By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2018), for her novel Home Fire – also long listed for the Booker Prize in 2017 – an extraordinary book that serves as a reminder of the times in which we live. Her other books include In the City by the Sea (shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), Salt and Saffron that won her a place on Orange’s ‘21 Writers for the 21st Century’, Kartography, Broken Verses, Burnt Shadows (shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction), and A God in Every Stone.  She was one of the five judges for the Golden Man Booker winner and is one of the three judges for The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, 2018.

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Kamila, welcome to Kitaab! Congratulations on winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Sucharita: Antigone sets up a conflict that ruptures a family and raises complex ethical questions related to the personal and the state, family and identity. When you decided to write Home Fire, what was the immediate trigger to turn to Greek Tragedy and to this particular text?

Kamila: Sometimes the best ideas come from other people.  In this case, it was Jatinder Verma, the artistic director of Tara Arts in London who suggested to me that Antigone could work very well in a contemporary setting. That made me go back to the text, and as soon as I started reading it I saw how directly it spoke to our contemporary times.

Sucharita: Home Fire is a political story firmly rooted in the age of global terror and what it does to individuals and families. It is also about the difficulty of moral certitude in an age of deepening schisms, most evident in Karamat Lone, making him perhaps the most conflicted character in the book, dealing with much more, it seems, than Eamonn or Aneeka – a complex, modern adaptation of Creon’s character in Antigone. The moral burden is terrifying and rests squarely on his shoulders. What led to this positioning of the book’s moral complexity?

Kamila: I’m always interested in the ways in which different readers respond to the characters in the novel. Some see Karamat as shouldering a moral burden; others see him as acting out of political expediency with no interest in the moral questions. I prefer not to interpret the characters and get in the way of readers’ freedom to do so. So all I’ll say is that Karamat and Isma are the two characters who really inhabit the world of adulthood with all its messy complications and contradictions.

Sucharita: At the time of writing the book, the idea of a Tory from a Muslim immigrant, working class family as the country’s Home Secretary would have seemed unbelievable. In fact, you thought it to be ‘ridiculous’. Eventually, when Sajid Javid became Britain’s Home Secretary, how did the writer in you respond? What does prescience mean to a writer?

Kamila: I would love to claim prescience, but the truth is, my first instinct was, as you say, that the idea of such a Home Secretary would be ridiculous, but then I thought a little harder about it and considered the fact that Britain had three prominent up-and-coming politicians from Muslim backgrounds: Sajid Javid, Sadiq Khan and Sayeeda Warsi. One or two is an aberration; three suggests that something has shifted in the political culture. That’s why I was able to create Karamat Lone – because I started to see that actually a Home Secretary from a Muslim background was possible. But it also seemed to me that Muslimness would be something he or she would have to find a way to negotiate around, possibly by creating distance from it.  So what I’ll say about prescience is that actually it’s just paying attention to the currents around us and guessing what’ll happen if you move things forward just one step.

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By Mitali Chakravarty

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Title: The Best Asian Short Stories
Editor: Monideepa Sahu
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab

The Best Asian Short Stories is one of the finest compilations of short stories I have read in a long time. The short stories cover a diaspora of Asian cultures, histories, societies in transit, shifting borders and values. They embrace an array of emotions that are universal and touch the heart of the reader. Established authors (Shashi Deshpande, Poile Sengupta, Farah Ghuznavi, Park Chan Soon, to name a few) and newcomers (N.Thierry, Wah Phing Lim, etc.) rub shoulders with stories that nudge one another, creating a wide range of reading experiences.

In this one book, I have travelled from the backstairs of Singapore’s government subsidized flats to Malaysian ports, to Phillipino slums, to Mao’s China, to Korea’s madly competitive society, to the lonely world of an Old Japanese, to a Syrian refugee’s boat, to the shifting borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to the rebellion against restrictions in the conservative Middle East, to Canada, America and England. These stories have grasped values that leave the reader absolutely spellbound.

Universal truths are stated by the characters that come to life with a few strokes of the creator’s skilled pen. When a dying man discovers, ‘I’m neither Indian nor Bangladeshi. I’m human’, the character reaches out beyond the pages of the book and brings home that politics and nationalism draw borders where none exist for the poor man. In another story, around the eve of Indian independence, a little girl is ‘bewildered’ when she fails to find her homeland, Sindh, on the map of the new country and says, ‘It’s gone’. One is startled by the pathos that these two words can create and compelled to question why Indians mutely accepted the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe. When in Canada, a middle aged Sindhi befriends a Hindi speaking Chinese, he contends, ‘I knew that we immigrants, Sindhi, Indian or Chinese, needed to look after each other’. This is an eternal truth faced by universal globetrotters traipsing through countries. The whole world becomes their home.

By Mitali Chakravarty

The Librarian
Title: The Librarian
Author: Kavitha Rao
Publisher: Kitaab International Pte Ltd
Price: ₹ 299/-

 

 

The Librarian by Kavitha Rao is a novel that strolls through the old corridors of a library in Bombay, meanders through the lanes of London and returns to the dystopian world of the terrorist bomb blast that ripped Mumbai in 2008. Kavitha Rao has created a suspense-filled, layered story of a young girl’s passions, of the annihilation caused by uncontrolled obsessions and has unravelled the mystery behind the disappearance of Mrs. Sen, the assistant librarian. It has facts, romance, history, glamour, murder, robbery and gore, somewhat like a Dan Brown.

The protagonist, Vidya Patel, journeys through her childhood, guided in her passion for books by the intrepid librarian, Shekhar Raghavan. The library is also home to rare manuscripts; it reflects in microcosm a world in which Shekhar is the presiding deity. He supports Vidya when she rebels against her parents’ conservative Gujarati outlook and moves to a hostel for working women, trying to live life as she wants.

In London on a three-month scholarship, Vidya walks through the lanes of the city, visits the places frequented by authors and fictional characters, including 221b Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes, and the grave of the famed English writer, George Eliot with its inscription of Mary Ann Cross. However, there is a discrepancy of a decade between the dates of George Eliot’s life span in the book and the ones inscribed on her grave. I wonder why… however, it is a minor detail in a story that spans larger societal concerns, where passions are unacceptable to ‘normal’ people and, left uncontrolled, can lead to fanaticism.

Team Kitaab welcomes Sucharita Dutta-Asane as its new editor. She is the second independent editor to be helming Kitaab, a Singapore-based online publication.

Sucharita, who is an independent editor and award-winning writer based in Pune, joined Team Kitaab on Friday (15 Sep). She took over the mantle of Kitaab’s editorship after the previous editor Amina Sheikh moved on.

“Kitaab has a specific vision – to be a singular site for Asian writing,” said Sucharita, on joining Kitaab. “Given the easily accepted westward tilt of our literary sensitivities, it is heartening to have a site like Kitaab that facilitates the move closer home. This is immensely exciting and I’m grateful to Zafar Anjum for giving me this opportunity to explore and celebrate Asian writing through its various facets, iterations and manifestations.”

By Rajat Chaudhuri

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Short stories? Who writes short stories these days? Aren’t we reminded time and again that publishers are no more interested in this form? But then, isn’t the novel too going to give up its ghost in a couple of hours as grey haired Cassandras predict with the regularity of automatons? Aren’t we advised that narrative nonfiction and its close cousin the diary or even the memoir, is the go-to form for the author who doesn’t want to be put on an artificial respirator? And just when this cumulonimbus of bad news bears down upon you, the fiction author (or the reviewer) you chance upon a book which simply says the “genre” is in safe hands and that this oldest of storytelling arts still has a lot to offer.

The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Anu Kumar, published by Kitaab. The stories in this slim volume travel the distance from tony upper class neighbourhoods of Singapore to back of beyond villages of India, from futuristic urban settings with robot newsreaders to the ruins of the Indus Valley civilisation, taking the reader on a journey of discoveries that she will cherish for long. But what is definitely the strength of this book is the range of subjects and themes in which Kumar engages, without overburdening her audience.

Here you will find a wonderful story of love lost and found, a magical adventure with a ghost among the ruins of an ancient civilisation, a couple of tales where you chance upon men with weird eyebrows, a sprinkling of magic everywhere, a dash of the absurd sometimes and a wink and a nod towards science fiction. Elsewhere social evils like dowry, corruption, religious intolerance or the crisis of farmer suicides are spun into the narrative with an expert hand, imbuing those tales with a sense of urgency, without being stilted or preachy.

In the eponymous story set in rural Punjab, we meet Neha, newly married to Manjit, finding solace and a hiding place from her in-laws inside the symbolic space of a washing machine that was part of her dowry. “Washing Machine” and indeed a few other stories have an alluring quality that gives the reader the sense of drifting on a calm current as she gets engrossed by the storytelling. Delectable prose coupled with a narrative that slowly circles inwards, curling towards the beating heart of the plot, perhaps imparts this quality to Kumar’s stories. But this is not to say that there are no surprises here, no spindrift or maelstrom, no intrusions of the fantastic or the absurd. In fact, surprises are aplenty and some of these stories wear the edginess on their sleeves.

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When Srinanda Gupta was reading stories to her 6-month-old son, little did she know then that this boy would be an author at the age of eight.

Srinanda fondly recalls the day Rishav walked up to her with his drawings and said he wanted a “real” book.

“I clearly remember how happy and confused I was at the same time because I did not quite understand what he meant. After a conversation, Rishav made it clear that he actually wanted to be an author,” says the mother who also teaches at Chatsworth International School in Singapore.  She decided to nurture his passion and give him time to become responsible for his own initiative. Rishav named the book The Lion’s Walk. Each page focused on a place and some detail that he observed of that particular place.

“He narrated the story while I documented it. What was unique was how Rishav read books, made connections with his personal experiences and applied his knowledge in his writing. I got the pages printed and stitched together,” shares Srinanda. That was Rishav’s first book!

Now this Grade 2 student of Chatsworth International School, Singapore, has a book to his credit Dreamagination, published by Kitaab International.

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The book is a collection of 10 stories written by Rishav between the age of 3 and 7. Dreamagination is more than a book. It is a writing journey of a young boy from doodling, to drawing and then consolidating his ideas in writing.

“This is a big wish come true! You must dream and when the dream becomes bigger, bigger and bigger, it comes true. I want to encourage everyone around the world to write because it helps people to communicate and you can express your heart full of stories. You need dreamagination to live,” says Rishav.