Pyre Posts

On “Dying” and “In Gratitude”

jenni-diski51hmou4betl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is what I am after. 

Jenni Diski In Gratitude 

Two women writers, Jenni Diski and Cory Taylor, are diagnosed with cancer and its inoperable. Trying to come to terms with the doctor’s grim prognosis is not easy. Suddenly time takes on a different meaning. Jenni Diski began a column for the London Review of Books once her cancer was diagnosed. It was a series a essays that were published reflecting on her life, her birth family, her writing, her school and most significantly her complicated relationship with the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who took fifteen-year-old Jennifer Simmonds under her wing. The Australian writer Cory Taylor too spends a while in her memoir, Dying, remembering her mother and the choices she made. In both the memoirs what comes across clearly is that the two dying writers are reflecting upon their past but are also hugely influenced by and acknowledge the presence of the women who made the writers what they are. Jenni Diski had always nursed a desire to be a writer but had not been very focused about it till she met Doris Lessing and was introduced to her world of writers and other creative minds who always made interesting conversation and had ideas to offer. Cory Taylor discovered that her mother had had a dream to be a writer but never achieved it. She writes in Dying : “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. …I’m never happier than when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or watching the world as a writer, and it has been this way from the start.” Three Australian writers including Benjamin Law wrote a beautiful obituary for Cory Taylor in the Guardian terming Dying as a “remarkable gift” for providing a vocabulary and invitation to speak about that “unmentionable thing”, a “monstrous silence” — death. ( 6 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2dPq0Mx ) These sentiments on writing and the gift of the memoir can probably be extended to Jenni Diski and In Gratitude too.

Apart from Jenni Diski’s and Cory Taylor’s preoccupation with writing and their evolution as writers what comes 41vdphgesjlthrough strongly in both memoirs is the tussle between secular and religious modes of coping with death and its rituals. Also how ill-prepared a secular upbringing makes an individual in understanding burial rites or managing one’s grief once a loved one departs. How does one mourn? The structures of religious rituals seem to take care of the moments of sorrow. There is much to do. Yet the challenge of speaking of death and the process of dying is not easy. Cory Taylor had even contemplated euthanasia and ultimately passed away in hospice care.

In Gratitude and Dying: A memoir put the spotlight on the magnificent leaps medicine and technology have made, in many cases it has prolonged life but with it is the baggage of ethics — whether it is possible to go through the agony of pain while dying a slow death or to end it all swiftly by assisted suicide or euthanasia. These are critical issues not necessarily the focus areas of both books although Cory Taylor confesses in having contemplated euthanasia. While reading the memoirs innumerable questions inevitably arise in a reader’s mind.

Some of the literature  published recently has been seminal in contributing to the growing awareness and need to discuss death increasingly in modern times when advancement in medical technology seems to prolong human suffering. Also in an increasingly polarised world between the secular and religious domains bring to the fore the disturbed confusion that reigns in every individual on how to deal with the dying, the finality of death, disposal of the mortal remains and the despair it leaves the distraught survivors in. Some links are:

  1. “Daughters of Australian scientists who took their own lives reflect on their parents’ plan” http://bit.ly/2dDfvc8 ( Jan 2016)
  2. Amitava Kumar’s essay “Pyre” published in Granta ( https://granta.com/pyre/ ) and recently republished in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
  3. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal ( 2015)
  4. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air ( 2016)
  5. Aleksander Hemon’s moving essay on his infant daughter’s brain cancer ( “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness” JUNE 13 & 20, 2011 ISSUE http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium )
  6. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture  ( 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo )
  7. Andrew Solomon’s essay on his mother’s decision to opt for euthanasia ( “A  Death of One’s Own” 22 May 1995 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/22/a-death-of-ones-own )

In Gratitude and Dying are strangely comforting while being thought provoking in raising uncomfortable questions about mortality, importance of time, maintenance of familial ties and doing that which pleases or gives the individual peace. Both the memoirs have a confident writing style as if by capturing memories in words the writers are involved a therapeutic process of facing their mortality while the urgency to their writing has an unmistakable strength to its tenor as if no one will have the time to dispute their published words.

Read these books.

Jenni Diski In Gratitude Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 250 £12.99 

Cory Taylor Dying: A Memoir Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. £12.99 

24 Oct 2016 

 

 

Freedom of Expression: Perumal Murugan, 5 July 2016

13606815_10154242058030279_2274827106389531026_nOn 5 July 2016 a landmark judgment was passed by the Madras High Court quashing the criminal case against Tamil writer Perumal Muruganor for allegedly offending religious sentiments with his writings on caste. According to Scroll (http://bit.ly/29hWGdC) :

The author, who is known for his sharp commentary on caste, was 13592615_1294572783886991_324027490996198510_nfacing an onslaught from religious and caste groups who said he had hurt their sentiments.

The Madras High Court on Tuesday quashed a criminal case against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. …They also dismissed a plea moved by residents of his native town, Thiruchengode, to initiate criminal 13612276_1294572820553654_2532322020494602524_nproceedings against him.

The case was filed shortly after Murugan published Mathorubagan, a story about a childless couple in rural Tamil Nadu being pushed by their families to fall back on an ancient chariot festival in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara. Here, on the night of the festival, the union between any man and woman is permitted.

The book, which was translated into English as One Part Woman, published by Penguin India.
In response, the local administration organised a peace meet presided over by a district revenue official, where he had to agree to withdraw all copies of his book. However, on Tuesday, the Bench of Chief Justice SK Kaul and Justice Puspha Sathyanarayana held that the settlement arrived at during the peace-keeping meet would not be binding on the author.

Shortly after this meeting with the district authorities, Murugan announced on Facebook would stop writing. “Author Perumal Murugan is dead. He is no God. Hence, he will not resurrect. Hereafter, only P Murugan, a teacher, will live,” he had posted.

His books were then quietly removed from bookshops. Only the English translations of two of his more recent books – Pyre (published in Tamil as Pookkuzhi in 2013) and One Part Woman – are available. Two older books, Current Show and Seasons Of The Palm, are out of print and almost impossible to find. His Tamil books are entirely unavailable.

13590270_1294572853886984_5463788870472689861_nAn excerpt from the Madras high court judgement on Perumal Murugan :

The author Prof. Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvass of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution, even if there were others who may differ with the material and style of his expression. The answer cannot be that it was his own decision to call himself dead as a writer. It was not a free decision, but a result of a situation which was created. …..”

“Let the author be resurrected for what he is best at, to write”.

Here is the complete judgment:

http://www.thehindu.com/multimedia/archive/02921/Perumal_Murugan_ca_2921087a.pdf13600254_1294572803886989_5785590099380635754_n

English translation of the new statement issued by Perumal Murugan, posted on Facebook by Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu Publications ( 6 July 2016). This statement has been translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan and the poem by Perundevi Srinivasan:

The judgment gives me much happiness. It comforts a heart that was in a fuming withdrawal. I am trying to prop myself up holding on to the light of the last lines of the judgment: “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.” I will get up. It is just that my mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment. My thanks to friends who stood by me. My thanks also to friends who stood against me.
The Flower
A flower blooms
after the big bang
Sharp fragrance
Sweet countenance
Shining Splendor
The flower would
take up and establish
everything.

6 July 2016

Perumal Murugan “Pyre”

“…if we start this festival here with this impurity in our midst, we might incur the wrath of Goddess Mariyatha.”

Kumaresan, who had stayed quiet until then, suddenly lost his patience. ‘ I have married her,’ he snapped, barely concealing his irritation in his voice. ‘What is it that you want me to do now?’

‘Look here, Mapillai. Until we know which caste the girl is from, we are going to excommunicate your family. We won’t take donations for the temple from you, and you will not be welcome at the temple during the festival.’

( p. 132- 34)

Award-winning writer Perumal Murugan shot to fame with his novel, One Part Woman, translated from Tamil into English. Unfortunately it was the sort of fame he could have done without since he was unnecessarily persecuted by lumpen elements that took offence at his novel. He was forced to publicly announce that he would no longer be writing. Yet there was one more novel – Pyre. A slim one revisiting his pet themes — male protagonists, social structures, caste, rituals and ordinary and believable people. Pyre is about Kumaresan who leaves his village in search of work where he falls in love and elopes to marry his beautiful neighbour. Alas this marriage is not welcomed in his village instead they are ostracised. Curiously enough Perumal Murugan never mentions the castes explicitly. There are enough indications in the book that the bride, Saroja, is a Dalit or the caste formerly referred to as “untouchables”. A sad practice that continues to be prevalent in India.

Pyre or Pookkuzhi was first published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu Publications. On my behalf Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu asked Perumal Murugan if in the original text he had ever mentioned the castes. He confirmed he had never done it. The English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan by a brief introduction that dwells upon the novel being about caste and the resilient force it is, the unusual reliance of Perumal Murugan on direct speech, the difficulties of translating Tamil dialects used extensively in the story such as Kongu and  Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s own habit as a translator to first draft a “very idiomatic translation”. But once again there are no references to this being a story involving a Dalit girl. So I posed a few questions to the translator.

  1. How true is the English translation of Pyre to the original Tamil? The English translation of ‘Pookkuzhi’ is very true to the original — nothing has been changed or consciously re-interpreted.
  2. How did you work on the translation? Only with the text or did you keep asking Perumal Murugan for assistance? I worked on the translation over several months. It took a lot of time mainly because my graduate school work grew more demanding. I did a first draft, in which I tried to keep the translation as close to the Tamil syntax as possible. So, necessarily, that would read quite a bit awkward in English. Perumal Murugan was, at the time of translating Pookkuzhi, caught in the middle of the tyranny whipped up around Madhorubagan. So I wanted to give him his space and approached Thoedore Bhaskaran for help with questions about Kongu Tamil. He was most kind. But at the later stage, I was able to consult Perumal Murugan.
  3. Did the author “tweak” the text for the English translation? In the Tamil edition does Murugan mention any of the castes? The English translation does not mention any but it is obvious that the caste angle is the basis of the anger in the story. PM didn’t tweak the text for English translation. ‘Pookkuzhi,’ in the Tamil original, does not have explicit caste names or place names. There are some recognizable markers and cues, but it does not take names. The caste angle gets foregrounded without explicitly naming castes. Through conversations, through references to people’s faith in caste hierarchy and practices, the novel manages to put caste and the difficulties of inter-caste marriage at the center.
  4. Is the “Tholur” mentioned in the novel in Kerala or Tamil Nadu? ‘Tholur’ mentioned in Pyre is, according to the plot of the novel, in Tamil Nadu. I don’t think it is an actual place, but a middle-sized town Perumal Murugan creates as a setting for Saroja and Kumaresan’s meeting and romance.
  5. Is Saroja a Dalit? Again, it is never explicitly mentioned, but the story itself and how she is perceived and treated point us in that direction.
  6. Why did you not include a more detailed introduction to the translation? I didn’t include a more detailed introduction, because I think there is an immediacy and accessibility to the narrative, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of it. I didn’t want to assume that the readers needed such a mediation besides the translation itself, which is, in itself, an act of mediation. I do hope I will soon be able to write about the process of translation itself and how it works for me. So far, despite the labour and the time involved, translating has been sort of a zen place for me.

Pyre is a novel that is not easy to provide a gist of except to say it is one of those books that will forever haunt one especially the dramatically chilling end. It is seminal reading. It is stories that like this that bring out the rich diversity of Indian literature.

Perumal Murugan Pyre ( Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan ) Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 399.

6 June 2016

 

Dalit Literature in English

Justice for JishaOn 29 April 2016, Jisha, a dalit student of Government Law College, Ernakulam, Kerala, was raped and murdered. Jisha was found at her home which stands on Purambokku Bhumi (PDW land) in Iringol Rayamangalam Kanalbund, in Perumbavur district in Kerala. As per the post-mortem and primary police investigation, 30 stab wounds were found on the law student’s body. Investigation has shown that the wounds were made by a sharp object which which the rapists brutalised her face, chin, neck and also her stomach. Her body was found with her entrails exposed as the assailants had cut open her stomach. It is a fatal injury to the back of her head that caused the death, post-mortem report reveals. Jisha’s body was discovered by her mother, Rajeswari when she returned from her work as a house-help at 8.30 pm on April 28. Jisha has been a regular student at the Government law college and was preparing for examination when she was murdered. (The hashtag #JusticeForJisha has been created but it has not begun to trend so far on Twitter.)

This is horrific news. The horror of the rape. The horror of sexual violence. The horror of violence. What is far worse is the visceral hatred directed towards Dalits — a section of society that continue to be ostracised by caste-conscious Indians. Many consider it to be a politically incorrect term but there is no denying that the practise of untouchability exists. Humiliation on a daily basis against dalits is not unheard of. It could be physical, social, economic, mental, health/nourishment or denying access to resources. The myriad ways in which it is perpetrated on dalits defeats imagination. Consider a small example. The recent banning of beef in India also deprives Dalits of their primary source of protein. Beef is cheap and easily available. The dalits belong to a section of society that cuts across religions. What is astounding is that the quantum ( and relentlessness) of violence against this community is impossible for any sane individual to comprehend and yet it is practised daily.

“Fortunately” now texts exist by and about Dalits. An introduction to Thunderstorm by Ratan Kumar ThunderstormSambharia ( Hachette India, 2016) explains it was the concatenation of events — printing technology + freedom struggle for Indian Independence from the colonial rulers which played a vital role in the social awakening of communities. This made a significant contribution to the creation of a specific literary genre that eventually came to be identified as Dalit Literature. As a result over the years a decent body of work has been made available in the form of songs, poetry, fiction ( short stories and novels), memoirs Hatred in the Bellyand biographies. Some publishing houses in India have been actively publishing this literature and commentaries of it– Macmillan India (in the 1990s with Bama’s memoir Karukku), Orient Longman/ OBS, OUP India, Zubaan, Navayana, Adivaani, Speaking Tiger and Penguin Random House. And then there are the incredible successes of self-published books such as Hatred in the Belly ( http://amzn.to/1Y7zhy7 ). It sold out within few days of it being made available online. Even the recently released novel Pyre by Perumal Murugan ( translated Pyreby Aniruddhan Vasudevan) carefully sidesteps naming castes but there are enough cultural indicators embedded in the story to make it apparent that Saroja, the bride, is a Dalit and hence the hostile reception she receives in her husband’s village. Noted Kannada writer and editor of the short-lived literary magazine Desh Kala, Vivek Shanbhag, told me at the Oxford Apeejay Languages Festival ( 23 April 2016) that in Karnataka the second-generation of Dalit writers are evident now. This literature represents part of the diversity Indian publishing has to offer.

Recently a bunch of dalit literature texts have been creating quite an impact on contemporary Indian Literature. To give a bird’s-eye view of this specific literary landscape, some random examples:

  1. ZubaanThe Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing ( edited by K. Purushotham, Gita Ramaswamy, and Gogu Shyamala), OUP India
  2. The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing ( edited by Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan), OUP India
  3. The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing ( edited by M. Dasan, V. Pratibha, Pradeepan Pampirikunnu and C.S. Chandrika), OUP IndiaJerry Pinto
  4. Ratan Kumar Sambharia Thunderstorm: Dalit Stories ( translated by Mridul Bhasin), Hachette India
  5. Daya Pawar Baluta ( translated by Jerry Pinto and winner of 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize), Speaking Tiger
  6. Nirupama Dutt The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage, Speaking Tiger
  7. Perumal Murugan Pyre ( translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan), Penguin Random House India
  8. Sharmila Rege Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Woman’s Testimonios, Zubaan

Telugu DalitTamil Dalit LiteratureMalayalam Dalit LiteratureQissaIn this context it is worth reading what the well-known second-generation Dalit politician, Mrs. Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha Speaker, Parliament of India, had to say about Dalit Literature.

Great literature, the classics, is time-tested, invariably painted on large canvases and are stories that have shaped generations. And then there are books like Amritlal Nagar’s Nachyo Bahut Gopal, which are revolutionary and made a significant impact on me. I object to the classification of literature like this as Dalit Literature. It is the sort of label designed to keep a book in its so-called place. By assigning labels to writing as anarchists, we try to push them further out into the fringe.  ( In Tehelka, 2012.  http://www.tehelka.com/2012/12/i-am-drawn-to-strong-women-characters-jane-austen-made-a-huge-impact-on-me/ )

Dalit Literature Festival

The first edition of Dalit Literature Festival will be held on 6-7 December, 2016 in New Delhi. ( http://dalitliteraturefestival.com/ ).

Sadly with all these active dialogues, the growing awareness, cultural extravaganzas, the hostility towards Dalits continues to be deeply embedded in society and violent attacks such as on Jisha are a dark reality. What is far worse is the deafening silence against many of these acts that are unrecorded.

4 May 2016