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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Wasi Ahmed

By Aminah Sheikh

wasi-ahmedLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

For the most part, I write to see myself in a state of self-questioning. Reality, for me, is important in as much as it stokes the sparks that hurl me into writing. But reality often remains a narrative on the surface only. This surface reality has its limitations, in that it can at times be a misrepresentation of the inner, true essence—a simplification, so to say. I sometimes tend to see it as the reality of the unreal, for surface reality can be deceptive, unable to lend a critical understanding of the inner content. How much does a visual object tell us about what it’s actually about? You don’t get to know the dancer from her dance.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I’ve almost finished working on a collection of my stories in English translation. I myself did a few; others were done by competent translators. A different version of the stories in a different language may be a curious experience, interesting too.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Ever since I started writing, I tried to remain reticent, and never lose sight of the unbecoming and the skeptical aspects (not necessarily in conveying a message or in questioning – self-questioning to be precise).

Who are your favorite authors?

Many. Not all favorites come in the same order, and over time I tend to shift my fancy. Naming celebrated authors not in my list would have been easy. Serbian author Millorad Pavic, for strange reasons, is a long-lasting favorite. So is Milan Kundera. In my country, the author I revere most and hardly find a parallel elsewhere is Akhtaruzzman Elias. His stories are extraordinarily unique in craft and content. Proper translation of his works, an extremely difficult task, would have earned him a rare feat in global literature. It’s our collective guilt that an author of his stature remained confined by the limits of geography and language in the so-called globalized world. An archeological dig might retrieve him some day!

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

It was a novel of more than 80,000 words. The theme had been with me, though largely shrouded, for more than 10 years; but I hardly ever thought of writing it. When finally, I was kind of charged to write it down, I found out that there were elements of history that I must take along. The subject was land slavery that prevailed in the eastern part of Bangladesh – which was part of Assam in pre-partition India — for centuries. When I got into the task, I told myself I’ll have to build my own storyline skirting around the historical elements in a way that history should not at all interfere with the flow of the story. This, I think, was quite a challenge. The name of the novel is Tolkuthurir Gaan (Songs from the Abyss).

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Shaheen Akhtar

By Aminah Sheikh

shaheen-profile

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because not writing feels uncomfortable and hollow to me, like hovering in a void. I feel alive when I write. Writing a novel makes me feel as if I’m discovering the world anew. I derive enormous pleasure in engaging myself in this process. Writing is truly my most significant method in understanding things. This encounter is primarily with my own self: with the known and unknown worlds, as well as with times that I have not witnessed or lived through. Although my writing self is fairly vulnerable, still I adore that persona.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

At the moment I’m writing on the 1940s and the 1950s. This was a very important period for South Asia. The fates of millions of people were determined without their knowledge; I’m talking about the 1947 Partition. In the twinkling of an eye, people were turned into minorities; they lost their homesteads, their known worlds. There seems to be no end to it—a process that is still ongoing. At the center of my new novel is undivided Bengal, a province of pre-Partition India. A time when the Hindu elite had grown afraid and embittered at the gradual empowerment of the majority but backward Muslims; when this region was beset by the second world war, the Bengal famine, Hindu-Muslim communal riots, the Partition and its immediate fallout. The deeper I explore these questions, the more the Partition appears as inevitable as fate. There was no way for this to not happen. I’ve forgotten what I set out to write in the novel; now I have to wait and see what this novel makes me say.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

What I can say about aesthetics? Rather let me talk about my writing style. I write at a slow pace. I enjoy experimenting with forms. These days I’m increasingly attracted to words, phrases, and idioms that I heard in childhood, or expressions which aren’t used much anymore. I can tell that this attraction is gradually turning into an obsession. I always strive not to write two novels in the same structure or style.

Who are your favorite authors?

That changes. Presently, Orhan Pamuk. Also, I adore Alice Munro’s stories. Reading her is like listening to a favorite piece music at low volume, which you can listen to all day. You never lose focus when you’re reading her stories, you never feel monotony. As if she has a divine gift.

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Book Review: Exile: Memoir by Taslima Nasrin

By Piya Srinivasan

exile

One thing we know about Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, whether through her writings or hearsay, is that she doesn’t mince words. Her memoir follows this legacy. Exile is about the fight of a woman against the state, a commentary on India’s struggle to maintain its secular credentials, the rapidly diminishing arena of free expression, and the ugly effect of vote bank politics on her life. Her open attacks on religion, patriarchy and intolerance are distilled into a retelling of her seven-month ordeal in 2007 against the Indian state’s coercive mechanisms.

Nasrin has many epithets: former physician, humanist, human rights activist, proponent of freedom of expression and women’s rights, battler of fatwas. Forced to leave Bangladesh in 1994 after the religious furore caused by her book Lajja, she led a nomadic existence in Europe and America for a decade. Her repeated attempts to return to Bangladesh were rejected by the government. The last of her three-part memoir, Ka, published as Dwikhandito in West Bengal, was banned by the local government in 2003 for hurting Muslim religious sentiments. In 2004, she was granted a residency permit in India and made a home in Kolkata, the place closest to her homeland in language and culture.

Her narrative — through musings, letters, conversations, diary entries and newspaper reports – uncovers the grit and grime of politics. After an attack on her by religious ideologues linked to the political party AIMIM at the launch of her book Shodh in Hyderabad, a violent protest march by rabble rousers demanding her expulsion from Kolkata expedited the state government’s “Exit Taslima” mission.  She was subsequently put under house arrest on her return to Kolkata, for fear of communal disturbances over her presence. When asked to arrest the protesters, the Commissioner of Police refused, saying this was a “minority issue”. She offers this as proof of manufactured dissent by the state government to secure the Muslim vote bank.

She challenges Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who was the chief minister at the time, on his studied silence over the Dwikhandito ban, approved by him after 25 prominent literary figures read the book and condemned it, clearly belying the Left Front’s progressive ideals. She condemns many of the city’s intellectuals and exposes the media-politics alliance through the instance of Anandabazar Patrika editor-in-chief Aveek Sarkar stalling her interview for the newspaper on the then foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee’s behest, allegedly to appease fundamentalist factions in West Bengal.

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“The pen is mightier than the sword. Otherwise people with swords would not be so desperate to snatch my pen.” Taslima Nasrin

By Aminah Sheikh

exile

“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.

“A Free Bird” was her first poem at the age of 13, Taslima’s first writing ever.  “I wanted to be like a free bird, wanted to fly in the open blue sky,” she fondly recalls, in an email interaction with Kitaab. Her poems were published in literary magazines, followed by her opinion pieces on culture in national newspapers. In the years that followed, her views, expressed through her writings, on women’s rights and criticism of religious fundamentalism in a conservative patriarchal society, made many uncomfortable to the extent they grew intolerant of Taslima’s existence itself.

“Before writing Lajja, I wrote several books. One of them was Nirbacita Kolam, and that book was a turning point. The book consists of my feminist writings,” she adds. The undercurrents in the minds of religious extremists against this very bold writer had already begun to gather steam in Bangladesh and perhaps Lajja was the last straw. In September 1993, a fatwa was issued against her and a reward offered for her death. Taslima’s life as a medical officer was also put on hold. “I had to quit my job as a medical officer at the government hospital because the government wanted me to stop writing books. I was obviously punished for no fault of mine. I got busy with my writings. And gave up being sad for their injustices against me,” she recounts. Although Taslima was born in a Muslim family, she was raised in a secular atmosphere. “It (being secular) was not uncommon in 1960s and 70s Bangladesh. Most of my family members were not practicing Muslims. Some of them were atheists. It was not common during my time for young women to wear hijabs or young men to go to mosques. It is a recent phenomenon after massive Islamisation of Bangladesh,” she explains.

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What is the politics of literature? A critical study of two Indian writers attempts to answer

the-deed-of-words

If a writer is involved in a political movement, do these two roles, that of a writer and an activist, inhabit her as “two indispensable alterities” of her indivisible and “individual self”? Or do they “co-exist” “separately” “within the same individual, and thus in no apparent relation with each other”? In The Deed of Words, a critical study of the works of the Bangladeshi writer, Akhtaruzzaman Elias, and the Hindi writer, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, Pothik Ghosh explores a fundamental question — what is the politics and use, if any, of literature?

Both Elias and Muktibodh were avowedly Leftist, as Ghosh examines their works through the prism of Alain Badiou’s concept of subtraction. The French philosopher is among the most prominent figures in the last few decades to have argued for the revival of communism.

Ghosh charts his course by making a series of assertions about art. At first, he states that a writer’s love for literature and her engagement with radical political movements lead to “separated” and “non-relational coexistence” of these two selves. He then argues that the terms of reference should not be the “use of art for politics”, but the “use of politics in art”. Such a method, he proposes, introduces novelty in art, what Badiou elsewhere termed “subtraction” and explained by citing the works of Paolo Pasolini. Read more

 


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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Farah Ghuznavi

Farah Ghuznavi

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write in order to save my (admittedly fragile) sanity! Otherwise the voices in my head would drive me crazy…

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My most recent project was a short story written from two points of view — that of a Filipino man and a Sri Lankan woman. I was interested in finding out what it would be like to write a story with characters that I didn’t particularly like, and to use contrasting perspectives on the same set of events to tell a third story — one that was different from both versions offered by the protagonists.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I’m not sure I have a writing aesthetic as such, because I enjoy good writing in many forms. But I do have a soft spot for humour and wordplay, a clever turn of phrase.

Who are your favourite authors?

I have so many! But my favourites include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alan Paton, Elif Shafak and J. K. Rowling.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

The most challenging piece for me so far has been my short story Judgment Day, which was awarded in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010, because it was my first — and so far, only — attempt to write science fiction. The story is told in the voice of a female robotics scientist living in 2250, and examines how human relationships change as a result of technology, and what remains familiar to those of us living in the 21st century. To make matters worse, the story originally had to be written within a word limit of 500 words, and it was one of my earliest experiences with flash fiction!

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