Pan Macmillan India Posts

Digonta Bordoloi’s “Second World War Sandwich”

Elsewhere, the blacksmith of the village busied himself with a small glob of brass, shaping it into the form of a head. Each head a warrior claimed was rewarded with a small brass replica, worn as a pendent on a red beaded necklace.

Digonta Bordoloi’s second novel, Second World War Sandwich is set against the backdrop of the Kohima War. It took place in stages from 4 April to 22 June 1944 in and around Kohima in northeast India. Later, in independent India, Kohima became the capital city of Nagaland. The battle was fought between the British forces and the advancing Japanese troops. It was a fierce battle fought over the hilly terrain for Kohima’s strategic importance in the wider 1944 Japanese Chindwin offensive lay in that it was the summit of a pass that offered the Japanese the best route from Burma into India. During the Battle of Kohima, the British and Indian forces had lost 4,064 men, dead, missing and wounded. Against this the Japanese had lost 5,764 battle casualties in the Kohima area, and many of the 31st Division subsequently died of disease or starvation, or took their own lives. ( Source: Wikipedia)

Second World War Sandwich revolves around Captain Timothy Hastings, a former tea-estate manager; his wife, Sandra, a nurse, who too had grown up on a tea-estate in India; Raan, who is far happier being a cook, carrying pots and pans, rather than wielding a gun; Chetri, a Gorkha, brave as any legend about the Gorkhas is; and Mongseng, a Konyak, a prince, heir to his father’s throne, the ang of his village, Poilung. They are thrown headlong into battle with the Japanese and are a motley troop. Everyone is wary of Mongseng at first but after a certain turn of events, they discover that this naked, tattooed, “savage”, whose only weapon is an extremely lethal dao/machette, does not intend them any harm. Also, lo and behold, Mongseng speaks a smattering of English, taught to him by the Padre in their village.

Now therein lies the extremely fascinating history of the Christian missionaries who visited north east India from the nineteenth century onwards. In Nagaland, they were mostly American Baptists who would roam around, although in the novel, the Padre is an Italian. His denomination is never made clear even when constructing the church in the village. The description exists but no more. Mongseng is a Konyak — one of the many Naga tribes but they are unique as in they used to be headhunters. This was the only way of life that they knew. Their village was constructed and still exists like this — with wooden huts, thatched roofs, intricate carvings on their door posts, carcasses of kill drying in their “verandahs”, with the kitchen being the centre of their homes. The hearth or the embers upon which the food is cooked is in the centre of the room. Above it hangs these large metal plates upon which the meats are slow cooked. And tea remains a constant offering. Something that Mongseng compares too when offered a rather watered down version of tea by Raan. He yearns for his freshly roasted tea leaves, bitter morning brew. The ang, or tribal elder/king, presides over the village and rules in a just and fair manner. At the centre of the village is the morung, or the male dormitory, where the unmarried men congregate and spend their time. It is also the place in the novel where the village elders gather for a chit-chat and more often than not to drink the addictively bittersweet brew that the Padre plies them with. It turns out to be rum. In fact, if you visit any of the Konyak village cemetries as I did with my father ( Romesh Bhattacharji) in the late 1990s, the headstones very proudly bear the inscription that the recently deceased scalped so many individuals but also was a Christian. A dichotomy if there was ever one! In fact, the brass necklace in the picture was gifted to me by a minister in the state government when he discovered I had completed my post-graduation. He was so impressed that I had achieved so many degrees whereas he had only cleared his eighth grade that the following morning as we were departing he put a parcel wrapped in newspaper in my hands saying this is for you. In it were a bunch of necklaces that I treasure decades later. We were all staying in the same guest house as dad was an Election observer and the minister was on the campaign trail. The villages we covered on this tour were those of the Konyaks — Chenmoho, Chenwenyu and Chenwengtu. So when I came across the description of these brass heads being fashioned in the village when Mongseng made his first kill, I realised the signficance of this brass necklace that I have had for many years.

Second World War Sandwich begins incredibly grippingly with a fine description of the landscape and an introduction to Timothy and his team. Mongseng drops into their lives. The establishment of the relationship between the four men, the varying degrees of masculinity that shines through the text is absolutely fascinating to read. It is as if the author has spent hours working upon the details and trying to get the tenor right. The battle outside makes it presence felt often enough in the narrative with falling mortar, wounded crowding the makeshift hospitals, the dead piling up, the horrific mix of the raw and trained soldiers who are battling against a very sophisticated enemy etc. The immense knowledge and experience that Mongseng brings is dealt with respectfully and at par with the white man. It is interesting to see this equilibrium being set by Digonta Bordoloi even if it is a tad hard to believe that there would be so much trust between a white man and a native in British India. Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting read.

After a rollicking good start, the plot begins to drag. The extremely long backstories about every main character while interesting by themselves are so unnecessary beyond a point as they are distracting about the battle itself. The inter-personal relationships can easily flourish under the brutal conditions of warfare. These long-winded descriptions needed to be worked out elsewhere and then only significant portions used in the main narrative. Having said that if the backstories are read as short stories, they are lovely digressions. The particularly sensitively drawn one is that for Mongseng. It makes sense when the author acknowledges the wangra ( village chief) of Hamphui and his fellow village elder-men — Nagaland’s last surviving headhunters. The fine descriptions of the Konyak lifestyle are worth reading. But then the second half of the book dissolves into a chaotic mess where the frenzy of battle overtakes the characters but it also makes the author lose his grip on storytelling. It is as if he is getting pulled into the personalities of each character more and more while at the same time very eager to get his facts right about battle strategies. There are neat illustrations accompanying the story marking out the terrain and the peaks that were crucial in the real battle. But sadly, they do not help retrieve a potentially good novel. Maybe if the possibility of narrating the past by a dying Mongseng to his grandson, Angsen, had been pursued a little more aggressively, the structure of the plot would have fallen into place, much as it did for Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It allowed for the possibility of there being lapses into modern day and thereby offered a perspective on historical events.

Perhaps those with a greater in-depth understanding of the battle may appreciate the book. But for now, there is confusion between “Second World War Sandwich” being a literary fiction, commercial fiction, historical fiction, war novel or rescuing the history of the Konyaks. Having said that this is a book worth recommending as it puts the spotlight on a part of India’s history that is little known about. The last time a stupendous novel on this very same subject was written was by Siddhartha Sharma, “The Grasshopper’s Run”. It won the Crossword Prize 2009 and in 2011 was shortlisted for the Sahitya Bal Puraskar. Hopefully, Digonta Bordoloi will be recognised to a certain degree for his strong writing and he will be on some literary prize lists. This book deserves to have a long life. Meanwhile, it is crying to be optioned for a limited television series.

Read it.

19 April 2021

“I write like a reader”, interview with Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves is known for her mystery novels mostly set in Devon and the Shetlands. She has been writing for many years but the recent success of her Shetland novels adapted for TV by the BBC has sparked a renewed interest in her books. It has definitely got her a new fan base.

Ann Cleeves at Jaipur Literature Festival 2020

On 26 October 2017, Ann Cleeves was presented with the Diamond Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association, the highest honour in British crime writing, at the CWA’s Dagger Awards ceremony in London. In 2006 Ann was the first winner of the Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year, for Raven Black, the first volume of her Shetland series. In addition, she has been short listed for CWA Dagger Awards, once for the short story dagger, and twice for the Dagger in the Library award which is awarded not for an individual book but for an author’s entire body of work.

Her new novel, The Long Call, features a new detective, Matthew Venn. It is set in North Devon where Ann Cleeves grew up. Detective Inspector Matthew Venn is a reserved and complex person, estranged from the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, and from his own family, but drawn back by murder into the community he thought he had left behind. The Long Call seems very contemporary in its writing style, the scenarios presented, the flexibility in character movement, the plot lines etc. There are all the classic elements of a mystery novel keeping the reader in suspense but the modern touches to the storytelling are refreshing too. For instance the vulnerability of Matthew Venn in his personal space is very well done. Juxtaposed with the toxic masculinity he has to contend with while working on a case is fascinating to read. Although it is hard to pinpoint a specific point in the novel but it feels almost as if the recent years of having had many of her previous novels adapted for television has affected Cleeves writing style — although she denies it to be so in the interview below. Be that as it may, the story is fabulous. Read it.

Here is an interview conducted via email:

  1. What drew you to writing mystery stories? Do you prefer writing novels or short stories? And as a reader which form do you prefer? 

Although I’ve always read very widely, mysteries were my comfort books, the books I turned to when I had a cold or was miserable.  I planned to write a great work of literary fiction when I started out, but the novel only really took off when I killed off one of the characters!  I find the structure of the classic detective story rather liberating, and it still allows me to explore the topics which interest me: the family, social justice and the way that place influences the individual.

Short stories are very difficult to write.  Every word has to count.  I can experiment with short fiction, write from the first person, for example, which isn’t a natural voice for me.  I prefer reading novels; it’s a more immersive experience.

2. How long does it take you to write a novel? Does a series arc require extensive planning or do you let it evolve over time? 

I’m contracted to do a book a year, but the book usually takes about nine months to complete. I don’t plan my work at all.  I write like a reader, I think.  I can’t start until I have an idea about the world I’m creating, a vague sense of what it would be like to live there, but the details, even the details of character, come with the writing.  So, I’ll write the first scene and because I want to know what happens next, I write the second.  By the time I’m halfway through, I have a notion about what the resolution will be, but even then I’m not quite sure how I’ll get there.

3. How did you get your first break in publishing?

It was a lot easier to find a publisher when I started out in the late nineteen eighties.  I wrote my book, went to my local library to see who published the kind of novel I’d written, then sent letters and synopses to them.  The fourth publisher I tried accepted it.  It was much harder getting any commercial success.  That took twenty years.

4. The “Dear Reader” format is fascinating. It is a direct acknowledgement of how aware you are aware of the reader. How does this constant awareness of the reader affect your writing style? 

I wrote a letter to my readers at the beginning of The Long Call because it was the first book in a new series and I hoped to persuade the people who’d enjoyed the Vera and Shetland books to give it a try.  When I’m writing I’m not really aware of the reader at all.  It’s a very selfish process.  I write the book that I’d enjoy reading, I’m revelling in the process, in becoming my characters and seeing the world through their eyes.  It’s a sophisticated form of a child playing make-believe.  There’s nothing wrong with escapist fiction, either as a reader or a writer.

5. How do you create characters? Do they evolve once the plot develops as well or do you first create people sketches and then work them in to the plot?

I don’t create people sketches.  Of course I know my returning characters rather well – I’m writing them from memory not imagination – but the individuals who only appear in one book grow as I’m writing.  Then of course I have to go back and make sure that they’re consistent from the beginning.

6. Does the gender of a character make a difference to the degree of insight and work required on your part as an author? (I get the sense that your women characters are far more nuanced than the male characters. Not to say the male characters are not well portrayed but there are tiny details about the women that makes them to be more rounded. It is almost as if at times you are sympathising with them.) 

This is a really interesting observation!  I hadn’t thought the gender made any difference, but perhaps you’re right.  Perhaps I’m rooting for my women and have more understanding of their problems and stresses.  It doesn’t feel any easier when I’m writing them though.

7. Do you like observing people? 

Yes!  I’m perpetually eavesdropping and watching.  I don’t know how you could be a writer if you don’t use public transport, for example.  That’s such fertile ground for observation.

8. Have the recently successful TV adaptations of your books, especially The Shetland series, affected your writing style? 

I don’t think so.  The more recent Shetland TV series – they’re about to film series 6 – have moved away from the books. They retain the atmosphere and the sense of place, but perhaps they’re darker, a little more Gothic in tone. But the theme of kindness, which I hope is at the heart of the novels, is still very much there. The double Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn plays the central character in Vera and we’ve already had ten seasons of those shows.  She absolutely captures my character and I do hear her voice in my head when I’m writing dialogue.

9. Where do you find the inspiration of your stories especially the intricacies of the mystery?

The mystery and the plot twists seem to take care of themselves.  Deciding the essence of the book is the most important thing for me.  For example, I think The Long Call is about powerful men deciding that they’re entitled to cover up a crime.  And in the end the cover up is more toxic than the crime itself.

10. To create the settings of your novels, do you visit the places beforehand to get a sense of the geography and its locals or does it involve a lot of armchair research or a bit of both?  I ask because at times it seems almost as if the descriptions are written down as if you had observed them yourself. 

I can only write about place that I know well.  I have been visiting Shetland for more than forty years and lived there for a while.  I grew up in North Devon and still have friends there and I live in Northumberland where the Vera books are set.  My daughter is an academic, a human geographer, and I think that’s what I do: explore community and the individual’s place within it.

11. What is your writing routine? 

I write best early in the morning, at a laptop on my kitchen table, drinking lots of tea.

12. Who are the writers who have influenced your writing?

When I was younger I read all the Golden Age mystery writers – Christie, Sayers, Allingham – but my real reading passion now is crime fiction in translation.  I think we get a real sense of another culture’s preoccupations by reading their popular fiction.  I’m especially a fan of Simenon’s Maigret books.  They’re so tight and precisely observed.

2 March 2020

Book Post 29: 3-9 March 2019

At the beginning of the week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 29 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

11 March 2019

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017 

Press Release: Appointment of Prasun Chatterjee, Editorial Director, Pan Macmillan India

Pan Macmillan India announces the appointment of Prasun Chatterjee as Editorial Director

Prasun Chatterjee sets to join Pan Macmillan Publishing India Private Limited as its Editorial Director this September. With over 12 years’ experience in the industry, Prasun brings in a rich editorial experience, having worked with publishing houses like Oxford University Press and Pearson.

Prasun started his career in publishing in 2005 as an Editor for history books at Oxford University Press India. His last assignment was as Senior Commissioning Editor at Oxford University Press where he acquired a diverse portfolio of books in areas such as history, politics, religion, and philosophy. During his two five-year terms with Oxford University Press, he has worked with some of the renowned scholars across disciplines.

Among the many writers Prasun has published are Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Richard Eaton, Ashis Nandy and Sudhir Kakar. In 2015, several of his commissioned works received national and international recognition at major conferences, including awards at the American Historical Association, Association for Asian Studies, and the Indian History Congress.

As an Editorial Director, Prasun will be responsible for the imprints under Pan Macmillan India, including Picador India, Pan and Macmillan. He will be working closely with Jeremy Trevathan, Publisher, Pan Macmillan UK, to shape the Editorial list. Reporting to Rajdeep Mukherjee, Managing Director, Pan Macmillan Publishing India Private Limited, Prasun starts with the company on 15th September, 2017.

Prasun Chatterjee said: ‘I find this shift symbolic of the increasing convergence between academic and non-fiction publishing; two streams which will draw upon each other even more closely in the coming years. From the works of V.S. Naipaul to Ramachandra Guha and the books by Patrick French to Pankaj Mishra, the range of non-fiction from Pan Macmillan has the timelessness and quality of a mature publishing programme. I would like to contribute to this list of distinguished, yet accessible writing.’

Jeremy Trevathan said: ‘I’m delighted to welcome Prasun into the Pan Macmillan fold. Our local publishing in India, across both fiction and non-fiction, is key to our international strategies for growth going forward. As the distinctions between academic and commercial publishing continues to blend, Prasun brings a wealth of experience and a strategic thinking to our publishing in the sub-continent.’

29 August 2017 

Mrs C Remembers


Mrs C Remembers is Himanjali Sankar’s first novel for adults. It is about Mrs Anita Chatterjee and about three generations of the family. It starts with the death of Mrs Chatterjee’s bedridden mother-in-law. The other woman’s perspective brought in is that Mrs Chatterjee’s daughter. The novel is remarkable for its gently told empathy towards ageing and the worrying and lonesome task of caregiving. It is a well-crafted portrait of a competent wife, mother and grandmother who sadly begins to become paranoid and loses her memory. Though fictional this novel is very close to Himanjali Sankar’s reality; as she wrote in Daily O her mother has Alzheimer “Memories of my mother that Alzheimer’s can’t wipe clean

This book is written simply and straight from the heart. It is going to be a constant seller if the publishers can ensure it remains in circulation for it will resonate with many caregivers. It will help in giving solace to many realising they are not alone in this experience.

Read it. Share it. Circulate widely.

Himanjali Sankar Mrs C Remembers Pan, Pan Macmillan India, 2017. Pb. pp. 198 Rs 299 

1 August 2017 

Samantha Schweblin

It was late in 2016 that the cyber-whispers about a magnificent new novel in translation began. Then in January 2017 The New Yorker published a review-article about Argentinian Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream.  Shortly thereafter this slim novel was longlisted ( later to be shortlisted too) for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Fever Dream is about Amanda who is blind and dying. She is conversing with a young boy David. Amanda and David’s mother, Carla, became friends when Amanda moved into the neighbourhood. It was a peculiar relationship which had an unnatural intensity to it evident in the heart-to-heart talks the women had. At times it almost seems as if Carla has taken on the mother’s role to Amanda and yet there are flashes when it seems as if Carla is speaking to Amanda in a confessional mode. Most of the conversations revolved around Carla’s bewilderment about David’s transformation, almost as if he was a changeling.

“Amanda, when I find my real David,” your mother says, “I won’t have any doubts it’s him.”

Surprisingly the conversations between David and Amanda are of the same tenor as that of Carla and Amanda though eerily David sounds the most mature “adult” of the three. He is constantly interrupting Amanda saying “You’re wasting time“,

We need to go faster“,

I’ll tell you when its important to know the details“,

But you always miss the important thing“,

“I’m not interested in this anymore” and

Amanda, I need you to concentrate“.

Its as if the little boy is editing and slowly controlling Amanda’s narrative as if he is privy to more information than she is. There is a sense of urgency to the conversations probably because Amanda is burning with a fever on her death bed.

Amanda has a daughter called Nina. Under Amanda’s watchful eye Nina is never allowed to wander far. The safe distance is measured by what Amanda refers to “rescue distance”. Crossing the imaginary line of this perceived safe distance can catapult Nina into danger given that her mother will not be able to reach in time to rescue her. According to the Guardian, “the phrase is the original, and better, title of the book in Spanish”. And this is the distance that is played upon constantly to fathom what exactly transpired to cause Amanda’s trauma.

“When does it start to go bad, exactly?“,

We’re almost there“,

This is the most important thing. This is everything we need to know.” ,

It is important, but it’s not what we need to understand. Amanda, this is the moment, don’t get distracted. We’re looking for the exact moment because we want to know how it starts.”, 

It’s very gradual.” and “No, no. It’s not about worms. It feels like worms, at first, in your body. But Amanda, we’ve been through all this, too. We’ve already talked about the poison, the contamination. You’ve already told me four times how you got here.”  

Fever Dream may be about mothering and the anxieties that are the defining undercurrents of motherhood.  It also explores that grey area when an adult behaves child-like and vice versa. It happens. It comes through in the conversations. It is further accentuated by the structure of the novel which opens with Amanda and David conversing briefly — this becomes like the framing text. Then there are long passages of Amanda recalling her time with Carla and sequence of events which resulted in her hospitalisation but as the novel progresses these are steadily punctuated by David’s remarks. So what begins like a conversation seemingly between two adults one realises a little later is between a child and an adult but framing the text in this manner juxtapositioning conversations blurs the lines too.

There are always those flashes of adult behaviour apparent in a child which is understandable as they are evolving, also basing their actions on the role models around them. Curiously enough this very fact for which there is a logical explanation can also be disconcerting and challenging for the reader. The powerfully mesmerising writing style which gets carried over in translation as well is commendable but also has echoes of the legendary Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar. He has been hugely influential on contemporary Latin American literature with his two books — A Cup of Rage and Ancient Tillage ( translated by Stefan Tobler). Fever Dreams is the closest to A Cup of Rage in its feverish pace of writing, explosive action and bewildering consequences. Also these two stories create a strong urge to read them from the start upon finishing the last page — as if in a cyclical manner.

Reading Fever Dreams is an exciting exercise by itself but then I came across Valerie Miles recommendation for Samanta Schweblin’s story, “My Parents, My Children” ( translated by Kit Maude) at The Short Story Project . She says : “Let’s face it, the matter of our every day lives is of strange stuff made. When viewed apprehensively, when the strings of family are stretched taut over the Nabokovian abyss to nestle a rocking cradle, or coddle an aging parent whose mind is failing, what’s normal can quickly turn downright bizarre.” It may be too early to say but this exploration of how the young and old seem to behave inexplicably like each other at different stages of life may become a characteristic trait of Samanta Schweblin’s magnificently disturbing but beautifully crafted writing. It is a wonderful compliment to the translation skills of Megan McDowell for having retained the force of the original text and transmitted it equally forcefully in the destination language.

As with Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner The Vegetarian ( translated by Deborah Smith), Fever Dream too raises the bar for literary fiction. Both these novels are extraordinary examples of confident writing whereby the novelists challenge the “traditional” styles of plot, dialogue, structure of text all the while capturing the reader’s imagination. A year on The Vegetarian continues to sell. Fever Dream, whether it wins the prize or not, will also be a steady seller in years to come.

Samanta Schweblin Fever Dream ( Translated by Megan McDowell) Oneworld, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 150 Rs 399 ( Distributed by PanMacmillan India) 

12 May 2017 

 

Seagull Books ( 2017)

One of my favouritest independent publishers is Seagull Books. They have a magnificent stable of writers. They specialise in world literature making translations from across the world available in English. They have distinct lists too. For instance Africa, French, German, Swiss, Italian and India lists. Their lists on Art, Cinema, Conversations  , Culture Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies etc are equally delicious and worth exploring.  As for their Fiction list — it is stupendous! 

Seagull Books has been publishing exquisite books for some decades now. What is truly remarkable about their publishing programme is that they do accord equal respect to their readers worldwide. So it is immaterial where you may purchase a Seagull title but the quality of production will always be the same. Seagull Books have now signed a contract with Pan Macmillan India to make Seagull World Literature available in India.

The founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore, believes in publishing what he wishes to as he told me in an interview ( 2013). In fact for his work he has been awarded the Goethe Medal. Every year the publishers produce a fine catalogue which is a collector’s item by itself for the author contributions and Sunandini Banerjee’s incredible designs. Take a look at the current Seagull catalogue ( order form). It is delicious!

16 March 2017 

Seagull World Literature: Note by Naveen Kishore

It has recently been announced that Seagull Books and Pan Macmillan India have entered into a partnernship to distribute Seagull World Literature in India. It is a fantastic announcement since this is a list which needs to be read widely. Here is a note from the founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore. 
 

naveen in office

Let me begin with the impulse. After all that is what brought me to the world of books. And publishing. Impulse. And of coursetheimpulse. This one. The one that makes me write-talk to you and others. Others like ourselves. The ones that act out of a sense of community. The larger good. Not entirely out of a sense of the romantic. Though I confess it is a consideration. But also because it makes fine business sense to help the publishing environment I call ‘community’ flourish by giving it creative and persistent nourishment.
 
The retail in India is to put it simply gasping. For breath yes. But also for ideas. It is fairly bankrupt. Not only for lack of money. It lacks the vision to attempt something fresh. Different. Risky. Easier to moan about the flipkarts and the Amazons. They are visible enemies. But the enemy within. As in the retailing mentality that is totally bereft of passion is far more dangerous.
 
Thirty years ago it was different. Quite simply a few good men were importing the best of world literature and making it visible and available to all of us young adults. You name it and it was there. Even on the pavement stores of Calcutta one could and yes one did find Audre Lourde and Tillie Olsen.
 
Soon this would fade away. Primarily because people in publishing discovered other ways of crunching numbers. Profits replaced instinct. You know the rest.
 
Now the stores have very little choice. The books being imported are those that have either front list excitement and therefore short-lived or popular fiction that qualifies in polite parlance as pulp. The publishing that qualifies as ‘Indian’ is a bunch of multinationals based in India that are all scrambling for a certain kind of idea of India either in English or translated from other Indian languages. No. World. Literature.
 
I like taking risks that have a fifty fifty chance of paying off. This is one such impulse. Fiction Poetry Non-Fiction of a ‘popular kind’ somewhat like the early Pelicans Translated Literature Philosophy for the lay intelligent readers and Politics and History and Ethics.
 
Not slowly. Swiftly. In numbers. To create that good old fashioned ‘critical mass’ that presents itself like a corpus of thoughtful ideas as books. To offer a choice to booksellers on a scale that competes with the mass of self-same books that fill up our shelves.
 
The idea is to do at least 50 books a year. For the next three years. Scaling it to 100 maybe from year four.
 
Seagull World Literature presents a splendid and constantly growing list of must-read books from all corners of the globe—some originally in English, others in outstanding English translation from French, German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Chinese and many other languages. Encompassing fiction, poetry, philosophy, art and literary criticism, and exquisitely produced in Seagull’s signature style, Seagull World Literature brings together a fascinating array of critically acclaimed writers, from Nobel Laureates to promising, young award winners.
A most enriching world of letters is now yours to explore.
16 March 2017 
 

Interview with Pakistani Author Bilal Tanweer on his recent translation of the classic “Love in Chakiwara”

( This interview was first published in Bookwitty on 7 January 2017. The book has been published by Pan Macmillan India. ) 

Muhammad Khalid Akhtar (1920–2002), modern Urdu literature’s great master, worked as an electrical engineer in Karachi and began writing while still in service. He was a prolific writer whose oeuvre consisted of novels, short stories, essays, reviews, parodies and travelogues. His short story Khoya hua ufaq (written in 1943) was published by noted writer Saadat Hasan Manto in 1953. He is also known for his translations into Urdu of Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass. He was awarded the Aalmi Farogh-e Urdu Award for lifetime achievement by Majlis Farogh-e-Adab, Doha. Although he is known as an Urdu writer, Dawn newspaper published an article in which in a letter to his friend Mohammad Kazim dated July 11, 1954, when Khalid Akhtar was in his mid-30s, he wrote ‘Urdu is my darling, but after so many years, I have yet to learn the craft of using it properly. My vocabulary is limited. Even today the thought comes in English and has to be delivered in Urdu. I have to make a conscious effort to convey an idea in Urdu. Every sentence is an effort, an agony.’

According to well-known Pakistani writer, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Khalid Akhtar’s earliest writings were parodies written in English. When they first met, Farooqi was 24 and Khalid Akhtar 72. Khalid Akhtar quietly began to mentor Farooqi by encouraging him to read and lending him books from his personal library and later being his first reader/critic. Farooqi recalled that Khalid Akhtar “mentioned to me that some well-meaning people who had read my Urdu prose, and knowing of his influence with me, had suggested to him that he should persuade me to write in Urdu. I told him that I had decided to write in English be­cause most of the fiction I read was either originally written in English, or was translated into it, and when I thought of writing something it became difficult not to think in the language I read all the time. He knew the problem and told me that his first writings were in Eng­lish too, but persuaded by friends to write in Urdu, he gave up writing in English.”

Nearly fifty years after Chakiwara main Visal (1964) was published, the English translation along with three other stories, The Smiling Buddha, The Love Meter and The Downfall of Seth Tanwari, based in Chakiwara, a Karachi neighbourhood, was just published by PanMacmillan India as Love in Chakiwara and other misadventures. The smooth translation of these stories from Urdu to English is by noted Pakistani writer Bilal Tanweer. In the title story (which is more a novella), Love in Chakiwara, the writing is reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s satirical wit. Oddly enough, Swift’s humorous writing style perfected to an art form a few centuries earlier is a befitting literary technique used by Khalid Akhtar when recreating the sights, sounds and conversations of a Karachi neighbourhood. The credit for these stories in pitch perfect English translation, seemingly Swiftian, most definitely goes to Bilal Tanweer who labored long and hard with this collection of stories.

Tanweer teaches creative writing at Lahore University of Management Sciences. His short stories, essays, and poetry have been published by Granta, Critical Muslim, Life’s Too Short Literary Review: New Writing From Pakistan, Vallum, Dawn, The Express Tribune, The News on Sunday, and The Caravan (India); his translations from the Urdu have appeared in Words Without Borders and The Annual of Urdu Studies. In 2010 he received the PEN Translation Fund Grant for Chakiwara chronicles; in 2011 he was selected as a Granta New Voice.

Following are excerpts of an interview conducted with Bilal Tanweer.

Bilal Tanweer
Bilal Tanweer

Why did you select Chakiwara main Visal to translate? Which of the stories included in this collection did you enjoy translating the most?

Credit goes to [noted Pakistani writer] Musharraf Ali Farooqi who recommended that I read the book and take on the project. I translated an excerpt from another story by Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, which was published in Words Without Borders, and received a positive response from the readers. That encouraged me to undertake a longer project, which has taken some six years.

How many times did you read the original story in Urdu before you began the translation?

During my last translation project, I realized that the translated text becomes choppy and loses its flow if you continually pause to look up words. So now I begin by reading the whole text first to get a sense of the tonality of the text. Then I read the chapter which I have to translate, underlining all the words that are confusing to me, or that could be translated several ways. Then I look up unknown or confusing words. I also try to find solutions for words whose translation could be difficult or tricky. Once all this is done, I begin translating. I try to work quickly without taking too many breaks; it really helps preserve the flow of the text.

What is your translation routine? Do the methodologies of writing and revising differ considerably between translated literature and original fiction?

Yes, they do. With translation you are focusing mostly on language. So revisions are limited to make the best linguistic choices. With writing, everything is up for revision.

When and why did you venture into translations?

I was a student in New York living on a slim stipend when I saw an advertisement for a $5000 translation prize. I thought I should have a crack at it. I did not win the prize but I realized translating was a lot of fun—much more than I had imagined. So I carried on.

Urdu literature is known for its rich embellishments and exaggerated descriptions. Are these easily translated into English?

Usually these poetic flourishes are not easy to translate. These were particularly a problem in my last project of Ibn-e Safi’s work where prose is playful, and contains many allusions from Urdu poetry. With Khalid Akhtar, the problem did not arise because he writes in a more “urban” prose where the use of poetic exaggerations are ironic, which can be communicated to the reader.

Fictional landscapes such as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and R K Narayan’s Malgudi become permanent fixtures in a reader’s mind. Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s Chakiwara is similar. As a novelist yourself would you ever consider creating such a landscape and use it consistently in your fiction? What are the pros and cons of doing so?

I am a strong believer in the dictum that great fiction is fiction of place. Great writing emerges from deep engagement with specific places, and Chakiwara is no exception to this.

14 February 2017 

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