The Singapore Decalogue

The Singapore Decalogue, by Zafar Anjum.
The Singapore Decalogue, by Zafar Anjum.

My review of Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue appeared on Kitaab a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a preview:

“Singapore is a unique agglomeration of cultures, history and contemporary prosperity, and so for this lover of South Asian literature, Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue is a welcome entry into Singaporean literature from an Indian migrant’s perspective.”

Read the rest here

Change, Mo Yan (2012)

Change, by Mo Yan. Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012 (2010).
Change, by Mo Yan. Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012 (2010). (Purchased in Nepal).

Chinese? Yes, a radical departure from what I normally read, let alone review. I spent far too many years restricting my reading while completing my PhD that expanding it to other places and genres and even genders still feels a bit naughty but also quite liberating. This short piece of autobiographical fiction/ fictional autobiography (?) by one of China’s pre-eminent authors was published by Kolkata-based Seagull Books, and it is really this fact that drew me to it (and motivated my inclusion of it here).

Seagull Books is a very interesting press specialising in publishing translations of radical writers, or non-fiction on ideas that many mainstream publishers overlook. They have published a large body of Mahasweta Devi’s work in English translation; produce a series on censorship (which includes a title on censorship and Islam penned by Kamila Shamsie); as well as curate the series that Mo Yan’s Change belongs to, provocatively titled “What Was Communism?” and edited by Tariq Ali.

Seagull Books deliberately positions itself as an international publisher based in India, rather than an ‘Indian publisher’ which, rightly or not, is a label that can suggest inferior quality to outsiders (though certainly less so these days, with the entry of many international publishers to India). Seagull’s production quality is not only good, it is excellent–eye-catching and innovatively designed. The cover art on their books by Mahasweta Devi is iconic, and this series on communism is just as distinctive, with bold red and yellow designs.

And what about Change itself? Described as a “novella disguised as an autobiography (or vice versa)” I’m not sure it was the best introduction to Mo Yan, who I had been intending to read for some time. The interest in an ‘autobiography’ of a writer whose other work one hasn’t read is limited. But it is certainly a title fitting to this series, as the narrator (whether that is Mo Yan himself, or some fictionalised avatar) recounts growing up in an often illogically rigid communist China. More of Mo Yan’s titles, translated by Howard Goldblatt, appear in the series.

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.

“An Unfinished Story: The Representation of Adivasis in Indian Feminist Literature”

An unfinished story: The representation of adivasis in Indian feminist literature

I got my third journal article published! This one has been in press for a very, very long time, so good to see it finally off my hands!

It’s in the journal Contemporary South Asia (vol. 20, issue 3) which is not an open-access journal, you’ll need a library subscription to see this one.

But here is the abstract:

Contemporary Indian feminism is concerned with a number of social justice issues, including the circumstances under which ‘adivasis’ or tribal people, live. India has a large body of work on these peoples, but much of this romanticises them and fails to treat them as the inhabitants of a modern, industrial and globalising India. In this article, I discuss two works published by Indian feminist presses that provide new and alternative ways of representing adivasis. Anita Agnihotri’sForest Interludes: A Collection of Journals and Fiction is a multi-genre collection that reflects the author’s time spent as an IAS officer in adivasi regions of eastern India. Agnihotri plays the dual role of privileged outsider and informed insider, which lends her narrative a forceful authority. Bhaskaran’s life story of the Keralite adivasi activist C.K. Janu, Mother Forest: The Unfinished Story of C.K. Janu, attempts to present adivasi politics as relevant to modern India, yet the formal structuring of the text and the stylistic choices made by the translator and editors undercuts this. Both Forest Interludes and Mother Forest contain formal and stylistic innovations and, though not without problems, they represent a promising departure from traditional literary representations of adivasis – a departure that situates these subaltern peoples within a more contemporary discursive field.

Tokyo Cancelled, Rana Dasgupta (2005)

From the sublime (A Golden Age, Fugitive Histories) to the ridiculous (this). But before I demonstrate how strongly I disliked this book, I want to share my one and only Rana Dasgupta anecdote.

At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2011, I went along to a session being chaired by Rana Dasgupta. He is, I must say, a very good looking young man, and I overheard a couple of middle aged Indian ladies sitting behind me discussing this:

“Which one is Rana Dasgupta?”

“The one chairing, holding the mike.”

“Oooh, the cutie with the mike! Kashmiri hai?” (Kashmiris are known in India as fair skinned and attractive people)

Dasgupta hai. Bengali hai.” (Dasgupta is clearly a Bengali surname, Bengal being on the opposite side of India to Kashmir)

“Nahin. Kashmiri hai.”

But, the looks of the author aside, this is a terrible book. I had previously read Dasgupta’s second book, Solo, which I really enjoyed, so had been looking forward to reading this for a while. But ridiculous and dissatisfying are the only appropriate adjectives for Tokyo Cancelled.

The premise is this: a bunch of people are stranded in Tokyo airport overnight as a massive storm descends upon the city and all flights are cancelled. They pass the night by telling each other stories. The book is divided into these thirteen individual stories, with brief interludes back in the airport. Each person’s story is more ridiculous, contorted, twisted and ludicrous than the last. An example from “The Store on Madison Avenue: The Fifth Story”:

“‘Who are you?’

‘I am no ordinary woman. I am the daughter of Isabella Rosselini and Martin Scorsese. No one knows that at the moment when the two of them separated my mother was pregnant. I am a secret to the whole world. The only people that know are you and her.’

‘Why did you tell me?’

‘Because you are not ordinary either. You can understand.’

‘But I grew up in an airport the son of immigrant workers.’

‘Nonetheless. I can see it in you. We will be friends. Come: let me teach you kung fu.’

Pavel ended his first evening with Isabella casting martial shadows on the ceiling of her apartment by the soothing pink glow of pornography.” (p. 137)

OK, Dasgupta has an inventive imagination (or has had a lot of vivid, lariam induced dreams throughout his obviously extensive travels). But the wild and whacky just ends up being tedious. A girl conceived in a laboratory grows up to have the disability of making plants around her grow at astonishing rates in inappropriate places–a comment on humans’ attempts to play god? If it does indeed contain this moral, it is too fantastical and too obtuse at the same time. A woman who can “miraculously” transform–bodily–into a high-end fashion boutique by having a glass of milk with oreo biscuits crumbled into it (!!) over her head: a comment on conspicuous consumption? A young Polish woman, thrown away by her father as a baby and raised by a childless couple, can sew quilts so beautiful and expressive that they act as therapeautic devices for the customers, and gets head-hunted by a domination business. (I almost can’t bear to describe the rest of the plot twists, but must to demonstrate that this is not an unjustified rant that I am on: the Polish woman joins the domination business, falls in love with a customer and wants to conceive his child, but knows he will not be unfaithful to his wife, so she requests that another client with supernatural powers temporarily transport her into the body of the first client’s wife. He agrees, but demands that if she is unsucessful at seducing the married man, he will take away her fertility. She is unsuccefful, he takes her fertility, she is mad. Her estranged father tracks her down after all these years. Not knowing how to approach her, he confides in a stranger at the pub. The father is advised by ‘kindly’ stranger (owner of the fertility) to pretend to be him when he contacts his daughter for the first time. He does so, daughter shoots father, father ends up brain dead. Exhausting, yes.) Another story has an overworked Japanese man constructing an artificial girlfriend from prosthetic body parts that he falls in love with. Was that not already a hideous cliche? If not, it just became one.

(The day after drafting those thoughts, I was sent an article called “She Feels as Real as My Girlfriend” by a feminist network that I subscribe to. These radical feminists were self-righteously outraged by Japanese computer games that “simulate” the girlfriend experience (whatever that is) for lonely men. I must say I’m a bit tired with this type of reporting. Isn’t this just another issue that “we” can feel moral outrage over, to show how low “they” have sunk in their treatment–no, their very idea–of women?)

Being the academic-in-training that I am, I do have to question exactly why Tokyo Cancelled rubbed me up the wrong way quite so badly. Generic non-conformity is one of the fastest ways for readers to dislike a book, but I like to think I’m generally a bit more broad minded than that. I’m happy with literary experimentation, even if such books don’t usually make my top ten. But this is a weird hybrid: not quite science fiction, not quite short story, not quite fable, not quite novel…

Still, I may not have totally given up on “the cutie with the mike”, as his second book, Solo (2009), was far superior to Tokyo Cancelled, taking Dasgupta’s creative imagination and putting it to good use in a way that just works.