Review of On the Trail of Taslima by Hanifa Deen (2013) in Himal Southasian 26.3

My review of Hanifa Deen’s On the Trail of Taslima appeared in the print version of Himal Southasian 26.3. Below is an excerpt.

Who is Taslima Nasrin?

A new book unravels the mythology and persona of the controversial author, but when will it reach Southasian readers?

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On the Trail of Taslima: An International Human Rights Saga, by Hanifa Deen. Melbourne: Indian Ocean Press, 2013. (Purchased in Australia).

Hanifa Deen, a Melbourne-based author of Southasian descent writing narrative non-fiction (as she calls her genre), has built a career exploring issues related to Islam and women, and particularly to the mutual misunderstandings that often arise between Islam and the Western world. Understandably, Deen has long been intrigued by Taslima Nasrin, best known for the controversy surrounding her 1993 Bengali novel Lajja (Shame), which prompted threats against her life from Islamic fundamentalist groups and forced her into a protracted exile from her native Bangladesh since 1994. Deen included a section about Nasrin (I follow this more common spelling, though Deen prefers ‘Nasreen’) in her 1998 book Broken Bangles, and she returns to the subject in her latest book, the extensively and painstakingly researched On the Trail of Taslima, published in Melbourne earlier this year.

This, however, is not the book’s only avatar. In a slightly different form, On the Trail of Taslima was originally released in 2006 by the US publisher Praeger under the title The Crescent and the Pen: The Strange Journey of Taslima Nasreen. But the US edition was only published in hardback and sold at high cost, and was barely distributed in Australia, where Deen lives. Deen correctly felt that the story, and the enormous amount of research that went into it, deserved wider recognition. In 2012, Deen purchased the paperback rights from Praeger and revised the manuscript to reflect intervening political developments and changes in the lives of her protagonist and informants. She then re-published it herself under her preferred title, which captures the essence of the book and the motivations behind it far better than the original one.

[The rest of the article is in Himal Southasian 26.3, available to purchase here.]

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Former Tehelka journalist speaks out

There’s been some very nasty business going on in the Indian media world this past week, and I’ve avoided commenting on much of it because so much seems to be laden with vitriol and sexism (particularly towards Shoma Chaudhury who, although has clearly made mistakes, does not warrant the personal and often sexist attacks that have been leveled at her). This piece, however, from the journalist who was allegedly assaulted, is worth sharing. Not least because of her articulation of some important feminist principles that I hope aren’t lost completely in the fallout of what is going to happen.

KAFILA - 10 years of a common journey

This is the full text of the statement issued today to the media by the gutsy woman journalist who refused to take sexual harassment as routine. More power to her and others like her!

I am heartened by the broad support I have received over the past fortnight. However, I am deeply concerned and very disturbed by insinuations that my complaint is part of a pre-election political conspiracy.

I categorically refute such insinuations and put forward the following arguments:

The struggle for women to assert control over their lives and their bodies is most certainly a political one, but feminist politics and its concerns are wider than the narrow universe of our political parties. Thus, I call upon our political parties to resist the temptation to turn a very important discussion about gender, power and violence into a conversation about themselves.

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Review of Return of a King by William Dalrymple (2013) in Himal Southasian 26.2

My review appears in the print edition of Himal Southasian, 26.2. Below is an extract:

History repeating?

Dalrymple’s detailed look at the first Anglo-Afghan war hypothesises parallels between then and now. But how many of these pass muster?

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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842, William Dalrymple. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 567 + xl pages. ISBN: 978-1-4088-1830-5

William Dalrymple’s eagerly awaited Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842, is the third of the author’s major historical works that looks at the British colonialists in Southasia from a hybrid British-Southasian standpoint. It is the history of a war that the Afghans never forgot, that still lives in their collective and folk memory, but which Britain wilfully consigned to amnesia. And perhaps for good reason, from their perspective:

At the very height of the British Empire, at a point when the British controlled more of the world economy than they would ever do again, and at a time when traditional forces were everywhere being massacred by industrialised colonial armies, it was a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation.

The Great Game was at its height in 1839, and Britain was increasingly worried about the threat Russia posed to their imperial hegemony in Southasia. In response to faulty or misconstrued intelligence that Russia was taking an interest in Afghanistan, Britain invaded the latter with an army of some eighteen thousand. They deposed the ruling Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, a popular leader even in some contemporary British accounts, after he seemed to be becoming too friendly with the Russians. His defeat seemed remarkably simple. Shah Shuja, a deposed rival of Dost Muhammad’s who had been exiled in India for many years, was installed by the British as a puppet ruler. Entering the country proved easy, but staying and convincing the Afghans that they had a right to be there did not. The occupation was unpopular with the Afghan people, and resistance gathered behind Dost Muhammad and his cohort.

The rest of the article is available in Volume 26 No 2 of Himal Southasian, available to purchase here.

La.Lit: A Literary Magazine from Nepal

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My latest post on the Asymptote blog:

A new journal reviewed

At a session of the 2013 NCell Nepal Literature Festival, Nepali author Rabi Thapa asked whether small literary magazines still have much of a role to play in the promotion and dissemination of literature, considering they are so difficult to keep afloat. It was, however, somewhat of a rhetorical question, as Thapa himself is the editor of La.Lit, a Kathmandu-based literary magazine launched in January 2013. The word lalit is derived from Sanskrit and used in modern-day Hindi, Nepali, and other languages of the Indian subcontinent to mean finesse, grace, elegance, or beauty. The play on words is clear in English (the ‘Lit’ suggesting literature), but the title has another level of meaning, as Lalitpur, where it is based, is an old kingdom of the Kathmandu Valley that these days is part of the greater Kathmandu urban conglomeration. La.Lit is produced in two forms: on the web and in print, the second volume of which was launched at the Literature Festival. There is some overlap of content in the two formats.

Read the rest on the Asymptote blog.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo (2012)

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. New Delhi: Hamish Hamilton, 2012. (Purchased in India).

It was Ramachandra Guha’s endorsement on the front of the Indian version of this book that drew my attention to it: “The best book about contemporary India, the best work of non-fiction that I have read in the past twenty-five years.” I don’t tend to take these author recommendations too seriously, as who knows what behind-the-scenes machinations go on to get endorsements from prominent writers (some truly good writers have endorsed books by Kamila Shamsie, an author who I have vowed never to read again). But this one got me interested because on the surface it didn’t appear that Katherine Boo was doing anything new in writing a book about the slums of Bombay. Such literature and reportage has almost become an industry in itself, especially post-Slumdog Millionaire, and details of plot and character, you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. So how could such a hackneyed topic have caught Guha’s attention?

Boo’s extraordinary writing. This is a work of non-fiction, but it doesn’t read like it. The author enters the heads of the characters, understands their motivations and speaks their words. This could all read as creative license, and indeed I thought it was, until I read the astonishing author’s note at the back of the book: Boo did extensive fieldwork in Annawadi, the slum that is the setting for the book, recording hundreds of hours of interviews, visiting and revisiting her subjects in order to clarify details, employing a translator, gaining access to court records. The kind of research that only very dedicated and inspired writers can pull off (and that should put those like Ned Beauman to shame, who recently, at the NCell Nepal Literature Festival in Kathmandu, admitted that he loved the internet as a writer’s resource because writers like himself, “who couldn’t be bothered”, didn’t have to actually go to the places they were writing about.)

Boo follows the lives of several families in a small section of Annawadi, a slum situated next to Mumbai airport, over the course of a couple of years. I give nothing away in saying that the pivotal event (that happens early on) is the burning-to-death of a Muslim convert woman, over a neighbourhood dispute, and the ruination of a neighbouring family in being implicated in it. Even before I understood how much research had gone into this book, I inherently believed Boo’s portrayal of surroundings as accurate:

“And here at Cooper [government hospital], where fluorescent lights buzzed like horseflies, she continued to feel like a person who counted. Though the small burn ward stank of fetid gauze, it was a fine place compared to the general wards, where many patients lay on the floor. She was sharing a room with only one other woman, whose husband swore he hadn’t lit the fateful match. She had her first foam mattress, now sopping with urine. She had a plastic tube in her nostrils, attached to nothing. She had an IV bag with a used syringe sticking out of it, since the nurse said it was a waste to use a fresh syringe every time. She had a rusty metal contraption over her torso, to keep the stained sheet from sticking to her skin. But of all the new experiences Fatima was having in the burn ward, the most unexpected was the stream of respectable female visitors from Annawadi.” (pp. 99-100)

The sequence of events that follows Fatima’s death illustrates the fragility of the ability to make one’s living in the slums; the corruption and degradation that is an everyday fact of life; the ability of the desperate to keep on living when they have to. Despite ‘hope’ featuring in the title, I didn’t feel that there was very much of it here, unless it can be considered hopeful that life continues, no matter what.

Boo’s writing is what makes this book so brilliant. She has a novelist’s ability to follow characters and plot, and a poet’s sense of language. For instance: “He often presided over his lavender-walled, lavender-furnished living room in an undershirt, legs barely covered by his lungi, while his petitioners flopsweated in polyester suits.” (p. 21) I have often been dumfounded by Indian lads in their top-to-toe shiny polyester in the heat, and now have a new word with which to describe them: flopsweaty.

And the title? I had assumed it was a reference to Bollywood movies. That this book would document what happened once the cameras stopped rolling, once the beautiful happy-ever-afters were screened and everyone went home. But happy-ever-after isn’t a common trope of Bollywood movies, whereas tragedy is, perhaps more fitting for this book. Nevertheless, I was wrong, the reference isn’t to this at all. A “beautiful forever” is a particular wall in Annawadi, keeping some things out, others in; perhaps a more fitting metaphor for the lives retold in this book.

Part 2 of Asymptote dispatch

Part 2 of the dispatch on the NCell Nepal Literature Festival is now up on the Asymptote blog. This reports on the English-language sessions at the festival.

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Asymptote reports on the English sessions at the festival

Though there were more sessions in Nepali than English ones, internationally known writers still made the trip from India (Shobhaa De, Ravinder Singh, Prajwal Parajuly, Prakash Iyer, Abhay K, and Annie Zaidi), Bangladesh (Farah Ghuznavi), and the UK (Ned Beauman) to discuss their work and the work of their peers.

Read the rest here.

The End of the World by Sushma Joshi reviewed at Kitaab

I’ve just had my review of Nepali writer Sushma Joshi’s The End of the World published at Kitaab, an online magazine specialising in Asian fiction in English.

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The End of the World, by Sushma Joshi. Kathmandu: Sansar Books, 2013 (2008). (Author supplied review copy).

The experience of the way this book reached me was, unfortunately, emblematic of the present state of literary circulation in Nepal. I knew that the review copy had been sent to Kathmandu from Singapore, so I waited and waited. And waited. It never arrived. It still may, but I am not hopeful. This was not my first or last experience of things going missing in the mail. The ‘postal system’ of Nepal is not to be trusted, to put it mildly. How, then, can Nepali writers hope to be reviewed internationally and gain recognition outside Nepal, unless they have efficient and forceful promotion and distribution channels based outside the country?

Read the rest of the review at: http://kitaab.org/2013/11/18/review-the-end-of-the-world-by-sushma-joshi/