9/11 has always been a date to dread ever since 2001 when the New York twin Towers were bombed down by a terror attack. This year too, 9/11 left a feeling of dread in the hearts of many as the Supreme Court gave a verdict on the Ram Janmabhoomi issue… In this article, Zafar Anjum traces the Ayodhyamovement from the 1990s to pause on a pertinent question he had asked in his short story published in 2015, ‘Kafka in Ayodhya’ — “…what is more pleasing to God? Your temple after destroying a mosque or the suffering of those whose place of worship you destroyed?”
While TV journalists and anchors dissected the verdict and its fallout, my mind briefly traveled back to 1992, the year the Babri Masjid was demolished. I was studying at Aligarh Muslim University then. The Ayodhya movement was at its peak and we knew that something sinister and violent was going to erupt, so we made our way to our hometown in Bihar in late November. I was at my maternal grandfather’s place when the news came of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We saw the then Prime Minister of India Narasimha Rao appear on TV and offer apologies and shed some tears. Later on, we learnt that Rao could have done more to stop the demolition but he chose not to. Through Rajiv Gandhi and later through Rao, the Congress Party had, wittingly or unwittingly, made its own contributions to the Ram Temple movement.
Sumana Roy is a poet, novelist and essayist. She has authored three books including How I Became a Tree (memoir/non-fiction), Missing (fiction) and Out of Syllabus (poetry). Recently, she has edited a story collection called Animalia Indica. Her work has appeared in various prestigious literary magazines, newspapers and journals. She teaches at Ashoka University as Associate Professor, Creative Writing.
Out of Syllabus has 35 poems. These are categorized under different sections in different fields of study like mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry and so on. At first glance, a reader might wonder about the ordering of sections but as Sumana says:
“..the essence of the poetic— the poet must hide, the reader must look for the hidden. And that a poem is often not about what one began meaning or imagining it to be.”
It was a Sunday or maybe a holiday, I think, as all of us were at home that morning. I think I was in grade two. I still remember that day so very vividly. It involved my maternal grandmother, ammamma, as we called her. The four of us, my parents, my sister and me, were all in the living room talking. The grill gate in our home had a big lock and to knock we used to bang the gate with the lock. As soon as I heard the sound of the lock banging on the gate, I ran out to the verandah to check out our visitor. I saw ammamma, standing at our gate!
My joy and surprise knew no bounds. I rushed in to tell amma (mother) and appagaru (father) that ammamma was at our gate. They were stunned to hear the news, rushed out to open the gate and welcome her. Relatives from distant Kakinada coming over to our place in Calcutta did not happen often and as children we were always excited and overjoyed whenever they came over.
After a cup of piping hot coffee, ammamma freshened up before sitting down with all of us to talk. As amma had been unwell, my father had written to her folks in Kakinada. On receiving the letter, ammamma had decided to come to Calcutta to be with her eldest. Upon purchasing the train ticket, my eldest mama (maternal uncle) had been asked to send a telegram to my father letting him know of ammamma’s travel plans. She took the Madras Mail (as it was then called) from Samalkot Junction which is about 15 kms from Kakinada town.
The train reached Howrah station early morning. Ammamma alighted from the train and looked around. Hari garu, that was how she addressed my father, would surely be there to receive her. But he was nowhere to be seen. She then took out an inland letter that my mother had written to her some time ago, that letter had the sender’s address on it. She walked out of Howrah station after waiting for quite some time. Just outside the station she met a traffic sergeant. She showed him the address. He looked at it and started speaking to her.
San Lin Tun is a writer from Myanmar who wants to create a school of writing in “Myanmar English”. He writes and publishes in English. Recently, he published one of the few novels in English written and published within the Burman borders. The novel is historically important because you do not find too many novels published in English within Myanmar, though San LinTun very humbly calls himself, “a third-generation writer in English”. His novel, The English Writer, brings to life CJ Richards, a civil servant who turned writer during the last days of the British Raj, about a time when Burma was part of the Indian empire.
The storyline shuttles between 2016 and the early twentieth century. Richards’s story is related to two young men very deeply interested in literature, called Oo and Lin, by an older man well-versed about the author’s life, U Aung Aye Myint. The setting brings to mind Satyajit Ray’s famed detective Feluda ( based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) who would consult his uncle Sidhu every once in a while to unearth a mine of information on any given issue. However, Uncle Sidhu was based on Mycroft and the discussion was mostly not literary as it is in San Lin Tun’s novel and the visits were repeated. Here the story is given at a single sitting.
Flavoured with contrasts between the eras and cultures of the Raj and current day Myanmar, we get a glimpse of a country where bookshops still seem to thrive and young men roam about in longyis, their traditional wear. The style of writing reminds one of Henry Feilding’s Joseph Andrews though rendered in modern Myanmar English. The story is direct and detailed with minimal layering used to add realism to the telling.
One of the most interesting observations made by the protagonist Lin, who develops a curiosity about Richardson after reading his poems, is a comparison he makes between this writer and George Orwell, who was also stationed in Burma.
After reading the poetry book, Lin wanted to find more books by the same author. He found that the author’s sentiment towards local people was quite different from other foreign authors who wrote about Burma.
Especially George Orwell, who wrote a novel set in Burma of that time. The novel was so well-known that almost every visitor enjoyed reading it. But Lin disagreed with some of the points in the novel, mainly those concerned with the portrayal of Burmese characters.
It is interesting to note his observation because when one reads Orwell’s Burmese Days, one reads more about the British stationed in Burma and not really the Burmese. The sketch of Burmese is used by Orwell to expose the cruelty, the harshness and the lack of sensitivity in his own countrymen. The Burmese and Indians are coincidental. They are there to play out the stories of the pukka sahibs at the Englishmen’s club.
We are told C J Richards wrote because he missed his life in Burma. Even to this day, expats find it difficult to go back and settle into their own countries. Described as the adult third culture kids’ (ATCK) syndrome, the term applies to people who evolved a hybrid culture like Richards in San Lin Tun’s novel or the protagonist John Flory and even the pukka sahibs in Burmese Days. They evolved a culture in between their country of birth and the country they spent their lives in. This was first identified by Ruth Useem in 1950 and the syndrome is evident in CJ Richards who does not like living in England after his retirement and keeps reliving his Burmese days with his writing and occasional trips to Burma. Born in Burma, CJ Richards finds many positives in the local culture as does Flory in Burmese Days.
We have seen such characters in stories written during this period by authors who lived and grew within the Indian subcontinent but did not belong to the local culture. However, perhaps, very seldom have we experienced such a positive account given of a British officer by the people who suffered under the regime of the Raj. To explain his unique stance and the culture of Myanmar, Sanlin Tun gave us an exclusive interview.
What made you pick the life of CJ Richards as a subject for your book?
I firstly found his poetry book on Burma/Myanmar and he called that Rainbow Land and Other Burma Verses. When foreign writers visit or pass Yangon and write about Burma or Myanmar, they mostly write in prose, not in poetry. This was one of the reasons I became interested in the author. But I could not find any relevant facts on his life though I searched the Internet. I wondered why he had sunk into oblivion though he had a number of his literary works. That made me curious. So, I thought that it would be nice for me and other people to find out more of his life and I decided to reconstruct it through the medium of a novel.
“Brother, you’re the man of the hour!” Sardar Singh whacked Asim on his shoulder, making him stagger and cough. “What luck, yaar. Seven daughters I’ve had, seven expensive bitches. My Lalli is one fertile mare but no, not even one has taken on her and shed a drop of blood, but you, bull’s eye with the first one, eh? You lucky rogue!” Sardar winked. Asim looked around suspiciously, desperately hoping no one had heard. Just when his luck had turned he managed to bump into the biggest gossip from his district.
“How did you—” Asim stopped himself. He took out his neatly folded, embroidered handkerchief and wiped off his sweaty brow, fingering his hair back into their gelled shape and inching away from his boisterous districter. “Look, not here, please.”
Sardar pulled Asim in a corner, taking them out of the gurgling sea of humanity that lined up to enter the fertility market.
It was the postman who had found her, sitting in her armchair behind the unlatched main door, eyes closed as if asleep. In that peaceful tableau, a reign of terror had come to an end.
For sixty years, the Thief held sway over Bijliya, a little hamlet of barely a hundred houses. Over the greater part of three generations, shopkeepers learned to put locks on their cashboxes, dhaba (roadside eatery) owners chained their plates and tumblers to the tables, landlords prowled the orchards, and families took care to not let on that they had money and valuables to spare.
This was not easy. The Thief operated in broad daylight, her identity known to all. Secondly, you couldn’t keep her out. In a place as tiny as Bijliya, she was practically family.
Her name, though, was not thief-like. Shehzadi. Princess. But wasn’t it thieving, plunder, pillage and murder that made people kings, queens, princes and princesses in the first place?
Generations came and went as Shehzadi pilfered money, food and valuables. The world outside changed over those sixty years. So did the façade of the village and the interiors of the houses. But out on the street, the Thief was a constant. At the stroke of midnight on 15 August, 1947, as the world slept, Bijliya awoke to picked pockets. In 1962, when China crossed the border into India, the first sethh (rich businessman) of Independent Bijliya noticed a rupee missing from his day’s earnings. When Bangladesh was born in 1971, so too were new grudges for the travelling Kashmiri salesman who found a rug missing from his cart. When men, women and children in Bijliya cheered the World Cup win in 1983, they didn’t notice the vanishing cartons of mangoes from the local market, the mandi, as they huddled round the Seth’s radio. When the villagers tuned into the Indian version of ‘Who wants be a Millionaire?’ — Kaun Banega Crorepati — in 2000, Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone masked the sounds of chickens being stolen, umbrellas disappearing, and plates of drying chillies and papads vanishing into the night. Every few years, the clergy of every religion practised in the village would be at each other’s throats. But in their hatred of the Thief, they were all united.
Isa Kamari is a well-known legend in the Singapore literary community. He has won numerous awards — the Anugerah Sastera Mastera, the SEA Write award and Singapore Cultural Medallion, the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang. He has been written about and discussed in Universities. With ten novels, nine of which have been translated into English — and some into more languages like Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu and Turkish — three poetry books and plays under his belt and one novella written in English by him, one can well see him as a maestro of storytelling.
The last translation of his novel Kiswah has been launched in November at the Writer’s Festival in Singapore. Isa, a reformer at heart who claims to write only when he is very moved, authored and published three novels together in 2002. Intercession was to do with much needed comments on Islam — an outcome of the 9/11 bombing in New York; The Tower was to do with an individual’s own journey through materialism to a more spiritual plane and the last, which is what will be dealt with here, was Kiswah, a critique on the effects of pornography on young minds.
Most of Isa’s books can be seen as the journey of the protagonist towards self realisation. The issues he takes up are of global concern, though he claims to focus on the Malay community in his books.
This year Lahore has been dubbed a City Of Literature.
What does it mean to be a City of Literature? How do you become a City of Literature?
City of Literature is a venture initiated by UNESCO in 2004, where Nanjing and Baghdad figure; Stratford on Avon, Oxford and Cambridge do not. Edinburgh was the first city identified under this scheme. Manchester, Melbourne, Prague, Durban and Milan find spots on the list.
So, how do they judge which city is the right pick?
These are the features they look for quality, quantity, and diversity of publishing in the city; educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels;how importantthe role of literature, drama, and poetry are in the city. They also check out how many literary events and festivals promoting domestic and foreign literature are hosted in the city.
Manchester has the library. Edinburgh hosts the International Book Festival and has its own poet laureate. Melbourne has more than 300 bookshops. There are seven Asian cities in the list including Nanjing and, now, Lahore.