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Will contemporary Urdu novelists please stand up?

Urdu novelist Rahman Abbas, 46, had to spend time in jail, even losing his teaching job, over a book he published in 2004. It was only in August 2016 that he was acquitted by a Mumbai court, the culmination of a 10-year lawsuit against his Nakhlistan ki Talash (In Search of An Oasis). The novel, which was slapped with obscenity charges under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, revolves around love and politics in the aftermath of the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai. It created a furore in conservative Urdu literary and media circles. But such instances of incendiary Urdu novels, with contemporary settings, are hard to find now. Why are there no traces of anything similar to the Progressive Writers’ Movement of yore?

Urdu fiction buffs profusely applaud the seminal writers of the 20th century—Ismat Chughtai, Munshi Premchand, Qurat-ul-Ain Haider and Saadat Hasan Manto. But how much do we know about the contemporary Urdu fiction in 21st century India? Do these unknown novelists still concern themselves with the hoary traditions of ‘Lakhnawi Tehzeeb’ and ‘Awadhi Zubaan’, or have they moved on to ruminate on more topical issues from their immediate surroundings?

How many Urdu novels from Maharashtra, Kolkata or Andhra Pradesh have come to the fore, discounting the usual suspects from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar? Moreover, what ails Urdu novels today?

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11 Books to Read if You Want to Understand Caste in India

In Lithub, S. Shankar, author of ‘Ghost in the Tamarind’ lists 11 representative books that “serve as an introduction to caste”, that explore the intricacies and the indignities of caste in India.

Caste is not unique to India, and no country should be reduced to a single social category, no matter how intrinsic a part of its reality. Nevertheless, to understand India you have to understand caste, whose intricacies are unarguably difficult. It is not just one of the most prominent social features of India; it is at the heart of many of the past and present fissures of the country.

I grew up in India living the reality of caste every day. Even so I had to learn, and unlearn, many things about caste while completing my two most recent books: the novel Ghost in the Tamarind, which narrates an inter-caste romance between a Brahmin man and a Dalit woman against the backdrop of powerful anti-caste movements in southern India; and a co-edited collection of academic essays on caste and life narratives.

What exactly is caste? You might have heard somewhere (perhaps in a high school or college classroom) that there are four ancient and unchanging castes in India ranging from Brahmins at the top, through Kshatriyas and Vaishyas in the middle, to Shudras at the bottom, with a fifth group of so-called Untouchables—the preferred term now is Dalits—even further below. These, though, are only partial truths, for history is replete with examples of the changeability of caste, and in practice there are thousands of castes. One truth about caste, however, is undeniable: in all its manifestations through history it has been the name for a monstrous and irredeemable system of social hierarchy and oppression based on horrific notions of ritual pollution and exclusion.

The various social groups collected most recently under the name Dalit have felt the power of this irredeemable system with the greatest force. The Indian constitution, adopted in 1950, acknowledged in an enlightened moment that the historically disadvantaged Dalits needed special support to advance socially and economically, and then set out to provide it. Since then, India has had a Dalit President and a powerful woman Dalit Chief Minister of a state. Nevertheless, the oppression of Dalits, ranging from daily humiliation (such as the maintenance of separate glasses for Dalits in some village tea shops) through sexual violence to outright massacre (alas, so many that the name of Khairlanji, where in 2006 four members of the Bhotmange family were brutally murdered, must suffice as stand in) continues till today. Reality is never neat or singular.

This is one reason “the Boom in Dalit literature”—as some have called it—of the last few decades is so important. The Boom represents the entrance of new and vital voices onto India’s literary stage—that is into forms of artistic production from which they had formerly been excluded (of course, Dalits, often musicians and performers, have had their own powerful expressive forms going back centuries). Many trace the origins of the Boom back to Dalit writing in Marathi, which began to gather force in the Seventies. From there, the Boom spread to other languages, and now there are significant bodies of work in Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and other languages.

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Hindi literature: For Premchand, Good Literature Was About Truth and Humanity

The great Hindi writer remains as relevant today as he was more than a century ago.

Born 137 years ago on July 31 in Lamhi, a village near Varanasi, Premchand (1880-1936) wrote about things that have always existed but had hitherto been considered beyond the pale of literature – exploitation and submission, greed and corruption, the straightjacket of poverty and an unyielding caste system. Son of a post office clerk, he was named Dhanpat Rai (literally meaning the ‘master of wealth’), yet he waged a lifelong battle against unremitting genteel poverty. Reading and writing, always the stock in trade of a good kayastha boy, coupled with acute social consciousness and an unerring eye for detail turned him – with a literary career spanning three decades which included 14 novels, 300 short stories, several translations from English classics, innumerable essays and editorial pieces – into a qalam ka sipahi, a ‘soldier with the pen’.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Kankana Basu

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.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Shahnaz Bashir

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.

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A new collection of writings from ‘The Modern Review’, and the history of intellectual journalism in India

patriotspoets-and-prisoners

Ramananda Chatterjee was arguably the most influential Indian editor in the last few decades of colonial rule. He began publishing The Modern Review in 1907. In an obituary of the departed editor in 1943, the historian Jadunath Sarkar wrote that the list of contributors in the 37 years that Chatterjee edited the journal was actually a dictionary of the greatest Indian intellectuals of that time, plus several notable foreigners. There is a dash of hyperbole here—no B.R. Ambedkar, for instance—yet the claim is not altogether off the mark. Every issue of the review packed a lot of intellectual punch. Besides the new Indian elite that devotedly followed The Modern Review every month, the British colonial authorities too read it closely to understand Indian nationalist opinion on contemporary issues.

An excellent collection of writings from the The Modern Review has now been published—Patriots, Poets And Prisoners: Selections From Ramananda Chatterjee’s The Modern Review, 1907-1947. The pieces selected for this book give us some idea about the quality of writers who contributed to the journal—Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Sister Nivedita, M.K. Gandhi, Verrier Elwin, Premchand, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and several others. There is an essay in the book by Tagore in which he criticizes the cult of the charkha propagated by Gandhi. Bose interviews the French writer Romain Rolland at a time when Europe was hurtling mindlessly towards yet another conflagration. And of course there is the famous essay in the November 1937 issue, in which someone hiding his identity behind the pseudonym Chanakya warned readers that Nehru had the makings of a potential dictator. It was only revealed much later that the writer of that playful essay was Nehru himself. Read more


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Review: Angarey

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. Continue reading


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Why has India forgotten this writer?

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.

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