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.”

 

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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.

Year of Reading Women

the-year-of-reading-women-012
(Bookmarks by Joanna Walsh)

2014 has been designated the Year of Reading Women on a couple of fronts: Critical Flame journal has designated 2014 a year in which they will only read and publish in women writers and writers of colour; Joanna Walsh has started the #readwomen2014 campaign.

I am probably in an opposite situation to many readers out there: for the four years that my PhD lasted, I read books almost exclusively by Indian women (apart from a few scholarly books), so when I’d done with the PhD I promised myself that I would read a bit more broadly, including plenty of men!

But I’m aware that the literary and publishing establishment the world over still favours men, white men at that. Not always deliberately or consciously, but nevertheless (statistically speaking, anyway) books by women authors receive less attention than books by male authors.

Unlike the Critical Flame journal who got the ball rolling, and some other readers and bloggers out there, I’m not going to pledge to read more female authors of colour this year, because I really do think I read plenty–ie, the majority of what I read. But I read a good piece on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog recommending a book by an Arab woman author for every month of the year, as a way in for those readers who perhaps don’t know where to start.

So here are my recommendations for South Asian women’s books to read this year:

January: Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History. I’m not of the opinion that women should always write exclusively about women, as even feminists of some persuasion do. Thapa writes cleverly and humorously about the political and social turmoil of contemporary Nepal, showing that women writers can have enormous breadth of experience and imagination.

February: Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man/Cracking India. This Pakistani author’s fictionalised account of her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947 is published under two different titles. It is a brutal account of the horrors of communalism.

March: Anjum Hasan, Lunatic in My Head. This young author from India’s Northeastearn Meghalaya state wittily brings together small town and metropolitan India.

April: Mahasweta Devi, Breast Stories. You can’t go wrong with anything by Mahasweta Devi, but this powerful collection from the fierce Bengali author is a good place to start.

May: Yasmine Gooneratne, A Change of Skies. This Sri Lankan-Australian author wrote about the immigrant experience before Jhumpa Lahiri et al made it fashionable (one could even say passe…)

June: Sorayya Khan, Noor. Khan was one of, if not the first Pakistani English-language novelist to address (West) Pakistan’s crimes in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971.

July: Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day or Baumgartner’s Bombay. This prolific Indian author has many short novels to her credit, and has been nominated for the Booker Prize several times, though she has never won. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker in 2006 though, with The Inheritance of Loss. Many consider the mother the better writer, and these two suggestions, amongst her best loved, are good places to start.

August: Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel. Hariharan is also a prolific author, with many good novels. This recommendation is a retelling of the classic Thousand and One Nights.

September: Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The only work of non-fiction to make this list, Butalia’s work of oral history is a stunning and groundbreaking work of feminist oral history.

October: Qurratulain Hyder, My Temples, Too. This Urdu-language Indian author translated her novels into English herself, which many critics say altered them enormously in the process. Several of her novels are sprawling histories, but the English translation of her first novel, My Temples, Too, about India’s Independence, is quite accessible.

November: Meena Kandasamy, Ms Militancy. The only collection of poetry to make this list (I don’t read much poetry), Kandasamy’s fierce anti-caste and anti-patriarchy poems live up to the collection’s name.

December: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. If there’s one novel by a South Asian woman that the wider world is likely to have read, it is this Booker Prize winner. If you haven’t already, you can still fit it in in December!

This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh (2013)

My review of This Side, That Side has just been published in Kitaab.

this-side-that-side

This is an ambitious and innovative production but, perhaps ironically for a collection clearly based around a single theme, lacking in clarity and purpose, says Elen Turner.

This book represents an ambitious project: to tell stories of the Partition of India through graphic narratives. It contains twenty-eight short pieces on different aspects of the Partition in 1947, from various locations. Present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all represented, and while most of the texts were originally written in English, a number have been translated from Urdu, Hindi and Bangla. The majority of entries are collaborations between a writer and an illustrator/artist, often in different locations, particularly across national borders.

Read the rest of the review here.

Godavari, Fahmida Riaz (2008) Translated from Urdu by Aquila Ismail

Godavari
Godavari, by Fahmida Riaz. Translated from the 1998 Urdu novel of the same title by Aquila Ismail. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. (Purchased in India).

Though very short at only 110 pages, Fahmida Riaz’s Godavari is a dense book that packs a lot in, wasting few words. The story is told from Ma’s perspective, and recounts her family’s holiday at a hill station in Maharashtra, somewhat reminiscent of Ooty in Tamil Nadu, or the Wayanad region of Kerala. The family is Pakistani, having moved to India some time before, a fact that would always cause problems in India, but is particularly worrisome at the time being recounted in the novel, as their holiday coincides with an outbreak of communal violence in Bombay. On one level, Godavari is about Indian Hindu-Muslim relations, told through the personal perspective of a single family. On another, it is about adivasi politics and the Hindu right wing’s cooptation of tribal peoples into the Hindutva fold. And yet on another level, Godavari is an intimate story of a wife’s struggle to come to terms with her husband’s flirtations with the hired help.

The complexity of the politics and relationships in Godavari is one of its strengths, and what Riaz manages to communicate through very select language and imagery is impressive. However, some of it could have done with a bit more fleshing out. I felt that I didn’t get to know many of the characters very well as they were being used so sparsely and symbolically.

I was drawn to Godavari out of curiosity over how a Pakistani writer would depict Indian communal tensions. Riaz was born in 1946 in undivided India, but is an Urdu-language Pakistani writer. On the whole, the critical perspectives on Hindutva (the Shiv Sena is singled out here, as the novel is based in Maharashtra) were not so very different from how many Indian writers, particularly female writers, treat the topic. I found though that there was a bit more explanation of things, such as regional political movements, that may have been taken for granted by an Indian author writing for Indian readers. The audience for Riaz’s Urdu book would be mostly Pakistani, and while I’m sure educated Pakistanis have the same knowledge of Hindu-Muslim problems in South Asia as Indians, they may not be so aware of the regional Indian politics.

I particularly like the description of the chaos caused to the postal system when the decision was first made to officially change Bombay’s name to Mumbai. The change is usually discussed either on political terms (it was an imposition of the right-wing Marathi chauvinism of the Shiv Sena) or in linguistic ones (it is more “natural” to call the city Mumbai when speaking in Marathi, Bombay when in English). I had never read a comedic (albeit wry) account through the lens of practicality:
“In the end the government decided to really implement the law and used the postal department for this purpose. Therefore a notification was issued that in future only the mail which said Mumbai and not Bombay would be delivered.
With this notification the postal system of Bombay was badly disrupted. This grand commercial and industrial centre of Asia received thousands of letters and parcels every day from abroad. When the error was realized in two days the notification was withdrawn. In its place a relatively softer injunction was issued that let Bombay be accepted when written in English, but in Hindi only Mumbai was acceptable.
But this law could not be implemented. The government of Maharashtra could not enforce its laws in other Indian states, and could not force citizens of other states, for example, Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan, to write or say Mumbai instead of Bombay. And the governments of other states did not show even an iota of interest in this Maharashtra government law.” (p. 102)

An interesting article by Fahmida Riaz recently appeared in the Pakistani English-language news outlet Dawn, an article called “This too is Pakistani Fiction“. In this, Riaz discusses how though she has been writing since 1967, she has been overlooked by Pakistani literary critics of Urdu literature. But this article is not just a whinge about not receiving enough praise herself. Riaz also laments that much progressive Urdu literature has been overlooked by literary critics, and this is surely a problem for a country and a culture that seems to take so much pride in their literary prowess.

Prisoner No. 100: An Account of My Nights and Days in an Indian Prison, Anjum Zamarud Habib (2011)

(Translated from Urdu by Sahba Husain)

Now that the summer holidays are over, and I’m back at work, my reading’s getting a bit heavier.

Prisoner No. 100 is an account of the five years that the author, Anjum Zamarud Habib–a Kashmiri Muslim woman–spent in Delhi’s notorious Tihar jail in the early to mid 2000s. She was arrested under the controversial POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), an act that was actually repealed, though not retrospectively, while Habib was being kept in prison. During most of her five years she was kept there without charge, being denied bail again and again, supposedly due to the seriousness of the crime she was accused of–providing money to Kashmiri terrorist organisations. Habib’s account suggests that she was framed, and evidence against her fabricated by the police.

This is a brave book by fearless Delhi-based feminist publisher, Zubaan. Little has been written about women in Kashmir, particularly the ways in which Kashmiri women are implicated in and affected by the ongoing troubles and freedom movement in that state. Books like this are an important way for people far removed from the reality of Kashmir to understand the injustices that ordinary people face, and the heavy handedness that is meted out to Kashmiris on the slightest, faintest suspicion of an “anti-Indian” crime. In Prisoner No. 100, Habib repeatedly comments upon the hatred that the other prisoners and the prison authorities directed towards her. Nobody is treated well in Tihar, but Habib is particularly shunned because of the fact of being Kashmiri. She says of the other prisoners:

“Their hearts were full of poison for Muslims, particularly Kashmiri Muslims. They had managed to alienate all other Muslim prisoners from me and prevented them from talking to me or meeting me” (p. 20)

A section that particularly highlights the need for books such as this is when Habib recalls the visitors and organisations that came to study the women in Tihar:

“NGOs visited the jail regularly as did students who came here for research on the living and working conditions of prisoners. This was quite common. But their research did not in any manner benefit the prisoners. The research scholars looked for ‘subjects’ and there were plenty of them here along with many ‘stories’. Many women prisoners shared their stories with an open heart, perhaps with a hope that this exposure would help them out of this hell. Many believed that the NGOs would help the women in their release while others felt that their plea would reach the corridors of power. But none of this happened. Students/scholars certainly managed to publish their thesis or reports but forgot about us, their subjects.” (pp. 133-4)

Though a single book cannot necessarily change this type of behaviour or attitude, an increasing awareness of Kashmiri womens’ predicament can only be built through publishers like Zubaan making every effort to publish books such as this.

Having said this, I felt that this book was seriously lacking in social, political or historical context. Most of the two hundred plus pages consist of descriptions of Habib’s day-to-day life in Tihar: her frequent illnesses, her visits to court, the denial of her bail applications, the visits from her family, the quarrels between prisoners, and the abuse and exploitation inflicted by the guards. In the translator’s preface, Sahba Husain part apologises for, part justifies this prose style:

“The reader might find the reference to Anjum’s frequent illnesses or the account of her numerous visits to the court repetitive but it also provides a glimpse of the harsh reality of a prisoner’s life inside the jail. The book is not only her personal account but a testament of the utter debasement of humanity as well as the steely resolve of the prisoners to see the light of day outside the walls of the prison.” (p. xvi)

While a description of the dire conditions of this Indian prison is important in itself, a narrative very similar to this one could have been written by any educated ex-prisoner. I am not saying that Habib’s Kashmiri identity is not present, because it is–particularly when she notes the discrimination she faces–but I think a lot more could have been done to note exactly why she was thrown in prison, particularly the politics that led to it, and what she did once she left. The reader knows that POTA is a draconian law, but we are not told its history or its broader implications and ramifications. Perhaps this would have been too dangerous for Habib or for Zubaan. The Indian government does not consistently or strictly censor works of literature, but a more politicised Prisoner No. 100 might have encountered resistance.

Considering the dearth of material on women in the Kashmir struggle, this is a welcome book, despite its lack of much-needed, and -wanted, context.