Indian Jewish Literature in Himal Southasian

Jew Town, Cochin.  Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen
Jew Town, Cochin.
Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen

After a few weeks of politically-heavy articles at Himal, we have just published this piece on Indian Jewish literature, by Navras Jaat Afreedi.

I’ve copied the first paragraph below, and the rest can be read here.

“2013 was an exciting year for Indian Jewish literature: two works of fiction were published, one in Hindi, the other in English. Sheela Rohekar’s Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha (Miss Samuel: A Jewish Saga) is one of only two Hindi novels depicting Indian Jewish life, and the first Hindi novel in 52 years to explore the Bene Israel community, the largest Jewish group in India. Jael Silliman’s The Man with Many Hats, on the other hand, is the first novel by a member of the Baghdadi community, the latest Jewish settlers in India, and one of the only two novels to depict Baghdadi Jewish life there. Both authors are women, legatees of a rich tradition of women’s writing among Indian Jews.”

 

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Concern for the Destiny of the Country

I’ve just had my article “Concern for the Destiny of the Country: Indian Feminist Novels” published in the online, non-academic literary journal, The Critical Flame. It focuses on three novels: Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too (translated from Urdu), Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Vaasanthi’s Birthright (translated from Tamil, and also reviewed by me here.)

TCF came to my attention a few months ago when they announced that for a whole year, they would only publish reviews and criticism of literature written by women and minorities, to help rectify a general imbalance in reviewing practices. I’d been looking for serious, intellectual open-access journals and magazines with which to publish, and TCF seemed to fit the bill.

Update: 3 Quarks Daily reposted my article last week, a lovely and unexpected stamp of approval 🙂

The first paragraph is extracted below, and you can read the whole article here.

“Indian literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee has said that the essential concern of the twentieth-century Indian novelist was the changing national scene and the destiny of the country. She was referring to novels of the first half of the twentieth century, but these same concerns continue to operate today. It is only the definition of what the “destiny of the country” means that has changed over the decades. The concerns to which she refers are not confined to the Independence struggle, but increasingly turn toward problems of class and gender. Three novels—Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s classic My Temples, Too, English-language author Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Tamil author Vaasanthi’s Birthright; all published by India’s two leading feminist presses, Zubaan and Women Unlimited—highlight the changing nature of national destiny. Though these novels differ in both style and content, their central characters face renegotiations of youth, class, and gender, in the shadow of post-Independence national identity. These works not only reveal the shifting ground of Mukherjee’s concern, but also demonstrate that there is no such thing as a representative Indian feminist novel. In these titles, diversity is privileged above adherence to ideology. Each one expresses a different India—newly independent, ruling class, revolutionary, Muslim; urban, globalising, corporate; rural, educated, tradition-bound—all with women’s experiences at their center.”

 

My new article in Intersections

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I’ve just had an article published in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, an open-access academic journal. It’s called ‘Reconciling Feminist and Anti-Caste Analyses in Studies of Indian Dalit-Bahujan Women’, and looks at the work of three publications by Indian feminist presses. It’s a modified and shortened version of one of the chapters of my PhD thesis.

This article is a good example of why I chose to leave academia (nothing to do with the article itself! But the publication process.) I first submitted this two years ago. I had to have my final changes made at the end of 2012. My final proofs were done in mid-2013. Yet it is only now being published. I’m not blaming anyone involved, but the whole academic publishing process means that studies are not reaching their target audience in a timely manner, even when there aren’t the physical logistics of printing and distribution involved–Intersections is an online journal. The system really needs an overhaul, but is unlikely to get it anytime soon. For example, I wrote this long before the author of one of the books discussed, Sharmila Rege, died last year. I wouldn’t necessarily have changed what the article contains after the news of her death reached me, but I may have wanted to add some kind of footnote in recognition of it.

But, all is well that ends well. Here is an extract from the article, and the rest of the article can be read by everyone (I love open-access academic journals, especially now that I’m no longer based at a university!) here.

“In the west the catchphrase ‘all the women are white, all the blacks are men’ came to capture black women’s feelings that they were alienated from both the feminist movement and the black civil rights movement. In India, there has been a ‘masculinization of dalithood and a savarnisation [upper-casteing] of womanhood. This paper examines three book-length studies of women’s involvement in anti-caste struggles that go some way in reconciling feminist and anti-caste positions concerning dalit-bahujan women: We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon (Zubaan, 2008), Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios by Sharmila Rege (Zubaan, 2006), and The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Write Self-Respect History, edited by K. Srilata (Kali for Women, 2003). All three books were published by leading Indian feminist presses. This paratextual fact is central to a key argument of mine—that recent, feminist-inspired histories of dalit-bahujan women are trying to reconcile the fissures between feminist and anti-caste analyses, but are not always entirely successful because one of the two modes of analysis remains dominant over the other. Feminist and anti-caste modes of analysis have not always complemented each other in activism or scholarly discourse, with ‘mainstream’ feminists often believing that their movement is caste-neutral, and lower-caste women believing that the feminist movement does not provide a space for their particular grievances, heavily marked by caste. I argue that these feminist studies attempt to reconcile a feminist analysis with an anti-caste one—that is, the authors and views expounded in the texts are informed by feminist and anti-caste positions. But, it is still evident that the two modes of analysis have an ambivalent relationship with each other. ‘Feminist’ often remains synonymous with ‘upper-caste.'”

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.

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.

Goat Days, Benyamin, 2012

Goat Days
Goat Days, by Benyamin. Translated from the 2008 Malayalam ‘Aadu Jeevitham’ by Joseph Koyippally. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).

(Shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2014)

Living in Nepal, the issues of migrant labour to, and remittances from, the Gulf are often in the news. The exploitation of young South Asian men–on building sites, in the hotel industry–is terrible, and often amounts to little more than slave labour. Nepalis are particularly favoured because they are ‘docile’ and will do what they’re told. Of course, not all experiences of migrant labour are bad–whether to the Gulf, or Malaysia, or wherever–but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most are exploitative, at best, and violent, at worst.

Finally, some fiction on the topic. Though not from Nepal–Benyamin is a Malayali based in Bahrain, and writes of migrants from Kerala–the story could be applicable to young men from across the region. The narrator and an acquaintance from a small watery town in Kerala end up in the Arabian desert, working with goats. The dryness, the labour and the treatment they receive from their Arab supervisors dehumanise them, and Goat Days is ultimately about the strength of human spirit. The novel is less about what happens than the psychology and endurance of the narrator.

The novel originally appeared in Malayalam in 2008, and the English version was published in 2012. I wouldn’t call Goat Days brilliant literature, but it is a readable translation that introduces to the English literary world the life experiences of so many working class people of South Asia. I was disappointed, though, by a comment in the author’s afterword. Benyamin writes that the story he told is a true one, and he had been encouraged by a friend to meet the man who is at the centre of Goat Days and hear his story. “I thought it to be one of the typical sob-stories from the Gulf,” he writes. I don’t know if this phrasing is perhaps a result of translation, but it seemed disappointingly dismissive. Benyamin continues that the narrator’s story is remarkable and was worth telling, but this seemed to be overly exceptionalising a tale which is far from individual. Perhaps the details of Goat Days are unique, but the story isn’t, and it is here that its strength lies.

Dispatch from JLF on Asymptote blog

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(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.