translation Posts

Alejandro Zambra’s “My Documents” and “Not to Read”, translated by Megan McDowell

It’s unhealthy to get stuck in the past. 

My Documents is a collection of short stories by Alejandro Zambra, the award-winning Chilean writer, that are constantly playing with the idea of memory, truth and fiction. Whereas the recently released Not to Read is a collection of his non-fiction writings that can be loosely termed to be a literary autobiography while sharing his theory of reading. Like the many who have written before him, he too is of the opinion that reading and reading is what matters the most. There is a lovely anecdote he recounts of being able to read to his heart’s content when he was unemployed and seeking a job. He would spend the morning distributing his resume but would hurry home by late morning, so that he could then have an entire day to himself to read at leisure. Later when he did get a job he was fortunate enough to be appointed a telephone operator at an insurance company which meant he worked nights and there were hardly any calls to attend to. Once more giving him ample time to read. The joy of uninterrupted time, solitude and silence — the perfect mix to allow one to sink into the book.

My Documents, published in 2015,  consists of short stories. A short story collection can become predictable and monotonous in tenor but this is certainly not true of My Documents where each story is unexpected. It is not just in tenor but also in the form. It is impossible to tell whether it was like this in the original language too but in the hands of an incredible translator like Megan McDowell, there is a gritty texture that comes through each story. It is also difficult to discern what is fiction and what is a memory being shared of living in Pinochet’s era. The reader who is unfamiliar with the local cultural landscape is immediately immersed into it, it is like being transported to Chile in real time and witnessing the action. The stories, the people, the peculiarities, the conversations etc. Alejandro Zambra achieves this without any longwinded descriptions. My favourite story is “I Smoked Very Well”, a meditation on trying to give up the habit of being a smoker but at the same time in his characteristic style meanders into the literary space, making excuses that his inability to get off his nicotine habit is also the root cause of his writer’s block!

Not to Read is a collection of short essays previously published in the newspaper. So these are really short reads of about 2-5 mins. And yet so opinionated and loads of fun to read. He creates a literary landscape that is so incredibly detailed if all the 60-odd essays are read together, it makes you yearn to have a library handy of all the books and authors Zamba mentions! It’s also rare to find an essayist like this nowadays who is so immersed in his work that that is all he wishes to talk about. He is not distracted by anything else. His writing style is simple and lucid and yet within it are embedded vast banks of knowledge and strong opinions. Take for instance his essay “In praise of the photocopy” where he talks about these “fake books” as he defines them, the photocopies he and his friends used to access literature.

Essays by Roland Barthes marked with fluorescent highlighters; poems by Carlos de Rokha or Enrique Lihn stapled together; ringbound or precariously fastened novels by Witold Gombrowicz or Clarice Lispector: it’s good to remember that we learned to read with these photocopies, which we waited for impatiently, smoking, on the other side of the copy-shop window. As citizens of a country where books are ridiculously expensive to buy and libraries are poorly equipped or non-existent, we got used to reading photocopies, and we even came to find it charming. In exchange for just a few pesos, some giant, tireless machines could bestow on us the literature we so desired. We read those warm bundles of paper and then stored them on shelves as if they were real books. Because that’s what they were to us: rare, beloved books. Important books. 

Later he argues for making books available at an effective price:

The discussion around digital books, incidentally, is at times overly elaborate: the defenders of conventional books appeal to romantic images of reading (to which I fully subscribe), and the electronic propagandist will insist on the comfort of carrying your library in your pocket, or the miracle of endlessly interlinking texts. But it’s not so much about habits as it is about costs. Can we really expect a student to spend twenty thousand pesos on a book? Isn’t it quite reasonable for them to just download it from the internet? … Editors, booksellers, distributors and authors unite occasionally to combat practices that ruin business, but books have become luxury items and absolutely nothing indicates that this will change. 

Alejandro Zamba’s last point is controversial since this is exactly what is at the core of the various legal battles in various book markets but he does make a strong argument. All his essays in the book are as simply written with a single idea shared pointedly. Whether you agree with his viewpoint or not is immaterial, reading the essays is pure joy.  Two extracts from the book can be read at Harpers on “Literary Customs” and on the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions website about “Obligatory Readings”.

Ideally one should read both the books in quick succession then it is perfect. The two volumes of fiction and non-fiction writing compliment each other beautifully. If you have not as yet discovered the rising literary star of Chile, Alejandro Zamba, then you have a treat awaiting you thanks to the wonderful translations by Megan McDowell.

Both the books mentioned are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. 

3 September 2018 

 

On Dalit literature – recent publications

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants Among Elephants and Baburao Bagul’s When I Hid My Caste are some of the recent publications of Dalit literature published.  Interestingly the writers come from different parts of India and different religions but because they share the same “caste” of being a Dalit, their experiences of life and anguish at the shocking social injustice they have witnessed is similar.

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir was launched in USA in 2017 to  great critical acclaim for being an unusual piece of writing documenting the horrors of Indian society even in contemporary India. Although Sujatha Gidla has been living in New York for many years and yet the searing pain at the injustices faced at being an “untouchable” or a Dalit in India are unforgettable. Her memoir about her family who despite being Christians faced social ostracism. Once she left for America she was eager to know more about her origins and began to record the testimonies of her family particularly her uncle Satyam. There is an extremely powerful moment in the book when she quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after Indian Independence was achieved. ‘A short, chubby dark boy …had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” It is a question that remains to be answered many decades after Independence was achieved. ( Read an extract published in the Literary Hub)

When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul (translated by Jerry Pinto) is a collection of short stories that were previously published in the Marathi literary magazine Navyug. The editor of Navyug Shirish Pai “confesses in her introduction to the Marathi edition of the book that she used to experience joy mixed with fear in anticipation of a Bagul story. The joy came from knowing it would be a good piece of fiction; the fear came from not knowing what the content would be.” This collection of very powerful and unnerving short stories are disturbing to read in English that one cannot help but wonder how powerful must they be in Marathi where possibly even the dialects used are evident. Four stories stand out  — “Prisoner of Darkness”, “Streetwalker”, “Revolt” and “When I Hid My Caste” —- that hopefully will be anthologised in other volumes focused on Indian literature.

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir attracted worldwide acclaim quickly becoming of those “must read” books featuring on many reading lists. Undoubtedly it raises some very sharp issues that continue to plague Indian society where casteism unfortunately still prevails yet Ant Among Elephants is not half as gracefully written as some other notable Dalit memoirs. For instance  Y. B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, Bama’s Karukku or even  Daya Pawar’s Baluta. But of the books discussed so far the recently released When I Hid My Caste stands out for the grittiness of storytelling evident even in the English translation where interestingly the sub-castes of Dalits are mentioned. There are graphic details of the violence and the horror that the Dalits continue to experience. It is hard to distinguish reality from fiction for many of the stories included in the volume seem to resonate the news published regularly in the media about regular atrocities against Dalits.

These are books that are valuable additions to the landscape of Dalit literature that is fortunately becoming richer and richer with every passing year as newer translations or original writings in English are being made available for a larger audience.

Do read!

Buy Ants Among Elephants ( Print and Kindle

When I Hid My Caste ( Print and Kindle

My Father Baliah ( Print and Kindle

Karukku ( Print

Baluta ( Print and Kindle

Book Post 2: 15-21 July 2018

Last week I announced that I am going to post every Monday a list of all the book parcels I have received in the past few days. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 2 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

23 July 2018

An extract from Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( transl: Rana Safvi)

Rana Safvi’s translation from the Urdu into English of Zahir Dehlvi’s memoir Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny was published by Penguin Random House India in 2017. Zahir’s full name was Sayyid Zah­iruddin Husain, ‘Zahir’ being his poetic nom de plume.  Zahir Dehlvi was in his early twenties, newly married, and living in what is now called the walled city of Delhi. He like his father was in the service of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and they would report to work at the Red Fort. Dastan-e-Ghadar is an eyewitness’s accounts of the events that happened during the uprising of May 1857 when Indian troops employed by the British army revolted. There were many reasons for the soldiers anger but the immediate reason were that their cartridges were laced with cow and pig fat. For the Hindu soldiers, the cow is a sacred animal. For the Muslim soldiers, pigs are taboo. On 10 May 1857 the soldiers first attacked their British masters in Meerut and then marched to the city of Delhi. For decades this event under British Rule was referred to as the “Mutiny of 1857” or by many Indians as “the First War of Independence”, depending from whose perspective the events were being narrated. Now more commonly it is referred to as the “Uprising of 1857” and this is what is usually adopted by historians as well. But as Rana Safvi clarifies in her introduction that “I have used the words ‘mutiny’ and ‘rebels’ in my notes and comments, as those are the words used by Zahir.”

Dastan-e-Ghadar  is meant to be a testimony to the events of 1857 and was written decades later. It is a sequence of events strung together but because it was written close to the event there are details in it that are fascinating. The chaos in the city, the confusion amongst the common people, the rumour mongering, the manner in which people fled to save themselves, the capture of the Emperor etc. All these are now well-known facts but to read the events in a contemporary account adds a different dimension to the experience of the historical event. According to historian Narayani Gupta in her review of the book in the Hindu “…it has an immediacy, and is deeply moving”. She also points out that the memoir was originally “Titled Taraz-e-Zahiri, it was called Dastan-e-Ghadar when first published in 1914. ” The book was printed posthumously from Lahore in (or about) 1914. A second edition appeared from Lahore in 1955 (an edition of which is with Irfan Habib who reviewed the book for Outlook magazine).

Yet there are liberties that the translator Rana Safvi has taken with the text which she acknowledges: “I have used my discretion to edit the text in places to keep the flow and drama of the narrative intact. ” Having said that there are some critical points about this seminal translation that are raised in the review by Irfan Habib: words like “Ghadar” and “Ghadr” have been translated inaccurately at the behest of the editors, not the translator. Later he adds:

Rana Safvi’s decision to translate the work into English is, therefore, to be welcomed. It seems a pity, however, that her rendering bears sign of some haste, so that the author’s statements in even his preface (‘Prelude’) are misunderstood. He did not indulge in “ang­­uishing over the past and spending my time in prayer”, but “considering the past to be past and holding what had happened in the past to be just mercies from God, I let pass time in worldly ways of conduct”. He was now not ind­uced to write because “I had [gained] access to letters and documents”, as the translation tells us, but because of the persuasions of his sincere friends and “a multitude of letters [containing such requests] having accumulated” (Urdu ed., Lahore, 1955 p. 17).

Both the academics who reviewed the English translation are of the agreement that the second half of the book where Zahir’s service in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk are possibly of greater interest than that of the events of 1857. Nevertheless Dastan-e-Ghadar is a fascinating testimony for those reading first source material about 1857 for the first time. Rana Safvi’s translation is an important contribution to Indian literature.

Following is an extract from the book published with the permission of the publishers.

 

****

The Surprise Attack

Just a few days had passed when another event took place. Half a mile from Kashmiri Darwaza, there was a yellow kothi near the ridge, where the purbias had set up a front and put up big guns and cannons. They were using them to inflict considerable damage on the British forces. They had two platoons and people to man the artillery present at all times. Everyone had to stay there for two watches.

One day, as luck would have it, the soldiers departing after day duty told their replacements to be careful, just in case the enemy attacked at night. The night guards took their places. Now let me tell you a few things about the night guard. It was these very men who had looted the bakshikhana and the bank. They were often in a state of stupor thanks to drinking bhang and eating kalakand and laddu peda during the day.

When they reached the kothi, they were alert at first, but when the night came and a cool breeze started blowing, they were unable to stay awake. They kept the guns at an angle and, spreading their dhotis, fell into deep sleep.

Drink bhang in such a manner that you empty all the stores 

All your family is lying dead and you lie inebriated

These people were snoring away to glory. The spies took this news to the British. They informed them that the front was abandoned, the soldiers were all fast asleep and it was the right time to attack.

The British officers took two platoons of Gurkhas, one of Majwi and one of the British themselves, and rushed
barefoot down the ridge. They carried away the guns, captured the cannons and only then woke the sleeping soldiers, saying, ‘Get up, people of the faith, the goras are here.’

One soldier got up, rubbing his eyes. The Gurkhas shot his head off.

They started attacking with swords and sabres. There was tumult and crying from every side and the few who were not killed ran in a state of panic towards the city.

The Nasirabad Platoon, which had changed duty with these men, had found the city gates locked when they tried
to enter the city, as it wasn’t safe to leave them open at night. They were resting on the patri outside Kashmiri Darwaza when the ambushed soldiers reached them. After abusing and scolding them, the Nasirabad platoon told these fleeing soldiers to lie with them and they themselves lay down silently but with loaded guns.

Meanwhile, the British force came chasing them, hoping to enter the city behind them. They were unaware
of the Nasirabad platoon lying in wait. A volley of firing began and the soldiers manning the cannons on the
parapet of Kashmiri Darwaza and Siyah Burj also joined in when they saw the British forces. The situation can be best described as Khuda de bande le—only divine intervention could help.

It was difficult to save oneself from the volleys of fire. There were heaps of corpses all over.

The British troops retreated. They rushed back and took over the yellow kothi they had attacked earlier and turned their guns towards the city. These guns were now fired incessantly at the city. This continued for the whole night.

Cannons and artillery were being fired from both sides, but the Indians lost the front they had set up in the kothi,
which was now under British control. The British forces were also reinforced by troops from outside.

A senior British officer was killed in this battle and his corpse was left lying between the two forces. In the morning,
both sides tried to pick up the dead body. Cannons and artillery were firing from both sides with the purbias hellbent
on acquiring the valuable weapons that were on the dead officer.

The dead body was lying a short distance before the Kashmiri Darwaza. The two sides fought a day and a half for
the officer’s corpse. It was a matter of prestige for both of them.

The guns fired day and night and thousands of people were killed.

At last, as the sun set, one purbia reached the body by rolling on the ground. He tied one end of his turban to the
dead body and slowly pulled it behind him. He and his fellows took the officer’s pistols and sword, and, after stripping the body of valuables, left it there.

In the morning, the British saw that the body had disappeared. The battle was stopped.

The purbia brought the weapons taken from the officer and showed them to everyone in the Qila. He brought it to the house of the royal steward. He showed them to Ahsanullah Khan and told him they had fought over these  weapons for two days.

I saw the weapons with my own eyes. The pair of pistols was good but the sword was invaluable. There was golden
carving on its hilt and the scabbard was black. Its colour was like the neck of a peacock, with something written on it in gold.

( Extract from pgs. 119-122)

Zahir Dehlvi Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi ) Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, India. 2017. Hb. pp. 340 Rs 599 

 

An extract from Manoranjan Byapari’s memoir: “Making a bomb”

Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit by Manoranjan Byapari is about the author documenting his life from life in East Pakistan to moving to India. When he arrived in India with his family he lived in Shiromanipur refugee camp. They try and make a life for themselves in Bengal but they lived in abject poverty and unable to feed themselves regularly. They were also at a social disadvantage for being Dalits. To escape these straitened circumstances Manoranjan Byapari ran away from home as a teenager in search of work. He got caught in the 1970s Naxalite movement in Calcutta. He was imprisoned. It was while in prison as a twenty four year old that he learned to how to read and write.

Here is an extract from the book describing the time he made a bomb. This is being published with the permission of the publishers.

*********

Next morning, after our breakfast of parched rice, onions and chillies, Ahbali looked at me and said, ‘It’s your responsibility now. The powder is ready for the bombs. Tie up as many as you can.’

I stared at Ahbali in amazement. How had he known that I could tie bombs? Had I told Meghnad at some time? And then he had told Ahbali? I looked at the raw materials brought in and, making a quick calculation, I said, ‘This should make about twenty, I think. But how will I make so many alone?’

‘There is nobody else here who can do this,’ he said in a pleading voice. ‘You must try and do it. This is a job that will need bombs. We could have two thousand flies buzzing around us. The sound of the bombs will help to keep them away.’

I said, ‘But you told me the man was a scoundrel. Why should others come to help him?’

‘He is a scoundrel,’ replied Ahbali. ‘And they will not come to help. But we have seen, the richer the person, the more powerful the person, the more the people who surround them. Once we reach there, though, all of these people will vanish. They will stand at a distance and shout. At the most they will throw a few stones. We have seen this time and again. But it will not do to be too confident and go unprepared. We have to be careful. I have brought about fifty cartridges. With these twenty bombs, we can handle five thousand people.’ He paused for some time and said, ‘I have made a recce of the place. If we can just collect the jewellery worn by the women, it will add up to about a kilo.’

Bhuto’s sister had prepared the powder and Bhuto had sieved it through a piece torn from a mosquito net. Bhuto’s wife had neatly laid out a seat for me in a corner of the stable. Not just Bhuto’s family, but the whole village was now pushing towards a single yearned for goal. They had just had dedicated their minds, their hearts, their bodies to a dream. None of them knew anything about politics. Political philosophy and political theory about villages surrounding the city and the need to destroy class enemies were unknown to them. But they did know that they wanted to kill those who had stripped their women and brutalized them. In some sense, their desire appeared to me to be similar to that of the Naxals.

No hesitation or indecision clouded my mind any longer. If it were a sin to help so many people concretize their dream of revenge, so be it. I was willing to commit this sin again and again. I sat down to the job with a crowd of villagers standing or perched on the haystack as my audience, mixing the seemingly harmless reddish and white powders to construct a deadly instrument, one that when hurled at the enemy, would tear their bodies apart with a thunderous sound. In a large enamelled plate, I mixed the powders together with shards of glass, tiny sticks from fishing nets and iron ball bearings. As they watched me at my job, I could sense their intoxication mounting. Will kill them all. They have a lot to answer for. All I had taken was a bunch of bananas, and they beat me for a whole day. And then threw me in jail. I rotted there for two years. My wife ran away unable to bear the hunger. Will get them now.

Livid with anger, he struck a match to light a bidi. He did not get to the bidi. A spark flew onto the plate before me. There was an ear-splitting sound, and a huge ball of fire went up in billowing white smoke. The thatched roof of the stable was engulfed in blazing flames and splinters flew. Some who had been sitting on the haystack watching me were hurt. Their hurt was slight but people panicked and tried to rush out. The bomb that I had been holding in my hand fell to the ground and exploded. If the seven prepared bombs lined up at a distance caught fire, the blast would destroy all. There was complete pandemonium.

I managed to run out with difficulty and collapsed outside the stable. My right side which had been near the plate was charred. Burnt skin hung from my face and my hands and, peeping through the burnt skin, white as egg in colour, was my flesh. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder hit my nostrils.

Hearing the sound of the explosion and the shouts, Bhuto, Meghnad and Ahbali rushed out of the house. I was thrashing about on the ground, screaming in pain. But they had no time to tend to me right then. They rushed for water with whatever they could lay their hands on. Thankfully, the pond was right next to the stable. The fire was controlled before it spread any further. They picked me up then and lay me on a mat inside the house. Someone shouted for alcohol to be brought. They held it to my lips, ‘Drink. The pain will subside.’ I gulped down a large mugful of country liquor. The pain did subside, for within ten minutes, I lost consciousness.

Manoranjan Byapari  Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit (Translated by Sipra Mukherjee) SAGE Samya, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 550 

“Sexographies” by Gabriela Wiener

According to the  biography posted online renowned Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener (Lima, 1975) is author of the collections of crônicas Sexografías, Nueve Lunas, and Mozart, la iguana con priapismo y otras historias. Her work also includes the poetry collection Ejercicios para el endurecimiento del espíritu. Her latest book is Llamada perdida (2014). She writes regularly for the newspapers El Pais(Spain) and La República (Perú). She also writes for several magazines of America and Europe, such as Etiqueta Negra (Perú), Anfibia (Argentina), Il corriere della Sera (Italy), S. XXI (France), and Virginia Quarterly Review (United States). In Madrid, she worked as editor of the Spanish edition of Marie Claire. She left the magazine in 2014 to work on her first novel.

Restless Books will be publishing Sexographies in May 2018. It has been translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Adcock and Lucy Greaves. This is a form of reportage that is like none other. A collection of brutal essays written in the first person that are impossible to classify in any genre. The writing breaks all known norms. It is perhaps preferable to say that the focus of every essay determines the style of writing whether it is  “infiltrating the most dangerous Peruvian prison, participating in sexual exchanges in swingers clubs, traveling the dark paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the company of transvestites and prostitutes, undergoing a complicated process of egg donation in Spain, and participating in a ritual of ayahuasca ingestion in the Amazon jungle“. A truer book blurb was never written when Sexographies is described as “an eye-opening, kamikaze journey across the contours of the human body and mind”.

Included in Sexographies is Gabriela Wiener’s profile of Isabel Allende. It is a brilliantly illuminating conversation-cum-profile of an older woman writer. Isabel Allende is almost venerated by the younger one, Gabriela Wiener, and yet they are able to understand each other as individuals, women, and writers. They meet on International Women’s Day. Gabriela Wiener notes that “Bolano called her an escribidora — a prolific and bad writer. Making fun of Isabel Allende isn’t a sign of intelligence, it’s part of Latin American literary folklore.” She goes on to observe that “The novelist, after all, is a traditional woman who was brought up to be a good girl, and who worked to free herself through literature.” Meanwhile Isabel Allende acknowledges that she has a fair amount of criticism hurled at her but she takes it in her stride as she takes her success. She realises she is often under the critical scanner for the simple fact “I sell books.” Isabel Allende’s life’s philosophy is to strike a balance between frivolity and depth; she says “Since then I haven’t stopped being feminine, sexy, and a feminist. It can be done.”

Here is an excerpt from the essay “Isabel Allende Will Keep Writing from the Hereafter”published with the permission of Restless Books. ( Publication date: May 15, 2018. Contact Nathan Rostron, Editor and Marketing Director: nathan@restlessbooks.com )

*******

Allende is an easy target for the canonizers of novels. It’s possible that not many of her critics are willing to admit that the virulence of their attacks are based on prejudice: she’s an upper- class woman who used to write a feminist column for a fashion magazine in the 1970s. At the age of forty, without any academic training, she started publishing novels, made autobiographical fiction her signature, and her books started flying off supermarket shelves. In a world where the stupidest things tend to be the most popular, sales of fifty million copies can only arouse suspicion.

But put yourself in her shoes: try having the surname Allende in Chile, going into exile, getting divorced, bringing up children, dedicating yourself to journalism, and writing novels. She was part of a generation of Latin American women who juggled all these things at once, and yet managed to triumph under the long shadow of the Boom—a movement that didn’t really contain a single woman writer, only incredibly loving wives who kept everything nice and comfortable so that their husbands could finish their books and win that Nobel Prize.

Try writing from the bottom tip of the American continent about emotions and sex instead of tunnels and labyrinths. Now try to sustain a literary career over three decades with unwavering success. Try, moreover, to produce as many well-written novels as she has. Because Isabel Allende’s books are well-written: there is a voice and an imagination. Isabel Allende builds her stories around simplicity. She occasionally succumbs to cheapness, lace, and frills, but her expression is founded on the richness of family stories, everyday comedy and drama, and the intimate knowledge of a feminine universe, as in The House of the Spirits. In Eva Luna or The Infinite Plan, being colloquial and inventive makes her prose even more personal and confessional. Her books reveal history through memory and reclaim sex so that it belongs to the home and not to poets of the body. In Paula, perhaps the best of her books, she describes a man’s suffering in the presence of his comatose daughter’s body. In it, the consciousness of being human reaches levels that Allende’s language cannot match.

We know the outcome of Allende’s adventure: few have built such a solid relationship with their readers, a relationship based on something mysterious and addictive that they find in her pages and which defies any logic outside itself. Isabel Allende isn’t Virginia Woolf, she’s not Clarice Lispector, and she’s not Alice Munro; but neither is she a bestseller à la Dan Brown with his simple-minded esoteric vision of the crime novel. And yet he isn’t criticized half as often as she is.

What’s the sell-by date of a popular writer after the publication of their last hit? At this women-only conference I’ve heard names I hadn’t heard for years: Laura Esquivel and Ángeles Mastretta, for example. And the first thing I thought was “they’re still alive?” Yesterday I saw Mastretta, the author of commercial bombshells such as Tear This Heart Out and Lovesick, gliding down the corridors of the Palacio de Bellas Artes with her dramatic cheekbones, her carefully coiffed hair, and her fragile movements, and it was like stepping back into the eighties. On Wikipedia, I discover that she’s carried on publishing books. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the books of these three women were labeled “women’s literature,” a kind of derivation of “true literature” with sugary, sentimental additives of which Allende is the highest-profile proponent. Following its initial golden years, “women’s literature” seems to have fallen out of favor, and Allende alone has remained a bestseller. After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel took refuge in a mansion in the outskirts of Mexico City, tried out being a member of parliament, and now facilitates workshops and publishes books in the style of 12 Steps to Happiness. Years after that enormous cocoa feast, Allende wrote her own book about sex and cocaine: Aphrodite, a book where cooking recipes lead to love (also known as the kind of book that immediately banishes you from the annals of literature with a capital L).

Gabriela Wiener Sexographies ( translated by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock) Restless Books, Brooklyn, 2018. Pb. pp. 

2 May 2018 

 

 

“Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit” by Manoranjan Byapari

Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit  is about the author documenting his life from life in East Pakistan to moving to India. When he arrived in India with his family he lived in Shiromanipur refugee camp. They try and make a life for themselves in Bengal but they lived in abject poverty and unable to feed themselves regularly. They were also at a social disadvantage for being Dalits. To escape these straitened circumstances Manoranjan Byapari ran away from home as a teenager in search of work. He got caught in the 1970s Naxalite movement in Calcutta. He was imprisoned. It was while in prison as a twenty four year old that he learned to how to read and write.

So from 1977 till 1981, my time was spent reading Katha literatures, folk literatures, translated literatures, travelogues, religious books. Some praised my dedication to books, some taunted me. I ‘bypassed’ all. None of their words many impact on me. 

Once released he still had to earn his bread and butter, so began pulling a rickshaw. He would inevitably carry a book to read while waiting for passengers. One day he was parked outside the college where Mahashweta Devi taught. She emerged and sought a rickshaw and it happened to be Manoranjan Byapari. He had to quickly put aside the book he was reading — Agnigarba ( The Fire Womb).

A collection of short stories where every character was a known and familiar face to me. Every story had at its centre a protagonist who was a labouring man, who was a representative of the protest of that class, who was unwilling to accept defeat and who fought till death, then rose again to continue the fight. I had a particular affection for this author. Having been once accidentally drawn into the Naxalite movement, I had spent much time with them and heard the story of the martyred Brati, a character in her novel Hajar Chaurasir Ma ( The Mother of 1084). This book had endeared the writer to the Naxalites, who spoke of her as a maternal figure to them. Engrossed in reading, I suddenly awoke to the fact that my turn at the rickshaw line had come. The familiar figure of a teacher whom we all knew by sight stepped out of the college and approached us. 

As luck would have it, the passenger was none other than Mahashweta Devi. Manoranjan Byapari still had not a clue but it was during the course of the journey that he asked her the meaning of a word he had read in the book — jijibisha ( the will to live) and struck up a conversation. Mahashweta Devi was impressed at how he had taught himself to read while incarcerated in Presidency Jail under the tutelage of mastermashai. She asked him to contribute to her journal “where working people like you write”. Just as she was leaving she gave him her address, to the shocked amazement of Manoranjan Byapari. He could not believe it that his passenger was the famous writer Mahashweta Devi.

The rest they say is history. Mahashweta Devi gave him his writing break. Since then he has published many novels, short stories, essays, and his autobiography, of two volumes, the first volume which has been translated and published by Sage-Samya. He has won the Anaya Samman given by the television channel 24 Ghanta, 2013, and the Suprabha Majumdar Smarak Puraskar of the Bangla Akademi of West Bengali in 2014.

In January 2018 he was invited to attend the World Book Fair (WBF) held in New Delhi and the Jaipur Literature Festival. At the WBF he was in conversation with Sanjeev Chandan*, journalist, author and social activist, and Anita Bharti**, teacher, writer and Dalit rights activist.

At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, Manoranjan Byapari was on a panel “Dr. Ambedkar and his Legacy” along with Chintan Chandrachud, Christophe Jaffrelot, and Sukhadeo Thorat. They were in conversation with Pragya Tiwari.

According to the translator, Sipra Mukherjee,

Byapari’s prose is urban and modern. Translating the language used by Byapari, therefore, did nto pose the many problems that are often faced when translating Dalit literature, where the language embodies its marginalization palpably in the earthiness of its dialect which cannot be kept in translation, which tends to be standard English. His prose is often driven more by action than by emotions. . . .

The English translation is shorter than 25,000-30,000 words than the original Bengali version but this has been done with the concurrence of the writer.

Now Manoranjan Byapari is so well-known as a writer that he shares an anecdote that happened in Hyderabad.

Once on an invitation I journeyed to the University of Hyderabad. I boarded an autorickshaw from the station, bound for the University Guest House. The driver of the auto was educated and well-informed. Upon hearing that I was from Calcutta, he wanted to know if I had heard of this writer from my city who drives a rickshaw, has never been to school, but who writes books. 

Read an extract from the autobiography on making a bomb.

Interrogating my Chandal Life will undoubtedly be a significant book in the landscape of Dalit literature. This despite the storytelling being written with a flourish that can prove to be fairly distracting with its verbosity. It is much like the writer himself who when speaking on a public forum is full of wisdom and fascinating insights but ever the performer— perhaps some of it has seeped into the written word too. Nevertheless read this seminal book for the history of Bengal and the plight of dalits it charts through Manoranjan Byapari’s testimony.

Update ( 3 Sept 2018): Manoranjan Byapari has signed a multi-book deal with Westland, an Amazon company. The figures have not been revealed but one of the translators working on the project is eminent Bengali translator Arunava Sinha. ( “Former rickshaw-puller inks big book deal“, TOI, 2 Sept 2018)

Manoranjan Byapari Interrogating my Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit ( Translated by Sipra Mukherjee) SAGE Samya, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 550 

 

*Sanjeev Chandan is Editor of the leading feminist magazine Streekaal and founder of Marginalised Publications, an independent publisher that publishes Dalit-Bahujan literature and academic works on cultural and political issues. Formerly, Mr. Chandan was Hindi Editor at Forward Press, a bilingual magazine that looks at issues and interests from a Dalit-Bahujan perspective. His collection of stories, 546veen Seat ke Stree, was published recently.

**Anita Bharti is an author, a teacher and a well-known critic of Dalit literature. One of her important contributions is the book Samkaleen Nariwaad aur Dalit Stree ka Pratirodh, which received the ‘Savitribai Phule Vaichariki Samman’ award from Streekaal magazine in 2016. Another important work is the collection of poetry that she has edited – Yathastithi se Takraate Hue Dalit Stree Jeewan se Judi Kavitaayein. Ms. Bharti has been honoured with several awards, which include the Indira Gandhi Shikshak Samman and Delhi Rajya Shikshak Samman.

 

1 May 2018 

Panel on “The Business of Books: Is there a Gender Gap in Publishing?”

(L-R) Aditi, Aarti, Rashmi, Jaya, Shantanu and Arpita

( Update: An expanded version of this blog post was published by Times of India on their website on 16 March 2018.)

To celebrate Women’s Day, ShethePeople organised a day long Women Writer’s Fest at Instituto Cervantes, New Delhi on Saturday, 10 March 2018. There were a range of fascinating panel discussions organised. I was moderated the midday session on “The Business of Books: Is there a Gender Gap in Publishing?”.

The panel consisted of eminent publishers such as: Aarti David, VP – Publishing, SAGE India; Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India; Arpita Das, founder Yoda Press and co-founder Authors Press; Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal, Director, Copyrights and Translation, Vani Prakashan; and Rashmi Menon, Managing Editor, Amaryllis. The panel was a good representation of different kinds of publishing as they exist in India/ world today. SAGE is a multinational firm specialising in HSS (Humanities and Social Sciences) academic books and journals. Scholastic is a multinational firm specialising in children’s literature and is widely known for its direct marketing initiatives like school book fairs. Amaryllis is the English language imprint/firm launched by the Hindi publishing firm Manjul. Manjul Publishing is known globally for publishing the Hindi translation of Harry Potter. Recently Amaryllis announced its collaboration with HarperCollins India to distribute their books. Vani Prakashan is a family-owned business specialising in Hindi literature across disciplines and was established by Aditi’s grandfather. They also publish translations of international literature. Yodakin is an independent publishing firm co-founded by Arpita specialising in gender, social sciences academic books. They were the first to launch an LGBTQ list in India. A couple of years ago they announced a collaboration with SAGE India to co-publish titles. She is also the co-founder of a self-publishing firm called Authors Press.

The conversation which ensued was fascinating with anecdotal experience about publishing. Aarti David spoke of her entry into publishing after being told by a HR consultant that now she was the mother of a two year old child it would be very difficult for her to get a job. Fortunately the person who interviewed her at SAGE India for the post of an executive assistant was the legendary publisher, late Tejeshwar Singh. After the interview he offered her a post in the marketing department. She has never left the firm. In fact there is gender parity at SAGE evident at the senior management level too. Of course as Arpita pointed out this has to do with the insititutional culture given that one of the co-founders of SAGE is Sara Miller McCune.

Rashmi Menon asserted that this was a complicated topic as depending upon which layer of publishing function one viewed there were gender gaps to be seen. For instance in her experience gender gap was noticeable in every top layer of management but much less in the editorial departments of a publishing firm.

Arpita Das was very clear that a gender gap existed as she rightly pointed out, “Always ask who controls the money?” She too shared some powerful examples of how gender equations work within firms and the publishing eco-system. Unfortunately in her experience after many years of being a publishing professional none of these deeply embedded attitudes have disappeared or are showing any signs of lessening. To illustrate this point she spoke of the male messenger in her first publishing job who had been entrusted with the task of taking their final manuscripts to the printers. At the time of handover this person would stare at the chest of the editor who inevitably was a female. Once Arpita called him out and asked him to look directly in to her eyes and speak. Ever after that all her handovers to the printer had mistakes. Even now, years later, she finds that these scenarios are repeated with her younger colleagues and she is still having the same arguments.

Shantanu Duttagupta was the only male publisher in a women dominated panel. He was also the only publisher to be representing children’s literature which is more often than not viewed largely to be the purview of women editors. He was clear from the outset that the gender gap in their firm is rapidly narrowing. In fact according to a recent statistic released by their HR department nearly 60% of their employees are women. This includes departments that are otherwise not viewed traditionally as women-oriented roles like production, accounts, and sales. He also reiterated that in his opinion this gender gap was in all likelihood being corrected by the ever growing list of books by women where the gender role plays were being discussed, demonstrated and subverted. Classic example of this being Scholastic’s bestseller the Geronimo Stilton series that are written by an Italian woman and then translated into multiple languages.

Aditi had a fascinating perspective to share. Vani Prakashan traditionally sells in the Hindi-speaking belt of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In her experience publishing firms established outside the metros in tier-2 and tier-3 towns as well as in the villages are increasingly being managed by women. They are even responsible for printing, publishing and promoting their books. Selling it in the market while balancing a baby on their hip. Nothing deters them from continuing with the business of publishing books. Even at their own firm it is her mother who is responsible for ensuring the GST is filed on time, the office is opened on time, all branches of the firm work efficiently with the employees clocking in on time and leaving on time too. Her mother plays an integral part of the daily running of the firm. But as Arpita pointed out that in many family owned business the role of the woman gains importance which may not necessarily be the case in corporate systems.

After listening to the various perspectives I shared my own experience in the industry. I shared how in the past nine months since the new taxation policy of GST ( 1 July 2017) was announced it has become amply clear how the business lines in this industry are divided. I say this from personal experience at having witnessed and/or participated in events that have been about the business of publishing. Soon after GST came into effect I chaired a panel discussion of tax lawyers with publishing professionals. For the first time in my career (and I have been associated with this industry since the early 1990s) I witnessed a gathering representing finance, production, and editorial. There were people from independent publishers to multinational firms. There were self-publishers. There were language publishers. There were trade, children’s literature and academic publishers. Both men and women were present with men outnumbering the women. In the past year whenever I have attended policy meetings, had conversations about the business of publishing, attended the recently concluded 32nd International Publishers Association Congress and researched for my reports on the book market of India, I have inevitably come across more men than women in key decision-making positions. By “key” I mean designations where the professionals have the authority to comment upon their firm’s business models, income-generating streams, focus on business of making money in an industry which traditionally survives on razor sharp profit margins or those who are at a liberty to speak on behalf of their companies. Having said that there is a perceptible shift in this gender composition of firms to see women workforces in accounting, sales, and production departments and some are distributors and buyers for book retail chains and increasingly men in editorial departments. This gender disparity is “reversed” where the feminisation of the creative side the publishing ecosystem is visible. Increasingly there are more and more women writers, translators, designers, freelance editors, typesetters, reviewers, bloggers, publicists, and booksellers. These creative spaces are where there is less money to be made upfront. Also it is work that can be done juggling other responsibilities like domesticity and caregiving. This part of the workforce is as critical as all the other aspects listed above but is underpaid because  a) they are perceived as being a part of the gig economy and b) because of an inherent gender bias their labour is undervalued since the costs of production are “contained” within reasonable limits. After all the end product, i.e. the book is a price sensitive commodity, even though in my humble opinion every single book is akin to being a design product and needs to be recognised in this manner. Frankly everyone ( irrespective of gender) involved in this publishing ecosystem needs to recognise the importance of being critically aware of how the business of publishing needs to be aligned severely with the creation of books and knowledge platforms. It is probably then that some form of gender parity may begin to creep into the industry. Green shoots of it are already noticeable with some key positions being held by women. Having said that feminisation of the editorial and creative community continue to exist. To my mind this appalling given how the evaluation of this industry is growing in leaps and bounds. According to the latest figures released by Nielsen Book Scan the Indian Book Market is valued at $6.5bn. This is an industry that creates something of value based upon the creative output of others, ie the authors.

So yes, I sincerely believe there is a gender gap in publishing, particularly when it comes to the business of books. There are many, many more strands I can pick up in this discussion but due to constraints of time I am unable to do so.

All said and done it was a fabulous session that according to the wonderful organisers, Kiran Manral and Shaili Chopra, not only went down well with the audience but also gained a lot of traction over social media. If it had not been for the competent emceeing of Saumya Kulshreshtha we would have continued chatting on stage for hours. There is so much to say on the topic!

13 March 2018 

 

 

“The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation” by Ravish Kumar

The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation by renowned journalist Ravish Kumar is a collection of his essays on the state of the nation and he stresses the importance of how citizens of a functioning democracy must use every space available to them to speak out. Otherwise the new normal is that “the socialization of fear is complete. To be afraid is to be civilised in this new democracy”. Every single essay deserves to be read over and over again but there is a particularly chilling one which he wrote called “Wherever a Mob Gathers Is Hitler’s Germany” drawing parallels between the propoganda by right wing fundamentalists in Nazi Germany and conservative politicians of today, many of whom have a history of being responsibile for pogroms. “Any other narrative was allowed no existence at all. People were steadily moulded by the propoganda and they did not realize they had been transformed into a weapon. Propaganda has only one purpose — the construction of a mob. It is the mob which carries out the killings and blood splatters the clothes of those who make  up the mob. the government and the leaders all appear blameless. No one questions the role of propaganda in bringing mobs together.”

These essays have been translated from Hindi by Chitra Padmanabhan, Anurag Basnet and Ravi Singh. These essays are going to be discussed for a long time to come. Ideally the book should be released with the audio version of these essays being narrated in Hindi by Ravish Kumar. Or release the audio clips online.

The following is an extract from “Being the People” being published here with permission. It is an essay that encourages people to be active citizens of a democracy if they wish to protect their rights. “It is time to stop looking for all sorts of excuses for our ‘lack of strength’, or powerlessness, and face teh reality that this enfeeblement of citizens has come about because we have abandoned dissent and turned to supplication.”

*****

Now once again there is a move to drag history-writing back to the chronicles of kings and queens. It is reckless myth-making, fuelled by the idea of retribution—the ‘faithful’, the ‘true Hindus’, will avenge the deeds, real and imagined, of those who are no longer in our midst. The idea of vengeance persists even though those who exist in the present have nothing to do with that history and are not responsible for any of it.

Through these narratives of the new national curriculum, young hearts are being filled with the flames of hatred; they are being transformed into human bombs walking in our midst. Communalism turns human beings into bombs—we will see this change not just in our neighbour’s child but also in our own. When a youth filled with pure hatred chances upon an ordinary quarrel between two individuals who happen to be from different faiths, he can only see the incident with a communal eye and explode, human bomb that he is. He becomes a participant in the act of killing; part of the crowd that kills a Pehlu Khan or Muhammad Akhlaq or Junaid Khan, knowing he will never be punished by the powers that be. This is the kind of human bomb we have in our midst today. We are no longer a weak-hearted people; now that 1,200 years of slavery and sixty years of sickularism and bad governance are behind us, we have produced our own Jihadi John, who hacks and burns a man to death and releases the video on the internet.

As these human bombs increase in numbers in any society or nation, it is not the state that stands to lose but all of us—our status and power as citizens will correspondingly shrink. When we watch television images of a person beaten to pulp by a crowd—he may be of any religion—the moment at which the victim is overpowered by the crowd leaves us shaken and afraid even though we are watching the news in the safety of our home. We are wary of sharing our feelings on Facebook and hesitate to step out of the house at certain times. We feel intimidated and our civil rights as citizens get eroded.

Our minds are being filled with hatred not only for the sole purpose of perpetuating the hold of a particular party or ideology on power but to ensure the complete decimation of the power that comes with being the citizens of a democracy. I earnestly urge you to keep your child safe from the ill-effects of the new national curriculum on social media and prime-time television, and keep yourself out of its reach as well. The national curriculum is virulent in its theme, and unrelenting. It has a predictable pattern—wherever there is an election, it makes its presence felt. All of us need to have the self-confidence that is part of the consciousness of being the people of a strong civilization, a rich and diverse culture. Just as justice and injustice are part of our present, so it was in the past. We need to learn to deal with it. We should know how to negotiate history. But these debates are pushing us to the farthest extremes; consequently, we are moving inexorably towards communalization—an ever-widening gulf of mistrust with regard to a particular community.

In schools all over Germany, children are educated on how to deal with the blot on their past because of Hitler and his Nazi regime, one of the most evil in all history. This is a stigma that cannot be removed either by tearing out or burning those pages of history, or by running away and hiding from it. I once asked a German journalist if they were overcome by a sense of guilt.

Mentioning that politicians in my country didn’t think twice about casually branding anybody as Hitler, I asked her if that were so in Germany as well. She replied, ‘We are very careful about how we bring Hitler’s name into any debate; only an individual who loses the ability to offer a reasoned and human argument is thought to possess a Hitlerian streak.’

She recalled that around the time the film Schindler’s List, set in Nazi Germany, was released, their teacher spoke to them. This is what the teacher said: ‘The film dwells on the darkest chapter in the history of our nation. Yes, it did happen, but we are not to blame—neither your father nor mine. We ought to be ashamed of this dark chapter of our history and we are, but when we watch the film we shall not be wracked by guilt or anger. Rather, we shall experience a sense of self-confidence that we are no longer trapped in that time; we have come a long way from that juncture and are living in a new age.’

We in India have not educated our citizens on ways to negotiate history. On the contrary, the narrative that is being created as a ‘tradition’, especially through our television channels, is one of inhumanity. Perhaps many will dismiss these words of caution, calling me alarmist. But there will come a time when we will recall these words in distress—if not for ourselves, then for our children, for no one among us wants to see our child pick up a sword to kill a neighbour. Our child may well be saved by the party he owes allegiance to, but we will not get a moment’s sleep knowing that our child is a murderer.

When Pehlu Khan was lynched in Alwar, there was little reaction on the part of society and none from the government. When Junaid Khan was killed on a crowded railway platform, no one came to his aid, and later there were no witnesses, everyone claimed to have been somewhere else, or busy with something so consuming that the cries of a man being butchered and his brothers did not reach them. Examine the damage that was done: two men died, in terror and unimaginable pain. If that does not matter to us, do we think of those who killed and will not be punished? How many were they? Eight? Ten? Twenty? We don’t know, we make no effort to know. Those men, they must have gone home after they killed. What food did they eat that evening? Who cooked it for them? How many greeted them in their mohallas the next morning? There are eight, ten, twenty murderers roaming freely in our society. In another year there may be eight hundred, or twenty thousand. Murder will be normal then. It will be like any other job—like weaving a beautiful carpet or sari, driving a car, tending a garden, writing software or nursing the sick. Killers will emerge among us, kill and come back home after a day’s work. They might be our children, our siblings, our husbands or wives. Have we agreed to this? When we cast our vote, was this the world we chose?

Let us not turn away from what is happening. The future is grim. Due to the ongoing poisonous Hindu-Muslim discourse, human bombs are being prepared in large numbers, out of hatred among the Hindus and out of sheer fear among the Muslims. Our society is poised to reach its nadir. In places with dense populations, communalism will incubate more human bombs.

Ravish Kumar The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 180 Rs.499

11 March 2018 

“Suragi” by U. R. Ananthamurthy

The  distinguished Kannada writer and public intellectual U. R. Ananthamurthy ( 1932-2014) dictated his “memoir”, rather memories to Ja Na Tejashri, Kannada poet and professor, in the last few months of his life. He was extremely ill and was being dialysed regularly. The notes were structured in U. R. Ananthamurthy’s lifetime under his guidance. Initially his preference had been for a conversational and informal approach. When he saw the first few trasnscribed pages, he found the style difficult to read and called for a more formal approach. Eventually, Tejashri helped him find a balance he was comfortable with: she recorded him, scribbled notes, touched up her trasnscriptions, and rearranged the episodes in chronological order. Ananthamurthy was keen to see this work translated in English. It only happened a year and a half after he passed away when at the behest of his son-in-law and novelist Vivek Shanbhag who requested S. R. Ramakrishna to translate the 450-page book Suragi. Shanbhag was merely reiterating the request Ananthamurthy had asked of Ramakrishna. 

U. R. Ananthamurthy was honoured with the Jnanpith Award in 1994 adn Padma Bhushan in 1998, and was one of the finalists of the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. 

Suragi has now been published by Oxford University Press India. The memoir is so named after the flower Ananthamurthy loved which gives out more fragrance as it fades. This is an incredible book recounting his life as a writer and a public intellectual through India and England. It is an exceptionally absorbing read given how he acutely witnesses, observes and reflects often upon the role of a writer, particularly that of an Indian writer, in society. There are many parts of this book that are worth reflecting upon given their relevance even today. The section on “the Indian writer’s dilemmas” is particularly powerful. For instance while commenting upon the role of writers during the Emergency his statements assume wider ramifications, echoing into modern India, decades later:

India’s biggest problem is hypocrisy. Intellectual hypocirsy has taken root deeper than we imagine. …A mind that hesitates to what must be said becomes corrupt. …The spirit of the times is such that we have compromised with everything. Nothing troubles us. We feel no psychological torment. …We are not troubled as we should be. The reason is that our spirit is feeble. There is no connection between our convictions, our actions, and our truths. …That is why speech is devalued.

Ananthamurthy’s confidently outspoken voice is to be treasured and is deeply missed. Take for instance the following extract “Moment Transcending Time and Space” which is being reproduced here with the explicit permission of the publishers, Oxford University Press India. 

Moment Transcending Time and Space

On the rare occasions we go beyond time and space, we see truths not just from the past but also those relevant to the present. I experienced this one night in Nepal. In 1996, some Indian writers spent three days with writers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. A Himalayan range loomed behind the resort where we were staying. The snow-clad mountains could be seen from the lounge and also from our rooms. It was an informal meeting, with no agenda, where the idea was to sit and chat and share our thoughts and feelings. This was after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The anxiety of whether our nations could rise above communal hatred had brought us all together.
Siddhartha, a friend from Bengaluru, had organized this conclave. He has set up an ashram called Firefl ies in Bengaluru. Born a Christian, Siddhartha was drawn to Buddhism. He blends thought with action. Another writer at the conclave was my dear departed friend D.R. Nagaraj (1954–1998). He was drawn to two extremes—the Buddhist vision of emptiness that rejects even the idea of the soul, and the Nietzschean assertion of the intellect against the Christian concept of sin.

I will only name one participant who had come from elsewhere: Urdu writer Intizar Hussain (1923–2016). Each writer spoke openly about the truths of their experience, without trying to justify themselves. They spoke of things they couldn’t speak about in their countries. Women writers had come from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and I feel I should only convey what they expressed, keeping them anonymous.

Among the writers from Bangladesh was a Hindu. We gathered he was a big poet there. He was fidgeting with a palmtop he had bought in the Nepal black market. It was a device on which one could take notes. He was trying to fi gure out how it worked, and muttering in frustration when he couldn’t. He said the moment the Babri Masjid was demolished, several Kali temples in Dhaka had been brought down. ‘Why don’t any of you speak about it? I am no Kali devotee but I don’t like the hypocrisy of your secular position.’ No one argued with him. The other Bangla writers said he was speaking from the heart. Everyone was keen to break the vicious cycle of blaming the other to justify one’s own actions. Having said his bit, the Hindu writer from Bangladesh shared in our anxieties.

It has become a politically correct ritual for us to talk about Muslim violence when we want to condemn Hindu violence, and Hindu violence when we want to condemn Muslim violence. We respond with cleverness when we lose the ability to see the victims as humans like us. The objective of this meeting, with both Hindus and Muslims, was to rid ourselves of such self-justification. I share a conversation that suggests we were successful.

We were lounging around comfortably, resting on mats and lolling on cushions. A middle-aged woman writer from Bangladesh began her tale softly, with her friendly, smiling eyes closed. She was the only woman writer wearing a sari. Her luxuriant, uncombed hair cascaded on her breasts. Perhaps she was secure in the confi dence that all of us were looking at her with compassion.

When she began, she addressed everyone. As she progressed, she seemed to be directing her words to the male writers from Pakistan. Towards the end, her voice became tremulous. She was an ordinary woman speaking about the war Pakistan had fought with her country, then called East Pakistan. Her husband had been a professor at Dhaka University. He had campaigned for Bengali as a second official language. One day he routinely left for the university and didn’t return. The evening turned to night. A day passed, then two. Their two children didn’t go to school. They
stayed at home, awaiting his return. They couldn’t venture out— Pakistani soldiers were everywhere, brandishing their guns.

After two days she went to the university with other women looking for their husbands. What did they fi nd? A heap of corpses. They had to sift through the heap to fi nd their respective husbands. The writer must have told this story several times. But it was perhaps for the fi rst time she was telling it in the presence of writers from Pakistan, whose soldiers had killed her husband. I was sitting beside Intizar Hussain’s. Like his friend Bhutto, he had stood by Jinnah, believing a separate country was necessary to practise and promote Islam without let or hindrance. He had
migrated from his native place to become a Pakistani. He was a big writer in Urdu, and earned a living from writing for the Dawn. The Bangladeshi writer said, ‘Tell me, where is Islam in all this? What is the use of what the Quran says? My husband was a Muslim too but they killed him in the name of Islam. Can you imagine what I went through as I searched for him among hundreds of corpses?’

The sharp-nosed Intizar Hussain had placed his hands on his lap, in a meditative pose, and was listening to her. When the Bangladeshi writer concluded, a young woman writer from Pakistan began to sob uncontrollably. Intizar Hussain slowly raised his head. His eyes were moist, and tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘On behalf of my country I apologize to you,’ he said in English. ‘What can I say but that we are all unwittingly implicated in the murder of your husband?’ He looked at the other Pakistani writers for approval. The three women writers bowed their heads,
endorsing his words with tears.

This is an incident I will never forget. The human is dwarfed by the idea of the nation state. He loses his sense of right and wrong, and becomes a nationalist. In the Second World War, such nationalism made monsters of the Japanese and the Germans. Even ordinary folks turn blind. The atom bomb dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed everything. Communist nations can justify their crimes using the words of Marx. Muslim nations can justify their crimes using the Prophet. It is equally true that Christian nations can use the Bible to justify
their actions. Those hiding behind nationalism wreak a lot of damage before we wake up and criticize them.

To escape the mass hysteria of nationalism, we must always fearlessly keep extending a hand of friendship to other humane thinkers. I recall an incident. When we met in Berlin, I mooted with Intizar Hussain the idea of our Sahitya Akademi publishing an anthology of Pakistani literature to mark the fi ftieth anniversary of our two countries attaining Independence. Like India, Pakistan has a diversity of languages: Punjabi, Sindhi, and others. I wrote to
Intizar Hussain asking if he could edit an anthology of stories from all such languages in Urdu translation.

At the Sahitya Akademi’s executive committee meeting, some friends expressed their reservations. How could we publish a story that might speak against India? I said, ‘Intizar is a sensitive writer. He will never choose anything that promotes hatred. Leave it to me. I will take the risk.’ As the book was being finalized for publication, we faced another problem. How do we pay the writers? The two nations had no agreement to make payments possible. I
explained this to Intizar, who then spoke to the contributors to the anthology. We got letters from them, with some saying they were honoured the Sahitya Akademi, which gets grants from the Indian government, was publishing them. Just send us some copies. We don’t expect any money. Our country didn’t have the vision that Nehru did. We don’t have an independent academy, they wrote. When I met Intizar at a SAARC literary conference in Delhi, he said, ‘We have no other book in Urdu with writing from other Pakistani languages. The anthology you published is now a
textbook in our colleges.’

U. R. Anathamurthy Suragi ( Transcribed and compiled by Ja Na Tejashri. Translated from Kannada by S. R. Ramakrishna ) Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2018. Pb, pp.380 Rs.650

16 February 2018