Review of Vipul Rikhi’s 2012 Nights in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

2012 Nights, by Vipul Rikhi. Delhi: Fingerprint, 2012. Provided with free review copy.
2012 Nights, by Vipul Rikhi. Delhi: Fingerprint, 2012. Provided with free review copy.

My review of Vipul Rikhi’s stories 2012 Nights has just been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Here’s an excerpt, and you can read the rest here.

“In 2012 Nights, Vipul Rikhi provides one possible answer to the question of what the classic One Thousand and One Nights would look like if it was told from a contemporary male perspective. In the original collection of tales, Scheherazade tells her husband, Schahriar, a story every night, but must leave each unfinished to prevent him from putting her to death, as he has done his previous wives after their first night of marriage. Rikhi employs many of the same structural and narrative techniques as the classic, such as the use of the framing story, embedded narratives, satire, parody and an unreliable narrator, but in other respects, his work does not resemble the folktale influences of its namesake.”

Fiction from Himal Southasian

At Himal Southasian we’ve just curated a small package of some of our fictional publications from recent times. It includes the winning entry from a 2013 short story competition judged by Prajwal Parajuly, a story and illustrations by Manjula Padmanabhan, and some brilliant illustrations from Himal’s regularly featured artist, Paul Aitchison.

Check it out here.

Fragments of Riversong review in the Asian Review of Books

Fragments of Riversong
Fragments of Riversong, by Farah Ghuznavi. Dhaka: Daily Star Books, 2013. (Author supplied review copy).

Find my review of Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi’s debut short story collection Fragments of Riversong at the Asian Review of Books.

Here’s a preview:

“Although Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi’s stories and flash fiction have earlier been published in various Bangladeshi and international publications, and she has edited Lifelines, a 2012 collection of short stories in English from Bangladeshi authors, Fragments of Riversong is the first collection entirely her own. Seven of Fragments of Riversong’s twelve stories had been previously published elsewhere.

One of Ghuznavi’s missions is to represent, as well as promote, Bangladeshi fiction in English…”

Read the rest here.

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.

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(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.

La.Lit: A Literary Magazine from Nepal

lalit1

My latest post on the Asymptote blog:

A new journal reviewed

At a session of the 2013 NCell Nepal Literature Festival, Nepali author Rabi Thapa asked whether small literary magazines still have much of a role to play in the promotion and dissemination of literature, considering they are so difficult to keep afloat. It was, however, somewhat of a rhetorical question, as Thapa himself is the editor of La.Lit, a Kathmandu-based literary magazine launched in January 2013. The word lalit is derived from Sanskrit and used in modern-day Hindi, Nepali, and other languages of the Indian subcontinent to mean finesse, grace, elegance, or beauty. The play on words is clear in English (the ‘Lit’ suggesting literature), but the title has another level of meaning, as Lalitpur, where it is based, is an old kingdom of the Kathmandu Valley that these days is part of the greater Kathmandu urban conglomeration. La.Lit is produced in two forms: on the web and in print, the second volume of which was launched at the Literature Festival. There is some overlap of content in the two formats.

Read the rest on the Asymptote blog.

The End of the World by Sushma Joshi reviewed at Kitaab

I’ve just had my review of Nepali writer Sushma Joshi’s The End of the World published at Kitaab, an online magazine specialising in Asian fiction in English.

the-end-of-the-world
The End of the World, by Sushma Joshi. Kathmandu: Sansar Books, 2013 (2008). (Author supplied review copy).

The experience of the way this book reached me was, unfortunately, emblematic of the present state of literary circulation in Nepal. I knew that the review copy had been sent to Kathmandu from Singapore, so I waited and waited. And waited. It never arrived. It still may, but I am not hopeful. This was not my first or last experience of things going missing in the mail. The ‘postal system’ of Nepal is not to be trusted, to put it mildly. How, then, can Nepali writers hope to be reviewed internationally and gain recognition outside Nepal, unless they have efficient and forceful promotion and distribution channels based outside the country?

Read the rest of the review at: http://kitaab.org/2013/11/18/review-the-end-of-the-world-by-sushma-joshi/

Packaging Commonwealth Literature

In August 2013, the Commonwealth Writers organisation announced that it was discontinuing the prize it had awarded since 1987 (first as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and then the Commonwealth Book Prize). Instead, they instituted the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Not long after, in September 2013, the Man Booker Prize was opened up to include all novels published in English in the UK, which effectively means it has been opened to US authors. Since 1969 it had only been open to writers from Britain and the Commonwealth. These are dramatic shifts in two of English-language publishing’s most prominent prizes, so what could all of this mean for South Asian literature? I would add the disclaimer here that these developments are largely only pertinent to South Asian literature in English, a booming but niche industry, especially within the region itself. However, I think the two announcements do potentially have a broader impact on South Asian literature in a range of languages.

The Man Booker Prize is “abandoning the constraints of geography and national boundaries”, said foundation chairman Jonathan Taylor, in an effort to enhance the prestige and reputation of the prize. Possible effects of opening the Man Booker Prize to American authors are obvious: there will be more competition for the prize. But it is the changing face of the Commonwealth Prize that provides the most complex and interesting commentary on the state of the literature business in 2013.

The Commonwealth Writers organisation itself has announced that the Short Story Prize will aim to “identify talented writers who will go on to inspire their local communities”. They also announced that the change would enable writers from countries where there is little or no publishing industry to enter, in languages other than English. One could perceive the change, then, to be altruistic. Short stories are often the way budding novelists begin. The presumption here is that the novel genre is the epitome of literary achievement (entirely debatable, subjective tastes aside), and that by encouraging the writing of short stories around the world, the future of diverse World Literature is being assured. Glancing down a list of past winners of the Commonwealth Novel Prize, the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India emerge the most frequently. This over-representation of the metropole is not necessarily indicative of where actual literary talent lies, but is more to do with access to publishing centres. In this case, the Commonwealth Writers’ decision to move towards a supposedly more accessible format could certainly be seen as an encouraging, democratising move, the opposite of the Man Booker’s inclusion of American literature, which may have the effect of further marginalising Commonwealth literatures.

But it is also a rather strange move considering that short stories are harder to sell than novels. One could argue that the Commonwealth Writers organisation is not interested in profits for itself or its writers, that they would rather emphasise literary merit and develop talent around the world. But there is another side to this change in focus. Ahmedabad-based scholar of literature and translation theory, Rita Kothari, has written that in this era of print capitalism, anthologies of short stories tend to be pitched as “celebratory… user-friendly, ‘good-value-for-money’ kits that comprise ‘diverse’ voices.” It is possible that the Commonwealth Writers organisation will anthologise their finalists in some way, perhaps similar to Delhi-based publisher Katha’s annual collections of prize-winning translations from a wide range of Indian languages. Indeed, this would be a good idea, as one can imagine readers from London to Mumbai to Wellington picking up an anthology of short stories from Commonwealth countries, being attracted by the possibility of reading a story from Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, or any other of the literarily under-represented countries. A compact kit of diverse voices, indeed, and good-value-for-money if locally priced.

There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with readers wanting such compact introductions to regions that had not been on their radar. But is that where engagement with other literatures—and thus other societies—stops? Will the prize’s new form really mean that writers from first-world Anglophone countries are at no more of an advantage than writers from South Asia or Africa or the Pacific Islands? Or will it just mean that western, Anglophone readers get a more diverse bunch to sample and feel good about ‘doing something’ about the problems of the world, how the ‘other half’ lives, by reading about them? That is a cynical view, but I am not alone in suggesting it.

In a September 2013 review essay in Open magazine, Devika Bakshi argues that the proliferation and popularity of novels about India—by Indian authors, nonetheless—based on the hackneyed trope of the ordinary folk struggling to make do in the dog-eat-dog, neoliberal world that is contemporary India amounts to “looking smugly through the peephole of education and privilege into ‘the world’ and patting oneself on the back for accurately characterising it, for being able to sum it up in so many words, to lay it bare and walk away, as though the mere act of documentation constitutes a resolution for whatever conflict is observed.” Bakshi is not suggesting that such books are written for a primarily Western audience, but that in the contemporary global marketplace—where India is the third largest producer and consumer of English-language books—the class position of readers is more pertinent than location per se. Bakshi believes that upsetting encounters between the (comparatively) wealthy writer and the poor subject leads to writers’ attempts to resolve the uncomfortable situation through penning fiction. When it seems that the task of tackling South Asia’s poverty and problems seems too large, fiction is a form of bearing witness. Bakshi’s view is not simply a snobbish dismissal of ‘bad’ books, as many books widely considered quite ‘good’ fit this category. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger comes to mind, as does Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us, and that reviewed by Bakshi, Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory (and, of course, these books’ filmic counterpart, Slumdog Millionaire).

This trend seems to be particularly strong in India, as the liberalisation of its economy in the 1990s both stimulated the publishing industry there, and perceptibly widened the gap between rich and poor, providing fruitful material for such middle-class, metropolitan works of literature. But the trend is not limited to India, particularly if we look to diasporic authors, with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner being an Afghan example.

Bakshi’s critique focuses on the writer, but the reader, too, is part of this feel-good literary (non-) activism. Undoubtedly reading geographically widely can be enormously beneficial to one’s understanding of the world, of places that will not be known any other way. But geo- and publishing-politics are tied up with what people want to read. The most popular writers are not necessarily the most original, innovative or even ‘inspirational’ for their communities. The enormous success of Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003) is evidence of this. The author hit upon a topic that was appealing to western readers at the time—Afghanistan a couple of years after the US invasion—and was possibly just the best example of its type, rather than truly well-written or innovative on its own terms. It may have been inspirational to diasporic Afghans, but I find it difficult to believe it was an inspirational book to those within Afghanistan. The judges of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize must include a range of people knowledgeable of what is going on in literature within the countries that the nominations come from if it is to avoid selecting style over substance, the trendy over the long-term valuable, and ultimately a ‘dumbing down’ of literary quality throughout the world.

The enormous proliferation of literary festivals around South Asia in the past five years suggests the difficulties of striking a balance between literary merit and populist appeal. Literature is to be made appealing to the ‘masses’, but much literature is simply unappealing to them, so other means are sought to reel in large audiences and convince them that books are worthy of time and money. I do not wish to be misunderstood: I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in both 2011 and 2013 and thought it was an amazing event, so inspirational and exciting. But I am a middle-class, western, native Anglophone, and what I find inspiring in literature is likely to be vastly different from what the majority of South Asians (and other citizens of Commonwealth countries) do. Literary festivals can be inspiring to writers, intellectuals, scholars, teachers, but to spark interest (and attendance) from the ‘average citizen’, such festivals have opened up to include figures only tentatively considered writers.

A major figure at the 2013 JLF was Javed Akhtar, Bollywood screenplay writer; Oprah Winfrey drew massive crowds in 2012, and Gulzar, film-song lyricist, has made regular appearances. In 2011, Kathmandu’s NCell Nepal Literature Festival’s inaugural year, the festival’s magazine featured actor Rajesh Hamal on the cover. As the 2012 magazine’s editorial stated, putting an actor on the cover of a magazine purporting to be about books caught many by surprise: “our idea was to draw people’s attention to Rajesh Hamal, the reader and not Rajesh Hamal, the actor, thereby encouraging them to take up reading.” It seems that what ‘inspires’ many people is not literature at all, but other forms of entertainment. That is fine, and is the way it always has been. But is the Commonwealth Writers organisation naïve in thinking that privileging the short story will give more people access to literary inspiration? That short stories from the Commonwealth will be able to transcend that conception of ‘showcasing’?

There is nothing to say, of course, that the finalists for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition will fall into the voyeurism of the rich over the poor. However, the fact that the organisers wish to find authors who will inspire their communities runs the risk of fostering a developmentalist attitude that could lead to a dumbing-down of literary merit by finding ‘worthy’ or ‘representative’ authors. Bengali feminist literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has warned against mining the literature of the “third world” for its message rather than its merit. She warns that this happens when insufficient care is taken in translating, so that a type of “translatese” is developed, a phenomenon in which language is flattened and a Palestinian woman’s prose comes to resemble a Taiwanese man’s. Will the Commonwealth Short Story Competition be accompanied by a Commonwealth Translation Competition? Unless it is, the well-meaning aims of the organisation to encourage writers from a broader range of nations may end up contributing to the developments of Commonwealth literatures in ways they perhaps did not intend.

The Artist of Disappearance, Anita Desai (2012)

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Deborah Levy, in conversation with Anita Desai at the May 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival, alluded to the apt and oft-stated comment that Desai is a quiet writer. But, she added, Desai is only quiet if one is not listening properly. I admit that I can sometimes be an inattentive reader. My literary education has ended up focusing on the macro, on things that jump out, demand to be noticed, are suggestive of trends. And Desai’s writing doesn’t do this on the surface. But I found The Artist of Disappearance fascinating in a couple of ways.

This short book consists of three novellas, or long short stories: “The Museum of Final Journeys”, “Translator Translated”, and the title piece. Desai is one of those writers who was writing in English in India long, long before it was common. Her first work dates to the early 1960s, a good couple of decades before Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, that epic work of magic realism that made it internationally known that Indians did, indeed, write in English. Aside from being of a different generation to most contemporary Indian English-language writers, Desai’s long-spanning career puts her in a different category of analysis to them. There is very little in common between the work of Desai and Aravind Adiga, or Arundhati Roy, or Anjum Hasan. But she is certainly not an anomaly, as there are striking similarities between her work in The Artist of Disappearance and other established female Indian writers who write in languages such as Bengali or Malayalam or Hindi. And I don’t just mean in terms of content–though the predominantly rural or small-town settings of these novellas do suggest this–but in terms of style, too. Desai’s acclaimed quietness, her subtlety and realism is also clearly evident in the work of writers such as Anita Agnihotri (Bengali), Bani Basu (Bengali) or Indira Goswami (Assamese), and many others (see Kali for Women’s Truth Tales or The Slate of Life, or the second volume of Tharu and Lalita’s Women Writing in India for brilliant introductions, if you need them). I’ve encountered such work in English translation, through collections of Indian women’s writing, and while it is always a tricky thing trying to make comparisons between a text in its original language and others in translation, I do believe it is more than just coincidence that links Desai’s fiction to these older, established writers in various Indian languages. There is a common ethos evident.

The middle novella in The Artist of Disappearance was one the one that I found most exciting, but there are personal connections that lead me to say this. Other readers are likely to find the characterisation of the frumpy, slightly miserable literature teacher-turned-translator in “Translator Translated” charming and amusing, but I may be the only reader who laughed out loud with excitement over this story. This was my PhD topic condensed into a novella! With some of the drier, more theoretical aspects of feminist theory left out, obviously. The said protagonist, Prema, meets an old school friend, Tara, at a reunion, who was at the peak of a successful career as the head of India’s first feminist press (Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon rolled into one!) Prema’s PhD research had been on the work of an Oriya woman writer who lived and worked amongst the tribals of Orissa (a less fiery Mahasweta Devi!) Prema ends up translating some of this writer’s work into English for Tara’s publishing house so that it can reach the audience that she thinks it deserves (my Chapter Two!) At a literary conference Prema and Tara are faced with that inevitable, important, but ultimately unproductive question:

‘What made you decide to translate these stories into a colonial language that was responsible for destroying the original language?’
Blank, blank, blank.
Then, blinking, and under an expectant stare from Tara, she stammers out the words, ‘But the stories–the stories prove–don’t they?–it is not destroyed. It exists.’
A flash from Tara’s dark glasses, approving, encouraging. So Prema goes on: ‘And isn’t the translation–the publication of the translation–a way of preventing it from–ah, loss? And proving it exists to, to–the public?’
‘What public are you addressing?’ The pudgy map adopts a more belligerent tone now that he had found the person at whom he can direct it. ‘The English-speaking world?’ he asks rhetorically. ‘The international public? Why? Doesn’t it already have a readership here?’
‘Isn’t it–isn’t it important,’ Prema flusters on as if she were one of her own students being interrogated, ‘to make it more widely known?’
‘To whom is it important? To the writer? To the reader? To what readers? Here in Hindustan? Or in the West? Employing a Western language indicates your wish to win a Western audience, does it not?’
(pp. 76-7)

Things go a little bit wrong in Prema’s new translating career, however, when her ego takes over. I found this a fascinating story, connecting so many strands of my own research as it did–women’s writing, feminist publishing, language issues in India. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival sessions in which Desai appeared, she was, predictably, asked about her own language use, but if I’d been interviewing her I would have loved to ask whether in this story she was intentionally parodying the literary scene that she invokes, or whether it was simply a vehicle for her to address the questions of translation in a multi-lingual environment.

(The Artist of Disappearance, Noida, UP: Random House India, 2012, paperback)

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.]

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri (2008)

 

Jhumpa Lahiri seems to know death very well, and the fact that surrounding death, before and after, is irrepressible life. Loss is infused through all these stories—loss of a parent, of a relationship, of a friendship, of a lover. Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of eight short stories: five stand-alone, and three that are interconnected. Like her previous books, The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, Lahiri writes about the Bengali immigrant milieu that she knows best, and the tone here is overwhelmingly melancholic.

In the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth”, Ruma is the mother of a young child, whose own mother died shortly before. She grieves for her own sake, but also for her son, Akash, who will not remember his grandmother:

“Akash had no memory of her mother. She had died when he was two, and now, when she pointed her mother out in a photograph, Akash would always say, “she died,” as if it were something extraordinary and impressive her mother had done. He would know nothing of the weeks her mother had come to stay with Ruma after his birth, holding him in the mornings in her kaftan as Ruma slept off her postpartum fatigue.” (p. 17)

The emotions Lahiri describes are not extraordinary, they are mundane, but in this insignificance lies their significance—it is very difficult to capture such raw, simple emotions in words:

“With the birth of Akash, in his sudden, perfect presence, Ruma had felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times—simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: “He is made from your meat and bone.” It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now—that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.” (46)

Lahiri’s attempts to represent the ordinary emotions and events of living also constituted one of my problems with the collection, however. After the first couple of stories, it all seemed a bit samey. All of the protagonists were Bengali, middle class, immigrants (or second generation) in the US (all in the northeast, too), professional, and between 20 and 40 years of age. I get it, this is Lahiri’s background, and she writes what she knows, but I felt that the repetition of this stock character type in Unaccustomed Earth got rather boring. The short story genre didn’t particularly help here—as soon as I got used to one of these characters (all were different in temperament or ambition) it was time to move on to the next one. Overall I preferred Lahiri’s The Namesake, which explores very similar life situations, but without the jarring change necessitated by the short story. Despite being exemplary examples of the genre (I hope she is taught at high school around the world), Unaccustomed Earth also proved to me why I have always found this form unsatisfying.

But despite these hesitations, Unaccustomed Earth is a devastatingly beautiful book. Just when things were starting to feel a bit banal again, Lahiri returned to some finely-tuned emotional insights. The final lines of the final story (one that I had been finding slightly irritating) left me reeling: “It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.” (p. 333)