The Artist of Disappearance, Anita Desai (2012)


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)

Secret Places: New Writing from Nepal, ed. Frank Stewart, Samrat Upadhyay and Manjushree Thapa (2001)

Another gem courtesy of the Canberra Lifeline Book Sale. This special edition of Manoa, a literary journal produced by the University of Hawai’i, is one of the few collections of contemporary (well, reasonably) Nepali writing that I have come across. It contains essays, poetry, short stories, most in translation from Nepali, and photographs. I found it a refreshing collection because, for all my familiarity with Indian literature, Nepali literature has slipped beneath the radar.

Some of the reasons for this are outlined in Manjushree Thapa’s essay, meant as an introduction to this collection (and I’ll come to that again later), called “Reaching One’s Own People, Reaching the World.” Here she traces the progression of modern Nepali literature, which has a comparatively short history, having developed from the mid-nineteenth century. As a literary scholar I found this the most interesting piece in the collection. Literature is rarely something done by an isolated, brilliant intellect disconnected from the practicalities of the real world. Thapa outlines:

“The economic situation in Nepal, one of the poorest countries of the world, also works against the development of its literature. Nepal’s undeveloped and disorganized economy–a mix of agrarian and market systems that keep half the population below poverty level–provides scant reward for the literary writer. The few publishers who are willing to print fiction and poetry offer no royalty payments; more often than not, writers must subsidize their own publication. To support themselves, even the most established writers work as teachers, bankers, lawyers, newspaper columnists, accountants, and editors–or they must rely on patrons or family wealth. For most writers, the purchase of books is beyond their means, and in any case, few books are available in the country. It is humbling to think that almost all Nepali literature is still labouriously written and revised by hand on foolscap sheets.” (p. 68)

Humbling indeed, when one considers that next-door neighbour India is experiencing a publishing boom.

Other themes that emerge through the essays, short stories and poetry of Secret Places are the oppression of women, and the poverty of the countryside. Maya Thakuri’s short story “Trap,” translated from Nepali, is a particularly poignant and memorable story about the trafficking of women and girls for sex work, a major problem in Nepal.

The Nepali content of Secret Places is excellent, but the editing of the volume overall is simply baffling. Despite the sub-title “New Writing from Nepal,” the fact that a picture of a Nepali temple adorns the front page, and that beautiful black and white photographs of Nepal by Linda S. Connor are interspersed throughout the volume, Secret Places also contains some writing from Japan, Korea and elsewhere. Not in a separate section, but dispersed throughout the Nepali writing. Surely Special Issue means Special Issue, not partly-Special Issue? The worst aspect of this editorial decision was that Thapa’s essay mentioned above, that clearly acts as an introduction to the volume, appears on page 67. Some of the writing she introduces has already been read! Perhaps the editors weren’t anticipating anyone sitting down and reading this journal as a book, from front to back, as I did.

This layout was frustrating and annoying, but did not completely detract from the pleasure of being introduced to this varied literature from a place still under-represented on the world literary scene. It was published quite a long time ago now, in 2001, shortly after Nepal had been through a period of immense turmoil stemming from the murder of several members of its royal family. I hope this collection has not been, nor will be, a one-off.

“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.

India Vik, Liz Gallois (2006)

I am forever in search of writing by non-Indians about India that is unpredictable. By that I mean non-exoticising, non-romanticising, and not based around the very stale notion of “finding oneself” in that country. An absence of ashrams and yoga also helps, but I wouldn’t be opposed to them per se if the author managed to breathe new life into their portrayal. It must be an extraordinarily difficult thing for a writer to achieve, because so far I have found very few examples- Desert Places by Robin Davis (a book that I love so much that it would require an entire article, not just a blog review) and, arguably, the work of William Dalrymple. India Vik falls short and is, ultimately, as predictable as all that which I try to avoid. I should have suspected this from the first line of the blurb on the back: “Travel to India and be changed forever.” I think the antique Ganesh idol should have given it away, too!

The interconnected short stories in India Vik largely centre on Australian travellers in India. The remaining ones concern Indian characters in Australia, so there is some cross-cultural dialogue going on here. The Australians’ impressions of India are part of the focus, but there is more weight put on the various characters’ relationships with each other, and how their time in India impacts on this. For instance, there is the Honeymooning couple who spend more and more days exploring India alone, without the spouse in tow, as they are forced to realise that they want different things in life: their different approaches to travel in India is just symbolic of something larger. There is the mother, father, adult son and new daughter-in-law who travel to India together to get to know each other, but end up becoming completely estranged after the holiday goes horribly wrong. There is the young backpacker who left his girlfriend behind in Melbourne in order to “find himself” in India, only to find a gay love affair with a charming Frenchman. And, predictably, there is the solo female traveller who finds herself attracted to the carpet-seller whom she dubs Aladdin, and has a brief fling with him. The relationship vignettes were the strength of India Vik, accurately capturing not only the minutiae of individuals’ interactions, but the particular ways in which travel and being taken out of one’s comfort zone can strain these. You know, when you get really tired of your friend always wanting to go shopping when you’d rather go to a museum; or irritated by the way your father questions whether every morsel is safe to eat; or even just when you really admire the way your partner handled that difficult situation.

But, I have to admit I am not a fan of the short story, in general. The epic novel is more my thing, as the short story tends to leave too much to the imagination that I actually want the writer to provide. Liz Gallois’ writing was certainly minimalist, and dissatisfyingly open-ended. Nevertheless, if one is a fan of the short story, her sparse style has a certain charm. But I’m afraid I couldn’t get past some of the content. In the story “Box Wallah”, a family is staying in Kolkata:

“The problem was leaving the jasmine scented garden. The street waited, with its beggars, young mothers and a baby wrapped in the corner of the sari, legless boys on skateboards and taxi drivers soliciting our custom, ‘Come, I take you City of Joy’–we knew these were the worst slums in Kolkata–how voyeuristic were we expected to be? We tried to do all the proper visits, Victoria Memorial, the Nehru Children’s Museum, Tagore House. Here’s not the place to recount our audience with Mother Teresa.” (p. 30)

They did not take to Kolkata. I am not suggesting that Gallois is synonymous with her characters (she might love Kolkata, I don’t know) but does the world really need another such description of a city already blighted by a bad reputation? There is nothing fresh here. It would take much more skill to describe a place with a preceding reputation in fresh terms than to rehash the old. But perhaps Gallois had no intention of providing fresh eyes with which to view the city. If that is so, then I should not be critiquing this book, I should just be accepting that it was not the book for me.

The following types of description are not uncommon in India Vik, either:

“I own to a personal leaning towards Indians with dark skins, maybe I feel they are the true India, but I didn’t mind that Romesh had a light complexion as no one could have been more authentic than Romesh.” (p. 32)

Again, without wishing to conflate Gallois with her characters, I was still struck by the pure stupidity of such a description. I think the narrator of this story was meant to be slightly unsympathetic, but this is where the minimalism fails: if one, as a writer, is to create these types of thoughts in one’s characters, surely you wouldn’t want there to be any ambiguity surrounding whose thoughts they really are?

India Vik would probably appeal to an armchair traveller with a taste for literary travel fiction with no intention of ever going to India. But I found its attempts at stylishness dissatisfying and, well, just plain exoticising.