I am posting snippets of my correspondence with Eugenia.
Your writing is extraordinarily powerful. I have only been sent snippets but it is enough to gauge your writing prowess.
I grew up in an India when political ties between the Soviet Union and India were strong. As a result, we received a lot of books in translation, inevitably published by Raduga publishers or Peoples Publishing House (PPH). One of the books that I have from my childhood is a beautiful edition of Ukrainian folktales. So I am very pleased to be able to interview you, even if it is at a time of very sad circumstances for your country. Conflict at the best of times is nasty but such relentless use of firepower and other military measures to intimidate Ukraine are terrifying. I sincerely hope that you and your young daughter and extended clan are safe and truly pray and hope that peace returns soon.
Since I have only snippets of your books to read and alas, not the book My Micheka which is discussed widely, I have based my questions on limited access to your creations. Nevertheless, I found your writing to be strong, clear, and sharp. Your reliance on memory for details as evident in the stories is quite extraordinary. Sometimes reading short stories by one author can begin to wane especially if the differences do not stand out. But in the few examples that I read, your preoccupied with domestic drama and the various permutations and combinations it results in human relationships is quite something.
Thank you for your kind words and deep questions.
Eugenia Kuznetsova is a Ukrainian author, translator, and researcher. She was born and spent her childhood in the village of Khomutyntsi in central Ukraine. After graduating Kyiv National University, she received her PhD in literary analysis in Spain. Now, Eugenia works in media research, focusing on conflict-sensitive reporting and countering disinformation, and translates fiction and non-fiction. Eugenia has published two bestselling novels in Ukraine and a non-fiction book on soviet linguistic policies.
Q1. How and why did you opt to write fiction?
I’ve always seen myself as a writer. It has never been a decision or a turning point when I decided to write. Writing is my way of living; it is my way to understand reality.
Q2. “Literature and fiction can explain to us better about certain places and certain people or countries than, for example, integration courses. The world is becoming smaller and smaller. If people learned new languages and read writers of different countries for fun, then it would be good. Most important about translated literature is that we are all much, much similar than we thought. At the human level we share similarities.” In 2022, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, you made these perceptive comments. Do you think now, in this world that is constantly in conflict mode, there is a crying need to create more Art and literature?
I am sure art and literature has potential to enhance understanding between different people and different cultures. Yet, there are things that cannot be “fixed” by art. As a person who is closely watching the tragedy of war and extreme cruelty of the unjust invasion of Russia in Ukraine, I want justice in the first place. Justice may be brought only by power, unfortunately.
Q3. Has your writing style been modified in any manner, especially after the beginning of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in Feb 2022? Has your determination to include more political content in your fiction strengthened after the Ukraine-Russian conflict?
Politics is a part of daily life. The war has obviously changed the lives of the people I know and therefore it has changed somehow my writing. But I do not work according to an agenda – I just write about people under different circumstances. For now, I can’t afford the privilege to write as if there is no war. But I am seriously considering writing a text with no war in it even in the background just to give my Ukrainian readers leisure time without the war. I am not sure I will be able to do this, but I’ll try.
Q4. Countering disinformation and conflict sensitivity reporting are key focus areas of your profession. How challenging is it to keep your work aside and return to writing fiction? Or do you incorporate elements of it in your fiction?
I work as an analyst for different organisations, but still try prioritizing writing, since I think that’s what I do best. At the same time if I have an idea, it is very hard to put it aside – I must write it down. Otherwise, I feel bad: unwritten things keep bothering me until I write them. Interestingly, sometimes I don’t like what I wrote and easily discard the texts, but I have to write them first to discard afterwards.
Q5. How does your professional expertise as a linguist and as someone who is interested in media speech analysis find writing sentences and their rhythms? Do you convey the cultural particularities or do you focus on rhythm? Does this change from language to language? Or do you adopt the same methodology while writing in Ukrainian or English?
Unfortunately, I am not able to write fiction in any language other than Ukrainian, my first language. I feel the rhythm of Ukrainian, I know how to do wordplay and how to make my characters talk easily. I know how to build flowing dialogues. My Ukrainian writing is easy to read. Usually, I say to my readers that I do not guarantee anything to them but one thing: my texts are well written. I write op-eds or articles in English, but fiction is something else. I don’t even try writing in another language than my first one.
Q6. The samples of your writing that I have read are full of colour and after reading them I am left with the feeling of being enveloped in bright colours and the descriptions of the landscape are such. Yet, your interviews that I heard on the internet are bleak and understandably very worried about Ukraine. How do you manage to keep these two selves apart? Is there no internal turmoil? Or is that you seek some form of peace and hope while writing?
I am an introverted person, and, as I said before, writing is my way of existence. So, I suppose I am just not a great speaker. Also, when interviewed by foreign media I feel the need to talk more about the war in Ukraine, as we need all the international support we can get. For us, as a nation, it’s not a “political armed conflict” as some media put it – it is an existential question.
Q7. The impression that I get from your writing is that you are preoccupied with domestic scenes, interpersonal and intergenerational relationships, and sketching minute characters. Almost as if each individual that you create offers an insight from their moment of time and based upon their experiences. But it also helps clarify for the reader (and perhaps for the author too) some sense of our own time and circumstances. Why do you prefer to write about the family?
I think writing about family is writing about universal human experience. It is something we all share – difficult relations with the loved ones. It’s a universal human language.
Q8. Being in conflict and being an observer could not be easy, irrespective of where you may be based in the world. How do you maintain your perspective?
Modern technology like social media gives us the possibility to live wherever you want. I am sure lots of Ukrainian refugees, despite having fled to various countries, still “live” in Ukraine, are preoccupied by Ukrainian issues. I spend quite a lot of time in Ukraine and have never been able to integrate in any other country, even though I love traveling and enjoy new experiences.
Q9. You are bilingual. Do you read and create new versions of your texts in translation? Or are they the same?
Even though I speak Russian quite well, I can’t say I am bilingual – I never write fiction in Russian and don’t speak it daily. I do translate books written by other authors into Ukrainian, but never translate my own texts into other languages. I speak quite a few languages, like Spanish or German, but writing fiction is much more than being able to express yourself.
Q11. Do you have any Ukrainian author/book/literary website recommendations for readers?
I could recommend a funny book on Ukrainian history A cool history of Ukraine: from dinosaurs till now. It is written for kids, but any adult would enjoy it and understand better the region. If you are a more serious history reader, check out The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History by Serhiy Plokhiy, Harvard University professor, who explains why Russia invaded Ukraine. Another project I would recommend checking out is Ukraïner: it is a team of young people who organize expeditions across Ukraine and prepare amazing videos about various regions of my country. Unfortunately, in the last two years they had to film dramatic events as well. Explore Ukraine and hopefully someday anyone would feel safe to come to visit my country.
I am posting snippets of my correspondence with Lusine as it would give readers an insight into how well-crafted her pieces are.
I read your articles. It has taken a while to assimilate your incredibly powerful writings. On the face of it, these are simple articles and observations, but if I try to read it slowly or even try and emulate your writing style, it is challenging. It is almost as if you have thought through every word used, every sentence written, and the arrangement. It happens in any piece of writing but in yours it is almost as if to give the reader some sense of the feeling of dislocation that you have probably experienced. Almost as if to create a shared empathy without any sentimentality seeping in, but merely to understand the situation.
It has been a few days since I read your articles but I could not bring myself to compose the questions immediately. When I finally did, I found myself in the midst of an unusual task. I transcribed each question at least three times even if it were being copied without any changes. I am still unable to understand this act of mine except to say that it is your writing that moved me tremendously. I wanted to strike the right tenor while formulating the queries.
Thank you! It took me a while to answer your questions, as you definitely did your “homework” very well and each question invited a long conversation. Anyway, I tried to be short, but feel free to ask more questions if anything is not clear.
Lusine Kharatyan is a Yerevan-based writer and cultural anthropologist. Born and raised in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia, she lived and studied in different parts of the world, including Egypt and the USA. Her writing is significantly influenced by her anthropological research, fieldwork, and travels. Kharatyan’s first novel ծուռ գիրք (The Oblique Book), was published in 2017. Her second book, collection of short stories Անմոռուկի փակուղի (Dead End Forget-me-not) was published with a monetary prize from the First Yerevan Book Fest, and shortlisted for the 2021 European Union Prize for Literature. In 2019, Kharatyan was awarded a grant from the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport of Armenia for writing her second novel, Սիրիավեպ (A Syrian Affair), which was nominated from Armenia for the same prize in 2023. Lusine’s short fiction has been published in English and Georgian, including her own translations of #America_place from 9/11 to 11/9 and #America_place Pregnant published at Asymptote site for world literature in translation.
Kharatyan holds a master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota (2004), a Diploma in Demography from Cairo Demographic Center (2000), and a Diploma of higher education in History/Socio-cultural Anthropology from Yerevan State University (1999). Since 2018, Kharatyan is a member of the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. She is a member of PEN Center Armenia and the Chair of its Women Writer’s Committee since 2021.
Q1. You are bi-lingual. Do you translate and change the text when writing or translating from Armenian into English?
I would not say I am bi-lingual. Well, sometimes it feels like I live in three languages, also visually, as all three use different letters- Armenian, English and Russian, but my language is Armenian. While I probably understand Russian deeper and better than English, with almost all possible nuances and in all possible contexts (not only because I was exposed to it since childhood and also studied it as a second language at school, but also because Russian was the language of the literature I read during my formative years) I am not sure that I can write in that language, as I haven’t practiced writing in Russian since the 1990s. Also, I do not feel comfortable speaking and/or writing in Russian to native Russian speakers, as there is always some feeling of ‘inferiority’ or rather impediment/disability involved in using the language of the colonizer while speaking to the colonizer. I do not feel that I am able to express my thoughts at an equal level, hence I prefer communicating in English with native Russian speakers, so as we are at equal terms. With English, I do not have a similar feeling, as I do not share a similar history with native English speakers, who are probably “The Colonizers” for Bharat (…if I get it right one of the reasons to change India’s name into Bharat was to get rid of the remnants of that colonial past). So, our relationship with a language is always very context-specific and has all the burden/weight of both collective and personal experience/memory and power dynamics involved. I remember, for example, when I was first reading Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, of course in the original language, I kept thinking whether it would be possible to translate his unprecedented style and language with all the nuances, and particularly the bureaucratic and/or power’s language used in very unexpected contexts and places into Armenian. I was not sure that Armenian had the same capacity and richness, given that it was not the language of the conventional “power” or authority. However, after several attempts at translating some passages I was surprised how well it was possible to not only find appropriate words and phrases, but also to convey the very tone and style. This encouraged me to translate my own texts. When translating, you always have to make difficult choices, sometimes maybe to give up on style or tone, or preciseness, sometimes to invent words. And as I am not a native English speaker, I am not always sure whether my translation really delivers what the Armenian text is saying. I am usually trying to stick to the original as much as possible, but sometimes I feel that it is at the expense of the style or the language quality, and at times it feels like writing a new text. Interestingly, it is much easier to do so in English, as it seems more democratic or tolerant towards non-native speakers, given that it is the most spoken/widely used language in the world. Or maybe it is because I do not have the same level of proficiency in English to notice all the nuanced mistakes that I make. However, until now I have not dared to translate texts, which are very context-specific, which are entrenched in the context, since I am not sure that I can translate the context without too many footnotes, so that it would make sense and still have the same depth and layers, and at the same time would keep the lightness of the language and style.
Q2. Is being sensitive to cultural sensibilities an important consideration to your writing? Or is it that the art of communicating in a nuanced manner is appreciated more?
Being sensitive to cultural sensibilities is in general a very important aspect of me. I believe anthropology is first of all a way of life, and not a profession. This way of life also implies not only being sensitive to different cultures, but generally respecting and accepting them as they are, without imposing your own. At the same time, you can’t stop doing autofiction, since ethnography, or participant observation is always switched on in you, and you keep walking through your life having that internal camera or a reading glass looking at everything around you, including yourself, from somewhere above. You are a participant and an observer at the same time. Sometimes you wish you could actually be more participant than an observer, to feel more or deeper, and that this “observer” part of you would keep the feelings on hold, but then you fictionalize and it somehow helps with not only reflecting but also feeling and finding others who share your feelings and who are eager to borrow your lenses. It is some kind of an effortless stream of conscience that flows into literature. This is where you also try to communicate in a nuanced manner, but then you find yourself stuck in orientalism and you either try to also “orientalize” the protagonist or the author, so as to be at equal terms, or to rewrite the text. By default, I always have these lenses in whatever I do. This allows multi-perceptivity and makes the text to look and read like an effortless flow; which is at the same time richer, multi-layered and more nuanced. However, sometimes I intentionally try to put these lenses aside, so as the text is not perceived as “censored” or “politically correct”, but has all the roughness and some touch of supposed “sincerity” or expected “honesty.” Yet, it does not always work, as this type of honesty means dishonesty to myself, because that is not the way I see the world, that is not who I am, and I prefer my text being vulnerable, more nuanced and sensitive to cultural sensibilities.
Q3. How challenging is it for a cultural anthropologist to write fiction?
Well, as mentioned, anthropology is a way of life for me. On the one hand that way of life greatly helps to find themes and topics, times and places, issues and protagonists, human stories, dramas and comic situations for writing. But it also brings some challenges․ One of the main challenges is probably the ability of putting the researcher aside and finding a different frame and language to tell the story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And the same happens the other way around, when the writer in me gets stronger than the researcher.
Q4. Is it possible to define terms such as identity, ethnicity, home, & community? In the few examples of your writing that I read, I got the sense that you were exploring these terms without casting them in stone. To my mind, these are fluid as in “ever evolving” concepts, but what do they mean to you?
I have a friend who kept saying that every time she was asked to present herself, the very first thing she would tell was that she was Armenian. This is how strong she felt about her Armenian identity. But then I asked her once, whether she would do the same when presenting herself to an Armenian in Armenia, or was that when she would present herself to foreigners or someone from the diaspora whom she met abroad. She was surprised by my question, and after a bit of thinking answered, that this was probably when she would present herself to foreigners or diasporans abroad. Then she thought more and said that in Armenia it always depended on the situation and the people she presented herself to. In some cases, she would say that she was a teacher, in other cases she would first refer to the district of Yerevan where she grew up, yet in some circumstances she would speak of her workplace or where her parents came from. And she went on and on, until she ended up counting around 10 different identities, as we agreed to call those “ways of presenting herself.” Thus, depending on the situation and context, one of our identities can become more active than the others.
While the researcher in me understands and knows that there are people/societies/cultures where the identity/ethnicity/belonging is still perceived as something homogeneous, rigid, solid and cast in stone, I do believe that this kind of understanding is self-deceiving, as a person living in our post-Hiroshima, post-Gagarin, post-man-on-the-moon, post-cold-war, post-modern, post-industrial, post-post-post, patchy and fragmented world of AI and digital reality cannot pretend or afford to have this clear-cut homogeneous identity. We should simply accept our fragmented, fluid, ever-evolving and spongy identities and try to live with them in peace, without a multiple personality disorder. And most of my writing is as fragmented and patchy in terms of style, themes, plots and genre as our identities are.
Q5. What is it that you seek in women’s writing? As a woman writer, what is it that you wish to convey or gender distinctions are immaterial?
Gender identity is one of the most active and vibrant identities we have, and I always look for that perspective in women’s writing. I want to see the world also through those lenses, as we have been deprived of this opportunity for ages. When writing, I do not put a special effort to convey things from a woman’s perspective, but since being a woman is an important part of me, it is unavoidable and is reflected in my writing. There is this stereotypical thinking in the Armenian literary circles that the literature crafted by women is “weak” and “shallow”, that only men can write “strong” literature. Many from the generation of women writers before mine tried to “conceal” their gender identity by writing texts which would be as much like the texts of their male counterparts as possible, so those texts would be perceived as “strong” pieces of literature. Some were even proud when critics wrote and spoke that they “have a male pen”, or that “their writing is so strong that it is not possible to understand that the writer is a woman.” Fortunately, that is changing and we now see more women writing very sophisticated, rich, deep literature without mimicking “male” texts.
Q6. What is the OH project mapping memories from Armenia and Turkey about?
This was a very important and defining project for me. Actually, my first novel, ծուռ գիրք, was inspired by it. I do not know how aware are your readers of Armenian-Turkish relations, so for those who do not know much, probably some background information is necessary. At the beginning of the last century Armenians used to mostly live in their ancestral homes on the territory of two empires, Ottoman and Russian. We, Armenians, call the part of historical/ancient Armenia, which is now on the territory of current-day Turkey, Western Armenia, and the part that constitutes the current-day Republic of Armenia and some other territories are called Eastern Armenia. Thus, what would be Armenians’ homeland was divided between Russian and Ottoman Empires at the time of World War I. With the rise of national-liberation movements in the 19th century, and particularly on the territory of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians living there also started demanding more rights and freedoms. To these demands Ottoman authorities responded with several Armenian massacres in the late 19th– early 20th century. When the WW I broke, the new Ottoman Government of Yung Turks decided to get rid of the “Armenian Issue” through organizing the first Genocide of the century, where over a million Armenians were marched to death, burned in their homes or churches, slaughtered and massacred. Most surviving Armenians spread all over the world, forming diaspora communities. Some of the survivors found refuge on the territory of the current-day Republic of Armenia, then- the Russian Empire. Today, a century after the events, Turkey still denies the Genocide, while for the Armenians this is a defining trauma, a master narrative which greatly influences our identity. So, the project you ask about was trying to plant some seeds for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation through oral history and adult education. The idea behind was that through collecting oral histories about a particular location on the territory of nowadays Turkey where Armenians used to live before the Genocide from both sides of the border, i.e. at the place itself and among the Genocide survivors originally from that place who now live in Armenia, we can create the history of the place as it is remembered, narrated and imagined today. One of the outcomes was the book “Moush Sweet Moush: Mapping Memories from Armenia and Turkey”, where in the introduction we state the following: “Even though we have included a brief factsheet on the history of Moush focusing on the area’s cultural significance for Armenians and some statistics from the beginning of the 20th century, we do not intent to present the local history of Moush as a set of facts, a definite truth about the place or events that happened in that place. In a sense Moush is a discourse in this book. We are not simply presenting its history. We are presenting the place as it is remembered, imagined and narrated in Turkey and in Armenia. We do not want to define, describe or locate Moush politically, administratively or historically. We do map Moush, but not as politicians or official historiographers do. We map it through people’s narratives and our group experience. While current political maps with their defined borders interfere with this discourse, we believe that they do not dominate mental maps of people.”
Q7. How instrumental was the covid pandemic in opening up memories and thus, presumably, impacting your writing?
There is probably no person in the world that was not impacted by the Covid pandemic. For me, as much as it opened a door for memories, it also helped with reflection, as due to the isolation you have more time for thinking and reflection, which nowadays is a luxury. At some point I started posting daily photos on my Facebook early in the morning. Over time, these early coffee/tea “good mornings” became very popular among my Facebook friends and beyond. They became a kind of “safe space” for “sharing and caring,” and were collected in an album Isolator #1. Eventually, I was invited to organize a photo exhibition in one of the galleries in Yerevan. The poster of the exhibition was the last photo from the album, where you see an upside down coffee cup (with small coronas/crowns on the cup) looking for a coffee fortune reader, thus ending the entire period with a question mark. And the answer was quick to come: we opened the exhibition on the evening of September 26, 2020, and woke up to the war next morning on September 27, 2020, learning that Azerbaijan had attacked Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh. The Covid isolation ended in the 44-day-war. This isolation and the process of me posting on Facebook was also reflected in a short piece of writing, The Summer of Chomalag, written before the war. However, as every story in our Netflix-era world goes on for several seasons, I could not stop there. As the war started, I have received requests from friends and acquaintances to continue with my morning photo-posts as they helped to wake up with a hope for a brighter future. So, I started a second season with a new album, Shelter #1, and my Facebook story-telling experiment triggered by Covid evolved through dialogue and took me to really unexpected places.
Q8. How do you define “maps”? These can be physical as well as mental, rt?
To me the definition is very simple- we are our maps. All these different identities we spoke about earlier are as much mapped in our minds and very bodies, as they are on the body of the earth. Sometimes I even visualize people moving in space and time taking their maps with them and making those maps bigger. Those are endlessly elastic. However, as much as they widen and enlarge, they can also get narrower and smaller, up to a size of a dot. A more inclusive identity means a bigger map. The narrower gets your map due to war, limited right to movement because of inequality, social injustice or simply being born in a part of the world that does not allow you much movement, your inability to see the world bigger due to illiteracy or lack of access to different carriers of information, or due to the narratives you grew up with, the grimmer and slimmer gets your world. In one of my short pieces, #America_place from 9/11 to 11/9, the protagonist first time in her life sees a map drown differently than what she is used to, an America-centered map. And it is only then that she realizes that the way she sees the world very much depends on where she is physically located. It is very bodily and also mental experience at the same time. Also, our mental maps consist not only of places and names of geographical locations, but of people and our connections. I have never met you, but you are already on my map, and when I think of India now, I already think of a bit different India, India that has Jaya in it.
Q9. What is it about making lists that appeals to you as a writer and as a custodian of cultural memories?
Lists are how you define your map, a deliberate choice of including some things and excluding/dropping other things.
Q10. Do you have any Armenian authors / literary website recommendations for readers?
I’d suggest starting from last years’ Asymptote’s Fall Issue that features Armenian writers in translation. Then they can explore more.
On 3 Sept 2021, I moderated a conversation with the 2021 International Booker winners David Diop and his translator from French to English, Anna Moschovakis for the book At Night All Blood is Black. It was conducted in two languages — French and English. This was organised in collaboration with the French Embassy in India/ French Book Office and UPES University. It was the inaugural event for Espace France at UPES. It was also an exclusive as this was the first ( and so far the only) event that had been organised in India/South Asia with David Diop and Anna Moschovakis. This event assumed significance for another special reason: France is the Guest of Honour at the New Delhi World Book Fair, Jan 2022 and India at the Paris Book Fair, April 2022.
The International Booker Prize is one of the most prestigious and richest literary prizes in the world @ US$ 50,000. It is meant exclusively for literature in translation/world literature. The author and the translator share the prize equally.
David Diop is a French-Senegalese writer who spent most of his childhood in Senegal before returning to France for his studies. In 1998, he became a professor of literature at the Université de Pau et des pays de l’Adour. In 2018, he won the prestigious French literary award, Prix Goncourt des lycéens, for his first novel, Frère d’ame. It was published by the renowned French publishing firm, Éditions du Seuil. In 2021, he won the International Booker Prize. The English translation, At Night All Blood Is Black. has been published by the fabulous independent press Pushkin Press, UK.
Anna Moschovakis is a Greek American poet, author, and translator. She divides her time between the USA and Greece. Moschovakis is a founding member of Bushel Collective and the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse. She is a faculty member of Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, as well as an adjunct associate professor in the Writing MFA program at Pratt Institute. Her writing has appeared in eminent literary journals such as The Paris Review, The Believer and The Iowa Review. Moschovakis’ book of poetry, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, won the James Laughlin Award in 2011. Her first novel, Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, was published in 2018.
It turned out to be a phenomenal success! We had over 500+ registerations on Zoom for the event. As happens with these events, ultimately only a smaller proportion sign in and attend the event. So approximately 150+ people logged in to watch the conversation in real time. Interestingly enough we discovered that except for about 5 or 6 people, everyone stayed glued to their screens for the entire duration of the discussion. This is unusual given that internet fatigue has set in during the pandemic. We had participants joining across time zones in real time —Canada, USA, UK, France, Germany, Nepal, India and Australia. For the next few days, the organisers were getting correspondence from a wide range of people lauding them. The impact factor was fantastic as the remarks were coming in from academics, institution heads, students, translators, journalists, readers, publishers etc. It was cutting across communities. In fact, while we were on air, the French Institute in India received a request to translate the novel into Hindi! This, after it was announced at the event that under the Publication Assistance Programme (PAP Tagore) of the IFI, the novel is already being translated into Malayalam ( DC Books) and Tamil ( Kalachuvadu)
Here are some comments:
Vidya Vencatesan à Conférenciers et participants (6:31 PM) M. Diop vous êtes au programme de maîtrise depuis deux ans, succès inouï Excellante initiative par IFI. FELICITATIONS!! Sukrita Paul Kumar à Conférenciers (6:52 PM) Very perceptive questions, Jaya Jyotsna Paliwal à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM) émerveillant, Merci bcp! Carol Barreto Miranda à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM) Superbe!!! Extraordinaire!! Jayanti Pandey à Conférenciers (7:07 PM) Merci beaucoup Prof. Dipa Chakrabarti à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM) Super David et Anna!!! Preeti Bhutani à Conférenciers (7:07 PM) très intense. Super! Rohit Kumar à Conférenciers et participants (7:08 PM)
it’s the best catchy Title I ever encountered!! HARSHALI Harshali à Conférenciers et participants (7:09 PM) Bravo!! émerveillant Dhritiman Das à Conférenciers (7:09 PM) Thank you for this extraordinary opportunity to get introduced to the stream of consciousness method. Gaurav Arya à Conférenciers (7:14 PM) Fabulously put together panel, with so many varied perspectives are threading so seamlessly Surely the experiences of men and women for WW I will be different, since women were not recruited as soldiers then. Women were left behind, caring for the sick and wounded, or grieving for loved ones lost. Aslam Khan à Conférenciers et participants (7:23 PM) what a wonderful discussion, thanks to the writer, translator and specially the organisers ❤ Shauna Singh Baldwin à Conférenciers (7:25 PM) The senegalese soldiers were going into a battle for their colonial masters — this has not been documented before. Did you know the major differences between the Senegalese soldiers feelings in contrast to their French masters before or was that revealed by your research? Mandira Sen à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM) Fascinating, much to learn and think about Thanks for organizing this. Mandira Sen Anaheeta Irani à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM) Merci.C’etait excellent Chandan Kumar à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM) Very informative session ..Merci de vous Maitrayi Nag à Conférenciers (7:35 PM) Oui, j’ai beaucoup aimé. Nidhi Singh à Conférenciers (7:35 PM) excellent session.. thankyou to organisers Kamala Narasimhan à Conférenciers et participants (7:36 PM) Thanks to David and Anna for their interaction and also to Jaya for moderating brilliantly. A special thanks to Uma for interpreting so wonderfully David! And thanks also to IFI for organising this! Namrata Singhvi à Conférenciers et participants (7:37 PM) Merci beaucoup ! Une discussion très intéressante ! Carol Barreto Miranda à Conférenciers et participants (7:37 PM) Recit bouleversant! Grande impatience de lire le roman prochainement. Chris Raja à Conférenciers et participants (7:38 PM) Thank you very much David and Jaya. Best wishes from Melbourne My Anglo Indian grandfather was involved in WW1 Elsa mathews à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM) beautiful discussion! lot to learn Ena Panda à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM) Very interesting discussion since we got to explore the book through the writer and the translator! Thank you Insititut Français Prof. Dipa Chakrabarti à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM) Merci Christine pour avoir organise cet evenement!!
Some messages that came in separately:
Very interesting discussion since we got to explore the book through the writer and the translator! Thank you Insititut Français!
Good morning. It was a wonderful conversation last evening. You steered it along very well. I really enjoyed it. ?
I enjoyed this conversation. I wish it could have gone on for another hour!
fantastic event it was. and was so accomodating for a naive like me. simple english. understandable; felt the connect wth author/ Translator and more with the audience. swift as breeze. i many time dont get converstaions but this was so easy and right from the heart. bulls eye it was.
More power to you and such wonderful lectures. God knows the poor students need such knowledge that frees them and gives them joy. I also liked Anna and her candid unaffected responses. So lovely! A five-star event overall, in my most humble opinion!! ??
Watch the conversation on Facebook. The panelists include David Diop, Anna Moschokovis, Uma Sridhar (translator), Dr. Christine Cornet, Attachée Livre et débat d’idées, Institut français India/Embassy of France and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, co-founder, ACE Literary Consulting and Associate Professor, School of Modern Media Studies, UPES University.
This was a tremendous event as we spoke in two languages, it moved seamlessly between the languages even though I do not speak French but we had Uma Sridhar translating for us brilliantly. It seemed as if we were having an excellent in-depth conversation about war literature, the canon of war literature, whether the gender of the writer makes a difference to the style of storytelling, translations, working with nonfiction material and converting it into fiction, use of folklore and magic realism etc. I am not listing the questions here but it is best that you hear the recording on Facebook. We covered a fair bit of ground and if time had permitted us, we would have spoken longer. Alas, it was not to be! Perhaps another time.
…it was during a period he had so much time on his hands that he felt that time had stopped.
How could time have stopped?
‘Because,’ he said, ‘and you will understand this when you are older, sometimes you feel that everything around you has come to an end.You feel that you are completely alone, that time is frozen and that you are invisible. At first, you might feel exhilarated by the sense of freedom, but then you’ll be frightened that you are lost and you will never be able to go back.’
He explained that when he first felt this, he had been isolated and afraid and had prised open his watch case to verify that time was indeed passing. The rhythm of the watch might have been imagined. Sound was notenough, he needed to see and touch it. It was the first time that he had dismantled a mechanism. The turning wheels, ticking each second away, had reassured him.
It was then that he had comprehended the importance of time.
Ariana Neumann was raised in Caracas, Venezuela as a Catholic. Her father, Hans Neumann was an established businessman who was also seen as a patron of the arts. Ariana was Hans’ daughter by his second wife. Ariana had a fairytale upbringing. Living in a large home, stuffed with beautiful pieces of art. She had loving parents and had everything that she desired. It is evident in the book trailer which is based on a series of home movies.
Ariana Neumann’s debut book When Time Stopped is a memoir about uncovering the truth about her father’s past. Despite the idyllic childhood he gave her, there were certain topics that were taboo. One of these were questions about his past. It was during a “spying” game that nine-year-old Ariana had created with her friends that one of her friends/spies reported that they had witnessed her father carrying a cardboard box into the library. Later in the day she decided to investigate for herself. Ariana found the box. Ruffled through its contents. Found it contained only a slim collection of papers. Most written in a language she could not comprehend. Then she spotted an identification document with an unrecognisable name — Jan Sebesta– and a young man’s photograph, an unmistakable likeness to Hans, and stamped below it was also a picture of Hitler. She was startled. She ran to her mother distraught at her discovery. Her mother placated Ariana and told her not to worry. Yet it shook Arian’s world realising that her father was not who he was. After that the box disappeared. She never saw it again. Until her father passed away and she was clearing his drawers. She then discovered the box once more. This time it was stuffed with more papers, mostly in languages she could not read. Equally puzzling were the nightmares her father had when he would scream aloud in a language Ariana could not understand.
When Time Stopped is a memoir that reads like a well told mystery story as Ariana uncovers the truth about her father. A beloved father who was exceedingly busy and built an extraordinary business empire established first in the paint industry. A father who was so immersed in his work that even his own daughter had to seek an appointment with his secretary in order to have some time alone with him. A father who threw himself into his work that he was effectively able to compartmentalise his life and seemingly not let anything deter him. It was this father whom she had persuaded to visit Prague as part of a business delegation in the early 1990s. She had accompanied him. At the time he had let his mask slip briefly when broke down at the fence of Bubny station.
When Time Stops is a fascinating account of how Ariana uncovers her father’s past, discovers he was a Holocaust survivor, who had lost twenty-five members of his family in the pogrom conducted by the Nazis. He had managed to escape by extraordinarily living in Berlin, under the watchful eye of the Gestapo, as a Christian. He was convinced that “the darkest shadow lies beneath the candle”. From there he fled to Venezuela with his older brother. Unfortunately his parents and extended relatives perished in the gas chambers. The Neumann’s had a thriving painting business in Prague. They were Czech Jews whose lives had been upturned with the invasion of the Germans in March 1939.
While researching for this book, Ariana Neuman discovered that she had relatives spread acrosss the world. She contacted them. Also discovered that there was a list of Jews who had perished during the war posted on the walls of a synagogue in Prague. She found her father’s name that had a question mark against his death. When she called and asked him about it, he merely said, “I tricked them”. Ariana also discovers that her paternal grandparents had been sent to a concentration camp that ordinarily operated as a labour camp so rules governing its administration were relatively “freer” than the other camps. Hence her grandparents while being incarcerated inside were able to send letters and parcels to their sons and at times receive illicit parcels containing packets of food and bare essentials. Extraordinarily it is the emergence of these letters after more seventy years that for the first time reveals to many the manner in which these camps operated. They had a well-defined economy and administrative structure. Ariana’s grandparents letter shed light on these internal mechanisms as well as some of the despicable horrors, many of which they were unable to recount, yet alluded to them. Ariana stumbled upon these parcels while investigating into her past. As she reached out to newly found relatives she discovered that they had similar boxes of papers as she had. These contained letters and pictures. Using the services of a Czech translator, Ariana painstakingly translated and read all the correspondence. Then filled in the gaps with her research. Result is this book. This extraordinary memoir.
When Time Stops is about Ariana discovering that the stray remarks fellow students made at school and university questioning her Catholic upbringing and at times bluntly saying she was a Jew were all true. They knew. She did not. It is more than just the passionate love of her father’s for his 297 clocks that he so carefully cared for. He had his own workshop in a windowless room where he tinkered with his precious watches, some of them going back a few hundred years. Yet of all the beautiful pieces he owned, it was an ordinary dull gold one that he was most fond of as it reminded him of the time piece his own father possessed. A link that the daughter put together after her decades of investigation into her past.
While being an fascinating account of a life, When Time Stops is also a horrifying read for the many parallels it has with modern life. Many countries today are questioning the citizenship of their people and creating scenarios that are eerily similar to those described in this book. It is worth reflecting upon. How much of the past needs to be shared and kept alive through memories as a lesson to future generations on the horrors that humans can inflict upon their own? How much of the past that is kept alive is actually used by future perpetrators as case studies? It is a tricky balance to achieve in this grey and gloomy world. Having said that When Time Stopped is worth reading for it stands out as a very well written memoir, balancing extensive research with the personal stories.
*The pictures used in this blog post have been published in the book and on The Israel Times website.
When I go to a war zone there’s a certain amount of my own equipment that I take with me. I take my own theatre scrubs and a gas mask, and I take my loupes, which are lenses with four-times magnification that help me perform intricate surgery on small blood vessels and flaps used in plastic surgery. I take a light source, a kind of headlamp, so that I continue to operate when the generators go down or the lights go off, and which also allow me to see deep into the crevices of a wound; and I take my Doppler machine, which allows me to hear the blood flow of the small distal vessels when the arteries do not have enough pressure to give a pulse. I carry it all around in a big, battered old suitcase.
David Notts is an NHS consultant surgeon specialising in general and vascular surgery. Since 1993 he has been taking two months unpaid leave every year from his job to volunteer his services in conflict zones mostly with Medicine San Frontieres (MSF). Over the years he has travelled to the most dangerous parts of the world where there is active conflict. He has worked in areas like Sarajevo, Kandahar, Chad, Gaza, Syria, Haiti, Libya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Iraq. War Doctor is a memoir focussed primarily on his work as a surgeon in conflict zones though covers some disaster zones as well. He has performed the most complicated surgeries under the most incredible conditions such as with only one bag of blood, no lights, no staff in the operating theatre while the hospital was being bombed. He has witnessed the most horrific wounds perpetrated upon civilians in the name of fighting for a just cause to seeing the ghastly condition of patients in Syria who were being hit by snipers as a part of a game to see who could win a packet of cigarettes. Their choice of targets would vary from day to day. Some days it would be hitting the groins of passers by or another day the bellies of pregnant women. A bullet lodged in the skull of an in-vitro foetus is an unimaginably despicable act but David Nott has had to operate upon such unfortunate victims.
Though there has been no world war since 1945 but the continuously raging conflicts in different parts of the world especially since the 1990s has been relentless. There seems to be no respite with wars of various intensities erupting around the globe. In most cases the war zones Dr Nott has been to have been fiercely fought religious clashes resulting in chilling pogroms. The horrors described in every territory, in every conflict zone, in every nation are numbing. Over the years David Nott has learned to focus on healing and doing the best by his patients irrespective of religion or colour. Yet he has over the years also sensed the growing hostility towards a British/a white man working in the conflict zones while realising he is also exposing himself to the very real danger of being kidnapped and taken hostage, worse still being killed. Anything is possible. In these zones no known rules of civil or military conduct exist or are observed. What exists are enforcement of irrational and arbitrary orders by the two opposing sides of the conflict and this seems to hold true universally for all conflict zones.
David Nott became interested in helping people after he watching the film The Killing Fields about the Khmer Rouge and its pogroms in Cambodia.
What first inspired you to become a war doctor? Two things. The first was Roland Joffé’s film The Killing Fields, which had a huge impact on me when I saw it as a trainee surgeon. There is a scene in a hospital in Phnom Penh, overrun with patients, where a surgeon has to deal with a shrapnel injury – I wanted to be that surgeon. The second big spur was watching news footage from Sarajevo back in 1993. There was this man on the television, looking desperately through the rubble for his daughter. Eventually he found her and took her to the hospital but there were no doctors there to help her. I thought, “Right, I’m off”. ( War doctor David Nott: ‘The adrenaline was overpowering’, The Guardian, 24 Feb 2019)
David Nott is a seasoned hand at performing surgeries under the most distressful conditions. It has undoubtedly had an impact on his psyche as the near-breakdown he had in the Syrian hospital when reviewing a case, or when a debriefing at the MSF office which should have normally taken 45 minutes took six hours, much of which was spent with him crying. Or when he famously was asked to lunch by the Queen to Buckingham Palace and was unable to speak:
My diminishing ability to cope was rather
spectacularly exposed a week later, when I was invited to a private lunch with
the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The contrast between those gilded walls and the
ravaged streets of Aleppo began doing weird things to my head. I was sitting on
the Queen’s left and she turned to me as dessert arrived. I tried to speak, but
nothing would come out of my mouth. She asked me where had I come from. I
suppose she was expecting me to say, “From Hammersmith,” or something like
that, but I told her I had recently returned from Aleppo. “Oh,” she said. “And
what was that like?”
My mind filled instantly with images of toxic dust, of crushed school desks, of bloodied and limbless children and of David Haines, Alan Henning and those other western aid workers whose lives had ended in the most appalling fashion. My bottom lip started to go and I wanted to burst into tears, but I held myself together. She looked at me quizzically and touched my hand. She then had a quiet word with one of the courtiers, who pointed to a silver box in front of her, which was full of biscuits. “These are for the dogs,” she said, breaking one of the biscuits in two and giving me half. Together, we fed the corgis. “There,” the Queen said. “That’s so much better than talking, isn’t it?” ( “David Nott: ‘They told me my chances of leaving Aleppo alive were 50/50‘” The Guardian, 24 Feb 2019)
War Doctor is an extraordinary memoir for it details the unforgiving violence that man can perpetrate on his own kind with absolutely no remorse. It does not seem to matter to the people leading the wars that innocent lives and entire cities are being destroyed. David Nott while stitching up patients, performing amputations, delivering babies, watching babies and adults die, visiting morgues that are piled high with bodies that the director of the hospital shows Nott in a matter-of-fact manner, or constantly being drenched in blood gushing out of wounds, collapsing on to the bed in a deep sleep only to wake up and put on shoes and the surgical gown that are caked in blood. After a while the gut-wrenching descriptions of the patients Nott operates upon seem to blur into one another except for the consistency of the massive trauma they have all experienced. The patients he operates upon range from civilians, military personnel to even mercenaries. Descriptions of entire families wiped out by bombs, children orphaned, little infants abandoned with gaping head wounds, teenagers bleeding uncontrollably due to shrapnel wounds, a little boy burning with heat with a possible diagnosis of malaria by Nott which is ignored by the local doctor who insists it is appendicitis and the next time Nott sees the boy with an incision in his abdomen but is in a black body bag parked in the doctor’s changing room for there is no where else to store it in the overflowing hospital! There are some success stories too. For instance when he argued on behalf of an infant to be evacuated to London if she had to survive but was denied permission by MSF, stripped of his credentials with the organisation and permitted to take the risk on his own. He did. The girl survived.
For most of these years spent in the conflict and disaster zones he has been a bachelor with only his parents to be concerned about. Once they too were gone Nott was lonely and was able to focus upon his work with his heart and soul. It was years later when at a fund raiser for Syria he met his future wife Eleanor, then an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, did the enormity of his loneliness sink in. Most likely this manifested itself in his breakdown as for the first time in his life he finally had someone whom he loved dearly to return to in London.
Now he lives in London with his wife and two daughters. He has also established the David Nott Foundation. It is a UK registered charity which provides surgeons and medical professionals with the skills they need to provide relief and assistance in conflict and natural disaster zones around the world. As well as providing the best medical care, David Nott Foundation surgeons trains local healthcare professionals; leaving a legacy of education and improved health outcomes.
War Doctor is a firsthand account of the unnecessary manmade violence and chaos unleashed upon other humans in conflict zones. It is a sobering reminder of exactly how much irrational behaviour man is capable of. The devastating repurcussions on society, on families, on individuals, the wilful destruction of property and the enormous rehabilitation and reconstruction work required to rebuild civil sociey seems to be of no consequence to those who revel in war mongering and in all likelihood participate in it as well. This is a book that must be read by everyone, even those who believe that going to war, performing surgical strikes, are the only way to resolve disputes instead of finding resolutions through peace talks and exploring alternative soft diplomacy tactics such as civil engagement.
Read War Doctor. It will become a seminal part of contemporary conflict literature. It will probably in the coming year be nominated for a literary award or two.
The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury is an interesting tribute to a short lived but intense literary movement in West Bengal that has left an lasting impact around the world. Their well documented relationship with the Beats poet is also analysed in The Hungryalists. This book will become one of the go-to reads on The Hungryalists precisely for the very reason that little documentation of the movement exists in English as these poets mostly wrote in Bengali. So to transcend languages and cultures requires a bridging language which is English.
The Hungryalist or the hungry generation movement was a literary movement in Bengali that was launched in 1961, by a group of young Bengali poets. It was spearheaded by the famous Hungryalist quartet — Malay Roychoudhury, Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy. They had coined Hungryalism from the word ‘Hungry’ used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his poetic line “in the sowre hungry tyme”. The central theme of the movement was Oswald Spengler’s idea of History, that an ailing culture feeds on cultural elements brought from outside. These writers felt that Bengali culture had reached its zenith and was now living on alien food. . . . The movement was joined by other young poets like Utpal Kumar Basu, Binoy Majumdar, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Basudeb Dasgupta, Falguni Roy, Tridib Mitra and many more. Their poetry spoke the displaced people and also contained huge resentment towards the government as well as profanity. … On September 2, 1964, arrest warrants were issued against 11 of the Hungry poets. The charges included obscenity in literature and subversive conspiracy against the state. The court case went on for years, which drew attention worldwide. Poets like Octavio Paz, Ernesto Cardenal and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg visited Malay Roychoudhury. The Hungryalist movement also influenced Hindi, Marathi, Assamese, Telugu & Urdu literature. ( “The Hungryalist Movement: When People Took Their Fight Against The Government” Md Imtiaz, The Logical Indian, 29 June 2016)
With the permission of the publisher here are two short extracts from the book:
Like everywhere else,
the shadow of caste hung over the burning ghats as well. There were different
burning sections for different castes. The Indian poets accompanying Ginsberg
were usually Brahmins. Being there and smoking up was in itself an act of
defiance, which normally nobody but the tantrics indulged in. Sunil, who had
brought in his dead father here not too long ago, even joked about the place.
Later, Ginsberg would go on to write:
I lay in my
Calcutta bed, eye fixed
On the green
shutters in the wall, crude
Wood that might
have been windows
in your Cottage,
with a rusty nail
and a ring iron at
To open on heaven.
Wall, the murmur
of sidewalk sleepers,
the burning ghat’s
sick rose flaring
miles away, my cough
from flu and too
the bowels and
War was on everyone’s mind. Ginsberg spoke extensively on what he called the ‘era of wars’. ‘There are as many different wars as the very nature of these wars,’ he had told his fellow poets. Following the death of Stalin
and the Cuban Missile Crisis, an uneven calm seemed to have descended, only to
be followed by skirmishes here and there. Issues of sovereignty dominated East
and West Germany; the Kurds and Iraq were at loggerheads; closer home, the
Tibetans were, of course, still struggling to ward off the Chinese invasion of
Without much ado,
Ginsberg, along with Orlovsky and Fakir, arrived one Sunday at the Coffee House
looking for Bengali poets. The cafe was abuzz with writers, editors and
journalists. Each group had a different table—some had joined two or more
tables and brought together different conversations on one plate. But somehow,
everyone seemed to have an inchoate understanding of the business of war and
what it spelled out for them in the end.
Ginsberg’s arrival was something of a coincidence, Samir mused. Contrary to what one would think was a far-fetched reality, especially in bourgeois Calcutta, a significant number of young Indian students had around that time begun applying for undergraduate courses in American colleges and universities. Times had fundamentally changed, of course. Where once an aspiring middle-class Bengali academic might have chosen to pursue his studies at either Oxford or Cambridge or some university in the Soviet Union, the new mindset now included American universities as the next lucrative biggie to venture forth into. Typically, one would hear snide remarks and private jokes about it in inner
circles—about the disloyalty apparent in such choices and more. But those with aspirational values had
learnt to live with it, was Malay’s understanding.
Even amid the erratic
crowd and the loud voices that drowned everything in coffee, Ginsberg commanded
attention. Samir had recalled to Malay:
He approached our table, where Sunil, Shakti, Utpal and I sat, with no hesitation whatsoever. There was no awkwardness in talking to people he hadn’t ever met. None of us had seen such sahibs before, with torn clothes, cheap rubber chappals and a jhola. We were quite curious. At that time, we were not aware of how well known a poet he was back in the US. But I remember his eyes—they were kind and curious. He sat there with us, braving the most suspicious of an entire cadre of wary and sceptical Bengalis, shorn of all their niceties—they were the fiercest lot of Bengali poets—but, somehow, he had managed to disarm us all. He made us listen to him and tried to genuinely learn from us whatever it was that he’d wanted to learn, or thought we had to offer. Much later, we came to know that there had been suspicions about him being a CIA agent, an accusation he was able to disprove. In the end, we just warmed up to him, even liked him. He became one of us—a fagging, crazy, city poet with no direction or end in sight.
All around the Coffee
House, there were discussions on war. Would the Chinese Army march up to
Calcutta? Would the Indian soldiers hold out? During one of these discussions, Ginsberg
spoke with conviction: ‘People who want peace must intervene now, before it’s
too late. But, no one will, I’m afraid. Let’s have debates if you will, let’s
get talking. Let the Nehrus, the Maos and the Kennedys of this world come
together, sit across and talk. Who are we without a debate?’
Very early on, the Hungryalists had announced, rather brashly, their lack of faith and what they thought of god. To them religion was an utter waste of time, and they made no bones about this. In fact, in one of their bulletins, they had openly denounced god and called organized religion nonsense. Many of the Hungryalists, with their sharp knowledge of Hindu scriptures, had been challenging temple elders on the different rituals and modes of worship. This came as a shock to many, in a country where religion was very much a part of everyday life—a matter of pride and culture even. On the other hand, Ginsberg was evidently quite taken with religion in India and sought out sadhus and holy men wherever he went in the country. While this might have been because he was in search of a guru, he seemed to be fascinated, in equal measure, by the sheer variety that religion opened for him in India—from Kali worship to Buddhism. But like the Beats, the Hungryalists came together in denouncing the politics of war, which merged with their larger world view.
A tribute to the Hungryalist movement was uploaded on YouTube. It is in Bengali. Here is the film. In the comments Malay RoyChoudhury has also replied.
Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution Penguin Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 190 Rs 599
Nihilistic resistance is the worst kind of enemy; it was all the rage, we were taught in our Cultural Sensitivity 101. Colonel Slatter had laid out the foundations: We used to have art for art’s sake; now we have war for the sake of war. No lands captured, no slaves taken, no mass rapes, fuck their oil wells, ignore their mineral deposits. You can outsource mass rape. War has been condensed to carpet-bombing followed by dry rations and craft classes for the refugees. People who had not left their little hamlets for centuries, goatherds who belived in nothing but grassy fields and folk music, women who had never walked beyond the village well, not they could all go and live in UN tents, eat exotic food donated by USAID and burp after drinking fizzy drinks.
Mohammed Hanif’s third novel Red Birds is a brilliant political satire using primarily three narrators — Momo, a teenager who dreams of becoming a millionaire after having read Fortune 500; Ellie, a US fighter pilot who ejected out of his burning plane in to the desert and Mutt, Momo’s dog, who has been anthropomorphised by the novelist. The three sections of the book are the three locations where the story is set — the desert, the camp and the hangar. These are in a geographical location that is never very clear where it exists but many readers will recognise it to be an amalgamation of many conflict zones around the world. For the first two sections of the book the women characters of Mother Dear and Lady Flowerbody are present and contribute to the conversations but it is reported speech. Mother Dear is Momo’s mother and absolutely furious with her husband for having taken away their elder son, Bro Ali. Father Dear introduces Lady Flowerbody as his co-worker. Lady Flowerbody is the new Coordinating Officer for the Families Rehabilitation Programme who “works with the families affected by raids and is conducting a survey on post-conflict conflict resolution strategies that involve histories and folklore”. Whereas Lady Flowerbody claims she is writing her “PhD thesis on the Teenage Muslim Mind, their hopes, their desires; it might come out as a book called The Children of the Desert“. It is only in the third section of the novel, “In the Hangar”, that the women characters speak and when they do it is powerfully and lucidly.
If the story can be encapsulated in a nutshell it would be about the family in the refugee camp whose elder son went off to the hangar but never returned. Dear Father is suspected by his family of having sold off his elder son. Dear Mother who is mostly confined to the kitchen cooking is given to ranting but she is mostly “off stage”. The male characters — her husband and son, later to be joined by the pilot and a nomad-turned-doctor — mostly hear her out with the husband being the most dismissive of her angry monologues particularly when he cannot understand her obsessiveness with the lack of salt and her inability to cook a decent meal. Ellie is a participant and a spectator to this, more like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, but he has his own concerns to worry about. Ellie worries about his wife and his job.
Former Pakistan Air Force pilot-turned-journalist Mohammed Hanif scathing political satire Red Birds is reminiscent of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Apparently cadet Hanif discovered Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 in the Air Force Academy library. In an interview with BBC journalist Razia Iqbal in 2014, Hanif said he loved Heller’s novel and read it “at least 22 times”. He said he found the book funny but their lives were not unfunny. Hanif adds that Heller certainly changed Hanif’s outlook on the world he was living in.
Red Birds is a fine novel. The deadpan style of writing reveals the absurd situations of war zones. The absurdity of the scenarios are funny too. But it is chilling to realise that these absurd moments are plausible in a conflict zone. Take for instance Father Dear carting piles and piles of files, the nomad-turned-doctor who is called in to treat Mutt, the teenager Momo who learns to drive and steers while sitting on a pile of cushions or Mother Dear who is worried about the lack of salt ( which is actually not unfunny for many, especially women, who have lived in conflict zones).
Red Birds is a sharply satirical novel that cannot be ignored. It is bound to be on the literary prize lists in the coming year. Perhaps even win a prize or two. Read it!
I read award-winning writer Anuradha Roy‘s stunning new novel All The Lives We Have Never Livedwhich is set during the second world war in British India and Bali. The narrator is Abhay Chand or Myshkin Chand Rozario who many years later in 1992 recounts details of his childhood. His mother was a Bengali Hindu and his father part-Anglo Indian. When Myshkin was nine his mother left the Rozario family. Myshkin was left in the care of his grandfather, a doctor, Bhavani Chand Rozario and his father, a college lecturer, Nek Chand. A couple of years after his wife’s departure Nek Chand left on a pilgrimage. He returned home with another wife, Lipi and a daughter, Ila.
Gayatri Sen left India for Bali with German artist Walter Spies and another friend of his Beryl. While in Bali, Gayatri would write letters to her son but particularly long and detailed ones to her best friend Lisa McNally. Myshkin receives his mother’s correspondence to Lisa from her children upon her death.
After finishing the novel I wrote Anuradha Roy a long letter. Here are some excerpts.
Today I finished reading All the Lives We Never Lived. It is another one of your stories that will be with me for a long, long time to come.
I loved the dramatic opening sentence “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” It is similar to another novelist I thoroughly enjoy — Nell Zink. I like how you begin as from the present moment, with the boy, now an old man, reflecting back to his childhood. Obviously the opening sentence defined him for years as that is what is crystal clear. He echoes what society says about his mother. Although the rhythm and cadences of the text are so correctly measured with never a word out of place. It is a voice of experience speaking, yet one who is so terribly (and understandably) rattled by his mother’s letters towards the end that he walks through the local marketplace distractedly.
Your descriptions of the women writing letters to each other with every line scrawled upon, as well as in the margins and wherever they could find space transported me back immediately to my days of writing letters. When my friends left India, I would send them letters by snail mail. In those days’ international postage was so expensive for the heavy packets since the letters were long and used a lot of paper. So I devised a method of using an aerogramme and writing as tiny as I could and then writing across the margin and filling up whatever little space I could find on the page.
So you can imagine my delight to discover the letters between Gayatri and Lisa McNally in All the Lives We Never Lived. You had to my mind so effectively managed to make that leap of unearthing memories not only of the characters but also of the reader. So many times I found myself slowing down or grinding to a halt in your descriptions of the plants and trees. The descriptions of the gardener plucking the jasmine and collecting them in a basket of white cloud to later thread them as a gajra for Gayatri brought back a flood of memories. Every morning in the searing summer heat I would go to my grandmother’s garden in Meerut and pluck all the beautiful white blooms off the bushes. Later I would thread the flowers into gajras for the women in the family. It was a daily ritual over summer vacation I loved. The moment I read that passage in your book I got a strong whiff of the sweet fragrance of the flowers –perfect for summer as well as of the needle used to thread would be coated with sticky nectar.
The beauty of nature, the flowering trees whether in the scorching dry heat or in the tropics to the mountain vegetation. The burst of colour in your novel makes its presence felt but what is truly exhilarating is how Gayatri and later her son gets associated with the most vibrantly colourful passages describing nature in the book. The passage where you describe Myshkin filling up his long-unused sketchbooks with studies of trees and plants in the garden while remembering his mother are like the last movement of a symphony, where everything comes together as a whole. It is as if Myshkin is expressing his delight at discovering the joy of who his mother was and experiencing her life through his paintings.
Over the next weeks, my long-unused sketchbooks filled with studies of the trees and plants in the garden that I associated with my mother: the pearly carpet of parijat flowers, Nyctanthes arbortristis, that she loved walking on barefoot; the neem near the bench where she had sat with Beryl listening to the story of Aisha. I barely slept, I forgot meals, I drew and painted her garden as if possessed. I drew the Crepe myrtle and Queen of the Night, the common oleander and hibiscus; the young mangoes on the tree in June, as raw as they had been when Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies first came to our house.
It took me five days to finish my studies of Queen of the Night and then I turned to the garnet blossoms of the Plumeria rubra, the champa. I painted the long, elliptic leaves, the swollen stem tips, the fleshy branches that go from grey to green and ooze milk if bruised or cut. I blended in the ochre at the edges of the petals with the deepening incandescence of the red in the depths of the flower.
Your descriptions of the gulmohar and amaltas trees (though you use the scientific names) are stupendous. One has to live in this ghastly dry heat of the north Indian plans to realise just how much the bright deep rich yellows and fiery reds actually seem pleasant on a hot summer day. Of course the entire sub-plot of the Sundar Nursery and the superintendent of horticulture, Alick Percy-Lancaster, is absolutely fascinating! Years ago I recall you had published the gardening journals of the nursery in a brown hardback with a dustjacket. It is still one of my prized possessions. So I absolutely understood your love for greenery and making a new city green, or the distress at the unnecessary felling of the neem trees in Calcutta and Myshkin’s grief for it was he who had planted the saplings as a young horticulturist.
The characters you create are always so memorable. In a very male household there are only two women – the ayah/cook Banno Didi and Gayatri—who “typically” do not have much of a say in what is happening but the authorial eye gives sufficient clues to the existence of the women and it is not just the tantrums they throw. Or even the religious leader Mukti Devi, head of the Muntazi Seva Gahar, Society for Indian Patriots, whose image in the reader’s mind is created by Nek Chand’s accounts of her. Later even Myshkin’s surprise and then cruel assertion with his stepmother to lord it over in the manner he has seen his father behave, brings into play the sense of patriarchal entitlement men seem to have – even the best of them. This is exactly why I was so surprised to read the exchange of letters, of which only one set remain, but that is enough to give a great insight into the free spirit Gayatari was. There are so many women in this novel, some prominent (Gayatri, Lisa, Lipi, Banno, Beryl), some absolutely silent (Kadambri, Queen Fatima and Lucille) and others with walk-on parts (Ila’s daughter, Gayatri’s mum, Ni Wayan Arini and many of those in Indonesia). The little interlude with the story of Amrita from Maitreyi Devi’s novel is fantastic too.
The first half of the book is full of men but in the second half the women take over the narrative. You suddenly make visible that is mostly invisible to most eyes, especially male eyes, of the myriad ways in which women manage the daily rhythms of life. It is not just the concerns Gayatri has for her family and mentions it often to Lisa but also the management of it long distance by persuading Lisa to keep a kindly eye on the grandfather and Myshkin. And yet, it is very liberating to see how you make visible the thoughts of the women, their innermost thoughts, their experiences that are usually never made public. Lipi is the only one who upset at her husband’s high-handedness of sending her home instead of allowing her to sit through the musical concert because of her toddler Ila prompts Lipi to create a massive bonfire. She is very direct in her response; almost earthy.
You weave these intricate webs but ever so slightly shift perspectives too. Little Myshkin observes everything, perhaps not always quite understanding it, and yet he absorbs. It becomes a part of who he is and it is best expressed in his writing and later the paintings he draws as an old man. What I truly loved about the novel was how at the beginning the women and men were operating as expected in their socially defined gendered roles despite the magnificent opening line. The prose moves as one would want of a well-structured novel. It lulls one into expecting a good old fashioned story with a few unpredictable twists. Then come the disruptions not just to the domestic setup but also to the prose, the letters make their presence felt and force the reader to engage with the female mind set, even the “common or garden species of readers” is forced to be involved! You reserve many of the tiny details that really evoke the period in the women’s correspondence; later this fine eye for the “thingyness of things” is visible when old Myshkin begins to paint with as much care and attention to detail as his mother may have done.
At another level I felt that Gayatri was trapped yet the manner in which she comes free and you express it so well by changing the text form too. From the “rigidity” of long prose — since it does have a bunch of rules governing it — to the free flowing style of letters. It is not just the breaking of shackles of the form to express herself to Lisa but also the manner in which Gayatri writes. There is a sense of freedom. The correspondence is so much like the intimate conversations women have with each other, whether strangers or friends. They immediately lapse into it.
For someone so one with the elements as Gayatri seems to have been it is does not seem to be out of order to have her engulfed in so many charming stories beginning with Beryl’s own life or her narration of man-woman Aisha, or even Walter Spies himself. The freedom with which they lived; possibly Bohemian but undeniably a very talented group of individuals. Everyone had tremendous “backstories”, some dastardly, all possibly true, and yet their zest for life to explore more and more was so in keeping with character. Through these experiences she meets or hears about different forms of sexualities that exist; Gayatri accepts all these stories and never judges, instead wonders “There must have been a time when love did not have moral guardians saying you may do this but not that – this is how it is in Bali now & how it was in our country hundreds of years ago”.
The parallels that you draw tell another narrative too. For example, referring to Gayatri as “The Indian Painter” and recounting the Amrita story in Maitreyi Devi’s novel is so deftly done as if to silence critics who may be prompted to say that feisty, independent, strong-willed, headstrong women like Gayatri who is “glad to have time to work” could not possibly have existed in British India. The political-historical parallels are unmistakable as well with Arjun’s desire for the country to be governed by a “benign dictatorship” followed by Nek Chand sighing about his students who were locked up for sedition “We are fugitives in our own land.” Gayatri’s statement “I am finding out how limited my world was” seems to resonate at many levels for this story and modern India. Gayatri is ever so magical in the manner in which you create her. She comes across as a modern woman but caught in the wrong time. Sadly though how many women living today can still express themselves or be so confident as to take charge of their own lives as Gayatri did?
The title of the book + the epigraph taken from Tobias Wolff “This is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell”, only coalesce as significant once the book is finished. I loved the way in which you immerse the reader as if to exist within a Greek chorus, a multitude of voices, giving their often unasked-for opinions, and yet doing a fantastic job of recreating a moment or a “truth” within a community. The vagueness of the town adds to the blurriness of incidents happening in the past. I do not know how to explain it to say that the story exists in the past sufficiently and in the memory of Myshkin to be real and yet, a little hazy. Loss of the finer details are immaterial as long as the period is evoked; and even the importance of that fades away as the story progresses. And yet reading my response to your book I realise this story will trigger many memories for many readers for you tease out the floodgates of memory ever so gently and politely. It worked for me. It is a powerful book.
Anuradha Roy All The Lives We Never Lived Hachette India, Gurugram, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 334. Rs 599
Of late there has been an increase in the amount of historical fiction set during the second world war by contemporary writers. These are two wonderful examples. The Bicycle Spy introduces young readers to the Resistance and German occupation of France. It is a story told from the perspective of a young boy who discovers his classmate is a Jew from Paris and needs protection. With the help of his parents he sets out on his mission. Likewise Brave Like My Brother is about a young American soldier who is recruited and within three days packed off to England and later, France. The story is told via letters he exchanges with his younger brother. As the writer says he did take some creative license to tell it but it’s embedded in facts such as Eisenhower’s visit to the Allied troops in Europe and the use of inflatable armoured vehicles to be used as decoy before D-day.
Both the books, published by Scholastic, are immensely readable and a great way to introduce children to different aspects of the war. Now for similar yalit fiction about conflict situations in other geographies.
At a time when international politics is dominated by talks about terrorism — inevitably equated with Islam and influential leaders are spewing hatred, it is heartening to come across two books linked to Sufism —Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love and Ajmer Sharif. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam though all orders trace their origins back to Prophet Mohammed. It is a form of Islam which believes in spreading the message of love. Two of the most famous practitioners were Muinuddin Chishti (1141 – 1236) who established the Chishti order of Sufism in India and the second is Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī or Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273) as he is more popularly known.
The biography of Rumi by Brad Gooch, New York Times bestselling author is a fascinating blend of part-memoir, part biographical and a bit of translation. Brad Gooch explains how he became familiar with Rumi and decided to write his biography but only after he had learned Persian well enough to read the original texts. So many of the passages translated into English and published in the book were done by Brad Gooch himself. Rumi got his name as he spent much of his adult life in Turkey which in the 13th century was part of the Byzantium empire. So “Rumi” is a corruption of “Rome”. There is a comfortably gentle style of storytelling that describes Rumi’s childhood, his move from Balkh to Turkey, his poetry, the violence of Chenghiz Khan, his personal life and finally his funeral which was attended by leaders of all other religions. This biography has an equally significant narrative about Brad Gooch’s own engagement with the poet and this beautifully intertwined with the factual account of Rumi’s life. This account highlights how these two lives may be separated by a few centuries but Rumi’s poetry and philosophy remains incredibly relevant in the twenty-first century. It would have probably enriched the book considerably if pictures had been tipped in of paintings, manuscripts and places associated with the poet.
Ajmer Sharif is an illustrated history about the dargah of Muinuddin Chishti written by Reema Abbasi. It is not only an account of the Sufi giant but also consists of accounts of his more prominent disciples such as Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. The book is packed with elaborate descriptions of the buildings, the lineage, the rituals and customs, the significant festivals observed and of course, some of the violent history associated with Ajmet at the time of establishing the sect in India. It is estimated that more than 150,000 people visit the shrine every day. It must be quite an administrative achievement to ensure the smooth functioning of such an important shrine. Though the book while focusing on the mysticism and impact the Sufi saint has had upon devotees for centuries it sadly glosses over the administrative structures put in place soon after Independence wherein it is managed by the Dargah Khwaja Saheb Act, 1955 of the government of India. The book contains more than 200 images but alas they do little to enhance the narrative sufficiently. The pictures are not of very high resolution, clarity or strong compositions and it transpires many have been used from Wikipedia. ( The links are provided.) Despite the shortcomings of not having high quality photographs to accompany the text Ajmer Sharif is a decent introduction to such a significant shrine.
Sufism is a very influential philosophy and people of all faiths gravitate towards it. They approach it in myriad ways — whether by its poetry, music, beliefs etc. Ultimately it is a belief which for its main tenet of preaching love is revered worldwide. It has withstood the test of time over many centuries surviving through some tumultous epochs as well. Maybe its time for contemporary politicans who spread communal hatred to read Sufi literature.