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Interview

‘Syncretism has always been a fundamental part of our DNA’

An online conversation with Avik Chanda, the best-selling author of Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King

While we grapple in the throes of not just the pandemic but worldwide disruptions of democratic traditions, protests gone awry and a questioning of divisions that deepen rifts among humans, perhaps it is time to explore more syncretic lore in history and to learn from it. Other than Gandhi, who was killed in 1948, who can we turn to historically?  Perhaps, the rulers who preceded the British — the Mughals. Among the Mughals, a name that was revived last year was Dara Shukoh, the elder brother of Shah Jahan. Here, we have an exclusive interview with the author who wrote a whole book on him, Avik Chanda.

On November 2019, a little before non-syncretic riots ripped through Delhi in the wake of Trump’s visit, we had a book that made a mark and touched our hearts with its heartfelt rendition of dry history. Some of the descriptions in this book could give poets a run for their money. I am talking of Chanda’s Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King. Other than authoring the best-selling book, Chanda is a Forbes 2020 Great People Manager Nominee, business advisor, visiting faculty at XLRI, columnist for various publications, including HBR Ascend, Economic Times, People Matters, and the Founder-CEO of NUVAH ELINT LLP. He makes some very pertinent observations in this interview and we are grateful for the time he has given us.

Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King continued on the bestseller list for over a year and you were in an out of talks. Tell us a bit about the book. How it came about? Why did you opt to write on Dara and not someone else?

In December 2017, my business book, From Command To Empathy was published by HarperCollins. The book received some good press, and equally encouraging feedback from the readers. So, for me, one immediate option (you could call it – temptation) was to write another book in the same vein. Instead, I wanted to take myself beyond my usual comfort zone. Mughal history, which had always fascinated me, emerged as the genre of choice. I had always wanted to do a biography (or several!), and looking through the literature, I found that a number of prominent books had been published on the Mughal royals, from Babur to Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, right down to the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar. But even though the legend of Dara Shukoh still lived on in our times, the last full-length monograph on him was published in the 1950s. And I thought – perhaps the time has come for Dara Shukoh to regain his place in the sun.

Tell us about the research you did on the book.

The research involved three different categories of sources – first, translations of contemporary chronicles and treatises, the contemporary European accounts, which presented very interesting, often idiosyncratic, perspectives, of the same events recounted by the official chroniclers, and finally, the wealth of research and scholarship that has come about in the last century, from the time that Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s monumental volumes on Aurangzeb were published.

How has been the reception of the book among readers?

Post the publication of Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King, it remained in the top 10 non-fiction bestsellers’ list for a long time, was covered by all the major publications nationally, featured at prestigious literary festivals, and also released as an audiobook, by Audible. But the best part, to me, has been the feedback from readers. So many strangers, whom I wouldn’t have known, but for this book, reached out to me, saying how much they liked it. Amongst the best compliments that I have received are that the book “brings history alive”, and also that “it has the power to transport the reader to a bygone time, because it reads as if it has been written by an eye-witness”.

True. I also found your descriptions vivid and the research exhaustive. I loved the lore you discussed – the syncretism that you highlighted. Around this time, there had been a lot of books which highlighted this aspect of syncretic living. Do you think there is a reason for it?

I feel syncretism has always been a fundamental part of our civilisational DNA, therefore it’s not surprising to see it assert itself through creative output. But perhaps, especially during these times, the recent surge of writing is a reaction to the deep sense of divisiveness that we find across the rubric of society.

Do you think writing about syncretic lore can heal lacerations made over centuries? What kind of an impact has your book made?

I wish I could answer this one with a resounding ‘yes’. Books and films certainly play a part in shaping the collective consciousness, but their power is bolstered when buoyed by the mass and social media. If the media is embroiled in partisan feuds, and there’s a surfeit of information, and not a small share of misinformation, people would naturally get distracted from the main issues. My book came out around the time when, uncannily, there was a resurgence of interest on Dara Shukoh in Government circles. In that context, I hope that my book has made a small contribution, not only to the ongoing discourse, and to point out that the best way we can celebrate the life and legacy of Dara Shukoh is by living his ideals, not merely by holding academic symposiums, identifying the exact spot of his mortal remains, or creating statues and monuments in his honour.

That is a very pertinent observation. Dara had some good points as did Gandhi and living by their ideals is the best way to celebrate their legacy. Around this time, there has been another book by Audrey Truschke on Aurangzeb. You have also portrayed Aurangzeb in a big way. Can you compare your perspective with hers for us?

Treatment-wise, the two books are very different. Truschke’s is a slim volume written by an academic, albeit without any accompanying footnotes – whereas mine is written in an almost novelistic style, while adhering to historical authenticity. As regards the age-old debate between Dara Shukoh and his nemesis, Aurangzeb, I have tried, very consciously, to be impartial. Truschke’s position on Dara comes out more through her published statements and interviews, than through the book — I’m not entirely sure that she has been impartial to Dara.

Dara’s story makes one think not just of syncretic lore but of war and peace. Given that Dara was not a soldier or strategist, would he really have been a good king for those times? Do you think he might have been an alternative to Aurangzeb?

One can’t really answer that without indulging in speculation. However, we can take the documented evidence as a point of reference. For instance, it’s known that Dara, along with his sister, interceded with his father, the emperor Shah Jahan, to abolish the pilgrimage tax imposed on Hindus. It seems unlikely, therefore, that had he ascended the throne, he would have reversed this policy, or brought about the reimposition of the Jiziya (a tax for being a non-Muslim). On the other hand, as you indicated in your question, Dara had no experience or interest in military matters, and was an impulsive, mediocre commander in the field of battle, although not cowardly. And in that period of history, one had to be an accomplished general, who could lead from the front, in order to be a successful ruler. It wasn’t enough to be a scholar, theologian, poet, philosopher, chronicler, a uniquely original thinker – such qualities could sometimes even be counter-productive.

The current situation in India seems to have taken a turn where syncretic lore opposes extreme right-wing politics. As you are a writer who has written of a time where choices were made between a syncretic ruler and an extremist ruler. Do you think we can draw a parallel?  Can you elaborate on it?

I don’t believe we can draw a parallel with our present times. Let’s start with the Dara figure. Can you think of a national level leader in contemporary India, who embodies Dara’s spirit?

Touché! That is a million dollar question. Well to return to the present, let us go back to the past. Earlier, people fought. Used weapons to win. Now people protest and try to make a point. Given this journey from a violent past, to perhaps a less violent present, do you actually think things can be sorted out by protests?

It depends on how we see violence. We may not be witnessing the insane, rampant bloodletting of a Timur or Atilla – but there’s an undercurrent of intolerant radicalism across the world, and not just in totalitarian regimes. Take the American example of today – and the deep schism across the society there. And alarmingly, the US is by no means alone, in this regard. Nor do we know protests to be always non-violent. From the gilets jaun to Black Lives Matter to Farmers’ Protest in India on its Republic Day, we have a range of instances, where protests that start with peaceful intent can get out of hand.

You have published books on management, fiction and history. Which has been the most interesting journey for you?

Each in its own way has been equally exciting. And I think the main reason for that each time, I was exploring not just a new genre, but a subject that I felt deeply about. With my debut novel, Anchor, I offered a fictionalized version of the violent land-grabbing incident at Singur, in West Bengal. My business book, From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption, aimed to urge a greater level of human connect and emotional enablement, in an increasingly automated, gadget-based workplace. And now, of course, there’s Dara Shukoh.

You are an author, columnist and entrepreneur. How do you juggle the three roles?

Experience has taught me that the prospect of multi-tasking, while exhilarating, isn’t necessarily very productive. So, to the extent possible, I try to compartmentalize chunks of time, for specific projects. For instance, I try to keep bylines for the weekend. Of course, if there are deadlines, such a neat compartmentalization becomes untenable. And any form of entrepreneurship keeps you mentally on your toes, all the time. What I love most about this phase of my life, is that I am only working on projects that I am passionate about.

What are your present and future projects?

At present, I’ve begun another book project. It’s non-fiction, again, and history – but it’s not a biography, and I have an even broader canvas to work with, and I’m enjoying the process thoroughly.

Thank you for giving us your time.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Interview

In Conversation with Suzanne Kamata

Suzanne Kamata is different. She is a mother writing for her children, who are uniquely placed in Japan – products of syncretic lore, an American mother and Japanese father. Recepient of a number of prestigious awards, Kamata represents the best in the mingling of the East and the West. Her writing flows well and is compelling — exploring areas that are often left untouched by more conventional writers.

Kamata has lived in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan, for more than half of her life. She is the author or editor of 14 published books including, most recently, The Spy (Gemma Open Door, 2020), a novella for emerging readers; the middle grade novel Pop Flies, Robo-pets and Other Disasters (One Elm Books, 2020) which won an American Fiction Award and was recently released as an audiobook; and Indigo Girl (GemmaMedia, 2019), winner of an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and named a Freeman Book Awards Honor Book, as well as one of the Best Chidren’s Books of 2019 by Bank Street College. Her work also appears in The Best Asian Travel Writing 2020 (Kitaab, 2020),  The APWT Drunken Boat Anthology of New Writing, What We Didn’t Expect: Personal Stories About Premature Birth ( Melville House Publishing, 2020), Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan(Camphor Press, 2020), and The Phantom Games (Excalibur Press, 2020). Her adult novel The Baseball Widow is forthcoming in October 2021 from Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing.

When and why did you move to Japan? What made you start writing? At what age did you start writing?

I came to Japan to work as an assistant English teacher on the JET Program in 1988, shortly after I graduated from college. I’d wanted to experience living abroad for a year or two before I began my “real job,” which was not yet determined. I partly wanted to accumulate material for writing future stories and novels. I started writing as a child and never quit. I think my love for writing developed from my early love for reading.

What was your first book and how did it come about?

The first book that I published was actually The Broken Bridge: Fiction by Expatriates in Literary Japan (Stone Bridge Press, 1997) an anthology of short stories by foreigners who lived or were living in Japan. I’d read an article about editing anthologies, and I read several short stories by expatriates in Japan which I felt deserved a wider audience, so I wrote a letter to a publisher that specialised in books about Japan with the idea of a collection. Little did I know, I wasn’t the first person to come up with such an idea, but I was perhaps the most persistent, so even though I was only in my twenties and had only published a couple of short stories in obscure journals, the publisher was willing to give me a shot at it.

What influenced your writing? Books, authors, music? And how?

My writing style is probably most influenced by reading. Early on, I was strongly attracted to the minimalist style of Ann Beattie and I tried to imitate that. Some other influences would be Marguerite Duras, particularly the collage aspect of The Lover, and Lorrie Moore’s dark humor. As far as subject matter goes, I am influenced by confluences of culture, by travel, by motherhood, by my daily life, and sometimes by quirky facts that I come upon.

You have a book called Losing Kei, in which a child born of a mixed marriage is torn by cultural differences and the parent’s inability to adjust to each other’s heritage. It has been compared to Kramer vs Kramer. Why the comparison and do you think it is justified?

Kramer vs. Kramer is about a custody battle, so I can see why my publisher used that comparison. I don’t know of any other novels about in-court custody battles over children of international marriages published at that time, so I think it’s more or less apt. In Losing Kei, the father is granted full custody of the couple’s son, against the mother’s wishes, but the child, Kei, is mostly taken care of by his grandmother. In the movie, the Kramer father is taking care of his son by himself because his wife has deserted them, but then she tries to get her son back.

Having grown up in America, do you actually think of the Japanese culture as ‘repressive’ or ‘xenophobic’ as says author Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse fire, while commenting on Losing Kei?

Hmm. Things are changing, a bit, but I think that there is still a lot of resistance to foreigners in Japan. During the pandemic, which is on-going as I write, for a time only Japanese nationals were allowed to leave and re-enter the country. If a permanent resident – even someone with a home, job, and family – were to leave Japan during the early part of the pandemic, they weren’t allowed back into the country. Many foreign residents have seen this as discriminatory. Laws have changed, since I first arrived, allowing more foreign workers to come to Japan, but I think a lot of people worry that an influx of people from other countries will change Japan, and not in a good way.

You often write on or for children. Is there a reason for it?

I started writing for children when my own children were small. Being biracial/bicultural and living in Japan – and disabled, in the case of my daughter — their experiences were quite unique and rarely represented in books, so I tried to write a few stories to help fill that gap.

Squeaky Wheels, your immensely moving novel that won the inaugural Half the Globe Literati award (Best novel) in 2016, explores a mother’s travels with a child on a wheelchair. Can you tell us how this book came about?

Thank you so much for your kind words! Although the book won the award for “novel,’ it is actually a memoir of traveling with my daughter. When she was around twelve, she declared that she wanted to go to Paris. At the time, I was working as an adjunct, and we didn’t have a lot of money. So, I came up with the brilliant (ha ha) idea of writing a proposal for a book on traveling with my daughter, who is deaf and uses a wheelchair. It would be, I proposed, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, but in different countries – France, not Italy; Japan, not Indonesia – and it would explore issues of accessibility in each country. I knew that Gilbert had gotten a huge advance to write her book. I also knew of a father of a child with autism who had gotten a million dollars to write a book about taking his son to visit a shaman in Tibet to be cured or whatever. So, I thought that I had a shot. No publisher, however, was willing to give me a contract and an advance to fund our trip, but I had a pretty decent book proposal by then, which I used to apply for a grant. I was extremely fortunate to be awarded a generous grant by the Sustainable Arts Foundation. We went to Paris, and I wrote the book.

Your last novel was Indigo Girl. The Kirkus Review said it was “a lovely sequel that focuses on finding strength in one’s self and maintaining hope when all seems lost.” It was a sequel to Gadget Girl. Tell us a bit about the two books.

A lot of people think that Gadget Girl, the story of the fourteen-year-old daughter of an American mother and Japanese father who has cerebral palsy, is based on my daughter’s actual experiences, but that’s not really true. I started writing the book when my daughter was quite small. I wanted to write a book that she might be able to enjoy as a teen. The main character, Aiko, is an aspiring manga artist, who has grown up as her sculptor mother’s muse. I wrote frequently about my children when they were small, so I imagined what my children might feel about those stories once they hit adolescence. In the first book, Gadget Girl, Aiko travels to Paris with her single mother. In the follow-up, Indigo Girl, which is a stand-alone sequel, Aiko visits rural Japan in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown) to finally connect with her biological father, who is an indigo farmer.

How many books have you authored? Are they all centred around young adults or children? Which one did you enjoy writing the most and why?

I have authored 12 including a picture book, a couple of titles for emergent readers, a short story collection, a memoir, three novels for adults (one forthcoming) and four novels for younger readers, the most recent of which is Pop Flies, Robo-pets and Other Disasters (One Elm Books, 2020). The first two novels that I wrote (but not the first two that I published) were The Mermaids of Lake Michigan (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2017) and Screaming Divas (Simon Pulse, 2014), which were both initially intended to be adult novels, but which concern young adults. When I wrote those books, I was in my late twenties/early thirties, when I felt that I didn’t have enough distance or perspective to write about my adult experiences. And then later, I intentionally wrote for children and young adults. It’s really hard to say which one I enjoyed writing the most, but Squeaky Wheels was fun for me. I loved traveling with my daughter, and I loved reliving those experiences when I was writing and revising the book. And writing nonfiction is a lot easier than writing fiction.

You teach at Naruto University of Education. What is it like to teach students who have been brought up in an entirely different culture from you? How does this experience translate to your own writing?

Japanese students tend to be a bit conservative, so I am always striving to open their minds, and to help them see that being receptive to other cultures and travel can be mind-blowing as it has been for me. I also learn a lot from them, because their upbringing has been so different from mine. One very concrete way in which teaching has affected my writing is that I have started to write stories for emergent readers. I realise that a lot of my books are too difficult for the average Japanese reader of English, but many students are interested in reading my writing. So far, I have written two hi/lo books for the Gemma Open Door series. These books are short, and the level of language is a bit easier.

How has the pandemic affected Japan, you and your work?

Japan hasn’t suffered as greatly as many other nations, perhaps because it is a mask-wearing culture, and also because as soon as news of a break-out aboard the cruise ship the Diamond Princess appeared, people started being cautions. In Tokushima, where I live, there have been fewer than 400 documented cases since the start of the pandemic. Since I haven’t had to travel for conferences, and I have been teaching online, things have been pretty calm and peaceful. Surprisingly, I have written quite a bit. I actually started a new novel!

What are your future plans? Do you have a new novel/books in the offing?

I hope to continue writing and publishing! I have a couple of adult novels – a historical novel, and one set slightly in the future – in progress, as well as a few picture book manuscripts that I have been tinkering with. In October of this year, my adult novel The Baseball Widow, will be published by Wyatt-Mackenzie. I started writing it shortly after I finished Losing Kei, but I abandoned it a few times. Anyway, I am happy to announce that it will finally make it into print! It’s a family drama about an international/interracial marriage in crisis told from multiple points of view. I hope you will enjoy it!

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This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Interview

Unveiling the Ideology of Dissent

A conversation with Mosarrap Hossain Khan, the founding editor of Café Dissensus

Dr Mossarap Hossain Khan

A popular online journal called Café Dissensus kept cropping up on my Facebook page every now and then till curiosity drove me to delve further. In this exclusive, we meet one of the founding editors, Mosarrap Khan, who brought the journal to life with Mary Ann Chacko in New York almost seven to eight years ago. Now Café operates as an independent magazine of culture, literature, and politics, publishing writers and novices, bringing out well edited issues.

Dr. Mosarrap Hossain Khan completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Burdwan and the University of Hyderabad respectively. He obtained a doctorate in South Asian literatures and cultures from the Department of English, New York University, USA, in 2018.

His most recently published academic essays have engaged with the question of motherhood in the literary productions around Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) and the role of literary/filmic representation as an alternative archive of the Partition of India. He is currently co-editing (with Dr. Mursed Alam) a book, Mapping Muslim Life in West Bengal: History, Politics, and Culture and has completed translating Sankha Ghosh’s three partition novellas. Both these proposed books are now undergoing or about to undergo review with a university press. In addition, he is about to start work on converting his doctoral dissertation into a monograph. His research interests include South Asian literature and culture, postcolonial theory, theories of everyday life, religion and secularism, and Muslim life in West Bengal. His creative writings and political commentary pieces have appeared on various popular portals. He is currently working as an Assistant Professor of English at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.

In this interview, we focus only on his work and contribution to a journal that so many of us love, Café Dissensus.

How old is Cafe Dissensus? When and how was it ‘born’ in New York? Why did you move to India?

Café Dissensus was founded on February 15, 2013 in New York City, USA. However, we bought the domain sometime before that.

Until 2011, I was never inclined to or thought of writing for a popular publication, although I had started posting on my personal blog from mid-2010. However, those were sporadic posts on topics ranging from the literary to the political. In 2011, I was moved by the Anna Hazare movement and wrote a piece. It went unpublished.

In the middle of 2012, there was a violent demonstration held by Muslims in Mumbai to protest again the Rakhine riots. I had been regularly following Indian newspapers and wanted to write something on the issue. One evening I sat down and wrote up about 1000 words on a whim and sent it off to Newslaundry which was a new portal at the time. To my surprise, it was published. However, the final edits to the piece left me dissatisfied, as it was given a ‘liberal Muslim’ tone to suit the ideology of the portal.

This made me think about creating a platform where we could write on issues of our choice and in a manner, we were comfortable with. In more contemporary language, you could call it an effort to create an independent platform.

Online publishing was still at a nascent stage in India. Barring the already established newspaper portals and magazines, and a couple of blogs, none of the news portals that operate today existed at the time. Since print publication was not an option given the cost and infrastructure involved, I thought of tapping the potential of the online space. I broached to my then partner, Mary Ann Chacko, who is still the other editor of Café Dissensus, and bought the domain for the magazine. However, we dithered for next year or so as we juggled our PhD and other academic responsibilities. It was only toward the end of 2012 that we started planning about the first issue of the magazine.

We spoke to our friends who could contribute to the first and future issues of the magazine. We were surprised by the very positive and encouraging response we received from them. That’s how the first issue of the magazine was published on February 15, 2013 on the future of Indian Muslims. In that sense, the theme of the first issue came from the article I wrote in 2012. After we published the first issue, we applied for the ISSN from the US Library of Congress and we received it by the middle of 2013.

The blog of the magazine, Café Dissensus Everyday, started on March 4, 2013, as we thought we needed to engage more regularly with the other events happening around us.

I moved back to India by the end of 2016 and since then Café Dissensus has partly operated from India, as Mary Ann was still in the US. Café Dissensus was transnational at the time in its location, if we could say this in the age of World Wide Web. It still is transnational in its spirit and ideas.    

What is the difference between operating from NY and India? Is there a difference, considering it is an online magazine?

As an online portal without any physical infrastructure, there isn’t much of a difference really, barring different time zones. Being away from India also gave us the mental space to engage with ideas that sometimes becomes difficult in a ‘noisy’ place like India. The other difference is, of course, the glamour associated with anything that comes out of the West! Many of our readers and contributors still think we are based in New York City. Technically, our ISSN is still registered with the US Library of Congress. In that sense, we are in some way connected to the US. When I moved back to India, the idea was to keep it operating as a quality space for ideas. And we do have contributors from around the globe.   

How does your magazine operate? Do you have many working on it? How many in your team?

When we first started the magazine, we did set up an editorial board with friends and acquaintances. Over time, Café Dissensus has very much operated like a revolving door, barring the editors! We did and do have people in different editorial roles for a while and then they moved on. Bhaswati Ghosh was literature editor for a while, Rashida Murphy worked as a Books Editor, Urba Malik acted as a political editor. Murtaza Ali Khan still remains our Films Editor. Also, Adil Bhat has remained as an associate editor. We also took on board some interns from time to time. Since we don’t generate any money from the magazine and we are not able to pay, it becomes difficult to burden them with work and retain quality people. The revolving door policy has worked so far. However, we wish we could have a permanent team that would unburden me to some extent. Let’s see how the future unfolds.  

Your logo says, “we dissent”. What is it you dissent? What is your intent?

When we started, the idea was not to align with any particular ideology, as is often the practice among publications. We wanted to propagate the idea of ‘dissensus’ (Jacque Ranciere’s word) for the strengthening of democracy, that is, move beyond the idea of ‘consensus’ being the cornerstone of democracy. As Ranciere says, dissensus or difference builds a stronger democracy. In that sense, ‘we dissent’ implies resistance to dogmatic ideologies of both the Right and the Left. I have had cases in the past where one of our well-wishers chose to castigate Café Dissensus for critiquing the Left because people think a progressive platform should be silent about one particular ideology, while tearing into the other. In these deeply polarised times, it is important to be critical and speak truth to power. We, at Café Dissensus, publish pieces that critique the excesses of any ideology.    

You have guest editing. What is it you look for in a guest editor? Why have guest editing? Does it add to your journal?

From the very beginning we had planned on having guest editors for our issues. There are multiple reasons for this. First, if we are to edit all the issues in a year, it would become an onerous task with our teaching, research, and academic writing commitments. Guest-editors take that burden off us. However, we editors also edit some of the issues.

Second, guest-editors bring in wonderful diversity to the table. Since they have been already working in interesting areas, Café Dissensus acts as a site to tap into their current work – research and otherwise – and showcase it to our readers. I would say, guest-editors bring in a diversity of approaches that enrich the magazine.

Third, we are able to build a network of scholars, academics and writers because of guest-editing. We have forged wonderful relations with some of them who have edited issues more than once. The idea is to create a large family of thinkers. I don’t want to take any individual names, but we are thankful to all our guest-editors for enriching Café Dissensus over last so many years. However, there are downsides to working with guest-editors, as some have backed out at the last moment, despite their issue being scheduled. This is part of the process and we take it on our chin and move forward.

When we invite someone to guest-edit an issue or evaluate a proposal sent to us by a potential guest-editor, we look for novelty and do-ability. We are always open to new ideas that we could explore in some depth. While most of our guest-editors have been academics, we also have writers and other practitioners edit issues for us. We welcome people with compelling ideas to edit an issue for us.   

Sometimes you become a part of literary festivals. Exactly what happens there? I remember seeing you host an IIT festival.

Recently, we were part of the IIT Kanpur annual fest, Antaragni. We were approached by the literary society at the institute to partner with them. Since we can’t sponsor any of the events, we acted as their media partner. We circulated information about the literary component of the fest and carried the prize-winning entries in the fest. This was a very positive experience as we already cater to a younger readership. We are open to such collaborations in future as well.

What are the things you look for in a submission?

We look for novelty of ideas, a critical eye, and a compelling writing style. We don’t restrict ourselves to any particular set of ideas. Since we deal with ideas, the ideas presented in a piece must excite us enough to publish it. We don’t really look at the contributor generating/writing up/presenting that idea. What I mean is that an idea is more important for us than the person presenting that idea. We try to avoid publishing the same hackneyed pieces we see floating around us. We do publish some literary pieces in Café Dissensus Everyday, too.    

Who are your contributors and who are your readers?

Ans: We have contributors from across the spectrum of academics, researchers, writers, artists, community organizers, etc.

Well, it is very difficult to say who our readers are! I guess our readers also come from a large cross section of people including the ones I mentioned already. Sometimes we do receive appreciative messages from our readers belonging to different strata of society.  

I remember one of your guest editors did a book with your content. Do you bring out books too? Tell us about it.

So far, a couple of our issues got published as books, edited by Debaditya Bhattacharya and Nishi Pulugurtha. These books have come out from established publishers. In fact, I am currently co-editing (with Mursed Alam) a book based on one of our issues (albeit in an expanded and academic form). So far Café Dissensus has not been able to publish them as books on its own. However, I will not rule out the possibility of launching our own imprint in future to publish some of these issues as books.

You are an academic. Please tell us how you juggle time between editing and teaching. Is it tough? What is it you learn from bringing out such a journal? Is there a learning?

It’s an extremely difficult task to juggle between all that I do: full-time teaching, researching, academic writing, editing, management of the magazine, etc. I guess being a bit of a workaholic helps! The whole editing process has helped me immensely in a being a better reader and writer. Then there is the other aspect of interacting with people and managing the show. There are times when we face rejections and there are times when we are jubilant for being able to publish a good issue or a good piece of writing. It’s all part of the job I do.      

Do you write often? Why or Why not?

I did write a lot for first five years or so, especially for Café Dissensus Everyday. It was primarily to keep it alive when we still had to build credibility and trust. I write occasionally now as we have quality contributors writing for us. These days I write only when I am compelled by an idea.

What is the future you see for Cafe Dissensus? And yourself?

We will reach our first milestone in February 2023 when we complete our ten years! When we started, we had no idea we will reach this stage. Café Dissensus started as a fun act and I still have a lot of fun editing it. Since there is no commercial aspect to it, it allows us leg space to publish whatever we are convinced about.

However, we do have a plan to build an integrated, reader-friendly website of international standards. The idea is to bring Café Dissensus and Café Dissensus Eevryday in one platform. Also, we are thinking of the possibility of registering it as a trust so that we could raise some donations to run the show. However, I am not sure when that is going to happen. These are plans at this stage.

As for me, I have a wish. Before I shut it down or die, I wish to run it for one day as a mainstream, commercial platform to see what it feels like! As of now what keeps me going is what an 18-year-old recently wrote to me when she pitched an article, “It will make the planet a better place to live in.” That kind of idealism about the role of writing inspires me.  

How lovely! Thank you Mossarap for taking the time to answer our questions.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Interview

In conversation with Devaki Jain

Devaki Jain: With Permission from Devaki Jain and Speaking Tiger Books

A woman who at eighty-eight brought out her autobiography based on the urgings of among others, Alice Walker, author of  the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Colour Purple , and  Doris Lessing, the Nobel Laureate — only much later. Like Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, her biography is called The Brass Notebook. Does it talk anti-war or feminism or womanism? I am not sure. What it does show is a woman who despite being surrounded by patriarchal norms managed to live her life as she wanted without resorting to schools of ‘isms’ or feeling injured. In the process, she met many great people and tried to bring in changes or reforms.

Devaki Jain, born in 1933,  graduated in economics and philosophy from St Anne’s College, Oxford and is an Honorary Fellow of the college. She is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa.

Needless to say the best introduction to her work and her person comes from well-known feminist journalist,  Gloria Steinem: “Your heart and world will be opened by reading The Brass Notebook the intimate and political life of Devaki Jain, a young woman who dares to become independent even as a country of India does. Because she’s also my oldest friend I can tell you there is no one like her, yet only here in her writings have I learned the depth, breadth and universality of adventures.”

The interview probably reinforces her non-conformist outlook. In an age when intellectuals bicker over terminology and social media becomes the fulcrum of our lives, she lives by her convictions. Despite writing an absolutely gripping autobiography, she has revealed only a bit of herself. Through the interview, I tried to entice more but I got only a very brief glimmer. Her autobiography painted a liberal, liberated and open thinker who fearlessly fought her way against patriarchal and colonial mindsets. In this exclusive, I invite you to savour her spirit at a stage in life when most talk mainly of geriatric issues. Devaki Jain for you —

You were a very independent lady for your times. Could you find parallels of women like yourself in diverse cultures?

Women have been revolutionaries, radical thinkers, resistance leaders, dissenters for centuries. There are not many records of this but one of my colleagues found that there were groups of women, for example, in China even as far as the 12th century who were dissenters. Therefore, the knowledge may not have been recorded but striking for independence and striking for justice has been a part of women’s lives for centuries. 

What drove you to be as you were? What made you feel that marriage was not the ultimate aim of all existence in the 1950s and 1960s?

(a)What drives people to do things differently? This is not an easy question to answer, people are born differently with different aspirations and different nervous systems. It is like asking an artist what helped you to be such a brilliant artist. Such questions are not appropriate. 

(b) I think this question is badly framed that I felt that marriage was not the ultimate aim, it was not like that. It was just that I felt there were other things that I wanted to do.

A young Devaki Jain. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

How supportive was your family, especially your father, of your sense of independence?

My father was an enigma, while he wanted to submit to orthodoxy, he was also very respectful of those who wanted to do things differently. So, in a sense, I think he was supportive of my desire for independence. 

You did face some amount of familial sexual harassment. Did it scar you for life? How did you get over the trauma?

My uncle’s sexual assault on me did not scar me for life, there was no particular need to get over the trauma. In a situation of living in cloisters with family bounds there is no space for lifelong traumas.

You spoke of how funding went inadvertently hand in hand with a different kind of colonial outlook. Would you say that is still true?

No, currently I think both the donors and the receivers have understood the difference and respect the difference.

Womanism is a term you have spoken of in your book. How is this different from feminism in your perspective?

I was basically supporting Alice Walker’s definition and I support her perspective. Please refer to my quotation from Alice Walker*.

[*Alice Walker quote from Pg 173-174, The Brass Notebook, Speaking Tiger, 2020: “As long as the world is dominated by racial ideology that places whites above people of colour, the angle of vision of the womanist, coming from a culture of colour, will be of a deeper, more radical penetration. This is only logical. Generally speaking, for instance, white feminists are dealing with the oppression they receive from white men, while women of colour are oppressed by men of colour as well as white men, as well as by many white women. But on the joyful side, which we must insist on honouring, the womanist is, like the creator of the word, intent on connecting with the earth and cosmos, with dance and song. With roundness, thankfulness and joy. Given a fighting chance at living her own life, under oppression that she resists, the womanist has no or few complaints. Her history has been so rough—captured from her home, centuries of enslavement, apartheid, etc—she honours Harriet Tubman by daily choosing freedom over the fetters of any internalized slavery she might find still lurking within herself. Whatever women’s liberation is called, it is about freedom. This she knows. Having said this, I have no problem being called “feminist” or “womanist.” In coining the term, I was simply trying myself to see more clearly what sets women of colour apart in the rainbow that is a world movement of women who have had enough of being second–and third–class citizens of the earth. One day, if earth and our species survive, we will again be called sacred and free. Our proper names.”]

Do you think women’s issues across the world are similar? How should they be dealt with?

It is believed that women’s oppression comes from patriarchy which of course is worldwide. I do not think I can answer the second part of the question – “how should it be dealt with?” — except writing three other books.

With Fidel Castro in Cuba as a member of the South Commission. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

You have spoken of how the South Commission fell through. Can you tell us why? Is this what happens very often?

The South Commission fell apart because of a failure of solidarity between the south countries. It was a political statement to join the South together as an economic platform. When it failed, it failed all that. 

You tried to bring many changes for the welfare of women across India and beyond. Will you tell us a bit about the perceived problems and solutions that we could find?

I do not think I attempted to bring changes for the welfare of women. I think I was basically pointing out the contribution that women made to the economy and how they were being discriminated against. 

What are your future plans, presuming you are going to be a grand dame of 150 years?

I would like to write, write and write.

What would be the advice you would like to give young women living in today’s world?

Follow your dreams and don’t be frightened of orthodoxy. 

Thank you for giving us some of your time.

Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, Devaki Jain, Lakshmi Jain at a reception. With permission of Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger
With Dr Julius Nyere (centre) in Cuba, 1989. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books
With Desmond & Leah Tutu, Pretoria, 1998. with permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

All the photographs are published with thanks to the author, Devaki Jain, and the publisher, Speaking Tiger Books.

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This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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In Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti

Sahitya Akademi winner Aruna Chakravarti

A woman who weaves stories from the past, from history, from what has been and makes them so real that they become a part of ones’ own existence – this has been my experience of Dr Aruna Chakravarti and her writing. A winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for her translation of Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, Vaitalik award and Sarat Puraskar, Chakravarti was the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Jorasanko and its sequel are based on the women in the household of Rabindranath Tagore. Jorasanko one of the best and most impactful books I have read in my life and with a flavour of realism that transports you into that era. The focus on the strength that resided in women trapped with a set of patriarchal values in colonial India is amazing and attractive. Suralakshmi Villa, her latest novel which was released at the start of 2020, is also modelled on a woman from the past as she will reveal in this exclusive interview.

You are a multiple national award- winning writer. At a point you stopped writing. Why?

I had started writing during my childhood and had continued to do so through my school days happily and unselfconsciously. I wrote poems, short stories and even tried my hand at a novel. But when I joined the English Honours course in college and was introduced to the academics of literature; when I learned the principles of criticism and picked up the ability to distinguish good writing from mediocre, a change came over me. I suffered from a loss of self-worth. I felt I was not and could never be a good writer. Self-criticism is good but unfortunately it worked adversely for me. I convinced myself that my work was imitative and lacking in merit. From that time onwards I stopped writing.

When did you take up writing again? Did your translations come first?

It happened nearly twenty- five years later. Yes, my translations came first. The cycle of negative feelings about my writing, to which I had strapped myself, broke in a miraculous way. The year was 1982.  At a chamber concert of Rabindra sangeet, in which I was taking part, a Gujarati gentleman from the audience made a request. He asked if one of the participants could translate the songs that were being sung so that non-Bengalis, many of whom were present, could understand the words. Since I was teaching English in a Delhi University college at the time, all eyes turned to me. I was horrified. To be called upon to translate a literary giant like Rabindranath Tagore, that too his lyrics, without any preparation whatsoever, would have daunted anyone leave alone me with my record of diffidence and self-doubt. But to my own shock and bewilderment, I agreed. The rest is history. There was a publisher in the audience who offered to bring out a collection of Tagore songs in translation. That was my first publication. Tagore: Songs rendered into English came out in 1984. Though the publisher was practically unknown, the book created waves in literary circles. Other translations followed. Srikanta by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and later Those days and First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyaywere published by Penguin India. I also picked up a number of awards.

It was Sunil Gangopadhyay who advised me to try my hand at creative writing. After some hesitation I did so. My first novel The Inheritors was accepted by Penguin India and published in 2004. After it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, I found the courage to write more.

You were the Principal of a Delhi University college. Did your work impact your writing?

No strangely enough it didn’t. My creative inspiration never drew from my experience as a Principal. I was dealing with women from a younger generation. I was privy to their concerns, their joys and sorrows, their fears and aspirations.  I understood their psychology. Yet I never wanted to write about them except in a tangential way. As part of a larger context. For me the present failed to provide the spark that kindled my creative imagination. That came invariably from some past memory. In a strange way the past seems more meaningful to me than the present.

But my role as an administrator helped me in another way. Office work is dry and prosaic. But it is worthwhile work. And, much as I felt good doing it, I looked forward intensely to the end of the day when I could doff my Principal’s hat and don my writer’s one. And, having indulged myself by writing till late into the night, I was ready to take up my work schedule the next morning. The two interests sustained each other and created a balance.

Why did you translate the writers? What did you learn by translating them? Did it impact your own story telling or knowledge base?

My first translation, as I’ve just explained, was commissioned. But I would not have taken up the offer if I didn’t consider the original work a significant contribution to Bengali literature. My other books were self-chosen. For me the most important consideration when taking up a translation project has been the literary value of the piece. I had to enjoy the process of translation and could only do so if I thought the subject worthwhile. And, yes, I learned a lot. I learned how lyricism could be infused into prose from Rabindranath. I learned how to write with brevity and precision from Saratchandra and the art of simple, direct, almost colloquial communication with the reader from Sunil Gangopadhyay. The process also intensified my interest in Bengal and the evolution of its society, literature and culture. I was enthused to read and learn more.

Some awards nowadays ask for applications from authors. Did you apply for your awards? Did you work towards getting an award?

No. This is the first time I’m hearing that authors can apply for awards. I thought that was the publisher’s job. As for working towards getting an award — no, I’ve never even thought of it.  Networking is a totally alien term for me. I admire people who can do it perhaps because I, myself, have very little skill at it. Whatever recognition has come my way has come as a surprise. I feel some of the books that have brought me awards didn’t deserve them. On the other hand, the ones that I think should have attracted them, didn’t do so. However, I suppose writers aren’t always the best judges of their work. Assessment of quality should be left to critics.

How long does it take you to churn out a book?

In the case of novels, it depends on the amount of research that has to go into it. For example, Jorasanko took nearly three years. But Daughters of Jorasanko was completed in a year and a half. That’s because most of the research had been done already. Translations take less time depending on the length. Srikanta, Those Days and First Light, took about two years each. The shorter ones The Way Home, Primal Woman and On the Wings of Music were done in less than a year.

Were your novels Jorasanko and Daughters of Jorasanko impacted by your translation of Tagore? Did having done the translations help?

I suppose it did… at some level. Some of the lyricism and emotionally charged quality of Rabindranath’s language must have seeped into my consciousness while doing the translation. But its manifestation is present not only in the Jorasanko series. It is there in all my writing. The Inheritors is suffused with a Tagorean kind of heightened sensibility. So is Suralakshmi Villa.

In your latest novel Suralakshmi Villa you have drawn a very independent woman in the last century — so independent that it would be difficult to find people similar to her in today’s world. Is she modelled on a real person?

I had heard of such a woman from a colleague of mine. The lady, a relation of my friend’s, belonged to a conservative South Indian Brahmin family of Chennai. A few years after her marriage she abandoned her husband and infant son, for no apparent reason, left Chennai and started teaching in an obscure village school. This was way back in the twenties when such an action was unheard of. She never came back. But that was all I knew. I had never met her or heard anything more about her. My imagination provided the rest. So, the answer to your question is both Yes and No. Suralakshmi has been modelled on someone I have heard of. That too only in partial context.

The Inheritors was based on your own family’s past if I’m not mistaken. What kind of research went into it? How long did it take you to write the book?

You are right. The Inheritors is a semi-fictional reconstruction of life as lived by previous generations of my paternal ancestors. Though names have been changed, many of the characters are drawn from real people. Most of the events, too, are located in family history. Not all though. Some are purely fictional. Since everything I wished to describe happened before I was born, it has all been seen through the light of the imagination.

To answer your query about research–there was a lot of primary reading involved. But I had been doing that for years before I took up the project. The ambience was provided by my reading of the classics. Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Bankimchandra, Bibhutibhushan, Tarashanker and many other writers provided sketches of rural life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, all of which were invaluable to my understanding of how life was lived in a Bengal village at the time.

I had very little real material to rely on barring faint memories. Anecdotes heard from my parents, uncles and aunts. Family legends passed down the generations. But I did visit my ancestral village a couple of times. I was shown the house in which my forefathers lived, the location of the Adi Ganga — now extinct, and the temple, Vaidyanath Mandir, which bore the name of the village in an inscription on a terracotta tablet above the door. I also managed to get hold of a family tree, dating from our earliest known ancestor Srikrishna Tarkapanchanan, and an ancient map of the area.

It took me about a year and a half to do the actual writing.

Both in Jorasanko and Suralakshmi Villa, you have strong heroines. Can you tell us if you are doing so with an intent?

Well, I do believe that women of the past had a lot of inherent strength. Most of them kept it hidden because that is how patriarchal society liked its women. Silence and obedience were highly rated qualities and most women abided by family and societal expectations. Some, of course, were exceptionally ahead of their times and displayed courage and independence even at the risk of upsetting the applecart. But even those who were apparently meek and subservient were seen to display enormous inner reserves of strength at a time of crisis. I have shown both kinds in my novels.

What are your future plans? When can we expect a new novel?

I am working on something but it is still in the initial stages. The pandemic has made travelling impossible so field work has had to be postponed. It is too early to share details and impossible to tell when the work will see the light of day.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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‘He made History stand still in his pages’

Exploring the writings of Nabendu Ghosh, his daughter Ratnottama Sengupta shares his life and times and her own journey as a senior journalist, writer and, more recently, a filmmaker.

Nabendu Ghosh on the right at the award ceremony for his Bankim Puraskar, awarded by West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya(left), who can be seen conversing with him. Photo source: Ratnottama Sengupta.

Mistress of Melodies is a new book, a translation of Nabendu Ghosh’s stories. Ghosh was an eminent Bengali writer and also a major screenwriter from Bollywood, the award-winning director of the iconic Trishagni (The Sandstorm, 1988). This collection edited by his daughter, a senior journalist, translator and writer, Ratnottama Sengupta, brings out the plight of women ranging from the glamorous Gauhar Jaan to the hapless prostitutes and widows — like Fatima who almost gets pushed into the flesh trade for feeding her hungry child. The story on Gauhar Jaan was written originally in English by Nabendu himself. The man did an excellent job in English too though he wrote in Bengali and Hindi mostly. His writing has cinematic clarity.

In 2018, another collection of his short stories That Bird called Happiness was brought out by Sengupta, who with multiple books under her belt, retired as the arts editor of The Times of India and now she is helping the world uncover the richness of the literary lore of Nabendu Ghosh. In this exclusive, she tells us more.

You are the daughter of a very loved writer, screen writer and filmmaker from Bengal, Nabendu Ghosh, along with being an award-winning journalist and film maker. How much did your father influence your choice of career? What impact did his work have on your childhood?

My father did not at all influence my choice of career as a journalist. As a matter of fact, he believed that journalism was literature in hurry. He was happy that his daughter’s name – byline — was appearing every week, often more than once a week, and across India with enviable regularity. But he would often remind me that, in pursuit of this “short-lived glory”, I was neglecting my potentials as a ‘literary writer’ which, he felt, I had in me…

But let me tell you: I would not be what I am today – an editor, translator, curator and director in addition to being a journalist – if I were not born with Nabendu and Kanaklata as my father and mother. Here’s the Why of this statement.

I must have been five or less when I developed the habit of looking attentively at visual images even before I could discern the alphabets. For, even as a baby I would leaf through the books that were everywhere in our house – in the bookshelves, on the tables, on the beds and even under them. Indeed, every night we would remove the books to make our beds and every morning we would put them back there!

Having always been with books, reading stories and images came most naturally to me. And then, there was the dinner table at 2 Pushpa Colony, my home in Mumbai, which was the camp address for not only my cousins and unrelated uncles from Patna and Malda (the two places my parents came from) who were making a career in films, but also that for writers from Bengal and Bihar: Nirendranath Chakraborty, Santosh Ghosh, Samaresh Bose, Phaniswar Nath Renu, Debabrata Mukherjee…

The result? I grew up listening to discussions on literature and cinema – every aspect of it, from cinematography and editing to music and dance. Through them all, I came to appreciate not only the aesthetic aspects of these art forms but also their technical, economic and other social aspects. Through it all, unknown to me, I had become a film and art critic.

Your father moved from Bengal to Patna at the start of his life. Why? Did it impact his choice of career? 

My grandfather Nabadwip Chandra Ghosh, a well-known Kirtan singer, was a much-respected advocate who moved from Dhaka to Patna, then a part of the Bengal Presidency, in 1920. Nabendu was then all of four. But every Durga Puja would find them back in Kalatiya village where he started by playing ‘sakhi’ (a woman’s role) and experiencing the rasa of devotion. In his school days itself Nabendu took to writing and soon was part of the editorial team bringing out a handwritten magazine which was popular in the Bengali society of Patna. From his early years he used to save from his tiffin money to watch movies. He was keen about dance and drama and in his college days he regularly performed – even in towns and cities outside Patna. All in all, he was trained in the Arts from his childhood.

And by 1942 he was already a published author. But what determined his ‘career’ as a writer was the Quit India call given by Gandhiji. It led to an incident that changed his life. A large crowd to assemble at the Government offices including that of the IG Police where Nabendu was then a junior. After witnessing the bloodshed unleashed by the British Police, he started writing a novel that labeled him into being identified as a ‘subversive’ writer. Realising that he would not get a respectable job under the imperialist government, he resigned from that job and again, from Military Accounts – and took to writing as a full time occupation and moved to Calcutta.

Why did Nabendu go to Bombay when he was such a successful and loved writer in Bengal?

We are all social creatures, and we do not realise how much our lives are tossed and turned by political events. Take the Partition of India: It bifurcated the state of Bengal, dividing the reader of books and the viewership of films. By 1947, Bengal was the most established film producing centre in India, and as a young, popular and respected writer endowed with a cinematic vision, Nabendu Ghosh was already writing screenplays for a Hollywood-returned director, among others. But both, the publishing sector and Bengali film industry suffered a humongous setback after Partition – especially as the newly formed Pakistan government decided to enforce Urdu as its lingua franca.

So, when faced with tremendous financial hardship, many successful directors moved to Bombay. Legendary director Bimal Roy too was invited by actor Ashok Kumar to make a film for Bombay Talkies, and he invited Nabendu to join the team as a screenwriter. The rest is a historic change of geography: the Bengali writer moved to the shores of the Arabian Sea but did not cease to serve the ‘Bay of Bengal’, as Sunil Gangopadhyay said in reviewing Eka Naukar Jatri ( Journey of a Lonesome Boat, Nabendu’s autobiography).

Eka Noukar Jatri or Journey of a Lonesome Boat

Here, allow me to quote what poet Nirendranath Chakraborty said at the launch of the autobiography: “It was not with any joy that Nabendu Da left for Bombay at the close of 1940s. The times were such that it was difficult for most of us to eke a decent living. He had a family to look after, the family was growing, opportunities were not. If anything, they were getting curbed. Nabendu Da fulfilled all his responsibilities, including to his family, his friends, and to his first love – literature.”

Recently his telling of Gauhar Jaan has been published in Mistress of Melodies, with some of his translated stories. But Gauhar Jaan was written by him in English — and very well written I must say. Why did he write it in English? 

Nabendu was always a keen writer, and politically aware. He wanted to major in History but was advised to take up English. So, he did his MA in English – under British teachers. Naturally he had a firm grounding in the language.

In Bombay of 1950s, directors, actors, producers from different corners had converged. And so, although the discussions in Bimal Roy Productions were held in Bengali and Hindi, he wrote the scripts in English and the basic dialogue, though in Hindi, too was penned in Roman alphabet. So English was always his second language.

Besides, Nabendu had written Swar ki Rani or ‘Mistress of Melodies’ as the first draft for a fuller screenplay that he always planned to write – in all probability, for my brother Subhankar Ghosh who is a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), directed the successful serial Yugantar (Over the ages) for Doordarshan and Woh Chhokri (That Girl) that won several National Awards.

Why did he not make a film out of Gauhar Jaan? It is an excellent story. Any plans to film it now? 

Life is a hard task master. Subhankar too has had to go through several twists and turns. He was in Fiji for some years to teach filmmaking at the Fiji National University. That did not give him the scope to direct the film when Baba penned the first draft. If any opportunity comes along, I am sure that ‘Mistress of Melodies’ will be seen on the silver screen – or streamed on an OTT platform.

Nabendu was into script writing in a big way, especially for Bimal Roy. Can you tell us how they started working together? 

After Nabendu moved base to Kolkata, Jahar Roy – the celebrated comedian of the Bengali screen who was like a younger brother to Nabendu since their Patna days – introduced him to Bimal Roy who had shot into national limelight with his very first film, Udayer Pathey (In the Path of Sunrise, 1943). The director, an avid reader, had read most of Nabendu’s writings and had observed that his writing had the “visual quality of a screenplay.” In particular he was highly impressed with the allegorical novel Ajab Nagarer Kahini (Tales of a Curious Land). But at that point B N Sircar of New Theatres was travelling abroad, so the project did not take off.

Meanwhile Mrinal Sen, then only a young associate of my father from Indian People’s Theatre Association, was eager to film it. He came up with a producer who unfortunately ran out of money within a few months and abandoned the project. Nabendu went back to Bimal Roy but he had firmed up his plans to shift to Bombay. All of a sudden, over a cup of tea, he asked Nabendu to join his creative team – and the writer was only too happy to get a new opening in the dismal post-Partition world.

Trishagni was an award-winning film by your father. Tell us how it came about and what made him pick the story? 

In 1966 after Bimal Roy passed away, my father had started teaching the Direction students at Film and Television Institute of India as a regular Guest Lecturer. Soon the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) was reborn as National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) – and he became one of the revered members of its Script Committee. To create a bank of screenplays NFDC held a script competition and Nabendu won an award. It was not a cash award: NFDC supported the making of the film by way of equipment, editing, lab cost etc. That script became the award-winning Trishagni, based on a story by Saradindu Bandopadhyay, the Bengali litterateur best known as the creator of Byomkesh Bakshi.

Why this particular story? Being a writer himself, Nabendu would always go to literature for the subject of a film. He maintained that a writer puts in a lot of thought in rooting the character, into creating drama, in layering it with social concern. This gives a sturdiness to the visuals and adds to the fabric of the film which, in tinsel town, otherwise tend to become wishy-washy, and short-lived in their stimulation value. So even for Bimal Roy films he would suggest stories by writers like Subodh Ghosh, Narendranath Mitra, Samaresh Bose. These writers he not only read and respected, he would regularly meet them and often discuss the characters while scripting their stories.

Besides, being from Patna, he was fascinated by Gautama the Buddha whose statues in the museums generated “an inner feeling of content and peace”, he once told me. A prince who renounced every comfort, every pleasure in life in search of a truth, a ‘Bodh’ that would help mankind attain peace in his lifetime: this unique vision drew him to the teachings of Buddha. Then, in Maru O Sangha (The Desert and the Convent) he came across the Agni Upadesh, the sermon that outlined that the world is burning with desire, and our mission in life should be to free ourselves from desires that consume life. Only then we can attain a life of tranquility, endless bliss.

His reverence had inspired Baba to write a novel, Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love, 2007) to mark Buddha’s 2550th year. It derived from the Buddhist text ‘Theri Gatha’ to juxtapose the worldly desires and longings with the exemplary discipline and distilled love of Pippali and Kapilani, two newly-weds who were drawn towards the Sakya Muni and took refuge in him. Eventually Pippali turned into Mahakashyap, a ‘lieutenant’ of the Buddha, and Kapilani headed the ranks of nuns – probably the first convent in the world! This turned out to be Baba’s last published novel (while he lived).

While on his Buddha Trail, let me add that Nabendu had earlier been part of Gotama the Buddha (1956), the Bimal Roy Productions documentary that had won director Rajbans Khanna an Honorable Mention at Cannes.

What was the last film he made? And what was the last book he wrote? 

The last film he was to make – on NFDC funding – was Motilal Padre, based on a novel by Kamal Kumar Majumdar. Unfortunately, this remained an unfulfilled dream. So, effectively, he directed three films: Trishagni (1989), Netraheen Sakshi (Blind Witness, 1992) for the Children’s Film Society of India, about a visually challenged boy who could identify a killer by his voice, and Ladkiyaan (Daughters, 1997) for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

This again was part of a scheme that saw the Ministry finance films pertaining to a Girl Child’s education (Kairee by Amol Palekar), childbearing and women’s health in a Muslim family (Hari Bhari by Shyam Benegal), and so on. Ladkiyaan was based on a real-life incident that saw three sisters in Kanpur jointly commit suicide when one night, they heard the father threatening their mother, who had conceived again: “No more girls! I want only a boy.”

Kadam Kadam or The Long March

His last completed novel is Kadam Kadam (The Long March), which chronicles the story of a young Indian who joins the British Army, is sent to Singapore, taken POW by the Japanese, joins INA and is transformed. He had just completed it when he had to be hospitalized. I published it at the onset of his birth centenary.

He wrote a book for his grandchildren too. Would you like to tell us about it? 

Yes, he wrote Aami ar Aami, translated to Me and I, for his two grandsons, Devottam Sengupta and Devraj Nicholas Ghosh. The racy story about a parallel universe fuses human curiosity about outer space, the stars and galaxies, with a futuristic vision emanating from his faith in humans and a ‘Hindu’ vision of the cosmos…

The germ of the story came from Sudheesh Ghatak, the second brother of celebrated director Ritwik Ghatak, whom I remember from my childhood as a fascinating storyteller and a storehouse of knowledge on the developments in science as well as on the ‘Unbelievable’. One day he had talked about the hypothesis of a group of scientists about twin planets in the cosmos. A few weeks later Nabendu, on a visit to Kolkata, was leafing through old books sold on the pavements of College Street, and came across one that referred to twin planets. That spurred his curiosity, and imagination…

My son, Devottam, started translating the book as part of my effort to improve his Bengali. He believes that somewhere the idea grew in my father from watching his two grandsons. When they were kids Dev and Nick — who now lives in UK — were mistaken for twins. At one time my brother was posted in Germany, and his friends would remark how the cousins resembled each other yet were “somewhat different”. This could have fanned his thoughts about the protagonist and his interstellar twin who were ‘identical yet opposite’. In Me and I, Mukul (which, incidentally, was my father’s pet name) and Lukum “mirror, in a modified way, our experiences of growing up as two brothers separated by what in 1980s was several thousand miles of culture – experiences, of what we were exposed to and how we were brought up in our thinking,” Devottam wrote in his translator’s note.

What do you feel when you translate Nabendu’s work? 

You have taken the words out of my mouth. Actually, translating Nabendu Ghosh has been a BIG lesson in creative writing. His stories are rooted in the soil, yet not homilies on traditional lives. They are about the lives impacted by social and political twists that tossed people not only across the Radcliffe Line but from Bengal to Bombay, Madras (now Chennai) to the Himalayas, from villages to the industrialising cities, the lost world of Lucknow’s nawabs to the Bengal heightened by World War II, to the dreamland of Bollywood and the upper crust families homed in Park Street.

Layering a character with socio-political reality makes them both universal and timeless, I learnt as I tried to translate these stories. There’s always a tomorrow to live for, I learnt from them. The more direct your sentence is, the more crisply is the emotion conveyed, I learnt from his sentences. The shorter the sentence is, the more it compels you to walk ahead with the characters into their lives. And, of course, from his use of language I learnt that every word we utter is a reflection of my time, my mood, my upbringing. As Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay said, Nabendu Ghosh is a writer who should be read by every aspiring writer for his grasp over the art of storytelling.

Tell us what was the perception about his writing and its impact on his peers and writers who came after him?

When Nabendu entered the frame, the towering personality of Rabindranath Tagore was no longer on the scene. There were the three Bandopadhyays – Tarashankar, Manik and Bibhuti Bhushan. The three ‘N’s – Narayan Gangopadhyay, Narendranath Mitra and Nabendu Ghosh joined them at this juncture, each with a definite voice and constituency. 

On his 90th birthday, litterateur-journalist Dibyendu Palit wrote: “Nabendu Ghosh is among those frontrunners of the post-Kallol era Bengali literature who amazed with the power of their pen. His subjects were rooted in realism, his language was seeking new expressions in aesthetics. His Ajab Nagarer Kahini, Phears Lane, Daak Diye Jaai are memorable creations in the language…”

Sunil Gangopadhyay summed for the Indian PEN Society, what he wrote in reviewing Eka Naukar Jatri: “Your devotion to Bengali literature and your creativity in the language is a matter of great joy for us.”

Last year Shirshendu Mukherjee, speaking at a celebration of Nabendu’s birth anniversary at Starmark said, “Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ among those writing in1940-1950s. He lived a long life — he passed away when he was nearing 91 — and almost until he went away, he was writing. My attraction for his work was formed when I was a teenager reading world literature. There were two names I admired very much Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun (1859-1952); and Austrian Stefen Zweig (1881-1942), the most popular novelist of his time. Anyone who read him can’t forget his style of writing. In my view, Nabendu Ghosh shared his trait of riveting storytelling with Zweig. The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition. This I can say without exhausting the considerable list of his writings — 28 novels, 18 anthologies of short stories.”

Nabendu Ghosh

Shirshendu also talked about Nabendu’s remarkable use of language. “One of his stories starts with a word, “Bhabchhi — (I’m) Thinking.” It is a single word that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a paragraph in itself. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Even some doyens of Bengali literature did not accept to set out on this adventure. Nabendu Ghosh did. He stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This has to be done – this tinkering with structure, altering of syntax, or adding to the vocabulary. Words from so many languages — Arabic and Persian and English – have filtered in and become a part of the Mother Language as we speak it today.

“Nabendu was always pushing the boundaries of the language – but he had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter: he never overdid it. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of Buddha — uses language that is closer to Prakrit, in that it is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam. He always put a lot of thought into how the characters would speak. This added to the readability of his stories and quickened the pace of the narrative. They were all so racy!

“And this is why he never dated. His writing is the stuff that makes a story universal, eternal. For today’s readers he is a lesson in how to write — they can master how to write a narrative that flows like a boat down a rapid stream. In terms of language, structure, characters and situation, he is a writer who would be relevant to the young readers of not only Bengali but worldwide.”

Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh

Speaking at the launch of Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (Chosen Stories of Nabendu Ghosh, stories translated to Hindi) the recently demised thespian Soumitra Chatterjee, a Master in Bengali Literature, had said: “Even before I took to studying Bengali literature, even when I was in school, Daak Diye Jai (The Call) was a sensation. His writing was not confined to urban settings and city life, he wrote of the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans too.”

And when his last birthday was being publicly celebrated at the Palladian Lounge in Kolkata, an MA student of Rabindra Bharati University, Saswati Saha had said, “This bright star of contemporary Bengali literature has riveted me with the quiet aesthetics and deep realizations that are germane to his novels. I am a young reader of his art but both Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha and Jibaner Swad (The Taste of Life), both published in 2007, have increased my appetite for his writings. With the alluring simplicity of his language and unhurried descriptions he unfolds harsh realities. Had I not read Nabendu Ghosh, I would have remained ignorant of a large tract of life experience.”

You yourself have made a directorial debut on the life and works of your father. Did that help you understand him better? How did the film do?

And They Made Classics… was made to celebrate his Birth Centenary in 2007 but the interview it came out of was recorded by Joy Bimal Roy and Aparajita Sinha – son and daughter of Bimal Roy when they set out to make Remembering Bimal Roy in his 100th year. ATMC… spoke primarily about the classics of Nabendu scripted for the legendary director. It is a lesson in film appreciation and also in a certain way, about the art of making films in a given social circumstance – in the face of all odds. It seasoned me as a film analyst, really.

Of course, what has given me a greater insight into his life and times is Eka Naukar Jatri, the autobiography that was first serialized by Dibyendu Palit as the editor of Sangbad Pratidin (News Everyday) then fleshed out by the writer for Dey’s Publication. Now, while translating it for Speaking Tiger, it lifts the curtain on how he became a litterateur, virtually chronicling 1940s, the founding decade of our nation. This was a decade that was ushering the future in tumultuous colours and fiery alphabets. Just think of the march of the dead this decade saw: people dying on the streets of Calcutta while the British government was sending away rice to the theatre of war in the North East; people dying in poisonous chemical vapour unleashed through Europe; lives lost in Japan when a new atomic toy was dropped from the air – and later, repeatedly in the Pacific Islands, when millions suddenly were tossed into an identity crisis and an ensuing bloodbath by the Radcliffe Line…

I now understand that he was constantly bothered by questions such as “Is this the new era, the age of Deliverance to be ushered by the mythical avatar, Kalki? Or will this flow of blood and the wails of mothers be lost in the dust? Will the world be green again?” I now understand why the Lifetime Achievement Award citation of Bengal’s literary council, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad reads: “Time and again the strange ironies and mysteries of history have lit up your questioning mind. At the centre of history is Man. History is the conveyor belt that leads Man from past to present, sometimes with affection, mostly through rough and tumble. History never stands still through conflicting turns of events it makes way ahead. You made history stand still in your pages…”

You have written a number of books and translated extensively. What is the difference between your father’s writing and yours? Of course, you are an eminent journalist, and he was a creative writer. He wrote in Bengali and Hindi mainly. And you write in English. But, other than that do you find any similarity in the way you tell a story? Has he impacted your style? 

Now you must bear with me as I talk about myself!

Ratnottama Sengupta

I am what I am as a writer because I was born in the household of Nabendu Ghosh – and here I am not talking of DNA or of dynastic inheritance. As I have said before, our house was full of books and I grew up leafing through them even when I didn’t know whether they were in English, Bengali or Hindi. I had a lovely childhood reading Bengali ‘kishore sahitya’ – literature for young readers – as much as Enid Blyton, Mark Twain, Phantom and Amar Chitra Katha comics. At BES School in Dadar, we annually celebrated Saraswati Puja by ‘publishing’ a handwritten magazine of stories and essays by the students – and that was my haatey khari — initiation as a writer. Here too, I would discuss a story idea and my father would tell me how the characters would think or act, never how to write, what language to use or how to structure the story.

Perhaps that is why, although I scored the highest in our school when I matriculated in 1971, securing in 96 and 97 in Science and Math, I joined Elphinstone College, then celebrated for its Arts stream and Mastered in English and American literature, with the added advantage of fluidly moving from English to Bengali and Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. In other words, through Indian literary traditions as much as the wealth of world literature. That helped me to decide that I will make life either as a journalist or in academics, careers that would see me read and write every day.

It so happened that in 1978, when I returned from England after eight long months of holiday with my brother Dipankar, I applied for two jobs: a trainee sub-editor at Indian Express, and lecturer at the National College in Bandra – both at the instance of my friend Imran Merchant, erstwhile Editor of TV World. As life would have it, I got appointment letters from both, first from the daily, and a month later, from the college. I didn’t know which way to go, so I went to Ms Homai Shroff, then the head of the department for English in Elphinstone. When I told her my dilemma, she retorted: “What! You are already in journalism, and you want to move to academics? Don’t be stupid!” That decided it…

But let me add that eventually I did get to teach as well. Although for a short term, I was guest lecturer at Delhi University’s Kalindi College; I taught young entrants at the Times School of Journalism; I have been Mentor to Mass Com students at Lady Shriram College…

Journalism carried my name to virtually every corner of India. It gave me an opportunity to travel across the globe. It brought me into contact with the biggest names in the world of Arts – painting, music, dance, theatre, literature and of course cinema. All this made Baba happy and quietly proud. But he nursed one objection: “Journalism is short lived and mostly goes into highlighting other people’s achievement. In doing all this, you are expending your time and literary energy. Turn your attention to your own creative writing,” he would urge.

Similarity of style? I don’t think so since we were doing very different kind of writing. But impact, yes, and I have already said how.

What are your future plans? With translations? Films? Your own writing? 

 All of them. I plan to keep translating, and not just my father’s work. God willing, I will certainly make a few more films. I am halfway through Menaka to Mallika, a documentary study of dance in Hindi films. I hope to make a short feature on trafficking and a full length one on a father-daughter story. As for my own writing, there are talks of publishing them. Ambitious? Perhaps. But like my father I would like to read and write till the last day life grants me.

Nabendu Ghosh with his daughter Ratnottama Sengupta

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Interview

Building Bridges Across Cultures

In conversation with the editor of SETU, Sunil Sharma

Sunil Sharma

Sunil Sharma writes multi-layered fiction. His stories delve into the depths of human nature and often suggest to us what is worthy. They experiment with different narrative techniques and reflect his erudition. Sometimes, he writes poetry about the downtrodden. He has also written a highly symbolic novel that weaves mythology, different lores and cultures into a rich tapestry for the readers. Sharma is a Mumbai-based senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with twenty published books — seven collections of poetry, three of short fiction, one novel, a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection. He is also an editor par excellence. Today, we celebrate him for running one of the most popular online journals – SETU, an e-magazine that hopes to build bridges across cultures and the best in literature. Let us explore this facet of Sharma in this exclusive interview.

SETU has completed four years of virtual existence. What started you on this journey?

A casual conversation with my cousin Anurag Sharma– a distinguished Hindi author and tech professional– from Pittsburgh, USA, for the need of a bilingual platform to showcase serious writings committed to a secular and democratic worldview and best ethical practices as citizens and individuals. In brief – the finest values and their artistic transmissions in various forms. The idea clicked and we both started a cultural journey for a better world or a dream thereof. Both the Hindi and English monthly editions — released from Pittsburgh — are autonomous content wise. We often consult each other on many common editorial issues and work as a strong team. We both enjoy this kind of service to the community.

What are the principles on which SETU runs?

A:  Merit. Objectivity. Transparency. Accountability. Preference for quality.

Tell us about your team. How many are you and how many languages do you support?

So far two principal players. And some good friends as our enduring editorial support. Though the journal is bilingual, we often publish translations from many languages, including European ones. So, open to all the language-systems of the world. Every talent, welcome.

You often have issues being guest edited — what do you look for when selecting a guest editor? Why guest edit?

Impeccable credentials, integrity, transparency, cooperation and scholarship. The why of it — to engage more and more writers in an ongoing and expanding dialogue, multi-cultural and multi-dimensional

What kind of submissions get accepted in SETU?

A: Quoting an excerpt from Duotrope interview:

—The one conforming to the guidelines and vision of the journal.
—One providing epiphanies most preferred.
—Form-content dialectics, must.
—Narcissism—big No.
—Social conscience—big Yes. (Please check the link: https://duotrope.com/interview/editor/26995/setu)

Additionally: Of course, well-written texts, error-free; demonstrating native talent and judicious use of words and imagery.

What do you see as the future of SETU?

We would like to see it evolve as a sustainable platform for writers, artists and readers as a truly global home of quality; an interactive mode; a continued conversation; a way of recognizing talents through our humble awards — to spread positivity, peace and harmony.

SETU is bringing out books too now. Can you tell us a bit about that?

We bring out very select books only on no-profit-no-loss basis. It is another service extended to those willing to publish with a small press. Details can be found on the Setu site. (Please check the link: https://www.setumag.com/p/write-for-setu.html)

As a writer, how has SETU helped you? Has it enriched you in any way? Has it impacted you?

Not much. It often acts as a distraction — but now, it has become a habit, part of doing my bit for the field. As a reader and editor, one gets in touch with the current literary thinking and trends and varied writing styles and content.

Your stories and poems centre around Mumbai. Why? What happens when/if you move out of Mumbai?

I am afraid it is not that, although frequency of Mumbai might be more. I have written about Europe, China, Canada and USA as well, cities that I have visited in my avatar as a tourist. Written about Delhi and Ghaziabad, where I grew up. About other cities also, imagined or real, in my recent fiction.

Mumbai is my present location — my muse. Hence, more references to the megacity. It acts as a background or a main character, in my fictions and poetry — its rich contradictions; pull; dynamism; professionalism; multi-ethnicity and vibrancy.

You cannot escape your place, city, town– the spatial reality, its geography and history and memory.

Place has its own value. It shapes you up and the host community and its overall personality.

How many languages do you write in? Do you translate? If so from how many languages?

I am a bilingual. But lately, I have been writing in English only. I occasionally translate Hindi-to-English and vice versa.

What are your future plans?

To write novels, other things being equal and His grace. Let us see.

Thanks.

Thanks for taking your time to satisfy all our reader’s curiosity.

Novel by Sunil Sharma which is currently being serialised in SETU

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

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Interview

A Woman Who Dares Dream Big

In conversation with Aysha Baqir

Aysha Baqir

Aysha Baqir, an expat in Singapore, grew up in Pakistan. Her time in college sparked a passion for economic development. In 1998 she founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. Her novel Beyond the Fields was published in January 2019 and she was invited to launch her book at the Lahore and Karachi Literary Festivals. She and her book were also featured in the Singapore Writers Festival and Money FM Career 360 in Singapore. In this exclusive, she talks of her work in Karvaans and her writing, telling us how it all happened.

You have been working on development of women in Pakistan and writing. Which came first, writing or the developmental work?

My development work in the villages of  South Punjab from 1998 to 2012, in part, inspired me to write the fictional novel, Beyond the Fields.

I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. Graduating as the valedictorian of my class I won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. My classes in International Relations and Economics  sparked a passion for economic development and opened my eyes to the poverty around the world and in my home country, Pakistan.

Upon my return to Pakistan, I saw that the poor didn’t need my sympathy — they needed access to economic resources and networks before they could voice their demands for social justice. In 1998, armed with an MBA from LUMS, I led an enterprise development program that later emerged into a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused trainings for girls and women in low income communities.

In 2013, I relocated to Singapore. The spark in my writing process came from the time I spent in the villages and the voices of the village women. During the time in the villages, my life interfaced closely with girls and women and my admiration and respect for their determination, strength and humour in times of despair grew immensely — with so little they managed to achieve so much. The characters in the novel are fictional but the voices are real. Zara, the protagonist in Beyond the Fields challenges the roles that have been defined for her, determined instead to persevere, fight for justice, and achieve her dreams.

When and how did Karvaan foundation start? What are the kinds of people you aim to empower and why?

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2019, Pakistan ranks 151th in a list of 153 countries. The institutional and structural provisions for women to live their lives are non-existent, and there is a dearth of basic freedom for women across the country. Kaarvan Crafts Foundation is a not-for-profit organization based out of Lahore Pakistan
that works for the empowerment of women while implementing United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 5, to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls on the ground in Pakistan.

I founded Kaarvan Foundation in 2004 with the objective to strive towards global development goals on a local level by creating opportunities for income generation among girls and women in poor communities, by strengthening their skills, business capacities, thereby facilitating them in accessing market linkages and economic opportunities and improving their quality of life and that of their families. The Foundation works in over 1000 villages across 15 districts in Pakistan. It has trained over 24,000 women entrepreneurs in 250 development centers and linked over 8000 women sales agents to markets to date.

Tell us about the work this foundation is doing. How many volunteers do you have?

The Foundation is a Not for Profit Company that trains girls and women to access market opportunities directly through providing them with the relevant focused trainings under Value Chain Development Programs. The Foundation has full time and project employees and encourages volunteers to join the summer internship program.

You have many sponsors. How do these sponsorships help you?

Kaarvan Foundation works with international aid agencies to implement programs that enable women and girls to directly access market opportunities.  The International Sponsorships provide funds to the Foundation to implement the projects and the benefits of accessing markets and getting orders continue to accrue to the girls and women long after the projects close.

Living in Singapore, are you able to still contribute to Karvaans? If so, how?

I continue to be on the Board of Kaarvan Foundation and contribute to the strategic growth and development of the Foundation.

You have written a powerful novel, Beyond the Fields, centring around two sisters and the Hudood ordinance. Tell us about it.

Beyond the Fields is a gripping tale of resilience and reclaiming honor in which the rape of a fifteen-year-old girl living in a remote village of Pakistan drives her twin sister on a dangerous quest for justice. Set in the early 1980s against the backdrop of martial law and social turmoil, Beyond the Fields, brings up close the fears and hopes of women in Pakistan. It is a riveting and timely look at profound inequality, traditions that disempower women in our world, and survival as a dance to the beat of a different future.

What inspired the story?

Beyond the Fields is story is about a young village girl called Zara. Zara is carefree – she has dreams, she want to study, and wants to become someone important. She loves kairis (raw mangoes) so she disobeys her mother and steals into the orchard. And then on one ordinary day, Zara’s twin sister, Tara, the one she is closest to in the whole wide world, is kidnapped from the fields while they are playing a game of hide and seek and raped.

Having worked in the villages of Punjab, Pakistan for over fifteen years, I wanted to show the plight of village girls and women. Thousands of girls and women are assaulted each year and the abuse continues without any substantial family, community, or legal support. And, just not in Pakistan, but across cultures and continents.

I deliberately set the story under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.  I was twelve years old when my mother dragged me to a march called by WAF or Women’s Action Forum. Being an introverted teenager studying in American School, I didn’t want to go. But my mother insisted saying it was important for me to see what was happening in our country.

The protest was for Safia Bibi — a young blind girl a few years older than me — who had been raped by her employer and his son. She didn’t report the crime. Because she showed clear signs of pregnancy and was unmarried, it was assumed she had premarital sex. Her failure to prove that she was raped prompted the judge to sentence her (under the Hudood ordinance) to three years of imprisonment and 15 lashes. The ruling cast her as the perpetrator instead of the victim. Her rapists were never prosecuted and did not spend any time in jail. 

At the protest, I stood with my mother along with hundreds of other women — and the memory of us standing under the sweltering sun for hours with other women protestors jammed across the mall road demanding justice for Safia Bibi haunts me to this day and to this day I shudder thinking that if it wasn’t an accident of birth, it could have been me.  I wrote Beyond the Fields to start a discussion to challenge the unjust mind-sets that condemn and punish girls and women who have been raped. I wrote the novelto start a conversation about rape and sexual assault and I hope we don’t stop talking about the issues until we create the change we owe to girls and women across the world.

Finally, I wrote Beyond the Fields, to allow the readers to see the lives of village folk in Pakistan — they possess incredible strength and resilience. It is a glimpse into what makes them laugh, cry, betray, and come together.

Do you think your novel has impacted the world in a way to change it for better?  

I have been overwhelmed with the number of women reaching out to me to share their stories not just in Pakistan but from all over the world. According to World Health Organization (WHO), estimate nearly one in every three women worldwide has been physically or sexually abused by their partners or experienced non-partner sexual violence. Rape is a silent epidemic. And we need to take action now.

Has Kaarvan impacted the women you aimed to help?

Kaarvan’s work has had a significant impact on the girls and women not only in the target and neighbouring communities. The impact can be measured through economic indicators such as increase in income, change in asset base, changes in diet and schooling of children and social indicators such as changes in decision making, changes in household chores, and mobility. You can read more about Kaarvan’s social impact on its web page (www.kaarvan.com).  During the COVID19 pandemic Kaarvan, through remote learning workshops, prepared the women entrepreneurs for digital readiness and  “Digital Enablement”, which constituted of a range of trainings given to group of micro-entrepreneurs who connected remotely from their mobile phones on platform best suited for the training. Kaarvan facilitated Digital Market Linkages through enabling the entrepreneurs to participate in two online exhibitions.

Do these women teach you? If so, what have you learnt working with them?

The Value Chain Development approach focuses on understanding the needs of women entrepreneurs and they are viewed as the customers of the program rather than the beneficiaries. Hence, there is constant learning from women about how they take decisions, how they want to grow their businesses, how they overcome their challenges. The learnings are documented in the internal and external impact reports and well as the case studies.

You are working on a new novel. What is it about and when can we hope to read it? What are your future plans for your writing and Karavaans?

My work in progress, Forsaken for Saints, is a fiction about longing, deception, and betrayal that delves into a web of conspiracies that extends from expat cosmos to the walled city of Lahore. I am privileged and blessed to continue to write because it enables me to explore critical and pertinent issues through stories and to share them with the readers to question and comment.

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Santosh Bakaya

She is vivacious with what she describes as a “whacky” sense of humour and a passion for Gandhi. She has written a ballad on Bapu. You have guessed who she is – Santosh Bakaya. The thing that most impressed me about her was the way her students responded to her – students who are leading lives away from her academic umbrella even to this date. A strong influencer, who helps mould younger minds, she writes books to change her student’s lives and is a writer in her own right. Bakaya is not only an academic but a  poet, essayist, novelist, biographer, editor, TEDx  Speaker, and creative-writing mentor. She has been internationally acclaimed for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi, (Ballad of Bapu). Her Ted Talk on The Myth of Writer’s Block, is very popular in creative writing Circles. 

She has published multiple books of poetry, a novella, essays and biographies. A winner of multiple awards, her long, narrative poem, Oh Hark! which earlier figured in her book, The Significant Anthology, is now a book with illustrations by Avijit Sarkar.

Bakaya has given Borderless an extensive interview on her perception of Gandhi and Gandhism and its relevance in the current crisis filled world, punctuated with snippets of interesting vignettes from her teaching career, confirming well her characteristic of being a strong influencer in her students’ lives. Let us explore her principled, courageous and humorous outlook with her own words.

You have written a whole book and more on Gandhi. What developed your interest in Gandhi?

Gandhi, nay Bapu, was very much a part of my growing up years.  My dad, (a very popular professor of English, in Rajasthan University, Jaipur), when faced by a dilemma, would invariably ask himself, what would Bapu have done in such a situation, and would go on to do what he thought Bapu would have done in that circumstance.

He never asked us to read books on Gandhi, but ignited our interest in this enigmatic man, who seemed to have an answer to everything. Was he a magician, we youngsters wondered! He would get books on Gandhi from the university library, and they would be lying at strategic points in our house; we would quietly start reading, imbibing and asking questions.

Later, it was while taking an MPhil class in the year 2012 that there was a heated discussion in the class on Bapu and his relevance. In a class of twenty students, there was just one girl who was defending the values of Bapu, the others were going all out to denigrate him.

“How much have you read on Gandhi? Can you give me the names of five books about Gandhi that you have read? Have you read his My Experiments with Truth?”

Then one student, who prided himself on being a poet, chipped in, “Madam, why don’t you write a poetic biography of Gandhi? Poetry will appeal more to us.”

This challenge hit me hard, (I am always on the lookout for challenges), but this appeared too difficult a task. Nonetheless, I took the challenge, and began by writing a few verses on the aa-bb-a rhyme scheme and got addicted, so much so that I went on to complete 300 pages of poetry on Gandhi, which was later published by Vitasta Publishers, Delhi, and is now a bestseller, critically acclaimed.   

Gandhi was an ordinary man not without his fears, whims, apprehensions, a boy who was afraid of ghosts, robbers, multiplication tables, who rose above these fears to emerge as a moral icon, gaining an extraordinary status to be revered all over the world.

You wrote another book on Martin Luther King as he was influenced by Gandhi. Can you tell us what led to this book?

This book also was the result of another remark of another of my MPhil students.

Before that, while I was researching for my PhD thesis on Robert Nozick at the American Centre, Delhi. I came across the autobiography of King (edited by Clayborne Carson), I was completely fascinated by his life story and read all the books that I possibly could at the Centre — ignoring Nozick in the bargain. At that point of time, I thought maybe I’ll do my post-doctoral research on Martin Luther King, Jr. some day.

Later it was during another of my Conflict Studies’ lecture that one of my students (not a belligerent one this time) asked me to write a book on King. So that got me thinking and the book happened. It is a year since the book has been published, once again, by Vitasta Publishers, Delhi, (it has one full chapter on his India Connection) and I am happy readers have good words to say about it.

You are a fabulous teacher. Do you think your books made an impact in the way you wanted? Or was it more what you said?

I don’t know if I am a fabulous teacher, but yes, I know I am a very passionate teacher.

Yes, I think so. Let me cite an example. The MPhil student who had nudged  me into writing a poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi, and who was a great critic of Gandhi, on my insistence, read many books on Gandhi and right now, this critic of Gandhi has become a supporter of Gandhi and has become a lecturer in Political Science, specialising in Gandhian studies.

I was delighted when readers wrote saying that my book impacted them in a positive manner and since it was a poetic biography, they kept going back to it. In fact, Ballad of Bapu received more love than I had anticipated, so much so that I have given a number of talks on the book and conducted many workshops in many educational institutions followed by very fruitful and intellectually stimulating discussions.  

Do you think Gandhi is pertinent in the current world? Why?

Gandhi can never be irrelevant in the world. Gandhi and Gandhism are for all times. He stood for truth and non-violence and truth and non-violence can never be irrelevant.  Martin Luther King Jr. had followed his principles, time and again reiterating, that it was Gandhi who had inspired them during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and even later.

Gandhi was an ordinary man not without his fears, whims, idiosyncrasies and apprehensions, a boy who was afraid of ghosts, robbers, multiplication tables, and who rose above these fears to emerge as a moral icon, gaining an extraordinary status to be revered all over the world.

His values of Truth and Non-violence can never lose their relevance in this topsy-turvy, highly materialistic, self-centred and consumerist world. How can we ignore his supreme humanism, his overpowering love for everyone — even his enemies?

The Dalai Lama very rightly says, “He implemented the very noble philosophy of ahimsa in modern politics and he succeeded. This is a very great thing.” While the other ancient philosophers merely preached the philosophical aspects of Truth and Non-violence, his very life was a series of experiments with truth. He was a man forever evolving, trying to better himself in every way.  Beleaguered humanity desperately needs to rededicate itself to the eternal values of nonviolence, truth, world peace and altruism otherwise, things will continue to be bleak.  

What values of Gandhi do you think are the ones that are most relevant?

Truth, non-violence, love and compassion are values that will always be needed in this bleak world. An eye for an eye, will make the whole world blind, as he so powerfully believed. Why crave for this blindness and hurtle down an abyss?

Such peace revolutionaries like Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t have been inspired by Gandhi had his values not been so precious. “If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had so eloquently said, reiterating time and again that Gandhi taught him his operational technique of fighting for civil rights.

Barack Obama, who holds Gandhi in great esteem had said:“I have always looked to Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration because he embodies the kind of transformational change that can be made when ordinary people come together to do extraordinary things.”

The co- founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, maintained that Gandhi “showed us the way out of the destructive side of the human nature. Gandhi demonstrated that we can force change and justice through moral acts of aggression, instead of physical acts of aggression. Never has our species needed this wisdom more.”

So, we need the Gandhian wisdom and perception of love, truth, peace, moral acts of aggression and forgiveness, otherwise there is nothing but a grave new dystopian world staring at us.  

Has reading and writing on Gandhi impacted your life?

Yes, it definitely has. In fact, the first Gandhian that I came across was my father. My grandmother was aghast when one day the sweeper had not come, he picked up the broom and cleaned all the toilets in the house. And another day he made him have tea and breakfast with us. My granny was once again indignant, but later many interactions later, she also started subscribing to his point of view and was almost embarrassed of her earlier behaviour and developed a deep love for the underprivileged.

My father’s library was a bibliophilic treasure and I read all the books on Gandhi, later I got books from the school library too. As a collegian, I read many books on Gandhi and they had a great impact on me.

Let me cite an incident from my career. It was my first year as a college lecturer in a post-graduate government college for boys, which was known for its notorious elements. Straight from the university, I was brimming with idealism and Gandhian ideals and fired with an ardent desire to change the world (still am!). During an invigilation, I found a hulk of a boy brazenly cheating, while the senior co-invigilator looked the other way. I dashed towards him and was appalled to find a big knife stuck to his desk. I quickly pulled out the chits from under his answer sheets and raced towards the Principal’s office, his threats following me with a full- throated stridence. Tumko dekh loonga. Mera Career barbaad ker diya [I will teach you a lesson, you spoilt my career].

Later, that evening, I met him at the railway station. He was going to Mathura and I, to Delhi for the weekend. He didn’t recognise me, but I did. I walked up to him and said, you had said, that you would see me – “See me, I am right here. Do you want to beat me up? Come do it?” Dumfounded, he looked at the chit of a girl standing before him, and when he realized who I was, he fell at my feet, apologizing profusely. He now says, that was the turning point in his life.

At the risk of sounding pompous, let me say, that it has become my second nature not to nurse grudges, and I try to spread as much love around me, as possible. Yes, Gandhi and Gandhism have impacted me in a big way.

Do you think Gandhi can impact the younger generation?

Gandhi can definitely impact the younger generation if he is presented to them in a very interesting manner, through role-playing, skits, workshops etc. His values of truth and non-violence transcend all geographical boundaries and time.  Bapu had fought for human rights in South Africa, achieving unprecedented success. He was indeed “a powerful current of fresh air –like a beam of light” as Nehru described him. We need this beam of light, this powerful current of fresh air as never before.

We should not forget that he was an ordinary man who rose above his ordinariness by sheer moral force, even calling off the Non-Cooperation Movement at the height of its popularity, because the violence that was unleashed at Chauri Chaura, on 4 February 1922 (a village in Gorakhpur District of Uttar Pradesh), was not in conformity with his ideology of non-violence, and he did penance for what he saw as his culpability in the bloodshed.  Only a man with great moral fibre could have taken such a decision, fully aware of the criticism that would follow in its wake. Such incidents as these, need to be presented to the youngsters in a proper manner, so that their minds are cleaned of prejudices and misconceptions.

For Gandhi, cleanliness was very important, and who can deny the importance of cleanliness? There was a time when the iconic film Lagey Raho Munna Bhai had created a revolution in young mindsets, I myself being a witness to many such heart-warming scenes. When a parent who had come to drop his daughter to college, aimed tobacco spittle in the college premises, a boy picked up the broom lying nearby and swept it away, to the intense chagrin of the daughter, and the father, realizing his mistake, apologized profusely.

But things are changing fast, so are young mindsets, a sort of skepticism is setting in, so we need to present Gandhi to the younger generation with a conviction which is more robust than before.

Should we be propagating his ideals? If so, what would be the most effective way of doing so?

Of course, Gandhi’s ideals need to be propagated especially in these dark, despairing ages when the forces of fascism are wreaking havoc throughout the world. “Be the change you want to see around you,” Bapu had said, so we should try to be that change, wherever we feel the need for change. Preachy pedagogy can only boomerang, so we should make his principles a way of life, so that the youngsters learn from them. We need to change ourselves first, if we want to spread his principles.
Gandhi had said, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.” (Young India, January 8, 1925).

To many naysayers, this might smack of naiveté, but no one can deny the fact that love and positivity are the weapons in our hands, which should be amply used to positivize the negative forces around.

As an academic, should Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, be introduced as part of the school curriculum in India? Do you think that would have a good impact on young minds?

From my experience as an academic, I can say this very confidently that students prefer to crinkle their noses at course books. My Experiments with Truth as part of the syllabus is indeed a great idea as a symbolic gesture venerating the great soul, but what I sincerely feel is that it is the need of the hour to devise such courses where My Experiments with Truth is part of supplementary reading. I believe, students should read it out of curiosity and not out of compulsion. Understanding the essence of Gandhian philosophy should not be forced on young minds. Yes, short-term courses and interestingly designed workshops can go a long way in inculcating the Gandhian spirit in youngsters.

Let me make myself clearer.  Some years back, I was very happy to see youngsters at the Delhi Book Fair flocking to buy My Experiments with Truth.  When asked the reason, they told me they were buying the book because in their first year of under-graduation, it was prescribed as a reference book for a course they were undergoing which, was meant for students of all disciplines. It is heartening to know that My Experiments with Truth continues to be a bestseller. Both the supporters and the detractors, own copies of it.

What do you see as the future of Gandhism in India?

With Gandhi’s assassins being glorified with impunity, and his ideals given lip service to, only during particular days, Gandhism’s future looks bleak. But it is the responsibility of all the right-thinking individuals to pick up cudgels on behalf of this moral icon and disentangle him from the clutches of the naysayers and detractors.
At a time when Gandhi’s killers are being venerated, Gandhi and what he stood for, needs to be revived. Martin Luther King Jr. had been influenced in his crusade for civil rights and non- violence by Bapu; he visited India in 1959, calling his visit a pilgrimage. During his visit he remarked that the spirit of Gandhi was very much alive in India, but alas, we are slowly forgetting the saint in beggar’s garb.
Youngsters have no qualms about heaping venom at Gandhi, forwarding fake WhatsApp messages denigrating him. As I mentioned earlier and I repeat: we should not forget that he was an ordinary man who rose above his ordinariness by sheer moral force, as illustrated in his calling off the Non-Cooperation Movement at the height of its popularity, because the violence that was unleashed at Chauri Chaura, on 4 February 1922. This did exhibit his immense moral fibre.

Who can deny the importance of truth, forgiveness and non-violence in this age of crass materialism and consumerism! Gandhi had said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”, so we have to bring about the revolution within ourselves and change the world for the better, otherwise the world is doomed.  In this context, allow me to quote Martin Luther King Jr, “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too Late’”. Why should we wait for it to be ‘Too Late’?

As a teacher I have had the opportunity of interacting both with the millennials and the Generation Z and notice a world of difference between their mindsets.

 I know of many youngsters who are running organizations, the mission of which is to create a more equitable and inclusive society.
I had a very fruitful discussion with a young NRI nephew who was in India six months back and the essence of what he said boiled down to this, “The world is fighting the evils of discrimination, race, gender, and we cannot forget that Gandhi was a pioneering force in this direction.  More and more people should come forward to run programmes which are consistent with his constructive programmes.” He heads one such programme which is very popular.

Then there are some from the hypercognitive Generation z who vociferously argue, “How can the oppressors rid themselves of the guilt of what the guilty have perpetrated in the past — how can they justify their oppression? We need to be proactive — and need to follow Malcom X and Not King or Gandhi.  No more candlelight marches, no more offering of roses to our oppressors! We need to hurl stone for stone. You got your jobs in golden platters, our generation has no jobs, no economic security, no health security, we are surrounded by environmental hazards of all sorts, and we need to do something.”

Well, we cannot save ourselves from the guilt of the devastation that we have wrecked on the young generation but in these crosscurrents of hatred and enmity, it is humanity which is suffering, and needs to be resurrected. No matter what rampant negativities we are surrounded by, I staunchly believe, that the tenets of Gandhism will have to rise from their ashes and come to the rescue of a doddering, staggering humanity. Otherwise we are doomed.

Thanks a ton for this great opportunity, Borderless journal and Mitali Chakravarty.  It was an honor answering these questions.

Thank you for giving us your valuable time, Santosh Bakaya.

This online interview was conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.


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ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the interviewee.

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Interview

Teresa Rehman: The Heart of the ‘International Magazine with a North-eastern Soul’

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman is a journalist with a difference. She is woman who feels and conquers with her pen. She does not hanker for anything more than being the spokesperson for voices in the remote areas of North-eastern India. In that spirit, she started her own magazine: The Thumb Print, and also wrote a couple of books which have found their way to even the Strand Bookstore in New York.

Rehman, an award-winning journalist based in North-east India, is known for her resolute grit and matter-of-fact approach to stories. She has worked for years toward bringing the different facets of the region, its diversity and distinct ethos into mainstream media. Rehman’s work in journalism spanned through India Today, Telegraph and Tehelka before she decided to put in all her resources into launching The Thumb Print e-magazine that she edits currently. She has managed to bring in the gender perspective to her stories.

Rehman is known for her unassuming persistence on getting the details, and sensitivity. She was featured in the Power List of Femina magazine in 2012 and has written three books. The Mothers of Manipur (Zubaan Books) and Bulletproof (Penguin Random House India) are among them. Borderless in this exclusive, unravels, Rehman’s journey as a journalist.

You said in one of your Thumb Print conversations, you are a journalist and not a writer. What do you see as the difference between being a journalist and being a writer? You have written a number of books. Does that not make you a writer?

I would always prefer to call myself a journalist and a chronicler who is trying to tell the stories of the men, women and children of one of the most underreported regions of the world, i.e. Northeast India. And the books I had written are journalistic narratives without any frills, of my journey as a reporter into the nook and crannies of the region and the stories behind the stories. I am a reporter who loves her job.

How many newspapers/ magazines have you worked for?

I started off as a cub reporter for the local dailies. And after completing my studies in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, I started off as a trainee journalist at the editorial desk of India Today magazine in the capital city. After that, I relocated to Guwahati and started working as a Correspondent with The Telegraph newspaper and later reported for the entire region for Tehelka magazine. Thereafter, my life took a different turn and I became a media entrepreneur by launching the webzine, The Thumb Print in 2012. I have also written about specialised issues like media analysis for The Hoot, climate change for Alertnet Reuters, the environment for The Third Pole and gender for the Women’s Feature Service.

How long have you been a journalist? Does journalism clash with family life more than other professions?

I have been a journalist for almost two decades now. I feel, once a woman steps out of the house for work or any other activity, there are changes in her family life — for some these changes are subtle and for some these changes may be earth shattering. And if a woman finds support at home, she can break any kind of glass ceiling at her workplace. A woman is exploited the most at home. And any kind of changes in her professional life begins and ends at home. I have been quite fortunate to have had a congenial atmosphere to be able to pursue my unconventional career as a journalist. I am a first-generation journalist in my family and though I had erratic working hours, I always managed to create a support system at home. However, not all women are fortunate like I am.

You have been to many places as a journalist that a common person would not visit. Are they all centred in the North- East? Is there a reason you work from this area. Tell us a bit about your experiences in such areas.

A senior journalist had once told me “your location is your disadvantage”. On the contrary, I feel that northeast India is a paradise for journalists. There are so many untold stories waiting to be told. I feel blessed that the region is my home and I chose to work from this difficult space — a region that has witnessed several decades of violent insurgency coupled with a hostile geographical terrain. My experience has been novel, vivid and interesting compared to the rat race in the journalistic circles in the metropolitan cities and the glitz and glamour of television channels. I choose to tread on the untrodden path, in the midst of virgin nature and unwritten stories. I have written about my experiences in reporting conflict in my book Bulletproof (Penguin India). I am glad that internet has opened up immense possibilities and I can work from any place in the world and get my story across to the world.

You are an award-winning journalist. Can you tell us the work that led to these awards? Did you do the work with the intent of getting the award or was that incidental?

It feels good to be recognised for your work. But I never went hankering for awards. I guess your good work speaks for itself. I had bagged some of the most prestigious awards for journalism in India that include the WASH Media Awards 2009-2010, the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for two consecutive years (2008-09 and 2009-10) for the category ‘Reporting on J & K and the Northeast (Print)’, the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity 2011, Sanskriti Award 2009 for Excellence in Journalism and the Seventh Sarojini Naidu Prize 2007 for Best Reporting on Panchayati Raj by The Hunger Project. In fact, the WASH Media Award which is given for writing on water, sanitation and hygiene and is sponsored by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) was given for a story I had done based on the life of my domestic help and her associates. This goes to show that in order to bag a good story, you need to keep your ears and eyes open.

Why did you feel it was important to record your experiences in books? Was writing a book different from writing for a newspaper or magazine?

A book definitely has a longer shelf life and its reach is tremendous. I was surprised to see my book on sale at the Strand Bookstore in New York. A book remains and becomes an important document for posterity as it can also be stored in the libraries of the world. A book has a life of its own compared to newspaper clippings and write-ups. It can travel far and wide.

Tell us a bit about your work in Thumb Print. What started you on Thumb Print?

The Thumb Print was a very angry reaction. When I had to struggle to find space for my stories in the so-called ‘National’ media, I decided to create my own space. This was when I had discovered the might of the internet. The Thumb Print is more like scaffold trying to reach out to the world and bring the world to our doorsteps. We proudly call ourselves an ‘international magazine with a north-eastern soul’.

You do these online interviews with writers, currently on “Why women write?” Why would you choose this topic? Did you face a lot of discrimination as a woman in journalism?

When I started doing hardcore conflict reporting, I realised that I was stepping into an old boy’s club. I was treading into masculine space and I had to manoeuvre my way all by myself. I got no support from my male colleagues. Women, all over the world, face different layers of discrimination when they step out to do something unconventional. That is why I felt that it was important to address this question of ‘Why and how women write’.

Are you planning a new book? What are your future plans?

Yes, I am working on another book on an important aspect of contemporary northeast India. And of course, I intend to dabble with different aspects of media which is trying to keep pace with the fast evolving technology.

Any message for upcoming writers/ journalists?

Yes, journalists should not forget the basic values of good old shoe-leather journalism. A value of a well-told story can never change — though the medium or external packaging might change. In trying to keep pace with technology, we should not forget the values of telling the truth that should be the primary concern of a journalist.

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty.

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