I first came across Sami Ahmad Khan a few years ago when he reached out regarding a manuscript he had written and wanted it evaluated professionally. It was one of the few science fiction novels I had read set in contemporary India. I did read and made a few constructive suggestions. Then I did not hear from him for a while as he was busy finishing his thesis unsurprisingly on contemporary Indian science fiction writers. Now his novel is to be published more or less simulataneously by two publishers — Juggernaut Books ( digital) and Niyogi Books ( print). Meanwhile he has published two articles exploring Indian science fiction.
Daily O article “What if aliens one day land in India? A sci-fi writer asks” ( 8 June 2017)
Huffington Post India article “Aliens In Allahabad, Zombies In Zamrudpur: Discovering Indian Science Fiction” ( 10 June 2017)
Sami and I had a brief and intense exchange over email about his interest in science fiction and the publiction of Aliens in Delhi. Here is an extract:
Who were the authors you featured in your thesis?
I worked on select (SF) novels/short stories of Anil Menon, Amitav Ghosh, Ruchir Joshi, Shovon Chowdhury, Rimi Chatterjee, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Manjula Padmanabhan, Vandana Singh, Ashok Banker, Mainak Dhar, Suraj Clark Prasad, and Jugal Mody.
Who were your PhD guides?
Prof. GJV Prasad and Prof. Saugata Bhaduri at JNU
Why did you start writing sci fi stories?
I couldn’t resist! I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…I love doing that. The question of ‘What if?’ really interests me. And SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a massive kick!
How did the deal with two publishers happen?
I got two simultaneous offers, within ten days of each other. The first (contract) wanted paperback rights, and the other digital. I opted for both.
Two Books, Two editors
I sent almost the same MS to both these publishers, and editors from respective houses worked on the MS simultaneously. It’s still the same book, but there are minor differences, such as a different sentence here, a different one there, not to mention different copy-editing. But the essence and general narrative is the same.
Due dates of publication
Paperback, brought out by Niyogi, already out.
Digital version by Juggernaut in July 2017
If you had to translate this novel into any other language which version would you use?
Both would do!
How many years did it take to write this novel?
Almost four and a half years. The first draft was written in October-December 2012. Then I let the novel stew in my brain for some time. Then endless drafts and revisions. I kept reworking it till 2015, when I was finally satisfied with it.
Who are the SF writers you admire?
Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Shovon Chowdhury, Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who
Why did you start writing sci fi stories?
I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…and SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a kick!
What is that you wish to explore the most in your SF writing?
Space (interplanetary exploration), time (alternate realities/time travel) and ET life (preferably hostile to humans). I love exploring these themes through pulp.
( My article on the preview for JLF 2017 was published on Bookwitty.com on 30 December 2016.)
The first time I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) at Diggi Palace Grounds, Jaipur it was small enough so that once could drive the car straight up to the main steps of the building. Today, the parking is a fair distance from the palace and the only way to reach the venue is through multiple barricades and a screening counter. Once inside though, there is a wonderful, festive air with an explosion of colours in the décor, the happy buzz of excited people milling about and conversations streaming through various marquees. Termed one of the greatest literary events, it is also a free one. Since it began, the JLF has welcomed 846,000 visitors, 1874 speakers, conducted 1272 sessions and partnered with more than 1400 organisations.
The JLF is also crucial because it is situated in a geographical space that is at the heart of a significant book market. It is planned soon after the Christmas break and a few months after the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) so publishing professionals flying in from around the world can follow up on their FBF conversations and combine them with a holiday in India.
In January 2017, it will be the 10th anniversary of the Jaipur Literature Festival. The three directors since its inception are Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple. The festival has evolved over the years to include different elements such as Jaipur BookMark – a B2B platform for publishers, a children’s section and a cultural event every evening. The Festival has expanded internationally to host annual events at London’s Southbank Centre (2014 onwards) and Boulder, Colorado (2015 onwards). In 2017 the Jaipur BookMark will launch a new scheme to support emerging writers and budding authors are invited to apply for a New Writers’ Mentorship Programme: The First Book Club.
The Festival has celebrated and hosted writers from across the globe, ranging from Nobel Laureates and Man Booker Prize winners to debut writers, including Amish Tripathi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eleanor Catton, Hanif Kureishi, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Ian McEwan, JM Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, Mohammed Hanif, Oprah Winfrey, Orhan Pamuk, Pico Iyer, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Fry, Thomas Piketty, Vikram Seth and Wole Soyinka, as well as renowned Indian language writers such as Girish Karnad, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, MT Vasudevan Nair, Uday Prakash, the late Mahasweta Devi and U.R. Ananthamurthy.
This January, the Jaipur Literature Festival expects to welcome over 250 authors, thinkers, politicians, journalists, and popular culture icons to Jaipur. Sanjoy Roy said “Our prime focus is on history of the world, given that it was the 70 years of India’s Independence [in 2016]. In a new collaboration with the British Library they have loaned us a version of the 1215 AD Magna Carta which will be on view at Diggi Palace. A series of sessions on freedom to dream will look at inspiration for the future. We have a new partnership with The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that will look at sessions on art and migration.”
Namita Gokhale added that at the JLF “We are always trying to listen in as many languages as possible. This time there will be speakers from all over Europe and more than 20 Indian regional languages will be showcased.”
Controversies and the JLF also seem to go hand in hand. In 2012 Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi, Amitava Kumar and Jeet Thayil read out passages from Salman Rushdie’s banned book The Satanic Verses and had to leave Jaipur hurriedly before the police arrived to arrest them. Another time the Shell oil company was one of the sponsors, which created a stir since, among other things, it is infamously associated with the tragic execution of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. At the time, the JLF administration said they do not look at the color of money. This year too, there is disappointment already being expressed at representatives of the Hindu fundamentalist group RSS being invited to speak at JLF but as the organizers point out they stand for diversity.
Be that as it may, the 2017 edition of JLF promises to be as exciting as ever. The magnificent line-up of authors includes Paul Beatty, Alan Hollinghurst, Valmik Thapar, Amruta Patil, AN Wilson, Alice Walker, Mark Haddon, Ajay Navaria, Mrinal Pande, Richard Flanagan, Arshia Sattar, Arefa Tehsin, Eka Kurniawan, Tahmima Anam, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Marcos Giralt Torrente, Kyoko Yoshida, David Hare, Margo Jefferson, Deborah Smith, Jeremy Paxman, Hyeonseo Lee, Francesca Orsini, John Keay, Jon Wilson, Kate Tempest, Mihir S. Sharma, Neil MacGregor, Rishi Kapoor, Sholeh Wolpé, Sunil Khilnani, and Vivek Shanbhag. Sessions have been planned on translations, revisiting history, conflict, politics, memoirs, biographies, nature, poetry, spirituality, mythmaking, women writing, travel writing, freedom of expression, children’s literature and book releases.
Some of the prominent sessions are:
Writing the Self: The Art of Memoir: Bee Rowlatt, Brigid Keenan Emma Sky and Hyeonseo Lee in conversation with Samanth Subramanian
Lost in Translation: Francesca Orsini, Deborah Smith, Paulo Lemos Horta and Sholeh Wolpé in conversation with Adam Thirlwell
Migrations: Lila Azam Zanganeh, NoViolet Bulawayo, Sholeh Wolpé and Valzhyna Mort in conversation with Tishani Doshi
The Tamil Story: Imayam Annamalai and Subhashree Krishnaswamy in conversation with Sudha Sadhanand
In Search of a Muse: On Writing Poetry: Anne Waldman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Ishion Hutchinson, Kate Tempest, Tishani Doshi and Vladimir Lucien in conversation with Ruth Padel
Lost Kingdoms: The Hindu and Buddhist Golden Age in South East Asia: John Guy introduced by Kavita Singh
Before We Visit the Goddess: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in conversation with Shrabani Basu
Kohinoor: Anita Anand and William Dalrymple introduced by Swapan Dasgupta
The Dishonourable Company: How the East India Company Took Over India: Giles Milton, John Keay, Jon Wilson, Linda Colley and Shashi Tharoor in conversation with William Dalrymple
Brexit: A.N. Wilson, Andrew Roberts,, Linda Colley, Surjit Bhalla and Timothy Garton Ash in conversation with Jonathan Shainin
Rewriting History: The Art of Historical Fiction: Adam Thirlwell, Alan Hollinghurst and Shazia Omar in conversation with Raghu Karnad
Civil Wars: From Antiquity to ISIS: David Armitage introduced by Raghu Karnad
The Biographer’s Ball: A.N. Wilson, Andrew Roberts, David Cannadine, Lucinda Hawksley, Roy Foster and Suzannah Lipscomb in conversation with Anita Anand
Ardor: On the Vedas: Roberto Calasso in conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik
Things to Leave Behind: Namita Gokhale in conversation with Mrinal Pande and Sunil Sethi
That Which Cannot be Said: Hyeonseo Lee, Kanak Dixit, Sadaf Saaz and Timothy Garton Ash and in conversation with Salil Tripathi
The Art of the Novel: On Writing Fiction: Adam Thirlwell, Alan Hollinghurst, NoViolet Bulawayo and Richard Flanagan in conversation with Manu Joseph
Footloose: The Travel Session: Aarathi Prasad, Bee Rowlatt, Brigid Keenan, Nidhi Dugar and Simon Winchester in conversation with William Dalrymple
Last night I attended a public lecture at the India International Centre, New Delhi. It was delivered by Siddharth Mukherjee entitled “First they came for Rushdie: Scientific Ambitions in an Age of Censorship”. It was organised by Penguin Books India to celebrate the occasion of Siddharth Mukherjee having received the Padma Shri. He is a physician, scientist and writer. His book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He is currently an assistant professor medicine at Columbia University in New York. Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Random House India, announced that her firm would be publishing his forthcoming book–on genes.
The lecture consisted of three distinct sections. He read out two papers. An essay, “The Perfect Last Days of Mr Sengupta”, published in Granta 124: Travel (http://www.granta.com/Archive/124/The-Perfect-Last-Days-of-Mr-Sengupta). It is about his visit to the Cancer centre of All India Institute of Medical Sciences ( AIIMS) based in New Delhi, where he meets a terminally ill patient Mr Sengupta. A precisely written, sensitive and thought-provoking essay about mortality, disease, care giving, and death.
He followed it up by reading an extract from an unpublished essay. ( I suspect it is from his forthcoming book.) It was about science, scientific thought and research, especially genetics, in Nazi Germany. In a measured manner, calmly Siddharth Mukherjee read out his paper. Not once did his voice waver while he patiently retold the well-known facts of medicine as practiced in Germany. He talked about Berlin in 1931 and the close link between science and literature. He spoke of the Nazi scientists such as eugenicist Alfred Ploetz who coined the term Rassenhygiene or racial hygiene, Josef Mengel or the Angel of Death who was responsible for the gas chambers in the Auschwitz concentration camps, physicist and Nobel Prize winner ( 1905) Philipp Eduard Anton von Lenard who advocated “Deutsche Physik” as opposed to the ideas of “Jewish physics”, by which he meant chiefly the theories of Albert Einstein, including “the Jewish fraud” of relativity. He spoke of the influence many of these scientists had upon Hitler, even when he was in prison and he wrote of his admiration of them in Mein Kampf. He commented upon the close relationship between the legal wheels that were constantly turning to justify and legitimize these absurdly illogical “scientific” theories, resulting in the enactment of the anti-Jewish statutes called the Nuremberg Race Laws ( 5 Sept 1935) institutionalizing many of the racial theories prevalent in Nazi ideaology. He mentioned the establishment of the Aktion T4 or the euthanasia programme that led to the establishment of extermination centres where inmates were gassed in carbon monoxide chambers. He cited examples and read out extracts of contemporary accounts by scientists and men of letters such as Christopher Isherwood, of how slowly German society was being slowly and steadily cleansed, sloughing of genetic detritus. He argued that there was sufficient evidence of how this young science propped up a totalitarian regime and the cycle was completed by producing junk science. He documented the muzzling of free expression, books, media, radio, cabaret were slowly brought under Nazi doctrine. Music such as jazz and swing or the “negro noise” were stopped. There was a slow and methodical decimation of intellectual and cultural freedom.
The concluding part of the lecture, Siddharth Mukherjee cited the example of Salman Rushdie not being permitted to attend or even speak via satellite link at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012. He received death threats. At the time three writers — Hari Kunzro, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil — tried reading out extracts from the banned text The Satanic Verses but were not permitted to do so. Instead they were advised to leave Jaipur immediately. At the time this episode was met by a “galacial silence” by the powers that be. It was as “all realism without magic”. Since then this kind of literary censorship, a capitulation to bullying, according to Siddharth Mukherjee has become a predictable pattern in Indian society. Wendy Doniger is the latest victim of literary censorship. For Siddharth Mukherjee there is a symbiotic relationship between science and literature since they co-exist in the same ecosystem. “Science happens in the same fragile place where books happen and plays are enacted. You spoil the ecology of one, you tarnish the soil of the other.”
Original post on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/notes/ruchir-joshi/children-of-a-dreadful-midnight/10151468364809434
Let’s be clear about this: yesterday, Calcutta finally completed its downfall from the cultural capital of all Asia to a narrow-minded, spirit-crippled, morally corrupt, goonda-governed provincial town. From being the great city where Rabindranath Tagore wrote ‘where the mind is without fear’ our urban concentration has now become the champion backwater place where the heart is squeezed by fear, paranoia and the over-riding greed for power. This hasn’t happened overnight, we have watched the slow-motion collapse of our culture and our sabhyata over the last fifty years, but the final implosion has been rapid, the final dive into crass, shameful mediocrity has been sharp. The last shredding of any remaining intellectual honour has been forced through at triple-speed over the last eighteen months.
Here are the facts of the last blow, the final hacking that felled all of Bengal’s and Calcutta’s pretensions to cultural superiority.
At this time last year, just after the events at the 2012 Jaipur Literary Festival, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had declared she would not let Salman Rushdie enter Calcutta. This was a bizarre statement, completely un-provoked, since Rushdie then had no plans to visit our city. The chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, had made the opposite statement, that Rushdie was welcome in Delhi any time. But Dikshit then had to revoke the statement, clearly under pressure from her high command. Regardless, within a month of Dikshit’s flip-flop, various state elections now over, Rushdie came to Delhi for a conclave, had a normal, undisrupted and undisrupting time and left. The elections were done and dusted and so was the psuedo-issue that had been raked up in Jaipur to win votes, that of Rushdie and the novel he published in 1987, The Satanic Verses. This demonstrated that Delhi is bigger than Calcutta in more than just size, no one chief minister can hold it hostage.
Cut to this year. The film of Rushdie’s earlier novel, Midnight’s Children is being released in India. Rushdie, Deepa Mehta, the director of the film, and Rahul Bose, who’s acted in the movie, are touring India to promote the film. Mehta and Bose have also been invited to the Kolkata Literary Meet writers’ festival to discuss the adaptation of the book into a film. Rushdie’s name isn’t on the list, but on Tuesday it becomes clear that Rushdie was also planning to come to Calcutta to promote the film. As it is, the only officially announced engagement for the writer was a press conference at a hotel in the city. Late on Tuesday night it became clear that our police had intervened and stopped Rushdie from coming to Calcutta. The end result: a huge humiliation for a so-called city that still deludes itself that it is the home of vibrant culture and intellectual vigour and courage.
So much for the facts one can print.
Fellow citizens, I am a story-teller and also an inept, low-level, sudoku puzzle addict. Allow me to bring a different kind of narrative sudoku calculation to this page. Let’s look at the printed ‘numbers’ and embark on a small adventure of conjecture: Who finally delivered the coup de grace to Bengal’s long failing moral body? Who finally chopped through Calcutta’s ethical spine?
Question 1: was Rushdie only coming to promote the film at a press conference?
Now, if I was an organiser of a literary festival, and if I knew Salman Rushdie was going to be in town during my festival, it’s likely I would have been eager to have him make an appearance. Given how he’s done things in the past, it would have surprised no one had the panelists at the Midnight’s Children session at Kol Lit Meet announced in mid-discussion that they had a surprise guest, and had Rushdie been then led on to the stage. Had I been the organiser, I would have grabbed at this idea, but then, that’s only me.
Question 2: Regardless of whether Rushdie was coming to Calcutta to promote his film, make a theatrical entry at Kol-Lit or just have a quick snack at Bhojohari Manna, who actually pulled the plug on his visit?
a) The Kolkata Police? Fearing a law and order problem? Unlikely. As we know, this police force does not even clear snot from its nose without an okay from Writers’Building. It’s unimaginable that they could make a such a huge decision without serious goading from above.
b) If not the police then the state government? Who in the state government? And how? Not to mention why? Well, let’s keep these squares blank for a moment.
c) The Muslim groups? Maybe. But, wait a minute. In Jaipur last year, the protests against Rushdie attending began way before the JLF festival opened. This year, in Calcutta, we heard nothing till yesterday, and the ‘protests’ only took place on Wednesday morning – well after Rushdie had already cancelled his visit – as if to provide retro-substance to the notion that widespread protests were always going to take place.
So let’s lightly pencil in a tentative sequence. Remember what Mamata Banerjee said last year, unasked and unprovoked? So, could it be that an aide woke her up when he saw the announcement of Rushdie’s visit? ‘Didi, you had said you would not let him come to Calcutta. What should we do?’ Could it be that a phone call went from Writers’, or Kalighat, to Lal Bazar Police HQ? Could that phone call have set off other calls from some department of the police, say Special Branch, to the Muslim ‘leaders’ in the city? Perhaps a conversation like: ‘Maulvi-ji! Imam-sahab! Aren’t you planning to protest at Salman Rushdie’s visit to Calcutta?’ ‘Oh? Rushdie is coming? We didn’t know! When? Of course we will protest!’ Could this have then led to police officers landing up at the office of whoever had (unofficially) invited Rushdie? Could, say, three cops, (played in my imaginary movie by, say, Tapas Pal, Rahul Bose and Parambrata Chattopadhyay) have stood behind the person who’d ‘invited’ Rushdie, (person played by Nandita Das), and glowered at her computer screen till she sent off an email ‘disinviting’ the shaitan Rushdie?
But enough of this guessing game.
Yesterday, Mamata Banerjee, either through action or inaction, kept at least one of the promises she had made to Calcutta’s Muslim community. Of all the many promises she had made, this one was perhaps the most poisonous: Rushdie will not be allowed into Calcutta. What this ‘promise’ actually says is ‘I will use a psuedo-issue to stoke the egos of your leaders, in the gamble that we can shove under the carpet the fact that I have done nothing to improve the condition of Muslims here, which remains worse than the conditions of Muslims in Modi’s Gujarat.’ It’s a vile delivery that cuts two ways into the rotting ‘culture’ of Calcutta: it bolsters the osbcurantists and fundamentalists of all colours, not just Islamic, while snatching away yet more space of expression from that soft pocket of society we call artists.
There was a time when (what used to be) Kolkata understood what ‘freedom’ meant, what ‘free speech’ meant, what ‘imagination’ meant, what was meant by ‘art’. The movement for the stopping of sati started here (it offended the core ‘religious sentiments’ of lakhs of Hindus), the movement for a free India, where people of all faiths and belief and non-belief could live, also garnered huge charge from the thinking of Kolkatiaya minds and hearts. Central to each and everything that Calcutta and Kolkata gave to the yet-to-be-born Republic was the tenet ‘where the mind is without fear’, i.e that you can think and say what you want. What this latest assault on our freedom to think, read and see what we want does is plunge us into a darkenss of a kind we in this city have not yet known. Today, we Calcuttans have really become the children of a dreadful midnight.
Ruchir Joshi for 31st January, 2013
The Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 did not slink by unnoticed. It is a literary extravaganza which reaches out to the masses, rather than being reserved for the upper echelons of society or the intelligentsia. Everybody is welcome to mingle and rub shoulders with the glitterati of literature. It is easy to spot Gulzar, along with Tom Stoppard or as this year proved, even Oprah! The one event that overshadowed the entire festival and its rumbles continue to be heard even now, was the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s presence — will he, won’t he come was the question on everyone’s lips. What were the legal repercussions for the four writers—Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, Hari Kunzro and Ruchir Joshi — who attempted to read out passages from Satanic Verses? When it was finally announced that Rushdie will not attend in person, but will address the gathering via a video conference, it was little consolation. But then that too was scuttled, leaving a fuming Rushdie having to address a television audience later that evening, via a link up with NDTV.
Curiously the ban on Satanic Verses is a customs ban that does not allow the book to be imported into the country. The larger question then left for everyone to tussle with – was this a form of censorship? Are we not at a liberty to read what we like? Do we have the freedom to read what we like? Or shall there be those who sit in judgment upon what we can or should not read? Questions that are not always easy to answer. It has spawned various forms of protests, signing of online petitions to most notably “flash reads” which included reading passages from works on 14 Feb – the day, 23 years ago, when the fatwa against Rushdie was announced. Plus a day in that has in recent times become synonymous with the harassment inflicted upon young lovers by vigilantes, based upon the absurd argument that Valentine’s Day is a Western intrusion upon Indian culture. According to Salil Tripathi, one of the participants of flash reads, it was organized “at different locations in five cities, Bangalore, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi, about a hundred people—readers, writers, artists, engineers, lawyers, professionals, students, and consultants—came with sheets filled with words and ideas that someone somewhere wanted suppressed. We were at Lodhi Gardens, on the bridge overlooking the duck pond, in the shadow of the ruins of another era, where writers who defied the state and those in power often met a ghastly end.”
But bear in mind the reception to a book in different countries. In Germany, more than sixty years after World War II is over, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a banned text. It is not available in bookstores. If anyone wishes to read it, it can only be accessed by special permission, providing a valid reason, from a library. Unlike in India, where for many years it is a bestseller. It is always amongst the most popular titles in pirated editions, and only recently has begun to be visible in bookstores. It is available in English and other regional languages.
Today, India is the largest democracy in the world, but it is also considered to be a large book market, with a voracious appetite in print and electronic formats and in any language, not just English. Controversies like those surrounding Satanic Verses open larger debates like pertaining to censorship, how far can one go without hurting the religious sentiments of another group, the impact of such an action on institutions and of course being responsible for the consequences of one’s action — is it to be those who are the catalysts of such change or the festival that inadvertently provided a platform for these readings? With the Internet, many of these bans become counter-productive as exemplified by Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar who uploaded his latest film, Inshallah, Kashmir: Living Terror, on 26 Jan 2012, within 24 hours, he struck 50,000 views. In Dec 2011, it was estimated that India is the third largest Internet user population in the world, with over 120 million users. So it is ironical there is such a hullaballo around Satanic Verses being read in public, since the entire text is available online.
(This article was first published in Books & More, April-May 2012, p.58
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing and literary consultant. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org Her twitter handle is @JBhattacharji