Satyajit Ray Posts

An interview with Arjun Raj Gaind, author of “The Maharaja Mysteries”

An interview with Arjun Raj Gaind, author of “The Maharaja Mysteries” — A Very Pukka Murder and Death At The Durbar. Two delightful books, set during the British Raj, charmingly written much in the vein of an Agatha Christie story, and partly inspired by the author’s grandfather. Incredible amounts of research done to get the period details accurate and it is evident. Recently these stories were sold to a television network for adaptation to the small screen. 

Read on for the interview. 

 

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Arjun Raj Gaind is the author of the critically acclaimed historical mystery series, The Maharaja Mysteries, which are set against the picturesque backdrop of princely India during the heyday of the British Raj. Two installments have been released so far, A Very Pukka Murder (2016) and Death at the Durbar (2018). The third book in the series, The Missing Memsahib, is due for release early in 2019 by Harper Collins India and Poisoned Pen Press USA. He is also the creator and author of several comic books and graphic novels, including Empire of Blood, Project: Kalki, Reincarnation Man, The Mighty Yeti, Blade of the Warrior, and A Brief History of Death.

Here are excerpts of an interview conducted via email:

Why did you decide to write mystery stories after having been a graphic novelist?
I believe stories are universal, and that if a writer is a natural storyteller, they will refuse to allow themselves to be limited by genre or format. Ultimately, it is all about telling stories in an original and effective manner so that your readers keep wanting to turn to the next page. Everything else, it is just filler.

I have always been a keen aficionado of Golden Age detective fiction, and find the manners and mystique of classical mystery very enticing. It is really quite sad that in India, we don’t really have a culture and tradition of mystery fiction. I wanted to change that, to try and create an original Indian detective, someone with the savoir-faire of James Bond but also the deductive temperament of Hercule Poirot.

Maharaja Sikander Singh actually came to me as an epiphany while I was reading William Dalrymple’s White Mughals and I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had an Indian King who had fantastic adventures during the British Raj?” After that, I had no choice. I owed it to Sikander to bring him to life because as any writer will tell you, some characters are just too good to neglect.

Interestingly, he isn’t entirely fictional, but rather a composite of several real historical figures, based in part on Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala and partially on Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, both gentlemen of monumental appetites who lived very picturesque lives. My favourite character in the series however, is the Maharaja’s manservant and sidekick, Charan Singh. He is named for and modelled after my grandfather, who I believe epitomized everything admirable about being Sikh, from unswerving loyalty to a fierce sense of duty and honour that cannot be bought or sold, no matter what the price.

Why select the British Raj as the setting for your mysteries?
I am rather an inveterate brown sahib, and have always been very fascinated by the Raj, ever since my time at the Lawrence School, Sanawar. I think that in many ways, many facets of contemporary India, whether social, economic or political, have been defined by the clash of cultures that took place between East and West during the Colonial Era. Being Punjabi and an English speaker, it is impossible to deny what a pervasive and lasting impact Imperialism has had on our lives.

At the same time, I wanted to create an original character who could hold up a mirror to the innate racism of British India. Most Indians represented in colonial fiction are shown as subservients, as outsiders, but Maharaja Sikander Singh is very different. His wealth and rank allow him access to the highest echelons of British India, and is in many ways, he is the perfect foil to illustrate the hypocrisy of English India, better educated than most of the sahibs he encounters and far more worldly, but still doomed to be a second class citizen, restricted by his race and skin colour. That is what excited me, the notion of subverting the Raj, and revisiting it, only this time from the point of view of an educated, upper class Indian, rather than a servant or a serf.

Who are the crime writers you admire?
More than writers per se, I have a bunch of favourite books and series. Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie. Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. The Saint books by Leslie Charteris. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Simenon’s Maigret series. Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados books. The Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers. Inspectors Morse, Lynley and Alleyn. Nero Wolfe. The Thin Man by Dashiel Hammett. The Big Sleep by Philip Marlowe. Wallander. My name is Red. The Rose of Tibet. The Shadow of the Wind. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda books. The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olson. The Harry Hole books by Jo Nesbo. The list is quite endless.

Amongst historical mystery novelists, I am a fan of the Falco series by Lindsay Davis, Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa cycle, C.J Sansom’s Shardlake books, Caleb Carr’s Alienist series, Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands series, and Jason Goodwin’s Yashim the Eunuch book, to name
just a few.

Do you find there is a difference in the storytelling of a graphic novel and a mystery story? To a reader it is usually only the format that differs.
Actually, I believe the basic craft involved in writing mystery fiction and creating a sequential narrative is quite similar. The elements are exactly the same – Plot, Setting, Character, Conflict and Point of View. The main challenge with writing comics is that it is a static medium, where you are limited not only by the number of words you can use on a page, but also by the fact that you cannot really show movement. Instead, you have to suggest the illusion of movement by using a montage of fixed images that manipulate the reader, trick their imagination into seeing more than what is being said.

Interestingly, that is a great lesson to use in a mystery too, where you create and sustain a sense of suspense by deliberately placing hints and clues to keep the reader inveigled. Take Noir as an example. In a graphic novel, you create a sense of unease by using shadows and angles. In a mystery novel, you use mood and description. And of course, good dialogue is good dialogue, regardless of format.

How much research — period details, historical accuracy, language — was required for each story?
I confess, I went a little crazy doing the research. That is the part of writing historical fiction I enjoy the most, the excavation and accumulation of obscure details. It is rather like voyeurism, except you are spying on the lives of long dead people. In fact, that is what excites me about history, not the broad sweep of events, but rather the minutiae which textbooks do not reveal.

I am a firm believer in using primary sources, and while researching A Very Pukka Murder, I ended up reading more than 300 books about British India. I became obsessed with getting every detail right, from which cobbler my Maharaja would have used to have his shoes custom-made, to what brand of perfume he would have chosen to import from France. Funnily enough, along the way, i have ended up becoming somewhat of an expert about several abstruse subjects, from the variations in pugree and cummerbund styles across India to early luxury cars owned by Indian Maharajas. I also took great pains to try and get the cadences of how an educated Indian in fin de siecle India would have spoken, and also the phraseologies and parlances he would have used. By and large, I think was quite successful, although my first draft, which was about six hundred pages long, gave both my
agent and my editor indigestion, I am certain.

Why are you focused on a trilogy? A character like this evolves does he not?
Frankly, I would be delighted to release a Sikander book each year for the rest of my life. I have about eleven books plotted out so far, including one set against the backdrop of the First World War, and a
grand finale set in 1947 when the English depart and India attains independence. About the trilogy, I have been fortunate that Harper Collins India and Poisoned Pen Press have shown enough faith in my work to acquire three books. Hopefully, sales permitting, they will want to publish many more, and Maharaja Sikander Singh will be here to stay for a good many years.

The stories seem to creep forward in time, at least in the time difference between A Very Pukka Murder and Death at the Durbar. If you ever had to expand these into a series would you not find the timeline challenging?
I believe I am up to the task. Besides, I like the thought of the character growing older as his readers age. It worked for Harry Potter, didn’t it?

The stories are going to be adapted for television. Will you be doing the screenplay as well?
Not for all the money in the world. I am old and seasoned enough to recognize my limitations, and I think that the adaptation, whether for film or television, would best be served by a professional
script-writer. I do however, intend to look over his or her shoulder and backseat write every single sentence, at least until the producers decide to be rid of me.

12 May 2018

An extract from “The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta” by Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury is a memoir of his time spent in Calcutta. It is the city of his parents and he has strong familial ties. Despite studying at Yale University he moves to Calcutta to join The Statesman as a reporter. After two years he quits and returns to do his doctorate from Princeton University. There are incredible descriptions recreating a city which is an odd mix of laid back, sometimes busy, always crowded, crumbling juxtaposed with the shiny new concrete jungles. The language is breathtakingly astonishing for in the tiny descriptions lie the multi-layered character of Calcutta. As William Dalrymple observes in the Guardian that The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  is “a beautifully observed and even more beautifully written new study of Calcutta”. All true.  Yet it is impossible not to recall the late photographer Raghubir Singh’s book Calcutta, a collection of photographs that sharply document details of a city where the old and new co-exist and continue to charm the outsider. Both the books by Kushanava Choudhury and Raghubir Singh are seminal for the way they capture an old but living city but with a foreigner’s perspective that is refreshing. For instance the following excerpt about little magazines and literary movements encapsulates the hyper-local while giving the global perspective.

The excerpt is taken from The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury published with permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing India.

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From Tamer Lane, along the gully that leads to the phantom urinal, there is a house with a mosaic mural of two birds with Bengali lettering. The letters read: ‘Little Magazine Library’.

Sandip Dutta sat in the front room of his family home. He looked a bit glum, half asleep, just like a Calcutta doctor in his chamber. Not one of those hotshot cardiologists who rake in millions, but more like the para homeopath without much business.

Surrounding him were bookshelves piled high with stacks of documents. Behind them was a glass showcase covered with pasted magazine clippings, like in a teenager’s room. They included cut-out pictures of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Ingmar Bergman, Vincent Van Gogh, Jibanananda Das, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, two big red lips, one big eye, Salvador Dalí and Che Guevara. A cartoon read, in rhyming Bengali: ‘Policeman, take off your helmet when you see a poet.’

On one wall was a taped computer printout: ‘‘‘I have been following the grim events (in Nandigram) and their consequences for the victims and am worried.” Noam Chomsky, Nov 13, 2007. 4:18:17 a.m. by email.’

Curios from local fairs were indiscriminately piled high on the desk. Cucumbers made of clay, pencils carved into nudes, tubes of cream that were actually pens, pens with craning rubber necks like swans, bronze statues from South Africa, masks from rural Bengal, a porcelain dancing girl from America. Behind them, Dutta looked like an alchemist in his lair.

‘I went to the National Library in 1971 and I saw that they were throwing away a bunch of little magazines,’ he said. ‘I had a little magazine of my own then, and I took it as a personal affront.’

No one was archiving little magazines at the time. No libraries kept them. When Dutta finished his masters, he started collecting them. At first he had a job that paid fifty rupees a month, then another for one hundred rupees, teaching three days a week in a remote rural school. ‘They were funny jobs,’ he said. ‘Jobs basically to buy magazines.’

In 1978, he got a teaching job down the road at City College School, he told me. That same year, in the two front rooms of his house, he began the Little Magazine Library. Since then he has been running this operation by himself – a bit like those heroes in Bollywood films who take on a whole band of ruffians single-handedly, he likes to say. His is a one-man effort to save the ephemeral present.

Every afternoon he came home from school and set to work at his library. A couple of days were devoted to maintenance, spraying to prevent bookworms and termites. The rest of the afternoons, he kept the library open to the public.

In Bengal, literary movements were usually connected to one little magazine or another. The heyday of the Bengali little magazine was probably the 1960s, when the poets Sunil, Shakti and Sandipan brought out Krittibas. No magazine today packs the same literary punch. Yet people keep publishing Bengali little magazines. By Sandip’s count, each year 500–600 little magazines are still published.

The little magazine originated in early-twentieth century America. Many of the radical strands of modernism – like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was first serialised in the Chicago based Little Review – first appeared in little magazines before anyone bet on their viability in the capitalist market. The early works of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and many others were all published in the little magazines of their day. Unlike regular magazines, they relied on patrons and modest sales rather than advertising. Shielded from market pressures, they provided a place for writers to be read, even if by a small number of people, and they gave intrepid readers a way to discover new writers. In Calcutta, like so many other aspects of life taken from the West – the tram, homeopathy, Communism – once adopted, little magazines then took on a life of their own and became central to how we understood ourselves. In a proper capitalist system, these magazines would have vanished long ago, taking with them thousands of writers. But like those 1950s Chevrolets in Havana, the Bengali little magazine rolls on, patched up, creaky, a source of local pride, as if it were uniquely ours and as integral to Bengali-ness as a fish curry and rice lunch.

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Kushanava Choudhury The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  Trade Paperback | 272 pp | INR 499

21 August 2017 

Happy Birthday HarperCollins!

2017. A landmark year for HarperCollins worldwide. The publishing firm is celebrating its bicentennary and the Indian office is marking 25 years of its operations locally. Stories from HarperCollins Publishers ( 1817 – 2017)  a succintly produced edition chronicling the firm’s history. There are fascinating nuggets in it. 

HarperCollins Publishers began as J. & J. Harper, a small family printing shop run by brothers James and John Harper in New York City in March 1817. In 1825 the company posted an advertisement in the United States Literary Gazette announcing five forthcoming titles. Scotsman Thomas Nelson ( born Neilson) opened a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh in 1798, eventually publishing inexpensive editions of noncopyrighted religious texts and popular fiction. Collins also started out as a small family-run printer and publisher. Chalmers and Collins, established by millworker and seminarian William Collins and Charles Chalmers ( brother of evangelical preacher Thomas), published its first work in 1819. It began by publishing only the writings of the Reverend Dr. Thomas Chalmers, but soon published other authors, eventually forming William Collins and Sons.

In 1962 what was then known as Harper & Brothers merged with textbook publisher Row, Peterson & Company, forming Harper & Row. HarperCollins as a brand came into existence in 1989 after News Corporation purchased Harper & Row ( 1987) and Collins ( 1989). Today HarperCollins global brand publishes approximately 10,000 new titles every year in 17 languages and has a print and digital catalogue of more than 200,000 titles. Along the way it has acquired other well-established businesses with robust identities of their own such as 4th Estate, Angus & Robertson, Amistad Press, Avon Books, Caedmon Audio, Ecco Press, Funk & Wagnalls, Granada, Harlequin, J.B. Lippincott, the John Day Company, Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., Thorson’s, Unwin Hyman, William Morror and Company, Zondervan, HarperCollins Christian Publishing and others. Many of these remain as imprints of HarperCollins.

Over the years it established credibility as being an author’s publisher for it protected rights and fought against piracy. In the 1800s Harper brothers ensured that they were fair in paying royalties to their authors, particularly those who were overseas. Their fiercest competitor was Mathew Carey’s publishing house of Philadelphia. A cease-fire between the rivalry happened in 1830s and “The Harper Rule” agreement was reached. According to Stories from HarperCollins Publishers “in [this] a publisher would cease printing when a competitor purchased advance proofs and announced forthcoming titles, or had previously published a British author.” This enabled the Harper brothers to invest more in finding and developing relationships with authors. They also began to explore other markets in the 1800s such as Canada, Australia and India. Interestingly they broke into new markets with texts such as prayer books, geography, gospels, dictionaries, schoolbooks, readers and primers.

Poet Gulzar and veteran Bollywood actress-turned-politician Hema Malini cutting the HarperCollins 25th anniversary cake, New Delhi, July 2017.

The stable of authors associated with HarperCollins is extraordinary. The firm published the American edition of Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak ( 1823), Edward Lytton Bulwer’s The Coming Race ( 1871), and H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds ( 1898) and The Invisible Man ( 1898). These were deemed as “scientific romance”. Later with the acquisition of Unwin Hyman by Collins the firm discovered the winning formula of fantasy worlds furnished with maps and illustrations as has been proved with the success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit ( 1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy ( 1954 – 55). Other writers include ( listed in no specific order) C. S. Lewis, Paulo Coelho, Deepak Chopra, Erle Stanley Gardner, Aldous Huxley, Herman Melville, Harper Lee, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, George R. R. Martin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Agatha Christie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sylvia Plath, Pearl Buck, Doris Lessing, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Martin Luther King Jr., Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, E. B. White, Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, Judith Kerr, Armistead Maupin, Alan Cummings, Caitlin Moran and Roxane Gay.

In the 1800s the publisher made exploratory trips to India too and witnessed an explosion in fiction writing in the 1890s due to high population density coupled with growing literacy. In 1992 HarperCollins establish a base in India when it entered into a partnership with the Indian firm, Rupa Publications. After a few years a new collaboration was forged with the India Today group. Finally HarperCollins became an independent entity of its own and its headquartered in Delhi NCR. The CEO is Ananth Padmanabhan.

To celebrate 25 years of its impressive presence in India, HarperCollins India ( HCI) has launched a campaign that consists of special editions of 25 of its iconic books and short films promoting storytelling and books. This list includes writers such as Anuja Chauhan, Anita Nair, Kiran Nagarkar, Rana Dasgupta, Siddharth Mukherjee, Satyajit Ray, Akshaya Mukul, Vivek Shanbhag, B. K. S. Iyengar, Arun Shourie etc. HCI has also launched a scrumptious list consisting of 25 facsimile editions of Agatha Christie novels.

Happy Birthday, HarperCollins!

2 August 2017 

 

 

HarperCollins India celebrates 25 years of publishing with special editions of 25 of its most iconic books

HarperCollins India celebrates 25 years of publishing with special editions of 25 of its most iconic books

HarperCollins Publishers India, which began its journey in 1992 with twenty books that year and a team consisting of just a handful of people, has come a long way. Twenty-five years later, HarperCollins India boasts a list of over 180 new books a year in every genre possible, be it literary and commercial fiction, general and commercial non-fiction, translations, poetry, children’s books or Hindi.

2017 marks the silver jubilee year of HarperCollins India. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, HarperCollins India is bringing out special editions of 25 of its most iconic books, calling it the Harper 25 Series, which will be available for a limited time.

HarperCollins India’s Publisher – Literary, Udayan Mitra, says, ‘Publishing is all about the love for reading, and in the 25 years that we have been in India, we have published books that have been read with joy, talked about, debated over, and then read once again; between them, they have also won virtually every literary award there is to win. The Harper 25 series gives us the chance to revisit some of these wonderful books.’

HarperCollins India’s art director, Bonita Vaz-Shimray, who conceptualized the design for the Harper 25 series, says, ‘The series is a celebration of the HarperCollins brand – its identity and colours – the iconic Harper red and blue have been interpreted in water colour media by Berlin-based Indian artist Allen Shaw. Each cover illustration is a story in itself – a story that’s open-ended, a story that sets the mood for what’s going to come, a story that starts taking definite shape only after the reader has finished reading the book.’

The entire Harper 25 series is now available at a bookstore near you. The books in the series include:

Akshaya Mukul Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India
Amitav Ghosh The Hungry Tide
Anita Nair Lessons in Forgetting
Anuja Chauhan Those Pricey Thakur Girls
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Turning Points
Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
Arun Shourie Does He Know a Mother’s Heart?
A.S. Dulat with Aditya Sinha Kashmir the Vajpayee Years
B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Yoga
H.M. Naqvi Home Boy
Jhumpa Lahiri Interpreter of Maladies
Karthika Nair Until the Lions
Kiran Nagarkar Cuckold
Krishna Sobti Zindaginama
Manu Joseph Serious Men
M.J. Akbar Tinderbox
Tarun J. Tejpal The Story of My Assassins
Raghuram G. Rajan Fault Lines
Rana Dasgupta Tokyo Cancelled
Satyajit Ray Deep Focus
Siddhartha Mukherjee The Emperor of All Maladies
Surender Mohan Pathak Paisath Lakh ki Dacaiti
S. Hussain Zaidi Byculla to Bangkok
T.M. Krishna A Southern Music
Vivek Shanbhag Ghachar Ghochar

For more information, please write to Aman Arora, (Senior Brand and Marketing Manager) at aman.araora@HarperCollins-india.com

Press Release: Rupa Publications turns 80!

INDIA’S LARGEST INDEPENDENT PUBLISHING HOUSE TURNS 80!

RupaRupa Publications turns 80 this August, and reiterates its continuing commitment to books, authors and the industry.

Rupa Publications’ journey began eighty years ago, when an enterprising young man, D. Mehra, managed to impress an English bookseller by his salesmanship and became his representative.

From Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter to Indira GandhiNehru's letter to Indira Gandhi

While we have come a long way since, that enterprising spirit has remained a constant, and the company has creatively and strategically expanded the scope of publishing in India to emerge as India’s largest independent publishing house, registering robust year-on-year top line growth over the years, at a level unparalleled in the publishing industry.

Success is a function of a combination of things: passion and energy, innovation and expertise, teams and leaders. All of which exemplifies Rupa Publications. It is no wonder it’s the House of Bestsellers. Happy 80th to my publisher.—RONNIE SCREWVALA

The company has been at the forefront of Indian publishing throughout its existence, finding and promoting the most exciting writing talent the country has to offer. Over the years, the company has published numerous acclaimed novelists, and non-fiction writers including well-known sportsmen, politicians, economists, journalists, actors, entrepreneurs and industrialists.

I am what I am because of Rupa Publications. They were the first people to have believed in me and, after more than a decade, remain my publisher. Together we have a mission to make India read, and we are still as enthusiastic about it as ever.—CHETAN BHAGAT

In recent times, the company’s non-fiction publishing has captured the country’s imagination, among them Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah, which raised serious questions about Partition; The Dramatic Decade, the first of a three-volume autobiography by the first citizen of India, President Pranab Mukherjee; the provocative memoir of well-known politician and diplomat K. Natwar Singh, One Life Is Not Enough; the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Bimal Jalan’s volume on the interface between politics and economics, Politics Trumps Economy; A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s wonderfully inspirational and educative The Guiding Light; popular actor Ayushmann Khurrana’s experiential guide to making it in Bollywood, Cracking the Code; top media professional and serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala’s Dream With Your Eyes Open; the straight-talking memoir of the former Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Vinod Rai, Not Just an Accountant; and former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi’s deeply analytical study of the Indian elections, An Undocumented Wonder. The backlist includes many other heavyweight writers such as Wytze Keuning, Acharya Kripalani, L.K. Advani, J.R.D. Tata, Maharani Gayatri Devi and Mark Tully, to name a few.

In fiction, Rupa Publications continues to publish some of the country’s biggest writers of commercial fiction, most notably Chetan Bhagat, the No. 1 bestselling novelist in India. His latest novel, Half Girlfriend, and his just released work of non-fiction, Making India Awesome, have had the largest ever first print run, where English language trade publishing in India is concerned. Another notable bestselling author has been Varun Agarwal with his How I Braved Anu Aunty and Co-founded a Million Dollar Company.

I’d be forever grateful to Rupa for believing in me and backing me up in spite of [my] being a first-time writer. I still remember the excitement when I got a mail from Rupa saying my book would be published. Not only do I think Rupa is one the finest publishing houses in the country, it’s also one of the most disruptive. I’d like to thank Rupa for changing my life and also making Anu Aunty a household name.

I wish you guys all the best for the future. Like always, keep kicking ass.—VARUN AGARWAL

Other popular writers on Rupa’s list include Samrat Upadhyay, Nitasha Kaul (who was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize for her debut novel Residue), Siddhartha Gigoo (nominated for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize), Gulzar, Ruskin Bond, Kavita Kané, Damodar Mauzo, Anuja Chandramouli and Madhuri Banerjee.

Rupa is my ‘home’ publishing house, given my long-standing and fruitful relationship with the group. Thanks, Rupa. Wish you a thousand returns of the day.—GULZAR

Rupa’s publishing has been innovative and designed to meet the needs of the fast-changing Indian marketplace. In 2012, the company launched Red Turtle, the premier children’s imprint which has brought out beautifully illustrated and designed books such as Babayan by Kiku Adatto; The Tigers of Taboo Valley by Ranjit Lal; and translations from Satyajit Ray, The Magic Moonlight Flower and Other Stories.

In 2015, Rupa Publications celebrated India’s business and entrepreneurial spirit by launching its business imprint, Maven, with marketing wizard Suhel Seth’s Mantras for Success: India’s Greatest CEOs Tell You How to Win, profiling the czars of Indian business and HSBC honcho Naina Lal Kidwai’s 30 Women in Power, featuring the struggle and successes of India’s extraordinary women achievers.

Rupa completes 80 years not just of being one of India’s most revered publishers but more than that one of India’s foremost knowledge disseminators. Rupa combines a rare understanding of the Indian psyche and has, over the years, honed its tremendous insights into creating books which have had the greatest impact on the Indian mind.—SUHEL SETH

The strength of its publishing apart, Rupa has ensured that its titles are sold and distributed effectively by owning its own distribution network—the only major publishing house in India with such an asset. In addition, it has been at the forefront of pioneering marketing and publicity initiatives. Some of these innovations include managing to place, in association with Flipkart, front-page advertising for Chetan Bhagat’s novel in the country’s highest circulated English language newspaper, and strategizing massive media as well as trade support for the President’s memoirs.

Rupa Publications have been my publishers since 1998. A formidable and dynamic entity, its reach is unsurpassed, as I discovered during my promotional travels related to One Life Is Not Enough. An outstanding publisher, I congratulate them on their achievement and dedication.                             —K. NATWAR SINGH

Constantly pushing the boundaries of possibilities to leverage the best for its books and its authors, Rupa Publications has redefined the rules of publishing by understanding and seizing the opportunity of the middle of the pyramid of the 400 million inhabiting ‘middle’ India. Rupa has been pioneering in its attempt to reach this untapped audience—by packaging good content with affordable pricing and extended distribution—and this is evident not only in its core frontlist but also in terms of sales of regional language rights.

And, never sitting on its laurels, Rupa Publications is now focusing on how it can leverage the digital space, and is readying to exploit the opportunities arising from the digitization of content made possible by the advances in hard technology over the last ten years.

Kapish Mehra, managing director, Rupa Publications, expressed his delight at crossing the 80-year milestone, and said “Breaking new ground has been our constant focus, and we will continue to do so in the days, months and years to come so as to contribute to the growth of the industry and provide an enhanced reading experience for all.”

Rupa Publications. Eight decades of being in your good books.

 

For further information please contact:

Vasundhara Raj Baigra, Head of Marketing and Publicity, Rupa Publications India.

Email: vasundhara@rupapublications.com | Tel: 011 4922 6627

 

Guest post: Why “The Lives of Others” makes me afraid, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Guest post: Why “The Lives of Others” makes me afraid, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

( While reading ManBooker shortlisted novel, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, I began to discuss it with Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. He is an avid reader. Initially he was happy with the novel, it was well written, but then there was this long silence from him. A few days ago, I got a message from him at 2am to say he was not very comfortable at the portrayal of Santhals in the book. He should know. It is his community. So I asked him to contribute a guest post for my blog. I am posting it as he sent it. )

 

Neel Mukherjee

When  I  first  saw  the  Indian  hardcover  edition  of  Neel  Mukherjee’s  second  novel,  The  Lives  of  Others,  at  a  book  store  in  Kolkata  in  June  2014,  I  was  struck  by  the  familiarity  of  the  contents  of  the  book.  Having  grown  up  and  lived  all  my  life  in  a  southern  corner  of  the  state  of  Jharkhand,  the  complexities  of  a  Bengali  joint  family  and  the  Naxalite  movement  were  familiar  issues.  However,  what  was  even  more  familiar – and  striking – was  the  map  at  the  beginning  of  the  novel;  for  inset  in  that  map  were  all  the  places  that  remind  me  of  home.  They  are  not  big  or  famous  places.  They  are  small,  district  towns  and  villages.  They  do  not  find  a  regular  mention  in  the  media  like  bigger  cities  like  Kolkata  or  Delhi  do.  An  incident  that  takes  place  in  these  places  has  to  be  very  big,  remarkable  in  every  way  to  have  people  talk  about  these  places.  Even  if  these  places  find  a  mention  in  the  front  pages  of  The  Telegraph  or  The  Statesman,  I  am  quite  sure  that  many  readers  won’t  remember  their  names  just  a  mere  24  hours  after  having  read  about  them.  Yet,  these  are  the  places  whose  names  I  have  been  hearing  ever  since  I  developed  the  ability  to  listen  to  and  understand  words  and  names;  maybe,  since  when  I  was  2  or  3  years  old.  I  am  31  now,  and  the  names  of  these  places  fill  me  with  a  desire  to  just  run  back  to  my  ancestral  village  or  my  hometown  at  the  first  given  opportunity.

I  can  vouch  for  the  actuality  of  three  places  in  that  inset:  Belpahari,  Binpur,  and  Jhargram.  I  am  not  too  sure  of  Gidighati  and  Majgeria.  Perhaps,  they,  too,  are  real.  Perhaps,  they  are  a  creation  of  the  author’s  imagination.  But  Belpahari,  Binpur  and  Jhargram  are  real.  They  exist.  There  is  another  place  mentioned  a  number  of  times  in  the  novel,  giving  that  place  a  certain  importance,  although  it  does  not  appear  in  the  map:  Gidhni.

The  name  of  my  village  is  Kishoripur.  It  is  the  village  of  my  ancestors;  the  place  where  my  father,  grandfather,  and  all  those  who  came  before  were  born  and  raised.  Kishoripur  is  a  village  in  Chakulia  block  of  East  Singbhum  district  of  Jharkhand,  a  mere  10  km  from  the  border  with  West  Bengal.  Both  Gidhni  and  Belpahari  are  some  10-15  km  from  Kishoripur,  in  two  different  directions—Gidhni,  towards  the  east;  Belpahari,  towards  the  north.  Jhargram  is  some  30-35  km  from  Kishoripur,  towards  the  east.  Binpur  is  some  20-25  km  from  Kishoripur,  towards  the  north-east.  I  remember  a  saying  I  have  grown  up  with.  Choluk  gaadi  Belpahari—Let  the  vehicle  go  to  Belpahari.  This  is  a  cry  of  excitement  that  village  people,  who,  in  earlier  times,  didn’t  usually  get  to  see  a  car  or  bus  or  other  automobile,  used  to  make  when  they  boarded  a  gaadi.  The  poetry  in  this  simple  cry  of  excitement  cannot  be  missed.  Gaadi  and  Belpahari  rhyme  with  one  another.  Somewhere  in  the  book,  Ghatshila  has  been  mentioned.  Ghatshila,  the  place  famous  for  its  copper  factory,  and  for  being  a  favourite  weekend  getaway  among  the  Bengalis  from  Kolkata,  is  the  place  where  my  parents  used  to  work  and  where  I  have  grown  up.  Ghatshila  is  my  hometown.  Belpahari,  Binpur,  and  Jhargram  were  the  reasons  that  drew  me – and,  ultimately,  made  me  read – The Lives of Others;  while  Gidhni  and  Ghatshila  filled  me  with  a  feeling  of  pride  that  the  places  I  am  so  familiar  with – one  of  those  being  my  hometown,  no  less – are  being  read  about  by  people  all  over  the  world.

As  I  progressed  with  the  novel  and  the  ups  and  downs  in  the  Ghoshes’  lives,  I  came  across  many  other  familiar  places,  like,  Bali,  Nalhati,  and  Memari.  I  am  working  with  the  government  of  Jharkhand  and  am  posted  in  Pakur.  Pakur  is  a  district  in  the  Santhal  Pargana  division  of  Jharkhand.  When  I  came  to  join  my  job  in  Pakur,  I  had  no  idea  about  the  route.  So  my  father  accompanied  me  and  we  came  from  Ghatshila  to  Pakur  by  road.  We  passed  through  four  districts  in  West  Bengal – Pashchim  Medinipur  (western  Medinipur,  mentioned  in  the  book),  Bankura,  Bardhaman,  and  Birbhum – before  we  entered  Jharkhand  again  and  reached  Pakur.  Nalhati  and  Memari  were  two  places  we  passed  through.  Now,  I  travel  from  Ghatshila  to  Pakur  by  train.  I  first  travel  from  Ghatshila  to  Howrah,  from  where  I  catch  the  train  to  Pakur.  Bali  and  Nalhati  are  two  stations  I  pass  through.  The  familiarity  provided  by  these  places  further  drew  me  into  The Lives of Others.  I  wasn’t  reading  the  book  because  I  wanted  to  know  what  happened  with  the  Ghoshes.  I  was  reading  The Lives of Others  because  it  was  so  familiar,  because  it  told  me  things  I  knew,  because  I  hoped to  find  another  familiar  point  in  one  of  its  pages,  because  it  seemed  to  speak  to  me.

I  wasn’t  disappointed.  The book threw up the names of other  familiar  places.  Jamshedpur,  Giridih,  Latehar,  Chhipodohar,  McCluskieganj.  I  had  goose  flesh  as  I  read  the  names  of  these  places  and  realised  that  many  like  me,  all  over  the  world,  were  reading  these  names.

Not  only  places,  The Lives of Others  was  familiar  also  with  regards  certain  terms  that  I  have  grown  up  with.  For  example,  munish.  Our  family  owns  land  in  our  village.  When  I  was  very  little,  my  grandfather  used  to  talk  about  letting  the  munish  farm  our  fields.  At  that  time,  I  understood  that  munish  meant  workers.  Men  who  work  in  the  fields.  As  I  grew  up,  I  learnt  that  munish  meant  the  sharecroppers  who  worked  our  fields  for  us.  This,  exactly,  is  the  meaning  The Lives of Others  gives  for  the  word  munish.

Then  there  were  the  familiar  Bengali  sayings.  “fourteen  forefathers”.  When  I  read  this  term  in  Chapter  18,  I,  despite  the  sad  and  fearful  context  of  this  chapter,  couldn’t  help  smiling.  That  is  because  I  have  heard  people  saying  the  original  term:  Choddo  gushti—and  also  the  comic  implications  of  this  term  when  it  is  said  in  anger.  Another  saying  was:  “a  case  of  the  sieve  saying  to  the  colander, “Why  do  you  have  so  many  holes  in  your  arse?””,  in  Chapter  10.  I  know  the  Bengali  of  this  one  too,  although  that  has  the  sieve  with  a  needle.  The  sieve  is  riddled  with  holes,  but  it  accuses  the  needle  of  having  a  hole!

The Lives of Others  was,  indeed,  speaking  to  me.  I  don’t  think  I  need  to  write  about  how  meticulous  this  book  is.  I  came  to  know  of  the  politics  in  West  Bengal,  as  well  as  about  the  processes  involved  in  the  manufacture  of  paper—this  shows  how  good  the  research,  the  work  on  the  background,  has  been.  Finally,  when  the  narrative  reached  the  villages  of  West  Medinipur,  and  Santhal  characters  entered  the  story,  I  found  myself  turning  the  pages  in  sheer  delight.  I  wanted  to  read  what  had  been  written  about  Santhals,  how  they  had  been  presented.

And  this  undid  everything.

Maybe  I  had  had  too  high  expectations  of  The Lives of Others.  Just  because  a  book  seemed  so  familiar,  and  was  well-researched  and  well-written,  I  had  felt  that  it  would  be  entirely  satisfactory.  I  was  wrong.  The  description  of  the  Santhals  in  The Lives of Others  is  anything  but  satisfactory.  At  the  most,  it  is  stereotypical,  one  dimensional,  and  whatever  the  author  has  written  about  Santhals  has  been  drawn  so  heavily  from  whatever  opinion  the  world,  in  general,  holds  about  Santhals – about  the  Adivasis,  in  fact – that  it  all  seems  like  a  cliché.

First,  there  is  this  violent  scene  in  Chapter  10—a  moneylender  called  Senapati  Nayek  being  hacked  to  death  with  tangi  (an  axe).  The  men  who  wielded  the  tangis  were  Dhiren,  a  young  man  from  Kolkata  who  has  turned  to  Naxalism,  and  Shankar  Soren,  a  Santhal  man  from  the  village  Majgeria.  Senapati  Nayek  was  hacked  twice,  and  it  has  not  been  mentioned  who  hacked  him,  whether  Dhiren  or  Shankar.  It  could  be  that  each  of  them  hacked  him  once.  It  could  also  be  that  either  Dhiren  or  Shankar  hacked  him  twice.  In  Dhiren’s  case,  it  could  be  understood  that  he  was  driven  by  his  Naxalite  ideal  to  kill  the  landlord.  He  had  something  to  prove.  In  Shankar’s  case,  he  only  had  his  poverty,  and  the  fact  that  Senapati  Nayek  was  cheating  him  out  of  what  he  produced  on  his  land.  The  novel  tells  us  that  Senapati  Nayek  cheated  Shankar  Soren,  that  Shankar  Soren  sought  revenge.  The  novel  does  not  tell  us  what  kind  of  person  Shankar  Soren  was.  He  could  have  been  a  good  man,  but  he  could  have  also  been  a  bad,  a  cruel  man.  For,  the  novel  tells  us  that  he  beat  his  wife.  He  beat  his  wife,  the  novel  informs  us,  out  of  frustration,  but  that  could  also  mean  that  Shankar  was  depressed,  that  there  was  something  going  on  in  his  mind.  The  novel  further  tells  us  that  Shankar  was  drawn  by  Dhiren  into  the  plot  to  kill  Senapati.  Shankar  agrees  to  it.  But,  sadly,  whatever  the  novel  tells  us  about  Shankar,  it  does  not  give  us  a  detailed  insight  into  his  back  story,  it  does  not  give  Shankar  a  redeeming  story.  Shankar,  here,  represents  the  Santhals,  and  what  we  come  to  know  about  Santhals  through  the  character  of  Shankar  is  that  Santhals  are  naïve,  helpless,  frustrated,  angry,  yield  easily  to  incitement,  and  violent—in  this  order.  I  don’t  understand  if  this  description  of  Santhals – through  the  character  of  Shankar – does  any  good  to  Santhals.  Chances  are  that  readers  who  are  not  familiar  with  Santhals  might  take  Santhals  to  be  fools  who  tend  to  lose  whatever  they  own  and  repent  for  it,  and  then  turn  to  violence  to  get  their  possessions  back.  Perhaps,  Santhals  might  be  seen  as  a  bunch  of  psychos.

Second,  there  is  this  scene  in  Chapter  15,  in  which  a  drunk  man  called  Ajit  tells  his  friend  Somnath:  “…I  find  these  tribal  people  really  innocent  and  pure.  Qualities  we  city-dwellers  have  lost.”  Fine,  this  could  be  true.  But  let  us  consider  the  scene  in  its  entirety.  Ajit  is  drunk.  How  much  weight  do  the  proclamations  of  a  drunk  man  hold?  Next,  there  is  one  more  friend,  Shekhar,  he  too  is  drunk,  who  adds:  “[The  tribals]  have  no  money,  no  jobs,  no  solid  houses,  yet  look  how  happy  they  are.  They  sing,  dance,  laugh  all  the  time,  drink  alcohol,  all  as  if  they  didn’t  have  a  single  care  in  the  world.”  Now,  isn’t  this  stereotyping?  It  has  been  taken  for  granted  that  tribals  “have  no  money,  no  jobs,  no  solid  houses”,  and  they  “sing,  dance,  laugh  all  the  time,  drink  alcohol”.  Even  if  it  is  assumed  that  it  is  the  voice  of  that  particular  character – and  not  the  voice  of  the  author  who  wrote  this  book – what  positive  thing  do  these  lines  hold  for  tribals?  A  reader  who  does  not  know  tribals  will  assume  that  all  tribals  do  are  “sing,  dance,  laugh  all  the  time,  drink  alcohol”.

Third,  and  this  really  irritated  me.  Chapter  15,  just  before  that  drunken  discussion  about  tribals.  Somnath,  who  is  a  complete  lecher,  is  attracted  to  a  young  Santhal woman  and  goes  to  ask  her  the  name  of  the  flower  she  has  put  in  her  hair.  The  woman  behaves  coquettishly,  and  asks  Somnath:  “Babu,  you  give  me  money  if  I  tell  you  the  name  of  the  flower?”  At  this  point,  I  can’t  help  noticing,  The Lives of Others  turns  into  Satyajit  Ray’s  film  adaptation  of  Sunil  Gangopadhyay’s  novel,  Aranyer  Din  Ratri.  The  young  Santhal  woman  could  very  well  be  Duli,  the  Santhal  woman  in  the  film  Aranyer  Din  Ratri,  played  by  Simi  Garewal;  while  Somnath  of  The Lives of Others  could  be  the  city-bred  Hari,  played  by  Samit  Bhanja  in  the  film  Aranyer  Din  Ratri.  In  fact,  there  is  a  scene  in  Aranyer  Din  Ratri,  set  in  a  small  rural  joint  selling  hooch,  in  which  a  drunk  Duli  comes  to  a  drunk  Hari  and  asks  him  to  give  her  money  to  buy  more  hooch.  “E  babu,  de  na.  Paisa  de  na”—Duli’s  lines  from  the  film  are  still  clear  in  my  mind,  not  because  I  liked  those  lines,  but  because,  being  a  Santhal,  I  found  those  lines  terribly  embarrassing,  and  the  character  of  Duli – played  by  Simi  Garewal – absolutely  unreal  and  a  caricature.  The  same  feeling  of  embarrassment  came  over  me  when  I  read  about  the  Santhal  woman  in  The Lives of Others  asking  for  money  from  a  city-bred  man.  Simi  Garewal  in  Aranyer  Din  Ratri  might  have  looked  very  glamorous  to  some  people,  but  I  cannot  forgive  Satyajit  Ray  for  making  a  complete  hash  of  a  Santhal  character.  Similarly,  I  cannot  forgive  Neel  Mukherjee  for  Aranyer  Din  Ratri-fication – or  Simi  Garewal-isation – of  a  Santhal  woman  in  his  novel.

Further,  in  the  same  chapter,  Somnath  has  successfully  seduced  that  Santhal  woman,  promising  to  buy  her  liquor,  and  was  leading  her  towards  the  forest  to,  apparently,  make  out  with  her.  This  is  what  has  been  written  in  the  novel:  “He  had  heard  that  these  promiscuous  tribal  women  had  insatiable  desires;  they  were  at  it  all  the  time,  with  whoever  approached  them”.  Promiscuous?  I  wonder  if  the  author  was  trying  to  count  the  qualities  of  tribal  women  or  just  generalizing  things.  If  a  woman  drinks  alcohol,  does  that  make  her  promiscuous?  Was  it  necessary  to  portray  “tribal  women”  as  “promiscuous”  and  with  “insatiable  desires”?  This,  together  with  lines  like,  “You  think  we  didn’t  see  you  unable  to  take  your  eyes  off  the  ripe  tits  of  these  Santhal  women?”,  “Ufff,  those  tits!  You’re  absolutely  correct,  Somu,  they’re  exactly  like  ripe  fruit.  The  only  thing  you  want  to  do  when  you  see  them  is  pluck  and  shove  into  your  mouth”,  and  “[Santhal  women]  fill  every  single  sense.  But  not  only  tits,  have  you  noticed  their  waists?  The  way  they  wind  that  cloth  around  themselves,  it  hardly  covers  anything,  leaves  nothing  really  to  imagination.  High-blood-pressure  stuff”  (all  lines  from  Chapter  15)  seem  to  only  further  the  Simi  Garewal-isation  of  Santhal  women.  Santhal  women  have  been  presented  as  objects  of  fantasy,  what  spoilt,  city-bred  men  desire.  While  there  might  be  some  truth  in  men  lusting  after  Santhal  women,  is  it  that  difficult  to  accept  Santhal  women  as  real  persons  and  not  merely  as  objects  lustful  men  fantasize  about?

Finally,  in  Chapter  3,  there  is  a  mention  of  “the  burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”.  I  wonder,  what  burial  grounds?  I  am  a  Santhal.  I  know  that  we  Santhals  do  not  bury  our  dead.  We  cremate  them.  So  where  did  these  “burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”  come  from?

The  “burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”  part  did  put  me  off  a  bit.  But  it  was  still  quite  early  in  the  novel,  and  I  was  ready  to  overlook  this  error  because  I  had  started  falling  in  love  with  this  novel.  I  found  one  more  error:  “Gidhni  Junction”,  in  Chapter  2.  Gidhni  is  an  actual  place,  and  the  railway  station  at  Gidhni  is  not  a  junction.  If  one  travels  to  Gidhni  from  Howrah,  one  would  reach  Jhargram  first  and  then  Gidhni.  So  why  would  “the  railtrack  [become]  a  loop-line”  and  why  would  “the  train  [leave]  the  main  railway  line  and  [go]  over  the  cutting”?  If  one  travelling  from  Howrah  needed  to  get  down  at  Jhargram,  he  could  easily  get  down  at  Jhargram  without  needing  to  travel  all  the  way  to  Gidhni.  I  overlooked  “Gidhni  Junction”,  initially,  thinking  it  to  be  a  creative  freedom  the  author  took.  The  type  of  creative  freedom  that  Jhumpa  Lahiri  took  in  The  Namesake  when  she  made  the  young  Ashoke  Ganguly  travel  from  Howrah  to  Tatanagar  in  an  overnight  train  instead  of  in  one  of  the  many  trains  that  ran  during  the  daytime  so  that  the  overnight  train  could  have  an  accident  near  Dhalbhumgarh  and  Ashoke  Ganguly’s  life  be  changed  forever.  I  tried  overlooking  both  “Gidhni  Junction”  and  “the  burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”.  But  what  else  was  written  about  Santhals  crushed  all  my  hopes  in  such  a  way  that  The Lives of Others,  a  book  I  had  found  so  familiar,  stopped  working  for  me.

I  am  happy  that  a  novel  which  has  a  few  Santhal  characters  is  being  received  so  well  all  over  the  world;  but  that  is  exactly  what  makes  me  afraid—that  readers  all  over  the  world  are  reading  about  Santhals  in  The Lives of Others.  Some  readers  might  even  believe  in  what  The Lives of Others  tells  them  about  Santhals,  and  this  does  not  make  me  happy  at  all,  because  the  actual  lives  of  the  Santhals  is  somewhat  different  from  what  The Lives of Others  tells  us.

25 September 2014

Neel Mukherjee The Lives of Others Random House India, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 514 Rs. 399

Hansda

 

 

 

 

 

 

HANSDA SOWVENDRA SHEKHAR is the author of the novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, published by Aleph Book Company. He is a Santhal, a native of Ghatsila subdivision of Jharkhand; and he is currently living in Pakur in the Santhal Pargana division of Jharkhand, where he is working as a medical officer with the government of Jharkhand. ( http://www.alephbookcompany.com/hansda-sowvendra-shekhar )

Guest Post: Shovon Chowdhury on Bengali-ness

Guest Post: Shovon Chowdhury on Bengali-ness

Shovon Chowdhury is an ad man. His debut novel The Competent Authority is being published by Aleph in August 2013. I have reviewed the book and interviewed him for the Hindu Literary Supplement, to be published on 4 Aug 2013. Meanwhile we got chatting about Bengali literature. I do not speak or read Bengali, but in response to my question, I received a lovely email from Shovon last night. I am reproducing it as is, with permission.

30 July 2013
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Hi Jaya,

Sorry I didn’t respond yesterday. I was working from morning till midnight, and then I passed out, shortly after my wife whispered in my ear, “You’re getting old now.”

To answer your question, I was hauled back from the UK at the age of 10, in 1973, to Calcutta. Once I got over the shock of learning that there was no TV, I was told that I had to pass Bengali in my annual exams, around a year from that point, or I would be kicked out of school. They weren’t as impressed with my English origins as we had thought they would be. You can’t really learn a language until you read stories, and in this respect, Satyajit Ray was a godsend for me. The first Bengali book I ever read was Felu-da’s Baksho Rohoshyo (The Box Mystery), purchased at A.H. Wheeler and read on the train, through the night, under a tiny bulb. I traced my finger along the words as I read it.

Further investigation of Satyajit Ray led me to Sandesh, a kid’s magazine he and his family ran from their house. Most of us young subscribers met him at one point or the other, and he would hand over our copies with the utmost gravity. In the very first issue I met Professor Shanku, an eccentric, but intrepid scientist, in ‘Eksringo Obhijan’ (The Unicorn Expedition) which was published serially in the magazine. I thought it was the best thing since Twenty Thousand Leagues. It would make a great movie. I was lucky that the first two Bengali books I read where so very up my street. I scraped through the annual exam, eventually, and remained part of the education system, to my lasting regret.

In the next few years, I spent most weekends in my grandfather’s two rooms in a narrow lane in Bagbazar. I had six aunties and one uncle, and usually they and most of their kids were in situ. Having been brought up as an only child, this was a thing of great horror to me, second only to the absence of Scooby Doo. Luckily, like all good Bengali households, they had complete sets of Rabindranath, Bankim Chandra, and Sharat Chandra, which nobody ever read except my grandmother. So I would park myself in a corner every weekend and pick myself a volume.

I ended up reading most of it. Bankim Chandra was rather tough, his Bengali very classical, his whole aspect very Old Testament. I knew all about the Old Testament because of bible classes back in Yorkshire, although as a matter of principle I never sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ or ‘Rule Britannia’. Rabindranath should have won the Nobel prize just for his short stories, which are brilliant. His plays were great fun, too. I found his poems a little old-fashioned. Sharat Chandra was a flat out genius, and easily one of the ten best novelists who ever lived. No one had a clearer eye.

By the time I reached college, I was reading a lot of Bengali poetry, in the hope of impressing girls, but ended up being impressed myself, particularly by Shubhash Mukhopadhyaya. He was a disillusioned man. Much like the rest of us, he started out admiring Che Guevara, and ended up with Jyoti Basu. Some of us fled, while the rest gave up. I was one of the runaways, to Delhi, in my case. Many years later, shortly before he died, I saw Jyoti Basu on TV, and was consumed with horror. I had no idea he was still alive. It was like The Return Of The Mummy. But that was much later.

Back then, even though the Party was consuming us all wholesale, like a crimson anaconda, we managed to have some fun. During my time in Cal, I did around two decades of movies, from the point where Uttam Kumar was doing the cha cha, to when Aparna Sen was doing the twist. In fact, all the members of the Very New Young Men’s Bodybuilding Society – Bhanu, Johor, Robi, Chinmoy and Tapen — are named after Bengali comedians I remember with great affection.

And then there was theatre. I spent many evenings at the Academy, watching productions by Nandikar and Theatre Workshop and Bahurupee. I can sing you every song from Manoj Mitra’s Narak Gulzar, or the incredible Theatre Workshop production of Schweyk Goes To War. I also read a few contemporary Bengali novelists, like Moti Nandi, and Shirshendu, and whatever ‘Desh’ was serving up that season. But I have to admit that most of them were a bit too social realist for me. The flights of fancy were all happening in the theatre, with Utpal Dutta, and Badal Sircar, and Ajitesh of the booming laughter, and more Brecht than you can imagine, from Galileo to The Good Woman. I wish he could have seen it.

Been out of touch the last ten years, sadly, except for the theatre part. I often re-read Sukumar Roy, though, and discover new things every time. He died young, like Alexander, and did things like this — http://shovonc.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/pome-of-the-day-5/, which everyone says is funny, but do we not live here today? The last four lines always terrify me.

Just to clarify, I am not a UK citizen. I wish I could say it was some kind of stand I took, but the fact is, it never occurred to me.

Cheers!

Shovon