Friday, October 11, 2013

Arzee the Dwarf in America

Arzee the Dwarf is published in America this week by the New York Review of Books as part of their new e-book imprint of contemporary novels from around the world, NYRBLit.

If you'd like to buy it to read on your Kindle, you can do so off the NYRB page or at Amazon.

The book is also available in German and in Spanish.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sadat Hasan Manto's Bombay Stories

This essay appeared last month in The National.

The short-story writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) deserves to be thought of as the patron saint of modern South Asian fiction for at least three reasons.

First, Manto was personally and artistically impacted, in a way that he transformed into enduring narrative prose, by the massive cataclysm of history that was the partition of colonial India in 1947 into two nation states, the Hindu-majority India and the Muslim-majority Pakistan. The decision sparked off the largest two-way migration in history, with millions of Hindus and Sikhs in what was suddenly Pakistan crossing into India and millions of Muslims in what was now a smaller India attempting to flee to Pakistan. Both sides leapt at each other’s throats on the long, strife-torn route, generating a bloodbath – and more lastingly, memories that were passed down for generations afterwards – that may take hundreds of years to heal.

This event generated the enduring politics of distrust between the two great powers of the subcontinent, which between them account for more than a quarter of the world’s population today. What Manto wrote then in the light of what he had known, heard or witnessed – and what he did with this material artistically, within the four walls of his own independence as a writer of fiction – make him an eerie and thrilling writer to this day.

Second, Manto’s daring and iconoclastic writing served as a kind of declaration of independence from the main narrative tenets and orthodoxies of his times, which was that fiction should be “socially relevant” in its content, that it locate the personal within the larger realm of the public sphere, and that it deal coyly and euphemistically – or at best metaphorically – with the subject of bodily functions. Manto was in his lifetime repeatedly charged by his critics (many of them writers themselves) with obscenity, and was even taken to court for what was seen as the outrageous licentiousness depicted in his work.

But what his critics saw as a determined emphasis on the bawdy,Manto merely understood to be a determined emphasis on the body – as a site for pleasure and violence, trust and treachery, a house for yearnings of mind and spirit as well as its own longings. The world of the prostitutes, pimps, waifs, wastrels and debauchees that he wrote about in story after story was a universe that existed in reality – as much a centre of Bombay (now Mumbai) as the film world or the world of polite society – and was stratified and impacted by religion, politics, ideology, migration and economics as interestingly as any middle-class or radical world.

The current of defiance embodied by Manto is one of literature’s most necessary currents; its spirit was given voice by the French-Arabic writer Tahar Ben Jelloun at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year when he remarked, bitingly, of censorship, “What bothers censorship is the representation of reality and not reality itself.” To Manto, the writer must think through every sphere of human life, including one’s private life. If he is the frankest sensualist in Indian literature, it is because he knows (as did the 18th-century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova in his magnificent 12-volume autobiography The Story of My Life) that sensuality is not without its own rules or ethical codes. For this reason, he speaks as powerfully to the 21st century as he did to his own.

Third, Manto stands implicitly for a certain progressive ideal of civilisation – and then, just as instructively, for a tragic rejection of that very ideal. Although partition found him living on in his beloved city of Bombay (where he had made a living and forged a reputation working as a screenwriter in films and an editor for journals), Manto felt insecure in the city in the poisoned years after partition and suddenly decided – to his everlasting regret – to move with his family to the new state of Pakistan. There, he struggled to find work, was prosecuted for obscenity, and drove himself to drink. He became a wreck, passing away soon after.
What makes Manto so readable, and so symbolic of the faultlines of his time, is this artistic partition that he went through a few years after the actual historical event by the same name.Manto discovers that the ideological certitude and censoriousness of a new nation-state was thin gruel compared to art’s invitation to freedom, doubt, linguistic and sensual pleasure, and dissent. He discovers, that is, what he already knew, and submits to suffering as he once thrilled to freedom.

In Manto’s own biography, as much as in his stories, the human being is a whirlpool of conflicting impulses, often most deluded precisely when most sure of himself. Human beings also appear constricted or enabled not just by nature (their class, or gender) but also by culture – in the world of Manto’s stories, by the tangled history, cosmopolitan culture, and worldly, laissez-faire philosophy of Bombay, so infrequently seen in the history of the subcontinent and so valuable for precisely that reason. It is a superficial criticism of Manto’s stories to see them as titillating tableaux of the whims and deceits of pimps and bawds. What we are also supposed to see is the social energy, toppled hierarchies, polyglot tongues, fantastic metaphors, and moral reverses and sacrifices of this universe.

That is why it is surprising to note that none of Manto’s many previous translators have done what Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed do in their new collection of Manto translations, and titled their collection Bombay Stories. Bombay is not just the place where Manto's stories are set but that world’s primal word, the two syllables of which generate all else in the geographical and narrative field it encompasses. Colloquial and frank where too many previous translations of Manto have been euphemistic and censorious, Reeck and Ahmed give us a Manto who walks with us in time, instead of receding from us in the vehicle of the archaic English and slightly appalled, sanitizing gaze of many South Asian translators.

“If you haven’t been to Bombay, you might not believe that no one takes any interest in anyone else,” writes the narrator in Manto’s story "Mammad Bhai". (Bhai, literally brother, is used frequently in India and Pakistan as an honorific; many of Manto’s stories are named after their protagonists.) But it is just not the sights and sounds and moral universe and freedoms of Bombay that are common to Manto’s stories, but also a narrator. Almost without exception, the stories are told by a character who shares much of the real Manto’s biography and is referred to by the characters in the stories as “Manto saab” (Mr Manto). 

The more we see this figure, the more mysterious he becomes, particularly since he keeps watching men fall in love with women without ever falling into the net himself. When at one point he confesses to a great admiration for a certain woman’s beauty and intelligence, he protests immediately, “For God’s sake, please don’t think I was enamoured!” It is as if his men and women can get together only when Manto saab agrees to keep watch.

Love in Manto may sometimes be transcendent. But it is always physical. “‘Love.’ What a beautiful word!” the prostitute Saugandhi is shown thinking in a story called "The Insult". “She wanted to smear it all over her body and massage it into her pores.” Here Manto, in a characteristically ingenious invention, makes love not something that emanates from the heart and soul and irradiates the body, but something like a salve or balm that is rubbed into the body from without. Manto’s romance is often deliberately anti-romantic – one woman, the Jewish girl Mozelle, carelessly smears on lipstick in such a way that her lips “seemed as fat and as red as chunks of buffalo meat”.

Over and over again in Manto’s stories, as in the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, men and women come face in face in private and confront one another with their dreams and pickings, their histories of guilt and pain. Readers of these stories who know Bombay today as Mumbai might find the city’s spirit somewhat impoverished in comparision to the mid-century Bombay that Manto describes. But that world lives on forever in Manto’s stories, and in these new translations by Reeck and Ahmed,Manto is himself reborn as our contemporary.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A review of two new books about the Indian National Congress

This review of two new books by Zoya Hasan and Aarthi Ramachandran about the Indian National Congress and its leaders appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal.

Monday, February 04, 2013

A special on Indian fiction in Italy's Internazionale

Here is an essay I wrote recently for a special Indian fiction issue of the Italian magazine Internazionale, produced in collaboration with The Caravan, in the last week of December 2012. I wrote it in my capacity as the Fiction & Poetry editor of The Caravan, and I attempt to introduce some currents in Indian fiction today and explain why The Caravan publishes fiction every month when it's primarily a magazine of narrative non-fiction. I've also made short notes on the stories in the issue (some of which were earlier published in English in The Caravan) -- literary-critical notes for the most part, and autobiographical in the case of my own story "Captain To The Poles". I chose in the main to leave out stories in Indian languages other than English because of the practical and methodological difficulties inherent in translating an English translation into another language.

The Caravan of India is a monthly English magazine of politics and the arts that specializes in long-form narrative journalism – in the work of fruitfully complicating facts and opinions that circulate in the public sphere, and generating detailed profiles of the men and women who exercise power in India, not always wisely. Every issue of the magazine contains six to eight pieces of reportage from five to fifteen thousand words long.

But of course, it is not just journalism that probes the secret vortexes of the world. So does fiction, by techniques and juxtapositions native to its realm, through the attention and craftsmanship of a bright individual sensibility that seeks to prove nothing, but generates sparks of meaning at every turn. Every month, the magazine publishes a short story by an Indian writer, young or old, classic or unknown, in English or in translation from one of India’s twenty or so other major languages, from Hindi in the north to Tamil in the south and Bengali in the east to Gujarati in the west.

The magazine’s aim in publishing fiction is to add, to the diverse points of view published on its non-fiction pages, another way of looking at the world. But it also means to set up for Indian fiction – a vast realm encompassing the work of hundreds of writers, many of them unknown to one another, in several languages – a site of evaluation and judgment independent of the biases of the literary market. (These biases have in the West tended to open the door to a certain type of writer who writes recognizably “Indian” novels, heavy on spices and colours, patriarchs and premonitions.)

The magazine’s literary pages seek a representation in fiction of the diversity of meaning-making systems and high and low religious and political traditions that so fascinate different kinds of people: both the first-time visitor to India, and also the Indian who has never even left his or her country. But they desire, too, the steps beyond such highly aware mimesis. In literature, The Caravan admires that fastidiously shaped language, that trick of narrative technique, the use of ellipsis and of contrast, that gives fiction its complexity, durability, and finally – in a journalistic age – its autonomy.

The stories I have put together in this small anthology of Indian fiction for Internazionale include some published recently in the pages of The Caravan, as well as the work of other contemporaries of mine whom believe to be the among the best and brightest voices in Indian literature today. I have  tried to put together the most diverse collection of styles I could find so as to make the point that the Indian writer of fiction is first and foremost – and freest as – an Indian writer of fiction. That is, if he takes his subject from what lies in front of him, he generates his style from a set of influences that know no borders. Calvino may be more important to him or her than Salman Rushdie; the realism of Giovanni Verga more useful in decoding the minds of village folk than the work of the great Indian realists.

Two of the stories included take full advantage of one of fiction’s greatest freedoms: the capacity to rove widely across time and space, and to bring to narrative life the silences that lie at the interstices of history. Kunal Basu’s “The Accountant” begins with that most prosaic of figures, an accountant trapped in a life of drudgery, and somehow makes him an actor the grand romance of the Taj Mahal – and not the Taj as we know it today, but a yet-to-be-built Taj confined to map and mind, the subject of palace intrigues, a site on a river-bank and nothing more. Anushka Jasraj’s “Radio Story” takes the reader into the world of the Indian independence movement, and a small plot by a Bombay clique – whether more passionate about nationalism or radio-wave technology, we cannot tell – to start a secret and dissident radio station.

There are stories here about family, set in both urban and country landscapes. Janice Pariat’s “Boats on Land” poetically describes a teenager’s sexual awakening on a family vacation on a tea estate, and powerfully evokes the seductive power and danger of the human body. Anjum Hasan’s artful montage “Saturday Night”, about the parallel dilemmas (one about a baby that is absent, the other about a baby that is somehow too present) of a middle-class married couple and a maid in the southern metropolis of Bangalore. 

Phaniswarnath Renu’s comic story “Panchlight” (the only story here to be doubly translated, from Hindi to English and then from English to Italian) opens out for the reader the hierarchical social world of castes in an Indian village. It is also a parable of twentieth century India’s encounter, full of creative misunderstandings and adaptations, with technology. In Renu’s story the warring castes (and lovers) are eventually reconciled, but in the late Attia Hosain’s “Storm” we encounter the dissident, rootless individual who appears from nowhere and provokes the entire social order, so uncompromising it seems she is alive only if she opposes. Of course it is fiction’s work to show us why, precisely when life it at its most settled, some individuals must bring about a storm.

I chose Aseem Kaul’s “Where Shall We Have Dinner Tonight?” for its exquisite minimalism and its interrogation of dozens of short-story conventions (fiction must question conventional thinking not just in human affairs, but also in fiction). We are given no names or background for the characters, and there is no narrator’s voice in the story: all we hear are two voices, and with each move they grow in force.

And as for my own story, “Captain To The Poles”, it is drawn from incidents from some of the happiest years of my youth. These were days spent in a restaurant near my small, decrepit flat in Mumbai, watching the world pass by (and through) the restaurant, which was like a stationary caravan. The months passed in listening to the patter of voices (the tall tales of the customers, the barbed observations of the waiters) and serving as friend to the proprietor, confidant to the staff, and taster of the menu. The restaurant was not just my School of Life, it was – because it was intensely interested in stories, even if totally uninvolved with books – also my School of Literature. 

Chandrahas Choudhury

Monday, January 07, 2013

"The Translator As A Reader And As A Writer" by Ros Schwartz

"The Translator As A Reader -- And As A Writer"
a hands-on lecture by Ros Schwartz, 
2.30 pm, Thursday January 10
Room 11, Hindu College, North Campus, Delhi University

The award-winning translator of French literature Ros Schwartz is on a tour of India as part of a British Council-Caravan magazine series of events. She will give a talk at Hindu College at 2.30pm on Thursday, January 10, on the subject "The Translator As A Reader And As A Writer". 

Schwartz will take different translations of passages from literature (including Pinocchio and The Little Prince) and break down their sentences, syntax, and word-choices, showing in how translation is really a kind of super-attentive reading, and one that requires  a combination of rigorous thinking as well as leaps of imagination. This is a unique chance to learn something about the art and craft of translation from one of the world's most highly regarded literary translators.

Ros Schwartz is a translator of more than fifty books of French literature into English, including a recent translation of Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. She is Chair of PEN's Writers in Translation Program in England.