Book Review by Namrata

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Title: Animalia Indica –The Finest Animal Stories in Indian Literature

 Editor: Sumana Roy

Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2019)

Edited by Sumana Roy, Animalia Indica is a first of its kind collection of animal stories in Indian literature. From classic story tellers like R.K.Narayan, Premchand, Rudyard Kipling to the most recent maestros like Kanishk Tharoor, Perumal Murugan, and Nilanjana Roy, this collection features them all.

Sumana Roy is a Siliguri based author whose previous works include a non-fiction title (How I became a tree), a fiction novel (Missing) and a poetry collection (Out of Syllabus). She went on to win the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award in 2017 for her debut book How I became a tree.

This anthology, with its beautiful cover, has twenty-one stories about humans and animals. It can easily be called a collector’s edition with the who’s who of Indian literature featured within. Not all of the collection is made of short stories. There are some poems; excerpts; two are novellas and one is an entire novel in its own. The selection is classic! It includes stories translated from regional languages and from Indian writing in English, with interesting end-notes about the narrative, authors and translators.  The magic of the stories makes something written in 1981 an equally intriguing read as one written recently. What makes the book even more eye catching and unique, are the sketches by Rohan Dahotre before each story (he has also done the stunning cover). Depicting the animal/s featured in each story, these black and white sketches set the tone for every tale that follows.

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By Aminah Sheikh

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

Growing up in a big family of book-lovers and where the head of the family was a distinguished author, it was inevitable that one got books as birthday gifts. Added to that was the daunting task of delivering an oral essay of every book read to a stern panel of adults! The love for words, consequently, was destined to bite very early. Although I trained for commercial art and worked as an illustrator-visualizer in my early years and aspired to paint in oils someday, the weight and thrust of words and story ideas was too great at one point and they threatened to erupt and take precedence over everything else, including my domestic life. I had no option but to sit down and put pen to paper. All of life’s experiences appeared to be translating into words somehow, and the need for self-expression took the form of writing (both fiction and non-fiction). Painterly aspirations went flying out of the window.

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

My most recently published book is a collection of short stories, Lamplight: Paranormal Stories from the Hinterlands. Some of the stories in this collection are loosely based on the ghost stories handed down from generation to generation in my father’s family. My grandparents lived in an old rambling house in Munger, Bihar, where all kinds of creepy things are supposed to have happened and I’ve taken inspiration from these.

I’m a huge admirer of the subtle form of story-telling, especially when it comes to the paranormal. Authors like Henry James, Stephen King and Ruskin Bond who create menacing atmospherics with the crafty use of language, where the reader’s mind can come unhinged with terror and imagination run rampant by the mere use of subtle suggestions, is the kind of craft I aspire to. Not for me the over-the-top spooking with blood, bones, screams and a whole lot of pyrotechnics. In Lamplight, I’ve taken an empathetic stance towards ghosts. Along with being chilling entities, I’ve tried to portray ghosts as piquant, funny, amorous, lovable and even gluttonous! I’ve allowed my ghosts to have the blast of their lives (or death, as the case may be!) in the stories.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I was barely nine when I read this magical novella called The Grass Harp by Truman Capote. The plot remains fuzzy in mind, it had something to do with an orphaned boy and two elderly ladies sitting on a branch of a tree and observing life. But till date I remember the vivid scene created by the author’s prose, that of a sea of emerald green grass waving in the breeze, bright golden sunshine, an idyllic summer’s day and a child with a head full of impossible longings. I love the auditory and visual qualities that certain writers conjure up by the magic of their prose. Some books titles are forgotten, one may even confuse plots but certain passages remain in the mind with their wonderful imagery. A rainy city at dusk, the lapping of waves against a boat on a starlit night and the silent aftermath of a riot-torn area are just some of the assorted bits that have stayed in memory after reading a couple of recent books. A book’s plot is of prime importance, for sure, but the rhythm of words, vibrant imagery and the ability to create a frequency that connects instantaneously with the reader is what I hope to achieve with every work of fiction I write. It is also immensely interesting to explore the secret worlds that people inhabit. There is a gray zone between what most people appear to be and what they truly are and it is an author’s privilege to explore this no-man’s land. Fictitious characters are almost always based on real life models, the twists and loops in their personalities, the angled perceptions of reality by different characters (reality, as it is, is a very subjective affair), mirages of the mind and the point where the real often blends into the surreal….. I try to explore these aspects in my writing.

By Aminah Sheikh

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

My basic instinct is to write. Of course, a cause, money, adulation and fame are what writers write for but they can’t happen without the instinct. The vent that I need to articulate the deepest levels of my consciousness drives me to write. When not writing, I sing; I sing well.

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

My most recent book is Scattered Souls. It is a collection of 13 interlinked stories which makes it a novel as well. The connections between the stories have been determined by the interdependent diversity in suffering that run through disparate, scattered individuals as a thread, enabling each character a full role in relation to the other. But that is not how it was planned. It emerged while writing them.

The conflict situation in Kashmir is extraordinary. The stories try to evince what ordinary means to a people living (read suffering) in an extraordinary situation.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Primarily, I’m fond of experimenting with diverse formats. I also like to punctuate the narration with real elements like a letter, an ad, a song, a poem, a list, a symbol and so on. I don’t like tight climax-plots but loose-ended plots to my stories with a multi-plot embedded throughout. I like a matter-of-fact, poetic, stream-of-consciousness, compact narration generally and above all. My stories would stand alone as well as converge, with certain elements, into each other. I am fond of nouns and verbs mostly, in verbing of nouns and adjectives as tiny metaphors. I don’t approve of fiction which is written only to explore the possibilities of language not ideas. I don’t like too much of aesthetic that fails to torture the language and holds it back from telling the latent truth.

Two translations of a seminal short story collection— experimental in form and style—that set north India aflame: Outlook India

angarey_coverIn 1936, in the last year of his life, the Hindi author Premchand traveled to Lucknow to address the first annual meeting of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA). In his forty-five minute speech titled “The Aims of Literature” he charted a course for the future of Indian literature that was progressive and realistic. His speech, and the AIPWA, was to change the course of Indian writing dramatically, for the coming decades and beyond.

July 31, Premchand’s birth anniversary, leads the author to wonder why one of India’s most celebrated writers has been forgotten by urban readers today.

Many pensive pauses, edits and deletions later, I think it is best to start an essay about Munshi Premchand the way he would have — by stating the truth as it is. And the truth is, however unkind it may be, — as those loving him, his writing and his literary philosophy will attest — that he, one of the brightest lights in the horizon of Indian prose, stands eclipsed if not forgotten by the urbane Indian fiction readers of today.