Category Archives: Asian writing

Rescued from the footnotes of history: Lal Bihari Sharma’s “Holi Songs of Demerara”

MY NAME RINGS no bell […]
but footnotes know me well
footnotes where history
shows its true colors
and passing reference is flesh

These lines, from John Agard’s poem “The Ascent of John Edmonstone,” give voice to an enslaved man, born in British Guiana, whose influence has been all but erased from history. Edmonstone taught Charles Darwin the taxidermy skills he deployed during his famous voyage on the H. M. S. Beagle, and his descriptions of the South American rainforests may have inspired Darwin to explore the tropics. Yet Edmonstone, muse and teacher, has gone unacknowledged.

In Agard’s poem, footnotes are where history shows its true colors: they reveal how power, held or withheld, has muted the contributions of people like Edmonstone. To be called a footnote to history is usually a put-down. I would, however, like to rehabilitate a footnoted existence, somewhat, in this essay. To be footnoted is to be cited, and to be cited is to be published. Lal Bihari Sharma, author of the 1915 songbook Damra Phag Bahar, or Holi Songs of Demerara, also could have declared: footnotes know me. First-person testimony, written by indentured immigrants, is rare: only three literary texts about the system that replaced slavery in the British Empire, by laborers who experienced it personally, are known to exist. Holi Songs of Demerara is the only one to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean. The other two were memoirs by men from Fiji and Suriname.

It was in fact as a footnote that I first encountered Lal Bihari Sharma. I learned about him in June 2011, while reading a scholarly monograph during the final lap of research for my 2013 book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. That book is partly a narrative history about indentured women in the Caribbean and partly a memoir about my attempts to uncover the mystery behind my great-grandmother’s exit from India, in 1903, as a “coolie” (or indentured laborer). She was born in the very same district of the very same region of the very same state in India as Sharma, and they came from the same caste background. The monograph’s author, a Delhi-based labor historian, described the songbook as rich with sensory details about life on a sugar plantation in British Guiana, told from the perspective of an indentured man.

Read More

Book Review: This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab

Reviewed by Mayeesha Azhar

This House of Clay and Water

Title: This House of Clay and Water
Author: Faiqa Mansab
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: 499 INR
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
https://penguin.co.in/book/fiction/house-clay-water/

 

For those who need one more reason to dream about visiting Lahore someday to take in the juxtaposition of the city’s pandemonium, history and romance, Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water only adds to the list. The protagonist, Nida, wanders along the boundaries between the walled estates of the metropolitan’s wealthy, to the markets of the underclass and, finally, the shrines that offer refuge to the disowned. Nida has lost much to the rigid patriarchal structures of her life — a child, freedom, her right to choose, a sense of self. In a way, this book is about Nida’s journey of rediscovering her dignity, and the immense price that she ends up paying for it.

Among the three main characters that narrate the story by turn is also Sasha. Bringing glitz and glamour to this tale, Sasha is indulgent, decadent, and a siren by choice. In dusty Lahore, Sasha’s ephemeral aura marks her out as a creature from a different world. She is an object of desire incarnate and she knows it. What is more, she is not hesitant to use it to get what she wants — designer fashion and a thrilling escape from a life she feels is too ordinary for her. Try as hard as she might to deny this, sometimes to herself, this respite is only fleeting. Her image is a mirage that Sasha has carefully constructed even as she makes it look effortless. She does indeed sashay into every scene that she inhabits — cafés, the hotel rooms of her lovers, even spiritual ground like the Daata Sahib dargah. This is where the two women first meet.

The contrast between them is softened for both by their distance from Bhanggi, the transgender Qalandar, a title that is typically held by holy men. Bhanggi’s is a short life full of cruelty and exclusion, first from society itself after being abandoned at birth and then from the Hijra community where he was raised. In exchange for being allowed to live at the shrine, Bhanggi must be indentured to the administrative clerk there. This is part of the clerk’s deal with the Hijra community, who rely on sex work to make a living.

Bhanggi’s voice is enough to make this book rare. The Hijra community is ever-present in South Asia, but can exist only on the edges, hardly ever coming into the purview of the respectable milieus that Sasha and Nida come from, let alone be featured in a novel. Rarer still is Mansab’s mention of the violence committed daily against these bodies. One such instance is that of a man paying a Hijra woman, Chameli, to have sex, and then killing her, just one instance in a series of systemic murders of trans-people around the world that occur with minimum ado and furore.

Read more

Short Story: Fifty-Nine Times but One by Aditya Gautam

Now we’re walking on this empty street and you tell me how we’re very much the same, how much our thoughts and choices match.

‘It has been just a month since I met you,’ you say, ‘and already I feel like I’ve known you for years.’

You said that on this same night five years ago and I laughed out loud then. I told you what a cheesy sentimentalist you are.

You looked straight into my eyes and said quietly, ‘You feel like home.’

Maybe that was the moment you sealed our fates together; I put a stamp on that seal when I kissed you in the next moment. Now I just nod and tell you that I feel the same way. I wish you would not say such things tonight. It will make what I am going to do so much more difficult.

This is one of the rare times when I have come back into a reality I have already been to, except for a few details of course; no two realities can ever be exactly the same. In a way, I am happy to be here – this is the reality, or dimension, whatever you may call it, where we first met.

I turn around once to look back at the softly lit café we have come from. You were eating tiramisu and I was sitting with a glass of wine in my hand. I sipped between your pauses and watched you, trying to learn every single line and every single movement of your face. The way you pick the tiniest morsels in every spoon so that it will last longer, the way you keep the cake in your mouth a moment longer than anyone else I know, so that the taste may fade away slower.

I replied without thought, almost mechanically: it is the same conversation we had five years ago, at the same table.

You have long, brown hair in this reality and I am still not used to it. Where I was up until a month ago, you had blue spiky hair and I had nicknamed you Pixie. That was a good month. At least until the last day when we were in your apartment and the curtains caught fire.

My guts clench as I remember the last words you always say to me: ‘Until the next time, my love.’

Why do you always say that? It isn’t as if you know how true it is…

There is only one street lamp on this stretch of the road and the shadows of trees look like cobwebs around our feet. In one of the houses by the roadside somebody is playing an old song by Kishor Kumar.

Mere mehboob qayamat hogi, aaj ruswa teri galiyon mein mohabbat hogi…

My darling, there will be apocalypse today, love will be disgraced in your street

You pick up the tune and begin to hum. Everything fits together, eventually.

Read more

Will contemporary Urdu novelists please stand up?

Urdu novelist Rahman Abbas, 46, had to spend time in jail, even losing his teaching job, over a book he published in 2004. It was only in August 2016 that he was acquitted by a Mumbai court, the culmination of a 10-year lawsuit against his Nakhlistan ki Talash (In Search of An Oasis). The novel, which was slapped with obscenity charges under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, revolves around love and politics in the aftermath of the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai. It created a furore in conservative Urdu literary and media circles. But such instances of incendiary Urdu novels, with contemporary settings, are hard to find now. Why are there no traces of anything similar to the Progressive Writers’ Movement of yore?

Urdu fiction buffs profusely applaud the seminal writers of the 20th century—Ismat Chughtai, Munshi Premchand, Qurat-ul-Ain Haider and Saadat Hasan Manto. But how much do we know about the contemporary Urdu fiction in 21st century India? Do these unknown novelists still concern themselves with the hoary traditions of ‘Lakhnawi Tehzeeb’ and ‘Awadhi Zubaan’, or have they moved on to ruminate on more topical issues from their immediate surroundings?

How many Urdu novels from Maharashtra, Kolkata or Andhra Pradesh have come to the fore, discounting the usual suspects from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar? Moreover, what ails Urdu novels today?

Read More

About feminist presses in South Asia

In November last year, the shortlist for the DSC literature prize was announced at LSE. Ritu Menon, co-founder of Kali for Women, and one of the judges of the prize, spoke to Rebecca Bowers about the decline of the feminist press in the West, and the challenges facing women in publishing today.   

RB: As chairwoman of the judging panel for the DSC literature prize, what in your view makes an award-winning publication? What are the ‘secret ingredients’?

RM: I think as part of the jury and speaking on behalf of the jury I think what we were looking for and I think what we have found is exceptional literary quality, confidence and maturity in the writing, skill, good craft, and very compelling stories. I think if you can get that combination then you have very commendable writing, so that’s what I think we have found in the shortlist and as to the winner well that will be decided later.

RB: Although female authors are now rightfully coming to the forefront of the literary world, what challenges would you say that they still face today?

RM: I wish that I could say they are coming to the forefront but I’m not sure that they are. They are being published a little more. A little more. They are somewhat better represented as far as reviews go, as far as reception in the market goes, and I suppose as far as a certain degree of visibility is concerned but I think if one were to look at their representation in awards, they’re still woefully slim. So I’m not sure that they are in the forefront. They are definitely present but there is a way to go. The very fact that we speak of women writers when we don’t speak of men writers, it makes them other than the norm.

RB: That’s very true.  In fact, with that in mind, what do you believe can be done to make literature more inclusive not only in terms of authorship but also in terms of readership as well?  

RM: Well you see, I think there are several aspects to this. There is a literary establishment worldwide which is male dominated – I think the power hierarchy is pretty clear.

Read More

Book Review: Memories Cached by Cameron Su

Reviewed by Shruthi Rao

Memories Cached

Title: Memories Cached
Author: Cameron Su
Publishers: Cameron Su (co-funded via the Act!on for a Cause programme of Kids4Kids Hong Kong)
Pages: 302

Across the world, there are tremors of the beginnings of a youth movement, sparked by young people tired of the status quo – teenagers who are no longer satisfied with sitting around and waiting for adults to do things for them; youngsters who want change, and are not afraid to take on any situation by the horns.

There is still a considerable amount of eye-rolling about millennials and disapproving head-shakes at ‘this new generation’ that will ‘never amount to anything’. I believe that this attitude is unfair to those young people out there who are actually standing up and making a difference.

Cameron Su is one such person. He is a 17-year-old high school student in Hong Kong, who wants to tackle the issue of bullying through his book Memories Cached. Set in a high school in Singapore (which is ranked by a study as third in the world in bullying among 15-year-olds), Memories Cached takes the reader through a few months in the life of a handful of high school kids on the cusp of college. Dominic Chiu is a regular high school guy who, on a dare, kisses his girlfriend in school. Savannah Dixon, another high school student, captures it on her camera, and on an impulse, uploads it on YouTube. The video promptly goes viral.

Dominic is now in trouble, both from the principal (PDA is banned in the school!) and from Ryan Chang, the school bully and the brother of Talinda, the girl he kissed.

The rest of the book takes us through the repercussions of this incident, in two POVs – that of Dominic Chiu, and that of his cyber bully, Savannah Dixon. Savannah’s POV is interesting. It highlights the reason why she chose to upload the video, her almost-immediate regret but with the knowledge that once a video is out there, she has no control over it. It takes us through her insecurities, her wanting to fit in, and makes us feel sorry for her. She wants to make amends, however, and at the end, she redeems herself.

This incident in the book highlights a very important aspect – that a private moment that would’ve gone unnoticed or uncommented upon in an earlier era is now potentially in the public domain, up for everybody to see. You need to have eyes at the back of your head; if you drop your guard for a moment your privacy is not yours any longer.

Read more

How do you define ‘Home’?

Our roundtable with authors from “Go Home!,” an Asian diasporic anthology of fiction, essays, and poetry grappling with the true meaning of “home.”

“Is home a real place? Is it a memory?” asks Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, editor of the new anthology “Go Home!” (out from Feminist Press, in collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop). “Who gets to decide when you’re at home? What does it mean when you lose a home? How do you respond when someone tells you to go home? What if you don’t know where that is?”

In “Go Home!” — a collection that feels particularly timely in the midst of attacks on immigrant families and communities — Asian diasporic writers are both thoughtful and generous in their reflections about who they are, where they have been, and where they belong. Their stories will provide illumination and hope to readers grappling with their own questions about family, identity, and belonging. Shondaland reached out to Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (editor of “Go Home!” and author of the novel “Harmless Like You”), Viet Thanh Nguyen (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” who wrote the foreword to “Go Home!”), and contributors Alexander Chee (author of the national bestseller “The Queen of the Night” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”), Karissa Chen (editor-in-chief of Hyphen and author of the chapbook “Of Birds and Lovers”), T Kira Madden (editor-in-chief of No Tokens and author of the forthcoming “Long Live the Tribe of the Fatherless Girls”), and Esmé Weijun Wang (author of “The Border of Paradise” and the forthcoming “The Collected Schizophrenias”) to discuss this powerful and timely new anthology.

Read More

Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Writing in the shadows of Japan’s literary giants

We are not sure of the exact date, but we know it happened on a Thursday in the fall of 1915.

That morning, Ryunosuke Akutagawa was extremely excited, but also nervous and perhaps even a bit queasy. Then 23 years old and still a university student, he had yet to make his mark as an author. All he had to his credit were a few translations of short works by Anatole France and W.B. Yeats and a small number of original stories of his own, none of which had attracted attention. In short, he did not have much of a resume.

By comparison, the people he met later that day were confident intellectuals with established reputations — most were at least a decade older than him. They knew each other well and, for a while already, had been gathering weekly at the house of one of their peers to discuss literature and the arts, philosophy and politics. Joining them would have been an intimidating prospect even for a confident man, something Akutagawa definitely was not. But this was also a unique opportunity to meet the individual hosting this salon, the most celebrated author of his generation and a man Akutagawa deeply admired. His name was Natsume Soseki.

It turned out to be a mesmerizing experience. Akutagawa later wrote that he had been so impressed by “the master” — he always referred to Soseki in this manner — that he had been almost unable to relax. The encounter also marked the beginning of a relationship, unfortunately cut short when Soseki died the following year, which was extremely meaningful for Akutagawa. With the help of his new mentor he was able to republish “The Nose” (1916), which Soseki greatly admired, in a well-known magazine. This brought him fame almost overnight.

Though their friendship spanned only a few months, the lives of Soseki and Akutagawa cover a critical period in the history of Japanese fiction. In the twilight years of the Edo Period (1603-1868) the genre was in a sorry state, a mere shadow of its former grandeur. …

Read More

The new Scandi noir? The Korean writers reinventing the thriller

The country has emerged as a surprising literary force as a novel by the ‘Korean Henning Mankell’ bags a six-figure deal and sparks a global bidding war

Last December, Korean novelist Un-su Kim set out on an eight-month deep-sea fishing trip as part of research for his next book. Unreachable by phone or email until next August, when his boat docks in Fiji, he has no idea that his thriller The Plotters has been the subject of a wildly enthusiastic auction in the US, where it recently sold to Doubleday for a six-figure sum. German publisher Europa Verlag has called Kim “the Korean Henning Mankell”, while publishers in the UK, Czech Republic and Turkey have placed offers, and international film companies are also battling for rights.

His agent, Barbara Zitwer, who plans to meet him in Fiji to reveal the news, believes Kim’s novel, about an organisation that masterminds assassinations, has caught a wave of interest in Korean thrillers – a previously unknown quantity. “The world is finally embracing them. Korean thriller writers are invigorating the genre,” she said. “They are pumping new life into it. Readers are tiring of Scandinavian thrillers – they crave something new.”

Korean writing can seem new to English readers due to the unique cadence and economy of the language; translator Deborah Smith described the process of changing Korean to English as “moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition and plain prose to one that favours precision, concision and lyricism”. There is no grand tradition of mystery writing in Korea. Writers there are creating something entirely new: sparsely worded, stylistically sophisticated page-turners that incorporate ideas important to Korean society, such as family, loyalty, nature and hierarchy.

Read More

Book Excerpt: Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet

Burning the Sun's Braids

A Dog And A Cat
By Chen Metak

On the road
A dog and a cat are playing
A game of love and affection like man,
As they play and caress
As they run and gambol
The dog gently sinks his fangs
On the cat’s neck, and
The cat makes
Soft affectionate meows.

I don’t believe there is anything
Going on between the two animals,
Like there is no special relationship
Between an elephant and an ant
Between a man and a gorilla.

Nevertheless,
I did not create any obstacles
Between the two beings,
I know this is all performance, and yet
I do wish to believe
There is something between
The two.

To tell you the truth
In this affection-deprived age,
Even a simple performance
Has immense value.

 

Monologues In Hell
By Theurang

One

If the radiant hands scratch the face of darkness today,
Will the world of dawn be lifted from amidst the shadows tomorrow?

Two

If some ready-to-gallop horses
Have gone missing along with their saddles and bridles
Which horse-owner can point out who is the thief?

Three

If a scheming wolf leaps onto a flock of sheep
The unarmed shepherd can, of course, shout out from the mountains.

Four

Don’t tell lies when the ears are seeking for truth,
Do not create disharmony right before our eager eyes,
The people are watching you, the natural world is sighing at you.

Five

I may not have ownership over my five physical senses,
You may have stolen the five organs and six vessels,
But I have permanent ownership over my pure inner vision.

Six

Long live freedom, long live mankind
Long live truth, long live democracy
Long live the blood that runs in my veins!
Long live! Long live!

Read more

« Older Entries Recent Entries »