Teamwork, the producers of Jaipur Literature Festival, create JLF in Belfast or thereabouts from 21-23 June 2019. Jaipur Belfast has announced an exciting programme. These are being organised at two venues: The Lyric Theatre (22 June) and Seamus Heaney Homeplace (23 June). Tickets may be booked at the official website for JLF Belfast.
The curtain raiser for the event was organised on 4 June at the British Council, New Delhi. Speaking at the event Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts said, “This is a living bridge — it’s about people, ideas, sport, books and above all, about literature. Today, dialogue is becoming more and more important. We have to continue what we do best that without political affiliation people come together to discuss and disagree peacefully. In Belfast people wear their wounds on their sleeves much as we Indians wear it.” He expanded on this sentiment in an article for the Irish Times, “Jaipur Literature Festival comes to Belfast: celebrating each other’s stories” ( 7 June 2019)
Namita Gokhale, co-director, JLF, said “JLF Belfast looks at shared histories through themes of identity and selfhood. Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter, discusses the nature of non-violence. We ponder the puzzles of identity, the power of poetry, the mysteries of word, the flavours of Asian cuisine, the future of AI by Marcus du Sautoy. We revisit the poetry of Yeats and Tagore and explore the echoes of each in the other.”
William Dalrymple, co-director, JLF, added that JLF Belfast attempts to look at the scars of these different partitions.
At the curtain raiser a wonderful discussion was organised on Kalidas and Shakespeare. It was moderated by translator Gillian Wright. The panelists included academics Dr R. W. Desai and Prof. Harish Trivedi. Here is the recording I made with Facebook Live.
Meanwhile as the weekend draws near Irish writer Paul McVeigh has been posting fabulous tweets on the prepatory work. Here is a glimpse:
The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady by Deepa Agarwal and Tehmina Aziz Ayub is a good account of a fascinating woman. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan’s life mirrors the history of the subcontinent. Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director, Jaipur Literature Festival, wrote a wonderful introduction to the book. The following extracts from the introduction have been published with permission of the publisher, Penguin Random House India.
Reflecting on how and what to write
while introducing this important biography, I wonder once again if it is one or
two books I have before me. This collaborative account, co-authored by Deepa
Agarwal and Tahmina Ayub, mirrors the fissures and fault lines that divided
Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan’s life into two astonishingly symmetrical halves.
A well-researched portrayal of an intrepid and passionate woman, it presents
her personal narrative and political convictions, and mirrors the history of
the subcontinent, in a timeline truncated by the uncompromising contours
of the Radcliffe Line.
Sir Cyril Radcliffe arrived in
India on 8 July 1947. The eminent barrister was given all of five weeks to
divide up a nation, a culture, a people. His brief was to ‘demarcate the
boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab on the basis of ascertaining the
contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims’. A handful of men—five
persons in each ‘boundary commission’ for Bengal in the east and Punjab in the
west—worked day and night on a hurried and ignominious exit from an
increasingly precarious and unstable empire. Equal representation given to
politicians from the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, each
hostile and intractable in their positions, only added to the tensions.
In New Delhi, at 8 Hardinge Road, a
sprightly forty-three year-old woman, all of five feet tall, was hastily
putting together some personal belongings. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan was
preparing to depart in a government aeroplane for Karachi airport, where her
husband Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan was soon to be sworn in as the first prime
minister of Pakistan.
The future first lady was leaving her
magnificent double storeyed home, set in three acres of garden, for an unknown
and uncertain life in a newly formed nation. This elegant colonial bungalow
(now 8 Tilak Marg) had been her home since her marriage. Both her sons, Ashraf
and Akber, had been born here. 8 Hardinge Road had become the focal hub for the
activities of the Muslim League. Her husband had been appointed finance
minister of the interim government, and indeed the papers for the interim
budget presented on 2 February 1946 had been taken directly from his home to
Not so far away, at 10 Aurangzeb
Road, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had also made preparations to depart Delhi, and
India. However, he had been more pragmatic than the idealistic and high-minded
Liaquat Ali and had sold his house to the industrialist Ramkrishna Dalmia for
Rs 3 lakh. Liaquat and his wife Ra’ana, on other hand, had decided to gift
their home to Pakistan—it was to become the residence of the new nation’s
future high commissioner. ‘Gul-i-Ra’ana’, the bungalow that her adoring husband
had named after her, would henceforth be known as ‘Pakistan House’. Their vast
and eclectic library was also gifted to the new nation in which they had
invested their hopes and lives.
What were the thoughts and emotions
that jostled in her mind and heart as she observed all that she had struggled
for come to fruition, even as the looming shadow of Partition prepared to bathe
the two nations in a fierce spasm of blood and sacrifice?
Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, born
Irene Ruth Margaret Pant on 13 February 1905, to an apostate Brahmin lineage,
was a practising Christian until 1933. After her marriage, she converted to
Islam and was renamed Gul-i-Ra’ana. This fiercely independent lady, who carried
her myriad identities within a core self of unchanging conviction, departed
this world on 13 June 1990, by which time she was known, recognized and
honoured as ‘Madar-e-Pakistan’ or ‘Mother of Pakistan’.
The first half of her life was
spent in undivided India, where she transited two religious identities, and
repudiated a third, albeit through her grandfather. With almost mathematical
precision, her eighty-six years were divided into forty-three years plus some months
in each of her two lives. She was an intimate witness to history—the two
nations, the bifurcation of East and West Pakistan, the creation of Bangladesh,
the course of the Cold War, the rise of Gorbachev, and the increasingly
unequivocal hold of the army in Pakistan. From Jinnah, through Zulfikar Bhutto
and to General Zia-ul-Haq, she spoke her mind and held her own.
Before her marriage, she was a
professor of economics in Delhi’s prestigious Indraprastha College. Her
doctoral thesis had been on women in agriculture in rural Uttar Pradesh. Begum
Ra’ana was an important, even crucial, catalyst to Jinnah’s return to politics
and the unfolding of the ‘two-nation theory’. In the summer of 1933, she and
her husband met Jinnah in his home in Hampstead and appealed to him to return
to India. Unafraid to champion difficult causes, she was radical in her
attempts to bring about gender equity within the Islamic State of Pakistan and
unflinching in her defence of her friend Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when he was facing
the gallows. And at all times, she was charming and gracious as an accomplished
diplomat and stateswoman.
Where then did she get her steely
resolve and infinite reserve of strength? How did she negotiate the transitions
and transformations of history with such seeming ease? I have always been
fascinated by this formidable woman, and her ability to stand tall in an
overwhelmingly patriarchal society even after losing her husband, with no grown
male—or indeed female—relatives to support her in the newly birthed nation of
Begum Ra’ana was born Irene Pant.
We share maiden surnames, and a common ancestry. I was born Namita Pant, and a
faded family tree documents these connections, with a branch of it
cryptically cut off. With his conversion to Christianity, her grandfather
Taradutt Pant had placed himself outside the pale of caste and kinship. Yet
whenever I encountered the half-told stories of Begum Ra’ana, I could sense the
mountain grit in her, the legendary strength that comes so naturally to Kumaoni
women. There was also a strong family resemblance—to my sister, to several of
my aunts. I wanted to know more about her, to understand her as a determined
woman, a thinking, feeling human, a creature of her times and circumstances.
Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here today. The Jaipur Literature Festival is a festival of cultures, language, ideas and literature, and I feel very privileged to have the chance over the next few days to listen to so many Indian authors and personalities from around the world and to converse with them.
At this confluence of cultures, I’m pleased to address
the friends from the trade at Jaipur Bookmark today.
After all, that is the fundamental principle of any
literature festival: creating an environment for interactions that promote the
free exchange of ideas and opinions.
The free exchange of ideas and opinions – never has
that been easier than today, in the 21st century.
And never has it been so threatened.
Over the past 20 years, communications technology has
taken an evolutionary leap, one that surpasses anything the most far-sighted
science-fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries could have imagined.
In Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” from
the year 1968, Dr Heywood Floyd, an astronaut, has a “videophone call” with his
daughter while at the space station.
Fifty years later, in the summer of 2018, the German
astronaut Alexander Gerst used his mobile phone to take fascinating photos of
his time at the International Space Station, images which were transmitted
around the world.
Videophones, computer tablets, artificial
intelligence, voice control – many of the things that Kubrick envisaged 50
years ago have become reality.
According to the 2018 Global Digital Report, of the four billion people
around the world who have access to the Internet, more than three billion use
social media every month. Nine out of
ten users log on to their chosen platforms using mobile devices.
The number of people who use the most popular
platforms in their respective country has grown over the last 12 months by
almost one million new users each day.
What I find remarkable here is that not only has
communications technology made a quantum leap, the devices that allow the
world’s population to participate in the global conversation have also become
so inexpensive that almost everyone can afford one.
That is giving rise to a previously unknown
participatory process, one that has the power to change democracy’s traditional
Everyone today is in a position to publish whatever
they want – using blogs, podcasts and self-publishing platforms, as well as
traditional publishing houses. News is transmitted around the globe in the
fraction of a second, and social networks allow us to reach more readers and
viewers than ever before.
In just a minute I will talk about the challenges and
consequences that are resulting for the publishing industry.
First, however, let’s look at the darker side of these
In the 21st century, a few select businesses have
become private superpowers. They can do more than most countries to promote or
prevent a free exchange of opinions.
Via social networks, phenomena like the viral spread
of fake news, hate speech and slander now have a global impact.
Professional trolls strategically destabilise
political discourse online, fuelling populist, nationalist and anti-democratic
tendencies throughout Europe and around the globe.
One observes that, here in India, free speech is facing a threat sprouting from religious motivations, political biases and social judgments. Attempts in the recent past to silence journalists, writers, film-makers and publishers reflect the rise of identity politics and apathy on the part of the state. Two journalists of international repute – Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari – were shot dead within a span of nine months. Publisher friends like DC Books, Kalachuvadu Publications and their authors have witnessed attacks by fanatics who may have never even read the books in question.
When I look at the hysteria, hatred and hostility that
characterise the discussion in social media, the permanent state of turmoil
that societies around the world find themselves in, then I begin to doubt
whether we are actually capable of using the communications technologies whose
development we are so proud of.
To paraphrase Goethe: “The spirits I called / I now cannot
In social media, language is used as a destructive weapon
day in and day out, and it’s become clear how disastrous this can be for those
individuals targeted by the bullying. It can even lead to murder.
In his 2016 book Free
Speech, which you undoubtedly know, the British historian Timothy Garton
Ash examines the question of how free speech should take place.
He asks which social, journalistic, educational,
artistic and other possibilities can be realised to ensure that free speech proves
beneficial by facilitating creative provocation without destroying lives and
He comes to the conclusion that the less we want to
have laid out by law, the more we have to do ourselves.
After all, Ash explains, there is no law that can draw
a line between freedom and anarchy – every individual must look within before expressing
himself or herself and must take responsible decisions.
I would like to talk with you about this “how” in the
coming days and hear your opinions.
Personally, I feel that the participatory process I
mentioned before requires us – our industry, but also each of us as individuals
– to take a stance. Expressing an opinion of this type was long reserved for
politicians or the media. Today, in the 21st century, we all have the
possibility of making our voices heard.
And we should not do that in keeping with the motto “overnewsed
but uninformed,” but in a carefully considered manner.
I believe that this permanent state of turmoil is
troubling, this hysteria which does not stop at speech, but which now
increasingly leads to violence.
Personally, I’m alarmed at how the language we use is
becoming increasingly coarse and, following from that, the way we interact with
The problem about this state of turmoil is that it
usually results in the exclusion of others and, consequently, causes even
deeper trenches to be dug.
Yet how can we deal with the challenges of our time –
and find solutions to them – if not in dialogue with each other?
That leads to the question: what responsibility do
publishers bear, does our industry bear, today, in the post-Gutenberg era?
How can publishing houses and their products remain
relevant in an age in which fake news can be disseminated faster than
In which rumours, supposition and conjecture are more
quickly viewed, liked and shared than texts capable of explaining complex
As my friends Kristenn Einarsson and José Borghino have
pointed out on many occasions, “If we are to create and maintain free, healthy
societies, then publishers must have the will and the ability to challenge
established thinking, preserve the history of our cultures, and make room for
new knowledge, critical opposition and challenging artistic expression”.
Publishers in the 21st century are in a privileged
position: the industry looks back on a long tradition, on the one hand, and has
built a reputation. Publishers are gatekeepers – they filter and assess
content, they curate before they publish.
They consider it part of their job to publish content
that is well-researched, documented, checked and carefully assembled as way of
contributing to the range of opinions present in society.
On the other hand, they now have the possibility of
reaching their readers through various channels, offering their expertise, their
content and their opinion exactly where their target group is found.
Publishers and authors in many parts of the world risk
their lives by writing or bringing out books that criticise regimes, uncover
injustices and shed light on political failures.
On 15 November 2018, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer,
Arundhati Roy wrote the following in a letter to the Bangladeshi writer,
photographer and human rights activist Shahidul Alam: “How your work, your
photographs and your words, has, over decades, inscribed a vivid map of
humankind in our part of the world – its pain, its joy, its violence, its
sorrow and desolation, its stupidity, its cruelty, its sheer, crazy
complicatedness – onto our consciousness. Your work is lit up, made luminous,
as much by love as it is by a probing, questioning anger born of witnessing at
first hand the things that you have witnessed. Those who have imprisoned you
have not remotely understood what it is that you do. We can only hope, for
their sake, that someday they will.”
As you know, Shahidul Alam was taken into custody in
July of last year after he criticised the government of Bangladesh in an
interview with Al Jazeera and in various Facebook posts. Fortunately he has since
been freed, but the charges against him remain.
Without wanting to turn these very personal remarks by
Arundhati Roy into a generalisation, I would just like to say that she has put
it in a nutshell when she writes that, through their work, writers, authors, journalists
and artists draw a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world.
Journalists and other authors write despite
intimidation and threats. Like Shahidul Alam, they are driven by a mixture of love
and anger. For that, they deserve our highest esteem and respect.
Writers and journalists are being intimidated and
forced into silence all around the world because of their political and social
engagement, something we condemn in the strongest possible terms.
As discoverers and disseminators of ideas and free
thought, we, as a community, have a greater responsibility to uphold freedom of
expression. At the same time, we cannot withhold our criticism of its misuse.
I hope to have the chance to speak with many of you
about these issues in the coming days.
I recently contributed to How to Get Published in Indiaedited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.
Here is the essay I wrote:
AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher. My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi. These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.
In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.
To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!
The Daryaganj Sunday Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.
From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.
In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.
By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.
Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.
As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses.
The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting!
Creative installation at the launch of The JCB Prize for Literature
Lord Bamford, Chairman, JCB
Recently the Rs 25 lakh JCB Prize for Literature was announced. It is not the first literary prize in India nor is it the first of such a large value. Before this the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature offered a cash prize of $50,000 which was drastically cut by 50% to $25,000 in 2017. The generous JCB Prize will focus on a distinguished work of fiction and consider translations too. Self-published works will not be eligible. Authors must be Indian citizens. The longlist of ten will be announced in September, and a shortlist of five in October, with the winner to be declared at an awards ceremony on November 3. Each shortlisted author will receive Rs 1 lakh ($1500). The winning author will receive a further Rs 25 lakhs (approx. $38000). An additional Rs 5 lakhs ($7700) will be awarded to the translator if the winning work is a translation.
The Literary Director is award-winning author Rana Dasgupta. The advisory council consists of businessman Tarun Das (Chairperson), Rana Dasgupta, art historian Pheroza Godrej, award winning writer Amitava Ghosh and academic and translator Prof. Harish Trivedi. The jury for 2018 consists of filmmaker Deepa Mehta (Chairperson), novelist and playwright Vivek Shanbhag, translator Arshia Sattar, entrepreneur and scholar Rohan Murty, and theoretical astrophysicist and author Priyanka Natarajan.
Rana Dasgupta, Literary Director, The JCB Prize for Literature
To formally announce the prize an elegant launch was organised at The Imperial, New Delhi on 4 April 2018 where the who’s who of the literary world gathered. It was by invitation only. Those who spoke at the event were Lord Bramford, Chairman, JCB, and Rana Dasgupta, Literary Director. Lord Bramford spoke of the fond memories he had of his travels through India in the 1960s. Rana Dasgupta underlined the fact that most of the prestigious literary awards are not always open to Indian writers and especially not for translations, a gap that the JCB Prize wishes to address. He also announced a tie-up with the Jaipur Literature Festival (details to be announced later). In fact, all three directors of JLF were present – Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy.
Namita Gokhale, writer and publisher; Rajni Malhotra, books division head, Bahrisons with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International publishing consultant
Literary awards are very welcome for they always have an impact. They help sell books, authors are “discovered” by readers and the prize money offers financial assistance to a writer. Prizes also influence publishers’ commissioning strategies. The biggest prize in terms of its impact factor are the two prizes organised by the Man Booker – for fiction and translation.
Lady Bamford, founder of Daylesford and Bamford with William Dalrymple, art historian and writer
Keki N. Daruwalla, poet, with David Davidar, co-founder, Aleph Books
Amitabha Bagchi, novelist with Vipin Sondhi, CEO, JCB India
Recognising the importance of financial security for a writer Lord Bramford told the Indian Express “Money often is a good motivator…Creative people like writers or artists often don’t get much reward. And we wanted to reward them.” This is borne out by award-winning writer Sarah Perry who wrote in The Guardian recently about winning the East Anglian book of the year award in 2014, it gave her not only legitimacy for her work but enabled her to afford a better computer to write upon; she “felt suddenly at ease. … I felt like an apprentice carpenter given the tools of the trade by a benevolent guild.” Poet and novelist Jeet Thayil too echoed similar feelings on stage when he won the $50,000 DSC Prize in 2013 for Narcopolis. Just as novelist Jerry Pinto did when he won the 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize of $150,000.
Ira Pande, editor and translator; Diya Kar, publisher, HarperCollins India with professor Harish Trivedi, member, Advisory Council, The JCB Prize for Literature
Lord Bamford, Chairman of JCB; Neelima Adhar, poet and novelist, Arvind Mewar, 76th custodian of Mewar dynasty
The JCB Prize for Literature is a tremendous initiative! It will undoubtedly impact the Indian publishing ecosystem. If publishers do not have eligible entries to send immediately particularly in the translation category, they will commission new titles. The domino effect this action will be of discovering “new” literature in translation and encouraging literary fiction by Indian writers, which for now is dwindling. By making literature available in English and giving it prominence there has to be a positive spin-off especially in terms of increased rights sales across book territories and greater visibility for the authors and translators.
( Pictures used with permission of the JCB Prize for Literature)
Lost in Time: Ghatatkacha and the Game of Illusions is the story told in the voice of young Chintamani Dev Gupta who is sent packing to a birding camp near Sat Tal lake. Chintamani, AKA Chintu Pintu, is inexplicably transported to the days of the Mahabharata. Trapped in time, he meets Ghatotkacha and his mother Hidimbi. The gentle giant, a master of illusions and mind boggling Rakshasa technology, wields his strength with knowledge and wisdom, and imparts the age old secrets of the forest and the elemental forces. In his company, Chintamani finds himself in the thick of the most enduring Indian epic – the Mahabharatha. A tender look at a remarkable friendship as well as the abiding riddles of time , this visual treat of a book casts light on the first born son of the Pandavas, – one who finds rare mention in the fading pages of myth and legend. But there’s more to the story. Aided by Dhoomavati, the mistress of smoke and secrets, Chintamani returns to his own time – our time – and urban life in Gurgaon, AKA Gurugram. The rhythm of modern urban life, and his passion for football, cannot erase the memories of his incredible encounter with the past, and his friendship with Ghatotkacha which defies the barriers of time.
It is a lovely book about a minor but significant character of the Mahabharata. Namita Gokhale in her story has told the story tenderly, focusing not just on the legend of Ghatotkach but placing it well within the context of the major episodes of the epic. Yet there are two elements in the book that are baffling. One is the illustration of Ghatotkach. According to legend he is given the name that he has because of his bald pate shaped like a ghada/ an urn. Yet the illustrations on the book cover and accompanying the text show him to have beautiful long hair. The second was the promotion for the Puffin Mahabharata written by Namita Gokhale ten years ago. Chintamani after returning to modern India is intrigued by the epic and goes to his bookshelf to locate it. He recalls his mother buying this particular version of the epic and then proceeds to quote the book blurb. Curious way of promoting the previous book given it has already been mentioned in the opening pages of Namita Gokhale’s publications.
All said and done it is a beautifully written book especially the stunning passages of the milky way, playing with the sunlight and weaving a hammock out of cobwebs. Absolutely gorgeous!
On Sunday, 26 November 2017, at the Times of India LitFest, New Delhi, Namita Gokhale’s book was launched. After which I was in conversation with her. Watch the event here:
India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.
Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi
at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session
Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.
Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.
1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.
Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards
Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century(1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.
Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Things, exploring forbidden love in Kerala.(Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).
Arundhati Roy in 2012
Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinary, became an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.
Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.
A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).
Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.
Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.
For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.
( This interview was first published on Bookwitty.com on 10 December 2016 )
One month before the 10th anniversary of South Asia’s largest and most renowned literary festival, Jaipur Literature Festival founder and co-director Namita Gokhale (with William Dalrymple) sat down with Jaya Bhattarcharji Rose to talk about her latest, and eighth novel Things to Leave Behind. It is a multi-generational story set between 1840-1912 in Nainital and Sat Tal, Kumaon, part of the Himalayas.
How did Things to Leave Behind come about?
A tangle of memories about a time I sensed and knew. I had accessed a rich treasure of information through Mountain Echoes, the book of oral biographies I had compiled and transcribed. Then there was Clever Wives and Happy Idiots, folktales that had been recorded in the memoirs of Russian spy and adventurer, Ivan Minayev, which we at Yatra Books [a Delhi-based publishing house specialising in translations where Gokhale works as director] published and I wrote the introduction to. I wanted to give voice to this, to record and to remember those days, those stories.
In your acknowledgements you mention how this novel was inspired by your grandfather’s text –The History of Kumaon?
I did not have the good fortune to meet Badri Dutt Pande but he was an inspirational figure, who helped rid Kumaon of the infamous British ‘begaari ‘ system of unpaid labour. His book The History of Kumaon, originally written in Hindi with the title Kumaon ka Itihas gave me deep insights into the past.
How much does family and memory, especially of the hills, play a role in your writing? How have those shaped the subjects you write about?
I grew up in a beautiful house called ‘Primrose’, which finds fleeting mention in the novel. Many of the stories and episodes have their source in family history, including the tale of the royal physician Jeevan Chandra Vaidya.
How is writing about the mountains a different experience from writing about anything else —for instance in the context of your other books like the very successful Paro and Priya.
Urban novels have a different edge to them. The city has a very different character and atmospherics from the mountains.
Why adopt the British Raj spelling when the story is told from an Indian perspective?
The story is told from several perspectives. The old ‘Raj’ spellings were in use and authentic to the times, so I used them, especially in the early parts. The language and spellings I employ become slowly ‘modern’ in the course of the narrative.
Your first book was commissioned by the legendary editor, Carmen Calil when she was at Chatto & Windus. This was at a time when it was not so easy to access London-based publishing firms. As a publisher and writer yourself what are the transformations you have seen evolve in publishing?
Publishing has changed in terms of markets. India has its own readers, writers and publishers, and this strong internal market is growing. We are the third largest English publishing market in the world, after the US and UK. My first novel struck a chord and succeeded. I was very young and I learnt a lot, including how to cope with subsequent failures.
Your fascination for literature is evident in the local publishing history of the late 19th century to the early 20th century that you blend into the story. Is this your fascination as an author or a publisher?
I am fascinated by the power of books and ideas, in transforming how every age views itself. I wanted to describe the books people were reading, disputing, talking about. My fascination was as a reader as well as a publisher.
How did the title Things to Leave Behind come about?
I had spent five weeks at the Bellagio Center [residency program] at Lake Como. I was working on In Search of Sita and also this novel. When I was to leave, I struggled with the packing and made out a list of Things to Leave Behind and realized that this was to be the title of my book.
Things to Leave Behind is a novel that is incredibly powerful in its syncretism. Although there is a thriving and lived caste system in the mountainous regions of Almora and Sat Tal a significant portion of your novel dwells upon the arrival of missionaries of different religions such as Swami Vivekananda and the Baptists. Yet you are able to show how people always find the breathing space to live life according to their terms. Were these manoeuvres by the characters an exciting challenge to write?
The story told itself, the characters made their choices and lived out the consequences. That’s all. There was a ferment of ideas; a conflict of identities, then as there is now.
You have painted an unsettling picture of the hierarchies of the caste system operating in the hills. Can you share a little more about this character – Jayesh Jonas – and where he came from? Do you feel things are different in these societies today?
The caste system was rigid and hierarchical in those times. It has changed, but the attitudes and prejudices cast a long shadow. I was a Pant [part of a compound of a North Indian surname of people with a Hindu Brahmin background] before marriage. Jayesh Jonas was based not as a character but in his situation on a branch of my paternal family tree (that had decided, in very different circumstances, to convert to Christianity).
How have these hills affected you as a writer?
I keep going back to that landscape because somewhere in my imagination it provides immense solace. But that’s not all I write or want to write. Let’s see where my muse guides me next.
What do you feel is the one myth about the hills that people have that you’d like to demystify through your work and writing?
I try always to demythify the false romanticism of the simple hill life. People are complex, complicated and cunning everywhere.