Partition Posts

Interview with instapoet Nikita Gill

Alice in Wonderland 

Alice’s rabbit hole began when she entered her father’s library and picked up one of the books she was forbidden to read. In it, the words were flavoured with anger and terror and beauty and everything she hadn’t tasted yet in her young life. People revolting, war, famine, anger at the aristocracy, compassionate philosophers writing famous ideas and wild theories. 

Wonderland emerged when Alice found her love for reading, and even better, acting on what she read. …

She scorned the idea that young ladies of that time should not do what she did. Make change and make waves and create a world more equal for everyone that lives in it. She was more concerned about making a change and in every little way she could find, she would. 

                                                                                                            Wild Embers, pp. 68-69

Nikita Gill is a British-Indian writer and poet living in the south of England. With a huge online following, her words have entranced hearts and minds all over the world. Wild Embers (2017) was her first book. I discovered the hugely popular Instapoet poetry in print, not on social media. It were the print editions that caught my attention primarily because her book publicists sent the beautifully designed editions of Wild Embers  and Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul.  Strong poetry that is a pleasure to read for its sharply articulated ideas and representation of strong, independent, and thinking women characters especially in the retelling of the age-old fairytales. In fact Fierce Fairytales was whisked away by my young daughter as her own! I was a little surprised at her action as I was not sure how much of the poetry she would understand. Yet she surprised me pleasantly by getting the gist of the stories. She may not have got the layered meaning but she got the gist. It speaks volumes of Nikita Gill’s skill as a poet to be able to connect across generations.  Unsurprisingly she has a legion of followers on social media: Facebook (109k), Instagram ( 478K), Twitter ( 26.6K) and Tumblr 

Hachette India helped faciliate this email interview.

1. How and why did you decide to become a poet? 

When I was 13 years old, I was introduced to the work of Robert Frost through English class. There was something incredible in capturing such a wide span of emotion inside a single poem that rattled my soul and I felt a deep connection with it. Soon after, my nani (maternal grandmother) gave me my very own copy of Sukhmani Sahib and the hymns and verses there made me realise how poetry and prayer were not dissimilar, each one crafted from air to create something beautiful in and of itself. This was what made me fall in love with and want to write poetry.

2. How long does it take you to write a poem?

Genuinely speaking I am never done writing my poems. I think it was Da Vinci who said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”, and I resonate with that deeply. I frequent my old journals often, and rewrite pieces that I wrote years ago. I have a fondness for visiting an old thought with a fresh mind and a newer heart. I edit my manuscripts over and over again until I have to give them up. On a good day, a first draft will take about 6 hours, and rewrites take longer.

3. You are a huge success on social media. You are one of the few Instapoets who is known worldwide with a celebrity following too. But traditionally publishers are hesitant to publish poetry for the book gets easily read in a store or can be easily copied. How do you manage your poetry posts online from being plagiarized or shared without acknowledgement?

There are battles you can fight and battles you can’t. Plagiarism is a difficult thing to battle when your intellectual property is out on the internet. People get inspired by things, when we are finding our voices, our work tends to be clichéd. The easiest way for me is to write new things which I’m not seeing done around me right now. Fairytales verse retellings, writing about my very specific experiences with Partition and being Kashmiri and Punjabi, and my love for the night sky. The point is to keep reinventing yourself and keeping your head above the water. It’s also the only way to become a better creator.

4. Your primary audience are on social media. Do you find writing poetry for publication on paper is any way different to putting out posts in cyberspace? How does it affect your style of poetry? Would you say that writing for an online audience is predominantly performance poetry but it’s tone has to change for consumption in print? Do you edit the poems before the print publication or do you publish the poems as was first put out on social media? 

It’s interesting because I always thought my primary audience was on social media. But my sales figures show an even split between bookstores and internet sales. Social media is also a very different realm than to paper. You’re fostering a community there. Thoughts, ideas, friendships – also there is close interaction with your audience which you don’t get with a book. I have always said that the community in the comments section is the most magnetic thing about posting your work, unfiltered, online. I wouldn’t call it performance simply because performance poetry is such a beautiful craft in and of itself (the poets on Button who are powerhouses for instance). I would call it “confessionalist bite-sized poetry” which exists to cause a reaction, a thought, a feeling. When I write for a book, the work is edited and reedited many times before I am happy with the story it tells, whereas on the digital platform, I predominantly share excerpts or aphorisms.

5. Do you find that interacting regularly with your readers on social media influences your poetry as well as selection of themes?

I think I have a huge responsibility towards my readers to ensure my platform remains a safe space for them to share their experiences. My first allegiance is to marginalized people and survivors of trauma and I ensure posts contain trigger warnings. I don’t let it affect my work for the simple reason that the people who follow me only follow me because they enjoy the work I already put out. I need to be true to myself to be true to them. I don’t post at any particular time of the day or daily. Just when I have a fleeting thought to put something up or create something. It’s all so much more organic that way.

6. Who are the poets who have influenced you the most?

I have a fascination for the works of Emily Dickson, Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Pritam, Walt Whitman, Anne Carson, Emily Berry – this list is non exhaustive. I think the more older poetry we read, the better we learn how to truly see that poetry is a very vast subject and means very different things for different people.

7. What are the forms of poetry you prefer to read and write in? 

I like to read every form of poetry – there are so many genres to enjoy and such a rich world of poets to discover. Recently, I’ve been experimenting more and more with lyric poetry and moving away from free verse which has been my form for so long. Lyric poetry is far more based on regular meter and it’s teaching me a lot to try and learn how to write it.

8. Your poems seem to be in free verse with a “fludity” about the stories. Do you “work” at this craft or does it evolve on its own when you are writing?

It does evolve on its own. I have to often stop myself from rhyming but the poem does exactly what it wants to do without permission from me. I’ve found that it is best not to fight it, fighting it leads to writers block. So I just go with it instead. And then edit like I am own worst critic (because truly, I am. I don’t know anyone who has ever sworn or yelled at me as much as my inner critic has.).

9. Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was very clear that his poetry was meant to be meditative and it is the reason why he developed the inscape technique. It forces the reader to engage with the poems. Whereas your poetry is far easier to read but the ideas of love, feminism and independent women that you share are powerful. Do you, like Hopkins, wish for something equally transformative wrought in the reader after engaging with your poetry?

Absolutely, but I do think that will take time. I am still young in my writing journey and discovering my voice. To be truly transformative is to not only find your voice but have complete of command over it. Whilst I have discovered what I want to say, what messages I want to put out, I feel like I am just at the very beginning of honing my craft. I feel like language shouldn’t be something that is overly difficult to read, but it should make the reader feel changed when they have read a thought a certain way.

10. How did wonderfully sharp and witty Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir your Soul come about?

I think Fierce Fairytales was something I was always meant to write. The idea within the book all germinates from a single thought: the incredible magic we seek in our environments, in other people, is already within us, and we must seek it out. This idea has been within all my books but with Fierce Fairytales I got to explore it, and tell the stories of the villains who I genuinely believe have so much more to say than just “we are evil people doing evil things”. I enjoyed writing this book thoroughly, so much so that it has been the seeds for multiple new projects which are presently in development.

7 December 2018 

An interview with Vidyun Sabhaney and Arpita Das about “First Hand graphic narratives” Vols 1&2

First Hand Vols 1 & 2 are a collection of reportage told in graphic format or comic style. There are a variety of stories, styles of illustration and to some extent representation of regional diversity. Turning the page to a new story brings with it an unexpected pleasure — for a brand new style of presenting a visual story. A new kind of drawing and unexpected stories. For a reader this is tremendous as at one level it is challenging to read such a lot of variety and yet it is engaging. But for the publishers of this book it must have been quite a project to put it together.
In First Hand 2 the stories are arranged thematically as per the Exclusion report. Nevertheless it is a powerful treasure trove of searing stories. “Shadow Lines” has to be the most powerful of stories in this volume for it focuses on the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar  based on a report by journalist Neha Dixit and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. The others focus on ethnic conflict  in Bodoland in the north east of India (“There’s no place like home”), on the Devadasis or on the Jarawas of Andaman ( “Without permit, entry prohibited”). It is imperative these stories are kept alive. These are extremely tough stories and need to be heard by a wider audience.
The “byproducts” of the second volume, if ever created, will travel far. For instance these can be turned into storyboards / story cards of one panel each to be used in workshops or educational programmes. These can be used as a springboard for short animation films, again with a wide variety of applications.
Here is an interview with Vidyun Sabhaney, along with writers and illustrators to the book, Neha Dixit, Bhagwati Prasad, Vipin Yadav and Anupam Arunachalam. They speak to Souradeep Roy of the Indian Cultural Forum on the process behind the making of the book.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=110&v=DlS98i7nbnw
Following are excerpts of an interview with the editor Vidyun Sabhaney and Yoda Press publisher Arpita Das.
1. Why and how were the First Hand series conceptualized? How long did the process take from conception to publication of each book?

Vidyun: The First Hand books were initially conceptualised as non-fiction comics anthologies, as at the time there was not too much non-fiction work being made in a dedicated way. Speaking personally, I was interested in what could be produced if we encouraged artists and writers to engage with their social, political, and economic context through a platform like an anthology. That’s the sprit with which First Hand 1 was begun with myself, Orijit Sen and Arpita Das. First Hand 2 took on a slightly different approach. The first book took about three years from conceptualisation to finish, and the second book took roughly two years.

Arpita: Vidyun came to me with the idea for First Hand, to make comics out of real on-the-ground reportage in India, in early 2014. We had published our first graphic anthology on the Indian Partition, This Side That Side very successfully in the Fall of 2013, and I was immediately excited by the potential of what Vidyun was sketching out for me. Conception to publication took 2-2.5 years each time.

2. How did the name “First Hand” come about as a title for these books? What is the principle of selection for the stories to be included in the volumes?

Vidyun: The name “First Hand” reflects the spirit of the books – that they are or are based on seen and heard stories, or that someone has witnessed them. It also alludes to the process of drawing.

The first book was much more about generating a kind of content we (my co-editor Orijit Sen and I) thought was missing in the Indian comics’ scene and trying understand the many facets of non-fiction. So it was an exploration of genre and what is possible in it. For this reason, we did an open call for stories, from which we received 50-odd applications. From this we selected work using the writer’s process as a filter for this book, as well as the ‘contemporariness’ of the narratives. ‘Process’ refers to how the material that forms the base of the narrative was gathered—for example, if it was through research, interview, or personal experience. The second lens was the relationship of the work with contemporary public life, i.e., the social and political milieu of the country. A deeply personal story, while being non-fiction, would have to have some relationship with recent events or phenomena.

On the other hand, this book was a deep-dive into the theme of exclusion – so it was a challenge in a different way. To understand the length and breadth of the issue, what the data in the report was saying, and develop works accordingly was an intensive process. Many of the stories in the book are not strictly non-fiction – rather it is work that is true-to-life. In order to put forward the data holistically, we had to fictionalise and merge experiences of different people and place them in a narrative frame. In some cases, anonymity was also a concern. In addition, there were some non-fiction narratives that were selected for the book – like Water and Shadow Lines. I tried my best to develop and select work that their either reflected the report or then complemented what it was saying in a different way – for example through visual poetry (Water) or then a wordless comic (Without Permit Entry Prohibited).

Arpita: This was Vidyun again. She had a few options in mind but was always leaning in favour of First Hand, and I loved it too. The title communicated so effectively what the most vital core of the series would be. For Volume 1, there was a Call for Entries while for Volume 2, Vidyun commissioned the artists to collaborate with the writers. But for both models, what remains most important is that there is tremendous integrity in telling the story as the writer envisaged it, and excellence in terms of form.

3. Making  graphic novels is an expensive proposition in terms of all  resources, not just financial. Why choose this format to tell these stories?

Vidyun: The only aspect of comics making that is inherently more expensive than other books is the production – but even that depends on the kind of book. This has to be viewed relatively – those who work in film marvel at how much more resource efficient the medium of comics is, even as it tells a visual story. Although, comics and graphic novels come in the form of a book – they offer something very different from the written word, and need to be viewed in those terms.

There are so many reasons to work with this medium. For example, through drawing, one can evoke a detail or a feeling or a texture or a history as experience for the reader. It is also a way of seeing the world, of picking up information and metaphors that arise from a visual understanding of society. In that way, practising this medium offers a different perspective. These observations can be put forward as visual metaphor or cinematically, while using the physical space of the page to emphasise different parts of the story. The list goes on and on!

Arpita: Yes, it is a time-consuming format, and there are financial challenges as well, but for me, it is a genre that is unbelievably exciting in its potential. I also have to say that the way our two earlier graphic books, A Little Book on Men and This Side That Side continue to sell, and sort of put us on the map in terms of spelling out to our audience the kind of bold and stereotype-smashing publishing we wanted to do, almost nothing else has done it with such effectiveness. Frankly, I am waiting for a time when we start having multiple awards for graphic books to reward some of this stupendous work, and the risks we have taken to put it out there.

4. The publication of the second volume has coincided with the first ever graphic novel being nominated on the Man Booker longlist. Do you think the reception to graphic novels will change after this announcement? What has been the reception to your two books?

Vidyun: Personally I think that these are two very different spaces. Perhaps it will make non-readers of the medium more aware of it but little changes otherwise. Comics have been winning ‘mainstream’ accolades for several years now, I don’t think there’s much left for us to prove. After all, it’s a medium that can be used to tell stories well or poorly – that depends on the creator. Things only change for the field when genuine interest is taken in the distribution of comics, which currently remains very niche the world over.

Arpita: As I said, the reception has been incredibly heartening. We keep printing these books, and we are always behind on demand, which as a publisher I can tell you, is a good thing.

5. Why did you choose to base First Hand 2 on the 2015 edition of the India Exclusion Report instead of circulating an open call for submissions of original stories as you seem to have done for First Hand 1?

Arpita: CES have been our publishing partners for more than three years now, and Yoda Press publishes the India Exclusion Report annually with them. When Harsh Mander got in touch with me asking if there were other genres in which they could adapt some of the narratives emerging out of the extremely important documentation that IXR is doing, I immediately thought of the graphic genre. Because that was exactly what we had hoped to achieve with First Hand 1: bringing the Indian reality on the ground to another audience, and we succeeded. Vidyun and I had also thought from the beginning that from the second volume onwards, we should think thematically—that this the only way to build up a series. So when CES showed interest in trying something radical and new, we immediately got to work on it. The stories were all already there, incredible, chilling, uplifting, eye-opening stories. They just had to be gleaned from the documentation and told in this fabulously bold format that graphic books always make available.

Vidyun: Centre for Equity Studies (CES) approached us with the idea of converting their 2015 edition into graphic format – we accepted because of the possibilities of the stories that we could create. These are very important narratives about marginalisation that need to be told, so that we can work towards a more inclusive society. India is a shockingly unequal nation, and there are urgent issues like casteism, gender-based discrimination, communalism, economic disparity – to name a few. We felt these comics could offer an introduction to them, and also give them a visual register. Exclusion can at times hide in plain sight, and we hoped that this book could make it easier to identify and fight.

Open calls are a great way to push the field further, to encourage new voices through a platform. Since there was little non-fiction work being produced when we did First Hand 1, an open-call worked very well.

With First Hand 2 the approach was different – working in a dedicated way on a specific theme is an opportunity to engage with subject and storytelling a more detailed way. It was important that exclusion be explained in the terms of the original report, and for that reason it made sense to have a small, dedicated team that could also familiarise themselves with the report and produce accordingly.

6. Do publications like this lend themselves to travel well in other English language book markets or even other languages? Or do you see them only as India-specific books?

Arpita: Many German, French and Australian publishers have shown interest in buying rights. There is a French publisher who recently asked if they could put together the comics on women from the two volumes. I have discussed this with Vidyun and we are open to it. I had meetings at Frankfurt Book Fair 2018 with French and Australian publishers to discuss the project. Next year the Salon the Livre is doing a Guest of Honour India year, and they are showcasing some books from India for their publishers recommending them for rights purchase, and they picked First Hand 2 as one of the books. So yes, I think we are getting there.

7. Why Is there inconsistency in providing translation for text spoken or written in Hindi/Devnagari? The first story is narrated in Hindi with no translation whereas “Shadow Lines” has translations for the few lines spoken in Hindi but written in Roman script.

Vidyun: It was important to have some works in Hindi in the book as I have always felt that graphic narratives and comics should be published in a variety of languages, in their original script.

“Shadow Lines” has translations as it is reportage work, and some translation was required to explain context  – especially as the rest of the comic is in English and roman script.

Arpita: Well, because both the stories by Bhagwati Prasad were written originally by him in Hindi using the IXR data and information. Whereas, Neha’s story was written in English, and the Hindi text occurred in between. I think the two narratives were treated faithfully as they should have been, within the language of origin parameters.

8. Will “First Hand” become a platform and a launch pad for testing new voices alongside experienced storytellers?

Arpita: I think it already is. So many narratives have been drawn or told in both the existing volumes by first-time artists and storytellers. And they appear at the end alongside well-known voices. And if and when we manage to publish more volumes, its perception as a series which empowers new voices as much as it showcases established ones should only grow.

Vidyun: I think to a degree it is already that, and I am very happy that it has been able to provide this platform to both.  If we can continue this series, then it will hopefully continue in this vein.

9. Yoda Press is known for publishing unusual literature and always crackling good subjects but are not necessarily known as publishers of graphic novels (except for This Side, That Side). So why venture into the graphic novel genre? Will this become an annual feature for Yoda Press or remain as a series whose frequency is undetermined?

Arpita: Well, since 2013 we have indeed become known for our graphic anthologies as well, since we have published three in just five years since then, and these are big books, over 300 pages, each one, involving much skill and many voices. It cannot be an annual feature because each of these anthologies takes 2 years to come together at a minimum. So that is what we are looking at as a time frame.

10. What were the highs and lows of publishing Vol 1 vs Vol 2?

Arpita: The high for me as a publisher is always when the book is in my hand. The lows usually occur when there are delays in the scheduling and one hits the panic button, and then you have to calm down. I think in some ways Vol. 1 with its Call for Entries starting point was a more dynamic journey, whereas here it felt more like the work was at hand to begin with and had to be delivered. The book at the end in both cases was just splendid, so finally it was a high that outlasted the lows.

21 November 2018 

 

Reading young adult literature

There is a tremendous spurt in middle grade novels and young adult literature. It is also a grey area as it is never clear what kind of stories may attract the young readers. Even so there is a great mix of storytellers and stories being published regularly. There is so much variety to choose from. Here is a selection:

Beginning with the seasoned writers like Paro Anand, Ranjit Lal and Subhadra Sen Gupta, all of whom have new books published. Well, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s is a reissue of one of her earliest collection of historical fiction short stories. It is a revival of her backlist that is very welcome. Painters, Potters, Cooks and Kings was first published nearly two decades ago but it remains one of my all time favourite collection of short stories. These stories with children as the protagonists are set in different periods of Indian history — King Ashoka, Emperor Akbar, King Krishna Deva Raya, Princess Jahanara and British India.

Paro Anand’s The Other is a path-breaking collection of short stories for young adults exploring critical issues like gender, sexual abuse, grief and loneliness and much, much more. It is a set of stories that even adults will do well to read. ( I wrote about it too and embedded a fantastic conversation between Paro Anand and Sunil Sethi too.)

Ranjit Lal is another very prolific writer for children. Over the years his storytelling has matured to magnificent levels. His child protagonists are always very well-defined and easy for the young readers to identify with as they are ordinary folks. His plots are of the familiar too. Even when his stories become sinister and dark, the scenarios are completely plausible as there is a logical progression from the point of the personal and known. Again spaces that are easy to recognise. This holds true for Adventures of Bozo & Chick: Terror at Bedlam House which is set in Mumbai. Teenagers Bozo and Chick, ably assisted by youngsters in the neighbourhood, try and solve the mystery of the masked strangers living in a more or less abandoned home. Mixed with generous doses of references to real life such as love jihad or terrorists attacking Mumbai using the sea-route make this novel unnerving but a gripping read.

And then there are two extraordinary middle grade novels by USA-based writers of Indian origin — Ahimsa and The Night Diary. Both novels deal brilliantly with the Indian freedom struggle. ( Read interviews with Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani.) 

Award-winning writer of adult fiction Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s first book for children Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh is a tremendous book. Friendships between magical creatures and little children, the implicit trust that binds them, always makes for a perfect story. Hansda has achieved it charmingly so in his own gem of this utterly fabulous Jwala Kumar.  A fun, fun book is Tommy Greenwald’s Crimebiters! It involves little children and a crime-fighting vampire dog. Need I say more? It is utterly delicious!

Three collections of short stories that are equally engaging are Grandpa Tales and Grandma Tales ( edited by Lalitha Iyer) and Flipped: Funny Stories/Scary Stories. The stories edited by Lalita Iyer are a great collection with the contributing authors mostly sharing stories that they heard from their grandparents. In the next edition of these anthologies it may be better if there was a wider selection of stories representing the diversity of India rather than focused on a handful of regions. Nevertheless these are two entertaining volumes. The third one is a curious book of flipped stories. So to read the scary stories you read the book one way and to read the funny stories you flip the book. The two stories that stand out in this volume are “Of Grave Importance” by Adithi Rao and “When I Was a Little Girl” by Shabnam Minwalla. 

But the new voice in children’s literature to be noticed is Cordis Paldano. A theatre professional who has also been trained in Tamil street theatre called Terukkutu, Cordis Paldano’s debut novel The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is a stupendous book. It has an excellent sense of drama and timing. Being true to the elements of street theatre that thrives on incorporating elements into the performance of local socio-political developments, this book too is no different. It is a brave book. Cordis Paldano is the talented new kid on the block and worth following!

Given that the festival season is here. These books would make tremendous Diwali gift packs whether for reluctant or mature readers.

Happy reading!

30 October 2018 

To buy on Amazon India

Painters, Potters, Cooks and Kings

The Other 

Adventures of Bozo & Chick: Terror at Bedlam House

Ahimsa 

The Night Diary

Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh

Grandpa Tales

Grandma Tales

Flipped: Funny Stories/Scary Stories

The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat 

 

 

 

 

An interview with Veera Hiranandani about her middle grade novel, “The Night Diary”

I had been hearing about Veera Hiranandani’s middle grade novel The Night Diary for a while. It had been impossible to get hold of in India when lo and behold, PRH India announced it was releasing the Indian edition of the book. Fantastic news! I read an advance copy and loved the novel. There is such little literature available for children explaining the freedom movement through fiction, allowing for dramatisation of events without making it too hard to understand. Of late the desi writers based abroad who have begun to feel the crying need for the lack of such literature and presumably been told stories about the Indian freedom struggle have begun to write novels for the younger generations. Three writers, who happen to be women and are based in USA, have written middle grade fiction. Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani. 

After reading The Night Diary, I emailed Veera Hiranandani. Here is a lightly edited version of her interview. 

****

Veera Hiranandani is the author of The Night Diary, which was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and is a New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick, The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Yearling), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist, and the chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green (Grosset & Dunlap). She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster, she now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and is working on her next novel.

She adds “I was raised in a small town in Connecticut. Growing up wasn’t always easy. My mother is Jewish-American, my father is from a Hindu family in India, and I didn’t know any kids like me where I lived. But coming from two cultures and not always fitting in has probably made me a stronger person. I was also pretty shy, so I spent a lot of time quietly watching other people.

​Maybe I wouldn’t have become a writer if I wasn’t forced to look at the world a little differently. Food was another thing that helped me connect with both sides of my family. I consider Jewish matzo ball soup and Indian samosas my favorite comfort foods. I love eating, cooking, and reading books about food. Nothing helps bring people together better than sharing a good meal. When I was younger, sometimes I wished I was different, but now I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world.”

What inspired you to write The Night Diary?

My own father was nine when he had to leave his home during the Partition. I heard him and my aunts and uncles tell the story as I was growing up–that several weeks after India’s Independence, my father, his four brothers and sisters, and his mother decided to leave Pakistan and made it over the new border by train. My grandfather had to stay behind. He was a doctor in the Mirpur Khas city hospital and they didn’t want him to leave until they found a replacement, but a few weeks after, he decided to leave anyway because he was worried about his family.  They lost their home, their community, but they made it safely. As we know, many people did not. When I got older, I became more curious, did more research, and wondered why I never learned much about the Partition in school in the US, such a significant event in our global history. When I became a writer, I knew I wanted to shape a story around this time, but it took me a while before I felt confident enough to do so.

Having lived in USA all your life, how did your family keep the memories of the freedom movement and Independence alive?

I think it was only through my father’s family that I learned about India’s independence and the Partition. Occasionally we would talk about the history surrounding this time if my cousins and I asked questions. But if I hadn’t been curious or interested on my own, these stories might have faded away. There was a desire to leave the difficult times in the past and focus on the future. I think that’s common for many families. But if that happens, then we will forget and not have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made and honor those who were lost. Survivors of the Partition are in their last decades of life and I believe it’s up to my generation to preserve this history and pass the stories down to younger generations in whatever ways we can.

What are the stories you accessed for writing this book? 

I listened to my father and other relatives. I also read many historical accounts and novels. I read collections of oral testimonies and listened to several online. There’s a wonderful website preserving these oral histories called The Partition Archive of 1947. They have a wide variety of oral testimonies from people who lived in many parts of India before independence. Some had to leave, some stayed, some crossed into Pakistan, some crossed over the new border of India. There are stories mostly from Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. I tried to listen to as many point of views as I could. I wanted to create a story that wasn’t based particularly on one story, but could explore the many questions I had about the Partition and be representative of many experiences.

Was there much literature to read? If so in which language ? Or did you rely mostly on oral narratives?

I relied on books in English (I only speak English), but I wanted to read historical analyzations or novels of the Partition by those who had South Asian origins and had more than just an intellectual interest in the history. I didn’t really find much out there for young readers, but some of the books that helped me were The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan, Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia, Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari.

What are the back stories for this novel that you left out but undeniably built upon to tell the wonderful story of The Night Diary?

I knew I wasn’t trying to recreate the exact story that my father’s family went through. It wasn’t representative enough of more experiences and I was writing fiction. I began with the idea of family traveling in the direction a Hindu family would be traveling, because that’s what my father did, but I wanted to take a wider view. I decided the main character, Nisha, would come from an interfaith marriage (her father is Hindu and her mother was Muslim). I wanted her to be able to ask the questions I had about the Partition—why did diverse communities who lived peacefully before the Partition, break apart so quickly? Where did the violence and hate come from? I thought those questions would be quite powerful coming from the perspective of a character who feels ties to both her Hindu and Muslim identities. I’m also a product of an interfaith marriage. My father is Hindu and my mother is Jewish, so though it’s an entirely different context and a religion, I connected to the idea of having to navigate multiple identities. There were a lot of influences from details of my father’s story, but I was often shaping them in different ways for the story I wanted to tell.

To tell a story about a conflict and subsequent displacement is never an easy task. It is traumatic. Yet how did you manage to create such a simple and lucid while retaining the sensitivity and pain? Did this story go through many drafts?

Thank you and yes, it went through at least ten full drafts, and many smaller ones. It wasn’t an easy task. I hoped to stay truthful to the history, but also explore the questions I had and create as many connections as I could to survivor experiences. I knew there was no way I could write a book about the Partition and not include some of the violence, but I really wanted the younger generation to have access to it. I tried to strike a balance of what a young reader could handle and what actually happened. I think writing a diary from a young person’s point of view helped me render it in a more innocent and direct way. That’s how I felt Nisha would process and write about her experiences. The diary format at times was restrictive, but also helped me keep it in Nisha’s voice. I also thought it would be appealing and accessible for both young and older readers.

Was it a challenge to find publishers for The Night Diary

I was lucky enough to have some nice interest in the story and talk to a few editors about the project. I think people not only found the historical knowledge valuable, but the connections to current events as well–the global refugee crisis, and the discrimination against people of color and xenophobia felt in the US today. I ultimately was able to go with the editor, Namrata Tripathi, at Penguin who I felt was not only an experienced, extremely insightful, and detail oriented editor, but who also had an Indian background and family ties to the Partition. To have an editor who would be able to access this story on both an editorial level and a personal one only helped with the authenticity I was trying to achieve. It truly was a gift.

What was the editorial process like for The Night Diary? For instance did you have to explain much about the context to your editors or did the movement of #weneeddiversebooks ease the publishing process?

Because I was working with someone who knew a significant amount about the context and the culture I was writing about, I didn’t have to explain a lot. Therefore, we mostly focused on the strength of the story and she added to my knowledge at times. But we still had beta readers to help fill in our knowledge gaps. Penguin has been very behind this book from the beginning, but I think organizations like #weneeddiversebooks are hugely important and have paved the way for publishers and readers to understand the necessity and benefits of diversity on a global level.

Why did you feel it necessary to include a glossary of terms in The Night Diary? 

Publishing the book first in the US, after having many non-Indian American readers read the book, I found that many people did not know several of the South Asian terms I was using. I wanted young readers unfamilar with some terms have a resource right in the book. Now that the book is published in India, the glossary must seem irrelevant or readers might be able to improve the definitions!

What has been the response of audiences in USA to your book? What has been the response of the Indian diaspora to your book? 

I’ve had many positive responses and it’s very moving to me. When I decided to write this book, I wondered how much interest it would have, but I knew I needed to write it so I kept at it. I’ve had South Asian American adults express excitement at being able to share this story with their children because they also had parents who were affected by the Partition and now have a context to talk about it. I’ve had South Asian American kids tell me that they’re excited to see Indian/brown characters characters in a book given to them in school because they’ve that experience so rarely. I did a school visit with a large South Asian population and kids were literally cheering as I mentioned some of Nisha’s favorite foods in the book (especially for the sweets). I remember what it was like to feel that I was the only one who knew what dal, kaju katli, or gulab jamun was and I would never expect to see it mentioned in a book, so I understood their excitement.  It has definitely opened doors for some people and I couldn’t be happier about that! It seems to be getting a positive response in India as well, and that is truly humbling and gratifying.

3 October 2018 

“Delhi’s Meatscapes: Muslim Butchers in a Transforming Mega-City” by Zarin Ahmad

Zarin Ahmad’s Delhi’s Meatscapes: Muslim Butchers in a Transforming Mega-City is a history of predominantly Muslim butchers particularly the Qureshi community (biradri) but others in the meat sector are discussed as well. A fascinating history of how the butchers ( for halal and jhatka meat) have operated in Delhi for generations with the Idgah abattoir being established in the early twentieth century by the British when they moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. The next major shift was with Partition and the divisions created within the abattoir for butchering halal and jhatka meat keeping religious sentiments of the Muslims and Hindus in mind, respectively. At the same time it is a disturbing  account of how there have been massive shifts in the business in recent years. These changes are mostly due to political and economic pressures such as shifting the abattoir to the outskirts of the National Capital Region where slowly even the state support is being taken away and only the private firm managing it allowed to operate. It has affected the business of local butchers. Also the rising intolerance towards Muslims and those who eat meat has also resulted in changing cityscapes.

Zarin Ahmad despite being a Muslim herself did not find it easy to be accepted in what is essentially a male-dominated industry. Women are never to be seen in or near abattoirs though some may sell meat in their shops. This gender dimension adds an equally interesting layer to the book for how Zarin Ahmad negotiates these spaces while gathering information. While it took the butchers a while to get used to the presence of a woman in the abattoir they were equally suspicious of her being a journalist. But small courtesies like wearing full-sleeved salwar-kameez with a dupatta and covering her head when the call for prayers ( azan) was heard helped get her accepted. Interestingly being a woman even though she was not a Qureshi allowed her to enter the women’s quarters in their homes and was readily accepted. She was able to have free flowing informal conversations that would inevitably venture into personal spaces but she also realised that it was not a one-way street. Field work research that involved asking questions of individuals meant that she too had to be prepared to answer a few in return from equally inquisitive people she met.

This is a multi-layered book that must be read by everyone for its witnessing by Zarin Ahmed of a tumultuous change in the meat sector of Delhi and its impact on the communities that are dependent upon it for survival. You do not need to be a academic to appreciate it.

Buy on Amazon

27 July 2018 

Eid Stories

Today is Eid-ul-Fitr celebrated after a month of Ramzan. Scholastic India published a slim collection of stories to celebrate the festival called Eid Stories. New stories commissioned by established writers like Paro Anand, Siddhartha Sarma, Adithi Rao, Rukhsana Khan, Shahrukh Husain, Devashish Makhija, Samina Mishra and Lovleen Misra. Every single story is extraordinarily powerful.

Paro Anand’s “After that, in Mumbai” is a devastating story about a young boy Ayub being attacked by his classmates for being a Muslim, a terrorist, who is out to kill everyone. This violence broke out after the Mumbai blasts. His parents are appalled given that his father is the Muslim and his mother is a Christian so brought their son up in a secular environment. So with the willing help of the school administration they speak to the class to sensitize them about Islam and invite everyone home to celebrate Eid.

Adithi Rao’s Sweets for Shankar” is a heartbreaking story about the friendship of twelve-year-olds Munna and Shankar set against the backdrop of Partition. The boys work together as apprentices in a shoe shop but it is all abandoned and Munna is asked to stop working by his master since riots have broken out. Even though it is more than seven decades after Independence these stories are very painful to read as the communal violence persists in India.

Award-winning filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s “Red 17: An Eid Story” is a compelling read about an ex-policeman Nandu who became deaf in a bomb blast. He  lost his wife in the terrorist attack. He now works as an assistant in a laundromat owned by Liayqat as he has to pay for his son’s education. While at work he is asked to return the coat of a customer Feroze Aslam in time for Eid. Unfortunately when he goes to Feroze’s house Nandu discovers that Feroz has died. Shocked he goes home where he decides to keep the smart coat, resize it and gift it to his son, Baiju. Few days later he is stricken by guilt and goes to return it to Feroze’s widow who very calmly asks Nandu to keep the coat. She said it was her husband’s wish. It may have been written years ago but it is a fitting milestone in Devashish Makhija’s oeuvre which consists of short stories, picture books and short films like Agli Baar that have a recurring theme of communal violence.

Inevitably all the stories in Eid Stories celebrate the joyous festival while introducing tough topics for children such as prejudice, and bigotry. These stories were first published in 2010 but nearly a decade later they continue to be relevant, perhaps more today than before. The violence in India is rampant and tearing apart its democratic and secular fabric. Children may as well learn early that ethnic violence is not acceptable; India is to be celebrated for its diversity and inclusiveness!

Perhaps it is fitting on this day that Rahul Pandita posted his grief-stricken message on Eid for journalist Shujat Bukhaari who was slain on the eve of Eid in Srinagar. This message is even more poignant as they belong to different communities in a state that has been ravaged by terrible ethnic violence for decades. Rahul Pandita is a Kashmiri Pandit and the late Shujat Bukhaari was a Kashmiri Muslim.

As Badi Ammi wisely advises her grandchildren in Lovleen Misra’s short story that the spirit of Eid is to be applied to life: In giving to others, you give to yourself . . . Keep giving. 

Eid Stories Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2010. Rpt. 2018. Pb. pp. 114 Rs. 195 

16 June 2018 

Gurmehar Kaur’s “Small Acts of Freedom”

‘That is not how friendships work and that is not how you win people. You can’t win with authority or dictatorship. You don’t want to be feared; you want to be loved and being loved is so much more a happier feeling than fear.’

That day I learnt one of the most important lessons of my life: my father’s weapons may have been guns and ammunition, but my weapons had to be peace. Always. 

Gurmehar Kaur, an undergraduate student at University of Delhi, “shot to fame” when she started a protest against the ruling nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), who had behaved violently and disrupted a seminar being held at Ramjas College [in February 2017]. She posted a picture of herself on a social media site holding up a placard that read: “I am a student of Delhi University. I am not afraid of the ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me.”’ ( #studentsagainstABVP ) Overnight this petite, poised and soft-spoken student became the face of the student protests. Being the daughter of an Army officer who had been killed in the Kargil war when she was a toddler and speaking of peace was completely unacceptable to the fundamentalists. It unleashed a series of horrific abuse directed at this young girl. She was threatened with rape, she was trolled, right wing sympathisers mocked her and she was even compared to the most wanted terrorist in India, Dawood Ibrahim. All this was completely uncalled for but was in keeping with the nationalist fervour espoused by the “nationalists”. ( Scroll, 7 Feb 2018, “The abuse of soldier’s daughter Gurmehar Kaur shows that Savarkarite nationalism is on the rise” )

Gurmehar Kaur dropped out of the Ramjas student protest campaign but her inherent belief in peace building measures is the best way forward in such adverse times, divided opinion. Many commended Gurmehar Kaur for speaking wisely while many others bayed for her blood. It did not deter her and she continues to promote free speech. So much so that in October 2017, TIME magazine featured her in their list of next generation of leaders 2017. She was called a “free speech warrior”. Probably given the worldwide sensation she had become Gurmehar Kaur was offered a book contract by Penguin Random House India to write her story.

Small Acts of Freedom was published recently. It is a slim memoir. Although in her introduction to the book she recounts her involvement in the Ramjas college protests but chooses not to mention it at all in later chapters. Instead she prefers to dwell upon the incidents preceding the incident. Her life as that of a two-year-old girl and a younger sister brought up by a widowed mother and a maternal grandmother. How desperately they miss their father/husband but their mother ensures his memory is kept alive. It is a well-written account by a young woman who has been catapulted into the limelight and has had to learn to mature rapidly as an adult. Yet the simple language used and at times the wide-eyed wonder about her memories such as that of her grandmother hiding the chocolates indicates how close she is still in years to her childhood. She grew up in Punjab, a state which had been worst affected by the violence of Partition in 1947, and whose repurcussions were being felt decades later. In the 1990s Punjab was terribly affected by the separatist Khalistan movement and it had disrupted civil society considerably. Violence was all around. It was in this atmosphere that Gurmehar spent her childhood, listening to vicious talk of the adults spewing hatred particularly towards Pakistan, when it was her father who had been martyred in the war against Pakistanis and he was the one who had inculcated in his daughter the love for peace.

Gurmehar Kaur lacks the perspective ( which comes with age and experience) and tools of academic discourse to dissect and analyse why she did what she did in February 2017 but her firm resolve to do what is best as her upbringing has taught her is what shines through in Small Acts of Freedom. The curious structure of the text with its shifting points of view is very smartly done. To capture these shifts in voices and different tenses is either a class act by a master craftsman or it is simply who she is, wanting to accommodate the important women in her life. The chapters too alternate between different decades — her mother’s childhood and marriage in ’70s and ’80s– to what Gurmehar remembers of her life in late ’90s. Laying down in words a narrative which is so complicated like this while allowing it to flow seamlessly is an astounding feat in one so young. At times it seems as if the story is moving chronologically when it is suddenly disrupted seemingly while the main narrative goes off at a tangent — much as if this tale is being narrated orally with tiny stories embedded within it.

All said and done it is a readable book highlighting what Gurmehar Kaur has learned at home as well as learned to overcome slights at her expense. It is a timely book since Gurmehar Kaur is perceived as the face of student protests in Delhi but she is also an icon for the youth, a messenger of peace and hope.

Read it.

Gurmehar Kaur Small Acts of Freedom Penguin Books, India, 2018. Pb. pp. 200 Rs. 299

7 February 2018 

“A Time for Madness: Memoir of Partition” Salman Rashid

[ Desh Bhagat Yadgar]…A large property set in sprawling grounds shaded by beautiful spreading treews, the Yadgar comprises a couple of auditoriums, a hostel of some dozen rooms and a busy kitchen. 

The hall commemorates martys of the 1857 upheaval —Mutiny for the British and War of Independence for the people of the subcontinent. Black and white framed images, some of poor resolution, others better, of those heroes and heroines adorn the walls of a ground floor auditorium. There were also a few paintings, presumably of those whose camera image was not available. If I am not wrong, there would be upward of two hundred images in all. And unlike us in Pakistan where we sing only of Islam, the commemoration at Desh Bhagat rests on loyalty to the land. It has nothing to do with one’s creed. 

Mohinder Pratap Sehgal and Pundit Fakir Chand Sangar, my only two links with a part of my family I have never got to know, have gone into the great beyond. My real link with that past is severed. …I am grateful too to Mohinder Pratap for his heartfelt apology when we first met. We need more men like him on both sides of the border, men who have the moral courage to admit they or the generation before them perpetrated. We need also men, particularly in Pakistan, who can admit the errors of the past seven decades and begin to make amends. Only then will there be peace. Only then will we know that we are, after all, brothers.

A Time of Madness is a slim memoir by Pakistan’s leading travel writer. It is about his reverse journey to India to find out more about the place his family left in 1947 — at the time of the partitioning of the sub-continent. It may be a personal journey but it is equally relevant seventy years after Independence to remember that many lives were affected by the 1947 violence. Also there is no point in perpetuating senseless hatred and creating a hostile and vicious atmosphere. It is critical to recognise that ultimately all those living in the sub-continent were once upon a time one nation that was brutally carved up by the exiting colonial rulers as a form of appeasement to the politicians but it was also the culmination of their cruel 19C Divide and Rule Policy which was instituted to create a communal rift amongst Indians. Unfortunately it worked in favour of the local politicians in the 20C to continue with these communal colours that has resulted in the hardened stands of the nations in the 21C. It is all very unfortunate. So it is refreshing to read A Time of Madness that hopes there will be some softening of stands and amends made in the near future.

Not sure if it ever will be but one lives in hope!

Here are two good reviews of the book — The Hindu and The Wire .

Salman Rashid A Time for Madness: Memoir of Partition Aleph Book Company, Delhi, 2017. Pp. 130 pb. Rs 299 

30 January 2017 

“Eclectic Response”

My article “Eclectic Response” on Partition literature was published in the Hindu on 6 August 2011. I am c&p the text below. 

Each successive generation has confronted the collective guilt of the Partition in its own different way…

August 14/15, 1947 carved the Indian subcontinent into two nations, Pakistan and India. In a second partition in 1971, Bangladesh was created. 1947 saw the largest mass migration, accompanied by genocide. It uprooted and displaced people of all communities — Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs. But, as Pakistani literary journalist Muneeza Shamsie says, in literature “the response of South English novelists to an event of such magnitude has been comparatively limited. One of the problems is that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were both perpetrators and the victims. Therefore, unlike the Holocaust victims, their moral stand, as individual communities, has been eroded. This has led to a collective guilt, which South Asians find difficult to confront” (Dawn, August 14, 2001).

We know that the literary repercussions of the French Revolution were different on successive generations. The first generation of British romantic poets, for example, was preoccupied with the events as they happened. Similarly, the virtual canon of Partition literature by those who knew undivided India is a moving documentation — Atia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column; Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan; Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh”; Chaman Nahal’s Azadi; Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas; Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi; Mumtaz Shahnawaz’s The Heart Divided; Aangan by Khadija Mastur; Akhteruzzaman Elias’s Khoabnama; Surja-Dighal Bari by Abu Ishaque, and Shahidullah Kaiser’s Sangsaptak.

The first post-Partition generation of Indian writers in English was silent for a time. Then, from about the 1970s to the 1990s, there was a surge of Partition memoirs and oral history projects. Seminal examples of these are Stern Reckoning: A Survey of the Events Leading Up to and following the Partition of India, G.D. Khosla; Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, (eds.) Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin; The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Urvashi Butalia; India’s Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilization, (Ed.) Mushirul Hasan; Stories about the Partition of India (Ed.) Alok Bhalla, 3 volumes; Pangs of Partition, Volume I: The Parting of Ways and Volume II: The Human Dimension, (Eds.) S. Settar and Indira B. Gupta. In India, the Teen Murti Library’s Oral History programme began to be enriched with recordings of those who had witnessed Partition and/or had been administratively/politically involved in it — a rich source of empirical data preserved for posterity. The small crop of Partition fiction in English included Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie; Clear Light of Day, Anita Desai; What the Body Remembers, Shauna Singh Baldwin; Looking Through Glass, Mukul Kesavan; Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh; Ice-Candy Man, Bapsi Sidhwa; Padma Meghna Jamuna, Abu Jafar Shamsuddin. In many of these, realism is replaced by formal and linguistic displays, and individual memory replaces actual events of Partition — a measure of the writers’ distance from actual events.

The literature of the third post-Partition generation is markedly different in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The two partitions of 1947 and 1971 resonate in the literature from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The treatment is sophisticated and nuanced in works like Salt and Saffron, Kamila Shamsie; A Golden Age and The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam; The Search, Shaheen Akhtar; Ojogor and Mohajer by Haripada Dutta; Agunpakhi, Hasan Azizul Huq; Rain and the Rebels, Syed Shamsul Haq, and Agun Pakhi, Hasan Azizul Haq. In Bangladesh, all genres, poetry, drama, short stories and other forms of prose, are equally important for a discussion of ideas and history. India, however, has little or no fiction from the third post-Partition generation, but much non-fiction documentation of the past. Some examples: Partition Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home, Alok Bhalla; The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, (Eds.) Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta; The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India (Ed.) Suvir Kaul; Translating Partition, (Eds.) Ravi Kant and Tarun K. Saint; Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border, Stephen Alter; Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction, Tarun Saint; and Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Neeti Nair.

But, as writer Shauna Singh Baldwin said in an e-mail to me, “We need more exploration and translations of books on Partition, by fiction and non-fiction writers from all over the world, by people of Indo-Pak and British descent and those who wish to understand modern genocides and imagine alternatives for individuals to resist the descent into group-think spirals. Imagination is our one possession that is truly free.”

Future forms

At present, literature from, on or about Partition is not in the printed word alone. The Internet is a vast repository of video and audio clips, online discussion forums, blogs, and photographs. There’s new historical fiction, particularly for young adults, about Partition and surrounding debates by authors like Irfan Master, Jamila Gavin, Anwara Syed Haq, and Selina Hossain, while professional story tellers Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain have a newly created dastango on Partition, dastan taqseem-e hind ki. Fourth post-Partition generation literature may well be born here.

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

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

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

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

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

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

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

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Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

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Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017