Cobalt Blue, Sachin Kundalkar, 2013

Cobalt Blue
Cobalt Blue, by Sachin Kundalkar. Translated from the 2006 Marathi novel of the same name by Jerry Pinto. New Delhi: Hamish Hamilton, 2013. (Purchased in India).

I picked up this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January after being impressed by author Sachin Kundalkar and translator Jerry Pinto discussing how the translation process worked between them, in a session that I blogged about here and here. Marathi (the language of Maharashtra state, where Bombay is located) is not a language I’d read many translations from–and by ‘many’ I really mean ‘any that I can remember.’

Cobalt Blue was an excellent introduction to Marathi literature, and while I can’t speak for the original, Pinto’s translation is sharp and spare, in a good way. The short novel explores the relationships of a brother and a sister with the paying guest who moves in upstairs from their family. Both siblings fall in love with him, and interact with the mysterious and often aloof character in different ways. They do not communicate with each other effectively, thus deepening the tensions and mis-steps in their lives as they negotiate their attraction.

I was immediately compelled by the narrative style of the first part of the book, in which the brother speaks directly to ‘us’, taking us, the readers, as the object of his affections. “That you should not be here when something we’ve both wanted happens is no new thing for me. Today too, as always, you’re not here” the novel begins. This direct form of address is fresh and uncontrived, though possibly in part a result of the translation process (Pinto writes in his translator’s note that he grappled with how to translate Kundalkar’s intimate form of address in Marathi). During the second half, in contrast, I lost interest somewhat, as the sister’s version of events is told through journal entries. This disappointed me, as the form seemed reminiscent of the kinds of books I read as an older child or young teenager, ‘dear diary’ type things. The content, of course, was a world away from Judy Blume or whatever else I was reading then, but after the immediacy and urgency of the first half of the novel, this style seemed stale.

Nevertheless, Cobalt Blue is an unusual and beautiful book to ponder, not least because it says something that should be obvious but unfortunately is not to all: that homosexual and homoerotic lives, desires, practices, identities, or experiments are an integral part of Indian society and culture. Literature and other artistic media have been representing them for some time, and will continue to do so–hopefully with renewed vigour–even after the Indian Supreme Court’s disgraceful upholding of Section 377 of the Penal Code in December 2013.


Dispatch from JLF on Asymptote blog


(L-R: Rahul Soni, Carlos Rojas, Jerry Pinto, Sachin Kundalkar, Geetanjali Shree)

A look back on the “Woodstock, Live 8, and Ibiza” of world literature

“The Jaipur Literature Festival, which just hosted its tenth edition, has been called “the Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature, with an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding.” In 2013, over a quarter of a million footfalls were recorded, with 2014 promising even higher numbers. Travelling to the JLF this year (my third festival visit) from Kathmandu on a work-related trip, I attended days two, three and four. The full programme, over the course of five days, featured over 200 sessions in six venues. This year’s poor weather may have dampened things (quite literally) thanks to chilly thunderstorms throughout north-western India on day five and cold temperatures and fog on the other days—but the uncomfortably large crowds continued to congregate, turning the Diggi Palace grounds into something akin to Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station during rush hour.”

Read the rest at the Asymptote blog.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 4

Day 4 of the JLF 2014 brought sunnier skies, meaning that sitting around outside became much more pleasant. It was also a Monday, so much of the throng had returned to Delhi (or wherever else from whence they came), making movement between venues at Diggi Palace less of a scrummage.

(Vikram Chandra and Adrian Levy)

At every festival there are people who you’ve penciled in to see, and those who you end up listening to because you have a free hour and have managed to secure a seat. Sometimes these latter prove to be revelations, introducing you to writers not otherwise on the radar. Adrian Levy (in conversation with Vikram Chandra, whose epic Bombay gangster novel Sacred Games I am a big fan of) was one of these finds for me, not least because I had a long chat with him over dinner this same night and he proved to be a thoroughly nice man. Levy, with his partner Cathy Scott-Clark, has most recently written The Siege, a non-fiction work on the 26th November 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. Most of the session was spent discussing his main ‘protagonist/antagonist’ (my term, not his) David Hedley, a fascinating and complex creature. As Vikram Chandra described him, “If I had made him up and put him in one of my novels, nobody would have believed him.”

(Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours)

My Himal Southasian colleage, Aunohita Mojumdar, appeared in the next session, ‘Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours’, along with representatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. The chair, a former Indian diplomat, opened by saying that while India might be an elephant, elephants are widely loved, gentle creatures. Aunohita rightly pointed out that they also have a tendency to crush things in their path, indiscriminately.

This afternoon was also spent at the Bookmark event for publishing professionals. As I wrote yesterday, this was industry-related, so while it was interesting and important for those in the industry, I don’t think it needs South Asia Book Blog’s special attention. Being our last evening in Jaipur, we stayed for the entertainment at Clarks Amer hotel, and I’m glad we did: the fabulous Tuarag band from Mali, Tinariwen, played for about an hour. After some lovely conversations with writers over dinner in the delegate lounge, I was sorry to be leaving the festival a day early, having to travel back to Delhi and then on to Kathmandu the next day. Despite the excellent networking opportunities for work, there were so many interesting people I didn’t get to see. Gloria Steinem! Nadeem Aslam! Robyn Davidson! But, we woke up the next day to torrential rain and thunder storms, which lasted all the way through Rajasthan and into Delhi, so in the end praised our own good foresight at calling it quits when we did.



Jaipur Literature Festival 2014, Day 3


I kicked off day three of the JLF, my second, with a well-attended but not oppressively crowded session called ‘Beauty and Fidelity: Texts in Translation’, featuring a Chinese-English translator (Carlos Rojas), a Hindi author (Geetanjali Shree), her English translator (Rahul Soni–also Asymptote literary journal’s India editor-at-large), a Marathi author (Sachin Kundalkar) and his English translator (Jerry Pinto). The pairing of the authors with their translators made for fruitful discussion, as did the addition of somewhat of a wildcard, Carlos Rojas.

The panel immediately discarded the topic, which summarised that old adage of translation (“that translations are like women: either beautiful, or faithful”) and, as Jerry Pinto stated, is both offensive to translators and to women. Having not heard of Marathi-language author Sachin Kundalkar, I was enticed into buying the English translation of his novel Cobalt Blue by the wit that both he and his translator, Pinto, displayed. A favourite anecdote of mine was when Kundalkar told how the Marathi and English versions of the novel have reached different audiences. The young weren’t drawn to the Marathi version, but he now gets messages from youngsters saying how much they enjoyed his book and look forward to the Marathi translation!

The second session of day 3, ‘Dispensable Nation: Afghanistan after the US Withdrawal’ (with a panel of scholars, writers and journalists specialising in Afghanistan, and moderated by William Dalrymple) was so crowded that I was sat on the ground a metre from the stage. Despite the fact that I could only see Dalrymple’s face and could barely make out any voices because of my awkward proximity to the side of the speakers, I would have endured the full session had there not been a freezing cold, foggy wind. So I went book shopping instead. Several others I spoke to after the session were disappointed that William Dalrymple tended to dominate the discussion with his war-horse stories of Afghanistan.

Being a huge fan of Urvashi Butalia, I attended her session ‘Savage Harvest’ with Navtej Sarna, the son of an eminent Punjabi author who wrote about Partition. Translation was once again pointed to as a necessary way of disseminating forgotten or ignored experiences, and the fact that Partition literature can still be discussed in such terms six and a half decades after the event shows how much more needs to be done.

In the afternoon I attended the parallel event that was being hosted this year: Bookmark, held at the nearby Narain Niwas, an effort to get publishing professionals together to talk about challenges and opportunities that the industry faces. By all appearances it was a small event this year, and attended mainly by small publishers, but the event is something that the JLF organisers will be trying to develop in future years. The discussions–from Indian and international publishers, editors, book-sellers, and so on–were more specialised and industry-focused than many of those held at the Diggi Palace, but for people with any interest in the industry it was a welcome opportunity to interact with other professionals. And the calm of the Narain Niwas grounds was more than welcome.


Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 2

The biggest perk of my job in Kathmandu so far has been a last-minute trip accompanying my boss to the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival. I returned from a three week holiday to Australia and Cambodia fully expecting to wallow in the rest of the Kathmandu winter, barely enduring tepid bucket showers and twelve-hours-a-day power cuts, missing my partner, with few lights on the horizon expect the monsoon season and hot showers again.

Less than two weeks later I’m in Jaipur, staying in 5 star luxury at the ITC Rajputana! And doing two of my most favourite things–being in India (all the better, Rajasthan) and being bookish.

(The lobby of my home for four nights, the ITC Rajputana hotel)

Being a work trip, we haven’t come for the full five days of the festival, and I’m busy jumping around between sessions so haven’t been able to do the same amount of reporting as I did for the 2013 JLF (see day 1 here, day 2 here, day 3 here, day 4 here, and day 5 here). My experience of the festival this year has been somewhat different, but I think that’s worth reporting in itself.

Our first day at the festival was day 2, Saturday. The crowds are even worse this year, and there are 6 different stages at the Diggi Palace, as well as a separate publishing event, Bookmark, being held at Narain Niwas a short drive away. The crowds have been crippling: it was always the case that if you weren’t early for a session, you wouldn’t get a seat, but now there isn’t even standing room if you don’t arrive early. Surely the organisers will have to start seriously thinking about this for future years, either by setting it in alternative or parallel venues, or perhaps introducing some kind of token fee system for some sessions.

Day 2 began, for me, with an interesting session on the global novel, featuring Ethipian-American writer Mazaa Mengiste, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, and Chinese-British Xiaolu Guo, and moderated by Chandrahas Choundhury. The whole gamut of perspectives on that slippery term ‘global literature’ were put forward. Jhumpa Lahiri stated the common opinion (among literary and academic types, anyway) that ‘global’ is a current marketing term for literature and music, and that perhaps ‘international’ or ‘universal’ is more apt for the kind of literature being discussed. Mazaa Mengiste shared a different opinion, telling the audience about a cousin of hers who moved from their home country to Italy, and then Bulgaria, and finally the US, and is now a filmmaker. This kind of ‘global’ citizen is the person writing truly global literature, sharing experiences and entering language worlds that are beyond simple marketing categories. Jim Crace held a much more simplistic perspective, stating that, to him, global literature is that which intrigues readers from outside, that gives the broader world an insight into Nigeria or Poland or Brazil. But, as Jonathan Franzen rightly suggested, this perspective runs the risk of being simply a nostalgic exoticisation.

Other highlights of day 2 were the horrendously cliche-titled panel ‘Behind the Veil’ which brought together women writers from Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Somalia, moderated by the ever-wonderful Urvashi Butalia; and a discussion between talented Nepali author Manjushree Thapa, new Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi (see my review of her short story collection Fragments of Riversong in The Asian Review of Books), and Indian feminist publisher Ritu Menon. Someone had pointed out to me earlier in the day that it seemed as if women writers were being put together, leaving the ‘general’ or ‘mainstream’ panels male dominated. This may be true to some degree, but these panels consisting entirely of women were very well attended, and one young lad was brave enough to ask “why don’t more men support feminism?” A good question, which prompted just wry smiles.


Part 2 of Asymptote dispatch

Part 2 of the dispatch on the NCell Nepal Literature Festival is now up on the Asymptote blog. This reports on the English-language sessions at the festival.


Asymptote reports on the English sessions at the festival

Though there were more sessions in Nepali than English ones, internationally known writers still made the trip from India (Shobhaa De, Ravinder Singh, Prajwal Parajuly, Prakash Iyer, Abhay K, and Annie Zaidi), Bangladesh (Farah Ghuznavi), and the UK (Ned Beauman) to discuss their work and the work of their peers.

Read the rest here.


ASYMPTOTE Dispatch: NCell Nepal Literature Festival 2013

As well as my day job, I am Asymptote literary journal’s Editor-at-Large, Nepal. I recently attended the NCell Nepal Literature Festival in Kathmandu, and have written up my observations on the Asymptote blog:


What’s up in Kathmandu?

Editor’s Note: Ever wonder what’s happening literature-wise in Kathmandu? Wonder no more, our editors in Nepal are here to fill you in, and it turns out, there’s no lack of corruption and infighting… This is part 1 of a 2-part dispatch.

The 2013 NCell Nepal Literature Festival started inauspiciously for us, as they say in this part of the world. Arriving at the Nepal Academy in central Kathmandu ten minutes early on the first day, Ross asked in Nepali where the opening ceremony was being held, and we were ushered upstairs into a packed auditorium, where there was a man already speaking. Strange, I thought, as we were early, and things do not generally start on time in Nepal. We clambered into some seats in the middle of a row. Ross began listening to the speaker. “He’s not talking about literature,” he informs me. “He’s talking about the truth.” It dawns on us that we might not be in the right place, so we hope things will wrap up soon and move on to the event we came for. Ross continues to listen. “Oh no, we’re in a Christian convention!” We clamber back out sheepishly, avoiding eye contact. Some better signage from the organisers of the literature festival would’ve been welcome!

(Read the rest here.)