Samanth Subramanian Posts

Of biographies

Twenty-first century is being touted in publishing as the age of memoirs/biographies. Everyone has a story to tell. People always have. Now with technology making it “easier” for people to share their personal stories, there is a deluge of the “I, me, myself” stories. These shifts in telling narratives are impacting the texture of stories being told. But what continues to stand out are extraordinarily well-researched, brilliantly told, almost meditative narratives that focus upon the particular but persaude the reader to look beyond, to think, to reflect. Two such books that I read recently are: Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women killed by Jack the Ripper and Samanth Subramanian’s A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane

Historian Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women killed by Jack the Ripper is a fascinating account of building together biographies of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The canonical five — Mary Jane Kelly, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Ann Nichols, Elizabeth Stride and Annie Clapman. For more than a hundred and fifty years it was firmly believed that these victims were prostitutes. With her impeccable research and marshalling of empirical evidence by scouring police records, newspaper clippings of the time, witness testimonies, reviewing of historical socio-economic and political facts and consistently making it available to the modern reader in an immensely accesible narrative, makes Hallie Rubenhold’s book a dream to read. It is packed with information. Each woman has a section devoted to her, giving a birth-to-death biographical account, neatly interspersed with explanations from contemporary accounts of what could be the rational explanation for the woman’s behaviour or what was a reaction to socio-economic conditions prevailing at the time. More importantly Hallie Rubenhold teases out from history the despicable attitudes towards women that probably contributed to the social downfall of these women, ultimately making them vulnerable to criminals such as Jack the Ripper. Interestingly enough, not once, does she ever give a graphic description of the body disovered at the crime scene or shares details of the autopsy reports. Instead there are a few photographs and illustrations tipped into the book along with a seemingly mundane list of the possessions found upon the women’s bodies. A list that in most cases highlights that these were extremely poor women. Nevertheless these women were careful about appearances as is evident from the list of grooming articles found upon their persons. What is truly remarkable is that The Five is not just a historian delving into the past and putting together bits and pieces of information to create a clear narrative, a short biography of the women victims but it is also an attempt to recover the dignity and respect that these women deserved. The only time Hallie Rubenhold betrays her fury is in the concluding paragraph of the book.

It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents. By permitting them to speak, by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. The victims of Jack the Ripper were never ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that, in itself, is enough.

Hallie Rubenhold won the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction with The Five. It is a prize well deserved for historical research that unearths so many truths that were for so long masked in one-sided, most often imbued with patriarchal perspectives. It is modern day research arguing and bolstering every single observation about the victims by going far back in time and piecing it together meticulously. With The Five Hallie Rubenhold has done a great service not only for the five victims but also created a fresh way of looking at Victorian England and at historical research much in the way that Hobsbawm’s trilogy about the long nineteenth century did. ( Although Rubehold never cites Hobsbawm in her bibliography.) Revisting the past with the tools of the present to investigate and understand and get to the truth by assessing the facts for what they are rather than imposing one’s own modern judgements and reading. Read The Five. An immensely readable history book that reads like an astonishingly well-written nineteenth century novel.

Award-winning writer and journalist Samanth Subramanian’s biography of geneticist H.B.S Haldane has been long awaited. Every fortnight Samanth Subramanian also ran a podcast called The Intersection that melds culture, science and history in India. ( Shortly the backlist will be made available on Spotify. Worth listening to!) So it is no surprise that A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane melds together cultural and historical contextual references along with Haldane’s scientific temperament. This is a biography that follows the classic definition of a biography of following step-by-step every major development of Haldane. Of course there is a sufficiently long preamble emphasising that Haldane was in many senses the product of the Victorian Age. His curiosity and asking innumerable questions was a trait very similar to that of his father, John Scott Haldane. Haldane Senior a physiologist was known to have gone on madcap experiments in the pursuit of science such as he entered, in the middle of the night, the crowded one-room tenements of slum dwellers where more than six or seven persons lay sleeping in a room holding a vial aloft to collect a sample of the air. Like his father, J.B.S. Haldane was not averse to experimenting upon himself. He had seen his father do it. He had also assisted his father in conducting these experiments such as checking the atmospheric pressure below water wearing a submarine suit. This methodology of self-experimentation became Haldane’s trademark. Some of his more outrageous experiments were to drink hydrocholoric acid or to enclose himself in an airtight space to monitor the effects of carbon dioxide in his blood stream — about which he complained bitterly for it having given him a terrible headache. Haldane was particularly gifted in being able to work with numbers. What comes through very clearly in this biography is that Haldane was known for his irascible temperament and did not suffer fools easily but was quite at peace absorbed in his world, fiddling with mathematical equations. For example Haldane estimated way back that the mutations in the haemophilia gene was equivalent to roughly one mutated nucleotide per 25 million. The full human genome contains roughly 6.4 billion nucleotides. In 2009, a study conducted by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in England using sequencing technology showed that there is one mutated nucleotide per 30 million. Incredibly Haldane with his pen and paper scribbles and before the structure of the DNA had been discovered had come within spitting distance of what is now believed to be the true figure.

Haldane was extremely bright. He learnt to read at the age of three, and at four, after injuring his forehead he famously asked the doctor, “Is this oxyhaemoglobin or carboxyhaemoglobin?” And as is the case with exceptionally gifted children, they keep their adults on their toes. Haldane was no exception. He found his stability at home. His mother particularly was his anchor. Later he had his ups and downs with his educational institutions including Eton College. It was evident that he required understanding and sympathetic adults around him otherwise he would lose his keel. He had cleared the Eton entrance exams easily, topping the list of successful candidates in that year. Yet his grades began to take a sharp dip as he was bullied for what was perceived as arrogant behaviour. Later his circle of acquaintances in Cambridge recognised this rudeness as merely his impatience with those around him as Haldane was constantly needy for stimulating conversationalists. Fascinatingly his circle of friends included Julian Huxley, brother of writer Aldous Huxley. While he was young Haldane could be contained and his excessive amounts of energy were (mostly) constructively channeled. In his adulthood he was more or less a loose canon. Doing as he pleased as long as it enabled him to focus on his passion — his work. It did not make him very popular with many people but he did not really care. Perhaps it was this obstinate trait in him that enabled him to believe wholeheartedly in communism. So much so that Haldane’s blind faith in the ideology clouded his scientific temper to see the merit of biologist and plant breeder Nikolay Vavilov who fell victim to Stalin’s purges. Instead as Subramanian recounts in his splendid biography, Haldane in the battle of the geneticists in Stalinist Russia batted for Lysenko, a Stalin favourite, vs Vavilov, a true scientist. In 1943, Haldane was invited to participate in a BBC symposium on the Lysenko controversy. According to Subramanian, Haldane “delicately” handled Lysenko’s primary claim to fame, “the vernalization of wheat” even though it invalidated Haldane’s own research and went against everything that Vavilov had proven via his experiments.

There are many more details in Haldane’s extraordinary life such as being a possible spy, being followed by the MI5 ( the poor suffering agents had to sit through long lectures on the sex life of extinct fungi or a Science for Peace meeting). In 1956 Haldane left London to take up a job as the head of the biometry unit at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. This was when renowned mathematician P. C. Mahalanobis was the director. Haldane moved lock, stock and barrel to India believing that the country shared his socialist beliefs. After a run-in with Mahalanobis, Haldane moved to a newly established biometry unit in Orissa. He died due to cancer on 1 December 1964 and as a true scientist he donated his body for medical research and teaching.

Samanth Subramanian takes the art of writing a biography to a new level. Packed with information. Detailed, impeccable research, with plenty of end notes and a select biography which runs into a few pages of fine print. A Dominant Character seems to be the new kind of biography where you delve into data as much as you can to recreate a life on paper, with all the highs and lows of the person being chronicled and with no judgement on the part of the author. It is a presentation of facts. It is an interesting balance to achieve as it could not have been easy to put down on paper. In it there is something for everyone — the lay reader, the scientist, the historian, the geneticist, the science historian, researchers etc. It is a form of resurrection in popular forums that is bound to be influential for years to come. In fact it would be fascinating to hear a conversation between Samanth Subramanian and Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee on the science of writing biographies. Till then read A Dominant Character!

Biographies are a useful access route into a slice of history. Through the lens of the personal they enable readers to get their bearings of historical events. It is a pleasurable learning experience if these texts are authenticated by facts as is the case with these two remarkable books.

8 February 2020

Book Post 52: 25 Nov – 17 Dec 2019

Book Post 52 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

17 Dec 2019

Press Release, Literary event, Embassy of Ireland, India ( 16 Oct 2014)

Press Release, Literary event, Embassy of Ireland, India ( 16 Oct 2014)

Press Release

(L-R) Paro Anand, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amandeep Sandhu, Samanth Subramanian and H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

(L-R) Paro Anand, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amandeep Sandhu, Samanth Subramanian and H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

On Thursday, 16 Oct 2014, H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin of Ireland hosted a literary soiree at his residence. It was organized to commemorate the centenary of World War I.  The event consisted of an exhibition on the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”. The panelists were three Indian authors/journalists—Paro Anand, Samanth Subramanian and Amandeep Sandhu and the discussion was moderated by Ambassador McLaughlin. Ambassador of Ireland Feilim McLaughlin said the event was intended to explore the role of the writer in portraying or interpreting conflict, drawing parallels between the experience in Ireland and South Asia. The evening was curated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

Panel discussion on "Conflict and Literature", moderated by H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

Panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”, moderated by H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

It was a one-of-a-kind evening with the lovely ambience and Irish music playing in the background. The three panelists were authors who had lived, worked with or interviewed persons in conflict zones in different parts of South Asia. Their personal stories and reading of relevant portions from their published works were straight from the heart. The invitees were handpicked. The three Indian authors who spoke were Paro Anand whose YA novel No Guns at My Son’s Funeral is being turned into a film; Amandeep Sandhu, author of the critically acclaimed testimonial fiction Roll of Honour and Samanth Subramanian who has recently published The Divided Island, reportage from Sri Lanka. The select audience were mesmerized silent by the readings and interaction ofAt the Irish Embassy, New Delhi. 16 Oct 2014 the authors. Several shed a tear or two. Most had a lump in their throat. The topics or narrated experiences hit a raw chord in many, especially those with a background or family from Partition, ’84 riots and communal conflicts. Author, Dr Kimberley Chawla says, “In this day and age, one tends to forget or ignore conflict past or present that may be occurring just a few hundred kilometres away, but it continues to be relevant. This literary event brought it right back home and reminded all present how lucky we were to have what we have and that we or our families managed to survive.” Many in the audience were seen congratulating the Irish embassy for pulling off such a topic which actually left the audience sentimental and empathic and there were no accusatory or aggressively political arguments or comparisons with other countries.  Remarkably there was pin drop silence throughout the event.

Keki Daruwalla, Novelist, Poet and Chairperson, DSC Literature Prize 2014: “I feel it was a very fine evening. The Ambassador Mr. Feilim McLaughlin had done his homework. (One normally doesn’t see Their Excellencies getting into the nitty-gritty of a cultural event). The mix was perfect with Paro Anand speaking of the handicapped children. It was very moving. Amandeep Sandhu spoke of 1984. Wish he had read more from his book.”

M. A. Sikandar, Director, NBT ( National Book Trust of India) “A wonderful evening with Authors who highlighted the flip side if real India. I amazed by the intense of reading by these authors who are from diverse background and culture. Credit goes to the Irish Ambassador and Jaya.”

Paro Anand : “Trying to make sense of a long ago war through today’s conflicts brought three writers together. IN the peace of Delhi’s Diplomatic Enclave, we wove words of wars and conflicts that do and don’t belong to us….each telling of our engagement with wars without as much as within. It was a journey that none of us would choose to make, but most of us have to.”

Amandeep Sandhu: “it was a brilliant evening curated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose and hosted by the Irish Ambassador. I loved that I could meet and converse with a variety of writers, artists and people. I hope we have more such events in which we can discuss art and literature which is relevant to our times.”

Samanth Subramanian: “The event was a wonderful way to discuss the specificities of some conflicts, with the knowledge throughout that all conflicts have so much that in common. Even as we remember the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, we find its themes playing out in the world around us today.”

For more information, please contact:

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com

 *****

The featured panellists:

Paro Anand is one of India’s top writers. Best known for her writings for young adults, she has always pushed boundaries and challenged preconceived notions of the limits of writings for young people. She has been described as a fearless writer with a big heart. She works extensively for young people in difficult circumstances, especially with orphans of separatist violence in Kashmir. Using literature as a creative outlet, she provided a platform for the traumatized young to express their grief in ways that they had been unable to before. This release gave them the ability to move beyond and look into their future, instead of staying frozen in their very violent past. One of the over-riding feelings she came away with was the need to tell these stories to a wider audience and thus bring the alienated back into the mainstream consciousness.

Samanth Subramanian is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He has written op-eds and reportage for the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and book reviews and cultural criticism for the New Republic, the Guardian and Book forum. His first book, a collection of travel essays titled “Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast,” was published in India in 2010 and in the United Kingdom in 2013. “Following Fish” won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Andre Simon Book Award in 2013. Subramanian received a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. He has lived in the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, the United States and Sri Lanka. “This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War,” his second book, was published in July.

Amandeep Sandhu is currently a Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany (2013-15) working on his third novel which deals with how art shapes the historiography of a land. His Master of Arts, English Literature (1994-96) was from the University of Hyderabad and Diploma in Journalism (1997-98) from the Asian School of Journalism. In the late 1990s he was a journalist with The Economic Times. He has been a Technical Writer with top Information Technology companies for more than a decade: Novell, Oracle and Cadence Design systems. Over the last few years he has been actively reviewing books for The Hindu, The Asian Age, The Indian Express, BusinessWorld and writing a column in Tehelka on issues related to Punjab.

21 Oct 2014

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 August 2014) and in print ( 3 August 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/stories-on-conflict/article6274928.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

 Jaya Bhattacharji RoseOff late images of conflict dominate digital and print media– injured children, rubble, weeping people, vehicles blown apart, graphic photographs from war zones. We live in a culture of war, impossible to get away from. What is frightening is the daily engagement we have with this violence, to make it a backdrop and a “normal” part of our lives. The threshold of our receptivity to it is lowering; the “appetite” for violence seems to be increasing.

Take partition of the sub-continent in 1947.  Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of the brilliant anthology of graphic stories with contributions from three countries, This Side, That Side, remarks, “Partition is so much a part of the lives of South Asians.” It exists in living memory. Generations have been brought up on family lore, detailing experiences about Partition, the consequences and the struggle it took refugees to make a new life. For many years, there was silence. Then in India the communal riots of 1984 following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi happened. For many people of the older generation who had experienced the break-up of British India it opened a Pandora box of memories; stories came tumbling out. It was with the pioneers of Partition studies–Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin and Urvashi Butalia–that this tumultuous time in history began to make its mark in literature.

Contemporary sub-continental literature comprises of storytellers who probably grew up listening to stories about conflict in their regions. It is evident in the variety, vibrancy and strength discernible in South Asian writing with distinct styles emerging from the nations. There is something in the flavour of writing; maybe linked to the socio-political evolution of the countries post-conflict—Partition or civil unrest. In India, there is the emergence of fiction and nonfiction writers who have a sharp perspective to offer, informed by their personal experiences, who are recording a historical (and painful) moment. Recent examples are Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots, Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour, Chitrita Banerji’s Mirror City, Sujata Massey’sThe City of Palaces, Sudipto Das’s The Ekkos Clan,  Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and Samanth Subramanian’s The Divided Land , a travelogue about post-war Sri Lanka. In Sri Lankn literature conflict is a constant backdrop, places and names are not necessarily always revealed or easily identified, but the stories are written with care and sensitivity. Shyam Selvadurai in his introduction to the fascinating anthology of varied examples of Sri Lankan literature, Many Roads to Paradise writes “In a post-war situation, this anthology provides an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities by allowing Sri Lankans access to the thoughts, experiences, history and cultural mores of their fellow countrymen, of which they have remained largely ignorant due to linguistic divides.” Contributors include Shehan Karunatilaka ( The Chinaman), Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors) and Ashok Ferrey ( The Colpetty People and  The Professional). Bangladeshi writers writing in a similar vein are Shaheen Akhtar’s The Search ( translated by Ella Dutta), Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice (translated by Mahmud Rahman), Tahmima Anam The  Good Muslim and Neamat Imam’s The Black Coat. Pakistani Nadeem Aslam’s last novel Blind Man’s Garden is a searing account of the war in Afghanistan and its devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people. In his interview with Claire Chambers for British Muslim Fictions, Nadeem Aslam said his “alphabet doesn’t only have 26 letters, but also the 32 of the Urdu alphabet, so I have a total of 58 letters at my disposal”.  Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone uses fiction (the story is set during the World Wars) to comment upon contemporary socio-political events (Peshawar). Earlier this year Romesh Gunaseekera told me while discussing his latest novel, Noontide Toll “All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.”

From Homer’s The Odyssey onwards, recording war through stories has been an important literary tradition in conveying information and other uses. Today, with conflict news coming in from every corner of the world and 2014 being the centenary year of World War I, publishers are focusing upon war-related literature, even for children. For instance, Duckbill Books new imprint, NOW series about children in conflict has been launched with the haunting Waiting Mor, set in Kabul and inspired by a true story. Paro Anand’s No Gun’s at my Son’s Funeral was one of the first stories written in India for young adults that dealt with war, children and Kashmir; it is soon to be made into a feature film. All though ninety years after the first book was published Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, about a mischievous 11-year-old boy set during WWI, continues to be a bestseller! The culture of war has been inextricably linked to literature and media. As the protagonist, Adolf Hitler says in Timur Vermes must-read debut novel Look Who’s Back “after only a handful of days in this modern epoch, I had gained access to the broadcast media, a vehicle for propaganda”.

2 August 2014 

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