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Essay: Lucknow… a Tryst

By Mitali Chakravarty

Bada Imambara
Pic: Bada Imambara

Lucknow, the land of nawabs and kebabs, of grace, courtesy and old world charm had been tempting us since 2015, ever since we watched Badshahi Angti, the cinematic rendition of Satyajit Ray’s novel by the same name, in a movie theatre in Calcutta. We saw the Bhool bhulaiya for the first time on the silver screen as the modern version of Satyajit Ray’s famed detective, Feluda (Prodosh Mitter), wound his way through the dark passages of this labyrinth in the Bara Imambara armed with a mobile and a revolver. Watching him fight villains in the Residency and biting into succulent kebabs and delicious biryanis, we decided to explore this city of nawabs during our next trip to India.

Meeting nawabs was not on our agenda. The last one, Wajid Ali Shah, had danced the Kathak and sung Babul Mora into the arms of the British East India Company more than a century and half ago and eventually migrated to Calcutta. Still, there was his palace to be explored – Chattar Manzil on the banks of the river Gomti, and the mysterious Bhool bhulaiya built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah, who’d moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. The Bhool bhulaiya is the only labyrinth of its kind in India. As for the kebabs, the thought of them made my mouth water…

When we landed in Lucknow, we were told, courteously and gracefully, that no cab could accommodate four adults and a child from the airport to the hotel. They only had small cars. While the negotiations were on, I was forced to make a minor diversion in quest of a washroom – our little party was taking turns at stomach ailments since we’d arrived in India. The airport had access to one sad bathroom; the others were being cleaned… all a part of the endemic charm of small towns in India. The two cab drivers we finally hired did not know the way as the hotel had opened a fortnight before our arrival in the newer part of Lucknow that was being developed. We – first timers to Lucknow – had to download Google maps to guide the local cab drivers. The good thing was that the courteous drivers were willing to listen to us and eventually took us to the right place.

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Remembering Safia Manto, the woman who stood by the writer in good times – and the many bad ones

So little is known and even less written about the women who have unflinchingly supported their celebrated men. It is true that Safia Deen would not have been known had she not married Saadat Hasan Manto and become Safia Manto. But on her centenary today, May 11, let it be known that Manto may not have been a hero had it not been for Safia, who stood by him, through the best and worst of times. The best were few and the worst, many.

Both Manto and Safia were born on May 11 (the husband in 1912, the wife in 1916), wore black-rimmed glasses, had Kashmiri origins and had first names that started with an S. But the similarities probably ended there. He was a man of fine taste – be it silver capped Sheaffer pens or gold embroidered juttis. He wanted nothing but the best, whereas Safiawas simple to a fault, needing less and less through their hardships. He was a provocateur and left no opportunity to be noticed, while she was self-evasive and shy.

What began as an arranged marriage in 1936, about which Manto writes a whole essay, titled, Meri Shaadi (My Wedding), soon turned into great fondness and camaraderie. Their best days were spent in Bombay, a city they returned to, after Manto worked in Delhi at the All India Radio. It is there that they lost their first child, Arif. It devastated them, but also brought them closer. They then went on to have three daughters.

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A thing meant to be: The work of a book editor

In my senior year of college, having discovered that I generally liked working on other people’s prose a great deal more than my own, I confided to a professor that I was thinking of trying to become an editor. “Pretty thankless job,” she said. The truth is, despite its moments of frustration and overwhelm and failure, I have never found the job thankless.

More than anything, there is this: the sublime moment—and it never stops being sublime—when you get to attend, as beautiful, meaningful, and original work emerges in the world. When I gave birth to my daughters, one of my sisters-in-law said, “It is one of the rare experiences for which ‘miracle’ is not an overstatement.” It’s not an overstatement for the birth of art, either. What’s most miraculous is the “let there be” of it—the way a new and unique something yet again emerges from the wordless deep.

The sense is that the book is trying to communicate what it wants to become, how it wants to incarnate itself. Masha Gessen recently spoke of this process in an interview: “I know what my objectives are and I know what the topic is, and then I’m just reporting. I walk around for a bit, literally, bike and walk, and then suddenly, I get an idea of what it should be, what the structure is. I can’t tell you how I came up with this.” Peter Matthiessen thanked John Irving for his comments on the sprawling early draft of what would become his monumental Shadow Country back in “the book’s cretaceous days, when the whole was still inchoate, crude, and formless.” And when Matthiessen died, just before we at Riverhead had the precious honor of publishing his final book, Irving mourned the loss of “a friend I dared to show what I was up to, when I was still unsure of what it was.”

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Is Indonesian literature written in English still Indonesian literature

In 2015, a short story collection “Monsoon Tiger and Other Stories” by Indonesian author Rain Chudori was published by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia (KPG), one of the biggest publishers of serious literature in Indonesia. The entire book was written originally in English.

Rain published another book in English last year, a novel called “Imaginary City,” under KPG’s new imprint Comma Books, where Rain also works as a curator.

Rain said she chooses to write in English because of all the languages she uses everyday – from Minang to French – it’s the one she finds most comfortable writing in.

“English was the predominant language when I grew up, at home, at school – I attended international schools my entire life – and then later on, when I lived abroad,” she told the Jakarta Globe.

Rain was not the first Indonesian to publish a book in English. Laksmi Pamuntjak and Maggie Tiojakin had already gone down the same path.

Laksmi, also famous for her Jakarta Good Food Guide series, writes in both English and Indonesian.

Some of her books in English include the poetry collections “Ellipsis” and “The Anagram,” and a short story collection, “The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art.”

Nevertheless, English works by local authors are still largely ignored – or if paid attention to, denounced as not fit to be part of Indonesian literature.

According to poet Gratiagusti Chananya “Anya” Rompas, who had also just published a book of personal essays in English titled “Familiar Messes,” there are literary discussions almost every week in the country, but few critics would bat an eyelid when Indonesian authors publish works in English.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were already a bunch of people who wrote in English on the internet, but senior authors back then said online stuff was all rubbish,” she said.

But that has not stopped younger writers to keep writing in English.

Novelist Alanda Kariza, whose previous books were all in Indonesian, released her romance novel “Beats Apart” in 2015.

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The ancient poem that will put your life in perspective

In the wake of his “conscious uncoupling” from fellow mega-celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow in 2014, Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin found solace from his failed marriage in a somewhat surprising source: 13th-century Persian love poetry, notably a poem known as “The Guest House,” by the Sufi mystic Rumi. “That one Rumi poem changes everything,” Martin recounted to The Sunday Times in March. “It says that even when you’re unhappy, it’s good for you.”

Now, even if you’re not in the habit of adopting the self-help tips propounded by your favorite celebrity idols, you could do a lot worse than listening to Martin sing the praises of Sufi mysticism — Alec Baldwin’s advice on dealing with divorce and Jessica Simpson’s thoughts on planning the perfect wedding come to mind.

“This being human is a guest house,” Rumi’s beloved poem begins in the English translation by 79-year-old American poet Coleman Barks, who reads from the poem on the “Kaleidoscope” track on Coldplay’s latest album, A Head Full of Dreams. “Every morning a new arrival.”

Those arrivals may include unexpected visitors like depression, sorrow or meanness, but we must “welcome and entertain them all,” says Rumi. Indeed, if the 13th-century mystic’s broad body of love poetry was about anything, it was quite conscious coupling, from the intense passion felt for a lover to the ecstasy of immersion in the divine. “Rumi was an enlightened lover, a true human being,” Barks writes in Rumi: The Book of Love; his “love poetry is meant to obliterate you lovers. Rumi wants us to surrender.”

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What we are writing now

I remember the time the first Penguin India books came out. I stood in Mumbai’s now-defunct Strand Book Stall, reading from Nisha Da Cunha’s beautiful stories, Old Cypress and then saw Padma Hejmadi’s Birthday Deathday. Those were the days when I did not buy a book unless I had already read it and knew that it would be something I would want to own for the rest of my life, a belief that only a young man can have. But I promised myself, as someone who dreamed of having a book out, as someone who dreamed of being an Indian writer in English, that I would try and buy as many Indian authors as I could.

I already had a stack of strange-looking Jaico paperbacks: Nayantara Sahgal and Kamala Das and Raja Rao but those were second-hand books, bought on the streets. Now I would contribute to my biraadari, I would help my qaum, even if they didn’t know I was one of them, by buying their books.

That was 1985. It’s been a long time and much ink has flowed and I have given up even trying to keep in touch. We’re a huge bunch and there’s been two Booker Prizes, Arundhati Roy’s for The God of Small Things and Arvind Adiga’s for The White Tiger. We’re now getting close to what might be called a mature market: we don’t just have literary fiction, the epics and the classics in translation; we have genres: there’s chick lit and crime fiction and romances written by men and thrillers. We have 65 literary festivals across the country; I was told that one just ended in Amritsar. Mumbai has three or maybe five, I don’t know. Universities are organising their own. There are hierarchies now: Jaipur at the top and Kozhikode coming in second with the additional cachet of moral superiority.

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Essay: Words — A Love Story by Varsha Tiwary

Very early on, my eight-year-old self understood that spoken words were not the same as those written. Spoken words hurt, made noise, sounded ugly, were sometimes false. Written words, when spoken aloud, sounded beautiful; even when improbable, like the antics of the ‘vanar sena’ from Ramcharitmanas recited aloud by my nani, they rang true. What makes words on paper different? Perhaps their ability to be of life, from life, while simultaneously being away from it. Maybe the reflection and thought that goes into it. I can articulate this at forty-seven. But I always knew it.

As I saw it, words, stories, poetry, writing, made up one big stew pot. You chose beautiful, sparkling words. You stirred the pot. You strung them together. They made beauty, made sense, made happiness. All the things that I thought my life lacked: grace and culture, glamour, laughter, excitement, fun, could be picked and savoured from assorted jars of words: books. Reading and writing were ideal pastimes for a lonely small-town girl like me. It let me be at once docile and dutiful; rebellious and willful. My mother and father would peep in to see me furiously scribbling or poring over a book, and feel comforted that I was a good, studious child, even if I was penning mean tirades about them or hiding yet another Agatha Christie inside my physics textbook.

Writing words cleansed me. After I wrote about what people did or said in my diary, it ceased to matter. I could smile serenely and move on.

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‘17,000 islands of imagination’: discovering Indonesian literature

In February last year, I was sitting in Cafe Batavia on Fatahillah Square in Jakarta, talking to an Indonesian friend. We were discussing how any novelist might describe a country to a readership who know nothing about it. We were surrounded by framed photos of Indonesian politicians and Hollywood stars, and the ceiling fans turned overhead. Outside, it was hot and overcast, and students milled around the front of the History Museum, built by the Dutch in 1710 and now housing objects from the founding of Jayakarta in 1527. How could any writer portray such a diverse culture?

My friend smiled wryly. “You only have the same problem as the rest of us,” he said. “Indonesia isn’t a nation. It’s an imagination.”

There are some countries so vast and diverse that any attempt to summarise them feels insulting: such is Indonesia. With a population of 258 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the largest formed by an archipelago. When it was guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair last year, it appeared under the banner “17,000 islands of imagination”, a phrase describing its geography but also encapsulating the complexities of representation. Indonesia is home to hundreds of different ethnicities speaking as many languages, and, along with Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, has a majority Muslim population that is the largest in the world. But, as yet, little of its literature has been translated into English.

Elizabeth Pisani is a writer and epidemiologist who has lived in Indonesia for many years. She has a simple explanation for this: ignorance. “Indonesia has no place in the British imagination,” she says. “It wasn’t a British colony and there’s virtually no Indonesian diaspora here, which means Brits aren’t even introduced to the country through food or a cultural presence.” In the absence of such historical links, can literature fill that imaginative gap?

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Sometimes the best way to read is to mark up the book

Nineteen years old, I sat at a long table in a small room, a poem in front of me. “Harry Ploughman” by Gerard Manley Hopkins felt impenetrable. A jumble of syntax. Frequent semicolons and dashes choked my reading. While I listened to my professor speak about Hopkins and Robert Bridges, I noticed her own copy of the poem was littered with pencil streaks and pen jabs. My copy was pale. Unmarked, and truly, unread.

In order to understand writing, I have to annotate it. I started with Hopkins. I bought a used edition of his selected poetry and prose, and started writing in the margins of the beige pages. This wasn’t defacing; this was an act of communion.

There’s a difference between line-editing and annotating. When we edit—when we are edited—the goal is to transform a draft into something better, something finished. When I annotate a poem, I am receiving words that have been formed and felt and hoped. “Harry Ploughman” exists without my acknowledgment or enjoyment. I’m there to learn from Hopkins. “Hard as hurdle arms,” the poem’s first phrase, is enough for me to linger on—and we’re a few stanzas away from the combined word “Amansstrength.”

In order to appreciate Hopkins, I had to walk my pencil among his phrases. The spirit of his lines opened; that is not to say that all of his mysteries were revealed, but I could follow the turns of his rhythms. “He leans to it, Harry bends, look.” When I marked that final word of the phrase, the terse stop of look, I was documenting the poet’s accomplishment. Annotation can be an action of reverence.

Ever since, it’s been impossible for me to read a book, or analyze a poem, or follow the routes of an essay without underlining, circling, drawing arrows, making notes in the margins. Most writers and readers I know love to mark up their pages.

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The moon is beautiful tonight: On East Asian narratives

1.
Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.

“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”

That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.

Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?

It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.

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