Quran Posts

In conversation with Tahar Ben Jelloun

On 30 June 2020, I was in conversation with the eminent and award-winning Franco-Moroccon author, Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was to celebrate the launch of Tamil translation of Le mariage de plaisir. The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Amutharasan Paulraj. Dr Christine Cornet, French Book Office, was the moderator. The digital book launch was organised by Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India.

This was a unique experience. I had the privilege of participating in a book launch which involved three languages — English, French and Tamil. Tahar Ben Jelloun comes across as a gentleman who is a deep thinker and an “activist” with words. Reading him is a transformative experience. Something shifts within one internally. It was memorable!

To prepare for the launch, Dr Cornet and I exchanged a few emails with the author. Tahar Ben Jelloun is fluent in French but has a tenuous hold over English. Hence he prefers to communicate in French. Whereas I am only fluent in English. Dr Cornet is profficient is bilingual. All of us were determined to have a smooth digital book launch with minimal disruptions as far as possible. Tough call! So we decided that I would send across a few questions to the author to answer. Given that the Covid19 lockdown was on, it was impossible to get the English translations of the author’s books. Fortunately, I found ebooks that coudl be read on the Kindle. Thank heavens for digital formats! I read the novel and then drafted my questions in English. These were then translated into French by the French Institute of India. This document was forwarded via email to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. He spent a few days working on the replies. Once the answers were received, these were translated into English for my benefit. It was eventually decided that given the timeframe, perhaps it would be best if we focused on only five questions for the book launch. So we went “prepared” for the launch but only to a certain degree. While we were recording the programme, something magical occurred and we discussed more than the selected five questions. In fact, at a point, Tahar Ben Jelloun very graciously opted to reply in English. We discovered not only our mutual love for Mozart and Jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane etc but that we play their music in the background while immersed deeply in our creative pursuits — painting and writing. Coincidentally the conversation was recorded on Ella Fitzgerald’s death anniversary, 17 June. How perfect is that?!

Born 1944 in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include About My Mother (Telegram), The Happy MarriageThis Blinding Absence of LightThe Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter. He won the Goncourt Prize in 1987 for La Nuit sacrée. His most recent works published by Éditions Gallimard include Le Mariage de plaisir (2016) and La Punition (2018).

Q1. Why and when did you decide to become a writer? Did the internment at the age of 18 years old have anything to do with your decision? 

When I was a child, I didn’t dream of being a writer, but a filmmaker. At the same time, I wrote short stories, I illustrated them with drawings.

When I was sent to an army disciplinary camp in July 1966, I never thought I would get out. Everything was done to mistreat us and it gave us no hope of liberation. So, I clandestinely started writing poems with lots of metaphors so I wouldn’t be punished in case they were found. Nineteen months later, in January 1968, I was released and I had little papers in my pocket on which I had written poems. It was the poet Abdelatif Laabi who published them in the magazine Souffles that he had just created with some friends. He himself was thrown in jail a few years later, where stayed for 8 years!

This was my debut as a writer.

Q2. You learned classical Arabic while learning the Quran by heart and yet you choose to write books in French. Why?

Yes, I learned the Quran without understanding it. But my father changed my birth date so that I could join my older brother at the bilingual Franco-Moroccan school. That’s where I learned the French language and I started reading a lot of the classics and also a few novels of the time like The Stranger by Camus, The Words by Sartre or Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. But I preferred poetry above all else.

Q3. Your books have been translated into multiple languages. At last count it was 43. Now Tamil too. Is your writing sensibility affected knowing that readers across cultures will be reading your books? Or it does not matter? 

For a writer, being translated consolidates his legitimacy as a writer, he is recognized, it helps him to continue; to be more demanding with himself. It’s a source of pride, but you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to work, you have to pursue your writing with rigor. For me, each translated book is a victory against the current trend of young people reading less literature. It is true that they are solicited by easier and more attractive things.

Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture. I am happy today to be read in Tamil, just as I was happy to be read by blind people thanks to an edition in Braille, just as I was happy and surprised to be translated into Esperanto, that language which is meant to be universal, but which remains limited to some 2000 readers.

Q4. Your preoccupation with the status of women is a recurring theme in your literature. Why? The two points of view presented by Foulane and Amina about their marriage is extraordinary. At one level it is the depiction of a marriage but it is incredible art, almost like a dance in slow motion.  Did you write The Happy Marriage in reaction to the Moudawana law passed in Morocco? If so, what was the reaction to the novel in Morocco? 

For me, as an observant child, everything started from the condition of the women in my family, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, etc., and then went on to the condition of the women in my family. I could not understand why the law ignored them, why one of my uncles had two wives officially and why both women accepted this situation. From childhood, I was interested in the status of women. Later, I had to fight for my mother to be treated better by my father, who didn’t see any harm in her staying at home to cook and clean. Then I discovered that it is all women in the Arab and Muslim world who live in unacceptable conditions. Wrestling has become essential for me. My first novel Harrouda is inspired by my mother and then by an old woman, a prostitute who came to beg in our neighborhood. It is a novel that denounced this condition of women not in a political and militant way, but with literature, with writing. The novel then became stronger than a social science essay. This struggle is not over. Things have changed in Morocco today; the Moudawana, that is to say the family code has changed, it has given some rights to women, but that is not enough. This change is due to the will of King Mohammed VI, a modern and progressive man.

In Morocco, people don’t read much. I never know how my books are received. In general, I tour high schools and universities and try to encourage young people to read. Let’s say my books are circulating, but illiteracy is a tragedy in Morocco where more than 35% of people cannot read and write, especially people from the countryside.

Q5. Have you tried to replicate the structure of Mozart’s Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 16 in D major, K 451? I read somewhere that you liked the composition very much. I felt that there were many similarities in your form for The Happy Marriage and K451. Something about the predictable opening of the story/concerto which develops smoothly, almost intoxicating, and then the last movement, a complete surprise, a triumph. Was this intentional? ( Aside: Here is a recording that you may have already heard. I play it often while working.   Barenboim & Argerich : Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448)

This similarity comes as a surprise to me. I love Mozart’s music, which I listen to a lot. But I never associated his music to this novel. I’m also a big jazz fan. I listen to jazz when I paint, but I need silence when I write. In any case, thank you for pointing out this link, which makes me proud.

Q6. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool to communicate with readers about commenting upon society and suggesting reform rather than a straightforward narrative non-fiction? 

Yes, fiction has a more effective power for information or statistics. During the confinement here in Paris, it was Albert Camus’ The Plague that was most commissioned and read. TV was overwhelming us with often contradictory information. A novel allows the reader to identify with the main character. Literature and especially poetry will save the world. In the long term, especially in these times when cruel, stupid and inhuman leaders rule in many countries. Against their violence, against their vulgarity, we oppose poetry, music, art in general.

Q7. Do you think the function of an artist is to be provocative? 

An artist is not a petit bourgeois in his slippers. An artist is an agitator, an impediment to letting mediocrity and vulgarity spread. Some people make a system out of provocation, I am for provocation that awakens consciences, but not all the time in provocation. It is necessary to go beyond and to create, to give to see and to love. You don’t need to be sorted, but you don’t need to be provocative either. Beauty is a formidable weapon. Look at a painting by Turner or Picasso, Goya or Rembrandt, there is such strength, such beauty, that the man who looks at it comes out of it changed by so much emotion. Look at Giacometti’s sculptures, they’re enough on their own, no need for a sociological discourse on human distress, on stripping.

Q8. As a writer who has won many prestigious awards, what is it that you seek in promising young writers while judging their oeuvre for The Prix Goncourt?   

When I read the novels submitted for the Prix Goncourt, I look for a writing style above all, a style, a universe, an originality. That’s very rare. It’s always hard to find a great writer. You look, you read, and sometimes you get a surprise, an astonishment. And there, you get joy.

Q9. You are a remarkable educator wherein you are able to address children and adolescents about racism and terrorism: India is a young country, today what subject animates you and what message would you like to convey to Indian youth?

The subjects that motivate me revolve around the human condition, around the abandoned, around injustice. There is no literature that is kind, gentle and without drama; Happiness has no use for literature, but as Jean Genet said “behind every work there is a drama”. Literature disturbs, challenges certaines, clichés, prejudices. It makes a mess of a petty, hopeless order.  

To Indian youth, I say, don’t be seduced by appearance, by the fascination of social networks, by addiction to objects that reduce your will power and endanger your intelligence. We must use these means but not become slaves to them. To do this, read, read, read and read.

Q10. You are one of the most translated contemporary French-language authors in the world. In India, French is the second most taught foreign language, what is the future for the Francophonie?

France has long since abandoned the struggle for the Francophonie. The Presidents of the republic talk about it, at the same time they lower subsidies of the French institutes in the world. Today, French is defended by “foreigners”, by Africans, by Arabs, by lovers of this language all over the world. France does little or nothing to keep its language alive and lets English take more and more space.

Q11. What next? 

What more can I say? Poetry will save the world. Beauty will save the world. Audacity, creation, art in all its forms will give back to humanity its soul and its strength.

Here is the video recording of the session:

Digital Launch of Tamil Translation of Le mariage de plaisir by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India present the launch of Tamil Translation of Le mariage de plaisir by Tahar Ben Jelloun, award winning Franco-Moroccan author.The author will be in conversation with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amutharasan Paulraj, S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and Dr. Christine Cornet.TAHAR Benjelloun-officiel Jaya Bhattacharji Rose @amutharasan.paulraj @christine.cornet.96 #DigitalPremiere #OxfordBookstore

Posted by Oxford Bookstores on Tuesday, 30 June 2020

4 July 2020

“Suragi” by U. R. Ananthamurthy

The  distinguished Kannada writer and public intellectual U. R. Ananthamurthy ( 1932-2014) dictated his “memoir”, rather memories to Ja Na Tejashri, Kannada poet and professor, in the last few months of his life. He was extremely ill and was being dialysed regularly. The notes were structured in U. R. Ananthamurthy’s lifetime under his guidance. Initially his preference had been for a conversational and informal approach. When he saw the first few trasnscribed pages, he found the style difficult to read and called for a more formal approach. Eventually, Tejashri helped him find a balance he was comfortable with: she recorded him, scribbled notes, touched up her trasnscriptions, and rearranged the episodes in chronological order. Ananthamurthy was keen to see this work translated in English. It only happened a year and a half after he passed away when at the behest of his son-in-law and novelist Vivek Shanbhag who requested S. R. Ramakrishna to translate the 450-page book Suragi. Shanbhag was merely reiterating the request Ananthamurthy had asked of Ramakrishna. 

U. R. Ananthamurthy was honoured with the Jnanpith Award in 1994 adn Padma Bhushan in 1998, and was one of the finalists of the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. 

Suragi has now been published by Oxford University Press India. The memoir is so named after the flower Ananthamurthy loved which gives out more fragrance as it fades. This is an incredible book recounting his life as a writer and a public intellectual through India and England. It is an exceptionally absorbing read given how he acutely witnesses, observes and reflects often upon the role of a writer, particularly that of an Indian writer, in society. There are many parts of this book that are worth reflecting upon given their relevance even today. The section on “the Indian writer’s dilemmas” is particularly powerful. For instance while commenting upon the role of writers during the Emergency his statements assume wider ramifications, echoing into modern India, decades later:

India’s biggest problem is hypocrisy. Intellectual hypocirsy has taken root deeper than we imagine. …A mind that hesitates to what must be said becomes corrupt. …The spirit of the times is such that we have compromised with everything. Nothing troubles us. We feel no psychological torment. …We are not troubled as we should be. The reason is that our spirit is feeble. There is no connection between our convictions, our actions, and our truths. …That is why speech is devalued.

Ananthamurthy’s confidently outspoken voice is to be treasured and is deeply missed. Take for instance the following extract “Moment Transcending Time and Space” which is being reproduced here with the explicit permission of the publishers, Oxford University Press India. 

Moment Transcending Time and Space

On the rare occasions we go beyond time and space, we see truths not just from the past but also those relevant to the present. I experienced this one night in Nepal. In 1996, some Indian writers spent three days with writers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. A Himalayan range loomed behind the resort where we were staying. The snow-clad mountains could be seen from the lounge and also from our rooms. It was an informal meeting, with no agenda, where the idea was to sit and chat and share our thoughts and feelings. This was after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The anxiety of whether our nations could rise above communal hatred had brought us all together.
Siddhartha, a friend from Bengaluru, had organized this conclave. He has set up an ashram called Firefl ies in Bengaluru. Born a Christian, Siddhartha was drawn to Buddhism. He blends thought with action. Another writer at the conclave was my dear departed friend D.R. Nagaraj (1954–1998). He was drawn to two extremes—the Buddhist vision of emptiness that rejects even the idea of the soul, and the Nietzschean assertion of the intellect against the Christian concept of sin.

I will only name one participant who had come from elsewhere: Urdu writer Intizar Hussain (1923–2016). Each writer spoke openly about the truths of their experience, without trying to justify themselves. They spoke of things they couldn’t speak about in their countries. Women writers had come from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and I feel I should only convey what they expressed, keeping them anonymous.

Among the writers from Bangladesh was a Hindu. We gathered he was a big poet there. He was fidgeting with a palmtop he had bought in the Nepal black market. It was a device on which one could take notes. He was trying to fi gure out how it worked, and muttering in frustration when he couldn’t. He said the moment the Babri Masjid was demolished, several Kali temples in Dhaka had been brought down. ‘Why don’t any of you speak about it? I am no Kali devotee but I don’t like the hypocrisy of your secular position.’ No one argued with him. The other Bangla writers said he was speaking from the heart. Everyone was keen to break the vicious cycle of blaming the other to justify one’s own actions. Having said his bit, the Hindu writer from Bangladesh shared in our anxieties.

It has become a politically correct ritual for us to talk about Muslim violence when we want to condemn Hindu violence, and Hindu violence when we want to condemn Muslim violence. We respond with cleverness when we lose the ability to see the victims as humans like us. The objective of this meeting, with both Hindus and Muslims, was to rid ourselves of such self-justification. I share a conversation that suggests we were successful.

We were lounging around comfortably, resting on mats and lolling on cushions. A middle-aged woman writer from Bangladesh began her tale softly, with her friendly, smiling eyes closed. She was the only woman writer wearing a sari. Her luxuriant, uncombed hair cascaded on her breasts. Perhaps she was secure in the confi dence that all of us were looking at her with compassion.

When she began, she addressed everyone. As she progressed, she seemed to be directing her words to the male writers from Pakistan. Towards the end, her voice became tremulous. She was an ordinary woman speaking about the war Pakistan had fought with her country, then called East Pakistan. Her husband had been a professor at Dhaka University. He had campaigned for Bengali as a second official language. One day he routinely left for the university and didn’t return. The evening turned to night. A day passed, then two. Their two children didn’t go to school. They
stayed at home, awaiting his return. They couldn’t venture out— Pakistani soldiers were everywhere, brandishing their guns.

After two days she went to the university with other women looking for their husbands. What did they fi nd? A heap of corpses. They had to sift through the heap to fi nd their respective husbands. The writer must have told this story several times. But it was perhaps for the fi rst time she was telling it in the presence of writers from Pakistan, whose soldiers had killed her husband. I was sitting beside Intizar Hussain’s. Like his friend Bhutto, he had stood by Jinnah, believing a separate country was necessary to practise and promote Islam without let or hindrance. He had
migrated from his native place to become a Pakistani. He was a big writer in Urdu, and earned a living from writing for the Dawn. The Bangladeshi writer said, ‘Tell me, where is Islam in all this? What is the use of what the Quran says? My husband was a Muslim too but they killed him in the name of Islam. Can you imagine what I went through as I searched for him among hundreds of corpses?’

The sharp-nosed Intizar Hussain had placed his hands on his lap, in a meditative pose, and was listening to her. When the Bangladeshi writer concluded, a young woman writer from Pakistan began to sob uncontrollably. Intizar Hussain slowly raised his head. His eyes were moist, and tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘On behalf of my country I apologize to you,’ he said in English. ‘What can I say but that we are all unwittingly implicated in the murder of your husband?’ He looked at the other Pakistani writers for approval. The three women writers bowed their heads,
endorsing his words with tears.

This is an incident I will never forget. The human is dwarfed by the idea of the nation state. He loses his sense of right and wrong, and becomes a nationalist. In the Second World War, such nationalism made monsters of the Japanese and the Germans. Even ordinary folks turn blind. The atom bomb dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed everything. Communist nations can justify their crimes using the words of Marx. Muslim nations can justify their crimes using the Prophet. It is equally true that Christian nations can use the Bible to justify
their actions. Those hiding behind nationalism wreak a lot of damage before we wake up and criticize them.

To escape the mass hysteria of nationalism, we must always fearlessly keep extending a hand of friendship to other humane thinkers. I recall an incident. When we met in Berlin, I mooted with Intizar Hussain the idea of our Sahitya Akademi publishing an anthology of Pakistani literature to mark the fi ftieth anniversary of our two countries attaining Independence. Like India, Pakistan has a diversity of languages: Punjabi, Sindhi, and others. I wrote to
Intizar Hussain asking if he could edit an anthology of stories from all such languages in Urdu translation.

At the Sahitya Akademi’s executive committee meeting, some friends expressed their reservations. How could we publish a story that might speak against India? I said, ‘Intizar is a sensitive writer. He will never choose anything that promotes hatred. Leave it to me. I will take the risk.’ As the book was being finalized for publication, we faced another problem. How do we pay the writers? The two nations had no agreement to make payments possible. I
explained this to Intizar, who then spoke to the contributors to the anthology. We got letters from them, with some saying they were honoured the Sahitya Akademi, which gets grants from the Indian government, was publishing them. Just send us some copies. We don’t expect any money. Our country didn’t have the vision that Nehru did. We don’t have an independent academy, they wrote. When I met Intizar at a SAARC literary conference in Delhi, he said, ‘We have no other book in Urdu with writing from other Pakistani languages. The anthology you published is now a
textbook in our colleges.’

U. R. Anathamurthy Suragi ( Transcribed and compiled by Ja Na Tejashri. Translated from Kannada by S. R. Ramakrishna ) Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2018. Pb, pp.380 Rs.650

16 February 2018 

 

Indian Author Anita Nair on her New Book for Children on Stories from the Qur’an and her Role as an Independent Publisher

( My interview with Anita Nair on her new book, Muezaa and Baby Jaan , and launch of a new independent publishing press, Attic Books, was published in Bookwitty.) 

Award-winning and bestselling Indian author Anita Nair is the editorial director of the recently launched Attic Books, an independent publishing firm focused on making world literature available in English in South Asia. This new responsibility has coincided with the publication of her new book, Muezza and Baby Jaan— a beautifully illustrated (by Harshad Marathe) book for children that retells stories from the Qur’an. The succession of events that birthed this book were Anita’s research for Idris which required familiarising herself with the stories but more importantly it was the equation of terrorism with Islam, which troubled her, and she felt needed addressing. As she says passionately in her preface:

“Acts of terrorism perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists had already made many non-Muslims wary of the religion. And I thought this was grossly unfair to Islam and what it taught. I had been brought up as a secular individual and felt a calling to clear this misinterpretation in my own way.

No religion preaches hate or violence. No religion condones killing or the taking of human life. However, flawed interpretations do lend a religion a misguided twist that it does not claim in the first place. Those with vested interests manipulate aspects of a religion to justify heinous crimes and the massacre of innocents. And so it had happened with Islam.”

Anita Nair kindly answered questions about her new book and her new job:

Indian Author Anita Nair on her New Book for Children on Stories from the Qur'an and her Role as an Independent Publisher - Image 2

You are a rare kind of writer who has the ability to write books for children and adults. Given the current milieu why retell stories from the Qur’an in Muezza and Baby Jaan for children and not adults?

Three specific reasons why I chose to re-tell stories from the Qur’an for children and not adults are:

I am not an expert of Islam and my understanding of the scripture is at a basic level. I read the scripture for what is it and didn’t want to read sub texts hence, it occurred to me that the Qur’an as I understood it, would be more apt for a child’s reading rather than an adult seeking spiritual guidance.

Any religion is best understood when explained in the form of stories. Children are more receptive to stories rather than adults who seek complexities, twists and justifications.

If inclusiveness and tolerance need to be part of our psyche it needs to begin from childhood and I thought it important that our children learn about Islam through the stories from the Qur’an so as to accept it as another scripture that like all scriptures advocate only peace and love.

If inclusiveness and tolerance need to be part of our psyche it needs to begin from childhood…

Is there any reason why you selected these particular stories to retell?

During the course of my research I discovered the stories of the ten blessed animals and wanted to build my stories around these animals for they brought in accounts about various Prophets. Some are familiar names from the Old Testament, which furthered my cause that all religions are the same to a great extent, and also it helped me follow a certain chronology in the telling.

Today communal intolerance particularly towards Islam is on the upswing globally. Do you think by this pushback of sensitizing children to Islamic stories will help to create a secular future?

I certainly do believe sensitizing children to Islamic stories will help in creating a secular world, where a person is judged by what they do and not what religion they follow.

Why did you opt to anthropomorphize the cat and the camel to share the Qur’an stories rather than merely retell them yourself?

Apart from wanting to open up the Qur’an for general reading I wanted to bring alive Islamic lore and it seemed to me the best way to do so was by anthropomorphizing the two protagonists of the book namely Muezza the cat and Baby Jaan the camel. When they voice our thoughts, be it on friendship, prejudice, peace or trust, the characters strike a chord in our hearts and we immediately start relating to the stories on a very personal level

As a successful writer yourself you have been published worldwide but why have decided to launch a publishing house: Attic Books? Who else is on the team?

The reason I decided to start a publishing house is because we are all exposed to literary giants and Nobel laureates writing in languages other than English but we are oblivious to all other wonderful writing from around the world. Attic Books was conceived to be a small boutique-publishing house that will focus on a small number of books from spectacular authors that the Indian reader has yet to encounter. I want to bring these authors the readership they deserve.

As of now, we are working with only international fiction. But we hope to expand to international non-fiction as well and one work of translation from an Indian language. The only Indian fiction we will be publishing at this point is the anthology of short fiction drawn from my creative-writing mentorship programme in Bangalore, Anita’s Attic. The plan is to keep to the promise of what an Attic holds: Hidden treasures and surprises so as the curator of the list, I may decide to mix up fairy tales with crime with lit fiction to travel. I do hope we can acquire rights to unpublished works but given that we have no angel investors, commissioning an original translation of international fiction may be an expensive prospect.

Indian Author Anita Nair on her New Book for Children on Stories from the Qur'an and her Role as an Independent Publisher - Image 3

Our 2017 list comprises of Evald Flisar’s literary novel If I Only Had Time (Slovenia), Suchen Christian Lim’s literary romance The River’s Song (Singapore), Andres Neumann’s literary novel Talking to Ourselves (Argentina/Spain), Bei Tong’s LGBTQ novel Beijing Comrades (a translation by Scott Myers) and I. M. Batacan’s crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles (Philippines).

I am in the process of acquiring books for 2018. There are so many good books out there but I don’t want our list to repeat themes and I have to be diligent about the list we are putting together. Attic Books is a partnership between Anita’s Attic (which is a company made of Anita Nair and a digital agency, *ConditionsApply) and Logos – a Malayalam language publisher based in Kerala.

Given the range of genres you publish in, will there be any overlaps with your plans for Attic Books?

No, I am very certain that it will not clash with my own work, which will always be housed as it always has been in publishing houses where I have a sound editor to work with. I value the role of an editor in my writing process and wouldn’t want to lose that objectivity and editorial input.

Does your personal experience of being published by others inform the business of establishing your own publishing firm?

Business-wise the decision to try and turn publisher ranks along with that of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Nevertheless, one cannot help but admire the old knight for trying to keep alive the romanticism of a period even though it may seem delusional to everyone else. However, over the years I have drawn my own insights on what makes publishing exciting and would like to see if they are really true.

How do you find time to balance writing, mentoring and now publishing?

Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that. I guess I just don’t stop. And that what I am doing is exciting makes me put in long hours without thinking of it as a job to be done.

Is there space for another publishing firm in India?

Yes and no. Yes, if one can move away from the traditional confines of publishing. No, if one is seeking to replicate what is already there and available.

Will you focus only on print or also digital? How do you plan to distribute your books?

We will be only be focusing on print. One of our visions for Attic Books is to help people put together a library of their own at home. Books that people will read, keep, and read again and pass on hopefully to their next generation; hence, the stringent process of choosing who we publish.

Distribution will be through select bookstores and online sales. And we have created Attic Club, which is a subscription model where a reader can take an annual subscription at a fabulous price that will bring the books to their homes and will also put them on a list to the exclusive book events we will host.

25 February 2017 

Anita Nair’s preface to “Muezza and Baby Jaan”

( Anita Nair has  just released a beautiful children’s book retelling tales from the Quran called Muezza and Baby Jaan. Her publishers, Penguin Random House India, have kindly granted permission to reproduce the straight-from-the-heart explosive preface on my blog. Do read the book too. It is time well spent.) 

It was 11 a.m. on 21 September 2013. I had just sat down with my pen and notebook. I had been working on my historical novel, Idris, when news came of unidentified gunmen opening fire in one of Nairobi’s upscale malls. It was a Saturday and my first thought was for my friend Jayapriya Vasudevan, her husband, Harish Vasudevan, and her daughter, Miel Vasudevan, who were living in Nairobi. Where were they? Had they chosen to go to that mall on that particular day? Were they safe?

As soon as it was established that they were all right, I went back to my novel. Later in the day I began tracking the situation. TV channels and online newspapers had plenty to say. The mass shooting had left 67 people dead and more than 175 people injured.

Amidst all the kerfuffle of reportage, one thing struck me in particular. An eyewitness was reported to have said that the attackers had asked Muslims to leave, declaring that only non-Muslims would be targeted. Among other aspects of the vetting process, the hostages were asked to name Prophet Muhammad’s mother as a litmus test that would distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims.

It seemed both astounding and horrific that a piece of information could have saved a life. But why was this information not out there for all to know?

In many parts of the world, including India, almost every non-Christian knows that Jesus’s mother was Mary and his father, Joseph; and of the story of Jesus’s birth and his crucifixion. Non-Hindus know that the Ramayana is about Rama and Sita and Rama’s battle against Ravana; that the Mahabharata is about the Kauravas and the Pandavas, that Krishna was an avatar of Vishnu. But even the most erudite among non-Islamic people know nothing about the Quran or what is in it.

If you had asked me then what Prophet Muhammad’s mother’s name was, I would have stared back too, clueless.

Teaching a faith demands expertise; but what of the accompanying lore that goes into fleshing out the wisdom? Why is it that we barely know anything of Islamic lore? Religious preachers have always sought parables to explain a tenet. But even in isolation and removed from doctrine, these allegorical stories have an appeal of their own. The storyteller in me roused and shook herself.

Acts of terrorism perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists had already made many non-Muslims wary of the religion. And I thought this was grossly unfair to Islam and what it taught. I had been brought up as a secular individual and felt a calling to clear this misinterpretation in my own way.

No religion preaches hate or violence. No religion condones killing or the taking of human life. However, flawed interpretations do lend a religion a misguided twist that it does not claim in the first place. Those with vested interests manipulate aspects of a religion to justify heinous crimes and the massacre of innocents. And so it had happened with Islam. And yet why was it that no one was actually trying to redeem the understanding of Islam? Why was no one willing to try and make Islam more accessible to the world so that the teachings in the Quran would be seen for what they truly are—a call to righteousness and peace—and not for what we have beguiled ourselves into believing?

During the writing of Idris, I had studied the Quran and tried to understand what I could of its lessons and the associated Islamic fables. But now I had another purpose. I had already written two books on mythology for children. One was based on Hindu mythology and the other drew on lesser-known world myths. I would now try and write about Islamic lore—stories culled from the Quran and the Hadith. And I was certain that the book had to be for children—for young minds are what we need to invest in for a chance of change. Let children everywhere—Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Jain or otherwise—discover the stories from the Quran and delight in them and learn from them. Stories are, after all, stories; and no religion can stake claim to them.

In what could only be termed providential, I found a translation of a book of stories drawn from Ibn Kathir’s Al-Bidayah Wan-Nihayah (The Beginning and the End). The author was born in AD 1300 and died in AD 1373. A Sunni scholar and historian of great repute, Ibn Kathir hailed from the Shafi’i school of Islamic law and lived during the reign of the Mamluk Sultanate in Syria.

Suddenly I knew where to begin. And then, as it usually happens with each book I write, two characters—a cat and a camel, in this case—appeared from nowhere, and I had my epiphany on how to take the book forward.

This is a book for young readers. But it is also a book for anyone who wonders what the Quran contains, apart from the teachings of a religion. In fact, al-Quran literally means ‘the reading’; and how can a work that means this most beautiful of phrases be limited to just being a scripture? The wealth of its stories, and the lyricism, poetry and flow of its narrative make it as much a literary text as a holy book.

I have been told that I am entering dangerous territory. That, as a Hindu writing about the holy book of Islam, I’m inviting trouble. That to me smacks of prejudice more than anything else. How can any religion close its doors to someone who knows nothing of it? How does one learn about a religion unless one is given access to it?

And that is my only act of faith here. To lead from ignorance to the beginnings of knowledge; from prejudice to comprehension; and to reaffirm, in these times that are wreaked with discrimination and terror, that all religions are the same. That all religions just strive to make of us better human beings.

If only we would make an effort to understand their truth.

PS: The name of Prophet Muhammad’s mother is Amina.

September 2016

12 February 2017 

An Interview with Award-Winning Indonesian Author Eka Kurniawan

( My interview with award winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017.  In India the books have been published by Speaking Tiger Books.) 

Award-winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, whose writing, often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an exceptional blend of myth-making, supernatural, fantastical, historical facts and horrendous amounts of violence. Told with such a flourish, his storytelling is unforgettable. Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia, in 1975 and has a degree in Philosophy. He writes novels, short stories, as well as non-fiction pieces. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are two novels set in unnamed places with all the characteristics of Indonesia. His third novel to be published in English,Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, will be available in July 2017. Eka Kurniawan kindly agreed to an interview for Bookwitty:

How and why did you get into writing fiction? What is your writing routine?

First of all, it was just for fun. I read some stories when I was a teenager, and I tried to write my own versions. I shared my stories with some of my friends. When I studied philosophy in University, sometimes I got bored with my study and skipped my class to go to library and read a lot of classic novels. And then I found a book by Knut Hamsun, Hunger. After I read it, I felt like I wanted to be a writer. So I started to write stories, seriously. My writing routine? I don’t write everyday. I always think that I am more a reader rather then a writer. I read anything every day, and only write something when I want to.

Who are the writers who have influenced you?

Like I already mentioned, Knut Hamsun. I love his deadpan humor and how he discovered his characters. And then there are three great Indonesian novelists: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Abdullah Harahap and Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo. The last two are a kind of genre writers. They wrote horror and martial art novels. I can make a very long list of writers that I believe have influenced me, but let me add these three writers: Miguel de Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Your storytelling is told with such a flourish that at times it is very visual or creates a strong physical reaction much like a response to watching a theatrical performance. While writing, how conscious are you of the reader’s response?

I am very conscious about the reader, but that reader is me. When I write something, at the same time, I always place myself there as a reader too.

“Magic realism” and “historical fiction” are how your books are described but how exactly would you like your special brand of storytelling to be known as?

I never think about it. People can give me any kind of label they please. But let’s be honest: in my novels, there are not only historical or magical elements, but you can find romance, saga, fighting, horror, adventure, even political and social criticism. I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

Your stories seem to rely heavily on the oral storytelling narrative form as the structural basis allowing you the flexibility to expand and repeat details and incorporate supernatural elements…

It is something inevitable. I grew up listening to a village storyteller when I was still a kid. And then there was also drama on the radio, told by one particular storyteller. I was very fascinated by all of these stories, especially because I had only read a small number of books at that time. The stories were usually about village legends, full of monsters, jinn, beautiful ladies and brave men. Many of these stories I actually retold in my novels, including the princess who married a dog.

There are so many brutal aspects of sexual violence which you explore in your stories. Why?

First, when you take a look into Indonesian history (maybe even world history), you can’t help but find yourself faced with this kind of violence. It can be sexual, physical, mental or political violence. Second, I wrote my first novel just two years after the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. It was time for us to be bolder in writing, to open all these scars in our history and face them. Third, I used to write stories in a “matter of fact” manner, I don’t want to hide things.

You write with the sensitivity and understanding of a woman, often sharing her point of view, making the stories seem more feminist than what some women themselves pen and yet the plots move with a predominantly male gaze. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

It was a conscious decision. Actually, my first two novels were inspired by some women, and they are really at the center of my novels. I tried to place myself from their point of view. It is always something important for me as a writer to be there, to know how they feel, how they see the world around them, and how they react to something.

 

The strong women characters  in Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound make choices which they follow through only to be labelled by society as insane. Why and how did you choose to create these women?

I think they just appeared like that in front of me. These two characters are very different from each other. They are strong, die-hard, but have different reactions. I never write stories with a plan. I usually just have a small idea, and develop it gradually. The characters come out one by one. I rewrite it several times, and the characters, including these two women, become more complex and have their own personality in the end.

Dewi Ayu (in Beauty is a Wound)  remarks “The best stories are in religious texts”. Your stories seem to imbibe a lot of storytelling elements from the Hindu epics, the Bible and the Quran. How have these stories influenced you? What are the challenges posed in transference of popular tales when trying to recreate or apply them in secular literature?

My grandmother used to tell me stories from the Quran, and my father taught me to read it. So I am very familiar with these stories, as well as stories from the Bible (I read it later) as they are close. I discovered Hindu epics from wayang (puppet) performances, that usually used Mahabharata or Ramayana epics. The challenges occur with the fact that these stories are very popular. Many writers and storytellers retold them. I just picked the basic ideas and retold them in my own stories that have nothing to do with religious aspects, but with a parallel allusion to them.

Are the English translations true to the original Bhasa texts? How closely did you work with the translators – Annie Tucker and Labodalih Sembiring? Also why did you choose separate translators for the books – it is a slightly unusual practice given how authors and translators tend to forge a long term relationship. 

It’s almost true. I worked very closely with the translators and we tried our best to render the original into English. Of course we faced some problems with grammatical and word nuances, as Indonesian and English are very different, and we discussed this a lot. Those two books were acquired by two different publishers. Verso and I approached Labodalih to translate Man Tiger after we tried some translators, and around the same time Annie Tucker proposed to translate Beauty Is a Wound, later acquired by New Directions. So, that’s why I have two translators.

Given the time lag between your novels being first published and then made available in English do you think having Indonesia as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 helped in discovering contemporary Indonesian writers and making them available to the English-speaking world?

To be honest, before the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, I knew nothing about that. My books were published in English translation the same year, but we prepared them three years before, in 2012. But of course, as guest of honor at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, this gave us an opportunity to be discovered, including my books. Publishers started to wonder about Indonesian literature…

Who are the Indonesian writers – based in the country or of the diaspora – that you would recommend for international readers?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, of course, and Seno Gumira Adjidarma.

7 February 2017 

Ali Akbar Natiq, “What will you give for this beauty?”

BeautyWhat will you give for this beauty? is Ali Akbar Natiq’s debut collection of short stories. It is set in the Punjab countryside with tales about ordinary people, ordinary lives, with preoccupations of marriage, love, impact of Partition, feuds, religious differences and discontent, gossip, courtesans, storytellers, liars and cheats etc. Yet how everyone overcomes odds to survive.

Ali Akbar Natiq began working as a mason, specializing in domes and minarets, to contribute to the family income while he read widely in Urdu and Arabic. Somehow the flavour of Urdu short stories seeps through this particular collection. Its description of the common people, of commonplace occurrences, an exaggerated and embellished style of storytelling with unexpected twists to the story. Through it all there is a constant recognition and respect that this is God’s world we inhabit. It is never clearly spelled out but exists. It is evident in the book title, which seems to be a play on the innumerable references in the Quran and the Old Testament where it is constantly reiterated that this world’s splendour has been created by God, its beauty exists everywhere even when God seems to provide one only with sorrow, ashes and despair. The stories have been translated mostly by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, but also by Awais Aftab and Mohammed Hanif.

What will you give for this beauty? is a fine collection.

Ali Akbar Natiq What Will You Give for this Beauty? Translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi. Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 215. Rs. 399. 

“Looking for Jesus, the man” ( An interview with Reza Aslan, the Hindu, 16 Nov 2013)

“Looking for Jesus, the man” ( An interview with Reza Aslan, the Hindu, 16 Nov 2013)

I was asked by the Hindu to interview Reza Aslan. Earlier this year he published Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It was released in India by HarperCollins in Sept 2013. The interview that was conducted via email has been published online on 16 Nov 2013 and in the paper edition on 17 Nov 2013. Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/looking-for-jesus-the-man/article5357812.ece?homepage=true . I am c&p the text below. ) 

Reza AslanDr. Reza Aslan on why he wrote his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Dr. Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, is the author ofZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which was in the news a few months ago and also reached the number one slot on The New York Times Bestseller List.

He is the founder of AslanMedia.com, an online journal and co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, an entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Greater Middle East. His first book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, was translated into 13 languages. His other works include How to Win a Cosmic War(published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age) and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalties, Contentions, and Complexities.

Excerpts from an interview:

How long did it take you to write this book?

I have been researching for more than two decades, ever since I began my academic work on the New Testament as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University in California. Of course the quest for the historical Jesus has been going on for 200 years. Countless scholars and academics have written about the Jesus of history. The methodology for that is more or less written in stone by this point. I have distilled these two centuries of debate and analysis and rendered it in an appealing and accessible way for a general audience.

What was the target audience you had in mind?

I wanted to give those who worship Jesus as God a different perspective of him as a man. Of course, Christians believe that Jesus was both God and man, yet they rarely understand the implications of that belief. If Jesus was also a man, it means he lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place shaped who he was. This book is an introduction to that time and place. But I also wanted to write to a non-Christian audience to help explain why, 2000 years later, this man and his teachings and actions are still so significant.

Has your upbringing influenced your thinking?

My upbringing taught me to take faith seriously, to respect it and not denigrate it, even when I am questioning some of the most fundamental tenets of that faith.

What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?

I suppose the most surprising thing about Jesus and his time was just how many other messiahs there were around the first century, many of whom were far more popular and far more successful in their lifetime than Jesus was.

What is the difference, if any, between the men who claimed to be messiahs in Jesus’ time and the many god men (across religions) today?

I suppose if you believe that all religious experience is a matter of the psyche, then there is not much of a difference.

In the “Author’s Note, you state that you “have chosen not to delve too deeply into the so-called Gnostic gospels… they do not shed much light on the historical Jesus himself”. But did not the Gnostic gospels actually reveal much more about the man we know as Christ, including that he probably belonged to the Essene sect? So would not a close reading have helped you “reclaim” the historical Jesus before he became synonymous with Christianity?

The Gnostic Gospels were written in the second and third centuries. While they shed light on the enormous diversity of Christianity in the years following the death of Jesus, they do not give us much information about the historical Jesus himself. Neither does the Gospel of John, which by the way was written between 100 and 120 A.D. These texts are simply too late to be of much use to those looking for the Jesus of history.

The Jews attached great importance to writing things down. Yet the testaments were written only some 70 years after Jesus’ death. Muhammad knew the importance of writing things down, yet the Quran ended up being a careful reconstruction of his words. In your opinion, why isn’t there a Book of Jesus?

Mostly because nobody could have written it. Jesus and his disciples were Galilean peasants. None of them could read or write.

Was your choice of Christ as a subject a natural result of being a scholar of religion or did it have something to do with the number of books on the topic, including Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary?

I think Jesus has always been an interesting character and always will be. While some argue that there has been a sudden flood of books about Jesus recently, the truth is that such books have been appearing every few years for some time.

Do you think that the days when men could start major world religions are over?

On the contrary, take Mormonism, which is only 150 years old and already a major world religion. I think the same could be said about Scientology one day. Religions are born all the time. Who knows which one will be seen as “great” one day?

Reza Aslan Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Harper Element, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers India, Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 300. Rs. 499