short stories Posts

Women in Translation, Aug 2019

The Women in Translation (#WiT) month is celebrated annually in August. There was a flurry of activity online with a number of gems being unearthed and discussed. It is a really fascinating time to discover new writers, new translators, new publishers etc. Whilst I enjoyed reading the various articles, interviews, profiles and even book extracts that were made available online, I realised there was a deafening silence from the Indian subcontinent.

There is a thriving literary culture that has existed in the subcontinent for an exceptionally long time in all the regional languages. Of late many of these texts are being made available in English so as to be accessed by a larger readership. Sometimes new translations are commissioned such as Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard although a translation by Neelam Hussain of Simorgh Collective exists too.

Another fascinating aspect of the Indian publishing industry is that as it grows, the market grows, and so does the interest in the craft of writing. For long writers have written and published their works in various literary magazines, “women’s magazines”, newspapers etc. Of course there are now online literary spaces, discussion forums and sometimes even in the print media where writers are interviewed and their craft discussed. But interviewing writers, especially women, is an art unto itself. Women writers inevitably have to find the time to write amongst the rhythm of many other duties and commitments they need to fulfil. This was more so in the past than now when increasingly there are more and more “professional writers”. Even so, reading about the craft of writing by women writers continus to be an exciting world since irrespective of socio-economic class, many writers share the same concerns and have similar pressures. Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, has for years published interviews with women writers. Their latest publication is Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu. The Tamil publishing landscape is not an easy one to understand with many interesting threads running through it, all of which were influential upon the seventeen women writers interviewed by the editors — K. Srilata and Swarnlatha Rangarajan. While the interviews themselves are insightful, it is the structural arrangement of each entry that is fascinating for it has the mandatory biography about the author, a sample of her writing, a head note by the editors introducing the writer and why they chose her specifically to be included in the anthology and finally, the interview. Every detail adds just sufficient information creating an image of the writer that the reader definitely wants to know more about.

Ever since World Literature began to open new publishing horizons in the Anglo-American book market as well as the growth of the desi diaspora as a lucrative readership, did the spotlight on translations from regional languages into English become an attractive proposition for many firms. As a result there is a feast of offerings particularly as the multi-national publishers expand their fare. Be that as it may there are some fabulous publishers such as Women Unlimited, Zubaan, Orient Black Swan, Speaking Tiger, Permanent Black ( on occasion), Aleph Book Company, Yoda Press, Westland/Amazon and Oxford University Press that have been publishing translations for a while. It is impossible to list all but here some of the wonderful titles published recently.

The Solitary Sprout: Selected Stories of R. Chudamani ( translated from Tamil by C.T. Indra and T. Sriraman) is a fabulous collection of short stories. In fact, R. Chudamani (1931-2010) has often been considered as an early feminist among Tamil writers. The Solitary Sprout is a wonderful selection of Chudamani’s short stories with “No fury like a mother’s”, “Herself” and “Not a stepfather” standing out as very modern stories. It is hard to believe that these were written many decades ago. The sharp insight and clear ideas that the writer shares can take one’s breath away even now. For instance, “No fury like a mother’s” is about three mothers of young schoolgirls who are furious at how their daughters are ill-treated by their school teacher. The punishment meted out to the young girls by the teacher is to strip the girls publicly. The three mothers team up and pressurise the teacher to resign otherwise they threaten to mete out the same treatment to her as she did to their daughters. “Herself” is about a mother who once her children are married and settled with families of their own, discovers her trueself and becomes a music teacher as well is a voluntary worker at the Primary Health Centre in her village. Much to her visiting daughter’s dismay who had expected a month’s vacation at her parent’s home free from all responsibilities including babysitting her own son. Instead the daughter discovers she has to pitch in with household chores at her parents home and continue to look after her own son. She is deeply disappointed and upset as her memories of her mother was one who was always free and available for the family. It rattles the daughter. More so as her father supports his wife’s actions and sees no wrong. “Not a stepfather” addresses issues like widow remarriage, single parenting, stepfather etc. It is beautifully told from the perspective of the disgruntled mother of the bride who is not amused that her daugther has remarried and expects the new husband also to take care of her young son. It is complicated but within the first visit of the newly married couple to the mother’s house, the son warms up to his new father and gets the blessings of his mother-in-law too. It is a powerful story as it raises so many questions about gendered and social expectations of a woman and a man. The Solitary Sprout is worth reading, sharing and discussing in more forums. These are stories that need to be told more often.

Prolific and powerful writer K. R. Meera has a new collection of three novellas called The Angel’s Beauty Spots. As often is the case with K. R. Meera’s stories, she explores love and its various angles. Sometimes well meaning and powerful love for all intents and purposes can go horribly wrong as in the title novella. K. R. Meera’s stories have this remarkable quality of taking the wind out of the reader’s sails with the horrific and at times inexplicable sequence of events except that some bizarre form of love propelled many of the decisions taken by her characters. Somehow the team of author and translator, K. R. Meera and J. Devika, works well. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason but the translation reads smoothly without losing any of the cultural characteristics of sharing a story set in Kerala and written in Malayalam. It just feels perfectly satisfying to read.

The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) are the diaries written by Manubehn ( Mridula) Gandhi, who was the youngest daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, Jaisukhlal Amritlal Gandhi and Kasumba. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives of India and for the first time are being translated and edited from Gujarati into English by Tridip Suhrud. Manu Gandhi as a young girl had been encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to maintain a diary. Manu Gandhi was the one walking beside Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House before his would-be assassin, Nathuram Godse, pushed her aside, so as to be able to shoot his target.

Diary-keeping of Gandhi was an essential duty for all those engaged in pursuit of truth and hence obligatory for Ashramites and satyagrahis. He constantly urged the Ashram community and constructive workers to maintain one. ….A daily diary,he believed, was a mode of self-examination and self-purification; he made it an obligatory observance for all those who walked with him on the Salt march.

While The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) is of more academic and historical interest to many readers, it is accompanied by a fine commentary by Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud. He offers insights about maintenance of a diary, the translation process, making available critical empirical material such as these diaries which till now many knew of its existence but not many could access. It also documents the growth of a young, under-confident girl to a mature person as evident in the style of her writing, longer sentences, more time spent describing incidents rather than restricting it to scribbles as many of the early entries are. Interestingly, as Tridip Suhrud points out in his introduction, Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu as he was known, would often read and scribble his thoughts in the margins of Manu Gandhi’s diaries. Ideally though it would have been a preferable if in this volume an interview with Tridip Suhrud with a leading gender/oral history expert had been included. It would then give some critical insights in what it means to translate a young girl’s diary many decades later by a highly reputed Gandhian scholar. With due respect even the best academic scholars tend to gloss over certain gender issues that irrespective of how many times they are repeated continue to be important and need to be highilghted. At the same time it would be fascinating to see what emerges from the conversation of a Gandhian expert with a gender expert to see how much Gandhian ways of living influenced the minds and hearts of those in the Ashram or did the basic gendered ways of seeing also get scrubbed away.

Speaking of memoirs, Rosy Thomas’s He, My Beloved CJ about her life with her husband and well-known Malayalam writer and critic, C. J. Thomas. It has been translated by G. Arunima. C.J. Thomas died young. His wife wrote this memoir much later. While it is a very personal account of her courtship, her marriage and the brief time she spent with her husband during which he opposed her desire to seek employment. Apparently in the Malayalam text, Rosy Thomas often refers to her husband as moorachi ( a colloquial term for conservative). Hence within this context it is quite amazing to read an account of a life that does not necessarily romanticise the couple’s love but is able to subvert the prevalent notions of wifehood. It has descriptions of their homes, their families, their circle of friends and at times some of their discussions on art, creativity and politics. At least in the memoir she comes across at times an equal participant despite his conservative mindset on having a wife who earned a living. Be that as it may, the monotone pitch at which the memoir is written or has been translated in —it is difficult to discern the difference — does not make He, My Beloved CJ easy to read. Of course it is a seminal book and will for a long time be referred to by many scholars interested in knowing more about the literary movement in Kerala or about the legend himself, C. J. Thomas — a man who seems to have acquired mythical proportions in Kerala. How many will access it for being a woman’s witnessing of a fascinating moment in history, only time will tell. Meanwhile the translator’s note is worth reading. G. Arunima writes:

…this biography is as much about C J Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving’ subject, and as a ‘writer’ and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating and narrating their life as a text. Rosy Thomas grew up in a literary home; her father, M P Paul, was an intrinsic part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarna Sangham ( Literary Workers’ Cooperative Society) and had also set up the tutorial college that was named after him. Writers, books and a culture of reading were a central part of her life. Even though these reminiscences do not dwell too much on her own literary or political formation, it is evident that CJ’s world wasn’t alien to her. In her later life she was to become a published writer and translator in her own right; such creativity is obvious even in this text where the nuances of a remembered life are testament to her wit and literary flair.

There are many, many more titles that one can discuss such as Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict. It is set during the three decades of the Sri Lanka’s civil war. It is told through the lives of three women, Thawakkul, Yoga and Theivanai — one a social activist, the other a Tamil Tiger forced into joining the movement as a child, and the third a disillusioned fighter for the Eelam. The novel has been translated from Tamil by Gita Subramaniam. While it immerses one immediately into the strife torn landscape, it is also puzzling as sometimes the voices of the three main characters seem to acquire the same pitch, making it seem as if the author’s own devastating firsthand experiences of the conflict are making their presence felt throughout the narrative. It is impossible for the English readers to ever solve this puzzle but there is something that comes through in the translation and is not easy to pinpoint. While promoted as fiction, it is easy to see that Ummath with the insights it offers, nature of conversations documented and descriptions of the landscape make this novel a lived experience. This is a challenging story to read but is worth doing so as the conversations about women/gender and conflict are relatively new in public discourse and need to be share more widely.

The final book in this roundup is a translation from Bengali of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s The Children’s Ramayana by first-time translator Tilottama Shome. It is the Ramayana told with its basic story sans the many digressions and minor tales. It is the epic with many of the popular stories retold that many generations of Indians are familiar with. It does not come across as a novice’s attempt at translation. In fact as she says in her translator’s note, “I have tried to retain that delightful quirky tone and the hint of humour told with a straight face that has endeared Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s works to readers for generations” seems to be true. Again it is impossible for English readers to confirm this fact or not but there is something about the zippy pace, ease of reading, a rhythm to the storytelling, making it immensely attractive to read. Perhaps Tilottama Shome being a trained singer ably assisted her in finding the rhythm to this translation. There is something to be said for a trained musical ear and discovering the cadences of a written text making the translation from one language/culture to the next a pleasurable experience!

18 September 2019

Book Post 42: 21 July – 6 Aug 2019

Book Post 42 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

8 Aug 2019

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 6&7), 23&30 July 2019

Dear Reader,

This is a double issue as time whizzed by before I knew it, the week was over!

As the book fairs, literature festivals and literary awards season draws near, the number of titles being released into the market increase exponentially. Some of them being the “big titles” that the publishing firms are relying upon. Two of them featured here are two such titles. These are the thrillers — The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts and The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.

Alice Clark-Platts, founder of Singapore writers group and a former human rights lawyer, has published her third thriller. The Flower Girls is about the killing of two-year-old girl by two sisters, who are six and ten, respectively. It is a case that had caught the imagination of the media. The older sister had been incarcerated but the younger one had been let off as she was too young to be tried. Instead the police force helped the parents and remaining daughter to assume new identities and start a new life in a different city. Two decades later the case is recalled as another five-year-old girl goes missing. It is an absorbing tale for its details of the murder and trial that seem to defy human imagination. It is as if there is an underlying truth to the horrors a human being is capable of, almost as if it is the transferance to some extent of a lived experience by the author to the page, but not necessarily a replication of any case she has dealt/read. Apart from the horror of the actual crime itself, there are many pertinent issues raised in this novel about the troublesome aspect of incarcerating one so young, arguments for parole, the course of justice and the prejudices people may have that may colour their judgement. The best discovery in this novel is the creation of DC Hillier, almost as if she is the female response to Jack Reacher or a modern reincarnation of Miss Marple. The potent combination of a fine instinct for sniffing out criminals built over many years as a Detective Constable, phenomenal memory, dogged persistence to pursue clues, and a fascination for being first on the crime scene, make DC Hillier a character worth following in the coming years. Her beat will remain unchanged. It will be the small town but there will be plenty of opportunities for stories to occur as tourists visit the seaside. Since The Flower Girls is her first appearance on the literary landscape, DC Hillier will take at least another 2-3 novels before she settles down, but once she does, she will soar!

Rating: 4.5 / 5⭐

Debut novelist Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient is already an NYT bestseller. It’s first print run was 200,000. It is a psychothriller that is gripping. It moves swiftly. There are short sentences, crisp dialogue and the length of the chapters match the smart pace of the storytelling. It helps that the author studied English literature at Cambridge University and earned his MA in screenwriting at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. This professional training has helped create an undeniable page turner. All those who have endorsed the book, such as Lee Child, David Baldacci, Joanne Harris, Stephen Fry, and C. J. Tudor, are absolutely correct in their assessment of it being an excellent, slow-burning psychological thriller. It is about Alicia Berenson who is accused of killing her fashion photographer husband Gabriel. No one knows why she did it since after shooting him in the face she stops talking. After trying to attempt suicide, she is taken into custody and then sent off to asylum called The Grove. The story is narrated by forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber whose opening introduction about himself is that he “was fucked up”. He is offered an appointment at The Grove and becomes Alicia’s therapist. It is a gripping tale undoubtedly and no wonder it has already been sold into 39 territories and is being developed into a major motion picture. Be that as it may, there are details in the story that give it away as amateur work that will go largely unnoticed with most readers. For instance, when Alicia hands over her diary to Theo Faber to read, he says that judging by the handwriting, it was written in a chaotic state of mind, where the writing was barely legible and doodles and drawings taking over some of the pages. Yet, the diary extracts reproduced in the story are beautifully composed with complete sentences, perfect dialogue, smooth narration and build the plot seamlessly. A bit puzzling given how Alicia is known to be of troubled mind. Later too as the plot hurtles to the end, the inexplicable switch in the timelines while acceptable when the reader is in a reading haze, are bothersome details when reflecting upon the story later. It is unfair to the reader for the author to switch timelines as if for convenience to tie up the loose ends in the plot. This is a novel that has possibly been written with a view to adapt it to the screen and the magic has worked. It is to be seen if the subsequent novels of Alex Michaelides will inhabit this dark and depressing world. Whatever the case, Alex Michaelides’s brand of psychothriller, is here to stay and will spawn many versions of it too.

Rating: 3.5/5 ⭐

The third book is a collection of short stories by Indian women writers called Magical Women, edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. It is a pleasant enough read if read with zero expectations about reading fantasy stories that take strong imaginative leaps into a magical realm. Most of the stories are pleasant to read. The stories are preoccupied with worries of the real world such as of sexuality, child molestation, infidelity, etc. Two stories that stand out are “Gul” by Shreya Ila Anasuya and “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. “Gul” is about a nautch girl during the uprising of 1857 and “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” is about child molesters. While most of the stories in the collection have immense potential, they tend to fall flat on their face for the inability of the writers to lift it off the ground with elan. Instead most rely on done-to-death details as pods and strange creatures. When the story is to take an imaginative leap it lands straight into a world that is a mere transplantation of existing reality or the world of mythology. So there is a rave party, a mysterious laboratory, lesbians, etc. There is nothing truly breakaway in Magical Women except for the fact that it is a breakaway collection of talented storytellers who may one day astound the world with their true potential. For now, most of them, are holding back. I wonder why?

Rating: 3.5/5 ⭐

And then there is The Man with the Compound Eyes by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi, translated by Darryl Sterk. An eco-fiction that Tash Aw in his 2013 review in the Guardian referred to it as hard-edged realism meets extravagant fantasy.

It is easy to see why Wu’s English-language publishers compare his latest novel to the work of Murakami and David Mitchell. His writing occupies the space between hard-edged realism and extravagantly detailed fantasy, hovering over the precipice of wild imagination before retreating to minutiae about Taiwanese fauna or whale-hunting. Semi-magical events occur throughout the novel: people and animals behave in mysterious ways without quite knowing why they are doing so; and, in a Murakami-esque touch, there’s even a prominent cat. But beyond these superficial similarities lies an earnest, politically conscious novel, anchored in ecological concerns and Taiwanese identity.

Encapsulating such a rich novel is not easy but suffice to say it that the author’s environmental activism, trash in the sea, concerns about climate change, a deep understanding of environmental disasters, has helped him create an extraordinarily fantastic novel. From the first sentence it immediately transports the reader into this magical world of the imaginary island of Wayo Wayo, created with its own myths and folk legends. Fantastic novel that years after the English translation was made available, it continues to find new readers, with new translations.

Rating: 4/5 ⭐

The final book is Leaving the Witness: Existing a Religion and Finding a Life, a memoir by a former Jehovah Witness, Amber Scorah. It is an account of Amber’s life as a Jehovah Witness, finding a husband from the same community and then travelling across the world to become missionaries in China. Amber knew Mandarin so could speak to the locals. Her grasp of the language improved as she began to communicate more frequently with others. She managed to get a job working on podcasts, at a time when podcasts were barely heard of, and yet her shows became so popular that Apple ranked it amongst the top 10 podcasts of the year. While in China, she befriended many outside the community, even made friends like Jonathan online, but kept it a secret from her husband and their circle as this was considered taboo. Soon she begins to question her proselytising as questions are raised of her regarding her beliefs. She is forced to question her blind faith in the cult. Slowly her marriage disintegrates too. Leaving the Witness reads like her testimony, a reaffirmation of her belief, except not entirely in the manner that her church would have approved. Amber Scorah chooses to leave the community and build a life of her own. It is tough for she has to learn how to make friends, she has to learn simple things like understanding popular culture references in casual conversation, being able to enter and enjoy a social engagement without feeling horribly guilty etc. It ends sadly with the death of her infant son at the daycare centre but it also is a strong testament to others wishing to leave suffocating environments that it is possible to do so and build new lives. It is not easy but it is possible. In fact the book has been placed on O, The Oprah Magazine Summer 2019 Reading List and Trevor Noah invited Amber Scorah to his talk show. It is a good book and deserves all the publicity it can garner.

Rating: 4.5/5 ⭐

Happy Reading!

JAYA

30 July 2019

Book Post 40: 23 June – 5 July 2019

Book Post 40 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

6 July 2019

Book Post 37: 20 – 25 May 2019

Book Post 37 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

27 May 2019

Book Post 35: 21 April – 19 May 2019 / Trade list

Book Post 35 is being uploaded after a month. It focuses on the trade list. This include some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

20 May 2019

“Hijabistan” by Sabyn Javeri

Again that dark, piercing look, the shine in her pupils which made me sense that she was smiling behind her veil, as she said, “Did you ever read those books as a kid where you got the power to become invisible?”

I laughed. ‘Your veil draws more attention than a woman in a bikini.’

‘Yes, perhaps. But still. Inside, it’s my own little private world. No one knows what I look like, what I wear, how I style my hair. . .”

‘So, are you saying it makes you feel powerful?’

Sabyn Javeri’s Hijabistan is a collection of short stories exploring the idea of wearing a hijab / head scarf. It also manages to open conversations whether real in the story or imagined in the reader’s mind about the position of women in families and society. Somehow it does not seem to matter which nation the protagonists reside in – whether Pakistan or Britain – it is the mind sets that they carry with them that are critical for defining their identity. The protagonists can choose to evolve or remain where they are—caught as if in amber with a conservative outlook that literally shackles them to a god-fearing life.

Years ago, The Guardian, published an article by a young journalist who opted to wear a hijab for one week. She did this in London and documented the reactions to her dress by people on the street and her friends. It also transformed into a diary of her changing outlook. One week is all that it took for her to question so much around her. (I have been trying to locate the link for you but failed to do so.) It would be an interesting article to share given how the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern had covered her head while meeting the relatives of those killed in the recent mosque attack or while attending the memorial meeting. Wearing the veil is a complicated topic that has been tackled by many writers, most notably Rafia Zakaria in her wonderful book Veil.  

Hijabistan is fascinating for the fact that Sabyn Javeri chose to explore alternate viewpoints while respecting those who opt to wear the garment out of choice. The multiple perspectives the author offers from the young child (“Coach Annie”) to the young wife (“The Good Wife”) to the young office goer (“The Date”) are illuminating. Of course there is the accepted view that Islam demands it of women but Sabyn Javeri presents alternative options in her fiction as to why the women choose to wear the hijab. It is a great way of offering readers’ different viewpoints. More importantly what shines through her stories are that the women are strong individuals in their own right despite donning the hijab and looking the same outwardly– a “sea of burkhas” — as the younger brother grumbles to his Api in “The Date”. What is fascinating is that the women characters come across as strong women, radiating sexuality, are feisty and exercise their individual choice. “Fifty Shades at Fifty” is a fantastic example of this. It is a story about a middle-aged wife, bound to the house, looking after her bedridden mother-in-law but exercises her freedom in choosing to read what she desires much to the bewilderment of her husband. Lovely!

Many times the stories take one’s breath away as with “Radha”, “The World without Men”, “Full Stop” and “Malady of the Heart”. Somehow the reader gets the sense that the twists will come but when they do, they are sharp. At such moments in the stories I marvelled at how much the author must have observed, heard, recorded, remembered and written down probably as she heard/witnessed it. If it was pure fiction, there would be a dull edge to it since in fiction one tends to smoothen the edges. Reality is cruel. A fine example of this is the evocative “Only in London” where Sabyn Javeri encapsulates so brilliantly the sights and sounds of Tooting, “this forgotten SW17 ghetto that doesn’t even have the novelty value of a China Town or the East End”. The tiny details about the protagonist being a desi and called out as “sister” by the locals although she really does not feel a part of the crowd. She is a desi and yet not. So confusing, so lonesome.

But truly the tour de force is “Coach Annie” and its last few lines. What a superb story! It is as if it belongs to the later batch of Sabyn Javeri’s writing, so her skills as a short story writer have been honed. There is much, much more in the story than the previous ones. “Coach Annie” has layers to it, it has details, in a few lines she captures the hostility of the boys to the head scarf to the change in attitude and their protection of their coach when the newcomers try and tease her. It is a triumph!

Hijabistan is bound to get visceral reactions to this book. Some readers would love it for the writing, many others would be either mildly amused or shocked to see mirrors of their lives in your stories and yet others would be appalled at giving women a voice, an identity and their individuality, even to go so far as exploring sexual freedom, all the while wearing the hijab — a sacrosanct symbol of Islam and its connotations of a “good” woman. 

The anger at the injustice Sabyn Javeri perceives, witnesses and perhaps has even experienced has been channelled brilliantly to write these stories. It would be worthwhile to see what she crafts in future. It would also be fascinating to watch how in her future stories she sharpens her literary skills to use her words sparingly but deliver quite a punch. “Coach Annie” shows the beginnings of that skill.

Hijabistan will always have a shelf life. The issues raised are so relevant. So topical. They will never go out of fashion. Sometimes fiction achieves that which no other form of literature or conversation can ever achieve. These are thought provoking stories.

Hijabistan is an utterly stupendous book. It is! Short stories are amongst the toughest literary prose form to create. So much to pack in such few words. And yet Sabyn Javeri achieves it. 

I look forward to more of Sabyn Javeri’s writing!  

31 March 2019

“Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu”

Preeto & Other Stories : The Male Gaze in Urdu is a collection of short stories edited and introduced by noted writer and translator Rakhshanda Jalil. This extract is taken from her fabulous introduction that gives a broad overview of Urdu writing. While there is a detailed portion on Urdu women writers the selected extract focuses on the reasons for Rakhshanda Jalil’s selection with a brief commentary on the male writers she chose to include in the anthology.

This extract is published with the permission of the publishers Niyogi Books.

***

The woman has been both subject and predicate in a great deal of writing by male writers. In poetry she has, of course, been the subject of vast amounts of romantic, even sensuous imagery. Be it muse or mother, vamp or victim, fulsome or flawed, there has been a tendency among male writers to view a woman through a binary of ‘this’ or ‘that’ and to present women as black and white characters, often either impossibly white or improbably black. Since men are not expected to be one or the other but generally taken to be a combination of contraries, such a monochromatic view inevitably results in women being reduced to objects, of being taken to be ‘things’ rather than ‘people’. That this objectification of women, and the consequent dehumanisation, effectively ‘others’ half the human population seems to escape many writers, even those ostensibly desirous of breaking stereotypes or those who see themselves as liberal, even emancipated men. Films, television and media have traditionally aided and abetted the idea that women are objects to be pursued and eventually won over like trophies or prizes. Literature has fed into the trope that women are bona fide objects of sexual fantasy, or blank canvases on which men can paint their ideals, or even empty vessels into which they can pour their pent-up feelings and emotions.


Feminist theoreticians would have us believe that there is, and has always been, a traditional heterosexual way of men looking at women, a way that presents women as essentially sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. The feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, in her seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), termed this way of seeing as the ‘male gaze’. Mulvey’s theory was based on the premise that ‘an asymmetry of power between the genders is a controlling force in cinema; and that the male gaze is constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer which is deeply rooted in the ideologies and discourses of patriarchy’. Within a short span of time, the expression slipped into accepted usage and moved seamlessly across medium: from film to literature to popular culture. Today, we use the term loosely to describe ways of men seeing women and consequently presenting or representing them. 

In the context of Urdu, I have always been intrigued by how men view women and, by extension, write about them. For that matter, I am equally intrigued by how women view women and the world around them. In fact, as a precursor to this present volume, I had edited a selection of writings in Urdu by women called Neither Night Nor Day (Harper Collins, 2007). I had set myself a deliberately narrow framework by looking at women writers from Pakistan as I was curious to discover how women, in an essentially patriarchal society, view the place of women in the world. I chose 13 contemporary women writers and tried to examine the image and representation of women by women.

Now, ten years later, I have attempted to do the same with male writers, except that this time I have chosen Indian writers. While I have begun with two senior writers, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar, I have chosen not to go back to the early male writers such as Sajjad Hyder Yildrum, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar or even Premchand, for that matter, who wrote extensively on women. For the purpose of this study, I wanted to make a selection from modern writers. In a world where more women are joining the work force, where ever more are stepping out from their secluded and cloistered world and can be physically seen in larger numbers, I was curious to see how, then, do male writers view and consequently present or represent the women of their world.

….


My task was made easy by two progressives — Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar — who continued to be active long after the progressive writers’ movement had petered off. Nurtured by a literary movement and a body of writers that prided in looking at women as comrades-in-arms, both have written powerful female characters but both can be occasionally guilty of a sentimentalism, a tendency to idealise a woman in an attempt to appear even-handed. The first story in this collection, ‘Woman’ (‘Aurat’) by Bedi shows the writer struggling to shake off a centuries-old conditioning, one that sees a woman as a nurturer, a preserver of a life force no matter how flawed or frugal that life force might be. A father might be willing to get rid of a child that is less-than-perfect, a bit like a vet that puts diseased or broken animals to sleep, but a mother can never envisage such an idea. Added to this view is the familiar trope of unrequited love, that too for a damsel in distress, of a male viewer drawn to a woman who loves her child unconditionally. This ability to love makes everything about her so attractive: ‘I don’t know if she was beautiful in real life but in my fantasy she was extremely attractive. I really liked the way she patted her hair in place. She would flick her hair off her face, stroke them in place with her fingers, stretching her hands all the way behind her shoulders — making it so difficult for me to decide if this was a conscious habit or an involuntary action.’

Krishan Chandar’s ‘Preeto’, also the title story for this collection, has two seemingly unrelated tracks that converge in a most unexpected manner: both lead to a point where the woman is eventually perceived as beautiful and enigmatic, the depths of whose heart can never be plumbed by a man. While one track leads to a gruesome tragedy, the other leads nowhere. The parallel tracks meet at a point of sorrowful acknowledgement: ‘A woman never forgets. Those people do not know women who think she comes to your home in a palanquin, sleeps on your bed, gives you four children and in return you can snatch her dream away, such people don’t know women. A woman never forgets.’ A man may love her and pamper her but there is no knowing that she will love him in return or that she will ever fully reveal what lies buried beneath seeming normalcy.

Gulzar heralds the onset of modernity in Urdu literature. In his story, a woman may work and play the field, she may find love outside marriage, she may stray as far as her former husband but she is still tethered to the yoke of motherhood, of being answerable to a man: in this case her son, a 13-year old boy who stops being her son the moment he turns a male gaze at her. The same son who is willing to stand up for her when she is a woman wronged, a victim, turns against her when she is perceived as a woman who has committed a wrong and set foot outside the proverbial lakshman rekha or line of chastity and honour. Gulzar’s ‘Man’ (‘Mard’) reminds us how ingrained these notions of honour are and how stringently women, more than men, must subscribe to them.

Faiyyaz Rifat’s ‘Shonali’ and Ratan Singh’s ‘Wedding Night’ (‘Suhaag Raat’) are classic instances of the male gaze: one is directed by an older man at a young nubile servant and the other at a maalan (a girl who tends a garden). In this thinly-disguised moral tale, the flowers are symbols of ‘pure’ love that a girl gives her groom on her wedding night. Both stories show a preoccupation with beauty and youth, a preoccupation that is also found in Baig Ehsas’s ‘A Heavy Stone’ ‘Sang-e Giran’ and Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘Awaiting the Zephyr’ (‘Baad-e Saba ka Intizar’). Deepak Budki’s ‘Driftwood’ and Hussainul Haque’s ‘The Unexpected Disaster’ (‘Naa-gahaanii’) are troubling stories: the former makes a case for women who have been victims of abuse in childhood (incest in this case) becoming wayward and wilful as adults and the latter for victims of marital abuse having every reason to find love outside a loveless marriage yet refraining from doing so out of a sense of honour and uprightness. Both stories, in a sense, dwell on the notion of moral turpitude and its opposite, a dignity that men expect from women.

Zamiruddin Ahmad’s ‘A Bit Odd’ (‘Kuchh Ajeeb Sa’) is a niggling look at the idea of dignity, a quality that is intrinsic to women in a patriarchal world view and is only enhanced by the institutions of marriage, home, religion, domesticity. Abdus Samad probes a woman’s heart, scouring the ashes for a lambent flame in ‘Ash in the Fire’ (‘Aag Mein Raakh’): a thick blanket may douse a fire but beneath the ashes something will continue to smoulder. Rahman Abbas presents us with a contrarian view: What if a woman is self-avowedly asexual? What if she is willing to be a man’s friend and companion but nothing else? Will the male gaze continue to peer and prod looking for something that does not exist? What if a woman says ‘I don’t feel any need. I’m a dry river’? The woman in Siddique Alam’s ‘The Serpent’s Well’ (titled ‘Bain’ meaning ‘lamentation’ in the original but given this title by the translator) is as ancient as the forested heartland of India, and just as darkly mysterious.


To conclude, let me rest my case with these words by Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

‘The male glance has often been described. It is commonly said to rest coldly on a woman, measuring, weighing, evaluating, selecting her — in other words, turning her into an object… What is less commonly known is that a woman is not completely defenseless against that glance. If it turns her into an object, then she looks back at the man with the eyes of an object. It is though a hammer had suddenly grown eyes and stare up at the worker pounding a nail with it. When the worker sees the evil eye of the hammer, he loses his self-assurance and slams it on his thumb. The worker may be the hammer’s master, but the hammer still prevails. A tool knows exactly how it is meant to be handled, while the user of the tool can only have an approximate idea.’

While a woman is certainly no tool, nor should she know how to be ‘handled’, there is something to be said for returning the gaze, of looking back. Perhaps if more women were to turn a steady gaze back at the beholder, there is no knowing what the ‘seeing eye’ will see.

Preeto & Other Stories : The Male Gaze in Urdu , Edited and introduced by Rakhshanda Jalil. Thornbird, an imprint of Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. Pp. 200. Rs 450

8 March 2019

Book Post 12: 23-29 September 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 12 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

1 October 2018

 

Paro Anand’s “The Other”

Award-winning writer Paro Anand’s latest book for young adults is a collection of short stories called No Other: Stories of Difference . These are stories that are as bold as those published in her previous book Like Smoke. They revolve around critical issues like transgender, sexual abuse, conflict. Without badgering the reader with a preachy tone these stories carve out a niche for holding a dialogue about these mostly taboo topics. It is a very tough space to negotiate and Paro Anand does it superbly.

On Saturday, 22 September 2018, Paro Anand was in conversation with veteran journalist Sunil Sethi about this very book. It was part of the “Talking Books” series launched by Cafe Turtle, Khan Market, New Delhi. Do listen to the recording I made of the conversation. It is 45 minutes well spent.

 

To buy: 

Kindle 

Paperback

24 September 2018