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My book of the year: Smritichitre. By Jerry Pinto

Smritichitre by Lakshmibai Tilak is the gold standard of autobiographical writing in India. You will notice I do not say that it is the gold standard for autobiographical writing in Marathi, or for women’s writing. I’m saying this is the real thing and we must all be grateful to Shanta Gokhale that she has finally given us the whole book.

How does it happen that a woman born a hundred years ago is able to speak to me directly, as if she is sitting next to me and telling me a story on a sun-baked afternoon in Nashik?

The first and most obvious one is that she was the kind of writer who understood without even thinking about it that there was grace to be found in simplicity. This was the time when people began their stories in all kinds of decorative and ornamental ways. They talked about the glory of their land and the beneficence of their deities.

Lakshmibai starts in medias res. She plunges straight into her story but like a good journalist, she warns us. These are stories that I heard, these are things I was told, she tells us. And then she draws a wonderfully detail-rich pen-picture of her father.

Crisp, interesting

His father-in-law was hanged in the Revolt of 1857 and this must have unhinged his mind and brought on a fit of purity that lasted for the next 27 years. In this country, where it is almost impossible to get anyone to talk about their parents without eulogies, paeans and glowing, no, flaming tributes, this crisp assessment is startling.

It only gets better, because Lakshmibai was to lead an ‘interesting’ life, the kind the Chinese wish on their enemies. She was married young to one Narayan Waman Tilak, a poet whose works are still on the lips of school children all over Maharashtra.

Vandana Mishra, the actor, says in her memoir, I, The Salt Doll: “In the fourth standard we learned Reverend Na Va Tilak’s Kshanokshani Pade (Falling All the Time). Our teacher recited it through a veil of tears. The girls were crying too. I thought of my mother and I missed her and cried all the harder. The teacher tried to console me. It was a heartwarming sight.”

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Book Review: The Librarian by Kavitha Rao

By Mitali Chakravarty

The Librarian
Title: The Librarian
Author: Kavitha Rao
Publisher: Kitaab International Pte Ltd
Price: ₹ 299/-

 

 

The Librarian by Kavitha Rao is a novel that strolls through the old corridors of a library in Bombay, meanders through the lanes of London and returns to the dystopian world of the terrorist bomb blast that ripped Mumbai in 2008. Kavitha Rao has created a suspense-filled, layered story of a young girl’s passions, of the annihilation caused by uncontrolled obsessions and has unravelled the mystery behind the disappearance of Mrs. Sen, the assistant librarian. It has facts, romance, history, glamour, murder, robbery and gore, somewhat like a Dan Brown.

The protagonist, Vidya Patel, journeys through her childhood, guided in her passion for books by the intrepid librarian, Shekhar Raghavan. The library is also home to rare manuscripts; it reflects in microcosm a world in which Shekhar is the presiding deity. He supports Vidya when she rebels against her parents’ conservative Gujarati outlook and moves to a hostel for working women, trying to live life as she wants.

In London on a three-month scholarship, Vidya walks through the lanes of the city, visits the places frequented by authors and fictional characters, including 221b Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes, and the grave of the famed English writer, George Eliot with its inscription of Mary Ann Cross. However, there is a discrepancy of a decade between the dates of George Eliot’s life span in the book and the ones inscribed on her grave. I wonder why… however, it is a minor detail in a story that spans larger societal concerns, where passions are unacceptable to ‘normal’ people and, left uncontrolled, can lead to fanaticism.

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First translation of the Gita

On wages of a rupee a day, the pundits’ job was to check Wilkins’ translation

For a very long time, Sanskrit was a fiercely guarded turf. Even the recital (let alone study) of sacred Sanskrit compositions was considered a privilege so mighty that ‘unfit’ persons — such as women and those belonging to low castes — who even accidentally overheard any of it would be in danger of painful punishment. All in god’s name.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughals who patronised Sanskrit scholars were met more than halfway by Hindus who not only learnt Persian but composed poetry in it. Two generations later, even after Aurangzeb had stopped funding Sanskrit scholars, the multilinguality of the court continued. But without patronage, Sanskrit suffered long years of decline. It made a brilliant comeback when the British ‘discovered’ the language in which the antiquities of their newly acquired lands lay locked.

Imperial entry

With the English came their language, trailing bits of Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Arabic and Anglo Saxon, besides echoes from all those smaller countries the British had visited to plunder (Latin) and conquerre (Old French). They were just beginning to extend their loot (Hindi).

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, English became the donor language for translations into Indian languages in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Meanwhile, Philosophy, Religion and Literature moved in the opposite direction, with Sanskrit playing the donor-language role for translations into European languages. A detail which is usually forgotten is that before the English learnt Sanskrit, it was scholars of Arabic and Persian who mediated between Europe and India. In such a context, can any language in our midst be labelled alien or seen as a threat to another language community? We should hope not.

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The man who saw the future: Yashwant Chittal and his place in modern Indian literature

The city — as a place of immense possibility and wrenching displacement — made only a fleeting appearance in Kannada literature in the decades after Independence. In the 1970s, Bengaluru was more Malgudi than Mumbai, more a sleepy town of towering rain trees and slow living than the city it burst into three decades later. For readers, a foretaste of life in a teeming metropolis came in Shikari, a novel written in 1979 by one of the most important Kannada writers and modernists, Yashwant Chittal. “To read Chittal is to see the whole nightmare and vision of a city,” says Girish Karnad, writer, filmmaker and playwright.

That nightmare is seen through the eyes of Nagappa, the protagonist of Shikari, an engineer at the peak of his career in a chemicals company in Bombay. The novel begins, dramatically, by shoving Nagappa right into a mysterious ordeal: “As the situation he found himself in began to make some sense to Nagappa, he recalled K, the hero of Kafka’s novel The Trial that he had read years ago. Just like it had happened with K, somebody must be spreading false rumours about him.” Those rumours have led him to be suspended from his job on “serious charges” that have not been specified. As the novel proceeds, Nagappa is swept away by a swirl of paranoia and conspiracy in a cut-throat, competitive world in which nothing is as it seems to be. In an essay written for the Outlook magazine in 2012, author Aravind Adiga had described Shikari as a searing Bombay novel, and Chittal as a novelist “who has captured the city as well as Suketu Mehta or Salman Rushdie”. An English translation of the novel, Shikari: The Hunt, published by Penguin Random House, releases this month.

So, who was Chittal? What is his place in modern Indian literature? How does he imagine an urban modernity? Was he the man who saw tomorrow?

Yashwant Chittal was born in Hanehalli village in Uttara Kannada district in August, 1928, in a family of remarkable talent — the eldest of five brothers, Damodar, was a lawyer and politician; Gangadhar, five years older than Yashwant, was one of the finest modern Kannada poets.

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