Celebrated writer Anita Desai spoke with Joshua Barnes of Sampsonia Way about how she became a writer, her writing process, and what it’s meant to be an “exile” from her homeland while writing about it. Indeed, writing as a daily practice is inundated with multiple requests to engage and interact with fellow writers and readers in a way not known before, mainly because of the fluidity of communications available through the Internet. She also explains that in spite of our increased connectivity, we are nonetheless drawn to the mode of exile because of its impact upon both our ancestors and our present:
I’m interested in people who live in a kind of exile; it may not be political exile, but in some sense it’s exile from the rest of society. It may have something to do with my upbringing and my parents. My mother, having been German, lived most of her life in India and never felt able to return to Germany . . . But on a superficial level, by uprooting yourself, you experience the world from many different angles. On another level, it leaves you as an outsider for good. You’re always an observer rather than the participant, and that’s a big difference.
To read more of this interview, click here.
Writer Akhil Sharma has an excerpt from his forthcoming novel Family Life entitled “A Mistake” featured in the latest edition of The New Yorker. It is filled with the kind of engrossing details that first-generation immigrants from any nation will recognize, from the wonderment at all the conveniences to confusion at all the seeming sameness. Endless adjustments, to school, to work, to home, and to the comforts of a post-industrial nation both delight and frustrate the narrator as he details his first few years as an Indian in America. An ordinary red shag carpet in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, NY becomes a thing of luxury, conjuring feelings of “stepping onto a painting.” The stories in Family Life are based in part on Sharma’s real-life experiences and loved ones, and here he reflects upon his deliberate choice to dwell in fiction instead of memoir:
I think one can be more honest in fiction than in a memoir. For me, memoir, because it claims to be factually true, restricts my ability to use dialogue, since I remember only a few things that were said. It also hampers my ability to collapse time, because collapsing time takes events out of context. And I wanted to focus on only certain aspects of the experience; in a memoir, I would have felt obligated to include things, such as boredom, that don’t interest me artistically but were an important part of the experience.
To read more of Sharma’s story, click here. For more about Sharma’s experiences while writing his novel, click here.
Picture a company town recast amidst the industrial north of Maharashtra, somewhere between Lonavala and New Bombay on National Highway 1. Writer Mathangi Krishnamurthy paints a background of homogenous order, strict adherence, and occasional ironies crinkling the placid exterior of an otherwise pleasant childhood. Krishnamurthy’s family and twenty-odd other families comprised one of a small collection of communities, a colony called Rasayani after the Hindi word for chemical (rasayan). Homes, relationships, even leisure were dictated in no small part by the pecking order at the company where everyone was employed, or related to someone employed there. Here, Krishnamurthy reminisces about the ways in which her straitlaced past informs and contradicts her free-form present:
It is more interesting for me to ask as to what are the accoutrements of childhood and how do they make us who we are? How do we narrate ourselves? And finally, lest we forget, what is the moral of the story? Soon, I will no longer be able to call Rasayani my “permanent address” on government forms. My directionality will suffer as will one part of my hybrid and usually directionless identity.
You can read the rest of Krishnamurthy’s engaging narrative as a member of the Bombay Dyeing Colony (West) at 3 Quarks Daily.
It shall be high wedding season in North America shortly, but throughout South Asia, weddings are celebrated year-round with much pomp, even if the circumstances are mundane and replayed ad nauseum for both participants and attendees. Recently, Tasveer Journal featured the work of Mahesh Shantaram, a self-described “cubicle-bot” who left the Beltways of Washington, D.C. to study photography in Paris and later, work as a wedding photographer in India. Through the course of his work, Shantaram recognized a full-fledged allegory for the tenuous and unfolding middle-classes of the subcontinent.
Everything that’s great about our country and everything that’s wrong with it can be summarised by a single wedding. Today, I’m able to express that more sincerely through this long-term project that is evolving into a form of visual poetry rather than a hard-hitting critical essay. Matrimania is the ‘dark’ narrative from a world that I’m very familiar with. It helps me balance the ‘sweet’ narrative that I construct in service of clients. That balance is necessary to preserve one’s view of life.
To read more about Shantaram’s work, as well as view a few images from Matrimonia (which will soon be developed into a documentary), click here.
In Feroz Rather’s short story “The Last Candle,” the reader is plunged knee-deep into effusive prose from a narrator-protagonist who may or may not be dying. A meditation on the past and present of Kashmir, “The Last Candle” is also a powerful testament to the stories we tell to sustain our selves in the midst of unmitigated acts of violence. Framed by the darkened bedroom of an unnamed present, we step back into a pristine valley of schooldays, scalding hot stoves, and morning rituals bound to be broken up by everyday terrorism. Soldiers ransack a shop in broad daylight, beating a suspect and leaving spectators in a weary panic. Any saving grace from these regular horrors must be found in the pages of past glories, and in epics yet to be fulfilled:
We stood looking into each other’s eyes, suspended in an ether of delicious unease. Then she lowered her gaze. The tips of the leaves crackled and began to catch fire near our feet. She ran back to the house and emerged with a book: Habbah’s Love Songs for Yusuf. I spread open both my hands. She placed it on them. On homemade paper, the songs were written in a flowing calligraphic flourish with a reed pen. The book, as I learnt decades later, was compiled by her great-grandfather a year before he was killed in the last half of the nineteenth century while leaving a mutiny against begaer, against the disgrace and misery of forced labour, against the soldiers of the despotic Dogra king.
You can read the rest of Rather’s story here.
What happens when a writer’s large, looming figure overshadows her work, when her personality and celebrity take precedence over her art? This is the kind of question a detractor would ask when talking about Arundhati Roy, Booker-prize winning author of The God of Small Things, The End of Imagination, and many other essays and articles. Reporter Siddhartha Deb writes about Roy in the upcoming edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, profiling her over the course of a few weeks. Roy is due to come out with a new novel soon, but in the time between 1997 (when The God of Small Things was published) and the present, she has continued to write extensively both in India and elsewhere about myriad causes, including: Indian nationalism; the occupation of Kashmir; the injustice of the caste system; and the rights of various indigenous groups as they struggle to maintain their sovereignty. Roy describes the decisions that went into becoming a political writer:
“There is nothing in The God of Small Things that is at odds with what I went on to write politically over 15 years,” Roy said. . . . . It is true that her novel also explored questions of social justice. But without the armature of character and plot, her essays seemed didactic — or just plain wrong — to her detractors, easy stabs at an India full of energy and purpose . . . But for Roy, remaining on the sidelines was never an option. “If I had not said anything about the nuclear tests, it would have been as if I was celebrating it,” Roy said. “I was on the covers of all these magazines all the time. Not saying anything became as political as saying something.”
Read the rest of Deb’s engaging profile of Roy here.
The Yamuna river flows in northern India, starting at the Yamunotri Glacier in Uttarakhand and streaming down towards towards Delhi. According to ancient Hindu scriptures, the banks of the Yamuna flourished with a steady population living peacefully. Now, those same banks are relatively staid until one reaches the national capital, where a twenty-two kilometer stretch is rife with industrial waste and pollution. Despite government attempts to clean it up, this portion of the river continues to degrade, but not necessarily wither away. Indeed, there are people at work and play here, and photographer Surender Solanki captures these moments with sensitivity and appreciation.
Solanki has traversed this polluted corridor ever since he was a child, going back and forth between west and east Delhi. A recent art school graduate, Solanki does not own a camera but has nevertheless managed to gather 15,000 images over the course of eight months. The intimacy of his portraits, as well as the spontaneity of respective riverside inhabitants, are a testament to ingenuity and practicality. You can view a selection of his portfolio in the February 2014 edition of Caravan here.
Two indelibly good writers, one magnificent conversation: Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost, and The Cat’s Table, engages in a dialogue with Amitava Kumar, author of Nobody Does the Right Thing and A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. Although they initially begin in a classic interview style, the back and forth of the Q&A slowly mutates into an easy conversation, perfectly apt given their setting amidst the 2012 Jaipur Literary Festival in India. Fortunately for those of us not able to fly into Jaipur, Guernica magazine has adapted and archived their conversation. Here is Ondaatje reckoning with the ‘bricolage’ of his work:
. . . I’ve tried in my novels to have various points of view, various speakers, various narratives, so it’s more of a group conversation as opposed to a monologue. But politically I also don’t believe anymore that we can only have one voice to a story, it’s like having a radio station to represent a country. You want the politics of any complicated situation to complicated in a book of fiction or nonfiction . . . I am still someone who’s very influenced by collage as an art form. The great writer Donald Richie who lives in Japan talk about the distinction between East and West: the Western novel is very organized, it’s very logical, there’s a logical progression, there’s a chronological progression, and there’s a safety in that. Whereas if you look at Japanese film, it is made up of collage or bricolage, it is made up of lists, and suddenly when you stand back from the lists you begin to see the pattern of a life.
Read more from Ondaatje and Kumar here.
Children in the village of Panitar, near the India/Bangladesh border – photo by Suchitra Vijayan
Borders are fluid and permeable spaces, something Suchitra Vijayan rediscovers as she treks across the 9,000 mile frontier separating India from its neighboring countries: Pakistan, China, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Inspired by her time spent researching and documenting stories along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where she was embedded with the U.S. Army, Vijayan has embarked upon a much broader, extensive project:
I want to commit to these children of predicament, a new breed of people and the ideas that created them, but also the ideas of belonging and identities they have spawned since. The state abstracted discourses of citizenship, sovereignty, and territoriality versus the reality of living. I have decided to embark on a 9,000 mile journey, an archaelogical pursuit in search of these stories. . .
In many places, borders become irrelevant as inhabitants cross from one country to another to visit a mosque, all the while revealing the sometimes arbitrary nature of nation-states. Vijayan’s multimedia project was recently featured by Public Radio International’s “The World.” Although she’s currently raising money to help fund her project, Vijayan will be returning to India shortly to continue collecting these stories of longing, migration, loss, and regeneration. More photos from her travels can be seen here.
Photo of a housewife (right) and her servant (left) by Jannatul Mawa
Jannatul Mawa is a photographer currently living and working in Bangladesh. Prior to this, she has spent years as an activist working on behalf of greater gender equity. Her photography focuses upon ordinary lives and interstitial spaces. In Close Distance, she documents the tenuous position of maidservants, women typically employed by the middle-classes and beyond, to help with general household chores on meagre wages. Seated side by side, employer and servant, these images emphasize the awkwardness both parties feel in such close quarters, so very similar and yet so many worlds apart. Mawa writes: “Every day, maidservants take care of the bed and sofa with their hand but they are neither allowed to sit nor to sleep on them once. WIth their domestic role, they are ‘close’ to the middle-class women and ‘distant’ at the same time.” See more here.
(Photo taken by Mimosa Shah)
Amitava Kumar plays with the many ways in which we anticipate and reminisce about trains in his essay “Mofussil Junction” for Northeast Review:
Trains take me not to the future but to the past. Several years ago, while watching the film Trainspotting in a theater in America, with a scene about strung-out boys horsing around the railway tracks, my mind went back to Patna: my friends in school would get high on heroin and stand beside the tracks to feel the rush of the wind as the train blasted past them.
Northeast Review is a literary journal dedicated to the unique melange of literatures created in the northeastern region of India, an area now affiliated with terms like “backwards,” “agrarian,” and “conservative” (instead of cosmopolitan, urban, and liberal). Kumar’s piece on the mofussil spaces, those hinterlands beyond the county limits, makes me rethink other famous trains: Agatha Christie’s xenophobic carriage moving east to west in Murder on the Orient Express; a nostalgic embrace cut short before a surging train pulses through a tunnel in the final frames of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest; and the commuter rails dotting our landscape today, last vestiges of an intricate network now spurned for the efficiency of aviation.
On November 5th, 2013, the New York Times reported that 152 men – former members of the Bangladeshi Rifles, a paramilitary border force – were sentenced to death following prosecution over a 2009 mutiny in which 74 people were killed. The uprising occurred after disagreements arose between guards and commanders regarding demands for better pay, ability to participate in peacekeeping missions, and more. This news comes close to the publication of Boundaries Undermined: The Ruins of Progress, anthropologist Delwar Hussain’s first full investigation into the trajectories of post-colonial development, industrialization, and a pervasive neo-liberalism that neuters the revolutionary ideals of generations seeking not only prosperity but purpose and clarity amidst the confusing array of allegiances in contemporary Bangladesh.
Artist, writer, and activist Naeem Mohaimen reviews Hussain’s book, which begins near the still under-construction fence that will eventually reinforce the border between India and Bangladesh. Mohaimen writes:
Hussain weaves in the histories of the multiple partitions of Bengal, and this border site is an appropriate space for considering the human separations and structural inconsistencies set in motion by the 1947 partition, as well as the aftermath of two decolonisation/industrialisation periods – East Pakistan from 1947 to 1971, and Bangladesh thereafter…
Of special interest for Hussain is the excavation of a third-space for identity, as women, rejected limestone laborers, hijras, and non-dominant religious communities work in conjunction. Certainly the mass trials of the former Bangladeshi Rifles, who plan to appeal their death sentence, are a testament to the ongoing struggles amidst the lacuna of revolt. Read more here.