“You have to fight for yourself,” Parker had said when we first got together, and again, and again. “Wherever you are,” she’d said, “whoever you are, you have a right to be here.”
( p.82 Man Alive)
Within the past few weeks two powerful memoirs have been published. Coincidentally both are by transgenders — Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi ( Penguin Books India) and Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive ( Canongate).Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s life history as recounted to Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey charts her transformation from a man to a woman and of her pathbreaking appointment to a college as its principal. Along the way Manobi describes the very conservative family she was born into and how very difficult it was to survive. In fact many people in her family and the village recognised her for being gender fluid and would taunt her as well as sexually abuse her. It was horrific. The Mint’s assessment of the biography in its own way documenting the queer Indian history particularly from the mid-1990s is a fair one. Sometimes it is biographies such as this that give insights into the rapid socio-historical transformations taking place in society but being still too near in recent past to accord any objectivity.
Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive is equally disturbing. He writes mostly in first person not only about the transformation from being a woman to a man but also the regular sexual abuse he suffered in childhood from his mother’s husband. As an adult he experiences happiness in love and ultimately marriage too but its deeply painful as it seems to be getting to the core of the writer. Its almost as if this process of writing these chapters were part of some cathartic process. He did for some years have a column in the Rumpus called Self-Made Man. Here is a brilliant interview in the Guernica too.
Conversations about gender fluidity even today continue to be challenging to have; this despite so many conversations, publicity campaigns, changes to laws worldwide etc. So personal journeys like these memoirs are a crucial contribution to the public discourse. There are commonalities in the two transgenders experiences of sexual abuse, violence and opting to make the decision to undergo a physical transformation from the gender assigned at birth to the one of their choice. These are not easy. Apart from the obvious physical transformation there are many psychological and emotional consequences that too need to be addressed for the individual and their immediate family. But the stark differences lie in the narrative style of the two memoirs. Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi though a remarkable biography for its subject matter including the legal cases she is battling are worth reading about but it is cautious in tone. Whereas Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive is far more absorbing though at times terrifying to read for its direct approach; at times it is impossible to read and the book has to be put down before resuming it once more.
According to filmmaker Paromita Vohra and founder of the Agents of Ishq 17 May is International Day Against Homophobia Biphobia and Transphobia ( #IDAHOBIT ). To commemorate it she published an article worth reading about transgenders dating where five people talked about love and dating.
Despite all the violence directed towards them and denial by conservatives that transgenders exist in society the fact these memoirs have been published is a step in the positive direction — it is opening room for conversations and hopefully, change.
( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. )
Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”
-Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)
On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.
This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”
The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.
Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.
WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,
“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”
India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.
The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.
Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)
Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”
In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”
The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.
In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).
Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.
“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”
The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.
The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.
Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”
(My column, Literati, in the Hindu was published online on 19 Dec and in print on 20 December. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-reading-experience/article8005049.ece )
Book-lovers want to be satisfied with time spent reading. It could be in different formats as long as the reading transports and immerses the reader into a different world
My daughter Sarah and I have a bedtime ritual. She brings along a book (if I am lucky, it is only one!) to read. She plumps up her pillow, tucks herself into the crook of my arm and orders, “Read.” It is a long process since I have barely begun to read when her questions come tumbling out or she reads out words in no particular order before I do! She is not yet six, so requires assisted reading. To her the length of the book is immaterial. It is the joy of storytelling, appreciating different styles of illustrations and discovering new landscapes. Sometimes when there is that unnerving-silence-which-should-not-be with a kid at home, I discover Sarah lying on her tummy flipping through her books.
She is charmed by the Kingfisher Encyclopedias, especially the scatological one Don’t Flush, she wants to try the tricks in DK’s illustrated Children’s Book of Magic and squeals with delight when she opens up The Pop-Up Book of Ships or reads over my shoulder L. Pichon’s hilarious The Brilliant World of Tom Gates. She strokes the magnificently detailed illustrations by P.J. Lynch in Susan Wojciechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomeyand is very satisfied to discover it matches the text when she impatiently asks, “Show, show!”
Grown-ups are no different. They too want to be satisfied with time spent reading. It could be in different formats as long as the reading transports and immerses the reader into a different world as does Helen MacDonald’s moving memoir H is for Hawk. In 2015, it is claimed printed book sales surpassed ebook sales, yet reading on smartphones is on the upswing as is evident by the establishment of Juggernaut Books and the launch of Pratham Books’s Storyweaver. A survey of bestsellers and critics concluded that the average length of books has increased by 25 per cent in the past five years. For instance, Man Booker Prize winner 2015 Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind and Hanya Yanagihara’s deeply disturbing A Little Life. Yet there has also been a noticeable boom in short stories with Colum McCann’s absorbing but stunningly painful Thirteen Ways of Looking, the incredible range of writing exhibited in the late Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories translated by Katrina Dodson with plenty more being published in stupendous online spaces like Guernica, The Literary Hub, The Electric Literature, Asymptote and Words without Borders. In fact, the popularity of translations to access world literature can no longer be ignored. Seagull Books, based in Kolkata, announced its Arab list to be launched in 2016. According to the Bookseller, reclusive Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s has made in the U.K. “£1.6m this year through BookScan, 1,254 per cent up on her sales in 2014”. Chad Post in his Three Percent blog post on translation databases in the U.S states that Amazon Crossing has been responsible for a large number of translations, surpassing many independent presse (http://bit.ly/1QrGxV7). Indian publishers too are increasing their translation programmes with notable titles of this year being Daya Pawar’s Baluta (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger), Tiruvalluvar’s The Tirukkural (translated from Tamil by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Aleph), Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi’s Sarasvatichandra Part 1: Buddhidhan’s Administration (translated from Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud, Orient Black Swan), Bhisham Sahni’s Today’s Pasts: A Memoir (translated from Hindi by Snehal Shingavi, Penguin), Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls (translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin), Intizar Husain’s The Sea Lies Ahead (translated from Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil, HarperCollins) and the Hindi edition of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton published by Vani Prakashan.
With this mish-mash of emerging “trends” in international publishing, it is not surprising for firms to ensure a reliable stream of income by publishing manuscripts of dependable storytellers. For instance Wind and Pinball, the early novellas of Haurki Murakami, Ideal: the novel and the play by Ayn Rand, Go Set a Watchman, an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Bedtime Story by Kiran Nagarkar, The Mountain Shadow by Gregory Roberts, the to die-for-richly illustrated editions of George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (illustrator: Gary Gianni) — prequel novellas to A Song of Ice and Fire and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (illustrator: Jim Kay).
I cannot say whether Sarah will become a voracious reader, but she has unknowingly discovered that reading is like meditation. The same holds true for adults. The genre is not always crucial to the experience.
Award-winning children and young adult writer, Paro Anand, is out with a new collection of short stories called Like Smoke. It has been published by Penguin Books India. This is a revised edition of her previous and very popular coming-of-age collection of short stories called Wild Child and Other Stories. It was a book I had commissioned and worked upon while at Puffin. I have just received a copy of Like Smoke and was pleasantly surprised to see Paro’s generous acknowledgement of my contribution in her preliminary comments. But I am happier to see that she expanded on the collection as she had always wanted to.
Thank you, Paro.
Here is the passage:
Ever since I wrote Wild Child and Other Stories, I knew there was something stirring within me. I knew that, as a writer, as a human being, I had more to give this book. Jaya Bhattacharji, the editor on Wild Child and a close friend, pushed me hard as she could. She knew I needed pushing, but, she also knew that I was going through some stuff and if she pushed too hard, she could break me. So she gave me tough love, but was gentle, as I needed her to be.
And so, out of Wild Child comes Like Smoke.
( p. ix – x)
Paro Anand Like Smoke Penguin Books India, Gurgaon, 2015. Pb. pp. 220 Rs 250
“…she kept a gimlet eye on foreign affairs and on domestic politics throughout, even at her lowest moments of despair. But the diurnal tedium of her life, which drove courtiers to distraction, is in itself a very remarkable fact. Apart from being the Queen, she had done so very little. It is one of the things which make her such a completely fascinating figure for a biographer, since she compels us to concentrate upon her, rather than upon her deeds. The tempting thing, when trying to make sense of any human life, whether famous or obscure, is to concentrate upon outward activities. Queen Victoria does not allow us to do that, since, apart from being an expert in watercolours and a fairly avid reader of popular fiction, she did not really ‘do’ anything: certainly not in the second half of her life. What a poet of her times once called ‘those years and years of world without event’ made up her drama. So, as well as her life being that of her own times, as must be the case of a monarch in her position, her life was also that of the inner woman, of whom — from the letters and the journals — we have a vivid sense.”
A. N. Wilson’s Queen Victoria: A Life, is the first authorised biography of the Queen. This has been written with permission granted to A. N. Wilson by Queen Elizabeth II to access documents, journals, letters, etc related to Queen Victoria. It is a detailed account of Queen Victoria, with a fine balance achieved between giving a personal history combined with the socio-political events of the time. With a historian, novelist and a fine scholar of the Victorian period such as A.N. Wilson writing this account, it is fascinating. For instance when discussing Queen Victoria’s journals, he says: “She began her journals, when aged thirteen, in the momentous year of the Reform Bill becoming law; she makes no allusion to it, any more than Jane Austen, in her novels, alluded to the Napoleonic Wars.” ( p.63)
Queen Victoria straddles a period in history that was a watershed moment for science, technology, social reform, literature, and politics. Her grandfather’s reign was synonymous with the loss of the colonies in America, but by the time she died in 1901, the British Empire was said to be so vast that the sun never set on it and had been crowned Empress of India. When the queen was attending her first Drawing Room, Charles Darwin was on board The Beagle, headed towards the Galapagos Islands. For her coronation, 28 June 1838, “the crowds were huge. Railways had brought an unprecedented numbers into the capital.” (p.86) During her reign, her husband, Prince Albert organised the Great Exhibition in London ( 1851). –“the largest the world had ever seen, as demonstration of industrial design and expertise”. A fabulous description of the planning involved and range of exhibits at the fair– exhibits from India, snowshoes from Canada, gas fittings, brass bedsteads, buttons, needles and agricultural machinery from a new English countryside, photography, iron works, statues and ceramics, steam engines, globes and clocks, French silks, a model of the Niagara Falls and a mass of zinc from America weighing 16,400 pounds, four decorated rooms from Vienna and a fountain which spurted eau-de-cologne… . “By the time the cheaper rates had been fixed only 200,000 people had attended, but the multitudes soon came – some 6 million visitors before the Exhibiton closed.” And a profit of £200,000 had been made. ( A friend on Facebook told me when I posted this information as a status, her great grandmother went from India by ship to attend it!)
For the first time there is insight on the Prince Consort, Prince Albert and the influence he wielded in court, over Victoria, in politics, science, and as a patron of the Arts. “When he was dead, Victoria found herself making lists of all the things Albert had been good at — his construction of the beautiful new dairy at Windsor, the laying out of the superb kitchen gardens, the brilliance at the piano, the musical compositions, the building up of the royal art collection, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the creation of the Royal Horticultural Garden, the Kensington Museums, the foundation of Wellington College… And there was all his political involvement, both in Germany and in Britain. This was not to mention his productive work as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, his programmes of social housing in Kennington, his fascination with scientific discovery, and his wide reading in contemporary literature and in philosophy.” (p.218-9) Throughout the book there are details of Prince Albert’s meticulous planning, sharp political moves, his active participation in England and yet, for most of his life he was perceived as a foreigner, who had come from Germany just as the other two notable Germans now living in England — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Prince Albert’s sense that the social and economic injustices of the industrial towns of ‘England’ would lead to communism, meanwhile were shared by two young German exiles who arrived in England during the same year — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Perhaps the three Germans — Albert, Marx and Engels — were in a better position to get a perspective on the British Isles than some of its longer-standing inhabitants. ( p.146)
Queen Victoria has been the longest serving monarch in England ( 63 years and 7 months), mother of nine children and grandmother of forty-two and matriarch of Royal Europe, through the marriages of her children.When an authorised biography of a queen has been commissioned during the reign of another monarch, it is impossible not to compare the life written about with the present queen and her experiences. The fact that such a book has been published, allowing personal accounts of the royal family to be made public, making a realistic portrait as far as possible, including references to the scandal-prone Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the queen’s grandson. For instance, A. N. Wilson writes, “There was never any firm evidence that Eddy was bisexual, let alone homosexual, but he was the sort of man to whom scandalous stories stuck like burrs. ( In 1962, upon no evidence whatsoever, it was even claimed that he was Jack the Ripper.)” (p.488) Reporting such incidents of indiscretion amongst the members of the Royal family would have previously been unheard of, more so in a commissioned project such as this. Yet the inclusion of these episodes is also a reflection of the transformation the British monarchy has had to experience in the current reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Dwelling upon Queen Victoria’s relationship with John Brown and her Munshi, would probably not have been permissible earlier. But now ample space, well-documented and researched, has been allotted to the significant presence these men had in the queen’s life.
Entrusting a historian with the task of writing a biography implies that there is attention paid to historical details. For instance in the references to the uprising of 1857, A. N. Wilson in his description brings together various lines of thought about how the incident is perceived — a mutiny or an uprising or “as the first rumblings of Indian nationalism, or merely localized expressions of outrage”. (p.213). As for Queen Victoria read the accounts with mounting disgust. There are plenty of examples of such historical accuracy throughout the book — Crimean War, Africa, Afghanistan, etc. Sure there are moments of hagiographical genuflections towards Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. While describing the portrait made of the couple by Brocky when they were twenty-two years old and had already started to have children, A. N. Wilson says “Brocky …immortalizes a couple who are mythological progenitors, like Abraham, the father of many nations”. (p.100) It presents the life of a queen as an twenty-first century reader would expect — a history, personal anecdotes contextualized by socio-historical events, with a strong focus on the queen as a woman too. It scorches rumours for instance of Queen Victoria’s paternity and how she came to be a carrier of Haemophilia. It introduces the Victorian Era to a modern reader, but at the same time forms an informed backdrop to an account of a formidable woman, who was much more than the dumpy woman, usually portrayed in her widow’s garb of a black dress and the white cap.
This is a biography worth reading. It raises the bar of how biographies should be written, with plenty of detail, without making it turgid to read.
Update ( 16 Oct 2014)
The manuscript was read by a representative of the palace and commented upon. And the publishers had to have their permission to use all of the material which is subject to Royal Copyright.
A. N. Wilson Victoria: A Life Atlantic Books, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 580. Rs. 999 ( Distributed by Penguin Books India)
( I read Veena Venugopal’s fabulous book, The Mother-in-Law, in one sitting. Instead of posting a review online, I immediately wrote her an email. It was a mad flurry of emails one morning. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. )
8 July 2014
I finally finished reading your book. Earlier I had only dipped into it. But last night I sat up till well after 1am reading it through.
Fantastic work! Thank you for making these vices public and not making them only the purview of the Saas-Bahu serials.
What stomach-churning experiences you have recounted. What is horrifying is that these are real. You do not intrude into the narrative too much but without having the personal, how can you possibly write something like this? Everyone has a mother-in-law story. I wonder why you only stuck to the arranged marriage route? Unfortunately the 12 stories you include in book only confirm the MIL image as being a dragon, a nasty one at that too. (Bollywood is going to have a gala time using your stories for their films. Think about it.)
I have always maintained that the worst perpetrators of crimes and violence towards women are other women. Also the most manipulative, shrewd, wily and preservers of patriarchal traditions are women. I am not making excuses for men at all but stating a point of view I have evolved. This is after spending years of working in the development sector, with feminist publishing houses, engaging with women’s NGOs, mapping the women’s movement visually etc.
I am absolutely stunned by the impressive work you have done. It must have drained you to be privy to so many conversations, gently teasing out these narratives is not easy. For the reader they read smoothly but did you actually write these essays in one fell swoop? Surely you went back and forth. I ask since traumatised women tend to gloss over a lot of details or create these fictional bridges at the heart of which lies the truth. So to create a clear story as you have done calls upon some sharp journalistic skills and a sensitivity that is commendable. The women you have profiled too are brave to come forth and share their stories.
Years ago the newspapers used to carry regular news stories about dowry deaths. At least it kept the conversations about domestic violence alive. People may or may not have been sensitised to it. It resulted in the Domestic Violence Act and much more. But now that DV has been “addressed”, it has been wiped off the news pages, thus silencing a crime that continues to exist. I suspect it is getting worse with the greed for material comforts. I have a theory and I have not tested it as yet. The more our society gains in creature comforts and the middle class is able to show-off its wealth, the women are fast becoming the victims to this new form of imprisonment–birds in a gilded cage. The women are bejewelled, wearing only branded stuff, splurging money on retail therapy, always smiling and available for chit-chat, gossip; ultimately representative in direct proportion to their family’s prosperity. It makes me gasp at times. I flinch internally when women with smiles plastered on their faces tell me “Oh, I am happy all the time”, but scratch the surface and stories come tumbling out. I see how well-educated, professional women have been mocked at by their husbands for pursuing their dreams. …their husbands have thrown money at them and said, stop working for measly amounts. If it is money you want, I will give you more but forget this job. Made the wives quit. Mostly made the women cite the reason of the children and family’s health. It makes me wince since I feel helpless. I do not know what to do about it.
Your book The Mother-in-Law gives a peep into the complicated world these middle class women inhabit. There are constraints that they have to take into account. There is no point in putting the women down for appreciating a bit of material comfort, but at the cost of being shackled to a mind-numbing degrading life baffles me. I am so glad you have written this book. You have made public the daily struggles most women go through to achieve these balances. Thank you for writing this book.
What truly saddens me is that these stories never end. It is a vicious cycle.
With warm wishes,
A short postscript to what I wrote earlier.
I like the fact you kept reiterating that a supportive husband is very essential. Also laying down the ground rules early on in the marriage. If this book of yours can become a handy manual for young women on the threshold of marriage, I would be truly happy. More than that, I suspect it is the women/brides who have to be mentally and physically very strong to prepare for an Indian marriage. I liked it when you said aggressive feminism is here to stay. Unfortunately many young women of today seem to take much of the freedom they relish as “for granted”. They are unable to see the struggles many before them went through to achieve this basic freedom and dignity. Also it is like a mirage. It is there and yet not. It is the daily negotiations that are important to keep that flicker of breathing space available. For that to happen women need to be able to see the injustice and most importantly have a language to articulate it, without going off the handle. If only the grooming and etiquette classes held regularly included a component or two of gender studies/workshops on how to recognise and address silences. Not necessarily make these spaces in the activist mode but in a genteel manner, infused with forceful ideas. Otherwise the women who have signed up for the classes will run a mile!
I may be speaking in a garbled fashion for now but I simply had to send these emails off to you asap.
With warm wishes,
PS A supportive and understanding husband is a rarity!
Thank you so much Jaya, it is heartening and encouraging to receive a mail like this from you.
The book was hard to write and I must confess I struggled with the voice right through it. I started my research for the book with Rachna’s story, when she had met Gaurav for the first time. I thought it hilarious, this very Rajinder Nagar mother-in-law taking her under her wing, going on shopping sprees and movie dates. And I assumed all the stories would be like that– a caricature of all the stereotypes of mothers-in-law that one hears about. It shocked me how quickly the stories turned dark. And as the year progressed, I began to worry about Rachna. I remember Copote was annoyed waiting for a verdict on the murderers so he could finish his book. I truly hoped Rachna would dump Gaurav and get out from Auntyjis iron fist even though it would mean that i wouldn’t be able to use her story.
And then I met Deepa and Nikita and Keisha and the stories kept getting worse and worse. Some of them are active on Facebook. Keisha for example is one. And if you saw her profile or read her posts you wouldn’t believe that she lived that life. I was very, very disturbed after meeting Keisha. And eventually came Arti and I couldn’t sleep for a week. Her story is the worst. And the strangest thing was how easy it was to find these stories.
The interviews themselves were spread over a period of time. I would ask them the same question in various different ways. I would point out inconsistencies in their telling of an incident. It was hard to ascertain the authenticity of their stories. I am sure if I spoke to their mothers-in-law I would have got their side of the story, but no one would have been honest knowing fully well that I had a channel of communication to their MIL. (Most of the stories were love marriages in fact. Only Lalitha, Arti and Rachna’s were arranged.)
I agree with you about violence in families. It is during the research for the book that I began to start railing against the term “fabric of Indian society”. Arun Jaitley used it a lot in keeping marital rape outside of the new rape law. The fabric of Indian society is a soiled rag, sadly, and I see no reason why it should be preserved. It is appalling the kind of abuse people take. With Keisha especially I kept wondering why. It is, I suppose, easy to be an uninvested third party and see clearly that she should have got out long ago. But she felt a certain urge to not worry her aunt, her grandmother. And I suppose because of the fact that her aunt didn’t marry in order to look after Keisha, she feels that love is necessarily an unconditional sacrifice. I see her now, she is the first to “Like” any post about the book. She was desperate to get copies of it. I think for her participating in the book was her final retribution. She gets a great degree of joy from the fact that her story is out there.
… I think I should use the book to build a community of daughters-in-law – give them a place to vent. At the end of the day, that’s what most people want – a forum where they don’t have to pretend that everything is hunky dory in their family. I just worry that i don’t have the bandwidth to run that along with my job. Like you said, these stories never end, and if just talking about it makes people temper their future behaviour, then it should be worth squeezing some time out for…Let’s see.
The ideal husband is a rarity, I know, but I’m hoping there are more mothers out there raising some than there were in the past.
Do you realise that your interest in putting together a forum for women is to step into a vacuum left by many women organisations drifting away from this focus? It has been now over a decade but fewer and fewer women NGOs maintain helplines. The time required to listen and counsel victims/women and their community is a mind-numbing and thankless task. Also it is not recognised as a crucial need. I guess more of a social service. So there is no funding available for these activities. Your idea is a good one …Just remember to think this through. Helping women or any individual should not be a lifetime crutch, but a brief sounding board to help them address their challenges and to face the world. Otherwise you will be an emotional wreck.
I am not surprised at Keisha “liking” Facebook posts abt the book. There are many women who are in a much messed-up space. Sometimes, and I do not know if this makes me a coward, I simply do not want to know. The horrifying stories one sees more than hears is very depressing. I used the word “sees” advisedly. Many times you see these women trotting about all dolled up, but observe carefully and you will see the chinks. Try telling me that a slim gym-going figure, well-groomed, well-dressed young mother, carrying a new born infant in her arms and doing the school run with the older kid has not been put through pressure to look respectable to the outside world. It worries me about the women and for their children. And these are the middle class and nouveau riche I am talking about. It is equally worse for women of other socio-economic strata. I am not generalising.
Women’s movements have really painted women into a corner. It is only a clutch of women who can speak with confidence about injustices they experience or perceive. Others now have this dual burden of being a professional and efficient at home. This is where I feel your book is showing the chinks. Look at the amount of stress these women are subjected to?
With warm wishes,
Veena Venugopal The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. Pp. 264 Rs. 299.
Today, Ananth Padmanabhan’s debut novel, Play with Me, goes on sale. It is a slim novel
about a successful photographer, Sid, in a boutique ad agency. He is focused on his job, till he meets Cara, who has applied to be an intern at the agency, specifically working with Sid. Cara has relocated to India from New York. Her father is an Indian diplomat and her Turkish mother is the Islamic Art Consultant at the Met. Cara and Sid have a rollicking affair. They are sexually obsessed with each other, but slowly the relationship evolves. Cara introduces her girlfriend, Rhea to Sid too. But Sid discovers he is falling in love with another women altogether–Nat. It does make for a complicated situation.
In a recent interview, Ananth Padmanabhan said “One day, when we were discussing EL James [author of the notorious S&M fantasy novel Fifty Shades of Grey] and commissioning erotic fiction, Chiki [ Sarkar] said, ‘A, you have to write this’; R Sivapriya [Penguin’s managing editor] had seen my work and told her about it. I said I’d give it a shot. On my commute from Gurgaon to Delhi every day, I would think about what I would do,” says the publisher’s unlikely erotica debut, Ananth, senior vice-president of sales. “It’s very difficult to get it right.” He couldn’t have picked a better or more difficult place to try his hand at writing about pleasure; your average head of sales is both perfectly placed to understand his market and new to playing the role of author. ( Rajni George, “Between the sheets”, OPEN, 31 July
2014 http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/books/between-the-sheets )
Ananth Padmanabhan, is Vice-President, Sales, Penguin Random House India. He has been with the firm since 1997 when David Davidar, then Penguin publisher offered him a job. As an experienced book salesman, he has a sharp sense of what it requires for a book to sell. At the same time he has a keen eye for detail as his passion for photography shows. In fact, two years ago he held an
exhibition of his black and white photographs called ‘Calcutta Walking in the City’–each frame had a story to tell. He blends his professional and personal interests well in his debut novel, Play with me. The book may have been commissioned out of a need to look for the Indian middle-class English reader of Fifty Shades of Grey, but as is the wont with good debut novelists, they tell a story with a fresh voice, anchored in details that they are usually most comfortable with. Ananth’s love for photography makes Play with me work at many levels– erotic fiction with competent and nuanced storytelling.
Play with Me is one of the few books published by prominent Indian publishers that deals with the genre of erotic fiction. Some of the others are A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories by Aranyani ( Aleph Book Company, http://alephbookcompany.com/pleasant-kind-heavy-and-other-erotic-stories ) and Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories from Sri Lanka, edited by Ameena Hussein ( Tranquebar Press, Westland, http://www.westlandbooks.in/book_details.php?cat_id=4&book_id=304 ). Over a year ago, Rupa Publications launched the Confession series of low-priced books written by ordinary folks, sometimes anonymously, of sexual encounters that they had experienced in their daily lives. Apparently these were “true” accounts written by tutors, housewives, young office workers etc. Unfortunately I am unable to locate the link to these stories now.
The publishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey also attracted Hindi publishers such as Mr Narendra Verma, Chairman, Diamond Books. In an interview to me last year he said, “…we translated Fifty Shades of Grey, but it has been a trying experience with this book. As this book is written in English, translating it into Hindi first was not an easy task. It was primarily because all the words could not be translated, nor were they appropriate to be published in Hindi. The main hurdle was to not offend the middle-class reader’s sentiments. The translated text had to be edited many times before it could be released for publishing. The translation was done in-house with one of our empanelled translators. The first volume was released into the market with a print-run of 5,000, and was soon sent in for a reprint. It has been priced at Rs. 175. We are not expecting sales as phenomenal as those in English.” ( p.55, Narendra Verma, “We publish one book everyday”, PrintWeek India Book Special 2013.)
Erotic fiction is a genre that is slowly developing a space in the mainstream Indian market. As I write this, there is talk of one more eagerly-awaited for book, a memoir. A collection of erotic short stories by women which has been slated for publication for a while now has been stalled due to legal hassles. So erotic fiction continues to be a niche book market but in India it needs to be handled sensitively if it needs to sell well. As Mary Anne Mohanraj, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, Chicago told me, “good erotica should be held to the same standards as any other good fiction, but in addition, it should also set an erotic mood, much as horror sets a horrific mood.” Hence it is not surprise then that Ananth Padmanabhan’s Play with me is already being spoken of as a sleeper-hit.
Ananth Padmanbhan Play with me Penguin Books India, 2014. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 250
The language of rebellion is simple whereas the language of governance is very intricate. ( p.148)
Neamat Imam’s debut novel The Black Coat is about newly independent Bangladesh in 1970s. It is set during Sheikh Mujib’s rule. It is a chilling tale about power, money, greed and survival. It is set against the backdrop of a new nation struggling to survive, a terrible famine that cripples the nation, the never ending stream of refugees to contend with and the lawlessness that exists even in the cities. Thieves break into homes to carry away a grain of rice, poor and old women steal clothes hung out to dry, and anything that can be sold is sold, anything to earn a few coins. The novel is about journalist Khaleeque Biswas who has lost his job capitalising on the talent of an uneducated young man, Nur Hussain, for mimicking the famous speech of the prime minister Sheikh Mujib delivered on 7 March 1971. Soon they are speaking at roadside corners, public spots and earning as well before the ruling party hires them to deliver the speech for political rallies organised during campaigning. It is a technique to evoke the patriotic sympathies of the citizens. The reference to the black coat in the title is the coat made famous by Sheikh Mujib.
It is a dark and horrifying tale. If the events mentioned were confined to history books then it may be easier to read. But it is not to be. There is poverty, lawlessness, social structures crumbling and the greed and manipulation of politicians. A cycle that is often repeated.
Neamat Imam is a Bangladeshi-Canadian writer. This is his debut novel. His book has been received with critical acclaim such as in this review http://www.outlookindia.com/article/Father-And-Sons-Or-The-Lie-Of-The-Land/285600 ( Indi Hazra, “Father And Sons, Or The Lie Of The Land”, Outlook Magazine, 3 June 2013). Yet the homepage of his website ( http://neamatimam.com/ ) has a distressing tale to recount. Read his post about seeking reviewers for his book ( “Wanted: Reviewers”).
Publishing is often referred to as an eco-system, a term borrowed from biology, an organic and evolving system, dependent upon the organisms that exist within it and their symbiotic relationship with each other. Similarly with politics and literature. Literature and politics have always been inextricably linked. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. Literature is created out of the times/environment it is written in. Black Coat is a book that must be read as an example of fine literature describing a politically turbulent time in Bangladesh’s history. It is taut, has a perspective to offer (whether you agree with it or not) and the words are used with care. Neamat Imam’s post on his homepage is testimony to how closely literature and politics are interlinked.
Read Black Coat.
Neamat Imam The Black Coat Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 250. Rs. 499.
Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. (p.30)
I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed. ( p.153)
Family Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel. It took nearly a decade to write, but the wait has been well worth it. Family Life is about his family moving to America in mid-1970s. Unfortunately his brother with a promising future, hit his head n a swimming pool, and slipped in to a coma. This incident changed the life of the family.
It is a stunning novel. Not a spare word is used. The flashbacks to their time spent in India are recorded faithfully, yet referred to in such a manner that an international reader would not get lost. For instance a description from his early days in America recounts how they received ads on coloured paper in their mailbox regularly. But “in India coloured paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint.” It is rare to find a writer of Indian origin who writes painfully accurately on what it means to be an Indian living in America. He captures the bewilderment and confusion marvellously and it is not necessarily having the god men visit them at home, in the hope of looking for a cure for his sick brother. It is in everyday life.
It is a pleasure to read Family Life since it tells a story, also observes and analyses in a matter-of-fact tone. Yet the clarity of writing, the manner in which it resonates with the reader, does not always mask the anguish and torment Akhil Sharma must have put himself through, to write this brilliant book. And then I read this article he wrote in The New York Times, “The Trick of Life” where talks about the agonizing experience of writing this novel: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/the-trick-of-life.html . Well it was worth it.
On 20 June 2014, it was included in a list of the 54 best novels from India published by Brunch, Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/greatest-indian-novels-ever-part-i/article1-1231662.aspx The jury members were Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.
Akhil Sharma Family Life Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499
My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 May 2014) and in print ( 1 June 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6069748.ece?textsize=small&test=2 . I am also c&p the text below.
I am reading a terrific cluster of books — Rakhshanda Jalil’s A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu (OUP); A Rebel and her Cause: The life of Dr Rashid Jahan, (Women Unlimited); and two simultaneous publications of the English translation of Angaarey — nine stories and a play put together in Urdu by Sajjad Zahir in 1932 (Rupa Publications and Penguin Books). Angaarey includes contributions by PWM members such as Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar. As Nadira Babbar, Sajjad Zahir’s daughter says in her introduction to the Rupa edition: “The young group of writers of Angaarey challenged not just social orthodoxy but also traditional literary narratives and techniques. In an attempt to represent the individual mind and its struggle, they ushered in the narrative technique known as the stream of consciousness which was then new to the contemporary literary scene and continues to be significant in literature even today. …they saw art as a means of social reform.” She says that her father did not consider the writing of Angaarey and the subsequent problems they faced as any kind of hardship or sacrifice; rather “it provided them with the opportunity of expressing truths simply felt and clearly articulated.” It is curious that at a time when publishers worry about the future of the industry, there are two translations of the same book from two different publishers.
Translations are a way to discover a new socio-cultural and literary landscape. Last month, the English translation of Joel Dicker’s debut novel The Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press), which has created one of the biggest stirs in publishing, was released. A gripping thriller, originally in French, it has sold over two million copies in other languages. A look at some other notable translations published recently:
Mikhail Shashkin’s disturbing but very readable Maidenhair (Open Letter), translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, about asylum-seekers in Switzerland.
Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas (And Other Stories)translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey is about 1980s Mexico.
Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador), a collection of short stories, translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews.
There is a range of European writers to be discovered in English translation on the Seagull Books list, Indian regional language writers from Sahitya Akademi, NBT, Penguin Books India, OUP, HarperCollins, Zubaan, Hachette, Navayana, Stree Samya, and Yatra Books.
Oxford University Press’s Indian Writing programme and the Oxford Novellas series are broader in their scope including works translated from Dogri and Konkani and looking at scripts from Bhili and Tulu.
Translations allow writers of the original language to be comfortable in their own idiom, socio-political milieu without carrying the baggage of other literary discourses. Translated literature is of interest to scholars for its cultural and literary value and, as Mini Krishnan, Series Editor, Oxford Novellas, writes, “the distinctive way they carry the memories and histories of those who use them”. Making the rich content available is what takes precedence. Within this context, debates about the ethics of publishing a translation such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf (HarperCollins), 88 years later, seem to be largely ignored though Tolkein described it as being “hardly to my liking”.
Linguistic maps available at http://www.muturzikin.com/ show the vast number of languages that exist apart from English. In the seven states of northeast of India alone there are 42 documented languages. Reports such as http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/ all indicate that content languages (all though with strong literary traditions) such as Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Irish are used by less than one per cent of websites. Google India estimates that the next 300 million users from India won’t use English. It isn’t surprising then to discover that Google announced the acquisition of Word Lens, an app which can translate a number of different languages in real time. For now users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish. Indian languages may be underrepresented on the Internet but, with digital media support and the rapid acceptance of unicode, an encoding which supports Indic fonts, translations will become easier. Soon apps such as Word Lens may expand to include other languages, probably even circumventing the need of publishers to translate texts.