims the logic of business and money is the best determinant of human happiness. …

Neoliberalism is an attempt to build a ‘Machinery of Freedom’, in the words of David Friedman, in which human beings are economic creatures first and foremost. Everything we do should be about ‘maximising utility’, whether it’s in a relationship, in a job, or in social situations. The self is just an entrepreneurial project. The body is just human capital, a set of resources — whether the brain, the breasts or the biceps — which can be put to work generating an income stream. 

This affects everyone — but women most of all. Women are most likely than men to perform labour that is socially necessary but low waged or unwaged, and more likely to need public services and welfare. In this nominally freer and more equal world, most women end up doing more work, for less reward, and feeling pressured to conform more closely to gender norms. 

Neoliberalism, while extolling the ‘career woman’, reviles poor women, women of colour, sex workers and single mothers as hopeless dependants, sluts and thieves. That’s why the ‘career woman’ is a neoliberal hero: she triumphs on the market’s own terms without overturning any hierarchies. …

Neoliberalism colonises our dreams. It cannibalises our ideals of freedom and regurgitates them as strategies of social control. 

 

Laurie Penny is a feisty twenty-seven-year-old who blogs extensively, has been shortlisted for the George Orwell Laurie Pennyprize and written four books in less than five years. She lives and breathes her feminism. She rightly points out that feminism is evolving and has moved on in some senses from what the pioneering feminists like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer wrote about. Today the movement is not necessarily about giving equal rights to one gender, ie women, but also recognising the importance of including men in the dialogue. It is also engaging with the gender under neoliberalism.  Patriarchal norms and structures continue to be very deeply embedded in social and cultural systems across the world. Having said that, it is not fair to assume that all men subscribe to the patriarchal ways of functioning. She writes with passion and has the guts to be outspoken. But she writes emotionally merging many personal narratives with her professional commentary. No harm done in bringing these two aspects of her life together but it weakens the argument of the book and making it overwhelming to read since it is not very clear where the chapters are heading to. Yet, this is a book which will be read for a long time to come.

If Laurie Penny continues to write and publish at this furious pace, creating a body of work on feminism, over time it will prove to be excellent resource material for mapping the evolution of feminism and its discourses at a point in history. For once here is a feminist, a woman, who is able to take out time and write in real time, record and create an archive of material for posterity. Otherwise a regular failing of women activists is their inability to record in words their actions and thoughts. Instead it is passed on orally from older women activists/feminists/academics to the younger generation. A sad truth. The little documentation that is available as publications ( books/films/audio clips/posters/handicrafts) is a mere drop in the phenomenal work that has been achieved or is done continuously. I LOVE the outrageous bubblegum pink cover. The many layers to the illustration of a black nib of a fountain pen ink. See it for what it is or for a sexually explicit drawing of a woman’s uterus/vagina. I truly love the boldness of the cover design.

Here is a wonderful review of the book: Gaby Hinsliff, “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny – review” , 4 July 2014, The Guardian . ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/09/unspeakable-things-laurie-penny-review )

Read this book along with the following recent publications:

Nivedita Menon Seeing Like a Feminist  Zubaan, New Delhi, 2013.

Kate Bollick Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own Corsair, New York, 2015.

Shereen El Feki Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World Vintage, London, 2014.

Rafia Zakaria The Upstairs Wife : An Intimate History of Pakistan (English) Beacon Press, 2015.

Laurie Penny Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution Bloomsbury Paperbacks, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 270 Rs 299 

14 September 2015 

Twinkle Khanna and Brigid Keenan

MRS FUNNYBONES_webI have had immense good fortune of reading Twinkle Khanna’s Mrs Funnybones and Brigid Keenan’s Packing Up back-to-back.

Mrs Funnybones is Twinkle Khanna’s debut as an author. It is based upon her immensely popular and delightfully irreverent column of the same name published in Mumbai newspaper, DNA. It is a sharp, witty and tongue-in-cheek commentary on the many roles a modern woman fulfils — career woman, housekeeper, mother, wife, counsellor, daughter, daughter-in-law, accountant, Man Friday etc. Many would be sceptical that a famous star like Twinkle Khanna is able to write on her own without the assistance of a ghost writer, but there is an authenticity about the book which rings true. I would not term it as “chick lit” but many would view it so. It is hard to put one’s finger on it but reading it from cover-to-cover followed by listening to her at the book launch convince one about Mrs Funnybones being wholly original. Twinkle Khanna had been an actress but is a more accomplished interior designer, voracious reader especially of scifi literature and if her friends at the book launch are to be believed, always known for her wit.

A sample of her writing on her observations on Karva Chauth, an annual ritual in the Hindu calendar when north Indian women fast for the day, ostensibly for seeking better health of their husbands. The day ends with the wife looking at the reflection of the moon through a sieve to secure the lunar deity’s blessings, then she turns to her husband and views his face indirectly in the same manner. This is what Twinkle Khanna has to say:

We Indians are a strange race; we send MOM to Mars, but listen to mom-in-law and look for the moon. One of the better qualities we possess is that most of us will follow traditions and rituals as long as they do not demean or harm us, or cause us to do the same to another, while making our elders happy. We simply do it rather than prove a point as to how liberated and independent we truly are. Perhaps, this is how we harmoniously hold our large families together as we celebrate different aspects of our lives.  ( p.101)

Here is a link to the star-studded book launch organised earlier this week in Mumbai. The conversation with Karan Johar, Aamir Khan, etc are worth watching. Apparently her husband, the mega-Bollywood star, Akshay Kumar reads every single word she spins out and is her first editor. In recent times as mentioned in the YouTube link, he has gently advised her to not use the word “Pakistan” on a few occasions.

 

Brigid Keenan’s Packing Up she suggests falls into the category of “decreplit” or books written by older Packing Upwomen. Packing Up is a hilarious account of her travels as a diplomat’s wife, retirement and grandmotherhood. When she is not mending her tarantula ( seriously! a souvenir collected in Trinidad, after her husband squashed it), Brigid Keenan’s keen eye observes life around her whether it is in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Suffolk, London, Brussels, Jaipur or Sri Lanka. She is one of the co-founders of the Palestinian Festival of Literature. Whatever she does, it is with passion.

With both these women writers it is the frank honesty with which they write, the ability to laugh at themselves and gaily comment on the world around them. The facetiousness with which they seemingly write, garbs the brutal and sharp understanding of reality they have. Mrs Funnybones and Packing Up are excellent examples of using one’s wit with panache.

These books are a must buy.

Twinkle Khanna Mrs Funnybones Penguin Books, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Pb. pp. 240 Rs. 299

Brigid Keenan Packing Up: Further Adventures of a Trailing Spouse Bloomsbury, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 320 Rs 399

21 August 2015

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Sami Ahmad Khan( On 21 February 2014, during the World Book Fair, New Delhi, Sami Ahmad Khan was in conversation with thriller writer Aroon Raman and Sangeeta Bahadur. Aroon Raman had just released his latest novel, a historical thriller – The Treasure of Kafoor and Sangeeta Bahadur had published Jaal.  Both the authors are published by PanMacmillan India. Here is an account of the event sent by Sami Khan. ) 

Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History

We’re a nation built around myths. Or maybe we’re just a myth built around a nation. Whatever the case may be, can we ascribe historicity to myths and study such mythologies as running parallel to certain socio-historical processes spawned by the material realities of their times? More importantly, where does mythology end and where does history begin?Aroon Raman

Similar questions raged in my mind as I strode towards the Authors’ Corner at Hall 10-11 of Pragati Maidan on February 21, 2014. The Delhi World Book Fair 2014 was in full swing and I was moderating a session scheduled to begin at 2.30 pm. Wading past Siren-esque stalls (that featured books on sale) and Charybdian crowds (replete with delightfully engrossed bookworms), I odysseyed to my destination to converse with two brilliant minds and wonderful writers – Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman.

I knew Aroon Raman from before, having read him earlier with much gusto. Raman had obtained his masters degree from JNU, Delhi, an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and was now an entrepreneur based out of Bengaluru. The Shadow Throne was Aroon Raman’s debut – an electrifying thriller involving the R&AW, ISI and an India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. The Treasure of Kafur, his second published novel, was incidentally written first. A fast-paced, historical thriller set in Mughal India, the novel fictionalized the treasure of Malik Kafur being sought after by contemporary figures such as Akbar, Rana Pratap, and (quasi-historical?) characters such as Asaf Baig (of Khandesh) to wage war for the control of Hindustan.

Sangeeta BahadurOn the other hand, it was the first time I was going to meet Sangeeta Bahadur, writer of Jaal and Vikraal. I was told she had graduated from Sophia College (Mumbai), an institution I admire a lot. Bahadur is an Indian Foreign Service officer who is currently posted as the Director of the Nehru Centre, London.  If Raman writes about politics, coming-of-age, and action, Bahadur too weaves a deep, engrossing web of inner conflict – this one around mythological fiction. She utilizes Indian spirituality and metaphysics, fuses them with the world created by her own mind, and comes up with a whole new mythos. Bahadur’s Jaal is the first of a trilogy – set in a syncretic, eclectic past where a young boy must train himself to become the ultimate fighting machine to combat the forces of Maya, the novel is a more spiritual version of LOTR set in a land that resembles India. A sequel called Vikraal will be out soon.

How do we comprehend, decode, and analyze mythological and historical fiction written by people from such varied backgrounds and visions? As Bruce Lincoln defines myth as “ideology in narrative form,” one of the first questions I asked Bahadur and Raman was how mythology and history interacted in their minds and in their texts – and if they chose their respective genres to enable them to fuse their narrative styles with the content, i.e. what (and how) they wanted to say.

Their answers were complementary to each other (an aspect that continued throughout the duration of the conversation) – both made me realize something I had so criminally overlooked – writers make genres, genres do not make writers. Both regarded writing as an act of unbridled creation – unfettered by the limitations of any genre. Yes, they wrote about mythology and history, but as fiction writers, they perceived both as two sides of the same coin. Both clarified that rather than being true to the narrative conventions of any genre, culture or style, they rather wanted to be true to the reader and to themselves. The end-result, for both Bahadur and Raman, was to use any template close to them that could give the readers a fast-paced, layered and interesting narrative for the reader.

I then raised the question of spirituality – both Bahadur and Raman draw upon Indian classical traditions. While Bahadur’s primary lens to synthesize different mythologies and traditions and further the plot is primarily aastik in its outlook, advaita-vedanta in particular (which becomes explicit at times), Raman has his implicit groundings in the naastik traditions of Buddhism. Both Jaal and Kafur have a dense spiritual/philosophical subtext that not only drives the plot further but also seeks to define why characters do what they do. It is their belief in fixed ideological structures that make these characters come alive – and shapes their behavioral patterns.

For individual questions, I asked Aroon Raman why his second book was markedly different from his first, and why he chose to jump across genres despite the commercial success of his debut venture. The Shadow Throne is a contemporary military/political thriller, whereas The Treasure of Kafur is historical fiction. Apart from reiterating that genres do not matter for a creator, and that thoughts and ideas rarely come to writers filtered and censored via the sieve of pre-existing notions and genres, Raman made me realize that the end-goal was to write a book that was fun to read, and that a writer should concern himself with creating without worrying about genre pigeonholing – and that the two books weren’t that different after all. Both his books have a central character caught in hostile surroundings and his constant striving to prevent evil from triumphing – the temporal dislocation does little to blunt this action-oriented narrative.

I then asked Bahadur that while Raman may write about ISI and RAW, she, as a serving government officer, cannot. So was this mythological fiction, replete with betrayals, realpolitik, machtpolitik, coups, warring kingdoms and political federations, actually a political allegory meant for the contemporary times? In response, while Bahadur graciously acknowledged that although historicity did shape some parts of Jaal, the novel was in no way a political allegory. She was not merely utilizing an already established ideological narrative, but creating a whole new ideating philosophy, politics, sociology and world in her head.

The two also talked about how, as writers, both were aware of the social implications of the outlooks of their characters. Raman talked about spending time in Tihar as a student-activist (and a member of the JNU Students’ Union) almost 30 years ago – but then accepted that now he was a capitalist entrepreneur, though that did not render him politically unconscious or reactionary. His characters, to prove a point, are strongly feminist, anti-casteist, pro-hoi polloi, progressive, and anti-parochial – people who speak up for the masses. Bahadur also has some similar characters who seek unity in diversity (rather than differences), and raise their voices against injustices and hegemony. This forms the basis for a layered characterization by both the writers.

The session concluded with both Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman giving the audience some tips about writing fiction. They urged budding writers to break free from the shackles of form and classification – and just go write a good story that was fun to read and did not spoon feed the reader what the writer thought.

It was great talking to these two thinkers – they just proved that to write one sentence, one must think an hour at least! Lastly, all this is based on my understanding on what the writers said and meant, not to mention a failing short-term memory – it may not wholly coincide with what they actually meant, but I hope I’ve been able to be true to their ideas.

I look forward to more such opportunities.

 Sami Ahmad Khan read Literature at Hindu College, Delhi University, completed his master’s in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and then went to the University of Iowa, USA, on a Fulbright grant. Currently, Sami teaches at IIT-Delhi, apart from being a Doctoral Candidate at JNU, where he is working on Techno-culture Studies. He has engaged in theater, writing, and teaching. His debut thriller Red Jihad won the “Muse India Young Writer (Runner-Up) Award” at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2013 and Ministry of Human Resource Development/NBT’s “National Debut Youth Fiction Award – Excellence in Youth Fiction Writing” at the Delhi World Book Fair 2013. He is now working on a SF sequel to Red Jihad. He can be reached at sakhan1607@gmail.com

( On Sunday, 24 August 2014, Sheila Kumar wrote a lovely review of the novel in the Hindu Literary Review –  http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/more-than-just-a-treasure-hunt/article6344815.ece . On 26 August 2014, Aroon Raman will be in conversation with Sumeet Shetty at Literati, SAP Labs Book Club, Bangalore. http://bit.ly/1pazgf4 )

26 August 2014

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 August 2014) and in print ( 3 August 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/stories-on-conflict/article6274928.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

 Jaya Bhattacharji RoseOff late images of conflict dominate digital and print media– injured children, rubble, weeping people, vehicles blown apart, graphic photographs from war zones. We live in a culture of war, impossible to get away from. What is frightening is the daily engagement we have with this violence, to make it a backdrop and a “normal” part of our lives. The threshold of our receptivity to it is lowering; the “appetite” for violence seems to be increasing.

Take partition of the sub-continent in 1947.  Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of the brilliant anthology of graphic stories with contributions from three countries, This Side, That Side, remarks, “Partition is so much a part of the lives of South Asians.” It exists in living memory. Generations have been brought up on family lore, detailing experiences about Partition, the consequences and the struggle it took refugees to make a new life. For many years, there was silence. Then in India the communal riots of 1984 following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi happened. For many people of the older generation who had experienced the break-up of British India it opened a Pandora box of memories; stories came tumbling out. It was with the pioneers of Partition studies–Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin and Urvashi Butalia–that this tumultuous time in history began to make its mark in literature.

Contemporary sub-continental literature comprises of storytellers who probably grew up listening to stories about conflict in their regions. It is evident in the variety, vibrancy and strength discernible in South Asian writing with distinct styles emerging from the nations. There is something in the flavour of writing; maybe linked to the socio-political evolution of the countries post-conflict—Partition or civil unrest. In India, there is the emergence of fiction and nonfiction writers who have a sharp perspective to offer, informed by their personal experiences, who are recording a historical (and painful) moment. Recent examples are Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots, Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour, Chitrita Banerji’s Mirror City, Sujata Massey’sThe City of Palaces, Sudipto Das’s The Ekkos Clan,  Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and Samanth Subramanian’s The Divided Land , a travelogue about post-war Sri Lanka. In Sri Lankn literature conflict is a constant backdrop, places and names are not necessarily always revealed or easily identified, but the stories are written with care and sensitivity. Shyam Selvadurai in his introduction to the fascinating anthology of varied examples of Sri Lankan literature, Many Roads to Paradise writes “In a post-war situation, this anthology provides an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities by allowing Sri Lankans access to the thoughts, experiences, history and cultural mores of their fellow countrymen, of which they have remained largely ignorant due to linguistic divides.” Contributors include Shehan Karunatilaka ( The Chinaman), Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors) and Ashok Ferrey ( The Colpetty People and  The Professional). Bangladeshi writers writing in a similar vein are Shaheen Akhtar’s The Search ( translated by Ella Dutta), Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice (translated by Mahmud Rahman), Tahmima Anam The  Good Muslim and Neamat Imam’s The Black Coat. Pakistani Nadeem Aslam’s last novel Blind Man’s Garden is a searing account of the war in Afghanistan and its devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people. In his interview with Claire Chambers for British Muslim Fictions, Nadeem Aslam said his “alphabet doesn’t only have 26 letters, but also the 32 of the Urdu alphabet, so I have a total of 58 letters at my disposal”.  Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone uses fiction (the story is set during the World Wars) to comment upon contemporary socio-political events (Peshawar). Earlier this year Romesh Gunaseekera told me while discussing his latest novel, Noontide Toll “All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.”

From Homer’s The Odyssey onwards, recording war through stories has been an important literary tradition in conveying information and other uses. Today, with conflict news coming in from every corner of the world and 2014 being the centenary year of World War I, publishers are focusing upon war-related literature, even for children. For instance, Duckbill Books new imprint, NOW series about children in conflict has been launched with the haunting Waiting Mor, set in Kabul and inspired by a true story. Paro Anand’s No Gun’s at my Son’s Funeral was one of the first stories written in India for young adults that dealt with war, children and Kashmir; it is soon to be made into a feature film. All though ninety years after the first book was published Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, about a mischievous 11-year-old boy set during WWI, continues to be a bestseller! The culture of war has been inextricably linked to literature and media. As the protagonist, Adolf Hitler says in Timur Vermes must-read debut novel Look Who’s Back “after only a handful of days in this modern epoch, I had gained access to the broadcast media, a vehicle for propaganda”.

2 August 2014