Penguin Random House Posts

Elizabeth Strout “Anything is Possible”

It seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old—the more he understood that he would not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.

… 

She came to understand that people had to decide, really, how they were going to live. 

Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible is an exquisitely written novel about rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois. It is about the people of the town Lucy Barton had left behind when she moved to New York to become a successful writer. Lucy is the heroine of Strout’s equally well-told novel My Name is Lucy Barton. In Amgash as like any other settlement, irrespective of whether it is a small town or a big city, there is great diversity across the socio-economic spectrum. There are people like Lucy’s siblings all of whom grew up in abject poverty and somehow managed a decent life as grownups. Since rarely do these people move out of Amgash, the past just as the present of the townspeople is an open book. It is claustrophobic and debilitating as it does not allow individuals to grow. The shadow of the past always looms large. This is precisely the reason why Lucy Barton fled. Despite this people continue to live in Amgash making adjustments to their lifestyles with growing old age and some are even successful in their social mobility.

This was a matter of different cultures, Dottie knew that, although she felt it had taken her many years to learn this. She thought that this matter of different cultures was a fact that got lost in the country these days. And culture included class, which of course nobody ever talked about in this country, because it wasn’t polite, but Dottie also thought people didn’t talk about class because they didn’t really understand what it was.

In Anything is Possible Lucy Barton is on a book tour in Chicago and decides to return to Amgash after seventeen years to meet her siblings. Unfortunately the flood of unpleasant childhood memories hits her as soon as she enters her parents cottage. She has a panic attack and decides to return immediately to Chicago. In the interim she has had smattering of conversations with her siblings who have updated her on the lives of people they knew as kids. None of the people have had a predictable lifestyle and it is certainly stranger than the fiction Lucy Barton possibly writes. For instance her distant cousin Abel who along with his sister Dottie would sometimes be found scavenging for scraps of food in a dumpster went on to become one of the richest men in Chicago. This story was the least sad of all that are shared. On the surface of it Amgash inhabitants were living the typical homely small-town-American lives you would expect them to have except there was a murkier underbelly to this. But as Abel Blaine realises it is possible to live the American Dream and improve on one’s status just as Lucy and he did—-“Anything was possible for anyone”.

Elizabeth Strout is known for deftly creating these fictional landscapes that are as finely detailed as a miniature painting. The characters, their personality traits, their lives and the umpteen cultural references are so well packed in the sparingly told narratives that they continue to be with one for a long time after the book is closed. She conjures up the scenes so minutely and exactly that it is crystal clear in mind’s eye. It is not surprising that Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible was on President Obama’s list of favourite books of 2017. Anything is Possible is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist 2018.

Two legendary women writers have endorsed these books and truer words were never said:

Hilary Mantel on My Name is Lucy Barton: “Writing of this quality comes from a commitment to listening, from a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue.’

Ann Patchett on Anything is Possible: “Strout proves to us again and again that where she’s concerned, anything is possible. This book, this writer, are magnificent.”

Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 260 Rs 599

Elizabeth Strout My Name is Lucy Barton Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 699

28 March 2018 

 

 

 

Jordan B. Peterson “12 Rules for Life”

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos lays down rules for a better living in a noisy modern world. There is an authoritarian tone to the rules as listed in the table of contents.  The arguments laid out in the book stem from his online discussions on the popular platform Quora.

Every chapter is preceded by an alarmingly disturbing ink illustration involving children. “Alarming” because every single image rather than being hopeful and a cofidence building measure inevitably has a tone which hints that it is best where you are, do not try and have dreams. Take for instance Rule 3 which  states “Make friends wtih people who want the best for you” is accompanied by an illustration of the statue of David by Michelangelo with a very tiny figure of a child looking up at this enormous statue. It looks positively monstrous in the illustration. It is a matter of perspective possibly but to have such distressing illustrations will serve the sole purpose of terrifying people, forcing them to remain where they are and to accept institutional systems and their social conditions as is, instead of questioning or being ambitious and hopeful. These forms of intellectual arguments are detrimental to the growth of an individual and for society at large but most people will know no better for undoubtedly Jordan Peterson is fairly persuasive in his arguments.

Pankaj Mishra in a justifiably scathing attack of Jordan Peterson’s book in the NYRB ( Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism, 19 March 2018) has this to say:

 

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts.
….
The “desperation of meaninglessness” widely felt in the late nineteenth century, seemed especially desperate in the years following two world wars and the Holocaust. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, all credentialed by university education, met a general bewilderment by suggesting the existence of a secret, almost gnostic, knowledge of the world. Claiming to throw light into recessed places in the human unconscious, they acquired immense and fanatically loyal fan clubs. Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism.
Peterson, however, seems to have modelled his public persona on Jung rather than Campbell.
Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailedVladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration.
Meanwhile the book continues to sell and has climbed the bestseller charts worldwide although it never made it to the New York Times Bestseller list. So much so that Jordan Peterson was moved sufficiently to write a “Thank you note to booksellers” commending them for their good work. In the letter circulated he lists the 12 books which influenced his 12 rules. These are:
BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL by Friedrich Nietzsche
MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl
MODERN MAN IN SEARCH OF A SOUL by Carl Jung
THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE by Mircea Eliade
THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER by George Orwell
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST by Tom Wolfe
NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND by Fyodor Dostoevsky
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
ORDINARY MEN by Christopher Browning
THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte
The fact is that Jordan Peterson like conservative intellectuals who through their tub thumping articles persuade individuals to focus on themselves increasingly and not necessarily look at the world in a broader context do far more damage to society. Writing such “self-help” books that explicitly encourage an individual to narrow their landscapes considerably to the microcosm create more havoc than be an “antidote to chaos”. An illustrative example is that he offers of a rape survivor to illustrate his Rule 9 “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t” is a a very messed up argument. There are pages and pages of his analysis and reporting his conversation with the victim but this particular passage stands out for its misogyny.
She talked a lot. When we were finished, she still didn’t know if she had been raped and neither did I. Life is very complicated.
Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something. “Was I raped?” can be a very complicated question. The mere fact that the question would present itself in that form indicates the existence of infinite layers of complexity — to say nothing of “five times.” There are a myriad of questions hidden inside “Was I raped?: What is rape? What is consent? What constitutes appropriate sexual caution? How should a person defend herself? Where does the fault lie? “Was I raped?” is a hydra. If you cut off the head of a hydra, seven more grow. That’s life. Miss S would have had to talk for twenty years to figure out whether she had been raped.
As Pankaj Mishra points out:
Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.
Writer Matt Haig in a different context had this to say on Twitter about feminism and patriarchal mindsets. It is applicable in the context of this book:

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life is a book that will be discussed for years to come. Read it if you must while bearing in mind the larger picture of intellectual discourse.
Jordan Peterson 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, London, 2018. Pb. pp.410 Rs 699
21 March 2018 

Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

We are all migrants through time. 

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West published nearly a year ago in spring 2017 was received positively worldwide to rapturous reviews. Despite the extremely long and breathless sentences with innumerable sub-clauses the story itself moves smoothly while unveiling a bleak yet monstrously fragile world of migrants, violence and lawlessness. It is told through the lives of Saeed and Nadia but the narrator remains in complete control, much like a cameraman choosing to tell the story through selected frames. The prose is structured almost like a slow dance fusing reality with elements of speculative fiction. Take the black doors for instance which open like portals to another land, not necessarily another dimension of time, leading refugees away from one physical space to the next.

This aspect of the story has in fact resulted in an incredible art installation in London. It can be viewed till 20 February 2018. According to The Bookseller, Penguin Random House UK has teamed up with Audible and Jack Arts to celebrate the paperback launch of Exit West. To quote the article:

Penguin is partnering with Jack Arts and Audible to celebrate the paperback publication of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) with an interactive poster installation on Commercial Street, London.

Working with Jack Arts, themes explored by the Man Booker shortlisted novel such as movement and migration – and, as Penguin puts it, “the thin boundaries that exist in our world” and “the doors between neighbours” – will be “brought to life” in the form of poster art.

Taking a recessed wall space on Commercial Street, Penguin and Jack Arts have replicated the book jacket artwork of Exit West and installed posters with book extracts and cityscapes from locations in the book. Functioning doors open onto the posters, inviting people to engage with the story and to “rethink what the doors around them might mean”, according to Penguin. The campaign strapline reads: “You sometimes need a way out. You always need a way in.”

Penguin also teamed up with Audible, identifying the Commercial Street site profile as “directly overlapping” with Audible’s audience. The audiobook retailer is tagged on the installation and will promote the audio edition of the book to its four million UK social followers. Exit West will be an Audible Editorial pick and a recorded interview with author Mohsin Hamid will be available as an Audible Session.

The book’s author, Hamid said: “It was kind of magical for me to see the black doors on Commercial Street, to discover they could open, and to find words from Exit West inside.”

It is very exciting to see how many forms a good story will take. More so in this information age when readers have very high expectations and there are behavioural changes apparent in how people approach a book. With the blending of formats making it available in physical reality is truly marvellous — just as this unique book.

Read it if you have not already done so!

Mohsin Hamid Exit West Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017. Hb.pp. 230 Rs 599

18 February 2018 

Good Night series

Penguin Random House India recently released four titles in the Good Night series — Good Night IndiaGood Night DelhiGood Night Mumbai and Good Night Rajasthan.  These have been released as board books meant for pre-schoolers. They are fascinating little books which primarily highlight the main sights of the particular location. Apparently the Good Night Books are a series launched in USA. According to the website: 

The Good Night Books Series of board books has been designed and developed since 2005 to celebrate special places and themes in a way that young children, ages 0-5, can easily relate to and enjoy with their families. All the books are written and illustrated with a simplicity that captures the “essence” of each subject and place.

Every book is printed in bright colors on high-quality board to endure the attention of young children. All have six-inch by six-inch pages, making for large 12 x 6 open page spreads.

Each title takes its readers through the passage of a day (“good morning,” “good afternoon,” “good evening,” and “good night”). And most titles, if set in a place with seasonality, also include the seasons of the year (spring, summer, autumn, and winter). Children are further introduced to the practice of using polite salutations and greetings, all while being lulled to a good night’s sleep.

The series is, in part, inspired by Walt Whitman’s poems, such as the classic book Leaves of Grass and the famous poem “Song of Myself,” in which the poet catalogs item after item, in a process whereby the mere naming of each item draws attention to it and thus imbues it with a sense of import. The Good Night Our World Series tries to recognize and celebrate the world in a Whitmanesque spirit.

It is a good idea of PRH India to launch the books in India. There is a lack of board books meant for young Indian readers. Also the four titles selected for the local market would work extremely well with tourists as well.

Good Night Series, PRH India, Board books, Rs 299 each

5 February 2018 

Angela Duckworth’s “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”

“Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.”

Angela Duckworth‘s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is an analysis of how those who are successful in life are primarily due to their grit, their passion and perseverance rather than talent or being naturally gifted at it. This is the conclusion she came to after studying students and professionals across the spectrum. She wortked with the cadets at West Point to sales people, to school children and interviewed many achievers to understand what made them tick. Surprisingly it was not the IQ scores that determined whether a child/person would succeed at their task. It was dedicated hardwork, perseverance and a passion to excel. Sometimes the hardwork involved in the attempt to excel can be exhausting but it is at this precise moment that the grit of the person decides whether s/he will finish their task. Angela Duckworth interviewed Bill Gates too who said that when he used to screen applicants for Microsoft he inevitably selected the candidate who had completed the tough programming task he had given. He appreciated the candidate’s stamina to stick on till the end rather than give up in frustration. There are many, many examples strewn through the book that confirm her hypothesis that grit determines success, not necessarily talent and IQ. This is a strength of character she states is a good quality to inculcate in children too. The satisfaction of doing something important and doing it well even though it’s so very hard. Children “recognize complacency has its charms, but none worth trading for the fulfillment of realizing their potential.”

Grit is one of those exceptional thought-provoking books that will be influential for a very, very long time. More so since it takes one idea and explore it satisfactorily providing sufficient empirical evidence to make it plausible.  Here is a short TED talk Angela Duckworth made based on her research. It does share the gist of her wonderful book although it is advisable to read the book for the concept to really seep in.

Angela Duckworth Grit Vermilion, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Pb. pp 340

Steinbeck Reissued!

Penguin Random House India has published a selection of Steinbeck novels that have been beautifully rejacketed. Steinbeck is a perennial favourite. To publish new editions in a nifty size which can easily fit in a bag, light in weight and can be read while commuting is a great idea. To have such pure bright colours on the cover is not only a joy to hold an attractive book in one’s hand but it is also easy to locate if misplaced while travelling or one’s bookshelves. The best part are that these editions are also very reasonably priced. Worth buying!

The six titles PRH India has reissued are:

The Grapes of Wrath

East of Eden 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Mice and Men

 

 

The Red Pony  

 

 

 

 

 

 

  The Pearl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Cannery Row 

 

 

10 August 2017 

“Centaur” by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference. 

“The Serenity Prayer” Declan Murphy would recite in school everyday.

 

On 4 May 1994 jockey Declan Murphy was fell down while racing and before he could get up he was kicked in the head by another horse. It has been termed as one of the biggest racing horse accidents ever. Internationally it was a disastrous weekend for the sports world. The day before the world had lost the legendary Formula1 racing driver Ayrton Senna and the day before that Roland Ratzenberger. Declan Murphy was the third sportsman to be injured in what was deemed to be a fatal fall.  He was so badly injured with his skull being fractured in twelve places. There is a vivid description of the course doctor placing Declan Murphy’s helmet and colours still dripping with his  blood in the middle of the room and all the horsemen watching on horror. Racing Post had even readied his obituary which they fortunately never published but only showed it to him once he recovered. Yet within eighteen months he was back riding and won a race!

A racehorse in full flight is a thing of beauty; an artist, an enigma. An elite athlete that bursts into life in a bid to perform. Every minute at full gallop, a thoroughbread pumps some 1,800 cubic litres of air in and out of its lungs. Its heart beats 250 times — nearly five beats a second — to pump 300 litres of blood around its body, all to achieve that singular goal: speed.

That day, the light shone on Jibereen. He was performing for me, one breath perfectly in time with one stride as he raced towards the finish, the organs in his body working together in exquisite harmony, pumping the oxygen from his lungs to his heart, from his heart to the muscles that powered his spectacular speed. 

And I felt it. At that moment, I felt it, like I had felt it my whole life. The spirit of the animal underneath me: the power and the pride, the swiftness and the strength, the majesty and the gentleness and the grace. 

I felt my horse. 

I was at one with it. 

I was a liminal being.

I was CENTAUR.

In a fabulous Afternoon  Edition Extra Declan Murphy described his “deep reluctance” to do this book. It was Ami Rao’s persuasiveness that won him over. He was hesitant to do Centaur as no one knew till he agreed to do this project that he had absolutely no memory of the four years prior to his accident. In the interview he adds graciously that it was “to her credit and to her brilliance really she regained her composure restructuring the period. She had determination. ”

Centaur is a book about sportsmanship. The grit and determination a sportsman has to win over and over again comes through very clearly. This is a book which does deal with the passion and single-minded focus of Declan to win every single race. A great example of his determination and putting mind over matter is the battered and bruised jockey at Cheltenham who insisted on going in for his race only to win it even though his valet Johnny Buckingham said Deccan looked as if he was on a “completely different planet”.  He may not have wanted to be a jockey but when he found himself one he was not going to be mediocre at it. He gave it all that it took and he did a fine job!
Centaur is an extraordinary account of fate and strong faith which are absolutely impossible to explain logically. Ami Rao may recount what occurred but why it happened the way it did can never be comprehended by a logical human brain.  It’s best to go with the flow and appreciate the sequence of events and in the miracle of life.
Renowned brain surgeon Henry Marsh said in his though-provoking memoir  Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery   “The brain cannot feel pain:  pain is a sensation created within the brain in response to electrochemical signals to it from the nerve endings in the body. …Thought and feeling,  and pain,  are all physical processes going on within our brains.  There is no reason why pain caused by injury to the body to which the brain is connected should be any more painful,  or any more ‘real’,  than pain generated by the brain itself without any external stimulus from the body…. The dualism of seeing mind and matter as separate entities is deeply ingrained in us,  as is the belief in an immaterial  soul which will somehow outlive our bodies and brains. “
Centaur is full of hope and the writing style is so refreshing — probably because both Declan Murphy and Ami Rao are writing straight from the heart that the narrative style does not follow any predictable structure. No wonder the book is being lauded and made it even to the Sunday Times Bestseller List.
Read Centaur.
Declan Murphy and Ami Rao Centaur Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 308 

22 July 2017

Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

Award-winning writer and social activist Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is primarily about Anjum, a eunuch/hermaphrodite, and the relationships she forges over many decades. The story about Anjum is fascinating but the narrative is often interrupted by long expositions about modern India. The history lessons begin from the Emergency till present day after covering regions such as Kashmir, Chattisgarh, Gujarat etc. There are most certainly two narratives operating in this novel pulling it in different directions.  Laura Miller writing in The Slate ( 19 June 2017 ) refers to it as a “deeply rewarding work, if you can let the novel wash over you rather than try to force it into shape. ” Parul Sehgal writing in The Atlantic calls it a “fascinating mess”.  Ellen Battersby writing in the Irish Times ( 3 June 2017) refers to it as a “Rushdie-like concoction” but where “Roy prefers to overdescribe and overexplain”. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is most certainly written in the style popularised by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children ( 1981). What is truly fascinating to realise is that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been published in the seventieth year of India’s independence from the British and picks up from where Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children concluded.  Midnight’s Children discussed Partition and the creation of two nations — India and Pakistan and contemporary history before it was published in 1981. Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins its political history with a description of the imposition of Emergency ( 1975) by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later the turbulent 1980s with rise of communalism, the political and civil strife in Punjab and Kashmir which led to the imposition of President’s Rule and reverberations of which are felt even now, pogroms in Gujarat to the Maoist turmoil in Chhatisgarh and more.

Creating a transgender person as a character is also an effective literary tool. Despite being acknowledged in Hinduism and Islam by their existence in the religious stories eunuchs remain on the margins of society while having the ability to flit in and out different socio-economic classes. Eunuchs like Anjum by being at the crossroads of socio-political activity are able to participate and/or witness significant contemporary events. Though there has always been a social stigma attached to that of being a hijra in South Asian cultures and they have been ostracised yet they are expected to attend major social events like births and weddings to bless the family.  It is a curious space the eunuchs inhabit in society and it exactly this vantage point which is exploited by Arundhati Roy to bring her two passions — activism and writing fiction — to comment upon India in 2017. The legitimacy of Anjum’s viewpoint on contemporary India is further strengthened by the Supreme Court of India’s landmark judgement in 2014 on declaring transgender people to be a “third gender”.

There has been some speculation that the character of Anjum is loosely based upon Mona Ahmed who was introduced to the world by well-known photographer Dayanita Singh. In fact Arundhati Roy acknowledges Dayanita Singh for the “idea”. If that is the case then feminist-publisher Urvashi Butalia who interviewed Mona for her book The Other Side of Silence also wrote a long piece about Mona in Granta (2011). Later Urvashi Butalia was  interviewed as well about her profile of Mona Ahmed.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness had an enviable global release with a publicity campaign that would be any author’s dream come true. There were reviews of the English version pouring in from all over the world. The social media was abuzz for weeks with comments about the book. People who were not voracious readers were reading the book and posting their comments online. The media blitzkrieg has been phenomenal and the author herself has over summer travelled in Europe and Canada to promote the book. The production quality too is rich and elegant with a gold filigreed embossed hardcover, an equally sumptious dust jacket using the image of a grave and ivory-cream pages that are heavy and delicious to turn. The manuscript it is rumoured sold for an extraordinary sum of money and a few translations are already planned but it is not easy to confirm this fact. At the end of the day Midnight’s Children and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will go down in the annals of history as being pathbreaking examples of literary fiction that keep the spotlight on modern India displaying its ugly violent side co-existing with the incredibly syncretic and humane side. While it exists in this manner there is hope.

Read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It may not be to everyone’s liking but it will certainly be a book which will be much discussed for a long time to come.

Arundhati Roy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2017. Hb. pp 450. Rs 599

” Translating the ‘Panchatantra’ ” by Rohini Chowdhury

( Puffin India has recently released a new translation of Panchatantra translated from Sanskrity by well-known writer Rohini Chowdhury. Reproduced below with the author’s permission is her essay included in the book on why she translated these beloved tales. Here is a lovely trailer for the book released by the publishers, Penguin Random House India. They have also illustrated some of the stories as cartoon strips.)   

Those who pay no heed to good counsel are destroyed halfway to their goal.

The fables of the Panchatantra have always been a part of the landscape of my life, and so, when my daughters were born and grew old enough to listen to bedtime tales and ask for them, these were amongst the first stories I told them. It was in searching for more Panchatantra tales for my daughters that I realised the absence of a complete translation for children, and one that maintained the structural integrity of the original work.  Now, one of the most interesting features of the Panchatantra is its story-within-a-story structure – stories contain stories, which contain more

One who anticipates disaster and plans ahead, survives and lives a long happy life

stories, somewhat like a Russian matryoshka doll that contains doll within doll within doll. In every translation and retelling that I could find, though the stories had been charmingly retold and often beautifully illustrated, they had been presented as stand-alone tales without the context or frame-story within which they occur in the Panchatantra. This, I felt, took away from the tales substantially. I therefore decided to translate the complete Panchatantra myself, keeping intact its original form and structure.

The translation went much slower than I had expected; the children

The one who gives a stranger all his friendship while forsaking his own kind, meets an unhappy end.

grew much faster and had soon outgrown these tales. So, for many years, I put this translation aside and became busy writing and translating other books – till a conversation with Puffin India in July 2015 brought me back to it.  I looked at the Panchatantra again, with different eyes, and realised its true significance: not only was it a masterly treatise on politics and government and a manual for conducting our daily lives with wisdom and common sense, but devised to educate the three foolish sons of a king in the ways of the world, it was also a revolutionary, and successful, experiment in teaching young people. Where traditional methods had failed with the princes, the fables of the Panchatantra succeeded – by teaching them practical wisdom, and by awakening in them a curiosity about the world. Within six months, the blockhead princes had become wise and knowledgeable young men. Since then, says the Panchatantra, its stories have been used to educate young people everywhere, a claim that is borne out by the many translations and retellings of this work that are found all over the world, even today.

We know very little about the author of the Panchatantra, except what the introduction to the work itself tells us – that his name was Vishnusharma, that he was a Brahman, exceptionally learned, a renowned teacher, and eighty years of age at the time he composed this work.  Since we have no other evidence regarding Vishnusharma, it is difficult to say whether he really was the author of the Panchatantra or himself a fictional character, invented as a literary device for the purpose of narrating the stories. Some versions of the Panchatantra – from southern India and South-east Asia – give the author’s name as Vasubhaga. Again, there is not enough evidence to confirm his identity or his existence.

The original Panchatantra is in Sanskrit, and has been written in a mixture of prose and verse, in a style that is simple and direct. The work is divided into five parts (hence the name: pancha: five and tantram: parts), each part dealing with a particular aspect of kingship, government, life and living. The stories are narrated mainly in prose, but the lessons derived from the tales are usually given in verse form.  The Panchatantra’s ‘story within a story’ structure—individual stories are placed within other stories, and each individual part or tantra replicates the structure of the work as a whole—serves to keep its audience engrossed as it takes them into a series of stories, deeper and deeper, from one level to the next.

Most of the characters of the Panchatantra are animals that behave, think and speak like humans. In every culture across the world, people have given human characteristics to animals. But the qualities that people see in particular animals vary across cultures. Thus, an owl is considered wise in England, but evil and unlucky in India. The animals of the Panchatantra conform to the ideas held about them in Indian culture. So, a heron is regarded as deceitful and cruel, for he stands still for hours on one leg pretending to be an ascetic doing penance when we all know that he is actually waiting to grab the next unwary fish that swims too close. Similarly, an elephant is noble and proud, a jackal is greedy and cunning, and a lion, though the king of the animals, is arrogant and often easily fooled by a weaker, more intelligent animal. An ox is loyal, a dog is unclean and greedy, and a cobra dangerous and untrustworthy. The audience for which the stories of the Panchatantra were meant would have known these qualities of particular animals, and so would have known instantly what to expect of them in the stories.

The author of the Panchatantra has used one more device to make it easy for his audience to understand the nature of his characters, and that is their names.  He has given his characters, whether human or animal, names that highlight certain aspects of their appearance or behaviour, or give insights into their nature. Thus we have Pingalaka the lion, whose name means ‘one who is red-gold’, named for his fiery coat, Dantila the jeweller whose name means ‘one who has big and projecting teeth’ and immediately gives us a vivid image of the man, Chaturaka the wily jackal whose name means ‘one who is sly and cunning’, and Agnimukha the bedbug, whose name means ‘fire-mouth’ and almost makes us go ‘ouch’ as we imagine his bite!

The appeal of the Panchatantra is not limited only to the young.  Apart from its wonderful stories and ageless wisdom, it is a work that looks at life head-on.  Rather than seeking to present linear solutions where good wins over evil, moral behaviour wins over the immoral or even amoral, it acknowledges that life, love and friendship can be complex, that politics, government, human interactions are not always straightforward, and even right and wrong, truth and falsehood can often be a matter of circumstance, expediency, or what is practical.

As a result, the stories of the Panchatantra became immensely popular, and travelled across the world – in translations, or carried by scholars, merchants, and travellers. Even today, the tales resonate with people of all ages, at different levels, in different ways, everywhere. In its Arabic translation, the Panchatantra became famous as Kalila wa Dimna (after the names of two of the principal characters, the jackals Karataka and Damanaka); in Europe it became known as the Fables of Bidpai. Many of the stories of the Panchatantra can be found in the fables of La Fontaine in the 17th century, and their influence can be seen in the stories of the Arabian Nights, as well as in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The stories also travelled to Indonesia in both oral and written forms.  Today there may be found more than two hundred versions of the Panchatantra across the world, in more than fifty languages. The oldest recension is probably the Sanskrit Tantrakhyayika from Kashmir; this predates the Panchatantra version available to us today. The most famous retelling of the original work is the 13th century version by Narayana, known as the Hitopdesa.

My translation, a labour of love for my daughters, is my attempt to make this great work available to the young people of today.

Rohini Chowdhury is an established children’s writer and literary translator. Her books can be bought on Amazon.

Copyright © Rohini Chowdhury, 2017.

“The Communist Manifesto” and its publishing history

While browsing through the fine collection of titles of Penguin Little Black Classics I was interested to note that title 20 was The Communist Manifesto ( 1948). Of the entire collection which is a magnificent sweep of literature through the ages and different nations it is curious to see the manifesto included. It was probably included for its impact globally as it is amongst the most widely read and disseminated texts worldwide even a 170 years after it was first published. In fact Leftword Books published a collection of essays on the manifesto called A World To Win  (1999). One of the essays is on the publishing history of the manifesto in India ( available at this link  for free download with the publisher’s permission). It is a fascinating account of how the manifesto was first published in British India. The first Indian translator of the Manifesto had an interesting career. Soumyendranath was the grand nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. It is fitting that the Manifesto got published first in Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, and Tamil, as it is in the centres where these languages predominate that the Communist movement first struck roots. The early Communist groups were based in Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore and Madras. Later it was translated into Malayalam, Gujarati, Oriya, Hindi and Punjabi. In the fifties and later, the Manifesto was published regularly in different Indian languages by Progress Publishers, Moscow.

 

No wonder Penguin Random House included The Communist Manifesto in its Little Black Classics series.

27 February 2017