Sri Lanka 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

Akil Kumaraswamy’s “Half Gods”

“Refugees can’t be picky. . .   .” 

Akil Kumaraswamy’s debut Half Gods is a collection of interlinked short stories. These are stories revolving around a father-daughter duo who are Tamil Hindus of Sri Lankan origin and now based in the US. Along the way the daughter, Nalini, a nurse, has married a Punjabi Sikh and has two sons — Arjun and Karan, named after two demigods from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. They also have a circle of friends, consisting mostly of immigrants. It is a motley bunch that manages to share experiences and find some common ground to have conversations. It is only when their “back stories” are shared that it becomes clear their pasts have been traumatic. For instance, Nalini and her father fled Sri Lanka after their house had been attacked by mobs and her mother and twin brothers had been lynched. It is a horrific past to live with but they do and find a way to get across to the US.

In a fabulous interview with Sara Novic, Akil Kumaraswamy discussed Half Gods. In it Akil Kumaraswamy says she has never been to Sri Lanka but “the war has inhabited such a vast part of my consciousness growing up”. She agrees with Sara Novic when the latter says “I worry about most is how the war is being taught to this new generation of children who weren’t alive during the conflict or in its immediate aftermath. It’s such a complex tangle of money and power and hatreds, and it’s easy to flatten or try and ignore completely”. This is also Akil Kumaraswamy’s preoccupation with histories of conflict especially in South Asia, where many of the countries experienced horrific violence at the time of their establishment or subsequently too such as the Partition of the Indian subcontinent or the 1984 riots in Delhi upon the assassination of the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi.

The author’s rationale for writing Half Gods as interlinked stories is that “War messes with any conception of chronology, and the past can feel more lived-in than the present. Also, since the work deals with displacement, I knew it would not be fixed by one geographic location. I eventually found that the interlinked short story form allowed me both expansiveness and a tight construction for the work.” Interestingly enough Half Gods began life as “a play and it only focused on the family and the story of the Mahabharata ran tangentially to it. I had these large monologues where Gods in their full regalia talked about their lives on earth. It was strange but it opened up the book in my mind. There is a scene in Half Gods where Karna shows his class a picture of his family and one of the drawings is of the sun dressed up in a suit. I am interested in how the mystical or divine brush up against the ordinary—something that often happens when the pressure is building, when reality becomes unbearable.”

Every story is powerful and it is difficult to choose a particular favourite. But if one were to then it would be the hauntingly powerful “The Office of Missing Persons” ( LitHub, 5 July 2018) which is about the entomologist whose son suddenly disappears. It is eerie for it does not seem like fiction as such stories are constantly being repeated in conflict zones and often reported in the morning newspapers. Two of her other stories that can be read online are “At the Birthplace of Sound” ( Boston Review, 21 April 2015) and “Shade” ( Guernica, 1 June 2016) .

Akil Kumaraswamy is a promising new voice in the literary landscape. As with most debut writers it is always fascinating to know what will be their next piece of work — will it be fiction in a similar vein to their first book or will it be a leap of faith in to narrative non-fiction? Whatever it is to be, will be worth looking forward to since once a writer has waded into conflict literature there is no looking back.

To buy on Amazon India 

Hardback 

Kindle

3 November 2018 

 

 

“Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?”

41DEZH1RXvL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_In the week when Kashmir is burning after the death of twenty-one-year-old Burhan Wani or as he is being referred in Indian media as “the poster boy of new militancy” ( http://bit.ly/29BWjgf ) it would be sobering to read Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? Published by Zubaan in March 2016 it is about the mass rape of women and the brutal sexual torture of men in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora by soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces. The book also includes the text of the confidential report of the then Divisional Commissioner Kashmir Wajahat Habibullah (along with the deleted paragraphs). Since the book was published there were more developments in the case but could not be included in the publication. 

I am posting extracts from the book. The sequencing is mine.

While I was composing this blog post noted human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover posted on Facebook the following: 

Our silence, as young protestors are being killed in Kashmir and many severely injured, is suffocating me.
Kashmir is a political dispute and needs a political engagement. We must protest and demand an end to this militarisation. After the 2010 killings of over 112 persons by security forces in Kashmir, 4 of us – Sukumar Muralidharan, Bela Somari and Ravi Hemadri and myself – traveled across Kashmir visted the families of those killed and the wounded. We documented the excessive and indiscriminate use of lethal force against unarmed protestors that led to the grievous loss of life; the pellet gun and catapults that caused blindness and multiple organ injuries; the hospital in Patan that was attacked by the CRPF where injured were being treated and a child shot dead in the hospital premises; children like Tufail Mattoo and Sameer Rah were killed. No FIR was ever lodged and no one was held accountable for these killings. https://kafila.org/2011/03/26/four-months-the-kashmir-valley-will-never-forget-a-fact-finding-report/
Death has rolled its dice again.”

“We knew that if we remained silent, they would do it again, if not in our village then somewhere else.” — A survivor 

 

This book is that you are about to read is unusual, special and quite extraordinary. It spans, traverses and tracks a long passage of time — 24 years — during which the truth of the mass rape of women and the brutal sexual torture of men in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora by soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces, was sought to be distorted, denied or buried by the Indian state and its many agencies. When a truth of this nature and magnitude is thus treated or suppressed, the quest for justice is boosted not only amongst the victims / survivors but also amongst large sections of the population; women and men, none of whom is unscathed or untouched by the mass violence surrounding them. They are in fact, witnesses.

Many have grown up in the midst of this violence; the myriad forms it takes, the fear and terror that it unleashes on a daily basis, the lies and lawlessness of the state; be it on a street or one’s home — it is their lived experience. So it is with the five young authors of this book. They were either not born or just born at the time of the ‘incident’ in early 1991.

When I met these young women in the summer of 2013 ( at the office of JKCCS, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society) in the course of my own work on sexual violence and impunity in J&K, each one of them was poring over various documents in English or Urdu in files that were scattered open; these were the documents that told and corroborated the ‘story’ of the mass rape in Kunan and Poshpora that JKCCS had accessed through several RTIs ( right to information) that they had filed in different government departments. There were also records of the victims’ / survivors’ testimonies that these young women had procured over a period of time. I was struck by the number of documents and the amount of information that was there, it reminded me of how different it was compared to fifteen years ago when hardly any information was available, either official or unofficial, particularly regarding sexual crimes/rape. Silence and fear had prevailed then but here were these young women fearlessly articulating the problem and determined to fight the state authorities for justice and accountability.

I was curious to know what had inspired them to look into a ‘case’ that took place so many years ago, even before some of them were born. What prompted them to take on this arduous journey, to undertake their frequent travels to Kupwara where these two villages are located? How did they manage to gain the trust and confidence of the victims / survivors such that they were willing to share their stories yet again, this time with a group of young, concerned women? One of them voiced it poignantly and succinctly: when a young woman physiotherapy student was gang-raped in a moving bus on the streets of Delhi in December 2012, the outrage among people was such that the entire country erupted into militant protests that demanded justice for the victim and punishment for the accused. How come the frequent rapes in J&K by the armed forces do not move the same Indians to protest this crime, not even when it is a mass rape of women as in Kunan and Poshpora? ‘We decided’, she told me, ‘that we have to raise our voice and wage our own struggle against such crimes. If we don’t, no one else will.’

This sentiment is reflected in the book when the authors ask: Is rape in India punishable but rape in Kashmir justifiable when committed by the men in uniform, the protestors of India’s honour in Kashmir? Is this the typical ‘face’ or attitude of the Indian authorities — of burying the truth and denying Justice? ‘In Kashmir, Justice is a hard thing to find’ say the authors at one point, reminding me of what a Sri Lankan woman in one of the IDP camps had once told me, ‘Justice is a dark room for us’.

The authors thus began to excavate the truth, by sifting it through a web of lies and botched-up investigations, by painstakingly building a bridge of trust and hope between the victims / survivors of Kunan Poshpora and the various courts of law where justice is meant to be dispensed.

These women were instrumental in re-opening the Kunan Poshpora case and demanding that it be re-investigated. They mobilized nearly a hundred women from different walks of life including a few women from their own families. Fifty of them joined these young women to file a PIL ( Public Interest Litigation ) at the lower court in Kupwara in 2013, even though the case had been closed as untraced by the JK police in 1991.

( From the ‘Preface’ by Sahba Husain. pp xxiii – xxvi)

The Sexual Violence and Impunity Project ( SVI) is a three-year research project, supported by the International Development Research Centre ( IDRC), Canada, and coordinated by Zubaan. Led by a group of nine advisors* from five countries ( Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), and supported by groups and individuals on the ground, the SVI project started with the objectives of developing and deepening their understanding on sexual violence and impunity in South Asia through workshops, discussions, interviews and commissioned research papers on the prevalences of sexual violence, and the structures that provide immunity to perpetrators in all five countries.

Our discussions began in January 2012, when a group of women from South Asia came together in a meeting facilitated by a small IDRC grant, to begin the process of thinking about these issues. We were concerned not only at the legal silences around the question of sexual violence and impunity, but also how deeply the ‘normalization’ of sexual violence and the acceptance of impunity, had taken root in our societies.

It became clear to use that women’s movements across South Asia had made important contributions in bringing the issue of sexual violence and impunity to public attention. And yet, there were significant gaps, …

Over the three-year period since this project began, there have been amendments in the criminal law of India and the definition of sexual assault has expanded, we have gained considerable grounds in our understanding on impunity for sexual violence and consequently are better able to speak about it and fight for justice. It is noteworthy that during the recent targeted violence in Muzzafarnagar in India in 2013, seven Muslim women who were brutally gang raped and sexually assaulted by men belonging to other communities, filed writ petitions for protecting their right to life under Article 21. In a landmark judgement in March 2014, recognizing the rehabilitation needs of the survivors of targeted mass rape, the Supreme Court of India ordered that a compensation of INR 500,000 each for rehabilitation be paid to the women by the state government.

The ‘Occupy Baluwatar’ movement of December 2012 which some see as the ripple effects of the Delhi protests against sexual violence and demands for justice, had sexual violence and impunity at its centre. One of the major outcomes of the movement was the 27 November 2015 amendment broadening the definition of rape, bringing same-sex rape and marital rape into the ambit of law.

In Pakistan too, small steps forward were taken in the shape of a parliamentary panel approval in February 2015 of amendments in the anti-rape laws, supporting DNA profiling as evidence during the investigation and prohibition on character assassination of rape victims during the trial. …

The eight volumes ( one each on Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, two on India, and two standalone books on impunity and on an incident of mass rape in Kunan Poshpora in Indian Kashmir) that comprise this series, are one of the many outcomes of this project. The collective knowledge built on the subject through workshops, discussion fora, testimonies and interviews is part of our collective repository and we are committed to making it available to be used by activists, students and scholars. …

( From the Introduction by Urvashi Butalia, Laxmi Murthy and Navsharan Singh. pp ix – xviii)

*The nine advisors are: Ameena Mohsin, Hameeda Hossain, Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, Kumari Jayawardena, Mandira Sharma, Nighat Said Khan, Saba Gul Khattak, Sahba Husain, Sharmila Rege and Uma Chakravarti.

Essar Batool, Irfah Butt, Samreena Mushtaq, Munaza Rashid, & Natasha Rather Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? ( Introduction by Urvashi Butalia, Laxmi Murthy and Navsharan Singh) Zubaan Series on Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia co-published with IDRC, Zubaan, 2016. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 395 

11 July 2016 

 

Chhimi Tenduf-La, “Panther”

Chhimi Tenduf-LaSri Lanka is such a beautiful country. We have it all; the beaches, the history, the hills, the heritage, the food, the smiling faces, the hospitality — and now the peace. I am getting used to this. I think I can move on. …I call up some old friends; Gish and Gayan ( Sinhalese Buddhists), Khuzi (Muslim), Gajen ( Tamil Hindu), and Shoban ( mixed-race Christian). All different, but all very similar. All just young guys, enjoying life, enjoying peace. 

My batting technique is still strong, so the boys encourage me to take up cricket professionally. I am not too old, I know it, but do I have the heart? Is it my calling? Can I use my experience to make a difference, like one of the greatest cricketers of all time, Kumar Sangakkara? He said, ‘I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.’

Chhimi Tenduf-La’s second novel, Panther, is a cross between young adult fiction and a war novel. It is not necessarily because of the story plot and it being set in Sri Lanka, but it is also the style of writing. It has the gritty, bold experimentation in narrative, character sketches and issues often seen contemporary young adult fiction. At the same time it has the urgency and inexplicable situations often seen in war novels, surprisingly always taken in one’s stride since bizarreness is a way of life in war torn areas. So the explosively weird beginning to the novel where Prabu’s family is scattered, after which he is admitted to a posh private school given his wonderful cricketing skills is surreal, yet plausible — after all it is a society being reconstructed after civil strife.

As is common with a lot of contemporary South Asian literature there are intense conversations about identity. But it is not just about the conversations, it is the literary landscapes explored in novels like Panther  making it very clear that despite extreme fundamentalist forces in South Asia preferring to identifying a nation with a particular socio-religious entity, they are simply unable to make sufficient fissures in the community.  Panther has plenty of frank, honest and open conversations about religion, identities, attitudes — a characteristic trait of young adult fiction. It is perfect that the novel revolves around cricket, the national pastime game in many South Asian countries. Another aspect that sets this novel apart from contemporary Sri Lankan literature is the boldness with which it makes no qualms about identifying communities and mixed-races of the individuals. It plots places and people on a very real landscape unveiling the rich complexity of the nation rather than leaving it vaguely as a story about war-torn Sri Lankan, predominantly a conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese with some Buddhists too.

Chhimi Tenduf-La is half-English and half-Tibetan who grew up in Hong Kong, London, New Delhi and Colombo. He now lives in Colombo with his family.

Read Panther.

Chhimi Tenduf-La Panther Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, NOIDA, India. Pb.pp. 270 Rs 299

18 September 2015 

Twinkle Khanna and Brigid Keenan

MRS FUNNYBONES_webI have had immense good fortune of reading Twinkle Khanna’s Mrs Funnybones and Brigid Keenan’s Packing Up back-to-back.

Mrs Funnybones is Twinkle Khanna’s debut as an author. It is based upon her immensely popular and delightfully irreverent column of the same name published in Mumbai newspaper, DNA. It is a sharp, witty and tongue-in-cheek commentary on the many roles a modern woman fulfils — career woman, housekeeper, mother, wife, counsellor, daughter, daughter-in-law, accountant, Man Friday etc. Many would be sceptical that a famous star like Twinkle Khanna is able to write on her own without the assistance of a ghost writer, but there is an authenticity about the book which rings true. I would not term it as “chick lit” but many would view it so. It is hard to put one’s finger on it but reading it from cover-to-cover followed by listening to her at the book launch convince one about Mrs Funnybones being wholly original. Twinkle Khanna had been an actress but is a more accomplished interior designer, voracious reader especially of scifi literature and if her friends at the book launch are to be believed, always known for her wit.

A sample of her writing on her observations on Karva Chauth, an annual ritual in the Hindu calendar when north Indian women fast for the day, ostensibly for seeking better health of their husbands. The day ends with the wife looking at the reflection of the moon through a sieve to secure the lunar deity’s blessings, then she turns to her husband and views his face indirectly in the same manner. This is what Twinkle Khanna has to say:

We Indians are a strange race; we send MOM to Mars, but listen to mom-in-law and look for the moon. One of the better qualities we possess is that most of us will follow traditions and rituals as long as they do not demean or harm us, or cause us to do the same to another, while making our elders happy. We simply do it rather than prove a point as to how liberated and independent we truly are. Perhaps, this is how we harmoniously hold our large families together as we celebrate different aspects of our lives.  ( p.101)

Here is a link to the star-studded book launch organised earlier this week in Mumbai. The conversation with Karan Johar, Aamir Khan, etc are worth watching. Apparently her husband, the mega-Bollywood star, Akshay Kumar reads every single word she spins out and is her first editor. In recent times as mentioned in the YouTube link, he has gently advised her to not use the word “Pakistan” on a few occasions.

 

Brigid Keenan’s Packing Up she suggests falls into the category of “decreplit” or books written by older Packing Upwomen. Packing Up is a hilarious account of her travels as a diplomat’s wife, retirement and grandmotherhood. When she is not mending her tarantula ( seriously! a souvenir collected in Trinidad, after her husband squashed it), Brigid Keenan’s keen eye observes life around her whether it is in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Suffolk, London, Brussels, Jaipur or Sri Lanka. She is one of the co-founders of the Palestinian Festival of Literature. Whatever she does, it is with passion.

With both these women writers it is the frank honesty with which they write, the ability to laugh at themselves and gaily comment on the world around them. The facetiousness with which they seemingly write, garbs the brutal and sharp understanding of reality they have. Mrs Funnybones and Packing Up are excellent examples of using one’s wit with panache.

These books are a must buy.

Twinkle Khanna Mrs Funnybones Penguin Books, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Pb. pp. 240 Rs. 299

Brigid Keenan Packing Up: Further Adventures of a Trailing Spouse Bloomsbury, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 320 Rs 399

21 August 2015

Who will win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature? (13 January 2015)

DSC shortlistAccording to the vision statement, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature celebrates the rich and varied world of literature of the South Asian region. Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme. The prize brings South Asian writing to a new global audience through a celebration of the achievements of South Asian writers, and aims to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world. This year the award will be announced on 22 January 2015, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Shortlist 2015 consists of:

1. Bilal Tanweer: The Scatter Here is Too Great (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
2 Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
3. Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury, India)
4. Romesh Gunesekera: Noontide Toll (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
5. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Mirror of Beauty (Penguin Books, India)

( http://dscprize.com/global/updates/five-novels-make-shortlist-dsc-prize-2015.html )

The jury consists of Keki Daruwala (Chairperson), John Freeman, Maithree Wickramasinghe, Michael Worton and Razi Ahmed.

All the novels shortlisted for the award are unique. They put the spotlight on South Asian writing talent. From debut novelist ( Bilal Tanweer) to seasoned writers ( Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie) and one in translation – Shamsur Rahman Faruqui, the shortlist is a good representation of the spectrum of contemporary South Asian literature in English. Three of the five novelists– Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie–reside abroad, representing South Asian diaspora yet infusing their stories with a “foreign perspective”, a fascinating aspect of this shortlist. It probably hails the arrival of South Asian fiction on an international literary map. The three novels — The Lowland, Noontide Toll and A God in Every Stone are firmly set in South Asia but with the style and sophistication evident in international fiction, i.e. detailing a story in a very specific region and time, culturally distinct, yet making it familiar to the contemporary reader by dwelling upon subjects that are of immediate socio-political concern. For instance, The Lowland is ostensibly about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, India and the displacement it causes in families; A God in Every Stone is about an archaeological dig in Peshawar in the period around World War I and Noontide Toll is about the violent civil unrest between the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet all three novels are infused with the writers’ preoccupation with war, the immediate impact it has on a society and the transformation it brings about over time. The literary techniques they use to discuss the ideas that dominate such conversations — a straightforward novel (The Lowland), a bunch of interlinked short stories narrated by a driver ( who is at ease in the Tamil and Sinhala quarters, although his identity is never revealed) and the yoking of historical fiction with creation of a myth as evident in Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. All three novelists wear their research lightly, yet these novels fall into the category of eminently readable fiction, where every time the story is read something new is discovered.

Bilal Tanweer who won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 for his wonderful novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great. Set in Karachi, it is about the violence faced on a daily basis. (Obviously there is much more to the story too!) Whereas Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel The Mirror of Beauty, translated by him from Urdu into English is primarily about Begum Wazir Khanam with many other scrumptious details about lifestyles, craftspeople, and different parts of India. It is written in a slow, meandering style of old-fashioned historical fiction. The writer has tried to translocate the Urdu style of writing into the English version and he even “transcreated” the story for his English readers—all fascinating experiments in literary technique, so worth being mentioned on a prestigious literary prize shortlist.

Of all the five novels shortlisted for this award, my bet is on Kamila Shamsie winning the prize. Her novel has set the story in Peshawar in the early twentieth century. The preoccupations of the story are also those of present day AfPak, the commemoration of World War I, but also with the status of Muslims, the idea of war, with accurate historical details such as the presence of Indian soldiers in the Brighton hospital, the non-violent struggle for freedom in Peshawar and the massacre at Qissa Khwani Bazaar. But the true coup de grace is the original creation of Myth of Scylax — to be original in creating a myth, but placing it so effectively in the region to make it seem as if it is an age-old myth, passed on from generation to generation.

13 January 2015

 

Play with Me

Play with Me

Ananth 1Today, Ananth Padmanabhan’s debut novel, Play with Me, goes on sale. It is a slim novel
about a successful photographer, Sid, in a boutique ad agency. He is focused on his job, till he meets Cara, who has applied to be an intern at the agency, specifically working with Sid. Cara has relocated to India from New York. Her father is an Indian diplomat and her Turkish mother is the Islamic Art Consultant at the Met. Cara and Sid have a rollicking affair. They are sexually obsessed with each other, but slowly the relationship evolves. Cara introduces her girlfriend, Rhea to Sid too. But Sid discovers he is falling in love with another women altogether–Nat. It does make for a complicated situation. Play with Me

In a recent interview, Ananth Padmanabhan said “One day, when we were discussing EL James [author of the notorious S&M fantasy novel Fifty Shades of Grey] and commissioning erotic fiction, Chiki [ Sarkar] said, ‘A, you have to write this’; R Sivapriya [Penguin’s managing editor] had seen my work and told her about it. I said I’d give it a shot. On my commute from Gurgaon to Delhi every day, I would think about what I would do,” says the publisher’s unlikely erotica debut, Ananth, senior vice-president of sales. “It’s very difficult to get it right.” He couldn’t have picked a better or more difficult place to try his hand at writing about pleasure; your average head of sales is both perfectly placed to understand his market and new to playing the role of author. ( Rajni George, “Between the sheets”, OPEN, 31 July
2014  http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/books/between-the-sheets ) 

Ananth Padmanabhan, is Vice-President, Sales, Penguin Random House India. He has been with the firm since 1997 when David Davidar, then Penguin publisher offered him a job. As an experienced book salesman, he has a sharp sense of what it requires for a book to sell. At the same time he has a keen eye for detail as his passion for photography shows. In fact, two years ago he held an
exhibition of his black and white photographs called ‘Calcutta Walking in the City’–each frame had a story to tell. He blends his professional and personal interests well in his debut novel, Play with me. The book may have been commissioned out of a need to look for the Indian middle-class English reader of Fifty Shades of Grey, but as is the wont with good debut novelists, they tell a story with a fresh voice, anchored in details that they are usually most comfortable with. Ananth’s love for photography makes Play with me work at many levels– erotic fiction with competent and nuanced storytelling.

AranyaniPlay with Me is one of the few books published by prominent Indian publishers that deals with the genre of erotic fiction. Some of the others are A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories by Aranyani ( Aleph Book Company, http://alephbookcompany.com/pleasant-kind-heavy-and-other-erotic-stories ) and Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories from Sri Lanka, edited by Ameena Hussein ( Tranquebar Press, Westland, http://www.westlandbooks.in/book_details.php?cat_id=4&book_id=304 ). Over  a year ago, Rupa Publications launched the Confession series of low-priced books written by ordinary folks, sometimes anonymously, of sexual encounters that they had experienced  in their daily lives. Apparently these were “true” accounts written by tutors, housewives, young office workers etc. Unfortunately I am unable to locate the link to these stories now.Blue

The publishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey also attracted Hindi publishers such as Mr Narendra Verma, Chairman, Diamond Books. In an interview to me last year he said, “…we translated Fifty Shades of Grey, but it has been a trying experience with this book. As this book is written in English, translating it into Hindi first was not an easy task. It was primarily because all the words could not be translated, nor were they appropriate to be published in Hindi. The main hurdle was to not offend the middle-class reader’s sentiments. The translated text had to be edited many times before it could be released for publishing. The translation was done in-house with one of our empanelled translators. The first volume was released into the market with a print-run of 5,000, and was soon sent in for a reprint. It has been priced at Rs. 175. We are not expecting sales as phenomenal as those in English.” ( p.55, Narendra Verma, “We publish one book everyday”, PrintWeek India Book Special 2013.)

Back cover of Play with meErotic fiction is a genre that is slowly developing a space in the mainstream Indian market. As I write this, there is talk of one more eagerly-awaited for book, a memoir. A collection of erotic short stories by women which has been slated for publication for a while now has been stalled due to legal hassles. So erotic fiction continues to be a niche book market but in India it needs to be handled sensitively if it needs to sell well. As Mary Anne Mohanraj, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, Chicago told me, “good erotica should be held to the same standards as any other good fiction, but in addition, it should also set an erotic mood, much as horror sets a horrific mood.” Hence it is not surprise then that Ananth Padmanabhan’s Play with me is already being spoken of as a sleeper-hit.

Ananth Padmanbhan Play with me Penguin Books India, 2014. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 250

7 August 2014 

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 August 2014) and in print ( 3 August 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/stories-on-conflict/article6274928.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

 Jaya Bhattacharji RoseOff late images of conflict dominate digital and print media– injured children, rubble, weeping people, vehicles blown apart, graphic photographs from war zones. We live in a culture of war, impossible to get away from. What is frightening is the daily engagement we have with this violence, to make it a backdrop and a “normal” part of our lives. The threshold of our receptivity to it is lowering; the “appetite” for violence seems to be increasing.

Take partition of the sub-continent in 1947.  Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of the brilliant anthology of graphic stories with contributions from three countries, This Side, That Side, remarks, “Partition is so much a part of the lives of South Asians.” It exists in living memory. Generations have been brought up on family lore, detailing experiences about Partition, the consequences and the struggle it took refugees to make a new life. For many years, there was silence. Then in India the communal riots of 1984 following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi happened. For many people of the older generation who had experienced the break-up of British India it opened a Pandora box of memories; stories came tumbling out. It was with the pioneers of Partition studies–Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin and Urvashi Butalia–that this tumultuous time in history began to make its mark in literature.

Contemporary sub-continental literature comprises of storytellers who probably grew up listening to stories about conflict in their regions. It is evident in the variety, vibrancy and strength discernible in South Asian writing with distinct styles emerging from the nations. There is something in the flavour of writing; maybe linked to the socio-political evolution of the countries post-conflict—Partition or civil unrest. In India, there is the emergence of fiction and nonfiction writers who have a sharp perspective to offer, informed by their personal experiences, who are recording a historical (and painful) moment. Recent examples are Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots, Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour, Chitrita Banerji’s Mirror City, Sujata Massey’sThe City of Palaces, Sudipto Das’s The Ekkos Clan,  Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and Samanth Subramanian’s The Divided Land , a travelogue about post-war Sri Lanka. In Sri Lankn literature conflict is a constant backdrop, places and names are not necessarily always revealed or easily identified, but the stories are written with care and sensitivity. Shyam Selvadurai in his introduction to the fascinating anthology of varied examples of Sri Lankan literature, Many Roads to Paradise writes “In a post-war situation, this anthology provides an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities by allowing Sri Lankans access to the thoughts, experiences, history and cultural mores of their fellow countrymen, of which they have remained largely ignorant due to linguistic divides.” Contributors include Shehan Karunatilaka ( The Chinaman), Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors) and Ashok Ferrey ( The Colpetty People and  The Professional). Bangladeshi writers writing in a similar vein are Shaheen Akhtar’s The Search ( translated by Ella Dutta), Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice (translated by Mahmud Rahman), Tahmima Anam The  Good Muslim and Neamat Imam’s The Black Coat. Pakistani Nadeem Aslam’s last novel Blind Man’s Garden is a searing account of the war in Afghanistan and its devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people. In his interview with Claire Chambers for British Muslim Fictions, Nadeem Aslam said his “alphabet doesn’t only have 26 letters, but also the 32 of the Urdu alphabet, so I have a total of 58 letters at my disposal”.  Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone uses fiction (the story is set during the World Wars) to comment upon contemporary socio-political events (Peshawar). Earlier this year Romesh Gunaseekera told me while discussing his latest novel, Noontide Toll “All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.”

From Homer’s The Odyssey onwards, recording war through stories has been an important literary tradition in conveying information and other uses. Today, with conflict news coming in from every corner of the world and 2014 being the centenary year of World War I, publishers are focusing upon war-related literature, even for children. For instance, Duckbill Books new imprint, NOW series about children in conflict has been launched with the haunting Waiting Mor, set in Kabul and inspired by a true story. Paro Anand’s No Gun’s at my Son’s Funeral was one of the first stories written in India for young adults that dealt with war, children and Kashmir; it is soon to be made into a feature film. All though ninety years after the first book was published Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, about a mischievous 11-year-old boy set during WWI, continues to be a bestseller! The culture of war has been inextricably linked to literature and media. As the protagonist, Adolf Hitler says in Timur Vermes must-read debut novel Look Who’s Back “after only a handful of days in this modern epoch, I had gained access to the broadcast media, a vehicle for propaganda”.

2 August 2014 

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Wild GirlsAt the recently concluded World Book Fair, New Delhi, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu publications gave me a copy of Wild Girls, Wicked Words.  An anthology of four women poets who write in Tamil –Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. The poems have been translated from Tamil into English by well-known translator, Lakshmi Holmström. This book is a joint publication of Sangam House and Kalachuvadu Publications. It can be ordered online from Flipkart: http://www.flipkart.com/search?q=wild+girls+wicked+words&as=off&as-show=off&otracker=start . 

I enjoyed reading the poems. Powerful poetry. The themes range from love, war to oppression. With the women poets included in this anthology they write about the feelings commonly shared by women. Poetry is a form of expression that helps them to articulate their feelings and experiences. I can only read the poems in English but the Tamil versions have also been made available. 

Given below is an extract from the exquisite introduction to the book. In it Lakshmi Holmström gives a nuanced and sensitive context to the poets featured, and places them within the traditions of Tamil literature and poetry. It is being reproduced with permission of Lakshmi Holmström, Sangam House and Kalachuvadu Publications.

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Introduction

Lakshmi Holmström

In 2003, at a time when politicians and other establishment figures of Tamil Nadu were caught up in a surge of Tamil chauvinism, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets, particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. They charged the women with obscenity and immodesty.Malathi Mythri

These women poets came into prominence at the same time; their first collections of poetry were published between the years 2000 –2002, when they were in their late twenties and early thirties. Though each of these poets is unique in what she has to say in her poetry, there are some themes which are common to all of them, notably the politics of sexuality, and a woman’s relationship to her body. For the moral police, such language was not permissible for Tamil women. So the poets were condemned and vilified. The debate gained focus with the publication of Kutti Revathi’s Mulaigal (Breasts, 2002). The poets received abusive letters from individuals as well as literary organizations. The media had a field-day. A popular song writer for films gave a much publicised interview to a literary journal condemning women writers in general. This was followed by another film-song writer, Snehithan, who appeared on television declaring that these women should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive.

kutty revathiIt might have been easy for these self-appointed moral guardians to assume that the young women poets were all ‘powerless’ and, therefore, particularly vulnerable: none of them comes from a privileged background. Salma comes from a conservative Muslim family based in a small town near Madurai; Sukirtharani is a school teacher in Lalapet, and a Dalit. On the contrary, despite considerable persecution and even death threats, the women refused to be intimidated, insisting on their freedom to write as they chose. Malathi Maithri sought legal advice, and made a complaint to the Women’s Commission against Snehithan.

The Tamil literary world was divided in its response. Kalachuvadu, a literary-cum-political journal which has always engaged with political and literary issues, called a meeting in Chennai on 21 November 2004 to debate the issues that had been raised by the violent response both towards the poetry written by these four women poets, and towards the women personally. The meeting was chaired by Indira Parthasarathy, and attended by well-known writers such as Prapanjan, Ambai and Ravikumar, and older women poets Krishangini and Thaamarai. Rajasekaran reports in Kalachuvadu that the discussions were mostly to do with the larger issues of freedom of expression: Ravikumar spoke at length about the need to struggle against all oppressions, Prapanjan about patriarchy’s various and subtle workings, and Krishangini about why men find it so difficult to accept it when women write in specific and personal terms about their sexuality. However, Rajasekaran also pointed out that none of the critics and writers present analysed in any detail the specific poems which were at the root of the controversy.Sukirtharani 1

Meanwhile, by 2005, the national press more generally was taking up the issue of moral censorship of Tamil women by all the political parties of Tamil Nadu. About this time too, two film-makers, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, made a documentary on our four poets, entitled SheWrite. The film was important in that it brought to the notice of the nation at large the courageous stand the four women had taken; it also served to bring out many insights about their personal lives and backgrounds. However, in the film, the poetry was shown mostly as the focus of a controversy, and not examined in any detail for its own worth and value.

It is now ten years since the publication of Mulaigal. During this decade, each of our poets has published more than one further collection, continuing to write and publish as courageously as before. Each of them has won national and international acclaim. However, the grumbling against the language and thrust of their poetry goes on, while the wider issue of what Tamil women are allowed to wear, say, and where they choose to socialize continues to be raised from time to time and debated by the politicians, and in the press.

salmaWhen we look back at the history of Tamil poetry, the marginal status of women in the literary canon and their relatively meagre output is evident since classical times. It is true that, in modern times, Tamil women have been writing and publishing in various genres, but as far as poetry is concerned, we have seen a gradual change only since about 1970. Women such as R. Meenakshi and Sugantha Subramaniam were being published throughout the 1970s and 80s, yet it was only in the late 80s that their poems appeared in significant numbers, both in anthologies and single volumes. Then, suddenly, in the 1990s, the contribution of women to Tamil poetry became notable. This was a poetry that had to be noticed, not because it was written by women, but because it was different from what appeared in the mainstream.

As V. Geetha points out in her Introduction to an anthology of poetry by women from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, Paratthal Athan Sudandiram (Flight is its Freedom, 2001), not all the contributors to the book are feminists, nor even necessarily sympathetic to feminism, yet they bring completely new themes into Tamil poetry: an engagement with the minutiae of everyday life, new perceptions of familial lives, the truth about a sudden end to childhood, about bleak marriages, the joys and sorrows of childbirth and motherhood. And some women, at least, were writing with boldness about their inner lives in very different terms, using an awareness of their bodies and their sexuality. Drawing attention to an overall tendency in the anthology towards inwardness and the inner world, V. Geetha calls upon the Tamil women poets of her time to engage more with the outer world and its politics; to consider social and cultural oppressions and inequalities more widely. She suggests that the difference between the Sri Lankan women and those from Tamil Nadu lies in the political engagement of the former; that as far as the Sri Lankans are concerned, even when they write about ‘myself’, ‘my love’, ‘my sorrow’, there is an underlying political discourse that pushes the individual story into a wider context.

That was in 2001, and it was important to say it at the time. Since then, we have seen another generation of women poets whose poetry does indeed engage with a wider political discourse and a more nuanced feminism. Yet, in the case of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani, ever since the events so publicised by the media in 2003, their poetry has been grouped together and discussed only in terms of their engagement with questions of sexuality. It is also clear that a deep divide persists in the way readers and critics perceive women poets as a whole, today. The editor of a well-known literary journal observed to me that for these past years, Tamil women poets have been categorized into ‘Bad Girls’ who write ‘body poetry’ and ‘Good Girls’ who refrain from doing so.

This anthology, then, celebrates four women poets, Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi, and Sukirtharani, and showcases, through English translation, a small sample in each case, of their work over a decade. My attempt has been to bring out the beauty, originality, and above all the individuality of each of these poets. It is perhaps useful to remember that the traditional values prescribed for the ‘Good’ Tamil woman were accham, madam and naanam (fearfulness, propriety, modesty or shame). Our poets have chosen instead, the opposite virtues of fearlessness, outspokenness, and a ceaseless questioning of prescribed rules. It is surely significant that at different times and variously, they have claimed as their foremothers, role models and equals, Avvai, Velliviidhi and Sappho; Anna Akhmatova, Sylvia Plath and Kamala Das. And Eve, above all, who defied divine authority to pluck the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Bad Girls indeed, all of them.

***

There are many common themes and tropes among the poems presented here: light ‘prowls like a cat’, the tiger stalks within the bedroom and along the imagined mountain landscape. But there are also profound differences, which the reader will note. Each poet has struggled to find a language of her own to express her particular vision. ‘Language must be redeemed from the grave of its own inadequacy’, Malathi Maithri wrote in 2001, in her Editor’s Note to Paratthal Athan Sudandiram, putting forward, later on, the possibility of a pey (demon) language. Sukirtharani seeks an ‘infant language’, with all the rough and physical reality of new birth, still sticky with blood. Kutti Revathi invents a blazing language of love. Salma reaches out, even to the ‘rust of silence’.

Above all, in this anthology, I have wanted to celebrate the courage of each of these poets in breaking out of and defying easy categories. As Sukirtharani puts it in her magnificent poem, ‘Nature’s fountainhead’ (Iyarkaiyin peruutru):

I myself will become
earth
fire
sky
wind
water.
The more you confine me, the more I will spill over,
Nature’s fountainhead.

***

Wild Girls, Wicked Words Poems of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. Edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmström. Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House, Nagercoil, India, Dec 2012. Pb. pp. 240. Rs. 295

26 Feb 2014

“Of war and peace”. Interview with Romesh Gunasekera, The Hindu, 2 Feb 2014

“Of war and peace”. Interview with Romesh Gunasekera, The Hindu, 2 Feb 2014

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose with Romesh Gunasekera, JLF, 2014(My interview with Romesh Gunasekera was uploaded on the Hindu Literary Review website on 1 Feb 2014 and published in the print edition on 2 Feb 2014. Here is the url to it: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-literaryreview/of-war-and-peace/article5643819.ece I am c&p the entire text below. The review of the book, Noontide Toll, will be published in the first week of March 2014.  

I met Romesh Gunasekera at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014. The photograph was taken at the Penguin Random House reception on 17 Jan 2014. But this interview was conducted via email.) 

Romesh Gunaseekera, interview

Born in 1954, Romesh Gunesekera grew up in Sri Lanka and the Philippines before moving to England in 1972. His first novel, Reef , was shortlisted for both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize. In India recently to launch his latest collection of short stories Noontide Toll, Gunasekera took time out for an interview.

 1.    What was the gestation time for this book and how long did it take to write it? There is a reference to the killing of LTTE founder, Prabhakaran, so it seems to have been finished recently.  

I started thinking about this book in 2009 but didn’t start writing it until 2010 after I had travelled around Sri Lanka and visited some of the places in the north that had been difficult to get to during the war. Most of it was written in 2012 but I only finished the final draft towards the end of last year. So the gestation was about 4 years and the actual writing and rewriting 2 years.

2.    Why do you have a driver as a narrator?  

Vasantha, the van driver, was a natural choice when I realized the story was going to involve journeys around the island. The appropriateness of the character grew as the metaphor of the road grew. A passenger on a road journey is in the hands of a driver; a reader embarking on a book is in the hands of a narrator. Vasantha is both.

3. Why did you call the book Noontide Toll?

The title has particular resonances at this point in time and also has some links in meaning and sound with the titles of my first two books: Monkfish Moonand Reef. As this book like those two has a strong Sri Lankan connection it seemed to be the right choice.

4. The mode of a journey as the spine of a narrative are as old as the epics. Why did you choose this mode for Noontide Toll?

The story of this book is the story of a journey from the past to the future. It is the journey the narrator Vasantha makes but it also the journey we all make as human beings. A journey through time. A story of being on the road seemed a natural way to tell the story of these times. Vasantha is trying to understand how we should live in a world that is fast-changing and has a difficult past. Whether we live in Sri Lanka, or Malaysia, or India, or Britain or America we face similar issues of understanding the road we are on, remembering the past that has made us and seeing the future we want.

But in this book there is also a more specific reason. Vasantha is travelling to parts of his country that he has been unable to visit before because of the war that had been going on for nearly thirty years. So the journey was the way he would balance the north and south of his world.

5. Can you talk about issues of war, memory, and language in relation to the book?

The book is all about how we deal with memory. Vasantha is in a country that has seen a very long and bloody war. He wants to move on from that past and is trying to find the best way to do it. He doesn’t know how much of the past can be left behind and how much is a part of him. Language is the means by which we negotiate our relationship with time. For Vasantha language is a means of communication, of touching someone, and of remembering. All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.

6. For a book that deals with war, “>Noontide Toll is surprisingly very calm and structured in its sentences. Is this how you composed it in the first draft or was it “refined” later?

I believe if a sentence is to retain its strength over time it needs to be carefully made. In fiction the structure of sentences matter. In this book I have tried to make sure the narrative flows as naturally as possible, but that doesn’t just happen. It has to be made to happen.

7. Is there a South Asian Literary identity?

I have just been to a literary festival in Kolkata where there was an hour long discussion with a panel of writers on this subject. From that discussion it seemed as though there wasn’t a clear identity. Obviously there are ways in which you could identify some commonalities between South Asian writers but the problems begin from the moment you try to identify and define the terms e.g. who are South Asian writers? Those born in south Asia? Those who live in South Asia? Those who write about South Asia? Or those who are all three? The language used by the writer is perhaps the more important factor. People who study a wide range of writers would be in a better position to decide whether a geographical term is the best way to describe an identity. I think the idea of a specific geographic literary identity might be too restrictive and constraining to be helpful. I would like to think that South Asian literature (in whatever way it is defined) is as varied and surprising as any other kind of interesting literature.

8. You  have been teaching creative writing for many years in Great Britain. Recently you have begun to collaborate on workshops in India as well. What would be your critical assessment of the writing pool/talent in India/South Asia?

I’ve only run one workshop in India and that was in Kolkata last year. We had an excellent group in the workshop and although they were mostly from India we did have some international participants too. I couldn’t generalise from one course, but as far as I can tell there are plenty of aspiring writers and the ones I have come across have similar talents and ambitions as workshop participants I have worked with in many other countries around the world. The prospects for writing in India, and indeed in the region, are good. But then, surely, we all know that.

2 Feb 2014