Change, Mo Yan (2012)

Change, by Mo Yan. Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012 (2010).
Change, by Mo Yan. Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012 (2010). (Purchased in Nepal).

Chinese? Yes, a radical departure from what I normally read, let alone review. I spent far too many years restricting my reading while completing my PhD that expanding it to other places and genres and even genders still feels a bit naughty but also quite liberating. This short piece of autobiographical fiction/ fictional autobiography (?) by one of China’s pre-eminent authors was published by Kolkata-based Seagull Books, and it is really this fact that drew me to it (and motivated my inclusion of it here).

Seagull Books is a very interesting press specialising in publishing translations of radical writers, or non-fiction on ideas that many mainstream publishers overlook. They have published a large body of Mahasweta Devi’s work in English translation; produce a series on censorship (which includes a title on censorship and Islam penned by Kamila Shamsie); as well as curate the series that Mo Yan’s Change belongs to, provocatively titled “What Was Communism?” and edited by Tariq Ali.

Seagull Books deliberately positions itself as an international publisher based in India, rather than an ‘Indian publisher’ which, rightly or not, is a label that can suggest inferior quality to outsiders (though certainly less so these days, with the entry of many international publishers to India). Seagull’s production quality is not only good, it is excellent–eye-catching and innovatively designed. The cover art on their books by Mahasweta Devi is iconic, and this series on communism is just as distinctive, with bold red and yellow designs.

And what about Change itself? Described as a “novella disguised as an autobiography (or vice versa)” I’m not sure it was the best introduction to Mo Yan, who I had been intending to read for some time. The interest in an ‘autobiography’ of a writer whose other work one hasn’t read is limited. But it is certainly a title fitting to this series, as the narrator (whether that is Mo Yan himself, or some fictionalised avatar) recounts growing up in an often illogically rigid communist China. More of Mo Yan’s titles, translated by Howard Goldblatt, appear in the series.

Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems, ed. Jaishree Mishra (2013)

Of Mothers and Others

A surprisingly lovely book. I was prompted into buying this at the Jaipur Literature Festival after seeing it launched, and noting that some excellent writers were included: Urvashi Butalia, Mridula Koshy, Shashi Deshpande, among others whom I like. But I was a bit concerned that it might turn out to be earnest, or sentimental, or twee. Motherhood is a topic that could easily fall into these traps. But this book wasn’t any of these things, largely, I think, because of the enormous variety of genres and angles covered.

It would be easy to assume that you know what this book is about, and jump to conclusions. But despite the universality of the fact of motherhood (everyone was born from one), there is no uniformity, between or within societies, of what mothering physically, culturally, or psychologically constitutes. And this comes through perfectly in this book. Anita Roy, in her non-fiction “Eating Baby” somewhat comically recounts the angst of feeding her baby son. This is something that I think many non-mothers, or non-parents (like myself) would be quite surprised by. I hadn’t imagined it could be such a daunting task! Though I do remember my parents’ stories of how at a certain age I would turn my spoon upside down just before it entered my mouth, making mealtimes a very messy business. I hadn’t realised, though, that perhaps babies wouldn’t always want to eat. Or that when they can eat what things has to be thought about carefully, to avoid stressing their sensitive systems. I thought anything soft enough would do! This learning curve is something that Roy discusses. She also describes the raw emotions of the post-birth days, when things that would not normally have concerned her did:

“I was head-over-heels in love, of course—but more than that, overwhelmed by a kind of world-encompassing, almost intergalactic, compassion. The thought that there existed at that very moment other babies who were hungry, was almost too much to bear. I believe this is not uncommon. But slowly, as I returned to ‘normal’ after the radical, human openness of birth, the psychological defences came up, narrowing the love down somehow, focussing it like a beam, until I was again able to tolerate the intolerable, until other people’s hungry children seemed merely irritating, inevitable and nothing to do with me.” (pp.24-5)

Perhaps it is self-preservation that causes this, as daily life would be unbearable if one could not block out these terrors, though perhaps a more compassionate place. I am thinking of India now, particularly as I am in Calcutta as I write this.

I have had a number of conversations recently about the lack of humour in Indian writing. This was pointed out to me, for the first time I think, at the Jaipur Festival, but several other people I have spoken with in recent days have reiterated these feelings. Bulbul Sharma, then, is a welcome relief if one is looking for this type of writing. Her “Grandmother at Large” explores the joy of being a grandmother, and she admits that she thinks she loves her five grandchildren more than she does her own children:

“I am amazed that my children have managed to produce such perfect children. I repeat: I do love them more than my own. I love them with a pure, selfless, unconditional love just the way a mother rat loves her ugly babies.” (p. 102)

It is easy to laugh at painfully proud grandmothers who whip out the “brag book” at any pause in conversation, but Sharma also has the ability to laugh at herself. Describing her two-year-old twin grandsons:

“The world cannot touch me, no one can hurt me, irritate or upset me when the twins are with me, one perched on my shoulder, the other on my lap. ‘Dadi… so nice…’ they say. I am not sure whether they mean the picture in the book we are looking at or the chocolate in their mouth. I believe with all my heart they mean—me (though the other day they saw a picture of Kareena Kapoor and said, ‘So nice’ with equal, if not more, enthusiasm. I was a bit hurt at the sudden betrayal).” (pp. 108-9)

There are a number of accounts of coming to terms with having a child with a disability, and with the loss of mothers and children, which are deeply touching. Shalini Sinha’s “Amma and Her Beta” is a beautiful double tribute to her recently-dead mother, and her teenage son with Down’s Syndrome, to whom her mother was primary caregiver. Manju Kapur’s “Name: Amba Dalmia” is a painful and moving account of how she dealt with the sudden death of her twenty-one-year-old daughter, in 2001. When reading these accounts in particular I felt that this book should be read by all, women and men, as they are about humanity and parenting, though I suspect the vast majority of readers are likely to be women.

Amidst the personal memoirs, short stories and poetry is one academic-style essay by Sarojini N. And Vrinda Marwah, “Shake Her, She is Like the Tree that Grows Money!: Contests and Critiques in Surrogacy.” I’ll admit that surrogacy, whether “at home” or abroad, is not something that I have given much thought to, ever, and continues to be something that I don’t have strong opinions about. But one line really caught my attention and resonated with an itchy feeling that I’ve had for some time, and that I thought I was alone in feeling, about IVF in western countries:

“Feminist critiques of surrogacy have highlighted that the ART [Assisted Reproductive Technology] industry lies at the intersection of patriarchy and market, wherein these technologies meet rather than question the pressure on women to be mothers. These are expensive technologies with low success rates and significant health risks, and their ‘demand’ comes from and reinforces a culture that glorifies motherhood and biological determinism over other options such as adoption or even voluntary childlessness.” (p. 197)

I think this is something that needs to be examined more, at least within the societies I am most familiar with, but I don’t believe it will be anytime soon. It can be hard enough to broach the sensitive topic that perhaps not every woman should, or needs to be, a mother.

I only wish I could have passed this on to my own mother, almost three years gone now, who I think would have enjoyed reading it. And this state of being motherless is something that many of the authors in this book would understand perfectly.

[Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems. Ed. Jaishree Misra, foreword by Shabana Azmi. New Delhi: Zubaan and Save the Children, 2013.]

Dreaming in Hindi, Katherine Russell Rich (2009)


I picked up this book after a rather long hiatus from my own Hindi learning, feeling the need to get back into it and wanting some encouragement. I initially found Dreaming in Hindi a bit stilted, but as I got to know Katherine better, the book grew on me. When looking up images to add to this post whilst I was about half way through reading it, I was saddened to discover that the author died earlier this year, from the breast cancer that she had struggled with off and on for about half her life. The poignancy of the second half of the book was heightened by knowing this.

Dreaming in Hindi is a memoir of New Yorker Katherine Russell Rich’s year spent in Udaipur in 2001-02, studying Hindi. At forty-five years old, Rich had been through a lot in life—suffering from cancer twice before writing this book, losing her job, going through a divorce—and immersing herself in a completely new and different experience was her way of feeling alive. The year is tumultuous but ultimately rewarding and life changing for Rich.

Interspersed with her observations about life in Rajasthan, her American classmates, and the fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat—both of which happened while she was in India—are explorations of the linguistic theory behind the experience of learning a second language as an adult. Rich interviewed numerous linguists in the US and read a lot of the scholarship on the topic, to try to better understand what was happening to her brain as the Hindi slowly, but surely, took root. I haven’t read Rich’s first memoir, The Red Devil, about her battles with cancer, but I suspect this attempt to explore the workings of her brain as this new thing took root there may parallel how she attempted to understand the cancer spreading through her body. While this linguistic aspect of the book was interesting at times, I couldn’t help but feel that much of it was unnecessary. The memoir itself was strong enough to not need this. I found these parts a bit tedious, and I wanted to get back to the real story.

I enjoyed Rich’s humour, which enabled her to laugh at herself at times when she clearly felt out of her depth and uncomfortable as a foreigner in a small Indian city. As her Hindi progressed, she was able to make the kinds of connections and friendships with Indians that most foreigners would not be able to:

“With Hindi, I have the surprise element. “The first time I saw a Westerner speaking Hindi, it was like seeing a chicken barking,” Vidhu recently remarked. “Until then, I thought they were just coming here walking on their toes, looking at us like animals. But when a foreigner came to my house and started speaking Hindi, I was like, va! My whole world changed.” In France, the simple fact that I was saying it in their language elicited eye rolling and contempt. In India, I can mangle words till they squeak, but the fact that I’m saying anything at all provokes astonishment. “Oh, very good! Very good!” someone will invariably say after a sentence such as “Your shoes are nice.” I set up the cheap ego trick, fall for it constantly, don’t care that it’s merely proof that there aren’t a lot of other leghorns talking.” (p. 117)

Aside from this rather charming humour, I didn’t feel that Rich was a natural writer throughout much of the book. Parts of it were rather stilted or forced, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It may have been that she dropped pronouns a lot of the time, giving the impression of an interior monologue with fragmented thoughts and feelings that trailed off sometimes. I got used to this pace, but before I did it felt quite awkward.

I’m about to do an intensive Hindi course in Delhi myself (though not for nearly as long as would be needed to bring me up to scratch) and Dreaming in Hindi has encouraged me that it might be possible to be proficient, one day. I’ve had the nagging feeling that I started out too late—taking up Hindi in my mid-late twenties—and I’d repeatedly heard that learning a new language in adulthood is just too hard. I refuse to believe it, and Dreaming in Hindi proves that it may be a challenge, but not impossible.

“An Unfinished Story: The Representation of Adivasis in Indian Feminist Literature”

An unfinished story: The representation of adivasis in Indian feminist literature

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.

Curfewed Night: A Memoir of War in Kashmir, Basharat Peer (2011)

Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night is a moving memoir of an ordinary, middle-class, Muslim Kashmiri who has witnessed the destruction of his homeland. Writing on and from Kashmir has increased in the last few years–Urvashi Butalia’s Speaking Peace, Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator and Anjum Zamarud Habib’s Prisoner No. 100 (reviewed earlier by me) come to mind–but there is still a dearth of first-hand accounts from this region that is difficult to report from and relatively cut-off from the rest of India, psychologically as well as geographically.

Peer recounts his relatively peaceful early childhood in Kashmir, followed by his teenage years which saw Kashmir becoming increasingly militarised, his move to Aligarh, in Uttar Pradesh, to attend university, his time spent working as a journalist in Delhi, and finally his return to Kashmir. Despite his good job in Delhi, Peer felt the overwhelming desire, an obligation, to return to Kashmir and write about what he experienced in the state. As he writes:

“I had shared some stories with a few friends in Delhi, but I could never say everything. I would find myself stopping in the middle of a sentence, rendered inarticulate by memory. The telling, even in the shade of intimacy, was painful. And a sense of shame overcame me every time I walked into a bookstore. People from almost every conflict zone had told their stories: Palestinians, Israelis, Bosnians, Kurds, Tibetans, Lebanese, East Germans, Africans, East Timorese, and many more. I felt the absence of the unwritten books of the Kashmiri experience. The memories and stories of Kashmir that I had carried with me could fade away. I had to find the words to save them from the callous varnish of time. I had to write. And to write, I had to return and revisit the people and places that had haunted me for years.” (page 95)

This belief in the power of words, literature, reportage to help rectify the wrongs is repeated throughout the book. One cannot but help feel that it cannot make much difference to the situation, but that it is still necessary to expose the crimes in the hope that one day, enough people will be horrified by the brutality that some change can be made. Either way, the written and spoken word is all some people can do to try to make a difference.

The most poignant and horrifying tale that Peer tells in Curfewed Night, in my mind, is the story of Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani. A teacher of Arabic at Delhi University, Geelani was wrongly implicated in the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001. Despite a strong defense which, from Peer’s account, unequivocally proved that the evidence upon which his charge was based was extremely flawed, Geelani was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was acquitted after appeal, and allowed to return to his teaching job at Delhi University, but one cannot imagine the effect that such a false accusation could have on a person’s life. Many other horrifying stories of torture, mistaken identity and sheer terror are recounted by Peer, imploring the reader to wonder, however naively, what on earth the Indian government thinks they are doing with Kashmir.

Peer finds, however, that the injustices are not all one-sided, and that however horrifically “India” has behaved in Kashmir, the Kashmiri militant separatists have been guilty, too. Peer speaks to one ex-militant who had been imprisoned and tortured, badly damaging his eyesight and ability to conduct a normal life. Once released from jail, the support he receives from the organisation he fought for, the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) is inadequate. Meanwhile, the leaders of that organisation live in big houses with fancy cars, with no understanding or little compassion for the torture that the men fighting on their behalf have suffered.

It may be one of the biggest cliches around, but Curfewed Night demonstrates, first hand, that in war there are no winners.

Killing Days: Prison Memoirs, Joya Mitra (2004)

(Translated from Bangla by Shampa Banerjee)

Is it appropriate to call a prison memoir beautiful? Because I think this one is.

Joya Mitra, a prolific Bangla novelist, poet and translator, was imprisoned as a young woman between 1970-74 because of her involvement with the Naxalite (Maoist) movement in West Bengal. This memoir is not about the politics or the circumstances that put her there. But, unlike Anjum Zamarud Habib’s Prisoner No. 100 (which I reviewed earlier), this omission does not seem like a lack. Habib’s memoir attempted to present the injustices meted to Kashmiris in India without really delving into the necessary politics, whereas Mitra’s memoir is about individual strength and patriarchal injustice, not politics per se.

Compassionate and observant, Killing Days is essentially a series of portraits of Mitra’s fellow prisoners in rural Bengali and Calcutta jails. It explores the sad, tragic, circumstantial and deliberate crimes that put the women in prison, and highlights the injustices of a patriarchal society that forced them there.

The government, existing laws and corrupt prison authorities are noted to be one major cause for the womens’ hardships. For instance, Mitra cites statistics claiming that more political prisoners in independent India have been killed than those imprisoned during the British colonial times (page 95). Laws pertaining to rape (as they existed in the 1970s, when Mitra was incarcerated, as they have changed slightly since) put the onus of proof on the victim, leading to humiliating interrogations where the following types of conversations can be deemed reasonable:

“You claim that this man was forcing himself on you.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Why didn’t you stop him?”
“I tried, he’s stronger than me.”
“Do you know how to sew?”
“Do you know how to thread a needle?”
“If someone keeps shaking the needle, is it possible to thread it?” (page 135)

Mitra does not fail to note that women are capable of committing heinous crimes, but the underlying despair and sensitivity of her accounts forces the reader to consider the circumstances that made these women into criminals. She does not let them off the hook, so to speak, but does recognise shades of grey. For example, Malati is described as “A half-wit, with an appearance almost bestial in its distortions.” Regularly returning to jail pregnant, she shows extreme love and tenderness towards her children, making it all the more tragic that she returns to jail for killing them. “She is not totally human after all” Mitra states (page 63), begging the question of how she can continue to return to jail pregnant, time after time. In a different case, Mitra describes a woman convicted of killing her daughter-in-law: “In those days, Bengali brides had not yet joined the ranks of easily inflammable objects. When the body of Sabita Dutta was thrown down from a third floor terrace, public outcry forced the police to take action.” (page 59) The strength and beauty here lies in its understatement. Mitra describes the woman’s attempts to befriend her, “from the mistaken notion that I belong[ed] to her club” (page 58), until she realises that Mitra can see through her:

“she would tell me of her innocent sons who loved their mother to distraction, of their wealth, of the ill-fated girl with distinctly unfeminine looks who seduced her second son–the young bride who jumped off the terrace and committed suicide merely to inconvenience the family. Mrs Dutta stopped speaking to me after I asked her exactly how much beating would be required to kill a “manly” young woman five feet seven inches tall.” (page 58)

But no matter what put the women there, they all end up broken: “The women prisoners move about in the courtyard. They look like shattered pieces of humanity–tired, colourless, shorn of all grace or beauty. Presidency Jail is where the dregs of a metropolis are disposed of.” (page 77)


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.

“Indian Feminist Publishing and Political Creative Writing”

Anyone who has access to the International Feminist Journal of Politics (13.1 2011) through a university subscription can check out my review of the following four books:

Suad Amiry’s Menopausal Palestine: Women at the Edge (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2010)

Feryal Ali Gauhar’s No Space for Further Burials (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2007)

Easterine Iralu’s A Terrible Matriarchy (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2007)

Chandrakanta’s A Street in Srinagar (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2010)