Monday, November 20, 2017

DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2017

Anuk Arudpragasam has been announced as the winner of the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2017 for his novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage at the Dhaka Lit Fest in Bangladesh. Told in meditative, nuanced and powerful prose, this shattering novel marks the arrival of an extraordinary new literary voice. In a glittering award ceremony, the USD 25,000 DSC Prize was awarded to the winner along with a unique trophy by Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, minister of Finance, Bangladesh. The world’s literati, including writers, publishers, media and literary enthusiasts attended the event at the Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharad Auditorium at the Bangla Academy.

The five shortlisted authors and novels in contention for the DSC Prize this year were Anjali Joseph (The Living, Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, UK), Anuk Arudpragasam (The Story of a Brief Marriage, Granta Books, UK), Aravind Adiga (Selection Day, Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, India, Karan Mahajan (The Association of Small Bombs, Chatto & Windus, UK & Viking, USA & Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, India) and Stephen Alter (In the Jungles of the Night, Aleph Book Company, India).

Speaking on the occasion, Ritu Menon, on behalf of the jury said, “The jury met and discussed the shortlisted novels in detail. As all the shortlisted novels had considerable strengths and remarkable literary quality, deciding the winner was not an easy task. However, the jury agreed that Anuk Arudpragasam was the best possible choice for his outstanding novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage. The novel is impressive for its intensity and rich detail, and for exploring the tragic heart of war with such quiet eloquence. It is also a testament to the redemptive power of love, and to the human spirit's capacity for hope.”

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is an established international literary prize that awards the best work in South Asian fiction writing each year. This year the DSC Prize had received 60 eligible entries with participation from publishers from the South Asian region as well as from countries like the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and South Africa amongst others. The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which is specifically focused on South Asian writing is unique in the sense that it is not ethnicity driven in terms of the author’s origin and is open to any author belonging to any part of the globe as long as the work is based on the South Asian region and its people. The past winners have been from various countries and their work has reflected the importance of South Asian culture and literature.

Surina Narula, MBE and co-founder of the DSC Prize said ,“My heartfelt congratulations to Anuk Arudpragasam for winning the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2017. This year, the shortlisted novels were all equally exciting with diverse subjects which brought out the nuances and the changing dynamics in South Asian life in a unique and evocative way. It must have been a tough task for the jury members to choose from these five exceptional contenders and arrive at the eventual winner. We are honoured to be invited to give the award this year in Bangladesh. The DSC Prize has now completed seven successful years, and it remains focused on recognising and showcasing the immense talent writing about the South Asian region and bringing it to a larger global audience.”

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2017 was judged by a diverse and distinguished five member jury panel, including Ritu Menon, Jury Chair and eminent feminist writer who has commented on a wide range of gender issues affecting the South Asian region; Valentine Cunningham, professor emeritus of English language and literature at Oxford University, UK, who has authored several books on Victorian fiction and poetry; Steven Bernstein, celebrated screenwriter, director, author, cinematographer and lecturer based out of Los Angeles, USA; Yasmin Alibhai-Brown , respected journalist, pundit, radio and television broadcaster, based in London, who has written extensively on society, culture and feminism, and Senath Walter Perera, Senior Professor in English, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka who has authored several publications on the diasporic and postcolonial literature of the region.

The USD 25,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature which was instituted by Surina Narula and Manhad Narula in 2010, is one of the most prestigious international literary awards specifically focused on South Asian writing. It is a unique and coveted prize and is open to authors of any ethnicity or nationality as long as the writing is about South Asia and its people. It also encourages writing in regional languages and translations and the prize money is equally shared between the author and the translator in case a translated entry wins.

Now in its 7th year, the DSC Prize has been successful in bringing South Asian writing to a larger global audience through rewarding and showcasing the achievements of the authors writing about this region.

The last six winners of the DSC Prize have been Anuradha Roy (Sleeping on Jupiter, Hachette, India); Jhumpa Lahiri (The Lowland, Vintage Books/Random House, India); Cyrus Mistry (Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, Aleph Book Company, India, Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis, Faber & Faber, London), Shehan Karunatilaka (Chinaman, Random House, India) and HM Naqvi (Home Boy, Harper Collins, India).

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

Dinesh is a young man trapped on the frontlines between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers. Desensitised to the horror all around him, life has been pared back to the essentials: eat, sleep, survive. All this changes when he is approached one morning by an older man who asks him to marry his daughter Ganga, hoping that victorious soldiers will be less likely to harm a married woman. For a few brief hours, Dinesh and Ganga tentatively explore their new and unexpected connection, trying to understand themselves and each other, until the war once more closes over them.

Told in meditative, nuanced and powerful prose, this shattering novel marks the arrival of an extraordinary new literary voice.

Anuk Arudpragasam is from Colombo, Sri Lanka and is currently working towards a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University. He writes in English and Tamil. This is his first novel.

Friday, November 17, 2017

In Tathagata’s Company

‘Wrapped in my achievements,
I too am my Alternate Time
where I’ll endure
even after me…’

I was introduced to Kunwar Narain when Jitendra Ramprasad kindly sent me the DVD ‘The Poet’s Voice: Kunwar Narain’ (available at two years back. And I was converted. Then I got hold of his Selected Poems in Hindi published by Kitabghar Prakashan. Last year, I was fortunate enough to meet him, and Apurva Narain gave me a copy of Kumarajiva, his last masterpiece. I am yet to fathom the depth of the long philosophical epic, but the prologue of the book had such an impact on me that I had to translation it. Now, thanks to the equally enthusiastic response from Abhimanyu Kumar (what a poem! he says), this is our humble attempt to keep Kunwar Narain among us, for time to come.

from Kumarajiva, a narrative poem by Kunwar Narain
Translated from the Hindi by Dibyajyoti Sarma

[We had such plans. I was lucky enough to meet Kunwar Narain at his home in CR Park on 17 September 2016. He had just completed 89 and his hearing was weak. That did not stop us from discussing poetry, and our favourite poets, Eliot, Yeats, Auden. He had translated almost all the major 20th Western poets into Hindi. He also told us about his trip to Turkey and meeting Nazim Hikmet. The Turkish poet had just been released from one of his jail sentences, and Narain was still a starry-eyed young poet. I can still hear his voice narrating the story. “He (Hikmet) was an imposing personality. He sat next to me and put his hand on my thigh. He had huge hands.”

I identified the awe in the voice because that’s what I felt meeting Narain, hearing him tell the tale. I gave him my book of poems and since he had already lost his eye-sight, Apurva Narain, his son, suggested that I read a few poems from the book to him. I did. And he said he liked them. There couldn’t be a bigger reward.

On leaving, with the promise to meet again, I received a copy of Narain’s last masterpiece, the epic poem (Kavya) Kumarajiva published by Bharatiya Gnanpith. I found the book a tad difficult. A poetic biography of Kumarajiva, the man who introduced Buddhist literature in China, the book tackles deep philosophical questions on existence, life, death and everything in between. But the prologue, ‘In Tathagata’s Company’ moved me beyond words. I read and reread the passages a thousand times until I was ready to attempt a translation. This translation is my humble tribute to the legacy of Kunwar Narain.]

In Tathagata’s Company
from Kumarajiva, a narrative poem by Kunwar Narain
Translated from the Hindi by Dibyajyoti Sarma

I’ve embarked upon a thousand-year journey,
with Tathagata;
we have an eternity together –
on our path we will find who knows
how many cities, how many deserts.

We’ll not stop anywhere;
we'll carry on like the blowing wind.

We’ll leave behind, just a few words –
some reverberation of ideas,
etching on thresholds –
footprints of roving mendicants.

The way trees and leaves soak in
light and air and
carry to the soil
the fertilisers,

the same way will spread
the fire of spiritual ideas – breathing
from flowers to roots.

Digesting ugliness, there will always bloom
the fragrance of beauty in the air,
breaking the walls of darkness,
there will always sparkle joy, and
we will always be visible
in the wholeness of lost past,
sometimes like a star
sometimes like the sun.

Kumarajiva can be resurrected again
the way he resurrected Tathagata;
because no one, Buddha or Kumarajiva,
remains dead.

His was a life of ideas,
which can be experienced any time,
by going to his time
or by bringing him to our time,

the way at one time Kumarajiva
had found completeness,
inhabiting the Buddha’s ideas
in his own time,

the way man inhabits
his memories and past customs
rehabilitating them
in present time.

Every dedicated follower – thinker – artist
draws parallel to the Time where he exists
an Alternate Time of his own.

It is a life at once contemporary
and universal
where resides permanently
the essence of
his ideas and his achievements,
where they grow continuously until eternity.

Read the complete poem here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Chocked capitals: Reflection of today’s Delhi in yesteryear’s London

‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.’

The above from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is one of the most memorable paragraphs in the history of English literature. Dickens’ poetic description of the growing pollution of Victorian London in the thaws of Industrial revolution finds a timely relevance in twenty-first century Delhi, the country’s capital, as it grasped for breath during the first half of November.

This gives us a perfect occasion to look back at London of the time and see the effect of the infamous London fog and its effects on art, culture and society, as revealed in Christine Corton’s book London Fog.

For centuries, London has been known to out-of-towners as the ‘smoke’ or the ‘big smoke’. The Thames basin, surrounded by low hills, has always been prone to mist. As early as the medieval period this was made worse by domestic fires burning wood and ‘sea-coal’ which was brought by boat from Newcastle. Elizabeth I proclaimed herself to be ‘greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea-coales’. In 1661, John Evelyn complained that sea-coal had turned London into ‘hell upon earth’. Evelyn’s ‘glorious and ancient city’ was often shrouded in ‘clowds of smoake and sulphur, so full of stink and darknesse’. But his far-sighted proposal to move industry outside the city and to create a green belt of aromatic plants and hedges was ignored, and in the coming years, as London expanded to become the largest metropolis the world had ever seen, the city’s fogs grew steadily worse.

By the beginning of the 19th century, some fogs lasted a week and were so dense you could not read during the day, even by a window. The fog made people’s eyes smart and caused breathing difficulties. A tombstone in Kensal Green Cemetery commemorates ‘LR Who died of suffocation in the great fog of London 1814’. By the 1830s, the city’s population was two million and still rising. Not only was every house heated by coal but London was also a major industrial centre, and firms producing everything from beer to chemicals all added to the noxious fumes in the city’s air.

One of the most terrible fogs began on 4 December 1952 as a cold front moved across the capital. The air was very still and the smoke from countless fires hung in the cold air. Soon a thick yellow fog smothered the city like a blanket, extending out for 20 miles from the centre of London. It lasted for a week. “I’ll never forget it,” recalled one Londoner, “because the smog was so thick you really felt like you were walking into a war.” A performance of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells had to be stopped as the audience couldn’t see the stage. Sports events were cancelled, flights grounded, public transport restricted and ambulance workers and fire-fighters had to walk in front of their vehicles. It became known as the “Great Killer Fog” and may have caused as many as 12,000 deaths.

Corton’s wonderfully detailed and original exploration of foggy London ranges from the earliest mists to the last great pea-souper of 1962.

In 1871, French historian Hippolyte Taine described how ‘a thick, yellow fog fills the air, sinks, crawls on the very ground; at 30 paces a house or a steam-ship look like ink-stains on blotting paper’. After walking around for an hour, he admitted ‘one is possessed by spleen and can understand suicide’. Unsurprisingly, depression was common on foggy days and suicides reached a peak in November. A Portuguese writer believed there was a link between the fog and drunkenness: ‘everyone drinks heavily and incessantly to combat this freezing, fatal fog’. Arthur Rimbaud was in London in 1872 and complained that the ‘yellow fog added the constant sound of coughing to the roar of traffic’. Later he would speak despairingly of the ‘monstrous city’ and its ‘endless night.’

Christine Corton explains

Writing for The Guardian, Christine Corton, explains the origin of London fog:

London is in a natural basin surrounded by hills and its air generally holds moisture because of the river running through it, so it has always had a natural fog problem.

Then came the industrial revolution, with coal fires powering steam-driven factory machines and being used to heat homes. As the city’s industry and population grew apace from the 1820s onwards, smoke mixed with the moist air and on cold days produced a particularly nasty, thick, yellow, sulphurous atmosphere that became trapped in London’s narrow roads and alleyways. People knew from early on that the smog could kill and there were many calls to clean up London’s air.

Many politicians took up the cause but they were generally isolated or maverick figures. It was the mustachioed Conservative MP Gerald Nabarro who turned the tide after the Great Smog of 1952 killed around 12,000 people. He forced through the 1956 Clean Air Act despite government reluctance. (Although a recent episode of TV drama The Crown presented Winston Churchill as the obstacle to change, it was actually the chancellor, Harold Macmillan.)

Why did it take so long? Industrial interests often prevailed. To move to cleaner fuels always meant higher costs and successive governments were reluctant to interfere with the right of domestic consumers to use the fuel they preferred. George Orwell extolled the virtues of the ‘old-fashioned coal fire’ and complained of ‘the noisy minority’ who wanted to do away with it. It was only when gas and electricity became more affordable that legislation could be passed without incurring higher costs to the consumers.
Londoners were also proud of their smogs. Industrial chimneys pumping out smoke signified employment. A coal fire blazing in the hearth meant warmth and comfort. London fog was given a variety of romantic names such as “London ivy” by Charles Dickens or the “pea-souper”, not the green variety but the more traditional yellow potage.

Writers perceived the magic and mystery of London fog and used it extensively. Dickens employed it in the opening pages of Bleak House to signify the obfuscations of the Court of Chancery. Henry James, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad also used London fog in their works.

Pulp-fiction writers liked to use smog as a means of totally destroying life in London: “One common doom, one common sepulchre of gloomy fog, there was for the richest and the poorest, the best and the worst alike,” wrote one writer of these apocalyptic stories. (Courtesy The Guardian.)

Thursday, November 09, 2017

On Kazuo Ishiguro, after the Novel Prize

Soon after the Swedish Academy announced the winner for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, a friend gave me a call to express his ardent displease about the winner, Japan-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.

“Yeah,” I said, “The Nobel Committee has a twisted sense of humour. See, everyone and their mothers were clamouring for Haruki Murakami to win. So the Nobel Committee said, fine, you want a Japanese author, we will give you a Japanese author, but not the one you want. Go ahead and criticise us.”

This is the thing about literary awards; there can never be a unanimous choice.

My friend guffawed on his phone speaker. “Murakami be damned,” he said, “There are still others who are more deserving.”

I know. My friend has a shortlist of deserving winners, starting with Syrian poet Adonis.

Now the word deserving got me thinking. Literary greatness is by and large subjective, influenced by tests. You may hate reading an author I love. It’s a plausible scenario and you cannot be blamed for it.

But the criterion of the Nobel Committee in awarding the Prize, however, is more idealistic, universal. Accordingly, the award is given to an author from any country or language who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” These are the exact words of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, whose enormous wealth supports the Prize.

Again, the concept of ‘idea direction’ can be subjective. Take the example of last year’s winner, Bob Dylan. His work is outstanding in an ideal direction, no denying that. But did he deserve to win the prize? Reams have been written about it. I admire Dylan. I can sing ‘like a rolling stone’ from memory. But I still cannot make up my mind about him a Nobel laureate. Blame it on my old-school education. I still cannot categorise song lyrics as ‘serious literature’, despite the fact I love them dearly. (I have stated this elsewhere. One of my early influences in writing poetry was the music of Jim Morrison, especially his album, ‘An American Prayer’. The song ‘Angels and Sailors’ haunted me for months and forced me to write my first serious poem — a bad one.) But I must concede that it was music first more than literature. The same way, Dylan’s songs are perfectly rhymed, yet, they are not really poetry. Without Dylan’s unique voice, the lyrics lose half their punch.

See, I told my friend, the Nobel Committee wanted to play safe this year after last year’s controversy. “Then why not your Murakami,” he asked, “he was the safest bet.”

That’s a good question. I think, as so called purveyor of culture, the Nobel Committee wants to stay away from popular names. I think this is what went against Murakami. He is the thinking man’s Paulo Coelho. I know many readers who dumped Marquez swear by Murakami’s magic realism. Personally, I have nothing against him. It’s indeed heartening to see a non-reader pickup a fat copy of ‘Kafka on the Shore’ and devour it.

But Nobel Committee likes its authors more nuanced, more highbrow, more officious. For example, in 2014, the Prize was given to French author Patrick Modiano, a write whom nobody had heard of outside of France (especially in the English speaking world). His first major translations appeared a year after the Prize.

Back to Ishiguro then, who became the second young author to win the Award, after Albert Camus. When I read this piece of trivia, I was tempted to compare Ishiguro’s influence with that of Camus’. It’s a fool’s errand. Camus’ existentialism was pronounced, all-pervasive. Ishiguro’s existentialism is more internal, more subtle, more local.

Ishiguro is a great writer, especially in his masterpiece ‘Remains of the Day’ (1989) (Read the last few pages of the book, when Mr Stevens meets Miss Kenton in a cafe after a hiatus to find out the author’s literary greatness.) The book won the Booker and was made into a well regarded film by Merchant-Ivory. I think the credit for the book’s enduring appeal also should go to Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thomson for their portrayal of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton respectively. I love this book. But I don’t want to give Mr Ishiguro a Novel Prize for it.

Then there’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ (2005), a modern science fiction about love, also made into a moderately successful film. It’s a brilliant novel, which had its seed in a Michael Bay directed Hollywood action film ‘The Island’, and Ishiguro turned it into a meditation on love and death.

Ishiguro also wrote the screenplays for both the movies. He has written two other screenplays, ‘The Saddest Music in the World’ (2003) and ‘The White Countess’ (2005), and five more novels — ‘A Pale View of Hills’ (1982), ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ (1986), ‘The Unconsoled’ (1995), ‘When We Were Orphans’ (2000) and ‘The Buried Giant’ (2015) and a collection of short fiction ‘Nocturnes’ (2009). I have read none of those; for none of those created enough buzz for me to go and seek them out. (On an unrelated note, if you get a chance, I would urge you to sit through ‘The Saddest Music in the World’, directed by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. It will feel weird. But I will urge you to sit though it; it may be worthwhile.)
I greatly admire Kazuo Ishiguro, but him as a Novel Laureate? Taking a cue from Mr Stevens, I must not make my opinion heard.

Dibyajyoti Sarma
October 2017
New Delhi

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Fantasy fiction and its Indian counterparts

While fantasy fiction is a legitimate genre, especially with the massive success of the TV series Game of Thrones, in India, the genre is still fledgling, without any breakout names except Amish, who in fact started the trend. Writes Dibyajyoti Sarma

Blame it on the TV series Game of Thrones. Fantasy fiction is popular than ever. But then, when fantasy fiction was not popular? Before George RR Martin made it big, it was JK Rowling and certain boy wizard. Before that, you have The Lord of the Rings. While these three series of books managed to break all popular records, modern fantasy fiction has always been a popular genre since 1950s, JRR Tolkien’s books being one of the early examples. This is discounting children’s literature and folk tales, which also involve fantasy, but they are different genres. We are also not considering comic book superheroes, Superman, et al, despite the fact that these genres have massively influenced the growth and popularly of fantasy fiction.

In the west, fantasy fiction started with High Fantasy. It refers to a world completely different from the real world, populated by beings which don’t exist in our world. So Tolkien created Middle Earth, populated by Elves, Hobbits and Orcs, and dragons and magic rings. Tolkien built the world from scratch, and added everything, the landscape, the culture of the people, the language. It remains the blue print of how you write high fantasy. Middle Earth was followed by CS Lewis’s Narnia, Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea, Laura and Tracy Hickman’s Krynn; Eric Rücker Eddison’s Zimiamvia; Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Terry Pratchett’s Discword. There are many, many more names.

Then, in the 1970s-80s, influenced by the popularity of science fiction and superhero comic books, fantasy fiction started to collide with the real world. The plot is deceptively simple. An unsuspecting young man or woman discovers a mythical/ magical world just beyond the real world. This perhaps explains the popularity of the Harry Potter series. The story of Harry, an abused orphan, begins in the real world, until one day he is told that he is a wizard and he must go to a Hogwart School to study. Slowly, Harry begins to learn about the existence of the magical world, taking his readers along.

Before Harry broke all records of popularity, there were authors like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman who laid the groundwork for this real meets fantasy trope. In Gaiman’s American Gods, the gods of the old live in working class America, while in Neverwhere, a man discovers a completely bizarre world beneath the modern day London. In Pullman’s Subtle Knife, the second book of his His Dark Materials Trilogy, a young boy in London finds a whole in the air, steps into it and travels into a different world.

In India, fantasy fiction started late. Perhaps there was no urgent need, as mythologies are a constant presence in Indian storytelling culture. The first major Indian fantasy novel was perhaps Sumit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies published in 2004, the first novel in the Gameworld Trilogy, the other two being, The Manticore's Secret and The Unwaba Revelations. Using the basic archetype of good versus evil, the high fantasy series incorporated a number of Indian myths, using ‘rakshashas’ instead of ‘demons’ for example.

However, the credit for establishing fantasy as a viable genre in India must go to Amish and his Shiva Trilogy. The author’s struggle to publish the first book, The Immortals of Meluha and his eventual success is the stuff of literary myths. Beyond all criticism, Amish must be credited for making publishers take notice of the potential of the home-grown fantasy fiction.

Since then we have seen a large number of novels hit the market, none of which reaching the level of Shiva Trilogy. There are books like Realm of the Goddess by Sabina Khan, Tantrics of Old by Krishnarjun Bhattacharya, The Devourers by Indra Das and Cult of Chaos by Shweta Taneja. There are more names.

A large portion of these novels remain derivative, and the world building less than original. But then, this is just the beginning. We still have time for our own Harry Potter or our own Game of Thrones.

(First appeared in Sakal Times, 7 October 2017)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Raging against the dying of light

Morning Light by Manohar Shetty, Copper Coin, Delhi-NCR, 2016, Pg 116, Rs 250

Manohar Shetty is a singular voice in the canon of Indian poetry in English because of his steadfast refusal to take a larger-than-life approach. Since the days of Toru Dutta and Sorojini Naidu, or better still, since the days of Nissim Ezekiel and the Bombay School of Poetry, Indian poetry in English has a been a series of questions and comments, about the way of life and social mores, and about the so called Indian aspirations. Broadly, Indian poetry in English has been poetry of disquiet, a tug-of-war between the personal ‘liberal’ outlook and the idea of the ‘nation’, between the tyranny of history and false promises of the future.

Shetty, who was very much a part of the Bombay School (he studied under Ezekiel) before moving to Goa, however, remains a happy aberration to the rule. This is what sets him apart. Take for example, his animal poems, his masterpieces through which he has been introduced to generations of college/university students. The traditional impulse is to read these poems as allegory. But they are not; they are as ‘they are’ — acts of observing and reporting. In the poem, ‘Pigeon’, Shetty observes:
Swaddled cosily, he
Settles by the window,
Burping softly;
Eyelids half-closed,
Head sinking
In a fluffy
Embroidered pillow

No, the Panchatantra is not his influence, but perhaps the shadows of Ted Hughes and DH Lawrence are. In an interview with this reviewer in 2015, Shetty had explained, “Animals are a useful vehicle to comment on the human animal.”

True. But his comments have always been strangely impersonal. Rarely would you find a Shetty poem where the poetic persona is involved with the narrative. Rarely would you find the ‘I’ pronoun in his poems. His poetry has the preciousness of a laboratory work — brevity of expression (his lines rarely go beyond five or six words) and an almost microscopic observation of his subject. Like a high-powered binocular, his poetry zooms in and let the readers make out its own meaning.

In this context, however, his latest collection, Morning Light (his eighth so far, and fourth published since 2012), has been a pleasant surprise. The collection contains vintage Shetty, and it has something more — a philosophical edge, an acute awareness of mortality, his own and other’s.

But his steadfast refusal to larger-than-life approach remains. Here he looks inwards towards himself and his surroundings, with the same microscopic vision, with the same brevity of language, distilled in striking images.

If the bulk of Shetty’s early poetry is about ‘creatures great and small’, then Morning Light is indeed about the human body, the decay of it and the inevitability of this decay. So we have references of hospitals, cemeteries and vultures, and of the past, the yardstick to measure the rationale of existence, not that it helps, especially when you cannot share the past. Shetty writes in the title poem:
My memory a half-filled
Library where borrowers
Have left bookmarks
After the first few pages.

These concerns of memory, old age and mortality are a minefield of sentimentality, and a happy occasion to dole out advices. He does neither (except a brief ‘Advice to Poets’: Remember, the more you bew/ilder the bet/ter you are....) Instead, like a scientist, he studies the occurrences and reports, in his own distinct style he has been cultivating since the publication of A Guarded Space in 1981, and since his magnificent achievement, Domestic Creatures, in 1994.

Thus, the meaning of the title, Morning Light, reveals itself in a latter poem in the collection, ‘Ways of Going’. After describing various ways of dying, he comes up with the perfect exit for himself:
...(I)n your favourite
Rocking chair in your
Kitchen with a smile
Crossing your lips in
The early morning light
And your eyes
Wide open.

Of course, the eyes must remain wide open. Because the act of seeing is central to Shetty’s poetry. This is how he makes sense of his surroundings. This is how he finds meaning in existence. This is how he finds otherness, both as a source of regret and awareness. In the poem, ‘Second Sight’, the poet observes the new generation, with their ‘old school ties’, ‘their flat bellies’ and ‘the austerity with which they sip two small brandies and no more’. There is a desire to swap his existence with theirs. But it cannot be possible. Is there regret? Yes. But there is also acceptance. The poet made a choice and he will stand by it:
But I have long forfeited
Such dreams for a belief
In trees that speak
At night for the tall grass
That droops in grief,
For tides that pine for the moon,
For whales that sing in perfect
Chorus, for the symbiotic creeper...
.... ... (F)or the stars
That will one day be peopled
When the sun darkens.

In short, every choice the poet made was for poetry. Yet, despair and despondency remains, so does hurt and hope. The bulk of the 66 poems in Morning Light is a see-saw between these conflicting emotions, a meditation on constant change and disconnect.

And death. It lurks just round the corner — an inevitability. Some leave old, unmissed... ... Others are fallen heroes (‘Unnamed’). And cemeteries (The washed gravestones/ Speak through dimly/ In memory of lives spent... (‘All Soul’s Day, St Inez Cemetery’). The poet accepts this with sage-like stoicism in the poem, ‘Last Rite’:
Even the smoke rising with ash
Doesn’t bring grief,
The years like charred
Deadwood floating
Downsteam into a sea...

Writing about the self, or inventing a poetic ‘I’ is one of the key forms of poetry. To see Shetty write about self in poems are poems is a bit surprising. He would rather be happy writing about tigers and snakes, porcupines and cats, or about visiting tourists in Goa’s beaches. All these make their due appearances (contrast between humans eating venison and a tiger eating a deer in ‘Jungle Retreat’; a porcupine as a stand-in for the poet, the ‘black and ivory quills’ replacing pen in ‘The Porcupine’; and the poet posing with a topless blond, On her tabletop tummy/ Behind my victory sign... in ‘Selfies from Calangute’), but even there, most of the poems are about the self.

But observing the self is difficult; to do so without sentimentality is more so. Thus, Shetty invents a ‘He’ persona, his doppelganger, creating a vehicle for unobtrusive observation, of old age, mortality, and loneliness (In his lucid moments/ He draws a headstone,/ Skull and bones, long knives/ And the spiralling smoke/ Of gunfire... (‘Condemned’); and, In his threadbare garden,/ He wanders between/ Twilight and sunrise, gathering/ His life in the folds of his/ Crumpled pillow and blanket (‘Sleepless 1’).

In the end, however, Shetty’s concern is more about matter than spirit. So, the frailty of the body takes precedence over the abstractness of life and death, or the act of living over just being alive. He writes in the poem, Standstill’:
He’s arrived at a standstill,
Others see him running but
It’s only his feet stamping
Old ground. He welcomes
The ceiling closing in on him.

If this review has given the impression that Morning Light is dour and dreary, the reviewer has done a bad job. Morning Light is a clear-eyed study of mortality in the age of constant connectivity, by one of India’s greatest practicing poets. The best comparison would be Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into the Good Night’. There is despondency, but there are also bouts of celebration, in the very act of being alive. In the poem, ‘Small Blessings’, Shetty writes:
I’m grateful for small blessings;
A full night’s sleep,
A journey without incident,
A tree bearing fruit after
Two barren seasons,
A letter from a friend
Long forgotten,
... .... ....
A poem every month
Or so, a home with no
Sign of ghosts, termites,
Or unpaid dues, and the sun
Settling down on schedule.

It doesn’t take much to be happy, and to appreciate Morning Light. Or,
To find that still
Cupped hand of a pond
Reflecting the forest.
(‘Working Conditions’)

Tailpiece: The last few years have been great for the admirers of Manohar Shetty. We saw the publication of two volumes, Creatures Great and Small and Living Room in 2014 and the reissuing of Personal Effects in 2015. And this magnificent collection in 2016. This is indeed heartening in a landscape where poetry publishing is nobody’s business. The credit for this must go to Copper Coin, which has so far issued three of Shetty’s collections.

Just to contextualise, in the 2015 interview with the reviewer, Shetty explained his approach to poetry thus: “Poetry is about economy of expression, of beauty in brevity. My ‘influences’ have not really changed over the years —Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Norman MacGaig, Richard Wilbur. In the recent times, I’ve admired the poetry of Simon Armitage. ‘Influence’ is such a nebulous term. A poet has to find his own tenor and timbre.”

(The review was first published in Indian Literature: A bi-monthly journal published by Sahitya Akademi. Issue 301. September-October 2017)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A detective story daubed in fantasy

Name: The Matsya Curse
Author: Shweta Taneja
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Pages: 248
Price Rs 399

The Matsya Curse, the second book in Shweta Taneja’s Anantya Tantrist Mystery after Cult of Chaos is a thrilling read, especially the first half of the novel, as the heroine Anantya, an occult detective embarks on a journey to investigate of the murder of a tribal supernatural (it means whatever you think it means.). Like a classic hard boiled noir, her detective faces resistance at every level and we are introduced to a host of colourful, weird characters, both friend and foe, more foe than friend. But then Anantya is an unequivocal expert, both in combat and magic and she doesn’t need anyone’s help.

Taneja’s has a way of describing scenes, which is thrilling and she is at her best describing action sequences, which is always difficult to do in fiction, describing one movement to the next when different things are going on.

Then, we unravel the mystery and the plot loses its stream. It surprises you why the author, after spending so much time and energy to create a seemingly new world of angels and demons in modern day Delhi (there is a lovely sequence where the detective travels to an underworld city via an underground Metro station), should resort to an old myth of immortals (including Ashwathama and Hanuman, to give you a clue).

But you must commend Taneja’s world building, which is creative, though at time incredulous. There is a Ministry and Tantriks in Delhi parallel to the Central government (a Harry Potter reference?), there is an immigration office for supernatural creatures and there is even a disco for them.

It’s all fun to begin with, but ultimately proves to be very problematic. The author creates a large tapestry of environments filled with fantasy creatures for her heroine to tackle and ultimately win. But in the process, we are told very little about those creatures themselves. This reviewer has not read the first book, so perhaps he missed certain things, but random appearance of random characters seemed haphazard. It seems her world is only the outlines, without colours to fill them.

I really enjoyed the book, but was also frustrated, because I wanted more; I wanted it to be perfect.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Interview with Shewta Taneja

Is Shweta Taneja India’s answer to JK Rowling? She may well be on her way, though her target readers are more mature, her storytelling more complex and her outlook more feminist. As her second novel featuring the tantric detective Anantya Tantrist, The Matsya Curse, hits the market, Taneja talks about writing fantasy fiction in India and turning them into detective stories

How did you get into fantasy?
Fantastical worlds and creatures have always fascinated me. Like any other child in India, I grew up on a healthy dose of the supernatural, through stories from mythology about divinely apsaras, evil rakshasas, forest-dwelling yakshas and beasts like yalis. As a reader, I began exploring speculative fiction pretty early, reading authors like JRR Tolkien, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, along many others, that swim in the otherworldly. However, though all these authors were geniuses of their genres, there was something missing. Most of the fantasy fiction I read was inspired by European myths with vampires, fairies, werewolves and zombies at the heart of them. Where were the Indian supernaturals? The rakshasas and the apsaras that I’d grown up with? It was the desire to read a fantasy which had Indo-Asian myths, village folklores at its soul, which felt like it was rooted in our country and culture that led me to write fantasy fiction myself.

Unlike a traditional fantasy series, which focuses on the protagonist’s journey, your heroine, Anantya Tantrist, is matured. The book reads more like a self-contained detective story than a traditional fantasy.
You’re right. Anantya Tantrist is a 23-year-old tantric detective living an independent, single life in Delhi. She takes on supernatural crime cases and solve them using mantras, potions, sass and magic. She’s a colourful, adventurous, reckless, expletive-spewing, beedi-smoking character who roams the streets of Delhi at night. The series has been written in more of detective mysteries style rather than high fantasy. So each adventure, each novel sees her facing a case and solving it by the end of the novel. In The Cult of Chaos, she was chasing a black tantric who was killing innocent girls to bring in the God of Chaos. In The Matsya Curse, she fights yet another tantric, who is killing off immortals in his quest for immortality. In the third one I’m currently working on, we see her facing a black magic cult from Banaras, which plays havoc with the tantrics in their quest to destroy the status quo and bring in a ruthless, tantric-powered Indian government.

A large section of the novel is about world building and introducing mythical creatures. What kind of research did you do?
Since it was a fantasy series, I could have made up everything but I wanted my fiction to be a step away from the real. Real enough for tantrics themselves to wonder if Anantya Tantrist lives in Delhi and look her up online. So hard research into both tantrism and mythology was necessary. It took me more than a year of reading up on tantriks, creatures in the Indian mythology and developing my plot and characters. I hogged on more than 50 books, travelled, interviewed tantrics, heard real life stories, read up on articles on tantric deaths, talked to babas, walked in cemeteries and charnel grounds and understood the dark side of the world that Anantya inhabits. Then it was back in my study to develop a plot for the novels and an over-arch for the series. I feel the world and the mythical characters feel much more real in the reader’s minds because of this research I did.

In fantasy fiction, the key is how to explain the world the author has created. In Anantya’s case, how easy or difficult it was to tell a story with a protagonist who is almost invulnerable?
In the Anantya mysteries, you go along with Anantya to solve a mystery. There are times when you don’t know everything about a character or a species, since you depend of Anantya’s explanations (and she’s moody. She might or might not explain), but the scene itself is so gripping that you don’t mind not knowing. As a writer, I feel it’s okay to leave your adult readers salivating for more information that fall into the trap of over-explaining. It’s a constant decision between the research and the writer in me and the editor in me on how much explanation to add, and what not to say.

In the book, you introduced so many different creatures/ characters, but we do not learn much about them.
That’s the beauty of writing detective fiction. You get to meet so many new characters as your detective heads from one clue to another. As I writer, I never know who or what you’ll meet at the end of a writing day. With Anantya you meet so many colourful characters from the underworld, from the supernatural and you wonder what happens to them when she’s not around. You seem to have favourites in Siyara, the Kroor tribal who guards the Non-Tantrik department’s offices in Connaught Place and Madhu, the detective with the CBI, who prefers men, and doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s half-rakshasa. Madhu’s character will be explored in the third of the Anantya Tantrist mysteries. However for others, including Siyara, there are no plans yet. But believe me, in the third installment, you will meet so many other new and interesting characters from the rich supernatural world that you’ll be left gasping for more.

In India, fantasy fiction is still struggling. What is your experience?
When The Cult of Chaos, the first of Anantya Tantrist mysteries was released in 2014, I had to sit down in front of my laptop and make a video to explain the genre. Instead of using the term ‘fantasy’, I called it a ‘Sherlock Holmes solves supernatural crime’. In 2017, I can use the word ‘fantasy’ to both the booksellers and the media and they understand and know the genre. There’s even a dedicated shelf for it in a few bookstores. I feel the genre is growing rapidly in India and being fast populated by both a dedicated group of writers and a collective of readers who are enjoying these tales.

India has a vast repository of mythical/ fantasy tropes. Do you think it may sometimes create a hindrance for an author to build a completely new fantasy world?
I won’t call it a hindrance since speculative fiction gives you complete freedom to step away from tropes (if you so wish) and enter and explore the unknown. In the new science fiction that I’m currently working on for example, I talk about contemporary caste, gender and religion issues through a female character who is a battery for an AI goddess. I’ve build the whole novel around devadasi myths set in far away land sometime in future. In the case of Anantya Tantrist mysteries, I have woven the vast and rich Indian mythology with our contemporary world to tell the tales. What would apsaras be doing it they were still alive and living in Delhi? What would rakshasas be eating? It was enjoyable to build a world around these questions. So you can see, as a writer, I’ve been enriched by the already rich tradition of mythology and fantasy that swims in our country’s culture. I love how the speculative fiction genre gives you the freedom to embrace the older myths, create new ones of your own, all in the quest to find that elusive truth and show a mirror to ourselves and the society we live in.

Also, how important it is for an Indian fantasy fiction writer to avoid the influences of western high fantasy tropes?
Since every writer is a reader first and understands how to write through the works of other writers, I don’t think a complete avoidance of influences is possible. Any writer however can choose to embrace or reject and rebuild tropes that limit storytelling in a certain genre. That’s the fun of it, really.

Shweta Taneja is a fantasy author, comic writer and journalist based in India. She's written seven books and two hundred articles in a career spanning fourteen years. She's a Charles Wallace India Writing Fellow and was shortlisted for Best Writer Award in ComicCon India for The Skull Rosary. Her graphic novel Krishna Defender of Dharma is part of CBSE and Kendriya Vidyalaya Recommended Lists. Her novels include Ghost Hunters of Kurseong, the bestselling Cult of Chaos an Anantya Tantrist Mystery, and How to Steal a Ghost @ Manipal. You can find her at

(A version of the story first appeared in Sakal Times, 7 October 2017.)