Asymptote’s take on the Wendy Doniger case

Most of what I’ve been reading on Penguin India’s decision to withdraw and pulp Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History is fairly similar: outraged and persuasive. I even wrote such a piece myself. But Eric Gurevitch’s analysis on the Asymptote blog is something a bit different, putting the controversy in a much more focused literary context. Worth reading here.

My commentary on the Doniger “The Hindus” case


My commentary in Himal Southasian on the disgusting case, in which Penguin India succumbed to the irrational, fundamentalist petition against the American scholar’s book:

“The recent case of American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) being withdrawn by Penguin India and committed to pulping is another example of India’s succumbing to regressive politics. An out-of-court settlement was reached between Penguin and the complainants, a right-wing Hindu group called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (the Save Education Movement), while the Saket court in Delhi was considering the complaint that had originally been filed in February 2010.”

Read the rest here.

Dispatch from JLF on Asymptote blog


(L-R: Rahul Soni, Carlos Rojas, Jerry Pinto, Sachin Kundalkar, Geetanjali Shree)

A look back on the “Woodstock, Live 8, and Ibiza” of world literature

“The Jaipur Literature Festival, which just hosted its tenth edition, has been called “the Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature, with an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding.” In 2013, over a quarter of a million footfalls were recorded, with 2014 promising even higher numbers. Travelling to the JLF this year (my third festival visit) from Kathmandu on a work-related trip, I attended days two, three and four. The full programme, over the course of five days, featured over 200 sessions in six venues. This year’s poor weather may have dampened things (quite literally) thanks to chilly thunderstorms throughout north-western India on day five and cold temperatures and fog on the other days—but the uncomfortably large crowds continued to congregate, turning the Diggi Palace grounds into something akin to Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station during rush hour.”

Read the rest at the Asymptote blog.

Year of Reading Women

(Bookmarks by Joanna Walsh)

2014 has been designated the Year of Reading Women on a couple of fronts: Critical Flame journal has designated 2014 a year in which they will only read and publish in women writers and writers of colour; Joanna Walsh has started the #readwomen2014 campaign.

I am probably in an opposite situation to many readers out there: for the four years that my PhD lasted, I read books almost exclusively by Indian women (apart from a few scholarly books), so when I’d done with the PhD I promised myself that I would read a bit more broadly, including plenty of men!

But I’m aware that the literary and publishing establishment the world over still favours men, white men at that. Not always deliberately or consciously, but nevertheless (statistically speaking, anyway) books by women authors receive less attention than books by male authors.

Unlike the Critical Flame journal who got the ball rolling, and some other readers and bloggers out there, I’m not going to pledge to read more female authors of colour this year, because I really do think I read plenty–ie, the majority of what I read. But I read a good piece on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog recommending a book by an Arab woman author for every month of the year, as a way in for those readers who perhaps don’t know where to start.

So here are my recommendations for South Asian women’s books to read this year:

January: Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History. I’m not of the opinion that women should always write exclusively about women, as even feminists of some persuasion do. Thapa writes cleverly and humorously about the political and social turmoil of contemporary Nepal, showing that women writers can have enormous breadth of experience and imagination.

February: Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man/Cracking India. This Pakistani author’s fictionalised account of her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947 is published under two different titles. It is a brutal account of the horrors of communalism.

March: Anjum Hasan, Lunatic in My Head. This young author from India’s Northeastearn Meghalaya state wittily brings together small town and metropolitan India.

April: Mahasweta Devi, Breast Stories. You can’t go wrong with anything by Mahasweta Devi, but this powerful collection from the fierce Bengali author is a good place to start.

May: Yasmine Gooneratne, A Change of Skies. This Sri Lankan-Australian author wrote about the immigrant experience before Jhumpa Lahiri et al made it fashionable (one could even say passe…)

June: Sorayya Khan, Noor. Khan was one of, if not the first Pakistani English-language novelist to address (West) Pakistan’s crimes in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971.

July: Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day or Baumgartner’s Bombay. This prolific Indian author has many short novels to her credit, and has been nominated for the Booker Prize several times, though she has never won. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker in 2006 though, with The Inheritance of Loss. Many consider the mother the better writer, and these two suggestions, amongst her best loved, are good places to start.

August: Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel. Hariharan is also a prolific author, with many good novels. This recommendation is a retelling of the classic Thousand and One Nights.

September: Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The only work of non-fiction to make this list, Butalia’s work of oral history is a stunning and groundbreaking work of feminist oral history.

October: Qurratulain Hyder, My Temples, Too. This Urdu-language Indian author translated her novels into English herself, which many critics say altered them enormously in the process. Several of her novels are sprawling histories, but the English translation of her first novel, My Temples, Too, about India’s Independence, is quite accessible.

November: Meena Kandasamy, Ms Militancy. The only collection of poetry to make this list (I don’t read much poetry), Kandasamy’s fierce anti-caste and anti-patriarchy poems live up to the collection’s name.

December: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. If there’s one novel by a South Asian woman that the wider world is likely to have read, it is this Booker Prize winner. If you haven’t already, you can still fit it in in December!

South Asia at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013


I feel the need to apologise for my lack of substantial blogging for the last few months. It’s been weighing heavily on me, I really wanted to write, but I wasn’t reading an South Asian literature! Very unusual for me, I know, but I have been teaching two university courses this semester, one on nineteenth century British literature with some postcolonial texts too, and one on Modernist literature, and no matter how hard I tried I just wasn’t getting through the down-time reading like I used to!

But last weekend I attended the final days of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, held at the Wharf Precinct at Walsh Bay, in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge. The attached photo sure does look glorious, and the weather was good a lot of the time, though it did piss down with rain on my first day there.

South Asian writers are not very well known, on the whole, in Australia. Some filter through, and it seems that right now people still generally remember Aravind Adiga and Kiran Desai, but that’s usually as far as it goes. It’s not surprising, then, that the South Asian representatives at the SWF were few, but quality should trump quantity I suppose (though thinking back to the Jaipur Literature Festival, it did seem to manage both…) I made the trip up to Sydney to see William Dalrymple (for the second time, that I’ve seen at least, at SWF), Pankaj Mishra, Anita Desai, and, though not speaking about her fabulous Indian travel book this time, Desert Places, Robyn Davidson.

I made the deliberate decision not to to attend Dalrymple’s big ticketed event, on his latest book Return of a King, as I knew it would be the same as his solo address at the Jaipur Festival in January. I think he’s a fabulous man, smart and funny and such a good speaker, but I didn’t need to sit through that again. Especially as I’ve recently had my review essay of Return of a King published in the April 2013 print edition of Himal Southasian. But I did attend the session with Dalrymple in conversation with Pankaj Mishra, and that was as entertaining as you could hope it to be. Dalrymple is brilliant at promoting his work, and the best thing about it is that you know that it’s exactly what he’s doing, his main purpose for even being there, but you don’t mind because he makes it seem like the best history class with your favourite teacher, rather than a hard sell. Mishra was also impressive, though rather more aloof. The two got into a good natured spat about the purpose of history. Mishra’s latest work, From the Ruins of Empire, is what most people would call a history. It looks at three important Asian thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and their perspectives on modernity and imperialism, in an attempt to normalise non-western perspectives. But Mishra refused to call it a history. He insisted that as we, as a society, a world, tend not to take any of the lessons of history that are available, what is the purpose of it at all? Trying to put names and order and predictability to human actions, that will always repeat in random or less-random forms, is futile to Mishra. Dalrymple the historian disagreed, and the chair barely had to say anything for the entire session. 

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case in Anita Desai’s session, where she was in conversation with Deborah Levy. I saw her daughter, Kiran, speak at the Jaipur Festival in 2011, and though I had enjoyed The Inheritance of Loss (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard less so) I felt she was one of those writers who should perhaps stick to writing rather than public speaking. If I hadn’t seen Kiran, I may have put her mother Anita’s quiet manner down to advanced age, but it seems something that runs in the family. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, Anita Desai is a beautiful writer, but I don’t know if I came away from her talk any the wiser about anything, really. She is very softly spoken, and the large concert hall she was received in seemed to dwarf her. The chair spoke rather more than a chair should, but this was perhaps unavoidable considering Desai’s answers were usually brief. I was encouraged to read her latest collection of three novellas/long short stories though, The Artist of Disappearance, and will write about them soon.

I enjoyed the Sydney Writers’ Festival, but somehow the enormous crowds and the long queues annoyed me more here than they do at Jaipur. It’s a funny quirk of mine, I am somewhat bristly and intolerant of people and bad service at home, yet when I travel (particularly to India) a mellower side of me comes out. Although it was extended time in India that developed my skill to shout at complete strangers at the least provocation. Perhaps it’s that the SWF charges so much money to attend a lot of the sessions (you have to queue an hour in advance for the free sessions) which are, ultimately, just book promotions a lot of the time. I understand that these things cost money to put on, and that the Jaipur Festival is under a lot of pressure because of its free entry policy, but, like many other aspects of my life, I just found myself in a better mood at the Indian version of events.


Shattering the Stereotypes: The Delhi Gang Rape and the Need for Nuance”

Just had my article “Shattering the Stereotypes: the Delhi Gang Rape and the Need for Nuance” published by ANU’s South Asia Masala blog.


In December and January I spent a few weeks in Delhi, a city I love and in which I have never felt unsafe. My only experiences of “Eve-teasing” (that horrible Indian euphemism for sexual harassment) in India did not happen in Delhi, and did not happen when I was alone, but with my male partner. Despite my positive experiences, I take seriously the city’s terrible reputation for the safety of women, and take precautions, as I do at home, in Australia, too. I refuse to be afraid, as this is the most crippling thing a woman can do, but I avoid going too far alone after dark, dress in a way that local people consider modest, and am generally on my guard against over-friendly men. The gang-rape of a twenty-three year old student in December, the injuries from which she later died, confirmed that Delhi’s reputation is not unjustified. A rape is reported every seventeen minutes in India, with more unreported, but this event caught national, and international, attention. Perhaps it was the brutality, or the fact that it happened in a “nice” part of South Delhi, or that the victim was middle-class, that caught peoples’ attention.

Read the rest here.

Kolkata Book Fair 2013


On this unpleasantly overcast day I made my way out to the 33rd annual Kolkata Book Fair. And remembered why the Delhi metro has been a transformative god-send to that city. The Kolkata traffic, grid-locked at times so that I pulled out my book and read in the back seat, made the journey from Park Street to Science City much longer than it should have been. And I’ve been reading in the papers that no extra provisions have been made this year to ease the jams. Until a few years ago this event was held at the central Maidan, and I imagine that would have been great, right in the middle of the city, accessible by Kolkata’s small metro and close to other things that people might want to visit in their leisure time.

The focal country of this year’s fair is Bangladesh. So, unsurprisingly, the majority of books on display were in Bangla, from both Indian and Bangladeshi publishers, as well as a lot of English books, from academic and mainstream publishers. But, I was here in 2010 as well, when the focal country was Mexico, and I don’t recall seeing all that many Spanish books. Today, at one of the stalls, a small shelf of Hindi books were put in the “international literature” section! I think that a dominance of Bangla books is par for the course at the Kolkata Book Fair, and that’s great because that’s the main language of the region, so makes sense. I hope it means that the event is truly accessible to those who would not consider themselves the socio-economic elite, but who are interested in books. But it does make the event a bit inaccessible to non-Bangla-reading tourists. Is it ironic, then, that the only purchase I made today was a pocket English-Urdu dictionary!? Lonely Planet lists the book fair as a highlight of visiting Kolkata in January, but, unless a tourist has a strong interest in Bangla literature, I wouldn’t highly recommend going far out of one’s way to attend. There are a few talks by international and Indian authors put on in the evenings and weekends, though, which would likely have caught my attention more if I hadn’t seen most of them speak last week in Jaipur—Ahdaf Soueif, Jeet Thayil, Amit Chaudhuri, among others.

The Book Fair is on now, until 10th February.