By Neha Mehrotra

Head of the English department at Ashoka University, Saikat Majumdar is an academic, novelist and critic. He is the author of Silverfish (HarperCollins, 2007), Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire (Columbia University Press and Orient Blackswan, 2013 and 2015), The Firebird (Hachette 2015 and 2017). The Scent of God (Simon and Schuster) is forthcoming in 2019.

The Firebird was one of Telegraph’s Best Books of 2015 and a finalist for the Atta-Galatta/Bangalore Literature Festival Fiction Prize in 2015 and the Mumbai Film Festival Word-to-Screen Market in 2016. His 2013 book on global modernisms was a finalist for the Modernist Studies Association Annual Book Prize in 2014.

In addition to being published by major journals such as PMLA, NLH: New Literary History, Cambridge History of the Indian Novel in English, Modern Fiction Studies, and Literary Activism: A Collection of Perspectives, Saikat’s writing also features regularly in mainstream publications such as The Hindu, Outlook, Times Higher Education, Hindustan Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Indian Express, Caravan, Scroll, Telegraph, and Times of India.

Saikat Majumdar
Saikat Majumdar

How do you identify as a writer?

Primarily as a novelist. That’s the core to which I keep returning. I do other kinds of writing too, but I realize I do them all on a novelist’s terms. So my literary criticism is criticism by a novelist, and my nonfiction and newspaper essays are often novelistic in spirit and style. Not to say they are ‘fictional’ – hopefully I speak the truth when I mean to – it’s rather about the assumption of a voice of my own and a kind of an eye through which I see the world and think about it. Even when it’s the real world and not a fictionally crafted one. But since I actually do different kinds of writing, I like the term ‘writer’ and the looseness it evokes, and the way it avoids attaching itself to any particular genre or book. I’m not a fan of the word ‘author’ unless it’s used in connection to a particular work – it carries too much authority.

What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?

A ghost grabs me and makes me. Seriously, I don’t choose any of the themes or stories of my books – they always choose me and when I realize I have no choice whatsoever but to write, I know I have a real book there. Usually it’s a ghost from my past. A bit different with newspaper articles, or contributions to edited volumes or collections and there is more conscious choice there. But the books, the most important things, especially the novels, I can only write when I feel that absolute compulsion, and at one level I can never make out where they come from.

Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.

This morning I put the finishing touches to an essay on Calcutta that is part of an anthology of writing by novelists on the cities they’ve written about, Writing in the City, edited by Stuti Khanna, with contributions from Siddharth Chowdhury, Manu Joseph, Amitava Kumar, Indra Sinha, Amit Chaudhuri, Rupa Bajwa, Anjum Hasan, Manju Kapur and several others. Much looking forward to seeing this in print and how everybody has approached the subject.

Book review of The Magic Circle by Charmaine Chan

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Magic Circle

Title: The Magic Circle
Author: Charmaine Chan
Total number of pages: 302
ISBN 978-981-11-3996-3
Publisher: Ethos Books, 2017
Price: S$18.60

The Magic Circle is a memoir by Charmaine Chan written for her sister who died of cancer. This book was justifiably short-listed for ‘The Singapore Literature Prize, 2018’. According to Jennifer Chen, the editor of The Peak, it is ‘a breathtaking rumination’.

The book is an attempt to recreate the sister she knew for her niece, Yazmin, and to bring the youngster closer to her maternal heritage and culture. Elaine, the sister who dies of cancer, spent a major part of her life in New Zealand and eventually married a New Zealander; her daughter, born and bred in New Zealand, was merely six when the mother passed away. On the brink of death, Elaine made an impassioned plea to her globetrotting sister, Charmaine Chan, writer, journalist, editor, poet and former lawyer from Singapore. ‘Don’t let Yazmin forget her Asian side, make sure she knows all the Asian dishes I love,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t let her forget me…’

Charmain Chan kept her promise and spent a decade creating a perfect memoir for her niece. She writes, ‘For her (Yazmin), I have sealed them(memories of Elaine and her heritage)into black and white, preserved them in print.’

The book is poignant when it deals with sorrow and the impending death that looms over her sister. A skilful weaver of words, Charmaine Chan creates a tapestry of images and feelings that bring to  the fore a lively, vivacious woman cut off from her propensity to enjoy life by the throes of a lingering death, a loving family, grief, a childhood full of sunshine and youthful nostalgia about a sister who formed part of a ‘magic circle’. The three sisters born and brought up in Singapore eventually moved to different corners of the world and had what Chan called ‘a magic circle’, an invisible bond, which was sundered by the untimely death of the middle sister Elaine.

By Dolonchampa Chakraborty

 

Saubhik De Sarkar.jpg
Saubhik De Sarkar

Saubhik De Sarkar, is a Bengali poet based in Alipurduar, West Bengal, a major district in the eastern Himalayan foothills of India. He has six books of poems of which the first one Sheet O Bayosandhir Haspatal was published in 1995. Other collections include Ekti Mridu Laal Rekha (2005), Jatrabari (2011), Dokholsutra (2013), Anugato Buffer (2015) and Punorbashoner Chil (2016). He is also a prolific translator. His most significant translation projects include but are not limited to the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Roberto Bolano, Federico Garcia Lorca, Julio Cortázar, Namdeo Dhasal and Rudhramoorthy Cheran. His translation of the much discoursed Dalit chronicle My Father Baliah by Y.B. Satyanarayana into Bengali is set to be published in 2018. His selected poems translated into English, The Evening Gnome is also scheduled to be published from Authorspress in 2018. He is the recipient of Kabita Pakshik Award (2005) and Mallar Award (2017).

Dolonchampa: What encouraged you to be a poet? Can you think of a particular set of moments that still haunt your memory as the initial spark?

Saubhik: I grew up in the cultural and literary ambience of Alipurduar which had some artistic and traditional inheritance. The Little Magazine Movement also played a significant role in shaping and sharpening me up as it has had tremendous impact over the progression of Bengali literature. Since a young age I got to know the avant garde litterateur and poets of North Bengal who were involved in little magazine movements and an experimental writing process. Taking part in the movement provided the opportunity to access different avenues of literature and I chose poetry as the medium to express myself. Not any special incident or spark, but as a whole many features of poetry enticed me toward it. I found the essential freedom and a sense of unrestricted liberation within the realm of poetry.

Dolonchampa: Tell us about your literary influences.

Saubhik: A poet is indebted to many other travellers of the labyrinth of poetry. According to my recollection, Jibananda Das, Utpal Kumar Basu, Manindra Gupta, Swadesh Sen, Bhashkar Chakraborty, Nitya Malakar, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Sajal Bandyopadhyay, Shyamal Kanti Das, Samar Roy Choudhury, Shyamal Singha, Jahar Sen Majumder and Rahul Purkayastha are those few Bengali poets who had initially impacted my nous of poetry. Among the ones who wrote in other languages, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ana Akhmatova, Frank O’Hara, Julio Cortázar, Charles Simic, A.K. Mehrotra, Namdeo Dhasal, Agha Shahid Ali, Mahmud Darwish, Martin Espada and Kim Hyesoon influenced me a lot.

Dolonchampa: The unique elements of North Bengal—the landscape, languages, folk tales, myths, music have influenced your already rich linguistic inheritance. How do they shape your poems?

Saubhik: North Bengal, where I have lived so far has some particularly distinctive features. Located amid lustrous natural landscape within the range of three international borders, it is a unique multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic confluence. Populations hailing from separate ethnic clusters native to this place present themselves in different forms of myths, folktales, customs and rituals, and music different from each other. In congruence with the changing dynamics of the rivers flowing through the mountain range of North Bengal, the disposition of the people here also changes its form. People constantly move in and out of North Bengal. A larger phase of history has been a witness to this shifting identity and its restlessness for a rather consistent period of time. When I try to capture that particular identity in my poems, it appears with all its restlessness.

Political and economic contexts are not the same either. They are altering at a rather slower pace, but the transformation is indeed visible. Against the backdrop of the marginal and rural practices transforming towards a pro-urban formation, the decadence in the local colonial set-ups primarily established through the railways and tea-gardens become more prominent. The conservatively rural and marginal folk elements are developing themselves in an innovative manner, which to certain extent is definitely and more inevitably contributing to the degeneration of an old customary set-up.

All these shifts and changes, anomalies and transformations present themselves subtly in my poems. Although I feel the limitation of the standard lingua franca in expressing these conflicts, struggles and the confluences of the beauty, silence and serenity of North Bengal which appear in my poems. Hence, it is only reasonable that I should use words from the dialects, sub-dialects and other languages of North Bengal in my writing.

The other and more significant reason for me to use the elements of North Bengal is the responsibility to represent an aware and alert society which registers a systematic and sensible resistance in favour of the liberation of a language no matter how apparently insignificant and distant it is from the power hub of the premier language. Every language practises a kind of monopoly over its dialects and sub-dialects. So when I use a local word in my poem I do not want it to carry its local flavour only. I enable it to stand strong against the monopoly and aggression of the premier language.

Daughterrs of the Sun

From the chapter Ambitious Siblings and a Shahzadi’s Dream

Roshanara is now forty years old. She has lived a muted life in the shadow of her glorious sister, whose every action is celebrated. Jahanara is so universally loved and personally discreet that Roshanara knows she is beyond rumour and scandal. But there is one person who is not so faultless, and who can be brought low—Dara Shikoh. From the zenana of Shahjahanabad, Roshanara observes and forwards to Aurangzeb Dara’s many transgressions. She knows he has slowly but steadily antagonized the Ulema and even many of the nobles because of his fascination with mysticism and eclectic Hinduism. He is accused of being ‘constantly in the society of brahmins, yogis and sanyasis, and he used to regard these worthless teachers of delusions as learned and true masters of wisdom’. She learns of his scandalous friendship with the naked mystic Sarmad, an Armenian Jew who has converted to Islam, lives with a young Hindu man and taunts the orthodox clerics with his heretical verses. Roshanara is also aware of the fact that Dara Shikoh has made powerful enemies within the nobility due to his arrogance. ‘If Dara had a failing’, agrees Manucci, it was that he ‘scorned the nobles, both in word and deed, making no account of them’. Nor does Dara endear himself to the Ulema when he declares that ‘paradise is there where no mullah exists’. Dara himself is ill-advised, being contemptuous of the opinion of others. ‘He spoke disdainfully to all those who ventured to advise him, and thus deterred his sincerest friends from disclosing the secret machinations of his brothers.’ Roshanara notes all these things about Dara and she bides her time carefully. Amidst the gaunt topography of her life, Roshanara is waiting for her destiny to reveal itself. And few at court suspect the extent of her rancour or the depth of her ambition. Roshanara is ‘very clever, capable of dissimulation, bright, mirthful, fond of jokes and amusement, much more so than her sister begum sahib’. Dissimulation, at least, is a trait Roshanara shares with Aurangzeb and ‘all was done in great secrecy’, says Manucci, of their long-range communications, ‘with much craft, so that his brothers could neither know nor suspect anything’. And so, following Shah Jahan’s illness, while Shah Shuja and Murad Baksh impetuously declare themselves padshah, Aurangzeb waits. And then in January 1658, he marches north, towards Agra, where Shah Jahan has been moved to, with the purported and pious aim of ‘liberating’ the old padshah from the noxious influence of the apostate and idolater Dara and establish peace in the empire.