Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam, Photo Credit: Meetesh Taneja

Does she need an introduction? Arundhathi Subramaniam who has taken the world by storm with her poetry, reinforcing God, using English as a medium of writing over what we call a mother tongue, and voicing her stand on her own concept of national identity, and yet she has won the Sahitya Akademi award for 2020 for her collection, When God is a Traveller. She has broken rules that defined the modern literary world and moved towards creating her own individual brand of writing. Her writing is full of vivacity and makes the reader emote. She writes from the core of her being — that is clearly evident in the flow of her poems. Clarity, preciseness and perfection in linguistic usage enhance her ideas and grasp the reader in their fulcrum to lever their thoughts and emotions into her world. In this exclusive with Borderless Journal, read about Arundhathi’s journey.

Tell us about your journey as a writer and a poet. When and why did you start writing? 

I’ve been excited by poetry for as long as I can remember, Mitali — the swing, the rhythm, the velocity, the precariousness of it. Thankfully, none of my early efforts at writing it have endured! But I composed many bits of doggerel as a child. In my adolescence and early adulthood, poetry was catharsis and emotional self-expression, as it is for so many. I think it was in my late twenties and thirties that I began to come into my own as a poet. 

My first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves, happened in 2001. I felt I’d been waiting a long time to be published. But in hindsight, it was a good thing. It took me time to find the timbre of my voice, to allow it to embody a mix of assurance and doubt. At least I now began to know the poetry I aspired to. It is what I still aspire to — a kind of textured clarity, a poised uncertainty.  

What gets your muse going?  

I’m still finding out! I know some measure of quiet helps. Long days, devoid of agenda, help. And yet, so much writing also happens on flights, in cab rides, in coffee shops, waiting for a friend to arrive. Poems happen when I’m able to strike a certain creative tension between urgency and unhurriedness.

When you were a child, what were your aspirations? What did you want to become? 

There was a fleeting aspiration at age five to join the army. But I think I realized pretty soon that the path to field marshaldom was an arduous one. It was always poetry after that! 

In 1997 you had a life changing experience. What was it and has it impacted your writing?  

It was a naked-wire experience of emptiness, if you will. A brush with life without form, without any graspable meaning. There was terror in it, but later, also a kind of freedom. I’m never quite sure what brought it on. But the experience faded in a week, leaving in its wake a strong, unwavering awareness that I needed to live my life differently, to commit myself to making my peace with this vacancy. That turned me into a seeker, first and foremost. All the writing – both prose and poetry – that came afterwards probably reflected this shift in some way. 

What have been the influences that impacted your writing? 

The literary influences have been as varied as all the poets whose work I’ve ever loved: TS Eliot, Basho, Wallace Stevens, Donne, Neruda, Rilke, Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, Arun Kolatkar, AK Ramanujan, John Burnside, and so, so many more. But as my spiritual journey took on a certain momentum, I also rediscovered the Bhakti poets for myself, and realized they were an integral part of my literary lineage. They are my ancestral guides and companions, in a sense: Nammalvar, Annamacharya, Tukaram, Akka Mahadevi, among others. And there are so many other mystic poets I’d add to that list: Issa, Buson, Ryokan, Ikkyu, Dogen, St John of the Cross, Hafiz, Rumi, among them. 

But we aren’t shaped only by what we read, are we? My life experiences have also impacted my writing. I’ve met some extraordinary people, had some fascinating conversations, travelled to some unforgettable places, had some deeply life-altering (and not always easy) experiences, and I’m sure all of those have contributed to who I am and how I write. 

You have done a book on Sadhguru and another with him. What was it like working with him? 

Sadhguru can be funny, profound, provocative, compassionate, a friend, a remote spiritual master — sometimes all in the course of a single interaction. So, I learnt to go into every book session, prepared to be startled. It’s been interesting — the way I have felt provoked, unsettled, singed, during many of our meetings, and still emerged, feeling oddly energized, invigorated, alive. As the writer of his biography, I was struck by the freedom he allowed me, his refusal to micro-manage the writing.  

You have written books on Buddha and Sadhguru. Why did you opt to write on men associated with religion? 

Well, I’ve also edited an anthology of Bhakti poetry, Eating God, and have a forthcoming book on four contemporary little-known women who walk the spiritual path in their own deeply individual ways, called Women Who Wear Only Themselves. So, my fascination is with the realm of the sacred – and not just with men who commit themselves to it, but with women too. 

I am emphatically not fascinated with the exoteric aspects of religion. But I am interested in the nascent experiential insights around which faiths are often built. So, the Buddha has long interested me as the fearless amateur questor, the compassionate guide who showed us a direct path back to ourselves – one that allows us to bypass all the institutional middlemen who ‘sell water by the river’, as it were. Sadhguru fascinates me for similar reasons, as a contemporary mystic – irreverent, flamboyant, and deeply human all at once. 

You have got God back into poetry. Eating God, a recent book of yours, even says it in the title. What made you opt for bringing God back in where the modern trend is to shun the spiritual? What is your perception of God? 

Eating God is an anthology of sacred verse – of devotional poetry. So, it was difficult not to have god on the menu. The bhaktas wouldn’t have forgiven me for it! 

My own book of poems, When God is a Traveller, also uses the word ‘god’. But the god of this book is not a deity in a temple, but a heroic adventurer who, like so many others in world myth, takes off on a journey around the world and returns to find the answers lie within him. So, the god, Muruga, is a kind of alter ego in this case; a pilgrim/ traveller/ vagabond archetype who mirrors us back to ourselves. 

My perception of the divine? It’s still unfolding and is best implicated in poetry. So, let me simply share my poem, ‘Goddess – II’, with you. It’s from my most recent book, Love Without a Story

Goddess II 
(after Linga Bhairavi) 
 
In her burning rainforest 
silence is so alive 
you can hear  
 
listening. 

Have you ever written in any other language other than English? Why? 

No, I haven’t. English is my first language, and it is an Indian language. It may be ours due to unfortunate historical circumstances. But it is no longer a foreign import. It is as much ours today as democracy, or cricket, or chai, or the chili, or tamarind, or okra, or the nose ring! I have translated poems from Tamil and Gujarati into the English, however, working with fellow-translators for whom those are their first languages. 

In your poem, To the Welsh Critic, you have said: “This business about language, / how much of it is mine, /how much yours”. By saying this, in a way you critique the commonly held belief that writers should write in their mother tongue to express themselves. Can you explain your views on this?  

Well, I often say that my mother speaks many tongues. She is a Tamilian, raised in Burma and Delhi, married in Mumbai, and has chosen now to live in Chennai. Consequently, she speaks Tamil, English and Hindi fluently, and is now studying Spanish online! Like most Indians, she has bequeathed to me a multilingual inheritance. I grew up in Mumbai where I heard Bambaiyya Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and English around me. English, however, was the language I formally studied, and the language I heard plentifully at home, so it is my first language. It is the language I dream in, express rage and grief in. It is the language closest to my skin; it is the language I need, therefore, to write poetry in. 

Rather than impose some doomed project of cultural jingoism upon ourselves, rather than try to aspire to some mythic state of cultural purity, it would make our lives infinitely richer and more exciting if we embraced our pasts. My ‘Welsh Critic’ poem is addressed to all those – in our country and elsewhere — who offer us absolutist formulae for belonging, who would have us believe there is only one way to be ourselves. As I say in the poem, ‘I stammer through my Tamil,/ and I long for a nirvana that is hermetic,/ odour-free, bottled in Switzerland’. My cultural identity is polyglottal, happily hybrid, and for those very reasons and other indefinable ones, I believe I am as Indian as they come. 

How do you think language should be perceived? Should it be bound to the umbilical bonds? Or should a writer, like an artist, be free to choose his medium of expression — for language is merely his tool, his colour or paintbrush?  

Language is and must always be about freedom of choice. Only when we choose freely can we express freely. Rather than chop and hack at a diverse cultural legacy, it makes sense to enjoy its abundance and savour its many flavours. This is why so many Indian poets I know are translators as well. We enjoy the challenges of bringing the textures and insights of one literature into another, opening up new worlds of aesthetic experience. I have worked for years as editor of the India domain of the Poetry International Web, a small but significant online archive of contemporary Indian poetry. It entailed working with poets working in over twenty Indian languages. The work on this website, as well as all my book of Bhakti poetry, has been about translation – allowing literatures to roam freely from one linguistic context to another.  

It is time to talk unapologetically about the language of poetry. Poets everywhere recognize each other because of this kinship. It has nothing to do with jaded arguments around language politics. Those belong to politicians, not poets. 

Some of your poems talk of establishing an identity as a woman and express a fierce desire for an independent existence. “I erupt from pillars, / half-lion half-woman.” Do you think this need is gender related? Or is it the call of poetry? 

Well, yes, some of my poems do consciously assert a female identity. It is one of the many identities I own – alongside being Anglophone, Indian, contemporary, among other things. In ‘Confession’, the poem you mention, the entity that erupts from pillars, ‘half lion-half woman’, is clearly an allusion to the Narasimha avatar of Vishnu – and yes, I’m definitely presenting a female version of that archetype here. I remember the surge of freedom and joy when crafting that metaphor. 

There is an early poem, ‘5.46, Andheri Local’, in which I speak of a women’s compartment in a peak-hour Mumbai local train being transformed into ‘a thousand-limbed, million-tongued, multi-spoused Kali on wheels’. And in my most recent book, I have a song for ‘catabolic women’ – women who are happily ‘unbuilding, unperpetuating, unfortifying, disintegrating’. These are some of the poems in which the female identity is asserted strongly, emphatically.

‘Catabolic Woman’ is a poem that binds you to both your identity as a woman and an Indian. Do you see nationalism as a necessary part of a writer’s identity?  

Well, there’s a playful paradox in one phrase — ‘proudly Indian, anti-national’ — but other than that, the poem doesn’t really dwell on national identity. It’s more about growing into oneself as a woman (something that happens usually in one’s forties and fifties, or at least, did for me), a woman who’s no longer fooled by self-serving rhetoric, vested interests, hidden agendas. As I said of the poem, ‘To the Welsh Critic’, I see myself as deeply Indian. But I’m uncomfortable with dogmatic definitions of what it means to belong to a particular country, a particular faith, or even a particular gender. There are many ways of being not just Indian, but woman, as well. I would like to believe that my work reflects that complex sense of identity. 

Tagore, perhaps the most acclaimed poet from India, wrote in the start of his essay on Nationalism, “Our real problem in India is not political. It is social.” Would you agree with that? 

Well, I know that there are ways of belonging that lie beyond a glib cosmopolitanism and what I think Tagore called ‘the fierce idolatry of nation-worship’. Belonging anywhere is not about passivity. It is always an act of negotiation. It takes time to see plurality as a possibility, rather than a liability. As richness, rather than confusion. Countries everywhere are grappling with this in their own way – how to celebrate diversity, but without hierarchy, a diversity rooted in justice, in equality. That is our challenge too.  

What is your perception of the role of a poet or writer in the world? Is it only aesthetics or something further? 

We sometimes tend to polarize the morality-aesthetics debate. Being morally attentive doesn’t mean turning heavy-handed or perennially indignant, and valuing aesthetics doesn’t mean turning ethically laissez-faire or politically indifferent. The role of a poet, as I see it, is to be true to the way she sees the world and to use language with precision and thoughtfulness. A mix of authenticity and artistry, integrity and craft – both are essential to poetry. 

Poetry alters human beings in very deep and enduring ways. But those changes aren’t accomplished by turning self-conscious, but by growing more conscious – aiming for greater exactitude and greater nuance, but without losing intensity, without losing the fire that burns, and must always burn, at the core of this art.

Thank you Arundhathi for giving us your time.

Photo Credit: Meetesh Taneja

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal.

.

Click here to read a poem by Arundhathi Subramaniam.

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

Categories
Interview

Sumana Roy and Trees

Sumana Roy

She loves trees and identifies with Tagore’s Bolai, who had an affinity for trees. She has written a non-fiction called How I became a Tree (2017), which is being reprinted now by Yale University Press. Sumana Roy is a writer who writes out her passion for trees and more. The draft of her first novel was long listed for Man Asian Literary Prize, but eventually, abandoned by her because she felt it was not good enough. She later authored a novel called Missing (2018), an anthology of poems called Out of Syllabus (2019), and a collection of short stories, My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories (2019). She also contributes essays regularly on various online forums and teaches in Ashoka University, near Delhi. Sumana hails from a small Himalayan town of Siliguri which impacts here writing in different ways. Her interview reflects how she lives by her convictions and looks beyond man made constructs in quest of an undefined Eldorado which is abstruse in itself. However, I am convinced, when she finds her Eldorado, her readers will probably be overwhelmed by the radiance of what she shares with the world. In this interview, she shares snapshots of her life as writer and her convictions.

When and why did you start writing?

I don’t think any of us can answer this question. I had no ambition to be a writer. I had not met a single writer in my life. In my middleclass Bengali life were people like my parents – teachers, bankers, officegoers, and the unemployed, looking for jobs. I wrote love letters for my friends in boarding school, and letters to the editor before that. Then I started studying literature at university, and I think I wrote nothing else except essays to pass examinations and the occasional letter to the man I would eventually marry. I say this just to reiterate that the idea of a writer as someone who could live an unremarkable life like myself wasn’t available to me at that time. I began working towards a PhD, and as I was living away from home, I hungered for the sound of Bangla. I began reading Bangla poetry and I felt something inside me loosen – I wanted to write like these poets had, but in English, the language I was most comfortable in. I kept the writing a secret from my family and the world. Only after I had submitted my doctoral dissertation did I begin sharing my writing with the world – by submitting to online magazines I liked reading, but also responding to most ‘Call for Submission’ pages that I came across in the early years of social media.

What gets your muse going?

Life. Living. I know this is a cliché and an unsatisfactory answer, but that is what it is – to live inside my writing …

Your first book is about trees. Tell us what egged you on to choose to write about trees and why?

I suppose it came from a disaffection – the Bangla word ‘bishaad’ would be more appropriate perhaps – for the social world, for the human in it. I wanted to live outside the emotion economy of social relationships. Groping for various possibilities, I realised that I wanted to live like a tree. I had been reading and living with plants long before that. I suppose I began seeing them differently after that epiphany.

Would you say your obsession with trees was similar to that of Tagore’s Bolai?

 I’ve written about Bawlai in How I Became a Tree. He is a relative, yes, among the many I discovered when looking for those who had felt the human-tree equivalence emotionally, intellectually, or, as in the case of Rabindranath’s story, intuitively.

You have also spoken of Nandalal Bose, the famous Indian artist who passed away before you were born in the book. Why him? Do paintings in general affect your writing?

I discovered Nandalal’s Vision and Creation in Santiniketan’s Subarnarekha bookstore. I might have seen it before, in Bangla, as a child, but much of it had disappeared from my consciousness. I was staying in a guest house in Ratanpalli. The full moon night of spring I still remember, as I do the curiosity of the mosquitoes. I found Nandalal teaching his students how to draw trees by constantly referring to the human anatomy – this analogical plant-human relationship seemed most natural to his imagination. That is how I found another relative in him.

To answer your second question, yes, art – and music – brings something to my life.

Your novel is about a missing woman. Parallels have been drawn between her and Sita. Why?

I don’t know who has drawn this parallel. What I do know is that I was interested in the life of the missing woman, a woman like Sita, in the world today. Why are battles fought and epics written around the missing woman? I did not make this comparison explicit, but always hope that the reader would, on their own, particularly because, like the seven adhyas (parts) of the Ramayan, the novel, too, is structured around seven sections – seven days in the lives of the characters.

If we perceive Rama as a democratic ruler who listened to his subjects, would you hold him guilty for abandoning Sita? How do you perceive him?

Rama was a king, not an elected representative, as we know. Even if he were, as you are asking me to imagine him hypothetically, I cannot see how anything can justify the demand on Sita to prove her ‘purity’. About abandonment, it is a personal matter between the two people involved. Using the narrative of abandonment of a woman to prove one’s purity as a ruler, as a democratically elected representative in our country has done recently, is as ridiculous as the State’s demand on Sita’s purity.

You are a professor too. You have been doing number of columns talking of educational values. What are the things you would want to see changed? And why?

I don’t think I’ve written about values. It’s a loaded word, and I feel incompetent to speak about it. What I have been writing against is the industrialisation of the curriculum, particularly in the English Literature syllabus, specifically the postcolonial syllabus.

What would I like to see changed in this regard? I’d like the structure of such a syllabus to be more egalitarian – in a real way – and not dictated by metropolitan impulses alone.

I remember your essay against long biodatas. Do you think reverting to past values where marketing oneself as a writer with a huge biodata was not a necessity would be relevant or possible today? Is this a construct of the publisher or the writer? Do you think the only the quality of one’s work without a publication history or academic excellence would allow a writer to get published?

The biodata is a marketing tool. The book can stand its own ground without us knowing where the author lives or what prizes they have won or where they studied. If there were blind submissions, without the name and bio of the writer, we might not be reading the same writers in the pages of The New Yorker or the London Review of Books – so much is published because of the reputation that attends writers. I think it is unfair to writers who are just starting out, and, most importantly, those who have not had many of the opportunities that their more well-published contemporaries have had. The snob value of the biodata also creates a hierarchy – it is against this that my reservation lies.

In your opinion, what is most important — fame, money or creative satisfaction? Why?  Can there be creative satisfaction without accolades of the external world? Would that be of any value?

I can only speak for myself. This has perhaps to do with one’s temperament. The three things you mention – ‘fame, money, creative satisfaction’ – may all be important for many artists, as it might be for a sportsperson or even a politician. I think I write just to be able to get away from the social world, to stay with myself, self-indulgently – that someone reads me in a world where so much of reading material is available for free is a gift from the reader to me. I don’t exactly know what ‘creative satisfaction’ is. It’s because I suffer from creative dissatisfaction. I dislike everything I have written or everything that I write. And yet I do not want to stop writing. So… I do not write for fame, money, or creative satisfaction. I write to make sense of my world, to protect myself from myself perhaps.

You often colour your writing with food and family. Why?

I enjoy a life of the senses, of eating. I like to cook and eat, but, most of all, I love to fantasise about eating – the things I want to eat, how I could make them, whether I will ever get to taste them, how to grow some of the produce, and so on.

My understanding of ‘family’ is not blood-bound. Those I love are my family, both humans and non-humans. They will naturally enter my writing.

Do you teach creative writing? Can creativity be taught? Is it any different from studying literature or language?

Yes, I teach Creative Writing at Ashoka University. Writing can be taught as much as music can be taught – both involve Riyaz(practice), which is what my writing workshops are meant to be. To be a singer one must first train to become a listener. And so, with writing – one must become a reader first. By this I do not mean that one has to read 52 books a year, but one must be mindful of how words work, how lines and sentences work through us, the senses in which literature comes to us, and so on.

Where are you located now? Gurgaon or Siliguri and does your locale impact your writing.

I live in Sonipat during the teaching semester. The rest of the year I am in Siliguri, which is where I always want to be. My surroundings affect me, and, by extension, my writing. This is true of everyone, I think? By this I do not mean that living in a small town will make me write about the idyllic life in contrast to a life in the metropolis. The sensory affects us and, consequently, our writing.

How do you juggle writing and teaching?

With a lot of difficulty, because there’s also housework and caregiving for the elderly. And yet, I now know that my students make me think of things that I wouldn’t have had I worked on my laptop all day.

What is your favourite genre in writing and why?

The poem and the essay, the shorter forms. I am also very fond of the letter and the interview as literary genres.

What are your future plans? Any more books coming our way?

I am waiting for the semester to end, to get away from the Zoom life, to rest my eyes, to play with my nephew and niece, to comb my mother’s hair, and, if the rains help, to plant a few moringa and jackfruit trees. I want to feel better, for my health to get better than what it has been over the last few months. I’m not thinking about books now.

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal.

.

Click here to read a poem by Sumana.

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

Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Anuradha Kumar

She has a strange mix of oeuvres. She flits between young and adult readers — writes for all ages across borders, across continents and across oceans, in newspaper, journals and in books. She has written thirty-one books in all (a number of them with Hachette India), has won the Commonwealth awards for short stories a couple of times, written under the pseudonym of Aditi Kay, worked in the Economic and Political Weekly for almost 9 years and now lives in USA weaving stories of people around her and the worlds she inhabits. Meet Anuradha Kumar, who has already released two books in 2021. One is called The Hottest Summer in Years and the other that held me mesmerised has been published with Weavers Press San Francisco and is called A Sense of Time and Other Stories.

The unique thing about A Sense of Time is that it stretches through different time zones, the past, the present and the future. It has stories that linger and leave an aftertaste of nostalgia and the past or encapsulate you in the future in a world where living and working in outer space is as much a reality as is the recurrence of pandemics. It carries you into a dimension that Kumar builds with words, a unique space where her perceptions evoke a sense of the unusual, the sensual and the real. A strange story about a bus journey of an American in India which uncovers the commonality of experiences of women across continents, of a man who trains to be Gandhi, of Indians in America, of a strange case in court, of friendship between a child and a wanted man, a murder in the train which travels in a strange way through time — the titular story — and many more.

What makes these stories riveting is they make you feel like you have tasted the manna from the land of  Lotus Eaters and for some time, you forget your own reality and live with the characters. They stay in your head even after you finish the stories. Reading her stories was a pleasurable experience and finishing all of them created a longing to read a few more from Kumar’s pen. Without more ado, let us plunge into a discussion on Anuradha Kumar’s wonderland.

Tell us Anuradha, what spurred the writer in you? When did you start writing and why?

It was quite an accident. I did write when asked for the school magazine, but the more serious kind of writing, like now, came later. I remember being very bored during my time in the corporate world and writing down something. And I found that quite a panacea for boredom. And soon, writing became more than just a panacea, and more than just a response to things other than boredom.

But your ‘why’ holds so much more, and I feel quite pompous answering that. But the more one writes, and reads, there are just more questions. So, while earlier writing meant getting things like character, plot and narrative arc in place—things a good writing programme can teach you—now it’s a bit more about the answers you are seeking to various things, and writing is one way toward that.

How many countries have you lived in and how has this impacted your writing? How long have you been away from India?

For a bit more than a decade. And we have lived in Singapore, and in the US, first in Maryland and now in New Jersey. I guess I must be bothered by questions of identity, and belonging, but also about how the self changes in response to alienation and isolation and movement. Changes that can at times not be visible and emerge years later or in entirely different circumstances.


At a point, you wrote as Aditi Kay. Were these all children’s books with Hachette India? Why did you take a pseudonym and what made you drop it? 

Adity Kay is how I write historical fiction; for older readers especially the three books on ancient India’s three ‘big kings’ (Chandragupta Maurya, Vikramaditya and Harshavardhana). These have been published by Hachette india and the last of the three came out only last year.
When I began writing these in 2012, I was already writing more children’s fiction as Anu Kumar. My editor advised that a different name would help in not bringing up any ‘association’ with the other name, and the series could be presented as something unique by a new writer. 

Recently, you have brought out an unusual collection of short stories, A Sense of Time. What spurred you to write such diverse stories — each one could be seen as a stand-alone that leaves a lingering after taste in one’s being?

These were written over the last decade. The oldest was, I think, the first one, ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’—I realised I was wackier then—and the most recent ones are the Pandemic love story, and ‘Comfort Food’ — both these set in worlds different from the ones I had known even a decade ago. I just had them and kept returning to these stories, revising them occasionally, and then early last year, Moazzam, my publisher, suggested I send him some stories, so I revised them again. And this book happened, all thanks to him.

You have a unique story set one hundred years from now. What spurred you to try a sci- fi in the middle of stories rooted in our times or the recent past. Did you research to write the sci-fi or is it fully from your imagination?

It partly rests on a historical coincidence. The influenza epidemic was just a century ago, and I read somewhere that pandemics similar to ours will never really go away. Neither will love, nor will our attempts to find it regardless of the differences that exist between us.  

What kind of research goes into writing all these stories?

I hope to learn from what other writers do. But it’s always a learning process. Every writing is a way to learning how to write for the first time. I (try and) read a lot of the writers I admire Alice Munro, William Trevor, Yiyun Li, Michael Ondaatje, Yoko Ogawa, and others, and reading must go simultaneous with the writing that one attempts. Looking back, as I gathered up and revised, and at times rewrote all these stories, what I found interesting was trying to remember where I was, what I was reading, when I wrote the initial version. For years and months later, how I looked at this story was different, and I wanted to now rewrite and revise it a different way.

Few of your stories leave the conclusion undefined and the reader wondering about how the aftermath links to the narrative. It is a distinctive style and unique. But what made you do it and why?

The conventional, old-fashioned story had a beginning, middle and end. I still hope that for my reader/s, my stories will linger in some way. That they will remain with the character, the story, for a while, maybe a long while. It’s much like what happens in real life. People we encounter, some of them linger on in our memories for various reasons. I’d like my stories to be that way too.

Most of your stories are outside a world caught in the pandemic, how do you see life beyond this virus? Do you think the future will be like the past?

I wish I had a ready answer to that.

I think this long isolation has made us reconsider and rethink various things, especially how we relate to one another. Questions about who and what really matter have always been important, and maybe this time has made us think on these things that much more.

Your stories are rooted in different issues that affect man. Do you see a commonality in the thread that runs through the stories, like you did in Coming Back to the City: Mumbai stories?

I can’t say quite so easily. I am curious about how people see the world, in everyone’s unique perspective, and also in trying to see the person under the skin. In fact, this latter thing, about trying to get under a person’s skin sometimes stopped me from writing a story, because I sort of got knotted up in all  the complexities within us, and sometimes not being judgemental isn’t a good thing when writing a short story, so I had to work  that out too. Am still working this out.

You don multiple hats in writing — switching between young adult and adult fiction and beautiful essays on history in online forums. How do you juggle your time to do all of it?

I just write, I don’t know anything else. And the good thing is, if you shut the world out, all the craving for attention, and just focus on what really matters, one does get better at it – at writing.

You moved your publisher from India to US with this book. Is there a reason for it?

I’ve lived in the US for around 9 years now. And I still am published in India. Am truly a borderless writer, Mitali!

So, your writing spans continents and the Pacific. Isn’t that wonderful! Your stories are based mainly in India. And yet you have been away for many years. How does that add up?

I think I answered this above. It’s that these stories were written over a decade. And I guess one can never really leave one’s country of origin. The more borders one crosses, memories of homes left behind seep in, and these change in texture over time. I found this while reliving my stories. I am still finding this out.

What are your future plans?

To be a better writer, a better person. Oh, and a better cook!

Thank you Anuradha for sharing your fabulous journey with us.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Sense of Time and Other Stories.

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

Categories
Interview

Translating Japanese

In conversation with Avery Fischer Udagawa

Avery Fischer Udagawa is an American, who lives in Thailand and translates from Japanese. She is like an iconic bridge that links diverse cultures with her translations. Avery grew up in Kansas and studied English and Asian Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. She holds an M.A. in Advanced Japanese Studies from The University of Sheffield. She writes, translates, and works in international education near Bangkok, where she lives with her bicultural family.

Her latest translation, of the fantasy novel Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, is forthcoming in July 2021 from Restless Books, Brooklyn, New York. Described by the publisher as “a fantastical and mysterious adventure featuring the living dead, a magical pearl, and a suspiciously nosy black cat named Kiriko”, it features illustrations by Miho Satake.

Avery’s other translations include “Festival Time” by Ippei Mogami in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018, “House of Trust” by Sachiko Kashiwaba in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction–An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories; and J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani. Her translations have also appeared in Kyoto Journal and Words Without Borders.

You are an American. What moved you to learn Japanese? Why did you pick Japanese instead of some other language?

My parents took pains to expose my siblings and me to the world’s cultures, through the arts and artifacts and by having us spend time with AFS ( American Field Service) exchange students in Kansas, where I grew up. Some of these students were Japanese. It did not seem a huge stretch, then, to try an introductory Japanese course when I was an undergraduate. I quickly found that I enjoyed the language.

How many books have you translated? Do you enjoy translating? What are the challenges you face?

I have translated two novels, a number of short stories, and materials such as the English-language guide to a permanent display on Japanese children’s literature at the National Diet Library, Tokyo.

I deeply enjoy translating children’s literature or literature that foregrounds children’s perspectives. A child’s-eye view reveals our world in accessible, yet wise ways, I find. The chief challenge I face is low demand for children’s literature in English translation.

What kind of stories do you translate? Do you translate non-fiction too?

I often gravitate toward stories for (or foregrounding) children in upper elementary and middle school, roughly ages eight through twelve, but I also work with young children’s and teen literature. I am definitely open to non-fiction.

When you translate a story, do you get to pick the story, or do you get commissioned to translate?

Some of both. I was commissioned to translate the historical novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, and I proposed translating the fantasy Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, which I am proud to say is coming out in July 2021.

Do your translations find a home among Western audiences? What kind of reception do Japanese stories have among them?

Not only mine, but many translations into English face an uphill battle, because the anglophone markets tend to focus inward. In children’s publishing in my native U.S., the most coveted prizes—the Newbery and Caldecott Medals—are required to go to U.S. persons who write and publish in English. Another prize, the Batchelder Award, garlands translations from Languages Other Than English, by authors from anywhere, but most consumers have not yet heard of it. Another award I hope the book-buying public will discover is the Hans Christian Andersen Award, often called the Nobel prize for children’s literature, which is given biennially to one author and one illustrator. Jacqueline Woodson of the United States won the most recent Andersen Award for Writing, but the three prior winners were from Asia. I hope that readers of English will pick up their books in translation!

After the Pearl Harbor incident, Japanese Americans are said to have been isolated. In the current world where xenophobia is again rearing its ugly head, how are your translations received by Japanese Americans?

Satsuki Ina, a Japanese American filmmaker born in the Tule Lake Segregation Center during World War II, was kind enough to praise J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965. Translating literature that humanizes Japanese children (my own children are Japanese, as well as American) is how I join the fight against xenophobia.

Is it easy to translate from Japanese to English? Are the languages compatible culturally?

Japanese and English are quite far apart, in terms of both linguistic features and cultural origins. Veteran translator Cathy Hirano has described the Japanese-to-English translator’s job as “fairly strenuous cultural and mental gymnastics.” Mitali, I believe you also translate between dissimilar languages.

Yes, I do. There are normally nuances in each language that are different and essentially belonging to that culture intrinsically. It becomes difficult to translate those words to another language, at least it is true when you translate from Bengali or Hindi to English. Is it true with Japanese to English too? Do you have to do cultural studies to do a translation?

Absolutely! Japanese features many forms of indirectness and intentional ambiguity, so awareness of cultural context is crucial to translation. The Japanese writing system also presents a challenge, in that the visual effects of thousands of ideograms (kanji) and two phonetic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) can be hard to replicate using only 26 English letters.

Finally, there are the many concepts and objects without ready English equivalents. In Temple Alley Summer, for example, a teacher is nicknamed 演歌 (Enka), which refers to a style of ballad singing that is popular yet steeped in tradition. The closest equivalent in U.S. English might be country music, but the genres are totally different. The teacher in the book is a minor character, so I had to weigh whether to explain Enka or go with the shorter, imperfect translation for flow.

Do you translate from English to Japanese? If no, then why not?

Just as someone who speaks, reads and writes English might not choose to write it for publication, I use Japanese daily but do not translate into (write) it for publication. In a competitive publishing environment, I prefer to work with the language I write better. I also perceive a greater need for translations from Japanese to English than vice versa; Japan has long had a robust appetite for world literature, and many fine translators already specialize in English-to-Japanese.

What do you see as the future of Japanese literature? How much has been found in translation?

In children’s literature, which I know best, Japan is second to none. Authors and illustrators regularly win international awards; noteworthy children’s titles continue to be published despite population aging; and Japan (as mentioned) boasts a vigorous market for translations. I wish that all of the world’s children had access to global stories like Japanese children do.

You have lived in the US, Japan and Thailand. Which country left the deepest imprint on you and your work? Is it difficult to translate from Japanese while living in Thailand?

I spent my formative years in the U.S. and in Japan, where I was fortunate to receive funding to study in my early twenties. I would still say that the U.S. and Japan made me who I am.

Marrying a Japanese man then ironically led to living outside of Japan: two years in Oman, and fifteen years and counting in Thailand. (My husband teaches music at international schools; he and I met in college concert band.) While here in Thailand, though, I have earned my Master’s in Japanese, and I use it in my work and family life. I struggle more with Thai, which I speak daily but do not use at work or at home. My children are more literate in Thai than I am.

As for whether it is hard to work from Thailand—before Covid, I would have said that the Internet offsets the distance between countries, making it easy to work from anywhere. Since the pandemic put the brakes on international travel, however, I have learned how much I need visits to our family’s home countries, both for work and for my spirit. Many people have been far more adversely affected than we have, of course. May we soon see strides in stamping out the virus.

More of Avery @ www.averyfischerudagawa.com

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

Categories
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

Categories
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!

.

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

Categories
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.

.

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

Categories
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.

.

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

Categories
Interview

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.

.

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

Categories
Interview

‘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.

.

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