Archive for ‘SAWWC’

November 17, 2014

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess

(I was a bit nervous about the title of Kandasamy’s new book. “Gypsy” is a term with a huge and uncomfortable history, and I’m sometimes surprised by how many people who are otherwise careful about language will still throw this one around casually. I don’t think Kandasamy is using it casually, though; as I understand it within the book it’s a reference to the Narikuravar.)

I’ve only read scraps of Kandasamy’s poetry before; in the later stages of this book there’s a control over the prose that feels like it comes from poetry but that I haven’t seen before in the little of her work that I’ve read.

A version of this piece was in last week’s Hindustan Times.

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There’s so much about narrative, about the process of turning lives and events into story, that we take for granted. It’s easy to forget that books and narrative formats mold stories into particular shapes, that the truth, to whatever extent such a thing exists, is only available to us mediated through those shapes.

Yet this is a useful thing to remember, perhaps particularly so when we’re writing about real people and happenings. Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess is a novel about the (real) events of the Kilvenmani Massacre of 1968, but it’s also a novel about the process of narrating those events. The book is divided into four segments and in the first two, “Background” and “Breeding Ground” the author treats us to a range of ways of telling a tale. We are never allowed to forget that this is a story that is being told to us; Kandasamy (assuming the narrator and the author to be the same, as dangerous as that may be) will stop, restart, reflect on her narrative choices as she is making them, address her readers directly to inform them that they will not be getting what they expect. Occasionally she will parody the style of the propaganda from one side or the other of the conflict between the landlords and the exploited labourers. The Gypsy Goddess exists in a world of readers who watch viral internet videos (“Is there a single story? No. Of course, I’ve consulted Chimamanda on this too.”), who read widely, who have seen the impossibility of telling stories paraded before them in the past, and who know that it is not a new idea, and Kandasamy acknowledges this as well.

“How does this work of art seek to declare itself? It plagiarizes the most scathing criticism, it prides itself on its ability to disappoint. Why bother about the pain of accomplishing something and arriving somewhere, when failure has been made a flashy trophy in its own right?”

It’s a criticism that the book accepts as valid even if, by pre-empting it, it puts the reviewer in something of a double bind. This sort of self-referential, self-critical writing can become a closed circuit, too focused on its own mechanics to say anything about the world outside it. Which is fine, in some cases, but Kandasamy has chosen for her subject a story that does, for sound political and moral reasons, need to be told more often; and a story that deserves not to be crowded out of the book (and subsequently out of reviews like this one) by the literary pyrotechnics of the author. It’s in this unresolvable clash of writerly ideals, the reporter’s duty to bear witness versus the 21st century novelist’s need to re-examine the act of telling, that The Gypsy Goddess situates itself. Failure is inevitable.

Kandasamy does eventually come to the narrative that we (by this time, somewhat guiltily) crave; in the latter half of the book she tells it effectively and well. “Battleground” and “Burial Ground” form a powerful account of events, with lyrical writing saved from becoming treacly by being undercut with anger. And—this is where the earlier sections pay off—having dwelt so much on structure earlier, we are rarely in danger of losing the critical distance that the author has demanded of us.

A project like this one is never going to work; that is part of the point. Every criticism that the book has already made of itself is valid, and I’d add to that the complaint that a book that sets out failure as a goal renders itself invulnerable to any pointing out of flaws. But there’s something compelling about a political story (and that a story of a massacre) that refuses to sweep the reader up in its narrative. The Gypsy Goddess sets out to do the impossible and (naturally) does not succeed, but it’s the sort of ethical, ambitious failure that we need more of.

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October 27, 2014

Nitasha Kaul, Residue

A short review, because it was originally meant to be for a newspaper. I haven’t been able to resist the urge to add more quotes to this version. Friends who happened to be around me (in person or over the internet) while I was reading the book will recognise some of them.

 

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Leon Ali is a Kashmiri Muslim with a British passport, named after Trotsky, searching for the revolutionary father who went missing in Berlin in the 1980s. Keya Raina is an academic from a family of Kashmiri Pundits, who is caught up in Leon’s search for his father. Nitasha Kaul’s Residue moves between England, Germany and India in the months after 9/11 and centres itself on the mystery of Mir Ali’s disappearance.

It’s hard to say much that is new about the experience of being brown-skinned in the post-9/11 Western world, or about being Muslim in India post-December 1992, or even about the displacement that so many with ties to Kashmir feel; or how these issues tie in with larger questions of home and belonging and memory. Kaul’s choice to focus her novel around a central puzzle is a wise one as it imposes a particular narrative structure upon what might otherwise have been a set of not-very-original musings on identity. The manuscript was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, and it’s narratively ambitious, with its switches from first to third person and between past and present, an extended section in which Leon becomes Nobody and travels across Berlin on public transport (with maps included).

But Residue is badly let down by its prose. Far too often Kaul mistakes detail for insight; insignificant actions are described step-by-step, as when we’re told that Keya “connecting her laptop to a wireless network […] checks her university email”. We’re shown academic meetings where people say things like “Moreover, she had verified extenuating circumstances on one exam at least”. Weirdly enough, the text occasionally mocks Keya for speaking in just this way, so that it would be possible to read it as self-aware, if only we were not subjected to this sort of thing throughout the novel. Brand names, book titles, film directors all show up frequently as signifiers, but don’t add much weight. This isn’t writing that trusts the reader to do any work—when Kaul’s characters make a joke it must be followed by “I jest”. We’re offered lots of descriptors, often to the point of redundancy (“booming, sonorous voices”). So worried is the prose that it will not be understood that we’re given summaries of things that have just happened—at one spectacular moment, as the protagonists discover through conversation that they both have Kashmiri roots and have lived in Delhi and the UK, Kaul ends by having Leon think “we realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England”—for the benefit of the reader who has somehow found this too complex to grasp the first time around.

[Dropping the whole passage in here because I can.]

‘You grew up in India,’ I say neutrally, tone between a statement and a question.

‘Yes, I was born in India, though I have lived in England for many years now.’

Then she adds, ‘I am actually from Kashmir, but I grew up mostly in Delhi. You?’

‘I am from Kashmir too, though I was born in England. Like you, my city has been Delhi.’

We realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England.

‘So we are both from the same state in India, grew up in the same city, have connexions to the same country, and now meet in Berlin. That is some coincidence!’

This is not merely a question of aesthetics (if aesthetics are ever “merely” anything). Residue positions itself, both in terms of its subject matter and by having its characters frequently pontificate, as a serious novel of complex ideas. What these complex ideas are it’s hard to discern; I find it hard to believe that we’re expected to take Keya seriously when she has thoughts like this: “Keya formulates a statement: modernity was enabled by a mutation of speed”, or when she contemplates discussing French philosophy with a random Frenchman on a plane “but desisted. He didn’t seem intellectual and may not know,” and yet it seems the book does expect us to see these as deep thoughts.

Perhaps some continental philosophy would have been a good idea, if only for some of that famous prose. Very little can be achieved in the way of complexity if a book cannot trust its readers to follow a sentence.

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May 29, 2014

Anita Nair, Idris: Keeper of the Light

Another book that I really wanted to be able to champion but ended up being very disappointed by. It’s about a jewel-eyed man named Idris, so I feel like I have exercised great restraint in not illustrating this post with a picture of Mr Elba as Heimdall.

I have a short review of the book in this past weekend’s edition of The Hindustan Times (and below).

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The most fascinating histories, to me, are the ones that situate India in a wider world, full of comings and goings and trade and shared knowledge and culture clashes long before most of the territories involved in these exchanges became part of one or the other European empire. Received history, having a lot of ground to cover, tends to skim over these stories; it’s left to those of us who love them either to do a lot of research or to look to historical fiction.

Anita Nair’s Idris: Keeper of the Light seems at first to offer exactly this kind of history. Idris Maymoon Samataar Guleed is a wanderer and trader from 17th Century Dikhil (in modern day Djibouti) who, on a visit to India, has a brief liason with a young woman. Twelve years later he returns to the country and by chance meets a boy he knows to be his son. Charged with distracting the boy from joining a group of assassins, Idris takes him instead on a journey across coastal India by land and by sea.

By far the best thing about the book is Idris’s developing relationship with his son Kandavar, treading carefully between truth and untruth in order to keep Kandavar and his mother safe. Kandavar is intended for the central character of Nair’s projected trilogy, though he’s rather sidelined here in favour of his father.

But for a book rooted in such a fascinating period, Idris makes little of its setting. Issues of caste and religion affect the relationships between characters, but in a rather perfunctory way. A narrator who is both a traveller and an outsider, Idris is able to drift from set piece to set piece (a kalari on the bank of the Nila, pearl fishing in Thoothukudi, the diamond mines in Golkonda) without any real engagement with the historical realities of place and time. There is much to be made of this moment in history, at the beginning of empire. For all the use the book makes of it, it’s unclear why this story needed to be set in this time and place at all.

Idris’ outsider-status isn’t merely due to his being a foreigner, and one of a different race. A multilingual scholar and amateur astrologer with a jewelled eye, as the book presents him, he alone is exempt from the religious and cultural prejudices of everyone he meets. The other characters all seem willing to accept the book’s assumption of his specialness—frequently when Idris is introduced to a new character the perspective shifts so that we can see said new character dwelling on how they are drawn to Idris’ obvious wisdom, beauty and nobility (and superior height).

Everything about Idris: Keeper of the Light makes it seem exactly the sort of thing one wants to see; beautifully produced (the maps drawn on the endpapers are particularly gorgeous), with its vision of a fascinating, cosmopolitan past. The book this could have been makes the book that it is even more of a disappointment.

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May 3, 2014

Suniti Namjoshi, The Mothers of Maya Diip

For context, here is a short review from last year of The Fabulous Feminist. I’ll be doing a longer (and therefore better) piece on The Mothers of Maya Diip at some point. A shorter version exists in my notes, and consists entirely of the sentence “This book gives no fucks”.

It really doesn’t though.

(From this week’s column.)

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When Zubaan’s Suniti Namjoshi reader, The Fabulous Feminist, came out last year, I wasn’t sure what to make of some parts of it. The fables, for which she’s probably best known, were wonderful, but the extracts from longer works often left one adrift. Particularly fascinating to me was the chapter from the middle of The Mothers of Maya Diip, which looked a lot like a classic feminist utopia story.

Maya Nagar is a matriarchy on a remote island (presumably off the coast of India), populated only by women. Motherhood is synonymous with adulthood in this society, the raising of children (biological or otherwise) is seen as the fundamental function of an adult, and social hierarchy is based on the maternal duties one is considered qualified to perform. Into this world the Blue Donkey (who appears in some of Namjoshi’s other work as a sort of stand-in for the author) is invited for a visit. She brings with her her friend Jyanvi, who immediately falls in love with a woman from the city. Unfortunately, Jyanvi also immediately finds herself chafing at the lack of choice, the inability for a “mother” to define herself separately from children and both outsiders find themselves caught up in the machinations of state politics.

The Mothers of Maya Diip was published by the Women’s Press, which had also published a number of works of feminist science fiction, among them Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, and it’s difficult not to read it as a book that is aware of and in conversation with this tradition of writing. The utopia or dystopia is (or sometimes is, or ought to be) a novel of ideas, of taking things to their logical conclusions. The Mothers of Maya Diip moves between three fictional societies; the woman-dominated Maya Nagar, the male-majority Ashagarh, and the island of Paradise where gender hardly seems to exist. Each model is examined and found to contain some form of violence at its heart—the revelation of what happens to the boys born in Maya Nagar would by itself be enough reason to condemn that society.

But if The Mothers of Maya Diip is placing itself in that tradition, it isn’t necessarily submitting to it. There’s a sense that the book is at least one remove away from the sort of story it is telling; there’s an ironic distance that is maintained throughout. At times one gets the impression that this is itself part of Namjoshi’s response to the tradition of books in which she’s writing; and the presence of Valerie, a visitor and western feminist who explains these traditions to the Blue Donkey and Jyanvi (and who believes that Jyanvi, a lesbian, has things easier here) seems to bear this out.

If it both emulates and distances itself from feminist utopian science fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip is willing to invoke (and discard) other genres as well. There’s something of the epic about this story, with its arcane religious ceremonies, its power struggles between priestesses and queens. We are offered not one, but two fictional, fantastic city states. At one point the Ranisaheb and her entourage are cast out of the city and exiled in a forest. There’s a bizarre science fictional interlude featuring a group of androids and a maternal helicopter. There’s even a love story, most of the time about two people who are completely incapable of understanding one another.

At the centre of it all is the Blue Donkey, sometimes treated as human and sometimes not, and devastatingly commonsensical in the face of all that is going on around her. It’s her cool detachment from the book that allows it to be as odd a thing as it is, that makes thought experiments of its genres as well as of its fictional cities.

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January 30, 2014

Shoma Narayanan, The One She Was Warned About

Rather scrappy; this feels like notes towards a larger and better piece about desirability in the romance novel and how both names and tropes (the bad boy, the uptight businessman, the … man with unwitting mafia connections trying to make good?) act as signifiers within that framework. Or something. Anyway. This week’s column.

 

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Perhaps the most romance novel-ish of Georgette Heyer’s considerable body of work is The Nonesuch. The title character is as much of a paragon as his nickname implies; he’s fabulously rich, good at sports, attractive, dresses well without looking like he’s trying too hard, has perfect manners and charms everyone around him. Faced with all of this perfection it’s understandable that our heroine (nobly impoverished, clever, attractive) suspects that he has a dreadful secret and that he is out of her league. She turns out to be wrong on both counts—the terrible secret only makes him look even more noble, and he is deeply in love with her. There’s only one drawback- His name is Waldo.

Fashions in names change, of course, as do the traits we assign to particular names. A casual observer of this romance in Regency England might not find Waldo a particularly incongruous name for a romantic hero. And obviously people named Waldo do have romances and find love and hopefully happiness. Our belief that certain kinds of stories happen only to people with certain sorts of names is irrational. Presumably this is partly why early attempts at fiction by Indian schoolchildren so often feature characters with names out of Enid Blyton—we have absorbed the idea that certain sorts of literary adventures only happen to middle-class, mid-twentieth-century British kids.

When major romance publishing houses first broached the idea of books set in India, many people (myself among them) found the idea rather amusing. Romances involving American cowboys, Greek tycoons, various members of minor European nobility and Sheikhs of fictional countries all seemed, if not realistic, at least familiar—the prospect of these plots featuring men and women with names like our own was faintly ridiculous. The first India-set romance novel I read was indeed awful, less because of its protagonists’ names than because the author had decided to imitate the sexual politics of the 1950s.

But in the few years since, things have changed; there’s enough Indian romance that one is able to read individual books on their own merits. My copy of Shoma Narayanan’s The One She Was Warned About proclaims on its cover that the author is an international bestseller.

The One She Was Warned About features Shweta, an engineer-turned-MBA (of course) with an uneventful personal life and dubious taste in clothing. She runs into childhood classmate Nikhil, who since getting expelled from school has started a successful business and hangs out with movie stars. Naturally, romance occurs, though Nikhil’s complicated family affairs must be sorted out before any sort of Happily Ever After can be achieved.

Genre romances often fall back on a finite set of well-worn, yet effective plots: men and women are attracted to one another; there’s some serious obstacle or; everything works out in the end. Narayanan’s book is a bit unusual in that the misunderstanding (and by implication, the romance?) is between Nikhil and his family; the relatively uncomplicated Shweta becomes something of a bystander in her own romance.

Too often the complications of a plot could easily be solved simply by the protagonists actually listening to one another for once. Narayanan goes a step further in just about eliminating conflict altogether. The disapproving prospective father-in-law doesn’t disapprove, the bad boy hero hasn’t actually been a rebel since he was a teenager. In a way this only adds to the wish-fulfillment aspect of the whole thing; no parent would ‘warn’ its child about this wealthy, successful businessman; Nikhil has all the romance-novel appeal of the rebel with none of its considerable disadvantages. In a story that must somehow come to a happy ending no conflict must be too hard to solve. Unfortunately in this instance it results in all plot being squeezed into a chapter or so at the end of the book.

By now it’s a bit of a cliché to suggest that the hero is the most important aspect of the romance. It’s an idea it’s possible to take to extremes—in The One She Was Warned About Shweta is barely present. But at least Narayanan manages to make Nikhil Nair sound like a reasonable hero-name.

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November 16, 2013

Anita Desai, The Artist of Disappearance

At some point (and we all know this point will never come) I want to turn my notes on the second story in this collection into something longer and more coherent. I’m not sure the People-who-speak-English/People-who-speak-Oriya divide works quite as Desai thinks it does, and while she seems to parody the people who ask questions about things like appropriation, I think these are definitely (in rather rough form) questions that need to be asked. But then the story (and the collection) is so focused on the small and the personal that it is probably in its interest to wish that the world didn’t exist.

This isn’t Desai’s best work, but I’m always interested in artists talking (however indirectly) about art.

 

From last weekend’s column.

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A young civil servant, arriving at the site of his new posting during a power cut, experiences his new quarters by lantern-light and reflects that the experience seems unreal. Like “something by Robert Louis Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins”. There’s something of the Victorian adventure story about “The Museum of Final Journeys”, the first of the triptych of novellas that make up Anita Desai’s The Artist of Disappearance. Almost on cue a visitor arrives with a mysterious story—of a great family’s dwindling fortune and the mysterious heir who went travelling many years ago and has not been seen since but who would periodically send gifts home. His mother collected these gifts, some of them rich and startling, in a private museum, and our narrator’s petitioner has only come to ask that the museum be preserved.

But this is not a Victorian adventure, and our narrator is not going to throw himself into solving the mystery and finding the missing son. The pieces in the museum may be amazing, and he may be moved and unsettled by them, but he is also an ordinary man in a government job and some things may not be worth the bother. We’re not sure how much this man could do to save the museum; he does nothing, and years later continues to feel uncomfortable about his failure.

The concerns of everyday life come up against something special once again in “The Artist of Disappearance”, the story that gives the collection its title. Ravi is a recluse who lives in the hills, speaking to no one and spending all his time beautifying a secluded garden by use of the natural objects (stones, fallen branches) that he finds there. When a documentary film crew stumbles upon the garden they decide it would provide the perfect counterpoint to their movie about illegal mining destroying the beauty of the local landscape. But Ravi disappears and finds a new form of art to which to devote himself; without an artist the garden ceases to be art, and the film crew, who we know to be capable of being moved by Ravi’s garden, are forced to find another sensation for their film.

With their decaying mansions in the hills, “The Museum of Final Journeys” and “The Artist of Disappearance” seem like companion pieces. The first story gives us Srimati Sarita Devi, waiting for her son to come home and carefully preserving the souvenirs he sends. The second has the child Ravi saying his farewells to his parents before their frequent trips abroad; trips that result in astonishing presents that are, once seen, locked up like museum pieces.

The collection’s central piece, then seems at first a complete misfit. Set mostly in Delhi, “Translator Translated” tells of Prema Joshi, who falls in love with the short stories of the Oriya writer Suvarna Devi, and eventually becomes their translator. But in some ways the art of the translator is in disappearing, and here Prema fails. Unable to translate ethically or to write independently (Suvarna Devi’s style shadows Prema’s original work) she returns to the more mundane world, or so the book would seem to suggest, of academia.

“Translator Translated” is in many ways the weakest of these stories, yet it’s interesting that Suvarna Devi, who is rather baffled by all this interest in her work, remains relatively unaffected. She continues to live in the same town, continues to write without much interest in what the wider world thinks of her work. In this she is rather like Ravi who, more proactively, removes himself from the world’s potential interest in his art and makes of it something small, that he can carry about with him safely and allow it to remain untouched.

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I haven’t been doing such a great job of the South Asian Women Writers Challenge since I moved here and left most of my books behind me. But here is one, and I hope there’ll be a couple more before the end of the year.

July 18, 2013

Bama, Harum-Scarum Saar and Other Stories

I’m being good this year and trying to read some of the backlog of enticing short story collections I’ve accumulated over the last few years. This one came from the book tent at the Jaipur Literary Festival a couple of years ago.

From this weekend’s column:

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Not much happens in the tales in Bama’s Harum-Scarum Saar and Other Stories. Most of them act as small character studies, focusing on notable individuals. There’s Kisambukkaran, the “harum-scarum saar” of the title, who fearlessly kills snakes, who allows sparrows to eat his father’s crops and who delights in tricking an old man who is unnecessarily suspicious of his wife’s fidelity. Ponnathayi, who leaves her husband to start her own business. Malandi thatha, whose smiling exterior conceals a great deal of rage. Ammasi, whose great crime is to casually refer to a member of another caste as “annachi”, or “brother”.

The rebellions in Bama’s stories are all small ones. A small boy urinates on the plant whose leaves his employer uses to do her cooking. A family choose to symbolically throw away the pongal received from their landlord in a most unequal exchange. A boy refuses to give up a hard-won seat in a bus simply because the man asking claims higher caste status. It becomes clear that the reason there isn’t much narrative progress within these stories is that the larger plot is caste (and more, the whole system of social inequalities of which caste may be only part). Bama doesn’t envision revolution; there’s nothing in this collection to suggest that a single social upheaval could fix everything. But these tiny rebellions are a continuous process, a constant chip-chipping away at inequality.

The rebellions in question are celebrated. The characters in these stories display a gleeful contempt of those oppressing them; the narration is colloquial and casual and frequently wonderfully eloquent (N. Ravi Shanker’s translation does a fine job of conveying the feel of the spoken language). Bama often chooses to end a story abruptly just as its hero has delivered a brilliant bit of repartee and so our last sight of them has them clearly in charge, with their opponents utterly taken aback. The reader (unless she is very naïve) knows that this isn’t really enough for victory, that the system has means at its disposal for recovering from these attacks and restoring the status quo. But knowing that doesn’t detract from the delight of seeing the underdog win, however temporarily, and for seeing Dalit characters as active, often playful, agents rather than simple victims.

Yet we’re not allowed to forget the magnitude of the odds these characters must face. Often it is dropped into the story casually (Malandi thatha has already paid over a thousand rupees’ interest on a two-hundred rupee loan), but occasionally it forms the focus of the story. For most of its duration “Rich Girl” is not about a rich girl at all, but about a family struggling to balance the parents’ jobs, the daughter’s education, supervision for the baby and earning enough to live on. The daughter is the “rich girl” of the title—on the last page of the story she explains excitedly that the landlord has given them a hundred rupees to compensate for the death of her father as he was trying to save the landlord’s cow. And we’re not allowed to forget that violence is gendered, as when Ponnuthayi’s insistence on leaving an abusive spouse earns her the censure of most of her community.

If the stories in this collection deny us the possibility of a revolution, there is also a quiet background narrative of gradual change. In “Pongal” it’s implied that it’s his education that spurs Esakkimuthu to question his family’s treatment by the landlord. In “Chilli Powder”, Gangamma may have the law and the police on her side, but she can’t stand up to the other women when they work as a group. “Those Days” is another story about a positive change that seems to be taking place—once again by coming together as a group Masanam thatha and his allies are able to demand a dignity that should already be theirs by right. “That’s how it was, those days. Now we won’t spare anyone, not even if he comes armed with two tusks. Ama!”

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I’ve linked to it elsewhere, but Manoj Nair’s interview with Bama here makes for excellent reading.

Also, I really wish the publishers of translated works would include an introduction or an afterword. I can think of at least a couple of recent examples of translated anthologies that omit these, and I have really felt the lack.  In many cases the intention is to try and introduce a new audience to a writer’s work, and providing it entirely free of any context (including, for example, what else the author has written) isn’t always the best way to do this–in the case of this particular book Bama’s relatively well known, but it would still be nice. And as a reader I’m always interested in introductions that get into what sort of translation this is, how it works, what strategies it employs. More of that sort of thing, please.

June 29, 2013

Sheela Chari, Vanished

There’s been a minor revolution in Indian children’s publishing in the last few years, particularly with regard to Middle Grade and Young Adult books. But all this really means is that we have MG and YA books; it’s still rare that I find one I actually enjoy. So I leapt at the offer of a copy of Vanished, a book set in India and the USA and featuring a hunt for a possibly-magical veena.

Neela is eleven years old and lives in Massachusetts where, after school, she takes veena lessons. Her veena is an unusual one; a gift from a grandmother who also plays the instrument, it’s a Guru original, made by one of the greatest veena makers of all time. It has a strange, winged dragon carved into its pegbox. And then the veena goes missing.

Legend has it that one of Guru’s veenas keeps returning to a particular music shop in Chennai. And we’re also told that a famous American veena player called Veronica Wyvern (as in winged dragon, you ask?) owned a Guru original. None of this is particularly hard to piece together and it doesn’t really have to be. For me the big mystery was whether or not this was really a supernatural story.

There’s a blurb from The Hindu at the back of this book which  suggests that one of its virtues is that it “gives Indian readers a glimpse of life in America”. I thought this was interesting because I got the opposite sense–I think there’s an element of explaining India to American (or Americans of Indian origin) children (Vanished was first published in the USA by Hyperion in 2011). And part of the reason why it worked well for me is Chari’s choice to avoid turning it into a novel of multicultural angst. We’re never under the impression that there’s one model of Indian-in-America; Neela’s friend Pavi has far more conservative parents, but is (unlike Neela) also more willing to flaunt her difference and wear a bindi in public (Gwen Stefani wears one, she points out in a popculture reference that might already be outdated). And there’s no romance plot, merely a few friendship ones, and at least one of these is left unresolved in a way that felt very realistic to me. It sounds at this point as if I’m praising the book more for what it doesn’t do than what it does. But what all these omissions allow for is a relatively simple, likeable book and I genuinely enjoyed it.

And look, cover art by Jon Klassen!

May 29, 2013

Jaishree Misra (ed), Of Mothers and Others

An anthology whose proceeds go to Save the Children. Am I cheating if I include this as a South Asian Women Writers book? There is only one man (Jai Arjun Singh) in it.

I quite enjoyed this collection, which I wrote about for this week’s column. The quality of the individual pieces was sometimes uneven, but those I liked, I liked very much. Nisha Susan’s “Missed Call” is excellent, as is Anita Roy’s “Eating Baby”. Urvashi Butalia’s lovely, nuanced piece on not having children can also be read here. Jai Arjun Singh’s piece contains the line “yeh machli meri ma hai” along with other great moments in Bollywood Ma-dom.

 

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I forget Mother’s Day every year until my social media timelines explode first with platitudes about how wonderful people’s mothers (most of whom don’t use the internet very much) are, then with people pointing out that the first set of people should be telling this to their mothers, rather than the world. (My mother, luckily, forgets Mother’s Day until I remind her).

The symbol of the mother is something to which we as a culture ascribe considerable value. Mothers are regularly presented to us in cinema and literature as devoted, self-effacing, angelic. Celebrities claim in interviews that their mothers are their best friends or heroes. Advertising depicts them constantly worried about whether they’re raising their children—are they buying the best toothpaste/detergent/malt-based drink to help their children get ahead in life? Our veneration of motherhood makes “ma” (or “yo’ mama”) an intrinsic part of our rich vocabulary of swear-words and curses, across a variety of languages. Motherhood means so many things that there’s often very little room left for the actual human beings who fill that position.

In Of Mothers and Others, a collection of short stories, essays and poems edited by Jaishree Misra, over and over we see women who defy, struggle with, or otherwise find limiting this image of motherhood. Prabha Walker’s “The Slap Flies Off My Hand” features a mother whose unhappy married life resolves itself in physical abuse of her child. Nisha Susan’s short story “Missed Call” has a mother whose difficult relationship with her daughter is rooted in genuine dislike. In “Determination” Smriti Lamech describes the reaction of a woman hoping for a daughter to the revelation that her child might not be all that she imagines. Sometimes motherhood drives women to do awful things, as is the case in Sarita Mandanna’s “The Gardener’s Daughter” and Kishwar Desai’s “The Devi Makers”. The “business” of motherhood is explored in “’Shake her, She Is Like The Tree That Grows Money!’” by Sarojini N. and Vrinda Marwah, an essay exploring surrogacy in India. Shalini Sinha writes movingly of her relationships both with her child and her own mother.

The “others” of the title are represented as well. Shalini Sinha’s “Amma And Her Beta” and Bulbul Sharma’s slightly saccharine “A Grandmother at Large” both explore the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. Urvashi Butalia discusses her own choice not to have children in an essay that affirms the many forms that motherhood (and childlessness) can take.

Of Mothers and Others often tries to unravel some of our glibly shallow portrayals of motherhood by displaying the darker sides it can have. Children who have died or disappeared, as in Manju Kapur’s  “Name: Amba Dalmia” and Humra Quraishi’s “The State Can’t Snatch Away Our Children”; children suffering through poverty or illness (Shabana Azmi’s introduction to the book discusses the shocking state of healthcare for mothers and children, a death toll she describes as the equivalent of 400 plane crashes per year). Children adopted or born to surrogate mothers. There is a whole range of families here, and none of them are as blandly immune to unhappiness as the two-parent, two-child unit who appear in televised ads.

But there are also moments of joy. Such as the very funny “Eating Baby”, in which Anita Roy describes the process by which feeding her young son began to take over her life.  Jai Arjun Singh’s “Milky Ways” discusses the figure of the mother in such classic Hindi films as Ajooba (in which Amitabh Bachchan is nurtured by a dolphin) and Disco Dancer.

“There are all kinds of mothers”, says Shashi Deshpande in her essay here; “loving mothers as well as unfeeling ones, kind mothers as well as cruel ones, protective mothers as well as possessive ones. The final truth is that we bring ourselves into all our relationships”. Of Mothers and Others’ great achievement is in its constant insistence that we first see its mothers (and its others) as themselves.

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April 17, 2013

Indira Goswami, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar

Translated by Aruni Kashyap, whose first book (out this year) I am genuinely looking forward to.

I wrote about this for last weekend’s column. I’m still not sure what to make of this book, but I think I liked it.

 

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I had never heard of the Bodo heroine Thengphakhri until I came across Aruni Kashyap’s translation of Indira Goswami’s last novel, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar. Apparently I’m not alone in this—although the character is mentioned in folk tales she has largely been forgotten, even in Assam.

As a result, not much is known of this legendary figure, and Kashyap’s introduction to the book suggests that Goswami had to weave together scraps of stories from local folklore with historical research. What we do know about her is that she was a Bodo woman from the Bijni Kingdom, and probably the first female revenue collector (or tehsildar) and that she would become a freedom fighter.

The first woman tehsildar, the only woman in the area to ride a horse, stunningly beautiful and the owner of a bronze sword, all of these mark Thengphakhri out as a heroic figure, as indeed she is. But Goswami chooses not to have her novel follow the trajectory of the traditional hero’s story. The bronze sword of the title is never used here, and the book’s focus is never on Thengphakhri’s anti colonial activities (surely the most obvious plot for a story about a freedom fighting heroine).

Because The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar isn’t really a hero narrative at all, but something quieter and more introspective. Set in the late 1800s during the years in which Thengphakhri is a revenue collector for the British, Goswami’s novel depicts a society in which the British presence may be cause for unease, but individual Britishers and the East India Company still inspire loyalty, gratitude and admiration among many. If their taxes are exploitative and their increasing control over the region worrying, they also protect the region from Bhutan.

For much of this story Thengphakhri is depicted as an observer rather than an actor. Her position as an official working for the British marks her as something as an outsider within her community. She has close friendships with two British men, and is particularly affected by the death of her mentor, Hardy.

Hardy, Macklinson and the other British characters in this novel are never mere villains and it’s perfectly possible to see them as decent men making a genuine effort to do what is right. Yet the British presence in the novel is a sinister one, made doubly so by the fact that much of the time the Indian characters from whose perspective we read have swallowed the party line. It’s Macklinson who teaches Thengphakhri to be hard-hearted while collecting revenue—and Thengphakhri’s silence will implicate her later when we see a family ruined by their inability to pay the state what it claims is its due. This growing unease with the role of the British is not just played out publicly, then, as revolts and raids increase and overly-political men are ‘accidentally’ shot; it is played out privately within the heads of its characters. And we are only privy to a fraction of those thoughts.

A big part of what makes the novel interesting, then, is what it doesn’t tell us. Beyond a couple of fleeting references to a husband we know nothing about Thengphakhri’s status as a widow. We don’t see her in the moment when she finally chooses her side. And we don’t see her in what is arguably the most heroic phase of her life. As a result, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar is odd, and often abrupt. Filled with descriptions of the beauty of the local landscape it’s also surprisingly impressionistic.

Aruni Kashyap’s translation feels a little uneven. The vivid imagery of the novel comes across clearly, but the interactions between characters feel awkward and stilted, as if everyone were speaking in a language unfamiliar to them. None of this hides the fact that The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar is nuanced and consistently surprising, and I’m glad it’s finally available in English.

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