Himal Southasian now available to purchase online

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Shameless spruiking, but what’s the point of having a personal blog if you can’t do some self-promoting at times?!
My employer, Himal Southasian magazine, has just set up an online payment portal so that international readers can buy copies of the magazine and subscribe. Readers in Southasian countries may be able to find the magazine in bookshops, depending on where you are located, but the distribution doesn’t reach everywhere. I encourage anyone who has any interest in Southasian culture, society, politics, literature, history, to consider a subscription or purchase of single issues. I used to read and enjoy the magazine long before I started work here, so I can vouch for its quality from a reader’s perspective, and not just an employee’s!

Furthermore, my reviews of William Dalrymple’s Return of a King and Hanifa Deen’s On the Trail of Taslima appear in the April and July 2013 issues, respectively.

As always, Himal has a great online magazine, too, with different content from the print issue.

Godavari, Fahmida Riaz (2008) Translated from Urdu by Aquila Ismail

Godavari, by Fahmida Riaz. Translated from the 1998 Urdu novel of the same title by Aquila Ismail. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. (Purchased in India).

Though very short at only 110 pages, Fahmida Riaz’s Godavari is a dense book that packs a lot in, wasting few words. The story is told from Ma’s perspective, and recounts her family’s holiday at a hill station in Maharashtra, somewhat reminiscent of Ooty in Tamil Nadu, or the Wayanad region of Kerala. The family is Pakistani, having moved to India some time before, a fact that would always cause problems in India, but is particularly worrisome at the time being recounted in the novel, as their holiday coincides with an outbreak of communal violence in Bombay. On one level, Godavari is about Indian Hindu-Muslim relations, told through the personal perspective of a single family. On another, it is about adivasi politics and the Hindu right wing’s cooptation of tribal peoples into the Hindutva fold. And yet on another level, Godavari is an intimate story of a wife’s struggle to come to terms with her husband’s flirtations with the hired help.

The complexity of the politics and relationships in Godavari is one of its strengths, and what Riaz manages to communicate through very select language and imagery is impressive. However, some of it could have done with a bit more fleshing out. I felt that I didn’t get to know many of the characters very well as they were being used so sparsely and symbolically.

I was drawn to Godavari out of curiosity over how a Pakistani writer would depict Indian communal tensions. Riaz was born in 1946 in undivided India, but is an Urdu-language Pakistani writer. On the whole, the critical perspectives on Hindutva (the Shiv Sena is singled out here, as the novel is based in Maharashtra) were not so very different from how many Indian writers, particularly female writers, treat the topic. I found though that there was a bit more explanation of things, such as regional political movements, that may have been taken for granted by an Indian author writing for Indian readers. The audience for Riaz’s Urdu book would be mostly Pakistani, and while I’m sure educated Pakistanis have the same knowledge of Hindu-Muslim problems in South Asia as Indians, they may not be so aware of the regional Indian politics.

I particularly like the description of the chaos caused to the postal system when the decision was first made to officially change Bombay’s name to Mumbai. The change is usually discussed either on political terms (it was an imposition of the right-wing Marathi chauvinism of the Shiv Sena) or in linguistic ones (it is more “natural” to call the city Mumbai when speaking in Marathi, Bombay when in English). I had never read a comedic (albeit wry) account through the lens of practicality:
“In the end the government decided to really implement the law and used the postal department for this purpose. Therefore a notification was issued that in future only the mail which said Mumbai and not Bombay would be delivered.
With this notification the postal system of Bombay was badly disrupted. This grand commercial and industrial centre of Asia received thousands of letters and parcels every day from abroad. When the error was realized in two days the notification was withdrawn. In its place a relatively softer injunction was issued that let Bombay be accepted when written in English, but in Hindi only Mumbai was acceptable.
But this law could not be implemented. The government of Maharashtra could not enforce its laws in other Indian states, and could not force citizens of other states, for example, Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan, to write or say Mumbai instead of Bombay. And the governments of other states did not show even an iota of interest in this Maharashtra government law.” (p. 102)

An interesting article by Fahmida Riaz recently appeared in the Pakistani English-language news outlet Dawn, an article called “This too is Pakistani Fiction“. In this, Riaz discusses how though she has been writing since 1967, she has been overlooked by Pakistani literary critics of Urdu literature. But this article is not just a whinge about not receiving enough praise herself. Riaz also laments that much progressive Urdu literature has been overlooked by literary critics, and this is surely a problem for a country and a culture that seems to take so much pride in their literary prowess.

Stupid Guy Goes to India, Yukichi Yamamatsu (2012) Translated from Japanese by Kumar Sivasubramanian

Stupid Guy Goes to India
Stupid Guy Goes to India, by Yukichi Yamamatsu. Translated from the 2008 Japanese ‘Indo e baka ga yattekita’ by Kumar Sivasubramanian. Chennai: Blaft and Tranquebar, 2012. (Purchased from Book Depository UK).


As I’m fairly intimate with both Japan (having lived there for nineteen months some years ago) and India (numerous research trips and travels), the clashing of the two cultures in Stupid Guy Goes to India appealed to me. And they really do clash! In 2004, manga author Yukichi Yamamatsu, 56 and never before having left Japan, decided that the best way to revive his stagnant career was to take Japanese manga to India: “If I take manga there, I’m sure to be able to sell it!” Naive last words. I still don’t understand why Yamamatsu chose India of all places for his first adventure out of Japan. After a year and a half living and working in Japan, I felt thoroughly stifled and jaded, so immediately after leaving made my first trip to India. It was exactly what I needed, the complete opposite in every way, and, you could say, I never looked back. Yamamatsu didn’t have such a positive trip, but I respect his adventurousness.

Stupid Guy Goes to India is Yamamatsu’s account of his several months in India trying to translate, print, and sell Hindi translations of his best-selling samurai manga. He achieves minor successes, yes, amongst a great deal of hardship and a lot of humour–he can’t speak or read either English or Hindi when he arrives, he can’t tolerate spicy food, and he has some rather serious problems with his colon.

Page from Stupid Guy goes to India

Humour aside, it is not really the plot that is most interesting about this book, but rather its format: an English translation of his Yamamatsu’s Japanese account of his time in Delhi. I never understood the attraction of manga when I lived in Japan, couldn’t get past the fact that it looked like picture books, and found the genre strangely earnest despite its preference for the fantastical. I’m not entirely sure I get it still, but Stupid Guy Goes to India did help me appreciate the visual comedy of the form. I loved the characters’ mouths especially. Yamamatsu, when agitated or excited, and Indians most of the time, were illustrated with their mouths wide open, tonsils visible, bellowing their emotions. I loved the incongruity of some of this–Japanese people, on the whole, do not respect public displays of negative emotion, getting angry in public (for instance, at bad service) being one of the quickest ways to lose respect. That Yamamatsu is depicted on the cover open mouthed and arms raised skyward is perhaps a sign of the depths of frustration he plummeted to in India. I can empathise–I think I spend most of my time in that country with the same expression, but I feel the more empowered for it. I’m not sure Japan would take me back these days.

Yamamatsu’s trials are not resolved at the end of this book, and though we are left with an image of an Air India flight back to Japan, we are also promised that Stupid Guy Goes Back to India is coming soon. As amusing as I found this book, I’m not sure I’ll be reading the sequel. The novelty of the concept had largely worn off by the time I’d finished this, and there is little more than novelty to attract readers other than manga fans. Also, non-Hindi speaking readers be warned that as Yamamatsu becomes more competent at Hindi, the translation includes more and more of that language (transliterated into Roman script, not Devanagari) which could be quite alienating if you can’t understand it.

Stupid Guy Goes to India. Translated from Japanese by Kumar Sivasubramanian. Chennai: Blaft and Tranquebar Press, 2012. Originally published in Japanese as Indo e Baka ga Yattekita in 2008.

Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, Martin Uitz, 2008. Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride

Hidden Bhutan

Bhutan is a country unknown to most of the world, but if there is one thing most people do know about the small Himalayan mountain kingdom, it’s their concept of “Gross National Happiness”, as opposed to Gross National Profit, as a goal for development. Sounds lovely, I know, but I’ve always been skeptical of it. It’s all very well for leaders to say that their people are more concerned about happiness than about material wealth, but what do the citizens themselves think about this? I don’t know the answers, and as far as I can gather, too little outside research on Bhutan as a twenty-first century nation (rather than as some timeless Buddhist shangri-la) has been done. An interesting, recent opinion-piece by Chettria Patrakar on Himal Southasian‘s blog (http://himalmag.com/blogs/) also questions these common assumptions and calls for better language and scholarship from non-Bhutanese reporters and writers.

Martin Uitz’s Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon doesn’t pay a lot of attention to this common trope (somewhat mercifully) but he does question it subtley. This simple, charming travel account of contemporary Bhutan is most valuable in its descriptions of Bhutanese traditions and contemporary as well as traditional ways of life. It does read as rather anthropological at times, and hence makes for a rather old-fashioned style of travel writing, but for a reader who has very little prior knowledge of Bhutan, I found this mostly interesting. Uitz’s attention to detail in his descriptions made some of the language quite beautiful, particularly in his almost erotic description of a traditional Bhutanese hot-stone bath, where one sits in a bath and one by one hot stones are placed in the water, heating it up to steaming temperatures.

Despite all my research on South Asia, there are clearly major gaps in my geo-political historical knowledge, and Hidden Bhutan filled in some of these gaps. I didn’t know, for instance, that in 1975 Sikkim (now a state of India) became the last Himalayan country to lose its independence when it was annexed by India. Nepal and Bhutan are the only two kingdoms (or, in the case of Nepal, recent ex-kingdom) not to have been absorbed by their more powerful neighbours, with Kashmir being fought over by India and Pakistan and currently being ruled by both; the formerly independent Ladakh and Spiti now belong to India, and Swat, Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral to Pakistan.

There were other new discoveries to be found here, too. It’s funny how you can go your whole life not knowing something, and then just when you learn about it, that same thing seems to pop up everywhere for a little while, prompting you to ask how you had not known about it earlier! I was watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth on TV in Australia a few weeks ago, and was horrified by a segment on these fungi that inhabit the bodies of other creatures, such as ants, drive them bad, kill them, and then grow out of the carcass. It really looked like something from a horror movie. Well, this demonic fungus featured in Hidden Bhutan, too, and if I hadn’t seen it animated in Attenborough’s film I don’t think I would have had the imagination to picture it. Uitz describes how the fungus, Cordyceps Sinensis, is used in traditional Chinese, Tibetan and Bhutanese medicine, as it has curative properties which can also improve strength and athleticism. As such, it was associated with some Chinese doping scandals in the 1990s. With the memory of Attenborough’s film in my mind, I shudder at the thought of drinking such a potion.

Amongst all of the fascinating details, I would have liked a bit more information on the author. In my last post on Patrick Marnham’s Road to Katmandu I did criticise his over-emphasis on the characters and not the places being traveled through, but here there was perhaps the opposite problem. I would’ve liked to know more about what Uitz was doing in Bhutan, his everyday life as a foreigner there, and the major challenges he faced. But, overall, this was an informative and enjoyable short book on a little-known country.

London: The Armchair Traveller at the BookHaus, 2008. Originally published in German as Einlass ins Reich des Donnerdrachens. Verborgenes Bhutan, 2006.

Road to Katmandu, Patrick Marnham (1971)


I had seen this book for sale in Canberra’s Academic Remainders Bookshop while I was waiting to hear whether I’d got the job I wanted in Kathmandu. I was tempted to buy it right away, but decided that if I heard the very next day that I hadn’t got the job, I wouldn’t want to read it after all, I would likely feel resentful. Fickle, I know. So, when I found out that I’d got it, I bought it on my next trip to Garema Place.

However, I found it quite disappointing, not least because the Kathmandu of the title–really the only reason I noticed this book–makes a minimal appearance at the end. Patrick Marnham traveled from Turkey to Nepal, overland through Iran and Afghanistan and India, with few resources but an adventurous spirit. Road to Katmandu has been described as a classic, but I think developments in travel writing since its publication in the early 1970s–particularly changes in ideas about the role of the author–means that it has aged poorly. This was a very character-driven travel narrative, perhaps unsurprisingly as the author does note that it was a fictionalised account of the travels he undertook. But, I learned too little about the places being traveled through–even from a biased perspective, as one expects from travel literature–and too much about the young westerners who were, ultimately, pretty uninteresting and vapid people despite the amazing adventures they embarked upon. Nowadays, such self-indulgent travel to “find oneself” is normal for middle-class youths from many first-world countries, it has been thoroughly commodified and normalised. The gap year, or the OE (is this a New Zealand-ism? I never heard it in Australia) is a right of passage. I have some respect for those who blazed the trail, but perhaps nowadays it’s what we (or I) are trying to resist in travelling to exotic lands. Or at least convince ourselves isn’t the goal.

There were some aspects of Road to Katmandu that I found interesting. This was a book that was actually written quite a long time ago now, and it was easy to forget this. I was able to put this back into perspective when I read the following passage, on travelling by bus through Iran:

“The dispute continued well beyond the point of reason or experience and was followed by an hour of determined silence broken only by a youth immediately in front of us. Now and again he popped up over the back of his bench and beamed the beginning of an announcement. ‘Bobby Kennedy kaput.’ He ran his finger across his throat and disappeared still beaming. Apparently the ex-President’s brother was not popular in Persia.” (p. 80-1)

I’m an avid Mad Men fan, and several weeks ago watched the episode where Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. This seems like another age, when people wore different clothes and spoke differently and had different values, and re-contextualising the journey narrated in Road to Katmandu as also of that age is necessary to put it into perspective, to realise that young western travelers like Marnham really were being radical.

The hippy trail was, ultimately, a masculine adventure. The tokenism of female travelers in this journey–whether we are speaking of the actual journey this fictionalised account represents, or the fiction–put me off side from the start. This was not necessarily Marnham’s fault, as a writer or a traveler, as it was a sign of the times, but it prevented me from empathising with the journey. Marnham describes a rare female traveler he meets:

“Ann was a self-contained person with a devastating ability to unman the natives if they got a little out of hand. Like Maud’s brother, she simply gorgonised them from head to foot with a stony British stare. She was one of the few girls we met on the road. Not many travellers wanted to expend that much energy in guarding them. In Istanbul, rape stories had been exchanged like football scores.” (p. 41)

The 2006 edition includes an up-to-date (2005) foreword by the author, in which he does reflect on personal and political changes since Road to Katmandu was written. It should go without saying that some excellent literature provides the reader with an unfamiliar perspective on life, rather than merely reinforcing the known, and this is why most of us read. But, I couldn’t find enough in this to empathise with to really enjoy it. So I’ve been looking for books on Nepal elsewhere. Watch this space.

This edition: London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2006. First published 1971.