Tuesday, June 03, 2008

In Pratilipi

My long essay "Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare" appears this month in the second issue of the bilingual (English-Hindi) and bimonthly literary magazine Pratilipi. The essay reads some passages from Hasan's splendid novel Lunatic in my Head (Penguin/Zubaan, 2007) through the prism of Indian attitudes towards Shakespeare. The essay will be on the Middle Stage next week, along with a set of links to great essays on Shakespeare.

Hasan's novel is also among the six Indian novels shortlisted for the Crossword Book Awards 2007. Among the English novels shortlisted for the award, my reviews of Lunatic in my Head and Amitava Kumar's Home Products, which I also liked very much, are here and here. Among the shortlisted non-fiction books, my review of Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi is here, and I have a long interview with Ramachandra Guha, the author of India After Gandhi, here. I noted with some regret that I had not read or written about a single one of the shortlisted novels in translation from other Indian languages.

And here are some selections from the new issue of Pratilipi:

"Exiled From Poetry and Country" by Uday Prakash; "Eating The Breeze" by Samurna Chattarji; "January 4, 1960", five poems in Hindi and in English translations by Udayan Vajpeyi; "No Book To Blow The Mind" by Vivek Narayanan; "Translating Ann J├Ąderlund on the Ghats of the Narmada" by Teji Grover; "The Missing", three poems in Hindi and in English translations by Mangalesh Dabral; "Death and the Self" by Rustam Singh; "The Role of Dalits in the 1857 Revolt" by Badri Narayan; "Wilderness", a story by Sara Rai, and "Between the Pink", six ghazals in Kannada and in English translation by HS Shiva Prakash.

I will have an essay in each new issue of Pratilipi for at least the next year. Each essay will be devoted to a close reading of a work of Indian fiction.


Amit said...

Your essay is a very insightful one (not that long either) that makes me want to breeze out to the nearest bookstore, grab Anjum Hasan's novel and start to read. Its energy and freshness makes me wonder how many somersaults you'd have performed after writing it. BTW, your hyperlink for the shortlist is slightly off. With the exception of Vassanji, this year's shortlist seems to tilt towards English fiction written from a local sensibility for an Indian audience rather than the large-advance ones with quote translational sensibility unquote trying to quote engage in a conversation with the world unquoute.

Amit said...

Here's the link to the shortlist:

I shared my impression on the judging criterion with one of the shortlisted six, who seemed to buy it.

Chandrahas said...

Amit - Thanks very much for your kind words. Actually, the essay went through several drafts, so I didn't perform any flips at any point because there still seemed to be ways in which to improve it. But I did a few hops and skips now after reading your comment.

And I certainly remember feeling immensely roused while reading the book, so I am glad I seem to have passed on that feeling. As you know, readers cannot make a material difference to the lives of authors in the same way as, say, an art collector can to the life of an artist. Even when you or I love a book immensely, the author still stands to make only rupees thirty or forty from us (ten per cent royalties from a book costing Rs. 295 or 395). So the only way we can repay our favoured authors is with our time, our attention, by reading their words almost as carefully as they must have written them.

Thanks for the link. It's been changed.

And I think you are correct in your assessment of the nature of the shortlist, and to my mind this shows that the Crossword panel is doing a good job. We need to evolve an evaluative approach to Indian novels and works of non-fiction independent of (though not necessarily adversarial to) the attention they may receive in other English-speaking cultures. Independent-minded readers are as essential a part of a good literary culture as independent-minded writers.

Amit said...

Day before, I was telling a friend - who's writing a book on Indian writing in English versus regional writing - that that the divide has changed its nature, and vernacular/regional is no longer about language but about sensibility. Over the last few years, I've read some Indian writers (Rupa Bajwa, Altaf Tyrewala, Siddharth Choudhury, Raj Kamal Jha, Amitava Kumar) whose fiction, written in plain non-chutney English, read no different from the ones translated from a regional language. The vernacular quality of their prose sometimes comes from their use of syntax that resembles the rhythms of their regional languages, but more often is a result of their sensibilities being rooted in their local cultures.

There certainly exists several good writers whose sensibilities are more transnational, and some of them are successfully trying to "engage in a conversation with the world" (read West), as a result of which they are more easily published there. Questions of authenticity and rootedness don't bother me the way it bothers some critics. I'm sure every writer has a target readership that matches his/her literary sensibility. At the end of the day, it's the story and the story-telling that separate a good writer from a not so good one.

But when it comes to literary awards, with so many good books to choose from, the novel's cultural sensibilities do play a role. Just as a Booker or a Guardian would never award an Indian writer writing from a local sensibility, it's quite reasonable that Crossword too might decide not to consider Indian novels written from a Western perspective. It's a matter of growing a literary taste, independent of the endorsements of London or NYC's literary circles - just as Australia and Canada have - and then championing it. But the latter does depend on the publishing market and the sales figures, and on developing - as you'd said - a strong in-house literary culture of reading, writing and analysis.

Amitava Kumar said...


Great report on Anjum Hasan's book, which I have already ordered from dear Mr Ram Advani, my bookseller in Lucknow.

I agree with Amit's discerning point about the cast of the choice. (Even Vassanji's book could be seen as a global's return to the local, nahin?) In any case, extrapolating wildly from Amit's comment, may I say that I see this as a win-win-win-win-win-win situation. Because what he's saying is that all these books are home products.

Chandrahas said...

Amit - These are some very sensible and cogent thoughts, and the distinctions you've made and the maps you've drawn are good ones. As you say, the distinction made in some quarters between the supposed characteristics of Indian writing in English and translations made from other Indian languages is a specious one: sometimes it is not possible to tell the difference.

Please keep writing on this space - it's been a pleasure.

shankarkotkar said...

Good writeup.Keep it up.

Chandrahas said...

Amitava - Excellent, excellent bit of self-promotion - as suavely and jauntily brought off as anything I've ever seen.

For some uninitiated readers it would appear as if all six writers on the fiction shortlist wrote a novel called Home Products, but as you had already claimed copyright over the title they had to find various other names.

I thought the "because what he's saying" was an especially impressive move, and I have made a note of it in my diary so as to copy it sometime, although I don't think I'll be able to bring it off with the same panache.

But as you are probably the greatest luminary ever to leave a comment on my blog, say exactly what you like - consider this home too.

Meanwhile, I am off to eat some cheese that a kind soul who loves me very much (or did the last time I spoke to her - one can never be too sure in these matters) bought me from Hong Kong. It rained the day before yesterday in Bombay, for the first time this year, and above my desk is a photograph of my parents. The price of petrol has risen; the light this morning is silvery. The fridge must be emptied today because we are moving house, which means that I have to also eat two kilos of mangoes and four dozen lychees in the next eight hours. I have nothing else to do before the packers come.

Chandrahas said...

Shankar - Thank you for these wonderfully terse, trim and lean comments which you keep leaving so regularly on this space. Although they are in the plainest English possible, there is a lurking mystery at the heart of them: they seem like the utterances of a head of state, or even God in the heavens, taking one second for each matter that needs his attention.

I should tell you though that "writeup" is one of those Indian words I detest, as also "article". For me the phrase suggests hackwork, something put together in haste and without thought, which is why I tremble whenever somebody says that I have written a good one, even if it is meant as a compliment.

Another hour to go before the packers come. I just noticed that there's half a watermelon in the fridge too.

Uncertain said...

I found many of your observations pertaining to Indians' relationship with Shakespeare very insightful - and before you chastise me, I acknowledge that I am neither God nor head of state and my standards for insight are likely to be irrelevant. :)

I haven't read as much of English literature as I would like to, and I have many a times observed in "quiet desperation", opponents in debates winning brownie points by quoting Shakespeare (and sometimes the quotes have been irrelevant to the debate). So I welcome your idea that we should read Shakespeare without rose tinted glasses.

I was also very intrigued by your aside on "new critical theories". However, as a humble mark of appreciation, I will refrain from posing questions about your not-exactly-flattering take on those theories. You make a good point about readers not being able to materially express appreciation for writers' works and this is my small way of expressing admiration for the form and content of your essay.

Nevertheless, someday I would be very interested in hearing more about what you make of the critical theories although I recognize that a day has but 24 hours and the demands on your time have only gone up in the last 2 years or so. :)

One last thing: That self-confidence (among other attributes that make life meaningful and pleasant) is intimately tied to felicity of language, is an idea that many critical theorists have suggested. This idea can be traced atleast as far back as Wittgenstein and further back to Mead and Cooley.

I hope the shifting is not too painful.

Vivek said...

To extrapolate Uncertain's thoughts about quoting Shakespeare:

Because you don't save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don't
know yet what money is. Money is power. When you have lived as long as I
have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say?

--Iago, Stephen murmured.

[From Ulysses by James Joyce]

Chandrahas said...

Uncertain - I must tell you that writing posts has one kind of satisfaction, but I also relish this sort of dialogic interaction afterwards.

I am not amongst those who enlist Shakespeare in their arguments. This is because I have a terrible memory for verse and can barely quote a line from him without finding I have made a mistake somewhere.

As regards the glancing comments I have made on some recent approaches towards Shakespeare (and towards literature in general) devised by the academy, all I will add is that in my years as a student I could not help reading some of the best-known work of this stripe with the greatest skepticism and often dismay.

To route some of my doubts through a line we have been discussing here, there were many occasions when I wondered whether that kind of self-confidence in a hermetic, tendentious jargon resulted in anything felicitous at all. I certainly know that I would not pick up a certain kind of book any more to read for pleasure or even instruction.

When I put this essay up in full on my blog next week, I will link to about a dozen good essays on Shakespeare, many of them written by academics, which broadly express my own point of view on good and bad ways of reading him.

Till then, all I can offer you is a quarter of a watermelon.