April 17, 2016

Of Interest (16 April, 2016)

Unsorted (spot the themes though):

 

Via Darran Anderson, this piece by Christopher Turner on utopianism in architecture.

You have probably read this already but just in case: Sara Ahmed interviews Judith Butler, and they are both great and therefore this is also pretty great. (Link goes to a PDF)

Danika Parikh on Zac Goldsmith’s attempts (i.e. Modi, Hinduism, islamophobia) to reach out to British Indians.

Joe Macaré interviews Walidah Imarisha here. (Via Josh Kitto)

Long, impressive piece on B.R. Ambedkar, by Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Tiara Jante interviews Rasheedah Phillips (of Black Quantum Futurism and The Afrofuturist Affair) here.

The Ladies Finger on recent events in Kashmir.

Naben Ruthnum watches DDLJ, his first Bollywood film. (I too identify with nearly being driven away from the films by Lata Mangeshkar.)

Shaheen Ahmed on the erasure of Assam’s syncretic traditions.

At We Are Wakanda, a review of the new Black Panther.

An extract from Minnie Vaid’s The Ant in the Ear of the Elephant.

Timothy Yu on the (a) problem with “Have They Run Out Of Provinces Yet?” (Via Sandeep Parmar)

Shruti Ravindran is fantastic, this piece on two Mumbai biologists and the natural wonders of Aarey Milk Colony is fantastic.

Sharon Irani interviews Appupen about Rashtraman and his recent work.

Nathan K. Hensley on drones, empire, space.

Via Keguro Macharia, Vijay Prashad on international scrutiny of caste-based violence, and India’s response to this.

Gautam Bhatia on Ambedkar’s revolutionary constitution.

 

April 9, 2016

In which Rhodes falls and doesn’t, Britain faces its imperial past and doesn’t, several large cats are featured, and nothing is propelled into outer space.

One Year in the Afterlife Of the British Empire:

 

April 9, 2015: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, a result of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign

November 8, 2015: (approx, that’s when the news stories seem to be published) A group calling themselves “Mountain of Light” demands the return of the Kohinoor diamond to India. British historian Andrew Roberts explains that the Kohinoor belongs in Britain “in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”

November 10, 2015: Karnataka decides to celebrate Tipu Sultan Jayanti; public debate (also riots, violence) about whether he was an anti-colonial hero, religious tyrant, or both. (I suspect forced religious conversion may have been an effective rulerly practice; I suspect his tyranny may have been exaggerated by British historians for their own ends; I suspect that the decision to celebrate his steampunk tiger2birthday ten days before his actual date of birth was not an innocent one. I have a suspicious mind.)

November 25, 2015: An exhibition titled Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past opens at the Tate Britain. Of this more anon.

Sometime in November, 2015: I write a trollish column about Tipu, the Kohinoor, memorialising history, and museums. (I don’t publish it, for reasons that are not political ones.) (If I was cleverer at formatting that whole column would go here: please scroll down and read it and imagine it here, in these parentheses.)

Sometime in November, 2015: I discover that Tipu’s Tiger, on display at the V&A in London, can also be viewed on the museum’s website:

 

V&A Conservation in Action: Playing Tippoo’s Tiger Part 2 from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

Yep, they’re playing God Save the Queen.

Multiple sometimes in December, 2015: Various (three) British men explain to me that the while the British Museum makes them personally uncomfortable, at least some of the artefacts are safer there than they would be in their countries of origin, and at least it’s free. I am polite and do not draw up a list of expenses for my own visits to the British Museum (but if we are, let’s start with the cost of a language test for my visa application).

January 17, 2016: Rohith Vemula kills himself. This is a post about Britain and empire, and I don’t wish to usurp for Britain any of the credit for the violence that India’s savarna state (the HRD minister was directly involved) and society inflict upon young Dalit students. But the role of the state, the memorialising of particular national narratives (Rohith was accused of anti-national activities, obviously), the university as a site of protest against these, all are in play here.

January 19, 2016: Oxford Union students vote to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, following the Rhodes Must Fall movement’s campaign.

January 29, 2016: Angry donors threaten to withdraw millions in funding, unless the college continues to honour Rhodes and his (racist) legacy. The statue stays.

January-present, 2016: Protests on Indian University campuses, protests off Indian University campuses, more students’ lives being threatened, fascinating use of colonial laws against the country’s citizens. I’d say something obvious and platitudinous but true about university campuses being a space where debating national legacies, histories, narratives, etc is possible and necessary and how that space is being gradually threatened, but this week Baba Ramdev wants to behead you for not saying “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and it’s hard to imagine what one could say.

Steampunk tiger

February 13-18, 2016: Everything is burning. It’s also Make in India week. (Is this linkable to everything else we’ve been talking about? Probably, but at the risk of losing focus. Still,) I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that the Modi government’s big development initiative also has a big steampunk cat for its symbol.

March 26, 2016: I finally go to Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (it is important to write out that title in full), and have cleverly timed things so that three of my favourite critics can come to it at the same time. By this time we’ve read some unfortunate reviews of the exhibition, so we’re aware that this isn’t going to be all that we could wish.

It is not all that we could wish. Here is a storify of our reactions, which (alas) omits the annoyed people who edged away as Maureen or I started muttering, or Paul’s amused tolerance or my face upon seeing Niall Ferguson’s Empire prominently displayed in the shop outside, next to Fanon.

Possibly the closest we can get is this George Stubbs painting (“A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants”), which was one of the better things on display. The cheetah’s name is Miss Jenny and she has a most expressive face. I know just how she feels.

miss jenny

 

March 28, 2016: I stop by the V&A to pay homage to Tipu’s Tiger, as you do. I’m surprised by how uncomfortable its presence there makes me feel, even though I quite like the V&A. There’s lots of wandering through the “Nehru Gallery” (of course) and muttering to myself and having rude thoughts. In front of the Tipu’s Tiger display case a toddler is fascinated, and asks her mother why the tiger is eating the man. The mother pauses and then explains that the man has been very naughty. That makes me feel better.

 

**********************************************

(That unpublished column from November)

I’m a little worried about our current obsession with the Kohinoor diamond, an artefact that has for a good portion of its history passed from empire to marauding empire, even as I feel instinctive glee at the thought of Taking Back Things the British Stole. The most recent attempt to reclaim it comes from a group comprised, apparently, of Bollywood stars (of whom I’ve never heard) and businessmen. This does nothing to disprove my suspicion that this particular object is a bit like political power and the Elder Wand, in that anyone who wants to claim them is too morally suspect to be allowed to.

There is an artefact I’d like ‘back’, though. In the Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) in London is a musical automaton, created in the eighteenth century, featuring a tiger mauling a European man. The man is wailing piteously, the tiger is making tiger-ish noises, and contains within its stomach a small pipe organ (for, presumably, more dramatic sound effects). Once you know that this thing once belonged to Tipu Sultan it all makes a lot more sense as a symbol. It also makes the fact that it’s in a London museum rather depressing; it’s clear who “won” that round. On the museum’s website you can watch a video in which “God Save the Queen” is played on the pipe organ, which is frankly perverse. But then, historical legacies frequently are.

tiger toy machineIn India this month (had I been there, and I wish I had), and in the UK always, it would have been tempting to walk around with my copy of Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!!, Daljit Nagra’s second collection of poems, just to provoke. Nagra is British-Punjabi and the son of immigrants, and in his first two collections he draws on all his languages (various Englishes, Punjabi, Hindi), refusing to privilege one register over the other. But to speak and write in English at all is to grapple, in some way, with history and our imperial heritage; and Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! is often explicitly engaged in that work.

Some of this is done through references to canon. So you have “This Be the Pukka Verse” which begins “Ah the Raj! Our mother-incarnate”; the reader can’t not have Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” and its opening “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” in her head as she reads, and so can’t help but be reminded of the effects of empire upon the rest of us. Sometimes Nagra writes his history into the canon in other ways—“The Balcony Song of Raju and Jaswinder” has its star-crossed lovers confronting the realities of caste, alcopops and Bally Sagoo before a reference to the Hampton Court maze where “we stayed in the deep trying to murder our names”. Kevin Keegan is absorbed into kabbadi; the gaze of history writing is reversed in “A Black History of The English-Speaking Peoples”. Colonial-era spelling (including that “Tippoo” in the title) is adopted and discarded at will. In “The Ascent of a Victorian Woman”, ostensibly an excerpt from a travel journal, our narrator sits in a bullock cart and listens uncomprehendingly to a stream of “Bettychudes and Banchudes” from the Indian driver who often slips seamlessly into a Shakespearean register. It’s clear who has mastery of whose language. It’s not subtle, but why would it be? The poem which shares the collection’s title begins with the poet “rifl[ing]/ through your stash/ of coolly imperial/ diction”; it ends with the word “Raj” transmuted into a tiger’s roar.

This isn’t likely to come as a revelation to anyone who hasn’t somehow missed the last century or so of English literature. Of course we deal with the legacies handed on to us by wresting control of language, of course we hybridise, of course we face, embrace, distort, play with the history that weighs us down; we show our working, are unsubtle, roar. Nagra isn’t here to offer a revolutionary theory of language but to make from it poetry that works.

None of which really explains what we should do with the Kohinoor; diamonds are notoriously less malleable than language. Perhaps we could send it (and the British royal family, and statues of Cecil Rhodes, and memorials to Winston Churchill, and everything all of this stands for) into space?

**********************************************

Coda

March 29, 2015: A visit to the V&A Museum of Childhood to look at a mini exhibition on Oliver Postgate and Nicholas Firmin’s work, and pay homage to another great cat. (Bagpuss has nothing to do with empire, probably.) We also go through some of the permanent exhibitions on the history of children’s culture. It turns out there are several golliwogs, scattered about the place and uncontextualised. (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how much context can you give?) (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how are you just going to leave those there?) (Upstairs there’s an exhibition on British child migrants, complete with a video in which adults who survived physical and sexual abuse as children talk about their experiences and we’re sickened and furious and yet I’m still thinking something like “this you felt you could address.”)

April 3, 2016

Of Interest (3 April, 2016)

Unsorted:

Two (or possibly three) interviews with Victor LaValle: a conversation with Lincoln Michel that is spread out across here and here, and another with Samuel Sattin at the Rumpus, here.

Namwali Serpell on Nnedi Okorafor and Afrofuturism.

Shing Yin Khor on food, authenticity and appropriation.

A profile of Naezy, a young Muslim rapper in Mumbai, by Bhanuj Kappal.

Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive, an ebook by Professor Achille Mbembe, at Africa is a Country.

An interview (by Tom Lamont) with Laura Mvula, about anxiety and success and her new album.

Via Subashini Navaratnam, this piece on the use of African fractals in the building of Benin City.

On Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas: Nilanjana Roy, here, and Jai Arjun Singh, here.

Ijeoma Oluo on not always loving your body.

Sofia Samatar being correct on the subjects of Gormenghast and fantasy and language (and I nearly cried at this piece because yes)

Megan Milks on personal pronouns, being “we”, subjectivity.

This interview with Sarnath Banerjee (by Ratik Asokan) is great and annoying in equal parts and therefore very good indeed.

April 2, 2016

March Reading

(Things I read in March)

 

Andaleeb Wajid, No Time For Goodbyes: Many words about this are available here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Split: See above.

Kim Fu, For Today I Am A Boy: This is richly, gorgeously written, and yet and yet. For Today I Am A Boy is about Audrey, the child of Chinese immigrants (one of them an extra-conservative father with Ideas about masculinity), coming to terms with the fact that she’s a woman. I say this, but it’s not really true–the only time we ever see Audrey, female pronouns and all, is in the epilogue, in a fuzzy future; for the vast majority of the novel she’s going by her masculine-sounding given name (which I’m not using here for reasons). Which might be fine; the long process of someone coming to terms with (and finding ways to think about) their gender is a story, but. A pause here so you can read this Casey Plett piece. Having said all of which, there’s a section towards the end when our protagonist has befriended a young trans man and his friends, and they have all the words and the clear definitions, and Audrey resents this certainty (and perhaps my insistence on using “Audrey” here is a part of that imposition of certainty) and that feeling felt familiar and nuanced and right.

Payal Dhar and Vartika Sharma, A Helping Hand: A series of letters from an unnamed protagonist to the new kid in school, who has a prosthetic hand. For what is clearly A Book About Tolerance it manages not to be cringingly preachy, and the format leaves a lot to the imagination (what is the incident that “happened at lunch,” mentioned more than once?). I wish the title was less “lol, see, because prosthetic hand”, and I wish (as I always do with this subgenre of children’s books) that we actually got to  hear from the person in question, rather than the “normal” kid coping with this intrusion of otherness into daily life. Vartika Sharma’s illustrations are good though.

Robin Stevens, Jolly Foul Play: Who wants a couple thousand words on how the queer subplot in this book is so much less good than the queer subplot in Murder Most Unladylike and why that is? (I exempt the two people at the next table at a restaurant last Saturday; they probably heard all of this.) It is still a very good book though, and still excellent at its main characters and their feelings.

William Mayne, It: Everyone in this book is alarmingly sanguine about being haunted. I first discovered that this was probably a very thesis-relevant book about a year ago, when Nick Campbell did a conference paper on it, and I’m not sure why it has taken me this long to actually read it. It’s a very William Mayne book, in that there are landscapes and churches and dreamlike detachment, and it’s just generally gorgeous.

Sophia McDougall, Space Hostages: I like this for the reasons I liked Mars Evacuees, the first book. I also rolled my eyes at a throwaway line about the protagonist’s knowledge of Hindi, and while McDougall’s clearly trying to avoid the “Earth-kids-swoop-in-and-save-oppressed-natives” trope in scenes later in the book (by having the natives do quite a bit themselves), the odour of said trope and its history for me permeated the whole episode anyway. But apart from that. This had genuinely delightful aliens, and a ship who is finding herself (can the sequels just be about this spaceship travelling across space by herself?) and other good things.

Evelyn Smith, Val Forrest in the Fifth, Milly in the Fifth: I think I’ve said here before that I love how Evelyn Smith does character. Val Forrest herself is just another good schoolgirl, but her spoilt friend Nina is not, and the cool girl who is contemptuous of Nina is not, and the abusive boarding house lady is so impressively poisonous. I think, though, that I like Milly better–it questions lots of basic schoolgirl ethos things (though backtracks in the end by making the girl who does that questioning a fine sportswoman and Loyal To The School), again has poisonous, manipulative characters done well, and most importantly has a timid, not jolly-schoolgirl-ish heroine who likes looking at, and being fascinated by, other girls.

Amandla Stenberg , Sebastian A. Jones, Ashley A. Woods, Darrell May, Niobe: She is Life (issue 2): Everything I said about the first volume a couple of months ago still holds true–the story and the world are unfolding, slowly; the artwork continues to be very beautiful; I’m still not sure what’s going on but continue to be fascinated anyway.

 

 

March 20, 2016

Of Interest (20 March, 2016)

Unsorted:

Nisi Shawl’s crash course in Black SF history.

Supriya Nair interviews Sunil Khilnani about his new book, Incarnations.

I’ve come to Doreen Massey’s work very recently (I wasn’t expecting space/landscape to play as big a part in my research as it has come to do); here’s “Landscape/space/politics“.

Sharanya Manivannan on the Karaikal Ammaiyar approach to existing in public.

Look at these glorious freshwater crabs. Look at them all colourful and smiley.

John d’Addario on Gran Fury. Via Chapati Mystery.

A Helen Oyeyemi interview (with Lauren Oyler) in which she continues to say good things. Via Aaron Bady.

Eric M. Gurevitch on Handsome Nanda, the Therigatha, and empathetic criticism, feat. a Very Long Footnote. Via Nilanjana Roy.

Amit Chaudhuri on Rhodes Must Fall.

Fandom Following’s Wendy on Personal Favourite White Boys and Problematic Faves. Via Rukmini Pande.

Ramzi Fawaz on diverse mutants and superheroes, the hollowness of some current “diversity” discourse, and a much more nuanced reading of Umapagan Ampikaipakan’s infamous column than most of the outraged responses I’ve seen. Via Niall Harrison.

And via Fawaz’s piece, this good thing, by Alexandro Segarde.

Vinay Lal on Godse, the RSS and the murder of Gandhi. Via Bhuvi Gupta.

China Miéville on social sadism.

I meant to link to this weeks ago: Aman Sethi on the Jat agitation, water and the economy.

(Finally a self-plug) Here is a roundtable on South Asianness, folklore, etc., featuring Arun Jiwa, Suna Dasi, Vajra Chandrasekera, Laila Borrie, Shveta Thakrar, Sukhbir Cheema and me.

March 16, 2016

No Time For Goodbyes/Split

 

Andaleeb Wajid, No Time For Goodbyes

A friend finds it deeply annoying when trilogies (or books otherwise in series) fail to indicate the fact somewhere on the cover (front or back). I’m less hardline than him on this subject, but that there’s no hint anywhere on or in Wajid’s book that this is the first of a trilogy seems an odd choice on the part of the publisher (Bloomsbury India). I genuinely wouldn’t have known had I not looked the book up online.

No Time For Goodbyes is a time travel romance. Tamanna, just out of school and about to begin college, finds an old polaroid in her attic and is sucked into the past; the early 1980s Bangalore of her mother’s schooldays. Appearing in her grandmother’s house with no way of explaining what has happened to her, she pretends to be the Australian pen pal of the boy next door—Manoj, whose scientist grandfather created the camera responsible for her predicament. Naturally Manoj and Tamanna fall in love; naturally Tamanna returns to her present just as things are getting interesting; naturally it appears the two are destined to be tragically torn apart.

One doesn’t particularly want scientific rigour from this genre, and critique from that angle is therefore a bit pointless. But I want to pick at threads—why would Tamanna’s mother name her daughter after the weird Australian who showed up at their house and was rude about their clothes (and refused to buy any of her own) and made her friend sad; why has she not noticed that her daughter looks identical to said weird Australian; has no one given the Christ College library a decent spring clean in three decades? (Okay, that last one is plausible.) And there are things I find jarring about its engagement with pop culture—the determined, awkward references to the Harry Potter books, to the friend who likes the Twilight films (Tamanna, of course, has nothing but scorn for them).

I mention this awkwardness in part because while Tamanna herself often thinks longingly of the comforts of the 2010s (better ice-cream flavours, better YA fiction, not having to wear Mirinda orange dresses, the internet), none of these are particularly deeply-felt arguments for the present, as they might be presented (um) by one who lives here. I’m speculating, obviously, but it rather feels as if someone sat down and tried to think of reasons a teenage girl might like to live now, but wasn’t convinced by their own arguments (and do teenagers in the 2010s see enough of Mirinda for it to exist in their consciousness as a colour the way Digene pink was for my unfortunate generation?). Underneath it all the book seems far more convinced by its nostalgia for the Bangalore of the past, where there were more trees, less crowded public transport and affordable cinema tickets (all good things, don’t get me wrong, though I have questions about the public transport thing). Perhaps people with a greater connection to the city might find this less trite than I did, but I imagine reading a similar take on my own city and I cringe. And if a girl from the future came along and told me she liked my world because it was “quaint”, I don’t think I’d be falling in love with her (Manoj is clearly a nicer person than I am). For a teenage romance, its notion of the present sounds suspiciously like it was written by someone who also writes letters to the editor (the editor of The Hindu).

I’m not really a reader of time travel romances so I hesitate to generalise about the appeal of the genre. But it seems to me that a big part of the point is the impossibility of a happy ending (until, of course, there’s a happy ending but then often there isn’t). And as much as I dislike this book’s treatment of time and change, it often does manage to invoke the bleak impossibility of this couple’s getting together. The choppiness of Tamanna’s movements between times is genuinely discombobulating, the lack of explanation given to the device makes the characters seem helpless in the face of an enormous, unknowable universe. There’s enough there to make me curious about the next two books in the trilogy (both published in 2014, though I haven’t yet obtained them).

 

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Split

This is a more recognisable (to me) version of teenage romance. Noor is part of the group of popular girls at school, and has an ideal-sounding home life with cool parents with cool politics and tastes. But her mother has fallen in love with someone else and moved to Paris, and Noor finds herself unable to tell her friends (incidentally, this is done in emotionally believable ways that made perfect sense). Forced to go to an after-school support group she finds herself lying to and drifting apart from her older friends and socialising with children and nerds. She also meets A Boy who is funny and nice and from Bombay, but has not been previously vetted and declared acceptable by her popular friends.

I say “recognisable” above for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the book is rooted in a very specific (in terms of class, gender, geography, family) South Delhi milieu, one which is relatively close to my own upbringing; though separated by 15 years and a bit more privilege. Which I’ll come back to, but the other reason it feels familiar is that it’s a lot closer to high school narratives that we’re mostly familiar with through literature/TV/film. So obviously football players can be regarded as acceptable boyfriends; boys with glasses are a bit iffy; the head of Noor’s little clique is more than a little Regina George-ish. (This isn’t Mean Girls; Madhavan takes much of what that film suggests about teenage friendships for granted, but shows a lot more empathy for her popular girl characters, and manages to write them as vulnerable children.) This isn’t really the space for musing about how high school romances as a genre inflect the lives of teenagers who are exposed to the genre, but I think both forms of recognisableness are interlinked and sustain one another in complex ways.

I don’t know if it’s a feature of the book (the author’s about my age) or a feature of me that I spent the whole thing thinking how young and vulnerable everyone was.

But. The book is, as I say, fixed in a very particular milieu, and it is very much Noor’s own. We’re seeing through her eyes, and it’s not always clear where the split between book and narrator lies. Which is fine to an extent–as we cringe at her bigoted grandmother, or learn with her to appreciate the younger, poorer girl with the looped, ribboned plaits,  and so on (some visible assumptions are being made here about the sort of reader the book expects). A corollary of sorts is that you sometimes wonder if Noor’s prejudices are in fact the book’s–the fat girl from West Delhi who has no taste but they keep her around for the money, and whose inferiority is left unquestioned? (Not the only example, but one that irritated me with how blatant it was.)

Split is good at the inside of a (certain sort of) protagonist’s head, then, but I have some reservations about how it has said characters interact with the world.

March 13, 2016

Of Interest (13 March, 2016)

Unsorted links about SF and empire and race:

 

Debbie Reese collects responses to J.K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America”.

Roz Kaveney in the TLS is insightful about Tolkien and also voices some of my frustrations with much of the Tolkien criticism I’ve read.

Phenderson Djèlí Clark has some fantastic black history and SF essays on his blog (and you should read them all, obviously), here’s one on SF and racial terror.

Esther Wang on the appeal of fictional worlds where everyone is white. (I feel this essay so hard.)

Vajra Chandrasekera has a new column at Strange Horizons, of which this is the first installment, and it’s great (and advocates blowing things up; I do like this man). His recent review of Binti is also fantastic.

K2 on colonial settlers in The Revenant. (Fun fact! Apparently Grace Dove wasn’t invited to the Oscars.)

Sofia Samatar’s “Notes Toward a Theory of Quantum Blackness” is beautiful; the things it links to and references are vital.

Rega Jha on only one of a long history of atrocities perpetuated on Indian culture by our colonial overlords. Via Sunny Singh.

Andrew Yang on Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

Dr. André M. Carrington, whose book I’m very eager to read, interviewed here by Noah Berlatsky. Via Matthew Cheney.

The Ramayana in Persian (an extract from a book by Audrey Truschke), and a Persian Mahabharata (Yael Rice, via bint battuta)

Aaron Bady on A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass.

March 2, 2016

February Reading

Stella Gibbons, Pure Juliet: Deserves a longer piece of writing, though it’s far (far) from being a good example of a Stella Gibbons book. Nice to have things to add to the Gauche Girl Canon though.

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree: I am writing about this for elsewhere and will link when it is up– I liked it and am glad it won the Costa award, and books about Victorian crises of faith (and dinosaurs) are always going to win me over. But does it have the emotional depth of Cuckoo Song? (I don’t think it does.)

Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings: Okay, so big sweeping epic empire/revolution story with multiple viewpoints is probably a good thing; I like that this book is written as a history; I like that its gods are familiar and that its humans make foolish mistakes for probable reasons (that too feels like history, except maybe not the gods bit). But why is it so LONG?

Ayesha Tariq, Sarah: The Suppressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter: This is a graphic … novel, I suppose, though it’s not really; novels imply plot and progress and part of Tariq’s point is precisely a lack of those things. And so our protagonist continues to deal with unthinking sexism, attempts at arranged marriage, men who expect her to cook for them in the middle of the night, a general lack of freedom, gropey uncles. And it’s all well-observed, though full of clunky things like people earnestly telling other people “we live in a male-dominated society”. Obviously there’s no reason to assume that the target audience is roughly the same age as the protagonist, but it does feel surprisingly young–and for a book about suppressed anger, it feels rather insipid.

Samit Basu and Sunaina Coelho. The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times: I’ve written about this in more detail here.

Ranjit Lal, The Tigers of Taboo Valley: See above.

Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse: Reading this in the context of other recent things, I’m astonished no one’s ever written a substantive piece comparing it to Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. The bare bones of the stories—children in a secluded valley trying to come to terms with horrible events in their histories; particular interpersonal relationships that keep going wrong, generation after generation, in a cycle that needs to be broken—are close to identical, though their resolutions, and their tones, could not be more different. I was a little disappointed by Goudge’s book, though; though there are glimpses of wider, deeper tragedy and joy, they are only glimpses for me (meanwhile the idealised valley itself felt rather too bucolic). Kari Sperring writes here about Goudge’s work and liminality, and I wish I had a stronger sense of that in this particular book.

Shabnam Minwalla, The Strange Haunting of Model High School: I’ve written about this in more detail here.

Geeta Dharmarajan and Ludmilla Chakrabarty, On the tip of a pin was …: see above.

Sowmya Rajendran and Satwik Gade, Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why: see above

William Mayne, The Member for the Marsh: Lovely in mood and character, and everyone just matter-of-factly enters into each other’s own particular games and interests, and there’s a dragon but not really, and a dog has probably died, but is mourned and moved on from. It’s good, but A Swarm in May was published the year before it, and A Grass Rope the year after and in that context it is very much Lesser Mayne.

Robin Stevens, The Case of the Blue Violet: I don’t know that this counts as a “book” (it’s very short, probably under 5000 words) but I bought it separately and it exists as a unique entity in my kindle library, so there we are. It’s enjoyable, though easily solved; I was more interested in the extract from the next book which made up about a third of this. [Note: there’s an older Wells and Wong short story here.]

Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow: Over the past year I’ve seen this book recommended several times to readers who like Robin Stevens’s series—the commonality, presumably, being “Edwardians + mystery!” It is actually completely different, and does completely different things—rather than the interiority, the humour, and the complex characterisation of Stevens’s books Woodfine gives us a much more straightforward adventure story in a really sumptuous, visual setting. Both authors are intertextual, though in different ways; Woodfine has a major character with a deep devotion to Boy’s Own adventures of the sort that we’re reading. Plus her protagonist’s background is very A Little Princess; a wealthy young woman whose dead father’s fortune was made in the (by now former) empire (in South Africa) has been mysteriously denied her inheritance and is forced to work. Presumably we’re going to discover more over the course of the later book/s in the series. For now, this was enjoyable, if rather superficial.

Snigdha Poonam, Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love: Only a separate “book” for the reasons the Robin Stevens book mentioned above is one; though if anything, this is longer. It was one of the runners up for the Bodley Head essay prize, published in its own little ebook (as were the other runner up and the winner). I love Snigdha Poonam’s writing–it’s observant and restrained and generous–and I’m looking forward to the book of which I’m told this is a modified extract.

Anil Menon and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya, Manikantan Has Enough: Available in its entirety here. What I like about this is that in a small space it really effectively dramatises a particular childhood frustration (i.e. a frustration you don’t admit to as an adult); people keep nagging at you and going on and on and on and also there are elephants and pakodas and Periyar, of which I have fond memories.

 

 

March 1, 2016

Bhimrao Ambedkar, The Boy Who Asked Why/The Strange Haunting of Model High School/On the tip of a pin was …

Sowmya Rajendran and Satwik Gade, Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why

This was one of the picture books on the Hindu/Goodbooks shortlist, and has text by Sowmya Rajendran, who’s generally reliable.

20160301_232322-1I think, considering the title, that it’s interesting that at no point during the book is Ambedkar shown to ask “why”. In fact, apart from asking his parents when he can go to school, at the beginning of the book, and telling a station master that he and his siblings are Mahars somewhere in the middle, he doesn’t speak at all. I don’t (I think) mean to suggest that the book silences him—no one else speaks either, and the whole thing feels more reported than anything else. I don’t know what the effects of this might be. But if Ambedkar isn’t shown asking the question, the book itself does—at various points as the text and art (by Gade) depicts a bad situation in its protagonist’s life, there’s a big “WHY?” across the page. I wonder if, going by the title, you could make a case that the book’s identification with Ambedkar is so complete that its whys are his own. (I’m reasonably sure you could not.)

I like to think of children who are learning to read being exposed early on to an abridged life of Ambedkar, but I’m not sure this is the best or most artistically interesting of those I’ve seen. But then, I don’t really know how to talk about picture books, so it’s possible that I’m missing obvious, wonderful things.

 

Shabnam Minwalla, The Strange Haunting of Model High School (illustrations by Svabhu Kohli)

[Full disclosure: the publishers are my former employers; I don't know who the editors were but it's possible that they're friends and former colleagues.]

I had a gleeful yay school story! moment when I started reading this one. I know Jai liked it, and I mostly do too—it’s set in a well-regarded girls’ school in Bombay, and features a production of Annie, ghosts, attractive boys from the school next door, and an evil teacher scheming to take over from the current principal. There are annoyances—one of the protagonists tends to burst into song at random (like Lord of the Rings, it’s usually best to skip over these moments); there’s a class Fat Girl; some of the prose is questionable (emotions “slosh” around the insides of the characters; and why is everyone wearing multiple leotards?). But then there’s Mrs Rangachari.

Mrs Rangachari is both fantastic in her own right and a general symbol of what this book does particularly well. She’s larger than life and evil, in the way that, say, Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull is evil (and without the underlying gendered badness of that depiction). She hates happiness, she’s greedy and vindictive and power hungry, she’s willing to scheme and indulge in ridiculous, over the top plots to get what she wants (power). And yet, her evil is expressed in familiar, knowable ways—the excuses she finds for her anger are based in class (how dare Lara be poor and clever and successful) and Indian Culture (the delighted horror at the girls she wants to get in trouble befriending boys). (Tangentially, you should read Amulya Gopalakrishnan on auntyhood.) And the (or one) result of this is to remind you that this is a school where, as is true of so many well-regarded schools in Indian metropolises, skirts and tunics “must be worn three fingers below the knee” (true of my own old school, before it was decided that skirts of any length were too dangerous to our morals) , fraternising with boys is strictly discouraged, and everyone but Lara is rich.

There’s a moment early on, immediately after we’ve learnt about the skirt length rule, when we learn that “Monitors can conduct the finger test at all times”. Probably any connection between this three finger test and the much more notorious two finger test is a bit of a stretch,  and I don’t (entirely) mean to suggest that the book is a scathing indictment of the ways in which culture and tradition and class are used in schools to target girls and systemically harass, slut shame, and generally make the world a lot worse, but more than in most books set in schools I think those ideas are present.

 

Geeta Dharmarajan and Ludmilla Chakrabarty, On the tip of a pin was …

Not really that recent—the first edition of this picture book was published in 2009. But it describes itself on the back as “sci-fi”, and I was never not going to read it. Like How to Weigh an Elephant (also by Dharmarajan, also published by Katha) it ends with a child-friendly description of the science involved.

The plot is rather incoherent—there20160301_231951-1-1‘s a village on the tip of a pin (Pintipur, obviously), populated by children, and also by a group of animals. All of the animals have their faults, but worm, for reasons that are unclear, is the worst. She “had races with herself to see if she could dig the deepest, the longest, the straightest holes … across the village and over the moon and the stars and the sun and the clouds”. And so she keeps disappearing in space and time and annoying everyone. Until they discover the village on the head of the pin (Pintopur), and learn that wormholes mean travel to other worlds, which is cool. Then everyone has space adventures.

I don’t know if any scientists were involved in the making of On the tip of a pin was …, and I don’t know that it’s so much SF as it is surreal. Which is fine, probably—adventures in time and space should be weird and incoherent and fractured and disproportionately sized (Goat, one of the animals, seems to cause solar and lunar eclipses on a regular basis because he’s so large) and it all feels perfectly reasonable and a far better explanation for wormholes than the explanation at the end.

February 28, 2016

Of Interest (28 February, 2016)

Rohith Vemula/JNU/India/This Cultural Moment:

How Delhi Police put out our candlelight vigil for Rohith.

Asha Kowtal on the insidious decentring of caste from the discourse. “Because our history is being distorted even before it is fully formed.” (Via Amba Azaad.)

In recent weeks I’ve kept linking to things Ravish Kumar says/does because he’s great; here’s an interview.

A photo essay in the Caravan by Nikhil Roshan, as a group of JNU students waited to be arrested.

Lawrence Liang on Gandhi, Tagore and Anti/Nationalism.

 

Books:

This awards season, remember the Gold Star Awards (and be glad that the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo exists and is in the world)

Claudia Rankine is interviewed here by Lauren Berlant and some good things are said. (Via Kawrage on twitter.)

Sarah Howe is interviewed by Greg McCartney, and she also says good things. (Via Sandeep Parmar.)

Ethan Robinson reviews Nancy Jane Moore’s The Weave, and in the process also offers a reading of the entire genre, and of assumptions in fiction in general, that I’d find useful and important even if a) he wasn’t a friend b) I hadn’t edited this.

Smriti Daniel on the Noolaham Digital Library.

Kuzhali Manickavel’s continued explorations into SF on the radio are still great. “It is neat how advice about sex can also be advice about interacting with aliens.” (Via Blaft)

E.R. Truitt (whose book sounds relevant to the interests of many who read this) on our imaginary North.

Adam Roberts on the wrath of Achilles John Wick.

Nayomi Munaweera is author-photographed twice.