Indian Jewish Literature in Himal Southasian

Jew Town, Cochin.  Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen
Jew Town, Cochin.
Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen

After a few weeks of politically-heavy articles at Himal, we have just published this piece on Indian Jewish literature, by Navras Jaat Afreedi.

I’ve copied the first paragraph below, and the rest can be read here.

“2013 was an exciting year for Indian Jewish literature: two works of fiction were published, one in Hindi, the other in English. Sheela Rohekar’s Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha (Miss Samuel: A Jewish Saga) is one of only two Hindi novels depicting Indian Jewish life, and the first Hindi novel in 52 years to explore the Bene Israel community, the largest Jewish group in India. Jael Silliman’s The Man with Many Hats, on the other hand, is the first novel by a member of the Baghdadi community, the latest Jewish settlers in India, and one of the only two novels to depict Baghdadi Jewish life there. Both authors are women, legatees of a rich tradition of women’s writing among Indian Jews.”

 

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Concern for the Destiny of the Country

I’ve just had my article “Concern for the Destiny of the Country: Indian Feminist Novels” published in the online, non-academic literary journal, The Critical Flame. It focuses on three novels: Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too (translated from Urdu), Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Vaasanthi’s Birthright (translated from Tamil, and also reviewed by me here.)

TCF came to my attention a few months ago when they announced that for a whole year, they would only publish reviews and criticism of literature written by women and minorities, to help rectify a general imbalance in reviewing practices. I’d been looking for serious, intellectual open-access journals and magazines with which to publish, and TCF seemed to fit the bill.

Update: 3 Quarks Daily reposted my article last week, a lovely and unexpected stamp of approval 🙂

The first paragraph is extracted below, and you can read the whole article here.

“Indian literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee has said that the essential concern of the twentieth-century Indian novelist was the changing national scene and the destiny of the country. She was referring to novels of the first half of the twentieth century, but these same concerns continue to operate today. It is only the definition of what the “destiny of the country” means that has changed over the decades. The concerns to which she refers are not confined to the Independence struggle, but increasingly turn toward problems of class and gender. Three novels—Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s classic My Temples, Too, English-language author Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Tamil author Vaasanthi’s Birthright; all published by India’s two leading feminist presses, Zubaan and Women Unlimited—highlight the changing nature of national destiny. Though these novels differ in both style and content, their central characters face renegotiations of youth, class, and gender, in the shadow of post-Independence national identity. These works not only reveal the shifting ground of Mukherjee’s concern, but also demonstrate that there is no such thing as a representative Indian feminist novel. In these titles, diversity is privileged above adherence to ideology. Each one expresses a different India—newly independent, ruling class, revolutionary, Muslim; urban, globalising, corporate; rural, educated, tradition-bound—all with women’s experiences at their center.”

 

Poisoned Arrow, Ibne Safi, 2011 (original Urdu 1957)

Poisoned Arrow, by Ibne Safi, translated from Urdu by Shamshur Rahman Faruqi. Chennai: Blaft, 2011. Originally published in 1957. Purchased for Kindle.
Poisoned Arrow, by Ibne Safi, translated from Urdu by Shamshur Rahman Faruqi. Chennai: Blaft, 2011. Originally published in 1957. Purchased for Kindle.

I have just been reading an interesting article by Will Evans in The Brooklyn Quarterly, entitled ‘I Want You to Start Your Own Publishing House‘, which discusses the terrible lack of translations of world literature into English. The following passage made me think of Poisoned Arrow:

“It’s an awful process for foreign writers to try to crack the English-language market, there are only so many publishers who publish any translations at all, and there are precious few who will publish beyond the confines of the most commercial or the most highbrow of world literature.”

This is where Chennai-based Blaft comes in. Publisher of a number of titles common in bookshops throughout India, including two volumes of Tamil Pulp Fiction, The Obliterary Journal and Stupid Guy Goes to Indiathey go push these boundaries. Not that Evans is wrong to write what he does–quite the opposite, if Blaft is a fairly isolated example of a publisher willing to take risks. They translate pop/pulp fiction from a variety of languages–Tamil, Urdu, Japanese, Hausa–so yes, one could say that they are sticking with the commercial, but the genres and the themes of the books they publish could hardly be considered mainstream-popular to Anglophone readers, so their publishing practices really are commendable.

But, to the book in hand: Poisoned Arrow by one of Urdu literature’s best-selling authors, Ibne Safi, who had a large following in both India and Pakistan. This short crime novel was originally published as Zahreelay Teer in 1957, and was translated into English by Urdu scholar and writer, Shamshur Rahman Faruqi (whose enormous The Mirror of Beauty I am trundling my way through at the moment). I find the production and dissemination of such a massively popular Urdu author from the mid and late twentieth century into English fascinating, but I’m afraid that’s where my interest in this book lies. Not only was the genre not to my taste–sensationalist crime–but I just felt it wasn’t very well written, my personal disinclination towards the genre aside. Poisoned Arrow is not a long book, and is written in accessible English, but the plot was so fast-paced that there was no time for detail, meaning I couldn’t visualise what I was reading about, couldn’t concentrate on the plot, and didn’t enjoy it much at all.

Not Blaft’s best publication, but I life what they’re doing. I’m glad to see there’s a second volume of The Obliterary Journal out now, and I’ll look out of that next time I’m in India.

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.

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).

I enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, flew threw it like I have all of her books, but was ultimately not very impressed. She creates real, empathetic though not always likable characters, yet everything within the novel is so intensely banal. Even the beautiful is banal–the renditions of little things that make certain relationships important or painful are rendered exactly, identifiably, but so much so that although one might admire Lahiri’s ability to identify such minuteness, one also wonders whether it was worth identifying at all. Romantic love, disappointment, parental care and abandonment are such universal acts and emotions that perhaps any attempt to identify their essence becomes redundant. We know those feelings already, we don’t always need to read them on paper. There seems never to be any shock or excitement of the new in Lahiri’s work.

Readers of Lahiri’s past novels and short stories will already know much of the plot and themes of The Lowland: middle-class, professional Bengalis migrate to the north-eastern US and settle in university towns; cultural dislocation, and eventually acceptance, ensues. Where The Lowland departs from this predictable narrative is that a large portion of it is set in Calcutta. Two brothers grow up in Tollygunge during the 1960s and ’70s, a politically troubled time in West Bengal with Naxalite politics on the rise. One brother leaves for university in the US; the other becomes embroiled in radical politics. Disasters occur, and one brother ends up taking responsibility for parts of the other’s life.

I have visited Calcutta several times, but some commentators more intimately knowledgeable about its middle-class colonies than I have stated that Lahiri’s descriptions of Tollygunge are spot on, that she perfectly recounts its environment and mood. There is no doubt that much of Lahiri’s writing is beautiful in its sparseness, it propels the reader onwards because there is little to get mired down in. Yet a dissatisfying aspect of her writing is that much character development is telescoped. Only details necessary for plot development are retained, which could be a strength in short stories but in a novel the practice makes some characters seem one-dimensional, even harsh at times. I am reminded of a review I read of Lahiri’s work, in which the reviewer called her a “competent writer–nothing more, nothing less”. I feel that much more care and effort has gone into her writing than the label ‘competent’ suggests, but this adjective is illustrative of the accumulative effect of her efforts.

Undoubtedly the politics that appear in The Lowland are important and have rarely been discussed in English-language Indian writing (Mahasweta Devi covers much of the same ground in her large corpus, as does a memoir I reviewed a couple of years ago, Joya Mitra’s Killing Days). I feel that the communist politics have been used as a marketing tool for this novel, in both India and the west, ‘Lahiri is breaking out of the world of professional America’. But the Naxalite movement only serves as a backdrop in The Lowland; it may be interesting to those coming to the topic afresh, but to readers who know a bit about post-colonial Indian history there is nothing new here. The main focus is the interiority of the characters, the successes, failures and nuances of inter-personal relationships. The ‘lowland’ of the title is a patch of ground near the brothers’ home in Tollygunge that floods during the rains. It is used as a metaphor for everything in this novel, but by the end becomes a tired motif burdened by the weight of its own symbolism.

I wish Jhumpa Lahiri would do something different. Yet whatever she comes up with next I will likely devour, as will so many other readers.

Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Burmese Days, by George Orwell. Harcourt: 1962 (1934).
Burmese Days, by George Orwell. Harcourt: 1962 (1934). (Purchased in Cambodia).

When I was about nine or ten years old my family bought its first video player, my parents got it for Christmas. But the only video we had to watch that Christmas was a cartoon version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm–my dad being an English teacher, he had brought it home from school. I’m the oldest child in my family, so my brother was about eight, and my sister would’ve been about five. Animal Farm is NOT a story for young children, not even in cartoon form, and I know we all have frightened memories of that Christmas, of the horse being taken to the glue factory! A few years later, Orwell’s 1984 is the first adult book I can remember reading, aged 13. I had been reading Sweet Valley High until then, much to the annoyance of my father (see how they turn out?)! I’m not sure I entirely understood the novel, but I had been told the storyline by my mum, so understood the concept, if not the execution. But despite Orwell filling in a couple of these firsts, I hadn’t read anything else of his until I picked up this copy of Burmese Days in Phnom Penh.

The novel is based in a small-town British jungle outpost in Burma in the 1930s. The  main protagonist is John Flory, a close-to-middle-aged single man who doesn’t fit in with the other imperial bureaucrats and military-men in town, but can’t quite bring himself to defy them in the ways he would like to:

“In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to the right of you, Pink’un to the left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they are greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own country-men, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied or exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus.” (p. 69)

Burmese Days critiques the arrogance and debauchery of the waning years of empire, and also serves as a good period piece, reminding us how British women were treated as chattel, ‘natives’ as little more than animals, and dissent within the ranks was not tolerated. I was also surprised by how entwined in ‘India’ Burma was back then: I knew it had been administratively treated as part of British India, but it was interesting to note the intermingling of the Burmese and Urdu languages in the life and administration of British Burma.

Burmese Days is an enjoyable and readable book, but there are good reasons why this, his first novel, doesn’t have the iconic status of Animal Farm or 1984. Like these novels it, too, is prescient and biting, but Burmese Days’ twilight-of-the-empire critique is overshadowed by its near-contemporary, A Passage to India. The plot and sense of place evoked in E. M. Forster’s classic is just more memorable. Nevertheless, Burmese Days is an intelligent book, and perhaps unfairly out-of-fashion these days. There are still discernible truths within it, appearing in private discussion in neo-post-colonial ex-pat culture in the ‘third world’, if not the official line any more: “He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the natives.” (p. 118) Recognisable sentiments like this help the contemporary culturally-western reader resist the temptation to look back on the times narrated in the novel and think ‘how far we’ve come’.

Cobalt Blue, Sachin Kundalkar, 2013

Cobalt Blue
Cobalt Blue, by Sachin Kundalkar. Translated from the 2006 Marathi novel of the same name by Jerry Pinto. New Delhi: Hamish Hamilton, 2013. (Purchased in India).

I picked up this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January after being impressed by author Sachin Kundalkar and translator Jerry Pinto discussing how the translation process worked between them, in a session that I blogged about here and here. Marathi (the language of Maharashtra state, where Bombay is located) is not a language I’d read many translations from–and by ‘many’ I really mean ‘any that I can remember.’

Cobalt Blue was an excellent introduction to Marathi literature, and while I can’t speak for the original, Pinto’s translation is sharp and spare, in a good way. The short novel explores the relationships of a brother and a sister with the paying guest who moves in upstairs from their family. Both siblings fall in love with him, and interact with the mysterious and often aloof character in different ways. They do not communicate with each other effectively, thus deepening the tensions and mis-steps in their lives as they negotiate their attraction.

I was immediately compelled by the narrative style of the first part of the book, in which the brother speaks directly to ‘us’, taking us, the readers, as the object of his affections. “That you should not be here when something we’ve both wanted happens is no new thing for me. Today too, as always, you’re not here” the novel begins. This direct form of address is fresh and uncontrived, though possibly in part a result of the translation process (Pinto writes in his translator’s note that he grappled with how to translate Kundalkar’s intimate form of address in Marathi). During the second half, in contrast, I lost interest somewhat, as the sister’s version of events is told through journal entries. This disappointed me, as the form seemed reminiscent of the kinds of books I read as an older child or young teenager, ‘dear diary’ type things. The content, of course, was a world away from Judy Blume or whatever else I was reading then, but after the immediacy and urgency of the first half of the novel, this style seemed stale.

Nevertheless, Cobalt Blue is an unusual and beautiful book to ponder, not least because it says something that should be obvious but unfortunately is not to all: that homosexual and homoerotic lives, desires, practices, identities, or experiments are an integral part of Indian society and culture. Literature and other artistic media have been representing them for some time, and will continue to do so–hopefully with renewed vigour–even after the Indian Supreme Court’s disgraceful upholding of Section 377 of the Penal Code in December 2013.