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Writing Matters: In conversation with Sudeep Chakravarti

By Shikhandin

Sudeep by Ushinor Majumdar Colour

Photo Courtesy: Ushinor Majumdar

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several groundbreaking and bestselling works of narrative non-fiction – Red Sun, finalist for the Crossword Award in 2009; Highway 39; Clear. Hold. Build, winner of the Award for Excellence at the Asian Publishing Awards, 2014, and most recently, The Bengalis. He has written two novels (Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings) and his essays and short fiction have appeared in collections in India and overseas; like his books, these have been translated into several languages.
He is among India’s leading independent commentators on matters of conflict and conflict resolution, democracy and development, political economy, and the convergence of business and human rights. An extensively published columnist at Mint and elsewhere, he has over three decades of experience in media, and has worked with major global and Indian media organizations including the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he began his career, and held leadership positions at Sunday, the India Today Group and HT Media.
An avid scuba diver, Sudeep’s key interest away from writing and travelling remains marine conservation. He lives in Goa and in the Velliangiri Hills, Tamil Nadu.

Shikhandin: In the acknowledgements page of The Bengalis, you have touched upon how the book came about. Could you let us know a bit more here?

Sudeep Chakravarti: I have for long wanted to write a book on the social and political aspects of Greater Bengal — by that I mean West Bengal and East Bengal, now Bangladesh — with a personalized touch. My personal history is rooted in both Bengals, as it were, and such an approach lends a great degree of reality and immediacy to seemingly dry history. I had even proposed it to a major publisher, but I put it on ice for a couple of years on account of a few issues with that particular publisher. I subsequently brought the project to David Davidar of Aleph. The Bengalis assumed a more rounded avatar after my discussion with David, whose idea was a fuller portrait of the Bengalis, almost a biography.

I was keen to translate research, interviews, experiences and observations into an engaging son et lumière storytelling. I apply that approach to all my books, fiction as well as narrative non-fiction. The difference with The Bengalis is that I am occasionally involved in the story as a participant. But I was determined to maintain a distance, and address thorny issues of history and ethnicity alongside all that is justly celebrated about the Bengalis. It’s not so much about a different eye as a necessary eye: The Bengalis is not a brochure, it’s an attempt at a portrait of a people painted with what I hope is honesty, honour, some horror and a lot of humour. David liked that approach right from the first draft. A second draft and a couple of proofs later, we were done. He and Aleph’s managing editor, Aienla Ozukum, really got into The Bengalis.

Then there is the cover, a work of great care and aesthetics by Aleph’s art director, Bena Sareen (who also designed the cover of my book Red Sun when she was at Penguin). The cover image of The Bengalis, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali – the people as well as the book: a hankering for history, a faded grand past, the playful and yet focused child a symbol of a possibly energized future, the Bengali obsession with football and politics, the slightly rural tone even in an undeniably urban setting. The image by Plabon Das works wonderfully. As to the content, the book of course attempts to deal comprehensively with all this and much, much more.

There was a process to the selection of this image. We were very concerned that the image should not crudely reflect a stereotype, or alienate a vast number of Bengalis. There were other images in the initial design line-up; for instance, a beautiful image of a rickshaw puller in front of a grand North Kolkata mansion. I felt that was too ‘guidebook’ or ‘coffee-table’, like a couple of other options. In any case we didn’t want something to be too Kolkata, as it were, as if other places in what I like to call Banglasphere don’t exist.
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Book Review: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Bengalis Cover Low Res (546x800)

Title: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community
Author: Sudeep Chakravatri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: Hardcover 457 pages
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‘Ergo, no matter who you listen to, we are pretty much mongrel.’

That little sentence in page 43 of Sudeep Chakravarti’s vade mecum, The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, floats up with a beastly smirk. Unless of course, you have done your job as a reader and read it not out of context, but as part of the whole subject, including the weighty preceding pages.

Still, for argument’s sake, were you to disbelieve the mongrel bit, or dismiss it as self-deprecation, you would do an injustice to the community. Yes, you read that correctly, and Chakravarti provides carefully compiled data on the origins of the Bengali race to prove it.

Being a mixed breed is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you are not mixed up, which is not a compliment one can pay to the so-called pure bloodlines, whatever that is, if at all such things exist. Besides, further up the book one comes upon this beautiful explanation of what it means to be a Bengali mongrel:

‘Our so-called purity is rooted in mongrelisation. It has taken us a long journey to arrive where we have, with our distinct streams of culture, distinctive sub-languages and dialects with a unifying super-language that is itself mongrel.

‘It is through our openness to the world and cultures other than our own, that we have evolved our Bengaliness that is so distinctive, so unique. It’s what makes us enduring, indolent, insular, outgoing, endearing, adventurous, gypsy-like, nesting, sentimental, adaptive, rebellious, questioning, accepting, and infuriating in turn – or all at once. To be anything else would probably be so very boring’ (chapter 13, page 315).

Perhaps after reading the book, some ill-informed not-Bengalis will call out ‘Mongrel Bengali’ instead of the earlier taunt of ‘Bhookha Bengali!’ Then again, those who wish to insult will always find some term or epithet suitable enough, however misguided. Bengalis ought to take the higher ground, because we know who we are and do not need to explain ourselves. So, why do we need a book about ourselves at all?

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Dr Mohammad A. Quayum

By Shikhandin

Dr Quayum

Dr Mohammad A. Quayum is the author, editor and translator of 32 books in the areas of American literature, Asian Literature and Postcolonial literatures. He is also the author of more than sixty articles in distinguished peer-reviewed journals. His research interests range from 19th and 20th century American literature to contemporary Asian literature, with special focus on Indian literature, Bengali literature and Malaysian-Singaporean literature.

He is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Asiatic: An International Journal of Asian Literatures, Cultures and Englishes (indexed in Web of Science and Scopus) and is on the advisory board of several leading journals including Journal of Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, UK; ISI indexed), Transnational Literature (Australia; ERA indexed), Interdisciplinary Literary Studies (USA; WoS indexed), Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies (USA), Literature Today (India), The Apollonian: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (India), and The Rupkatha Journal of the Interdisciplinary Studies of the Humanities (India; Scopus indexed).

Dr Quayum is dean of the Kulliyyah (Faculty) of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and an Honorary Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia.

 

Shikhandin: Most of us only know of you as Dr M.A. Quayum the academic and mentor. Tell us a bit about your early life, and what drew you to pursue literature.

Dr M.A. Quayum: I was born in a small town called Gopalganj, in the district of Faridpur in Bangladesh. This was before Bangladesh was formed and was still known as East Pakistan. I grew up in this small, near-idyllic town and got my early education in the only Government school for boys there, S.M. Model Primary and High School. When I was eleven, my father sent me to a public residential school several hundred kilometres away, known as Jhenidah Cadet College. This marked a turning point in my life. It was an English medium school and the fees were very high. My father could hardly afford the fees and yet he sent me there, mainly to secure a good future for me. A second reason was that my father, who was a lawyer in Gopalganj, had a great admiration for English language and literature. Probably he thought that sending me there would also give me a good grounding in the language. I don’t know how and where he picked up his love for English, because my grandfather was a religious teacher at a primary school in our village who had little interaction with the language. My father was, however, educated at the Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College) in Calcutta (Kolkata), and perhaps it was there that he developed his great love for both English language and literature. You would be surprised to know that my father could recite several poems by Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson and Browning from memory. He would take enormous pride in reciting Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in particular. Maybe I was infected by his love in childhood and therefore developed a natural penchant for literature from an early age, reading all kinds of books, in both Bengali and English. My father would often buy me books and take me to the local library and encourage me to participate in various literary activities such as essay writing and poetry recitation competitions. I remember participating in an essay writing competition on the life of the Prophet when I was seven or eight years old, and then being invited to read my essay at a local mosque. I also remember my father giving me a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of short stories, Galpagucchha, for my eleventh birthday, and I recollect reading almost all of it in a great rush. My recent attempt to translate some of Rabindranath’s short stories into English, which was first published as Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories by Macmillan India in 2011 and then as Rabindranath Tagore: The Ruined Nest and Other Stories by Silverfish Books Malaysia in 2014, was a means to share that childhood excitement and discovery: firstly with my daughter who, being born and brought up in Australia, has in a way lost touch with the language and the culture; secondly, with my students and friends in Malaysia and elsewhere, who have great curiosity about and admiration for Tagore but cannot read his work in the original because of the language barrier.

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Book Review: The Lucknow Cookbook by Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Lucknow Cookbook

Title: The Lucknow Cookbook
Authors: Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: Soft Cover, 228

Years ago, before Narcopolis, the DSC Prize winning author Jeet Thayil had shared a moment during a reading at a poetry festival. He had said that he read and collected cook books, not because he cooked, but because he enjoyed reading them. Cook books provided both welcome relief from an excess of poetry, and also stirred up creative juices. His words had immediately resonated with the men and women, many of whom were poets, writers and artists, present among the audience.

Thayil’s words came back to me when I held my reviewer’s copy of The Lucknow Cookbook written by the mother and daughter duo, Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli. Books from Aleph are a pleasure to hold and behold. This book of recipes and family food lore does not disappoint. A comfortably sized book with an elegant outer cover and a rich olive green inner cover, it immediately leaps at you from the shelf. Since no food book is complete without appetite inducing pictures, The Lucknow Cookbook has them too. Bang in the centre, an eight-page long visual feast, spread back to back with photographs of Lucknowi fare laid out in style, rather like an Awadhi dastarkhwan, as Sunita Kohli notes in her forward, ‘a Persian term literally meaning a meticulously laid out ceremonial dining spread…’

The Lucknow Cookbook is one family’s chronicle of what turns out to be more than just about food. It is about an era, a city and a society where culture and refinement absorbed from various influences produced food, the first and foremost expression of good hospitality, that was as intricate and nuanced as the art and architecture, the jewellery and furniture of a people who loved to live well.

Lucknow, according to Kohli, ‘had a high degree of refinement as compared to Delhi. It was known for its “tehzeeb, tameez aur nafaasat (manners, etiquette and sophistication).”…Lucknow was home to some of the most vibrant and artistic expressions of its time.’ Even in comparison with Lahore, a vibrant city in its own right, Lucknow stood out. In her words again – ‘The hospitality in Lahore is extraordinary and its food is legendary. There are some striking similarities to the cuisine of Lucknow. But one difference is that the cuisine of Lahore is more robust, in the tradition of the Punjab. The traditional cuisine in Lucknow is more refined, more aromatic, more aesthetically creative and it is served with a greater nazaakat (elegance).’ For Lucknow is the place where Hindu and Muslim traditions blend and become something exclusive to the city, whose chefs ‘took the best …, absorbed them into their current cuisines and made it into a uniquely Lucknowi experience.’

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Charles Adès Fishman and Smita Sahay, editors of Veils, Halos & Shackles

By Shikhandin

16th December 2017 came and went. With barely a murmured remembrance. That’s five whole years since Nirbhaya, the name this brave girl, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was hailed by, the one who fought her attackers and then fought to survive in hospital. Ultimately she could not overcome her grievous injuries. So what happened? Why are we still not enraged? Have we slipped into our usual drugged sleep of forgetfulness?

Sometimes protest becomes still. We lose heart and start to despair. I like to believe that it is during times of stillness that protest gathers steam. During that still period, we need poetry. The poetry of protest. That is why I dare to visualise Veils Halos & Shackles in the hands of not just random or selective readers but anyone who wishes to become more conscious across societies, across the world. Even those who are not diehard fans of poetry; yes, even them. I visualise this book as reading material in classrooms, and not just for literature or liberal arts students. It is no longer enough to be outraged by newspaper and television reports. Poetry must outrage us. Oppression fears poetry. The winds of change feed on poetry. Hence the need for Veils Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, published by Kasva Press, 2016.

Here we get behind the scenes regarding the making of this volume and also try to get an understanding of what the editors – Smita Sahay and Charles Fishman – experienced.

Shikhandin: Tell us about the beginning, that little seedling from which this book grew, apart from the accounts of the horrific crimes that sowed the original seed. And why the name/inspiration behind it – Veils, Halos & Shackles?

Charles Fishman: Thank you for this opening question, Shikhandin, and for the others that follow. I’m delighted that Smita has agreed to respond to your questions, whenever possible; wrestling with complex issues effectively and persuasively is one of her many gifts as a poet and thinker.

Smita Sahay: Charles and I were in conversation about his last book of poetry, In the Path of Lightning, and I found sanity in his justice-demanding yet hope-and-love-filled verses in the days after Jyoti Singh Pandey was assaulted and later passed away. There was no way to come to terms with what had happened and I was mute within my fury and grief. The violence with which Jyoti’s life had been snuffed out had left Charles, thousands of miles away from India, as horrified. As we tried to find comfort in each other’s emails, our intent to give artistic expression to this fury led us to conceptualise Veils, Halos & Shackles. We first contemplated co-writing a book, but then we were convinced that there were multiple voices that needed to be united and decided to go ahead with an Indo-American anthology. This initial version of the anthology grew organically into the international volume of Veils, Halos & Shackles that eventually came out, and this expansion is proof that sexual violence is more universal than we admit, that survivors are caged unspeakably within their own suffering and that uniting in the face of sexual violence is possibly the only way to fight it.

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Book Review: Review in Perspective of Veils, Halos & Shackles

Five years ago, in January 2013, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay conceived of Veils, Halos & Shackles, dedicated to ‘Jyoti Singh Pandey, Nadia Anjuman and the uncountable number of other women and girls who have been victims of gender violence’. 

This is a two-part feature consisting of the book review and an interview with Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay. Today we carry the review to be followed by the interview tomorrow.

By Shikhandin

Veils, Halos & Shackles

 

Title: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women
Edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay
Publisher: Kasva Press, 2016
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On the night of 16th December 2012, in New Delhi, Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped and tortured – which included the removal of her intestines with a metal rod – in a moving bus, and thrown out. She and her friend lay on the road for a long time before anyone stopped to help. She died in Singapore a few days after. For those who would like to know the details, it is here in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Delhi_gang_rape.

New Delhi is a city notorious for its treatment of women, where assault of all kinds occur with alarming regularity, with percentages being somewhat more than in the rest of India. This time, there was such brutality involved that it shook a nation which is normally in a state of extreme torpor with regard to women’s dignity and safety. India erupted into nationwide protests and not just through marches and candle lit vigils. In the hearts of Indian women and sane Indian men, a single voice seemed to rise – ‘Enough!’ The world too, took note, with horror. That was five years ago.

Since then, newspapers, television channels and other media, including social, have regularly reported similar outrages meted out to women and children, both girls and boys. At times it seems like the number of incidents has increased, and that instead of a nation trying to become better, India has regressed into perversion and misogyny. A number of cases have been reported of foreign objects being inserted into girls as young as two. The crime rate seems to be spiking. Women and survivors from other genders braving social media with their protests and stories are being trolled regularly. Parents are still worried sick for their daughters when they come home late or are unreachable on their phones.

Did Nirbhaya die in vain?

The rumble went deeper than imagined. It created fissures at depths where visibility is near non-existent. Nirbhaya was the turning point.

Now people are increasingly open. They refuse to be intimidated into silence. We hear of more cases because more people are reporting them. There is greater support and understanding for survivors and victims not just in India, but across the world, for while India may have a terrible reputation with regard to all those who identify as women, the situation is far from good even in developed and apparently liberal societies.

Across the world, much needs to be done. In India, we are a long way away from being a safe and respectful society towards girls and women and gay men. The change, unfurling all around us, often so quietly we barely note its presence, is shaking the core of our society. However slowly, however timidly. There is protest through vigils and media outcries. Much of it is inner dissent. A lot of it is quiet. Some of it pours out in artistic expressions.

The shape of protest is protean. The colours of its pain and beauty are myriad. Protest’s life span is longer than that of placards, and the decibel level of its call is higher than that of individual angry voices. The storm brewing, gathering and collecting force has a language. One of the languages of this protest is poetry.

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Writing matters: In conversation with Indira Chandrasekhar

 

By Shikhandin

Indira Chandrashekhar

Indira Chandrasekhar is a scientist, a fiction writer and the founder and principal editor of the short fiction magazine Out of Print. She also curates an annual short story contest along with DNA, called the DNA-OoP Short Story Prize. Indira has a Ph.D in Biophysics. She worked in scientific institutions in India, the US and Switzerland, before turning into a full time writer and editor. She co-edited the short story anthology, Pangea in 2012, Thames River Press, along with British author and Editor Rebecca Lloyd. Indira’s stories have appeared in Eclectica, Nether, Cosmonauts Avenue, Far Enough East, The Little Magazine, Guftugu and others.

Polymorphism, her first story collection, presents nineteen tightly wrapped and elegantly told stories in genres ranging from science fiction to slip stream to literary, often blurring the boundaries. The visual cues and the lingering effect created by her stories are at times disconcerting, even disturbing, and always memorable. As the blurb on the back cover says, ‘…Textured by the author’s scientific research on biological molecules and deeply informed by family stories, the collection explores humanity’s driving obsessions of life, fertility and relationships with tender, surreal expression.’

In an email interview Indira Chandrasekhar shares her writing journey and her views on the short story form with Shikhandin for Kitaab.

Shikhandin: First the obvious question, when did it all start, the writing, i.e.?

Indira: Writing fiction – as an adult – is significantly linked to place, to relocation and to realignment. I was working as a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich when I returned to India to live in Mumbai, a city I did not really know. It was as if settling into, rediscovering, restoring my identity in the context of the place that was home, and yet wasn’t, unleashed a need to find creative expression outside the more fundamental cultural framework of science. I started drawing again, and writing. The writing took precedence – as if the story asserted itself and wanted to find an outlet.

Shikhandin: You have a Ph.D in Biophysics, and you write stories. Is it like straddling two boats? Share your unique experience with us.

Indira: Thank you for that question. In some ways, yes, it could be seen as if I straddle two ways of interpreting the world. The one, structured, logical and fact-based. The other surreal, fantastical and fictional. And yet, ultimately, I see both ways as related to making sense of existence, be it through the interactions of minute molecular entities that influence how the biological, the mamallian, the human system functions, or through the complex relationships between individuals that impact the way we think about ourselves, live our lives and construct our societies.

Shikhandin: Tell us about your magazine Out of Print. Why this name in particular? How did this journey begin?

Indira: Out of Print emerged as a consequence of trying to place my own writing in literary magazines and journals. At the time, this is around 2010, there were few literary journals in India and South Asia available to writers of short fiction. Some wonderful people supported the idea and we managed to get started. We decided to create an online journal and yet truly pay tribute to the – I am struggling for the phrase: classical, traditional, standard, 20th Century – perhaps a better way of putting it is, the ever-evolving literary traditions we have used to understand and constantly tell stories. In other words, because we were emerging from the familiar print form, I called the magazine Out of Print.

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Book Review: Immoderate Men by Shikhandin

By Fehmida Zakeer

Immoderate-Men book image

Title: Immoderate Men
Author: Shikhandin
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Pages: 200

 

As the title indicates, the eleven stories in the collection Immoderate Men focuses on the unrestrained response of the main characters as they encounter seemingly small quirks of fate that go on to have great implications in their lives. The author who has used a pseudonym, Shikhandin, has made it a point to include stories about men from different classes of society as well as from different age groups making each story unique in its perspective. Though the point of view is that of the male gender, the narratives do not actually delve into the psyche of men as such; rather, the portrayal revolves around how the principal characters respond to the attitudes and events in the lives of the women around them.

‘Salted Pinkies’ is, however, different. It focuses on the efforts of a young man who resorts to an extreme step to escape from a society that is not ready to accept a different language of sexuality. Some stories trace the calibration of marital relationships, the strength of the bond between husband and wife. In the first story, we see a couple preparing for a banquet for their son-in-law, making all efforts to ensure a sumptuous spread with all the right foods. But when the ingredient for their star dish disappears from the garden, the excellent chemistry between the couple helps them to deal with the different problems that come up. However, another story on the same theme, ‘Black Prince’, paints a picture of domestic discontent that drives the husband to develop an unusual passion — that of growing roses in his garden which helps him in a strange way to confront the disturbance lurking beneath the surface of his life.

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