Writer Posts

Interview with Siddhartha Sarma: “I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story”

Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and historian. He has covered insurgency, crime and law in the Northeast and other parts of the country and written for newspapers and magazines as an investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, 2009), received the Sahitya Akademi Award for children’s literature in English in 2011 and the Crossword Book Award in 2010. His second novel, Year of the Weeds (Duckbill, 2018) is based on the land rights agitation in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha. His latest published work, Carpenters and Kings (Penguin Random House India, 2019) is a history of Western Christianity in India.

  1. Why and how did you get into writing? Where do you find your stories? How long does it take from inception to completion?

A.:  When I was seven, my school was bringing out a commemorative magazine to celebrate an anniversary. I was told anybody could contribute anything they liked for it, so I wrote an approximately 400-word story based on real events. A bit of a tragedy. They printed the story with no edits on the first page, with my name on it. But what I remember now and in the intervening years is not the feeling of seeing my name in print, or of reading my story in printed form, but the joy of writing it, the process of slowly putting things together in my head and of banging it out, over several hours, on my father’s old typewriter, literally sitting on his desk because I was too short to type from the chair. The fear of making a typo (which is such a frustrating experience on a typewriter, unlike on a computer where a typing error is merely an inconvenience). I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story, of entering or discovering a world, and of narrating it for myself and for any reader I might find. That is how I began writing, and what I still try to do.

I began my career in journalism as a reporter. It is a much-repeated saying in the newsroom that a good reporter never runs out of story ideas. I have never had a problem thinking up story ideas. The problem is deciding which are worth taking up. One does not have this luxury of choice as a reporter, but a writer has to be very selective about which idea she will devote her time and energies to. If my time as a journalist has helped me as a writer in any manner, it is in two: I can be objective in deciding which stories to write and which to shelve, temporarily or permanently. And second: I can be objective in editing my own work. One of the criteria I have for deciding on a story is whether I have the competence to write it. There are many genres that I have a bit of an interest in, but I know I might not be able to execute a story in them very well. Such as fantasy or science fiction.

The complete arc from story idea to research to writing and editing and the final draft depends on the length of the work, its complexity, scope of research and treatment. My first novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, took me a year and half to research and seven months to write. My newest non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India took up nine years of research and eight months of writing. So it varies. But I do seem to spend more time thinking about a story than in actually writing it.

2. Is it only the long form of a novel that appeals to you? Would you ever consider other structures such as short stories or a series arc?

A.: My first work published in a book was a short story, in a humour anthology by Scholastic. Some other commissioned short stories have also been published. But, yes, I find the novel’s longer form more suitable for the kind of stories I have to tell. I have not yet thought of a series of books, although I can’t rule it out in the future. A standalone novel, however, suits the way I want to tell a story for one major reason. While working on a story, I spend a lot of time building the narrative arcs of individual characters. I go back in time, and also forward, into their futures. I create their backgrounds and populate it with other characters and circumstances. Most of these never get written in the final novel, but they do exist. So for me writing a novel is like baking a whole cake and cutting out just a slice of it for publishing. Or creating a tapestry and (again) cutting a slice of it. A short story might give me a much smaller, possibly unsatisfactory slice, while a series might need tough decisions about how many slices to make, or from which part of the cake or tapestry. So far, novels have worked for me.  

3. How much research do you delve into before you begin writing a book? How do you organise your notes? What is your writing routine?

A.: Researching for a book is among the most interesting parts of the writing process for me. Over time, I think I have become a bit more organized in my methodology. The Grasshopper’s Run caused me a lot of anxiety during the research process because I was not accounting for the volume of material I would end up having. For instance, I asked my sources for visual material to base my description of events and topography on, from the China-Burma-India theatre of World War II. I asked for un-curated photographs. I received some 1,800 photos, and most were directly relevant to my research. I had to sift through about 6,000 pages of correspondence and records from that theatre. For Carpenters and Kings, I examined 46 medieval and ancient manuscripts and translated seven of them from Latin because the previous translations were themselves dated. So gathering material is not a problem, particularly in these times. The more difficult part is knowing when to stop researching, or learning to leave out the peripheral or marginally relevant. Otherwise every book becomes a doctoral thesis.

I begin with a basic idea about the plot, in case of non-fiction the general outline of my argument. The notes I take from my research are based on their direct relation to this bare plot or argument. The most directly connected bits of evidence or material gets the highest weightage. Additionally, for fiction, any bit of non-fictional material which can help flesh out a character’s story arc or background (that part of the background which will get written rather than get left on the cutting room floor) also gets priority.

I have no particular routine. My best time is late in the night, but the slow cooking that happens before the physical act of writing can happen at any other time during the day.  

4. How did you decide to write historical fiction set in Nagaland during the Japanese invasion in WWII? And why write it for young adults?

A.: I wanted to base my first novel in the Northeast, as a mark of respect for my homeland. I thought a coming-of-age story during a conflict might work, because I had been asked to write a young adult novel by Sayoni Basu, then editor of Scholastic India. I did not want to base the story during any of the region’s numerous insurgencies, although I have covered them, because the political aspects of those insurgencies were too complex for a novel of the size I had in mind. That left the 1962 war and WWII. The actual fighting in 1962 took place in rather remote places where the human interest aspect did not play out much. WWII was, for my purposes, more suitable.

5. Did winning the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book for your debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run apart from pleasantly surprising you also put undue pressure on you to excel with your next book?

A.: ‘Pleasant surprise’ is very appropriate. I was surprised and gratified that readers and people who know a lot about children’s and YA literature liked the novel. It was very encouraging, and I met some noted writers afterwards and received valuable advice on writing from them. It was a very pleasant experience.

There has been no pressure. I have always been fortunate in the publishers and editors I have worked with. I just try to work on each story on its own merits, and don’t think much about expectations. The only expectation I have from myself is to write, at each stage, a better story than I have written before. If that happens, I am content. Ultimately, I have to write stories that I would like to read, and re-read.

6. Your second young adult novel, Year of the Weeds, is written nearly a decade later. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. How do you achieve this fine balance between journalistic writing and creating fiction for young adult readers?

A.: Year of the Weeds is indeed based on the Niyamgiri movement and was inspired by it, although the novel ended up containing elements from other similar peoples’ movements, while the workings of the government and companies is based on what I have seen across the country as a reporter. I follow peoples’ movements and Niyamgiri was inspirational and unexpected, so I wanted to commemorate it, even though I suspect it was just a provisional victory. While writing it, I was conscious that my treatment had to be that of a YA novel. However, I have also tried to include in it ideas and insights I have had as a journalist covering different aspects of India, such as how most Indians in the hinterland live, how the government interacts and often exploits or victimizes them, and what the true face of development is in these parts of the country. So, while it remained a YA novel throughout, with the frame of reference being mostly that of the two YA protagonists Korok and Anchita, I also tried to make sure these insights and ideas were properly written into the plot.

Around the time that I began researching for The Grasshopper’s Run, I realised I could not continue as a reporter and simultaneously as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I was increasingly not content with the limitations (as I saw it) of a reporter, at least in terms of autonomy. I wanted to tell stories which could not be accommodated within my work as a reporter. So I shifted to the desk and have worked as an editor ever since, while writing books. I chose writing at the expense of reporting. I have not regretted it.

7. You have an enthusiastic passion for the Crusades and yet your first narrative nonfiction was Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India. Why?

A.: I have studied the Crusades, and my thesis for an M Litt degree was on strategy during the Later Crusades. I find the Crusades very significant in understanding world history in general and European history in particular, because those conflicts sit at the centre of a wide range of connected events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Exploration.

There is a number of good, accessible and recent works on the Crusades by scholars from the West, so I did not intend to write a work of my own, which would not have made any significant contribution to the subject. However, something interesting happened during my research for the thesis, which was a study of three proposals for crusades by scholars in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. One of these scholars, a Dominican monk, wanted to launch a crusade from India. My supervisor suggested that I could refer to a secondary source on what these Europeans were doing in India in the period before the Age of Exploration. We discovered that there was no work which explained the political history of Western Christianity in India in the pre-colonial period. In December 2017, I realized I had enough material for a book which dealt with this subject, so I wrote Carpenters and Kings. And yes, I did include a brief history of the Crusades in it, and one of the chapters is about the Dominican who wanted a crusade from India, because all these are connected events. What was the Dominican doing in India? Also, much later, what was Vasco da Gama doing here? The answer to both questions is the Crusades.

8. You write young adult literature, travelogues and non-fiction. This is a diverse range of genres. How did this happen?

A.: Each book happened in a specific context and for unique reasons. The Grasshopper’s Run was meant to be a YA novel. While researching it, I travelled in the Northeast and Myanmar, and afterwards wrote a series of emails describing my travels, which I sent to friends. These were read by a publisher, who asked me to expand them into a travelogue, from which East of the Sun (Tranquebar, 2010) happened. Meanwhile, I wrote two books for the popular 103 series by Scholastic, one on great travellers I admire and the other on historical mysteries. And then I wrote Year of the Weeds followed by Carpenters and Kings. I guess one reason why this is an eclectic mix is I follow a story to its natural place and write it accordingly. So we have a situation where, although history is what I am academically suited to writing about, Year of the Weeds is contemporary political fiction. I am comfortable with chasing a story wherever and to whichever genre it leads. I think the only concern for a writer should be whether the story is told well or not. Having said that, I am still learning, so if I discover that I should stick to specific genres, I shall do that.

9. Do the methodologies of research and writing for young adult literature and narrative nonfiction vary?

A.: It is possible that some researchers might have different research methodologies depending on what genre they are planning to write in. I do not have different methodologies. I choose a subject, start reading about it, examine primary and secondary sources, select those sources which are suitable for the story I have in mind, and then sift through the material I obtain.

There are certainly differences in writing YA fiction and narrative nonfiction for general readers, including tone, scope, complexity of ideas, presentation of this complexity. In some ways, like channelling all the research into suitable concepts, narrative nonfiction is more challenging. In several other ways, like writing in a manner which holds the reader’s attention, and creating believable characters and plots, YA literature has its own set of challenges. Both are very rewarding genres to write in.

10. What are the kinds of books you like to read? Any favourites?

A.: I have followed several genres over the years, although now because of demands on my time I have to limit myself to those genres which I have consistently read. Of these, apart from literary fiction, I seem to have read crime and espionage fiction fairly consistently. Fantasy, which I was reading a lot of till some years ago, seems to have dropped off. I do not know if this is a temporary phase.

11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced you?

A.: These are among the writers I have liked almost consistently. In literary fiction: Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Nelson Algren, John Steinbeck. In crime: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, PD James, Janwillem van de Wetering. In espionage: John le Carre, John Buchan, Len Deighton.

12. What next? 

A.: Perhaps a dark story. One of the problems with India after 2014 has been we have been affected by the doings of the ideology and the people in power on a daily, personal level. On a daily, personal level, one finds it increasingly difficult to feel joy in most things, or to happily coast along choosing stories to read or tell at a leisurely, whimsical pace. I would have liked to write a story I was working on in 2013, but that will have to wait for some time. At the moment, we need stories that deal with or are related to the situation we have in India, or which go some way towards explaining things. We can’t ignore that. So, perhaps something dark, something angry.

17 August 2019

Procedure of Censorship

Academic Mini Chandran’s latest book “The Writer, The Reader and The State: Literary Censorship in India” is fascinating. It is also pertinent and must be read. Following is an extract, used with permission, from the book about literary censorship and the maintenance of a banned books list by the Indian government authorities.  

Read on… .

Procedure of Censorship

The actual process of censoring books in India is a curious business. The most common censorship practice is to prevent a book from reaching the readers after it has been published. This can be done through a court of law, or a governmental order. It is very rare to have a book prevented from publication in our country simply because there is no system of vetting a book before publication or ‘book certification’ like we have for our films. A writer can write and publish whatever she wants but, if need be, will have to suffer the consequences of her action.

There are no obvious laws to this effect and nobody wants to own up to this rather sordid affair of clamping down on free expression. Rajeev Dhavan notes that all orders to ban are given by the Home Ministry: “Banning books with the full regalia of official notifications is now a thing of the past. Much of the banning is done under the rules. The most important of those were framed in 1955 and 1956. Under a general notification of June 8, 1955 (later to be amended) books, magazines, pamphlets and like publications which, taken as a whole, portrayed the commission of offences, acts of violence and cruelty, incidents of a repulsive and horrible nature or glorifying vice which might corrupt or render those under twenty years of age irresponsive to the finer side of nature or to moral values could not be imported” (“Book Bans are not New”). He is referring specifically to the Customs Act here and observes how The Satanic Verses was banned on the basis of a brief letter sent by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. As observed earlier, banning under the Customs Act means that the ‘culprit’ is denied the right to state his defence in a common court of law. A ban and forfeiture as per the Criminal Procedure Code is the ‘kindest’ as it at least provides the writer with a forum to argue his case.

Pre-publication ban, post-publication ban, arm-twisting the author / publisher to withdraw the offending book without any official or legal coercion, removing the book from the syllabus of a university–all of these acts can be construed as official and unofficial acts of censorship. We can identify three major ways in which books can be banned –

  1. Books can be denied entry as per the Customs Act like The Satanic Verses, where Rushdie could not defend himself in a court of law.
  2. They can be declared obscene / seditious/ blasphemous as per the IPC and the author / bookseller can be hauled to court, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The book can be confiscated as per the CrPC and it also allows the author to file an appeal in a High Court against the confiscation. The court becomes the final censor here as it can uphold or deny the allegation and decide the fate of the book and the author.
  • The book can be declared unacceptable by a particular group of people for reasons they know best and harass the writer flouting all social and legal norms. The government can then ask the author to withdraw the book or ban it under the relevant section of the IPC, citing reasons of law and order or offence to religious sensibilities. This is what happened to James Laine who wrote Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India.

If this is a rough outline of how to ban in India, there is the other important question of who bans? Interestingly I discovered that there is no simple answer to this question. I made an attempt to get this information, courtesy the RTI, and underwent a very Kafkaesque experience. Though we have information about books banned in India since 1947, it is very difficult to get an official list of books banned in India. The office of Home Ministry in North Block looked surprised and almost had a very British old-maidish expression like “Banned books! Oh dear! Whatever gave you the idea?!” Banning, they grandly told me, was not the Central Government’s and least of all the Home Ministry’s business. If a book creates a problem, the respective state governments are asked to take action against them. However, I was advised to file an RTI seeking the information. The application was transferred to the Deputy Secretary (Home) to the Government of India who duly informed me that “…this Ministry [Home] does not maintain a list of books that have been banned in India since 1947. As such, it is not possible for this Ministry to provide the information desired by you.”

However, journalist Manini Chatterjee of the Indian Express who wrote about the books we are still not allowed to read in independent India after 50 years of Independence, recalled that she had got a list of banned books without much effort from the same Ministry of Home in North Block. Although this is the ‘official’ take on book banning, we can discern a certain method in the madness. For instance, the government of Delhi (and other state governments) has a certain procedure. After a book is printed, according to the Book Registration Act it is sent to the Home Ministry where a press officer scrutinizes it for objectionable content. If s/he finds it problematic in any sense, s/he sends it to a screening committee. This committee that is headed by the Secretary of Home Affairs and consists of intellectuals and other senior officers of the IAS, IPS and CBI, examines the book and decides if it has to be censored in places or banned altogether. The final authority, however, is the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi who has the discretionary authority to decide on the banning. For allegedly obscene material the book is also sent to the press department of the Delhi police crime branch which examines it. Then it is sent to the press officer in the Home Ministry from where it follows the same procedure as explained above (Gupta 2002, p.213).

The censorship procedure is more or less the same for other state governments as well. In Kerala, for instance, two copies of all printed books and magazines have to be submitted to the Public Relations Director’s Office. These are vetted by the Information Officer (Research & Reference) who is under the PRD. In case of finding objectionable matter in any book, s/he refers the matter to the police who are empowered to confiscate the offending material as per our Criminal Procedure Code. The truth is that very few books have been banned in recent history and this explains the complete bewilderment on the part of the very same government officials when questioned about censorship. “There is absolutely nothing of that sort,” they vigorously deny. And then, as an afterthought comes: “The only books that we might perhaps recommend for confiscation are, you know, very obscene ones like ‘Sexercises’ and so on.” Apparently the requirement by the Registration of Books Act to submit two copies of all printed books is not seen as an attempt to regulate printed matter at all. This is speaking volumes about the efficacy of a bureaucratic system where the right hand does not know what the left is doing and there is obviously no brain that seems to be functioning anywhere! However, as we shall see, these laws have been successfully implemented to prevent books from reaching readers.

Mini Chandran The Writer, The Reader and The State: Literary Censorship in India Sage, New Delhi, India, 2017. Hb. pp. 695

28 July 2017 

American writer Paul Beatty brings back slavery and segregation to win the £50,000 Man Booker Prize

( My review of the Man Booker Prize 2016 winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty was published by Scroll on 26 Oct 2016, a day after the win was announced. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/819961/american-writer-paul-beatty-brings-back-slavery-and-segregation-to-win-the-ps50000-man-booker-prize . I am also c&p the text below. )

‘The Sellout’ is a wicked satire on racism, and makes Beatty the first American to win the Man Booker.

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store…But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.

~~~

That’s the bitch of it, to be on trial for my life, and for the first time ever not feel guilty. That omnipresent guilt that’s as black as fast-food apple pie and prison basketball is finally gone, and it feels almost while to be unburdened from the racial shame that makes a bespectacled college freshman dread Fried Chicken Fridays at the dining hall. I was the “diversity” the school trumpeted so loudly in its glossy literature, but there wasn’t enough financial aid in the world to get me to suck the gristle from a leg bone in front of the entire freshman class.

Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout is a magnificently absorbing story told by a nameless narrator who is referred to by his girlfriend as “Bonbon”. The novel opens with him in court not for a petty crime like stealing, but for encouraging racial segregation and slavery. The narrator has been born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a suburb of Los Angeles.

A work of contemporary fiction that revolves around histories of family,The Sellout comes with a twist. It covers only two generations – father and son, and what happens next. Among other things, this includes the reintroduction of slavery and segregation. The father of the narrator is a single parent and a sociologist, who turns his only son into an on-going social experiment in childrearing methodologies.

For instance, the father ties his four-year-old son’s right hand behind his back so that he can grow to be left-handed, right-brained, and well-centered. Or, he tests the “bystander effect” as it applies to the “Black community” on his eight-year-old son by beating the boy in front of a throng of bystanders who don’t stand around for too long. Sadly the father is killed in a police shoot out. The narrator is left bewildered.

You’re supposed to cry when your dad dies. Curse the system because your father has died at the hands of the police. Bemoan being lower-middle-class and coloured in a police state that protects only rich white people and movie stars of all races, though I can’t think of any Asian-American ones. But I didn’t cry. I thought his death was a trick. Another one of his elaborate schemes to educate me on the plight of the black race and to inspire me to make something of myself, I half expected him to get up, brush himself off, and say, “See, nigger, if this could happen to the world’s smartest black man, just imagine what could happen to your dumb ass. Just because racism is dead don’t mean they don’t shoot niggers on sight.”

The inheritance is downright bizarre – the son, like his father, becomes a “nigger whisperer”. It is one of these men he “rescues”, Hominy Jenkins, “the last surviving member of the Little Rascals”, who becomes a devoted slave to the narrator. Curiously enough, just as he was his father’s little social experiment, the narrator turns his neighbourhood into a larger sociological study by promoting segregation to the extent of drawing a white boundary line around the space.

The Sellout maintains a mad pace of breathless storytelling that sometimes only works effectively if read out aloud. In an interview recorded in May 2015, Beatty, pokes fun at racial politics but insists that the novel is about a ton of other things too. ( (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4PYhbZvz_g ) He refers to his work as a metaphorical tale wherein he has been thinking about segregation and how it will be in modern times. Acknowledging it also changes one’s outlook. He adds, “I don’t try to be satirical but I think in my head and on paper and it takes a long, long time to be poetic and I have a little bit of agenda which is hard to pull off.”

The Man Booker winner says his approach involves humour and personal experience. “I am starting from myself.” With the American presidential elections due in less than a month, was the jury specially influenced by the issues raised in this novel? It is a stupendous decision by the Man Booker Prize judges in awarding the £50,000 award to Paul Beatty for The Sellout. It is the first time an American has won the prize. It is a doubly sweet win for independent publishers Oneworld who have probably made publishing history for their back-to-back win at the prestigious literary award. The Man Booker Prize 2015 awarded to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James was a Oneworld publication too. In the subcontinent Pan MacMillan India represents and distributes Oneworld.

As a poet, writer, and a trained psychologist, Beatty has brought his vast experience in writing and understanding human behaviour to produce a magnificently raw, hard-hitting, fantastically honest, take-your-breath-away work of dark humour. The Sellout is satire at its finest. At times it is hard to believe this is fiction and not excellent reportage.

Paul Beatty The Sellout Oneworld,London, 2016. Pb. pp. 288 Rs 399 

26 Oct 2016 

Graham Swift, “Mothering Sunday”

Mothering SundayThe Beechwood library has its wall’s worth of books, most of which ( a maid knows) had hardly ever been touched. But in one corner, near a buttoned-leather soft was a revolving bookcase ( she liked to twirl it idly when she was cleaning) in which were kept books that clearly had been read. Surprisingly perhaps, in such a generally grown-up place, they were books that harked back to childhood, boyhood or gathering manhood, books that she imagined might once have flitted between the library and those silent rooms upstairs. There were even a few books that looked newly and hopefully purchased, but never actually begun. 

Rider Haggard, G.A.Henty, R.M.Ballantyne, Stevenson, Kipling … She had good reason to remember the names and even the titles on some of the books. The Black Arrows, The Coral Island, King Solomon’s Mines …she would always see their grubby, frayed dust jackets or the exact coloration of their cloth bindings, the wrinkling and fadings of their spines. 

Of all the rooms at Beechwood, in fact, the library, for all its dauntingness, was the one she most liked to clean. It was the room in which she most felt like some welcome, innocent thief. 

( p.66-67)

 

Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday is a dazzlingly splendid meditation on reading. If it were not for the fabric of a plot and the misleading subheading in the title “A Romance”, this little novella would be a prime example of a powerful interior monologue by an accomplished writer exploring his individual talent in a literary tradition.

Read it. Read it for the story at its face value. Read it for its social commentary. Read it for a century of world of English literature and translations it unveils. Read it to find your inner equilibrium. (It is incredible how much more at peace I was at for having read this slim book.)

Graham Swift Mothering Sunday Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016. 

9 March 2016 

Julian Barnes, “The Noise of Time” and Wolfgang Hilbig, “I”

julianbarnestnosiseoftimeBut endless terror continued for another five years. Until Stalin died, and Nikita Khruschev emerged. There was the promise of a thaw, cautious hope, incautious elation. And yes, things did get easier, and some filthy secrets emerged; but there was no sudden idealistic attachment to the truth, merely an awareness that it could now be used to political advantage. And Power itself did not diminish; it just mutated. The terrified wait by the lift and the bullet to the back of the head became things of the past. But Power did not lose interest in him; hands still reached out – and since childhood he had always held a fear of grabbing hands. 

Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time, is about the Russian composer Shostakovich. It is about how he Shostakovichpractised his art, trying to lead a normal life during Stalin’s regime and it was not easy. Shostakovich never joined the Communist Party while Stalin was alive. He  did so much later in 1960 when he was to be appointed by the government as General Secretary of the Composer’s Union and had to be a party member in order to hold the post. ( It was the second time in his life that Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, saw his father weep.)  Julian Barnes has for more than fifty years been a fan of Shostokovich. As he says in an FT interview, “My brother used to sell me the classical music records he most despised or had grown out of.” ( 22 Jan 2016, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/b6432f9e-bf64-11e5-846f-79b0e3d20eaf.html )

The Noise of Time opening scene is about the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on 26 January 1936 at the Bolshoi Theatre. Shostakovich attended the operatic performance in the presence of Stalin and his Politburo comrades, Molotov, Mikoyan and Zhdanov. It had been a success at home and abroad for more than two years, making Stalin curious. Two days after Shostakovich witnessed Stalin at the theatre, the Pravda carried a scathing article — “Muddle instead of music”. Subsequently, many commissions for Shostakovich dried up. It is said his income fell to at least one-third of what he had been earning. Even his patron,  Marshal Tukhachevsky, was unable to help. During the Great Terror which was to follow Shostakovich was fearful of his life. He lived in great dread of being taken away in the middle of the night as many of his friends and neighbours had been and shot including Marshal Tukhachevsky. But he never was. ( The sketch of the man on the book cover looking over his shoulder anxiously while holding a suitcase is meant to be the composer who for a while waited with a packed suitcase every night waiting to be picked up.) Within these stifling circumstances he tried to lead as normal a life he could, much like his father who ‘was an entirely normal human being’. ( p.22) His music began to be more conservative and in 1946 he composed a cantata, Song of the Forests, praising Stalin as a great gardener. Yet Shostakovich never left Russia. He did go abroad for performances and represented his country officially but he never left unlike Stravinsky.

Keeping an Eye OpenJulian Barnes novel is bio-fic ( to use David Lodge’s term for such literature). It is a sophisticated tribute by one artist to another, the writer imaging the trauma the composer experienced during Stalinism. In his book Keeping an Eye Open ( published 2015) a collection of essays on art and artists, Barnes says, “Artists are greedy to learn and art is self-devouring… .” ( p.103). He then puts forth an old idea of the artist being a voyeur. “This is exactly what the artist should be: one who sees ( and voyeur can also carry the sense of hallucinatory visionary).” (p.123)  In The Noise of Time Barnes probably is so focused on the relationship that Shostakovich had with the Stalinist state that it occupies the bulk of the story. Then the writer gallops through the remaining years reducing even Boris Pasternak to a passing reference and not even mentioning  the legendary black and white production of Hamlet ( 1964). It was based on Pasternak’s translation and Hamlet ( 1964)Shostakovich composed the music.

While one can appreciate Julian Barnes tribute to a musician he has long admired, it is the timing of the publication of the novel that has to be lauded. The Noise of Time is published in 2016, the 400 year birthday celebrations of Shakespeare’s wherein the story of Shostakovich revolves around his musical interpretation of Macbeth. It is also exploring the life of an artist under Stalin’s version of communism in Russia. A form of government that came with the Russian Revolution of 1917, nearly a hundred years ago.

Another book that is worth mentioning here given the many similarities it shares with The Noise of Time is I Hilbigby Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole. It is not an easy book to read for its shifts in literary texture and excessive reliance on interior monologues that can be disconcerting. It is a fear that he lived with in East Germany given how the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, employed a vast network of official collaborators including literary figures. So Hilbig was never able to trust anyone even though he was never implicated.  , is a book  that leaves the reader very disturbed for the paranoia conveyed by Hilbig in his book written from the perspective of a writer-informant. This feeling of fear is what one is left with upon closing the book.

This unforgiving and constant fear can only be experienced and it is not a figment of anyone’s imagination or relegated to history books. It is still to be found in nations where freedom of expression is stifled and it is even more alarming when it is done using official machinery. At such moments it is immaterial whatever the political system — whether a communist or a democratic state. The full import of living with this kind of round-the-clock anxiety can never really understood by writers and readers distanced from such authoritarian regimes but these stories could be read as appreciating art for art’s sake. Having said that The Noise of Time and are going to be spoken about for a long time to come for the tremendous impact they are going to have on literature and the art of writing.

Julian Barnes The Noise of Time Jonathan Cape, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 180. 

Julian Barnes Keeping An Eye Open Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. Pb. 280

Wolfgang Hilbig I (translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole), Seagull Books, 2015. Hb. 

28 January 2016

 

Zafar Futehally ” The Song of the Magpie Robin – a memoir”

Zafar FutehallyZafar Futehally was a well-known birder, naturalist and writer. He was one of the pioneers of the conservation movement in India and was instrumental in making it an important middle class concern. For instance getting an advertisement for WWF in a popular magazine of those days.

We had no scruples in ‘using’ any of our friends to advance our work; Khushwant Singh was the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India in those days, and he promised Shama a full-page advertisement for the WWF in the Weekly if she wrote a completely original article on sparrows. Shama wrote it, and we got our first big advertisement for the Indian appeal. It was designed by Alyque Padamsee, and showed a tiger with the caption ‘Born Free, Sentenced to Death’. ( p.138)

Zafar Futehally’s fascination for bird watching began when accompanied Salim Ali on his expeditions. There are some fabulous memories he recalls of those expeditions. This book was written in collaboration with Shanthi Chandola and Ashish Chandola. They persuaded Zafar Futehally to email them short articles/notes recalling his life, especially related to conservation. All though charmingly written and a little uneven, it is a valuable addition to the history of conservation in India. As George B. Schaller says in his foreword:

Wildlife was little studied or appreciated in India during the 1960s, other than along the sight of a gun. But Zafar already had a vision, as he expressed in 1969 in a keynote speech at the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN) held in Delhi, an event I also attended. ‘What I came to do is to reflect the concern of the ordinary citizen about our deteriorating environment.’ And he turned this thought superbly into action. With tenacity and tact, he built bridges between organizations, nurturing their conservation efforts, whether it was promoting green areas in Bangalore ( now Bengaluru), establishing the Karnala Bird Sanctuary or other initiatives that revealed his deep concern and respect for the natural world. He knew that unrestricted development would deprive India of a healthy environment and a secure future, a message he delivered persistently and with the quiet authority of someone who was a high-ranking member of every major conservation organization in the country and a Founder of World Wildlife Fund ( WWF)-India. He,  more than anyone in India, helped forge awareness that the environment, with all its species of animals and plants, must be protected. That is his lasting legacy. ( p.xiii)

Zafar Futehally’s wife, Laeeq Futehally, was a notable writer about nature herself. She wrote many books, including co-authoring some with Salim Ali. But A Sahib’s Manual for the Mali of articles edited by her is an all-time favourite of mine. ( http://permanent-black.blogspot.in/2008/08/cricket-music-gardening-new-paperbacks.html )

Zafar Futehally The Song of the Magpie Robin: A Memoir Rainlight, Rupa, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. p.200 Rs. 500

Some of the other books and essays related to Nature that I came across in 2014 were:

1. George Schaller Deki, the Adventures of  a Dog and a Boy in Tibet A lovely, moving and brilliant story about a boy and his dog also an Dekiintroduction to the environment. It is scrumptiously illustrated by an artist from the Tibetan art collective, Gyurmey Dorjee. According to the publisher, Permanent Black, on their blog,

DEKI is a magical book that will have you instantly under its spell. It is a blend of great story-telling and acute observation of nature and animals. As you read it you travel the stark, barren plateau of Tibet and discover its animals, monasteries, birds, nomads. Thrilling chases and cliff-hanger moments decide the battle between good and evil as the book explores the question: freedom or security, which do you choose? ( http://permanent-black.blogspot.in/2014/05/the-story-of-book.html )

I agree. I read it slowly. Savoured it.

It has been jointly published by Black Kite and Hachette India.

Indian Mammals_bookcover_website2. Vivek Menon Indian Mammals: A Field Guide It is described a reference and exceptionally usable guide to the mammals of India. It is four-colour with more than 400 species of both land and water mammals.

3. George Monbiot’s essay “Back to Nature”. The first article in BBC Earth’s ‘A World of View’ series of essays by leading environmental authors. ( http://www.bbc.com/earth/bespoke/story/20141203-back-to-nature/index.html )wild_wisdom_quiz_book

4. The Wild Wisdom Quiz Book published by Puffin India and WWF India. It consists of questions, trivia and illustrations compiled from India’s only national level quiz on wildlife.

29 Dec 2014 

Literary festivals in India, Brunch, Hindustan Times, 12 Jan 2014

Literary festivals in India, Brunch, Hindustan Times, 12 Jan 2014

Today my article on literary festivals of India has been published in the Brunch, Hindustan TimesThe title in print is called “Booked & Hooked” and online it is ” Your guide to litfests this season”Here is the link to the online version: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/your-guide-to-litfests-this-season/article1-1171368.aspx. Meanwhile I am c&p the longer version of the article published.) 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

“I attend literary festivals to meet authors, to see another dimension to their life, listen to the heated conversations, introduce my four-year-old twin sons to famous people, and inculcate a sense of reading culture in them,” says Umesh Dubey, first-generation entrepreneur who takes his family to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) for the entire week.

A literary festival can be defined as a space where writers and readers meet, usually an annual event in a city or as “literature in performance”. Must-have elements include panel discussions with a healthy mix of new and seasoned writers, Q&As with the audience, author signing sessions, workshops related to writing and publishing, book launches, bookstores, a food court, and entertainment in the evenings. And – hopefully also – intellectually stimulating conversations, a relaxed ambience, picturesque setting, good weather (no dry days!), and networking possibilities.

In India, literary festivals came into vogue with the astounding success of Jaipur Literature Festival, which began in 2006 . The timing was right, soon after the Christmas holidays/ winter break, in January, when Rajasthan is a favourite tourist destination. To organise a festival in the Diggi Palace Grounds, chatting with authors most readers have only admired from afar while sipping the hot Diggi chai in earthen cups, basking in the warm winter sun, listening to crackling good conversations and at times heated debates, and as darkness descends, preparing to hear the musicians who will perform… it made for quite a heady experience. And if at any point you get weary of the crowds and the conversations, it is easy to step out for a jaunt as a tourist and explore Jaipur. This basic template has begun to be emulated across the country.

jaiput-lit-festAccording to the Jaipur Litfest producer, Sanjoy Roy, the intention is to create “a democratic access system of first-come-first-seated where we treat everyone as our guests and do not make a fuss over VIPs. The colour and design create a sense of an Indian mela.” Of course prior to JLF, India did have a fair share of literary “festivals” like Ajeet Caur’s SAARC Literature Festivals, or those that were organised at the Sanskriti Anandgram in Delhi or even the early editions of the Katha festivals, but admittedly none were on a fabulous scale, nor were they open to the public. According to Maina Bhagat, director, Apeejay Kolkata Festival, “The city is the biggest player in the festival”.

So what explains the runaway success of today’s literature festivals? Says poet K. Satchidanadan, “There is a whole urban and semi-urban middle class youth eager to meet authors and listen to them in a festive atmosphere. The publishers are interested in releasing their books there and having their authors on the platform. The authors are interested in meeting other authors and also readers. Cities also get to be on the literary map of India with such celebrations.” Ananth Padmanabhan, senior vice-president, sales, Penguin India, says, “With social media dominating mind space, festivals are a great place to sit back and connect readers to writers; such an engagement opportunity was lacking.” In fact, festival-hopping has resulted in a modern-day phenomenon of the festival junkie: People who move from festival to festival.

Of late the Indian economy may have been in the doldrums but there is no denying that post-liberalisation, more and more people have disposable income, they do want to invest in culture and what better way than to make it a family outing? It is a democratic patronage of the arts. It is also a reflection of how much India is becoming a writing culture rather than a reading culture.

Arshia Sattar, who through Sangam House organises Lekhana Literary Weekend  (an extension of the Sangam House international writers’ residency programme that is run outside Bangalore) and is also jury member, DSC Award for Literature 2014, says, “My concern is that we are moving further away from ‘literature’ and closer to writing. I think if we had fewer ‘festivals’ and if they had  a focus rather than being all things to all people (which is probably what their sponsors want in terms of ‘footfalls’) . . .we might see people stepping out to literary events with dedication.”

Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette India, says, “There is not a single real benefit any festival brings to a publisher. And there are a number of cons – it costs a lot to get your author up there for almost no returns on investment, and zero promotional benefit. Yes, if you switch off the business aspect, for the audience it’s a great platform to see your favourite authors, and for authors a great platform to cross-commune with other writers. For editors it’s a good networking and ideas engagement opportunity. But in terms of sales or author brand building, go back to every single festival and put down the authors and their titles and see the impact of either media coverage or sales, and you’ll see not one has moved beyond their earlier levels. Some very successful (read great stage performances) sessions do result in immediate brisker sales at the venue bookshop, but even those are minimal – anything between 30 copies to 100 copies.” Adds Diya Kar Hazra, publisher, trade, Bloomsbury, “There are so many literary festivals these days – sometimes two or three in one city. The writer is expected to do more than just write these days – they blog, they tweet, they have pages on FB. They appear at festivals and events reading from their books and having conversations with fellow writers. The reader–writer relationship has changed, as a result. Authors are much more accessible than they ever were.”

Author Shovon Chowdhury who released his debut novel, The Competent Authority, earlier this year says that attending literary festivals “feels good. You feel special. I’m not jaded yet, so I enjoy it. I also love meeting lots of interesting people, including some super-intelligent ones. It gives me a dose of much needed perspective and humility. Plus there’s free meals.”

An attractive feature of a literary festival is the free entry. This requires the festival management to scour for private sponsors, funds and collaborations that will help in putting together the extravaganza and these could be either in money or in kind. In many case, corporate house are willing to assist with sponsorship for the brand visibility and media coverage. Recently tourism departments and state governments have partnered with festivals which is understandable given the positive impact festivals can have on the local economy. For instance, in a dipstick survey the JLF management did last year, it was estimated that approximately Rs 20 crores of additional spend could be attributed to JLF in Jaipur on account of accommodation, restaurant and shopping. Even this is set to change. The inaugural edition of the Pune International Literature Festival had ticketed entry. Comic Con too proposes to sell tickets in 2014.

Much of the success of the festivals depends on the programme created, parallel sessions, selection of the moderators and if necessary, themes selected. It is also heavily dependent upon the curation, storyboard to the chemistry between the panelists.  Altaf Tyrewala, Director, Chandigarh Literature Festival, says “The organizers and I were struggling to think of how CLF could be different from other literary festivals. We realized that in the circus, we often lose sight of the book, the very foundation of literature! So we decided that CLF would showcase the book, and nothing but the book. We decided to let active literary critics nominate that one book that had stayed with them over the past decade. There was a general agreement on what constituted a good book. Naturally, the discussion between the author and the nominating critic was focused entirely on the book in question. It made every session riveting, and more importantly the invitees realized that their presence was crucial to the festival’s format.” It helps to do some thinking in advance to avoid embarrassing incidents as happened at a recently concluded festival. The moderator was informed just before stepping on to the stage that the authors lined up were commercial-fiction authors. The response, the moderator shuddered and said, “I would never read such authors!”

The buzz around festivals is tremendous. But the bubble may soon burst as has happened with book launches. People will weary of them if they happen too often. They will lose their charm for various reasons. As writer Ravi Subramanian points out, “The divisions between the literary and commercial authors are becoming apparent at these festivals.” Second, most of the festivals are conducted predominantly in English, though slowly this too is changing, to reflect and represent the local languages and the international participants. There are writers who have begun to feel bored and disillusioned  with these festivals that often sustain and strengthen the hierarchies among writers, dividing them into “stars” and ordinary writers. Even the most ordinary Indian English writers acquire “stardom” while the best of language writers are often time-fillers invited most often to show that they too are represented.

Over the years the festivals have come to align themselves before and after the December/Christmas holidays, making it easier for authors to mark their presence at more than one event. The length and dates of the festivals are also determined by collaborating partners. In fact Surya Rao, director, Hyderabad Literary Festival, says, “We avoid a clash of dates with other major lit festivals because we check the dates of other fests. The Jaipur fest happens to be the closest to us.”

Maybe Indian festival organisers will collaborate with each other as happens in other countries like Australia.

A possible “classification” of literary festivals. 

There are so many literary festivals being organised in India that one has to create some sort of “classification”. For instance, festivals that have stood the test of time of a minimum period of three years, grown in popularity (as measured by the increasing audience participation), established a brand in their name and proven to be sustainable in terms of the sponsorship would probably be at the top of the list. These would be the major milestones in the festival calendar – Jaipur ( Jaipur Literature Festival), Calcutta (Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival and Kolkata Literary Meet) , Chennai (Hindu Lit for Life), Mumbai (Kalaghoda, Times of India festival), Hyderabad Literary Festival and the Sahitya Akademi’s Festival of Letters.

Then there is what could be termed as a “sub-genre” – that is, equally strong brands, dealing with genres of literature which are not necessarily given sufficient space for intense engagement, such as Bookaroo (children’s literature) organised in Delhi and in Pune (in collaboration with Sakaal Times), ComicCon (comics and graphic novels), Samanvay (Indian languages) in collaboration with the India Habitat Centre,, Cultures of Peace: Festival of the Northeast (Women and Human Rights) organised by Zubaan, Poetry with Prakriti (poems), Mussoorie Writers Festival (mountain and travel writing) organised by Stephen Alter and Lekhana (a long literary weekend).

Finally there are the relatively new festivals that are as yet to establish themselves, but people are already familiar with them – Bangalore, Kasauli, Shillong, Agra, Lucknow, Benaras, Patna, Bhubhaneshwar, Chandigarh, Pune, and Kovalam. And there are still more being organised.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose 

Prabha Khaitan “A Life Apart: An Autobiography” Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande

Prabha Khaitan “A Life Apart: An Autobiography” Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande


I recently read Prabha Khaitan’s autobiography A Life Apart, translated from Hindi, Anya se Ananya. Prabha Khaitan was from Calcutta, belonged to a prosperous family but chose to be an entrepreneur, a leather exporter. She was also a well-known Hindi writer. According to the information on the internet, her leather business was a multi-crore business. A Life Apart is a memoir that recounts her childhood, the sexual abuse that she suffered as a child (she was advised to hush it up), her experiences in America and the culture shock she experienced but she concentrates predominantly upon her lifelong relationship with Dr Saraf. She was obviously devoted to the man and his family. She remarks “my life was divided into three areas: business, creative writing and my emotional involvement. the first two were on track but my personal life gave me neither peace nor joy.” Dr Saraf’s son had become a part of her business and yet “instead of being praised for my generosity, I had to constantly hear his sarcastic comments about my passionate involvement in business matters.” Dr Saraf would complain “You are becoming like a man. All you can think of is profit and loss.’ Then, as a final barb, he’d say, ‘And why not? After all, this is how a successful business is run.’ Namita Gokhale writes in her introduction says “Pratibha Khaitan’s writing for me, lies precisely in this unwavering, unblinking, truthfulness.”

What is curious is that Prabha Khaitan was obviously a successful independent single woman, at a time when it was unusual and rarely heard of. Yet her memoir reflects the dichotomy in her life. Instead of being a balanced view of her writing, business and her personal life, it is wholly preoccupied with Dr Saraf and ends with his death on 10 Jan 1993. The last para is:

“At the memorial meeting held for him, he was remembered by several prominent personalities for his many qualities. He was called one of Calcutta’s most eminent citizens, a philanthropoist and a brilliant doctor who was survived by his wife and children.
Of a woman called Prabha Khaitan, there was no mention.”

The translation is super. Unfortunately the translator, Ira Pande has not written a word about her engagement with the text. A pity, since it would have been a pleasure to read what Ira Pande had to say about the process. She is always so informative and interesting about translation methodologies, including about the tricky area of transliteration, transcreation and/or translation. For someone like her, who is an accomplished translator ( Diddi and T’Ta Professor ) and fluent in Hindi and English, it is always a delight to hear her discuss translations and literature. She lives it. She breathes it. Hence it was very disappointing not to have a note by her. Making a text available in English for a larger market is I think insufficient, especially when it involves a translated text. The original writer has been heard, but the translator is an equally important part of the process. They too must be given space in the printed word.

3 May 2013

Prabha Khaitan A Life Apart: An Autobiography Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande. Zubaan, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 280. Rs. 395

Khushwant Singh. Two books. Two publishing houses – Penguin and Aleph

Khushwant Singh. Two books. Two publishing houses – Penguin and Aleph


Khushwant Singh. Two books published in quick succession by two publishing houses. Both books have been written when, “according to traditional Hindu belief, in the fourth and final stage of life, sanyaas. …At ninety-eight, I count myself lucky that I still enjoy my single malt whiskey at seven every evening. I relish tasty food, and look forward to hearing the latest gossip and scandal. I tell people who drop in to see me, ‘If you have nothing nice to say about anyone, come and sit beside me.’ I retain my curiosity about the world around me; I enjoy the company of beautiful women; I take joy in poetry and literature, and in watching nature… I have slowed down considerably in the past year. I tire more easily, and have grown quite deaf. These days I often remove my hearing aid…and I find myself relishing the silence that deafness brings. As I sit enveloped in silence, I often look on my life, thinking about what has enriched it…My life has had its ups and downs, but I’ve lived it fully, and I think I have learnt its lessons.”

Khushwantnama is a collection of reflections. Honest, Straightforward. Crisp. Acerbic. Tongue-in-cheek. Ruthless. The essays range from being a “Dilliwala”, the importance of Gandhi, what religion means to Khushwant Singh ( ” It is not God who created us, but we who created God. I am an agnostic. However, one does not have to believe in God to concede that prayer has power.”), on writing, on watching nature, on poetry especially Urdu poetry and Ghalib. The essays I have read over and over again have to be on the business of writing, what it takes to be a writer and dealing with death.

In his reflections upon writing and dealing with publishers, Khushwant Singh does not mince any words. Having written many books, his experience was that he never had any trouble finding a good publisher. But now “the whole business resembles a whorehouse. Publishers can be compared to brothel keepers; literary agents to bharooahs (pimps) who find eligible girls and fix rates of payment; writers can be likened to women in the profession. Newcomers are naya maal ( virgins) who draw the biggest fees for being deflowered. Advance royalties being these days run up to Rs 50 lakh, sometimes even before a word of the projected work has been written. Advances offered to authors in India are often higher than those offered in America or England or in any other European country. But they are offered only for works in English, not for works in our regional languages.”

And his advice on what it takes to be a writer. “Along with hard work, read whatever you can– whether it’s the classics or fairy tales or even nonsense verse. Reading will make you capable of distinguishing between bad and good writing. There is no substitute for reading. This is also the only thing that expands your vocabulary.”

This has to be read along with The Freethinker’s Prayer Book a collection of quotes that he gathered from his reading and many visitors. He maintained many notebooks. The best of these have been published in this beautiful volume. Quite literally from the cover onwards with its Sanjhi artwork of the tree of life to the text within. It is a book that you will want to dip in often.

In Swahili there is a saying that when a person dies it is equivalent to the loss of a library. These books exemplify that it certainly holds true for Khushwant Singh. I have enjoyed reading these books and keep them on my writing desk. Buy these books as companion volumes.

Khushwant Singh Khushwantnama: The Lessons of my Life Viking, Penguin, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 190 Rs. 399

Khushwant Singh The Freethinker’s Prayer Book and some words to live by Aleph, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 190. Rs. 495