Simon and Schuster Posts

Book Post 6: 12 – 18 August 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 6 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

20 August 2018

Dave Barry “Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog”

Pulitzer Prize Winner and popular columnist Dave Barry writes about turning 70 gracefully and the lessons he has learned from his 11-year-old rescue dog, Lucy. As expected it is a delightfully bittersweet book with Dave Barry amazed at himself for having written a “self-help” book. With increasing old age memories of the past come flooding back like playing in the musical band called Rock Bottom Remainders. It consisted of authors such as Amy Tan, Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening, Frank McCourt, and Mitch Albom to name a few. They even played with Bruce Springsteen on stage once. But what hits Dave Barry hard is that the “fun” element in his life is slowly decreasing as more and more time is spent just fulfilling daily needs like paying a bill, replying to an email, filing a column etc. The sheer joy of living in the moment and with it the peace it gives can be learned from his ageing mixed breed Lucy or even by watching his three-year-old grandson. He slowly begins to make slight changes in his life like calling up old friends and chatting to them, throwing parties at home, spending more time with his family and making the effort to enjoy every moment rather than be preoccupied and in a hurry.

The book is scheduled to be released in October by Simon and Schuster. A good book to read. Light and yet one that will stay with you for a long, long time.

15 August 2018 

Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

( My review of Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu was published on Bookwitty on 10 July 2017. I have c&p the text below. ) 

A rich literary tradition once flourished in Timbuktu, a crossroads where for centuries the imams as well as the general population were receptive to ideas that passed through the city. Visiting scholars brought religious as well as secular volumes, and an industry grew up around the copying, transliteration and translation of a wide range of texts.

Wealthy patrons kept manuscripts in family collections, bequeathing them to subsequent generations. In the twenty-first century, families still have trunks filled with these books. At seventeen years old, Abdel Kader Haidara inherited an extensive library from his father, Mohammed “Mamma” Haidara. It consisted of gems such as “a treatise about Islamic jurisprudence from the early twelfth century; a thirteenth-century Koran written on vellum made from the hide of an antelope; another holy book from the twelfth century, no larger than the palm of a hand, inscribed on a fish skin, its intricate Maghrebi script illuminated with droplets of gold leaf.”

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is journalist Joshua Hammer’s detailed account of Abdel Kader Haidara’s achievement in amassing and protecting an extraordinary library of these manuscripts. In the 1980s, Haidara undertook expeditions, sometimes by boat or camel, far and wide across Northern Africa to persuade families part with their heirlooms.

Haidara curated the collection with care: “He was particularly interested in manuscripts that contradicted Western stereotypes of Islam as a religion of intolerance – pointing with pride to Ahmeda Baba’s denunciations of slavery, and to the strident correspondence between the jihadi sultan of Massina and Sheikh Ahmed Al Bakkay Al Kounti, a mid-nineteenth-century Islamic scholar in Timbuktu known for his moderation and acceptance of Jews and Christians. As time passed he became something of a scholar himself, revered by many peers in Timbuktu for his knowledge of the region’s history and religion, sought after by parents to offer their children guidance.”

Polite and discreet, Haidara was a deft negotiator in multiple languages. In return for the manuscripts, Haidara compensated the families handsomely, be that in currency or with livestock, grains or camels—or once, with a commitment to build a mosque and school. Meanwhile, funding poured in from a long list of sources as diverse as the Ford Foundation, the Princess of Luxembourg, and Muammar Qaddafi.

Haidara housed the collection at the Ahmed Baba Institute, where it could be conserved and digitally archived. But in 2012, Timbuktu fell to the Al Qaeda-supported Islamists, Ansar Dine, and the collection was no longer safe. So, in an extremely delicate and high-risk operation, Haidara masterminded the smuggling of 350,000 volumes out of Timbuktu to safe houses to Bamako, a government territory.

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The rescue entailed quietly gathering the manuscripts into 2,500 metal trunks, and then spiriting them away under the rebels’ noses, primarily using teenage sons and nephews of Timbuktu’s librarians as couriers. Haidara monitored the operation from a control room in Bamako, eight phones ringing every fifteen minutes with updates. Incredibly, every single manuscript was evacuated to safekeeping, though some received rough treatment by soldiers at roadblocks. Ansar Dine was overthrown by French forces in 2013, but the manuscripts remain in hiding.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is rich with historical and military detail, to the extent that at some points maps would have been welcome, giving more breathing space in the text. Joshua Hammer follows two distinct narrative strands: the literary history of Timbuktu and its librarians, and the changing political landscape (and resulting war tactics) within the Maghreb. The result is a fascinating, if at times dense, account to read.

Joshua Hammer The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu Simon and Schuster, 2017, Pb. 

11 July 2017 

An Interview with Deepak Unnikrishnan, Author of the Debut Short Story Collection “Temporary People”

My interview with debut writer, Deepak Unnikrishnan, was published in Bookwitty on 13 April 2017. The interview is reproduced below. 

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – May 24, 2016: ( Photo by Philip Cheung )

Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi and has lived in various cities in the United States. He studied and taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and at present teaches at New York University in Abu Dhabi. His extraordinary, kaleidoscopic collection of short stories, Temporary People vary in style from magic realism to the surreal, and curiously enough, to a list of jobs available to immigrant labor. There is a rich texture to the stories not just for the magical plot lines such as the one of a woman who goes around at night “fixing” the broken limbs of migrants with glue, but the strong rhythm underlying them. This is his first book, which has received wide critical acclaim and was also the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Unnikrishnan generously took the time to answer questions for Bookwitty here:

Why these stories?

Personally, there was a need for the tales to get out. I think the question to ask would be why these people. Why linger on them the way I do, be they man, woman or child. I suppose a part of me wanted to resurrect the city that raised me. Couldn’t do that without thinking about people. And once your mind grants refuge to the folks you’ve imagined, uncles and aunties and friends and strangers, they take over your mind. But after years of lugging them around in my head I wanted to be rid of them, and the only way I could manage that was to write them out of my system. But I knew, as I began to write this thing I began, I wanted the work to be populated by individuals from different age groups: the young, the old, and those in between. So you could say I’d pocketed these people like children pocketing marbles. When I was young I didn’t understand remembering people was my method of making them immortal. When I left the Gulf, they – such people – became my souvenirs. And I wanted them in the book. As realization hit about what I was writing about, I found myself wondering for the first time whether I was writing about my people. Or people like me, whatever “me” meant. It was one thing to claim a place, another to claim people. But it’s also the strangest thing to write about a place like the Khaleej (Arabic for Gulf) when you’re not there anymore. Abu Dhabi felt different from afar. In New York and Chicago, Abu Dhabi could only be distant. Yet because I thought of home often enough, the city I left drifted close enough for me to miss it. As well as engage with my version of what I believed the city to be.

You seem to be fascinated by the form of a story — soliloquy, interior monologue, poetry, short story, prose, etc. Is the power of a story dependent on its form? 

I’m not terribly old, but I’ve been told tales, in bars, cabs, rooms, at night, twilight, past midnight. Men, women, and children have told me stories sitting in a chair, nursing a drink, minutes after a kiss. They’ve all been different, these tales. Sometimes the delivery was off; other times the tales fizzed and popped like firecrackers. I don’t remember them all, but I do recall the care these people (especially children) took with their tales, even if the world could have been breaking outside, why saying something mattered so much to them, why being listened to mattered so much to them. And they all went about reciting their pieces differently. Their tales/fables/anecdotes were wedded to their personalities. And on good days, I’d hear (and read) stories that bobbed and weaved in between forms I adored. As someone who writes, I still hesitate to tell people I write. I’m not sure what that means yet but I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities of narrative form. I want my work to count. I’ve thought about the text. I wish to be heard. But I’m not toying with form because I want you (“you” being the reader) to know I can do this and that and juggle mandarins while I’m at it. Temporary People needed chapters that operated like players in an orchestra. Everything mattered, everything counted. And why experiment? Well, sometimes I’m bored, so I try things.

Men, women, and children have told me stories sitting in a chair, nursing a drink, minutes after a kiss

Why depict so much violence that produces a visceral reaction in one while reading it?

I ran into someone I went to high school with at a reading in New York. So I’ve read thirty pages, he said. And, he continued, I am miserable. That broke my heart a little. So you haven’t seen/found any joy yet? I wanted to ask him. You’re right, the book’s doused in violence. But conversations about the book can be steered in multiple directions depending on what kind of violence you’re interested in talking about. If it’s physical violence, graphic descriptions of beatings and punishments, by men, women and children, then sure, there’s a lot of that. But if you’ve responded to any of these moments of chaos, I’m also grinning a little, because that means I’ve taken you somewhere and left you there to think over what’s been written, especially since some of the violence pays more homage to Tom & Jerry than Tarantino. But if you’re referencing another kind of violence, this one more mental, because you’re reading about children of [temporary people] pravasis fending off people who pick on them because of what they represent, and pravasis grappling with what they’ve become, then you’re more in tune with what the book’s attempting to do, figuring out what kind of mythologies develop over time in a city populated primarily by people from elsewhere.

Which was the first story in this collection and how did the rest develop?

“Mushtibushi” is the oldest chapter in the book. I started it in 2003. I finished it in the fall of 2012 or the spring of 2013. The rest arrived in stages. “Gulf Return”, that opens the book, was written in 2013. Back in the day, when the tales began to populate notebooks and Word and Open Office documents, I was convinced I was working on a collection. But over time, I realized I was interested in architecture too, how text looked and operated on the page, how one flawed piece could piggy back on top of something whole to produce an effect neither could manage on their own. Now see, novels are allowed to fiddle with form and do all sorts of fun things. Few people blink. A collection on the other hand is rarely allowed much room to maneuver. It’s either supposed to be a bunch of disparate tales or linked stories, if I were dip into clichés. But I wanted my work to do something more. I wanted my work to question things. Not fuck genre, but camouflage it. I knew I wanted to capture the din and growl of my city but I also instinctively knew that the stories needed each other to not only breathe and communicate with one another, but to create and flesh out another animal, something I couldn’t define, but wanted to make. I can also make a case that the book is primarily about language. The people are incidental, but it’s through them that the book negotiates the city and languages that raised me.

How did you decide upon the titles?

Mostly: trial and error. You get lucky too. Some titles write themselves, like “Fone”, and “Mustibushi”. Others, like “Kloon”, took more time, since the original title, “The Clown Confessions”, was terrible. The titles were signposts, calling out to readers. Urging them to dip into the unknown. But you know, when you’ve got over a decade to work on a project, you name and rename things so often that you’ve got time to make stuff sound interesting. At least that’s what you tell yourself.

Are you fascinated by languages, rules of grammar and how far can these be explored or challenged?

In school (pre, middle and high) I struggled with English syntax. My poor teachers would pull out their Wren & Martins. Whenever they did, I’d shudder because grammar didn’t make sense. The Brits and the Yankees couldn’t agree on stuff: spellings, slang, idioms, sentence lengths. Then throw in the desi accent and watch mayhem ensue. It was a bit much, all these rules, because I didn’t speak like the BBC. Or Hollywood. Yet I’d snigger at my father who didn’t sound cool, or hide his Malayaleeness, although his command of English far outweighed mine. He’d ask me how to pronounce certain words sometimes, my [father] acchan, and I’d ask him to repeat them so I could laugh at him. We had a huge row once about the word “coup”. I kept telling him to pronounce the “p.” You don’t, he said. As if you’d know, I yelled back. But even back then, I knew language was power. English that sounded white, coming out of the tongue of a brown boy/man, confused people. But English wasn’t the only language in play. In Kerala, my cousins could’ve ripped me to shreds because my Malayalam was below par. They never did because they were kind and wanted to communicate, but my friends in Abu Dhabi made fun of my Malayalam all the time. In fact there was one dude who always made it a point to pick on my accent. And I wanted to pick on his English because mine sounded better. But we could both communicate in different tongues. That should have been enough, but it wasn’t. There was this need to highlight our superiority over certain languages, because we wanted to feel better about ourselves, because we thought we were better than other people who weren’t smart enough to sound sophisticated. And I suppose I used whatever English I knew to balance the Arabic I didn’t know, even though I learned Arabic in school for over a decade. But if there’s anything Abu Dhabi taught me, it’s that misspellings or bad grammar didn’t mean you couldn’t communicate. The menu in some cafeteria down the street may say “chiken mayonnaise”, but you knew what that was. Or when your Arabic teacher asked one of your classmates to “open the AC”, you knew what he wanted. And English, I instinctively knew, was malleable. And open to marrying other words from other worlds. “You understand, w’allah?” But language to me has always been synonymous with experimentation. The book is therefore an extension of my mind. If I were to put it simply, I don’t like being told what to do. I’m also saying don’t tell me what words ought to come out of my mouth. If you tell me something foreign must be italicized because it’s not English or English enough. I say no. Respectfully. No!

If you tell me something foreign must be italicized because it’s not English or English enough. I say no. Respectfully. No!

Your stories are like performance poetry. There is a very strong sense of rhythm. Was it from the word “go” or did you work upon it while editing the manuscript?

Rhythm’s absolutely crucial to the work. If language constitutes the book’s blood and bone, rhythm’s its spine. I wanted the reader to hear things. I wanted my words to grab hold of people. And not let go. I suppose another reason the book reads the way it does is because I’ve got characters that don’t/won’t shut up. Whether it’s Taxi Man, or little Maya. They want to be heard, these characters I made. And it’s fascinating you claiming the work channels performance poetry. You know, I remember watching Wim Wenders’ Pina, his documentary about Pina Bausch. Early on in the film, you’ve got her dancers marching to Louis Armstrong’s West End blues. And they’re miming seasons marching single file: spring, summer, autumn, winter. After they mimed winter, I remember, my favorite season, I experienced unadulterated bliss. I couldn’t believe it someone had managed to reinvent winter for me even though I assumed I knew what winter felt like. As a writer, I’m interested in stuff like that, in how readers respond to what I’ve managed to do on the page. After watching Pina, I remember thinking: I want my book to do THAT. The work should dance.

Despite being surrounded by people there is a terrible sense of loneliness in the stories. Did this emotion emanate from the stories of their own accord or was it a conscious decision on your part to tease it out?

Sure, some characters in the book address various states of loneliness. You’ve got the isolation that stems from feeling cut away from family, especially if you’re on your own in the Khaleej. There is also the fear of being misunderstood, of wanting to be seen as something worthy, something beyond skin or nationality. Then we’ve got the paranoia of children and teens, creatures of perpetual angst. But we’re also talking about individuals trying to negotiate a city like Abu Dhabi. And cities – take your pick: New York, Mumbai, Sao Paolo – can be tough. When you’re temporary, a proverbial transient, you’ve got your own language and register. And your sense of time is perpetually ten minutes or ten years ahead. But then you’ve got characters like the cabbie in “Taxi Man”. He’s fine, his world’s fine, but he’s also hyper aware of his surroundings, like everyone else who populate the book. I’d like to think the book isn’t all about loneliness. Like I stated earlier, it’s about language, and memories, people letting you into their thoughts.

Most debut writers find it very challenging to place a short story collection with publishers. Yet you not only were published but won the Restless Books Immigrant Prize as well. How did this come about?

I found my agent, the wonderful and tenacious Anna Ghosh, in the fall of 2014. She shopped the book around in the States for over a year. We came close. Some publishers wanted to know if I had a novel, something more traditional, which they’d put out first of course. Others weren’t sure how to see the book. Difficult to market was one comment. Not everyone got what I was trying to do. But mostly, the editors were kind and encouraging, but no one would commit. Then we tried India. Again, crickets. In fact, we didn’t even get close, and that upset me because I was looking for an excuse to vent. Then in October or November of 2015, Anna sent me a note about an inaugural book prize. The press was Restless Books. Submit the work, she suggested. By then I had pretty much downed several cocktails of self-pity and passive-aggressive woe-is-me soliloquies, but I trusted Anna. So I cleaned up the manuscript, included a cover letter, sent everything out. And pretended I forgot about my submission, but noted the date when the short list was going to be announced, the spring of 2016. The rest, well, you know the rest.

Who are the writers you most admire?

There are far too many to list them all. I gave a talk/reading at the Seminary Co-Op bookstore in Chicago. After committing to the event, I was asked if I could provide a critical reading list that could inform readers about my various influences. Making that list took me well over an hour. There are names on there that will be familiar: J. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Arundhati Roy, Primo Levi, Salman Rushdie, George Saunders. But there are also other names that may be less familiar to some readers (even though they shouldn’t be): A. Sivananthan, Daniil Kharms, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Beth Nugent, Kuzhali Manickavel. There are poets and non-fiction writers on that list too, like Inger Christensen and Marco D’eramo. Then there are works and artists who blend genres, artists/writers like Chris Ware, and books like The Photographer (by Didier Lefevre, Emmanuel Guibert and Frederic Lemercier). But some names, like Charlie Kaufman, or the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (his Dekalog was extremely instrumental in how I saw architecture in stories), didn’t appear. Much music, by Gil Scott Heron, Nina Simone, or bands like The Verve, didn’t appear either. And they matter too to my practice, even though you were mainly asking about writers. But since you asked about writers, let me end with writers. I remember being floored after reading Dorthe Nors’s “The Heron” in The New Yorker. I read it on the train. Probably mouthed, Man that was dope. I also experienced a similar sense of respect and admiration after reading and hearing the writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri. He’s dope too.

 

8 May 2017 

Jaya’s Newsletter 4 (19 November 2016)

Hello!

with-carolyn-reidy-and-rahul-srivastava-14-nov-2016-ss-india

(L-R) Carolyn Reidy, Simon & Schuster Inc., Jaya Bhattacharji Rose and Rahul Srivastava, MD, S&S India

The business of publishing continues to be fascinating. Simon & Schuster India celebrated its 5th year and announced its inaugural list at a wonderful reception attended by prominent publishing professionals. Authors on the list include Natasha Badhwar, Jairam Ramesh, Keki Daruwalla, Samanth Subramanian , Prayaag Akbar , Jagdeep Chokhar, Priyanka Dubey, Paddy Rangappa et al. Fascinatingly local authors signed by the Indian office will be offered a global platform. Meanwhile in USA, AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s publishing imprint which focuses on translations, continues to surpass all other publishers in the number of titles it’s doing per year. Their target is to publish between 60-100 titles / year. This emphasis on making world literature visible especially through translations is bound to have a significant impact on global publishing.

Award-winning publisher Seagull Books’s Correspondence  by Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann and translated by correspondenceWieland Hoban has been turned into a critically acclaimed film. Paul Celan (1920-70) is one of the best-known German poets of the Holocaust; many of his poems, admired for their spare, precise diction, deal directly with its stark themes. Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73) is recognized as one of post-World War II German literature’s most important novelists, poets, and playwrights.

The 2016 National Book Award winners were announced with Colson Whitehead winning the fiction category for The Underground Railroad.

jeffrey-archerThe dates for the Jeffrey Archer book tour to launch the final volume of Clifton Chronicles have been announced:

21 Nov – 7pm at Amphitheater, Cyberhub, Gurugram

22 Nov – 7 pm at Amphitheater, VR Bengaluru, Bengaluru

23 Nov – 7pm at Crossword bookstore, Phoenix Market City, Pune

24 Nov – 6pm at Crossword Bookstore, Kemps Corner, Mumbai

Entry is free. It is on first come first serve basis.

Jaya Recommends

New arrivals

On Chetan Bhagat’s “One Indian Girl”

As a woman I seek justice in a patriarchal world. i-want-to-destroy-myself_website-480x748

Malika Amar Shaikh, I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir *

frontEnough outrage has been expressed on various platforms at Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, One Indian Girl . Critics, readers, journalists etc have ripped the novelist apart for  his attempt at portraying a feminist protagonist, Radhika Mehta. The story has been told in first person for which Chetan Bhagat says he interviewed and spoke to more than a hundred women. But alas, portraying a “feminist” does not a feminist make. Feminism is a way of living and it cannot be possibly imbibed to tell a story particularly in an attempt to capitulate to the current trend of being just and aware of women’s rights. The fact is patriarchal structures are far too deeply embedded in society and if popular writers like Chetan Bhagat who too remain shackled to these interpretations it will be challenging to progress further. What is alarming is that there is the distinct possibility of much of the space fought for and won by feminists will be rapidly lost.

If One Indian Girl is analysed within its contemporary literary milieu it becomes evident that the novelist is fairly clueless about how far the idea of a powerful woman is being explored. In fact much of the progressive interpretations of what constitutes a strong woman (whom some may interpret as a feminist) is being explored in fiction published nowadays — available in English and in translation. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism whether they chose to acknowledge it or not.

ratika-kapurSome of the modern writers to consider who are questioning, portraying, and contributing a significant amount to the conversation about who is a strong woman kiran-manraland what can be construed as woman power are:  Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni, Sremoyee Piu Kundu, Kiran Manral, Ratna Vira, Kota Neelima, Sowmya Rajendran, Sakshama Puri Dhariwal, Trisha Das, Vibha Batra and Ratika Kapur write in English. In translation there are a many who are now being made available such as Malika Amar Shaikh, Ambai, Lalithambika Antharajanam, K. R. Meera, Bama, Salma and Nabaneeta Dev Sen. This is a list that can easily be added to and it will bems-draupadi-kuru-b_090816092030
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ambai
self-evident how far women writers have evolved to depict the ordinary and how challenging the most seemingly innocuous task can be — such
as asking a man to love her as K. R. Meera does in The Gospel of Yudas or the horror of living with a famous man like Namdeo Dhasal who in his public life spoke of rights and was concerned for others but showed least sympathy for his own family as narrated by his wife, Malika Amar Shaikh, in her memoir  I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir.  Another writer to consider is Rupi Kaur whose self-published Milk and Honey has sold more than half a million copies and yesterday ( 12 October 2016) she signed a two-book deal with Simon and Schuster. Milk and Honey is erotic fiction which is remarkable for the strong feminine voice and gaze employed with which she narrates the tale. Rupi Kaur is also responsible for the photo-campaign which went viral recently on social media about a woman whose clothes were stained with blood during her period.

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Ironically many of these women writers would fall into the same category of fiction as Chetan Bhagat of being commercial fiction writers and yet, there is a chasm of difference in how they view and portray women. But Chetan Bhagat is in good company of other commercially successful male writers like Novoneel Chakraborty who too employ the first person literary technique to write from a women’s perspective but alarmingly incorporating the “male gaze”. ( http://bit.ly/2eiUXuR ) Thereby regressing any gains the women’s movement may have made by getting women their due rights and space. It is a dangerous precedent being set in literature by male writers like Chetan Bhagat of appropriating women’s space in an insensitive manner with little understanding of how complicated women’s literature and writing is. It is irresponsible use of the immense influence these writers have upon new readers since they will create confusion in these minds about how to behave and respect women, what is right and wrong social behaviour amongst genders and not to undermine a woman’s choice by imposing a patriarchal construct on it. Good literature can only be seen as feminist through nuanced writing not via terrible conversation and aggressively marketing the protagonist as a feminist.

*Malika Amar Shaikh is the wife of Namdeo Dhasal, co-founder of the radical Dalit Panthers.

13 October 2016 

Note: All images are off the internet. I do not own the copyright to any of them. If you do or you know of anyone else who does please let me know and I will acknowledge them in this post.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni “Before We Visit the Goddess”

ChitraOne day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my  hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away. … That’s what it really means to be a fortunate lamp. 

Before We Visit the Goddess is Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. Simply put it is in the fashionable mould of contemporary fiction to have a five-generation saga. It predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women — Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakurni’s novels are the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories every woman experiences and the cultural differences of living in India and USA.

To her credit Divakurni creates charmingly and deceptively “simple” women-centric novels. A utopian scenario is never presented which focuses only upon women at the exclusion of any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly develop their strong personalities. For instance, it could be timid homemaker Bela’s insistence of taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise winning. With the earnings she established a sweet shop in her mother’s name — Durga Sweets. Or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbour, Kevin, who by just being a good person helps her to establish herself as a food blogger successfully. Even bright Tara who disappears from her family’s life after her parents divorce except for a stray phone call or two has quite an adventurous decade. It includes working at a secondhand store called Nearly New Necessities, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs for being a kleptomaniac, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive” or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Pearland to equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. Yet what is admirable about these women is despite the humiliations and hardships they have borne, they strive on.

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without blunting or sentimentalising any of the experiences. For instance the hurt and pain of the young Bela is searing. So is the loneliness, whimsical and wretched behaviour of Leelamoyi, her wealthy benefactress. As with many successful writers they evolve with each book written. In Divakurni’s case her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but in this sixteenth book the inter-generational differences are created magnificently. Her book is also timely for it being published when a debate rages in USA whether to replace the word “India” with “South Asia” in school history textbooks. According to New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.” ( 4 May 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/us/debate-erupts-over-californias-india-history-curriculum.html?_r=0 ) Whereas Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s books elegantly examine identity — what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi. In Before We Visit the Goddess young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians– not ABCD any more but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had for generations. So a posting in this country is as much of an exciting new adventure as it is for anyone else visiting India for the first time.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s stories are ageing gracefully with her. Read Before We Visit the Goddess. 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

8 May 2016