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Book Review: Ladders Against the Sky by Murli Melwani

Reviewed by Kusum Chopra

Ladders Against the Sky

Title: Ladders Against the Sky
Author: Murli Melwani
Publisher: Kaziranga Books (2017)
Pages: 453
Price: INR 500

Ladders Against the Sky is a collection of 16 stories, written between 2011 and 2017, which were first published in literary journals and anthologies. One of the stories, “Water on a Hot Plate,” was included in The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, published by Kitaab. Two stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012 and 2013.

Murli Melwani is a short story writer, a literary activist who runs two websites, and a critic, whose book, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: A Historical and a Critical Study, tracks the growth of this genre from 1835 to 1980.

The short stories in the collection can be divided into two broad categories. About half the stories, set in India, reflect social concern, the conflict between tradition and modernity, science and superstition and the pressures on national unity. The other half, set in foreign countries, focuses on a unique Indian community, the Sindhis, whose culture – a blend of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, and their language, written in the Arabic script with linguistic elements of Sanskrit and Persian – are in danger of gradually fading away.

The writer’s approach is determined by the subject of each story. Thus, “Water on a Hot Plate”, with Toronto as the background, a story of cultural displacement and change, captures the interaction of an Indian tourist and a restaurateur, a Chinese lady born in India. They are two enterprising expatriates who carry diminishing bits of home, as well as of the countries they have lived in, to their newest place of sojourn.

Similarly, in “A Bar Girl,” the lifestyles that Amar Badlani and Rak have chosen prevent them from stopping and evaluating their lives or asking where they are headed. Amar Badlani’s visit with Rak to her village brings home to him the fact that his estrangement from his family has its roots in his working life. His damage control efforts lead him to finance the nursing education of Rak on the one hand, and to make overtures to his kids and grandkids on the other.

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Remembering Safia Manto, the woman who stood by the writer in good times – and the many bad ones

So little is known and even less written about the women who have unflinchingly supported their celebrated men. It is true that Safia Deen would not have been known had she not married Saadat Hasan Manto and become Safia Manto. But on her centenary today, May 11, let it be known that Manto may not have been a hero had it not been for Safia, who stood by him, through the best and worst of times. The best were few and the worst, many.

Both Manto and Safia were born on May 11 (the husband in 1912, the wife in 1916), wore black-rimmed glasses, had Kashmiri origins and had first names that started with an S. But the similarities probably ended there. He was a man of fine taste – be it silver capped Sheaffer pens or gold embroidered juttis. He wanted nothing but the best, whereas Safiawas simple to a fault, needing less and less through their hardships. He was a provocateur and left no opportunity to be noticed, while she was self-evasive and shy.

What began as an arranged marriage in 1936, about which Manto writes a whole essay, titled, Meri Shaadi (My Wedding), soon turned into great fondness and camaraderie. Their best days were spent in Bombay, a city they returned to, after Manto worked in Delhi at the All India Radio. It is there that they lost their first child, Arif. It devastated them, but also brought them closer. They then went on to have three daughters.

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Kitaab call for submission: The Best Asian Crime Fiction DEADLINE EXTENDED

Kitaab – Call for Submissions

Kitaab is seeking high quality short stories for The Best Asian Crime Fiction anthology to be published in 2018.

Stories submitted should have a minimum length of 2,500 words and a maximum length of 12,000 words. Submissions that are shorter than 2,500 words or significantly longer than 12,000 will not be read or considered for inclusion in this anthology.

What we’re looking for:

We want to see strong, well-written stories that deal with some aspect of crime. It is essential that your characters be engaging and – most important – believable. Also, the plots should be credible. An appealing style is preferable, but as with all crime fiction, plot and character should be paramount.

We will be generous in our consideration of what constitutes crime. However, we don’t want to see stories about someone who simply embezzles funds from his / her office or club, gets caught and dismissed, or someone who is a bus fare cheater. The crimes should engage the interest and emotions of our readers.
We strongly encourage originality and look for novel approaches to the idea of crime fiction.

The best three stories (decided by the editor) will get cash prizes or Amazon vouchers (worth $50 each)! All selected contributors will each receive 2 complimentary copies of the final publication. 

The Best Asian Crime Fiction anthology will be edited by Richard Lord on behalf of Kitaab, Singapore.

Richard Lord has written or co-written over 20 books put out by legitimate publishers. In recent years, he has concentrated on writing and editing crime fiction. He was the editor of two popular crime fiction anthologies: Crime Scene Singapore and Crime Scene Asia. In addition to short stories included in these and three other anthologies, Lord wrote the acclaimed novel The Strangler’s Waltz, about a serial killer in 1913 Vienna.
One of his crime short stories was adapted as a TV mini-series by Singapore’s Mediacorp network, with Lord serving as script consultant and script doctor on the teleplay for this series.

Rules and regulations:

  • Submissions should be e-mailed to krimi.asia@gmail.com and to kitaab.sg@gmail.com. Submissions must be made to both ids to qualify.
  • Asians of all nationalities living anywhere in the world can send their stories. However, non-Asian authors who have resided in and written extensively about an Asian country will also be considered.
  • Submissions must be MSWORD (.doc/.docx) attachments typed double spaced in legible fonts, preferably Times New Roman 12. The submission should also be pasted within the body of the covering mail.
  • Please include an author’s bio note of 100 words.
  • The subject line of the email should read as: Submission/TBACF/author’s name.
  • Up to two submissions will be considered from each writer.
  • Translations are welcome, provided prior permissions are taken by translators from the authors. If your submission is a translation, you must note this in a message accompanying the submission.
  • Previously published work in print or online (including blogs, magazines or other online fora) will not be accepted. However, if a previously published short work has been extended into a longer piece, we will accept that longer story for consideration.
  • Simultaneous submissions will be considered. Please notify us immediately if the story is accepted elsewhere.

Last date for submissions: 15 May 2018


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Essay: Words — A Love Story by Varsha Tiwary

Very early on, my eight-year-old self understood that spoken words were not the same as those written. Spoken words hurt, made noise, sounded ugly, were sometimes false. Written words, when spoken aloud, sounded beautiful; even when improbable, like the antics of the ‘vanar sena’ from Ramcharitmanas recited aloud by my nani, they rang true. What makes words on paper different? Perhaps their ability to be of life, from life, while simultaneously being away from it. Maybe the reflection and thought that goes into it. I can articulate this at forty-seven. But I always knew it.

As I saw it, words, stories, poetry, writing, made up one big stew pot. You chose beautiful, sparkling words. You stirred the pot. You strung them together. They made beauty, made sense, made happiness. All the things that I thought my life lacked: grace and culture, glamour, laughter, excitement, fun, could be picked and savoured from assorted jars of words: books. Reading and writing were ideal pastimes for a lonely small-town girl like me. It let me be at once docile and dutiful; rebellious and willful. My mother and father would peep in to see me furiously scribbling or poring over a book, and feel comforted that I was a good, studious child, even if I was penning mean tirades about them or hiding yet another Agatha Christie inside my physics textbook.

Writing words cleansed me. After I wrote about what people did or said in my diary, it ceased to matter. I could smile serenely and move on.

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Lebanese Novelist Emily Nasrallah, 86

The quiet, firm Lebanese feminist author and activist Emily Nasrallah (1931-2018) — celebrated for her debut novel Birds of September — has died.

Born in the summer of 1931, Emily Nasrallah grew up in Al Kfeir, a village in southern Lebanon, before moving to Beirut to study and work as a journalist and teacher. Her debut novel, Birds of Septembercame out in 1962 and was later listed as one of the Arab Writers Union’s 105 best books of the twentieth century. It has been translated into German as Septembervogel by Veronika Theis, but not into English.

Journalist, translator, and author Olivia Snaije, in her brief tribute Wednesday, wrote that Nasrallah was “one of the first to write short stories, to write both about her village in the south and Beirut, during the civil war” and was “a real feminist, gracious, quiet, firm.”

Nasrallah’s other widely known work is Yawmiyyat Hirr (1997), a book for children that was translated into English as What Happened to Zeeko (2001), as well as into Thai, Dutch, and German. It describes everyday life during Civil War-era Beirut from the perspective of a tomcat.

Two other books by Nasrallah have translated to English. The first by Issa Boullata, as  Flight Against Time, and the second a collection of short stories, House Not Her Own, translated by Thuraya Khalil-Khouri.

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How do you define ‘Home’?

Our roundtable with authors from “Go Home!,” an Asian diasporic anthology of fiction, essays, and poetry grappling with the true meaning of “home.”

“Is home a real place? Is it a memory?” asks Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, editor of the new anthology “Go Home!” (out from Feminist Press, in collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop). “Who gets to decide when you’re at home? What does it mean when you lose a home? How do you respond when someone tells you to go home? What if you don’t know where that is?”

In “Go Home!” — a collection that feels particularly timely in the midst of attacks on immigrant families and communities — Asian diasporic writers are both thoughtful and generous in their reflections about who they are, where they have been, and where they belong. Their stories will provide illumination and hope to readers grappling with their own questions about family, identity, and belonging. Shondaland reached out to Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (editor of “Go Home!” and author of the novel “Harmless Like You”), Viet Thanh Nguyen (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” who wrote the foreword to “Go Home!”), and contributors Alexander Chee (author of the national bestseller “The Queen of the Night” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”), Karissa Chen (editor-in-chief of Hyphen and author of the chapbook “Of Birds and Lovers”), T Kira Madden (editor-in-chief of No Tokens and author of the forthcoming “Long Live the Tribe of the Fatherless Girls”), and Esmé Weijun Wang (author of “The Border of Paradise” and the forthcoming “The Collected Schizophrenias”) to discuss this powerful and timely new anthology.

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Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Writing in the shadows of Japan’s literary giants

We are not sure of the exact date, but we know it happened on a Thursday in the fall of 1915.

That morning, Ryunosuke Akutagawa was extremely excited, but also nervous and perhaps even a bit queasy. Then 23 years old and still a university student, he had yet to make his mark as an author. All he had to his credit were a few translations of short works by Anatole France and W.B. Yeats and a small number of original stories of his own, none of which had attracted attention. In short, he did not have much of a resume.

By comparison, the people he met later that day were confident intellectuals with established reputations — most were at least a decade older than him. They knew each other well and, for a while already, had been gathering weekly at the house of one of their peers to discuss literature and the arts, philosophy and politics. Joining them would have been an intimidating prospect even for a confident man, something Akutagawa definitely was not. But this was also a unique opportunity to meet the individual hosting this salon, the most celebrated author of his generation and a man Akutagawa deeply admired. His name was Natsume Soseki.

It turned out to be a mesmerizing experience. Akutagawa later wrote that he had been so impressed by “the master” — he always referred to Soseki in this manner — that he had been almost unable to relax. The encounter also marked the beginning of a relationship, unfortunately cut short when Soseki died the following year, which was extremely meaningful for Akutagawa. With the help of his new mentor he was able to republish “The Nose” (1916), which Soseki greatly admired, in a well-known magazine. This brought him fame almost overnight.

Though their friendship spanned only a few months, the lives of Soseki and Akutagawa cover a critical period in the history of Japanese fiction. In the twilight years of the Edo Period (1603-1868) the genre was in a sorry state, a mere shadow of its former grandeur. …

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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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Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories

By Mitali Chakravarty

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Title: The Best Asian Short Stories
Editor: Monideepa Sahu
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab

The Best Asian Short Stories is one of the finest compilations of short stories I have read in a long time. The short stories cover a diaspora of Asian cultures, histories, societies in transit, shifting borders and values. They embrace an array of emotions that are universal and touch the heart of the reader. Established authors (Shashi Deshpande, Poile Sengupta, Farah Ghuznavi, Park Chan Soon, to name a few) and newcomers (N.Thierry, Wah Phing Lim, etc.) rub shoulders with stories that nudge one another, creating a wide range of reading experiences.

In this one book, I have travelled from the backstairs of Singapore’s government subsidized flats to Malaysian ports, to Phillipino slums, to Mao’s China, to Korea’s madly competitive society, to the lonely world of an Old Japanese, to a Syrian refugee’s boat, to the shifting borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to the rebellion against restrictions in the conservative Middle East, to Canada, America and England. These stories have grasped values that leave the reader absolutely spellbound.

Universal truths are stated by the characters that come to life with a few strokes of the creator’s skilled pen. When a dying man discovers, ‘I’m neither Indian nor Bangladeshi. I’m human’, the character reaches out beyond the pages of the book and brings home that politics and nationalism draw borders where none exist for the poor man. In another story, around the eve of Indian independence, a little girl is ‘bewildered’ when she fails to find her homeland, Sindh, on the map of the new country and says, ‘It’s gone’. One is startled by the pathos that these two words can create and compelled to question why Indians mutely accepted the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe. When in Canada, a middle aged Sindhi befriends a Hindi speaking Chinese, he contends, ‘I knew that we immigrants, Sindhi, Indian or Chinese, needed to look after each other’. This is an eternal truth faced by universal globetrotters traipsing through countries. The whole world becomes their home.

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Writing Matters: In Conversation with Aamer Hussein

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Aamer Hussein

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane (SDA): Aamer Hussein ji, welcome to Kitaab, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Your writing is an inspiration in its lyrical intensity, its telling use of fables and folktales and in the knowledge of cultures and languages that layer your stories and their vast range of characters. They explore rich inner worlds with compassion and empathy that require intense involvement with the characters. This cannot come easily to any writer. How do you approach your writing? Do you usually know what you will write and how you will write it, or do you follow a process that is organic, the story and its characters leading you by the hand?

Aamer Hussein: I’d say that in most cases it does lead me by the hand. I sit down with an image, a line or an impulse, then the story takes un-imagined pathways and the characters do things I had no idea they were planning to do. Often the end is in sight when I begin and I do often know what I want to write, for example when I use a traditional story as a template, or when, as in my new collection, I was inspired by my mother’s diary about her singing; but there is always an element of surprise even in the process of retelling. And in what we now call life writing, there is the crucial question of arranging memories in a pattern and seeing what they reveal, which often is surprising.

SDA: The search for ‘home’ and the inevitable running away from it, the rootless-ness and at times the aimless wandering – this theme and its traces can be found across most of your short fiction as well as in Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. What does ‘home’ mean to you as a writer and as somebody witnessing the evolving concept of exile and refuge in the world today? Does language, rather than any kind of physical manifestation, contain the sense of ‘home’ / homecoming?

AH: I’m wary of talking about multiple homes but in this case I must. There’s Karachi, the city I was born in and to which I often return (I’m going back in a fortnight), which remains home in some visceral sense – that location between desert and Arabian Sea is where my clay belongs. It’s at the seaside there, near where my father and grandfather lived, that I feel that sense of homecoming. I ran away from it for many years and now I keep running back. There’s London where I’ve worked and lived all my adult life, but I only feel at ‘home’ in my neighbourhood by a canal and in a small, central part of the city where I once studied and taught.  I also have a lost maternal ‘home’ where my grandparents lived in Indore. So yes: I wander among my homes and my notions of home. I’m not in any way an exile or a refugee; today I feel like a fairly privileged expat.  Yes, language as well – or rather the page on which I write, where I look for a landing place. That place too is ambivalent, as I read Urdu when I feel homesick, but rarely write in my mother tongue from any sense of nostalgia; English seems to be my memory-language, so yes, that’s a home too.  Urdu is a retreat.

SDA:   In The Cloud Messenger language seems to be a character with multiple layers waiting to be discovered. In Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman says, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’ With your polyglot sensibility and sensitivities, how important has this knowledge of languages been for your writing? Has it created creative dilemmas for you or given a sense of freedom that has helped your storytelling?

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