Leave a comment

Writing Matters: In conversation with Deepak Unnikrishnan

By Michelle D’costa

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s book Temporary People won the 2017 Hindu Prize and was the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, 2016. He teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi.

_01A7248

(Photo credit: Philip Cheung)

Michelle D’Costa: Do you feel labelled as an ‘immigrant’ writer? Do you want to break free from it or do you wear it with pride?

Deepak Unnikrishnan: I don’t have any control over what people call me. Depending on where I go, people call me different things. In Abu Dhabi, I am Indian because I look Indian. In Kerala, I am an NRI, because NRIs have a way about them, so I’ve been told. In the States, I am brown enough to be brown, but certainly not American enough, whatever that means. To the best of my knowledge, no one has labelled me as an immigrant writer yet. So at the moment, I’d say there’s little to break free from.

However, if we’re talking about life, and someone is simply labelling me an immigrant or a migrant, and I sense fire and condescension in the labelling, then you bet, brother, immigrant I am, migrant I stay. Deal with it, and me.

Michelle: How do you think your fiction stands out from other American immigrant fiction like that of Akhil Sharma, Celeste Ng, Jhumpa Lahiri, etc. (apart from the magical realism)?

Deepak: I don’t identify as American, but calling me Indian doesn’t hold true either. My parents are Indian and I was fortunate enough to land in the States. Your question has got more to do with how I see myself if I were to compare myself to writers who come from families that have moved from one nation to another for a myriad of reasons. You’re also asking me to compare myself to writers who have already made their bones. That’s probably not fair to them or your readership.

But let me say I am perfectly comfortable and confident in the knowledge I don’t write like any of the names you’ve listed. This does not mean I’m better than them, or feel I’m not worthy enough to compare my craft to theirs. Frankly, my stuff does not sound or read like their material. Deepak Unnikrishnan writes like Deepak Unnikrishnan. And sure, Ng, Lahiri and Sharma confront the immigrant experience, but their writings are also layered. They deserve to be seen as writers, period; American writers, period; good writers, period.

Michelle: Gulf immigrant fiction is scarce. You have attempted to address it with your latest collection ‘Temporary People’.  Do you see yourself writing on the same theme even 10 years later?

Continue reading

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Book Review: Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain

Reviewed by Gita Viswanath

Djinn City

 

Title: Djinn City
Author: Saad Z. Hossain
Publisher: Aleph, 2017
Pages: 447
Buy

Saad Hossain conjures up a fantastical world of djinn in his second novel, Djinn City. As an allegory of contemporary times, the novel, peopled by strangely named characters such as Indelbed and Sikkim, psychotic men, overbearing women and drunken louts, creates a world of business conglomerates, deceit and revenge, crime and passion and existential crises. This is a world that oscillates between the human and the djinn worlds in which djinn play havoc by causing earthquakes, tsunamis and fires.

The novel opens with the motherless child Indelbed, the quintessential poor cousin in a family of diplomats, subjected to ridicule and negligence alongside denial of access to school education. His cousin Rais, the diplomat’s son, is the only one sympathetic to Indelbed. His father Kaikobad, who lives in a permanent state of inebriation, is later revealed to be an emissary to the djinn world. Kaikobad goes into coma induced through the machinations of the evil Matteras, a psychotic djinn with enormous powers. He is endowed with impressive auctoritas – a term that indicates the massive influence a djinn has on djinndom. Indelbed, a cross between a djinn mother and human father has to be sent away as he could be the next victim of the evil djinn. From then on, the novel races through complexly twisted plots narrated with elements of the bizarre, the grotesque and with dark humour.

The book ends with a Great War fought to reclaim the glory of Gangaridai in a narrative of heightened pace and descriptions of deadly weapons, airships, submarines and nuclear warheads, all of which reveals the author’s sharp understanding of technical details. At the centre of the war is Gangaridai, the seat of an ancient civilization now in a state of ruin, its population decimated in the Great War. Unlike epic wars that claim to be fought on sublime moral grounds with victory of good over evil as a given, this war ends with the retrieval of more mundane but important things for survival in the modern world. ‘This was enough to take back power, it was everything,’ (emphasis original) says the omniscient third person narrator.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

The Only Dissident Novel for Sale in Turkey

On the lasting impact of Madonna in a Fur Coat

Since the failed coup of July 2016, Turkey’s president has been working overtime to silence his enemies and control what his supporters hear, see, and learn. He has purged the ministries and the military, jailed journalists, academics, writers and social justice activists in the thousands, taken evolution out of the school curriculum, brought in lessons on jihad, railed almost daily against secularism, pontificated just as often on the sacred obligations of mothers and wives, and suppressed every media outlet that has dared to challenge him. He has fired an untold number of civil servants, schoolteachers, academics and clerical workers—sometimes for nothing more than having kept an account with the wrong bank. In so doing, he has rendered these people unemployable: no one dares to hire them for fear of being tainted. Only those whose views mirror Erdoğan’s can speak openly about politics. The rest are warned to exercise extreme caution, most especially in restaurants, cafés, and taxis.

Publishers have been hard hit. The bravest have continued to champion work they value, even if there is a risk it might be viewed as criminal, obscene, or (worst of all) dangerous for young minds. Others have chosen the safety of self-censorship. Turkey is awash with writers whose words can no longer be seen or heard. But walk into any bookstore, and there is one slim volume you will never fail to find.

Its title is Madonna in a Fur Coat. First published in 1942 and set between the two world wars, it tells the story of Raif, sent by his father to Berlin to study soap manufacturing. But Raif’s secret passion is for literature and art. He spends his days with books and his evenings in art galleries, until one night, he happens on a painting called Madonna in a Fur Coat. He falls in love, first with the image, and then with the artist whose self-portrait it is.

As the two become friends, and then closer still, they bend and defy the rules of gender. More often than not, Maria takes the role of the man, setting the terms of their engagement, while Raif remains respectfully passive, until the moment arrives when Maria needs him to look after her. It is this shifting of roles that most perplexed the novel’s first readers. This reaction wasn’t unexpected, considering its author, Sabahattin Ali—almost everything he wrote, he wrote against the grain.

Read More


Leave a comment

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.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Ibrahim Nasrallah challenges followers of Arab literature to reconnect with their emotions

Nasrallah’s latest work Al Hob Shareer (Love is the Enemy) focuses solely on matters of the heart.

“No one talks about love anymore,” says Ibrahim Nasrallah with a sigh. “It is as if we eradicated those feelings out of all our writing because we deem it no longer important. It is a fallacy, of course, because love is everything.”

The Palestinian poet and novelist is commenting on the state of modern Arabic literature, which he describes as more concerned with the timely than the timeless.

“In a way, the Arab writer and the Arab reader have become the same,” he says.

“A lot of what is being written focuses on current issues, whether social or political. There is a feeling that if there is any deviation from that path and reading about other topics then they are not taking their time seriously. A sense of guilt creeps and this is totally wrong.”

Nasrallah has challenged that view with his latest work, Al Hob Shareer (Love is the Enemy) that focuses solely on matters of the heart.

With more than 80 poems and one libretto, the 63-year explores all facets of love from the emotional, primal, how it revitalises and how it can control.

Speaking before his session tonight at the Sharjah International Book Fair on the creative process plus a book signing on Saturday, Nasrallah says the book was born out of a challenge to himself.

“It began when I first started observing the dearth of current literature surrounding love. There is not a modern poetry collection, as far as I can see, that dealt with this matter exclusively,” he says.

“The last person to have done that was the great and classic writer Nizzar Qabani, and since that there has been no major body of work. So, I wanted to test myself and see if I can do it and then test the reader once it was published.”

Read More


Leave a comment

Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Prashant Yadav

By Aminah Sheikh

prashant

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because I love writing. It makes me feel great, perhaps even releases Serotonin in me. Maybe, Oxytocin even. And, why? Can’t pinpoint the precise reason. It’s like being in love – only feelings, no reasons.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

The Jeera Packer (published by Finger Print). It takes up the internal struggle of a man who thinks he has missed the greatest opportunities of life and is now cursed to a limited, confined, boring life sans achievement. And that angst pushes him on a dangerous journey to build his own Taj Mahal, fulfil what he feels is his mission in life. And then, closely meshed is this story of deadly gangsters and goofing politicians, who he was once a part of and into whose company he is dragged in again.

The ultimate point being – we are microscopic in this giant game of cosmos and we get very little time here and spend a bulk of that in hate and regret against equally microscopic others.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Writing to me must move, evoke a reaction. The job of the writer is to break thought and speech boundaries – to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. Find perspectives that are hidden in plain sight. Show what we generally miss. That’s why you need a writer.

Who are your favorite authors?

Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie, Khushwant Singh, Jerry Pinto, N.N. Taleb, Haruki Murakami. Granddaddy Shakespeare. Stephen King. Hemingway. Charles Bukowski.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Book Review: Snowfed Waters by Jane Wilson-Howarth

By Nilesh Mondal

Snowfed Waters
Title: Snowfed Waters
Author: Jane Wilson-Howarth
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 296
Price: ₹ 360
Buy:

The story of finding one’s true passion and sense of purpose through confrontations with hardships has become a trope per se. One can even say it has been overdone, although new variations crop up every year, driving home profound life lessons. However, despite their often clichéd premise or plot, some stories still manage to deliver a heart-touching performance in terms of fully sketched characters and a sense of anxiety through a gripping story which serves us with a steady sense of exhilaration when we finally see the protagonist come out of all trials, injured but wiser. That in a nutshell is why Snowfed Waters works well despite its shortcomings.

Sonia, the protagonist of this fictional travelogue, is a woman who has lost a significant part of what she assumed to be her regular life in light of recent events. Estranged from her husband, wrecked with debilitating anxiety and unsure of what to do with her life, she embarks on an expedition to Nepal under the pretext of helping with teaching duties in local schools. With this trip she hopes to regain emotional stability in her turbulent life and heal herself. Although off to a rocky start, she soon adjusts well to the situations and surroundings, and as she slowly learns to fight off the ghosts of her past, she also becomes a part of the local people and their community. There are moments of endearing sincerity throughout the story, which, along with moments of suspense and sadness, create a fine balance of emotions which the reader feels almost as clearly as the protagonist herself. The end, although sweet and hopeful, shows Sonia clearly as someone who has had a change of heart, and we can’t help but be happy for her.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Chinese sci-fi novelist first Asian to win prestigious book award

Chinese sci-fi title The Three-Body Problem was first serialized in Science Fiction World magazine in 2006 and then published as a book in 2008. It was eventually translated into English and it became a literary phenomenon, winning the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.

Even former US President Barack Obama is a fan. He told The New York Times while still in office: “The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty – not something to worry about.”

Its author, Liu Cixin, 53, is as surprised as anyone by its success. He says in Mandarin over the telephone from Beijing: “Sci-fi novels usually have a shorter shelf-life because they tend to be overtaken by scientific developments.

It’s been more than a decade since it was first published and for it to continue to have such an impact is something my publishers and I never expected.”

In The Three-Body Problem (Tor Books, 2007), readers first encounter the Trisolaran world, an unstable stellar system with three suns. The sequel, The Dark Forest (Tor Books), published in English in 2015, details how Earth deals with a Trisolaran invasion coming in 400 years’ time.

In the concluding installment, Death’s End (Tor Books), published in English last year, the two civilizations coexist peacefully at first, but before long, humanity is once again faced with the threat of annihilation. Death’s End is up for Best Novel at the 2017 Hugo Awards, which will be presented in August.

Collectively, the trilogy is known as Remembrance Of Earth’s Past (Tor Books).

Liu adds wryly, though, that the attention lavished on The Three-Body Problem has not been a tide that lifts all boats.

For example, with regard to his translated book of short stories, The Wandering Earth (Beijing Guomi Digital Technology Co, 2012) he says: “There’s been not much impact, it’s like throwing a stone into a pond.”

Still, he can be justifiably proud of what he has achieved so far.


Leave a comment

Book Review: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

By Kaamna Jain

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

The second most interesting thing about former High Court judge Mahesh Sharma’s peacock theory is that somehow being celibate makes the peacock a superior animal. The first thing of course is that it’s a completely unscientific fact which has been quoted while giving judgment in a criminal case. The judge needs to be reminded that he as well as the entire human race is a product of sexual reproduction. Then why celebrate and put organisms that reproduce asexually on a higher pedestal?

For years students of science have been taught that sexual reproduction is better than asexual reproduction for evolution because it creates genetic variety. This helps a species in adapting to constantly changing and challenging environment, even though sexual reproduction is more cumbersome and less efficient. That is the reason sexually reproducing species are at the highest rung of the ladder while single cell organisms which reproduce asexually are at the very bottom of the pyramid.

It is the taboo surrounding sex that sets the context for the book, “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows”, written by Singapore based author, Balli Kaur Jaswal. Published in early 2017 by Harper Collins, movie rights have already been sold to Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions, and Film4.

The title is an intriguing misnomer. Erotic stories? Sure, any time. But for Punjabi widows? In a patriarchal society, widows are deemed to be even lesser beings than women and somehow supposed to be asexual beings, bereft of desires and fancies once their better halves leave for their heavenly abode. The word “widow” conjures the image of a lady clad in white, engaged either in religious or household chores. That such a creature could have erotic stories to share or sexual fantasies, takes time to get used to. Once you get used to the idea, the surreptitious thrill of enjoying something forbidden also screams out loud from the title. I quickly ordered a copy online. Now I happened to be travelling and thanks to the title, was extremely uncomfortable about getting it delivered to a neighbour’s house for safekeeping. After that, I could not bring myself to say the name of the book when asked by an elderly uncle what I was reading currently.

The story is set in Southall and Enfield, London. The protagonist is a young British girl of Indian origin, Nikki, who is trying to figure out what she wants to do in life. Brought up in Enfield, which is a more British part of London, she gets tricked into an assignment to take writing class for Punjabi windows in a Gurudwara in Southall. She wants to “help the women” and believes that “everyone has stories to tell. It would be a rewarding experience to help Punjabi women to craft their stories”.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Jaina Sanga

By Aminah Sheikh

J Sanga - photo

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I was always fond of reading. When I was young, I read constantly, often finishing a novel in a day. But I never aspired to becoming a writer. In school I was fascinated by chemical equations and lab experiments, but was never encouraged to go into Chemistry. I studied English Literature in college and graduate school and worked as a professor for some years. I write because that is the only thing I know how to do.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

Tourist Season (published by Speaking Tiger), a collection of two novellas is my most recent book. Having written a novel, Silk Fish Opium, and a book of short stories, Train to Bombay, I was eager to take on the challenge of the novella. It is a difficult and eccentric form, but offers immense possibilities. I was also attempting to focus on environmental issues, and this theme is embedded in both the novellas.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I try to write everyday, from about 8:00am until 2:00pm. I use a laptop computer for the manuscript, but outline scenes and take notes longhand on chits of paper. Whenever I get stuck while writing, I pace the floor. I end up pacing a great deal.

Who are your favorite authors?

That’s a difficult question. There are so many authors I admire for different reasons. But to name a few, I’d say John Banville, Ian McEwan, William Trevor, ItaloCalvino, Haruki Murakami, Gustave Flaubert, Magda Szabó, Ruth Ozeiki, Laleh Khadivi, Hillary Mantel, Michael Ondaatje, and J. M. Coetzee.

Continue reading