Weekly news

Events:

Gangtok, Sikkim Winter Carnival, 14th-19th December. Various cultural and other events around the town.

Delhi, Friday December 12th, 6.30pm, at the India International Centre. Radhaben Garwa, author of Picture This!: Painting the Women’s Movement, a visual history of the rural women’s movement in Kutch, will be present with her sakhis from the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, speaking with Anjolie Ela Menon, Vimala Ramanchandran and Farah Naqvi. There will also be an exhibition of Radhaben’s pictures.

New York, Wednesday December 10th, 6pm. ‘Around the Globe: International Diversity in YA Writing’. At the New York Public Library, main branch. Featuring Indian author Padma Venkatraman, among others. RSVP here.

Dubai, 3-7 March 2015, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Attendees announced, including Mohsin Hamid.

Announcements:

Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great wins the Shakti First Book Prize.

DSC Prize for South Asian literature short-list announced. Read about it on The Guardian. (Honestly, if Kamila Shamsie wins, I will stop taking that prize seriously!)

The New York Times’ List of 100 Notable Books of 2014 is out, and features a handful of South Asian or South-Asian related authors: Ramachandra Guha, Vikram Chandra, Anand Gopal, Anand Ghiridharadas, Akhil Sharma.

What I’ve been reading:

‘On fact-free truths about golden ages’, by Akshai Jain, in Fountain Ink.

‘Kitaab interview with Shashi Deshpande’, by Zafar Anjum, on Kitaab.

‘Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: Allahabad’s Prodigal Poet’ by Mayank Austen Soofi, on Live Mint.

‘A very queer Ramadan’, by Lamya H, in Tanqeed.

New stories:

‘Rasha’, by Bangladeshi writer Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, in Words Without Borders.

Positions advertised:

Words Without Borders is looking for an experienced NYC-based editor.

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Weekly news

News:

DSC Prize for South Asian literature long-list announced. I’m disappointed that some big-name authors (of varying levels of mediocre) books have been included, as these threaten to overshadow the work of other lesser-known but very good authors. What I have liked about the DSC Prize in the past few years is its inclusion of a very wide variety of South Asian literature, from writing on South Asia by non-South Asian authors, as well as authors from and based in South Asia itself, originally written in English as well as translated into English. This is still evident in this long-list, but I hope the short-list is more discerning. And, now in its fifth year, I think it’s about time the top prize went to a woman, as it hasn’t yet, and South Asia is hardly short of female literary talent. Here’s the list.

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini (read my review here)

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (read my review here)

Helium, by Jaspreet Singh (review forthcoming)

The Gypsy Goddess, by Meena Kandasamy

Mad Girl’s Love Song, by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

The Mirror of Beauty, by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (review forthcoming)

The Scatter Here is Too Great, by Bilal Tanweer

A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie (regular readers will know how I feel about Shamsie’s work, and this novel is no different as far as I’m concerned! I have reviewed it, along with Fatima Bhutto and Uzma Aslam Khan, in the latest issue of Himal Southasian)

The Prisoner, by Omar Shahid Hamid

Noontide Toll, by Romesh Gunesekara

Call for papers:

South Asian Popular Culture journal, special issue on ‘Graphic Novels & Visual Cultures in South Asia’.

Articles I’m reading this week:

Report: Panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature” held in India’, by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, on Kitaab.

In the end, Pakistan champion Muhammad Iqbal had doubts about the Two-Nation theory’ excerpt from new book by Zafar Anjum on Iqbal, on Scroll.in.

Sufism: “a natural antidote to fanaticism”’ by Jason Webster, on the republication of an Idries Shah book about Sufism, on The Guardian.

Time for Peace’ by Salman Rashid, on the Asian Review of Books.

Events:

Mumbai: Tata Literature Live Festival begins this Thursday, 30th October.

Boston, New York, Austin, Houston, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, San Francisco: throughout November (starting on the 1st) Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag will be touring US universities, followed by q&a sessions.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera, 2013

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Nayomi Munaweera. Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2013. Purchased in India.

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is a beautiful, if unnecessarily complex novel. Set during Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, and told from the standpoints of a Tamil and a Sinhala girl (amongst others), it recounts the horrific recent history in haunting and beautiful language. The novel begins prior to the war, so when its full ferocity becomes evident it takes the reader as much by surprise as it does many of the young, relatively isolated and apolitical characters.

There were echoes here and there of Rushdie, something perhaps natural in contemporary South Asian literature, but that I find a little problematic. The man has his own stylised techniques and ways of formulating fantastical plot elements so that they appear natural (almost, if you can suspend disbelief for the course of an entire book). So when I encounter echoes of Rushdie in a realist narrative, I am jarred. Two of Munaweera’s protagonists are born at the same time, to women known to each other, forever connecting their fates in a way somewhat reminiscent of Midnight’s Children:

“Shiva and I are born on adjacent beds in a large white room while the nurses stroke the thighs of our writhing, crying mothers. We enter the world on waves of our mothers’ iron-flavored blood. First, I, secretive and shy. I did not cry, they say, until he too had arrived. Purple faced, I had to be slapped into breathing. And then immediately after me, Shiva, as if he had been waiting for me to test the terrain. But when he does arrive, our crying fills the room, makes our tired and torn mothers laugh. Our fathers come rushing to claim us.” (p. 60)

Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but the connections between these characters’ fates and those of their country, of personal and national destiny, reminded me of Midnight’s Children in ways that the novel could have done without. Surely there are more inventive and plausible ways of aligning an individual’s life with the fate of their country.

The shortish novel (225 pages) was overly complicated in other ways as well. Multiple characters were used to tell the story, coming to a head in Chapter 12, which switched rapidly between narrators. I’ve called out this trait (that I do consider to be a flaw) in other, inferior works as well (such as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed) but I think this practice of switching between narrators to tell multiple sides of a story is usually a sign of weak writing. It takes an expansive canvas or superior literary skill to pull off effectively. It is understandable that an author would want to approach a deeply emotive and problematic topic such as the Sri Lankan civil war from multiple perspectives–so as not to be seen to be siding with one faction over another, to demonstrate that in war there are no winners among civilians, the explore the many ways that violence alters the lives of ordinary people. But switching between narrators frequently but also fairly haphazardly can also come across as a sign of incomplete character development. Perhaps it takes more skill to flesh out a single character with real-life human nuances than furnish a host of characters with the spectrum.

But, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a good book, reflective of an exciting young talent from Sri Lanka, and I think these critiques arise from the fact that it is a debut. The civil war must be an obvious, though difficult, topic for Sri Lankan authors to address, so it will be exciting to see what Munaweera does next.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors was nominated for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Goat Days, Benyamin, 2012

Goat Days
Goat Days, by Benyamin. Translated from the 2008 Malayalam ‘Aadu Jeevitham’ by Joseph Koyippally. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).

(Shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2014)

Living in Nepal, the issues of migrant labour to, and remittances from, the Gulf are often in the news. The exploitation of young South Asian men–on building sites, in the hotel industry–is terrible, and often amounts to little more than slave labour. Nepalis are particularly favoured because they are ‘docile’ and will do what they’re told. Of course, not all experiences of migrant labour are bad–whether to the Gulf, or Malaysia, or wherever–but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most are exploitative, at best, and violent, at worst.

Finally, some fiction on the topic. Though not from Nepal–Benyamin is a Malayali based in Bahrain, and writes of migrants from Kerala–the story could be applicable to young men from across the region. The narrator and an acquaintance from a small watery town in Kerala end up in the Arabian desert, working with goats. The dryness, the labour and the treatment they receive from their Arab supervisors dehumanise them, and Goat Days is ultimately about the strength of human spirit. The novel is less about what happens than the psychology and endurance of the narrator.

The novel originally appeared in Malayalam in 2008, and the English version was published in 2012. I wouldn’t call Goat Days brilliant literature, but it is a readable translation that introduces to the English literary world the life experiences of so many working class people of South Asia. I was disappointed, though, by a comment in the author’s afterword. Benyamin writes that the story he told is a true one, and he had been encouraged by a friend to meet the man who is at the centre of Goat Days and hear his story. “I thought it to be one of the typical sob-stories from the Gulf,” he writes. I don’t know if this phrasing is perhaps a result of translation, but it seemed disappointingly dismissive. Benyamin continues that the narrator’s story is remarkable and was worth telling, but this seemed to be overly exceptionalising a tale which is far from individual. Perhaps the details of Goat Days are unique, but the story isn’t, and it is here that its strength lies.

Day 2 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 25th January 2013

My brain is quite full by now, and thinking back to what I was listening to at ten this morning is a challenge! And there are still three days to go!

I started off the day in a session in which I knew none of the authors, but this is often a good way to learn something new, and spark new interests. Ariel Dorfman, Frank Dikotter, Ian Buruma, Selma Dabbagh and Sudeep Chakravarti were in conversation with Timonthy Garton Ash on the topic of “The Writer and the State.” All are writers of what could be called politically engaged literature, in various parts of the world, and expressed interesting and some rather provocative thoughts on the role of the writer in politically repressive, or at least troubled, places. Chilean Dorfman, who was exiled during Pinochet’s regime, admitted that while oppressive regimes cause physical deprivation and hardship, they can, for the writer, provide a sense of moral comfort, the feeling that speaking out and writing against authority is the right thing to do. Discussion moved to whether it is easier for one outside a state to criticise it: for instance, China historian Frank Dikotter believes he is really a coward, as he lives in Hong Kong and, with a Dutch passport, knows he can leave if he needs to. In his opinion, the truly brave are his colleagues and friends who write on topics (such as the Korean War and the Cultural Revolution) that the Chinese government doesn’t like, but continue to live in mainland China, with enormous risk to themselves. British-Palestinian Selma Dabbagh, too, has the luxury of outsider status, but this also comes with its own troubles and burdens. When asked whether she also feels the obligation to criticise her own side (Palestine), she answered that though that was an extremely difficult thing to do, she did feel that she had a responsibility to do so. The discussion then turned to the fine line between the necessity of telling the truth, and the wish not to give comfort, or ammunition, so to speak, to the enemy. Chair Timothy Garton Ash quoted Orwell: if you’re going to be effective as a poitical writer, you have to be most critical of your own side.

Question time opened up some heated discussion. One young Indian woman asked Sudeep Chakravarti–whose latest book has looked at Naxalites, and has attempted to humanise them, in contrast to the official Indian line–a question which she prefaced with “I am lucky to live in a country which has not seen revolution, at least not for some time.” I balked at the naivete of this, and was glad that Chakravarti did, too. He was obviously conscious of not wanting to embarrass the young woman, but the class implications of her statement were too staggering to ignore. “Which country do you live in!?” he asked. “Perhaps there are no revolutions in your India, but 800 million people in this land live with this reality.” Some people sitting behind me expressed annoyance of his talking down to her, but this was not a school classroom, and I think he responded properly. Who does it benefit if India’s young elite are ignorant of the troubles in their own country?

“What is a Classic?”, with Anish Kapoor, Elif Batuman, Tom Holland, Christopher Ricks, Ashok Vajpeyi and Homi Bhabha exposed some interesting gender politics. The discussion itself wasn’t all that interesting to me, but the question time got rather heated (as they seemed to do today!) Elif Batuman is a young woman writer (the other participants were all older men), and a lady in the audience obviously felt that she had been unfairly cut off by chair Homi Bhabha at one point in the discussion, so asked her to elaborate on what she had been saying, “there are a few of us who would like to hear what this young woman thinks.” At a later point in the question time, Batuman tried to say something but Bhabha didn’t hear her, and asked for the next question. A huge boo went up amongst the audience. It seemed significant to me that she was the only young woman on the panel, and she hadn’t indeed spoken very much. I doubt anything was done deliberately, but it did seem to be a bit of an old man’s club.

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(Shabana Azmi launching Of Mothers and Others)

Over lunch I saw the launch of a new Zubaan publication, Of Mothers and Others, edited by Jaishree Mishra. This is a collection of fiction and non-fiction, published in collaboration with Save the Children, on the importance of mothering, the mother, and maternal health. I plan to buy a copy, as it contains writing by authors I like, particularly Urvashi Butalia and Mridula Koshy, but the book shop was so crowded every time I passed today that I’ll have to make an early morning trip tomorrow, before the hordes arrive. Shabana Azmi, acclaimed actress and activist, launched the book, and recounted some staggering figures: in India, the number of women who die each year of pregnancy-related issues is equivalent to four hundred plan crashes. If four hundred planes were to crash each year, governments would fall, but because it’s poor rural women who die, this tragedy is not given the attention it deserves.

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(Homi Bhabha and Reza Aslan)

In the afternoon, Homi Bhabha and Iranian-American Reza Aslan discussed “The Literatures of 9/11”. I found much of the discussion rather banal, to be honest. Or perhaps banal is the wrong word; repetitive, or boring might be better. They spent so much time rehashing what I think are now commonly discussed aspects of the 9/11 tragedy–the fact that Americans were ignorant and surprised about where the attacks came from, that they hadn’t seen themselves as victims since Pearl Harbour–that what was meant to be the topic of discussion, the literature of the post-9/11 years, was largely left until question time. The inevitable question came, from an elderly Indian man: “why is it that 98% of terrorists are Muslims?” Reza Aslan answered passionately, and was well justified doing so. I was impressed he remained as calm as he did. “That 98% figure is something you pulled out of your pocket.” He was very restrained in using “pocket”, I would’ve chosen a more colourful noun. He listed all the numerous terrorist groups, throughout the twentieth century and today, who have nothing to do with Islam. And he got a round of applause when he pointed out that most violence that is happening at the moment in this very country does not stem fom Islamic groups. The old man started shouting, but he wasn’t graced with the microphone again, and Bhabha told him to be quiet.

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(Jeet Thayil receiving his award)

The final event of the evening was the announcement of the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, in its third year. Half of the nominees were present–Jamil Ahmad, Jeet Thayil, Uday Prakash/Jason Grunebaum–and they gave brief talks about their novels. Amitav Ghosh, Tahmima Anam and Mohammed Hanif were represented by their publishers. Jeet Thayil was, finally, announced as the winner. I am not a fan of his novel Narcopolis, but I do recognise that it is a clever and unique book, so deserving of such recognition. His win was certainly popular with the crowd. I get the impression Narcopolisis popular amongst young, urban readers. His acceptance speech was gracious and honest, stating that the win meant all the more to him because it came from home, is Indian money ($50,000) and “any author who says that money doesn’t matter is lying. We don’t have jobs but we have bills.” And I know that he lives in Defence Colony, where the bills aren’t cheap. He doesn’t know it, but we sat next to each other in an Italian cafe in Defence Colony a few weeks ago. Perhaps I should’ve asked for his autograph. Well done, Jeet.

Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil (2012)

The week my PhD scholarship ran out I thought I’d buy something memorable (but affordable) with my last pay cheque. I was expecting something along the lines of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, or Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, and would have been quite happy with that, as I love those books. But Narcopolis was something a bit different.

Bombay grunge fiction is becoming a sub-genre in its own right. Fair enough, it’s a rather grungy city, though I do love it. Writers on Bombay have commented that it is a character in its own right, that it is impossible to just set a story or a novel there, that it must be given an existence of its own. I don’t think Thayil quite achieved this in Narcopolis, though it seems that this may have been his aim, in naming his book what he did. The city itself doesn’t really have much pull over the characters, it is just the backdrop for events–references to Colaba, the Haji Ali mosque, and so on.

I couldn’t quite get into Narcopolis, though I do not want to claim it’s a bad book, it’s just completely contrary to my personal tastes. There was something unpleasantly masculine about it. Novels revolving around drug addicts do have a tendency to alienate me, but it was more than that- the constant sexual violence was also very off-putting. I am not making the mistake of conflating Thayil’s personality with the personas he depicted, and I do think he is a good writer. I just didn’t like the story, the themes, or the characters. Reading this book was a bit like watching Pulp Fiction, and I don’t like that film. It just gives me the creeps.

Narcopolis has been short listed for this year’s Booker Prize. I can see the connections between this and The White Tiger, though they are very different books, and I’m not sure I like the implications. Are these novels really the best of contemporary Indian fiction in English? I am doubtful. But, perhaps they’re not looking for ‘best’, but interesting, off-beat. Narcopolis is certainly that.