Weekly news

Events:

Canberra: Saturday December 6th, 10am-5pm, Christmas drinks at The Asia Bookroom. Japanese Shakuhachi performance, 12-1pm.

What I’ve been reading:

‘Documentaries do not always have to be didactic, says Farida Pacha’, by Sweta Kaushal, in The Hindustan Times.

‘Persian Letters’, by Kevin Schwartz, in Reorient.

‘Stand Up For Your Rights’, by Sabin Iqbal, in Tehelka. Discusses CK Janu, an Adivasi leader from Kerala, who is the subject/author of an interesting book, Mother Forest, that I have written about, academically.

‘The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer-review’ by Hirsh Sawhney, on The Guardian.

Pakistani women’s writing

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2014.

My review essay of three recent novels by Pakistani women–Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin–has just been published in the latest print edition of Himal Southasian. This isn’t available online for free–although many other great articles are on the Himal website–but hard copy and digital issues can be purchased on the website.

The same issue also includes an excellent review of Kaushik Barua’s Windhorse, a novel about Tibet, written by my friend and ex-colleague, Scottish writer Ross Adkin. Ross’ fiction has featured in an earlier issue of Himal.

Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Delhi: Penguin India, 2013.
Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Delhi: Penguin India, 2013.

Below is an extract from my review. I have also reviewed two of these novels, Bhutto’s and Khan’s, on this blog.

“For a few years, Pakistani English literature has been on the verge of a ‘boom’; not quite an explosion, but what scholar of contemporary Pakistani literature Claire Chambers has called a ‘flowering’. While the hoped for (from the Pakistani side, at least) equation with the Indian English literature boom that began around 30 years ago may be far from materialising, Pakistani writers are consistently bringing out new works, particularly novels, in English. Internationally best-known among them are Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, and if we are to include a British author for Pakistan (India claims Salman Rushdie, so why not?), Nadeem Aslam. But, this boom-set is not limited to male writers. A small crop of successful and acclaimed Pakistani female writers are creating significant work, including Uzma Aslam Khan, Fatima Bhutto and Kamila Shamsie.

With Shamsie’s latest novel, A God in Every Stone, having been published earlier in 2014, her inclusion in Granta’s 2013 collection of the top 20 British writers under 40, the release of Bhutto’s debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon in late 2013, and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin nomination for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, now is a good time to take stock of this ‘growth’ in Pakistani women’s literature by looking at three recently published novels: Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, and Khan’s Thinner than Skin.”

Uzma Aslam Khan, Thinner Than Skin. Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012.
Uzma Aslam Khan, Thinner Than Skin. Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012.

Lascar by Shahida Rahman (2012)

'Lascar' by Shahida Rahman, Leicester: Indigo Dreams Books, 2012. Provided with a review copy from the author.
Lascar by Shahida Rahman, Leicester: Indigo Dreams Books, 2012. Provided with a review copy from the author.

Cambridge author Shahida Rahman’s Lascar is an ambitious historical novel about a character from a specific section of the colonial-era underclass, Lascars. As Rahman explains in the brief introduction:

“Borne out of a rich and unique aspect of world history, the word ‘Lascar’ originally referred to a sailor from South Asia, East Africa, Arabia, South Asia [sic], Malaysia or China. Over time, the term has evolved to mean any servile non-European who toiled aboard British sea vessels.” (p. 11)

I found this very educational, because despite my background in South Asian history and literature, I had never come across this term before. Seafaring life of the past has a tendency to be Romanticised, unjustifiably, and Rahman, through the protagonist Ayan–a young Muslim Bengali man–demonstrates how Lascars were little more than slaves.

I had trouble, however, with how this novel had been edited. The numerous typos and incorrect word usage were one thing–I recognise that not all readers are bothered by such things as I am–but I felt that the plot progression, character development and nuances really needed more work throughout, and would have benefited from a couple more rounds of thorough editing. Time jumps forward rapidly at several points in the novel, leaving the reader quite confused about what happened in the intervening years. The characters–including Ayan, who does learn and develop somewhat as the novel progresses–are very one-dimensional, being either entirely good or entirely bad, morally. The language with which Ayan and his Bengali friends referring to white British people–and the way that the white British refer to him in turn–is overtly racist, as might be expected of the day, but is again very stark in its brutality, with little room for nuance. I recognise that the author was attempting to reflect the attitudes of the time, but there was something crude in the lack of grey areas. I also found it completely implausible that Ayan and his friends encounter a young, female Italian beggar in London who is fluent in Bengali. She serves a function in the plot–initiating them into British life at a time when they spoke no English–but she did not strike me as a historically plausible character.

Rahman clearly has a knack for plot, with so many events shaping the life of her protagonist, who has little choice but to be the object of fate. It is a shame that these were not edited into a more convincing whole, as there was the beginnings of something interesting in Lascar.

An extract from the novel can be found on Shahida Rahman’s website.

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.

The Story of Noble Rot, Uzma Aslam Khan, New Delhi: Rupa, 2009 (2001)

Image

Having read Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing and Thinner than Skin, two of the author’s later novels, I thought I knew what to expect from her: beautiful, ornate yet precise language combined with a complicated yet ultimately somewhat flat plot. (I’m still holding out hope that her great novel will be her next book, she’s building up to something big.) However, The Story of Noble Rot is a very different book. It’s easy to say in retrospect that this is clearly a first novel, in which the Khan found her voice and set herself on the writing path. But the style of this first novel is so very different from her later writing that it is actually difficult to see the connections.

The Story of Noble Rot is comical, in a bleak way. As one reviewer from The Indian Review of Books put it, it’s “pleasantly quirky”. This is a world away from her other novels (the two that I’ve read), which are uniformly serious, earnest even, in the way that a lot of Pakistani writing in English seems to be (OK, not Mohammed Hanif). There are elements of the fantastical and the fable in this novel, making it vaguely reminiscent of some of Githa Hariharan’s earlier writing, or even Aravind Adiga.

The Story of Noble Rot is essentially a tale of class inequalities and the middle- and upper-classes’ sense of entitlement in contemporary Pakistani society. It is the type of tale that has been told frequently in Indian English literature, because it is an issue that is just getting worse in the region. A house-servant witnesses the corruption of her mistress and a complicated game of blackmail ensues, in which the grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous.

The title is intriguing, enigmatic and clever, as it sums up so much of what this book is about—or, rather, what it explores, because it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing. But, as a thread running through the novel is the enjoyment of wine, the title is actually connected with that: “The sweet taste of the wine comes from the muscadelle grape, and the grayish mould that it attracts. The fungus sucks water from the grape, leaving it with an unusually high quantity of sugar and glycerine. We have lovingly named the mould pourriture noble, noble rot.” (p. 121).

Delhi Calm, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, 2010

Delhi Calm, by Vishwajyoti Ghosh NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2010. Purchased in India.
Delhi Calm, by
Vishwajyoti Ghosh
NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2010. Purchased in India.

I have written before on this blog that I feel I don’t have the right vocabulary to discuss graphic literature properly. I still feel this way, but I’m trying to become more familiar with the genre, so the last time I was in India I picked up this graphic novel, Delhi Calm.

Delhi Calm is certainly a novel, unlike other works of graphic literature that I’ve read and reviewed, which are compilations or part of a series. It is set in Delhi during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of the late 1970s, beginning just before the Emergency does, and ending at its abolition. The narrator is a young newspaper employee who finds himself out of a job when his office closes in fear, and becomes involved in underground, anti-government politics. The title comes from an international newspaper headline, the day after the Emergency was declared.

It is difficult to describe a plot as such, because so much of the ‘action’ is visual. The story itself is a fairly predictable exploration of living under the Emergency, but the visual depiction of masked characters are what give the novel depth. The masks hide peoples’ true selves, their real political identities, and what is left visible are generic faces, indistinguishable from each other.

I enjoyed Delhi Calm but I felt it was rather long, at 246 pages (and large pages at that). But then, perhaps the mode of reading a graphic novel is very different from reading text, and I wouldn’t consider a 246 page textual novel too long (unless it was very bad, of course). So I think I need to keep training myself to read this genre more effectively and appreciatively.

(I reviewed the same author’s edited collection, This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition in Kitaab several months ago.)

A page from Delhi Calm.
A page from Delhi Calm.

The Last Wave, Pankaj Sekhsaria, 2014

The Last Wave: An Island Novel, by Pankaj Sekhsaria. NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2014. Borrowed a free review copy from my office :)
The Last Wave: An Island Novel, by Pankaj Sekhsaria. NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2014. Borrowed a free review copy from my office 🙂

Pankaj Sekhsaria’s debut novel, The Last Wave: An Island Novel is fascinating for the way it depicts a part of India often ignored in literature: the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, just south of Burma but mostly administered by India. The only other literature I have encountered that is set in the Andamans is Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, and I’m not sure that this should be the place’s sole literary representation! (A ‘feminist’ Lord of the Flies).

Sekhsaria is an academic who works on the Andaman Islands—he has written two non-fiction books on them already—and also writes regular journalistic pieces on them. This depth of knowledge comes through very clearly in this novel, and a great deal can be learnt about the history of the islands, their settlement, the challenges facing the native peoples and the mainland Indian settlers from The Last Wave. But it is more than an anthropological tract, as Sekhsaria intertwines this depth of knowledge with a realistic and somewhat charming love story, running parallel to a plot about outsiders’ attempts to ‘save’ the indigenous Jawara people of the Andaman Islands.

Sekhsaria addresses the issue of how ‘mainstream’, mainland India (which generally means northern and/or metropolitan) perceives and treats the country’s minorities. The indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman Islands—of which there are several, but the novel focuses on the Jawara people—are considered savages (‘junglees’) by mainland Indians, little more than wildlife. In fact, safari-style tourism still occurs on the Andaman Islands, something that Sekhsaria discusses: “The promotion was blatant and often outrageous” writes Sekhsaria. “’See and feel the primitive dark tribe of the Andaman forests’ went one catch line; ‘A once in a life time opportunity of meeting primitive naked people’, read another.” (p. 226). Of course, as with so many instances of misunderstanding and miscommunication between cultures, women are employed as symbols. Sekhsaria writes of a Bengali tourist to the islands encountering a Jawara woman:

“Here was a woman who was what a woman should not be: a woman not conscious of her body and her nakedness, who had no lajja, no shame. Haldar’s wife held up the Jawara woman’s right hand, picked up a bunch of bangles and slipped them effortlessly over the dark bare wrist.” (p. 65)

However, it must be said that Sekhsaria’s writing is strongest when he is discussing the historical, anthropological or sociological elements that comprise the novel. He does make his language engaging, interesting and befitting the fictional genre, but the other aspects of the novel are rather weak, so I wonder if perhaps non-fictional genres would better suit the author’s talents and knowledge—creative non-fiction, for instance. The overreliance on dialogue—stilted at that—when characters are interacting with each other results in flat characterisation. Too much exposition of inter-personal feeling is left to dialogue. Further (and I give nothing away by writing this), the climactic episode of the 2004 Boxing Day Indian Ocean Tsunami, after which the novel is named, is very poorly written. The drama and devastation is not captured at all. I had to rely upon my memory of watching footage of events to picture what the author was attempting to portray, as the prose itself was not enough.

I did enjoy The Last Wave, though. It is a charming and interesting novel, and unless one is an anthropologist or a student of anthropology, one seldom has much opportunity to learn about the Andaman Islands, so I appreciate Sekhsaria’s foray into this genre.