By Neha Mehrotra

Head of the English department at Ashoka University, Saikat Majumdar is an academic, novelist and critic. He is the author of Silverfish (HarperCollins, 2007), Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire (Columbia University Press and Orient Blackswan, 2013 and 2015), The Firebird (Hachette 2015 and 2017). The Scent of God (Simon and Schuster) is forthcoming in 2019.

The Firebird was one of Telegraph’s Best Books of 2015 and a finalist for the Atta-Galatta/Bangalore Literature Festival Fiction Prize in 2015 and the Mumbai Film Festival Word-to-Screen Market in 2016. His 2013 book on global modernisms was a finalist for the Modernist Studies Association Annual Book Prize in 2014.

In addition to being published by major journals such as PMLA, NLH: New Literary History, Cambridge History of the Indian Novel in English, Modern Fiction Studies, and Literary Activism: A Collection of Perspectives, Saikat’s writing also features regularly in mainstream publications such as The Hindu, Outlook, Times Higher Education, Hindustan Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Indian Express, Caravan, Scroll, Telegraph, and Times of India.

Saikat Majumdar
Saikat Majumdar

How do you identify as a writer?

Primarily as a novelist. That’s the core to which I keep returning. I do other kinds of writing too, but I realize I do them all on a novelist’s terms. So my literary criticism is criticism by a novelist, and my nonfiction and newspaper essays are often novelistic in spirit and style. Not to say they are ‘fictional’ – hopefully I speak the truth when I mean to – it’s rather about the assumption of a voice of my own and a kind of an eye through which I see the world and think about it. Even when it’s the real world and not a fictionally crafted one. But since I actually do different kinds of writing, I like the term ‘writer’ and the looseness it evokes, and the way it avoids attaching itself to any particular genre or book. I’m not a fan of the word ‘author’ unless it’s used in connection to a particular work – it carries too much authority.

What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?

A ghost grabs me and makes me. Seriously, I don’t choose any of the themes or stories of my books – they always choose me and when I realize I have no choice whatsoever but to write, I know I have a real book there. Usually it’s a ghost from my past. A bit different with newspaper articles, or contributions to edited volumes or collections and there is more conscious choice there. But the books, the most important things, especially the novels, I can only write when I feel that absolute compulsion, and at one level I can never make out where they come from.

Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.

This morning I put the finishing touches to an essay on Calcutta that is part of an anthology of writing by novelists on the cities they’ve written about, Writing in the City, edited by Stuti Khanna, with contributions from Siddharth Chowdhury, Manu Joseph, Amitava Kumar, Indra Sinha, Amit Chaudhuri, Rupa Bajwa, Anjum Hasan, Manju Kapur and several others. Much looking forward to seeing this in print and how everybody has approached the subject.

by Muhammad Asim Butt & Mushtaq Bilal

Mustansar Hussain Tarar
Mustansar Hussain Tarar

Lined with trees on both sides, a narrow alley leads one to the cloistered quarters of the house where Mustansar Hussain Tarar writes. He spends most of his day in this room. Almost all of his novels, travelogues, plays, and columns were written in this room. Despite being in the vicinity of Firdous Market, this particular neighborhood in Gulberg III has an air of tranquility about it. There are two parks in front of Tarar’s house. A few years ago, when I went to meet him for the first time, he had said, while giving directions, “There is a park right in front of the house, with a slide for kids. If you look in the direction in which kids slide down, you’ll be able to see my house.” The slide is no longer there.

The room opens into a small, narrow hall full of antiques worth thousands of dollars. Tarar has been collecting antiques for decades.

There is a kind of deliberation to the way Tarar’s writing table is arranged. Coffee mug-shaped penholders sit in a neat queue by the wall on his writing table, with pens, pencils, paper cutters, sharpeners, a letter opener, and a stapler stowed separately. There is also a solitary ashtray sitting on the table. On one side of the table, there is the latest issue of Loh (The Slate) along with a couple of files and a few documents. There is another table in the room with a folding tabletop. Tarar told me that the carpenter who made the table had died and that this was probably one of the last tables of its kind. He lifted the tabletop and slid open a wooden tray, which converted it into a writing table.

Right next to this table is a tall cupboard stuffed with books. A few paintings hang on one of the walls. One of them is by Sadequain. A huge portrait of Tarar by Saeed Akhtar hangs on the wall adjacent to his writing table. Saeed Akhtar also made a bust of Tarar’s, which is placed on the table by the sofa. There is another portrait of Tarar’s made by Bashir Mirza, which depicts Tarar as a carefree vagrant.

by Zafar Anjum

Isa Kamari

I had heard of Isa Kamari ever since I set foot in Singapore over a decade ago. Winner of many awards, Isa Kamari is a major Singapore Malay author. He has been a regularly featured author at the Singapore Writers Festival. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to read Malay and I did not know that Isa’s novels had been translated into English.

It was only recently that I got to know him in person. A few months ago, he sent me a copy of his novel, Intercession. I found it a bold work of fiction dealing with serious themes of science and religion, and yet it was so thrillingly narrated that I could barely stop reading it.  The book reminded me of Hermann Hesse’s masterpiece, Siddhartha.

Born in 1960 in Kampung Tawakal, Isa’s family moved to a Housing Development Board apartment in Ang Mo Kio while he was still in his teens. After studying at the elite Raffles Institution, he went on to take the degree of Bachelor of Architecture (with Honours) from the National University of Singapore in 1988. He now holds a senior position with the Land Transport Authority. Isa has also earned a Master of Philosophy degree in Malay Letters from the National University of Malaysia in 2007.

A prolific writer, Isa has so far published two volumes of short stories, eight novels, six volumes of poetry, one collection of stage plays, and several albums of contemporary spiritual music. He has been honoured with the SEA Write Award in 2006, the Singapore government’s Cultural Medallion in 2007 and the Singapore Malay literary award Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang in 2009.

Isa-quote2Isa’s novels are increasingly being translated from Malay for wider audiences. Satu Bumi (One Earth, 1998) was published in Mandarin in 1999 as Yi Pien Re Tu and in English in 2008, under the title of One Earth (translated by Sukmawati Sirat). Two other novels appeared in English translations in 2009: Intercession (Tawassul, 2002, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Alvin Pang); and Nadra (Atas Nama Cinta, In the Name of Love, 2006, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Aaron Lee Soon Yong). In 2013, four translations have been released: The Tower (Menara, 2002, translated by Alfian Sa’at); A Song of the Wind (Memeluk Gerhana, Embracing the Eclipse, 2007, “rendered in English from Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); Rawa (Rawa: tragedi Pulau Batu Puteh, Rawa: The Tragedy of White Rock Island, 2009, “rendered in English from the original Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); and 1819 (Duka Tuan Bertakhta, You Rule in Sorrow, 2011, “rendered in English from Malay by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan”).

Here is a two-part interview with Isa Kamari:

PART ONE: Becoming a Writer

IsaSmile

What set you on the road to being a writer? Do you ever regret the drive or passion that makes you keep writing?

I have always loved writing since my secondary school days but never took it seriously until my late teens. Something happened to me in 1979, the story of which I have told in my novel Memeluk Gerhana (A Song of the Wind).

That incident made me look at life in a more critical manner. It made me view writing not as a hobby but more of a calling. In any case, I begin to write only if an event or issue disturbs me deeply. I do research on the subject and try to find my own resolution/ take on the issue/predicament. Only when I understand and come to terms with the problem and form my own opinion or position do I begin to pen my thoughts on it in the form of a poem or fiction. Thus writing is like therapy to me. It is my way of finding meaning and peace with myself and the world.

Novelist Anuradha Kumar interviews Singapore-based novelist Meira Chand

Meira ChandMeira Chand the novelist and short story writer has lived in the UK, Japan, India and now in Singapore.   Her novels, every one of them presenting a unique angle into history or an outsider’s life in a different country, are then part of a literature that belongs to the world, making her a writer to be read and cherished.

Beginning with The Gossamer Fly in 1980, Meira has written seven other novels and numerous short stories.  Her most recent novel is A Different Sky (2010), the novel that could arguably define Singapore of the early and mid 20th century.  As she describes in an essay on her website (meirachand.com) in words that echo Faulkner’s,   writing is indeed a dream,   one that takes over one’s complete being.  And the writer is not satisfied till she has written that dream down and achieved for some moments at least, an ‘ecstatic peace’. 

ravisubIn writing about gun rights and academic malpractice, Ravi Subramanian strays from his usual subject to decidedly mixed results: Tehelka

It’s one of the most clichéd pieces of advice given to new authors of fiction, both literary and commercial. Write what you know. It’s good advice; one of the worst things a new author can do is seem inauthentic. Indian commercial writers certainly follow it to the T, with a conveyor belt of engineers writing about being engineers, bankers writing about being bankers, college students writing about being college students.