Sonora Jha Posts

Two powerful books of fiction and farmers in India

ForeignFor the past few years, India has witnessed a rise in the number of suicides by farmers. The primary reason is the inability to pay of the debt cycle they find themselves in. These could be due to a variety of reasons, some of which are genetically modified seeds that cannot be used for propagation in the next season, poor harvest and displacement due to the construction of dams etc.

Few people have been recording this horrific phenomenon of farmer’s suicides in India, such as award-winning journalist like P. Sainath who has been doing so systematically. He refers to himself as “Rural Reporter”. ( http://psainath.org/) As founder editor he launched a website called, “People’s Archive of Rural India: The everyday lives of everyday people” ( http://www.ruralindiaonline.org/ ) where he and his team have been posting fantastic articles from rural India. But all these articles make for fascinating ( and disturbing) reportage. For such grim issues –farmer suicides and poor compensation for land and harvest destroyed– to make its presence felt in fiction and powerfully too continues be extremely rare. But it does happen.

Sonora Jha makes the suicide of cotton farmers focus of her debut novel, Foreign ( 2013) and Na. D’Souza’s novella, Dweepa ( first published in 1970 in Prakasha, a weekly from Manipal and translated from Kannada into English by Susheela Punitha for OUP in 2013) is about the displacement of farmers in the DweepaMalnad region due to the building of the Linganamakki dam on River Sharavathi. For both writers, gestation of the fiction was grounded in their research and day jobs. As Sonora Jha said to me in an email, “It started as a research project for me. I am a social scientist by training, with a Ph.D. in Political Communication, focusing on the reporting of social movements and social protest. So, I was researching the reportage on the farmer suicides. That’s what took me to Vidarbha, to interview farming families, activists and journalists. There was the pre-Vidarbha research and the post-Vidarbha research. Apart from my interviews, I read everything I could get my hands on.” Similarly, Na D’Souza says in his introduction to the novella, “The problem of submersion of land in the cause of modernization and the ensuing displacement of local people is something that has bothered me for a long time. I worked for about twenty-five years in areas connected with the Sharavathi hydroelectric project…[in the late 1950s]….The film version of Dweepa won the President’s Gold Medal in 2006 besides many other awards.”  Even Foreign was shortlisted for the prestigious Hindu Lit Prize 2013.

Both books are worth reading and gain significance given how distressingly “topical” they continue to be. Sonora Jha puts it across well when describing why she chose cotton farmers as the focus of her first novel? “I believe that the farmers’ suicides and the farmers’ crisis is a global story and is one of the biggest, most frightening stories of our time. But it isn’t gripping people’s hearts the way other stories of more immediate and glamorous disasters do. I wanted to tell the story in a way that it connected with ordinary readers. … One big purpose for me with Foreign was to get the issue of farmers’ suicides even more in the press, through the back door. Anyone who reviewed Foreign and/or interviewed me had to write about the farmers’ crisis in India. That gives me so much satisfaction.”

And now with the “rational explanations” being provided for land acquisition by the government, the nightmare for Indian farmers seems to be far, far from over.

Read these books. Discuss the issues.

13 April 2015

Sonora Jha Foreign Random House India, India, 2013. Hb. Rs 399

Na. D’Souza Dweepa ( Island) Translated from Kannada by Susheela Punitha. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India, 2013. Pb. pp. 100. Rs. 195

 

Literati – “Storytelling” ( 6 Dec 2014, The Hindu)


Jaya Bhattacharji Rose( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 December 2014) and will be in print ( 7 December 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6667631.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

Watching Ameen Haque of The Storywallahs perform at the Kahani Tree, Bookaroo, was a treat. He wove stories, poetry and music together and had the audience singing and laughing along with him. In the short interaction, the children were introduced to the radical idea that crying is perfectly normal for boys and grown men.

Telling tales

Even when adults communicate, it is inevitably through stories. We call it conversation. Break up the conversation and analyse it. It is anecdotal, replete with stories and vignettes. The impact of a well-told story is immeasurable. Similarly a book allows a quiet engagement between the author and a reader. Books make you see the world afresh. It works for all age groups.

This relationship between books and young readers was apparent at an event organised by SCWBI India in partnership with Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan and the Bookaroo Childrens’ Literature Festival. The topic was “LSD: Love, Sex and Darkness in Books for Children” and the participants were educationist Dr. Shalini Advani, author Samina Mishra, illustrator Priya Kuriyan, and publisher Sayoni Basu.

“Should children’s books only deal with happy things? What about death, violence and sexuality? What about darkness and ugliness?” These were some of the questions raised.

Dr. Advani pointed out that adults tend to be more uncomfortable than children. “For adults, our role is to drag these issues out into the clear light of day. To normalise them as a part of the circle of life so that children — who think about them anyway — learn healthy ways of talking about them and thinking about them. It’s not happy worlds that young people seek. So it is not about whether a book has death or perfidious adults or parental divorce or pain. But more about how it is done — young people don’t like to be lectured to or even gently educated.”

Some recently YA books — Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar about a teen who may be a lesbian;Smitten by Ranjit Lal about a teen who is molested by a family member and Jobless Clueless Reckless by Revathi Suresh about a pregnant teen — have tackled these tricky topics.

***

Fiction relies upon storytelling to represent experiences, although its impact depends on the author’s magic with words. At times the storytelling has visible weaknesses but the reader persists, usually out of curiosity about a new topic. For instance, Sonora Jha’s Foreign (farmer suicides in Vidarbha); Pia Padukone’s Where Earth Meets Water (9/11 and the 2004 tsumani), Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman(indentured labourers on sugar plantations in British Guiana), Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Syrian Christian family in New Mexico), and Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer (WWII, amnesia).

Inclusive fiction

Exquisite storytelling and its impact is apparent by the recent online conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Raghu Karnad regarding Flanagan’s 2014 ManBooker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The two Indian writers discussed the inclusive capacity of historical fiction and the “duty” of a novelist but also gave insightful comments about a moment in history that had been made accessible through contemporary fiction.

The legendary publisher Gordon Graham puts it prophetically in a 1980 essay reprinted in As I was Saying: Essays on the International Book Business, “Creative composition in the electronic age will not happen at the moment when the author and the publisher decide it is releasable.” It will happen with the active participation of the reader. A statement that holds true 35 years later.

Irrespective of age groups and formats, the importance of storytelling can never be negated since it is an important module of communication and transmission of information, requiring the active participation of all stakeholders.

Update ( 6 December 2014):

In the paragraph listing the debut writers I should have clarified that it is not only fiction, but also nonfiction by relies upon the art of storytelling. Hence I have included Gaiutra Bahadur. My original list was much longer than was finally published.

6 December 2014 

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 – longlist

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 – longlist

DSC Prize for Literature logo15 BOOKS MAKE IT TO THE DSC PRIZE 2014 LONGLIST

New Delhi, October 21, 2013: The longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 was announced at the Goethe-Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan today, by noted Indian editor, writer and literary critic, Antara Dev Sen, who is chairing the jury panel for the prize. The final list of 15 chosen titles includes 3 works translated from Indian languages and comprises 4 debut novels along with the works of established writers. The longlist reflects a rich and healthy diversity of publishers across geographies including representation from the UK, US and Canada. With several acclaimed novels on the longlist, choosing the final winner for the 2014 edition of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature would be an interesting and challenging task for the jury panel.

There were over 65 entries for the coveted US $50,000 prize this year, from which the jury has compiled the longlist of 15 books that they feel best represents the eclectic and vibrant voice of the South Asian region. The jury panel comprises international luminaries from the world of literature and books- Antara Dev Sen, editor, writer and literary critic and chair of the DSC Prize jury, Arshia Sattar, an eminent Indian translator, writer and a teacher, Ameena Saiyid, the MD of Oxford University Press in Pakistan, Rosie Boycott, acclaimed British journalist and editor and Paul Yamazaki, a veteran bookseller and one of the most respected names in the book trade in the US.

The longlisted entries contending for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 are:

  1. Anand: Book of Destruction (Translated by Chetana Sachidanandan; Penguin, India)
  2. Benyamin: Goat Days   (Translated by Joseph Koyippalli; Penguin, India)
  3. Cyrus Mistry: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (Aleph Book Company, India) 
  4. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (Hogarth/ Random House, UK)   
  5. Manu Joseph: The Illicit Happiness of other people (John Murray, UK & Harper Collins India)
  6. Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
  7. Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (Random House, India)  
  8. Nayomi Munaweera: Island of a Thousand Mirrors (Perera Hussein Publishing, Sri Lanka & Hachette India)
  9. Nilanjana Roy: The Wildings (Aleph Book Company, India)
  10. Philip Hensher: Scenes from Early Life (Faber & Faber, USA)  
  11. Ru Freeman: On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf Press, USA)
  12. Sachin Kundalkar: Cobalt Blue (Translated by Jerry Pinto; Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
  13. Shyam Selvadurai: The Hungry Ghosts (Double Day Publishing, Canada)
  14. Sonora Jha: Foreign (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
  15. Uzma Aslam Khan: Thinner Than Skin (Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing, USA)

Speaking on the occasion, Antara Dev Sen, Chair of the jury commented “We are delighted to present the longlist for the DSC Prize 2014, which offers a wonderful variety of experiences from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and reflects much of the exhilarating and bewildering diversity that is the hallmark of South Asian fiction. The list includes celebrated, award-winning authors as well as powerful new voices, and I am particularly happy that it includes novels in translation from other Indian languages.

The novels range from the conventional to the experimental, from amazing tales sprawling across continents and generations to stories brilliantly detailed in a small, almost claustrophobic canvas. Several of these books are about violence – many about war, terrorism, conflict – underscoring what the contemporary South Asian experience is inescapably defined by. Many examine otherness – due to migration, caste or sexual identity, terror, alienation. Through extraordinary storytelling and sensitivity, these novels offer us a sense of history, a sense of loss and the invincibility of hope.” she added.

The jury will now deliberate on the longlist over the next month and the shortlist for the DSC Prize will be announced on Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at The London School of Economics in London. The winner will be subsequently declared at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2014.

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