Thespian Habib Tanvir lived an exhilarating life: it is a justifiable conclusion if we consider merely the triumphant arc of his career. Habib Tanvir—née Habib Ahmed Khan — was born in 1923. He grew up in Raipur, in an atmosphere that celebrated the decadence of mushairas, Kali Bari theatre and Parsi theatre. After finishing his BA from Morris College in Nagpur, he pursued an MA in Urdu from Aligarh university in 1944 (but didn’t finish it) and went off to Bombay to work in cinema, subsequently getting involved in the leftist cultural activities of groups such as the Indian People’s Theatre Association, which was the cultural wing of the CPI, and the Progressive Writers’ Association. Tanvir lived in Bombay for nearly a decade and later spent a year at RADA, the renowned theatre school in London, before moving to the Bristol Old Vic to be a student of production in theatre. He spent three years travelling across Europe, before returning to India to start Naya Theatre.
The body of queer literature in the country is a slow-growing one, with new anthologies, novels, poetry, biographies, graphic works and academic treatises building it up every year. It’s a body nourished, naturally, by a growing readership for such literature. And wherebooks and readers exist, there’s bound to be a book club.
In Chennai, such a club goes by the name Orinam’s Quilt, a reference to Ismat Chugtai’s 1941 short story ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt), as well as a portmanteau of the term Queer Literature.
From the opening few pages of reading a Nadeem Aslam novel, I knew his writing was something to treasure and behold. Serendipitously, I used my then-day job to bring the Pakistan-born, British-educated-and-domiciled Aslam over the Pond to be a featured guest at the then-annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF) at the Smithsonian Institution. In SALTAF’s eight-year history at the Smithsonian, Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers — published stateside just in time for his appearance — is the only book that has ever sold out its sizable inventory before the lunch break. Never before or since has another SALTAF author commanded such exceptional sales.
The Smithsonian reading public’s sophisticated taste resonated far beyond: Maps for Lost Lovers won the Kiriyama Prize, was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book. Maps is a contemplative, intimate look at a Pakistani community in northern England — self-named “Dasht-e-Tanhaii,” meaning “The Wilderness of Solitude” or “The Desert of Loneliness” — where a pair of unmarried lovers go missing. Five months later, the woman’s brothers are charged with their murder, and the man’s older brother must bring not only the families, but their reeling community, back together.
As a subject, English Literature has never been a popular choice for candidates sitting for their O-Level examinations, let alone their advanced levels. Even though nearly all of us have been taught from childhood to read story books, few of us later still hold the earnest passion to scurry into the library at every free period and burrow their noses into a book. However, that is precisely what we need English Literature classes for, don’t we? So that our language skills and writings can become improved, our limited vocabulary more enriched and our desire to read books no longer remains embedded. The sad, underlying truth, however, is that English Literature classes often don’t help. Because most of them are taught in the wrong way if you’ll blatantly admit; the consequences accumulate to half the students fearing the subject and the other half remaining aloof and indifferent.
India’s literary establishment is abuzz about the recently published novel “The Mirror of Beauty,” a 984-page fictional account about the life and times of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the famed Urdu poet Daag Dehalvi, set mostly in Delhi and its environs during the 19th century. A beautiful and spirited woman, Wazir mingles with the noblemen of the Mughal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the English officers of the East India Company, the poets of the age and a whole panorama of other unforgettable characters.
“The Mirror of Beauty” is a translation of the original 2006 Urdu-language novel “Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasmaan” by its author, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Mr. Faruqi, 78, who retired as a top bureaucrat in the Indian Postal Service, is a leading figure of Urdu literary criticism. He spoke to India Ink in Delhi about how he created the world of 19th century Delhi for “The Mirror of Beauty” and what he hopes young readers will get out of the book.
You live in Allahabad, a relatively smaller city, and your work has mostly been read by those within the Urdu-speaking or academic world. Suddenly you have a celebrity author like Orhan Pamuk calling your book “an erudite, amazing historical novel.” What’s it been like to step into the global literary spotlight?
Ayesha Jalal on Manto:
What do you make of the resurgence of Manto’s popularity over the last year?
I don’t know whether ‘resurgence’ is the word for those of us who have seen a steady interest in Manto. Of course, the last year was important because it was the centenary and that may have brought in a new set of youngsters previously unexposed to him, but I do think he has caught the imagination of the youth over the years. What’s beautiful about Manto is that he hasn’t received state sponsorship in either India or Pakistan, but youngsters have independently found in him the attraction of him as a rebel writer, a contrarian. The more we are surrounded by hypocrisy, the more Manto becomes relevant. The hypocrisy of society really used to get to him.
The Pity of Partition
265 pp; Rs 599
Shobasakthi is also known as Anthony X; he is an ex-militant; he is an expatriate. Based in France, he writes about Sri Lanka in Tamil, his native language (and the native language of my parents). I read Tamil, but not yet well enough to get through the original versions of his books; instead, I use popular English translations by Anushiya Ramaswamy. I finished his novelGorilla very shortly before meeting him; I read another, Traitor, many years after that initial conversation.
Amartya Sen still takes his coffee strong and dark. After lunch in the hall at Trinity College in Cambridge, where his portrait – informal, gown-less, but with a sort of halo around it – hangs beside that of the other former Masters, he prepares for our interview with a slug of espresso. At Trinity in the 1950s (the Bengali teenage prodigy had arrived aged 19 from Presidency College, Calcutta in 1953), he learned to appreciate the brew in its even fiercer ristretto form from the great Italian economist Piero Sraffa: the brilliant maverick friend of Gramsci and Wittgenstein, and a fellow of the college for more than four decades. It was Sraffa, he tells me, who later recommended Sen for a prize fellowship with the proposition that “he is the only one of this year’s candidates whom we might in the future regret not having chosen”.
Libraries and bookstores are the intellectual lungs of a city. You can’t imagine a city without bookstores and museums, the repositories of art and artifacts. In the past, whenever looters and marauders attacked a city, the savages would ransack these very places where valuables (ideas; arts) remained stored. The Al Qaeda (rebels in Mali) still do it as we saw in Timbuktu.
Yet, the very existence of these suppliers of art is under threat due to the successful arrival of digital bookstores and book distributors like Amazon.com. The result is that the whole traditional ecosystem of the publishing business has been rattled.
Bitter medicine … Khaled Hosseini. Photograph: Tim Knox for the Guardian There’s no question that Khaled Hosseini merits […]