Penguin Random House India Posts

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 3), 25 June 2019

Dear Reader,

I have just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s magnificent novel Gun Island. It is about Dinanath Datta, a rare books seller whose life gets entangled with an ancient legend about the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. It is a fascinating story that begins in the Sunderbans to New York to Venice. Gun Island has a fantastic cast of characters but it is also a story very relevant to our times for its focus on the situation of migrants and climate change.

At the New Delhi book launch held on 13 June 2019, India Habitat Centre, Amitav Ghosh was in conversation with Raghu Karnad. It was a very special evening as it occurred two days after the untimely demise of the playwright, Girish Karnad. So the book launch morphed into this public memorial for Girish Karnad too. It began with the new Jnanpith winner Amitav Ghosh’s tribute to another Jnanpith winner Girish Karnad. The conversation began with Raghu Karnad, son of Girish Karnad, saying, “My father was a chronicler of Karnataka and of this country, I consider you to be a chronicler of this planet. Interconnecting the countless parts we are in the midst of but miss. They are forces of language, war, or even eco-system.” These opening remarks triggered off a fascinating conversation about “unlikely coincidences” and “meaningful resonances” that exist between space and time. Also what does it mean to try and rationalise events that defy rationalist thinking but at times it is impossible to do so. A significant proportion of Gun Island dwells upon the global migrant crisis. During the conversation Amitav Ghosh commented that “the central literary question is how do you talk about the slow violence that eats itself into peoples lives and never finds its way into newspapers? In the papers every day there are so many reports about violence but this slow violence does not get attention. We have learned to turn our eyes away from it. The issue is how do we find ourselves back to recognise the violence unfolding around us. Poetry is better able to respond to the catastrophe and cataclysm we see around us. Poetry does not have that commitment. Poetry has always responded to every natural event. You see it in Byron and in pre-modern Indian poetry which is not poetry for the sake of poetry — it is devotional. We have to find ourselves back to that…back to being able to talk about other things apart from us.”

Gun Island is an unputdownable book. It will sell well but more so because of the old fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations. At the book launch there were whispers overheard of Amitav Ghosh probably being a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the coming years. Who knows?! But for now it would be interesting to see if this book makes it to the shortlist of the more prominent literary prizes around the world like The Booker Prize. It is certainly a book that cannot be ignored!

Of all the books I read in the past week Gun Island was exceptional.

More anon,

JAYA

25 June 2019

“The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady”

The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady by Deepa Agarwal and Tehmina Aziz Ayub is a good account of a fascinating woman. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan’s life mirrors the history of the subcontinent. Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director, Jaipur Literature Festival, wrote a wonderful introduction to the book. The following extracts from the introduction have been published with permission of the publisher, Penguin Random House India.

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Reflecting on how and what to write while introducing this important biography, I wonder once again if it is one or two books I have before me. This collaborative account, co-authored by Deepa Agarwal and Tahmina Ayub, mirrors the fissures and fault lines that divided Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan’s life into two astonishingly symmetrical halves. A well-researched portrayal of an intrepid and passionate woman, it presents her personal narrative and political convictions, and mirrors the history of the subcontinent, in a timeline truncated by the uncompromising contours of the Radcliffe Line.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe arrived in India on 8 July 1947. The eminent barrister was given all of five weeks to divide up a nation, a culture, a people. His brief was to ‘demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims’. A handful of men—five persons in each ‘boundary commission’ for Bengal in the east and Punjab in the west—worked day and night on a hurried and ignominious exit from an increasingly precarious and unstable empire. Equal representation given to politicians from the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, each hostile and intractable in their positions, only added to the tensions.

In New Delhi, at 8 Hardinge Road, a sprightly forty-three year-old woman, all of five feet tall, was hastily putting together some personal belongings. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan was preparing to depart in a government aeroplane for Karachi airport, where her husband Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan was soon to be sworn in as the first prime minister of Pakistan.

The future first lady was leaving her magnificent double storeyed home, set in three acres of garden, for an unknown and uncertain life in a newly formed nation. This elegant colonial bungalow (now 8 Tilak Marg) had been her home since her marriage. Both her sons, Ashraf and Akber, had been born here. 8 Hardinge Road had become the focal hub for the activities of the Muslim League. Her husband had been appointed finance minister of the interim government, and indeed the papers for the interim budget presented on 2 February 1946 had been taken directly from his home to Parliament House.

Not so far away, at 10 Aurangzeb Road, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had also made preparations to depart Delhi, and India. However, he had been more pragmatic than the idealistic and high-minded Liaquat Ali and had sold his house to the industrialist Ramkrishna Dalmia for Rs 3 lakh. Liaquat and his wife Ra’ana, on other hand, had decided to gift their home to Pakistan—it was to become the residence of the new nation’s future high commissioner. ‘Gul-i-Ra’ana’, the bungalow that her adoring husband had named after her, would henceforth be known as ‘Pakistan House’. Their vast and eclectic library was also gifted to the new nation in which they had invested their hopes and lives.

What were the thoughts and emotions that jostled in her mind and heart as she observed all that she had struggled for come to fruition, even as the looming shadow of Partition prepared to bathe the two nations in a fierce spasm of blood and sacrifice?

Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, born Irene Ruth Margaret Pant on 13 February 1905, to an apostate Brahmin lineage, was a practising Christian until 1933. After her marriage, she converted to Islam and was renamed Gul-i-Ra’ana. This fiercely independent lady, who carried her myriad identities within a core self of unchanging conviction, departed this world on 13 June 1990, by which time she was known, recognized and honoured as ‘Madar-e-Pakistan’ or ‘Mother of Pakistan’.

The first half of her life was spent in undivided India, where she transited two religious identities, and repudiated a third, albeit through her grandfather. With almost mathematical precision, her eighty-six years were divided into forty-three years plus some months in each of her two lives. She was an intimate witness to history—the two nations, the bifurcation of East and West Pakistan, the creation of Bangladesh, the course of the Cold War, the rise of Gorbachev, and the increasingly unequivocal hold of the army in Pakistan. From Jinnah, through Zulfikar Bhutto and to General Zia-ul-Haq, she spoke her mind and held her own.

Before her marriage, she was a professor of economics in Delhi’s prestigious Indraprastha College. Her doctoral thesis had been on women in agriculture in rural Uttar Pradesh. Begum Ra’ana was an important, even crucial, catalyst to Jinnah’s return to politics and the unfolding of the ‘two-nation theory’. In the summer of 1933, she and her husband met Jinnah in his home in Hampstead and appealed to him to return to India. Unafraid to champion difficult causes, she was radical in her attempts to bring about gender equity within the Islamic State of Pakistan and unflinching in her defence of her friend Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when he was facing the gallows. And at all times, she was charming and gracious as an accomplished diplomat and stateswoman.

Where then did she get her steely resolve and infinite reserve of strength? How did she negotiate the transitions and transformations of history with such seeming ease? I have always been fascinated by this formidable woman, and her ability to stand tall in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society even after losing her husband, with no grown male—or indeed female—relatives to support her in the newly birthed nation of Pakistan.

Begum Ra’ana was born Irene Pant. We share maiden surnames, and a common ancestry. I was born Namita Pant, and a faded family tree documents these connections, with a branch of it cryptically cut off. With his conversion to Christianity, her grandfather Taradutt Pant had placed himself outside the pale of caste and kinship. Yet whenever I encountered the half-told stories of Begum Ra’ana, I could sense the mountain grit in her, the legendary strength that comes so naturally to Kumaoni women. There was also a strong family resemblance—to my sister, to several of my aunts. I wanted to know more about her, to understand her as a determined woman, a thinking, feeling human, a creature of her times and circumstances.

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29 May 2019

“The Journey Of Indian Publishing” by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

I recently contributed to How to Get Published in India edited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.

Here is the essay I wrote:

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AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher.  My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi.  These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.

In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of  The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.

To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!

The Daryaganj  Sunday  Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.

From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.

In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.

By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins  India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.

Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.

As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality  is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses. 

The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting! 

3 Feb 2019

A Note on “The Women’s Courtyard” Translation by Daisy Rockwell

Here is the entire note by the translator, Daisy Rockwell, from her recent translation of Khadija Mastur’s Aangan, translated as The Women’s Courtyard. It has been published by Penguin Random House, 2018. 

The note has been excerped with the publisher’s permission. 

The Women’s Courtyard has been translated before as The Inner Courtyard, by Neelam Hussain, and published by Kali for Women in 2001. Retranslation is still a rarity in the context of modern South Asian literature but the practice enriches the field of translation, offering readers different prisms through which to read a text. When I choose to retranslate a work, it is usually because I feel I have something substantially different to offer from the previous translator or translators. All the same, I draw comfort and inspiration from the work of previous translators, who may have seen things differently than I did and send me scurrying back to my dictionaries and expert friends for more information.

Khadija Mastur’s writing style is spare and elegant. Unlike many Urdu authors she does not favour heavily ornamented writing and turns of phrase full of literary allusions. I felt inspired to reproduce this clarity in English, after seeing that Hussain’s translation struggled with this quality, attempting to elevate the language to a more formal register of English than was used in Urdu. See, for example, Mastur’s description of Safdar Bhai, and the two contrasting translations, below:

Mastur: Safdar Bhai kitne vajīha magar kaisī maskīn sūrat ke the.

Rockwell: Safdar looked so handsome, but so meek.

Hussain: How tall and well built Safdar Bhai had been and yet how diffident his mien.

Not only does Hussain divide descriptive adjectives into phrases, but in the case of the second phrase, maskīn sūrat ke, she introduces a flowery and somewhat archaic-sounding descriptor, ‘how diffident his mien’.

These embroideries of the original, in which Hussain seeks to somehow augment the original text, stretch even to ordinary narrative sentences, such as the following:

Mastur: Dūr kahīñ se ghaṛiyāl ke gyārah bajāne kī āvāz ā rahī thī.

Rockwell: From somewhere far off came the sound of the bell striking eleven.

Hussain: A distant clock struck the hour. The sound of its measured strokes rolled over her. It was the eleventh hour of the night.

Here, Hussain’s rendition conveys a breathless dramatic tension that is absent from the original, which merely alerts us to the passage of time.

Hussain also occasionally inserts new ideas into the text, such as below, where she actually adds foreshadowing to the original sentence that describes Aliya worrying about her sister Tehmina Apa:

Mastur: Rāt kā qissā bār bār yād ātā aur voh anjām ke khauf se ek lafz bhī na paṛh saktī thī.

Rockwell: She kept thinking about what had occurred the night before, and was so fearful of what might happen she couldn’t read a single word.

Hussain: The inexorable end of Apa’s fated love was before her eyes and she was unable to concentrate on her work.

Mastur merely writes of Aliya’s ‘anjām kā khauf,’ her fear of the outcome, whereas Hussain announces to us that Tehmina’s ‘fated love’ is coming to an ‘inexorable end’. This embellishment on the original text both spoils the suspense of the story and romanticizes Tehmina’s love for Safdar by referring to it as a ‘fated love’.

Strangely—perhaps by accident—a pivotal passage is missing from Hussain’s translation. I can attest as a translator that it is far too easy to drop bits of a text in the course of translation. The phone rings, the dog must be let out, one’s attention is divided—and there goes a paragraph. Usually these mistakes can be rectified in editing, when one notices that something is missing or when a transition between paragraphs makes no sense. An extra set of eyes helps too. In this case, the passage in question is Jameel’s first physical assault on Aliya. Aliya has been reading about the horrors of Ghengis Khan and his army, when Jameel comes to speak with her. She tries to make him go away, or stick to the topic of her exams, when he grabs her and kisses her (or more—the text is not entirely clear on this point, but it reads clearly as sexual assault). After this she feels shaken and defiled.

Finally, language changes, cultural norms change and politics change. All great works deserve multiple translations, and English can only be enriched by multiple versions of classic South Asian texts. With this fresh translation, a new generation of readers will be introduced to The Women’s Courtyard, and perhaps a few who know some Urdu will take the plunge and try reading the book in the original.

3 January 2019

Times Lit Fest, Delhi, panels on “Cultivating the passion of reading in children” and “What India Reads”

The Times LitFest Delhi ( 1-2 Dec 2018) was organised at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. I moderated two sessions with the both panel discussions focussed on reading.  The first panel was on how do cultivate the love of reading amongst children.

TOI, 2 Dec 2018

My co-panelists were Saktibrata Sen, Programme Director, Room to Read India Trust; Manisha Chaudhry, co-founder Manan Books; Sonya Philips, Founder, Learning Matters Foundation and is a reading specialist and Shailendra Sharma, Principal Advisor (Hon) to the Director Education, Government of NCT Delhi, India. The freewheeling conversation was on ways to promote reading. Every panelist spoke about their strengths and initiatives. From being a part of the government as is Mr Sharma and realising that it is critical to have a reading corner in every class and every section. So much so that the Delhi government has now allocated a handsome budget of Rs 10,000 / section to buy books.

L-R: Manisha Chaudhry, Shailendra Sharma, Sonya Philips, Saktibrata Sen and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

Fact is that even today few families can afford to buy newspapers, magazines, let alone books. So the first time many children particularly in the government primary schools hold a book is their school textbook. Few have any role models in the adults and older children in their immediate environment and as Principal Advisor to the government, Mr Sharma’s job is to introduce the love of reading. Both Mr Sharma and Mr Sen were of the view that reading is a lifeskill that is critical and needs to be learned beyond just being able to identify your name in whatever written script the individual is familiar with. Mr Sen, representing Room to Read, is involved in setting up partnerships with the governments to set up libraries. In India the Room to Read India Trust is working with 11 state governments. Ms Philips stressed on how till Grade 2 a child learns “how to read” but after that the emphasis is on “learning to read”. Ms Chaudhury with her many years of experience in publishing, looking at multilingual publishing and the critical need for children to have books in their own languages rather than only in English is what spurs her on to create new material every single day. She has recently launched two new magazines in Hindi called Mithvan and Chahak, the latter is meant for the early grade reader.

Everyone was of the agreement that it is important to create the joy of reading and align it as closely as possible to the child’s lived experience rather than alienate him/her from using complicated language in the written word. This was illustrated beautifully by an anecdote Mr Sharma shared about the complicated language used in a Hindi textbook to describe food which was a far cry from what is commonly used at home on a daily basis. Manisha Chaudhry spoke of her earlier initiatives to publish in tribal languages.

Alas we ran short of time otherwise it was promising to become a wonderful conversation on how to cultivate the joy of reading in children.

Join Sonya Philip, Manisha Chaudhury, Shailendra Sharma and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose in conversation with Saktibrata Sen – brought to you by Room to Read in the session, 'Cultivating the Habit of Reading in Children' at #TLFDelhi

Posted by Times Lit Fest – Delhi on Saturday, December 1, 2018

L-R: Ranjana Sengupta, Parth Mehrotra, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Udayan Mitra and Himanjali Sankar.

The second panel discussion was on “What is India reading?”. The panelists consisted of commissioning editors of four prominent publishing houses — Himanjali Sankar, Simon & Schuster India; Ranjana Sengupta, Penguin Random House India; Parth Mehrotra, Juggernaut and Udayan Mitra, HarperCollins India. Once again a freewheeling, adda-like, conversation about trying to figure out what India reads. The role of a commissioning editor has changed quite a lot in recent years. Traditionally commissioning editors were responsible for forming reading tastes but as Udayan Mitra pointed out that at times now the editor has to commission based on events and trends too. It is a kind of commissioning that did not exist earlier.

Today readers are accessing books through multiple platforms and in various formats — ebooks and audio books. It becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain how and what anyone is reading, let along a sub-continent like India where so many languages abound and there is rich regional literature too. Measuring reading tastes as Juggernaut is doing with their app and also because they are able to control their production pipeline while platform is something few are able to do even now. Most editors and publishing houses rely on print products that once released into the market are impossible to track. Some may be sold through brick-and-mortar stores, others through online spaces and yet other copies get sold as remaindered copies and secondhand books.

Listen to the conversation. So much was said. Many important bases within the Indian publishing landscape were touched upon. So much to think about.

What is India Reading? watch the conversation live at #TLFDelhi with Udayan Mitra, Himanjali Sankar, Ranjana Sengupta and Parth Mehrotra talking to Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

Posted by Times Lit Fest – Delhi on Saturday, December 1, 2018

All in all two fantastic conversations that I was glad to be a part of.

2 December 2018 

Book 20: 18 – 24 November 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 20 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

24 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

What inspired you to write The Night Diary?

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

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

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

What are the stories you accessed for writing this book? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it a challenge to find publishers for The Night Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 October 2018 

Book Post 2: 15-21 July 2018

Last week I announced that I am going to post every Monday a list of all the book parcels I have received in the past few days. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 2 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

23 July 2018

An extract from Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( transl: Rana Safvi)

Rana Safvi’s translation from the Urdu into English of Zahir Dehlvi’s memoir Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny was published by Penguin Random House India in 2017. Zahir’s full name was Sayyid Zah­iruddin Husain, ‘Zahir’ being his poetic nom de plume.  Zahir Dehlvi was in his early twenties, newly married, and living in what is now called the walled city of Delhi. He like his father was in the service of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and they would report to work at the Red Fort. Dastan-e-Ghadar is an eyewitness’s accounts of the events that happened during the uprising of May 1857 when Indian troops employed by the British army revolted. There were many reasons for the soldiers anger but the immediate reason were that their cartridges were laced with cow and pig fat. For the Hindu soldiers, the cow is a sacred animal. For the Muslim soldiers, pigs are taboo. On 10 May 1857 the soldiers first attacked their British masters in Meerut and then marched to the city of Delhi. For decades this event under British Rule was referred to as the “Mutiny of 1857” or by many Indians as “the First War of Independence”, depending from whose perspective the events were being narrated. Now more commonly it is referred to as the “Uprising of 1857” and this is what is usually adopted by historians as well. But as Rana Safvi clarifies in her introduction that “I have used the words ‘mutiny’ and ‘rebels’ in my notes and comments, as those are the words used by Zahir.”

Dastan-e-Ghadar  is meant to be a testimony to the events of 1857 and was written decades later. It is a sequence of events strung together but because it was written close to the event there are details in it that are fascinating. The chaos in the city, the confusion amongst the common people, the rumour mongering, the manner in which people fled to save themselves, the capture of the Emperor etc. All these are now well-known facts but to read the events in a contemporary account adds a different dimension to the experience of the historical event. According to historian Narayani Gupta in her review of the book in the Hindu “…it has an immediacy, and is deeply moving”. She also points out that the memoir was originally “Titled Taraz-e-Zahiri, it was called Dastan-e-Ghadar when first published in 1914. ” The book was printed posthumously from Lahore in (or about) 1914. A second edition appeared from Lahore in 1955 (an edition of which is with Irfan Habib who reviewed the book for Outlook magazine).

Yet there are liberties that the translator Rana Safvi has taken with the text which she acknowledges: “I have used my discretion to edit the text in places to keep the flow and drama of the narrative intact. ” Having said that there are some critical points about this seminal translation that are raised in the review by Irfan Habib: words like “Ghadar” and “Ghadr” have been translated inaccurately at the behest of the editors, not the translator. Later he adds:

Rana Safvi’s decision to translate the work into English is, therefore, to be welcomed. It seems a pity, however, that her rendering bears sign of some haste, so that the author’s statements in even his preface (‘Prelude’) are misunderstood. He did not indulge in “ang­­uishing over the past and spending my time in prayer”, but “considering the past to be past and holding what had happened in the past to be just mercies from God, I let pass time in worldly ways of conduct”. He was now not ind­uced to write because “I had [gained] access to letters and documents”, as the translation tells us, but because of the persuasions of his sincere friends and “a multitude of letters [containing such requests] having accumulated” (Urdu ed., Lahore, 1955 p. 17).

Both the academics who reviewed the English translation are of the agreement that the second half of the book where Zahir’s service in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk are possibly of greater interest than that of the events of 1857. Nevertheless Dastan-e-Ghadar is a fascinating testimony for those reading first source material about 1857 for the first time. Rana Safvi’s translation is an important contribution to Indian literature.

Following is an extract from the book published with the permission of the publishers.

 

****

The Surprise Attack

Just a few days had passed when another event took place. Half a mile from Kashmiri Darwaza, there was a yellow kothi near the ridge, where the purbias had set up a front and put up big guns and cannons. They were using them to inflict considerable damage on the British forces. They had two platoons and people to man the artillery present at all times. Everyone had to stay there for two watches.

One day, as luck would have it, the soldiers departing after day duty told their replacements to be careful, just in case the enemy attacked at night. The night guards took their places. Now let me tell you a few things about the night guard. It was these very men who had looted the bakshikhana and the bank. They were often in a state of stupor thanks to drinking bhang and eating kalakand and laddu peda during the day.

When they reached the kothi, they were alert at first, but when the night came and a cool breeze started blowing, they were unable to stay awake. They kept the guns at an angle and, spreading their dhotis, fell into deep sleep.

Drink bhang in such a manner that you empty all the stores 

All your family is lying dead and you lie inebriated

These people were snoring away to glory. The spies took this news to the British. They informed them that the front was abandoned, the soldiers were all fast asleep and it was the right time to attack.

The British officers took two platoons of Gurkhas, one of Majwi and one of the British themselves, and rushed
barefoot down the ridge. They carried away the guns, captured the cannons and only then woke the sleeping soldiers, saying, ‘Get up, people of the faith, the goras are here.’

One soldier got up, rubbing his eyes. The Gurkhas shot his head off.

They started attacking with swords and sabres. There was tumult and crying from every side and the few who were not killed ran in a state of panic towards the city.

The Nasirabad Platoon, which had changed duty with these men, had found the city gates locked when they tried
to enter the city, as it wasn’t safe to leave them open at night. They were resting on the patri outside Kashmiri Darwaza when the ambushed soldiers reached them. After abusing and scolding them, the Nasirabad platoon told these fleeing soldiers to lie with them and they themselves lay down silently but with loaded guns.

Meanwhile, the British force came chasing them, hoping to enter the city behind them. They were unaware
of the Nasirabad platoon lying in wait. A volley of firing began and the soldiers manning the cannons on the
parapet of Kashmiri Darwaza and Siyah Burj also joined in when they saw the British forces. The situation can be best described as Khuda de bande le—only divine intervention could help.

It was difficult to save oneself from the volleys of fire. There were heaps of corpses all over.

The British troops retreated. They rushed back and took over the yellow kothi they had attacked earlier and turned their guns towards the city. These guns were now fired incessantly at the city. This continued for the whole night.

Cannons and artillery were being fired from both sides, but the Indians lost the front they had set up in the kothi,
which was now under British control. The British forces were also reinforced by troops from outside.

A senior British officer was killed in this battle and his corpse was left lying between the two forces. In the morning,
both sides tried to pick up the dead body. Cannons and artillery were firing from both sides with the purbias hellbent
on acquiring the valuable weapons that were on the dead officer.

The dead body was lying a short distance before the Kashmiri Darwaza. The two sides fought a day and a half for
the officer’s corpse. It was a matter of prestige for both of them.

The guns fired day and night and thousands of people were killed.

At last, as the sun set, one purbia reached the body by rolling on the ground. He tied one end of his turban to the
dead body and slowly pulled it behind him. He and his fellows took the officer’s pistols and sword, and, after stripping the body of valuables, left it there.

In the morning, the British saw that the body had disappeared. The battle was stopped.

The purbia brought the weapons taken from the officer and showed them to everyone in the Qila. He brought it to the house of the royal steward. He showed them to Ahsanullah Khan and told him they had fought over these  weapons for two days.

I saw the weapons with my own eyes. The pair of pistols was good but the sword was invaluable. There was golden
carving on its hilt and the scabbard was black. Its colour was like the neck of a peacock, with something written on it in gold.

( Extract from pgs. 119-122)

Zahir Dehlvi Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi ) Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, India. 2017. Hb. pp. 340 Rs 599 

 

Poetry in India

For some peculiar reason poetry is quoted and used extensively everywhere but rarely does it get a regular space in a publishing house. It is often said poetry is too complicated to publish and to sell. It is subjective. Also many customers prefer to read poetry at the store and put the book back on the shelf. For many poets in India, self-publishing their poems has been popular. For generations of poets the go-to place was Writers Workshop begun by the late P. Lal. Some of the poets published by Writers Workshop included Vikram Seth, Agha Shahid Ali, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, Nissim Ezekiel, and Ruskin Bond. Some of the other publishing houses published occasional volumes of poetry too.

Of late the practice has continued. Only the rare volume or two is published. Aleph Book Company has published some fine volumes of poetry which has included translations ( Mirabai and Tirukkal) and contemporary poets such as Jeet Thayil, Sridala Swami and Vikram Seth. Some years ago Harper Collins India published The HarperCollins Book Of English Poetry (ed. Sudeep Sen) and recently the excellent collection of poems by Tishani Doshi Girls are Coming Out of the Woods. Also that of  Sharanya Manivannan ‘s The Altar of the Only World which is considered as well to be a very good volume. Penguin Random House India has a reputation for publishing good volumes of poetry particularly of established poets such as 60 Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil. A volume to look forward to in 2018 will be Ranjit Hoskote’s Jonahwhale . The feminist publishing house Zubaan books published a fascinating experimental volume Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess edited and translated by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra and Ravi Shankar.

Speaking Tiger Books has begun to actively publish poetry — at least far more frequently than the other firms. In the past few months alone some of their titles include Rohinton Daruwala’s The Sand Libraries of Timbuktu: Poems  ; Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017) ;  C.P. Surendran’s Available Light: New and Collected Poems ; Guru T. Ladakhi’s Monk on a Hill: Poems ; Ralph Russell’s translations and edited by Marion Molteno A Thousand Yearnings: A Book of Urdu Poetry & Prose  ; Ruskin Bond’s I Was the Wind Last Night: New and Collected Poems ; Michael Creighton’s New Delhi Love Songs: PoemsLater this year the Sahitya Akademi is publishing what looks to be a promising collection of poetry by “younger Indians”, edited and selected by noted poet Sudeep Sen.

Having said that the self-publishing initiatives still continue. For instance a young poet and writer ( and journalist) Debyajyoti Sarma launched the i, write, imprint, press to publish poetry. Some of the poets published ( apart from him) include noted playwright Ramu Ramanathan, Uttaran Das Gupta, Sananta Tanty  and Paresh Tiwari. 

Now there are more opportunities for poets to publish in literary magazines as well. For instance well-known poet Sampurna Chattarji has been appointed the poetry editor of IQ magazine and is looking for submissions and hoping to be read as well! She writes about it on her blog. Another active space for poets is Poetry at Sangam which is edited by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra. It showcases poetry in English and translations as well as essays on poetics and news of new releases. Another vibrant space for poetry especially Urdu is the Jashn-e-Rekhta festival. 

There are plenty more initiatives in other local languages, meet ups, open mike sessions etc where poets can recite/perform their work. In the past decade there has been a noticeable increase in these events whether informal groups that meet at local parks or coffee shops to more formal settings as a curated evening.

Undoubtedly poets and their poetry is thriving, just more publishers are needed to publish the poets.

6 January 2018