By Barnali Ray Shukla

Jhilmil Breckenridge’s new book of poetry, Reclamation Song, was just released in May 2018. Barnali Ray Shukla, filmmaker and writer, lived with the book for a few weeks and several questions emerged. Here are Jhilmil and Barnali in conversation about the book, its themes, and how Jhilmil came to be the confessional poet she is.

Jhilmil Breckenridge

Barnali – Breaking away, the bruised love… is that the cynic, the poet, the student, the mystic?

Jhilmil – A long time ago, in Delhi, my yoga teacher, Shivachittam Mani, taught me a concept in meditation – in every breath we die, in every breath we are born again. This tenet has stayed with me through my darkest days, through all the heartbreak, the ups and downs, that if I have my breath, it’s going to be ok. In fact, the name of this collection originally was Just One Breath.

Barnali – Does confessional poetry make you more vulnerable? Would you have it any other way?

Jhilmil – Confessional poetry is definitely not for the faint-hearted or the ones who care about log kya kahenge! I think those of us, who can and do write confessional poetry, have been through a fair amount of pain and have dealt with vulnerability, shame and frankly don’t care about society and her rules any more. In my case, when I started writing, I had no idea that I would bare all, i.e., I had no plan when I started writing that I would write confessional or autobiographical poetry, I truly thought I should aim to write sonnets or something like Wordsworth, etc. (no offence to the Masters!). You ask whether writing it makes you more vulnerable — on the contrary, it makes you more resilient because you can write your pain away and so, writing this style makes you stronger even though you bare all. I would have it no other way. I believe poetry has to come from witnessing, from living, from feeling, and so what else if not confessional poetry?

Barnali – Your influences (apart from what I noticed in the list of acknowledgements).

Jhilmil – I am a late entrant into this space. Although I have been an insatiable reader all my life, I stayed away from poetry. Perhaps it was the boring way we were taught, perhaps it was the learning by rote. So I read genre fiction, non-fiction and literary fiction a lot; some of my favourites are Alan Hollinghurst, Philip Pullman, Franz Kafka and a new favourite, Carmen Maria Machado, her style is so poetic! Three years ago, I was bit by the poetry bug and I have not looked back. In poetry, I am influenced by the work of Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, Faiz, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ellen Bass, and of course Claudia Rankine, Warsan Shire, and Ross Gay. In British poets, which is the community that I am living within, and have been adopted because of the #metoo anthology, which included my poem, “Button”, my absolute favourites are Kim Moore and Carol Ann Duffy.

Paradise at War

The Siege of Hazratbal

In April 1993, the same month Prime Minister Sharif promised Prime Minister Rao that Yakub Memon would be extradited to India, the valley was rocked by a JKLF occupation of Hazratbal, a delicately beautiful Shia shrine built in white marble, rising from the banks that separate the majestic Dal and dreamy Nigeen Lakes. Hazratbal was the most popular shrine in Kashmir, a place that Sunnis also worshipped at and that Sheikh Abdullah had made a centre of his political mobilization. The JKLF controlled the streets and outlying areas of the Hazratbal area and had gradually moved to occupy the shrine and adjoining buildings in the Hazratbal complex. The Indian Army cordoned off the mosque and, after negotiations led by Rajesh Pilot, then minister of state for Home Affairs, the guerrillas accepted safe passage in return for vacating Hazratbal.

The Indian Army protested the offer of safe passage. A siege of the mosque, they argued, would force the guerrillas to surrender and be arrested. But the Rao administration, through Pilot, was committed to restart backchannel talks with the JKLF that started under Governor Saxena and continued under his successor. Rao had just taken office when the April occupation took place. On the JKLF side, Hamid Sheikh, who was imprisoned with Yasin Malik, was principal messenger in the backchannel. Released in 1992 in the hope that he would persuade the JKLF to enter a peace process, he ended up rejoining one of its militias and was shot by the BSF in November, along with a group of guerrillas who were trying to cross the Jhelum to flee across the Line of Control. The Hizbul Mujahideen, security sources added, set up death squads after Sheikh’s release to ensure peace negotiations would fail. In April 1993, the Hizbul guerrilla Zulqarnain murdered Abdul Ahad Guru, a doctor and JKLF mentor, who negotiated the releases of Congress leader Saifuddin Soz’s daughter, Naheed, and Indian Oil executive director, K. Doraiswamy, in 1991. Though it was a Hizbul guerrilla who killed Guru, the police colluded in his killing, according to Habibullah. Guru presented ‘a reasonable face of separatism’ and was widely respected, so he was a counter-insurgency target. Zulqarnain was killed in a security operation soon after. Frustration in the security forces grew in the months to follow. In Sopore, the aftermath of the market firing saw growing support for insurgency. Reports of guerrillas massing in the town began to flow from May 1993, but the state and union governments did not react. ‘Intelligence and others urged decisive and early action’, wrote Arun Shourie, editor of the Indian Express. ‘Nothing was done. By September, about 600 [of the guerrillas] were reported not only to be there, they were reported to have entrenched themselves in bunkers dug out in some houses at various points in the town. Minimal action in May–June would have seen the end of them. By September, a Blue Star-type operation alone would have sufficed. And intelligence was warning that if that sort of action was not launched immediately, and the snow were allowed to set in, the mercenaries would get another four to five months to fortify their presence. What sort of an operation would be necessary then?’

Reviewed by Nisha Misra

Invisible Ties

Title: Invisible Ties
Author: Nadya A. R
Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Pages: 272

A scintillating saga of longing and desire, love and lust, betrayal and trust, reality and illusion, Invisible Ties keeps the reader hooked till the very end. Sprinkled with historical references and political undertones, the novel seems to read like a Bildungsroman tracing the physical as well as the psychological journey of Noor, its protagonist. As Noor moves out of  Karachi, marries into Singapore, strays into Malay and ‘surfaces’ in London, the reader cannot but be baffled by the enigma that she is.

The novel may seem to be the tale of a young, coy, overprotected girl whose Page 3 narcissistic mother’s only desire is to find a suitable rich match for her (preferably outside the volatile atmosphere of Pakistan) and whose father is a case in hopelessness and self-pity. Nurtured in the confinement of home and country, Noor’s life takes an unexpected turn when a robbery at their palatial bungalow by their own guards, who also abduct her mother, tears the family apart. The most painful part of the episode is the death of her trusted driver, Uncle Joseph, who lays down his life in order to save hers. Her marriage to Meekal, who is settled in Singapore, is a compromise of sorts for the sake of her family, but a compromise that reveals itself to be so only when she joins her husband there.

The author skilfully weaves the mystery shrouding the relationships or the ties that bind the various characters in the novel – be it the mystery surrounding the abduction, the release and subsequent silence of Noor’s mother on the topic, her mother-in-law’s eccentricities and secret life, Meekal’s complicated love-hate relationship with his ex-girlfriend Jyoti, Noor’s illusions surrounding the ghost of Uncle Joseph, her Chinese friend Ella’s attempt at keeping her marriage intact or Jake’s depression and fatal attraction towards his ex-girlfriend – and is an insightful study in the workings of the human mind and the complexities that define and govern human relationships.

Reviewed by Pia Ghosh-Roy

 

Table Manners

Title: Table Manners
Author: Susmita Bhattacharya
Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Year of Publication: 2018
No. of pages: 159
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True to its title, the stories in Table Manners seem to be seated around a long dinner-table having a conversation over the course of an engrossing evening. With each story, I was invited into homes and lives that had their own unique rhythms. The stories wear different personalities, inhabit different parts of the world — India, Singapore, Italy and the UK — but sit beautifully in each other’s company and make for a meal to remember.

Many of the stories took me into the heart of traditional marriages and relationships, with their set dynamics, power imbalance, the dominant male and the ‘good wife’. Yet, within that, there are hidden moments, quietly captured and gently exposed, that reveal more. You will meet women, who while living the life that is expected of them — adjusting their hopes, and lowering their expectations — keep aside a bit of themselves that belong to no-one and answer to no-one. I found these private selves opening themselves up to me in these pages, where they share their concerns, their contemplations, and their inner chaos, where they show their bruises both visible and invisible.

In the first story, a wife nurses a childhood love for her male cousin, and is torn between this reckless and doomed emotion, and “The Right Thing To Do” by her staid marriage. It is told by the female house-help, whose thoughts are consumed by two things: her mistress’s irresponsible heart, and a neighbour, Mrs Dalal, who is regularly beaten by her husband and ‘turns up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times’.

In one of my favourite stories in the collection, Li, a young woman, plans a quiet evening with a bowl of “Comfort Food”, but gives it up when she has to accompany her husband to a business dinner with a potential client – a potential male client, who subjects her to an evening of unwelcome attention and lecherous stares.

Reviewed by Shabana Zahoor

Vegetarian India

Title: Vegetarian India – A Journey through the best of Indian Home Cooking
Author: Madhur Jaffrey
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 416

It’s a challenge as well as a delight to review a book as elaborate as Vegetarian Indian by Madhur Jaffrey. When I first got hold of the book, I made a kadak cup of chai for myself and sat down to slowly savour the book along with the freshly made strong concoction.

The book tasted better with every sip, whetting my appetite and my curiosity. What we’ve got here is a seriously huge book, one that claims to bring together Indian vegetarian dishes from north to south and from east to west. The very thought of such geographical vastness and diversity of region and people brings to mind the many possibilities of vegetarian dishes from across the country. I don’t know how Jaffrey has managed to do this with detail and meticulousness; this is not an easy feat when you have so much to choose from.

The range she brings to the table is breathtaking. It goes from as simple a snack as boiled peanut with shells to bondas, fritters, to stir fries, mouth-watering gravies… the list is endless, but a pattern emerges – Vegetarian India focuses on simple preparations; most of the dishes featured here are easy to make, without the need to sweat it out in the kitchen.

The book has various sections such as soups and appetizers, vegetables, dals, grains, eggs, drinks, and desserts. The appetizers are inviting. It’s not that I haven’t cooked or eaten any of these, but the pictures make you salivate. Fried Okra, bondas… fresh and crisp… ummm….

By Mitali Chakravarty

Was that Mountain Really there? by Park Wan-Suh, an award winning and well-known Korean novelist, has recently been translated by Hannah Kim and published by Kitaab. The novel depicts the trauma of partition faced by civilians in a war that reft the country in two, less than a decade after India was sliced into multiple segments. While Indians suffered in the name of religion, Was that Mountain Really There? portrays the suffering caused by a war created by the clash of communist and capitalist ideologies.

Park Wan-Suh was separated from her mother and brother by the border etched by the Korean War (1950-53) and found herself in the South while her family was in the North. Korean critic Kim Byeong-ik states that her writing is ‘the only record of how people survived in Seoul during the Korean War;’ however, her book is equally relevant in the current context of the ravages of war and refugee influx, a worldwide concern to date.

According to Theodore Hughes of Columbia University, ‘Park Wan-Suh is important for the ways in which her writing is at once popular (nearly all her works are best-sellers) and canonical. She is widely discussed in Korean academia and she has become the subject of dissertations. While this is also the case for many male writers, Park Wan-Suh may have combined the two levels more successfully than any other novelist.’

More than half a dozen of her novels have been translated into English, the latest being Was the Mountain Really There? Translating a book of this calibre is undoubtedly a daunting task and one that Hannah Kim performs very well. This translation highlights both the uniqueness of Korean life and culture and the universality of human sufferings and interactions that transcends borders of all kinds.

Hannah Kim is a translator and writer at Arirang TV. She has translated works on a variety of topics including literature, politics, music, visual arts, history and economics. She currently works in conjunction with the Department of Anthropology, Seoul National University. She combines a passion for music along with her passion for words and performs as a classically trained soprano in concerts in Southern California. In this interview, she highlights the challenges of translating and talks of Park Wan-Suh’s contributions to literature and the importance of words that can ‘inform, connect, and change the world’.

Hannah Kim

Mitali: The book is very personal – autobiographical in its historical sweep and    emotional proximity. How did you, as the translator, negotiate this emotional core? Did it involve research?

Hannah: Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh was one of the most remarkable women writers of her times. Can you tell us more about her life and works? What made you choose her and this particular book of hers for translation?

Hannah: She was and still is one of the most beloved and celebrated writers in Korea. What was so remarkable about her was how prolific she was given that she had made her debut as a writer in her 40s. She never received formal training in writing — she had attended only one semester at Seoul National University before dropping out at the outbreak of the Korean War.

I chose Was the Mountain Really There? because I liked her writing style. Her writing is unembellished, frank, piercing, and vulnerable all at the same time. Also, having grown up in the U.S., I was always interested in learning more about Korean history. My father was in middle school when the war broke out and he told us stories of how his family survived when my siblings and I were young. South Korea was destroyed and reduced to rubble when the armistice was signed and the war was suspended in 1953. The miraculous economic development of South Korea since the end of the war was dubbed as the Miracle on the Han River. I wanted to trace its history and see how the war was experienced and narrated by a civilian, not by a second-source historian.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Her first hand experiences are found in her autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All The Shinga, translated in 2009. In her foreword to the sequel, Was The Mountain Really There? she says she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern (she) truly wanted’. What could have been the pattern, the sense of relentless change or of man taking over and destroying a natural way of life? Do you think the book has been able to convey this ‘pattern’ quite well despite how she felt about it as its writer?