Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.
The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.
Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.
Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)
Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.
This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.
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.
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!
Choosing a book or two to write about always throws me into a pother. The three mentioned in today’s post are not to be missed.
Writer and translator Shanta Gokhale’s autobiography One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body is brilliant. Shanta Gokhale is known for her translations from Marathi into English but she is fluently bilingual in English and Marathi. One Foot on the Ground is an account of her childhood, her father’s insistence on sending her to England to complete her school and later University. She returned home to become a teacher and then later joined the PR team of Glaxo. Ultimately she became known for her work as a journalist/columnist, screenwriter, translator and writer. She quit her day job once her children were old enough. Most interestingly, as the subtitle indicates, this is an autobiography that documents the various stages of her life through memorable experiences pertaining to the body. From the first remembered instances of molestation by the cook, dental troubles, babies, cancer, glaucoma etc. Then there are those other quiet assertions of her identity and her self, like filing an affidavit in the court to use her maiden name while still married, allowing her ex-husband to share her apartment till he had found a place for himself ( which was not to be for some years!), revelling in the joy of having her own space, her own bed where she could stretch out and read/work, ultimately recognising that she “needed a room of her own to be the person I was”. The calm tenor and poise with which Shanta Gokhale discusses her life, her body, her responsibilities and her ambitions is delightful. One Foot on the Ground is like reading the testimony of a woman who lives her feminism and do so contentedly. ( Read an extract published in Scroll on 10 July 2019. )
The second book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel is an extraordinary debut novel by award-winning queer Asian-American writer Ocean Vuong. Written in the first person by the narrator, Little Dog, it is a coming-of-age tale in America. It is about the boy, his Vietnam War veteran grandfather, his schizophrenic maternal grandmother and his mother who suffers from PTSD. It is a thinly veiled autobiographical account of Ocean Vuong’s life, of migrating to USA as a two-year-old refugee via a brief stay at a refugee camp in the Philippines. The precision of his writing, much as the fineness of description that is associated with poetry, is a remarkable transferance of creative talent into prose. The long beautifully crafted flowing sentences. In fact Ocean Vuong wondered in an interview if it was a comically futile effort. He had to contend with various multiplicities while also being very aware of the American lineage of biographies. Yet the agency as an artist is also very important to him. He adds that he was very inspired by the American idea that one can create a mythology for oneself.
Once at a writing conference, a white man asked me if destruction was necessary for art. His question was genuine. He leaned forward, his blue gaze twitching under his cap stitched gold with ‘Nam Vet 4 Life‘, the oxygen tank connected to his nose hissing beside him. I regarded him the way I do every white veteran from that war, thinking he could be my grandfather, and I said no. “No, sir, destruction is not necessary for art.” I said that, not because I was certain, but because I thought my saying it would help me believe it.
A coming-of-age novel that can be seen to exist firmly within the American tradition of literary biographies but at the same time is that of an Asian-American negotiating his adopted country. By writing this novel, Ocean has put together the best of literary traditions of his country of origin and his adopted country — the written word with the oral tradition and its folksy element. Thereby making it possible to speak of his schizophrenic grandmother and his mother who suffers from PTSD. There is plenty to unpack in this novel. It has many autobiographical elements which Ocean acknowledges in his various interviews but it has been announced as a novel. Ironically this is in the form of a long letter to his mother who is unable to read English. He states “the chance this letter finds you is slim — the very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it impossible.” At the same time Ocean Vuong rightly points out that “Conflict driven plot becomes its own protagonist” . Here is a wonderful profile of Ocean Vuong published in the Guardian. ( 9 June 2019).
The final book is another debut novel that has been considered by its publishers “the most coveted debut of 2019, an intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession”. Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory is set in Victorian London, at the time of the Great Exhibition and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Doll Factory is about the heroine Iris who aspires to be an artist while employed with her twin sister painting dolls faces. Iris soon finds herself a part of the PRB. She is hired as a model. It is a fine mix of nineteenth century preoccupation with details and twenty-first century preoccupations of modern storytelling while being very aware of concepts like male gaze. There are moments of pure gorgeousness in the book especially when the author is describing the Great Exhibition.
Elizabeth Macneal is a graduate of the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia where she was the Malcolm Bradbury Scholar, and The Doll Factory has won her the Caledonia Novel Award. It has been sold to 28 territories so far, while TV rights have already been snapped up. Alan Massie puts it well in The Scotsman review:
It’s accomplished; there’s nothing raw about it. Today’s young novelists have all been schooled in the making of a novel and they have usually submitted drafts of it to fellow students as well as teachers, and taken their suggestions and criticisms on board. Their novels are far less clumsy, far less raw, than first novels so often were a couple of generations ago. The Doll Factory is a perfect example.
In the acknowledgements Macneal thanks a long list of people for their help and encouragement. No doubt they have all been useful. Nevertheless, it’s fair to assume that only she is responsible for the novel’s charm. It is indeed charming. But is it about anything that matters? Perhaps we shall have to wait for a second or even a third novel before knowing whether the author’s evident ability can carry her beyond charm so that she deals with matters of significance, writing something which has the reader engaged in both feeling and thought.
The Doll Factory will undoubtedly be seen on longlists and all the noteworthy literary prizes meant for debut authors. Ultimately Elizabeth Macneal may win one of the big literary prizes for a later novel she writes, by which time she will have rid herself of all the creative writing school learnings and learned to be confident of her own voice. She will have learned to trust herself.
For now enjoy this wonderful Twitter thread by Elizabeth Macneal describing how the exquisite book cover was designed:
One Foot on the Ground, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and The Doll Factory are three unmissable books of 2019. They have the incredible quality to stay with the reader long after the books are over and done with.
Recently Speaking Tiger Books published a collection of short stories called The Book of Love Stories by Ekarat. The book cover is illustrated with two thorny branches. Not exactly an enticing book cover. Yet the stories are a curious collection exploring a range of love. From that of marital love, extra-marital, innocent love shared by little children who are probably imitating adults to young lovers determined to be together cutting across barriers, including the terrifying one of religion. It is a collection that does not grip you from the word go and yet it is difficult to put down. There is something about the detached, seemingly unaffected, style of writing of the narrator which makes it difficult to put the book down.
Ekarat is an alter-ego, a self-created role model, with a million stories to tell. He has walked this Earth for forty bittersweet summers. He has been a travel magazine editor, film marketing executive, communications lecturer and salesman.
After reading the stories, I emailed the author. Here are lightly edited excerpts of an interview with him.
Why did you opt to write short stories and not longer fiction?
Can I tell you the truth? Maybe it was the failure to complete a novel (two actually – in the last seven years) that made me give short stories a go. In 2016, I had just given up midway on what I thought was a very provocative novel. I was disheartened. My friend Palash Krishna Mehrotra read a couple of short stories (one found its way into the book – “Maria”) and he pondered and pronounced that there was something here. That was the inception of the short story collection.
2. How did you get into writing fiction?
Since I can remember, I have been in love with storytelling. I know nothing else. I wrote my first book (unpublished, not sure about the whereabouts of the manuscript anymore) in 2002, just after college. It was an ambitious project – a short story collection that flowed like a novel. My first published novel was The Nothing Man (published by Rupa in 2011) written under my name Ajay Khullar. It was a story of redemption through evil.
3. Did you consciously make every story revolve around love?
Not initially. I wrote the first few stories with the flow of what I had in mind, but when I saw that there was a thread of love running through these stories, I decided to pick up this thread and roll with it.
4. The different explorations of love are fantastic — from the little children in “Love has come to town”, the wife/lover in “Perizaad’s Lover”, to the besotted husband in “Wild Horses (Couldn’t Drag Me Away)” to the stunning “New Kid in Town”. Were these written at different moments in time or in quick succession?
‘Love has come to town’ was among the initial stories, written a few years ago. The others were done in a span of eight-nine months. ‘The Point of Inflection’ was added to the collection last, when the book was already with the publisher.
5. Where do you draw the inspiration for your stories?
Keep my eyes open and my ears close to the beat of my heart. Life provides a lot of material, enough to fill up volumes, if you pay attention. I also draw from my own life. Some of these stories are fictionalised depictions of real life love stories (mine and those that others told me).
6. What is the most challenging aspect of writing a short story?
Honestly, there was no struggle with this collection of short stories. While writing ‘The Book of Love’, I too was in love with a beautiful lady. It made writing these love stories that much easier. It just flowed.
7. Do you think being a travel journalist has made a qualitative difference to your fiction writing?
One hundred percent yes. As a travel journalist you are also telling a story, of a place, of people. You are connecting people to these places. That’s what you also do in fiction, in storytelling.
8. In many ways travel writing and fiction help readers “escape” and experience different landscapes without moving from their chair. Yet, in what way are the rigours of writing distinct for these two forms? Are they demanding in in their own way?
I think to write on travel and to write fiction is a dream job. And I think I’m very fortunate in that regard. I guess you have to have a keen sense of observation for both formats. I’ve had a great time doing travel journalism and I love writing fiction. You, though, invest very heavily when you write fiction (short stories or a novel) and sometimes it can be quite heart breaking – I abandoned two books after spending three years plus on each. It was a terrible feeling.
9. Who are the writers/journalists and poets who have influenced you?
My biggest influence has been the late British writer Graham Greene. I believe a lot of the darkness in my writing comes from the formative years of reading Greene. Also Stephen King – a very effective storyteller who walks the balance of good quality writing and being extremely popular.
10. Why did you publish your stories using a nom de plume?
My reasons for taking a Nom De Plume are very subjective. In my 20s I lived through some dark hours, hours which rolled into years. During these dark hours, I created an alter-ego, a role model, a sort of hero. Over the years I saw some bad days, mostly better. There was no constant in these years, except the idea of Ekarat. I took the name.
Nayantara Sahgal (b. 1927) and Toni Morrison (b.1931) have new publications out this past week. Nayantara Sahgal has a novella called The Fate of Butterflies. Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her non-fiction articles published over the past four decades. Every word chosen in these books is powerful. The two writers have witnessed significant periods of modern history — from the Second World War onwards to experiencing the joy of new democracies and its mantras of self-reliance, new freedoms as those made available with womens’ movements’ and the end of racial segregation, to the presently depressing times of rising ultra-conservative politics, authoritarian rule and sectarian violence. So when Nayantara Sahgal and Toni Morrison as seasoned storytellers pour their wisdom and experience into their writings without mincing words, you listen for the truths they share.
Nayantara Sahgal’s novella The Fate of Butterflies told from the perspective of a political science professor, Prabhakar, is a chilling tale about the all-pervading violence that exists in society. It is an insidious presence that is gradually transforming the rules of social engagement. It is licensing sectarian violence to such a degree that is fast becoming the norm rather than the deviant behaviour it is. The dystopic society Prabhakar finds himself in where people speak of “them” and “they”, mysteriously unnamned groups who are powerful enough to command and strike fear in the hearts of ordinary citizens. The horrors shared in The Fate of Butterflies of mass rapes of women and children, slicing bellies of pregnant women before sexually assaulting them, the homophobic behaviour of some expressed in the horrific violence towards individuals by setting them on fire after trying to castrate them, the quiet disappearance of kebabs and rumali roti from Prabhakar’s favourite dhaba with the excuse that Rafeeq the cook had disappeared making it impossible to offer Mughal cuisine to finding a naked body on the road wearing only a skull cap makes this fiction at times too close to reality. It seems to be a thinly veiled account of many of the witness accounts, oral testimonies and media reports of pogroms and communal violence that have been witnessed in recent years. Linking modern crimes to the historical accounts of Nazi Germany when such horrors unleashed on civil society where first witnessed and documented, Nayantara Sahgal, seems to be reminding the reader of the past being revisited today in the name of “nostalgia” and “harmony” when it is actually a crime against humanity, a human rights violation.
reminded his friends: no meat unless proven to be mutton, not cow. The Cow
Commission went around making sure. He was thinking of becoming a vegetarian
himself, he was scared as hell that his fridge might be raided and the mutton turned
into beef. Suspects were being dealt with out on the streets, surrounded by
camers and cheering beholders. He didn’t fancy that treatment for himself. It was far from reassuring in view of
Rafeeq’s disappearance or dismissal. they drank their cloying Limcas, not sure
how to find out about Rafeeq. The kaif’s water wasn’t safe and there was no
mineral water left. All the bottles of mineral water had been commandeered by
‘them’, the ‘they’ and ‘them’ who came and went, mysteriously unnamed.
who taught Modern Europe, said, “This tea party you were at, Prabhu, you
said the Slovak was well ahead of the others.’
wouldn’t he be? They’ve have practice. They had a flourishing Nazi republic
during the war, with a Gestapo and Jew-disposal and all the trimmings, and
evidently there’s a tremendous nostalgia for those good old days when everybody
was kept in line, or in harmony, as they called it.
was the watchword. Not that the other speakers weren’t harking back to the
glories of the 1930s, but I did get the feeling that some of them were sitting
back and waiting to see which way the wind would blow before they risked
investing in it. Only fools rush in. Compared with the rest of them the Slovak
was the only Boy Scout.’
most people are little people who have to go along with whatever’s happening,’
said Lopez, ‘either because they don’t know any better, or they have no choice
and can’t afford to lose their wages or their lives.’
people,’ repeated Prabhakar, and again with stubborn emphasis, ‘most people
everywhere, in Europe or here or anywhere else, only ask to be left in peace to
live their lives. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.’
Toni Morrison’s A Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her essays, speeches and meditations. They are a testament to her varied experiences in American history and literature, politics, women, race, culture, on language and memory. These are structured essays to occasional pieces of writing to moving eulogies as for James Baldwin to her Nobel Prize in Literature speech. It is a wide range of pieces which deserve to be read over and over again but it is the introduction to this volume entitled “Peril” that is exceptionally powerful. It is a commentary on contemporary world politics while focused on the importance of a writer and the significance of making art especially in authoritarian regimes.
In “Peril” Toni Morrison reasons that despots and dictators are no fools and certainly not foolish enough to “perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgements or follow their creative instincts” for if they did, it would be at their own peril. Whereas writers of all kinds — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that works like a coma on the population, “a coma despots call peace”. As she astutely points out that “historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow”. She continues that there are two notable human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. But she woudl like to add a third category — “stillness”. This could be passivity or dumbfoundedness or it can be paralytic fear. But in her opinion it can also be art.
Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, …writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. …The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that though is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.
“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture in Literature. Likewise pay heed when these two old and wise women speak. Pay heed.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. Today’s Book Post 25 is after a gap of two weeks as January is an exceedingly busy month with the Jaipur Literature Festival, Jaipur BookMark and related events.
In today’s Book Post 25 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought at the literature festival and are worth mentioning.
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.