Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


The “Colonial Hangover” Debate and the Case of Missing American Women Writers

I’m heading to the Jaipur Literature Festival this week and am immensely excited and a little scared that it will be totally overwhelming—like a completely disorganized AWP with elephants and people literally trampling you in order to get their book signed by JK Rowling. (Okay, good, reports say that she is no longer coming—Indians are crazy for their Harry Potter.)

There’s been a debate flaring after political writer Hartosh Singh Bal of Open Magazine said that British writer William Dalrymple’s prominent role in Indian letters reeks of a colonial hangover. Bal’s controversial thesis is basically this: “How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book, The City of Djinns, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?” Dalrymple responded with a fiery letter to Open addressed to Bal, accusing the writer of blatant racism and making comparisons to Indian writers living in the West.

If anyone was to suggest that Amit Chaudhuri shouldn’t judge the Booker Prize, or direct Britain’s leading creative writing course, because he was too Bengali, or that Salman Rushdie should not be president of PEN as he was of Kashmiri Muslim origin, it would be regarded as blatantly racist.

Open also ran a response by Bal saying that Dalrymple missed his point and obviously didn’t understand the concept of racism.

The equivalent of what I said would be the claim that ‘the fact that Amit Chaudhuri, a Bengali, judges the Booker Prize’ says something about the British literary scene. Of course, it does: it says something positive about a literary arena that had long been marked by exclusion. In the same way, I have claimed that William’s centrality (whether in Jaipur or otherwise), especially considering how he defines himself, says something about the Indian literary scene, except here it says something negative because the Indian and British literary scenes are not equivalent. The Indian literary scene is marked by a clear sense of inferiority to the British scene, and continues to be beholden to it. For this very reason William becomes a symbol of what is wrong with our literary life. This shouldn’t be difficult to understand. A Black man of Kenyan parentage as President of the US is not the symbolic equivalent of a White man of American parentage (one whose CV focuses only on his achievements in the US) becoming President of Kenya.

I thought Bal’s article was pretty accurate, especially because I’ve had the same wary feeling about Dalrymple for many years, even though I very much admire his writing and as an outsider to India myself, understand the urge to try to digest and process the country. I have also very much noticed “the constant need for British approval,” that Bal writes about, when it comes to literature here in India.

Mostly I’ve noticed it as a lack of interest in most American writing, save a few popular writers and Indian American writers. It seems like literary fiction by non-South Asian American women is almost non-existent in India, with Candace Bushnell being a big draw at the Jaipur Festival, but otherwise almost no American women writers. Checking the speakers list, I found three non-South Asian American women, the most exciting of which is Suheir Hammad. Though I’m excited about the focus on desi writers, I think the lack of other American women writers of color means that their voices are very much discounted in the literary pantheon here. Meanwhile, Junot Diaz, Jay McInerney and Richard Ford are on a panel discussing “The Crisis of American Fiction” with Martin Amis. I’m getting a clear message that American writing isn’t getting any respect here.

We’ll see how the “colonial hangover” debate affects the festival, and I’ll definitely do some investigation into the invisibility of American women writers.


Re-launching My Literary Life in Kolkata

As I’ve mentioned, my aspirations for a literary life are flourishing here in Kolkata, whether by intention, sheer luck or just the poetic climate, I’m not sure. My first few weeks in this city were spent preparing for an amazing reading hosted by an experimental Bengali poetry magazine called Kaurab. Founded in 1970, Kaurab has been doing fascinating work–both at a language and craft level and in terms of artistic community, and has recently become transnational in the last decade. One of Kaurabs co-founders, Aryanil Mukherjee, was probably the final poet we confirmed for Indivisible, and along with being a fellow Bengali—Aryanil happens to live in 45 minutes from where I grew up in Southwest Ohio with his family. Aryanil and I had exchanged a few emails in the last few months of anthology production madness, but then I got to know him a bit better when we read together at the wonderful Bon Mot/ley Reading Series in Cincinnati, which was hosted by blogger, academic and poet Kristi Maxwell. In the Fall, Aryanil came to read at the Indivisible event at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and we got to chat for some time before having a wonderful dinner with writers Brian Roley and Cathy Wagner, along with professor Nalin Jayasena. At that time, I told Aryanil-Da I was coming to Kolkata and it would be wonderful if he could connect me to a writing community and help set up a reading for Indivisible. He said it was no problem and he would certainly connect me. I had no idea how amazingly fertile the connections would be!

PathraLekha Publishing House

Preparing for the Indivisible reading, for which I translated section 1 of “Angerfish” — a beautiful poem by Minal Hajratwala, included: the exquisite task of bending over words with a fellow poet and wrestling meaning from language; sitting in the tiny, crowded office of Patralekha Press — one of the most successful small poetry journals on the scene — as the publisher decided on cover images for some of the 50 books he will put out at the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair; drinking notoriously bad coffee in the famous Coffee House, where I was informed that reading poetry would be just too pretentious; and struggling to understand a poem read to me in Bengali, my brain grasping at the words I know, as though they were lifelines tossed from a passing boat. What a wonderful way to get to know a place. It was like healing balm for a lost writer—streets and streets and streets lined with books. Yet at the same time it is semi-torturous—like standing on the shore of a deep blue ocean that stretches towards the horizon, it’s warm waters lapping against my feet, but I cannot swim. I mentioned to Aritra, my friend and guide, that I felt like Pablo Neruda, who was obsessed with the ocean, but unable to submerge himself in the sea until much later in life. I have made a goal to read and write in Bengali before I die.

The Kaurab reading was held at Jibanananda Das Hall at The Bangla Academy at Rabindra Sadan – a major arts complex. I decided to wear an embroidered sari and a big red bindi to show off my Bengali-ness, though when I showed up the rest of the Kaurab crowd were dressed as most people dress for literary events in San Francisco—jeans and semi-nice tops. I must have looked like a little girl playing dress up to them, which is pretty accurate. The most exciting part of the night was the introduction of Indivisible by Calcutta University English Professor Santanu Majumdar. It was a first for the book, since usually it’s just ourselves talking about it and it was lovely. Here’s a video:

Indivisible South Asian Poetry Anthology as Exile Literature from Neelanjana Banerjee on Vimeo.

Afterwards, I talked about the anthology, read some poems from it and also read some of my own work—including my translation of Minal’s poem and one of the only poems I have ever written in Bengali —which even though it has the sophistication of a poem written by an 11-year-old—got a rousing round of applause. I also read my poems about Radha and Calamity Jane, a poem based on The Little Mermaid. The reading also had several amazing readings from poets like Subhro Bandhopadhyay, who writes in the voice of undocumented Bengali workers in Spain, and Shankar Lahiry, who translated some of his beautiful work into English just for me, and then Barin Ghosal—whose work I didn’t totally understand in Bengali, but who lead a great discussion afterwards about words not needing to have meaning. Then Minal read her work about beauty queens and unicorns, two mythical creatures who go surprisingly well together.

There was a dedicated discussion session for each poet so they could discuss their work! I’ve never seen such a thing and the questions I got were some of the best and most difficult questions I’ve received in all my Indivisible reading events–questions about how Indivisible fits into the larger canon of American writing, how the South Asian poets of this generation compare to the Bengali poets writing now, about which is more important expression or communication. In fact, I wanted to share one with you here – one that I answered quite badly and thought that this would be a good space to re-answer it. (Very rough Bengali subtitles.)

Kaurab Indivisible Reading: Tough Question from Neelanjana Banerjee on Vimeo.

I fumbled the answer, but have been thinking about the question ever since. The audience member intimated that my poems were dependent on legends and philosophy, but take those away and what do we have of any of the humanities? Take for instance the popular and critically acclaimed art exhibit I saw recently about the Mahabharata–this exhibit was powerful because the artist dug inside these universal characters and found his own expressions of modern anguish. I am also of Angela Carter’s work retelling not only fairy tales, but also portraits of the famous and infamous. In his introduction to her collected stories, Salman Rushdie says: “Carter wears her influences openly, for she is their deconstructionist, their saboteur. She takes what we know, and having broken it, puts it together in her own spiky, courteous way… She opens an old story for us, like an egg, and finds the new story, the now-story, we want to hear, within.” I think the possibilities for this deconstruction are even more possible within poetry, where the constrains of narrative are left behind and philosophy or legend or religion or science can be broken down to words and sounds and images. I’m not sure I attain this with my work, but it is the inspiration behind the attempt.

I get another chance to read from Indivisible on January 29th at 4 p.m., when Robin and Bansuri player Eric Fraser will accompany me at the Kolkata Book Festival in the American Center’s auditorium at the Milan Mela. Come and ask me more hard-hitting questions. (I certainly wish my co-editors Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam could be with me for some of these events in India. Miss you guys.)


Books, Movies, Art, Music, TV: A Report-Back

After many years of resisting, I’ve finally sunk my teeth into Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a 12-week course for recovering your artistic self. The daily morning notes and other weekly tasks have been surprisingly helpful in removing the inner obstacles (fear, self-doubt, etc) to writing. This week, Ms Cameron threw me a curve ball with a week of reading deprivation! The horror! But I have stuck to it for five days and it felt like a good way to start the year. Since I haven’t been reading, I thought I’d report back on some of the books, movies and other experiences I’ve had.

Cutting For Stone: I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I interviewed Dr. Abraham Verghese briefly for an article I was writing about the prevelance of Asian American doctor writers. I remember my father loving his seminal memoir, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, about life as a small town AIDS doctor in the South. I was absolutely enraptured by Dr. Verghese’s speaking voice over the phone. Kind of a silly reason to want to read a person’s book, but – in any case – it was the last purchase I made on my Kindle before boarding the plane to India. The novel is absolutely epic in scope, concerning the mysterious birth of twins, Marion and Shiva, to a nun (who dies in childbirth) at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After the gory opening scene, the novel follows the life of the twins and their cobbled-together family of adopted doctor parents Ghosh and Hema, South Indian doctors who have come to work at the hospital, neighbors, hospital workers, servants—and eventually their long-dissappeared father. Some of Eithiopia’s political turmoil is thrown in, which makes for some tense and dramatic scenes, as well as unrequited love and finally, a journey of exile to America. I’ve been tossing around the idea of a novel, or at least a set of stories, set in a hospital and the glorious amount of medical detail in this book made me think I could never do it without the medical training of a doctor, but it is gripping and Verghese puts you inside the minds of the medically inclined and sometimes un-inclined with such precision, that you understand the profession for much more than it’s usual glories. Verghese, who himself was raised in Eithopia, inhabits the landscape with such fervor that I immediately wanted to go and see the flowers blooming after the rainy season and taste real fiery wot as it would be served in a roadside bar. Cutting for Stone reminded me of a novel’s expansive possibilities.

Just Another Love Story (Aarekti Premer Golpo): I am an unabashed snob when it comes to Indian cinema, turning my nose up at most Bollywood has to offer. Introducing people to Bengali film is one of my favorite things to do. So, when a few non-Bengali friends ended up wanting to go see a film on New Year’s, I thought that this movie might be a crowd-pleaser. Luckily, I was right. Directed by Kaushik Ganguly and staring director Rituparno Ghosh (one of my favorite Bengali filmmakers), the film is the first to openly address homosexual relationships since same-sex relations were decriminalized in India, but it was also very much about the art, power and difficulty of storytelling–and, of course, that tricky bitch known as love. The film follows director Abhiroop (Ghosh) and his crew as they come from New Delhi to Kolkata to make a documentary about the famous folk theater performer Chapal Bhaduri, one of the first openly gay actors in this scene. Bhaduri, played by the actual Bhaduri, was famous for his performances of women’s roles. When controversy causes the film to relocate to the countryside, the story splits into two narrative streams: the modern day tale of the film—which includes Abhiroop’s relationship with his cinematographer (played by the hot Indraneil Sengupta), who is married, and then Bhaduri’s life as he relates it, which is played as a period piece featuring all the same actors. The acting is suberb and Ghosh does an incredible, incredible job as the young Bhaduri. In fact all the actors give extremely nuanced performances in both of their roles, giving complexity to the film and really putting an emphasis on storytelling. The film raises questions like: Why do we—as artists—tell the stories that we do? What do we owe our subjects? What are the dangers of using your subjects to exorcise your own personal demons? Anyway, a really inspiring film that I hope will get some kind of distribution internationally.

Maner Manush: Ever since first getting to Kolkata I noticed the billboards for this movie, translated roughly to Soul Mate. They were everywhere and the image of a robed holy man walking along a river caught my attention. Then I learned that it was the story of famous Baul singer Lalan Fakir, who wrote hundreds of songs in the Baul tradition and influenced the Tagore family. The film actually structurally stems from Lalan Fakir’s interaction with Rabindranath’s brother Jyotirindranath, and the films goes back and forth between a day-long discussion the two men have about Lalan Fakir’s life and beliefs, interspersed with flashbacks to his life. (This is actually the movie we were trying to go see on New Year’s, as we heard the music was incredible and I hang with a bunch of musicians. Not all of the screenings of this film are subtitled though, so Robin and I finally went to see it at Nandan—a center for film, who unfortunately refused to screen Aarekti Premer Golpo, even though it was okayed by the national and state censors.) The actors who played the young and middle-aged Lalan were great, bringing a sense of joy and gravity to the role of this famous wandering singer, but—as ignorant foreigners—Robin and I did not get a very clear sense of the Baul tradition, which came off as being primarily about Hindu-Muslim togetherness and seemed to have a semi-misogynistic sexual gratification system where woman were treated mostly as possessions, though sexual practices were freer. Later, a friend schooled us and let us know that what we saw was a serious mainstreaming of Lalan Fakir’s mythology–and that a real film depicting Baul philosophy, especially when it comes to sexuality, would be way too much for middle class Bongs (slang for Bengali community) to handle So, I’m really glad we saw the film and now are starting to learn more about this amazing tradition, but hope to get some more clarity on Lalan Fakir and the Baul tradition through more reading and enlightening conversations.

“His Mahabharata”, art show by Ganesh Pyne at CIMA: I saw a pretty amazing art show by 73-year-old artist Ganesh Pyne, which featured pared down interpretations of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, using crayon and tempara paints. Pyne has been obsessed with the epic since his childhood and the best thing about the show were his meditations on some of the lesser characters, who I have also often been interested in, including Eklava and Abhimundu. Pyne’s Mahabharata is not a kind, beautiful or happy one—in fact, it isn’t even very noble. It is mostly full f anguish and pain. (The gallery where the painting was shown was nicely appointed and next to this amazing Radha Krishna Temple which I thought was absolutely beautiful. I am not a big one for temples, but I went in and wandered around for 20 minutes and even considered giving money. Later, I found out it was made by the Birla indistrialist family, so it kind of seemed like a corporate temple or something – like going to a Hilton Church. Now, I feel dirty for having liked it so much.)

Concert featuring Rimpa Siva, Ajoy Chakravorty and Swapan Chadhuri: I also went to the Birla Mandir concert hall (next to the temple) to see a concert in dedication to a local music teacher who was turning 60. The show started with the stellar Rimpa Siva, a female tabla viruoso, who has been playing since being a child and literally blew the top of my head off with her fireworks. Being a lowly unstudied, untrained audience member, Rimpa’s speed, sweetness and fun had me absolutely entranced. She also rocks the flouncy tabla hair (must be long enough for flipping around, but not long enough to get in the face too much) and manly Panjabi style man’s kurta. Okay, maybe I have a bit of a crush? Then came the vocalist Ajoy Chakraboty whose ethereal singing allowed me to drift off into the world of a writing project I am working on where I am looking for the surreal in India as viewed through Lynch’s Twin Peaks. And then of course, the impeccable Swapan-ji—whose humbleness lays the foundation for some absolutely mind-blowing compositions. More concerts to come!

Lost: We also finally finished the television series Lost, which I think we started back in March. I was a champion of the show all the way, even through most of the final season, but I lost my enthusiasm a bit when the origin episode about Jacob and the Smoke Monster was so poorly executed—not to mention the overt Christian mythology and references. Then the ending seemed like a big fat consolation, without really answering questions. Anyway, I still think it is a great act of storytelling and character development, and even though there definitely seemed to be a white man hero complex–I thought they gave us some great diverse characters: especially Sayeed, Jin and Sun. What magic will you do next, Mr. Abrams?


Literate-Literary-Literati Journalism

After working 10 years as some kind of journalist or editor, I’ve spent the last six months trying to unhook the information IV from my brain. (Hello, my name is Neela and I used to mainline the interwebs.) In my last year as an editor with a non-profit media organization, I would daydream through editorial meetings of writing a book proposal about spending a year without imbibing any kind of modern media. It was textbook burnout. The general malaise about the death of the newspaper didn’t help either. Knowing how many good reporters my local newspaper had recently laid off, I very rarely picked it up, except maybe to absent-mindedly peruse a forgotten paper left on a train seat. Skimming through websites and following Twitter links killed time, but it didn’t seem to inspire me. I had no sense of ritual to go along with reading the news except a faint carpel-tunnel-esque twitch in my right wrist from all that web surfing.

My trips to Kolkata over the last decade have always been different. Here newspaper media is fiercely alive and competitive, with several papers (in several languages) to choose from in each city. Much of the commentary I have done from India over the past years came directly from the inspiration I got from not only reading the newspaper, but observing the way the news had an affect on the community. I also love the way it distills this disparate and complex country. For example, yesterday’s Telegraph includes a story about a new salon at the Constitution Club in New Delhi where all the nation’s MPs and their families are getting a fancy new facial treatments, a story about a possible tiger poisoning in Orang National Park and one about striking tea workers in Alipurduar—and then a few obligatory grip and grin shots of Bollywood starlets at some event or another. It’s both the array of stories and the array of people you see reading the newspaper—from a scarf-wrapped gentlemen in a lungi at the tea stall to my wizened old aunties to a young woman at Café Coffee Day – the daily community building of news media is still happening in a analog way here.

When my grandmother was still alive, she’d have sent someone for a newspaper early in the morning and I’d read it while sipping tea and eating the luxurious breakfast she prepared. Now, on my way to the market or after the gym, I’ll walk the three blocks down to Rash Behari where there are several newspaper and magazine stands. There is a beautifully elegant woman, with short stylish graying hair, who sits at the newspaper stand, wrapped in a red shawl. She chats up the other regular customers, all men, who seem to be drawn to her, as I am. I linger by the stand sometimes to try and hear what they are talking about, whether they are discussing personal issues or news, but I can never quite catch the drift. (My Bangla eavesdropping skills need some serious work.) I’ll buy a Telegraph or a Statesman, or both, or an Open—a Newsweek meets magazine that I’ve been enjoying. One of my uncles told me to take delivery, but I wouldn’t give up this small walk and interaction for the world.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed about Indian papers, or at least the ones in Kolkata, is that there is a story about a writer, or about writing or publishing, or literature every day. Writers have a different kind of celebrity here than they seem to in America. There seems to be a similar kind of fascination with writers that there are with movie or television celebrities in America. Not entirely, but enough to get them in the paper on a regular basis. Also, because writers in India seem inherently more political, the sense of their role as rabble-rousers is also present.

For example, back in December, there was a Telegraph article about a jungle bungalow that Arundhati Roy owns, which may or may not encroach on tribal land. Under dispute, the case will be judged by a Manoj Srivastava—known for his “nationalist” (read conservative) tendencies. The tone of the article, written by Rasheed Kidwai, was tongue in cheek—sending up both Roy and Srivastava and celebrating this clash between India’s literary left and bureaucratic right. The surprising thing for me was the large amount of space this took up on the Telegraph’s National section (page 5) – in the prominent above-the-fold placement with several photographs – including a stunning one of Ms Roy, one of the disputed jungle bungalow and one showing Srivastava looking, well, exactly how you think a stodgy Indian bureaucrat should look. About a week later there was an article almost in the same space about a Gujarati poet named Aqeel Shatir who was asked by the Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Academy to return the money they had spent to publish his collection, Zinda Hon Main or “I’m Still Alive”— some two years after it was published. This happened after the publishers discovered an offensive remark about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in Shatir’s book. The sentence was not written by the poet, but in the introduction by another poet named Raunaq Afroz, commenting on Modi’s controversial involvement in communal riots and about the poor state of Urdu in Gujarat. Yet Shatir insists that the Academy is coming down on him because he filed a Right to Information act to look carefully at the way the organization is using their funds. Again, a fascinating story, but not one I’m sure would find it’s way to mainstream media in America.

The Telegraph has also run a series of articles about the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair, or Boi Mela, which will be held in late January. This festival, in its 33rd year, is one of the biggest book fairs in all of India and runs 12 whole days. The articles have been aimed at exposing the controversy surrounding the fact that the Book Fair, or to be more specific the Publishers and Booksellers Guild — the non-profit org that runs the Book Fair — has received serious discounts and incentives on space rental, etc., even though the Book Fair is a trade convention that makes all the members of the Guild money. Writer Kinsuk Basu’s “objective reporting” seems to come down hard on the Guild, as you can see by the lede: “Book-lover Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s favorite annual event is reeling from the shock of a Rs 3.14 crore rent estimate for the next edition after being spoilt silly by sops that have swelled it’s coffers and eroded the state exchequer.” [Emphasis mine.] Actually, Bhattacharjee, West Bengal’s Chief Minister, is quite a literary patron, as well as a poet in his own right and cousin-brother to revolutionary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya. Again, it is fascinating to be in a place where the inner workings of a literature festival make their way to the front of the metro section.

There have also been a series of articles both covering events that have to do with Tagore’s 150th birthday. Sunday’s Metro paper led with a feature story covering a two-day conference in Kolkata about Tagore, and today’s paper talked about plans for a joint conference on Tagore to be held next Spring organized by both India and Bangladesh. Other recent literary stories include one in yesterday’s Telegraph about making George Orwell’s birthplace – which apparently is a run-down house in Bihar, some 160 km north of Patna – a protected site. I had no idea he was born in India!

Anyway, this is just the beginning of my investigation of Indian writing/reading. I am conducting a slow survey of Kolkata’s bookstores to learn more about what Indians are writing about, but am equally as fascinated by what books they are reading. I’ve also been wandering around the alleys of Kolkata’s College Street area, which are rife with publishing houses and–as my friend Aritra says–smell of ink, or kali. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to spend all of 2011 writing about my literary journeys, tourism, investigations and event coverage weekly or more on this blog. In January alone, I will be writing about the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, the Jaipur Literature Festival and the Kolkata Boi Mela!

Tomorrow there’s an event to launch Indivisible in India sponsored by Aryanil Mukherjee’s indie poetry magazine Kaurab. It will be held at the Bangla Academy — a renowned place for Bangla literature. I will be reading some of my work, as will my friend and Indivisible contributor Minal Hajratwala — currently on her own Fulbright year in Mumbai. In honor of the reading, held in a hall named after this popular Bengali poet, I’ve been working on a translation of the first section of Minal’s amazing poem “Angerfish”. I’m terribly nervous about reciting this translation in proper Bangla, as I am about how my own work will hold up in such a storied venue. The flip side of living in a city where so many people are thinking about and valuing literature, is that it is held to an incredibly high standard. Wish me luck.