My Literary Wanderings ~ arriving at life’s crossroads, with both pain and joy!

A new column about literary journeys I will be curating in Saaranga. This inaugural post starts with my own story.

At seven — an age when writing only means filling the school homework notebook with the dreary repetition of my handwriting — the joy of reading arrives at my door. It’s a hot morning of my summer vacations in New Delhi, and like on most such mornings, I’m preoccupied with some or the other holiday homework — tasks designed to keep children in line and make them more tolerable to their family members for two long and sultry months. A postman knocks on our gate holding that rare item — a parcel — that lights up our faces with barely- concealed smiles. As my grandmother emerges from the kitchen and opens the package with her turmeric-stained fingers, out come the precious contents — a book of Bengali chhawra or rhyming verses and illustrated Ramayana and Mahabharata for children in Bengali — books she had ordered for me through relatives in Calcutta. The fun of words rolling into limericks and nonsense verse as you uttered them, of reading stories you didn’t have to write an exam for, of letting your mind fill with imagination what the words in the books left out — these must have been the initiation for me on the road to being a literary pilgrim.  

*

The year I move on to middle school, I decide to switch schools. I’m glad I do, because in grade six, I find the teacher who would influence me the most in my life. Abha Das, a petite woman who wears crisp cotton saris and glasses on her small but penetrating eyes, doesn’t merely give lectures on the stories in our English textbook. She makes each one of the stories, which she takes days to finish, a riveting experience — at once an education in the craft of storytelling and reading with empathy and understanding. As she gives a lecture on E. R. Braithwaite’s To Sir with Love, she asks us to look back and think of the times we felt belittled because of our identity. By doing this — throwing us headlong at our vulnerabilities — she dissolves the distance between the narrator and us. Relating to the characters we read about in fiction in such a visceral way would help make me be a better reader even before I show any promise of being a writer. One morning, I would find the teacher waiting at the end of our morning assembly line. She’s there to thank me for a birthday card I’d left on her desk in the staffroom with a poem titled To Ma’am with Love. Her teaching would turn my joy of reading into a deeper love for words. I would now notice their intonation, their music, and recognize their inherent power to breed both love and violence. 

*

Even as Abha Ma’am enthralls us in school, at home, too, another petite woman — Amiya Sen, my grandma — remains a force I can’t ignore. She’s a grandmother like every other, doting and endlessly patient, yet she’s more. I see her go to work at an office when no other friend’s grandmother does. She stitches the best frock dresses for me every Durga Pua and knits me sweaters with the most exquisite patterns every winter. She reads — books, newspapers, magazines, my school textbooks, packets made from old newspapers — like there’s no tomorrow. And she writes. She writes after returning from work, she writes in between cooking meals, she writes after running errands, she writes late into the night after everyone has fallen asleep, she writes the first thing in the morning before anyone wakes up. She has no writing desk to fulfill this fetish; I only see her writing on the floor where she sprawls on her stomach to lie on a straw mat, her arms resting on a pillow. She would be my first example of what a full-time writer truly means — not someone who has no job and earns their living through writing, but someone who steals and grabs every millisecond of available time to write while carrying out the seven thousand and nine other responsibilities that eat into her writing time. At thirteen, I write my first short story in Bangla and show it to her with nervousness. With a warm hug of approval, she encourages me to write more. Two years later, before I’m able to grasp the full scope of her writing artistry, she leaves the world. And she leaves me clueless about fighting loneliness, about living with the scary beast of loneliness. 

*

Three decades go by. I am far removed from the house I grew up in, the one that my writer grandmother built with her life’s savings and dreams. I now live with my husband in Canada where it’s cold for more than half a year. In the thirty years since my grandmother passed away and I passed out of school where Abha Ma’am taught me, I’ve carried more than luggage. I have lugged Grandma’s stories — literally and figuratively. I have with me a bunch of short stories she wrote longhand, to type out and prepare for possible publication. But I also have the stories she told me as I grew up — stories of her childhood back in undivided India, of her life as a young bride, of her coming to Delhi and learning the English alphabet from her children, of the heartbreaking and unrelenting tragedies she’d had to endure in her life, of the unceasing pain of being displaced from her desh, the native soil of East Bengal that she’d been estranged from with India’s division in 1947. Somewhere along the way, all of these make a story grow inside me, and I end up writing a novel. When Victory Colony, 1950, my first book of fiction is published, I feel happy, relieved and sad at once. Like every new author, I’m elated to finally see my story out there in the world. Yet somewhere inside, it hurts me to realize that the one person I would have liked to read it isn’t there. 

A year after the book is published, I have a dream featuring my grandmother. She is lively and as engaged with current events as she always had been, and I feel anxious anticipating her reaction to my novel. When I wake up, a bittersweet sensation tugs at my throat. I feel relief and yet I also feel an ache. 

Perhaps that is what our literary wanderings are about — arriving at life’s crossroads, with both pain and joy staring at us. It is my pleasure to welcome you all to Saaranga’s new column on these journeys with authors — I hope you’ll indulge us and enjoy taking in the songs, dramas and scenes that forge our writerly paths. 

A People Ravaged: Peeling off the Many Layers of Partition Trauma

First published in The Wire

Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard
Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017

In writing my first novel, whose protagonist is a young refugee woman from East Pakistan, I employed the device of coincidence to achieve a happy ending. Doing so wasn’t a sudden rush on my part to end what had become a protracted writing project but a well thought-out conclusion. It was not to be. When they read it, two of my trusted beta readers quashed it summarily, citing it as lazy and escapist. Even though incredible incidents can happen in real life, one of them advised, in a work of fiction, coincidences are hard to pull off convincingly.

An incident Debali Mookerjea-Leonard mentions in the preface to Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence starkly bears out this paradox.

Shortly after the All India Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in 1946, the author’s grandfather was stranded in Howrah station as public transport had been suspended in the wake of the sectarian clashes. He eventually got a ride from a kind Muslim family who had a private car, but had to climb on the footboard as the vehicle was full. To ensure his safety, he was given a flag of the Muslim League and advised to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” when passing through Muslim neighbourhoods. He did, and reached his home safely.

The insanity that gripped the subcontinent a year later when India was partitioned has been arduously chronicled in historical archives. In the privileging of journalistic reportage and record-keeping, personal histories surrounding the traumatic event haven’t received much attention until recently. The initiatives of Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Jashodhara Bagchi, among others come to mind.

Mookerjea-Leonard’s book is an important intervention in this regard, not only because of its meticulous research and compelling arguments but because it sits in that nebulous middle – a no man’s land if you will – of fact and fiction. The author examines with incisive rigour fictional works on Partition and juxtaposes them against factual information and recent recordings of oral histories. As someone not directly affected by the event, hers is a lens that is both objective and earnest.

The works discussed in Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition are mostly from Bengal, which the author calls the “neglected shelves” of Bengali literature, written by writers from both sides of the Radcliffe divide. As she mentions in the Preface, this book is her tribute to her city, Calcutta. It is also a conscious effort to shine a light on the sufferings of those at the eastern end of the divide, as the tragedy of Partition in Bengal has been either underrepresented or misrepresented when compared to Partition in Punjab. This could well be attributed to, as Mookerjea-Leonard is cognisant of, the predominant and recurrent theme ofdisplacement in the east as opposed to that of horrific violence in the west.

Read the rest in The Wire.

Book review: The Historian’s Daughter by Rashida Murphy

First published in Cafe Dissensus

Title: The Historian’s Daughter
Author: Rashida Murphy
Publisher: UWA Publishing, 2016

The Historian’s Daughter could well have been titled The House of Secrets. Isn’t that what a “house with too many windows and women” is likely to be? The historian in question is the father of Hannah, the novel’s secret-digging young protagonist. Throughout the first-person narrative, she refers to her father as the Historian because of his real-life profession and her mother as the Magician due to her spell-inducing sweetness. Why then isn’t the book called The Magician’s Daughter? That’s a secret Hannah must accidentally come upon, and one that her creator Rashida Murphy guards with skilled control as she takes the reader on a voyage spanning familial and political upheavals and migrations across continents and personal mind maps.

Hannah’s fetish for secret busting is a natural function of her environment. History is the kernel wrapped in its homonym cousin – mystery. Both mystery and history flow freely in Hannah’s house in the hills, which she shares with her parents, older sister Gloria, brothers, Warren and Clive and her numerous aunts who come visiting and stay put for extended periods of time. Her historian father’s library – one he has inherited from his “despicable” British father – is the first depository that would trigger, and in time train, her sleuthing skills. A series of books on the English “conquistadors” of India sets her off on her quest to understating and even confronting the past, however unsettling.

The dramas and dark corners of family life dominate the early part of Hannah’s – and the book’s – world. While she’s happy to be under Gloria’s elder-sisterly wings and bask in the Magician’s affection, what makes her recoil at the sight of her father is a muddied phantasm the reader must, like Hannah, uncover in layers. This is also the part of the novel that brims with Persian fragrances – black tea with mint and carrot halwa; and with fables – of heroes Rustom and Sohrab, which the Magician reads to her daughters and of Rani, a less-than-heroic aunt dubbed crazy and living practically under house arrest.

The dynamics of this universe of chaotic delight changes forever when Sohrab, an Iranian young man – enters the scene. An acquaintance of Farah, the Magician, Sohrab bears about him an uneasy wind – that of the turmoil sweeping through Iran during the period of the country’s revolution in the late 1970s.

As with seeds that winds disperse all over the place, the lives of Hannah and her family get scattered, and Hannah finds herself in Australia as an immigrant. Transplanted without the nourishing support of her mother or sister, it is in Perth that Hannah has to find her own bearings. This is also where she finds love as well as a reason to return to the continent she came from – first in Iran in search of her sister, then in India to look for the Magician. Through it all, she must not only witness but also endure – hardship and the excesses of revolutions; cruel family secrets and the maturing of love, loveless hearts and an infant’s unbridled affection. The story in this part oscillates between physical and mental spaces as Hannah negotiates the distance between her present and her memories. The narrative feels somewhat jerky at times, perhaps not too different from the rugged emotional terrain Hannah herself treads through.

Through it all, Hannah also finds her own voice as a woman – one that’s not shaped or seasoned by the stronger women of her childhood. She’s funny and sharp, confident, and vulnerable – a mass of real flesh and blood. She is bold but her courage isn’t about an absence of fear. It is about running with – not away from – fear. She’s impulsive and a passionate lover, but most of all, she’s a baton-bearer of the two women who she first learned to love from – her mother and sister. This is what makes The Historian’s Daughter a remarkably feminist novel in the garb of a family saga. Rashida Murphy is clear about fashioning it so, whether it is by making Gloria prevent Hannah’s genital mutilation by their aunt; the girls’ mother staging her own silent rebellion; or Hannah’s firmness in chasing her convictions, regardless of self-doubt and social pressure. These are strong women who aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses. 

The Historian’s Daughter engages as much with its plot twists as with its honesty and narrative sweep. The language is crisp, the imagery vibrant, and the plotlines stable trellises for the vines they support. This is Murphy’s first book and, for me, a wellspring of promise and anticipation. The malleability with which her love of history, research, politics, and storytelling meld into a whole makes her a writer to look forward to.

Cutting Through Mountains to Build a Statue

An excerpt from Somendranath Bandyopadhyay’s My Days with Ramkinkar Baij where the sculptor and painter shares with the author his experience of sculpting the Yaksha-Yakshi statues that stand outside the central bank in New Delhi.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Kinkarda’s innocence amuses me. He is oblivious to the gigantic cost of cutting through a mountain. I know that once he had to pay the price for this inexperience. Recalling the incident I say, ‘You did do a major work by cutting stones later, though. In front of New Delhi’s Reserve Bank.’

‘Yes. The Reserve Bank governor had provided me with a lot of conveniences. Their only request was “Do something”.

‘I made Yaksha-Yakshi. Many people call it ‘Kuber’. Arre, why should it be Kuber? It’s not Kuber. It is Yaksha. They aren’t even husband and wife, but brother and sister. Yakshi. Had it been the wife, she would have been called Yakshini.

‘In Bharatpur and Sanchi, I had seen ancient Yaksha-Yakshi statues. Their limbs were broken. I also studied a few of those at the Patna Museum.

Yakshi holds the territory of land and agriculture. And Yaksha reigns over wealth. Kuber is above them. You must have read Coomaraswamy’s book; that contains everything.

‘You might have noticed that I’ve placed a discus in my sculpture’s hand. That was my idea. Addition. It’s a modern-day machine and is symbolic of industry. I got the idea for the flower and paddy cluster in Yakshi’s hand from the old statues. You know what Yaksha held in the ancient statues? A mallet. And a bag in the left hand. I have placed that too. Money bag. My Yaksha is completely modern – with a machine and a money bag. And is it possible to have the money bag and not have a fat belly? Yakshas do have protruding bellies, my dear. You must have seen ancient Yaksha statues. My Yaksha has it too.’

Read the rest in The Wire.