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When real life outstrips fiction…

Hussainul Haq’s novel “Amawas Mein Khwab” initiates a new debate on the Hindu-Muslim relationship

At a time when people cherish to be lied to, what can scare away the spectre of an unprecedented assault on the very idea of truth? Is truth a sociological reality or an unachievable ethical reality? Does the narrative of homogeneity set in motion by new information technology produce a kind of immodesty that allows us to recognise falsehood but we still treat it as if were a reality? Does our intent on peddling fantasy as a fact correspond to “Suspended Disbelief” that Coleridge found essential for literature? These frightening and unsettling questions thrown up by the post-truth period are impeccably sewn together in a novel of a celebrated Urdu novelist and short story writer Hussainul Haq and his latest novel has been doing rounds in the Urdu knowing circles of the subcontinent.

His recently published novel, “Amawas Mein Khwab” (Dreaming in the last night before the new moon), poignantly tells a tale of Ismael Rajai, who lost all his family members in a communal riot but a marked Indian passion for free-flowing of inter-personal relationship unencumbered by religious and cultural affinity and uncontaminated by self-interest enabled him to begin a new life. Ismael, lived in Bombay, Bhiwandi and Patna, and is exposed to many cultures and as a power loom owner, teacher, a friend of a landlord, a father and a thinking human being, he tries to understand why common people do the uncommon to transform themselves. His stint as a lecturer at a college in Bihar provides him with a space where several mediations are carried out. Arousal of mass-hysteria in the name of caste and religion acquaints him with the aggressive and self-destructive potential of conflict and disharmony. His tantalising journey of a new life transcends inadequacies and presents a higher level of synthesis where being apart and being together emerge a reality as audaciously as they can.

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Writing to Reconcile: A personal journey

Last fall, in Toronto, I went to see a play that was written by one of the writers in this anthology, Sindhuri Nandakumar. The play was called A Crease in my Sari and told the story of a young Sri Lankan Tamil woman, born and raised in Canada who found herself in a relationship with a Sinhalese man, whom she had met in the coffee shop. The young woman, Maheshwari, had been purposely raised by her mother in a western suburb of Toronto, away from other Tamils who generally live in the eastern suburbs. So, apart from one Tamil friend, she had no real contact with her community and heritage. Now, however, finding herself falling in love with this Sinhalese man, Chanaka, she also found herself confronted with the realities of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Chanaka, with all the naïve optimism that majority communities can afford to have, believed that love conquers all and that their ethnic difference was no barrier. This was partly his charm for her.

But the history of the country both young people had left was insistent, and it would not allow either of them to ignore it. It was the winter of 2009 and the war in Sri Lanka was in its last phase. Soon, Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto were protesting against the Sri Lankan government, most famously carrying out a sit-down in the middle of a Toronto expressway. Maheshwari discovered that Chanaka’s father was in the army, and that Chanaka believed this was a just war, a humanitarian effort with zero casualties. As the play progressed, Maheshwari grew increasingly politicised and, in the end, their relationship was unable to bear the weight of history.

After the show as I walked to the train, I was lost in thought remembering my own thoughts and feelings during those months in 2009; remembering how I didn’t want to join the Tamil protesters because they were protesting under the Tiger flag, but how I also couldn’t join the counter-protest by the Sinhalese in Toronto, as they had taken up the zero casualties-humanitarian approach, which I found ridiculous.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Nayomi Munaweera

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Nayomi Munaweera

Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Nigeria and lives in USA.  In 2013, her debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the Commonwealth Book Prize, Asian region, and was long listed for the Man Asia Prize and the International DUBLIN Literary Award. In 2017, her second book, What Lies Between Us won the State Literary Award for Best English Novel, 2017. Along with renowned Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai, Nayomi has been a part of the Write to Reconcile Programme in Sri Lanka.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane: Nayomi, welcome to Kitaab. Congratulations on winning Sri Lanka’s State Award for your second book.

I’m intrigued by the titles of your books Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us – the first visually evocative and the second ironic in its use of the word ‘Lies’. What led to the choice of these titles?

Nayomi Munaweera: I actually do not title my own books. It’s very difficult after you’ve worked on a book for multiple years, eight for the first, four for the second to find a phrase that encapsulates all the thought and complication that you have attempted to explore. Both the titles came after about 3 months of consultation with my publisher, my editor, my agent, my family. The first title came out of an 80 title list. It was a really difficult process to find it. The second was similarly difficult – I think we came up with 60 and before I picked this one. So I would rather write a 300 page book than title it. I leave that to other people.

Sucharita: What was it like to write Island from either side of the socio-political divide while living in a country removed from the scene of this trauma and then to rely on and deal with ‘memory’ as inherent to this story?

Nayomi: Hard.

I had a lot of fear about whether I was the person to tell this story. Whether it was mine to tell since I had not lived in Sri Lanka since I was three years old and only visited the country every year. I was very aware of my out-sider-ness. I think all writers deal with this. But if you stop there you’ve let fear swallow up your writing. A great deal of writing is about being recklessly, stupidly adamant that you will do the thing. It might not be good but you have to try. It was that sort of foolhardiness that got me through eight years of writing that book and the subsequent three years it took to find a first publisher.

Sucharita: What Lies Between Us leaves behind the politics and history of a country and turns inward to a space that is intensely fissured, to memory that is slippery. For you as the writer, living in the mind of a single character through the traumatic events she internalises, did her emotions, fears and responses come naturally to you, the organic process, or did it involve a lot of research?

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Book Excerpt: Pal Motors by Devraj Singh Kalsi

PalMotors cover

CHAPTER 1

There were incidents of Bibi Amrit Kaur losing her gold ring in the temple, Sardarni Nasib Virdi forgetting her purse in the market and Preet leaving her mobile phone in college, but it happened for the first time that the three residents of Bungalow number 10 lost what was precious, rather, most precious, on the same day in the house.

Nasib clashed her wrists to break the bangles into pieces. The bangles – made of solid gold – produced a jarring clink. Those around her heard it. She pitched the impact of her unbearable loss with a loud cry that choked in her dry throat. She gagged her inaudible sobs using the chunni. Sardar Pal Singh, her voice, had left her forever.

Bibi Amrit, fondly called Biji, doubled her thunderous output on realizing that she had an opportunity to overpower Nasib, to show the train of mourners that a mother’s grief was heavier than a widow’s. She wept inconsolably, beating her chest wildly to gather sympathy as the most unfortunate survivor.

Preet, who had never expressed her deepest emotions in the midst of a public gathering, appeared inhibited. Her father’s dead body lay in front of her, shrouded in white. Her mother and grandmother were engaged in a competitive tearful farewell. The daughter, too, was supposed to whip up hysteria. It was the last chance to show how madly she loved him, how terribly she would miss him. The world waiting to judge her grief was disappointed. She remained conscious of drawing public attention with her cries. Her sobs emerged irregularly like hiccups. Despite her best effort to react to the cold reality staring in the face she failed to put up an impressive debut.

Sardar Pal Singh’s funeral attracted large crowds. He was popular among all communities, cutting across age groups, in the small multi-cultural town where he was born, raised, educated, and married. Almost everyone in bustling Kendrapara knew him as the bountiful, cheerful, delightful, helpful, merciful, resourceful and respectful Sardar who owned Pal Motors – his automobile spare parts shop beside Uttam Market on Station Road.

Plenty of hands jostled to pay last respects, to establish the final physical contact, to touch the body, the feet or at least the white cotton sheet. Many showed up for the sake of attendance and melted into the crowd. Throngs of mourners waited to see the farewell and funeral proceedings in a Sikh family. Some trooped in just because they wanted to enter the bungalow that looked impenetrable like a fortress. The spiked iron gates were thrown open for trucks and general public.

Biji detested the sight of Nasib kissing her husband’s face and resting her head on his chest. She half-closed her eyes to avoid the intimate scene. When Samir trained his lens to shoot these candid moments, Biji opened her eyes and objected, “What’s the use of taking photos now?”

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The 12 worst workplaces in contemporary literature

From office drones occupying bland white cubicles of repressed misery in Corporate America to unwanted, but necessary, guest workers toiling in the hot sands of Abu Dhabi, these 12 contemporary books skewer corporate culture and reveal the inevitable result of a capitalistic society that views workers as anonymous, replaceable cogs in a never-ending pursuit of profit.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishan

Temporary People is a work of fiction set in the UAE, where I was raised and where foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave,” prefaces the author. In these 28 interlinked stories and poems, Unnikrishnan combines Malayalam, Arabic, and English to encapsulate the dissonance of these displaced guest workers straddled between two countries and breaking their backs for a country that they can never call home. The displacement and dehumanization of these perpetual foreigners manifests as metamorphoses: a migrant moonlights as a mid-sized hotel, a runaway shape-shifts into a suitcase and a sultan grow “ideal” workers with a twelve-year shelf life from pods. One chapters contains only a list of occupations “Tailor. Hooker. Horse Looker. Maid.” and ends with “Cog. Cog? Cog.” With anti-migrant sentiment at an all time high, Temporary People is a timely and necessary exploration of how “temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, fables, and language(s).”

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The complexities of humanitarian awards: Gui Minhai’s daughter on the freedom to publish

Gui Minhai, a publisher who disappeared in China earlier this year, has said in a videotaped interview—which critics say is forced—that he does not want the Prix Voltaire. His daughter denies that this is his actual feeling.

It fell to the daughter of Gui Minhai, the Swedish publisher and bookseller detained in China in January, to ask a question Sunday (January 11) that has dogged the International Publishers Association (IPA) for more than two years:

“Why is the Chinese Publishers Association allowed to be part of the IPA? How is this defensible?” Angela Gui asked a hushed gathering of IPA delegates in a Skype transmission from her home in the UK on the first day of the IPA’s 32nd International Publishers Congress seated in New Delhi.

In a full day of issues and insights, the interview with Gui’s poised, articulate daughter was easily the most compelling part of the day, coming in a session which asked “Do Awards and Recognitions Help?” in cases in which defenders of the freedom to publish are granted the IPA’s Prix Voltaire and other humanitarian awards.

The session’s chair, Jessica Sänger, director for European and international affairs with the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, had asked Angela Gui if—on the eve of formally confirming her father as the honoree of the 2018 Prix Voltaire—there might be more ways the IPA’s 60-nation membership could support Minhai in his plight.

“Is there anything we should be doing to support you,” Sänger asked, “in your campaign to hopefully improve his situation and finally be released?”

Angela Gui answered without rancor, choosing her words thoughtfully. “In terms of what can be done to help, that’s a very difficult question because there’s certainly no information [about her father’s current situation]. I’m unsure how to proceed in my own advocacy efforts. And of course, I think using the channels that are available to the IPA to exert pressure is very important.”

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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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Linguists discover previously unidentified language in Malaysia

Linguists working in the Malay Peninsula have identified a language, now called Jedek, that had not previously been recognized outside of the small group of people who speak it.

The newly documented language is spoken by some 280 people, part of a community that once foraged along the Pergau River. The Jedek speakers now live in resettlement area in northern Malaysia.

Jedek was recognized as a unique language by Swedish linguists from Lund University, who ran across the new language while studying the Jahai language in the same region.

“Jedek is not a language spoken by an unknown tribe in the jungle, as you would perhaps imagine, but in a village previously studied by anthropologists,” Niclas Burenhult, associate professor of general linguistics and the first researcher to record the language, said in a statement released by the university. “As linguists, we had a different set of questions and found something that the anthropologists missed.”

Doctoral student Joanne Yager spent four years doing intensive fieldwork and studying the language.

“There are so many undocumented, undescribed languages that nobody has worked with,” Yager told NPR. “But the difference here is … we didn’t know that it existed at all. Most languages that are undescribed and undocumented, we know that they exist.”

One possible reason the language went undetected for so long, she says, is that the formerly nomadic people who spoke it didn’t have a single consistent name for it. (The name Jedek comes from one of several terms the speakers use.)

Research by Yager and Burenhult was published in the latest issue of Linguistic Typology and publicly announced by Lund University on Tuesday.

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Book Review: Wayfaring by Tikuli

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Wayfaring

 

Title: Wayfaring
Author: Tikuli
Publisher: Leaky Book (2017)
Pages: 136

Tikuli knows her mountains well. Not only their physical scale and magnitude, but also the silence and solitude they subsume. Like mountains, she knows how to stand tall amid loneliness and rocky treacherousness. And like them, she has harnessed this solitude to distill it into something beauteous.

If solitude is nature’s essential condition, loneliness, its second cousin, is a function of being human. As Wayfaring shows, we don’t always choose loneliness; sometimes it chooses us. When it does, it’s seldom romantic and more like one’s own shadow, impossible to disown. This is Tikuli’s relationship with the pain of loneliness. Her words bear scarring anguish, and yet instead of exhausting the spirit, they nourish it. Such is the luminescence of her expressions; they betray a heart that’s gone through fire to turn into gold.


I listen to the silence of the trees
as the leaves spiral down and dance
to imaginary music along the pathway,
they cling to my worn sneakers,
my gaze follows two pairs of wings
chasing each other in the clear, blue sky [Trail]

Where she diverges from the mountains is in her movement, voluntary or not. She and her poems drift through different terrains as the section names evince: Trains, Exile poems, Remembrance, Travel, Mosaic, Acrostics, Delhi poems. The “Train” poems set the tone of this roving spirit with quickening grace. Between the span of two poems, Mist and City Metro, the scene changes from rhododendron-flanked valleys to a shopping bag laden cityscape. Even in the movement, there is a steadiness that comes with a contemplative eye, one that pauses long enough at the view out of a train window before letting it escape. The poet’s attention is equally unwavering inside the train. The Local Train is a photographic example of this and places the reader inside the packed coach of a train in motion. In Rain, a short poem, train and rain magically become one.

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A crash course in diversifying your bookshelf

Is your reading list looking a little monochrome? We’ve compiled 15 books to help you broaden your horizons

In the past year, I’ve made a conscious and intentional effort to read in an inclusive and representative way. For me this means reading perspectives that differ from mine, about experiences that are new to me, and learning from people who have lived in ways that offer precious teachings. It also means reading nonfiction and fiction in equal measure. Consuming the news and nonfiction about important but heavy topics can be emotionally draining; whereas poetry and comics can uplift us when we feel weltshmerz or despair.

This is why I’ve put together a list of books by writers, poets, and artists from a range of backgrounds. When read in the order presented, it creates a narrative arc of its own. The list builds from a slow crescendo of more accessible books to heavy-hitters that draw on academic and historical research, finishing with a few books that unearth the kinds of futures we want to create.

These titles will humble you and fill you with wonder. But most important, they will hopefully also inspire you to create your own stories in ways that are most representative of your experiences.

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