Partition Posts

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s “Lahore”, part of the Partition Trilogy

…If religion was the basis of nationality, why there would be multiple nations in India. These nations exist in most villages, in varying proportions, with no boundaries. A Bengali Hindu and a Bengali Muslim live together, speak the same language, share the same customs. In Panjab, it is not uncommon in Hindu homes for the eldest son to be brought up a Sikh. Would that therefore mean two nations in one home? p.159

The first volume of “The Partition Trilogy” by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar , entitled Lahore is to be released very soon. When it is available in the market, buy it. Read it. It is excellent.

The publicity blurb states the following:

Set in the months leading up to and following India obtaining freedom in 1947, this trilogy is an exploration of events, exigencies and decisions that led to the independence of India, its concomitant partition, and the accession of princely states alongside. A literary political thriller that captures the frenzy of the time, the series is set in Delhi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Covering a vast canvas, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Lord Mountbatten [ the text rather disparagingly refers to him as “Dickie” instead of “Lord”] share space in the trilogy with the ordinary people from the cities that were affected by the partition and the reorganization of the states.

Lahore is a very well-told story, delineating step-by-step the events that led to the subcontinent’s independence from its British colonial rulers and the heavy cost in terms of human lives. The story also focusses on the irrational hatred that consumed people. The author attempts a fine balance between the political events that were taking place at a rapid pace, sometimes leaving the politicians and administrators bewildered at the speed at which it was all happening, with that of the events engulfing common people. She offers insights into the macro- and micro- levels of decisions that needed to be taken by the British, and incoming Indian and Pakistani governments. The story moves extremely fast, aping the historical events. Lahore seems to based on extensive research involving historical documents, accounts, testimonies, more contemporary analysis that has been unearthed of the events that took place nearly seventy-five years ago. It is perceptible in the tenor of writing. It seeps through in the descriptions of the real and imagined characters — the state-level decisions that were being taken to manage the handing over of governance by the British to the Indians/Pakistanis, albeit the narrative focusses more on the Indian side; the brutal hacking of people on the streets simply because they were of the opposite community (“Communal rioting was spreading,as if by chain reaction”); the unreasonable acts of violence in neighbourhoods towards the “other” such as the fictionalised account of the Muslim fruit seller being shunted out of a predominantly Hindu colony ( eerily echoing present day India where a few days ago a similar act occurred towards a Muslim bangle seller in Indore); or the vicious assault, kidnapping and raping of women where often they were left to their fate ( “Nobody moved in pursuit, nobody seemed to have noticed her disappearance— or nobody had the energy left to care.”).

There is much, much more to absorb. It requires a keen historian’s eye to verify if the facts portrayed in this novel are as close to the truth as possible. In terms of the broader arc, the depiction of the events is close to what is evident in history books and the many oral testimonies that came tumbling out in the older generations as they recalled 1947 while witnessing the communal riots that had broken out in Delhi in 1984. The chilling parallels between the two were unmistakable. For instance, my grandfather, who was the last ICS officer, suddenly began to remember the 1947 horrors that he saw as a young officer. So much of what Manreet Sodhi Someshwar documents of the officers making lists of divvying up office furniture, watching people being slaughtered in the streets, or houses being burnt to the ground with families inside it are much of what my grandfather has recorded in his oral testimony at the Teen Murti Library. Apparently it is the longest oral testimony (4vols) ever recorded. It is also very familiar to those of us who have seen these riots. It is as if we as a nation cannot get rid of these violent memories and have made violence part and parcel of our lives. Today, with social media, recordings of such incidents spread like wildfire, igniting even more in other regions. It is incumbent upon us as responsible citizens of a democracy to remember the horrendous events of the past and learn to move on, rather than nurse communal hatred and replicate pogroms.

More than forty percent of the 1.4 billion Indian population was born after 1991, many of whom are unfamiliar with modern Indian history. But it can be accessed through various ways. By reading historical fiction such as Lahore in conjunction with history books such as Bipan Chandra’s History of Modern India and of course watching the classic film by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, available in English and Hindi.

Lahore is truly magnificent. Although it is inexplicable why the book title is Lahore when the chapters spell it as “Laur”. It should be submitted for historical fiction literary prizes such as “Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize” that is open to books published in the previous year in the Commonwealth. It would also be interesting to see a conversation between British writer Jamila Gavin who wrote the “Surya Trilogy” and Manreet Sodhi Someshwar as they both grapple with the events of 1947. Ideally Salman Rushdie should be invited to participate too given how his recent collection of essays dwells upon many of the themes that the other two writers tackle. Having said that there are many more writers who can be invited but this trio in conversation would make for a phenomenal conversation.

Buy it once it is available.

28 August 2021

PS I had posted this review on Facebook. Later Manreet Sodhi Someshwar shared it as her Facebook story. Here is a screenshot of it.

Essay on Independence Day literature, 15 Aug 2021

15 Aug 2021 is the 74th Independence Day of India. In 1947, the subcontinent gained its independence from the British. On that day, two nations were created — India and Pakistan. So, while there is every reason to celebrate this joyous occasion, it is also remembered for the partitioning of British India and the terrible communal riots and mass migration of people that ensued.

The historic events of 1947 have never been forgotten by those living in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (in 1947, it was East Pakistan). Within two years of Independence, India got its constitution — the longest written constitution in the world. It is a magnificent document that gave the Indian citizens many rights. India was a fledgling democracy and yet there was much to celebrate this “new India” and the mantra of “self-reliance”. But as Suchitra Vijayan points out in her absolutely stunning book, Midnight’s Borders, that with the three significant pogroms of 1984, 1992 and 2002, much of India’s character changed. In Midnight’s Borders, she spent seven years travelling along India’s borders that had been hastily drawn in the 1940s by Radcliffe. The more she travelled, the clearer it became to her that local history and memory bear no resemblance to the political history of the nation that claims these lands and peoples. A barrister by training, she previously worked for the United Nations war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda before co-founding the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, which gives legal aid to Iraqi refugees. Yet, as her travels along India’s borders proved, that nothing really prepared her for what she encountered. Some of these stories are documented.

The collection of books showcased in the images are a tiny representation of the literature (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) that is about India’s Independence or as many now like to refer to it as Partition. Lesser and lesser people remember it as “independence” from colonial rule but prefer to commemorate the horrors of partition. While both narratives are true, the increasing emphasis on the division of the subcontinent along communal lines has resulted in many generations perpetuating the hatred and anger for the other. It is now playing out in our daily lives as many of these books bear testimony. It also wades into the exceedingly complicated terrain of the importance of memory, oral histories, subjective/objective perspectives, violence and preservation of stories for future generations — is it meant to be a reminder to not repeat these unforgettable mistakes of the past or do they serve the purpose of stoking more communal flames? No one will ever know the truth but three of the recently published novels — Savie Karnel’s The Nameless God, Chandan Pandey’s Legal Fiction (translated from Hindi into English by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari), and Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Time of the Peacock are sobering reminders of the fallout of our violent history.

Partition has become such an important narrative in Indian / South Asian/ desi literature, especially after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 which for many recalled the events of 1947, that many new stories are continue to be published on the subject. Take for instance, the young adult novels of Swapna Haddow’s exquisite Torn Apart: The Partition of India and Veera Hirandani’s riveting The Night Diary. Torn Apart is a slim novel. It is focused upon the two young boys, Ibrahim and Amar. It is October 1947. The two young boys are thrown together, in the aftermath of India gaining Independence from the British. It resulted in the partition of the subcontinent into two nations – India and Pakistan. This resulted in terrible bloodshed and what has been considered to be one of the largest migrations of humans in living memory. Ibrahim, a wealthy young Muslim, has been separated from his family after an attack. Lost and alone in Delhi, Ibrahim meets Amar, a street child and a Hindu, and asks for his help to reach Pakistan safely. Swapna Haddow does not spend too much time fretting about families torn apart or relationships being fragile. She shows the violence and ways out of the violence. She does not in any way lighten any blows. The abrupt manner in which the friendship draws to a close at the refugee camp is so realistic. Astonishingly there is no sense of hope offered to the young readers. It is what it is. Even Michael Morpurgo who dishes out very sad books, with there always being one painful twist in the plot, ends his books on positivity. Always hope. But not Swapna. Yet, the lean writing, with not a word out of place is utterly stupendous. And here is my 2018 interview with Veera Hiranandani.  Supriya Kelkar’s second novel, Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame is not about 1947 but of 1857. The fact that it is listed here is because the novel is set at the time of the Uprising of 1857 when the colonial ruler’s policy of Divide and Rule was evident. Hindu and Muslim soldiers united to revolt against the British rulers. There were strong rumours circulating that the bullets that the soldiers had to bite with their mouths were wrapped in paper greased with cow and pig grease that affected the religious sensibilities of the Hindu and Muslim soldiers, respectively. It caused a massive furore and rapidly spreads from the epicentre in Meerut to towns and villages across India. Supriya Kelkar’s second novel is remarkable too for her insights into British India and creating historical fiction for middle grade readers. Her first novel Ahimsa was fabulous. Her strength is creating these strong adolescent girls as the protagonists and using them as the point of entry into the past. The heroine of this novel is thirteen-year-old Meera. The story opens with her being readied for her departure to her marital home. It was a fairly common practice at the time to encourage child marriage. Her husband Krishna lived in the same village. On the eve of her departure, riots break out and in the violence that ensued Krishna was killed. Meera is terrified that she will be made to commit Sati, the practice of widows burning on their husband’s funeral pyre. Terrified at the prospect, Meera runs away from home. By doing so, she gets involved in a series of events that are linked to the soldiers’ uprising against the colonial rulers.

Some of the stupendous literature published recently that either directly or indirectly focusses upon independence/communal repercussions on modern India include translations of poetry and short stories such as that of Kunwar Narain ( translated by his son, Apurva Narain in No Other World 2008, The Play of Dolls: Stories 2020 & Witnesses of Remembrance: Selected Newer Poems 2021); the anguish about contemporary events movingly expressed by poet  Tishani Doshi in her collection of poems A God at the Door; Farah Bashir‘s memoir about growing up in 1990s Kashmir in Rumours of Spring; and debut writer Sonal Kohli’s disquieting inter-linked short stories House Next to the Factory which are about the post-Partition immigrant experience between 1980-2020 in Delhi. The forthcoming Partition trilogy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is definitely something to look out for. The first volume, Lahore is to be released soon but it is a book that will be talked about for years to come. In all likelihood it will be turned into a TV series or a film. It is a triumphant example of historical fiction with a balanced account of historical events and fictional characters that provides insights into the events of 1947. The other two volumes in the trilogy are called Hyderabad and Kashmir. These books have been written after intensive research and it shows. Fortunately, the author wears her knowledge lightly and it is a gripping tale she has to tell. Debut novelist Melody Razak attempted to do something similar with Moth and has been recognised by The Observer as one of the promising novelists of 2021. It too is historical fiction set in and around August 1947.

Journalist M. Rajshekhar’s Despite the State has been included in this list of books as it is a brilliant example of reportage. Rajshekhar spent thirty-three months travelling through six states of India, investigating the deep crisis that affects Indian democracy. He records the distressing account of democratic failure. It is a sobering read given the enthusiasm with which the first government after Independence laid out the blueprint for a planned economy, construction of temples of modern India such as hydropower dams and setting up many schemes for the welfare of its citizens. Rajshekhar shows how much of those dreams have crumbled, the state in many instances has abdicated responsibility, leaving the citizens to fend for themselves. It is a cruel reality. It is precisely why a selection of Aleph Book Company titles have also been displayed. The publishing firm is doing a sterling job of creating relevant literature, looking at history, facts, evidence and preventing the corruption of historical narratives by a single discourse. The titles on display are a minute selection of what has been published in recent years by eminent academics, writers, and social activists.

Unfortunately, is a sad truth that much of the literature that is being published nowadays focusses more and more on the “partition” rather than the euphoria of becoming an independent nation. Literature at the best of times, especially for the young, when based upon historical events should be based on facts with of course the liberty to be creative rather than being biased in their perspective. The communal clashes that erupted after Independence were despicable and their ramifications are being felt more than seven decades later with the resurgence of hate politics and fundamentalism. It is the truth. But we should never forget and certainly not let the younger generations forget, as we move further in time away from 15 August 1947, that the euphoria of winning our Independence from the British was tremendous. We were free. Finally. Stories can be and should be created against the backdrop of Independence and of course the violence that followed thereafter. But the growing emphasis on remembering the violent past, erecting memorials to the victims, setting up Partition museums and war memorials, is one way of forever remembering the injustices of the past. Yet, it is also a clever way of ensuring that the wounds remain raw. Remember but with facts and not with selective memory – that is plain dangerous and perpetuates violence and hatred.

At such a time it is perhaps worth reading humanist and experimental poet and writer the late Kunwar Narain’s “Poetry of Dark Times”.

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“Poetry of Dark Times”

Remembering Brecht

How should be
the poetry of dark times
like this?

Poets change, poems change,
but dark times
just don’t seem to change.

So much misery
keeps looking for words in artless languages,
keeps wishing that they arise
drop by drop
like vapour from abyssal oceans
collide with mountains
like nimbus clouds
girdle the earth and rain down on it
like tempest thunder lightning . . .

             

and so let the poetry of dark times inundate
and wash away the dark times.

              and wash away the dark times.

How can the poetry
of dark times
be . . .

Kunwar Narain (1927-2017), translated by Apurva Narain

Note: These are only a sample of books published on Independence/Partition. There are many, many more equally good books being published that have not been included in this post.

“Moth” by Melody Razak

Delhi, 1946

Ma and Bappu are liberal intellectuals teaching at the local university. Their fourteen-year-old daughter — precocious, headstrong Alma — is soon to be married: Alma is mostly interested in the wedding shoes and in spinning wild stories for her beloved younger sister Roop, a restless child obsessed with death.

Times are bad for girls in India. The long-awaited independence from British rule is heralding a new era of hope, but also of anger and distrust. Political unrest is brewing, threatening to unravel the rich tapestry of Delhi – a city where different cultures, religions and traditions have co-existed for centuries.

When Partition happens and the British Raj is fractured overnight, this wonderful family is violently torn apart, and its members are forced to find increasingly desperate ways to survive.

Moth by debut author, Melody Razak ( Orion Books), has been a surprisingly slow read for me. Usually, I manage to zip through fiction pretty quickly. More so when it is historical fiction as I have a soft spot for this genre. But this one was slow for many reasons. These ranged from false starts in attempting to read it to the many times my mind wandered after reading a section of the story. Let me explain. 

Melody Razak credits Urvashi Butalia’s seminal book The Other Side of Silence for having inspired her debut novel. I can absolutely understand and recognise that sentiment. I worked with Urvashi for many years. I joined her team the day she split from Kali for Women to establish Zubaan. So, I was privy to a lot of Urvashi Butalia’s work for many years and also helped brand Zubaan. I, like Melody, and many others, had been in awe of Urvashi Butalia’s work for years. She did something fundamentally new. Of capturing the oral histories of women and families after the British left India in 1947. We gained our Independence but the people from the newly created nations suffered tremendously. 

Urvashi wrote this book after she volunteered to help the riot victims of 1984. It was a watershed year for many of us living in Delhi at the time. The Indian prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated by her bodyguards while she was en route to meet filmmaker and actor, Peter Ustinov. It unleashed the most horrific communal violence we had witnessed at that time in newly Independent India. We were still a young nation at that time. (Now, communalism seems to be a way of life.) Many, many folks were horrified at what had occurred in the capital city. It was unheard of. We had curfew imposed. The army conducted flag marches. The silence was unbearable. No one should ever have to experience the silence of living in violent times. It is very still and still very disturbing. In the far distance, we could hear mobs. We could hear sounds. We would see smoke spires in the sky. And one of the most frightening memories was to see the ashes of paper flutter down on our terraces. When my twin brother and I returned to school after those two terrible two weeks, we noticed kids in our bus who were looking dishevelled and reduced to a cloth bag carrying a few books. They had been affected by the riots for being Sikhs and had lost property and family. It was earth shattering. But we were young. It was our first experience of such violence. But for my maternal grandfather it brought back a flood of memories. Stuff we had not realised he had kept suppressed for decades. 

My grandfather, N. K. Mukarji, was the last ICS officer in India. The Indian Civil Service was the administrative service established by the British. He joined as a very young man and was allocated the Punjab cadre. This was before 1947, so as a government servant he was posted in and around the then undivided Punjab. He later recalled that as a young man, he would sit with the other officers, many of whom were British, dividing the assets of the Punjab state between India and Pakistan. Many times, the lists drawn seemed arbitrary but he would meticulously minute the meetings. I am sure somewhere documents exist with his neat signature. He also used to tell us about the migrant camps that were set up. For many years, the refugees of 1947 were considered to be the largest mass migration ever recorded in human history. It was unprecedented. There were no rules or policies governing or guiding the officers on how to manage this massive influx of people. He used to tell us of how his signature was forged and converted into stamps. These forgeries were then used to stamp documents of the refugees so that they could use them as valid papers to migrate. Some left overseas too. My grandfather was well aware of these forgeries but the administration was so overwhelmed by the number of people that needed looking after that he turned a blind eye. And if you ever knew him, he was such an upright officer that this act upon his part was so unlike him. He and his colleagues worried about the spread of disease. Cholera and typhoid that still plague large refugee settlements were the bane of their existence even in the 1940s. The only difference being that there were no UN forces or other humanitarian aid organisations to help manage the healthcare of the refugees. There was no organised camp. So, the relief of the onset of the monsoon, literally washed the camp, is something that I still recollect in Nana’s voice. He has been gone for more than two decades but his relief, as if it was a God sent gesture, is something I will never forget. So, the descriptions of the refugee camps in Moth brought back memories of these stories. I could not help but think that the perception of the refugee camps of today that are to a fair degree “organised” because of the aid agencies, was not the case at that time. And this was one of the depictions in Moth that bothered me, the pell mell in the settlement. Instead, the description seems to suggest that it is fairly orderly. It was as if the image had been created from the modern images of refugee camps. 

Just as these memories came flooding back for my grandfather, so did it happen with many victims of the 1984 riots. The victims were Sikhs. The community to whom the PM’s assassins belonged. Urvashi too is a Sikh. She too had family in Lahore and in India. In fact, when I went to Lahore in Nov 2003, I went in search of the house that belonged to Urvashi’s family and discovered that it was in the process of being pulled down. So, I brought back pictures of it for her. 

There were many, many reasons why Urvashi was affected by the 1984 riots. But working in the refugee camps of Delhi, listening to stories, being a feminist, she realised the importance of recording these stories. Oral history testimonies were being done in our country even then but not necessarily by individuals at this level. Urvashi’s work is pioneering for many reasons. She explored her family’s history and unearthed many more stories in the process. It has had a huge impact on the way Partition stories are read. 

Melody Razak picks on a few of the stories such as the women jumping into the well, the abduction of girls/women and taking them away to the other side (since then established as a regular form of persecution of women at times of conflict), the problems of documentation etc. I found it particularly interesting that while Melody Razak has been deeply moved by the incidents recounted in The Other Side of Silence and of course, for this novel, may have done some independent research, Melody has been unable to describe the traumatic incidents. I found that curious as that it is often noticed in the victims that they are unable to recount the actual event. There are mechanisms by which they protect themselves, one of them is to talk about the act in the third person or distance themselves in the plot. Melody does exactly that — distancing herself. It indicates how deeply moved she has been by the testimonies/stories of the events of 1947. 

By the way, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi whom Melody mentions, Nathuram Godse, was sentenced to death a few years later by Justice G. D. Khosla. Again, another upright officer who opted to join the judiciary once India became an independent nation. He wrote about the trial of Godse. It is freely available as a booklet online. I met Justice Khosla. He was a friend of my grandfather’s. But by these acts, I feel as if I have been close to history. (Does that statement even make any sense?) 

Melody Razak gets the grief at the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi very well. I recall meeting people who remembered that day very clearly. This and later, Jawaharlal Nehru’s death. Everyone could recall what they were doing at the precise moment that the news broke about these deaths. The collective grief that was felt at Mahatma Gandhi’s death has been brilliantly captured by Melody. 

But the reason why I had so many false starts to the book were because of the tiny historical inaccuracies in the opening pages. I can only recall one at the moment. She refers to Amul chocolates. Well, they did not exist till many decades after Independence. Amul is a dairy cooperative that was set up by Nehru under his modern India plans under the leadership of Mr Verghese Kurien (again, someone whom I have met). The chocolates came much, much later. So, this fact could have been checked. There were also spelling errors that annoyed me such as getting the name of All India Radio wrong and hyphenating “All India” or referring to the hot winds that blow in summer as “Lu” instead of as “loo”. (It is a hot wind similar to khamsin.) 

I can see why Melody Razak has been showered with praise in the media and has been recognised as one of the debut novelists of 2021 by The Observer. She has a great sense of storytelling. Her pace is fantastic. She knows when to slow down her writing tempo or speed it up as per the requirements of the plot. Her characters are so alive. She is able to move freely between the Muslims and the Hindus and describes them well. Alma’s grandmother is particularly vile. To create evil in a person who is mostly ignored by the family, is quite a creative achievement. But alas, she is also so familiar. We have all come across such characters at some point in our lives. Melody also manages to share only that much of the back story of the characters as is relevant to the main plot. Again, an admirable quality as many debut novelists tend to get hijacked by their characters and create unnecessary tangents to the story. Whereas in this case, whether it is the stories of Dilchain, Fatima Begum, Ma, Bappa or even Cookie Aunty/Lakshmi, Melody shares enough to make them rounded rather than flat characters. There is no need to know more about them. 

I had reservations about the extremely feminist angle to the storytelling. It was sort of unbelievable that these narratives could possibly have existed in 1947/8. It seems as if a very modern structure of feeling has been superimposed upon the past. It does not sit well. But then it brings me to the crux of literary fiction. At what point as Salman Rushdie calls it, does fiction “lift off” from the truth and begin a story of its own? Somewhere the writer has to be given the leeway to let their imagination fly. The reader too has to go easy on the writer for letting them tell the story in their own way. Perhaps I found it uncomfortable, even though I more than heartily agree with the feminist sentiments, because of the amount I know about the events of 1947. But the moment I sort of let myself go and just read the story for what it is, I realised it was the only way to “get into” it and enjoy it. Also, having read a lot of historical fiction recently has been doing this — of revisiting past events and imbuing the women characters with a strength and a personality with a very modern touch. It works for modern readers. And if historical fiction is being redefined today as historical events providing only a backdrop to the storytelling, then I suppose we have to make our peace with it. It is fine. 

As for the sisters, Alma and Roop, they are incredibly well-created. Although making Roop cut off her hair, roam around naked and wear her father’s trousers whenever she needed to step out seemed a bit farfetched for a five-year-old. But then who are we to argue with the bizarreness of life under conflict. Or for that matter now, during the pandemic. That was another thing that I found so eerily parallel to Moth — our reality of rationing food given the lockdowns and irregular supply of provisions, not sure when to step out (in Moth for fear of communal riots and today, for fear of getting infected by the Covid-19 virus), creating community kitchens (in the novel for refugees and in modern life for migrants who are going home), etc.   

As is fairly evident, Moth has triggered many memories as well as made me respond to the book in a manner that I did not think it would do. So there in itself lies the answer of a good emerging novelist. Moth is an extraordinary immersive experience and I am glad I read the novel. 

3 July 2021

“What are the books we are excited about in 2021?”

On 3 January 2021, I wrote about the wonderful books expected to be published in 2021. Here are the original links in the Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle. Given below is the longer version of the article.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted innumerable sectors – publishing is no exception. One of the major fallouts has been the front lists where commissioning editors are circumspect about whom to commission and what subjects to explore; it is not said explicitly but it is apparent while scanning 2021 book catalogues that there has been a shift. Tried and tested subjects such as politics, memoir/biographies and narrative non-fiction exist but there is a definite presence of essayists and nature writing. The top 1% of successful literary and commercial fiction authors — internationally and locally—are back with new books. Interestingly there is a large variety of debut authors, from newcomers to well-known nonfiction writers becoming novelists such as Ira Mukhoty Jayal, Krupa Ge and Tavleen Singh. Historical fiction is a robust category with trilogies and quartets being announced by writers like Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle. Surprisingly celebrity publishing and Mind, Body Spirit (MBS) that are constant sellers are not as prominent as they were in the recent past.

During the pandemic, it is a wise decision by publishers to ensure that successful authors constitute a chunk of their front lists. Hence, in non-fiction, there is Shashi Tharoor’s Pride, Prejudice & Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor consists of essays and fiction; Salman Rushdie’s Languages of Truth has newly collected, revised and expanded non-fiction from the past two decades, many of which have never been published before; Ruskin Bond’s It’s a Wonderful Life: Roads to Happiness that calls for small joys to be found in everyday living even in times of extreme stress;  A Functioning Anarchy (Eds. Srinath Raghavan and Nandini Sundar) a collection of essays by world-renowned historians, lawyers, scientists and journalists sparked by Ramachandra Guha’s work; Nayantara Sahgal’s The Unmaking of India: Articles and Speeches & Encounter with Kiran contains articles, talks, essays that discuss the “unmaking” of India, where freedom, liberty and equality are replaced by religious bigotry, communal politics, a ‘’tame’’ media and all the accompanying dangers of majoritarian rule and Eric Hobsbawm’s On Nationalism that is considered to be an insightful and enlightening collection of the historian’s writing on the subject of nationalism.

Non-fiction sells consistently especially on politics, history, business, self-help, memoirs/biographies etc. Some of the exciting titles scheduled are historian Upinder Singh’s Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions ; Amit Varma’s podcasts converted into four books, collectively known as The Seen and the Unseen; Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: A Parable for a Planet is about conquest and exploitation and geopolitical hierarchy; Manu Pillai’s  The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Princes and Patrons describes the portraits of the Maharajahs stood up to the Raj and developed visions of modernity that were deeply Indian in nature, and women who defied norms as well as colonial expectations; City of Gated Walls: The Map of Shahajahanabad by Swapna Liddle is a reproduction of that map created in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time by a mapmaker, working in 1846, who painstakingly depicted important buildings, streets, and landmarks, providing a wealth of information about the city as it had evolved up to that time. In Search of the Divine: Living Practices of Sufism in India by Rana Safvi, is a unique treatise on the core of Sufi beliefs. Some others that are eagerly awaited include 1946: The Indian Naval Uprising that Shook the Empire by Pramod Kapoor; The Gujaratis: A Portrait of a Community by Salil Tripathi; Congress Radio by Usha Thakkar about the establishment of the underground radio by Usha Mehta during the Quit India Movement; Aparna Vaidik’s Revolutionaries on Trial: Sedition, Betrayal, and Martyrdom uses a variety of sources  to reconstruct a dramatic period in India’s struggle for Independence; and Angellica Aribam and Akash Satyawali’s The Fifteen: The Women Who Shaped the Constitution of India. Rupa Gupta and Gautam Gupta’s Lifting the Veil from India’s Past is about the Archaeological Survey of India. In Language of Remembering: Generational Memories of the Partition, Aanchal Malhotra shifts attention to the post-memory generation – how the generations that have not witnessed Partition engage with its history. Yashaswini Chandra The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback is a tale of migration and permanent intermingling whereas Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares: The Horse in Indian Myth and History by Wendy Doniger examines the horse’s significance throughout Indian history and culture even though the animal is not indigenous to India. Voices from the Lost Horizon is a collection of a number of folk tales and songs of the Great Andamanese that represent the first-ever collection rendered to Prof. Anvita Abbi and her team by the Great Andamanese people in local settings. The compilation comes with audio and video recordings of the stories and songs to retain the originality and orality of the narratives. In Fellowship of Rivals by Manjit Kumar that tells the story of the first great Scientific Revolution, and how a small group of individuals – including Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren – produced an explosion of knowledge unrivalled in the history of western civilisation. Pranay Lal’s Virus is a deep dive into its origin and evolution and his The Cretaceous is meant for younger readers. Anjana Chattopadhyay discusses Women Scientists in India: Lives, Struggles and Achievements.

Militant Piety and Lines of Control: The Lethal Literature of the Lashkar-e-Taiba edited by C. Christine Fair and translated by Safina Ustaad is the first scholarly effort to curate a sample of LeT’s Urdu-language publications and then translate them into English for the scholarly community studying this group and related organizations. The Muslim Problem by Tawseef Khan gets to the heart of Islamophobia and is a compelling mix of journalistic investigation, historical analysis and memoir, full of research and interviews. Tawseef Khan is a solicitor specialising in Immigration and Asylum Law and a human rights activist. In Project 39 are deeply personal stories that emerged from interviews conducted with death-row prisoners and their families. These were collected by Jahnavi Mishra and Project 39A, a research and litigation centre based out of National Law University, Delhi. is awaited as is India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77 by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil that draws upon a trove of new sources. From the bestselling military historian, Shiv Kunal Verma’s 1965: A Western Sunrise is the definitive account of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. Meanwhile Samira Shackle’s debut Karachi Vice is considered to be a fast-paced journey around Karachi in the company of those who know the city inside out.  Some others that are expected: When the Mask Came off: A People’s History of Cruelty and Compassion in Times of Covid19 Lockdown, edited by Harsh Mander, Natasha Badhwar and Anirban Bhattacharya; Jana Gana Mana by musician-activist T.M. Krishna who through the idea of ‘national symbols’, examines the idea of citizenship and belonging, while also investigating and problematising the symbol itself. Graphic narratives such as Azaadi: A Biography of Bhagat Singh by Ikroop Sandhu; Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Book by Ita Mehrotra and Incantations over Water by Sharanya Manivannan.

Nature writing is proving to be a well-defined genre as well. The titles to look out for are The Bera Bond which is about Sundeep Bhutoria’s startling discovery of a little-known leopard colony in the forests of Rajasthan where the big cats live harmoniously with humans. The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra, journalist Samrat Choudhury sets out to follow the river’s braided course from the edge of Tibet where it enters India down to where it meets the Ganga at a spot marked by the biggest red-light district in Bangladesh. Award-winning wildlife conservationistNeha Sinha’s Wild and Wilful is about fifteen iconic Indian species in need of conservation and heart. Earth’s Incredible Oceans by Dorling Kindersley is a must-have encyclopaedia. Waiting for Turtles by Pankaj Sekhsaria, illustrated by Vipin Sketchplore is a gorgeous picture book sensitising children to the urgency to save turtles. Scientist-cum-author Sukanya Datta’s Animal Architects is about the homes that animals build and are in themselves architectural wonders. The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wollehben (translated by Jane Billinghurst), reveals the profound interactions humans can have with nature, exploring the language of the forest and the consciousness of plants. Worryingly climate change can wreak havoc to these ecosystems. Hence the relevance of environmental activist Vandana Shiva and Shreya Jani Slow Living: What You Can Do About Climate Change. Bill Gates too has a forthcoming book on How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.

Memoirs have always proven to be popular. Some of the prominent ones are MK Gandhi’s Restless as Mercury: My Life as a Young Man; the celebrated Hindi writer Swadesh Deepak I Haven’t Seen Mandu, translated by Jerry Pinto is a most revealing and powerful first-person accounts of mental illness; Feisal Alkazi’s Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi / Padamsee Family Memoir; Gulzar’s Actually… I Met Them: A MemoirVir Sanghvi by journalist Vir Sanghvi; Bollywood actors Neena Gupta,  Deepti Naval and Priyanka Chopra Jonas have written Sach Kahun Toh,  A Country Called Childhood: A Memoir and Unfinished: A Memoir respectively but the big one will be Hollywood actress Sharon Stone’s The Beauty of Living Twice; screenwriter Nikesh Shukla’s Brown Baby explores themes of racism, feminism, parenting and our shifting ideas of home; publisher Ritu Menon’s ADDRESS BOOK: A Publishing Memoir in the Time of COVID; Kobad Ghandy’s Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir gives an insight into his decade-long journey of arrests and time in prisons across India; Dead Men Tell Tales by forensics expert Dr B. Umadathan (translated from Malayalam by Priya K. Nair) is the riveting memoir of Sherlock Holmes of Kerala. Former cricketer and commentator and current head coach of the Indian national cricket team Ravi Shastri’s memoir written with Ayaz Memon.

Biographies whether authoritative or not are hugely popular such as Yasser Usman’s Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story; Kaveree Bamzai’s The Three Khans about Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan; Gautam Chintamani Vinod Khanna: A BiographyZohra! – A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon about thespian Zohra Sehgal; Francis Wilson’s biography of DH Lawrence called Burning Man; Adi Prakash’s Umar Khalid: Beyond the Anti-national is the story of Umar Khalid is the story of media fairness and it is the story of student politics and of growing up Muslim in India. Also expected are the Hindi writer and the first real standard-bearer of the Nayi Kahani movement Nirmal Verma: A Biography by Vineet Gill and The Master: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer by Christopher Clarey.

Business books are another category of nonfiction books that sell perennially. Investigative journalist Josy Joseph’s The Business of Terror explores the militancy theatre as a flourishing, multi-faceted business enterprise in India where most of its actors are beneficiaries of it. Technology journalist Jayadevan P.K. writes about Xiaomi: How a Start-up Disrupted the Market and Created a Cult Following that in less than a decade, has gone from being a Chinese start-up to a global player in the smartphone market. Munaf Kapadia with Zahabia Rajkotwala writes in How I Quit Google to Sell Samosas: Adventures with the Bohri Kitchen how he had grown a weekend pop-up at his Cuffe Parade home—The Bohri Kitchen—into an F&B start-up with a Rs 4 crore turnover, and was catering to Bombay’s biggest celebrities. Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched by Eric Berger is the dramatic inside story of the first four historic flights that launched SpaceX—and Elon Musk—from a shaky startup into the world’s leading edge rocket company. Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism by Mircea Raianu is a eye-opening portrait of global capitalism spanning 150 years, told through the history of the Tata corporation. Forgotten Brands: Fresh Marketing Lessons by Ramya Ramamurthy is about colonial Indian brands (both home-grown and foreign) were produced, distributed and marketed between 1847 and 1947. Finally, House of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe is the story of the Sackler Dynasty, Purdue Pharma, and their involvement in the opiod crisis that has created millions of addicts, even as it generated billions of dollars in profit.

Another popular nonfiction category are cookery books. So, it is no surprise then that practically every publisher has at least one book in the pipeline. Beginning with Sunita Kohli who has collected recipes from celebrities in From the Tables of My Friends; Winner of Nobel Prize in Economics (2019) Abhijit Banerjee’s cookbook; History Dishtory: Adventures and Recipes from the Past by Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam and Indian Street food by Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma. Chitrita Banerji’s A Taste of My Life is both the story of life as an immigrant food writer as well as a story of immigration, belonging, nostalgia, and history, through the lens of food. Rasa: The Story of India in 100 dishes by Shubhra Chatterji is a culinary history of India and the intersection of culture and cuisine told in the most enthralling stories behind a hundred dishes.

Across the board, literary fiction stalwarts return in 2021 with promising new stories. Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s novel The Last Queen is an exquisite love story about Maharaja Ranjit’s Singh’s last queen, a commoner, Jindan Kaur; Amitav Ghosh’s Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sundarban, a verse adaptation of the timeless legend of Bon Bibi and Dokkhin Rai that also evokes the wonder of the Sundarban through its poetry, accompanied by stunning artwork by the renowned artist Salman Toor. Asoca by I. Allan Sealy is an imagined memoir of Ashoka The Great; Hussain S. Zaidi’s The Black Orphan centres on Asiya, Osama Bin Laden’s protégé and foster daughter; Anuja Chauhan returns with a grisly titled Club You to Death as does Padma Shri Temsula Ao with six short stories in The Tombstone in My Garden; writers of young adult fiction like Deepa Agarwal’s Kashmir! Kashmir! and Paro Anand’s short stories Unmasked based on the challenges faced by migrants during the lockdownAnnie Zaidi’s novel, One of Them is about people who live on the margins of a big city, and Amitava Kumar A Time Outside This Time is about fake news, memory, and how truth gives way to fiction. The Loves of Yuri by Jerry Pinto is a funny, heart breaking, unforgettable novel about friendship and first loves and the great city of Bombay. Set in the 1980s, this is the first in a trilogy of novels that trace the emotional and intellectual journey of the protagonist, Yuri, from early adolescence to late youth. Nobel Prize winnersKazuo Ishiguro and Orhan Pamuk’s novels Klara And The Sun and Nights of Plague, respectively are hugely anticipated as is the mind bending new collection of short stories First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami. Pulitzer Prize-winners Jhumpa Lahiri, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Colson Whitehead’s novels are called Whereabouts, The Committed and Harlem Shuffle. This is the first novel Lahiri has written in Italian and translated into English. Tahmima Anam’s, already much-talked-about, The Start-Up Wife is considered gripping, witty and razor-sharp, a blistering novel about dreaming big, speaking up and fighting to be where you belong. Second-time novelists who had glittering starts to their literary careers like Anuk Arudpragasam, Sunjeev Sahota and Elizabeth Macneal return with In Search of the DistanceChina Room, and Carnival of Wonder respectively.

The debut writers making their mark are Maithreyi Kapoor Sylvia’s Distant Avuncular Ends by experimenting with the form of a novel. Poet Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s novel Funeral Nights, where the absurd and the sublime all freely mix,is a history of the Khasis. Krupa Ge’s One Hundred Autumns is set in an era of strict Brahmanical orthodoxy and social mores that sought to bind all women into submission and against the backdrop of the Dravidian movement. Ira Mukhoty Jayal’s Song of Draupadi is a vivid and imaginative novel revolving around the epic figure of Draupadi. Raza Mir’s Murder at the Mushaira: A Novel is a cracking murder mystery & literary novel. Filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s Oonga, a powerful novel that transitions from a film and sits deep in the clash between adivasis, naxalites, the CRPF and a rapacious mining company; Simran Dhir’s Best Intentions, centred on two families in Delhi; Fahad Shah’s The Unnamed, a searing novel set in Kashmir; and Bollywood insider Mushtaq Sheikh’s sizzling Bollywood Biwis. Some of the others to watch out for are Rucha Chitrodia It’s also about Mynah, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl, Rijula Das’s A Death in Shonagachhi,journalists Anindita Ghose’s The Illuminated: A Novel and Tavleen Singh’s Everything Breaks.

Historical fiction is a well-defined niche with The Grand Anicut by Veena Muthuraman, set in Southern India, first century, with the Pandyas conquered, the Cheras all but vanquished, and the attention of the king of the north fixed on other lands, Tamilakam flourishes under Chola rule. The first book of Madhulika Liddle’s Delhi quartet — The Garden of Heaven is planned. It is a story playing out against a backdrop of Delhi, stretching from the end of the twelfth century (when Delhi first came under the rule of Sultans) till 1947. Shubendra’s Sultan: The Legend of Hyder Ali, set in the eighteenth century, is the astonishing tale of an ordinary boy from Mysore who became one of the greatest rulers of India. Tarana Khan’s The Begum and the Dastan although set in the late nineteenth century, in the fictional town of Sherpur, is a work based on real events. A despotic Nawab abducts a married woman, Feroza, and marries her against her wishes. Feroza must now negotiate her new life in the zenana with the other wives and concubines of the Nawab. Digonta Bordoloi’s Second World War Sandwich is a thrilling action-packed novel set in Nagaland during the Second World War, when the Nagas resisted the incursion of the Japanese troops into Northeast India. The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles is inspired by the true story of the librarians who risked their lives during the Nazis’ war on words. Melody Razak’s Moth is a heart-rending story of a Brahmin family living in 1940s Delhi during India’s Independence and subsequent Partition. A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago, explores the twisting corridors of power and with the friendship of two women at its heart, it is an exhilarating dive into the pitch-dark waters of the Jacobean court.

Some of the noteworthy translations expected are Ambai’s short stories A Red-Necked Green Bird, translated from Tamil by GJV Prasad; the Bengali classic, Manada Devi’s An Educated Woman in Prostitution: A Memoir of Lust, Exploitation, Deceit (Calcutta,1929), translated by Arunava Sinha; Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar or The Cage, translated from Punjabi by Rita Banerji, was written in 1950, and was the very first to approach Partition and its aftermath through the eyes of a woman; Kaajal Oza Vaidya’s Krishnayan, gives glimpses into Krishna’s last moments on earth, translated from Gujarati by Subha Pande and The Last Gathering: A vivid portrait of life in the Red Fort by Munshi Faizuddin, translated by Ather Farooqui. It was first published in 1885, Bazm-i Aakhir, or The Last Assembly and is a rich and lively account of life in the royal court of the last Mughal emperor in Red Fort, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

So many frills, thrills and spills! Reading good literature will help survive this pandemic.

3 Jan 2021

Book Post 44: 25 Aug – 14 Sept 2019

Book Post 44 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

16 Sept 2019

An extract from Radha Kumar’s “Paradise at War”

Dr Radha Kumar is a historian and a policy analyst who has written several well-regarded books on ethnic conflict and feminism. She was one of the interlocutors appointed for Jammu and Kashmir by the Manmohan Singh administration in 2010. Paradise at War is her latest book  on Jammu and Kashmir published by Aleph.

According to the book blurb:

Paradise at War is Dr Radha Kumar’s political history of Kashmir, a book that attempts to give the reader a definitive yet accessible study of perhaps the most troubled part of India. Beginning with references to Kashmir as ‘a sacred geography’ in the Puranas, Kumar’s account moves forward in time through every major development in the region’s history. It grapples with the seemingly intractable issues that have turned the state into a battleground and tries to come up with solutions that are realistic and lasting.

Situating the conflict in the troubled geopolitics of Kashmir’s neighbourhood, Kumar unpicks the gnarled tangle of causes that have led to the present troubles in the region, from wars and conquest to Empire and the growth of nationalism; the troubled accession of the state to India by Maharaja Hari Singh during Partition; Pakistani attacks and the rise of the Cold War; the politics of the various parts of the former princely state including Jammu and Kashmir, and the areas administered by Pakistan; the wars that followed and the attempts that Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders, starting with Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, made to find peaceful solutions, including taking the Kashmir issue to the UN, which had unintended consequences for India; the demand for plebiscite; the Simla Agreement, turning the ceasefire line into the Line of Control; communal riots in the 1980s and the growth of insurgency; increase in security forces in the state in the 1990s leading to public resentment; and the guerrilla occupation of Hazratbal, the fifteenth-century mosque. Showing that a changed Post-Cold War milieu offered new opportunities for peace-making that were restricted by domestic stresses in Pakistan, Kumar analyses the Lahore Declaration and its undoing with the Kargil operation; the morphing of insurgency into an Islamist jihad against India; India’s attempts to parley with separatist groups; and the progress made towards a Kashmir solution via peace talks by various Indian and Pakistani governments between 2002 and 2007.

Kumar’s descriptions of the contemporary situation—the impact of 9/11 and the war on terrorism; the Afghan war and the Mumbai attacks which created pressure on Pakistan to take action against radical Islamists; the blowback in Pakistan resulting in the growing radicalization of Pakistani institutions such as the judiciary and its spill over in Kashmir; the Indian government’s failure to move Kashmir into a peacebuilding phase; the trouble with AFSPA; the anti-India feelings that were triggered by counter-insurgency responses in 2010, the contentious coalition of 2014 and the killing of suspected terrorist Burhan Wani in 2016—underline the tragedies which ensue when conditions, timing and strategy are mismatched.

Drawing on her experience as a government interlocutor, Kumar chastises the Indian government for never failing ‘to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to the state’s political grievances’. Equally, she shows how Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has been ‘an unmitigated disaster’. While arguing that India can do a great deal to reduce violence and encourage reconciliation within the former princely state, she concludes that if Kashmir is ever to move towards lasting peace and stability, the major stakeholders as well as regional and international actors will need to work together on the few feasible options that remain.

Timely and authoritative, the book cuts through the rhetoric that cloaks Kashmir to give the reader a balanced, lucid and deeply empathetic view of the state, its politics and its people.

With the publisher’s permission here is an extract ( p. 339-341) from Dr Kumar’s concluding chapter entitled “Conclusion: Faint Hope for a Peace Process”.

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Looking back over the history of Jammu and Kashmir, the last seventy years have seen a tragic collision between aspirations for democracy and the grim realities of war. After centuries of imperial rule, the territorial state of Jammu and Kashmir emerged in the nineteenth century and the political state only after India and Pakistan became independent countries. From 1947, two opposing trajectories were evident. On the one hand, India–Pakistan conflict devastated daily life and severely hampered governance in the former princely state. On the other hand, all parts of the state steadily improved economically, though their economies remained heavily aid-reliant. Their residents acquired education and healthcare where once, not so long ago, they did not. Roads and rail lines were built, enabling connectivity and trade. Natural resources such as water were developed, and even though these resources were shared with India and Pakistan, residents still had more than they did sixty years ago.

Politically, however, there was a steady decline, from the first flush of hope in a post-monarchical order to growing disappointment and anger spurred by war and conflict every fifteen to twenty years. Albeit in sharply divergent ways, each of the divided parts of the former princely state found that its status and rights were determined by conflict and its government’s powers varied according to security and economic dependence on India or Pakistan. It seems counter-intuitive to say that the people of the Kashmir valley suffered the most poisonous politics of the regions of the former princely state, when they had a greater measure of democracy and civil rights, on paper, than their counterparts across the Line of Control. But the Kashmir valley also suffered the most stifling conditions, because it was the arena of violent conflict.

Looking back over the past decade or more, it can be seen that the Pakistan Army’s hostility towards India has cumulatively increased rather than decreased after 9/11. Musharraf cooperated with the US against the Taliban on the grounds that if he did not, it would advantage India. The first few years following 9/11 saw an intensification of cross-border violence in Jammu and Kashmir. During the peace process that followed, with considerable international facilitation, violence decreased sharply in Jammu and Kashmir but terrorist attacks against India rose, both in other parts of India and in Afghanistan. Eventually, the peace process was put on hold by a beleaguered Musharraf in 2007.

The civilian government that took over in Pakistan did not build on the framework for Kashmir of the Musharraf backchannel. But they took cautious steps to improve trade, and developed customs and transit infrastructure at the Wagah border. Though the 26/11 attacks were the most horrific terrorist act in years, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India declined overall. When the Zardari administration was succeeded by the Sharif administration in 2013, the initial months were promising. Sharif and Modi did briefly try to revive a peace process, but guerrillas succeeded in disrupting their efforts and Sharif soon fell foul of the Pakistani military.

Clearly, each country has yet to come to terms with the other’s red lines. Pakistan’s red line was, and remains, that terrorism would not be curbed unless Kashmir was also discussed. For India, terrorism had to end. The hard facts were that Pakistan was unlikely to give up support for anti-India groups like the Lashkar and Jaish until conflicts over Kashmir, Sir Creek and Siachen were resolved. The best that could be expected was that the Pakistan Army, under pressure, might restrain them. Equally, India would not settle with Pakistan until convinced that its government was ending support for anti-India militancy, including by non-state actors. First Vajpayee, then Musharraf, and then Singh, Zardari and Sharif, learned these hard facts the hard way, through trial and error, but the learning curve in each country appeared to be individual rather than institutional or collective.

Most Indians believe that the Pakistani position would change were the military to accept civilian precedence, but the chances of that happening are nil. Many would further argue that a sustained military-to-military dialogue would also soften the hard-line attitude of the Pakistan Army. Thus far, however, such a dialogue has proved elusive. The fact that the Pakistani NSA appointed in October 2015 was a retired general gave hope of a direct line to the military. After Pathankot, the jury was still out on whether this access helped. The two countries’ chiefs of army staff do not meet and their DGMOs have met only occasionally to talk CBMs. There have been intermittent and secret NSA talks since 2016, with no discernible impact.

A large and growing new challenge for both countries has been how to deal with the media. In the past four years, the role of electronic media in both countries has been understandably but unforgivably negative. With little substantive information to go on, Indian and Pakistani talking heads resorted to such virulent slanging matches in the run-up to the India– Pakistan NSA talks in August 2015 that they had to be cancelled. Some anchors questioned whether Pakistan fell into a trap by reacting so strongly to the Indian media, but this begged the question of whether the Indian media themselves fell into a spoilers’ trap. The Indian media muted criticism to some extent in 2018, with most channels supporting the ceasefire and questioning the toppling of the Mehbooba administration.

Astonishingly, the Indian government has never failed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to Jammu and Kashmir. From Nehru taking the conflict to the UN and arresting Sheikh Abdullah, to Indira dismissing and replacing elected governments, to Singh shying away from taking CBMs to political resolution, to Modi withdrawing the ceasefire before it had time to take hold and the BJP toppling the state’s coalition government[i] —almost every Indian prime minister has shown the state pusillanimity at best and authoritarianism at worst.

Pakistan’s leaders have done no better. Some might argue they did worse. Expressions of dissent were severely repressed and the powers of the elected leaders of Pakistan-administered Kashmir were little more than municipal. Gilgit–Baltistan suffered decades of sectarian conflict. But neither entity was subjected to the gruelling and attritive violence that Jammu and Kashmir was. While the reason was clear—India did not target Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the way that Pakistan targeted Jammu and Kashmir—it did not mitigate the suffering in Jammu and Kashmir.

As I write this conclusion, the Jammu and Kashmir conflict is at its nadir. Levels of violence continue to rise and abduction, torture and murder of Kashmiris in the security and police forces is becoming a new normal. The people of the valley are more alienated from mainland India than ever before and Jammu’s communal polarization between Muslim- and Hindumajority districts is greater than ever before.

Ladakh is the one clear ray of hope despite the distance between its two districts, Leh and Kargil. But its light cannot be shed on the valley and Jammu since it has always been quite separate from the two, both physically and in its polity.

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[i] Rajesh Ahuja and Mir Ehsan, ‘Ramzan ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir to end, security ops will resume, says Rajnath Singh’, Hindustan Times, 17 June, 2018; ‘Mehbooba Mufti resigns after BJP pulls out of alliance with PDP in Jammu and Kashmir’, Times of India, 19 June, 2018.

22 February 2019

Extract from “The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution”

The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury is an interesting tribute to a short lived but intense literary movement in West Bengal that has left an lasting impact around the world. Their well documented relationship with the Beats poet is also analysed in The Hungryalists. This book will become one of the go-to reads on The Hungryalists precisely for the very reason that little documentation of the movement exists in English as these poets mostly wrote in Bengali. So to transcend languages and cultures requires a bridging language which is English.

The Hungryalist or the hungry generation movement was a literary movement in Bengali that was launched in 1961, by a group of young Bengali poets. It was spearheaded by the famous Hungryalist quartet — Malay Roychoudhury, Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy. They had coined Hungryalism from the word ‘Hungry’ used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his poetic line “in the sowre hungry tyme”. The central theme of the movement was Oswald Spengler’s idea of History, that an ailing culture feeds on cultural elements brought from outside. These writers felt that Bengali culture had reached its zenith and was now living on alien food. . . . The movement was joined by other young poets like Utpal Kumar Basu, Binoy Majumdar, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Basudeb Dasgupta, Falguni Roy, Tridib Mitra and many more. Their poetry spoke the displaced people and also contained huge resentment towards the government as well as profanity. … On September 2, 1964, arrest warrants were issued against 11 of the Hungry poets. The charges included obscenity in literature and subversive conspiracy against the state. The court case went on for years, which drew attention worldwide. Poets like Octavio Paz, Ernesto Cardenal and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg visited Malay Roychoudhury. The Hungryalist movement also influenced Hindi, Marathi, Assamese, Telugu & Urdu literature. ( “The Hungryalist Movement: When People Took Their Fight Against The Government” Md Imtiaz, The Logical Indian, 29 June 2016)

*****

With the permission of the publisher here are two short extracts from the book:

Like everywhere else, the shadow of caste hung over the burning ghats as well. There were different burning sections for different castes. The Indian poets accompanying Ginsberg were usually Brahmins. Being there and smoking up was in itself an act of defiance, which normally nobody but the tantrics indulged in. Sunil, who had brought in his dead father here not too long ago, even joked about the place. Later, Ginsberg would go on to write:

I lay in my Calcutta bed, eye fixed

On the green shutters in the wall, crude

Wood that might have been windows

in your Cottage, with a rusty nail

and a ring iron at the hand

To open on heaven. A whitewashed

Wall, the murmur of sidewalk sleepers,

the burning ghat’s sick rose flaring

like matchsticks miles away, my cough

from flu and too many cigarettes,

prophet Ramakrishna banning

the bowels and desires—

War was on everyone’s mind. Ginsberg spoke extensively on what he called the ‘era of wars’. ‘There are as many different wars as the very nature of these wars,’ he had told his fellow poets. Following the death of Stalin and the Cuban Missile Crisis, an uneven calm seemed to have descended, only to be followed by skirmishes here and there. Issues of sovereignty dominated East and West Germany; the Kurds and Iraq were at loggerheads; closer home, the Tibetans were, of course, still struggling to ward off the Chinese invasion of their lands.

Without much ado, Ginsberg, along with Orlovsky and Fakir, arrived one Sunday at the Coffee House looking for Bengali poets. The cafe was abuzz with writers, editors and journalists. Each group had a different table—some had joined two or more tables and brought together different conversations on one plate. But somehow, everyone seemed to have an inchoate understanding of the business of war and what it spelled out for them in the end.

Ginsberg’s arrival was something of a coincidence, Samir mused. Contrary to what one would think was a far-fetched reality, especially in bourgeois Calcutta, a significant number of young Indian students had around that time begun applying for undergraduate courses in American colleges and universities. Times had fundamentally changed, of course. Where once an aspiring middle-class Bengali academic might have chosen to pursue his studies at either Oxford or Cambridge or some university in the Soviet Union, the new mindset now included American universities as the next lucrative biggie to venture forth into. Typically, one would hear snide remarks and private jokes about it in inner circles—about the disloyalty apparent in such choices and more. But those with aspirational values had learnt to live with it, was Malay’s understanding.

Even amid the erratic crowd and the loud voices that drowned everything in coffee, Ginsberg commanded attention. Samir had recalled to Malay:

He approached our table, where Sunil, Shakti, Utpal and I sat, with no hesitation whatsoever. There was no awkwardness in talking to people he hadn’t ever met. None of us had seen such sahibs before, with torn clothes, cheap rubber chappals and a jhola. We were quite curious. At that time, we were not aware of how well known a poet he was back in the US. But I remember his eyes—they were kind and curious. He sat there with us, braving the most suspicious of an entire cadre of wary and sceptical Bengalis, shorn of all their niceties—they were the fiercest lot of Bengali poets—but, somehow, he had managed to disarm us all. He made us listen to him and tried to genuinely learn from us whatever it was that he’d wanted to learn, or thought we had to offer. Much later, we came to know that there had been suspicions about him being a CIA agent, an accusation he was able to disprove. In the end, we just warmed up to him, even liked him. He became one of us—a fagging, crazy, city poet with no direction or end in sight.

All around the Coffee House, there were discussions on war. Would the Chinese Army march up to Calcutta? Would the Indian soldiers hold out? During one of these discussions, Ginsberg spoke with conviction: ‘People who want peace must intervene now, before it’s too late. But, no one will, I’m afraid. Let’s have debates if you will, let’s get talking. Let the Nehrus, the Maos and the Kennedys of this world come together, sit across and talk. Who are we without a debate?’

******

Very early on, the Hungryalists had announced, rather brashly, their lack of faith and what they thought of god. To them religion was an utter waste of time, and they made no bones about this. In fact, in one of their bulletins, they had openly denounced god and called organized religion nonsense. Many of the Hungryalists, with their sharp knowledge of Hindu scriptures, had been challenging temple elders on the different rituals and modes of worship. This came as a shock to many, in a country where religion was very much a part of everyday life—a matter of pride and culture even. On the other hand, Ginsberg was evidently quite taken with religion in India and sought out sadhus and holy men wherever he went in the country. While this might have been because he was in search of a guru, he seemed to be fascinated, in equal measure, by the sheer variety that religion opened for him in India—from Kali worship to Buddhism. But like the Beats, the Hungryalists came together in denouncing the politics of war, which merged with their larger world view.

*****

A tribute to the Hungryalist movement was uploaded on YouTube. It is in Bengali. Here is the film. In the comments Malay RoyChoudhury has also replied.

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution Penguin Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 190 Rs 599

Further Reading:

Ankan Kazi “Open Wounds: The contested legacy of the Hungry Generation” Caravan, 1 October 2018

Juliet Reynolds “Art, the Hungryalists, and the Beats” Cafe Dissensus, 16 June 2016

A new book chronicles the radically iconoclastic movement in Bengali poetry in the 1960s” Scroll, 8 Jan 2019

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 

 

 

 

 

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