On International Women’s Day, it is worth reflecting upon this statistic. According to UNICEF’s 2019 Menstrual Hygiene report, 1.8 billion people Menstruation globally and millions of those are unable to exercise their right to good menstrual health and dignity due to discriminatory norms, cultural taboos, poverty and lack of access to basic amenities. Adolescent girls often face stigma and social exclusion during menstruation, resulting in school absenteeism and frequent dropouts. Women with lower literacy levels face additional chronic nutritional deficiencies and health problems. Cumulatively, these practices have far-reaching negative consequences on the lives of girls and women as they restrict their mobility, freedom, choices, affect attendance and participation in school and community life, compromise their safety and cause stress and anxiety.
To put that figure of 1.8 billion in perspective, it is more than the current population of India of 1.4 billion and the approx. 400m in the European Union. Given that this is a 2019 statistic, more menstruating girls have probably been added than those dropping off due to menopause as many countries have younger populations than greying elders. Yet, the topic of menstruation is a taboo topic. Human rights lawyer and writer Farah Ahamed asserts that menstrual dignity is a basic human right.
It is also peculiar that this large chunk of the global population is ignored when it comes to discussing women’s health and designing programmes specific to their needs. Years ago,Dabur launched a campaign promoting its bestselling product Pudin Hara (pearls and liquid) as being an effective cure for period pains. Pudin Hara is an ayurvedic extract from mint leaves. It is usually used for indigestion and other tummy ailments. Unfortunately, the campaign was an utter flop since women’s health especially pertaining to sexual health is taboo. But the fact remains that it is an extremely effective remedy to easing dysmenorrhea. It is definitely preferable to taking allopathic painkillers.
Given that this is the information age, big data and digital technology rules our lives, it is perhaps worth reflecting on this detail shared by Alnoor Bhimani in his essay, “Digitisizing Menstruation: Algorithms for Cleansing Bodies”, included in Period Matters, published by Pan Macmillan India . He is the Professor of Management Accounting and the Director of the South Asia Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The global market for all digital technology-based products and services focused on women’s health could be worth $60 million by 2027. Although South Asia comprises about a quarter of the world’s female population, at present, ‘femtech’ investments in the region amount to only about 1 per cent. Of 1,323 femtech companies globally in 2021, only 41 were in South Asia. Perhaps this is because less than 10 per cent of individuals in low-income countries can access the Internet, and of the 3.5 billion people without Internet access in the world, South Asian citizens are among the least well served. A further explanation may be that women in developing nations are 34 per cent less likely to have access to the Internet, compared to men. Nevertheless, women who can access digital technologies are increasingly using period tracker apps (PTAs), making them part of a fast-growing femtech product market.
This is the first collection of essays by Booker-shortlister & Goldsmiths Prize-winning author of the brilliant Ducks, Newburyport. Some of the essays in Things are Against Us ( Pan Macmillan India) have been previously published but a fair number are unpublished.
These are a fantastic collection of honest, very blunt, sharp, informative and extremely funny essays. The humour stems from Ellman’s delicious ability to call a spade a spade. She does not mince words. She provokes. Her wit is spot on. She may as well be a stand-up comedian in her ability to hold a mirror to society especially when it comes to the manifestation of patriarchy in relationships.
There are far too many superb examples in the book that are to be shard. But two stand out. One is The Mea Culpa declaration (photographed below) and her essay on tourism that is in many ways reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s essay on being a tourist. Ellman is also able to share examples from her mother’s work of comparing the male gaze in analysing women writers.
Akin by Emma Donaghue is about a retired professor and widower, Noah Selvaggio, who is looking forward to visiting Nice after decades. It is his 80th birthday present to himself. He was born in Nice but after emigrating to USA with his parents, he had never returned to France. Nor had he spoken French in many decades except while conversing with his mother and even then it was a one-sided conversation as she spoke to him in French and he replied in English. A couple of days before his departure he is suddenly saddled with the responsibility of his 11-year-old grand-nephew, Michael. Michael’s father is no more and his mother is in prison. Noah is his nearest kin who is capable of looking after the child. Akin is about Noah and Michael tied by blood, learning to live and be responsible for each other. It is a stunning novel told by a writer who is mostly known for her historical fiction. The last “contemporary novel” which Emma Donaghue wrote to critical acclaim was Room. This is her second after that and is so worth reading. It has been written by someone who is extremely familiar with childish behaviour, pre-teen angst, with its glimpses of pure, innocent babyness. Michael is “difficult”, seemingly stubborn and brash, but it requires a great deal of emotional reserves on Noah’s part to remember that Michael has had a tough childhood and is behaving the best way he has learned to survive. The behaviour of the boy juxtaposed with the very similar tantrums that an elder is capable of throwing or watching the energy levels of the older and younger peaking and ebbing at more or less the same time reveals that they are not only akin in familial ties but in temperament too. It is part of life. Of course Noah being the older of the two manages most effectively to mask his feelings and reveal them only to the reader. But the intuitiveness of the elder in his caregiving of the boy are heartbreakingly sweet and tender. A transformation that seems to take place rather quickly given the few days they have spent together.
He watched Michael sleep, that reassuring regular rise and fall fo the ribs. Not cute at all; powerful. A tiny sound, as if he was sucking his tongue. The extraordinary thing about children was that they changed all the time, Noah thought, but not by attrition, the way adults did. Kids were always growing, moving up, away from their only ever temporary carers.
At the same time there are moments of learning that the little boy gives to the older man when discussing contemporary politics. This odd couple with nearly sixty-one years of age difference between them is in Nice also to revisit places that Noah recalls or his mother photographed and remain preserved in his collection of black and white pictures. While in Nice they realise that Nice was a Nazi base and Noah’s mother seemed to have had very easy access to the German forces. It is not clear for a while what her intentions were or was she sympathetic to the Resistance, but whatever the case may be it leaves Noah rattled. This revelation is not helped in any way by Michael’s awareness of contemporary events around the globe such as about Isis and Boko Haram that are equally distressing for Noah. Michael is constantly searching for news and images on his phone. Noah is unable to comprehend why, till Michael replies with a wisdom beyond his years, “If the world’s like that, I’d rather be ready.” Although Michael admits that after browsing through such terrifying images he does have to resort to “eye bleach” of cute pictures of kittens and similar stuff. Unfortunately Michael is too young to realise that memory does not work in such a manner, horrifying information cannot be erased at will. And this is borne by their holiday in Nice where there are constant reminders of the German occupation in the city as well as meeting survivors of the period who remember events of the past clearly. Soon it transpires that Noah’s mother was responsible for photographing and whisking away Jewish children hidden in secret around Nice and helping provide documentation for them in triplicate to ensure their safe passage out of the country. This is based on a true story as acknowledged by Emma Donaghue who says that this novel is her “homage to Marguerite Matisse Duthuit. Apparently the real Marcel Network managed to save 527 children from the camps by hiding them in and around Nice from 1943 to 1945. Only two were captured and sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. For the rest of their lives, the surviving members of the network preferred not to speak publicly about what they’d done.”
Akin by literary stalwart Emma Donaghue is a fine example of what literary fiction must be. It is a stunning piece of work that delves into a slice of history but at the same time remains focussed on the unlikely relationship of Noah and Michael. It is a beautiful novel that puts the spotlight on caregiving and its various aspects. For example, Noah’s mother during the war too took care of children who needed to be rescued and saved from fascist forces. At the same time this parallels Noah’s own life where he has to fend for a great nephew whose mother is incarcerated in prison and Noah has to provde the security blanket, love and emotional and physical sustenance. In both scenarios the children are for all practical purposes orphaned and need to be taken care of. While describing these stories, Emma Donaghue is able to portray a sensitive and empathetic portrait of the relationship between and older man and a young boy, who is on the cusp of growing up. It is a tough situation for any parent to be in but for an eighty-year-old to suddenly have this responsibility foisted upon him is startling but Noah does rise up to the occasion and towards the end of the story promises the sceptical boy a number of things who merely screws up his nose as if in doubt. But as caring adults know that promises given to children are meant to be kept and Noah vows to do so for Michael — as long as he can. Of course the story raises questions about “faux fatherhood” and what it means to be a parent, the feminisation of parenting whereas in this case it is only about the men, but it is portrayed with so much sensitive understanding that very soon the reader forgets there is nothing unusual in this single parenting or the lack of a physical presence of a mother in the immediate family. Instead as Noah quietly says to himself about Michael, “He is just a little boy”, a fact that one tends to forget when the child is being abrasive and brash.
Akin is an extremely beautiful book that is meant to be treasured, shared, read, and discussed. It is an extraordinary portrait of an odd couple who despite their moments of friction find their comfort levels and with it contentment with each other’s presence.
I recently contributed to How to Get Published in Indiaedited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.
Here is the essay I wrote:
AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher. My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi. These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.
In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.
To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!
The Daryaganj Sunday Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.
From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.
In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.
By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.
Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.
As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses.
The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting!
Historian John Zubrzycki’s latest book Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinnsis a rich historical account of the history of magicians in the Indian sub-continent. It is a history going back as far as the Harappan civilisations, to the Mohenjodaro seals, through the time of the Mughals, British India till the present day. It is years of research spent in libraries across continents, interviewing people, meeting magicians and wading through archives that has enabled John Zubrzycki to put together this seminal volume. It may lack the lightness of touch as many contemporary narrative non-fiction books now have but Jadoowallahs more than makes up for it by the vast amounts of information it presents. What is truly commendable is how the author has delved through research material to create a narrative that is empathetic to the community of
H.E. Harinder Sidhu
magicians as a whole ( irrespective of their religious beliefs) and as far as possible the narrative is presented based on the empirical evidence he has garnered. This is an incredible feat to achieve given how witness accounts, historical documentation or even official documents from a particular period of history will always be biased and/or influenced by other pressing factors of the time. So to tease out and create a balanced narrative highlighting stories of individuals as well as historical incidents that create the fascinating landscape of magicians in the subcontinent. Zubrzycki is extremely familiar with India, who apart from knowing Hindi, has worked in the
(L-R) H.E. Harinder Sidhu, Rajeev Sethi and John Zubrzycki
country as a foreign correspondent, diplomat and tour guide.
On Tuesday, 18 September 2018, the six-month long Australia Fest was launched in India. There are more than 75 events planned across 20 cities with over 25 projects involved. The commencement of the festival was with the official launch of Jadoowallahs at the Australian High Commissioner, H.E. Harinder Sidhu’s, residence in the presence of Rajeev Sethi, Chairman and Founder, Asian Heritage Foundation as the Chief Guest. The evening also included performances by Australian and Indian magicians Adam Mada and Raj Kumar, respectively, followed by
Adam Mada, magician, with hotelier Aman Nath whom he had called upon from the audience to assist with a magic trick.
a performance on the lawns by another magician. It was befitting that Rajeev Sethi had been invited as the Chief Guest given his experience with the Festivals of India and his many decades of work spent working in the cultural sector. He spoke exceedingly well giving a historical perspective on how he too has met jadoowallahs who did incredible tricks but even decades ago it was a dying art. Today few magicians exist but with a diminished repertoire of tricks given the vast cultural heritage they inherited. He emphasised how as someone interested in the preservation of India’s cultural heritage and its artisans, he along with many other eminent people like the Late Kamladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar set up Sarthi to help artisans in need. Later he also helped establish Bhule Bisere Kalakar which worked with the rehabiliation of artisans relocated to Katputhli colony at the time of the Emergency.
Raj Kumar, Indian magician, performing the basket trick.
Sadly, last year the artisans were evicted from this land last year too, as it was sold by the government to a builder for commercial development, of which a small portion has been allocated to
John Zubrzycki speaking about Motilal Nehru
create “vertical slums” for the displaced people. The reason why Rajeev Sethi mentioned his long association with the artisans was that the magicians and jugglers of whom John Zubrzycki speaks of eloquently have always been considered an integral part of the artisan community. In fact many of these practising illusionists were considered to be beggars as they would perform their tricks by the roadside or at crossroads while begging for alms. It was only in early August 2018 that due to a petition filed by activist Harsh Mander that an archaic law, “Prevention of Begging Act” was upturned. ( “Begging is not a crime, Delhi High Court rules“, Reuters, 9 August 2018). Rajeev Sethi rightly concluded his speech by lauding the author for being one of the magicians biradri, community, as John Zubrzycki speaks of the magical tricks but never gives the magicians secrets away.
The evening concluded with a brief presentation by John Zubrzycki about the research he had done for this book and shared a few anecdotes that have been recounted in the book as well. One of these fabulous anecdotes was that of Motilal Nehru, father of the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, petitioning the Protector of Emigrants in Bombay to send “a party of Indians consisting of musicians, acrobats and artisans to the ensuing Paris Exhibition .” What followed was an extraordinary sequence of events where Lord Curzon had to rule whether a” a jadoowallah’s tricks constituted manual labour because they were executed by sleight of hand” or were performers. If they were deemed as manual labourers then under the Emigration Act of 1883 that prohibited emigration of Indias to specified countries. This Act was tightened after an outbreak of plague in Bombay in 1896. In 1897, the Epidemic Diseases Act (No.3) was passed leading to “a ban of all native residents leaving India through Bombay Presidency”. Pressure from mercantile groups eased the rules somewhat to permit the severe disruption of labour to Uganda and Kenya to be resumed but the ban stayed for all of Europe and England. ( Read more in Chapter 10 of the book.)
It was a memorable book launch but it is the book that will leave its mark for many years to come with its enthralling account of jadoowallahs in the sub-continent.
“Ms. Kuo,” he said. “Things I see ain’t nothing worth talking about.”
Reading with Patrick: A True Storyby Michelle Kuo is an moving memoir of her efforts at teaching American history through black literature in the Mississippi Delta. She is convinced that book therapy “could change the lives” of her students. She was twenty-two. She sets about her task with evangelical fervour.
“We all front,” I said. “You know why I love to read? It’s because books don’t front.”
They were listening — it was working.
“You can hear what people are thinking in books,” I continued. “They do crazy things, but you can figure out how they feel. You get to figure out what’s happening to them on the inside.”
We talked about what it meant to see only the outside of people. I asked, “Why do people keep their insides hidden?” The responses were painfully insightful, and the most common was a variation on this one: “People are afraid that if they’re honest about what they want, they won’t get it.”
I realized that I needed also to give them a sense of ownership over the people and stories in these books. I researched black writers for teenagers: Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Flake, Sharon Draper, Sister Souljah, Nikki Grimes, Jacqueline Woodson. I ordered these books and then I read them. I felt these writers knew better than I did what stories teh kids needed. The heroes were people who looked like them, talked like them, and faced the problems they faced. In Tears of a Tiger, by Sharon Draper, Andy, a teenager blames himself for his best friend’s death. In Jazmin’s Notebook, by Nikki Grimes, Jazmin, fourteen, is her mother’s primary caregiver. In Begging for Change, by Sharon Flake, Raspberry has to decide whether or not to welcome her estranged father back in her life. A state fund for new teachers had given me eight hundred dollars for the classroom, and I spent it all on these books.
While teaching at the school she came across a lot of children who were existing but no one really cared about them. There was one particular student she was concerned about — Patrick. She persuaded him to return to school and be regular. He slowly picked up reading and writing. A couple of years later she had to leave to join law school. Two years after that she got a call to say that Patrick had been arrested for a murder. She was horrified and flew back to meet him in prison. She discovered he had stabbed a drunk who had brought his simple-minded sister home on a school night. The drunk had been aggressive at first and without realising what he was doing Patrick had stabbed him probably in the arm but a few steps from the house the victim stumbled and died. The police charged Patrick with manslaughter though months after the crime had been committed. All the while the young man languished in a prison. Around the time Michelle Kuo finished her law degree, passed her bar exam and decided to return to the delta. She also decided to set Patrick daily homework in prison of reading and writing while he awaited to go on trial. Reading with Patrick is about this extraordinary relationship of teacher and student. It is very reminiscent of the 1962 classic The Cross and the Switchblade in which the priest “saves” the young gang leader ultimately converting him to Christianity.In Reading with Patrick Michelle Kuo manages a similar transformation by gently persuading and teaching Patrick so that by the time he is released on parole for good behaviour he is able to apply to the local community college for further studies. He is able to get through the admissions test as his scores are good much to the astonishment of the official.
Years later when Michelle Kuo met a consultant who recognised her from Richard Wormser’s documentary Delta Dreamshe remarked, “You have a gift for children, a real gift. For speaking with them. And speaking about them.” While writing this book Michelle Kuo told Patrick about her project but was not sure if she should use his real name or not. His reply:
“You can use my name,” he says. “I believe in testimony; I believe in God.”
I feel relieved. But I am thinking to myself, this is not his testimony: it is mine.”
Michelle Kuo Reading with Patrick: A True Story Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017.
24 Sept 2017
*Note: All images are off the Internet. If you know who is the copyright holder please let me know.
This interview with Maha Khan Phillips was published on Bookwitty on 7 March 2017.
Maha Khan Phillips is the author of Beautiful from this Angle and The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. She is a financial journalist and the editor of Professional Investor Magazine in the UK, where she lives part of the year, the rest of the time she spends in Karachi.
Her novels are set in Pakistan and her fiction is unusual in its portrayal of the economic basis that defines relationships and her astute observation of social dynamics make her fictional landscapes absolutely believable. Her books show women are empowered if financially sound, irrespective of the socio-economic strata they inhabit.
In her latest novel The Curse of the Mohenjadaro, Maha Khan Phillips has taken her literary skills to a new level by venturing into myth-making and exploring the alternative social spaces of cults which ultimately tend to imitate conservative patriarchal structures globally. She kindly answered questions for Bookwitty about her new book:
Why this story? Why Mohenjodaro?
I visited the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro a couple of times when I was a child on school trips. I was enthralled by it. The thing that resonated most was that nobody knew what happened to its people, or how the civilization declined. I remember being bored and surfing the web one day and idly typing in “Mohenjodaro Mystery”. I wanted to see if there was information out there about the decline of the civilization. Instead, I was astounded to discover the so-called Forbidden History/Forbidden Archaeology movement. I learnt that an archaeologist named David Davenport had written a book entitled Atomic Destruction in 2000 BC (Italian, 1979) and that Mohenjodaro was the epicentre of many conspiracy theories about ancient technologies. I decided it would be a great premise for a thriller. In those days, I wasn’t writing at all, so I sort of forgot about it, for a few years, and then picked it up after Beautiful from this Angle.
How long did the research for this book take?
In reality, researching Mohenjodaro was the easiest bit, because there is so little known about the Indus Valley Civilization. I spent some time learning about archaeology in general, and had some help from a couple of brilliant archaeologists. I also researched Mesopotamia and Egypt in an attempt to get inspiration when creating my imaginary Mohenjodaro. But mostly, I researched cults, the psychology of cults, and the Forbidden History movement.
The Forbidden History movement is a term that derived from conspiracy theorists who believe that any artefacts or discoveries which question mainstream history or current theories of evolution are either dismissed, or covered up. They believe in ancient technologies, in humankind being older than we think, in alien influence on pre-historic earth.
Your fascination with trying to understand cults is evident in the ruthless characters of Iaf and Sohail. Why cults?
I could talk about this for hours… I’ve always been fascinated by cults. How do they work? Why on earth do people fall for charismatic leaders, giving up everything, even their lives in some cases? I suppose in my mind, there’s a resonance with the political world now. People have started positioning themselves with these myopic identities and ideologies and aren’t willing to broaden their thinking. Cults are very much about ‘Us and Them’ and I feel the world is heading in that direction too. Look at all the fake news we have been seeing, and how quickly it’s being disseminated as gospel through social media. Look at religious extremism. And, perhaps the best example – was there ever a cult leader as successful as Donald Trump? I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid he’s been handing out, but he’s tweeted his way to cult like devotion amongst his followers, in my opinion – providing them with an ideology that will not help them, and yet spinning the tale so well that they believe life will get better.
How did the creation of the Shakari, Goddess-Blessed and the Bloodstone myth-making come about?
I knew I had to have something – some supernatural force that would cause the chaos which occurs at the beginning of a novel, when the archaeologists go missing and are set on fire. I probably spent more time on trying to figure out what that would be than I did on anything else. In the end, I settled on a stone, because I liked the physicality of having something that could be held in someone’s hand. As for Shakari, many icons of goddesses were found in Mohenjodaro, and so I liked the idea of a matriarchal society which had been corrupted, but which believed in a Mother Goddess. I knew there would be priests and priestesses, and the Goddess-Blessed emerged as those priestesses, for want of a better name for them.
The icons of Goddesses were clay figurines. Numerous kinds have been found in the Indus Valley, wearing headdresses, for example. These could just be images of women, but archaeologists believe they are goddesses .
To my mind the character Jaya’s story was far stronger and tautly told compared to the Nadia & Layla story. Yet how do you occupy two dimensions/time and write two powerful stories?
For ages, I resisted the idea of setting anything in the ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha. I felt I couldn’t do it justice or make it credible, not without knowing more about the place. But that information simply wasn’t available. Eventually, I realised that it was the not knowing that was liberating. It meant I could let my imagination go wild. With so little information out there, I had a blank canvas to make up whatever I wanted. But before I made that realization, I had written an entire novel in the present day. It didn’t work, and so I tried other things. I initially wrote a couple of the ancient scenes as dreams that Nadia had, as a way to give context to some of the modern day plot. I quite liked those scenes, and they were so easy to write, they came pouring out. So I started writing more. And soon, I realised I wanted to intertwine the two narratives.
Why interweave stories? How did you decide to break one story with the other while retaining the reader’s interest?
I’m not sure I consciously thought about it. I’m a big fan of the novels of Kate Mosse, and she did this so effectively in Labyrinth. But more than that I didn’t want to give up either story, I felt emotionally invested in both. I let the writing decide when it was going to break from one story to another – I just did it when it felt like a chapter was finished.
The financial details of your novels are always so fascinating. For instance in this case “River trout which was bartered” and even the activities of Giving of Light Foundation have a clear economic basis which are outlined logically. Do you work out the economic intricacies along with the fictional landscape?
I suppose that’s the financial journalist in me! I’m really aware of how economic realities affect our lives. I would argue that the Financial Crisis brought about Donald Trump and Brexit, for instance. I didn’t feel like the decline/destruction of my ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha was credible without a bit of an understanding of why the civilization’s economic system may have failed them, particularly since the character Iaf is driven by greed and power. I was also quite interested in how the people in this ancient civilization would have traded with one another. I loved the cubes they discovered on the site, and the weighing scales, it was such an advanced approach to trading.
The defiant assertion of independence by Jaya, Layla and Nadia against Iaf and later, Sohail, are very well etched. How challenging was it to create these women characters fighting “patriarchal” structures?
I think the challenge for me, at least early on, was actually to make them less assertive and bolshy! I needed, at least initially, for them to be reactive. For example, I needed to justify Jaya’s decision to remain in Meluhha, despite the loss of her parents, to passively accept her fate. I needed Nadia to go to Pakistan without asking too many questions. It was later that the characters all started to fight back, once they realised what they were up against. That was a more comfortable place for me to be in! Some of what happened in the ancient city is mirrored by patriarchal societies which still exist, which we see all around the world. That was deliberate, on my part. I liked that my characters were strong enough to take those on. I am a feminist, and my family is full of strong women who have never let anyone stop them from achieving whatever they set out to achieve, so I enjoyed writing these kick ass women!
“I set up the Foundation after 2001, after the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. I’d been a banker then, but I have always been passionate about antiquity. Our history often defines our future, don’t you think?” It may be unfair to read the personal in fiction you create but somewhere does this novel stem from what you too feel – maybe the importance of getting to know the past better and how it informs our present?
Trust you to find the one sentence in the entire novel that means the most to me personally! Yes, I passionately believe this. History gets lost, but without it, we don’t know who we are. How can we learn from our mistakes, if we haven’t understood when and how we made them? Mohenjodaro belongs to the world – we’ve seen people in Scotland trace their roots back to Mohenjodaro, for instance. There is a worrying trend, as I mentioned, for myopic ideologies, and we have seen what ISIS does to pre-Islamic history and how they want to abolish the past. In their mind, there’s a good reason for their actions. The past can be dangerous. It shows us that we are smaller than we think we are. We will all, eventually, belong to history ourselves. And so we should not seek to impose our ideologies on others because no ideology, no civilization, no one culture, can withstand the sands of time. Instead, we should celebrate our extraordinary heritage and be made richer by what we learn from it.
Maha Khan Phillips The Curse of the Mohenjodaro PanMacmillan India, 2017. Pb.
( The world book fair was held in Delhi between 7-15 January 2017. It was another magnificent show put together by National Book Trust. I wrote about it for Scroll. The article was published on 29 Jan 2017. )
Three discoveries (and some footnotes) about readers and publishers from the World Book Fair
The death of reading has been greatly exaggerated. Yet again.
At first sight, the World Book Fair in Delhi looked like the scene of family holidays, with up to three generations milling around, some pulling suitcases on wheels filled with books. Actually, with the gradual disappearance of bookshops, the WBF has become an annual pilgrimage of sorts for book-buyers. Here are the three trends we discovered in the 2017 edition:
Children are reading, and reading, and reading…
The findings of Scholastic India ‘s Kids & Family Reading Report(KFRR) confirm that parents most frequently turn to book fairs or book clubs to find books for their child, followed by bookshops and libraries. Eight out of ten children cite one of their parents as the person from whom they get ideas about which books to read for fun.
Curiously enough, what parents want in books for their children is often just what the children want too. Despite this being the digital age, six out of ten parents prefer that their children read printed books. This is particularly true for parents of children aged between six and eight. Perhaps surprisingly, a majority of children, 80%, agree: they will always want to read printed books despite the easy availability of ebooks.
The findings of the report were confirmed independently by observing the phenomenal crowds in Hall 14 of the World Book Fair in Delhi in January, where the children’s literature publishers had been placed. These were astounding even on weekday mornings! Over the weekend queues to enter the hall snaked their way round Pragati Maidan to the food court and beyond. Remarkably, everyone was standing patiently.
The pavilions were overflowing with interested customers of all ages. Children scurried around like excited little pixies, flipping through books, making piles, some throwing tantrums with their parents demanding more than the budgets allowed, and many just plonking themselves on the carpets, absorbed in reading, oblivious to the crowds swirling around them.
Their interest was evident even during the packed storytelling sessions with writers like Ruskin Bond, Paro Anand and Prashant Pinge. This is corroborated by Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India, who said, “Using the findings of KFRR we created our stall as a reading zone. The combination of books, events, interactions and dedicated reading zone made it a pleasurable experience.”
Even adults were discovering new titles for their children. For instance, huddled around a shelf displaying Scholastic Teen Voice titles were a bunch of parents and teachers flipping through the books, exclaiming on their perceived difficulty of finding reading material for adolescents. The series in question contains page-turners built around crucial issues that matter to teens – bullying, drinking, technology, nutrition, fitness, goal-setting, depression, dealing with divorce, and responding to prejudice. Added Aparna Sharma, Managing Director, Dorling Kindersley Books: “We found that representatives from school libraries and other education institutions use this event to search out good books and order in bulk.”
And it wasn’t just the children’s publishers. Academic publishers like Oxford University Press had primary school children dragging their parents to browse through the titles, being familiar with the brand from their school textbooks. This held true even for DK books who, for the first time since they began participating in the fair, had a large table laden with books and generous shelf space in the Penguin Random House stall.
Global publishers are more interested in publishing books from India than selling in India
The hall for international participants was thinly populated. Most of the participants seemed to have come for trade discussions. Many of these conversations were taking place on the sidelines or at other events outside the fair ground, since foreign participants, in particular, were daunted by the vast crowds. The launch of the Google Indic Languages cell at FICCI was announced at the CEOs’ breakfast meeting. Another significant announcement came from Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair, where there will be a “Spotlight on India” at the Fair to mark the UK-India Year of Culture in March 2017.
Yet, as an overseas publisher said, “The World Book Fair is exclusively a business-to-consumer fair, quite unlike any they have in Europe”. This marked a significant shift of sorts. In the past the World Book Fair had been known for a range of international publishers, representing diverse cultures, languages and literature, selling their books directly to readers. Even India’s neighbouring countries used to participate in huge numbers, bringing across fine multiple literatures. This was not the case this time. As a result, long-time visitors to the fair were heard lamenting that its soul was missing – it felt as if an era had ended.
But people bought books, a lot of them
Despite the worry about demonetisation impacting sales, brisk business was done, with sales being 25% higher than in 2016, according to back-of-the-envelope estimates.
According to Kumar Samresh, Deputy Director, Publicity, National Book Trust, there were record footfalls at the 2017 edition of the fair, with 4 lakh complimentary multiple entry passes being supplemented 1.9 lakh individual entries based on ticket sales. There was also free entry schoolchildren, senior citizens, and, as usual, VIPs. Rajdeep Mukherjee, VP, Pan Macmillan India confirmed “a 30℅ rise in footfall, mainly led by young adult readers, but it was the Man Booker award winning title like The Sellout which has been a sellout literally!”
The other changes we observed
The rising sale of textbooks and educational aids.
The increasing popularity of books from franchises like Disney, Barbie, and Lego, or from brands like Marvel Comics and Geronimo Stilton.
Older people cautioning youngsters to buy only “relevant” books.
The overwhelming presence of religious publications.
The preponderance of digital technology vendors, primarily in the area of educational publishing.
Print-on-demand books (goodbye, inventories).
( All the images used in the article were taken by me during the fair.)
To launch the final volume of the Clifton Chronicles by the master storyteller, Jeffrey Archer is in India for an author tour. ( The first volume of this series was launched globally in Bangalore in 2011.) The dates are:
21 Nov – 7pm at Amphitheater, Cyberhub, Gurugram
22 Nov – 7 pm at Amphitheater, VR Bengaluru, Bengaluru
23 Nov – 7pm at Crossword bookstore, Phoenix Market City, Pune
24 Nov – 6pm at Crossword Bookstore, Kemps Corner, Mumbai
Entry is free. On first come first serve basis .
THIS WAS A MAN
This Was a Man opens with a shot being fired, but who pulled the trigger, and who lives and who dies?
In Whitehall, Giles Barrington discovers the truth about his wife Karin from the Cabinet Secretary. Is she a spy or a pawn in a larger game?
Harry Clifton sets out to write his magnum opus, while his wife Emma completes her ten years as Chairman of the Bristol Royal Infirmary, and receives an unexpected call from Margaret Thatcher offering her a job.
Sebastian Clifton becomes chairman of Farthings Kaufman bank, but only after Hakim Bishara has to resign for personal reasons. Sebastian and Samantha’s talented daughter, Jessica, is expelled from the Slade School of Fine Art, but her aunt Grace comes to her rescue.
Meanwhile, Lady Virginia is about to flee the country to avoid her creditors when the Duchess of Hertford dies, and she sees another opportunity to clear her debts and finally trump the Cliftons and Barringtons.
In a devastating twist, tragedy engulfs the Clifton family when one of them receives a shocking diagnosis that will throw all their lives into turmoil.
This Was a Man is a captivating final installment of the Clifton Chronicles, a series of seven novels that has topped the bestseller lists around the world, and enhanced Jeffrey Archer’s reputation as a master storyteller.
Other titles in the series:
Book 1: Only Time Will Tell
Book 2: The Sins of the Father
Book 3: Best Kept Secret
Book 4: Be Careful What You Wish For
Book 5: Mightier than the Sword
Book 6: Cometh the Hour
Jeffrey Archer, whose novels and short stories include Kane and Abel, A Prisoner of Birth and Cat O’ Nine Tales, has topped the bestseller lists around the world, with sales of over 275 million copies.
He is the only author ever to have been a number one bestseller in fiction, short stories and non-fiction (The Prison Diaries). The author is married to Dame Mary Archer, and they have two sons and two grandsons.
‘It really is a pathetic thing. To mourn a past you never had. Don’t you think?’
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is his second novel. According to Granta in 2014, he was one of the promising writers from Britain. I have liked his writing ever since I reviewed his debut novel, Ours are the Streets, for DNA in 2011. The first chapter of The Year of the Runaways was extracted in Granta, Best of British novelists. It is about a few men from India who choose to migrate to the UK. They are from different socio-economic classes. Tochi is a chamar, an “untouchable”, from Bihar who had gone to Punjab in search of a job, but with his father falling ill, returned to the village. Unfortunately during the massacres perpetrated by the upper castes his family was destroyed too. So he gathered his life-savings and left India. The other men who leave around the same time are Avtar and Randeep, migrants from Punjab. Randeep is from a “better” social class since his father is a government officer and he is able to migrate using the “visa-wife” route. But when these young men get to Britain, they are “equal”. It is immaterial whether they are working as bonded labour or on construction sites or cooking or even cleaning drains. They are willing to do any task as long as it allows them to stay on in the country. Apparently living a life of uncertainty and in constant fear of raids by the immigration officers is far preferable to life at home.
The women characters of Narinder, Baba Jeet Kaur and Savraj are annoying. Maybe they are meant to be. Given how much effort and time has been spent figuring out the male characters, the women come across as flat characters. Narinder, Randeep’s visa-wife, seems to have the maximum social mobility in society as well as amongst these migrants but she remains a mystery. It is only towards the end of the novel that just as she begins to find her voice and asserts herself, the story comes to an abrupt end.
I like Sunjeev Sahota’s writing for the language and sensual descriptions. He makes visible what usually lurks in the shadows, confined to the margins. He makes it come alive. It is remarkable to see the lengths a storyteller can go to tell a story that has a visceral reaction in the reader. Also it is admirable that while living in Leeds, UK, Sunjeev Sahota has written a powerful example of South Asian fiction that is set in Britain without ever really showing a white except for the old man Randeep had befriended while working at the call centre. Sunjeev Sahota admires Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. ( It was also the first novel he read as he admits in the YouTube interview on Granta’s channel.) Rushdie too has given a glowing endorsement to The Year of the Runaways saying, “All you can do is surrender, happily, to its power”. ( http://granta.com/Salman-Rushdie-on-Sunjeev-Sahota/) True. The only way to read this novel is to surrender to it. But has Sunjeev Sahota broken new ground as his literary idol, Rushdie did with his award-winning novel? The purpose of literary fiction is to make the reader unsettled rather than just hold a mirror up to the reality. As a tiny insight into the hardships economic migrants experience this novel is astounding. But it falls short of being thought-provoking and disturbing or breaking new ground in literary fiction. I doubt it.
Sunjeev Sahota’s gaze on India is an example of poverty porn in literature. He has got the migration patterns, the hostility at ground level in Bihar and Punjab and the nasty descriptions of the Ranvir Sena or the Maheshwar Sena as they are referred to in the novel accurately. ( I think the novel alludes to these massacres as described in this wonderful article by G. Sampath in the Hindu, published on 22 August 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/sunday-anchor-g-sampaths-article-on-children-of-a-different-law/article7569719.ece ) Disappointingly Sunjev Sahota’s voice is clunky at times and comes across as well-researched but a trifle jagged in the Indian parts. The British bits are brilliant as if to the Manor born, which Sunjeev Sahota is! Much is explained by what he hopes to explore in this novel in an interview he gave Granta ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65mtLCbODCk : 23 April 2013) :
What does it mean being unmoored from your homeland and what does that do to a person and subsequent generations? What happens to that hold that is created? What fills it? Then where does one go from there?
This is a strong and fresh voice. Sunjeev Sahota must be read even if this novel ends with a bit of a convenient ending. This is an author whose trajectory in contemporary literature will be worth mapping.
The Year of the Runaway is wholly deserving to be on the ManBooker longlist 2015 but I will be pleasantly surprised to see it on the shortlist.
Sunjeev Sahota The Year of the Runaways Picador India, Pan Macmillan India, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 480 Rs 599