‘Hum Dekhenge’ has been at the fringes of a controversy with a panel condemning the non-Hindu status of the poem. Faiz Ahmed Faiz had written this poem against the Zia regime in 1970s to inspire people to look forward to better days – a secular attempt to energise people weighed down by the burdens of tyranny. Intolerance for another world view seems to stare us in the face and generate endless violence and bloodshed. This situation brings to mind a story written by Satyajit Ray which won him national and international acclaim in 1980 — a dystopic story but with a positive end — a story that earned kudos as a film called Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Land of the Diamond King).
This year has a special significance for Kitaab: we celebrate our 15th anniversary. That’s a relatively long time in the life of a webzine in this day and age of short attention spans, isn’t it? Well, we are not patting ourselves on the back but please allow us to take us down the memory lane for a while to appreciate why we feel how we feel at this juncture of time.
Of all the major festivals in the world, none I think is more universally celebrated than Christmas. There is something in the air in December that reaches far and wide. When I arrived in China in 2012 to teach, I found a dismal artificial, Christmas tree with tangled streamers, in my classroom, in March of all months! The students who had put it up had no notion of the origins or the meaning of Christmas (or any other religious festival) except that it was universally fashionable to celebrate this thing called Christmas, in December, with a tree. It did not occur to them that it should have been taken down in January. It was in Florida and Australia that I discovered the Christmas Shops. I could not imagine that they stayed open all year round. At Christmas, Floridians have Santa Clause, sleigh, reindeer, and lights and whatnots on their rooftops, down the driveway and all around the garden. Sydney lights up the city and has amazing light displays of the nativity on the outside walls of a Church. Singapore lights up Orchard road and makes it a tourist attraction. No city is spared this dressing up.
Let me begin by bluntly saying that to criticize any issue, however fake or farcical it is, related to Islam is quite dangerous. Indian Muslims are quite averse to any introspection even regarding the worst social evils; unfortunately no Muslim organization that has an impact on Muslim minds tries to address this. The role of religious leadership in this regard has been along expected lines.
While TV journalists and anchors dissected the verdict and its fallout, my mind briefly traveled back to 1992, the year the Babri Masjid was demolished. I was studying at Aligarh Muslim University then. The Ayodhya movement was at its peak and we knew that something sinister and violent was going to erupt, so we made our way to our hometown in Bihar in late November. I was at my maternal grandfather’s place when the news came of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We saw the then Prime Minister of India Narasimha Rao appear on TV and offer apologies and shed some tears. Later on, we learnt that Rao could have done more to stop the demolition but he chose not to. Through Rajiv Gandhi and later through Rao, the Congress Party had, wittingly or unwittingly, made its own contributions to the Ram Temple movement.
Islam was certainly an important theme of Iqbal’s poetry. But he also wrote about important figures of other religions glowingly in the spirit of his famous couplet: “Mazhab nahin sikhata aapas mei bair rakhna, Hindi hai ham vatan hai Hindustan hamara”*. “Hai Ram ke vajud pe Hindustan ko naaz, ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain is ko imam-e-hind,’’** wrote Iqbal, highlighting the reverence a vast majority of Indians treated Lord Ram with.
But of all the non-Islamic religious icons, Iqbal perhaps wrote most admiringly about Sikhism founder Guru Nanak, whom he hailed as “mard-e kaamil [perfect man]”. His poem titled Nanak starts with a lament that “our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]”; did not recognise the worth of that “jewel of supreme wisdom”. It then refers to Nanak and says the perfect man “awakened Hind [India] from a deep slumber”.
I joined JNU in 1986 to pursue a part-time diploma in mass media in Urdu. I hail from the sleepy town of Sikandrabad in district Buland Shahr, located some 60 km from Delhi’s Kashmiri Gate Inter-State Bus Terminus (ISBT). I don’t think that in 1986 my one-horse hometown was any different from what it had been in 1947. The privileged lifestyle now enjoyed by the elite and some sections of the middle class was then the prerogative of just a handful of families. The Delhi of 1986 was not as claustrophobically or catastrophically crowded as it is today; it was quite unorganised and dirty nonetheless, despite the fact that existing roads had been widened and some new ones built, leading up to Asiad 1982
The aim of tragedy, according to Aristotle is to bring about a ‘catharsis’; to arouse in the spectators’ pity and fear and to purge them off these emotions so that they left the theatre with an understanding of the ways of gods and men. The audience witnessing the changes in the fortunes of the protagonist creates the catharsis. He wrote:“Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery.” To Die in Benares*, (2018) translated from the French by Blake Smith, is a collection of seven stories, which have this cathartic effect. I will illustrate this by analysing the first story “A Paper Boat in the Ganges”, which centres on the life of Fougerre who has to confront Aristotlean obstacles in his life; colonialism, mythological gods, and fate. Set in Pondicherry at a time when it was still under French occupation, the story covers almost fifty years and presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes each with intense gesture and detail.It opens with these weighty lines
What do you say when a doyenne in the field of literature dies? That she was a colossus in the field of literary studies? Any summing up of the achievements of Nabaneeta Dev Sen would sound and seem like a comprehensive survey of a substantial chunk , if not the entire field of comparative literature in India.Nabaneeta Dev Sen was one of the finest minds in the world of literature, in terms of both her creative and critical work. A pioneer in the field of Comparative Literature, she is often perceived as having played a transformative role in transforming Comparative Literature as a discipline in India, from a mechanical reading of texts across languages to a rigorous theoretical discipline.
Initially I was not sure if I was going to Shanghai at all, but the visa came through. I had tried once before but was not lucky enough to get the visa (in that instance, the paperwork was not complete and so on; it’s a long story). I was totally unprepared for the journey this time. This was one of those rare journeys which I undertook without reading anything about the city that I was visiting. I think there was some innocence about this unpreparedness, this ignorance. I took Shanghai as she revealed herself to me. I didn’t go there with any fixed images, so I was neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed when I stepped into Shanghai.
The lights lift my spirits and, with tranquility in my heart, my wings rise to the song of Diwali, to the scent of Diwali. Every year, this festival modifies the atmosphere itself sensually. The smell of the air circling us, the hue of the sky and the melody of nature — all herald the arrival of the festival of lights. Diwali for me is a reflection of hope. It is the light that radiates the spirit of possibilities.
Myanmar modern poetry became popular and gained much momentum in 1970’s. They often appeared in the reputable journal, Moe Way Literary Magazine. The young poets liked the flavours explored in Htinn Yoo Pin Yeik (The Shade of Pine Tree), a collection of English poems which had been translated by the literary genius of Maung Tha Noe. The youth attempted to use the techniques used by poets translated in this pioneering collection.
I felt the magic of the man whom Rabindranath Tagore gave the name of Mahatma — Great Soul — when I was well into my forties, and was doing a fellowship in Oxford on a Charles Wallace award, on John Ruskin and his influence on Gandhi and Tagore. Then, almost 20 years passed, and we were nearing the critical juncture in time when we were completing 70 years of his passing and approaching his sesquicentennial birth anniversary. That’s when I started wondering: What does Mohandas Karamchand mean to those acquiring voting rights in India today?
Is he only the face on every Indian currency note? Is he only M G Road — the high street of every city in India? Is he a boring memory who forces every one of his countrymen to shun drinking on his birthday?
Like Abdi, writers have also sought to illuminate particular moments in history. Saadat Hassan Manto’s very short story, ‘The Garland’(1948), is set in the frenzied days of Partition. A Muslim mob in Lahore attacks the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, a famous Hindu architect and philanthropist, pelting ‘him’ with sticks, bricks and stones. One man smears the likeness with coal tar and another is shot by police as he places a garland of shoes around the statue’s neck. The satire closes with the injured man being rushed off, “to be bandaged at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital”, founded by the very same Ganga Ram whose image he had been wrecking. Manto allows the reader a quick apprehension of an ironic truth, but the characters remain unconscious. A comparable story also about the early days of Partition is RK Narayan’s dark comedy ‘Lawley Road’ (1943), the central premise of the story being the commemoration of a dignitary by a monument. In the fictional town of Malgudi, a series of bureaucratic absurdities around colonial symbols illustrates the legacy of colonialism and the confusion and identity crisis after Independence.
Where has the word ‘prostitute’ come from? From the Latin word prostitus, found since the 16th century? But the past participle of prostiture — whether interpreted as ‘to expose publicly’ or read as ‘thing that is standing’ — does not have the abusive association the most ancient profession has. For that matter, the very phrase ‘oldest profession’ — a euphemism for prostitution when delicacy forbade the use of the word — is said to have acquired its opprobrious nuance only in the last lap of 19th century, after Rudyard Kipling used it in ‘On the City Wall’ (January 1889), a short story about an Indian prostitute.
Morrison was born in 1931 and grew up in a family atmosphere which provided a context for arousing a keen interest in the stories, narratives, folklore, myths and rituals of the African American community. This early interest is evident in the rich oral quality of her writings, its lyrical cadences and it’s measured and “layered polyphony’’. Later, she studied English and Classical Literature from Howard University in Washington D.C. where she acquired her BA degree. This was followed by a Masters from Cornell University in 1955.
Singapore has completed more than half a century of independent existence. It is now a thriving country with an intrinsic personality of its own. What went into making Singapore a distinctive island cannot be just found in history books but between the borders of fact and fantasy, where lingers fiction that tunes us to the distinct flavour of this unique metropolitan city-state.As Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father said in one of his speeches, Singapore started with people of “many races who speak many languages, who worship different gods, who have different diet habits” and yet they all unified under the banner of a single flag. The kind of culture that evolves out of the union of these diversities is best explored in stories that are of the people, by the people and for the people. These are some novels that showcase the culture and history of Singapore and how it evolved out of the colonial past to become what it is today. These are all books that focus on issues against the backdrop of a national landscape. The issues addressed transcend to become larger than the personal. Some of the writers are Singapore Literature Prize and S.E.A. Write Award winners and have been translated to multiple languages.
If the unarticulated childhood love of Shekhar and Lalita came to fruition in Parineeta, that of Devdas and Paro had a tragic ending. Yet, amazingly, Devdas has seen far many more remakes, adaptations, plagiarisms. Bimal Roy himself had wielded the camera in an earlier, 1935 version of Devdas featuring K L Saigal. But to date, his version with Dilip Kumar in the eponymous role continues to dazzle viewers. In 2005, Indiatimes Movies reportedly ranked it among the ‘25 Must See Films of Bollywood’. It has figured in the University of Iowa’s list of ‘Top 10 Bollywood Films’. It had got a Certificate of Merit at the National Film Awards (NFA) 1956, and the lead actors had swept the popular Filmfare Awards.
Taiwan sits on a piece of colourful and multi-splendoured island real estate, south of Japan and east of Hong Kong and China. As an independent, sovereign nation since 1945, it has produced its share of Asian literature since the beginning of the Japanese Colonial Period (1895-1945) to the present. In this brief essay, I want to introduce two Taiwanese writers; one a novelist with an international reputation, Wu Ming-yi, who writes in Chinese, and the other a short story writer based in Taipei, Jane Wu, who writes in English and has recently published a collection of nine stories about the martial law period of Taiwan history (1949 to 1987).
We use what we know today to imagine a different tomorrow –- a better tomorrow — for the world. Still, sooner rather than later, sci-fi that looks out-dated as science fiction becomes a scientific fact. Don’t we all know that Sage Valmiki wrote in Ramayana of the Pushpak Vimana ( mythical flying chariots in Hindu lore) and the giant bird Jatayu that clashed in mid-space aeons before the Wright Brothers wrote their names into aviation history or before the Central Science Laboratory in UK estimated that worldwide, the cost of bird-strikes to airlines had soared to US$ 1.2 billion annually
So what is cli-fi? As a subgenre of science fiction, it crosses the boundary between literary fiction and sci-fi to imagine the past, present, and future effects of man-made climate change, allowing readers to see what life might be like on a burning, drowning, dying planet. But the genre also encompasses writers who pen utopian novels and short stories full of hope and optimism. Cli-fi is not all dystopian and nightmarish visions of the future. There’s a lot of room for hope and better days, too.
Among the more hopeful and utopian novels, there’s science fiction legend Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Another important cli-fi novel due for release this June, titled Gun Island, comes from the pen of Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, author of an earlier cli-fi novel titled The Hungry Tide.
A sorcerer-librarian in ancient Korea who transforms people into books locking them up in his shelves for ever, a far-future civilisation on the planet Ruo, remembering their ancestors in the drowned world of BlueGemm — finished off by greed and climate change, a time travelling ghost in Hong Kong disconcerted by the rules of afterlife.
These are just a few of the characters and situations that we present before you dear reader in this book of amazing tales — stories from Asia, a continent blessed with mindboggling creativity and chutzpah, zen and brio, or what they sometimes call the Asiatic imagination, which is born of course out of its chequered fabric, the diversity of its peoples, the textures of our histories. Asia, a multitudinous hundred-headed medley of contemplativeness and chaos, a mélange of landforms, a kedgeree of ideas, a crucible of cultures, and you get it all here in this book, served fresh, sizzling, wok-fried and ready to tease your taste buds.
… These sentences were written at the time when Kazantzakis had a premonition of Charon coming soon to visit him. The words stunned me. I looked for the author and the book. I hadn’t read anything about Nikos Kazantzakis. Reading Report to Greco, Kazantzakis’ autobiographical novel, was akin to being part of the author’s spiritual journey. The moment I started reading Greco, I was transported into a different realm of writing. I hadn’t ever experienced such joy of reading. Pure philosophy. The uphill path. It was like reading something written with blood.
The stigma surrounding mental illness including depression remains a barrier to people seeking help throughout the world. Talking about depression whether with your family member, friend or a medical professional in multiple settings like schools, work place, and social media helps break down this stigma.
Preparing an anthology of contemporary Indian poetry is a complex task. ….
In the 100 Great Poems of India, Abhay K. gives voice to the most diverse poetic manifestations of India, throughout its millennial history. Linguistic diversity and regional representation impresses: there are 28 Indian languages represented, covering almost every state in the Indian subcontinent – Assamese, Bengali, Bhili, Dogri, English, Gondi, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khasi, Kokborok, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Persian, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and Páli.
As we approached Bara Imambara, we were amazed at the number of people, vehicles, cows and dogs that infested the entrance. In the movie, the area had looked deserted and mysterious, but as we would discover, it was milling with crowds. There were people outside, people inside and people all around!
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.