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Reminiscence: A Country Called Magyar by Saumya Dey

I grew up in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, in a comely little town called Roing. To its north and east lay an arc of hills. They were ancient as all hills are. But they looked especially grave and grandfatherly because their cheeks were thickly wooded. A mostly leaden sky domed those hills and our town; rain lurked in some corner of it always. Often, sometimes several times in a day, like some brazen bandit, this rain rode upon dark stallion like clouds and came swooping down upon the land.

On some days, alas, they seemed so far apart, the rain did not raid the land. I remember we used to rejoice then. The washing would finally get a chance to dry, and I to frolic in the backyard, to build my castles and to explore my strange continents where even stranger peoples lived. On such days Baba and I took a walk in the evening. We generally walked down the road that led one to the southern limits of our town. It was a pretty road, even for a pretty little town. Much of it was flanked on either side by gulmohar and amaltas trees. As we walked past those little houses and a line of shops, I quizzed Baba on everything that was of pressing concern to me then, from how hot it is on the sun to why the leaves are not purple. He, on the other hand, would quiz me on the books or comics that I might be reading. Sometimes, I would say, “You know, if I get the chance to, I can make magic better than Mandrake.” I do not recall that he ever showed any disbelief.

The house in which we lived will appear strange to a plains dweller. It was wooden and rose above the ground on stilts of cement, each about four feet high. The teak planks that made its floor showed a few faint cracks at places. I knew all of them by heart. But to me they were not mere cracks but mighty canyons and valleys. They never posed a problem to me however, for I was a giant and could leap across them as one leaps across a rut in the earth.

Winter clothed most of the year. Winter flung its cape upon the land by the end of September, its hem hung in the air till the end of April. But no matter how long the wait, winter gave way to spring. It always does, everywhere.

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Same as it ever was: Orientalism 40 years later

…..

In addition to reading the classics like Edward Said and Jack Shaheen, I recommend exploring contemporary Arab and Arab American writers and scholars. There is no shortage of them, of us. For one place to start, check out the list of Arab American Book Award winners. In terms of scholarship, Evelyn Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11 (2012) updates Said to explore how contemporary media often deploy a “good Arab” to create the illusion of complex representation, what she calls a “simplified complex representation.” In terms of literature, Khaled Mattawa’s lyrical poems and translations have brought into English so much beauty and wisdom. Likewise the work of the indefatigable Marilyn Hacker, in her poems and translations. Marcia Lynx Qualey’s blog called Arabic Literature in English provides a constant reading list. Interlink Books deserves special mention, and there are at least three literary magazines devoted to Arab literature: MiznaBanipal, and Sukoon. For me, the existence of RAWI (the Radius of Arab American Writers) has made me feel a little more at home in the world, and at home in myself. RAWI is home to many prominent Arab American writers, including a core group with whom I regularly group-text: Hayan Charara, Marwa Helal, Randa Jarrar, Fady Joudah, Farid Matuk, Deema Shehabi.

In poetry, Hayan Charara is the master of dread, whose poems tip the earth beneath us, sliding into the unspeakable; on text, he shares goofy photos of his kids, usually dressed up in hilarious outfits. In poetry, Marwa Helal invented a new kind of poem, the Arabic, which reads right to left; on text, she’s the one who hearts us most, and keeps us hip to slang and people like DJ Khaled, whose embrace of the good life is equal parts hip hop and Arab. In her essays, stories, and Tweets, Jarrar’s drawn to the funny and provocative; one troll called her novel “a handbook on masturbation.” In group-text, she alternates between hilarity and sweetness. Fady Joudah’s just another award-winning poet and translator, whose surprising response to the Levinson affair and other grotesqueries, “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful,” ought to be read by everyone, vibrating as it is with the birth-pangs of something new. Farid Matuk’s baby girl pops up in group-text, as she does in his new and highly experimental poems, when he’s not going high-theory in voluminous and impeccable texts. Deema Shehabi’s two boys, and her kindness, radiating always, rhymes with her jasmine-scented and fierce poems. What does it mean to know her grandfather was once the mayor of Gaza?

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The case of reading and preserving Indonesian literature

In March 2016, a study conducted by Central Connecticut State University (CCTU) entitled “Most Literate Nation of the World” placed Indonesia as the 60th most literate nation out of 61 nations on the list, above only Botswana, and below fellow ASEAN member Thailand. A survey by UNESCO in 2012 records that only one out of 1000 people in Indonesia have an interest in reading. It might sound meagre enough, but what if we ask this next question: how many of the 0.1 percent read books that were written by an Indonesian author?

In most developed countries, especially English-speaking countries, high school students are taught to read books, being exposed to the work of English literature greats like Mark Twain and Shakespeare and encouraged to enjoy and find fun in reading literature. However, in Indonesia, this practice is rare or not practiced at all. Yes, we are taught about the history of Indonesian literature and the periods that divide the styles of literature in Indonesia, but we are not given time to read in class nor are we properly taught to read and appreciate the works of our own people.

To find out whether Indonesians are knowledgeable about their own literature, the Aksaranesia (Aku Suka Sastra Indonesia; I like Indonesian literature) Campaign conducted a survey by asking basic questions about well-known Indonesian literary works. The team specifically targeted the younger generation in the age group of 15-25 during Car Free Day Jakarta and in two universities in Jakarta.

Based on those surveys and quizzes, it found that Indonesian youngsters are not entirely aware of Indonesian literature. None of the respondents got a perfect score, and most are not even familiar with some of the names of the writers being mentioned. Even a simple question like “name three Indonesian books” was difficult to answer. On top of that, it was easier for them to answer questions about English books instead.

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And now, a dapper Ravana: Amar Chitra Katha undergoes makeover

Benevolent kings and their beauteous queens stroll in palace gardens or verdant forests while loyal servants eavesdrop and evil enemies plot. Meanwhile, marauding armies scale impossibly high walls and are beaten back by animals that can miraculously talk. A courtier outwits his king every single time and a poet brings strong men to their knees with his intelligence.

This complex cast of characters operating in a fantastical world held us in thrall every single issue of Amar Chitra Katha that we devoured eagerly. As the legendary comic brand reaches its 50th year of production, with over 450 titles to its credit and an astounding 100 million copies sold in over 35 languages, like any 50-year-old, it is emerging from its own version of a mid-life crisis.

Although adored by two generations of Indians, in the last 10 years, some of the adulation has been countered by scepticism bordering on outrage about what has been labelled Amar Chitra Katha’s ‘regressive’ content, both in its art and script.

A number of scholarly writings have come up, criticising and condemning the comics for reinforcing stereotypes: women characters are too subservient, caste hierarchy is established by skin colour, with upper caste characters invariably lighter toned, and its religious biases are clear. The controversy has been similar to what the Enid Blyton pantheon faced, forcing it to rethink its golliwogs and dwarves.

Beards and saris

If all this had happened in an Amar Chitra Katha, a single word from the superhero (placed in a spiky speech bubble) would have reduced the grumbling detractors to tiny, powerless creatures to be borne away on a tidal wave of nostalgia and affection. But real life is less forgiving. Thus, recently, when young artists in the comic house’s studios pointed out that there were no women in the crowd scene in a new title on Sardar Patel, Reena Ittyerah Puri, Executive Editor, immediately had it rectified by removing beards and adding saris for some of the crowd.

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Understanding Rekhta

Are Hindi, Hindavi, Rekhta and Urdu different names for the same linguistic, literary and cultural heritage?

The three-day Jashn-e-Rekhta (Rekhta Festival) that concluded on Sunday once again drew our attention to the shared linguistic, literary and cultural traditions that have evolved over the centuries. This was the fourth edition of the annual event and the fact that it was able to attract the youth in great numbers was very significant. Their presence dominated all the sessions irrespective of their nature and young men and women flocked to poetry recitation at mushairas, serious academic discussions and celebrity-driven events.

So, what is Rekhta that was celebrated with such great enthusiasm and passion? It is one of the names by which Hindi / Hindavi / Urdu was known in the 18th and 19th centuries. When Ghalib chose to pay tribute to Mir, he wrote: “Rekhte ke tumheen ustad nahin ho Ghalib, kahte hain agle zamaane mein koi Mir bhi thaa.” (Ghalib, you are not the only master of poetry in Rekhta. It is said that there was Mir too in the past.) Rekhta has at least three meanings – broken, scattered and mixed. In comparison with the sophisticated and well-structured Persian, Rekhta or Urdu sounded broken and mixed as it had the linguistic structure of the khari boli and was colloquial in nature. There is a famous story about Mir, universally described as Khuda-e-Sukhan (God of poetry), who was approached for advice by some members of Delhi’s Muslim aristocratic families who had begun to write poetry in Rekhta / Urdu. After listening to their compositions, he bluntly told them that they were fit for writing in Persian but not in Urdu because the language could be learnt and imbibed only by sitting and spending considerable time everyday on the steps of the Jama Masjid.

Travelling to south

This language had its predecessor in Dakhini that had gone to Deccan from the north. As Amrit Rai has established in his book, A House Divided, the mixed language of the north – Hindi or Hindavi – travelled to the south first with the Nathpanthi Yogis led by Gorakhnath and later with the army of Alauddin Khilji under his famous general Malik Kafur who conquered Gujarat in 1297, Maharashtra in 1304, Andhra in 1307 and Karnataka in 1308. When Muhammad bin-Tughlaq shifted his capital from Delhi to Devagiri or Daulatabad, a large part of Delhi’s population went there and many of them stayed back even after Tughlaq retraced his step. They took there their language Hindi/Hindavi which was a mixture of Punjabi, Haryanavi, Khari Boli, Brajbhasha, Awadhi and Rajasthani.

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Chasing cutlets: on the warmth of food in children’s literature

Rather than being weighed down by pedagogy, children’s literature must set you free — to imagine, to recall, to revel in the warmth of shared food

Many children’s books in English these days are full of pedagogy. They focus on teaching children how to wash their faces, brush their teeth and tie their shoelaces. This is not the job of literature. Literature should teach kids how to be, not what to do. The greatest children’s book writers, like Sukumar Ray, Lewis Carroll or Dr Seuss, provide us a sensibility, a way of being, by drawing us into a world of wonder. And, not surprisingly, many of their books centre around food. What could be more useless, frivolous and also wondrous, than a book devoted to green eggs and ham? Ruya is three years old. She can’t read more than a few letters or count beyond 10. Yet, she already knows her way to the local sweet shop and samosa shop. I believe it has to do with her close reading, or viewing, of Abol Tabol. Ray’s characters are always eating, chasing food or under the threat of being eaten. There’s Bombagor’s Raja, chhobir framey badhiye rakhe aamsotto bhaja, who keeps dried sweet mangoes in picture frames. Or the monster in Bhoe Peyo Na (don’t be scared), who feigns weakness and then threatens to devour the reader. And of course, there’s Khuror Kol, (which could be translated as chacha’s contraption), a rhyme about an invention intended to make you walk faster by dangling food in front of you that you can never reach.

Shamne tahar khaddo jhole, jar je rokom ruchi

Monda mithai chop cutlet khaja kimba luchi

mon bole tae ‘khabo khabo’, mukh chole tae khete

mukher shonge khabar chote palla diye mote.

(Food hangs in front, according to your tastes

Sweets, chops, cutlets and luchis

The mind says ‘yum yum’, the mouth goes to gulp

The food rushes away and the mouth gives chase.)

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Mohsin Hamid: ‘If you want to see what tribalism will do to the west, look at Pakistan’

Mohsin Hamid is depressed. The novelist, twice nominated for the Man Booker prize, has seen the three places he calls home – Pakistan, America and Europe – betray their fundamental ideals and become increasingly unwelcoming.

In Pakistan, where he was born, the elected government caved in to a mob of extremist protesters by sacking a minister they accused, essentially, of being a bad Muslim. In a country created as a homeland for south Asia’s Muslims, the fight over who fits that bill means hardly anyone is safe from unfounded accusations of blasphemy. Students have been lynched arbitrarily and, in 2011, the governor, Salman Taseer, was shot for criticising the blasphemy laws. To Hamid, the stunning capitulation to the mob signals the breakdown of an uneasy coexistence between the government, the military and the courts, allowing “raw power” to rule.

“These are incredibly disheartening times. I feel more depressed than I have in a long time about the political direction of Pakistan,” says Hamid at his home in Lahore, where he now lives with his wife and two children. “Since Pakistan was founded in 1947, there has been a conflict between the notion that citizens are equal, and that certain people can ascribe to themselves the right to decide who is Muslim,” he says. “The question is: who is Muslim enough? And 70 years after creation, the answer is that nobody is Muslim enough.”

But Pakistan is not alone in narrowing definitions of who belongs. Hamid thinks western countries that tout principles of equality fail one group in particular: migrants.

That is the topic of his recent novel Exit West, a story of desperation, love and, ultimately, liberation, which won him a second Man Booker shortlisting this year following that for The Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2007.

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Could Eco-Literature be the Next Major Literary Wave?

Eco-literature includes the whole gamut of literary works, including fiction, poetry and criticism, which lay stress on ecological issues. Cli-fi (climate fiction), which deals with climate change and global warming, is logically a sub-set of eco-literature. Most of the current writing under this genre looks at human activities that have been killing nature slowly.

Cli-fi often ventures into the realms of sci-fi and/or speculative fiction when the narrative gets rooted in future or in an imaginary geographical locale. The litmus test is how far such fiction evokes in the reader a sense of urgency towards an action to save the environment, or, if they are capable of leaving a deep impression to humans conscious of their role in saving the earth.

The crux lies in ensuring that such literary works do not sound like propaganda and should necessarily carry with them deep literary values. Authors need to ensure that they do not artificially structure their plots or introduce characters in their narrative to justify their labelling as eco-literature, which they have largely failed to do. This is why the eco-literature wave did not reach greater heights, though the modern eco-lit wave started in the 1970s. Authors could induce a tendency in the readers’ minds to dismiss them off as a kind of “moral literature” dictating the dos and don’ts towards the environment, albeit in a subtle way through a structured ‘moral’ story.

The genre of cli-fi seems to have given regular novelists just another platform and locale to shift their storytelling from the normal world’s heinous crimes to ecological crimes perpetrated by either villainous individuals or corporations. Such crimes include causing massive glacial ice melting and flooding cities, resulting in huge disasters with heroic characters rising up to the occasion to save humanity. But such plots, more often than not, make uninteresting reading.

The real ecological issues lie elsewhere. There has been a rapid loss of ecological species with the progress of time. Natural habitats keep shrinking due to human activity. Wildlife poaching has resulted in species becoming endangered, pushed to the brink of extinction. Illegal largescale mechanised fishing has resulted in the erosion of ocean biodiversity. Large scale deforestation across the world has led to displacement of tribal populations and consequently, loss of their culture and languages.

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Photos: The Tragic Tale of Vietnamese Heroine Kieu, from the Epic poem ‘Kim Van Kieu’

Kim Văn Kiều, or the Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), is a jewel in the crown of Vietnamese classical writing. In Vietnam, as Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen (2003: 18) points out, the Tale of Kiều has been embraced by the general public, who see it as a romance, a book of divination, and a moral fable, while scholars explore its literary, linguistic, philosophical, political and social aspects.

The eponymous heroine is the most acclaimed lady in Vietnamese literature, and her captivating but tragic story has inspired many artistic depictions. The most outstanding version in the British Library collection is undoubtedly a manuscript which was completed around 1894 (Or 14844), written in Hán-Nôm with illustrations of scenes from the story on each page, and a fine yellow silk binding with dragon patterns. Shown in this post are a selection of images of Kiều from this beautiful manuscript, alongside more recent portrayals from printed books.

Literary critics have argued that the theme of the story is an allegory of Nguyễn Du’s guilt and conflict of interest in agreeing to work for the new regime (the Nguyễn dynasty, 1802-1945) which had been indirectly involved in the overthrow of his former master. This behaviour was unacceptable in traditional Confucian Vietnamese society as it was tantamount to betraying filial piety. Hence the theme of the story was a poignant reminder for Nguyễn Du, who was born into a high profile mandarin family, and whose father served as a high ranking minister under the Le dynasty.

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Orhan Pamuk: Taking Photographs in Istanbul

In 1962, my father bought me a camera. My brother had been given one already, two years before. His was like a camera obscura, a black, metallic, perfectly square box, with a lens on one side and a glass screen on the other, on which you could see projected the image inside. When my brother was ready to transfer that murky image onto the film inside the box, he would push on the lever—click!—and as if by magic, a photograph would be taken.

Taking a photograph was always a special occasion. It called for preparation and ceremony. In the first place, film was expensive. It was important to know how many exposures would fit on a roll, and the camera kept a running tally of photographs taken. We spoke of rolls and exposure counts as if we were soldiers in some ragtag army running out of ammunition; we chose our shots carefully, and still wondered whether our photos were any good. Every photograph required a degree of thought and deliberation: “Does this look right?” It was around this time that I began to think about the significance of the photographs I took—and why I took them at all.

We took photographs so as to have something to remember the moment by. As subjects, we faced the camera and posed for others—mostly our friends and families but also our future selves—who would be looking back at this image months and years later. So really, we were having our photographs taken in anticipation of our own gaze back. When we faced the camera, we were “posing” for the future.

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