Bengal Feminist: My review in Cha

My review of Mohammad A. Quayum’s The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain has just been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

Here is an extract:

Born in 1880 in what is now Bangladesh, and having died in Calcutta in what was still undivided British India in 1932, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (whose name can be spelt in a variety of ways) has come to be known as one of Bengal’s first feminists. She is particularly known as one of its first Muslim feminists, especially for writing Sultana’s Dream, a “utopian” novella in which women rule and men are kept in purdah. With The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, editor and translator Mohammad A. Quayyum adds to the body of scholarship on this interesting figure, with some previously-untranslated essays, articles, letters and extracts in translation from Bangla as well as some that were originally written in English. Quayyum describes the inclusions as some of Hossain’s best works.

While the Gods Were Sleeping by Elizabeth Enslin (2014)

'While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal' by Elizabeth Enslin. Berkley: Seal Press, 2014. Provided with a review copy by the publisher.
‘While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal’ by Elizabeth Enslin. Berkley: Seal Press, 2014. Provided with a review copy by the publisher.

I devoured this in about three days when I had lots of other work I should have been doing. ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ is a wonderful, honest account of a young woman’s encounter with an alien culture that she hadn’t been all that interested in coming face-to-face with, and it was that honesty from the outset that made me like, and empathise with, Elizabeth Enslin.

A young anthropology student in the 1980s, Enslin meets her future husband Pramod while at grad school. She had intended to specialise in some part of Africa, but as Pramod becomes an increasingly important part of her life, she switches academic tack and forces herself to become interested in South Asia. Her descriptions of the confusion and desperation of finding your path through grad school is so relatable to anyone who has been through this themselves.  Her attempts to combine her research and love interests leads her to the Nepali Terai–the plains bordering India–where her husband’s family live. She admits never having been drawn to Nepal, even while her peers were taking themselves off on pilgrimages to the mountains, and this is something I feel an affinity with. After having lived in Kathmandu for a year myself, I feel a strong attachment to the country now, but while I loved India and was constantly drawn back to it, I still am, it was really only my job in Kathmandu that took me there, and it might have taken me several more years to make it there if not for the job. I still don’t entirely understand the stereotypical hippy-trail pull of Nepal, and neither did Enslin.

While the Gods Were Sleeping is Enslin’s account of how she trod the very tenuous line between Nepali daughter-in-law and foreign anthropologist, how she had to make enormous compromises and sacrifices in both roles, but was ultimately successful–in that way that ambitious, talented women often are–in making it all work, imperfect as it was.

Although the sub-title of this book–‘A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal’–is actually perfectly descriptive of what transpires, as Enslin is involved with some women’s movements in Chitwan, knowing what I do of Nepal, I thought it meant the Maoist insurgency. In fact, the book is set some years before that, in the 1980s, but it was only when I was quite a long way into it that I realised that particular rebellion had no part in the story. It’s a minor thing which might not bother a reader who knows less about the country, but I thought it was unnecessarily misleading.

Anthropology is a discipline that, as a student of literature and history, I was always taught to be suspicious of, and I admit that I still am, even after completing a PhD at an institution in which it was strong. While the Gods Were Sleeping, while not an overt critique of the discipline, certainly raises a lot of the issues that we should be suspicious of, particularly those concerning neo-imperialist attitudes. Even as a pretty savvy young scholar, Enslin had some rather naive beliefs that can be largely attributed to the need for an academic to structure their work in a particular way to meet funding requirements and so on. For example, Enslin writes:

“When I switched from Africa to India, I had hoped to base my work in an area where there would be a clear divide between oppressors and oppressed, and some grassroots movement welling up from the latter. When I gave up on India and resigned myself to Nepal, I knew the grassroots movement would be hard to find but still hoped for some line between the haves and have-nots.” (p. 89)

Enslin was approaching Nepal as somewhere that didn’t fit the parameters that she required for her PhD study, that failed to rise up and meet her, rather than vice versa. But, to her credit, she recognises this in hindsight and that’s what makes her account the nuanced, self-reflexive study that it is. She writes, later:

“I grew to love that concept of culture the way I loved my Swiss army knife. If culture, rather than human nature, made us who we were, there was nothing natural or inevitable about racism, hate, war. With a concept of culture, we anthropologists could fix anything, or at least explain it. But too deep a love can disappoint, and that concept of culture had so far mostly failed me in Nepal. Ever since my first arrival, Pramod’s family and village had offered a perfect opportunity for intimacy with another culture. My pregnancy offered even more. Even when I didn’t plan research there, I should have been more curious. Yet all along disappointment nagged at me: these Brahmans I lived among were not the kind of Others I had in mind when I decided to become an anthropologist.” (p. 120).

Enslin is the author of an influential academic essay, ‘Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limits of Ethnography’, which I have been encouraged to read after reading this book.

While the Gods Were Sleeping is not a ‘mainstream’ book that a large number of readers will be able to identify with, but anyone with an interest in real South Asian issues, feminism, athropology and the developing world will find it immensely satisfying.

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.

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

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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).

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.”

 

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.”