Pride Reading—Three: Love and Reparation by Danish Sheikh

My first two Pride reads for June 2022 were works by trans women, from India and the US respectively. My third read returns my attention to the Subcontinent, and dramatizes the impact of two important legal milestones impacting the Indian LGBT community over the past few decades. Part of Seagull Books’ Pride List, Love and Reparation: A Theatrical Response to the Section 377 Litigation in India is playwright and activist lawyer Danish Sheikh’s professional and personal reckoning with the effort to overturn Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the colonial era prohibition against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” which had long been used to target members of the LGBT community, and the strange emotions that can arise when a lengthy battle is finally won. If that sounds like dry subject matter for theatre it is anything but. Sheikh deftly weaves material drawn from court transcripts and witness affidavits, with his own experiences and those of others to create a multi-voiced, engaging response to a life-altering legal decision.

It was, of course, not an easy road to decriminalization. Love and Reparation gathers two plays into one volume, a pairing that reads as both complimentary and necessary. Section 377 was first overturned in 2009, following a long, ultimately successful challenge of its constitutionality, in Delhi High Court, by the NAZ Foundation, an NGO. This welcome release would prove to be short lived; a week later an astrologer filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. In 2012, the final arguments in the case were heard over a six-week period. The first play, Contempt, draws on the court proceedings to creatively stage the legal arguments and affidavits that were presented to the judges. It is grounded in reality, as the playwright puts it, but is allowed to wander into passionate and poetic musings as witnesses share their experiences. The play ends with the judges’ fateful decision. In December 2013, the Delhi High Court ruling was reversed and same sex activity was once again criminalized.

A series of petitions challenging the validity of the judgement followed and after much delay, a five-judge bench was finally assembled to hear the matter in 2018. In September of that year, the earlier ruling was overturned, effectually decriminalizing queer sexual relations, in privacy, between consenting adults. The second play Pride, dramatizes the state the community finds itself in once the battle is over—both joy and uncertainty arise once the unifying bonds of the battle are no longer holding people together or framing their engagements with one another. The what now? moment. As Sheikh says:

Pride was my attempt to come to terms with—what? This time around, the object of my dissent was less clear. All I knew was that I had to write my way through this tangle.

Or, perhaps, to wrought this tangle into shape.

The drama revolves around sessions between a gay man and his therapist. He is trying to figure out why love seems so elusive to him. A character chorus of voices spread through the audience, speak to the legal case and the post-ruling experiences and presence of LGBT persons in Indian society.

For each play the setting and stage directions are simple and clear. That makes them easy to read and imagine in performance. By incorporating a blend of history, legal argument, personal accounts, and literary references, Sheikh has created drama that is both moving and at times surprisingly funny. In Contempt, the judges unwittingly supply the humour, pushing the lawyer to the point of absurdity at times and taking a little too much interest in the exact nature of unnatural carnal knowledge. The playwright admits he didn’t need to alter their words as found in the transcripts. The dramatized witness statements from a gay man, two lesbians and a transgender woman bring to life the reality of forced psychiatric interventions, innocent love affairs and brutal treatment from the police.

Pride demonstrates that legalization is not the end. There are, of course, more battles to wage to level the playing field for LGBT people, but there is also an uncertainty about how to live and love in a decriminalized landscape. How to repair all the years of existence up against the fear of being arrested simply for loving, for being yourself. The dynamic between the older female therapist and the young gay man whose conversations form the core of the play is very effective, and gives the drama it immediate emotional energy. As A. recounts his multiple failed attempts to find someone to love, T. challenges his conclusions.

A.  How does it work? How can it just come and go without warning? How is this not the most terrifying thing in the world, how can I wake up one morning and realize I’m out of love with this man who is otherwise perfect for me? How could Socrates wake up one morning and realize he’s out of love with me?

T.  Maybe he wasn’t perfect for you?

A.  Maybe

T.  And you know you weren’t perfect for Socrates.

A.  Possibly

T.  And then there’s the other thing.

A.  That I’m terrible at this stuff?

T.  That nobody is actually perfect for anybody else. It’s never not work. Sometimes you choose to do the work. Sometimes you decide it isn’t worth the work. You can’t choose how you feel, you can’t choose when it comes and goes. But that other part—that you can choose.

Their sessions are broken up by interludes during which the chorus of voices/characters speak to the legal fight against Section 377, the ways their lives have or have not changed since it was ruled unconstitutional, and, as needed, taking on a role within the therapy sections.

As an non-Indian LGBT person, I was not aware of the exact status of queer people in the country until more recently, but the final decision on Section 377 did come down following my first visit to the country, so it was of great interest to me. No matter what concerns face LGBT folk in the west, especially with the increasing pressure of more extreme right-wing conservative political influence, we are still accustomed to much more freedom and access to resources than our brothers, sisters and peers in many countries. The interesting thing for me in this book, particularly with Pride, is the examination of the degree to which achieving a measure of freedom can lead to a confusion or loss of meaning. It occurs at the level of the “community” leading to splintering and divisions, but it also happens in a deeply private way. Given my own personal journey, I have always held that I feel no shame but cannot embrace the concept of Pride. Without disclosing the protagonist’s revelation, I will say that this play has really caused me to question my conviction.

I feel this pair of plays holds much to appeal to readers interested in contemporary drama, legal debate, social justice and the evolution of LGBT rights, in India and beyond. The playwright clearly frames his motivation and inspiration for the writing of these plays in his introduction, while a timeline and an extensive resource list round out the supporting material. But most critically, at the heart of both plays are very important recognizable, sometimes disturbing, human stories that deserve to be heard.

Love and Reparation: A Theatrical Response to the Section 377 Litigation in India by Danish Sheikh is published by Seagull Books as part of their Pride List series.

Pride Reading 2022 – One: My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi

I have touched on the question of Pride before here on roughghosts. Each year as June comes around I face the increasing onslaught of rainbow enthusiasm with trepidation. It brings up a lot of complicated emotions for me as someone who technically falls within the LGBTQ spectrum but has never managed to find a home within that space. I am not ashamed of who I am, but I feel no thrill of connection with the notion of Pride and have some very painful memories of the rejection and intolerance I’ve encountered from within that “community.” However, every June I promise myself that I will face my anxieties head on with some sort of nod to the season, and, since my city does not celebrate Pride until late August, it’s more of an abstract goal. I don’t have to be out there, so to speak. I can read my way through.

This year I decided to read three books, two from India, one from the US. Two of these books are trans-specific, one of the Indian titles and the American work, both nonfiction. I don’t think I’ve read any trans-related nonfiction for at least twenty years, since the time when I myself was exploring transition and beginning my own journey. The works I have on my shelves and the common language and perspectives typically held within the transgender male support networks that saw me through the early years tend to be, to a new, vocal generation, offensively outdated. Distance and experience shape each trans person but, unfortunately, true diversity is not always applauded within groups of marginalized people who tend to be just as capable as any other group of fracturing along lines of race, class, sex, sexuality and gender, and insisting that those who are not like them do not belong. Trans people seem to be centre stage right now, inspiring plenty of negative and positive reactions in the process, but my own feelings about all of this, more than twenty years post-transition, are conflicted. I will just say that I am glad I came out and transitioned before the advent of social media.

The first book on my list is one I’ve been curious about for years, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi, a trans woman and activist from India. Published in 2016, this book is a follow up to her popular memoir, The Truth About Me (2010). She does include an overview of her own basic life experiences: growing up longing to be a girl, running away from home to join a hijra community, her family’s often violent reaction, her eagerness to have surgery—castration for which she was awake—the dynamics within hijra society and the necessity to engage in begging and sex work for lack of other options. The world she describes is one which provides support but is also strictly hierarchical and sometimes cruel. It is an honest account, nothing is idealized, but she expresses pride in herself as woman and has tirelessly advocated for hijra and other transgender communities.

Revathi’s account of her work within not-for-profit agencies dedicated to supporting sexual and gender minorities, is quite telling. Initially she was welcomed to help expand their mandate, but it was often a fraught relationship in which, as a non-English speaking trans woman, she still battled the stigmas faced by hijras and other gender different persons. As her advocacy opened up to include the concerns of lower caste, dalit and adivasi (tribal) populations, the persistence of class biases even within organizations devoted to marginal groups ran deep. She spent a decade working with an agency in Bengaluru, an experience which offered a dignified, if less lucrative alternative to sex work, and taught her how to effectively advocate for trans people,  fight for their (and her own) basic rights—ID cards, passports—provide crisis support and legal resources, speak to international audiences, and much more. However, in the end it became clear she would never gain real respect from her co-workers. As she says:

We say that we work for the non-English speaking working class, for sexual and gender minorities. But I realized that as a director you are respected only if you are upper class and English speaking.

After leaving the agency, Revathi was again faced with the question of making a living without returning to the only avenues typically available to hijra. She decided to write a book. Sharing her story brought her attention and increased opportunities to speak for transgender people. Her memoir, originally published in her native Tamil, has subsequently been translated into English and a number of other Indian languages. Although a current of financial insecurity, family conflict and the tragic loss of friends and “chosen family” members runs through her life, I found her enthusiasm and heartaches to be endlessly moving. She seems to be forward looking, ever seeking to improve her own life and that of her community even when it has meant resisting the norms of traditional hijra culture. At the same time she alludes to moments of devastating despair along the way. Although my own experiences were not complicated by the extremes of class inequality and poverty faced by so many trans people in India, it was not and has not been easy. Discrimination, loss and isolation are very real for many of us. But what really excited me about this book is the extensive coverage of trans men who not only tend to be less visible, but lack the type of support network available to hijra who in turn frequently look at them with distrust, refusing to accept them as men. Revathi admits that she also had to overcome her own initial skepticism about the validity of the female to male experience—no surprise, I’m aware that many people, even trans women, still do not know we exist.

Included in My Life in Trans Activism are five profiles of trans men, transcribed from interviews the author collected, and two autobiographical pieces. I recognized these stories, but within the Indian context poverty, social class and the severe expectations and limitations placed on girls and women, especially in villages and small towns, vastly increase the challenges faced. The two personal essays were of particular interest to me, especially “Emperor Penguins” by Gee Imaan Semmalar who was involved in the theatre at the time of publication of this book but is now (I just had to search) a PhD candidate at the University of Kent. His account is striking because his mother, like mine, was supportive and his top surgery botched. Similarly, a long, lonely search for other trans men, a difficult decision to transition, then saving and searching for surgeons within a nascent resource network were challenges familiar to me, but this passage spoke clearly to concerns that never go away:

Health care (or the lack of it) is one glaring example of how trans people across caste along with the millions of poor dalits, Muslims, and adivasis of this subcontinent are denied basic rights. And so, every time a speeding ambulance goes past me on the streets, I relive my worst nightmare—of being in an accident and taken to a hospital on time, unconscious, with nobody to ‘explain’ why my body looks the way it does.

Health care where I live, even in an emergency, has been remarkably safe and respectful, but over the past few years I began to travel. I’ve made several trips to India where I am keenly aware of the relative security looking like a man affords me on streets where I sometimes see few women alone. But the thought of an accident or illness that would send me to hospital with a body that would instantly betray me is unsettling. I do have friends in the country who are aware of my status but I don’t think any realize what a predicament I could find myself in.

My Life in Trans Activism has an accessible, colloquial quality. Revathi was unable to physically write the book due to back problems, so she told her story in Tamil to Nandini Murali who translated it into English. Both women describe their working relationship as a special friendship and as such the narrative retains a natural conversational feel. What comes through repeatedly is Revathi’s passion and vision. She has observed divisions arise among members of the trans community within organizational settings, a not uncommon phenomenon within the wider LGBTQ community as well, but she continually speaks to unity that respects diversity, among trans people:

I believe that we are who we are. Being a transgender is all about who you are deep inside, not how you appear on the outside. Whether we call ourselves male to female trans persons, female to male trans persons, gender queer, we have to negotiate our transitions and our place in the world and struggle against oppression.

This is then, in many senses, a manifesto, one that ends with hope for a better world in which differences no longer tear people apart. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that may yet be a long way off.

My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi, as told to Nandini Murali, is published by Zubaan. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book in the fall of 2022. I imagine it may be updated as some of the legal circumstances impacting sexual and gender minorities in India have changed in the past few years. If so I will be curious to know her response to the current state of affairs.

Crossing borders and defying boundaries: Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree

Think of a story as a living being. There are countless beings and countless types of beings. Physiques, lifestyles, screams, conversations, breaths, tremblings, horns, mutenesses, ways of living and dying, all different. So running off in the middle of a story in a huff is simply not acceptable. Let it live its life, find its own denouement. A butterfly’s tale is a few days a flutter, a bee gets four weeks abuzz, a mouse drools over a handful of crumbs; if a dog lives twenty years, good for him, and yes, if you’re a parrot, turtle or elephant, you get a full century. The wretched cockroach won’t even die when fired from a cannon.

First things first, yes this story sprawls across some 700 pages, give or take, but as the above quote indicates, it has, as all stories do, its own lifeblood, its own pace, and Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, kicks up its heels, starts with bold and defiant enthusiasm, and refuses to let go from its first paragraphs to its final words—and even then it carries an advisory that no story ever really ends. Quite simply, this energetic, intelligent and engrossing novel, brilliantly translated (or is that dazzlingly transformed?) from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, has the power to delight just about anyone with a pulse. Even an avowed novella devotee such as myself.

Tilted Axis, UK edition

Central, no, essential to this tale is one singular octogenarian heroine—Ma, Amma, Granny, Mata-ji, or Baji—depending on the perspective of the character (or creature) who falls into her orbit. Recently widowed as the novel opens, she spends the first, say, 175 pages or so lying in bed, defiantly turning her back to the world, ignoring the desperate entreaties of family and friends. She seems determined to remain, confined in her grief, willing herself to dissolve into the wall. Propped by her bedside is a cane, a gift of a grandson, one who engages for the most part from a distance and is thus known as Overseas Son. This collapsible cane, decorated with butterflies, is the key magical element in this oversized, yet thoroughly down-to-earth fable. What revolves and expands around Ma and her cane, is a story about borders—about women and borders we are told at the very outset—but it is also about all sorts of boundaries. Between genders (in society and within a single body and life), classes, family members, religions, nations and even between human and nonhuman communities.

Prior to her retreat from the world following the death of her husband, Ma was the typical matriarch of an upper middle-class Indian family. If there were subtle hints of a certain eccentricity, she devoted herself to the role of wife and mother, surrounded by her son, daughter, and daughter-in-law, referred to respectively as Bade, Beti and Bahu. Of the immediate family members, only the eldest grandson is known by a given name, Siddharth or Sid. The majority of the burgeoning cast however, servants, officials, Ma’s dear hirja friend have proper names of some sort—an indication that it is the core of the family that will have their prized self-identities tested the most once Ma emerges from her mourning isolation reborn, so with a fresh, almost adolescent sense of wonder and adventure.

Penguin India edition, cover illustration by translator Daisy Rockwell

However, before Ma’s new lust for life begins to assert itself, she disappears, raising all manner of panic, alarm and indignant outrage, only to turn up days later, at the police station, oddly changed, apparently confused and so much smaller than anyone remembers. Bade and Bahu are greatly relieved. He has just retired after an auspicious career in the government and will soon be moving from his official residence to a retirement flat where, as custom dictates, his mother will live and be cared for. But Ma has other plans. She intends to go home with her daughter.

Beti is, at first, pleased and surprised. She has always imagined herself as the free-spirited, bohemian member of the family. A feminist. An activist. Divorced, she lives alone in a modern flat decorated with art and stylish furniture. Her current boyfriend, KK, visits when he is not travelling. Both of them are journalists and value the ability to come and go as they please. Ma’s presence begins to upend everything Beti thinks she knows about herself, especially as Rosie Bau, Ma’s long-time hijra friend begins to spend more and more time visiting, charming everyone except Beti in the process.

The story in its second part becomes one of shifting roles and questions of identity. Bade struggles with the aimlessness of retirement, Bahu, is conflicted by her desire for individual expression and her commitment to the expectations of her place in society, and Beti by just about everything she has valued as she finds herself losing control of the world she has carefully constructed around her. She pulls away from her boyfriend. She is at once grateful for and resentful of the care and friendship Rosie offers her mother. And her work suffers as she finds herself slipping into a mothering/housewife role she had so proudly avoided. As Ma continues to shed layers of her past, to defy what others had long expected of her, her daughter acquires new, suffocating layers. One woman grows smaller as the other grows bigger, so to speak.

Finally, in the third part, Tomb of Sand enters the realm of Partition literature, heralded by an opening chapter that features a ghostly contingent of the many literary greats who have contributed to the tradition gathered at the Wagah Gate, the only land crossing between India and Pakistan where every evening a grand spectacle is held to mark the day’s end. The legendary authors and some of their iconic characters jostle for attention and much mayhem ensues, culminating with a direct, albeit invisible attack of mischief that disrupts the famed flag lowering ceremony. Of course, cellphones are duly collected by the embarrassed guards and no tangible record of the event survives. With that introduction, Ma and Beti’s adventures on the far side of the border—a border which has so bitterly divided a nation that once was one—is guaranteed to be filled with unexpected excitement, horror and heartache.

Of course, a thumbnail sketch like this hardly begins to do justice to a work like this in which the whole and its parts together create a larger-than-life experience filled with warmth, humour, and social, ecological and political commentary without skipping a beat. Ancient history and modern concerns—local, national and global—are wound together. The boisterous, omniscient third person narrative voice seamlessly drops in advice, wisdom and instructive asides along the way. There are characters we never see from the inside, Ma and Rosie in particular although they both will have their moment to speak deeply and passionately from the heart. By contrast, Bade’s and especially Beti’s tangled emotions are opened up wide. And we also cross over into the heart and mind of a crow and his community (who have some very pointed opinions on the way human creatures are fouling the planet) and are given, on occasion, the door’s eye view of the ongoing affairs because there are, after all, some things a door cannot avoid seeing. Finally, there is a guest narrator who makes several cameo appearances, a friend of Sid’s who by his own admission is not a character in this story, but happens to be on scene at the time. His brief first-person accounts stand as grounded eye witness reports of some of the more fantastic elements that others too busy with the business at hand may well have missed. This all may sound like a bit too much, but it works, the flow is smooth and swift and that the pages seem to turn of their own accord.

Then there is the language which necessarily involves a discussion of the translation. This book is liberally littered with Hindi (along with some and even a little Sanskrit) sometimes translated, obviously as with quoted poetry or, obliquely as in a clever comments like: “And no one will say, but these are good days, acche din! Except for the government, that is.” But more often than not,  Hindi words are simply worked directly into the text without any effort—or need—to explain though I will confess that as a reader with a basic Hindi vocabulary it was fun to recognize and understand them.

The original Hindi version of this book was known for its exuberant wordplay and this is where the translator’s careful attention to the spirit and the energy clearly shines. Onomatopoeia is liberally employed and generally transferrable, but the puns, layered meanings and alliteration possible in one language cannot be reproduced directly. The author and her translator established a good rapport that openly encouraged wordplay in the target language, and, as Rockwell describes in her Translator’s Note, she endeavoured to evoke an echo, a resonance, a dhwani of the source text. The result is work that embodies mood and emotion so effortlessly that even the smallest moments seem charged with life’s joys and sorrows:

No one noticed when the leaves changed the season of the heart yet again. When the monsoon was at its peak. The leaves grew fat. Hanging heavy on the trees. They hung, dripping sadness. Even when they’re quiet they hang heavy. There’s beauty in their fullness, but there’s a core of grief, dark and deep. The raga of grief in slow tempo, extremely slow, a despondent alaap, a prelude. Or is it a vilaap, a lamentation?

Finally, I want to say something of the portrayal of the hijra character Rosie who is key to the turning of the events that drive this novel. She is an independent figure, standing apart from many of the common activities that have so often defined hijra existence—begging and sex work. But that makes her an enigma and a perceived threat to Beti for all of the latter’s assumed hipness and LGBTQ-allyness. Rosie has a hold and influence on her mother that she cannot appreciate and this heightens her obsession with the hijra’s body, her otherness and the secret alliance Ma and Rosie seem to share:

What was all this topsy-turvy talk? Perhaps there was some clue to help Beti understand this topsy-turvy body. Strange how whatever one said of Rosie, the opposite was also germane. Like a body engaged in challenging all stereotypes and definitions. A body unrecognizing of the legitimacy of any borders. Flowing this way and that.

When Rosie eventually begins  to appear at times in male presentation, Beti is unable to cope with the dissonance that does not seem to bother her mother, KK or anyone else in her housing society. Yet, ultimately Rosie will be given the opportunity to take up the issue of her reality from her own perspective, as one who is not considered to exist, to be of value, to belong to anywhere. In this character, in her fabulousness and her tragedy alike, is a strong statement that I, as a legally and socially transitioned person who has crossed from one side of the gendered border to the other, can relate to. It is a recognition, not always acknowledged in fashionable transgender discourse, that we never really belong to either side. Some boundaries we carry within us forever.

Tomb of Sand is a huge novel, a story that celebrates the best of storytelling as an art form and as part of a cultural tradition.  Packed full of historical and literary figures and references, snatches of Bollywood song lyrics, and a wealth of culinary delights, it does what translated literature should do at its best: Invite the reader in, welcoming them to cross linguistic boundaries and experience a story that is filled with the scents, flavours and tones of its home country yet recognizable and relatable in the very human and global concerns it explores. Defying borders, at least for a time.

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree is translated by Daisy Rockwell and published by Tilted Axis in the UK and by Penguin in India. It has been longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, the first Hindi translation to be nominated for this award.

Saying farewell to 2021 with some of the books I loved and best wishes for the future

If 2020 was the year that my ability to read and write felt the numbing impact of a medicated mind, 2021 was the year I had to decide what was really important. My mind is still medicated, but with a drug that does not leave me mentally spongy like the one that I lived on for more than a year. There are pros and cons with any maintenance drug, but I realized that, all things considered, I was better off with the devil I know than the one that was pulling me under. So, by mid-September I began to feel a welcoming release from the haze I’d been struggling against and it became easier to engage fully with literature once again. My reading never stopped, of course, it only slowed, and as I gather my thoughts on my favourite books of 2021, I can see that half of the works I remember most fondly were read in the first two-thirds of the year. But I will admit that every review I wrote during that time was painful, as if pulling my own words together to talk about the words of others was a huge task. In the end, reading only feels like a complete activity if I can articulate a response to each book, regardless of whether it comes out in a “review” of some sort. It is only now that my capacity to read has been restored do I realize how truly impaired it was.

With 2021 and all its global and personal challenges slipping into the rear view mirror, I wanted to take a moment to consider my favourites of the books I read this year. I skipped this readerly ritual last year and, as ever, I am troubled by the fact that each such list necessarily leaves out so many excellent works because, quite honestly, if I am not enjoying a book I rarely feel inclined to finish it, let alone write about it here. So with that in mind, but sticking to a strict ten titles, here’s my contribution to the discussion.

First, my top three. One will be no surprise to anyone who follows my blog: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta (tr. by Teresa Lavendar-Fagan). Probably the last book I read before transitioning off the troublesome medication, this imagining of the final moments of Osip Mandelstam against a tight, poetic flight back through his life thrilled me with its confident sense that sometimes less truly is more. In the reading I would regularly stop to think: How did she say so much with so few words? This is the work of an accomplished, mature writer. Apart from singing this book’s praises at every opportunity on Twitter, I spoke about it about on this video and recommended it in the December issue of The Bangalore Review.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany (tr. by Robin Moger) is one of those books that defies classification—standing somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, it can best be considered an imaginative meditation on sleep and the sleeper that leans toward the philosophical in its grounding, but is unbound in its scope. Thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring.

Finally, I read some amazing poetry this year and as usual I found my limited formal understanding of the literary form a barrier to confident articulation of a response, but with Lost, Hurt, and in Transit Beautiful by Nepali-Indian Anglophone poet, Rohan Chhetri, I just wanted to scream READ THIS BOOK! It has disappointed me to see that this collection seems to have been under-appreciated in its US release (it was published simultaneously in India) because it is not only accessible, but gorgeous, and shockingly violent. Stunning.

The balance of my top ten (in the order that stacked best for the sake of a photograph) are:

If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (tr. by Elizabeth Harris), is the story of a young Italian man who travels to Romania to attend to the affairs of his deceased mother from whom he has been long estranged. It presents a simmering, spare narrative—the kind of read that I responded to especially well with reduced focus and concentration—that resists the need for any tight resolution.

Outgoing Vessel by experimental Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Ogaard Jensen) is perhaps a little more brittle and restrained than Third-Millenium Heart but once again her work takes you on an operatic post-human, yet humane, adventure. Excellent.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (tr. by Robin Moger) offers a different kind of adventure into an otherworldly Egypt that is very much informed by a fragmented post-Arab Spring reality. Hard to follow at first, yet fun to read, with much uncertain resolution.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott (tr. by Karen Leeder). I had been saving this dreamy little volume, knowing that little of this Austrian poet’s work is available in English. The tale of one man’s relationships with three women, it is also a meditation on deserts and the search for home. Exactly the kind of undefinable book I treasure.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (tr. by Isabel Fargo Cole) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve read almost all of his work available in translation, and was a little apprehensive about this novel, knowing that he is perhaps at his best in his meandering, surreal shorter works. But this much more conventional narrative featuring another iteration of the classic Hilbig protagonist felt somehow closer to the man himself—a hard drinking, socially awkward, reluctant literary “star” who cannot find a home on either side of the Wall.

With The Promise, South African writer Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize after three nominations and somehow I fear that certain readers might eschew this book because he won this prize (yes we literary folk are a fickle lot). I have long been a fan, and although this book will never replace some of his smaller, quieter efforts in my heart, The Promise is a sweeping portrait of four decades of South African history through the lens of a mischievous high modernist narrator who is by turns, funny, caustic and clever.

And last, but not least, I was offered an opportunity to read a couple of fascinating MIT Press titles by virtue of ending up on a publicist list, and without that I would never have stumbled across Sandfuture by Justin Beal. This is one of those unlikely hybrid essays—a biography of Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Centre that is also a reflection on art, illness, urban planning and more—and it works remarkably well. I had so much fun reading and writing about this book that I can only hope that it comes to the attention of the audience it deserves.

For the New Year, I have no specific reading intentions, aside from a small winter project to read some Norwegian literature—no particular reason, I just have a few things piling up and it seems a suitable goal for the cold, dark  months ahead. I’m also hoping to ease back into writing again after a dry spell. Ideas are starting to trickle to the surface, I’ll see if they lead me anywhere. And otherwise I will probably continue my idiosyncratic literary meanderings and savour the ability to read at a faster, yet deeper pace than I was at this time last year.

Oh yeah, and if travel feels feasible again, I hope I might be able to pack my bags and catch up with distant friends by the time this old earth makes its way around the sun once more.  May you be warm, well, and have plenty of light to read by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

“Imagination is resistance against life and nature”: Wolves by Bhuwaneshwar

In the course of a human life, a stage arrives when even change is conquered. When the rise and fall of our life doesn’t mean anything to us, and neither does it interest others. When we live only to remain alive, and death arrives yet doesn’t.
(from “Aunty”)

Some writers appear, seemingly from nowhere, burn brightly for a short time before disappearing into disarray and obscurity. Hindi writer Bhuwaneshwar is one such author. Neither end of his life can be firmly dated—born in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh between 1910 and 1915, he ended his days sometime in 1957, in Varanasi, where he was last seen ill and living among beggars. In the years that intervened there was a moment when this man with an exceptional gift for words appeared poised to lead Hindi literature into the future. His promise—and his pessimism—was recognized by Premchand, the prominent Indian writer known for his dedication to social realism. By contrast, his young protégée was more subversive in his approach, intent on shattering society’s myths and illusions to reveal its underlying darkness, a vision that won him both attention and distrust in the literary community. Yet, although his career was short, bookended by poverty and neglect, he left behind an important collection of stories and plays, along with Hindi translations of Gogol and Oscar Wilde—a body of work that has tended to remain largely forgotten in his homeland and essentially unknown in the English-speaking world. Now, with the release of Wolves and Other Stories—a slender volume containing twelve of Bhuwaneshar’s melancholy tales—translator Saudamini Deo has rekindled the voice and spirit of a man whose work captures a sense of ambiguity and anxiety that seems especially timely now, the better part of a century later.

The stories that comprise Wolves were originally published between 1935 and 1941, the majority in Hans, the literary magazine established by Premchand. The Indian Independence Movement was in its final stages, as reflected in an atmosphere of uncertainty that pervades these tales. But Bhuwaneshwar is not explicitly political in his writings. He is asking more philosophical questions about what it means to be alive in a world that is increasingly inhumane and unforgiving. His mood is grim, death is a regular presence, but his characters manage to salvage some measure of humanity, against the odds.

These stories tend to feature lonely, isolated people—even if they are not necessarily alone—unmarried women, abandoned children, students, soldiers, doctors, drifters and others who, for some reason or another, have found themselves at odds with their families, communities or societies. Some of my favourite stories are centred around women. In “Aunty” Bibbo is a poor woman, old “as if she’d originated old in the womb and turned immortal for a never-ending, unthinkable period,” has been seen as ever solitary and ancient by her neighbours. But she had, in her life, given her love and attention twice over, first to her nephew, abandoned to her care when her sister died. After that child grew up and moved away, he returned years later with his own son, now motherless, and begged his aunty to take care of the child. Again Bibbo consented, at great financial and emotional cost. She has her revenge though, in the end, in a small attempt to hold on to her dignity.

The dying woman at the heart of “Mothers and Sons” is also being exploited, on her death bed as her family gather around. Seen from her perspective, she revisits her dismay and disappointment in her sons and daughter-in-law’s as they imagine her clinging to more noble thoughts and argue about medical options. As death approaches, Bhuwaneshwar captures her shifting emotional state with remarkable intimacy:

At midnight, everyone was sleeping on mattresses on the floor, only Amma was awake and, as if drowning. Wondrously, even her troubles were drowning. She started thinking of faraway things. Meaningless, unparalleled. Some house, some man, once glimpsed somewhere, she started hearing strange sounds. But this state didn’t last long. She started feeling nervous, as if she was frightened of being alone on a dark road. There was no energy in the body, she had known for a while, she had grown used to it, but she was ready to fight for that energy now. Everyone was sleeping. She could hear their breaths, she recognized them, but what is all this to her when she has no more energy?

A wide range of voices emerge throughout this collection and the settings of the tales are varied, sometimes grounded in ordinary settings—hill station, post office, train compartment—others incorporating ghostly or somewhat surreal circumstances such as “Sun Worship” which follows a doctor and a raving madman on a strange urban journey. But the crowning entry is the title story, one of his best known, which closes this volume.

“Wolves” is presented as the reported account of an old gypsy of a horrific adventure from his youth. He and his father were making their way along in their family caravan which was heavily laden with pots and pans and three fifteen year-old acrobats when they were set upon by an unruly, insatiable pack of wolves. Forced to lighten the load, first with objects, then with passengers, the wolves just keep coming, consuming everything in their way. Relentless and unyielding, the story offers little respite. But its wolves are familiar—in our world today and no doubt to a man who saw beyond the façade of his own society and turned his visions into stories, stories he would come to imitate in his own life. He was pursued by wolves himself. Bhuwaneshwar’s later years were marked by mental illness—first his brother was committed to an asylum, and then he too was lost to madness and homelessness, like a character in his final unwritten tale.

Wolves and Other Stories by Bhuwaneshwar is translated by Saudamini Deo and published by Seagull Books as the first in a new series featuring Hindi literature.

My heart struggles for voice: Sing of Life – Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Around the world, many so-called literary classics are worked into educational curricula long before most students have the depth of life experience to fully appreciate them. How often have we heard (or said) I was put off this author or that work because we were forced to read it in school? But years later a revisit can open new doors, allow new light to enter. Even a piece of literature remembered as well received when one is young, will be met  with entirely new eyes decades later. Living informs the reading, alters the experience.

For countless students growing up in India, Rabindranath Tagore is one of those authors who might well be met with a mix of youthful admiration and obligation. I could not help but smile, then, when I read Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s account of her unexpected reunion with Tagore’s classic Gitanjali (Song Offering) when her husband picked it up off a bookshelf in a café in the village of Bir in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Before long, as she describes it, the small book was “spreadeagled” between the two of them on the table. With the Himalayas rising in the distance, she felt the words rise off the page and enter into her mind. Now, I must admit that I do know Priya and her husband, and that privilege that makes this image that much more endearing—the vision of a shared rediscovery, that will, in time, lead to the very text I now hold in my hands, her thoughtful and spirited new book Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali.

The original text, subtitled A Collection of Prose Translations Made by the Author from the Original Bengali with an Introduction by W.B.Yeats, was first published in 1913. It is comprised of 103 short pieces adapted from a longer version originally composed in verse. The Indian poet, writer, composer, painter and social reformer is, as are many great figures, a complex and cherished individual. In her Introduction, Chabria provides a succinct overview of his political/historical context, offering a key to understanding his philosophical and artistic importance before examining some of the key poetic and spiritual features that come through, for her, in Gitanjali:

To my mind, Tagore is a modernist bhakti/devotional poet. Cosmic harmonies ring through the love that souses this collection, at once familiar and mysterious as the changing lines on one’s palm. A blessed geography of space is summoned from within the body’s cells and outside, and in every time, whether recollected, in the present, or yet to come.

There is an inherent intimacy and longing in these prose poems combined with imagery and voicing—including an “osmosis of gendering”—that draws on a long tradition of Indian devotional love poetry. To someone unfamiliar with the genre such as myself, it feels exotic and mysterious. Are they to be understood as love songs or prayers? To whom are we listening? My own modest Dover edition copy of Gitanjali, read rather haphazardly without guidance, could hardly be said to have put me on familiar terms with its magic. However, in moving between the haunting revisions and the original songs, I found myself drawn into a sort of conversation of echoes, bridging a century, through which I was free to discover the songs that most clearly and personally spoke to me.

Enter my heart unbidden
even unknown to me

The steps I heard
in my room are

the same that echo
from star to star (from #43, Sing of Life)

It is clear from the Introduction that although the desire to engage, notebook in hand, was an almost immediate response to her chance reencounter with a classic, this was not a project entered into lightly. Chabria details her approach, her reasoning and her own reassurance that Tagore would not have been at odds with her intention and her desire to reimagine his poems, to pull the essence to the surface while remaining faithful to the intent, beauty and spirit of each piece. Her touch is spare, delicate. Key images and phrases are held, perhaps moved, gently rearranged or opened up, inviting space and silence into the telling. Tagore’s appeal to the Beloved, his lord, through his speakers—male, female, young, old—is an intimate one. They are filled with longing, gratitude, grief, peace. The energy and imagery is allowed to breathe fully in the revised imaginings, but they are not altered or lost. It is a remarkable feat.

To offer a taste, #39 reads:

When the heart is hard
come with a shower

When grace is lost
come with song

When work raises its din
come with peace

When my heart crouches
come with light & thunder

– –

lord

of silence

break

open

the door

For point of reference, the first two lines of the original prose version reads: WHEN the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy. / When grace is lost from life, come with burst of song.

Chabria notes that she was first encouraged to publish an excerpt as an erasure poem, but she felt that particular form did not apply “for mine is a tribute.” Great poems, she says, often serve as a spark or inspiration for another poet. She was not attempting to update Tagore either, for the original meditations still contain their fire for her and for us, as anyone turning to the text reproduced in the back of this book can instantly see and feel for themselves. The rhythms, images and moods shift throughout the course of Tagore’s Gitanjali, moving through joy and shame, anticipation and longing, darkness and light. As the sequence nears its close, an awareness of death holds more and more of the poet’s attention. In the revisioned songs of Sing of Life, images and phrases are distilled, sometimes reorganized, and visually spread across the page (each poem contains two sections, with the first sentences offered in verse form and the final sentence strung out across several lines). One senses that Chabria has listened closely, carefully, so her responses may honour the elements that seem most essential, highlighting their beauty and emotional depth.

Ever the mark of rewarding read, my copy of Priya’s latest book is now decorated with notes and sprouting coloured tabs. As a friend, her voice accompanied through my reading (and I resisted watching one of the readings or interviews she has recorded—many available on YouTube) before gathering my thoughts here. I have never known her to engage with any subject, be it over coffee or in the pages of her own books, without a passionate and heartfelt intensity (Yeats was wrong in this regard, by the way, sometimes the best are filled with a passionate intensity). With Sing of Life, this singular energy again comes through, pulling the reader into a double-stranded engagement with Tagore’s classic work. As today’s poet invites you in to her own essential revisioning of these rich prose pieces, be it for the first or the fiftieth time, where the encounter takes you—perhaps back to the original and forward again, or on some other tangent altogether—is your journey.

Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali by Priya Sarukkai Chabria is published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications in India, and widely available internationally.

Every revolution is a child grown before fire: Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful by Rohan Chhetri

      For so long I felt he was dead
or so alive I couldn’t bring myself to imagine
his ruined light, & yet there he was, grinning,
the old boy so far inside him, just looking
into his face was a vertiginous drop down
the cool dark of an abandoned well, & him
a thin shade at the bottom among the bones.

                              – from “Sebastian”

Consider the title: Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. The conjunction, or, carries the weight of invitation. And there is much stunning beauty to be found in the work of Nepali-Indian poet Rohan Chhetri, but also a heavy burden of loss and intolerable pain—often shocking in its sudden depiction or in its lingering aural presence. Intensity of images rooted primarily in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya runs up against layers of emotion barely articulated within tapestries that honour Western lyrical traditions. In awarding the original manuscript the prestigious Kundiman Prize, the Judges Citation recognizes that “Chhetri dramatizes and resists the ways language, and its implicit logic, limit what is possible within our most solitary reflections, defining even those ‘vague dreams’ that in the end we greet alone.”

Now this might seem an intimidating brief with which to open this commentary, but for a reader, no matter if their connection to poetry is casual or confident, there is a certain comfort with familiar forms, say an ode or a sonnet, that makes the turns and twists the themes take that much more striking. In conversation with his editor Kristina Marie Darling, Chhetri is asked about his approach and the value of encouraging this dialogue between inherited literary form and modern, experimental techniques. In his response he suggests that:

“my poetic impulse is a baroque one which is well suited to the syncretic, non-linear, anti-neocolonial poetics that can accommodate politics and revolution from the margins, the fabular, folk horror and mythology, the motif of katabatic descent, the marriage of the classical and the local etc. — all of this prismed through the multiple poetic traditions I write out of as a Nepali-Indian Anglophone writer.”

In this one, full-bodied sentence, the poet offers a clear sense of the mood permeating his work and the atmosphere that envelopes the reader travelling through it. His central point of reference is a borderland where many forces meet—literary, historical, lyrical—crossing lines, echoing long standing struggles over land, language and cultural autonomy. It exists on many levels, in the reality, in the imagining and in the documenting. When I look back across the poems in this slim volume I am reminded anew how grim they are, and yet what I remember is a certain beauty, a bone-deep fundamentalness of being. That is, I suppose, why the myths and fairy tales that enchant us also carry so much darkness and shadow.

Sorrow, absence, and death are never far from the surface in Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. There is a strong sense of ancestral connection to the poet’s Nepali-Indian background, but the lyric voice is not personal until later, enhancing the mythological, even epic, quality of the poems. Time and again hints of smothered brutality give way to moments of unflinching violence—a violence that arises by both natural force and human design. It is a part of the philosophical/literary exercise at hand, but one that is rooted in historical, political and ethnic conflict. As Chhetri explains, in this book:

there is always that implicit tension between language and violence but it also plays out more overtly in a poem like “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution”, which recounts the events of the last iteration of the Gorkhaland Movement in 2017, a hundred-year-old movement demanding self-determination and a separate Indian state for the Nepali-speaking population in West Bengal.

Revolutions—as an extended legacy gifted from generation to generation—run through this collection. The stories of grandparents, parents, and children find expression as choral and individual voices rising in lament. Some losses are intimate and cumulative, others vivid and abrupt:

Another afternoon            a fifteen-year-old boy
Hear the bullet              thud to breast like second heart
pain’s rubbery percussion             the way he looked up
mouth a shucked-oyster wobble                   Alive
in the elongating horror

                          – from “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution”

In such moments, the dynamic relationship between language and violence is realized with such a sensitive touch—just the right phrase, spacing, word—that the impact is simultaneously personal and political. The broader implications of such moments of barbarity ripple out far beyond any border-straddling community, across state, national and international lines, to be echoed afresh in the ongoing conversation between form, content and technique.

As one would expect, the poems that comprise this collection draw much of their energy and atmosphere from rural imagery featuring forests, rivers and a frequent appearance of deer (causing me to think of Trakl for his fondness for the same motif). However, especially in the latter sections as a lyrical “I” begins to appear, the speaker finds himself in New Delhi and Los Angeles. Yet, as in earlier pieces, the environment is reflected from an array of unexpected angles. Set in LA, “The Intelligence of Hunger” finds the poet who was once able to sleep through earthquakes, gunfire and rampaging elephants, newly alive to noise and a fresh urban reality, hot and dry with fires burning in the hills:

Where I live now every sound I make is a half-note
of loss. The bare mountain withstands, drought-
ridden, the Pacific breaking froth at its feet.
The wind rasps through the chaparral & I think
of the fire followers waiting in their late style
of hunger. The giant coreopsis that will bloom
for three bright weeks in April. I wanted to write
about these. If not love. Wildflowers, not grief.

Yet in this landscape so distant from home, his pen still turns to grief, as the end closes in on a sharp imagination of agony and sacrifice. A mood that crosses miles in an instant.

It is difficult to emerge from this stunning collection unmoved. The language and the intensity of imagery speak to something very primal, human and strangely comforting. I find myself returning over and over again to marvel at how the concert of words plays out on each page. Strongly recommended.

Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful, the third collection by Rohan Chhetri, is published by Tupelo Press in the US and Harper Collins in India with a UK edition coming from Platypus Press in 2022.

As long as I live in poetry: Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Just one more page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence—
give me one more word, dear nurse,
just one more day.
.        – from “The Lamp”

Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1938-2019) the much loved and highly respected Bengali author, scholar and feminist was a versatile and prolific writer whose extensive bibliography includes fiction, essays, children’s literature, travelogues, political columns and more. However, throughout her life she identified herself as a poet, first and foremost. As the daughter of two acclaimed poets, she began writing poems when she was a young child. In her comprehensive Introduction to the present collection, her daughter Nandana Dev Sen—not a poet herself, but a writer, actor and activist—reflects on the way poetry served as a vital and constant companion, one that was not always easy to satisfy. As Nandana records, in her mother’s own words:

“Poetry is like war,” she wrote. “A war with oneself. Finally, only when there is victory and peace, poetry follows. Poetry has to be earned.”

This sentiment can be felt in the clarity and precision that marks her work.

Acrobat presents a selection of poems that span Dev Sen’s career from the late 1950s through to 2019. It is very much a labour of love between a mother, the poet, and a daughter, the translator. Although she would not live to see the final publication, Nabaneeta Dev Sen was very excited about this book which would be her very first major release from a western publisher. She was gravely ill but undaunted when the project began and while translations of some of her poems already existed, she desired newer versions. A modest list of poems was compiled, but that was as far as mother and daughter could go together. Nandana translated those pieces and many more over the following months, gathering them together with a number of poems her mother had translated herself, a few that she had written in English, and one translated by her sister, Antara Dev Sen. Her Introduction includes a biography, personal in tone, and a discussion of the challenges of translating poetry and the considerations she followed when bringing her mother’s Bengali into English.

When presenting work drawn across a period of six decades, there is a common tendency to allow the date of publication to dictate the order. In Acrobat, however, the poetry of Nabaneeta Dev Sen is sorted along thematic lines. The book is divided into five sections, each named for a phrase pulled from one of the poems within it. A chronology is included at the back so one can, as I did, check to see the decade a particular poem belongs to. Such an organic approach makes for a wonderful reading experience, allowing one to appreciate the way the poet’s work visits and revisits similar subjects over the span of her life, with styles and perspectives shifting over time and place. Dev Sen married young and spent her twenties and early thirties living in the US and UK where her academic work eventually drew her away from poetry for a while. In 1974, when her marriage to economist Amartya Sen began to falter, she returned home to Kolkata. As a newly single mother with two daughters amid the scandal of divorce, poetry took on a new importance as a personal space in which to explore her pain, her identity, and her place in the world. In contrast to her scholarly writing which was primarily in English, for almost all of her creative work, she made the “political” decision to write in Bangla—not only a reflection of her feminist values and her language activism but as a voice for deeper emotional exploration and observation.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poetry, to my reading, is distinguished by an alertness to the moment in all its strangeness and wonder. She is attuned to the anxieties and the triumphs of life, distilling key elements into vivid images. This is beautifully illustrated in an early poem, “The Great Fair” that appears in the first section which revolves around the notion of time. The speaker is waiting with a cup of saved coins for an adult who has promised to return to take her to the Great Fair. She lists wonderous toys and treasures she expects to be able to buy, but:

As I waited on my steps
My limbs grew long
My list blew away in the wind
My cup of change became a trunk of gold.

There is nothing left for me to buy
From your Great Fair anymore.

I am going to get up from my steps now

There is a remarkable sadness and defiance in the voice of the speaker; that complicated mix of emotion that comes with growing up, letting go of, or seeing through, the illusions of childhood.

As a passionate advocate for the preservation of Indian tongues, a translator and a promoter of the voices of women, it is not surprising that poetry, words and language, frequently appear as subjects in Dev Sen’s poems. She approaches the theme with humour, with elegance and with pain. “The Year’s First Poem,” for example, begins:

Pretending
as if nothing at all has happened,
picking up the heart
from the sand, dusting it clean
pushing it back inside my blouse
secretly, the first year’s poem gets written.

Other themes that resurface include identity, relationships with others, and a search for deeper truths in life. These are, of course, not unique as poetic topics. It is the distinctive voice, the vulnerability and the openness that combine to make the poems in this collection so strong. But, more than that,  Nandana Dev Sen’s translations and her loving curation of this volume—which opens with an Introduction that is both biography and translator’s note and closes with an open letter to her mother—makes Acrobat at once a beautiful memorial that honours Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s life and spirit and a vital introduction to her poetry for English-speaking readers.

Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen is translated by Nandana Dev Sen and published by Archipelago Books.

Coming out elsewhere: Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall

Pride Month is typically a difficult time for me; it was worst in the years when I was trying to find a space within the LGBTQ “community.” For many, no matter what label(s) one lines up under, it can be an uneasy fit. Definitions are at once elastic and exclusionary and today, more than two decades after I first recognized myself as a trans man, I find myself drifting away from identities (in all aspects of my life) and exercising caution with language I do use to talk about who I am. However, there was a time—in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when self-identification was critical and a “queer” network (print, virtual and face-to-face) helped me come out, make the decision to transition, and cope with the fallout. Although my location and circumstances were far from those detailed in this book, it brought that time back to me all the same.

Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by activist and writer Pawan Dhall, traces the challenges, achievements and evolution of a fledgling  queer initiative in West Bengal and Odisha, one that was  driven by a need to provide connection, support, and sexual health resources to a variety of individuals who otherwise faced isolation, stigma, discrimination and physical threat. To read this account, one senses a time of darkness, concern and excitement, yet, although much has changed for queer people in India, especially in recent years, significant challenges still exist.

This slender, illustrated and referenced volume, part of Seagull Books’ Pride List series, presents a sort of textual and visual documentary of the early queer movement that began in Kolkata, eventually spreading out into rural areas and across state lines. As such it is a part of a broader story of queer life in India and across the globe, a story that in many countries still remains to be lived, let alone told. The author is a journalist with an archivist’s calling, and his intention is neither to explain nor justify the need for a queer movement; his focus is on the how, not the why. He relies on research into the archives of some of the earliest support forums in the area, and introduces many of the individuals who were involved with these groups or who sought their assistance at a time when resources were few and far between.  Where possible follow-up interviews were conducted in 2017. Allowing this story to unfold through real-life experiences, framed historically and in the present day, makes for a remarkably engaging read.

Central to the early queer mobilization as explored in Out of Line and Offline, is a support group called Kolkata Counsel Club, formed in 1993 by a small number of gay and bisexual men including the author. Dhall had already started publishing a queer themed newsletter on his own and it soon became the house journal of Counsel Club and a beacon for countless isolated, uncertain and questioning queer people who wrote letters seeking advice, validation or contact. As Dhall says, “This was the pre-Internet era; even acquiring a telephone connection was a tough task.” Younger folk coming out in the age of social media and a ubiquitous online world likely have little understanding of how vital books, photographs, and newsletters could be to people desperate to come to terms with feeling different, uncertain if anyone else like them exists. I remember it well.

In time, the group would grow and its sphere of influence would expand beyond that of men who have sex with men. Two female university students wrote to them, wishing to find a way to be together away from their families’ objections, so arrangements were made to help them “escape” to Delhi, a success that would not always be feasible for other such young women, sometimes with tragic consequences. Transgender women (often, but not always, hijras) would also find a place the queer movement, as well as representing an important target of sexual health advocacy, especially in poorer, rural communities. Of particular interest to me was the account of a young student who wrote to Counsel Club in 1999 from the small state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. An article on “women in love” had drawn their attention and through it they found the group’s mailing address. This individual (called “Ryan” in the book) claimed that although born a girl, they had the attitude and behaviour of a boy. Ryan was seeking help to have a sex-change. Dhall was struck by the absolute helplessness expressed and wrote two letters in response offering what empathy he could, albeit with a clarification that article that inspired the exchange had been about lesbians. Ryan did not write back, leaving much unresolved. Today Dhall is careful not to assign any label to his troubled correspondent—his own understanding has evolved with the changing awareness of a range sexualities and gender identities. This sensitivity is the mark of someone who has spent many years directly involved with the expanding queer community in India:

But I have also experienced the pitfalls of activist enthusiasm to get the terms right at the expense of the priorities of the person across me. Many of us have come around to believe (through day-to-day interactions, research and training) that there is no one way to be a man, woman, gay, lesbian, transgender, transsexual, Hindu, Muslim, Indian or anything else. Thus it should not have been my place to ‘correct’ Ryan if they somehow felt kinship with the women in love portrayed in the magazine.

Of course, Ryan’s sense of kinship makes perfect sense to me and, like Dhall, I hope they found a way to reach their goals. But I also wish more activists were similarly open rather than dictatorial in their approach.

In fact, Pawan Dhall’s holistic, inclusive perspective is the greatest strength of this book. He accepts the choices others make without judgement even if they are not immediately easy to understand. He sees value in all the people who become involved in advocacy and activism, recognizing that no matter what their background or identity (several of the key figures here are straight, drawn into work with queer communities by virtue of their professional or academic interests). Recent events—the repeal of Section 377 which decriminalizes consensual same sex activity and the passing of the controversial Transgender Bill—point to significant, if complicated, progress. Class inequality is still a critical issue as many queer people are marginalized, in urban and rural settings alike. And, of course, the ubiquitous online world of dating apps, support groups and hyper-visibility is at once a blessing and a curse. So there is always more work to be done and more people who need to be reached.

Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall is published by Seagull Books.

Memory is a record book of errors: The Town Slowly Empties by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

We take the everyday for granted. The history of the everyday, as Gandhi said, is never written. We don’t write the history of harmony. We write of history with a capital H. The history of strife. The history of the everyday is the history of a time that exists in the blurry lines between memory and forgetting. The days we remember are the days of events, personal, social or political.

It seems such a long time ago that the world slipped into lockdown as a strange, invisible threat began to spread causing illness and death. Where I am in Canada, our first lockdown was the strictest even if it was considerably less severe than in many places. Dramatic charts were hauled out, ominous predictions were made and the outside world suddenly seemed to become a dangerous place. Yet, the feared explosion of cases never materialized except in nursing homes and long term care. We slipped out of confinement into a summer of somewhat reduced freedoms but plenty of elbow room. The consensus: the lockdown was extreme and unnecessary. Of course, it’s impossible to convince a skeptic of the success of a measure by the absence of the thing you set out to prevent.

So we became our own control group. Winter brought a second wave and only when cases and deaths started to rise exponentially were some restrictions brought back. Protestors took to the streets to decry their loss of freedom in the name of an imaginary illness that, even if it existed, was primarily taking only the oldest and weakest among us. Nothing but the flu.

Now as Spring slowly settles in, we are into a third wave, fuelled by variants, striking a much younger cohort and rapidly expanding. The government is responding with weak-kneed measures—even less intense than the last round—figuring we will vaccinate our way out while ICU beds fill up with the sickest group of Covid patients yet. Yes, perhaps fewer of them will die. But anyone who arrives with a serious condition that would normally warrant an ICU bed will have to be weighed for worth, for likelihood of survival, against some young, otherwise healthy Covid patient presently gasping for breath. And people will die who would not have died otherwise. How serious are things? Today the case rate in my city was more than twice that of India.

India. A country that has come to mean a lot to me these past few years is presently on fire—metaphorically and factually. It is painful to watch, heartbreaking to think of. Here in the West, even when things are bad and resources are stretched beyond reason, illness and death is sanitized, hidden behind closed doors, underestimated, forgotten.

All of this is but a long, yet timely, introduction to my review of The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Indian poet and writer Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee. This has proved a very difficult book to write about. In fact, as the present crisis in India began to escalate, I found it increasingly difficult to read. Not that it isn’t good. It is a most wonderful, personal engagement with the early weeks of the sudden, strict lockdown imposed on India last March. Exactly a year ago as I was reading. At first there was a definite sense of déjà vu, but soon the altered routines, unexpected observations, and thoughtful reflections began to feel, quaint, otherworldly, against the horrific backdrop of the second wave now battering the country. Yet, the current state of affairs should in no way undermine the merit of this chronicle of adjustment to the limitations and possibilities of mandated isolation. In truth, it makes it all the more relevant.

The Town Slowly Empties—the title comes from Albert Camus’ The Plague—unfolds as a series of journal entries beginning on Monday, March 23, just after a complete lockdown has been declared in Delhi. Within days the entire nation will follow suit with only four hours’ notice. The daily reflections continue until April 14, the end of the first phase of restrictions. Each day’s record is a melange of domestic activity, pandemic progress reporting, political and social contextualizing, philosophical musing, and the sifting of memories, all woven together with  literary references, film commentary and a passion for food. Lockdown life offers an uncanny blend of the exceptional and the ordinary. Something frightening is lurking close at hand, just outside the door where the streets have grown quiet, while inside time has expanded, leaving even more empty space to fill, more anxious thoughts to fill it, especially supercharged in those early days.

We have become watchmen, standing guard at ourselves, at our shadows. We terrorize ourselves with caution. We become extremely careful about what we touch, and if we touch, we immediately wash our hands with soap for at least twenty seconds. We are mindful of the merest hint of a sore throat, or rising temperature. We also have the time now to watch others, and not just the human species. We carry the virus in our heads, in our sleep, and some with intense paranoia, perhaps even in their dreams. Fear is our only mode of retaliation. We are brave, we fear bravely. We cannot laugh at ourselves. The absurdity of survival must be taken seriously.

For Bhattacharjee these extra hours afforded by lockdown are measured out in poetry, prose and film. A host of writers and filmmakers become his companions, offering illustrations, examples and inspiration as the days roll by. Along the way he calls upon TS Eliot, Rimbaud, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fernando Pessoa, Kafka, Agha Shahid Ali, Zbigniew Herbert, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray and many others, engaging with their ideas and imagery. This is, then, far more than a record of news reports, readings and recipes, though there is a clear sense of the quotidian routine—waking late, securing provisions, morning tea, making lunch. Each day brings new circumstances, spectacles, and tragedies to process: face masks, Zoom meetings, lost lives translated into statistics, hungry migrant workers desperate to get home. The daily act of processing such experiences through writing opens avenues for the past to enter the stream of the present. Thus, this journal also becomes a memoir and a meditation on memory.

As the days pass into record and reflection, Bhattacharjee will recall moments of his childhood in Assam, his college years, his courtship with his partner, and his pathway to a love of cooking. But the memories he visits are as often collective as they are personal, of mutually shared experiences, or times captured in historical and literary record. For we live not only in our own pasts, but through the lives of others. Under the shadow of Covid-19, we look for meaning not only in pandemics and plagues, but also in disaster. One of the most interesting entries—and now eerily prescient given how the second wave is currently devastating India—moves through film and literature, from Chernobyl to Bhopal, tracing a landscape of disaster in the words of two writers formed in their wake—Svetlana Alexievich and poet Jayanta Mahapatra. Both chronicle the pain and destruction of scientific catastrophe as written on the body and the spirit. Both speak to the necessity of remembering. But how?

Science has no memory. Memory has no science. Science is an idea of progress without memory. Memory is a shelter. Memory looks for shelter. When a scientific experiment goes wrong, it affects nature. The sky, the sunlight, and even the silence turn toxic.

Covid-19 presents a complex interaction between nature, science and society. It is an event that has been anticipated for years, but the degree of disaster experienced reflects lack of planning and uneven response. Vaccines are welcome, if they can be produced and obtained, but the refusal of politicians and people to listen to the scientific advice they do not like—to wear masks, maintain distance, lockdown when needed—has led to unnecessary illness and loss of life around the world. What documentarian or poet will be the one to bring science and memory together to bear witness to this pandemic? For now, we can only meet the moment.

Today many people are starting to imagine a day when the pandemic finally recedes in the rear view mirror. Others are still fighting. Until the world is vaccinated, Covid will still be with us. It may always be with us. With this in mind, Bhattacharajee’s book is both uncomfortable and comfortably nostalgic. There was a sense of global unity to those early days. Yet there is much more within these pages. Reading The Town Slowly Empties is akin to spending time in the company of an intelligent, poetic friend—the sort of person who always has an interesting story to tell, a poem to quote, a book or movie to recommend. To that end, this friend has been sure to leave you, his reader, with a select bibliography, a filmography and extensive notes. You are not left empty handed.

The early months of the pandemic generated a flood of “Lockdown Diaries.” 3:AM, the magazine I was editing for last year, ran such a series as did many other venues.  A friend of mine in Bangalore dutifully maintained a daily record, with an eye to economics and social policy among other topics. He has picked up the thread again; at last count it was Day #415. Plague-themed literature also experienced a revival. For a while it seemed as if it was all too much. This warm and thoughtful work reminds me that there cannot be enough. Lest we forget. This experience will look different in a few years’ time, but already our world and our way of being in it has been altered in ways we could not have imagined when we first retreated into our homes in what sometimes feels like another lifetime.

The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, featuring a foreword by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Headpress.