Book Review by Mitali Chakravarty

 

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Title: The Last Cherry Blossom

Author: Kathleen Burkinshaw

Publisher: Sky Pony Press, 2016

“Cherry blossoms are like life itself—so beautiful, yet so fragile that they bloom for only a short time.”

These lines, ethereal and poetic in intent, sum up in spirit the story of the young adult book, The Last Cherry Blossom. This book, authored by Kathleen Burkinshaw, seems to be impacting the world with its peacekeeping efforts as it is now a United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs Resource for Teachers and Students. Burkinshaw has recently spoken at the United Nations in New York City.

The Last Cherry Blossom has received much acclaim. It has been nominated for the NC School Library Media Association YA book award and 2019-2020 VSBA, 2018 & 2016 Scholastic WNDB Reading Club selection, and Finalist for NC Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award, 2018 Sakura Medal, Japan, and SCBWI Crystal Kite Award (southeast region).

The narrative recreates a beautiful world that was ruined by the nuclear bomb blast in Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. Burkinshaw herself is the daughter of a survivor — a hibakusha. The Last Cherry Blossom brings home to the readers the loss, the pain and the suffering that a nuclear war generates through generations. Kathleen Burkinshaw herself suffers a neurological disorder due to her mother’s exposure to the atom bomb. 

By Mitali Chakravarty

 

Delhi was a beautiful town — a lifetime ago, an age ago, an era ago.

Gulmohars and Amaltaz blooms announced the onset of summer and before that a spray of different flowers — verbena, phlox, pansies, sweet peas, calendulas, roses, dahlias, chrysanthemums, gladioli and many more — announced the onset of winters and spring in Delhi. Gardens and roads bloomed with the colours of nature. The residents of Delhi were considered lucky by people from other parts of the country. I remember an uncle from Calcutta saying that Delhi was comparable to London!

Surely, the buildings are still there — but right now one needs to skirt past pan stains, turds and the stench of urine when one explores the lordliest of structures in Delhi — the Connaught Place. Earlier there was a huge fountain in the middle of Connaught Place in a large circular garden. The fountain spewed water the colours of rainbows with lighting at night. To me, it was the most fascinating sight on Earth — watching the water change colours and sometimes even become like a candle flame.

There was no Shaheen Bagh. And roads had cosmopolitan names — Curzon Road, Minto Road, Shah Jahan Road and many more. I remember the name Curzon particularly because I went there to visit my future aunt for the first time. She lived in an apartment in Curzon Road. She eventually became my aunt when my uncle opted to marry her— an aunt whose mother was a Kashmiri and father, a Punjabi. My uncle of course was a Bengali. We grew up in a Delhi where our neighbours came from diverse cultures, where we mingled with people from diverse religions and lived in harmony with differences. Tolerance was not a problem. I remember we had a boy in our school whose father was a Hindu and mother a Christian. We even had family members of mixed heritage. That was in the 1970s and 1980s.

Anuradha Kumar, the author of Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories, in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty

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Anuradha Kumar has been writing for two decades and in that span of time has authored eight novels, including Letters for Paul (2006), It Takes a Murder (2013) and two works of historical fiction written under the psuedonym of Adity Kay: Emperor Chandragupta (2016) and Emperor Vikramaditya (2019). She also writes for younger readers, and contributes to Scroll.inEconomic and Political Weeklythewire.intheaerogram.com, and other places. She was awarded twice (2004, 2010) for her stories by the Commonwealth Foundation, and has received awards from The Little Magazine and Hindu-Goodbooks.in. Recently, she has brought out a novel, Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories. In this exclusive, she tells us more about her journey as a writer.

You have written eight novels and children’s stories/books. How many years of your journey as a writer does that span?

About two decades. I’d my first collection of short stories out from Writers’ Workshop in 2002. What I remember is the lovely handwritten note Prof. Lal (who set up the workshop) sent me in acceptance of my manuscript; that, and a translated copy of his Avyakta Upanishad. I sort of remember what he wrote in that note. For a long time, those words encouraged me. I forgot them at times, but early words of encouragement and support stand by you, especially in not so good times. 

Can you tell us about your latest book, Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories? How did it come about? You have been living overseas, did you return to Mumbai and then write it?

An exclusive interview with Avik Chanda

By Gargi Vachaknavi

 

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Avik Chanda is an author who is a Jack of multiple genres and, unlike the saying goes, emerges the master of most – including that of a best-selling non-fiction book. He has authored a book on the Mughal prince, Dara Shukoh, and it did so well that it beat William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy to the top of the Asian Age best seller list and even now it continues in the top ten bestseller’s list. 

Chanda has two decades of global Big 4 Consulting experience. He is a business adviser, entrepreneur, trainer and a speaker at the Outstanding Speaker’s Bureau; a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review Ascend and a columnist for The Economic Times. Recently, he has been nominated for the Forbes India 2020 ‘Great People Managers’ list. He is also now venturing into another one of his newbies — a start-up in the human resource technology domain which he has christened NUVAH ( ‘new’ was his explanation for the word which he spelt in all caps).

Avik Chanda has been published in more than twenty international journals and anthologies, including Queen’s Quarterly, Stride Magazine, Envoi, Aesthetica, and First Proofs (Penguin India). He has had a solo exhibition of paintings and published two poetry collections in Bengali (Protibhash and Jokhon Bideshe) and one in English, Footnotes (Shearsman, UK). His debut novel, Anchor, was published by Harper Collins in 2015, to high critical praise. His business book, From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption (Harper Collins, 2017), addresses the need for greater emotional enablement in the Indian workplace. The book received praise from leaders across both industry and academia, was widely featured in the national press, and is shaping collective consciousness in favour of better work-life integration. In 2018, the book was selected for Amazon India’s Best Reads under the category, Business, Strategy and Management.

Dara ShukohHis third book with Harper Collins, Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King, was published in October 2019. This work has received glowing reviews from world-renowned academics, authors and commentators, garnered tremendous attention in the national press, featured at prestigious literary meets, been acquired by Audible for audio-book rights. Juggernaut Books is also promoting the book as a mini blockbuster — publishing excerpts from the book — and it has also been on the Bestsellers’ List right since its publication. In this exclusive interview, Chanda reveals more about his muti-layered personality and his work.

 

When and why did you start writing? What moved your muse?

I’ve been passionate about books for as long as I can remember, and I suppose there came a time when I wanted to start writing my own books. Around the years 2003-2007, there was an earlier spate of writing — poetry, in English and Bengali. I produced a couple of collections besides publishing in individual magazines. The current run began about six years ago. In this period, I’ve published a novel, Anchor, a business book, From Command To Empathy, and my latest book, a biography of the Mughal Prince, Dara Shukoh — all three published by Harper Collins.

Compiled by Mitali Chakravarty

In 1980, Satyajit Ray made a movie with a story he had written which won him both national and international acclaim — Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Land of the Diamond King). A sequel to his earlier Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, this film depicts a tyrant who brainwashed people with a machine to think: “Lekha pora kore je, anahare more she (Those who study, die of starvation).”

Does this strike a chord? 

Perhaps that is why we find educational institutions coming under flak and violent strikes on professors and students who are trying to study and lead a peaceful life. The attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University students yesterday has the social media filled with empathy for the victims. Is this reenactment of Hirak Rajar Deshe?

Poetry by well-known writers of yore used to  express student solidarity and hope has also been coming under attack. In Kanpur,  IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) students organised a meet to show solidarity towards the students of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and recited a well-known poem  by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a 20th century legend who was even nominated for the Nobel Prize. One of the faculty and fifteen students initiated a complaint  and demanded expulsion of the protest organisers, accusing them of “spreading hate against India”. A panel was set up to ban the poem. The empowering poem that led to all this controversy  is called ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (we will see). 

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Rahman Abbas

Rahman Abbas, the 2018 Sahitya Akademi winner for Urdu, had much to say in favour of Faiz’s poem: “It is disgusting to have to give clarifications of Faiz’s poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ to absolve it from being called critical of the Hindu faith or any faith. It is as absurd and laughable as  absurd as claims such as the RSS was a cultural wing of the Jamat-e-Islami of Pakistan, or Rabindranath Tagore’s Novel Gora was anti-Christian, or Kabir had mocked Charlie Chaplin in his dohe*. Such absurd parallel could only be drawn by an insane or moron appointed to create deflection and disharmony.

“Faiz Ahamd Faiz is best known for being a revolutionary poet who aesthetically merged romanticism with the desire for a revolution, a social struggle or peoples uprising against the tyrant rulers. His poetry and life were a struggle to become the voice of the voiceless — it challenges dictatorship and repression. ‘Hum Dekhenge’ can be seen as the voice of the masses against the tyrant rulers or dictators who have subjugated poor people. The poem is a beacon of hope against darkness spread by authoritarian regimes. The poet imagines a world where tyrannical persecutors would be defeated and people will govern crushing falsehood and its followers. The tyrant rulers will be humiliated when their crowns will be thrown off and the people will reclaim being the God of the planet. The people will rule — we all are people — and we should celebrate that time and that day as it is a victory of people over tyrannical systems.

The year 2020 is here and if you are reading this message, we thank you for being with us and wish you a very Happy New Year!

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.

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Compiled by Mitali Chakravarty

 

And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

Auld Lang Syne, Robert Burns,1788

 

It is that time of the year again when we bid adieu to the old and party to welcome the new. And this year it is not just an old year but the old decade that ends – this new year we start the third decade of the second millennia. With much goodwill, as the poet Burns says, we asked some writers who have featured on our pages to contribute two of their favourite reads from this year and they obliged… A huge thanks to all these fantastic writers who share what their favourite books have been this year.

51otYV5ZqEL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_We start with Suzanne Kamata, an award winning writer from Japan, who has been a part of our magazine and the first Best Asian Short Stories in 2017. This is what Suzanne wrote: “One book which particularly impressed me was Under the Broken Sky, a novel-in-verse by Mariko Nagai, about a Japanese girl stranded in Soviet-occupied Manchuria. Although we often hear and read about the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army in Asia, we rarely hear the voices of the innocent bystanders, like children. Nagai manages to distill complicated and difficult events into crystalline free verse. Although this book was written with middle grade readers in mind, I would recommend it to adults as well. 

By Gargi Vachaknavi

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In the heydays of ABBA, there was a popular song called ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’, which spoke of a girl who led an ordinary life but became  the ‘queen of the dancing floor’ when she stepped into the role of a ‘pretty ballerina’. Sarita Jenamani is a bit like that. She works as a marketing manager in Austria but turns into a lyrical whiplash when she picks up her pen to write poetry.

Sarita Jenamani, with a background of  economics and management studies in India and Austria, is a poet, a literary translator, anthologist, editor of a bilingual magazine for migrant literature – Words & Worlds – a human rights activist, a feminist and general secretary of PEN International’s Austrian chapter in the literary world.

Perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of her personality is her poetry that has so far been published in three collections, the latest being Till the Next Wave Comes. English is the chief medium of her creative process. The other two languages she writes in are, Odia, the state language of the place of her origin Odisha (India), and German, the language of her country of residence, Austria. She uses these languages for translation projects that she undertakes from time to time. Sarita translated Rose Ausländer, a leading Austrian poet, and an anthology of contemporary Austrian Poetry from German into Hindi and Odia. She has received many literary fellowships in Germany and in Austria including those of the prestigious organisations of “Heinrich Böll Foundation” and “Künstlerdorf Schöppingen”. In this exclusive, she talks of how poetry empowers her to find her individuality and address social issues, of how being in PEN has taught her that thought stretches beyond all borders and of a past and present that shuttles between varied cultures.

 

What moved your muse? When and how did you start writing?

Actually, I did not want to be a poet rather poetry, as Neruda once said, arrived in search of me. All my joys, sufferings, passions, and memories that significantly leave deep impact on me, turn into ash, sink into my being and again rise like a phoenix in the lines. This provides me the pleasure of seeking an enigmatic truth in some ancient temple. Such feelings compel me to write poetry. Poetry for me is an act of introspection, self-realisation and a sanctuary.

By Mitali Chakravarty

 

Hisham Bustani, the editor of this year’s Best Asian Short Stories from Kitaab, is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. He is acclaimed for his bold style and unique narrative voice, and often experiments with the boundaries of short fiction and prose poetry. Much of his work revolves around issues related to social and political change, particularly the dystopian experience of post-colonial modernity in the Arab world. His work has been described as “bringing a new wave of surrealism to [Arabic] literary culture, which missed the surrealist revolution of the last century,” and it has been said that he “belongs to an angry new Arab generation. Indeed, he is at the forefront of this generation – combining an unbounded modernist literary sensibility with a vision for total change…. His anger extends to encompass everything, including literary conventions.”

Hisham’s fiction and poetry have been translated into many languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, including The Kenyon ReviewBlack Warrior Review, The Poetry ReviewModern Poetry in TranslationWorld Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly. In 2013, the U.K.-based cultural webzine The Culture Trip listed him as one of Jordan’s top six contemporary writers. His book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. Hisham is the Arabic Fiction Editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common, and the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers for 2017. In this exclusive, he talks of what went into the selection of the stories and what makes him write.

 

You are author of five collections of short stories, poetry and hybrid forms. How many short story collections have you edited before? Were they in English or Arabic?

Hisham: I have a long list of editorial credits behind (and before) me. First of all, I am currently the Arabic Fiction Editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common, responsible for curating an annual country- or theme-based portfolios of Arabic short stories in English translation. So far we two of those portfolios were published, one from Jordan (Issue 15, Spring 2018) and the other from Syria (Issue 17, Spring 2019). The forthcoming portfolio in Issue 19 (Spring 2020) will feature stories in translation from Sudan. These portfolios are simultaneously published in Arabic in the Egyptian literary newspaper Akhbar al-Adab. So I’ve established alongside The Common’s editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker, and Akhbar al-Adab’s editor-in-chief  Tariq al-Taher, a trans-Atlantic literary collaboration in that respect.

By Gargi Vachaknavi

The Singapore Writers’ Festival stretched to ten busy days with events glittering on the literature of Asian diaspora. The opening was by a Booker winner from Jamaica,  Marlon JamesPico Iyer was another major highlight as were local Singapore legends like Edwin ThumbooIsa KamariSuchen Christine Lim and Meira Chand .

IMG_0692One of the attendees caught the excitement of the event. Upcoming writer Elaine Chiew, who just released her debut collection of short stories called The Heartsick Diaspora with Penguin, had a lot to say: “I caught Marlon James’ Festival Prologue and Roxanne Gay’s Lecture: ‘Understanding Identity Through Pop Culture’, and lots of programming in between, including catching the exhibition on Eurasian Singaporean writer Rex Shelley (which I loved, especially Brian Gothong Tan’s stunning multi-media display), ‘Literature and Pioneer Women’, ‘First Dates and So Many Feelings’, ‘What Being Brown In The World Means’, ‘Language and the Body’, ‘Writing in Dialect’, and ‘What’s the Most Versatile Singlish Word’.” Elaine Chiew has been attending the festival since 2016. This year she attended as an author and a panelist.

IMG_0480Aysha Baqir, writer and social activists explained: “This is my first time as a featured author in Singapore Writers Festival. My novel, Beyond the Fields, a fiction about a young village girl (in Pakistan) on a quest for justice, was published earlier this year by Marshall Cavendish. I have attended the last two Festivals and like the previous years I am delighted to listen to and meet the wide diversity of authors and panelists.  This year I am particularly enjoying the relevance of the sessions to current life events and issues — migration, special needs, mental health, and diversity.”

Kitaab also launched three books during this festival: a translation of Isa Kamari’s Kiswah, Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal’s Masala Chai, a collection of poems and the Best Asian Short Stories (2019).

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Isa Kamari and Zafar Anjum launching Kiswah

Kiswah kicked off the start of the Kitaab launches with Isa Kamari explaining how he conceived the novel as a reaction to the needs of the times. Kamari said in answer to moderator Mitali Chakravarty’s query that he was getting the translations done to be read more widely. Earlier he had been translated even to Urdu by Kitaab. Zafar Anjum, the founder of Kitaab, explained: “Isa’s Intercession was translated into Urdu — the first work of Singaporean and Malay fiction to be translated into Urdu. The plan is also to get it translated into Hindi and we are working on it.”

Thapliyal’s Masala Chai came next. Thapliyal was accompanied by Singapore writer Robert Yeo on stage. Yeo had mentored her collection. Moderated by Dr Pallavi Narayan, the poetry launch was vibrant and interesting.

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Singapore writer Robert Yeo, poet Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal and moderator Dr Pallavi Narayan