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2017 in Books

As 2018 waits tantalizingly at the threshold, we look back on a year in which dissent and speaking up became necessary to survive, when books alone stepped up to the challenge, helped keep our sanity or question it. As we look ahead, there is a kind of willfulness in taking stock, a ritual with solemnity inherent to the idea. In a year when so much has been written, published and read, it is difficult to gather only a few names. Here is a list of 10 books (fiction) that we have read and loved and a quiet acknowledgment of those that space omits.

The Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil
Jeet Thayil’s book is rich in characters and stories. Homage to the world of art and literature, it is a startling book of incandescent prose, a masterpiece in the Roberto Bolaño mould. Narrated in a variety of voices and styles, The Chocolate Saints promises to become part of literature’s most memorable.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
Roy’s second novel in two decades was a much anticipated book – the anticipation started, perhaps, from the day she won the Booker in 1997. It brings together many of the ideas that inform her non-fiction, speaking up with passion and compassion for ‘minorities’ across the socio-political-economic spectrum, making it a book of the times, for the times.

Leila – Prayag Akbar
Described as ‘dystopic’ by some reviewers, Leila is about a mother’s search for her daughter. Whether dystopic or not – the author certainly rejects categorizing – the novel uses the fantastical to probe urgent issues related to the urban spaces and the society we create and which we inhabit.

The Small Town Sea – Anees Salim
Small towns come to life in Anees Salim’s books; sorrow is a lasting trace and satire a way to deal with the sorrow. The Small Town Sea is about a son’s bereavement, the challenge he faces in being uprooted from the big city to a nondescript town and the unsettling aftermath of his father’s death.

Mrs C Remembers – Himanjali Sankar
The family is often a place of dys-function, of intense politics couched in familial love. Himanjali Sankar’s book relates the family with subtle story-telling, incisive observation and compassion. The first-person narration of Mrs C and her daughter Sohini heightens the sense of unease regarding credibility and layers the narrative of this Bengali family within which the mother’s mind slowly disintegrates and the daughter’s comes into its own.

Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories (ed., Monideepa Sahu; series editor, Zafar Anjum)
Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories explores the idea of what it is to be an Asian. The anthology combines fresh voices, emerging writers and established names from Asia – Jordan and Syria to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand, Japan and Korea. The stories transcend social and political divisions within which they arise, drawing readers into the lives and places they explore while simultaneously raising uneasy questions and probing ambiguities. Crafted with love, they continue to resonate after the last page.

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Contemporary Nepali literature: Fiction — the short story

Nepali short story has achieved its present state of development in shorter time than other genres. This area of literature has already been enriched by a number of classic world-class short stories. The contribution of the figures such as Guru Prasad Mainali, Pushkar Samser Rana, Posan Pande, Indra Bahadur Rai, Biseswor Prasad Koirala, Bhimnidhi Tiwari, Bhawani Bhikshu, Paarizaat can hardly be exaggerated. The short story writers like Ramesh Bikal, Parashu Pradhan, Sanat Regmi, Dhruba Sapkota, Shailendra Sakar, Nayan Raj Pandey, Benju Sharma, Sita Pandey and their peers are those well esteemed writers who join the past with the present. These writers have written stories of artistic intent with themes related to Nepal and Nepali’s cultural life and have made short stories even popular among Nepali people.

In the ’60s Nepali stories saw a change in their characterization and tone. It was the most influential movement Teshro Aayam (The Third Dimension) that has its impact on short stories too. Indra Bahadur Rai, one of the trios to launch the movement is a very innovative short story writer. Although the Third Dimension triggered an intellectual debate in literary circles and provided a stimulus to Nepali literature, it could not produce a generation to follow it. So its impact gradually wore off. Indra Bahadur Rai has come up with Leela Lekhan (Leela Writing). It’s a literary theory to approach literary works and a philosophy in itself. His Kathputaliko Man (The Heart of a Puppet) is the first collection of short stories based on Leela Lekhan. Some writers are putting it into their works successfully.

Realism has been the sustained base of Nepali short stories from the past to the present. Other trends include progressive ideology, psychological realism and experimentalism. Leela lekhan and other post modernist experiments operative in the latest decade seem to shake realism. Writers are breaking away from the established norms and values and are seeking to explore new heights and new horizons. This group of writers has been providing Nepali readers with thoroughly new texts. Village life, life in Kathmandu and Darjeeling, the lives of women in a male-dominated society, caste, class, and ethnic relations, the Gurkha soldier, poverty, corruption and most recently the impact of technological development on life have been the recurring themes of Nepali short stories.

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Han Kang: ‘Writing about a massacre was a struggle. I’m a person who feels pain when you throw meat on a fire’

Early in 2015 a buzz began to build around a slim novel called The Vegetarian. It was about a woman who turned her face to the wall, refusing to eat meat and scandalising her friends and family, as a prelude to rejecting life itself. “It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions,” wrote its Guardian reviewer.

Its author, Han Kang, is a poet, short story writer and novelist who has for years been one of South Korea’s best kept secrets. Her three-part fable of refusal hit the sweet spot for fiction in translation, or indeed any fiction: it mined universal truths from the culturally particular, it was both painfully close to home and mysteriously “other”.

She returns this year with a novel that is even more disturbing and provocative; it certainly splashes its violence across a bigger stage. Human Acts opens with the 1980 massacre of student protesters in the South Korean city of Gwangju and spares no detail in its scrutiny of the carnage: the slashed throat with its red uvula sticking out, the putrefying toes swelling up “like thick tubers of ginger”.

The writer who has borne witness to this devastation is a quietly spoken 45-year-old mother of one, with a growing circle of admirers in the UK. They include the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, who found in The Vegetarian a common interest in “pain, the body and how the struggle to be human involves many strange ways of trying to look after oneself in the face of hurt, cruelty, confusion”, and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, for whom Human Acts is “an intense and magical achievement – a brutal yet lyrical reflection on the universal legacy of injustice seen through the prism of one act of atrocity”.

Han is a charismatically thoughtful woman, who wrote herself into the final section of Human Acts in order to explain why she felt compelled to tell the story. “I was nine years old at the time of the Gwangju Uprising,” it begins. Gwangju, a city in the south of the country, had been her home until four months before the massacre, when her father gave up his teaching job to become a full-time writer and moved the family to the capital Seoul.

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Book Review: The Librarian by Kavitha Rao

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.

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Ibrahim Nasrallah challenges followers of Arab literature to reconnect with their emotions

Nasrallah’s latest work Al Hob Shareer (Love is the Enemy) focuses solely on matters of the heart.

“No one talks about love anymore,” says Ibrahim Nasrallah with a sigh. “It is as if we eradicated those feelings out of all our writing because we deem it no longer important. It is a fallacy, of course, because love is everything.”

The Palestinian poet and novelist is commenting on the state of modern Arabic literature, which he describes as more concerned with the timely than the timeless.

“In a way, the Arab writer and the Arab reader have become the same,” he says.

“A lot of what is being written focuses on current issues, whether social or political. There is a feeling that if there is any deviation from that path and reading about other topics then they are not taking their time seriously. A sense of guilt creeps and this is totally wrong.”

Nasrallah has challenged that view with his latest work, Al Hob Shareer (Love is the Enemy) that focuses solely on matters of the heart.

With more than 80 poems and one libretto, the 63-year explores all facets of love from the emotional, primal, how it revitalises and how it can control.

Speaking before his session tonight at the Sharjah International Book Fair on the creative process plus a book signing on Saturday, Nasrallah says the book was born out of a challenge to himself.

“It began when I first started observing the dearth of current literature surrounding love. There is not a modern poetry collection, as far as I can see, that dealt with this matter exclusively,” he says.

“The last person to have done that was the great and classic writer Nizzar Qabani, and since that there has been no major body of work. So, I wanted to test myself and see if I can do it and then test the reader once it was published.”

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Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Prashant Yadav

By Aminah Sheikh

prashant

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

I write because I love writing. It makes me feel great, perhaps even releases Serotonin in me. Maybe, Oxytocin even. And, why? Can’t pinpoint the precise reason. It’s like being in love – only feelings, no reasons.

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

The Jeera Packer (published by Finger Print). It takes up the internal struggle of a man who thinks he has missed the greatest opportunities of life and is now cursed to a limited, confined, boring life sans achievement. And that angst pushes him on a dangerous journey to build his own Taj Mahal, fulfil what he feels is his mission in life. And then, closely meshed is this story of deadly gangsters and goofing politicians, who he was once a part of and into whose company he is dragged in again.

The ultimate point being – we are microscopic in this giant game of cosmos and we get very little time here and spend a bulk of that in hate and regret against equally microscopic others.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Writing to me must move, evoke a reaction. The job of the writer is to break thought and speech boundaries – to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. Find perspectives that are hidden in plain sight. Show what we generally miss. That’s why you need a writer.

Who are your favorite authors?

Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie, Khushwant Singh, Jerry Pinto, N.N. Taleb, Haruki Murakami. Granddaddy Shakespeare. Stephen King. Hemingway. Charles Bukowski.

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We Are All Refugees: A Conversation With Mohsin Hamid

Earlier this year, Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, appeared, an ode to a future in which migration is as ordinary as going to school or falling in love. The book, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, revolves around the movements of Nadia and Saeed, a young couple from an unnamed country, escaping war. Hamid does not shy away from the realities of conflict, but he also does not dwell on its tragedies.

As they make their way in strange surroundings, untethered from the very things that first created their identities—family, place, nation—Nadia and Saeed experience transformations both subtle and radical. Who are we, Hamid asks repeatedly throughout the book, and what kind of world are we willing to create?

I spoke with Hamid before his appearance at Berlin’s International Literature Festival in early September 2017, where he addressed a packed auditorium. The event occurred shortly before Germany’s national elections, where fear around migration drove the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to win 12.6 percent of the vote, gaining a projected 94 seats in parliament. People in the capital, at least, were eager to hear Hamid’s non-apocalyptic vision of the future.

But it’s not easy to be an optimist about the future of migration. People trying to move through northern Africa to Europe are ensnared in detention centers in Libya. During Myanmar’s latest ethnic-cleansing campaign, its army planted land mines along the Bangladeshi border. Donald Trump’s new travel ban, announced in late September, would permanently bar citizens of eight countries from entering the United States. Thousands of people are trapped at the edges of countries and at the limits of our compassion.

Defiantly, Hamid posits that the human capacity to survive is stronger than most of us know. At its core, Exit West is about the universality of human experience, and the many migrations we undergo in a lifetime.

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Book Review: Snowfed Waters by Jane Wilson-Howarth

By Nilesh Mondal

Snowfed Waters
Title: Snowfed Waters
Author: Jane Wilson-Howarth
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 296
Price: ₹ 360
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The story of finding one’s true passion and sense of purpose through confrontations with hardships has become a trope per se. One can even say it has been overdone, although new variations crop up every year, driving home profound life lessons. However, despite their often clichéd premise or plot, some stories still manage to deliver a heart-touching performance in terms of fully sketched characters and a sense of anxiety through a gripping story which serves us with a steady sense of exhilaration when we finally see the protagonist come out of all trials, injured but wiser. That in a nutshell is why Snowfed Waters works well despite its shortcomings.

Sonia, the protagonist of this fictional travelogue, is a woman who has lost a significant part of what she assumed to be her regular life in light of recent events. Estranged from her husband, wrecked with debilitating anxiety and unsure of what to do with her life, she embarks on an expedition to Nepal under the pretext of helping with teaching duties in local schools. With this trip she hopes to regain emotional stability in her turbulent life and heal herself. Although off to a rocky start, she soon adjusts well to the situations and surroundings, and as she slowly learns to fight off the ghosts of her past, she also becomes a part of the local people and their community. There are moments of endearing sincerity throughout the story, which, along with moments of suspense and sadness, create a fine balance of emotions which the reader feels almost as clearly as the protagonist herself. The end, although sweet and hopeful, shows Sonia clearly as someone who has had a change of heart, and we can’t help but be happy for her.

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Chinese sci-fi novelist first Asian to win prestigious book award

Chinese sci-fi title The Three-Body Problem was first serialized in Science Fiction World magazine in 2006 and then published as a book in 2008. It was eventually translated into English and it became a literary phenomenon, winning the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.

Even former US President Barack Obama is a fan. He told The New York Times while still in office: “The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty – not something to worry about.”

Its author, Liu Cixin, 53, is as surprised as anyone by its success. He says in Mandarin over the telephone from Beijing: “Sci-fi novels usually have a shorter shelf-life because they tend to be overtaken by scientific developments.

It’s been more than a decade since it was first published and for it to continue to have such an impact is something my publishers and I never expected.”

In The Three-Body Problem (Tor Books, 2007), readers first encounter the Trisolaran world, an unstable stellar system with three suns. The sequel, The Dark Forest (Tor Books), published in English in 2015, details how Earth deals with a Trisolaran invasion coming in 400 years’ time.

In the concluding installment, Death’s End (Tor Books), published in English last year, the two civilizations coexist peacefully at first, but before long, humanity is once again faced with the threat of annihilation. Death’s End is up for Best Novel at the 2017 Hugo Awards, which will be presented in August.

Collectively, the trilogy is known as Remembrance Of Earth’s Past (Tor Books).

Liu adds wryly, though, that the attention lavished on The Three-Body Problem has not been a tide that lifts all boats.

For example, with regard to his translated book of short stories, The Wandering Earth (Beijing Guomi Digital Technology Co, 2012) he says: “There’s been not much impact, it’s like throwing a stone into a pond.”

Still, he can be justifiably proud of what he has achieved so far.


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Mythomania – The Latest Craze Among Indian Readers

How Indian publishing discovered its “Game of Thrones” and created a literary phenomenon.

WHEN the world’s highest-earning novelist launches his new thriller in January, his co-author may not be familiar to Western fans. James Patterson, an American crime writer whose estimated annual revenues of $95m dwarf even those of Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, sometimes joins forces with local writers when he sends his investigators abroad. “Private Delhi” will be his second murder mystery with Ashwin Sanghi, a novelist from Mumbai who is far better known among Indian readers for his contribution to popular mythological fiction—one of the most remarkable, but overlooked, publishing stories of the past decade.

In the age of Patterson, Potter and “Game of Thrones”, Indian authors have brought their own special flavours to the table: mass-market fiction based on reinterpretations of the two great Hindu epic narratives, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Canny authors enlist ancient fables of gods and heroes, of rival clans, gigantic battles, perilous quests and fearsome ordeals as a way of unlocking the crowd-pleasing genres of mystery, fantasy and historical romance.

These stories have helped transform publishing in a nation of 1.3bn people with improving literacy rates and—in contrast to long-term trends in the West—a growing appetite for the printed as well as the electronic book. Adult literacy rose from 65% to 74% between 2001 and 2011; the projection for 2020 is 90%. The annual value of the book market has swollen to an estimated $3.9bn, with 90,000 new titles added each year. Chiki Sarkar (who is married to a correspondent in our Delhi office) used to run Penguin Random House in India and has now founded her own company, Juggernaut Books. She believes that the establishment of book chains that emphasise promotions has meant big books are becoming bigger, just as they have in the West. “Into this landscape you’ve now got an old genre that has found new vitality,” she adds.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata have long nourished Indian popular culture, whether through village storytelling, puppet-shows, television serials or Bollywood movies. Indian novelists writing in English used to be known abroad purely as a source of strenuous literary works; now they regularly produce gaudy blockbusters that marry these ancient tales with the latest trends in genre fiction.

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