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.
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.
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.”
Meena Kandasamy’s book of poetry Ms. Militancy has been published in German, as Fraulein Militanz.
Jaggery: A DesiLit Arts and Literature Journal’s Fall 2014 issue is out now.
Manil Suri’s two keynote addresses at the Kriti Festival of South Asian Literature (held in Chicago at the end of September, and at which I was present) are available to watch on YouTube, here and here. Manil was a great speaker, and a superb writer. Recommended watching.
Singapore, 13th-14th November: Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, 9th International Conference on the States of South Asia. More info available here. Wish I could be at this one!
Kathmandu, 13th November, 4.30pm: Talk: Where Art Meets Science: New ways to explore change in the Himalayas, with climber, photographer and filmmaker David Breashears. At QFX Kumari cinema, hall 1. Free entry. Hosted by Photo Circle.
Delhi, 15th Novemeber 11am: Launch of Zubaan book ‘Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean’, sci-fi and fantasy short stories for young adults, from Indian and Australian authors. Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place. Info on Zubaan’s website.
What I’m reading:
‘What Books are People Buying in India? Ten Things That Will Astonish You’ by Arunava Sinha on Scroll.In.
‘The Book of Gold Leaves Review- Mirza Waheed Speaks Up For Kashmir’ by Chitra Ramaswamy in The Guardian.
‘Why Post-Colonial Lords Have a Colonial Hangover’, in Tehelka, by Rakesh Krishnan Simha. Simha writes very provocatively about William Dalrymple. I’m not an apologist for Dalrymple (who I think is a great travel writer and a good historian, but a rather crowd-pleasing po-co lord, as in the article’s title) but Simha stoops very low: “The likes of Dalrymple should, therefore, go back and reform their own country. They have no business being in India”. Nope, I’m not buying that. Tehelka is going in a very funny direction by publishing this kind of writing.
‘Feminism is not Short-Hand for Male Bashing’, interview with Meena Kandasamy in the Hindustan Times. I don’t think the interviewer does a great job here (in fact, most of her questions would suggest she knows little about her subject) but Meena Kandasamy is a fascinating author.
‘Kiss of Love: Public Kissing Western? Public Pissing Indian?’ by one of my favourites, Urvashi Butalia, on the DailyO. Flippant, but fun.
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.
Delhi: 7th November, Himal Lecture 2014: ‘Between the People and the Polis’ by Arif Hasan at the India International Centre.
An excerpt of Avtar Singh’s Necropolis is available here. I just received a review copy of this book, and have worked with Avtar (he is associated with the lovely Indian Quarterly magazine, where my work on Kathmandu street art has been published) so I’m particularly excited about this one. I just hope his novel’s similarity to Jeet Thayil’s award-winning Narcopolisdoesn’t cause any confusion!
What I’m reading this week:
‘Logframe of Life’, by Usuru, on La.Lit. A foreigner’s take on expat life in Nepal, featured in the Nepali literary magazine.
‘Narcissistic Gloss’, by Prawin Adhikari, in La.Lit. On a recent Nepali film, Himmatwali.
‘India Court Says Ban on Female Make-up Artists is Illegal’, on BBC news. My WTF moment of the day.
I have discovered the excellent blog ‘Travelling in the Homeland‘, an Indian literary blog, that does a weekly round-up of the sort I aspire to. Why aspire, and not do? I don’t have as much time for South Asian literature as I once did–my primary job now is academic editing, and I rarely deal with anything South Asian-related in that work. My continuing link to the region lies with my editorial work for Himal Southasian, and my inability to concentrate on any literature that isn’t based in the area. BUT, it is good to aspire, and my blog is a little different in that I take a whole of South Asia approach (hey, I was partially schooled by Himal!) rather than an India focus.
Clearing through some backlog from the last few months when I wasn’t posting anything… back in June my article ‘Indian Feminist Publishing and the Sexual Subaltern’ was published in Rupkatha, an open-access academic journal of interdisciplinary humanities. The full article can be downloaded here, but here’s the abstract:
‘The discussion of queer politics, identities and “sexual subalterns” in India has, after 2009,entered a new phase. Discourse on sexuality was once largely focused on law and health policies; now, such discourse is better able to address positive identities and their multitude of
articulations. The relationship between queer and feminist discourse has become more
productive. This article examines independent feminist publishers as a representative of Indian
feminist discourse on sexuality and sexual subalternity. Such publishers are significant mediators of feminist scholarship and discourse, so analysing their work can reveal much about
‘mainstream’ forms of feminism. The December 2013 Supreme Court judgment to uphold Section 377 is concerning to many, but in the four and a half years that homosexuality was effectively legal in India, the visibility of the sexual subaltern broadened to the extent that it may be difficult to return to a pre-2009 state.’