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The Books We Made review: Kali for Women gets its worthy place in the history of feminism

Filmmakers Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku take us through the journey of the feminist publication formed during the women’s rights movements of the 1980s.

Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku take us through the journey of the significant contributors to the feminist movement in India in the 1980s and 1990s — Kali for Women, the publication house founded by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon.

The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production explores the feminist publication house’s inception in 1984, its landmark books and their authors, challenges and its closure in 2003.

The documentary opens with Butalia’s room, which is overflowing with books. “I always keep books by women… always,” she says, while explaining how she decides which books to keep and which ones to let go. Images of books invariably appear throughout the film, sometimes tucked away neatly in a shelf and at times in the hands of the authors as they read lines from their own works.

The story of inception in black and white footage; the founders’ interviews generating nostalgia as they reveal their humble beginnings in a garage, the designing of the logo by Chandralekha, a dancer, and the lack of profits through most of the years.

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46 Books by women of colour to read in 2018

I’ve heard it argued that it’s been a banner year for books by women of color already: there’s Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 National Book Award, for one. It’s the first time the fiction prize has been conferred twice upon any black person or woman—thereby formally, prize-wise, placing Ward in the company of William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. This year’s National Book Award ten-book fiction longlist featured six titles written by women of color; three out of five 2017 New York Public Library Young Lions finalists were women of color; and so on.

But there’s such a long way to go. Look, for instance, at the New York Times’s weekly “By the Book” section, in which, to a shameless extent, prominent men continue to suggest we just read still more men’s books. Consider the fact that, as recently as this May, Leonard Chang wrote about a novel of his that was rejected by big-house publishers for not being “Asian enough.” As one editor told him, critiquing his manuscript, “You have to think about ways to make these characters more ‘ethnic,’ more different…in the scene when [a character] looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.”

As it so happens, I’m Asian; I’m publishing my debut novel this summer, and my characters, much like me, don’t spend any time contemplating their slanted eyes. If that editor had read more widely in the first place, he might previously have recognized how limiting his stereotypes might be, and he could have broken free of the rigid confines of his own narrow mind. Perhaps it’s too late for him, but it’s not for us. Let’s read more broadly; let’s try inhabiting one another’s wildly varied, entirely human points of view. It’s late in 2017, and the situation’s desperate. If we can’t imagine one another, how will we get through these next few years?

I tried, I really did, to avoid mentioning our current president, but as wicked tyrants tend to do, he poisons every day. Still, since this is a forward-looking list, a joyful celebration of what’s to come, I want to glance past him. This, too, will pass. In honor of our next president, the 46th—whoever she, he, or they might be—I picked 46 splendid novels, memoirs, anthologies, and collections I’m anticipating. These writers are here, their 2018 books are coming, and look how glorious.

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Short Story — Idlis on a Saturday Morning by Deepti Nalavade Mahule

Mrs. Prakash opened her eyes and began to sit up in bed, picturing her aging joints as rusty bolts creaking with every movement. She looked out of the window where the tender rays of the sun reached the corner of her garden. There was the young mango tree, robust and flowering, ready to bear its first fruit that summer. The jasmine, its small white flowers scenting the fresh morning air, was right next to it, leaning on the compound wall for support.

This image had also been part of a dream that had floated away just as she woke up. Avin was there. The young man, sitting on one of the lower branches of the tree was looking down at her.

‘Idlis’, he said.

Having prepared the batter the night before, she planned to steam them that morning.

‘Don’t eat all of them!’ He told her in the dream.

Mrs. Prakash got up, thinking of all the packing she had to do. In a week, she would be moving in with her brother’s family. She was going to miss her home as well as the neighbourhood, which had become an extension of herself, like limbs fused to the body.

*

Mrs. Prakash first met Avin soon after moving into her house, back when he was a chubby 10-year-old. His mother probed Mrs. Prakash on how many children she had, her eyes lingering on the streaks of grey that had begun to show in Mrs. Prakash’s hair.

‘None,’ Mrs. Prakash replied in an even voice, trying not to show the disappointment that had lessened but never disappeared over the years.

Then she changed the subject before Avin’s mother had a chance to make sympathetic noises about her being widowed and childless.

‘I’ve often seen your son playing outside. Aren’t we lucky to have at least some space around our houses in this crowded neighborhood?’

Soon Mrs. Prakash had transformed the bare and scruffy-looking area around her house into a blooming garden. Working outside on her plants, she would call out to Avin’s talkative mother. Both women would stand on either side of the low compound wall and chat while Avin flitted around them like a hummingbird.

On Saturday mornings, she would make him steaming hot idlis for breakfast. He passed freely in and out of her house, dipping his hand into a box of sweets here and savouries there. He helped bring books to her from the library and began to take an interest in reading. She began to involve him in the upkeep of her garden. They planted a mango sapling and he would get excited about it growing into a large tree.

‘What can we do to make it grow faster?’ He kept badgering her.

‘We do the best we can with water and manure. Protect it from pests, remove dead leaves and give it all the love we have.’

‘Love?’

‘Yes, my dear. All living things need it. And love can be between anyone, even this tree and you.’

‘Well then, here is some of it,’ he said, throwing his arms around its frail stem as she looked on with amusement. He began to come over to water it and unfailingly embraced it every single time.

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Writing matters: In conversation with Indira Chandrasekhar

 

By Shikhandin

Indira Chandrashekhar

Indira Chandrasekhar is a scientist, a fiction writer and the founder and principal editor of the short fiction magazine Out of Print. She also curates an annual short story contest along with DNA, called the DNA-OoP Short Story Prize. Indira has a Ph.D in Biophysics. She worked in scientific institutions in India, the US and Switzerland, before turning into a full time writer and editor. She co-edited the short story anthology, Pangea in 2012, Thames River Press, along with British author and Editor Rebecca Lloyd. Indira’s stories have appeared in Eclectica, Nether, Cosmonauts Avenue, Far Enough East, The Little Magazine, Guftugu and others.

Polymorphism, her first story collection, presents nineteen tightly wrapped and elegantly told stories in genres ranging from science fiction to slip stream to literary, often blurring the boundaries. The visual cues and the lingering effect created by her stories are at times disconcerting, even disturbing, and always memorable. As the blurb on the back cover says, ‘…Textured by the author’s scientific research on biological molecules and deeply informed by family stories, the collection explores humanity’s driving obsessions of life, fertility and relationships with tender, surreal expression.’

In an email interview Indira Chandrasekhar shares her writing journey and her views on the short story form with Shikhandin for Kitaab.

Shikhandin: First the obvious question, when did it all start, the writing, i.e.?

Indira: Writing fiction – as an adult – is significantly linked to place, to relocation and to realignment. I was working as a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich when I returned to India to live in Mumbai, a city I did not really know. It was as if settling into, rediscovering, restoring my identity in the context of the place that was home, and yet wasn’t, unleashed a need to find creative expression outside the more fundamental cultural framework of science. I started drawing again, and writing. The writing took precedence – as if the story asserted itself and wanted to find an outlet.

Shikhandin: You have a Ph.D in Biophysics, and you write stories. Is it like straddling two boats? Share your unique experience with us.

Indira: Thank you for that question. In some ways, yes, it could be seen as if I straddle two ways of interpreting the world. The one, structured, logical and fact-based. The other surreal, fantastical and fictional. And yet, ultimately, I see both ways as related to making sense of existence, be it through the interactions of minute molecular entities that influence how the biological, the mamallian, the human system functions, or through the complex relationships between individuals that impact the way we think about ourselves, live our lives and construct our societies.

Shikhandin: Tell us about your magazine Out of Print. Why this name in particular? How did this journey begin?

Indira: Out of Print emerged as a consequence of trying to place my own writing in literary magazines and journals. At the time, this is around 2010, there were few literary journals in India and South Asia available to writers of short fiction. Some wonderful people supported the idea and we managed to get started. We decided to create an online journal and yet truly pay tribute to the – I am struggling for the phrase: classical, traditional, standard, 20th Century – perhaps a better way of putting it is, the ever-evolving literary traditions we have used to understand and constantly tell stories. In other words, because we were emerging from the familiar print form, I called the magazine Out of Print.

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Book Excerpt: An Unsuitable Woman by Shinie Antony

An Unsuitable Woman

 

BIRDSONG

Jahnavi Barua

So, what have you decided?’

Directly above her is a scarlet minivet; he is a striking bird, with his scarlet and black plumage, and is sitting patiently, as if presenting himself to her. She tries to find the best angle for the picture. The branches of the tree are bare—it is almost winter—and the bird is flamboyant against the stark skeleton.

‘Are you going to answer?’

Her foot snags on a jutting root as she presses on the button and the bird flies away, casually, as if judging that enough time has been given and now he must move on.

On the viewing screen, she is left with a red blur, the exact colour and ferocity of anger. His voice is tinged with that colour, now, and every so often.

Beyond the small waterhole, a scarlet flash in a jackfruit tree.

She makes her way swiftly to the foot of the tree. The bird is perched, motionless, above her, his long tail balancing him just so. She raises her head, peering through the viewfinder trying to position the bird.

Warm breath against her neck. ‘What the hell do you think you are playing at?’ He tugs at her shoulder; she loses her balance and throws an arm out, gripping the tree trunk. The bird flies away soundlessly.

‘Listen, you have to decide one way or the other.’ His voice is now jagged with fury.

She is keeping him from the cricket match on TV; even on a holiday, in the middle of the forest, he remains glued to the screen. But he too is keeping her from her birds. Her jaw assumes a stubborn set. She thinks of all the times he has remained wedded to the television: when she lay ill in bed with dengue fever, shivering and frightened; when she walked their newborn son to sleep at night, frantic with pain from the C-section incision and worry; when she wanted to watch the birds on a late night programme.

‘Excuse me,’ she says and pushes past him, to the steps at the base of the small hill. She runs up the steps easily. He follows—she can hear him cursing—as he pants his way up slowly.

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Another Birth, Other Words: Queering the Poetry of Forough Farrokhzad in Translation

Recently, the Swedish Academy responsible for the dictionary of Swedish language added the new gender neutral pronoun hen to the newest edition of their work. The news reached international media and reaffirmed the idea of Scandinavian countries as being the ‘frontrunners of gender equality.’

The application of the gender neutral pronoun isn’t all that new, though. It has been a subject of debate among feminist-leftist circles since the 1970s. Swedish kindergarten Egalia even applied the use of hen back in 2011. Egalia’s mission to undo gender stereotypes entailed among other things the substitution of the gendered pronouns han and hon (he and she) with the gender-neutral neologism hen.

The Scandinavian narrative of progressiveness and gender equality isn’t without its challenges and controversies, however. Internal disputes within leftist-feminist circles suggest that some see the gender neutral pronoun as a liberating panacea, bound to revolutionize binary gender roles, while others view it as an unrealistic utopian project that will only serve to blur actually-existing inequalities. Semantics won’t fix the lived experiences of sexism, they argue.

What those opposed to linguistic gender neutrality forget, however, is that this trend is often not nearly as ‘exotic’ or foreign a phenomenon as is often cast. You don’t have to travel farther than Finland — Sweden’s neighbor — before you encounter a gender-neutral language, where the neutral (and only) 3rd person pronoun is hän. This word has served as an inspiration for the Swedish equivalent: hen and the Danish: høn.

Even further afield, another language remotely related to Danish with shared Indo-European roots is Persian, in which some of the oldest and most influential literature in history has been written. Throughout history, Persian’s lack of gendered pronouns has allowed for the production of subversive texts that have confounded and enchanted readers and leaders alike.

The world-renowned Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Molana Rumi, who lived in the 13th century and wrote in Persian, is often brought forth as an example of this subversive poetic tradition, where the Persian neutral pronoun ou (او) allows for a wide array of interpretative possibilities. His object of desire could be a monotheistic God, a deity of the earth, a woman, or his friend and mentor Shams-e-Tabrizi.

Although some read his poems as homoerotic, there is no known proof that Rumi was homosexual or had a physical relationship with his mentor, Shams. What is beyond dispute, though, is their intense love and admiration for each other.

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Passion by Sneha Subramanian Kanta

Sneha Subramanian – Passion

Sneha

 

An awardee of the prestigious GREAT scholarship, Sneha Subramanian Kanta has a second postgraduate degree in literature from England. Her poem ‘At Dusk with the Gods’ won the Alfaaz (Kalaage) prize. She is the founding editor of Parentheses Journal, a literary initiative that straddles hybrid identities across coasts and climes. Her work is forthcoming in VIATOR project, Cold Creek Review, figroot press and elsewhere.


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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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