Noticing the unnoticed: Wildfire by Banaphool

Those who love my writing need no introduction to it. Those who do not, need it even less. As for those who are unfamiliar with my writing, they will recognize my nature as soon as they read my stories. I have nothing particular to say to them, either.

In this brief introduction to the collected volumes of his short stories which, over the course of his lifetime amounted to some 578, the Bengali author Banaphool sets out all one really needs to know about his writing. Or to be more exact, the spirit of his work.

While maintaining a busy medical practice in Bhagalpur, Bihar, Dr. Balaichand Mukhopaghyay (1899-1979) produced an astonishing quantity of stories, poems, novels, plays and essays that reflect his deep sensitivity to the human condition and do full justice to his chosen pen-name Banaphool, which means “wildflower” in Bengali. As he was advised by Rabindranath Tagore, the wildflower blooms along the roadside, unnoticed but by creative vision. For a writer who wished to bloom outside the formal literary garden and from this unique vantage point, notice the complexities of the human condition that were often otherwise unnoticed, the name was a perfect fit. Frequently compared to O. Henry and Chekov, two authors he came to know of only after he himself started producing fiction, the similarities are there, but his world is distinctly Indian. The tensions and anxieties that ripple through many of his stories not only reflect the nation’s troubled emergence from colonial rule, but are still tragically disruptive today.

Wildfire is a collection of forty-four pieces translated by Somnath Zutshi, published by Seagull Books in 1999 and reissued in 2018. Most are very short, three to four pages or less, stark and straight to the point with little build up or fuss. There are fables, morality tales, ghost stories and character studies. Banaphool does not shy away from timeless philosophical questions, contemporary politics, or long-standing issues of caste and social class, but he does not proselytize. He expects his reader to fill in the blanks. To read between the lines. He creates characters who are either brave or blemished (or both) with compassion and without judgement. Petty rivalries can have tragic consequences, and vanities can invite supernatural intervention, frequently of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for variety. As such, a measure of moral messiness is typically allowed; his stories often end with an unexpected twist, a surprise revelation, an act of courage, or an unembellished sucker punch to the gut.

The range of the tales in this collection reflects the author’s extensive exposure to a wide range of human personality and behaviour in the course of his work, but although many of his protagonists are also doctors or other middle class professionals, he grants voices to people from all backgrounds as well as natural objects, animals, the dead, and, in one striking example, “Creator”, to a piece of paper whose screams of protest are inaudible to the artist applying paint to its surface. In this way, his work reaches across traditions, but never feels dated. Psychological themes are common, as in “The Human Mind” which tells the tale of two brothers, one devoted to science, the other to religion, similar only in their shared devotion to their orphaned nephew whom they have raised together. When the boy becomes gravely ill their differences are tested.  Other tales examine the vagaries of pride, greed, love and loss.

However, it is notable that a number of the stories speak to political discontents that are still very current in his native country. I brought this book home earlier this year, not long after the deadly riots in northeast Delhi, in late February. By chance the first story I happened upon was “During the Riots” set during the Bihar riots of late 1946. It opens:

Even the air had stopped moving in terror of the Hindu-Muslim riots. The days passed somehow but the nights seemed to last for ever. The blare of the conch shell from one direction, shouts of ‘Vande Mataram’ from another! At the slightest hint of a disturbance, we scrambled up to the terrace. Not a lot happened, generally; things quieted down in a couple of minutes. Moreover, the bitter cold made it impossible to stay on the terrace. My wife spent her time checking to see the various doors and windows were bolted and secured. We took turns staying awake.

As the narrator and his household struggle to arm themselves against certain attack, he thinks about the Muslim man who ran his father’s farm, whose wife had suckled him at her own breast. At several points the interdependence of the two communities is laid bare. But the speed and ferocity with which rumour spreads as tension rises demonstrate that even without WhatsApp and Twitter, misinformation is rampant. Through the narrator’s rising panic, encouraged by his neighbours, Banaphool deftly brings the story to a devastaing conclusion. One that sounds so freshly familiar.

Finally, included with the multitude of short short stories is one novella length addition, “Bhuvan Shome”, the quiet, extended study of a bitter, isolated Railways official who learns a valuable life-altering lesson from a young peasant girl on his annual hunting trip. A slow, complex character study, both sad and comic, this story was made into a Hindi-language movie by celebrated Indian film maker Minal Sen. The narrative takes much more time to build, at first a sharp contrast to the other condensed tales that populate this collection, and yet, even in this longer piece, the initially unpleasant main character is presented with empathy, encouraging the reader to hear what is not being said, and to realize what Bhuvan Shome, for all his self-obsessed rumination, cannot see. He is a classic Banaphool protagonist. An embodiment of the adage that there are none so blind as those who do not wish to see. It is to his good fortune that he comes to recognize the fact before it’s too late—so many of the characters who haunt these pages are not so fortunate.

But such is the view from the roadside sometimes. . .

Wildfire by Banaphool is translated with an introduction by Somnath Zutshi and published by Seagull Books.

Rules of radiance: Calling Over Water by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

implacably the seasons turn, in me no movement.
dust on pen and inkpot, dust on scissors, knife, rocks.
dust pales lampblack, dust in my mouth, am i made
of dust alone? Lord blow on me, scatter grace
that falls as words on these empty pages.

– from “On Writing Poetry – 2”

Armed with all the classic tools of an age-old trade at her disposal, the speaker above, weighed down by days, weeks, months of silence, is left beseeching the gods of inspiration to set her words free. There are perhaps few writers who would not appreciate her anxiety, but a special force charges this passage which comes toward the end of the central movement of Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s new release, Calling Across Water. This collection of poetry is the fruit of more than a decade and spans themes that move from the intimate and vulnerable, through questions of the nature of creative expression, into a thoughtful wandering  poetic travelogue. For the acclaimed Indian poet, novelist and translator it is a deeply personal journey.

The first section, “Unravelling” traces her mother’s illness and death. It begins, simply with a phone call—one line alone—“The floor churns into a vortex” and ends in the darkened waters and distorted landscape of a world without a person whose absence consumes so much space and defies words. My own mother’s death is but three and a half years fresh right now and I understand this series of poems so completely that it is both painful and beautiful to read them, and it has taken me almost three months since my first encounter to be able to gather a few thoughts of my own. To this point I have only been able to share online the pieces that have shaken me to the core. Like this passage:

She holds me for the first time
my skin puckered by her fluids, her face
a chandrama of love, lantern to my life

I hold her for the last time:
Moon rubbed up from last night’s ink
before she blows past the horizon.

— from “Archiving Mother”

As we gathered around my mother’s bedside in her final hours, I was acutely aware of the sharp reversal of roles, as I caressed and kissed her pale forehead and told her again and again how much I loved her—as I once had to my own children, and as she had to me and to her grandchildren. The circle of life.

Intrinsic to Chabria’s cycle of mourning is a strong recurrence of natural images, calling to mind womb-like rhythms, echoing the symbolic cords that continue to bind us to the woman who brought us into the world, who nurtured us with stories and songs. The questions then, become, how do we witness a loved one’s passing? What are we to give back to the universe in return for a mother’s love? And how do we honour maternal energy, whether we ourselves have children or not? In this respect, “This Is Us”, my favourite piece in this entire collection, is for me, simple and perfect:

the sky of our body flutters
over the ailing
while their unheard
words open like jasmine
through our inkiness

this is us:
sieves through which they pass
as the lips of the horizon part

this is us:
singing remembrance
with mouths of myrrh
each of us alone – though
love’s phosphorescence
rims earth’s darkness

this is us
doing our best

The second movement of Calling Over Water, “Are There Answers Without Questions?” presents a play of queries and proverbs that explore what we can know and how or if we can find expressions for the myriad of emotions and experiences that trouble us. Despite the title, there seem to be more questions than answers, along with compilations of linguistic weapons and tools, and quotations for guidance. Of course, woven into this series of unconventional poems is a sense of the inadequacy of language to open the wounds with which life marks us.

The third and longest section of this collection—“Travelling”—is comprised of a sequence of poems inspired by travel across Central, South and South-East Asia. Here the canvas expands as the poet turns her attention to the patterns of nature, the humanity of distant cityscapes, and the monuments of history, drawing astute and careful reflections. A sensitivity for the spirit of others, in the present moment or captured in the facades of weathered antiquity, surfaces repeatedly as one follows this eclectic tour:

The curator points his singing mobile to rectangles of salmon
pink stone slotted in a bare garden. ‘This was her stage, and that

her makeup room, she strolled here composing
poetry.’ In a corner the crumble of the gardener’s hut where

children’ laughter ran barefoot. We climb though pensive
rooms with shifting amplitudes of shadow but no trace

of indolence’s velvet smear. On the terrace a grey cat slips
down the stairs like water in a drain. Below,

leafless trees cordoned by crowns stand in mist.
Relentlessly the present pulses into the past.

– from “Rai Parveen Mahal”

Chabria, who has translated ninth-century Tamil poet, Andal, and reimagined classical Indian mythology into speculative future worlds, has an especially acute ability to engage with the past and allow it to reverberate with our present times. Her poems—not only in this final movement but throughout this finely crafted symphony—function as memorials on multiple levels that invite the reader to penetrate, with their own experiences and memories, spaces they may know well as readily as those they have never seen. That is to answer the poet’s call:

Memories, like photographs, live
in the continuous present though
their grains alter each time you enter.

Make yourself into a memory.

– from “Dunhuang”

Love is never enough. Madness is enough: Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up.

I tend to approach books about mental illness with caution, I rarely write about my own experiences, my appetite for memoirs, eagerly fed in the years following my diagnosis as bipolar, has been long exhausted and I tend to look askance at novels that bleed evidence of well-intentioned but distanced research. The best fiction, I’ve found, comes from those who have been close to but not caught inside the maelstrom of mania or the plunging darkness of depression—like Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, the third section of Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room or, the book I just finished, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom. These are books that touch on a condition, albeit relatively manageable, that has been my companion most of my life, books that seem familiar and strange at once. Even if they are all charged with a measure of compassion and dark humour, they have the power to disturb and unsettle me  because they remind me how disconnected, pained and even oblivious the sufferer can be when caught in the worst waves of the disorder, but, even more upsetting, I catch a glimpse of myself from the outside, of how I must appear to those around me when I’ve been most morbid, morose or, as Em would say, “mad.”

Drawing on life with his own mother who suffered from a severe form of manic depression, one that resisted the treatments available, Jerry Pinto offers a bittersweet love story that is also an introspective coming of age story and a searing portrait of the way mental illness can create a vortex around which a family can be tossed and turned—a cyclone that pushes away the outside world and makes “normal”  life an impossible dream. At the heart of the tale is a small Roman Catholic Goan family tucked into the mosaic of late twentieth century Bombay, India’s largest city. The unnamed narrator and his sister Susan share a tiny one bedroom apartment in with their parents Imelda and Augustine Mendes , fondly referred to as Em and the Big Hoom. Although at one time their prospects might have promised a more generous standard of living, all changed as Em’s illness progressed. Swinging widely between deep suicidal depressions and expansive, unpredictable and emotionally abusive mania punctuated by rare episodes of normal, she dominates both the cramped living space and their reality. In the midst of the storm, their stoic father is a fount of calm reserve, their rock, the hint of stability to which the children cling.

Pinto’s narrator is an uncertain, emotionally sensitive character, charged with not only recounting the surreal experience of managing life, adolescence and early adulthood with his difficult and unusual and wildly eccentric mother, but with re-imagining a time before mental illness claimed her moods and mind, before the electrical currents started racing uncontrolled—“flashing and sizzling”—through her brain. Relying on Em’s own, occasionally lucid recollections, and scraps of the diaries and letters she compulsively wrote but rarely mailed, he tries to piece together a picture of her life as a young woman, forced to go to work in her teens to support her family rather than going to college as she hoped, then pushed into becoming a stenographer. She meets her future husband while they are both working in the same office; their courtship is prolonged and simple.

His father’s past our protagonist approaches more cautiously. The Big Hoom is his hero and, if he is seeking the ordinary behind his irrational mother, he does not want to risk learning that his father’s calm exterior is a façade. A father and son trip to Goa provides the backdrop for an exposition of the Big Hoom’s remarkable resolve and determination, tracing his inadvertent arrival in Bombay where, without his family’s knowledge, he stayed on and began working until he could he could afford to go to school and earn an engineering degree. He was the first of his village to make good in the outside world. But for his son he very much remains an enigma, and as a result, so do many of the social norms that are distorted by his erratic upbringing:

At that point I realized what it meant to be a man in India. It meant knowing what one could do and what one could only get done. It meant being able to hold on to two patterns simultaneously. One was methodical, hierarchical, regulated and the outcomes depended on fate, chance, kings and desperate men. The other was intuitive, illicit and guaranteed. The trick was to know when to shift between patterns, to peel the file off the table and give it to a peon, to speak easily of one’s cousin the minister or the archbishop. I did not think I could ever know what these shifts entailed, and that meant, in essence, that I was never going to grow up.

Back at home, Em remains an unpredictable force of nature. As her children get older, eventually moving on to post-secondary educations and careers, they remain essential to her immediate circle of care. With their father, and occasionally their grandmother, they take turns balancing each other off through her ups and downs. It’s a physically and emotionally draining routine:

We never knew when the weather would change dramatically with Em. You’re vulnerable to those you love and they acknowledge this by being gentle with you, but with Em you could never be sure whether she was going to handle you as if you were glass or take your innermost self into a headlock. Sometimes it seemed part of her mental problem. Sometimes it seemed part of her personality.

She could be erratic, intense, loud and obscene, often embarrassing her children. Responding with a disapproving, “Em!” would only further her efforts to shock. However, as difficult as the manic episodes were to endure, especially for the narrator who seems to take it all so personally, the other bipolar extreme was even worse:

I don’t know how to describe her depression except to say that it seemed like it was engrossing her. No, even that sounds like she had some choice in the matter. It was another reality from which she had no escape. It took up every inch of her. She had no time for love or hate, fatigue or hunger. She slept ravenously but it was a drugged sleep, probably dreamless sleep, sleep that gives back nothing.

Add frequent suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and an inability to leave her home unattended, the Mendes family are caught in an endless nightmare.

But for all that, this is a beautiful, warm and affectionate tale, told with generosity and gentle humour. Em’s mind-spinning divergent monologues capture the off-the-rail ramblings of mania with remarkable room filling intensity, but a very human, vulnerable portrait of the woman behind the illness is preserved. However, the real magic of Em and the Big Hoom lies in the narrative voice. Pinto captures the son’s self-conscious guilt—the awareness that his mother’s illness forces him to think and talk about himself and then feel badly about it. He wants to tell his mother’s story, but of course it can’t be extricated from his own. She stirs conflicted sentiments. Bitterness. Anxiety. An impossible love. The illness is endlessly exhausting on those around her, yet the narrator worries that he might share the same genetic tendency to mood disorder, lives in fear that his sister will marry and move out and that the Big Hoom will die leaving him to care for Em alone. Mentally he tries to prepare for this and  wonders if he will ever have the confidence and maturity that stage of life will demand of him. It is this complicated tangle of emotion that carries this novel right through to its poignant, unexpected end.

Jerry Pinto is a well known writer, poet, translator and children’s author from Mumbai. He’s also a passionate mental health advocate; I was fortunate to hear him speak in Bangalore this past November. I know from my own experiences that the stigma around mental health is widespread, even in the western world where progress has been made but services are often difficult to access or too expensive, and a breakdown can easily  cost jobs, careers and relationships. Books like this—entertaining and thought-provoking—are an important aspect of a necessary ongoing discussion.

Em and the Big Hoom is available in India and internationally from Penguin.

My literary goals for 2020, or rather, where they begin

When I wrote my end of year post on New Year’s Eve, a wave of end of year gloom, fueled in part by media focus on the currents state of the world and a sense of anxious pessimism colouring the future outlook, for myself personally and the planet. When I look back over the past twelve months or so I feel fatigued. There seems to be so much I could not get a hold of—the volume of editing for 3:AM, coping with my son’s addiction, managing my own grief processing and mental health challenges.So, unable to set boundaries or take control I sought to escape. After a five week trip to India in February, I went back in late October. One should never confuse the desire to travel with a desperation to run away from loneliness and a failure to feel at home, but I suspect that drives many of us who are perpetually restless. I’ve only been back for a month and already I find myself watching planes take off from the airport across the city and wish I too was leaving again. It’s a financial and practical impossibility at the moment, and I don’t even have a destination in mind, but a part of me is always mentally packing bags and thinking about getting away.

From this vantage point, I keep thinking about everything I did not do this year, all the bookish goals unmet, outlines unsketched, words unwritten. I made a few forays toward a fledgling project, some with promise, inspired in large part by essays I was reading. I fiddled with a little poetry, published a couple of pieces and wrote one major critical essay and a personal essay commissioned for a publication sometime this year.

However, sometimes it feels like my efforts fell short—for two months I even battled a crippling inability to open a book—but, in truth, 2019 held many moments of literary magic.  I visited Bombay for the first time early in the year to meet up with poet and cultural critic, Ranjit Hoskote, and also ended up meeting Priya Sarukkai Chabria—a translator, novelist and poet whose name was new to me. By the end of the year I would come to treasure her friendship and belief in me as a writer. In November I spent several days with her and her husband in Pune where she arranged for me to give a talk on book reviewing and, the next day, meet up with several poets who have now become part of my expanding network. I’m learning to trust her instincts.

In February I also made my second trip to Calcutta where, once again, I taught a class at the Seagull School of Publishing  (a session which has, in itself, added to my circle of friends) and I had the distinct honour of engaging in a public conversation with Edwin Frank, the founding editor of NYRB Classics. As usual, several other creative personalities were gathered at Seagull, but an unexpected delight was to spend a few days with Italian poet Franca Mancinelli who happened to be in the city on a residency. It was a busy, inspiring week in a city I’ve come to love.

On both of this year’s India visits I spent time in Kochi where my dear and long-time friend Mini lives, now that she has returned home after many years in Dubai. I made my first trip to Nepal to catch up with a Nepali friend who used to live in my home town. My closest queer friend, a graduate in theratre arts and probably the only person who understands my own complicated queerness, I miss the long conversations over coffee we used to have. Kathmandu is a long way to go to catch up. But worth it!

I also finally  got to Jaipur, a city I will have to go back to—magical energy, stunning architecture and a climate as long as I avoid the really hot months, suited to my natural desert temperament. (I live in a dry, albeit cold, environment.) I spent two days with Saudamini, another creative spirit I have known for a number of years, who was an enthusiatic tour guide. And together we found in the bedrooms of the Nahargarh Fort interior design perfect for book lovers!

On my third and final day in Jaipur, I enjoyed another serendipitous encounter with a Twitter follower who reached out when she heard I was on my way. A curator at the City Palace Museum, it turns out that we have a mutual friend in Bombay, because, of course, even in cities with millions of people, it is a small world. Apurna and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch together, strangers only for the first few minutes. Which, in itself, is one of the things that brings me back to India.

The other critical anchor for me on this most recent Indian adventure, was the opportunity to get to know another Twitter contact, someone unknown to me on my first visits whom I “met” through non-Indian readerly friends and who lives (at least for now) in Bangalore where I was based. A writer and reader with impeccable taste (that is, corresponding with my own), JP and I spent a lot of time drinking coffee and scouring bookstores on Church Street as one must when in that city. Last, but not least, I went to the Bangalore Lit Fest with a couple of students from my first year teaching at Seagull. Had I found the courage to venture to Delhi, I would have connected with even more former students, but I still find the city daunting. Someday, I will go.

For now I know that I need to take the time to drift through all the memories I gathered in India this year. There are so many that they sometimes feel like they are crammed to the back of a closet, waiting to see the light but too much, too confusing to deal with. They are filled with joy, pain and curiosity. I was in the country during the election campaign when Pakistan was bombed, I returned home as the controversial Transgender Protection Act was passed—something that reminds me how precarious my own travels are, no matter where I go because my outward appearance only provides a superficial security—and now I watch the citizenship protests roll out.

My attraction to India is complicated. I am not an Indian, I am not involved with or married to an Indian. Friendships aside I have no need to go there. But what I have gained over the course of my visits is a real life validation of my worth as a writer. Something no editing engagement, publication or Twitter chatter can equal. However, it inevitably makes me feel like I come home to a creative and emotional void. I hit waves of loneliness that turn back into bitterness and resentment.

Aimed at myself.

Aimed at my city.

Aimed at my life.

Once again, it serves to accomplish little more than to further absorb my creative energy. So, as 2020 begins, I am aware that, if I am ever going to be able to meet the  writerly goals I have set for myself, I have to start with, strangely enough, forgiveness. It is the only protection against anger and resentment.

So that, then is my primary literary goal for 2020. Everything I read and write will flow from there.

Wrapping up another year in reading: Farewell to 2019 and a long decade

The end of a another year is upon us and, at the same time, another decade is also drawing to a close. Both have offered a mix of joy and pain. I have written enough about the personal challenges and the opportunities these past years have brought. Suffice to say I approached the 20-teens, so to speak, with confidence, prepared to face my fifties as a time of increased professional growth as I assumed day-to-day parenting would become less pressing. I could not have imagined what life would look like heading into the year during which I will turn sixty. I still have a troubled now-thirty-year-old child at home, my career imploded years ago, I have lost dear friends and family members, and today I look around the world to see fires raging, Arctic ice melting, right-wing Nationalist movements rising, and hatred and instability spreading, often in countries that have nuclear capabilities.

We are living in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

Thankfully I still have books. And writing. And an international literary community — one that has expanded my horizons in ways I could never have anticipated.

The Himalya on the horizon above Nepal.

As avid readers roll out their annual lists of favourite books of the year, I’ve noticed many efforts to celebrate a personal book (or books) of the decade. I couldn’t even begin to do that. It would be like trying to hit a moving target. My reading has changed a lot, especially since I started actively writing reviews and publishing my own work. Chances are it will change again. Reading, like most things, is dynamic. As it is, it’s hard enough to narrow down a selection of favourites at the end of the year. There are so many that get left out. However, even though I keep promising myself I will give up on the regular spectacle, come the end of December, I find it impossible to resist shining a light on some of the books I especially enjoyed (and to be honest, I always like to see what others have been up to as well).

Now that I have them together, I’m surprised to see that my top reads for 2019  were all published this year save one — I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. However, reading the poems of a 14th century Kashmiri mystic in the same month the Indian government revoked Article 370 triggering a crisis in Kashmir that is still ongoing made it disturbingly timely. As well, all are translations.

Absent from this photo because I do not own a hard copy is Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski, tr. by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić from Istros Books, a tale of an unhappy marriage with a wonderfully engaging narrator.

The balance of my selection, arranged for aesthetics not relative value, includes:

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia, tr. by Rawley Grau) an evocative, filmic Holocaust tale set in the north eastern region of Slovenia lying between the Mura River and the Hungarian border.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Kashmir, tr. by Ranjit Hoskote). Not only is this book timely given the state of affairs in Kashmir, but because the body of work attributed to Lalla was likely created, in her name and honour, over the centuries by contributors reflecting a range of faith communities, ages, genders and backgrounds. Thus her example is critical at a time when forces are tearing at the threads of India’s diverse heritage.
Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos (Argentina, tr. Alice Whitmore) features a troubled difficult narrator who does not relate to others in a “normal” way — a challenge for author and reader, but I found much to recognize in her lack of social skills. Brilliantly realized.
Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger, (Swiss/German, tr. by Megan Ewing). Reading like a performance piece rather than a conventional narrative, this confident, complex, intelligent novel circling around the subject of borders and migration is one of the most original works I’ve encountered in a long time. Stunning.
Herbert by Naburan Bhattacharya (India/Bengali, tr. Sunandini Banjerjee). A new translation of this Bengali cult classic was also published as Harbart in North America. Both that edition and the Calcutta-based Seagull Books edit are boisterous and fun, but as an editor I was surprised to see how much was smoothed out of the former.
Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa/Afrikaans, tr. Marius Swart) this wonderful collection of interconnected stories by the inimitable Marlene van Niekerk, one of my favourite authors, is an example of how an English translation can maintain elements of Afrikaans and Dutch without alienating readers — if you trust your audience. These are stories about the magic of language, where the magic is allowed to shine through.
The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens by Raoul Schrott (Austria/German, tr. by Karen Leeder). Undefinable, indescribably beautiful, this text — best described as a prose poem paired with haunting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O — is etheral, heavenly and bound to the earth all at once.
Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat by Michel Leiris (France, tr. by Christine Pichini). As soon as I learned of the release of this text, the last major work by one of my literary heroes, I knew I had to have it and write about it.  A moving exploration of art, writing and aging by one of the most important French intellectuals of the twentieth century.

At the City Palace, Jaipur

This year I made two trips to India, both over a month long. Presently I am watching tensions rise there with concern, aware that I am an outsider, but it is impossible to ignore hateful rhetoric no matter where it arises. None of our countries or communities are immune from divisive discontent or politicians prepared to capitalize on it. And yet I still think about going back, about the places I have yet to visit, people I want to meet up with or see again. The restless loneliness of being home settles in quickly and India has become important to me. But I suspect it will be a while. . .

As I look ahead to the coming year, my primary objective is to write. Seriously this time. I know I have said that before, but my writer’s block has eased. I now need discipline. My goal is to have a draft of a nonfiction manuscript of perhaps 100 pages complete before my birthday in October. All other writing, reading, and volunteer editing will have to fit around that goal.

And so I go. Into a new decade.

Travel, writing and poetry: A link to my new poem at RIC Journal

I have a new poem up today at RIC Journal.  I’ve called it “Indian Autumn Elegy.” For some reason, this most recent visit to India, my third in two years, has so far resisted my dedicated efforts to capture it in prose. At least not for this blog.  As I process my cumulative experiences, not simply in India but in the other countries I’ve spent time in over the past few years, South Africa and Australia, I am coming to understand that much of what I want to draw to the surface belongs to another, longer dedicated writing project. One that has long been a vague intention but is now beginning to fill empty pages.

In the meantime though, there are reflections and observations too restless to wait, and those seem to be slipping into poetic exercises.

Like this one.

The first sketches of this poem were composed last month, on the train between Delhi and Jaipur. It speaks to a recognition that something I have often told myself I was seeking through travel—a kind of validation I hoped I might find by losing myself in a crowd—is neither necessary nor possible.

“Indian Autumn Elegy” can be found here.

Beginning to understand what keeps calling me back: A short reflection

As I write this I am in Pune; this evening I fly back to Bangalore for a few days. Then I head home. Away from heat and greenery, back into cold and snow. Plenty of both.

As I look back on the past five weeks or so in India, images and memories shift and tumble like the pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope. Diwali in Wardha, Blossom Book House in Bangalore, the crowded dusty streets of Kathmandu, the rocking rhythm of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, Jantar Mantar, the grand astronomical observatory built by Jai Singh II and the magnificent forts towering above the city he founded. Quiet days amid the lush tropical beauty of Kochi, and stimulating literary engagements in Pune.

I learned a lot on this visit—about India, Indians, and myself. About intersections where noise and colour can overwhelm, where nuance can be lost and small wisdoms can be gained.

This has been more of a spiritual encounter for me, if I can use that term. I’ve come a little closer to understanding what it is I am seeking in the repeated act of intentional, albeit short term, displacement. It has, I believe, something to do with death. With loss and grief. With finding a way to experience that which I have mourned, that which has caused me pain and anger, as a life-giving positive force.

It will take time to unravel this thread, this tangled web of thoughts. Now, I suppose, I need the space that distance will grant me to reflect a little. At this moment, from a balcony level with tree tops, I want to drink in the foliage and think about the past few weeks without forcing or directing anything.

What is it that stands out? The people, of course. Friends. Reconnection with old friends, encounters with new friends, and finally meeting face to face with those only known online. The luxury of long conversations. Exploring the landscapes and cityscapes with those who know it well and love it. Who feel it in their souls.

For now, that is what I will hold close to my heart as I prepare to head toward home.

My latest passage to India

Each visit to India brings its own rewards, but as one spends more time in another country, the cultural differences become more apparent. There are the obvious ones—fascinating and wonderful to observe. Like the great honour I had to share in a family Diwali celebration, from a respectful distance, delighted and deeply grateful for the experience. I was in Wardha with a friend—a city on few Western tourist’s agendas—a place that revelled in the celebrations. I visited Sevagram, Ghandi’s ashram, and had an opportunity to get out into the beautiful countryside of central India.

It is an experience I will always treasure. Perhaps, when I find the spirit, I will write more.

Until then there is a little pain that requires healing though that may not be possible.

In the meantime, the opportunity to get to know a Twitter friend, his wife and his unruly canine and feline household, has been wonderful, and with a Lit Fest happening here in Bangalore this weekend and Nepal, Jaipur, Kochi and Pune ahead, I hope to find some of the creative inspiration I was hoping for.

For now I’m just checking in.

My new friend.

Cloaked in Literature: Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

In the years that I have been maintaining this blog, I don’t believe that have written about any book that might fall into the category of science or speculative fiction. I probably haven’t read much in recent years. As my attention has shifted to translated and more unconventional literature, I have set aside less time for the type of books I used to pick up as what I might have considered casual or escapist reading. Which sounds, I’m aware, like a little snobbishness and a lot of equivocating. But I don’t intend it that way, however, if one is not well read within a particular arena, writing about or reviewing a book becomes more difficult. The inclination is to simply read for pleasure, as if that is somehow a bad thing. Is literature supposed to hurt? Of course not. By this point in my life I like to think I’ve earned the right to read—or not read—whatever I want. Jump ship after 30 or 50 pages if I the book’s not working for me. Or to be surprised by a book I was less certain about.

In recent years there has been, it seems, a rush of speculative and apocalyptic themed fiction, drawing authors and readers from across the literary spectrum. I have tended to avoid it. I came to this book, Clone, almost by chance, when I was in Mumbai earlier this year and made plans to meet up with the author, poet and translator Priya Sarukkai Chabria at the Kala Ghoda Festival. Neither of us knew much about the other beforehand. A few hours over coffee and cake later and I’ve come to consider her a good friend. So although we have not discussed this book at all (I actually went to hear her lead a panel discussion on translating ancient literature), it is only fair that I consider this post a response rather than a formal review. As I’ve already indicated, I’m not sufficiently well-read in dystopian fiction anyhow. However, it’s also fair to say I was completely captivated by the scope and passion of this tale of an engineered clone “evolving” within a rigid, dispassionate world that is as fantastic as it is terrifyingly plausible.

The novel is set in a highly stratified twenty-fourth century India, where a select group of Originals lead a protected life of privilege and guarded luxury serviced by a vast array of clones bred from their own DNA, often mixed with or fortified by genetic material derived from animals. Divisions between classes of beings, or life forms, are strictly controlled. Museums exist to guard art and history from curious visitors and elaborate blood sports are a popular entertainment. It is, from the outside looking in, a world order long since divorced from the very qualities that faith, philosophy, and literature would have associated with humanity. In fact it would seem that the stirrings of these forgotten ideals, filtered through a vestigial genetic legacy that has resisted attempts to contain it, is the greatest threat to those in power. However, mutations keep arising.

Our narrator, Clone 14/54/G is, she insists, not a mutant. What sets her apart is something more unsettling. Her consciousness is changing. She remembers. The memories she seems to be accessing are desired by some and dangerous to others. Her Original, Aa-Aa was a writer living in the late twenty-first century, now being made manifest in her fourteenth generation likeness, cloaking her in Literature, so to speak. But Aa-Aa was a controversial figure who met an untimely end mid-way through an important public address. Her intended message died with her and Clone 14/54/G is seen a potential conduit to that message, for good or ill.

In a society dependent on unquestioned obedience and compliance, and designed to enforce it, poetry and stories are subversive elements. For our Clone, an early sign that something is amiss comes when she begins to experience unexplained compulsions and strange “visitations.” Like inhabiting a dreamscape although clones are not supposed to be able to dream, she finds herself caught up in stories—sometimes as a human, sometimes as an animal—reliving a life from a long lost time. These visitations which will later comprise a significant portion of the book, echo historical and mythological themes reaching far back into Indian history. They not only threaten the rigid consistency of the narrator’s programmed existence, they speak to the ineffable power of stories, to the poetry of our DNA.

Clone 14/54/G’s initial response is to wish these unwelcome intrusions away. Her sense of her place in the “Global Community’s” order of reality has been challenged. Originals alone have life, Firehearts who were created to play an empathic role have presence, and Superior Zombies claim existence, but Clones simply “exhibit actuality.” However, as words and ideas begin to come to her, to make their way into her experience of this actuality, her sense of her own reality is altered, or less certain. She responds whenever feasible by reducing her mode of function. But this strangeness does not simply affect her feelings. Her body is also responding:

Beneath my overalls I grew hair. At work, I made no error. I was allowed full rations. I was living in two worlds. Is this what is meant by loneliness? That you don’t belong to any world. Not the old one. Not the new. You don’t even seem to belong to yourself.

But as her awareness continues to evolve, she is relieved of her former worker role, and removed to a holding facility where she is afforded certain luxuries and encouraged to foster a connection with her Original. Her adjustment is not without reservations as the routines she knew are pulled away. And she is subjected to real pain, frequently pushed to her physical limits as the months pass. For support she has the Fireheart clone Couplet, an attentive almost insect like-creature assigned to assist in her recovery of Aa-Aa’s memories. Meanwhile, a handsome Original known only as The Leader, takes a particular interest in her progress and soon they become lovers. Her situation becomes at once more tenuous and more exciting. To what extent is she being played? By whom? To what ends? And is there anyone or anything she can trust, especially her own increasingly volatile and passionate heart? For example, after making love one day, she is haunted by questions that never would have troubled her before. What does it mean, for example, to be aware of the fact that she is alone?

Who is now speaking—Aa-Aa or me? Why do I wish it not be her?

“Clone 14/54/G” is no longer enough. I am more—and less—than I was. Less sure, less safe, less isolated. More curious, more in pain, more resolute about my uncertainties. With more words at my command.

The strengths of Clone lie in the strong voice of the narrator who comes to be known as Aa-Aa Clone 14/54/G and the realization of a multi-faceted, artificially manipulated society without laborious details or explanations. Aa-Aa Clone 14/54/G can only tell the story as she knows and understands it, nothing more. Her narrative moves from the focused and contained, yet conforming perspective of being whose entire world has been formed along established lines, to one whose humanity, if you will, starts to break through in fits and starts. The passion and spirit of her Original, and the characters whose stories she carries, simmers slowly, gradually building steam, but is never an entirely natural fit. This is not a Cinderella story. Too many horrors await, too many questions remain unanswered. Finally, the form, incorporating tales drawn from the accumulated memories of a distant past—the storyteller’s true legacy—is unexpected and effective; the language poetic and powerful.

Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria is published by New Delhi-based Zubaan Books, and distributed outside India by University of Chicago Press.

“The streets were never really mine”: Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri

Although he claims to feel no nostalgia, the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri’s most recent novel, Friend of My Youth, carries a wistful melancholy that can really be understood in no other way. It comes through in his discomfort and his attempt to articulate a mixed affection for and estrangement from the city in which he grew up—Bombay. Chaudhuri has woven a close line between his own life and the experiences and qualities he grants his characters before, but here he blurs it completely, even playfully. His protagonist is an author named Amit Chaudhuri, who is in the city to promote his latest release, The Immortals. If this is, on some level, a metafictional mechanism to reflect on the question of the relationship between an author and his narrator, it is exercised in such a light-handed, controlled, mildly self-deprecating manner, that it never risks becoming distracting or annoying. Chaudhuri is a restrained, thoughtful writer, and Friend of My Youth offers so much more. Set against the urban gridwork and landmarks of South Mumbai, a city, at the time, still recovering from the horror of the 2008 terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel, it is a quietly insistent meditation on the ways we try to make sense of our own personal and geographic histories over time.

From the beginning, the narrator confesses to an ambivalence toward his former hometown:

I feel a sense of purposelessness—is it the ennui of the book tour or book-related visit? Not entirely. No, it pertains to Bombay, to being returned to a city where one performed a function, reluctantly. Reluctance is fundamental. You don’t plunge into growing up; it happens in spite of you. Then, one day, it’s done: you’re ‘grown up’. You go away. Back now in the city of my growing up, there’s nothing more that can happen to me. I embrace a false busyness. I suppose I’m living life. Without necessarily meaning to. It doesn’t occur to me that the visit is part of my life. I believe I’ll resume life after it’s done.

But, although he has been back to the city many times in the decades since his family had moved back to their native Calcutta, and he himself had gone on to study and teach in the UK, there has always been one grounding constant—a friend from his school days, Ramu. On this occasion he learns that Ramu, whose life has been defined by drug addiction, is in intensive rehab and cannot be visited. Their friendship is strange, an attraction of opposites, one who would go on to achieve a degree of literary success and middle-class normalcy, the other troubled and stalled, unable to completely shake his demons, now in his fifties, still living in his family home with his sister. Theirs is an often awkward camaraderie, bound to a small geographical space in a city that has, over time, expanded exponentially beyond the confines of what has become known as South Mumbai. When Ramu is not there, Amit discovers that without this particular conduit to his past, whose eyes he had relied on, he is forced to encounter Bombay anew, even alone.

As the narrator traces his way through the city, a reflective uncertainty, a searching for words, underlines his thoughts. The prominent, well-known landmarks are laden with the hallmarks of his own idiosyncratic life history, from the restless eagerness to leave in adolescence and youth, to the regular returning, each opening shades of a city he knows he never really knew. How much, he wonders, was his inability to really see the city he grew up in rooted in a conviction that his origins as a Bengali prevented him and his family from ever full belonging, and encouraged his belief that his destiny lay elsewhere. If you feel, at heart, that you do not own a city, how can you truly see it?

So he is trying to make sense of his relationship to the city—and through that, to the shifting currents of memory and nostalgia that continue to haunt us all as we grow older. Ramu’s absence looms large. Who we believe we are is always, to some extent, measured and understood against the trajectories, real or imagined, of others.

I know I’ll see Ramu again. But it’s as if I won’t see him again. I’m thrown off-balance—but also surprised. I didn’t know I’d react like this. Ramu isn’t the only close friend I have. But it’s as if my sojourn in Bombay depends on him. ‘Depends’ is the wrong word: I haven’t come here because of him, to delve into his whereabouts. But the surprise I’ve mentioned is related to my astonishment at being here. ‘Astonishment’ denotes how you might start seeing things you hadn’t noticed earlier, but it could also mean becoming aware that you won’t see them again.  As I turn into Pherozeshah Mehta Road and then left into the long stretch of DN Road, I know I won’t see Bombay again. That is, I will see Bombay again, but not the Bombay I’m looking at now.

Toward the end of the book, two subsequent visits do bring Ramu back into Amit’s life, neither resolving nor further alienating his connection to the city. There is something oddly comforting in their unlikely location-specific friendship, one that speaks to the ineffable qualities of our own connections to the people and places that we leave, but can’t quite leave behind. This is a novel as much about loss and aging, as it is about recognizing that there are connections that perhaps we never really had, no matter how much time we spent with them.

I took this book to India with me, planning to read it in advance of my own recent visit to Bombay but, as it happened I did not open it until about a month after my return. Although familiarity with the city is by no means necessary, even a brief encounter will add an extra dimension because this is a novel so clearly linked to space. For those who know the city well, it will be potentially an even richer experience. I spent three days in the Fort area of South Bombay, visiting a few of the common tourist sites like Gateway of India and Marine Drive and attending several events at the Kala Ghoda Festival literary venue, the fabulous garden of the David Sassoon Library. I used Horniman Circle and Flora Fountain as guideposts and got lost in Churchgate, not realizing I was entering a train station (in my defense, the entry said “underpass” and I assumed I would avoid crossing one of the city’s notoriously congested roadways). All of these features or locations appear and it was fun to be able to immediately bring them to my imagination—mind you, without the emotional gravity with which Chaudhuri so effectively paints them.

Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and New York Review of Books in North America.