Not shackled by history

Biman Nath brings stories from lesser known parts of the country to us, urban dwellers. His latest novel The Tattooed Fakir (Pan Macmillan, Rs. 299), like his 2009 novel, Nothing Is Blue, makes for a refreshing read. This is because it is set in rural India during the relatively unknown Sanyasi-Fakir rebellion against the British between 1770 and 1790, led by Majnu Shah.

Launched by Jahnavi Baruah at Sapna Book House this month, The Tattooed Fakir begins with the kidnap of a fakir’s young wife, Roshanara by the village zamindar, who lusts for her. The British sahib, however, intervenes and takes her as his own mistress. Asif, her husband, is distraught and eventually joins a militant fakir group. Years later, Asif meets his son Roshan, a ferocious tattooed fakir, in a rescue mission, and finds that he is insecure about his identity.

Through The Tattooed Fakir, Biman Nath not only provides a glimpse into this period of history but also attempts to understand reasons behind ordinary people turning against the state.

“Warren Hastings, the then Governor-General, branded the fakirs as ‘enemies of the state’. I wanted to understand how an ordinary person would feel being termed a terrorist and what drives them to take up arms. The fakirs in my books are religious Muslims, but they aren’t fundamentalists. A similar situation can be seen with the Maoist movement.”

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Jeet Thayil on Man Booker shortlist

Four years after Aravind Adiga’s famous “Guildhall triumph”, another Indian writer is in the race for the £50,000 Man Booker Prize: Jeet Thayil.

The noted 53-year-old Kerala-born poet and novelist has been shortlisted for this year’s award for his debut novel, Narcopolis, a dark tale about the opium and heroin dens of Mumbai thought to be based on his own experiences of what one critic described as the city’s “seedy underbelly”.

The novel has been hailed as a “blistering debut” with The Guardian comparing it to the likes of William Burroughs’s Junky and Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

Mr. Thayil , who survived a cull of 12-strong longlist, will go head-to-head with such literary heavyweights as Hilary Mantel, a previous Booker winner, and Will Self.

Ms. Mantel, shortlisted for Bring Up the Bodies – a sequel to Wolf Hall which won a Booker in 2009 – was promptly installed as the bookies’ favourite, with Mr. Self a close second for his much-acclaimed Umbrella.

If Mr. Thayil goes on to win, he will join a select band of Indian or India-born Booker winners such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga.

Others, who figure in the shortlist announced on Tuesday, are Tan Twan Eng (The Garden of Evening Mists), Deborah Levy (Swimming Home), and Alison Moore (The Lighthouse).

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‘Marriage is going to die in the next decade’

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

What was the motivation for writing this book?

I am twice divorced now with two children. The divorce proceedings were a painful and traumatic experience. I have friends across different professions and 90 percent of them today are separated or divorced. It is startling. I was the first child in my family to get divorced. My uncles and aunts have had problems, but they have stuck together. Times have changed. What happened in the new millennium? What happened to love? Where did we go wrong? I’m trying to explore that. Once a marriage starts cracking up, your whole social fabric is threatened. It’s a very scary sight for the country and we don’t realise that and hence the book.

What was the process of writing The Last Love Letter like?

The Last Love Letter was an extremely cathartic experience because I have based a work of fiction around events in my life. It was like a strenuous yoga session of six months, which cleansed my mind and body. It was painful and frustrating too. You have no idea about where you are going. Is it a highway? Is it a jungle? Is it a chasm? But I love it. I would do it all the time.

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‘I Am Surprised And Shocked By Taslima’s Allegation’

This week, Taslima Nasreen created controversy not by writing but by tweeting. In a Twitter post, the exiled Bangladeshi feminist writer made the explosive claim that renowned Bengali writer and Sahitya Akademi president Sunil Gangopadhyay had sexually harassed her and other women taking advantage of his powerful position in the literary world. Sunil Gangopadhyay reacted to these allegations in an exclusive interview to Dola Mitra. Excerpts.

Taslima Nasreen has accused you of sexually harassing her and other women….

I think reacting to her comments would give her undue importance. But I want to ask, did this sexual harassment take place now? Why didn’t she complain when it happened? Why is she suddenly raising the issue now?

She says that it is entirely a woman’s prerogative when she wants to make a complaint.

It is very easy for her to cry rape and molestation now. But Taslima was very close to me and we spent a lot of time together. She often came to my house. We discussed literature. We had meals together. Just the other day I found a picture of her during Holi, which we spent in Shantiniketan. Her whole body and face was smeared in colour and she was sitting at my feet.

Why then is Taslima making such allegations?

Taslima is someone who craves to be the centre of attention at all times. She thrives on creating controversy. Lately she has been feeling neglected. She has been desperately trying to return to India to stay, but has failed. No one seems to be talking about her anymore. So she wanted to bring the focus back on herself by any means. And something sensational like this was sure to do that.

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The Bhagat Effect

We sat at that part of the river turned lake for some time. In that some time, four girls went passed in their bikinis. All four of them lit up on seeing Shubhro. All four kissed Shubhro on his cheeks. It was their style of greetings. Normally foreigners would have a different style of greeting foreigners and greeting Indians. But Shubhro seemed one of them. Definitely, he didn’t just know them. He lived with them…He then led us farther into the city. There were no concrete roads in this area and the demographics were now strictly foreigners. Time and again, the smell of marijuana would hit my nostrils.”

— From I’m not twenty fourI’ve been nineteen for five years… by Sachin Garg

This is a sample of what you can expect from the new and burgeoning genre of English literature in India. They’re books that reflect the melodrama and preoccupations of old-school Hindi movies, TV soaps, plots that seem suspiciously inspired by the author’s life, and protagonists who are almost always young, middle class, and successful professionals – doctors, engineers, MBAs. There is no poetry here — only attempts at lucid writing, some more successful than others. But even as the high-minded litterateur sneers and shuns, the authors and their publishers remain convinced they have their ear to the ground. The fact that they’re cackling all the way to the bank indicates they might well be right.

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Salman Rushdie film courts Indian controversy

The film of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children – a love letter to India – has failed to find a distributor in the country.

It is an epic portrayal of the country’s modern history and one of its best-known books of recent decades. But a film adaptation of Salman Rushdie‘s novel about India after independence, Midnight’s Children, has plunged the author into new controversy in his native land.

Speaking at the film’s premiere in Toronto at the weekend, director Deepa Mehta revealed that no Indian film distributor has so far bought rights to the film.

“Salman has often said that the book was his love letter to India. I think the film reflects that love. What a pity if insecure politicians deprive the people of India to make up their own minds about what the film means, or does not mean, to them,” the Hindustan Times, a leading Indian newspaper, has quoted the Indian-Canadian director as saying.

The film follows the narrative of the original novel and includes unflattering portrayals of top Indian political figures. Cinema experts in the subcontinent said the failure to find a distributor revealed a weakness in Indian democracy.

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Pain and protest

Anjali Deshpande took a long time to bring the lives of activists between covers but the wait was worth it

For the media it is dated, for most of us it is dead and for the courts it is a case without a deadline. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy continues to distress in more ways than one. Now Anjali Deshpande brings the maya of methyl isocynate back in memories with a novel that pricks where it matters. A long time journalist and activist, Deshpande has seen the pain and protest from close quarters. Called “Impeachment”, like every emotional outpouring it is slightly loose, sometimes repetitive, but always honest. It hauls up the judiciary, questions the NGO movement and stirs the sentiments through characters you can touch and feel.

At a stage in life where she would rather enjoy “virtues of laziness” rather than indulge in programmed activism, Despande says she wanted to write on activism with a campaign as the backdrop. “I didn’t want it to be a blur. Many books I have read in literature, which give you so and so participated in national struggle. What did they do, you don’t get to know.”

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Anita Desai on The Artist of Disappearance

The novelist talks about the challenges of recreating the events of a past era in her trio of novellas.

How did you come to write The Artist of Disappearance, your  trio of novellas about the influence of the past on modern India?
The ideas had planted themselves in me long ago. For “The Museum of Final Journeys”, it was visiting the Museum of Oriental Art in Venice and, while there, recalling the crumbling old palaces in the hinterland of West Bengal that I had toured with my sister, then a district official. For “ÍTranslator Translated”, it was the debates that used to rage about colonial versus indigenous languages in India in the 50s and 60s, when I first started writing. And for “The Artist of Disappearance”, it was the hills of Mussoorie, where I had spent childhood summers. But they had to wait for the right season to come to life, which came when I was once again spending a winter in Mexico, for me the best place in which to write.
What was most difficult about it?
Recalling and recreating the events and atmosphere of the past and making them fresh and vivid and immediate once more.

Interview: Sudha Shah

The King in Exile

Tell us about The King In Exile.

The book is a human interest story about the last king of Burma and his family, set in the historical and social context of the period.

What inspired you to write it?

Reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace piqued my curiosity. I wanted to know what happened to the descendants, and I discovered that not much had been written about them.

What kind of work did it require?

Over seven years, I gathered scattered bits of information from archives and libraries in Mumbai, Delhi, Yangon and London. I also traced the descendants in India and Burma.

Did the descendants warm up to the idea?

They were always warm and friendly. As I built a rapport with them, they opened up.

The book is thick, and rich with detail.

It could have been four times the size! Research included not just interviewing the descendants, but also people around them.

Where did the book take you?

To Ratnagiri, where the king was in exile for 31 years. I visited Calcutta, Delhi, London, and Yangon, Mandalay and Maymyo in Burma.

What was most fascinating about the story?

The characters, the unexpected twists and turns in their lives. I was interested in exploring how the princesses, brought up in isolation without any education, fared when they were let out into the real world after the king died.

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