by Zafar Anjum

I had interviewed Malaysian novelist, Tan Twan Eng, sometime ago for India Se. I am reproducing the full interview here for your reading pleasure. Hope you enjoy reading it.

Tan Twan Eng-The Garden of Evening MistsYou are a lawyer by profession. How did you decide to become a writer? Were you inspired by some other writers or you genuinely felt that you had something to express?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I began reading children’s books at the age of four or five, without realising how difficult it is to write. But as I grew older I became aware that it’s almost impossible to make a living from it, and so I decided to read Law when the time came to choose a career. I don’t regret it, because it’s given me an awareness of the importance of writing with clarity, and it’s made me a more disciplined writer. As I used to be an intellectual property lawyer, it’s also been useful whenever I have to read the publisher’s contracts.

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by Fakrul Alam

The very first time I heard Shah Abdul Karim’s heart-stirring song, “Age Ki Shundor Din Kataitam” I was transported to my childhood years in Dhaka‘s Ramkrishna Mission Road and the Durga Puja days we used to revel in then. Karim remembers lyrically “how happily” he and other village youths would spend their childhood days, “Hindus and Muslims, /Singing Baul and Ghetu songs all together!” He goes on to narrate how he and his friends would listen to Ghazi, Baul and Ghetu songs during the monsoons as they raced their boats or watch jatras being staged in Hindu households and how politics and/or religion would never come in the way. He concludes wistfully: “I keep thinking: we’ll never be happy like then./Though I once believed happiness was forever/Day by day things get worse and worse/Which path will distraught Karim now follow?”

by Fakrul Alam

Bangladesh in the Mirror: An Outsider Perspective on a Struggling Democracy. A. T. Rafiqur Rahman. Dhaka: The University Press Limited, 2006 (Tk 550.00); 383 pp. ISBN 984 05 1771 6

Bangladesh has just gone through one of the most traumatic phases of its history. For most of 2006 and the first ten days of 2007, normal life in the country was completely disrupted as the ruling coalition, consisting of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-i-Islam, confronted a coalition of opposition parties led by the Awami League, mainly over the way in which the next elections were to be held. Bangladesh, it must be remembered, had switched to a form of democracy in 1996 where the ruling party would hand over power to a “caretaker government” for a period not exceeding three months so that free and fair elections could be ensured. The system had worked well that year and had eventually brought the Awami League into power at the expense of the BNP. In 2001, too, there was a reasonably smooth transition because of the caretaker system. This time it was the Awami League which had to hand over power

by Fakrul Alam

Edward W. Said, Freud and the Non-European. With an Introduction by Christopher Bollas and a response by Jacqueline Rose. Verso: published in association with the Freud Museum. London, 2003

——-. On Late Style. London: Bloomsbury, 2006

In the long, and characteristically eloquent, interview Edward W. Said gave a few weeks before he died on September 25, 2003 —an interview now available on videotape—the Palestinian-American critic talks about the difficulty he was having in reading, writing, talking, and even coping with the simplest demands of everyday life; the twelve-year struggle with leukemia had apparently drained the sixty-seven year old intellectual of all energy. And yet what strikes anyone watching the video is his alertneness and the effortlessness and compulsiveness with which he wants to tell posterity about his life and his works. Undoubtedly, Said was losing out in his battle with cancer, but obviously too here was a man determined not to go gently into the night and bent on explaining what he had been up to in a lifetime devoted to Palestine, art and culture, as well as the profession of English and comparative literature.

by Fakrul Alam

Every year, twice a year, during winter and summer vacations, my family would travel to Feni, where we would spend our holidays in our Nana Bari, the home of my Nana or maternal grandfather.

For days before the journey, our excitement would keep mounting. For one thing, Amma would make frequent trips to Nawabpur, or what was then called Jinnah Avenue , to buy fabrics or wool which she would then sew/darn/weave into clothes or woolens to gift her family members when in Feni. She would also spend more time in the kitchen than usual, cooking as many dishes as she could for my father, the only of us who would be staying behind since he had his office to attend to; he would join us, if at all, for a few days at the end. For days before she left, Amma would repeat instructions to our household helps till by the time we would leave we had memorized what they were supposed to be doing while we were away. Moreover, she would spend the last few days before the journey packing and repacking since she had to ensure that we had everything we needed, not only for the fortnight or so we would spend in Feni, but also for the journey back and forth.

by Fakrul Alam

Tuesday, 10 th October 2006

The R. K. Narayan centenary conference begins fifteen minutes late (subcontinental standard conference opening time!). On stage for the inaugural session in the very impressive auditorium of the Mysore wing of the Central Institute for Indian Languages (CIIL) are representatives of the three organizers of the conference: Mr. S. Jithendra Nath of the Bangalore branch of the Sahitya Akademi, Professor Harish Trivedi, Chairperson of the Indian Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS); and Mr. B. Mallikarjun, the Assistant Director of CIIL. Mr. Nath is brief and punctilious in making his points as is Mr. Malliakarajun, both of whom are here by default, standing in for others who could not show up. Also absent is someone we were all looking forward to hearing: Keki N. Daruwalla, member of the Sahitya Akademi, representing no doubt its English language interests, and identified pithily in the conference brochure as “Eminent Poet”. It is left to Harish Trivedi to explain that he has not been well and thus could not be present. But the absentees don’t matter: Harish makes up for their inability to come and the succinctness of the other speakers— not by being long-winded (he is incapable of that!) but by giving us the perspective necessary to begin proceedings: this is R. K. Narayan’s hundredth birthday (he, died, we remember, on 13 May, 2001); Mysore, the place he has immortalized as Malgudi in his fiction is the right setting for the occasion; and his achievement is so great that it was fitting that the Akademi, ACLALS, and CIIL should have got together to organize a conference bringing together a relatively small group of Narayan devotees/scholars from all over the world and across India for a three-day conference. Harish is witty and gracious; in the course of his speech his charm seemed to have wafted to the almost ineffable allure of Narayan’s work to set participants in the right mood for all subsequent sessions.

by Fakrul Alam

Sheikh Mujib Triumph and Tragedy_0

SHEIKH MUJIB: TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY

By S. A. Karim. The University Press Limited, 2005. pp. 407, Tk. 500.00 ISBN 984 05 1737 6

This, surprisingly, is the first biography in English of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, even though more 30 years have passed since he was assassinated in a bloody military coup on August 15, 1975. Known to most Bangladeshis as Bangabandhu, or friend of Bengal, a title bestowed on him by acclamation in a mammoth public meeting in Dhaka on 22 February, 1969, he was truly a man of the people, someone who had made the cause of his countrymen and women his own through endless trials and tribulations. And yet he had been assassinated in the country he had championed ceaselessly soon after it became independent. Also, he had disillusioned quite a few people in record time in governing it. How did he win the hearts of his people as “the father of the nation” and secure a place in their history as Gandhi did in India or Jinnah did in Pakistan? What caused him to slide in their esteem? But also, what was he like as a human being as well as a leader? And now that three decades have passed since his death, is it possible to arrive at a real estimate of the man and his achievements?

by Fakrul Alam

An ordinary person’s guide to empire. Arundhati Roy. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005.

It must have been in 1997—around the time when Arundhati Roy was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her first and only novel The God of Small Things — that I saw her on BBC’s “Hardtalk”. The man who was hosting the show then, he with the walrus smile, beamed a question at Roy that he no doubt felt had to be answered: “And so what is your next novel going to be about?” I remember Roy, at first glance waif-like but really self-assured and full of charm that she exudes without trying, smiling and shooting back his question at him: “But what makes you think I will write another novel? I may never write fiction again. If I write anything, it will be on something that I feel strongly about. And that may be anything other than fiction.”

by Fakrul Alam

Australian Salute

My attention was attracted by it almost as soon as I stepped out of Sydney airport and pretty soon I was doing it too—the Australian salute! The gesture consists of the fingers of your hand raised half voluntarily as if to swat away something occupying facial space and upsetting one’s mental equilibrium, but in the end the movement is obviously nothing more threatening than a half-hearted attempt to brush away the pesky, ubiquitous Australian fly. Indeed, I now realize I had seen it often in cricket broadcasts: Big Tony Greig, it is obvious, was doing it in the sidelines, while commentating, as was modestly built Rickie Ponting while taking guard, or brawny Bret Lee when darting in to bowl his lightning-quick balls. And my wife and I were going to do it again and again the three weeks we spent in Down Under Land whether in and around the cities of Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, or Brisbane, where we were to spend 21 pleasure-filled “high” Australian summer (late December to early January ) days!

by Fakrul Alam

India in Mind. Edited by Pankaj Mishra. London: Picador India, 2005

Pankaj Mishra’s anthology, Imagining India offers us twenty-five remarkable ways of looking at India, and, inevitably, imagining it. The viewers, alphabetically arranged in Mishra’s capacious collection, range from the whimsical and endearing Englishman J. R. Ackerley to the equally idiosyncratic and engaging but more famous American Gore Vidal. Chronologically, the entries span over a century; the earliest is Mark Twain’s characteristically sharp account of his visit to Bombay at the end of the 19th century to Pico Iyer’s 2003 elegant fictional ruminations on the much-traveled tourist triangle of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra (although the extract from Vidal’s novel has him conjuring an encounter with Gautama Buddha in fifth century India). Most entries describe India in the twentieth century, encompassing turn of the century Raj, the waning days of empire, the period of transition when Indians finally took over their country, and the closing years of the last millennium when intermittently “eternal”, occasionally exquisite or esoteric, and often exasperating India still claimed the itinerant, alienated or exilic writer’s attention.