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Before going off to the Jaipur Literature Festival, I had joked about wanting to heckle Salman Rushdie but deciding that avoidance was the better part of valour. Of course, once I reached the festival, the man's name became almost impossible to avoid, since the event was overshadowed by the controversy of his non-attendance.

On the Jaipur Literature Festival )

There are people in this country who can measure freedom by how much energy, inclination and ability they have to still speak out after the State--representative of the majority of the Indian citizenry--has chosen violence to physically silence them.

There is this horrible game we can play, a flip-side of oppression olympics, which is--you have one brief moment to make your point. To speak in front of readers and reporters. Which cause do you choose? Whose words do you choose to turn into your symbol? By adding your power to a spotlight, what other people get relegated to the deeper darkness of non-discussion?

On #flashreads )

Of course, I am against physical violence, and the threat of it, being used to silence writers and their words. But equally, I cannot talk about absolute freedom of speech without talking about the ideological and cultural violence that books and the words within them have done, and are doing, and will continue to do unless we resist them (with verbal violence alone).

On International Book Giving Day )

I've known what it's like to be yearning for books, but I've also known what it is like to yearn, while surrounded by books, for ones that represent people like me. I can't speak for the child I was, but the adult I am is happy to have not been exposed to some of the more virulent books I know about now, back then when I was more desperate and less discerning.

On The Satanic Verses )

I defend the rationality of being offended by a misrepresentation of what one holds sacred. I defend the right of those in the marginalised, threatened or oppressed position in a hierarchy to challenge and question and reject those ideas and stories that reinforce the injustice being done to them.

But no matter how much value I may want ascribed to non-physical violence--be it economic, ideological, legal or cultural--I do not wish to downplay my rejection of physical violence. In the hours it has taken me to write this, I scroll up and compare my knee-jerk irritation at the JKF Rushdie imbroglio to the aching empathy I felt for Rashid in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, exiled from the source of his stories. Free speech and its consequent debates around book banning, censorship and the like is one thing. But bodies imprisoned or exiled because of threat of violence, translators stabbed, defenders beaten**--this is wholly more absolute injustice.

I consider the written word sacred enough that though I have felt the desire to do damage to a book, I could never imagine ripping, or burning or physically harming even the most loathsome text. How much more sacred then, is even the most antagonistic human soul, the source for those words, enshrined in a fragile and totally irreplaceable body.

A banned book may be resurrected to be argued with or reinstated, a dead person cannot be.

For all my reservations, minor and major, with the various champions of these various causes, I don't want my doubts and disagreements to negate my fundamental support of people speaking out against what they (and I) see as injustice.

So here - for #flashreads (and International Give a Book Day):
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (free epub readers)
For historical context, read:
Mohammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources by Martin Lings (epub, mobi, pdf, html, txt)
For literary perspectives, read:
Notes for Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses by Paul Brians (html)

Also, here is Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation by A. K. Ramanujan, the essay that was dropped from Delhi University's Ancient India course readings.

Finally Lihaaf, a short story by Ismat Chugtai, was banned in 1944 under charges of being obscene.
Here's the story in Urdu, in Hindi, and in English translated by Syeda Hameed or by M. Asaduddin.
Here is the author's account of her trial: An Excerpt from Kaghazi Hai Pairahan (The “Lihaf” Trial) by Ismat Chugtai, translated by Tahira Naqvi and Muhammad Umar Memon.

Dear Reader, she won.

Inshallah someday we might be able to say that for more of the people who choose to fight with words against those who would silence them with weapons.

*Not all the session videos are up at the JLF website. I find it suspicious that the more controversial ones are missing, but have no information regarding their absence.
**This article has a huge anti-Islamic bias, but it was the closest I could find to a source with some citations.
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Seven posts in seven days! \o/ I am not a complete and total and not-a-single-example-to-prove-otherwise failure! It is nice to have proof of this sometime.

People have been asking for recs, and I have been cringing from those comments and ignoring them ::waves guiltily to y'all::

Back when I was doing the features writer gig and selling my soul writing about sunglasses shops and British pop stars, I swore to myself never to do reviews. For dance and theatre, I managed mostly; I covered the event, but walked a line that was probably visible only to me on this side of critiquing it. With books, I did write a couple for the kids' page but on the whole I steered clear. Because reviewing, to me, is Taking A Stance. And having enough confidence in one's opinion to state it publicly. In print, which means it's there forever, because ain't no editor going to agree to print a retraction to the effect of "In regards to review printed three years and two days ago, the reviewer wishes to change their opinion of the book based on blog posts from the author that indicate the sexism was, indeed, intentional".

I am not, however, the sort of open-minded person who manages to not have opinions about things until she is educated enough for them to be well-informed. I have Thoughts and Feelings about everything, and with vehemence and caps-lock! So I enjoy talking about books a lot; I just don't know where and how to go about it.

Because I am, for the most part, a terrible reviewer. I can write critiques of books I loathe, on the principle that everyone should be warned off reading them, and people will read spoilers of bad books without caring. When it comes to good books though, I am a spoiler fanatic, so my advice mostly consists of "This book, you must read it! It has a thing, which you will like, and I also really liked some other stuff, which we can talk about after you have finished it!" I suspect this autocratic and high-handed attitude came from having younger brothers who listened to mY "read this now" or "you won't get it yet, wait a bit" fiats with a meekness that I almost certainly did not deserve.

Books I am not certain about are the worst; I wish to warn people about their flaws, but what if I scare someone away from a book they would like, and the world is denied a Book Being Read which is sort of like not clapping your hands even though you believe in fairies.

I much prefer to talk about books to people after they have read them, so that we can squee over the good parts and yell at the bad ones, and my smart friends can dig up blog posts that explain what happened in that plot line that I could not understand.

So talking about books with friends is fun. But taking on the responsibility of reviewing or reccing is scary. And doubly and triply so when the recs are cross-cultural. Apart from my defensiveness about what the book and the rec might say about the culture, and how the reader might interpret the book, and if this is the One Book they are going to base their opinion of Indian women, or children, or elephants on, then what am I doing, flail, etc... there is also the problem of me really, really not wanting to be considered any sort of authority to be reccing in the first place.

Two nights ago I was having a pre-Jaimela get-together with some smashing lady-people, and I found myself asking Who or What Is That of every second reference to a book, author, event or song. I vastly enjoy being in the company of people who know better and more than me, since I find learning to be a lot more fun than teaching. Which is the reason I expect I will have a good time at this mela. As one friend said, it will be four days of practising active listening.

All of which is to bring me to the last Melawalas and Walis. People who do talk about books, and do it with a craftsmanship I can only admire from afar. Because while fests like this do tend to revolve around The Author, I much prefer centring The Reader's experience. And I'm very happy to find Indian readers talking about Indian books in places where I can find them.

Some of them, like Chandrahas Choudhury have published novels of their own (which I haven't read, so I ignore, and anyway, my fond memories of his reviews are the pre-novel Ultra Brown blogging days). A LOT of them are now professional reviewers for mainstream media. And that brings its own elements of collusive circle-jerking to it. Socialising in person with authors and publishers (and other reviewers) doesn't always 'taint the purity' of reviews, but I do find that sometimes passion gets diluted by prudence.

And I certainly don't agree with all their opinions and politics. Nor do I uniformly think that they are qualified appropriately for every subject they talk about.

But they do talk. And write. And do it regularly, and with skill, and with a love for reading and readers, and with a knowledgeable discernment of books.

Nilanjana at [ profile] akhondofswat and [ profile] kitabkhana
Supriya at [ profile] roswitha and LiveMint
Aishwarya at Practically Marzipan and [ profile] bluelullaby
Chandrahas at [ profile] middlestage

These are the people on my RSS feed reader who'll be there at jailitfest, some on panels, some running around chasing interviews in between attending them. I believe they are all on twitter, so those of you into that new-fangled instant discourse system, can probably get vicarious mela-baazi from their tweets. (If I had the power, I would deem the official hashtag for the fest to be #jaimela, for the dual pun of jhamela and jaimala, but alas, I am a voiceless prole.) You can also go through their posts, get some recs if you like.

Meanwhile, I am offline for the next week, in the company of people more bookish, opinionated and verbose than me, which shall be a nice change from quotidian existence. Inshallah I shall arrive at the correct ISBT to catch my bus, since I am not 100% sure if it's the Kashmiri Gate one or the Sarai Kale Khan one, and no one is answering the phones. But of course, why should they? Travel is meant to be an adventure, interspersed with anxiety and surprise.

If you never hear from me again, assume I have been kidnapped by a flying camel, and am off in some haveli somewhere, swathed in leheriya dupattas and being fed Bikaneri bhujia and kachauris every day. No need to send books, because after these four days, I shall probably need a break from them. Send Afghanistani singers instead, equipped with Khusraw bandishes.
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I am more attracted to fiction. I am more moved by non-fiction.

There is this distinction between the two; while both can be educational, the escapism possible in fiction carries a different flavour in non-fiction. I have met news-channel addicts whom I would say have not been any more improved by the content of their attention than were it romance novels or murder mysteries. But in an unexpected, sudden confrontation with the world around you, it is knowledge that most equips you to deal with it, and non-fiction, in idealistic theory, carries truth pure as cocaine to infuse your veins with.

The craft of a journalist; that non-fiction writer in the trenches, is so often a crude and impatient means to an end. The event is all; what matter if the town crier has gone hoarse from the repetitive telling of it, or if the messenger has spewed you in spit?

Of course, it does matter, and so we have the attractive news anchors and the personable opinion-makers and the media conglomerates that command respect because of the number of dead trees they can move on the backsides of strategically naked female bodies. We've all seen the Times of India go from a decently proof-read purveyor of actual news to a rumourmongering pimp whoring its columns out to the most desperate to be talked about. By no means is it alone in its shoddy standards or sell-outedness, and mainstream media, by definition, tends to gravitate to the cause of the dominant.

And then, there's people like Dayamani Barla. Or [ profile] dayamani-barla, as I should say, because the lady has had a blog since 2009, posting both her own pieces and articles about her.

Barla is a journalist out of passion. She spends her own money on the travel and expenses required to get a story; money she earns as the proprietor of a chai adda--something she chose because she thinks of them as hubs for discussion of social issues. She is an adivasi who has watched big business strip her family of their land and rights, and she has educated herself in order to call out the wrongs being done. She writes in Hindi for papers like Prabhat Khabhar, having conciously chosen to stay local despite the higher profile jobs that are no doubt available to her thanks to the awards and recognition she has won.
"The corporate houses are simply ignorant of the concept of the subsistence economy of a tribal society that is rooted in agriculture and forest produce. The natural resources to us are not merely means of livelihood, but our identity, dignity, autonomy and culture have been built on them for generations. These communities will not survive if they are alienated from the natural resources. How is it possible to rehabilitate or compensate us?" (Source)

We are not anti-development, we are just demanding sustainable development. Development of our land on our terms. The government says that it will rehabilitate the villages and give us good compensation. But we say you can neither rehabilitate our history, our identity, our rivers, our mountains nor can you compensate the loss of our environment with your money. We are saying this development should include development of our culture, language, history, identity, rivers, mountains and the development of our people. We want development of our indigenous people living in their native lands. (Source)

There's a lot of hue and cry made about every impotently violence-filled threat raised against celebrity writers like Salman Rushdie. And I firmly believe that even the writers of badly-characterised, ahistorical, religiously-offensive fiction deserve the bodily freedom to do it in. But the disparity in a mass response seems stark especially on a day like today when the English speaking online world has decided to make it clear to all of us how very important U.S.-centric threats to online freedom are, in comparison to the many other issues of other nations which receive no such urgent, vehement response.
One of the mails I got yesterday on a social issues list I'm on was a petition asking for endorsement:
On 14th January, in the evening, a Police Mobile Van of Chutya Thana (Ranchi) landed at her hotel on Club Road, Ranchi, and started to harass her staff asking about her links with anti-social elements. The Sub-Inspector making the 'enquiries' had neither no written permission or order. The following day, when Ms. Barla, met SSP Ranchi, Mr. Saket Kumar at his residence to ask why she was being harassed in this manner, his response was that the allegations were being made on the basis of an complaint and the fact that she participated in the "Free Jiten Marandi Convention”, in which Varavara Rao was also present.

It's the kind of thing she lives with. And while I hope that coming to Jaipur will be a nice break for her, and that the festival has funded her attendance so that she can relax and bask in some well-deserved appreciation and bonhomie with kindred spirits, she is not the sort of journalist who ventures out 'into the wild' for a story and then returns to an urbane, cosmopolitan life of comfort. It is not poverty porn she peddles, but a nuanced, persistent outrage that comes from being a gadfly long accustomed to the flicks and flinches from discomforted asses of the hominid persuasion.
The reason why I got into journalism… [was] to get the voice of the people out. If you're thinking of change, you have to deal with these issues and not run away.[...]"You have to give away comforts in life as a woman journalist. [...] The pen is the way to fight against exploitation nowadays. It's my way to fight. (Source)
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Overdue because my day has been... a roller coaster. And while the good parts were exceedingly good, the tiresome parts were horrid.

And I must sleep, so very briefly -

Publishers of small presses, who write the solicitation letters, and the forewords, and the press releases to get mainstream media to cover the books. And who act as gatekeepers. Or corporations, I tend to find them selfish and evil. As community businesses and non-profits; they are one of the most passionate, tireless advocates of ideology. Both good and bad, but one of the nicest things about being back in India is that the moral side I choose tends to have better covers.

Melawali is Urvashi Butalia, for getting together with Ritu Menon back in 1984 to set up Kali For Women - an Indian feminist press that has so many fantastic and important publications to their name that looking at their catalogue is like getting a capsule of second-wave South Asian feminism.

The two ladies split up a while ago, and went on to launch their own independent imprints. Butalia's is Zubaan. I have to say, this functional breakup and continued productivity makes me happy as a success story in a world where women are so often portrayed as unable to achieve anything due to infighting.

I'm not always in complete agreement with Butalia, especially when she theorises as a historian, but I just give major, major props for the mentoring and championing she does of women's voices.
Some years ago I published a book on Partition (The Other Side of Silence, Penguin India, 1998). At the time, I argued that it was important for us to remember our past, and not to pretend that it did not exist. While I still hold firmly to this belief, I am now concerned with another question: how do we remember our past? Or, how do we talk about a violent past in such a way that we do not further increase and exacerbate the cycle of violence?

To take a more concrete example, if we were to think seriously about attempting to include a more realistic history of Partition in our textbooks, to teach the young about Partition, how could we do it in a way that would remain true to the ‘facts’ – which include some very violent histories – while ensuring that the violence was neither legitimised, sanitized, nor passed on? Another way of putting it would be: how can we write non violent histories of Partition while ensuring that the violence is not glossed over? While I have asked myself these questions for considerable time, I have no easy answers to them.

It's a wonderful thing when publishers cease to be gatekeepers protecting the profits of an obscenely rich conglomerate, and are allowed to be guides to authors finding their way to a public audience.

A few more pieces by Urvashi Butalia
Mona's Story in Granta
It's a Man's War in The Little Magazine
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Wow, how do people produce long, link-researched blogs every day? Just four continuous days of blathering here is knocking me out cold for anything else. Although I did go out and get the zips to various things fixed. Yay! No more five rupee coins falling out of my pouch because it is upside down and thus losing me my bus fare.

Straight into the melawalla today because he puts into practise so many of the ideals I can only preach at myself so far.

But first, I will get this out of the way.

I have a cinematic crush on him. In my defence, I didn't realise the dude was 73 until I googled him for this post. This is because, when I was wee and impressionable, I watched Manthan, not realising it had actually been made before I was even born. Listening to that title track with the 'made by 500,000 farmers' credit still gives me goosebumps. I defy anyone to come out of that viewing experience not having a crush on Girish Karnad's Face of Earnestness and Smita Patil's Eyes. Which does make developing a thing for Prateik Babbar's eyes slightly messy, but that is the magic of cinematic crushes! You can have them on anyone, even dead guys, and not feel skanky or necrophilic.

Anyway! So Girish Karnad, this awesome, lovely man, is an actor of no mean talent. He's still around; he did a great job as the pragmatically corrupt cricket coach in Iqbal. But let's talk about how he became a writer. And not just any writer, but a Konkani lad writing in Kannada. And then going on to translate his own stuff into English. In the gentleman's own words, from this piece on him:
I wanted to be a poet, the greatest ambition in my life. At the age of 22, I realized I would not be a poet, but only a playwright. Then I almost wept. When I was about twenty I got a scholarship to go abroad. I was the first member of the family to go abroad and although the present generation won’t understand it and I am sure many of you who have been through it will also not understand how difficult it was to come from a traditional family and to go abroad because although everyone was thrilled that I was going to England, it involved lots of decisions. Will one come back? Will one stay abroad? Will one get married to a foreign woman and other problems like that.[...] I was very tense and I found ultimately and suddenly on the eve of my leaving for England, that I had started writing and writing a play rather than a poem and it surprised me for three reasons. One thing that it was a play, because I just said I wanted to be a poet. The second thing that surprised me was that I wrote in Kannada because I spent all my teenage years preparing to be an English poet. I wanted to go abroad and be in England, the country where Auden and Eliot lived and shine there etc. and it seemed to me there was nothing to do in India and, therefore, I trained myself to be an English writer. But when it really came to expressing one’s tensions it came off in Kannada and I suddenly realized that I wasted some years of my life practising writing. The third thing that surprised me was that it was a play about a myth, Yayati, from the Mahabharata. All these three things came as a surprise because I had just said, “one thought one was modern alienated from one’s background from one’s language.

And you know, so then he wrote Yayati (which unfortunately I've only read in English translation, never seen performed), and its really clear that he's taking this Greek Drama aesthetic and mashing it up with every single yagshagana he'd grown up seeing.

And after that he wrote Tuglaq. Which, ok, so I've been talking about the Aryan-Dravidian divide. And there's thing thing, right, where colonising languages like English go out and have stories written in them about people who don't speak it. But the more local languages are generally limited to the local landscape. So here was Karnad, writing about Muhammad bin Tughluq (that nutso, visionary ruler) who ruled North India with Farsi and Arabic and Turkish. Karnad started out using the historical research written by Ishwari Prasad, who was writing in English. And he wrote the play in Kannada.

And of course, Tuglaq would go on to be directed with historic success by Ebrahim Alkazi--staged at Purana Qila and translated to Hindi in what would seem its most organic setting. But Vijay Tendulkar did it in Marathi--and considering way religious rhetoric has shaped the Muslim Mughal North vs Hindu Maratha Shivaji and Peshwas et al, this bringing into the fold through translation a play that could only have been created with a pan-Indian cross-cultural syncretism says a lot about how art can sometimes serve as the best way to claim complex identities. It's something that's a characteristic of the navya literary movement in Kannada writing--where writers like Ramachandra Sharma have stories about Black Nigerians and White British characters told to a Brown Indian audience in Kannada. As someone who thinks in both Hindi and Marathi, favouring one over the other unevenly depending on topic and time, the choices he has made about language inspire me.

One of the other reasons I admire the man so much is that he went abroad (as a Rhodes scholar to Oxford, if you please), and came back. Salman Rushdie went to England and stayed there even before the fatwa made returning difficult for him. Amitav Ghosh teaches in New York City. Vikram Seth has a house in England. Anita Desai also in the US, Rohinton Mistry in Canada. These are all good, even great writers, who can write a book set in India and make it work well. But they are writing in English, and working with international publishing rates. I don't know how many of their books ever make it into a Telugu translation. But Karnad's plays do.

BR: This is my question as a fellow translator. You write your plays in Kannada and then take them into English. While translating, you take liberties with the originals and change a few expressions in English. But I don’t have to do that when I translate from Kannada into Telugu.

GK: It can’t be helped. English is not our language. A few idioms and expressions don’t exist in English. The changes are made to make the English readers understand the spirit. (Source)

Girish Karnad doesn't use any labels like 'post-colonial' about his work; the forms of activism he has been very ardently associated with is that of anti-communalism and support of artistic expression and free speech. But he does say: "I am happy to belong to a generation that had a Dharmaveer Bharti, a Mohan Rakesh, a Vijay Tendulkar and I. Together we can claim that we did create a national theatre for modern India."

And see, here's the thing. The 14th Bharat Rang Mahotsav is going on right now. (Which is all sold out, and thus I have been utterly unable to attend. Woe.) And whether the plays are in Marathi or Bengali or Tamil they are all marked with the Indian flag. And the sold-out audiences who are going to watch them are probably mostly from the communities speaking those languages. But chances are they are also theatre-goers who have also seen a Mahesh Dattani play, a Satyadev Dubey play, a Faisal Alkazi play. They might have seen a Thayyam performance. And that present is the result of the work Karnad and his compatriots did--that building of an idea of national theatre that isn't stripped to some homogeneous national archetype, but instead talks local while thinking global. Taking Brecht and Badal Sarkar to tell a story both from Kathasarilesagara and Thomas Mann. And coming up with Hayavadana. In Kannada. Which he can translate for himself, thankyouvermuch, into English--the language that might be the one he researches and teaches and interviews in, but is still the second, and not the primary language of of his creative heart.

(I would kind of love to be Girish Karnad when I grow up.)


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Deepa D.

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