Sukumar Ray Posts

An extract from “Indian Genre Fiction”

Indian Genre Fiction: Pasts and Present Futures (eds. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Aakriti Mandhwani and Anwesha Maity) is a fascinating collection of essays. There are articles on popular fiction in late colonial Tamil Nadu, to novels of Urdu, 19th-century Bengali chapbooks, science fantasy of Leela Majumdar and Sukumar Ray, Hindi pulp literature, retelling of the Mahabharata in Krishna Udaysankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva. But the essay that I read and re-read was Ira Pande’s tremendous “Hearts and homes: A perspective on women writers in Hindi”. Being the daughter of the very popular Hindi writer Shivani and a fluent speaker in English and Hindi, Ira Pande shares her fascinating perspective on inhabiting the Hindi literary world and what it means being bilingual.

With the permission of the publishers, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, here are two extracts from this brilliant essay. (pps. 94-95 and 96-97)

Allahabad in the ’60s was home to some of the greatest writers of those times. Harivansh Rai Bachchan had left Allahabad for Delhi by then, but there were other more famous chhayavad poets still around (Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Nirala), Firaq Gorakh-puri, Amrit and Sripat Rai (Premchand’s sons, both writers and publishers), Ilachandra Joshi, VDN Sahi and Usha Priyamvada, to name just a few. And of course, there was Shivani. However, along with others of her tribe, such as Salma Siddiqi and Mannu Bhandari, her kind of writing was passed off as romantic fluff or domestic sagas that housewives ordered by mail as part of a gharelu (domestic) library scheme. The very popularity of these women writers became a weapon to use against their literary output. To the supercilious self-styled critics who pronounced judgment on what was to be considered accept-able as literature, this space was only meant for those who wrote for a different audience, one that had a sophisticated palate developed on the ‘modern’ fare of European and contemporary American fiction. Certain subjects were taboo in this high-minded world: romance and bourgeois lives headed this list.

Somewhere by the ’70s, then, the small town became an object of ridicule: it was valourised in romantic literature and cinema but actually hated and mocked at in the real. Small wonder then, that its inhabitants (who suffered from a crippling form of low self-esteem since birth) ran into hiding and tried to ape the big-city culture by writing, speaking and dressing like the metropolitan sophisticates they yearned to become. When this happened, the country lost all those delightful rivulets that fed the creative river of the Grand National Dream. The homogenisation of culture took over: slogans replaced feelings. The joy went out of fun as its definition changed into something wrought by high-minded nationalist agendas. Political correctness has a lot to answer for.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that Shivani’s most prolific literary output and some of her most memorable and popular novels date to the years when Hindi magazines were avidly read across North India. Among these, Dharmyug (edited then by the formidable Dharmvir Bharati, a widely respected novelist and dramatist) occupied pride of place. Published by Bennett and Coleman (referred to henceforth as B&C), its owners (Sahu Jain and Rama Jain) promoted creative writing and later endowed the Gyanpeeth Award, the first privately endowed prestigious literary award for writers in various Indian languages. The Bennett and Coleman Group (later known as the Times of India group) also brought out a clutch of other magazines. Among these were Sarika (contemporary Hindi writing, edited by Kamleshwar) and Dinaman (a political and economic weekly, edited by Agyeya), both respected for their content and editorial gravitas. Filmfare, a film magazine, and the Illustrated Weekly of India were their popular English-language publications. The Hindustan Times group, owned by the Birlas, published Saptahik Hindustan (as a rival to Dharmyug), Kadambari (as an alternative to Sarika) and vied with each otherto publish serials by the most popular Hindi writers of those days. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, there was not a single library or reader in North India that did not subscribe to these magazines.

Almost all of Shivani’s novels – certainly her most popular ones – were first published as serials in one or the other magazines mentioned above. Her most well-known novel, Krishnakali, published as a serial in Dharmyug in the ’60s, was later published as a novel by Gyanpeeth (the publishing house run by the B&C group). In addition to these magazines, two others (Navneet and Gyanoday) I can recall from then were modelled on the popular American publication, Reader’s Digest. Shivani’s travelogues, essays and memorial tributes were regularly published in these Hindi digests.

….

Naturally, the serialised novel had its own effect on the writing it spawned. Fans wrote furious letters to Shivani when she betrayed their hopes (such as by killing off a character) or when she did not spend enough time on a particular strand of the narrative. This close bond between writer and reader was perhaps what contributed to the intimacy that readers developed over the years with their favourite writers. My sister Mrinal Pande (who edited Saptahik Hindustan in the ’90s) recalls how typists vied with each other to type out Shivani’s (always) handwritten manuscript when she sent in a fresh instalment so that he/she would be the first to read it! The circulation of magazines jumped by as much as 55 per cent when her novels were being serialised and siblings fought with each other to grab the magazine to read it first when it was delivered to private homes. Often they tore the pages out so that they could share it among themselves.

What gave this genre its enormous reach and popularity was that these stories were significant documentaries. I would say that that it was reality fiction based on real-life characters and episodes and invisible to the writers based in our up-and-coming metros who consciously distanced themselves from these provincial lives to become more acceptable to a wider, international literary world. This is a fact often overlooked when tracing the evolution of Hindi writing. As Vasudha Dalmia’s book on fiction and history reveals, novels located in Allahabad, Agra, Aligarh, Banaras or Lucknow give us an insight into the social landscapes that were shaping middle-class lives in the ’50s and ’60s.2 Beneath the romantic tales of young women and men were rich subplots that reveal the gradual breakup of orthodox joint families, the effect of education on the emancipation of women in provincial India and the effect of migration from small towns to industrial cities. The language of everyday conversation in middle-class homes and amongst families, the social terms of exchange between men and women, workers and employers are important markers of a world we seek today and cannot find because it no longer exists. What are often dismissed as kitchen tales and romantic fiction stood firm on a foundation because it was supported by religion and ritual, food and taboos, folk remedies and aphorisms that nourished clans and villages. In the tightly packed houses of our old shahars that were separated by narrow lanes, the smells and sounds that travelled across neighbours became rich lodes of narratives that had the authenticity of real lives. The bonds between Hindu and Muslim homes, or between upper- and lower-caste settlements were strong threads that wove the fabric of our social communities. A deep suspicion of the other community was balanced by an equally strong love for individual men and women. Look for these common narrative strains and you will find them in all writers who lived and thrived in little India.

3 Feb 2019

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Jaya BhattacharjiMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below.  The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission. 

The 10-book challenge

There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as  Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh,  Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso.  Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be.  ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.

These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.

Discovering authors

Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African.  So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?

Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)

Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.

Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.

6 September 2014

Guest Post: Shovon Chowdhury on Bengali-ness

Guest Post: Shovon Chowdhury on Bengali-ness

Shovon Chowdhury is an ad man. His debut novel The Competent Authority is being published by Aleph in August 2013. I have reviewed the book and interviewed him for the Hindu Literary Supplement, to be published on 4 Aug 2013. Meanwhile we got chatting about Bengali literature. I do not speak or read Bengali, but in response to my question, I received a lovely email from Shovon last night. I am reproducing it as is, with permission.

30 July 2013
300x300_6e6779fa5cf265a1d1083b6c6fcdcea1
Hi Jaya,

Sorry I didn’t respond yesterday. I was working from morning till midnight, and then I passed out, shortly after my wife whispered in my ear, “You’re getting old now.”

To answer your question, I was hauled back from the UK at the age of 10, in 1973, to Calcutta. Once I got over the shock of learning that there was no TV, I was told that I had to pass Bengali in my annual exams, around a year from that point, or I would be kicked out of school. They weren’t as impressed with my English origins as we had thought they would be. You can’t really learn a language until you read stories, and in this respect, Satyajit Ray was a godsend for me. The first Bengali book I ever read was Felu-da’s Baksho Rohoshyo (The Box Mystery), purchased at A.H. Wheeler and read on the train, through the night, under a tiny bulb. I traced my finger along the words as I read it.

Further investigation of Satyajit Ray led me to Sandesh, a kid’s magazine he and his family ran from their house. Most of us young subscribers met him at one point or the other, and he would hand over our copies with the utmost gravity. In the very first issue I met Professor Shanku, an eccentric, but intrepid scientist, in ‘Eksringo Obhijan’ (The Unicorn Expedition) which was published serially in the magazine. I thought it was the best thing since Twenty Thousand Leagues. It would make a great movie. I was lucky that the first two Bengali books I read where so very up my street. I scraped through the annual exam, eventually, and remained part of the education system, to my lasting regret.

In the next few years, I spent most weekends in my grandfather’s two rooms in a narrow lane in Bagbazar. I had six aunties and one uncle, and usually they and most of their kids were in situ. Having been brought up as an only child, this was a thing of great horror to me, second only to the absence of Scooby Doo. Luckily, like all good Bengali households, they had complete sets of Rabindranath, Bankim Chandra, and Sharat Chandra, which nobody ever read except my grandmother. So I would park myself in a corner every weekend and pick myself a volume.

I ended up reading most of it. Bankim Chandra was rather tough, his Bengali very classical, his whole aspect very Old Testament. I knew all about the Old Testament because of bible classes back in Yorkshire, although as a matter of principle I never sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ or ‘Rule Britannia’. Rabindranath should have won the Nobel prize just for his short stories, which are brilliant. His plays were great fun, too. I found his poems a little old-fashioned. Sharat Chandra was a flat out genius, and easily one of the ten best novelists who ever lived. No one had a clearer eye.

By the time I reached college, I was reading a lot of Bengali poetry, in the hope of impressing girls, but ended up being impressed myself, particularly by Shubhash Mukhopadhyaya. He was a disillusioned man. Much like the rest of us, he started out admiring Che Guevara, and ended up with Jyoti Basu. Some of us fled, while the rest gave up. I was one of the runaways, to Delhi, in my case. Many years later, shortly before he died, I saw Jyoti Basu on TV, and was consumed with horror. I had no idea he was still alive. It was like The Return Of The Mummy. But that was much later.

Back then, even though the Party was consuming us all wholesale, like a crimson anaconda, we managed to have some fun. During my time in Cal, I did around two decades of movies, from the point where Uttam Kumar was doing the cha cha, to when Aparna Sen was doing the twist. In fact, all the members of the Very New Young Men’s Bodybuilding Society – Bhanu, Johor, Robi, Chinmoy and Tapen — are named after Bengali comedians I remember with great affection.

And then there was theatre. I spent many evenings at the Academy, watching productions by Nandikar and Theatre Workshop and Bahurupee. I can sing you every song from Manoj Mitra’s Narak Gulzar, or the incredible Theatre Workshop production of Schweyk Goes To War. I also read a few contemporary Bengali novelists, like Moti Nandi, and Shirshendu, and whatever ‘Desh’ was serving up that season. But I have to admit that most of them were a bit too social realist for me. The flights of fancy were all happening in the theatre, with Utpal Dutta, and Badal Sircar, and Ajitesh of the booming laughter, and more Brecht than you can imagine, from Galileo to The Good Woman. I wish he could have seen it.

Been out of touch the last ten years, sadly, except for the theatre part. I often re-read Sukumar Roy, though, and discover new things every time. He died young, like Alexander, and did things like this — http://shovonc.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/pome-of-the-day-5/, which everyone says is funny, but do we not live here today? The last four lines always terrify me.

Just to clarify, I am not a UK citizen. I wish I could say it was some kind of stand I took, but the fact is, it never occurred to me.

Cheers!

Shovon