When I walk down the Singapura River and see the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles look down at me from the pedestal near Victoria theatre, I feel I know the man well, not because I have ever met him but because Isa Kamari, the celebrated ASEAN writer, brought him to life in his novel, 1819.
Downtown and around Singapore, one can get glimpses of the history of the island in architecture, sculpture and art.
I grew up in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, in a comely little town called Roing. To its north and east lay an arc of hills. They were ancient as all hills are. But they looked especially grave and grandfatherly because their cheeks were thickly wooded. A mostly leaden sky domed those hills and our town; rain lurked in some corner of it always. Often, sometimes several times in a day, like some brazen bandit, this rain rode upon dark stallion like clouds and came swooping down upon the land.
It is difficult to put into words what I am feeling at this moment, at the death of a great writer and a great human being. That Ursula K. Le Guin happened to have taken an interest in me and my work is part of why my grief is personal, but not entirely. She was a generous human being and a kind mentor who took interest in the works of multiple authors, so my story of our association is, I am sure, not unique, except, perhaps, in the particularities of the interaction. We met three times, (once for six whole days during a writing retreat), and we corresponded about a couple of times a year on average. But in my life she had a disproportionate effect, and it is safe to say that I would not be the writer or the person I am without the deep and abiding influence of who she was and what she wrote.
Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?
It seems of the same order to me. It’s been months now that I stand at the terrace, looking at the ground below and wondering if it must take a very long fall – a very long time spent in the air to rethink if the problems were fixable, a very long period of helplessly jerking your arms seeking help with nothing to hold on to, and a quiet last second when you hit the ground and everything blacks out and you finally find out if there was a God at all. You fool yourself into living another day with tiny excuses. Vesting hopes on the last leaf of the tree outside your window till its fall, only to come back from college and see that the storm took down the tree itself. Reaching out for a piece of poetry, or a cigarette butt, another cup of coffee or another romance but the thing about them is, at one point they all come to an end, leaving you sniffing for more and it’s just a vicious cycle that goes round and round. Like days and nights which mean nothing for someone who does not sleep. Like the ceiling fan which gives me company while I stay awake; like my aching heart which beats like it’s a backward countdown every single day but does not dare to stop and ends up counting all over again.
It is early winter, but the October heat in Ambala Cantt is making me visibly drowsy. “Do you mind some Tulsi leaves in the chai?” he asks. I nod in the typical manner in which we Indians do. “Well, go on then, pluck some leaves from the plant. It’s right opposite the gate,” he prompts. Sounds of chirping birds, sunlight that warms the linen clothes drying on a wooden hanger, happy plants and a few flowers break the monotony of green. The garden is perhaps the only ‘lively looking’ corner of this ageing home.
Sitting opposite each other, with a table that holds a bowl with floating roses, we sip chai. “My father loved roses,” he says breaking the silence. And even before I can acknowledge by saying – Yes, that’s what I gathered from the story “Papa, Elsewhere” he has written in A Book Of Light, Sukant Deepak offers to give me a tour of the place that is home to famed playwright and short-story writer Swadesh Deepak, his father.
Within the confined walls of this house are stories, like in any house – some pleasant and some mired with painful memories. Sukant now lives alone in this house that stands witness to almost two decades of suffering that his family went through after Swadesh was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 1990s. This phase of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award winner’s (2004) life finds its spot in A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind, among twelve other stories edited by Jerry Pinto and published by Speaking Tiger.
Fractals by Sudeep Sen, an internationally acclaimed, Delhi-based poet, photographer and documentary film maker, is a comprehensive volume, a bouquet of pure art and poetry, new and old, running into 380 odd pages. About 250 poems are from Sen’s recent poems in English; besides that, there are selections from his earlier published poems, and lastly, a selection of Sudeep Sen’s English translation of poems from Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Chinese, Hebrew, Polish and Spanish. Sudeep Sen’s classical orientation to poetic craft, his erudition and expansive engagement with global traditions in languages, visual arts, poetics and translation, is, to say the least, impressive and stunning.
For an essay that aspires to encapsulate in about 1500 words, an eclectic talent and legend such as he, it is a daunting uphill task. An anthology of over 350 poems, Fractals is designed with intelligent and passionate deliberation, and consists of a range of poetic forms from poem songs, cameos, erotica, prose poems, haikus to translations layered with inter/intra-textual signification and discourse across poetry, culture and other art media.
Mr. Prime Minister of Pakistan
Mian Nawaz Sharif
SUBJECT: Appeal to ensure the safety and release of missing poet and bloggers.
I’m an Indian Urdu novelist and a person who has spoken against fanatic elements of my own country who indulge in activities against the principles of democracy and secularism. I have also protested against groups of fundamentalists accused of killing writers and critics of rotten religious practices in our country. Additionally, I am one among the Indian writers who returned their respective awards as a symbolic protest against fundamentalism and intolerance.
With this brief introduction about my concern for principles of secularism and the creative fraternity, I am drawing your attention towards the missing poet and bloggers in your country. Since Pakistan is a wonderful country that cherishes democracy, a country where human dignity and freedom of thought is revered and valued, it is saddening that poets and writers have been made to disappear.
Arranging words one after the other doesn’t make you a writer. And putting them coherently in lines without making grammatical mistakes isn’t writing either.
Of course you can write. Anyone who went to school can write. And everyone who took an exam can possibly write as well.
In fact, the nice greying man at the post office can write. The elderly lady at the bank can write. The slightly portly doctor at your nearby clinic can write as well.
So can the cop at the local police station who will file your case sheet when you get booked for Whatsapping your boss along with Facetiming your girlfriend’s constipated hamster, all while driving.
Unfortunately, none of the above writers can write. None of them are genuine writers. None of them can write with the kind of ink that makes tears moist.
Deh na dekhi, naram kahaaye
Buraa lagay aur hansi bhi aaye
(Invisible, but they call it tender
Feel bad, but it evokes laughter)
It’s the second time I’m reading this riddle. Attempting to get close to solving it, I’ve narrowed it down to two possible answers. But, I’m confused. So, I turn the page to see the illustration for a clue, trying hard not to glance at the answer which is on the page next to the illustration. The illustration consists of artistically drawn fish and feathers. It intrigues me further, as I rattle my brain, thinking what feathers can do – make you fly, make you smile. My thoughts take me to a time I got a fish pedicure. I remember giggling a lot! Giggling by tickles…? I go back to reading the verse to confirm if my guess fits the riddle. Having read the riddle, now for the third time, I decide on “tickle” as the answer. I turn the page – “tickle” it is! The answer leads the reader to an anecdote of Amir Khusrau. There is a child-like excitement as you go about solving twenty riddles that make for a wonderful discovery on Amir Khusrau, in a book Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles.
“Let Another Name for Religion be Humanism.” It was these words that had lured me, a seventeen-year-old Muslim girl, into buying Lajja from an almost non-functional bookstore in my hometown. I’d got my hands on the book five years after it was published. Back then, I didn’t know much about Taslima Nasrin, except that she was a Bangladeshi Muslim writer, penning some not–so-good things about the community, as overheard during conversations between elders. I recall the day I bought the book, and was wondering if I should hide it. I didn’t. In fact, after reading the book in one sitting, I walked up to my mother and asked, “Why was this book banned? Why was a fatwa issued against her? What wrong did she write?” My mother’s reply was simple but had a deep impact on me then. She said, “Every individual has an opinion and feels differently. We must be tolerant of others’ views. Allah has given us a mind, we should use it. And never cause any human being harm or drive anyone out of their home.”
Taslima Nasrin was driven out of her home in 1994.
Translated literature is like perfume in a bottle. One often expects the perfume to retain its fragrance when poured into another bottle, but that isn’t possible given the nuances of the source literature – culture, period, emotions. Some essence is lost, while a new aroma is added.
“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained,” renowned writer Salman Rushdie describes in his work ‘Imaginary homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991’.
When parents admit their child to an English medium school run by the Catholic community, the primary objective is to instil in the child discipline and moral values, gain access to the best environment to gain proficiency in English, and develop a liberal mindset that prepares the young mind to face the challenges and complexities of the modern world. The pupil is told again and again that he is here to imbibe the best. But as the young impressionable mind enters the teenage years, the school authorities find an irresistible opportunity to start talking about issues that should not arise inside a secular campus. The missionary institution, though it behaves secularly as much like any elected government in the country, ends up vitiating its professional pursuits with personal agenda.
As a child, I used to think that America and England were the same. Later I learnt that America was a bigger and more relaxed version of England. Then one day I found out that Americans were in fact prudes – like Indians! I had to unlearn that wearing undergarments in public and holding sacrosanct views on sex and marriage were not mutually exclusive. (As a child, marriage as a concept had seemed so Indian to me that I thought it was invented by Indians.) Soon I knew I was saying America/ England and thinking France. Referring to a continent (Africa) as a country is ignorance, but calling a country America, which is not one but two continents combined, is exactly the same. USA became America when it became great. Now Trump wants to make it great again. But then Michelle Obama came out and said that it’s the greatest. So maybe Trump should rethink his words.
I was fortunate to be a part of the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival – the first of its kind Myanmar has known in perhaps half a century. It was organised at the Inya Lake Hotel, Yangon in February 2013. Winter and early spring are the traditional seasons for literary talks, or sarpay hawpyawbwe in Myanmar. This particular morning was cool, the air having lost its chilling bite and indolent, white cotton-ball clouds were reflected in the blue waters of the Inya Lake. Aung San Suu Kyi arrived amidst unprompted and seemingly unending applause – she was the festival patron and was to participate in two of the panels.
Exactly twenty years back Aung San Suu Kyi was released from the first of her house arrests and on 4 October 1995 went to visit the revered U Vinaya’s* monastery in the Kayin State – her first journey outside Yangon in six years.
Recently at the Singapore Writers’ Festival I met a young publisher from Yangon who confessed to spending sleepless nights, thinking what would happen on the 8th of November and perhaps more importantly, afterwards. In the last Myanmar general elections he had reached the election booth nice and early only to find his name absent on the electoral roll. He had merely written ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ on a piece of paper and slipped it into the ballot box.
Why does religious tension have such a robust grip on the psyche of a nation that cradles many faiths and is no stranger to dissimilarities and differences? Is religion in India morphing into a fearsome mutant devoid of logic or love?
In 1966, the sociologist and researcher Syed Hussein Alatas began pondering the question of why Western colonialists had, for four centuries, considered the natives of Maritime Southeast Asia to be generally lazy. His research eventually produced The Myth of the Lazy Native, a book which was published in 1977. In the book, he cited one instance of a “denigrating” view of the natives, when a German scientist suggested that the Filipinos made their oars from bamboo so they could rest more frequently: “If they happen to break, so much the better, for the fatiguing labour of rowing must necessarily be suspended till they are mended again.” Syed Hussein criticised such beliefs in the book as ranging “from vulgar fantasy and untruth to refined scholarship.” He also asserted that “[t]he image of the indolent, dull, backward and treacherous native has changed into that of a dependent one requiring assistance to climb the ladder of progress”.
Indians write for a number of international journals. Large numbers of such journals are being published in India. There are groups of Indian origin writers who thrive in foreign lands. Some Indian magazines, e-zines and publications shine abroad.
In 2012, I had a fabulous poet and social activist stay with us at home, with her two kids. She was African-Canadian and had a tremendous sense of style. Walking the streets of Bangalore, she would get the inevitable stares: some curious, some awed; and some expressions were inscrutable. Her two very young children had big hair. One had dreads, and the other, a giant bush that adorned his round face.
Literature is more than craft, literature must be more than craft, or we risk isolating ourselves from the rest of the world. Writing will remain sheltered, and only in the hands of those with shiny talent, the elite schooling, the networks, and the literary magazines. Dancing to craft alone risks living in a flat world, where we measure our potential by the perceived misery of others, where we carry bags of guilt that have been deflated by lazy translations. We cannot risk literature to craft. We cannot manufacture guilt and misery, dirt, and squalor in exchange for lovely sensual twists, and literary melodies.
To me, Singapore has achieved a perfect balance between peaceful development and individual freedom. There are some valid criticisms of this model but for decades now, this model has worked and delivered. That was why there was an unprecedented outpouring of national grief when Lee passed away, people queuing up for hours and hours, even overnight, to pay their respect to the great leader. I have not seen the funerals of Gandhi or Nehru or Jinnah but I could get a glimpse of what they might have looked like. I have not seen so much love expressed for a nation’s founding father in my lifetime.
Genre writing in English by South Asians is a comparatively new phenomenon. Though there are writers like Shobhaa De who have been writing popular fiction for the last two decades, most writers want to be known as ‘literary’ authors. The common belief in South Asia has been, until now, that in order to have any merit, writing in English has to be ‘literary,’ a term used to signify art. A literary book is supposed to have finer prose, important themes and most of all, it is expected to be a piece of such crafted excellence that it can withstand the test of time. Traditionally, value has been placed with this form of writing, while all other forms of writing are dismissed as worthless. This prejudice is true anywhere in the world, but it has lasted far longer in South Asia. Popular literature by South Asians has only recently found an audience in South Asia.
At age sixteen, I wanted nothing more than to leave my home in Utica, New York for some place, any place that would offer freedom and adventure. My parents, liberal, strongly Zionist Jews, were more than protective; the line between mothering and smothering, had become intolerable. Finally they agreed to send me to Israel to study Judaism and Hebrew with our rabbi’s perfectly well behaved and obedient daughter Miriam. I was sixteen-years-old and it was the summer of 1982.
The cover of Cafe Le Whore and other Stories, Moazzam Sheikh’s new collection, his second one, appears to evoke the lead story. It is replete with bright haunting colours but still strikes an elusive tone, almost like the narrator’s repeated encounters with his dead mother in a city cafe and his later frustrated search for her, intertwined with his meetings with a down and out whore.
Partition of India has been one of those turning points in the history of the subcontinent, the repercussions of which have not ended yet. It lives in memories, in monuments, in songs and stories, besides popping up now and then in various symbols, occasions and rituals. It makes the Katha and Daastaan for the coming generations for centuries perhaps, because it has everything aplenty: the joys and the sorrows (more sorrows than joys, of course for the common man) associated with it can weave sagas of its own. Amitav Ghosh in most of his novels like The Circle of Reason (1986),The Shadow Lines (1988) and The Hungry Tide (2004) takes up the theme of the Partition in its differing aspects. He looks at it from the middle class quarters in The Shadow Lines, the anonymous sufferers’ side in The Circle of Reason and the low-caste section in The Hungry Tide. Perhaps, John Berger had the same idea when he wrote; “Never again a story will be told as though it is the only one…” (Ways of Seeing: 1990).
Violence is a lived reality of a woman’s life that she alone experiences, suffers and endures. No amount of words can explain the pain and terror it causes because it is an experience that is personal. In a short story entitled “It was Dark” by Shashi Deshpande, a nine year old raped girl is in shock and when asked about the incident she can only repeat “it was dark”. This darkness is the subjective experience of every traumatized woman who falls a victim to violence be it sexual, domestic or social.
Somehow, Chitrangada and Hidimba stand out as epitomes of feminine power and feminist assertion in the Mahabharata as well as in literature. The role assigned to them in the Epic (Mahabharata) and in folk and mainstream literatures focuses on their strength, independence of spirit and intelligence. Rabindranath Tagore’s lyrical drama Chitrangada is based on the Mahabharata story of the warrior-princess whose quest for love has both feminine and feminist overtones. Similarly, Hidimba, the present Kullu area of Himachal Pradesh, is a folklore figure who has become a part of folk psyche and has achieved divinity. These two women are not identical; though contemporary, they belong to distant parts of the land, with different value systems and social set-ups but both are strong and both represent an era that illustrates women’s authority and agency. It is interesting to explore how Rabindranath Tagore makes changes in the Mahabharata story to give his heroine the attributes he would like modern Indian women to possess and how the folklore of Himachal Pradesh elevates Hidimba from the daemonic to the human and then to the divine.