Bestselling author Katrine Marcal’s latest offering, Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men ( William Collins, HarperCollins India) is very clearly about the importance of women in contributing to specific economic systems that have gone on to transform social behaviour/history. It has been a sexist understanding, recording and reading of histories that have credited men with the success of certain innovations, whereas Katrine proves with her detailed readings of some of the historic global events has been that the contribution of women was undeniable. Unfortunately, it was not understood sufficiently, recorded or interpreted by men who designed, controlled and managed systems. Take for instance, the absurd case of the seamstresses and Nasa’s inability to approve the space suit, even though they could see that it was far superior to the rest. Their internal assessment recorded that no other suit even came a close second. Yet, because there were no engineers on the job, recording the designs that the women were creating using 4,000 pieces of cloth and using a single-hole sewing machine to ensure precision of their lines, NASA rejected the space suit. It was only after the manufacturing company chose to hire a team of engineers to “translate” a perfectly understable sewing job into gobbledygook, that the NASA top brass was satisfied and gave their approval to the space suit which was eventually worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they walked on the moon! Meanwhile the seamstresses themselves scoffed at the pages and pages of material and said they did not have the time to wade through it. The point the author makes is that because sewing was considered a “soft” skill, irrespective of the fact that it had existed for as long as civilization, but was mostly perceived as a woman’s expertise, it was dismissed. It did not have the masculine touch of being presented in technical jargon and thereby making it seem worthwhile. I was reading about Benz and his invention of a horseless carriage and how he was stupid about exploiting it commercially. It required the brilliance of his wife, who sneaked out the car from their garage with her teenage sons, and then drove it to visit her mother, 90 miles away. They drove at the top speed of 16 miles/hour, with many breakdowns along the way. One of them requiring her hat pin to fix. In another when the brakes were heating up, she stopped at a cobbler and asked for a leather strap to be put around the brakes. She reached her mother’s home triumphantly 15 hours later. Many of her innovations of that day are still used in cars. And also thanks to her proving that the horseless carriage could be driven and was safe, the machine became a commercial success. But no one remembers her name, they only remember her husband, who soon became the second half of “Mercedes Benz”.
Her name? Bertha.
How is that for a gendered perspective on an age-old story?!
There are many more such stories in the book. Also a fascinating overview of recent theories about economies from a gendered and a non-gendered perspective. Katrine Marcal dissects these popular statements/books by male “thought leaders” such as Yuval Noah Harari, Jordan Peterson, Nassim Taleb et al. She concludes that it is imperative to include women in narratives because the moment it is done, the ground beneath us shifts and a new and a truer history emerges.
Katrine has a nuanced reading of the importance of women in history. She has really done a fine job of rescuing women and done them a massive service. She has balanced the accounts as it were to show how integral they are part of any economy. They are equal contributors in making society successful and businesses successful, thereby being essential contributors to the economy. There is a wonderful account in this book on the history of venture capitalism and whalers of the nineteenth century and how many of those concepts have been transplanted decades later to modern businesses. Sadly though, in more cases than one would like, these venture capitalists continue to igmore the contribution made by women to various economies. This is a gender balanced reading of economic history. By this narrative, Katrine is trying to upend the sexist narrative of economy that has been passed through generations and conveyed as the absolute truth.
It is a good book. Much along the lines of what Angela Saini has done for science, Katrine Marcal has done for women and innovation.
My Life and Struggle: The Autobiography of Abdul Ghaffar Khan by the Frontier Gandhi ( Roli Books) has been translated from the Pukhto by ex-bureaucrat Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada. This book recounts the life of the freedom fighter till 1947 when the subcontinent gained its Independence from the British colonial rulers. Considering Bacha Khan or Badshah Khan ( as some Indians like to call him) lived till 1988, nearly 47 years of his life is missing from this text. Nevertheless it is an important book as it maps a part of history, especially of a community, of the North-West Frontier of British India ( now in Pakistan), of which not sufficient is known. Along with Mahatma Gandhi and like his non-violent movement, Frontier Gandhi too started the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement from 1930-47. They were the key allies of the Congress who formed three governments in the NWFP. The original Pashto edition was first published in 1983 when Bacha Khan was 93 years old.
This is a seminal piece of writing. It has to be respected for the text that was created when Frontier Gandhi chose to dictate it. It captures that moment in time and has an authoritative air about it. Definitely, a tenor as if it is being spoken out aloud for the benefit of a larger audience. Whoever took the notes and compiled it into this book, probably never fact checked or assessed the manuscript for internal consistencies.
For instance, these conflicting comments about weddings and consent. P. 2 “We do not marry our children to wealth as we consider decency, capability and dignity more important in a marriage. Nor do we marry them without their consent.”
P.33 “Our weddings are very joyous occasions. With the coming of age of a boy in the family, a search for a fiancee for him would begin. No one asks for the consent of the girl or the boy.”
It makes him an unreliable narrator if he slips on a simple fact like this but it is also hard to doubt his testimony about participating in the freedom struggle that has been recorded in this book.
She works as much from memory as from the manuscript, and inside the little stone cottage, something happens: the sick child is in her lap, his forehead sheened with sweat, opens his eyes. When Aethon is accidentally transformed into an ass and the other boys burst into laughter, he smiles. When Aethon reaches the frozen edge of the world, he bites his fingernails. And when Aethon finally reaches the gates of the city in the clouds, tears sprint to his eyes.
The lamp spits, the oil drawing low, and all three boys beg her to go on.
“Please,” they say, and their eyes glitter in the light. “tell us what he saw inside the goddess’s magical book.”
“It sat,” she says, “on a golden pedestal so ornate it looked as if it were made by the smith-god himself. When Aethon peered into it, as though into some magical well, he saw the heavens and the earth and all its lands scattered around the ocean, and all the animals and birds upon it. The cities were full of lanterns and gardens, and he could faintly hear music and singing, and he saw a wedding in one city with girls in bright linen robes, and boys with gold swords on silver belts, jumping through rings, doing handsprings and leaping and dancing in time. But on the next page he saw dark, flaming cities in which men were slaughtered in their fields, their wives enslaved in chains, and their children pitched over the walls onto pikes. He saw demons, and hounds eating corpses, and when he bent his ear low to the pages, he could hear the wailing. And as he looked, turning the leaf over and back, Aethon saw that the cities on both sides of the page, the dark ones and the bright ones, were one and the same, and he was afraid.”
The lamp sputters out; the chimney moans; the children draw closer around her. Omeir rewraps the book, and Anna holds their youngest son against her breast, and dreams of bright clean light falling on the pale walls of the city, and when they wake, late into the morning, the boy’s fever is gone.
Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land ( HarperCollins India) is his first novel in seven years. It flits between three periods of history — past is 1450s Constantinople, the clash between Christianity and Islam and is a story of young Anna and Omeir; the present is in the twenty-first century and is primarily about Zeno Ninis, an eighty-six-year-old veteran of the Korean war who has made it his life’s mission to translate Diogenes’s book on Aethon and later help a bunch of fifth graders stage a dramatised version of it at their local library; and the future is of young Konstance who believes she is many millions of miles away from Earth, on a starship, in a community of modified humans. Time is measured in terms of “Mission Years”. The common thread running through these three stories is Aethon’s story.
Anna first discovers the Greek manuscript in an abandoned monastery in Thessaly and steals it, hoping to sell it to a bunch of men who have come from Urbino. Their lord and Count dreams of “erecting a library to surpass the pope’s, a library to contain every text ever written, a library to last until the end of time, and his books will be free to anyone who can read them.” Anna steals it but then discovers that the men from Urbino have fled upon hearing news of impending war. So, she keeps the book. Over time, she discovers the power of storytelling as she reads out the ancient Greek script to her sons and illiterate husband, Omeir. The family is convinced it has a healing power especially after seeing the positive effect it has on the sick children as their mother reads out aloud from the text. After Anna’s death, Omeir decides to take the book to Urbino as a gift to the Count. He remains clueless to its import but realises that it must be special enough for Anna to have treasured it for so long.
Zeno Ninis, on the other hand, while a prisoner of war befriends a British soldier, Rex, who is a scholar of the Classics. Rex teaches Greek to Zeno by scribbling in the sand or in the frost in their prison camp. Over time, once they have returned to their respective homes, Zeno finds refuge in the library at Lakeport, Idaho. He associates it with comfort and security ever since the two sisters who were the librarians too, welcomed him as a child. Zeno returns to it as an adult, a veteran, and begins to translate. All the while Rex’s words haunt Zeno: “I know why those librarians read the old stories to you. Because if it’s told well enough, for as long as the story lasts, you get to slip the trap.” While involved in the task of translating Aethon’s story, the current librarian requests Zeno to help manage the kids by narrating the story of his book. The kids are enthralled. So much so that they decide to stage a play based on the script. They are undeterred by the fact that large chunks of the original text are missing or are faded. Zeno has to use his imagination to supply the bridges in the narrative. In this he is ably supported by the kids who happily scribble in the margins, offering Aethon the explorer, new lines such as “The world as it is is enough.” Perceptive comment out of the mouth of babes!
Konstance is a young girl, living on the ship, Argos. She is not permitted to access the library on board unless she reaches a certain age. When she does, she goes through an initiation ceremony witnessed by many aboard the ship. Ultimately, she is given access using VR technology that enables her to browse through shelf after shelf of books, most of which come flying to her. If she wishes to “read” any, the characters pop out like a pop-up book but are holograms that are as wispish and transparent as air. The only book that seems to fascinate Konstance is the Atlas for which she is mocked by her peers. They say it is old fashioned but Konstance is charmed by the fact that by walking into its pages she discovers new parts of the world, cultures, its histories and geographies. Her curiosity is also kindled by the blue and gold hardback on her father’s night table. It is a copy of Zeno Ninis’s transslation. Slowly, she begins reading it and transcribing it for herself. It influences the way she thinks. Unlike her community, Konstance and to some extent, her father, are the only two who query or have independent thoughts. They do not necessarily follow the herd mentality. Even the super computer Sybil dissuades Konstance from spending too much time in the library. But she is curious and wants to investigate the events of February, 20, 2020. “Who were the five children in the Lakeport Public Library saved by Zero Ninis?”
An incident had occurred at the library when a young man, probably autistic, Seymour, walked into the library with the intention of blowing it up. He had a bag full of crude homemade bombs. He was extremely distressed at the destruction to Nature, especially habitats of owls, whom he felt close to. He understood the intricacies of climate change and was convinced that man and his destructive sensibilities were destroying Earth. By blowing up the library Seymour hoped to make a statement. But he had not reckoned with Zeno being at the library.
In Cloud Cuckoo Land, a story that has survived centuries about Aethon continues to be passed on from generation to generation, even via translations. In fact, the three storylines are interspersed with excerpts of Zeno Nini’s translation of the text. The length varies from a few broken sentences to paragraphs. Doerr makes a sly comment on the art of translation too when Konstance is browsing through the library:
The translations…mostly bewilder: either they’re boring and laborious, spangled with footnotes, or they’re too fragmented to many any sense of.
Even Doerr becomes more and more adept at telling Aethon’s story with every passing page. Almost as if he is practising what he feels, stories have the capacity to live beyond their original tellers.
Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is a term borrowed from Aristophanes The Birds written in 414 B.C., almost 2500 years ago. It describes a mythical city based in the clouds. But more than the referencing by a modern storyteller to an ancient storyteller, it is the testimony to the astonishing staying power of storytelling. The ability to stick. The ability to be retold. The ability to be shared and become one with the narrator. The tenacity of stories is evident in how they intermingle with the memories of the person. More importantly, the stories become a repository of hope and goodwill. It reminds the listeners that as time moves on, life goes on too. Destruction of nature, communal wars, and marauding armies happen. But at the same time, stories record moments of joy, happiness, beauty and splendour. Books like men die. They need nurturing. Yet, books have the uncanny ability of outliving their creators if they are left with those who respect the printed books. It is possible. It is this insistence of Doerr upon the tangible object rather than the excitement at having millions of books at our fingertips in a digital library that is so comforting, given that we ourselves live in a time where digital formats are being peddled as superior to print. But it is not always the case, is it? With digital rights management and other requirements of upgrading hardware and software to access a digital format, and the recurring cost involved in keeping the information accessible, it is the print format that reigns supreme — it is a one-time cost, it is inherited, it develops a sentimental value that is precious to the owners as it the physical book offers a connect to their ancestors, and finally, as it is passed on from generation to generation, it influences the hearts and minds of others. Digital formats, in comparison, are sterile. Books transmit ideas. They make us think for ourselves.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a triumph. It is definitely an ode to libraries and books, the printed format vs digital. But it is also a prayer, a belief in the nourishing power of storytelling. It is Anthony Doerr’s first novel in seven years, his first since winning the Pulitzer Prize (2015) for the exquisite All the Light We Cannot See (published, 2014). His critically-acclaimed 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See sold 1.8 million copies across editions in British Commonwealth and 9.3 million copies worldwide. The publishers will be selling many copies of Cloud Cuckoo Land despite its bulk as the story is so rejuvenating and astonishingly relevant at the same time. Many will buy the book as it is the first novel since Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize but this book will attract many new readers. It is to be released on 28 Sept 2021.
It is rare, even now in these liberal and emancipated times, for a publishing house to have a dedicated imprint to LGBTQIA+ literature. Under the excellent leadership and forward thinking of the late CEO and son of the founder, Dick Robinson, Scholastic launched such an imprint for its school and trade market — Arthur A. Levine Books. It was an imprint at the firm from 1996 – 2019. After that Arthur Levine left Scholastic to form Levine Querido. Having said that, the fact that Scholastic launched such a specific imprint was commendable. They did it well before it became fashionable or even before other firms became very active in commissioning same sex literature for young adults. This kind of literature is perhaps not very easy for many readers to “get into” as it requires an open heartedness, a sensitivity and an acceptance of different kinds of sexuality without any prejudice. But once you read these books, it changes your outlook on life. These books are astonishing to read as they not only delve into this niche space of teenage sexuality but also experiment with the literary form — prose, poetry, mixing prose and poetry or even graphic novels. Even with Arthur Levine’s departure from the firm, the legacy continues with the launch of a new imprint called PUSH, an imprint for teens, launched by David Leviathan. It is no longer an exclusive imprint for LGBTQIA+ literature but that in itself is a testament to how far we have come since the fin de siecle of the twentieth century, of being more accepting of diversity.
This was first published on my Facebook and Instagram accounts. It was on the last day of #PrideMonth.
Writer Mohanlal Gangopadhyay’s Charanik: The Walkerwas first published in Bengali in 1942. It is an account of his walking tour of Czechoslovakia during his summer break in 1937. At the time, Gangopadhyay was studying at the London School of Economics, London. So he was able to plan a holiday in Europe with a friend, Mirek.
Charanik is a lovely, calm, account of these three months. The writer records their stay in various youth hostels or at the home of hospitable peasants. Along with Mirek, he would walk a few hours every day. They visited beautiful valleys, hills, glacial caves etc. They visited local fairs such as at Uherske Hradiste, visited the worle-famous primeval forests of Ruthenia, trekked in the High Tatras, visited the Demanovska Ice Cave with its magnificent stalactites and stalagmites that had only been discovered twenty years earlier, they went looking for Hribis mushrooms, they visited Poprad Lake etc. They lived off the land plucking wild berries, strawberries, apples, bilberries and mushrooms to eat. Using fresh spring or river water to brew hot tea for their soups or tea. Every night, if possible, the duo halted at a youth hostel, where only basic amenities were provided. Yet, it was comforting to a bunch of exhausted travellers. To the writer, carrying a rucksack with essentials on his back instead of relying on a porter or even halting at these hostels was a steep learning curve as he had no clue how to make his bed, fold his clothes or even wash them regularly. He was so used to having staff assist in domestic chores. But it did not deter him. He learned fast and enjoyed the experience.
The book has been translated by Jayanta Sengupta who first read the Bengali edition as a school student. He enjoyed the book so much that when he visited Europe for the first time, he decided to do so with a shoestring Charanik-like budget.
Mohanlal Gangopadhyay came from an illustrious family. His father was the writer Manilal Gangopadhyay and his mother, Karuna, was the daughter of Abanindranath Tagore. Surprisingly, the writer chooses in this book to not mention anything about Adolf Hitler, who was already in power in Germany. Nor that the Germans in Czechoslovakia were demanding the right to autonomy, which led directly to the Munich Pact being signed between Hitler and Neville Chamberlain in September 1938; as a result, parts of Czechoslovakia would be handed over to Nazi Germany. Despite meeting people every day at the youth hostels, mostly walkers and trekkers like themselves, Gangopadhyay never mentions politics. Instead his descriptions are idyllic. Incredible to think that he had the ability to spend pages describing streams, mountains, forests, views from mountain tops and the unfortunate events of being caught in a sudden freezing downpour, in the middle of nowhere. But as the translator points out that now the map of Czechoslovakia has changed drastically over the past few decades. For one, the Czech Republic and Slovenia are independent nations. Ruthenia had not really existed as an independent nation. Many of the other places referred to in the book can now be found in the maps of Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and other countries.
Charanik is a soothing book to read. It has been translated beautifully. There is a gentle pace to the narrative that is very calming. It is illustrated with black and white photographs taken and sketches made by the author’s wife, Milada Ganguli.
Chandan Pandey’s Legal Fiction, translated from the Hindi by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari, published by HarperCollins India is a devastating novella. The original novella, Vaidhanik Galp, was published by Rajkamal Prakashan in 2020. It is ostensibly about the narrator/protagonist Arjun Kumar helping his ex-girlfriend. Anasuya. He receives an unexpected phone call from her, after many years of silence, as she is worried about her husband Rafique Neel who has disappeared. Rafique is a college professor and theatre director in the mofussil town of Noma on the UP-Bihar border. It is a fictitious town created by the writer but he is very clear that it is a town much like those found in Eastern UP. Arjun leaves as soon as he can for Noma. Once he arrives in the town, he discovers that Anasuya is seven months pregnant and living in a one room apartment. Also, that the town is full of hoardings, mostly advertising pilgrimages inviting Hindus to Mount Kailash, Amarnath, and Vaishno Devi. Or inviting people to a bhandara or a religious feast. Inevitably it is only a few who are in-charge of providing services or responsible for various establishments in the area. A name that exists on most of the hoardings are Amit Jain, Treasurer, Mangal Morcha and Amit Malviya. These hoardings are very similar in colour, layouts and messaging. They flank both sides of the main road as if closing in upon the passer by. The bombardment of only one kind of messaging is peculiar and Arjun notices it immediately. He reaches the police station to help Anasuya file an FIR for a missing person except it proves to be a very difficult task. Apart from the resistance that they face from the police but also the unnecessary violence directed at Anasuya such as poking her in pregnant belly. It is rattling for Arjun who is unable to comprehend it and would not have believed it if he had not witnessed it. Ultimately they get a signed document from the local police stating that their complaint has been registered. But it does not end there. They do not get the help required to locate Anasuya’s missing husband. While on his way to Noma, Arjun had also read a missing person’s report in the newspaper regarding a local college girl called Janaki Dubey. When he arrives in Noma, he hears unsavoury murmurs about there being a possible romantic entanglement between Rafique and Janaki, some attributing it to “Love Jihad”. Later, the truth is blurred further when a well-meaning police officer shows a WhatsApp video clip on his phone to Arjun as evidence of this budding romance between teacher and student. When Arjun mentions this to the other students of Rafique, they are dismissive saying that in all likelihood it was a recording of a play that they had staged. When truth is messed with in this manner, reality becomes unsettling and scary.
Arjun tries to piece together Rafique Neel’s past via his diary. Anasuya had hidden it from the raiding police team by placing it in the water tank of the pot. Despite being covered in plastic, the diary had become sopping wet. After laboriously separating the pages and hanging them up to dry on a makeshift line made of his shirts strung together, Arjun discovered that many of the diary entries are from 2015. A year that in the mind of many readers would immediatly recalling memories of the terrifying lynching episodes that have not seemed to abate. In the diary, Rafique mostly documents his theatre initiatives with the student. The last and longest entry that has been preserved is a record of Rafique and his students visit to the police constable, Amandeep’s home. He had rescued Niyaz from a lynch mob. It is a conversation that Rafique reports where the incident is discussed as well as if it were to be staged, who would play the various roles. By the time he is able to read these posts, Arjun is familiar with the people these characters are mentioned or modelled upon. He has also discovered that “they” are stalking him virutally when he is casually asked during the course of a conversation to remove his Facebook post. It is a post that he had uploaded before reaching Nom seeking any information regarding the whereabouts of Rafique Neel. Later he realises that they are also watching him 24×7 by having someone follow him. It is a small town where everyone knows everyone else and news travels very fast; yet, he is watched closely. Arjun wishes to register a human rights violation case but is unable to unless using the “good offices” of his brother-in-law, Ravi Bhayyia, who works in the Union Home Ministry. Arjun is a writer whom everyone wishes to fete and are enthusiastic about organising a public ceremony felicitating him. But while piecing together Rafique’s diary he discovers a dark truth about the township and its folks. The hatemongering that they encourage. The insidious manner in which everyone seems to be in cahoots. The reaction to reading this is story is almost physical. It is nauseating.
The translation by Bharatibhooshan Tiwari is superb. The lack of resolution in the novel is chilling. It ends like a play does, at a climax, leaving the audience questioning many of the motives. It is a literary technique not necessarily associated with prose. Yet, it works phenomenally well in this novella. Perhaps because it is so close to our reality.
In the Lallantop interview, Chandan Pandey makes it very clear that selecting the name of the son of the local goon in Nom as “Amit Malviya” was purely coincidental that it is also the name of the current BJP IT Cell leader. It was unintentional. Chandan Pandey is very worried about the hate mongering narrative that has overtaken our country. He will always bat for humanity and living together in peace. He believes that there has been a systematic change in the manner in which mobs are also constructed today. He refers to it as organised crime. It is in a similar fashion that he dwells for some time upon the hoardings in his fictional town, Nom. It is a form of gaslighting. He wished to highlight the manner in which a few people control the discourse. He also mentions that his father who was a Railway police officer impressed upon them that if it is not written down, it does not exist.
While Legal Fiction refers to Niyaz who was saved from being lynched by Amandeep, a police officer, the book is dedicated to Gagandeep Singh too who saved a Muslim youth from being lynched under similar circumstances in 2018. Here is the clip that went viral on social media.
Here is the fabulous interview by Rishabh with Chandan Pandey. It is on Kitabwala, Lalantop’s YouTube channel.
Legal Fiction is a novella that will leave the reader asking many questions. It is alarming. Disconcerting. Terrifying. The unsolved disappearance of Rafique, Janaki and a couple of other students is shocking but as in real life, we are left as helpless and mute spectators watching this drama unfold. It is the throttling of democracy, free speech, public theatre and free will that is mind numbing. Read it for the precise manner in which Chandan Pandey builds the story, making every part of the story seem plausible.
As the noted writer Amitava Kumar says, “This is like Kafka in Deoria. Or Camus in the cow belt. But more accurate to say that Legal Fiction is an urgent, literary report about how truth goes missing in our land. I read it with a racing heart.”
I read two books in quick succession — Consent and My Dark Vanessa ( HarperCollins). Both deal with the same subject. Grooming of a young school girl by a much older man, a writer / school teacher. The difference being that “Consent” is a true account by Vanessa Springora about her being groomed by French literary giant Gabriel Matzneff. It is a horrifying account of a 14-year-old girl groomed by a man who was at the time fifty years old. It is sickening. Springora, the head of the Julliard publishing house, met Matzneff at a dinner with her mother. ( https://www.theguardian.com/…/french-publishing-boss…) She was going through a troubled childhood as her parents were divorcing. Springora began a relationship with Matzneff but despite breaking it off two years later, she was not rid of the man for the next few decades. He pursued her. He stalked her. To the extent he wrote letters to her bosses in the publishing publishing she worked in. Ultimately, the Me Too movement happened, giving her the space to write her account of the events. Consent has been translated by Natasha Lehrer.
It is a memoir that flits between the perspective of the 14yo school girl and the 47yo Springora. It is disturbing. The school girl participates in the relationship with a much older man, but the adult Vanessa questions some of the acts/moments. She is able to see through the sexual exploitation and misogyny of the male writer and the protection he got from his social circle. It is incomprehensible to her. Consent is minimalistic. It does not delve into too many gory details but what the author chooses to share are emotionally shattering. It is inexplicable why this man was protected so well by the French establishment. If anyone had dared to look close enough, the evidence was apparent in the “illustrious” literary career where Matzneff published books that were thinly veiled accounts of his paedophilic acts, letters with his under-age mistresses and his regular visits to the Philippines to sexually exploit boys as young as eleven years old. Yet, Springora too only found the courage to reveal her dark secret after the Me Too movement became popular. She was relieved when she showed her mother this manuscript, who upon reading it said, “Don’t change a thing. This is your story.”
Towards the conclusion of the memoir, she writes:
I spent a long time thinking about the breach or confidentiality, particularly on a legal area that is otherwise strictly controlled, and I could only come up with one explanation. If it is illegal for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a minor who is under the age of fifteen, why is it tolerated when it is perpetrated by a representative of the artistic elite — a photographer, writer, filmmaker, or painter? It seems that an artist is of a separate caste, a being with superior virtues granted the ultimate authorization, in return for which he is required only to create an original and subversive piece of work. A sort of aristocrat in possession of exceptional privileges before whom we, in a state of blind stupefaction, suspend all judgement.
Were any other person to publish on social media a description of having sex with a child in the Philippines or brag about his collection of fourteen-year-old mistresses, he would find himself dealing with the police and be instantly considered a criminal.
Apart from artists, we have witnessed only Catholic priests being bestowed such a level of impunity.
Does literature really excuse everything?
It is a question that the reader is left asking with My Dark Vanessa. Nearly twenty years in the making and endorsed by Stephen King, it too explores the grooming of a young school girl by her English teacher. King calls it is a “hard story to read” and it is. Maybe because Kate Russell’s imagination is very detailed and sometimes gut-wrenching. It is torture to read this story. Initially I stopped reading it after a few pages but then managed to resume reading it after having finished reading Consent.
Somehow My Dark Vanessa comes across as a brilliantly crafted story but it is not as easy to read as Consent. Every despicable encounter/event in “Consent” is meticulously documented but it is shocking to read for the complicity of the French elite in permitting the writer to flourish. Not only did his books sell well, but he was lauded with honours, practically given an expense account by his publishers and the French state. It is astonishing. Whereas My Dark Vanessa reads like fiction although the events described in it are plausible. It is fiction but it sometimes seems to stem from an overactive imagination. The distinction is real. It is unsurprising that My Dark Vanessa has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2021.
Interestingly Vanessa Springora’s memoir Consent has been endorsed by Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa, as “A gut-punch of a memoir with prose that cuts like a knife.”
Currently the controversy about Blake Bailey, the biographer of Philip Roth, is raging in the world of Anglo-American publishing. Take for instance this article published in the Slate, called “Mr Bailey’s Class“. It eerily parallels the events described in My Dark Vanessa and Lisa Taddeo’s nonfiction Three Women, where the only girl who agreed to be identified by her real name was Maggie. She spoke about her grooming by her teacher and later taking him to court. It is hard at such moments to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction.
These kinds of stories are not going away in a hurry. There are many, many more. Predatory men and women exist. It is a fact. Children are vulnerable. These books may only focus upon young girls but there is no denying that boys too are victimised.There is no telling how much longer will these stories have to be constantly told for there to be some positive change in the attitude of individuals and society. But for now, read these stories.
May I just say how much I am enjoying reading these short stories about Arsene Lupin, written by Maurce Leblanc! There is a gentle pace that is calming and restorative, given the hideous pandemic we are witnessing. I read a story a day. It is one of the pleasures to look forward to. BTW, this book inspires the blockbuster NETFLIX series. As always, the #booktofilm adaptation is very different. So while the TV series were fun to watch, the stories are even better.
French novelist Maurice Marie Emile Leblanc ( 1864 – 1941) created the fictional gentleman thief and detective Arsene Lupin, who is often described as the French counterpart of Sherlock Holmes. Lupin features in more than 60 of Leblanc’s crime novels and short stories. The stories in this collection were first published in French as a serial in the magazine “Je sais Tout” and then collected in book form as “Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Cambrioleur” in 1907 as a collection of 9 novellas. Translated into English by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos as “Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar”.
This Chancellor Yellowback edition has been published by Hachette India.
The Sickleby Anita Agnihotri, translated by Arunava Sinha is a very powerful story. It is hard to believe that it is pure fiction. There are far too many instances in the book that seem like a thinly veiled account of reality. For instance:
The sugar mill owners had in fact opened up a toddy shop right here inside the toli. There may not have been taps or toilets, water for bathing, or a dependable roof over one’s head, but the men still dropped in to drink on their way back to their shanties. It was the only way to get rid of their aches and pains. …The men weren’t concerned about how the women managed to keep their households running in the toli. No matter how hard they worked, they would never have hard cash since they had taken their payment in advance. And yet they needed flour and rice, vegetables and kerosene. And it was the women who would have to do the cooking. What they did was save the tips of the sugarcane stalks, which had no juice but only leaves, from the acquisitive hands of the farmers and sell them for a little money. The inhabitants of the districts on the West turned up here to buy cattle fodder and kindling. From sugarcane leaves to slices sugarcane bristles, all of it could be sold. …
The kitchens in the banjari households are under the control of women. It is the men who say this proudly. Of course, they’re the ones who continue to keep the women behind the veil. From leaving the house to going to high or college, it all depends on the whims of the menfolk. But their writ doesn’t run in the kitchen. Many banjari kitchens don’t allow meat or fish. The men are not permitted to bring any home, though they can eat it elsewhere. But they cannot enter the house immediately after eating meat — summer or winter, a man’s wife must upend a bucket of water over his head first to purify him.
The kitchen’s in your hands — this is how the banjari men boast. In behaviour, rituals and modes of worship, they have fashioned themselves after the Maratha community. Which is hardly a tall order. Running the kitchen means that everything from fetching the water to getting hold of kerosene, vegetables, flour and rice is the headache of the women. They are shackled for life in exchange for the privilege of being able to pour a bucket of water over their huabands’ heads now and then. The implication? Whether at home or in the toli, the husband will never check on whether there are enough provisions, or where the kindling is coming from. The woman calls the man malak, for malik, her lord and master.
Somethings never change. Anita Agnihotri, an ex-bureacrat, is known for depicting social realism in her novels. One of the responsibilities she held was member secretary of the National Commission for Women. She retired in 2016 as Secretary, Social Justice Department, Government of India.
The Sickle is set in the Marathwada region of India. This novel about migrant sugarcane cutters emerged after extensive conversations with farmers, activists, women leaders, students, researchers and young girls from Marathwada, Vidarbha and Nashik. She also consulted Kota Neelima for her research on farmers suicides. The details that are in the novel range from the horrors of sexual violence where women are preyed upon by the men as the shanties that they live in are flimsy structures and do not provide any security. Another form of sexual violence is that the women are actively encouraged to have hysterectomies, so that they do not impede the work flow by absences due to menstrual pain or more pregnancies than are necessary. The drought afflicting the region, the corruption that runs so deep that economic exploitation has become a way of life, even if it is unjust, are narrated in all their brutal honesty. As Anita Agnihotri said in a recent interview to The Mint:
In our profession, we were told, ‘If you see something, don’t carry it back’,” …. “But I followed precisely the opposite advice as a writer.” Just as there can never be a “non-committal bureaucracy,” she adds, “there is no non-political writing.
The Sickle can only be read in small doses as it is extremely disturbing in the truth it portrays. This is not going away in a hurry. Hence, it is unsurprising that the anger welling up in the ongoing farmers protests in Delhi ( on other farming related issues) is summed up by the image of women farmers on the cover of TIME magazine. It was published to commemorate Women’s Day. But the equal rights and liberties that women seek is a long time coming as Anita Agnihotri shows — the patriarchal attitudes towards women are deeply embedded in society. Such systemic violence can be combated but for it to be completely done away with is still a distant dream. It is a long and at times a debilitating struggle, but it is worth fighting for.
Read The Sickle. It has been translated brilliantly by Arunava Sinha .
Baby Dollby Gracy is a very bold, sparkling and forthright collection of short stories, written over a span of thirty years. The stories have been translated by award-winning translator, Fathima E.V. The stories have been arranged chronologically, so there is a sense of the evolution of Gracy as a writer. These stories delve into the ordinary lives of ordinary people but go a little beyond. Gracy unearths and makes visible thoughts, conversations, describes actions of women that would otherwise be unheard of in the written word. In these stories characters are persuasively drawn, irrespective of whether you agree with their thoughts, words and deeds. These are very unexpected stories but I am glad they have been made available in English. It is time that storytellers like Gracy were eligible to participate in literary prizes such as The Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist will be announced next week, on 10 March 2021. There needs to be a broader literary landscape to be made available to readers worldwide.
Fathima ‘s translation is superb. It reads effortlessly in English while recreating the local landscapes beautifully. Unlike some translations where there is a constant struggle between the original and destination language, it does not occur in Baby Doll. The translator’s note is exactly how it should be — written with care and deep understanding of the writer’s body of work, a textual analysis of the short stories included in this anthology and contextualising Gracy’s style of writing within the world of Malayalam literature. Also, without forgetting the significant contribution that these stories make to feminist understanding of being a woman and making visible to the lay reader the many, many ways in which women are oppressed in the name of tradition and social norms. This is truly an excellent collection.