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.
(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.
One of the most interesting, beautiful, amusing and original books I have picked up in a long time. Chennai-based publishers Blaft are perhaps best known for their English translations of pulp fiction, particularly from Tamil, but also from a variety of other cultural and linguistic contexts, such as Urdu, and the Nigerian language Hausa. The Obliterary Journal, on the other hand, is a collection of graphic narratives, both extracts from longer works and stand-alone pieces. It has something for almost every taste, artistically and in a literary sense: the precise and detailed line drawings of an extract from “The Hyderabadi Graphic Novel” by Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj; a translation of a Bangla piece, “Nowhere to Run”, by Anasua and Subrata Gangopadhyay, translated by Sreyashi Dastidar; a hilarious translated extract from “Stupid Guy Goes to India” by Japanese manga artist Yukichi Yamamatsu, which must be read “backwards”, in keeping with Japanese books; a photo essay of colourful vehicle art, mainly of Bollywood stars, which is an extract from “Shaved Ice and Wild Buses: Street Art from Suriname” by Tammo Schuringa and Paul Faber; and so much else in between. A brilliant touch is the contents page, which is a photograph of a large wall painted with all of the publication and contents details of the book. It seemed apt considering Chennai’s reputation for hand-painted film billboards.
The Obliterary Journal is a difficult book to discuss without a proper vocabulary for graphic narratives and comics, which I’m afraid I don’t possess. But perhaps that’s a good thing. Having become entrenched in academia (for better or worse) I find it difficult to read books these days without appraising them in the language of literary criticism. I couldn’t do that for this book, as it spilled outside of my neatly constructed boundaries. But I liked it. I recommend it. It is fun. And I really hope there will be further volumes.
(The Obliterary Journal, Volume 1. Ed. Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan. Chennai: Tranquebar and Blaft Publications, 2012.)
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.