This is one of those days when truth is stranger than fiction, or is it? In 2013, the late Shovon Chowdhury published an extraordinary novel called The Competent Authority. It was his debut and in his inimitable style, tongue-in-cheek humour. A decade later, voila!, we have an official letter stating that “as desired by the Competent Authority”, Cow Hug Day has been withdrawn.
A single-volume history of India such as this is sorely required. It is also beautifully illustrated with photographs and maps. History books on the trade list sell exceedingly well. These books access different communities of readers. But “A New History of India” will work tremendously well for ordinary readers, supplementary reader in middle and senior schools, prescribed text for schools that are not using state published textbooks or are affiliated to the NCERT or SCERT school boards, job aspirants taking various competitive exams including the Holy Grail — to join the hallowed portals of Indian bureaucracy, and many more. As a hardback, proced at Rs 999, it is a tad too expensive for many of the aforementioned readers but if a low-priced paperback, albeit published on poorer quality paper, this edition will sell like hot cakes. It also needs to be available in Indian languages. It will have a much larger reach. It is critical that it is made available since more than 50% of the Indian population is below the age of 25 and more than 65% is below the age of 35. This time period coincides with an astonishing lack of history about India’s history. This is exactly the lack of ignorance of the youth that is being preyed upon by Machiavellian individuals for their immediate political gains. It is a very worrying trend. Hence, books like this that are easy to consult and provide clear snapshots of our magnificent history are very welcome.
On 27 Jan 2023, Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan visited my daughter’s school. It was an author interaction organised for eighth graders. Apparently, the conversation revolved around poetry and writing. I am not surprised since Shobha’s debut book — It’s Time To Rhyme ( Aleph Book Company) — is a delicious collection of poems. My daughter too loves poetry and is musically inclined. For instance, when is in a foul mood or when she was an infant throwing a tantrum, the only way to get across to her was by playing music or speak to her in a sing song manner. So, the kid was thrilled to meet Shobha and talk poetry. And then the author very sweetly inscribed the book for Sarah.
I enjoyed reading Blue Sky White Cloudby Nirmal Ghosh. So much so, as soon as I finished reading it, I tagged a friend, tea-estate owner and an ardent conservationist, who has created an elephant pathway through her tea gardens in Nuxalbari, West Bengal. This is what I wrote on Facebook:
Sonia Jabbar, I kept thinking of you while reading Blue Sky White Cloud. The first novella, “River Storm” is gorgeous. It is about a tusker whose natural habitat is being encroached upon by humans, especially tea plantations in the North East of India. Whereas, in recent years, you have managed to reverse this trend and created elephant corridors through your tea estate. Someday, I hope, you will be in conversation with the author, Nirmal Ghosh, about wildlife conservation.
Although this book has been announced in the inaugural list of Aleph Book Company’s children’s literature imprint, it was first published in 2020. At that time, my then ten-year-old daughter, Sarah Rose, was asked to record this video by the publishing firm. It was to celebrate Ruskin Bond’s birthday in May 2020.
What is not to like in this book! It is utterly brilliant. Stupendous!
With offerings from sonnets in iambic pentameter, to limericks, acrostics, and villanelles, It’s Time to Rhymeis the perfect introduction to the joys of poetry for readers of all ages. Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan should consider writing a long poem for children. A story well told is heard far and wide. Format does not matter. The few poems collected in this slim volume are a guarded taster of what she is capable of! It is high time publishers broke shackles of the staid expectations of educators and parents and brought the fun back in storytelling. Let it be wild. Let it be nonsensical. Let it be joyous!
On 30 March 2022, Aleph Book Company announced the launch of its children literature imprint. Stephen Alter’s edited volume of Great Indian Children’s Stories is part of the inaugural offering. The other two are Shobha Tharoor Srinivasana’s delightful It’s Time to Rhyme and Ruskin Bond’s Miracle at Happy Bazaar.
This is a fine anthology. It makes for a lovely gift. Also, the collection of stories heark back to a more secular and diverse past of India that we were/are proud of — it touches upon its soul. Today, it still exists but we need constant reminders that this is still a very strong feature of our nation. It is a great way to inaugurate this children’s literature list but it is also a fine balancing act as this is also how canonisation of a genre begins. Selection of good stories by established writers/translators. In all likelihood, this was a relatively “easy” volume to put together since the copyright permission was manageable. Some of these stories have been previously published in other volumes of short stories published by Aleph. Ideally, given that Aleph is increasingly getting known for its excellent list of short stories, then perhaps an anthology consisting of a wider selection of short stories for children could have been created. Perhaps in a similar fashion to the seminal volume of Indian short stories, David Davidar’s (ed.), A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present. Aleph publications such as The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long or Teaching a Horse to Sing: Tales of Uncommon Sense from India and elsewhere are a great selection but not enough. One expects Aleph to set a high standard in children’s literature just as it has done for trade literature.
Nevertheless, I liked Great Indian Children’s Stories.
In recent days and weeks, I have read a pile of books but not had the time to write individual posts. So, perhaps it is best to create a combined blog post.
The two debut novels that I read were poles apart in tone and pace. The first debut novel is The Elements of Fogby Boudhayan Sen ( Juggernaut Books) is an unexpected pleasant surprise. It is a combination of old-fashioned ( read nineteenth century) novel and a twenty-first century contemporary fiction. It is a reflection of the plot too that is set apart in time by a century and a half. The common factor being that the story is set in a high school/boarding school that was set up in a hill station near Madurai. It is a love story that is very well told. Perhaps Boudhayan Sen will follow it up with another novel/ a collection of short stories that is equally well paced. The second debut novel is The Shotgun Weddingby Suchandra Roychowdhury ( Aleph Book Company) that is a fast-paced, comic, romance novel. It is more in the ilk of commercial fiction, noisy with chattering dialogue propelling the plot, easily read; with the potential of spawniing back stories,and perhaps Malgudi Days-like stories. Who knows?! Time will tell.
The two collections of prose and poetry are also very diverse. Why do you fear my way so much? : Poems and Letters from Prison by G. N. Saibaba ( Speaking Tiger Books) is very powerful. Most of the poems were written in the form of letters to his wife to avoid censoring by the prison authorities. Saibaba is an academic and an activist who is confined to a wheelchair and has been incarcerated since 2014. In 2017, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his links to a banned organisation, CPI-Maoist.
The second is an anthology Khushk Zubaan, Bebaak Jigar: Of Dry Tongues and Brave Heartsthat has been edited by Reema Ahmad and Semeen Ali (published by Red River). It consists of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and artworks. Red River publications go from strength to strength. This particular anthology when it was first published had a limited print run as the publisher, Dibyajyoti Sarma, was unsure whether it would sell. It sold so fast that a second print run had to be done within a month. The publications in this frontlist are experimental, grungy, and generous as many voices — established and new — are offered a platform with equal grace and respect. Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts is no different. It explores the theme of “ghar-bahir” or “in the home and outside”. All the contributors are women even though it may not be clear from the bios published in the book. Because the editors did not want to foreground gender, instead the focus is on the individual identities, the myriad voices. This book is meant for everyone. Do read it.
Perhaps at this point, it may be appropriate to mention Elena Ferrante’s new book, In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions. The four essays included in this book are the Eco Lectures that the author wrote. In November 2021, the actress Manuela Mandracchia, in the guise of Elena Ferrante, presented the lectures at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, together with ERT, Emilia Romagna Teatro. There are many pearls of wisdom that Ferrante shares with regard to close reading of texts, her own writing craft and experience of reading some of her favourite writers such as Dante, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Ingebord Bachmann, and others. There are many portions in my copy of the book that I have underlined heavily. There is a particular section that is worth sharing:
…in order to devote ourselves to literary work must we subscribe to the great scroll of writing? Yes. Writing inevitably has to reckong with other writing, and it’s from the terrain of the already written that the sentence might jump out that sets in motion a small admirable book or the great book that displays a trajectory and constructs a unique world of words, characters, and conflicts.
If that’s true for the male “I” who writes, it’s even more so for the female. A woman who wants to write has unavoidably to deal not only with the entire literary patrimony she’s been brought up on and in virtue of which she wants to and can express herself but with the fact that that patrimony is essentially male and by its nature doesn’t provide true female sentences. Since I was six my “I” brought up on male writing also has had to incorporate a kind of writing by women for women that belonged to it, was appropriate to it — writing in itself minor precisely because it was barely known by men, and considered by them something for women, that is, inessential. I’ve known in my life very cultured men who not only had not read Elsa Morante or Natalia Ginzburg or Anna Maria Ortese but had never read Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Virginia Woolf. And I myself, as a girl, wished to avoid as far as possible writing by women: I felt I had different ambitions. (p. 76-78)
Suddenly, the title is illuminating. It is not merely about being a professional writer preoccupied with the craft of writing but metaphorically, it is about being a woman and a writer. It is incredible how the same stuff has been said over and over again and yet, it seems new. Read the book.
The idea of writing and what it takes to write are eternal questions. In the new age of publishing, “content” works in multiple ways. No longer is it necessary to first publish a book before exploring other platforms. The next two books belong to this category. Both are publications stemming from talks delivered over the radio and short stories shared on YouTube. The first is by well-known ornithologist, Dr Salim Ali called Words for Birds. It is a collection of radio broadcasts that have been edited by Tara Gandhi. It has been published by Black Kite (an imprint of Permanent Black) in collaboration with Ashoka University and distributed by Hachette India. These broadcasts are from 1941 to 1980 with the bulk being spanning 1950s-60s. It is an interesting exercise reading the essays as there is a gentle pace to them, much as one would hear over the radio, enunciate slowly and clearly to be heard. The idea being to communicate. The second one is The Stories We Tellby noted mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik ( published by Aleph Book Company). It consists of short stories that originated in a webcast that Pattanaik began from 21 March to 31 May 2020. It was in the early days of India’s countrywide lockdown to combat Covid-19. He says:
People were terrified of the virus and I wanted to life their spirits by telling them stories from our mythology that would make them less anxious. At these stories were told from 4pm to 5pm, around teatime, I named my webcast “Teatime Tales”. I genuinely believed the lockdown would end in a few weeks, but it became clear that we would remain indoors for a long time. I knew I would not be able to sustaing the enterprise endlessly. So, I decided to end it gracefully after seventy-two episodes. [ Seventy-two being an important number across cultures. He elaborates upon it beautifully in the book.]
These are very short, short stories. Very easily read. The sentences are short. The ideas develop slowly and methodically. There is no cluttering. The conversion of the oral into print has been done very well. The stories retain their capacity to be read out aloud. Also, as with many age-old stories and folklore, these stories narrated by Pattanaik lend themselves to be expanded and embellished. In his introduction, he provides a general description as “our mythology” and since his name is synonymous with mostly retelling of the Hindu epics, many readers would probably expect more of the same. Extraordinarily enough, Pattanaik displays extensive knowledge and understanding of other faiths too. Slim book, easily shared and presented.
Ultimately, it is the Internet that has made the revival and dissemination of literature possible. Earlier, a few copies were printed and circulated. But now, there is mass distribution of books and content — whether legitimately or pirated versions is not the point right now. The fact is literature is available to many, many people. Physical and ebooks can be bought online. Payments are made. Today, we take digital payments for granted but there was a time, in the not too distant past, that this concept did not even exist. In the 1990s, people were experimenting with the idea but it was not taken too seriously. Then, came along a bunch of youngsters, from 19 to their early 20s, who felt that this was worth investigating. The Founders by Jimmy Soni is about these young men such as Max Levichin, Reed Hastings, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. It is a book that is full of details regarding the fintech startup, surving the dot com bubble and its ultimate sale to eBay for US$1.5 billion — at a time when such figures were unheard of and certainly not for technology. This story is told at a furious pace, it is intoxicating reading about the highs and lows of the founders, but it is also seeped in masculinity. It confirms the belief that professionalism is a philosophy that is acceptable when imbued with patriarchy and makes no allowances for women and other responsibilities of life. It is almost as if one has to be wedded to the job and even in a marriage there is more leeway than these startups provide. On a separate note, I had emailed Jimmy Soni a bunch of questions for an interview on my blog. He had agreed in principle but then chose not to acknowledge the email, later asked the person who had set up the interview if he could change my questions, then suggested that one of the questions was incorrect but would not say which one and ultimately, he refused to do the interview. Here are the questions. Despite this unfortunate glitch, I would recommend The Founders.
Finally, an integral feature of the Internet is the search option. It is a critical part of the world wide web. It enables information to be discovered and shared. This is done by searching a vast index that the search engines maintain. It is nothing more basic than that — a feature that has been a significant part of the codex for more than 800 years, is now a fundamental feature of the Internet. So despite technological advancements being made, certain characteristics remain and continue to be adopted and adapted to new frameworks. Read more about it in this incredibly fascinating account by Dennis Duncan inIndex, A History of the. I loved this book!
A vast and eclectic selection of books to choose from!
‘It must have been five or ten years ago,’ Akshat began, unprompted, ‘when Holi fell on a Friday.’ If Chowk ki Holi was famous for its booming processions and rowdy play, then the Chowk Masjid delivered the most teeming morning prayers in Allahabad. The Holi procession was to pass next to the masjid at midday for the muezzin’s call. On the day of, a sea of white kurta’s hesitated as they approached the masjid. From the other end, a colourful brigade staggered forward. A handful of gulal and there would have been blood.
‘It was such a beautiful sight,’ Akshat declared proudly, ‘for the ten minutes, as soon as the azan began, all song-band was immediately halted. People … all people stood in silence. They came, went in for the prayers, came out, the songs began at once.’
One story followed another, as if they were waiting to be summoned. Akshat told me about the parade of horses (‘Duldul ke ghodhe’) that is taken out during Muharram, and the uneventfulness with which a Hindu family (Bachaji’s) paid for it. I learnt that if Muharram and Dussehra fall on the same day in Allahabad, the Muslims don’t lift the bad taziya ( a procession carrying a giant replica of the tomb of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain) that year. Akshat’s great-grandfather was the only Hindu landlord in the Muslim neighbourhood of Chail. He had such a good relationship with the residents that they gave him the title of Asharfi Lal. Even Akshat grew up referring to him as Asharfi Lal. When his great-grandfather passed away, Akshat remembered, his Muslim neighbours didn’t let his family light a stove in their household. They brought all the food. In fact, for most of his life, Akshat had seen Hindus and Muslims playing Holi together. Even on that fateful Friday years ago.
‘And now?’ I asked him.
‘These days …’ Akshat snapped in anger, ‘Jai Shri Ram slogans are shouted like a rallying call in the same celebrations.’
What were these stories about? And how hadthey disarmed Akshat?
In his treatise Awadh Symphony, Aslam Mahmud describes the cosmopolitan fabric of Allahabad under the Mughal empire:
Ganga-Jamuni culture [was] the culture of the plains of Northern India, especially the Doab region of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, regarded as the cradle of the fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures. […] While the diversity came with the migration of different groups who settled in this region, the unity came from the peaceful coexistence of these varied communities and cultures. There [were] no fault lines and the mixed social fabric [was] not brittle or fragile. […] Festivals were shared and there was mostly an atmosphere of conviviality.
Allahabad or Prayagraj as it has now been rechristened is going to the polls on Sunday, 27 Feb 2022, in the fifth phase of the Uttar Pradesh state elections. It is a crucial election since it unclear whether the present chief minister will return to power with a simple majority or will he and his ruling party, the ultra-nationalist espousing Hindutva politics, the BJP, be given a decent fight at the polls by the opposition especially the Samajwadi party? Will caste be a significant factor or will the rise of communalism affect polling? Will the rising prices of basic commodities be a key factor or will the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya surpass all other considerations of daily existence? No one knows. Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state. It sends the largest number of members to Parliament. It has tradionally been a state that is keenly watched by politicians, psephologists, journalists and of course by Indian citizens themselves. The idea of Indianess is a conundrum. The sub-continent is known for its syncretic culture. Can a hegemonic narrative tear this intricate social construct called India apart? Again, no one can tell.
Allahabad is a city known for hosting the mahakumbh mela, every twelve years. It is also considered to be the site of the confluence of three rivers, triveni sangam, of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical river Sarasvati, mentioned in the Rig Veda. It is also known for being the city of rich cultural tradition, a centre of learning, literary stalwarts, origin of many schools of poetry and literature, language and much else. But today, the emphasis is increasingly on its Hindu characteristics, which as political scientist Udbhav Agarwal points out in A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad is only aspect of this incredible city, “…this place, a centripetal force that spools you back?…Yeh shehar kasturi re.”
Her mother likes telling stories about her. The time when she split open her knee and went all by herself to the dispensary. The time when she got her first pair of white ballerina shoes and was told to be careful not to dirty them, and how she became so cautious that she outgrew them before she had ever had a chance to wear them outside the house. The other thing her mother likes to say is, don’t get too caught up with thinking. She said it when her wedding was arranged with her cousin’s brother-in-law and she hadn’t quite finished college. Don’t think so much. The only choice one has is how to do the thing that’s got to be done. Do it easy and quick, it gets done easy and quick.
That’s how she does things, quick and quiet. They like her for it. They say how quiet and quick she is. When her first son arrived, they bought her a pair of gold jhumkas. Bracelets, the second time around. Glistening black eyes, fat with pride and relief, now watch her move around the house, on her feet all day, doing what’s got to be done: 6a.m., tea for the in-laws, 6.30, tea for the husband. Start chopping potatoes for the breakfast poha at 6.45. Bathe and dress the older one at 7.15, feed him at 7.30. Walk him tot he bus stop at 7.50. Call the others to breakfast at 8.30. Feed the younger one before aeting herself. Take stock of the kitchen at 10. Start cooking lunch at 10.30.
Unknown to them, after the school bus has taken away her first child, she stops for a secret glug of time. … She doesn’t dare stay longer than ten minutes. The other mothers would have returned to the building and her family will start to wonder. Still, she stretches out the minute as far as it will go.
( p.46-7) “A Housewife Walks out with her Children but Fails to Board the Train”
Award-winning writer, Anni Zaidi’s new short story collection, City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts, is of nameless characters who live in the city. It is published by Aleph Book Company. The short story titles are the only indication of the character’s identity — policeman, salesgirl, bank teller, wood worker, housewife, beggar, security guard, adulterous man, trinket seller, and manager. These descriptions are very similar to how stories are shared by Indians in languages apart from English. Stories begin from the middle, consist of nameless characters and move ahead and equally abruptly end.
annie Zaidi’s keen eye is extraordinary. She observes with a minuteness that is breathtaking. Her stories are reminiscent of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
Annie Zaidi, probably like many of her readers, has imagined stories about the many nameless people in a crowd. Zaidi has taken it a step further — she has written down the stories. Short sketches are meant to be packed with detail, not a word out of place, and this is exactly the vividness that characterises this collection. And yet there is a sense of universality about the sketches as the reader will instantly recognise such characters in their lives too. The empathy with which she writes is at the heart and soul of every story. The stories linger with the reader after the book is closed.
The universality of her characters is also played out by the ordinariness of their roles. Community, caste, and religion are not the identifying features of these stories. These scenarios can belong to anyone. It comes as a shock to the reader to realise this. Everyone has a story to tell. This collection proves it as long as one is prepared to look beyond the nameless faces and make the effort to understand. City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts puts the spotlight on the ordinary challenges, ordinary dreams, ordinary ambitions, of the ordinary folk. The significance of this is accentuated given that Annie Zaidi is known for her sharp commentaries through the arts on sectarian violence. The grief and distress of the ongoing pandemic, coupled with the normalisation of communal hatred in society, has been horrific. Yet, Annie Zaidi has chosen to bring the conversation back to where it is essential — the common man and his/her daily struggles. Annie Zaidi epitomises the role of a writer/artist in society; and as always, she does it with calm fortitude and grace.