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Short story — Joy and Sorrow by Dawood Siddiqui

All the labels are yellow-bright like the setting sun. It bothers Akbar. Not the colour but the memories. These labels are everywhere. On the refrigerator. Inside the refrigerator. TV, washing machine, dish washer, plates, cups, shoes, shoe rack, bed, switches – anything that can have a label on it has a label on it. The whole house is plastered with them. One fine day, there was even a label on his forehead. It read Akbar. The label on the refrigerator says, refrigerator (cooling device). On the shoe rack it says shoes and on the shoes it either says mine or not mine.

The wind rattles the window panes. Dark, grey clouds hover above the skies of Derby. He sits up on the edge of the bed, staring at a point just in front of his toes. He doesn’t move, just the occasional blink of an eye. An eerie silence that has crept inside his soul since Noori’s departure haunts the house. Last night he broke three ceramic plates, a cup, and a glass just after he had washed them. It was no vent to any frustration. He did not smash them against the wall. He is too old, too tired for that.

He walks into the kitchen and opens a container with a label on it – Lisinopril. His blood pressure has gone haywire since he had taken the terrible decision of sending the love of his life away. He pops the pill and washes it down with a glass of water.

Akbar is sixty years of age; he has unkempt hair and a bushy beard. The wrinkles on his forehead and under his eyes are like little cracks on an arid piece of land. He stares at her handwriting, the slant in the R’s and her upright T’s. It has been more than a month since she left for the old age home in Belper, a quaint village on the outskirts of Derby. Last month, when she was still home, they had a spat. With nothing left to label, she had wanted to label herself; it set him off like a firecracker. And in that moment, he knew that Noori, his loving wife, had to go. In the beginning, she sometimes forgot if she had taken her pills or if she had locked the door – banal things, it hardly affected them. Heck, they even laughed about it. They could laugh at just about anything. Loud farts and sudden sneezes. Jokes of unknown comedians on TV, the accent of an old Scottish lady living right next to them. But dementia is like cancer; it grows worse with age. Her mind stopped retaining important things. The kettle on the stove, the food in the pan. One day, while she was out for grocery, she forgot her address. Akbar found her in the parking lot, crying like a kid separated from her mom.

She stopped cooking, doing dishes, washing clothes, dusting and wiping tables – all the things she had loved, all the things she considered her duty. Instead, she started labelling everything. She rummaged through the drawers and turned the house into one big exhibition of yellow labels. Why don’t you take her to an old age home? A friend suggested. Akbar never talked to him again.

He opens the refrigerator, licks his parched lower lip. There is no food. He closes the door and the label stares at him. He presses it with his fingertips. A rumbling sound emanates from his stomach. He orders a meal and seats himself on the couch, twiddling his thumbs, crossing and uncrossing his legs. Outside, the dreaded rain has arrived.

His mind wanders to his first day in England. It was raining that day too. And almost every day since. He was a boy of twenty-five, with bubbles in his stomach and a giant smile on his face.  Glad to have left Kashmir, glad to be in an ‘evolved’ country, glad to be among the company of women of different races –white and black and brown.  Compared to back home, everything was in high definition. The streets of London, the famous telephone booths, parks, houses – everything was crisp and refreshing. He had enrolled in Derby University for a course in analog systems (an excuse to get inside the country). In truth, he would have even chosen a course in shit hauling to come here. The first thing he wanted to do in the new country was have sex. Like every student he knew from the subcontinent, he wanted to hook up with a white girl. He wanted a brand new start to his life with no interference from his relatives, from people he hardly knew, from the suffocating society in general.  Where he came from, even the sight of a ‘white’ female forearm titillates horny men more than the native breast. White, English speaking women, dressed in short skirts and cleavage revealing tops gave him a painful erection. His first few days were spent in a state of constant erection. He masturbated every day, sometimes even twice or three times. Teeth clenched and with pants down, he would plunge into libido land. But when he was around girls, he grew conscious – about his skin colour, his hair style, his body odour. Would they want to have sex with him? The question plagued him.

Back in India, he had a plan for wooing British girls. Gandhi was all the rage in the western world; he decided to casually slip in his name when talking to white girls. His march towards erotica was backed by such lines. Little did he know it was a congregational line of all Indians looking for a fuck. Youthful Gandhis obsessed with puritanical sex.

He was never going to sweep a white girl off her feet; he understood that pretty quickly, so he did what all desperate, horny losers do – visit whore houses in neon lit establishments in dark alleys full of scantily clad women and choose the whitest girl, all the while his heart about to burst through his chest. He would gulp and point to the girl of his fantasy. Alone with her, he would smile and greet her, try to make small talk and in about two minutes, he would run out of words. The room would descend into complete silence. Just the sound of his heavy breathing and his heart pumping blood.

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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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16 Writers on Their Favourite Translated Titles From Across Asia

Earlier this year, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop launched the Transpacific Literary Project, an editorial initiative to publish new and exciting writing from across East and Southeast Asia on The Margins while building a body of work that might help us better understand the importance of the Pacific World to literature. In an increasingly divided world, translated literature brings us closer together. As the year draws to a close, we asked some of our most beloved writers—from Viet Thanh Nguyen and Kimiko Hahn to Hari Kunzru and Tash Aw—to tell us about their favorite books in translation out of Asia and the Asian diaspora. Collected below are works that meditate through medieval texts, reimagine the immigrant story, and above all explore selfhood in surroundings.

Red Dust by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

In 1983, Ma Jian, a painter and poet, became the target of a rectification session during China’s 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. A colleague began the denunciation by saying: “I asked why a face in one of [Ma Jian’s] paintings looked like the face of a corpse. He laughed and said everyone puts on a mask but underneath our souls are ugly shameful things. He said we are born in a daze and die in a dream . . . He sees life as a great blackness. I feel he should confront his disturbed psychology.”

Alerted that his arrest is imminent, Ma Jian leaves his home in Beijing. Barred from leaving the country, he instead walks a path through it, traversing thousands of kilometres. His book, Red Dust, documents a movement through levels of containment: the captive mind looking for a doorway out into the world, or deeper into oneself. Red Dust is a book I have read a dozen times. It is a despairing, bawdy, provocative portrait of the artist, a memoir that creates its own form, asking, How can one be free in one’s mind when one’s body lives within an authoritarian state? How to see through the red dust of illusion?

Of his country, Ma Jian has written, “There is a collective fear of truth.” I grieve that the same can be said of all our countries; we are living in a conflicted age of revolution and denunciation, an age in which we abandon one another at our peril. The call to each of us to question ourselves, to think for ourselves, is urgent. “You have about twenty thousand days left before you die,” he writes. “Why are you wasting your life? You must focus your mind and do something.”

—Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien is the author of several books including Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which won the 2016 Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Her second novel Dogs at the Perimeter was just published in the United States by W.W. Norton this year.

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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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The Reading Life with Parul Sehgal, Book Critic at the New York Times

On Privacy, Profile Writing, and Avoiding the First Person
Interview: Durga Chew-Bose

In Sehgal’s “First Words” columns for the Times Magazine, on topics like privilege and its devalued import, or cultural appropriation, or the rhetoric surrounding the use of ‘survivor’ in place of ‘victim,’ or in 2015, the frequency of ‘flawless,’ Sehgal recasts today’s usage (or erosion) of faddish language, recontexualizing occurrence in favor of meaning, ideological precedent, and perspectives that are rarely centered. There’s nothing showy about her criticism. Sehgal finds the thread and invites her reader to see not just as she sees, but to marvel at how she’s arranged her discoveries just so.

Sehgal is so precise and alive to, it seems, the pursuits and even strange tendencies authors of varied spheres might share—that lettered chromosomal-ness—that even the most popular-reviewed ‘it’ book, reads like an exclusive. An interception. Of Arundhati Roy’s two-decade-later return to fiction, with her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Sehgal wrote this past summer in The Atlantic: “You will encounter no victims in this book; the smallest characters are endowed with some spit […] From the fine-grained affection that stirs [Roy’s] imagination springs an ethical imperative—after all, how can one appreciate the world without desiring to defend it? And it must be defended not merely from war or political calamity, but from that natural, more insidious phenomenon: forgetting.” Her interrogation of Roy’s novel is a perfect instance of Sehgal positioning literary criticism beyond a work’s achievements or shortcomings, and locating its value not only within a literary tradition, but beyond. How art and criticism provide dynamic ways for understanding instead of limiting how to be a person in this world. And more urgently, how to pay attention.

ON GROWING UP

I was born outside of D.C. We moved a lot—every three years. I lived in Delhi, Manila, Budapest when I was little. I think I thought we were on the run, because it was always so abrupt. I remember my mother found me in the library of my school in Manila when I was nine, and she was like, “Okay, we need to go home early and pack.” And I was like, “Where now?” And she said India. It was a life of jump cuts.

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Short Story: The Name by Aamer Hussein

From the collection Love and its Seasons, Publisher: Mulfran Press (September 1, 2017)

1.

Laila’s husband said to her:

The madman has made a mockery of us.  When he sang songs about you on the streets of the town, and he was told that he was insulting your name, he said, how can I insult my own name? So they gagged him and left him in the desert. He began to write your name in the sand with his forefinger. So they bound his hands. He wrote the letters of your name in the sand with his toe, and they tied his feet together.

And now the boys in their alleys, the musicians who pass in the evening with their flutes and their drums, the women fetching water from the pond, sing his songs or chant your name in public places. At night someone paints your name on the walls of people’s homes. How can we stop this contagion? The madman has made a mockery of our lives. And if only he could see you now! Dry as a withered rose and dark like a desert woman though you bathe in rose-scented water, thin as a sparrow’s skeleton though you are force-fed fresh dates and milk… you were always plain, and now you are an ugly shadow.

Laila sat up in her sickbed and held up her hands. There was a mirrored ring on her right thumb. Looking at her reflection, she smiled and spoke for the first time in days:

If only you could see me through Majnun’s eyes, you would see me as he sees me. I lost myself in those eyes the moment I saw myself there.

2.

Attar says:

Someone asked the madman:

How do you love the night?

He replied:

To tell the truth, I don’t love her.

Astonished, his friend said:

You spend your days and nights weeping and lamenting , you write verses about her beauty in the sand, you paint her name on walls and neither eat nor sleep, you are lost in sorrow: isn’t that love?

The madman responded:

All that is over now. Laila has become Majnun, and Majnun has become Laila:  the madman and the night are submerged in each other, they are one and no longer two.

 

Bio:

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his love for and knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.

Read Aamer Hussein’s interview with Kitaab here.


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Great Indonesian Literature: Tales of Panji

The stories of Javanese cultural hero, Prince Panji Inu Kertapati, dating from the 13th century, mark the development of a truly Javanese literature that was no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Set among the eastern Javanese kingdoms, the stories tell of Panji’s search for his beloved Princess Candra Kirana, before the two lovers are happy-endingly reunited. During the Majapahit empire from the 14th to 15th centuries, the Panji stories became extremely popular, spreading from Java to Bali, Lombok, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra.

The Panji tales were spread by merchants along the trading routes, and became one of the most popular forms of literature in Southeast Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries, and crossed the borders to the Malay region where they are known as “Hikayat”. The tales further spread to Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. The Panji influence is described by renowned scholar Adrian Vickers as “a Panji civilization in Southeast Asia.”

Panji tales are unique as there was no single author; the tales were written by diverse authors, each bringing in their version of the story and in their local languages. For instance, Bali calls the Panji character Malat and varied Balinese customs can be found in the stories. In Thailand and the neighboring countries, the character of Panji is known as Inao or Eynao, and his lover as Bossaba.

There is no specific Panji storyline. Generally, the story is about Kuripan’s Prince Raden Inu Kertapati, who is engaged to his niece Dewi Galuh Sekartaji from childhood. However, the mother of Dewi Galuh plans to marry her to another prince. Galuh escapes to the forest where she experiences adventures and disguises herself as varied characters including a warrior who conquers other kingdoms.

Prince Inu Kertapati begins his search and enters the woods. He goes through a wide range of adventures that encompass meeting with ogres, amorous scenes, going through numerous disguises, and waging wars. At the end, the two lovers are reunited. The love story and the adventures are popular among all layers of society.

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Writing Matters: In Conversation with Aamer Hussein

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Aamer Hussein

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane (SDA): Aamer Hussein ji, welcome to Kitaab, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Your writing is an inspiration in its lyrical intensity, its telling use of fables and folktales and in the knowledge of cultures and languages that layer your stories and their vast range of characters. They explore rich inner worlds with compassion and empathy that require intense involvement with the characters. This cannot come easily to any writer. How do you approach your writing? Do you usually know what you will write and how you will write it, or do you follow a process that is organic, the story and its characters leading you by the hand?

Aamer Hussein: I’d say that in most cases it does lead me by the hand. I sit down with an image, a line or an impulse, then the story takes un-imagined pathways and the characters do things I had no idea they were planning to do. Often the end is in sight when I begin and I do often know what I want to write, for example when I use a traditional story as a template, or when, as in my new collection, I was inspired by my mother’s diary about her singing; but there is always an element of surprise even in the process of retelling. And in what we now call life writing, there is the crucial question of arranging memories in a pattern and seeing what they reveal, which often is surprising.

SDA: The search for ‘home’ and the inevitable running away from it, the rootless-ness and at times the aimless wandering – this theme and its traces can be found across most of your short fiction as well as in Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. What does ‘home’ mean to you as a writer and as somebody witnessing the evolving concept of exile and refuge in the world today? Does language, rather than any kind of physical manifestation, contain the sense of ‘home’ / homecoming?

AH: I’m wary of talking about multiple homes but in this case I must. There’s Karachi, the city I was born in and to which I often return (I’m going back in a fortnight), which remains home in some visceral sense – that location between desert and Arabian Sea is where my clay belongs. It’s at the seaside there, near where my father and grandfather lived, that I feel that sense of homecoming. I ran away from it for many years and now I keep running back. There’s London where I’ve worked and lived all my adult life, but I only feel at ‘home’ in my neighbourhood by a canal and in a small, central part of the city where I once studied and taught.  I also have a lost maternal ‘home’ where my grandparents lived in Indore. So yes: I wander among my homes and my notions of home. I’m not in any way an exile or a refugee; today I feel like a fairly privileged expat.  Yes, language as well – or rather the page on which I write, where I look for a landing place. That place too is ambivalent, as I read Urdu when I feel homesick, but rarely write in my mother tongue from any sense of nostalgia; English seems to be my memory-language, so yes, that’s a home too.  Urdu is a retreat.

SDA:   In The Cloud Messenger language seems to be a character with multiple layers waiting to be discovered. In Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman says, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’ With your polyglot sensibility and sensitivities, how important has this knowledge of languages been for your writing? Has it created creative dilemmas for you or given a sense of freedom that has helped your storytelling?

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A Journey to the Heart of Human Conflict: Three Screenplays and their Stories

The juxtaposing of prose and screenplay provides an absorbing ringside view of a maestro at work

MT is a one-man literary movement in the Malayalam language. The hundreds of thousands of gossamer words this 84-year-old literary phenomenon of Kerala has written since his teens is like a complex filter through which you can gaze at the Malayali and her contemporary predicament as she grapples to make sense of the persistence of the feudal past within the seductive embrace of the present.

Over the past six decades, MT taught the Malayali to look squarely in face of the multiple waves of Time she rides on and hear the plaintive sounds when they collide.

Eight major novels, 18 volumes of short stories, nine books of essays, 55 film scripts — and still going strong. You have to be a person of leisure to fully engage with the delights of this prodigious output. Of course, there would be many a Keralite of my generation who simply grew up with their literary consciousness drenched in the ink from his pen.

Giving offence

Predictably, the secondary literature around him — of reviews, interviews, critical analysis, academic and media overviews and translations — is almost of an industrial scale. It’s an avalanche. Whenever one has to write on MT, one is gripped by a sense of stunned paralysis — what more can one say on someone about whom everything significant has been already said.

But little of it captures his protean skill — the deft, surgical manner in which he dissects the middle-class Nair family to clinically expose its fears, anxieties, joys, arrogance, false pride, contradictions and its fatal nostalgia for its decadent past. He is like some in-house Balzac of the Nair community and every description of that caste, in his stories, perceptively foretells its conflicted future.

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From Perumal Murugan’s The Goat Thief to Tamil Pulp Fiction, a Look at Recent Notable Translations

Ambai’s A Night With A Black Spider, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, is a new collection from Speaking Tiger featuring short stories translated from Tamil. The stories range from the mythological to the real, and present an intimate look at the author’s many worlds.

Blaft Publications which has previously brought out two volumes of Tamil Pulp Fiction translated to English and deservedly has a cult following, is out with the third volume, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Volume 3. Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte’s The Blaft Book of Mizo Myths, from the Chennai-based Blaft Publications, which was out last year, is also a fantastic book that brings stories from the misty mountains of Mizoram to the English language. The thin volume of six stories seems a right introduction to folk stories rich with beasts and beauties from the northeastern state.

The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan, translated by N Kalyan Raman, is recently out from Juggernaut. Perumal Murugan is an important voice in contemporary India throwing light on the Tamil society in the Kongu region. This is his second book since being resurrected from his literary suicide. One that he was forced into by mobs that sought to stifle his voice.

The prolific Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please, Mumbai Stories is all set for release later this month from HarperPerennial. Kaikini is one of Kannada’s most important contemporary voices. The collection has been translated by Tejaswini Niranjana. Kaikini’s stories are set in contemporary India while his style is classic.

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