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Anita Desai: My Literary Apprenticeship with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Alipur Road was a wide avenue lined with enormous banyan trees, and my mother and I would go for walks along it – to Maiden’s Hotel, which had a small library, or further on to the Quidsia Gardens. And, across the road, I’d see a young woman pushing a pram with a baby seated in it and a little girl dancing alongside it. She was a married woman clearly, and I a student at the University of Delhi, but glancing across the road at her, I felt an instinctive relation to her. Why?

She was revealed to be a young woman of European descent – German and Polish – who was married to an Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, and lived in rooms in a sprawling bungalow just off Alipur Road. When her mother, a German Jewish woman from London, visited her, Ruth searched for someone she could talk to. I think it might have been Dr Charles Fabri, the Hungarian Indologist who lived in the neighbourhood, who suggested she might meet my German mother, who had also come to India on marrying an Indian, 30 years before, in the 1920s.

A coffee party – a kaffeklatsch – was arranged so the two could indulge in their shared language in this foreign setting. I can’t imagine how or why, but Ruth decided to follow their meeting, after her mother had returned to England, with many others, on a different level – that of daughters. With extraordinary kindness and generosity she would have me over to their house, one filled with books, the books she had brought with her from England where she had been a student at the University of London when she had met Jhab. Perhaps it touched her that I was so excited about being among her books, talking to her about books. After that whenever I came away with an armful of books on loan, with her talk still in my ears, I felt elated, a visitor to another world, the writers’ world I had only imagined and now proved real. I would go home to scribble at my desk with a new, unaccustomed sense of the validity of such an occupation.

One day she placed in my hands a copy of To Whom She Will, her first novel that had been published in faraway England, an unimaginable distance from Alipur Road, Old Delhi. Holding it, I felt I had touched something barely considered possible – that the scribbling one did in one’s hidden corner of the world could be printed, published and read in the world beyond.

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Poetry: When They Open Our Bodies They Will Find the Whales by Urvashi Bahuguna

Urvashi Bahuguna – When They Open Our Bodies

urvashi

Urvashi Bahuguna is a poet from India whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Nervous Breakdown, Barely South Review, Jaggery, The Four Quarters Magazine and elsewhere. She was recently shortlisted for the Beverly Prize and the Wingword Poetry Prize. She has a poetry pamphlet forthcoming from Eyewear Books (UK). She was awarded an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom in 2014. Her essays have appeared in Hindu Business Line, Scroll, Helter Skelter Magazine and others.


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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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How Urmila Pawar broke the barriers of caste and patriarchy armed with only words

The struggle of Dalit women in India is often perceived as a fight against patriarchy, and caste — as separate entities. The truth, however, is that their struggle is against against caste-ridden patriarchy, essentially an offshoot of Brahminism in India. Therefore, the claims of the Dalit woman in the the anti-caste struggle are more powerful, subtle, theoretically holistic and thought provoking. Not only this, Dalit women, through their narratives, seem to broaden the scope of movement against caste.

Right from the era of Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh and Mukta Salve, Dalit women’s writing has had a rich history. Needless to say, it provides a background to the discourse of feminism in India that has always been denied by Brahmin women who call themselves feminists. The position of Dalit women as ‘Dalit within Dalits’, is the crucial factor that makes their struggle theoretically fertile and, a discourse which feminism in India cannot afford to avoid.

When Urmila Pawar’s autobiographical work Aaidan was first published, it sent waves of discomfort in society, among men and women alike. I remember sometime in 2014, when I went to watch a play based on her work at the National Centre for Performing Arts, located in an elitist area of South Mumbai, witnessing for the first time on stage, the lives of women I had seen around me. Pawar came on stage before the play began and shared her experiences of writing her first book. She had faced opposition from male agencies across castes, including her own home — where her book (initially) was not celebrated, but looked down upon.

As a Dalit woman, Pawar wrote about her life experiences, dared to articulate them intimately and explicitly — and that was the point of arrival from which Dalit narratives against caste society became clearer to the world. Though pioneering writers like Shantabai Kamble and other Dalit women had already put their struggle into words, it was Pawar’s work which received wide readership. In her book, one of the instances she mentions is of the menstrual cycle, illustrating how the the idea of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ not only fractured Brahmins psychologically but also victimised Dalits till a certain point of time. When she, as a girl, was made to sit in a corner by her mother to avoid touching anything during her cycle, Pawar recounts thinking: “As if I wasn’t discriminated (against) enough by others outside, now (my) family too, has set rules for me”.

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Poetry: Closedopens by Saheli Khastagir

Closedopens — Saheli Khastagir

Saheli

Bio: Saheli is an artist, occasional poet and a development consultant. You can find her art on her website or her fb page. She is currently developing an illustrated directory of mental health terms, called MH Illustrated, and also creating 26 portraits of Writerly Women for 26 letters of the alphabet.


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10 Must Read Women Writers From The Middle East

The tradition of female writers from the Middle-East has been vastly growing in the twentieth century, with new generations of writers determined to give women a voice and represent issues regarding feminism, identity and class from a female perspective. From fiction to non-fiction writers, we profile ten fantastic female writers from the Middle-East. Layla Baalbaki

 

Widely acknowledged to be a pioneer in women’s writing in the Middle-East, Layla Baalbaki was one of the first writers to give women a voice in Arab literature, focusing primarily on female issues. Her 1958 novel I Live is a work far ahead of its time, revolving around a young Lebanese woman as she attempts to negotiate her place in the world; striving for political, social and financial independence. Sadly, Baalbaki’s honest exploration of women’s innermost emotions was met with controversy and hostility and she was charged with obscenity and immorality. Although eventually acquitted, Baalbaki wrote no works of fiction after 1964 and turned instead to journalism.

A noted Algerian feminist author, Assia Djebar is well known for examining the plight of Algerian women within a post-colonial context. Her works include the collection of short stories Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1980), inspired by Delacroix’s famous The Women of Algiers (1834). These respond to the Orientalist and patriarchal structures surrounding contemporary Algerian society and attempt to demonstrate the ongoing inequality which defines women’s lives. Djebar was elected to the Académie Française – a historic organization which seeks to uphold and protect French heritage and language – in 2005, the first Magreb writer to receive this honor.

Born and raised in Baghdad, where she studied journalism at university, Inaam Kachachi moved to Paris in 1979, where she has lived ever since. As well as regularly writing pieces for Arabic-language newspapers, Kachachi has published several novels which examine issues of displacement and homeland, as well as the brutal reality of Iraq today. Frustrated by the religious and didactic turn literature in Iraq has taken, Kachachi attempts to authentically portray complex characters in the Iraq which she experienced. Her most recent novel Tashari (2013) stretches back to the 1950s and explores the changing sociopolitical dynamic of the country through one family and their eventual dispersal across the globe. This novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

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The Confessions of an Indian Poet: A Poem by Harnidh Kaur

The Confessions of an Indian Poet — Harnidh Kaur

Harnidh

 

Harnidh Kaur is a currently pursuing her Master’s in Public Policy from St. Xavier’s, Mumbai. Her first collection, The Inability of Words, is now available. Her second collection of poetry is underway. She can be contacted via email (harnidh95@gmail.com).


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The Asian American Women Writers Who Are Going to Change the World

This past year of national chaos has often had me thinking, What if? What if, before this year, I’d spoken up more, given more, fought more? On the one hand, if I’d allocated the entirety of my waking hours toward canvassing for the side of political good, I still, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have prevented this year’s kakistocratic events. But if a thousand people like me had done more? Ten thousand?

What-if rue like this is mostly useless, but it can, at least, help lead to future action. Toward that end, I’ve felt heartened and inspired by the examples set forth by fellow writers — especially, at times, by politically outspoken Asian American women. It’s a demographic often expected to be relatively quiet, even docile; what’s more, we’re routinely labeled the so-called model minority, a hateful idea trying to press us into the service of white supremacy. It’s evil shit, and not-at-all-quiet exemplars abound, including Nayomi Munaweera, Celeste Ng, Vanessa Hua, Nicole Chung, Alice Sola Kim, Jarry Lee, Rachel Khong, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Aimee Phan, Vauhini Vara, Jenny Zhang, Karissa Chen, Mira Jacob, Kat Chow, Steph Cha, Kirstin Chen, Tracy O’Neill, Larissa Pham, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Suki Kim, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Sonya Larson, Shuchi Saraswat, Catherine Chung, Shanthi Sekaran, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Jia Tolentino, Hasanthika Sirisena, Nina McConigley, Krys Lee, Solmaz Sharif, Ru Freeman, Lisa Ko, Janice Lee, Katrina Dodson, Aja Gabel, Sonya Chung, Jade Chang, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, T. Kira Madden, and, and, and.

In this roundtable, I spoke with four such vocal women: V.V. Ganeshananthan, Porochista Khakpour, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Esmé Weijun Wang. They’re all versatile writers who frequently work across genres, splendid novelists who also write candid, powerful nonfiction, and who are brilliantly forthright about their political views. Here’s Ganeshananthan in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Margins about who gets to write what they don’t know, and her essay “The Politics of Grief” in Granta. Here’s Khakpour on writing as an Iranian American in Catapult, and her essay “How Can I Be a Refugee Twice?” in CNN. Nguyen wrote about being a refugee in Literary Hub, and, along with Karissa Chen and Celeste Ng, published a rap-battle response to Calvin Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” Finally, take a look at Wang in Buzzfeed about the “good” schizophrenic, and in The Believer about metaphors of mental illness.

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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”.

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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.

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