I was in my bedroom, sitting on the stool, dozing with a hookah in my hand. A sliver of light was permeating, creating a clever shadow on the wall, a ghost dancing. Lunch wasn’t ready yet — I sat in a pensive state; I was dreaming as I puffed… If I were Napoleon, could I win the battle of Waterloo?
Right at the moment, an unexpected sound crept in, “Meow”.
As I tried looking, I couldn’t perceive anything. First, I thought that the Duke of Wellington had taken the shape of a cat and was approaching me to beg for some opium. Full of enthusiasm, tough as a stone, I thought I’d say that the Lord Duke shouldn’t ask for more, given that he had been awarded previously. Too much greed isn’t healthy. The Duke replied, “Meow”.
With careful observation, it dawned on me that this wasn’t Wellington! This was a petty cat that had drunk the milk reserved for me as I was busy arranging soldiers on Waterloo’s field — unaware of the cat’s theft. The beautiful cat, filled with satisfaction after finishing all the milk was intent on making its satisfaction known to this world.
In a mellifluous tone, it said “Meow!”
I did perceive that the cat was mocking at me, that it was laughing internally as, facing me, it thought; “Somebody dies drying the pond; somebody eats the koi.”
I perceive that the “Meow” had the intent of understanding what was on my mind. I perceive that the cat’s thought was, “I’ve finished your milk—now what do you say?”
We go from place to place. In Durjanpur, to nearby villages in that temporarily parched but exquisite Bihar landscape, in schoolyards and open bazaars. We present our play to young and old, masters and servants, women and men. We drive by expansive bajra and wheat fields, breathtaking floral carpets of white sesame and purple bush beans, starving peasants clutching their ribs and staring at us by roadsides and motorcycle-borne landed gentry – supposedly the most powerful and influential folks in the region – asking us city folks where we are headed next. None of these rural folks have ever seen a street play where actors don’t wear flashy make-up or gaudy clothes but just a pair of jeans and a shirt, where a woman acts and touches the men, and where no nachanias or dancers sway their hips to raunchy music – a staple non-family entertainment by travelling troupes in rural north India. The very first day we arrived in Durjanpur, I remember kids went running helter-skelter announcing us to the villagers. “Nachanias have come, nachanias have come!” they screamed, to which married women and young girls covered their face with an extra hard tug of the dupatta or the sari and hookah-smoking men sat in shock thinking the old headmaster has gone crazy inviting this impudent city bunch that is bound to corrupt good moral village folks. I am quite aware that nachanias connote immorality for them. Also a woman – that is me – in our team adds to their confusion they find tough to hide. For them, decent women in the village do not go about anywhere with a bunch of men, unless they happen to be her son, a relative or a client desirous of specific pleasures. My jeans and shirts – I brought limited change of clothes – attract attention, as does my scarf, briefly, which I wear for propriety’s sake only for a week and then discard, generating more palpable shock. Our hectic schedule doesn’t allow me to wash my shoulder-length hair regularly, so I myself chop further around the mop with a pair of scissors to make it look like a boy’s head. I thank my common sense for bringing a pair of sturdy sneakers. They literally keep me on my toes. It’s only when I come back to rest in the evening, that Muskaan amuses herself examining my precious box of skin creams and moisturizers, the stuff that I religiously use for fear of losing my feminine side. “Ah now I know why city women look so delicate!” Muskaan enjoys hurling banters at me. I give her a tube. “Keep that for yourself, aloe vera and vitamin D.” She laughs, the serpentine braid slithering on her back. Then poking me on my arm she says, “Sheherwali, chew tulsi leaves every morning. Even your backside will not get pimples! Besides, Maoists might still recognize you as a woman and not shoot.”
Things don’t turn out to be dreadful. The Ghost at the Altar runs into several shows. The play seems to have intrigued this sleepy region and its lethargic inhabitants. Not so sleepy really. Frequent ambushes by Maoists, deep-rooted caste feuds and occasional Hindu-Muslim tiffs keep this place alive and awake. And these influence periodic activities like elections, public works or other significant government projects.
In 1981, Salman Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, with its focus on Partition won a Booker Prize. And now, more than four decades later, his new novel Quichotte, due for release this September, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2019. But this time, his book is a take-off on Don Quixote, immortalised by sixteenth century Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes and often labelled as “the first modern novel”.
Midnight’s Children was given not just a Booker Prize but also a “Booker of the Bookers” Prize (1993) with its story set around the Partition of India and steeped in magical realism. His fourth book Satanic Verses (1988) was a finalist for the Booker Prize. However, a ‘fatwa’ was issued against his book calling for Salman Rushdie’s death by no less than Ayatollah Khomeini one year after it was published. India had banned the book as “hate speech” against a particular religious group.
Author: Ismat Chugtai (Translated from Urdu by Tahira Naqvi)
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019
Narrating the tale of a lonely child called Shaman, the novel, The Crooked Line, by Ismat Chugtai is considered to be one of her finest works. Written is an extremely poignant and evocative manner, Shaman’s story takes us through her experiences of growing up as a woman in a conservative Muslim family.
Ismat Chugtai is regarded as one of the most rebellious and provocative women writers in Urdu and continues to be a luminary till date. The Crooked Line was originally published in 1945 and was translated into English fifty years later, after it was compared to The Second Sex (1949) by de Beauvoir for its strong portrayal of gender and politics. However, the two books are starkly different in their approach with The Crooked Line being a novel while The Second Sex is a treatise; though it has always been argued that the former could be semi-autobiographical.
“To begin with, her birth was ill-timed.”
These powerful lines announce the arrival of Shaman, the youngest child in a large and affluent family. In a way, they also set the tone for what is yet to arrive in the novel. Everything about Shaman is encapsulated in these lines — ill-timed, ill-mannered and ill-fated. Tracing her journey from her childhood to her old age, this story is beautifully layered with deepest desires, darkest secrets and emotions interwoven with the fragility of human relationships.
No No- Boy by John Okada (1956) was the first novel by a Japanese American dealing with the Japanese internment camps in America after the bombing of Pearl harbour.The book was not well received by the JapaneseAmerican community initially.It dealt with issues like racism and army drafting.
The novel centres around a Japanese American who refused to draft for the second World War by pledging loyalty to the Emperor Hirohito backed by the allied troops and to fight against those that “misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest”.
It was so hard for Okada to find a publisher in America that he published in Japan in 1956 with a Japanese English language publisher. In 1971, CARP ( Combined Asian-American Resources Project) found the bookand republished it. Now a copyright controversy rages between the University of Washington professor Shawn Wong ,who republished the book in 1976 for CARP and Penguin. Penguin recently republished the book in May 2019 as part of a series featuring Asian American writing. Penguin claims that as the book was never registered in America, it has no copyright protection in USA, where it sells well and is taught as part of university curriculum.
When we travel or go on a holiday, we look forward to discovering spaces and cultures new to us. Here is a list of ten books that can vicariously give us a flavour of diverse cultures in the same way. The selection zips across Asia collecting books that have won Man Booker Prize, Man Asian Literary prize and more.
The books sail from Philippines to China, Mongolia, India, Japan, Vietnam to satisfy the fussiest of palates with fiction from different cultures.
Books by award winning and popular writer Haruki Murakami of Japan; Man Asian literary prize winner Bi Feiyu of China; Man Booker prize winning writer Arvind Adiga from India and the last and only female winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, Korean writer Shin Kyung-sook , are featured in this listing.
“Only novels can make people feel through words that they went through actual experiences. Depending on whether or not people experience those stories, their thoughts and ways of seeing the world should change. I want to write stories that will penetrate the heart. I have a lot of hope in the power that novels hold,” said Haruki Murakami, the seventy-year-old Japanese novelist, in an interview with Japan Times.
The interview introduces his latest novel, Killing Commendatore, where the protagonist, a thirty-six year old artistgoes into his paintings. He weaves the natural and supernatural to explore reality and admits that his protagonist is based partly on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
A popular novelist, Haruki Murakami was the sixth recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize in 2006, given in recognition of “humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times”. He has received many awards at both international and national levels and has three doctorates, including one from Princeton University.
Title: The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2018
Some book titles are a giveaway. Given the political climate in India today, with so many conversations centred on the subject of meat eating, one might be forgiven for assuming that The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh book, a novella, is a satirical take on contemporary India. In English August(1988), and in The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Chatterjee’s pen is acerbic, and educated-middle-class-privilege tipped, displaying a wit that wafts out of the 1970s generation in mainstream Delhi University. The temptation is to assume that Non-vegetarian presents more of the same. It does not. It is a sombre story, set in a small town (Batia) in early post-Independence India, and told with uncharacteristic restraint.
The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian features Agastya Sen’s father (who we met in English, August, writing peremptory letters to his ennui-stricken son), and hearkens back to an older milieu, both in terms of the frame, and in the person of Madhusudan Sen, ICS, sub-divisional magistrate in the small town of Batia. The murder of six people who Sen considers friends, or the murderer that sparks the tale of revenge, present little mystery. The suspense is built by the narrative that unfolds from the edges of the grim event and the role Sen plays in giving shape to it over a period in time with issues swiveling around death penalty. Unlike his spiritually dispirited son from the celebrated debut novel, in this somewhat less ambitious novella, Sen is self-possessed, intellectually restrained, committed to the world in which he enjoys the trappings of state power, and a steadfast friend.
Munshi Premchand(1880-1936), born as Dhanpat Rai Shrivastav, was one of the foremost Hindi writers of the early twentieth century. He has to his credit more than three hundred short stories, fourteen novels, many more essays, letters translations and plays and even a film script.
His short story Shatranj ke Khiladi was made into an award winning film by Satyajit Ray as were a number of his other works by noted directors, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
With his reformatory zeal and an ability to create empathetic overtones, Premchand was a prominent writer in Hindi who was appreciated more after his death than before. Writes David Rubin, late translator and scholar, in The World of Premchand(Oxford, 2001): “To Premchand belongs the distinction of creating the genre of the serious short story—and the serious novel as well—in both Hindi and Urdu. Virtually single-handed he lifted fiction in these languages from a quagmire of aimless romantic chronicles to a high level of realistic narrative comparable to European fiction of the time; and in both languages, he has, in addition, remained an unsurpassed master.” Interestingly, Rubin taught for a number of years in Allahabad and Rajasthan Universities in India and is also known to have translated not only Premchand but also another very well-known Hindi poet, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’.
Losing Kei, a novel by Suzanne Kamata, an American expatriate living in Japan, highlights the story of a mother who abandons her child, torn by the clash of cultures. Kei is the child from a marriage sundered by the incompatibility of the parents. The American mother leaves the Japanese father and their six-year-old son. Set in Japan, the focus of the story is on the mother’s struggle and inability to adjust to her marriage with a Japanese man in his own country.
Jill Parker, the mother and the protagonist, states at the very beginning of the story, ‘I came to Japan because a man had broken my heart.’ The author uses the perspective of the protagonist to narrate the story in first person. Jill takes an art scholarship to Japan to get over her boyfriend, Philip. When she meets her well-to-do Japanese spouse, Yusuke, a businessman who owns an art gallery, she is down and out. She has no money to pay her rent and works in a bar in Tokushima City to support herself. Yusuke is the solution to her monetary hardships and heartbreak. Jill marries Yusuke, telling him that she is exploring the world like Blondelle Malone, a nineteenth- early twentieth century impressionist artist who never married. However, unlike Malone, Jill is willing to marry. Jill doesn’t speak of her earlier heartbreak to Yusuke. As she struggles to conform to her Japanese marriage, she grows increasingly resentful of parental interference. The last straw for her is when Yusuke’s father dies and her husband declares that they would have to continue looking after his mother and live in the same house. For Jill, Yusuke’s grief at his father’s death is unattractive as is his clean-shaven face, which makes him seem ‘like a stranger’.
As she leaves him and her young child, one is left gaping at the heartlessness and self-centeredness of an irresponsible mother who is unable to put a child’s needs above her own.