“The Penguin Book of Hollywood”, edited by Christopher Silvester. First edition, 1998.
I picked up this anthology at our church garden fete. It consists of reportage, book extracts (usually from memoirs), accounts of incidents/recordings/castings/pitching a story etc. It is about Hollywood in the twentieth century.
Some of the essays are: “Eluding the Patent Agents” Fred J. Balshofer “The growing stature of agents” Howard Dietz “The producer and the produced” George Sanders, Letter to his father, 16 Oct 1937 “Stravinsky in Hollywood” Miklos Rozsa “The Ethics of the Industry” Raymond Chandler, Letter to Alfred Knopf, 12 Jan 1946 “The rising cost of production” Darryl F. Zanuck, Memo to Producers, Directors, Executives, 13 June 1946 “Group Life” Jean Renoir to Albert Andre, the painter, 25 Oct 1946 “No, I don’t despise Holywood”, Raymond Chandler , Letter to Hamish Hamilton, 13 Oct 1950 “Pitching a story”, John Gregory Dunne, husband of Joan Didion “The casting of Al Pacino [ in “The Godfather”]”, Robert Evans “The stress of Jon Voight”, David Sherwin “Moral rot” John Huston
And the list goes on.
A quick check on the Internet shows that this book is unavailable. Sad. It seems like a treasure that can easily be updated.
The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2018 was awarded to Jayant Kaikini along with his translator Tejaswini Niranjana for their book No Presents Please. The winner was announced by the DSC Prize jury chair Rudrangshu Mukherjee at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet on 25th Jan, 2019, where eminent writer Ruskin Bond presented the trophy to the winning author and translator. Jayant Kaikini is a Kannada author and dramatist who has won the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi prize four times. He has also written regular newspaper columns, screenplays, dialogues and lyrics for Kannada films. Tejaswini Niranjana is a cultural theorist, translator and author. She is currently professor of cultural studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, Tejaswini Niranjana is a Sahitya Akademi prize-winning translator.
In the citation, jury
Chair Rudrangshu Mukherjee, said, “The jury decided to award the DSC Prize for
South Asian Literature 2018 to No
Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini which has been translated by Tejaswini
Niranjana and published by Harper Perennial. The jury was deeply impressed by
the quiet voice of the author through which he presented vignettes of life in
Mumbai and made the city the protagonist of a coherent narrative. The Mumbai that
came across through the pen of Kaikini was the city of ordinary people who
inhabit the bustling metropolis. It is a view from the margins and all the more
poignant because of it. This is the first time that this award is being given
to a translated work and the jury would like to recognize the outstanding
contribution of Tejaswini Niranjana, the translator.”
shortlisted authors and books in contention for the DSC Prize this year were Jayant Kaikini: No Presents Please (Translated by
Tejaswini Niranjana, Harper Perennial, HarperCollins India), Kamila Shamsie: Home
Fire (Riverhead Books, USA and Bloomsbury, UK), Manu Joseph: Miss
Laila Armed And Dangerous (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, India), Mohsin
Hamid: Exit West (Riverhead Books, USA and Hamish Hamilton, Penguin
Random House, India), Neel Mukherjee: AState Of Freedom (Chatto
& Windus, Vintage, UK and Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, India) and
Sujit Saraf: Harilal & Sons (Speaking Tiger, India)
No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories is not about what Mumbai is, but what it enables. Here is a city where two young people decide to elope and then start nursing dreams of different futures, where film posters start talking to each other, where epiphanies are found in keychains and thermos-flasks. From Irani cafes to chawls, old cinema houses to reform homes, Jayant Kaikini seeks out and illuminates moments of existential anxiety and of tenderness. In this book, cracks in the curtains of the ordinary open up to possibilities that might not have existed, but for this city where the surreal meets the everyday.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Jayant
Kaikini conducted via email.
JBR: There is a loveliness of
everyday life in your stories which convey the variety of people who live in Mumbai
and yet you manage to capture the quietness of each person. How do you manage
this so beautifully? Do you revise your stories often?
JK: I am deeply absorbed by the human world. May be there is a
collective calm deep within, which binds us all and at the same time liberates
us too. I don’t revise or chisel my stories. I write with a pen. I don’t type.
JBR: Are you a people
watcher? How do you build characters especially of the
JK: We all are extensions of each other, like jigsaw puzzle pieces. We
make sense only in the context of each other. Every individual is special.
There is no deliberate attempt to build any character. I create an open space
for them to evolve and grow on their own.
JBR: How do you develop plot in a
short story? How do you manage to keep the tension in a storyline?
JK: It’s not an essay or a feature writing or a film script. Yashwant Chittal,
eminent Kannada writer (whose novel Shikari
is available in English translation now), used to say ‘I don’t write what I
know. I write to know’. I belong to that school. You must get lost to find something new.
JBR: Why Mumbai? It is a massive
melting pot of languages, cultures and dialects. I am guessing that the stories
in Kannada probably preserved some of these inflections but English does not
allow it. How do you come to terms with the flattening of the diction in
JK: Because Mumbai is Mumbai. The most liberating urban space where you
feel free with a stranger. This city of plurality speaks in a ‘singular ‘
language of its own, like … “tereko, mereko”. I love it. Even the tone is
distinctly homogeneous. So it is difficult to get it exactly in Kannada too. In a way each story by itself is a new
language of images and expression.
JBR: Is the English translation
exactly like the Kannada text or were there modifications made to the
JK: It’s exactly as the Kannada text, minimum deviation or modification.
Maybe because Tejaswini Niranjana too is a ‘Mumbai chauvinist’ like me and a
poet. Translation is always safe in the
hands of a poet. Since a poet is deeply tuned to ‘unsaid’ of the text.
JBR: Oral storytelling is a way
of life in India. In your case too although you speak Konkani, you opted to
write in Kannada and now are translated in to English. Do you think being
multi-lingual and familiar with diverse ways of telling stories informs the
literary structure of your printed short story? If so, how?
JK: Multilingual sensibility is a precious virtue of our country. More so in a big city. In Mumbai I speak in
my mother tongue Konkani at home, in Hindi with fellow commuters in the local
train, in English with colleagues at the workplace and in English with my
senior colleagues and come back home and wrote in Kannada. Dagdu parab,
Antariksha Kothari, Mogri, Mayee, Toofan, and Madhuvanti are not Kannada speakers
but they come into my stories and talk in Kannada. Isn’t it heartening? As Tejaswini points out, these stories break
the stereo type of perceiving individuals only with their linguistic identity.
As I said earlier, story itself is a new language.
JBR: Does the form of a short story
define your search for a subject?
JK: I don’t search
for subjects or stories. It is the other way. They are in search of me. Each
story has its own body and soul. The shape of fish is hydro-dynamically
designed for swimming. The shape of a bird is aerodynamically designed for
flying. In the same way form and structure of a story is designed by its soul.
JBR: Do you think there are
differences in the short story form of Kannada, Konkani and English?
JK: Differences have to be there. Ongoing life is ‘ unstructured’ and ‘non-literary’.
Through the window of a story we try to make sense out of it. So each window
has to be different in its viewpoint and aperture.
JBR: What is the principle of
selection of these stories as some date from the 1980s and some are as recent
as a few years ago? And yet the English translation are not arranged
JK: Though a bunch of stories, this book collectively works as a larger
single fiction. Tejaswini and me impulsively picked 16 stories from my 5 anthologies,
based on their variety and resonance. Order in which they are compiled, too was
done jointly and impulsively.
JBR: What was the literature you were
familiar with as a child and in your early days as a writer?
JK: The reader and writer within me was born in 1970’s when Kannada
modernist movement was at its best. My father Gourish Kaikini was a writer, scholar,
thinker, journalist and staunch radical humanist. So there was an overdose of
literature at home and as a child I was not amused then. I started reading and
writing when I went away from home to another small town for my college
education. If I look back, I think it was to combat homesickness and culture
shock of switching over to English medium from Kannada medium in education. Reading,
writing, extracurricular activities nurtured my self-esteem in an unfriendly
JBR: Who are the writers you admire
and who have influenced your writing?
JK: Yashwant Chittal, Shantinath Desai, A K Ramanujan, U. R.
Ananthamurthy, P. Lankesh, Shivram Karanth, Kuvempu, Bendre, Thirumalesh . . .
and many more have groomed and enriched my sensibilities and love for life and
JBR: What has it been like winning
the DSC Prize?
JK: It was unexpected but it is a good news for Kannada, short story form and the talent of translation. Any award is like a pat on the back of marathon runner from a cheering onlooker. You have to accept it with a smile and keep running. Pat is not the goal.
Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer and translator of Hindi and Urdu literature living in the United States. Her translations include Falling Walls, by Upendranath Ashk, Tamas, by Bhisham Sahni, and The Women’s Courtyard by Khadija Mastur. Her recent translation of The Women’s Courtyard is fascinating since it comes across as a very confident translation as if fiction about women and their domestic spaces is completely acceptable. A translation of the very same novel done nearly two decades earlier is equally competent but for want of a better word, it is far more tentative — at least reading it now. When I first read the translation of Aangan in 2003 it did not feel amiss in any manner but today comparing the two translations it is as if Daisy Rockwell’s translation of The Women’s Courtyard is imbued with a strength influenced by popular sentiments which is in favour of women particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It may not have been done consciously by Daisy Rockwell but it is evident in the tenor of the text. The Women’s Courtyard is a pleasure to read.
I interviewed Daisy Rockwell via email. Here are excerpts:
did you choose to translate Aangan?
A friend had
suggested I read it because of my interest in literature of that period and I
was also shifting my attention to novels written by women. I was struck by the
delicate, clean prose and the complex portrait Mastur painted of a young
long did it take to translate and edit the text? I wonder how many
conversations you must have had with yourself Daisy while translating the
book?! Or was it just a task to be finished in time?
I don’t think frankly that anyone is usually sitting around impatiently waiting for one’s translation of a classic literary work. My deadlines are all my own. A project of that size usually takes about a year. I usually set myself a daily page quota which I don’t always meet. I had many conversations with myself about this book, and continue to do so. One of the great strengths of Mastur’s novels is that she doesn’t ever reveal everything. One is left pondering and questioning for a long time after. I still have questions that I can’t answer, and that I keep turning over in my mind. Translation issues less so than thoughts about Aliya’s interior universe and motivations.
3. While translating the text did you refer only to the original manuscript or did you constantly read other translations and commentaries on the text?
I consulted heavily with my friend Aftab Ahmed, who is also a translator, and who grew up in the same general area where the novel is set. I would check his responses with the previous translation in English when I was unsure of what was being said. Retranslation is interesting because the previous translation gives you an interlocutor. Even if you don’t agree with the choices the other translator(s) made, you learn to look at words and sentences from a different perspective if you are stuck on something confusing. Every translation is different, word for word, paragraph for paragraph, so sometimes just rearranging things jogs one’s ability to understand. Mastur’s style is not that difficult in terms of grammar, but there are historical items that are hard to find dictionary definitions for and that I had to research. Usually it has to do with terms for items of clothing or architectural details.
4. Do you feel translating works from Hindi/Urdu into English involves a translation exercise that is very different to that of any other language translation?
I think there would be parallels from translating into English from other South Asian languages. A big challenge is that the syntax is the opposite—English is what is known as a ‘right-branching language’ syntactically. Indic languages are left-branching. This is also true of Japanese. When the syntax has to be flipped it can be a challenge, because sometimes that syntactical difference can even be reflected at the paragraph level and one has to switch the order of some of the sentences in the paragraph. Indic languages also tend to have many impersonal constructions whereas English prefers active verbs and subjects. Think of ‘usko laga jaise…’ as opposed to ‘she felt as though…’. Because of this one has to continuously change voice without trampling on the original meaning.
5. Why did you translate the title “Aangan” as “The Women’s Courtyard” when the literal translation of “Aangan” is “inner courtyard”?
The translation of
the title is ultimately up to the editor and the publicity team. I get to veto
options I dislike, but ultimately they choose the title based on concerns that
are sometimes outside of the translator’s purview. “Aangan” couldn’t be called
‘The Inner Courtyard’ because that is the title of the previous translation and
they wanted to distinguish them. An ‘aangan’ is not technically just for women,
but in this context, it is the domain of women. I assume they added in
‘women’s’ to invoke the importance of women’s experiences to the novel.
translating Aangan did you choose to retain or leave out
certain words that existed in Urdu but did not use in English? Is this a
conundrum that translators often have to face — what to leave and what to
retain for the sake of a clear text?
AK Ramanujan, with
whom I was fortunate to take a graduate seminar on translation shortly before
his death, pointed out to me that in a long novel you have the opportunity to
teach the readers certain words. I take this as my maxim and add to it the
notion that you cannot teach them many words, only a few, so you must make a
choice as to what you are going to make the readers learn and grow accustomed
to. There has been some discomfort with the fact that I translated many kinship
terms into English and left only a few of the original terms. I did this
because there are way more kinship terms in literature by men than in
literature by women. Kinship terms are all ‘relative’ in the sense that one
person’s bahu is another person’s saas is
another person’s jithani is another person’s bari
mausi. If all these are left in and no one has any given names it is
extremely perplexing to readers who do not know the language fluently. I will
often leave a word in and teach it by context but not refer to that person by
myriad other kinship terms. For example the main character’s mother could be
‘Ma’, or ‘Amma’, but I am not going to give the mother all her other kinship
terms because that’s too much to ask. I want the reader who knows no Hindi or
Urdu to feel comfortable enough to keep reading the book. Adding a glossary of terms
doesn’t really help because most people don’t sign up for a language and
kinship lesson when they pick up a novel to read. Readers that do know these
terms fluently tend to speak a style of English in their homes that
incorporates the Hindi and Urdu kinship terms, so they think of these as a part
of Indian English, but it’s not at all the case for Tamil speakers or Bangla
speakers, who all have their own kinship terms that they use in English. My
goal is to create a translation that can be enjoyed by people not just in India
and South Asia, but all around the world. It’s a tricky business but I attempt
to cater to everyone as much as I can.
My policies on what to leave in the original language are not created on behalf of readers who are fluent in these languages, but for people who are not. My Bangladeshi friends, for example, do not know what the words saas and bahu mean. We have these words in English—mother-in-law and daughter-in-law–so I translate them. An example of a word I did not translate was takht. A takht is a platform covered with a sheet where family members sit/sleep/gather/eat/make paan, and generally do everything. I decided that this was a word the readers would need to learn from context. Why? Because it occurs on almost every page, is the center of the action, and most importantly, it has no English equivalent.
7. How modern is your translation of Aangan? For instance did you feel that the times you were translating the novel in where sensitivity and a fair understanding of women’s issues exists far more than in it ever did in previous decades helped make your task “easier”?
I try to inhabit a linguistic system that is non-anachronistic when I translate the voice of a novel. I did not use #metoo-era language, I used a more formal register and kept it less modern. I think infusing the language with a contemporary sensibility would ruin the finely drawn portrayals in the original text.
8. In your brilliant afterword you refer to the first English translation of Aangan done by Neelam Hussain for Simorgh Collective and later republished by Kali for Women/ Zubaan. Why do you refer to your translation as a “retranslation” and not necessarily a “new translation”?
No particular reason—I guess I think of them as the same thing. If I say ‘retranslation’ I am nodding to the hard work done by the path-breaker. The first translation will always be the hardest one.
9. You are a professional translator who has worked on various projects but have also translated works by women writers. What has been your experience as a translator and a woman in working on texts by women writers?
I have translated
this novel by Khadija Mastur as well as her later novel, Zameen (earth);
my translation of Krishna Sobti’s most recent novel is soon to come out from
Penguin India’s Hamish Hamilton imprint as A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat
There. I am working on a translation of Geetanjali Shree’s 2018 novel Ret
Samadhi (tomb of sand) and Usha Priyamvada’s 1963 novel Pachpan
Kambhe Lal Divarein (fifty-pillars, red walls).
When you translate a text, you spend way more time on it than most other people ever will, sometimes including the author him or herself! I got tired of translating patriarchy, misogyny and objectification of women, which are all par for the course in men’s writing. For the past year, I have mostly stopped reading male authors at all, because the more I read and translate women, the lower goes my tolerance for the male gaze. We don’t realize how we’ve been programmed to accept objectification and silencing of women in men’s writing until we stop reading it. It has been very fulfilling translating these fine works by women and inhabiting the detailed layers of female subjectivity that they offer readers.
10. Do you think that the translation in the destination language must read smoothly and easily for the reader or should you be true to the original and incorporate in your translated text as far as possible many of the words and culturally-specific phrases used in the original text?
I think I partially answered this above, but I do not believe that a translation should be so difficult or “under-translated” that a reader puts it down out of frustration. Difficulty and cultural specificity in the original text suffuses many aspects of the writing and is not limited to certain pieces of terminology.
11.The explosion in translated literature available worldwide now has also coincided with the rise of technological advancements in machine translation and neural networks. Thereby making immediate translations of online texts easily available to the reader/consumer. Do you think in the near future the growth in automated translation will impact translations done by humans and vice versa? How will it affect market growth for translated literature?
To be honest, machine translation is horribly inaccurate because it misses nuance and does not understand human experience, culture or history. I do not believe that AI will ever replace human translators, at least when it comes to literature.
[ JBR: Interesting since I have come across arguments that say making texts available is the only factor that matters. Nothing else. This is where Google ‘s neural technology is breaking boundaries. But I agree with you — the human brain will continue to be the supercomputer. It’s a beauty!]
…the director general [ of the Bangla Academy] raised his eyebrows and turned to me…’Despite being a woman why do you try and write like a man?….’
‘Why should I write like a man? I write what I feel,’ I countered immediately.
This exchange between the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin and the Bangla Academy director general Harunur Rashi takes place at a book fair where a procession had been organised by the Taslima Nasrin Suppression Committee, “to quash the nefarious ‘sex writer’ Taslima Nasrin”. This incident happened on 17 February 1992.
On 6 December 1992 after the destruction of the Babri Masjid there were communal clashes in India and Bangladesh. Taslima Nasrin was deeply disturbed by the riots and wrote Lajja ( Shame). It was a book which made her an international name even though it was banned in Bangladesh shortly thereafter.
Her memoir Dwikhondito ( 2003) now translated as Split: In Two by Maharghya Chakraborty met a similar fate when it was banned in West Bengal, India. It was banned by the West Bengal government for allegedly hurting sentiments of the Muslim community. The government lifted injunction after the ban was struck down by the Calcutta High Court in 2005. Yet in the English edition of the memoir published by Penguin Random House India there is a blank page with a note by the author.
Split is a memoir by an author who achieved fame fairly early on in her literary career. It is not very clear if the memoir was written at one go or over a period of time. There is no author’s note or a translator’s note in the book making it a little challenging to figure out the context. The memoir is presented as more or less a chronological narrative of a writer’s awakening, not necessarily an autobiographical account of Taslima Nasrin. Reading it from cover to cover a confident tenor to the writing is discernible particularly after Taslima Nasrin wins the Ananda Puraskar in early 1990s. It is a watershed moment in her literary career not least because she was the first writer from Bangladesh to have been awarded what is considered to be the Nobel Prize of Bengali literature. Writers senior to her in age and work had been ignored. The change in her writing style is apparent not only in the manner in which she asserts herself in company with other writers, shares her views on a variety of subjects and takes the social responsibility of an author seriously. She is at the same time grappling with the very serious threat to her life on the basis of her writing and despite her mother’s pleas Taslima Nasrin never tempers her tone.
A snippet from her acceptance speech of the Ananda Puraskar illustrates why her feminist views were not being tolerated in an increasingly conservative society.
Our scriptures and ther rules governing our society would like to reinforce one primary fact: that women cannot have independence. But a woman who is not physically and mentally independent cannot claim to be a complete human being either. Freedom is primary and a woman’s freedom has now been put under arrest by the state, with religion being the chief impediment to her natural growth. Because religion is there most women are still illiterate, deprived of property, more are married off when they are children and are victims of polygamy, talaq and widowhood. Because men wish to serve only their own ends, they have defined and valourized a woman’s feministy, chastity and maternal instincts.
There are many sections in the book that are fascinating to read for the insight it offers in the evolution of a woman writer particuarly when Taslima Nasrin chooses to reflect. There is an almost meditative quality to her writing in those passages that haunt her writing. These are the better parts in Split as compared to the long sections about her relationships and her family which tend to meander. These instances are significant for her growth as an individual and as a writer since with each relationship she realises what exactly she desires, and it is not always male companionship. Unfortunately these sections are not as well written as those in which she comments upon literature, Bengali literary society in Bangladesh and West Bengal and reflects upon what interests her as a writer.
Split will probably be viewed in coming years as seminal as the writing by other women writers from the subcontinent such as Salma’s Hour Past Midnight and Bama’s Karukku. Taslima Nasrin’s Split‘s relevance to contemporary politics in the subcontinent and not just Bangladesh for the issues it raises about censorship, women’s rights, religious intolerance, freedom of speech, right to live and equality among men and women are critical particularly in this age of religious fundamentalism blowing across nations.
Spare some time and read it.
Taslima Nasrin Split: A Life ( translated by Maharghya Chakraborty) Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2018. Hb. pp. 502. Rs. 599
Award-winning writer and social activist Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is primarily about Anjum, a eunuch/hermaphrodite, and the relationships she forges over many decades. The story about Anjum is fascinating but the narrative is often interrupted by long expositions about modern India. The history lessons begin from the Emergency till present day after covering regions such as Kashmir, Chattisgarh, Gujarat etc. There are most certainly two narratives operating in this novel pulling it in different directions. Laura Miller writing in The Slate( 19 June 2017 ) refers to it as a “deeply rewarding work, if you can let the novel wash over you rather than try to force it into shape. ” Parul Sehgal writing in The Atlanticcalls it a “fascinating mess”. Ellen Battersby writing in the Irish Times ( 3 June 2017) refers to it as a “Rushdie-like concoction” but where “Roy prefers to overdescribe and overexplain”. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is most certainly written in the style popularised by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children ( 1981). What is truly fascinating to realise is that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been published in the seventieth year of India’s independence from the British and picks up from where Rushdie’s Midnight’sChildren concluded. Midnight’s Children discussed Partition and the creation of two nations — India and Pakistan and contemporary history before it was published in 1981. Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins its political history with a description of the imposition of Emergency ( 1975) by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later the turbulent 1980s with rise of communalism, the political and civil strife in Punjab and Kashmir which led to the imposition of President’s Rule and reverberations of which are felt even now, pogroms in Gujarat to the Maoist turmoil in Chhatisgarh and more.
Creating a transgender person as a character is also an effective literary tool. Despite being acknowledged in Hinduism and Islam by their existence in the religious stories eunuchs remain on the margins of society while having the ability to flit in and out different socio-economic classes. Eunuchs like Anjum by being at the crossroads of socio-political activity are able to participate and/or witness significant contemporary events. Though there has always been a social stigma attached to that of being a hijra in South Asian cultures and they have been ostracised yet they are expected to attend major social events like births and weddings to bless the family. It is a curious space the eunuchs inhabit in society and it exactly this vantage point which is exploited by Arundhati Roy to bring her two passions — activism and writing fiction — to comment upon India in 2017. The legitimacy of Anjum’s viewpoint on contemporary India is further strengthened by the Supreme Court of India’s landmark judgement in 2014 on declaring transgender people to be a “third gender”.
There has been some speculation that the character of Anjum is loosely based upon Mona Ahmed who was introduced to the world by well-known photographer Dayanita Singh. In fact Arundhati Roy acknowledges Dayanita Singh for the “idea”. If that is the case then feminist-publisher Urvashi Butalia who interviewed Mona for her book The Other Side of Silence also wrote a long piece about Mona in Granta (2011). Later Urvashi Butalia was interviewed as well about her profile of Mona Ahmed.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness had an enviable global release with a publicity campaign that would be any author’s dream come true. There were reviews of the English version pouring in from all over the world. The social media was abuzz for weeks with comments about the book. People who were not voracious readers were reading the book and posting their comments online. The media blitzkrieg has been phenomenal and the author herself has over summer travelled in Europe and Canada to promote the book. The production quality too is rich and elegant with a gold filigreed embossed hardcover, an equally sumptious dust jacket using the image of a grave and ivory-cream pages that are heavy and delicious to turn. The manuscript it is rumoured sold for an extraordinary sum of money and a few translations are already planned but it is not easy to confirm this fact. At the end of the day Midnight’s Children and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will go down in the annals of history as being pathbreaking examples of literary fiction that keep the spotlight on modern India displaying its ugly violent side co-existing with the incredibly syncretic and humane side. While it exists in this manner there is hope.
Read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It may not be to everyone’s liking but it will certainly be a book which will be much discussed for a long time to come.
Arundhati Roy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2017. Hb. pp 450. Rs 599
They lived across the road from me for fifteen years without us ever having a conversation, something that seems impossible to me now. I’d built up the Malik sisters in my head before I really knew them. The combination of being at a boys’ school and Dada’s dislike for other people meant that these were the only real girls I ever saw. From the window in my bedroom, you could look through the trees and into their garden. I learned valuable things about the girls: how Maria played cards every evening with her mother, or that Ayesha always read and Bina sewed, and that the littlest, Leila liked to draw.
Jimmy lives with his paternal grandfather who is a prosperous export businessman. He is alone and spends a lot of his time watching the Malik house. The Malik family consists of four sisters- Maria, Bina, Leila and Ayesha/Ash . Their father is “a navy captain, whose name was on the silver plaque outside their gate, spent most of his time away from home”. Their mother Mehrunissa supervises the home and by all accounts is quite lenient in her daughters’ upbringing. It is never spelled out by Sarvat Hasin in her debut novel The Wide Night but there is a shift in dynamics from the freedoms available in a women-only home as compared to one in which there is a man’s presence. For instance when the Captain returns from the war – it is a challenging period of adjustment for both sexes:
How could her father come home to a place that did not feel like it belonged to him? The switch of energy during his visits, the house worked into a dark frenzy. It could only work in small bursts, the spikes of energy of reordered lives. There was no space for him in the larger sweep of their lives – how long could Ash keep wearing her dupatta over one shoulder and pinning back the tufts of her hair that escaped from their short nest. How many nights could Leila hold her tongue at the dinner table and bite it against her usual chatter of boys and money and pretty things. In her father’s presence she was washed out, a paler version of herself, hands folded in her lap and her voice only murmuring to ask for more roti, a glass of water. Even Bina was required to modify herself: fewer hours spent volunteering, and no more bringing her stitching into the living room to sit cross-legged on the carpet by her mother’s feet, listening to her stories with the soft brush of her hand against her hair. The sitting room would become a man’s world.
Mehrunissa is primarily responsible for the family and allows her daughters freedom such as reading. whenever and whatever they desired. She does not subscribe to the belief that books and ideas were harmful for girls and that daughters were meant to be groomed for marriage. Jimmy describes the Malik home with fascination: “It was the first house I had ever been in with books in every room. Even in a room with no shelves, there were books under cups or hidden behind pots; Barbara Cartland novels tucked in the slots of the swings. Books in other houses were rare, precious thing, tucked out of reach or behind walls of glass, leather-bound and glossy. These tangible tattered things with dog-eared pages and tea stains were remarkable. I shifted my cup of tea on its coaster, knocking over a mystery novel that Mehrunissa kept beside her sewing.” Mehrunissa’s determined stand against social norms and even in the presence of her husband, in an overtly patriarchal society, is exemplified by refusing to slaughter goats for Eid: “Mehrunissa and her daughters were particularly sensitive about the slaughters. They never participated, had not done so even on the rare holidays when Captain Malik was home. On Eid, theirs was the only house with no goats or cows lined up outside—another thing among many that set them apart from everyone else he knew, another thing about them that people thought was strange.”
People called the Maliks “strange” because of it being primarily a female household living alone, happily, unheard of in an otherwise overtly patriarchal society. It was also odd that the father “permitted” the women to have their say as in the case of doing away with the practise of getting a sacrificial goat as it was an inhumane act. But love runs deep as testified by the Captain while recounting to Jimmy the kindly advice he had received about the challenges his marriage may pose: “These things are meant to work better when the differences aren’t so big, your families should come from the same place, you should speak the same languages and pray the same way – you’ll have heard all this, I know. They’d even chosen a girl for me. I never told Mehrunissa that. Baat pake se pehle—I saw her. And that was it.”
Their mother’s strong personality had a deep influence on the four daughters. They grew up with distinct identities. Maria who as a teacher’s assistant in the school mesmerised the boys: “The trick was not in her words, but the way she spoke them. She was not lightning but slow honey, womanliness pouring into the classroom, making us all sit up a little straighter.” Ayesha, the voracious reader who fantasised about her European trip with her aunt was the most level headed and practical of the sisters. For example, her unsentimental detached views on death is revelatory, “Death isn’t this big drama everybody makes it out to be… It’s – a person being there one minute, and not the next. It’s the passing of a second.” The laidback Bina’s “wishes were never for herself”. And finally Leila, who, “built her houses in gold. She wanted a rich husband, a studio of her own. I want a wardrobe the size of Marie Antoinette’s, she would say. Decadence was the only thing she took away from history lessons. She was a tiny Cleopatra, Nur Jehan, a queen in a miniature.” After Maria’s wedding “the house shrank without her, tightening around the family. There are some people who leave the room and you stop thinking about them right away. None of the Malik sisters were like that. Their absence took up room, a seat at the table.”
This Wide Night although a novel is structured like a three-act play with a shift in the voice from first person of Jimmy to the third of the authorial narrator in the second section and back to Jimmy. It is a curious literary technique to employ for it is not fully exploited by the author providing little insight such as in the sisters suicide pact. Usually the narrator brings in a perspective giving the reader a little more information than the characters are aware of but nothing of that sort happens here.
Renowned writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie says in Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English ( OUP, Pakistan, 2017, p 601) that in today’s globalised world the new generation of Pakistani writers have either “lived, or been educated in, Pakistan and the West, and often divided their time between the two. … As a result, the distinction between diaspora and non-diaspora began to blur too.” This underlying desire to be accepted globally as a new South Asian writer who is extremely familiar with Western canons of literature is evident in This Wide Night too for its adaptation of Little Women albeit in a desi setting. Pakistan-born now living in UK Sarvat Hasin wrote This Wide Night after enrolling in a creative writing workshop project wherein she transplanted the characters created in nineteenth century America into modern-day Karachi. So Amir, Maria’s husband, is a mujahir who lost his parents during Partition but he comes across as a flat character who, “seemed to just appear, a sum of all the stories people told about him” with little else being said about him. Whereas if a little bit of the socio-historical background was woven into the novel it would have made a significant difference to the quality of storytelling. This is illustrated further in the sanitised “literary” description of the 1971 War, a conflict zone: The way tensions rose in our house and in the city, the way the whole country seemed to teem with a dull thickening heat – the days before monsoon storms. By the time war broke out, we were almost relieved. It gave the feeling a name; something that couldn’t be quantified when it was just curfews and military men stationed outside schools or people sent back past the border.Contrast this with contemporary literature worldwide which creates a rich texture filled with details taking care to not culturally alienate the reader too much but at the same time retaining a strong regional character — acceptable traits of a global novel.
Sarvat Hasin is a writer with promise. This Wide Night is a commendable first effort.
Sarvat Hasin This Wide Night Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin Random House India, 2016, 312 pp., Rs 499 (HB)
( My review of Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, has been published in Scroll today. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/824448/a-new-zadie-smith-a-new-set-of-difficulties-in-reading-a-new-pleasure . I am also c&p the text below.)
The baby was surrounded by love. It’s a question of what love gives you the right to do.
Zadie Smith’s latest novel Swing Time is about two young girls, Tracey and a nameless narrator, who live in council housing of 1980s London. These young girls are of mixed parentage who have been born different shades of brown as a result. They are not exactly social misfits but are not entirely accepted by their classmates as is apparent when they get invited to Lily Bingham’s tenth birthday party. The two girls are completely out of their depth as are their mothers who are clueless on how to guide the youngsters.
Was it the kind of thing where you dropped your kid off? Or was she, as the mum, expected to come into the house? The invitation said a trip to the cinema – but who’d pay for this ticket? The guest or the house? Did you have to take a gift? What kind of gift were we getting? …It was as if the party was taking in some bewildering foreign land, rather than a three-minute walk away, in a house on the other side of the park.
Swing Time is narrated in first person bringing to the story an intimacy, a close involvement between the reader and narrator, which would otherwise be missing if it was narrated in third person. This intimate relationship between narrator and reader helps particularly if Swing Time is read as a bildungsroman. The firm childhood friendship of the narrator and Tracey seems to peter away in adulthood. Yet the narrator’s flashbacks focus inevitably on the time she spent growing up in Thatcherite London with Tracey, to a large extent informing her adult life — emphasising the quality of “shared history“, an important aspect of friendships to Zadie Smith. (Friendships are a characteristic trait of her fiction.) Swing Time zips particularly once the billionaire singer, Aimee, hires the narrator as one of her personal assistants. The storytelling pace matches the heady life of the superstar who flits through her own life juggling various roles such as of being a mother, her performances, recording music, and charitable “good work” in Africa by sponsoring schools.
Amongst the early book reviews of the novel there is a common refrain that the story fails to match the potential of a writer like Zadie Smith, deteriorating into contrived, formulaic and predictable storytelling. Trying to read Swing Time in the traditional manner is an excruciating task. The sentences are structured in such an unpredictable manner – sometimes running on in a Jamesian style for pages on end in an uninterrupted paragraph. The swift shifts in tone from meditative introspection to commentary and sharp judgement by the narrator can be disconcerting. But if you shift the classical expectations of what the book should deliver to that of a novel written by an artist AND a mother — it suddenly transforms. It is more about an artist being a successful professional while managing her time as a mother too. Here is the narrator talking about her mother who puts herself through college while her daughter is still in school, later the mother becomes a prominent politician.
Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself –but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down her arms and come to you. And if she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war, and it was a war between my mother and me. Only as an adult did I come to truly admire her – especially in the last, painful years of her life – for all that she had done to claw some space in this world for herself. When I was young her refusal to submit to me confused and wounded me, especially as I felt none of the usual reasons of refusal applied. I was her only child and she had no job – not back then – and she hardly spoke to the rest of the family. As far as I was concerned, she had nothing but time. Yet still I couldn’t get her complete submission! My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood.
There are portraits, references and pithy observations on mothering or the relationship between mothers and children. There are the mothers of the two girls – Tracey and narrator, the grandmothers in the family compound of African schoolteacher Hawa, the mothers of the African school children, Aimee and her children and Tracey and her brood. In some senses this novel too with its overdone cultural references especially of the recent past also becomes a record of events for Zadie Smith’s children’s generation.
In June 2013 Zadie Smith along with Jane Smiley objected to the suggestion made by journalist and author Lauren Sandler that they should restrict the size of their families if they want to avoid limiting their careers. Writing in the Guardian, Zadie Smith said, “”I have two children. Dickens had 10 – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too fatherish to be writeresque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavits, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (I could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers?” said Smith. “Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?” Smith added that the real threat “to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse”. A sentiment echoed in Swing Time when she writes: “The fundamental skill of all mothers [is] the management of time”.
In the end the narrator learns to appreciate Tracey’s balancing act as a professional and a mother — like a dance.
She was right above me, on her balcony, in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.
Swing Time is a mesmerising if at times a challenging read. It is the portrait of an artist AND a mother.
Zadie Smith Swing Time Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Pb. Pp.454 Rs. 599
( This blog post was picked up by the award-winning news website, Scroll. An edited version of this review was published by Scroll’s literary editor, Arunava Sinha, on Sunday, 19 June 2016. The original url is: http://scroll.in/article/809971/six-hundred-pages-that-will-tell-you-more-about-yourself-and-your-future-than-anything-else . )
The real magic was imagination.
( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Juggernaut, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George, journalist and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, IIC, New Delhi, April 2014
Siddharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. In 600+ pages Pulitzer prize writer Siddharth Mukherjee narrates the discovery of genes, evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene” coined by Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades only to be revived in early twentieth century and then became a common term. A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany. Half a century later the helical structure of DNA & RNA were discovered. Two decades later questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin to a resounding success. By 2000, about a century from when the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in the book with a few anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.
From the time of Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato who were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in the semen to Aristotle who rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details over the centuries the manner in which people pondered over what carried information across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel and his pea experiment and Darwin’s theories. It was Mendel, a monk, who first used the term “gene” except it was lost for a few more decades till resurrected in the early twentieth century. This was a watershed moment in the history of genetics as suddenly there were a concatenation of events that led to a furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism. From coining the word, understanding the structure, the mechanism, the potential, exploiting applied genetics as was done by the Nazis to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, using this branch of “applied biology” to justify their policy of lebensunwertes Leben or “lives unworthy of living” and justifying the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. It was based on the premise that identity was fixed. Curiously enough another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis on complete pliability. In both cases science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. Rapid advancement in genetics led to discovery of recombinant DNA to create crucial medicines such as insulin and its commercial production by biotechnology industries, the ability to clone as was done with Dolly the Sheep, to questions being raised about the ethics of genetics, to the establishment of the Human Genome Project. It has been a phenomenal few decades for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.
To a lay reader The Gene is a brilliant historical overview but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick for discovering the helical structure. It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as Watson and Crick. Siddharth Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in such a way that it is evident the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.
I heard Siddharth Mukherjee deliver a public lecture two years ago when he came to India to receive the Padam Shri from the President of India. At the time he was still working on the manuscript of The Gene and here is an account: https://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ . In 2015 he gave a fascinating TED Talk followed by a brilliant exposition on the subject published as a TED Book by Simon & Schuster. Here is the link: https://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddhartha-mukherjee-the-laws-of-medicine/
What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, Siddharth Mukherjee embarks upon an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is phenomenal for the manner in which it weaves together the author’s precise scientific temper offering technical information against the backdrop of factually accurate and significant contemporary events of the time. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene accessible even by an ordinary reader.
Siddharth Mukherjee The Gene: An Intimate History Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2016. Hb. pp. Rs 699
What will you give for this beauty? is Ali Akbar Natiq’s debut collection of short stories. It is set in the Punjab countryside with tales about ordinary people, ordinary lives, with preoccupations of marriage, love, impact of Partition, feuds, religious differences and discontent, gossip, courtesans, storytellers, liars and cheats etc. Yet how everyone overcomes odds to survive.
Ali Akbar Natiq began working as a mason, specializing in domes and minarets, to contribute to the family income while he read widely in Urdu and Arabic. Somehow the flavour of Urdu short stories seeps through this particular collection. Its description of the common people, of commonplace occurrences, an exaggerated and embellished style of storytelling with unexpected twists to the story. Through it all there is a constant recognition and respect that this is God’s world we inhabit. It is never clearly spelled out but exists. It is evident in the book title, which seems to be a play on the innumerable references in the Quran and the Old Testament where it is constantly reiterated that this world’s splendour has been created by God, its beauty exists everywhere even when God seems to provide one only with sorrow, ashes and despair. The stories have been translated mostly by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, but also by Awais Aftab and Mohammed Hanif.
What will you give for this beauty? is a fine collection.
Ali Akbar Natiq What Will You Give for this Beauty? Translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi. Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 215. Rs. 399.
According to the vision statement, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature celebrates the rich and varied world of literature of the South Asian region. Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme. The prize brings South Asian writing to a new global audience through a celebration of the achievements of South Asian writers, and aims to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world. This year the award will be announced on 22 January 2015, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, Jaipur.
The DSC Prize for South Asian Shortlist 2015 consists of:
1. Bilal Tanweer: The Scatter Here is Too Great (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
2 Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
3. Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury, India)
4. Romesh Gunesekera: Noontide Toll (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
5. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Mirror of Beauty (Penguin Books, India)
The jury consists of Keki Daruwala (Chairperson), John Freeman, Maithree Wickramasinghe, Michael Worton and Razi Ahmed.
All the novels shortlisted for the award are unique. They put the spotlight on South Asian writing talent. From debut novelist ( Bilal Tanweer) to seasoned writers ( Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie) and one in translation – Shamsur Rahman Faruqui, the shortlist is a good representation of the spectrum of contemporary South Asian literature in English. Three of the five novelists– Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie–reside abroad, representing South Asian diaspora yet infusing their stories with a “foreign perspective”, a fascinating aspect of this shortlist. It probably hails the arrival of South Asian fiction on an international literary map. The three novels — The Lowland, Noontide Toll and A God in Every Stone are firmly set in South Asia but with the style and sophistication evident in international fiction, i.e. detailing a story in a very specific region and time, culturally distinct, yet making it familiar to the contemporary reader by dwelling upon subjects that are of immediate socio-political concern. For instance, The Lowland is ostensibly about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, India and the displacement it causes in families; A God in Every Stone is about an archaeological dig in Peshawar in the period around World War I and Noontide Toll is about the violent civil unrest between the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet all three novels are infused with the writers’ preoccupation with war, the immediate impact it has on a society and the transformation it brings about over time. The literary techniques they use to discuss the ideas that dominate such conversations — a straightforward novel (The Lowland), a bunch of interlinked short stories narrated by a driver ( who is at ease in the Tamil and Sinhala quarters, although his identity is never revealed) and the yoking of historical fiction with creation of a myth as evident in Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. All three novelists wear their research lightly, yet these novels fall into the category of eminently readable fiction, where every time the story is read something new is discovered.
Bilal Tanweer who won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 for his wonderful novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great. Set in Karachi, it is about the violence faced on a daily basis. (Obviously there is much more to the story too!) Whereas Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel The Mirror of Beauty, translated by him from Urdu into English is primarily about Begum Wazir Khanam with many other scrumptious details about lifestyles, craftspeople, and different parts of India. It is written in a slow, meandering style of old-fashioned historical fiction. The writer has tried to translocate the Urdu style of writing into the English version and he even “transcreated” the story for his English readers—all fascinating experiments in literary technique, so worth being mentioned on a prestigious literary prize shortlist.
Of all the five novels shortlisted for this award, my bet is on Kamila Shamsie winning the prize. Her novel has set the story in Peshawar in the early twentieth century. The preoccupations of the story are also those of present day AfPak, the commemoration of World War I, but also with the status of Muslims, the idea of war, with accurate historical details such as the presence of Indian soldiers in the Brighton hospital, the non-violent struggle for freedom in Peshawar and the massacre at Qissa Khwani Bazaar. But the true coup de grace is the original creation of Myth of Scylax — to be original in creating a myth, but placing it so effectively in the region to make it seem as if it is an age-old myth, passed on from generation to generation.