Monday, October 02, 2023

A first attempt at translating prose

Shakeela Akhtar was one of the earliest women writers of Urdu fiction in the twentieth century. Born and buried in Bihar, she was obviously deeply rooted in the local landscape, local dialects and, if we are to use this story as any indication, in the texture of its social relations.

I do not claim to know the body of her work, and I am but a fledgling translator. However, I chanced upon ‘Dain’ in the course of my current research on representations of witch bodies in South Asian literature. Since it wasn’t yet available in English translation, I decided to undertake the task myself.

Shakeela Akhtar was born into a zamindar family in Ardal, near the river Son in Bihar. The river features prominently in this short story and the author was evidently well-acquainted with the vicissitudes in the lives of fishing communities in the region. While I have not read Akhtar’s own memoir, I have read Balmiki Ram’s Shakeela Akhtar Bahaisiyat Fiction-nigaar (Kitabi Duniya, Dehli, 2014). Ram was a Junior Research Fellow at Patna University when he wrote this analysis of Akhtar’s fiction, and it includes basic biographic details about the author.

Akhtar’s date of birth is uncertain. Ram’s book suggests that different scholars have mentioned the years 1912, 1914, 1919 and 1921 while 1916 has been mentioned on the website Her first story ‘Rehmat’ was published in 1939 in the journal Adab Latif, Lahore. Elsewhere, Ram mentions that her first story ‘Mothers’ was published in Adab Latif. There are disputes too over the claim that her first collection was first published by Maktaba Urdu, Lahore, when she was just eighteen. However, it is known that she was married to Dr Akhtar Urainvi in 1933 and that her literary life began soon thereafter. According to Ram, her first published book was Darpan (likely published in 1940), the second was Aankh Micholi (1948), third collection was Dain aur Doosre Afsane (1952); fourth was Aag aur Paththar (1962); the fifth book was a set of three novelettes, published as Tinke ka Sahara (1975) and the sixth was Lahu ke Mol (1978) for which she received an Urdu Akademi award. Her last book was Aakhri Salaam (1982). Shakeela Akhtar died on 10th February, 1994.

Read 'dain' in English translation here:

A brief note on the translation: This story, 'Dain' was hard to translate partly because it made significant use of local dialects, spoken in the region around the river Son in Bihar. It is set in a time when zamindars or landlords were treated as local kings or rulers. The workers, agricultural or otherwise, were ‘rayyat,’ which literally means people and, in this story, is used in the sense of subjects or workers. However, in order to avoid confusion for readers in English, I have used the word tenant since it is a more accurate description of their status. In Urdu, the fisher-women address the landlord and his family as ‘maalik,’ which literally means ‘master’ and I have translated it as such. The relationship is essentially feudal but it is not that of owner and slave as ‘master’ might suggest in the western (especially American) context.

The original text had very erratic punctuation with quotation marks often missing or placed incorrectly. I have added these where required, but have stuck to the original tenses and first/third person speech as in the original.

I must profusely thank Musharraf Farooqi who was instrumental not only in my learning to read and write the Urdu script but who has also offered valuable feedback on this, my first attempt at translating Urdu prose. I must also thank Prof Abdur Rehman for helping with a sentence in Bhojpuri or Magahi that I was struggling with.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Some sad news

Terrible news. Desraj Kali is gone. Other people have written detailed obits, and friends like Shekhar have written personal accounts that show the sort of man he was, the instant acceptance, warmth and affection he offered even to strangers. I feel a bit numb and don't know where to begin. 

I have written about Kali (he referred to himself as Kali, and so I did too) in Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales. He was one of the doorways through which I encountered Punjab outside of the loud, Bollywood stereotype. And yet, paradoxically, he also inhabited and enlivened that stereotype. He was warm and generous and welcoming. When I first met him, it was through Ajay Bharadwaj whose film Kitte Mil Ve Mahi I had watched. I wanted to do a deeper dive into Sufism and the dera culture in Punjab and Ajay said there was no better guide than Kali. His family had attached itself to a dera but who himself was a writer and journalist and therefore understood the political and caste context in which faith is enacted. 

Kali introduced me to other professors and writers and traveled with me to many deras. He also insisted that I come home and introduced me to his own family, referring to his wife as 'your Bhabhi'. We met again, in Chandigarh a few times, while I was curating the Chandigarh Literature Festival. His Punjabi novel Shanti Parav had not yet been translated into English and I pestered him to get it published in the Hindi script at least, so I could read it. Eventually it was translated and published in English and he called me to say,  "There! Now you've no excuse not to read it!"

In recent years, he set up his own YouTube channel, BarqtanWebTv, where he discussed politics and culture in Punjabi. He also made appearances at various festivals and at online talks such as this one about the history of Jalandhar, where his personality and warmth are evident.  

I know one is supposed to say things like 'Go Well' and 'Rest in Peace' but I feel like saying, 'Don't go yet, Kali' even though he's already gone. Whenever he called, he asked me to come visit again, to eat the food 'your bhabhi' would cook. I always said that the taste of her cooking was still fresh on my tongue. He was unabashed in his expression of affection and sometimes when he called, he would admit that he was drunk and that he was ringing up all the people he loved. I kept saying I would visit next year, but there was always work and deadlines and new projects. I can't say how much I will miss someone like Desraj Kali. There are few people like him and the loss of his voice and his large heart will be felt by many. 

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Book alert!

Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales (Aleph 2023) is just out. This is a new edition of Known Turf (2010), with a fresh Introduction chapter and a lot of footnotes that update the book's information with newer data, which lend it fresh context. 

This book of essays was nominated for the Crossword book prize in the non-fiction category when it first came out, and had a bunch of mostly good reviews when it first came out. It attempts to tell the story of our country in our times, with brief dips and detours into banditry, caste crimes, gender violence, displacement, hunger and malnourishment, faith and identity. All of these are, as I have learnt over the years, interlinked processes. I urge you to buy and read the book. 

Review links from 2010: 

"Annie Zaidi’s collection of essays, Known Turf, is arresting and unforgettable; about realities we prefer didn’t exist. Starvation deaths, female infanticide and communal intolerance step out of the anonymity of statistics to become people like us. They remind us of our defence mechanisms in the face of horror and sorrow; our efforts to stay sane and functional" - Karthika Nair in Tehelka

"Known Turf is a wonderfully engaging example of a puzzling trend in contemporary Indian writing in English. Despite the hype surrounding the novels-with-large-advances, the best writing today is happening in non-fiction." Alok Rai in Outlook

"Tragic and tender and brutal and funny." Known Turf covers a lot of turf.

"At its best, the book combines a reporter’s on-the-spot perception and a writer’s reflection and language to etch interesting, nuanced portraits of that half-mythical being in the throes of constant change: contemporary India. Known Turf is definitely worth reading, and not just for the sake of Gabbar Singh." Tabish Khair in Mint

"...anyone who has braved the railways without a confirmed reservation will get cathartic pleasure reading Zaidi’s graphic account of sitting on the corner of a seat, at a 45 degrees angle, with an RAC (Reservation against cancellation) ticket in a train to Lucknow" Alpana Chowdhury in DNA

"A book like this, written by someone who may once have been just as sheltered as they were, will resonate with Generation iPad in a way that a more world-weary account would bypass entirely." Manjula Padmanabhan in Outlook Traveller

"It’s a rare look into the lives of dacoits minus caricature.  Zaidi’s writing attempts to evoke an understanding of their reality.The Reporter and her Beat in Civil Society

"Among all the issues that Zaidi touches on, I find molestation to be the most moving. Though she puts in a lot of information on the other subjects she chooses, the whole force of her personality comes into play only when she starts speaking of molestation and eve teasing." From here

More reviews hereherehereherehere, and here.

Saturday, August 05, 2023

Kaise unhein dikhayein jo parvaane jal gaye - Ali Jawad Zaidi

Here is a transcription of one of my grandfather's ghazals, for those who are interested in poetry but can't read the script. I thought I'd make a valiant effort to translate the poem into English but after staring at the first couplet for fifteen minutes, I gave up. Here's the poem in Roman script anyway:

Ghazal: page 222 (Naseem-e-dasht-e-aarzu)

Kaise unhein dikhayein jo parvaane jal gaye
Shole hazaar phool ke saanche mein dhal gaye

Badla nahin hunooz yahi ik maqaam-e-shauq
Kitne nizaam chashm-e-zadan mein badal gaye

Kya keh diya naseem-e-bahaari ne kaan mein
Sahra navard sair-e-chaman ko nikal gaye

Yaad-e-vafa-e-yaar teri umr ho daraaz
Do chaar saa'aton ke liye dil behel gaye

Saaqi ki chashm-e-mast ka jaadu yahi to hai
Jo log ladkhadaane lage thhe, sambhal gaye

Thhe jin pe tana baar tunak zarf-e-tez rau
Ta aastaan-e-shauq vahi paa-e-shal gaye*

Izhaar-e-jurm-e-ishq khilaaf-e-mizaaj thha
Daar-o-rasan ke zikr pe lekin machal gaye

Ae dil yahi hai barhana paayi ka marhala
Is khaar-zaar mein to kayi sar ke bal gaye

Zaidi ne raat apni kahaani jo chhed di
Jo dil thhe na-shanaas-e-mohabbat dahal gaye.

- Ali jawad Zaidi

Many thanks to Saif Mahmood for clarifying some words that I couldn't decipher in nastaliq (Gah! when will I learn?) and for explaining the meaning of one of the more tricky couplets (sharing the meaning below since it may be a bit difficult even for Urdu speakers). 

*Thhe jin pe tana baar tunak zarf-e-tez rau
Ta aastaan-e-shauq vahi paa-e-shal gaye

They, who were taunted by fast-walking boors
Kept moving towards their goal on wounded feet

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Some rollicking late summer fun

I reviewed a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is still as much fun as it was four hundred years ago. It speaks to the power and longevity of a good script.

Link to the review:

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Not quite a review: Ma is Scared and Other Stories

What is a Dalit perspective in literature? How does it differ from the phrase 'Dalit literature'? These were some of the questions I have been musing upon since reading Anjali Kajal's Ma is Scared, and other stories, translated by Kavita Bhanot. 

This book is unusual for three reasons. Firstly, it is not just a translation but also an original compilation. Kajal has been writing and publishing in various Hindi literary journals for several years, but her stories have not been collected into a book in Hindi. The translated book is therefore also the only book, and it has been published in the U.K. rather than in India. It is also unusual in that it does not offer readers any formal or thematic stereotypes that might inform their reading of these stories. Thirdly, it is unusual in its quiet exploration of feminine experience, foregrounding their thoughts and their relationships with each other rather than the drama of what has gone, or could go, wrong. 

Kajal's stories often highlight the intersectionality of exploitative processes such as caste and patriarchy. They are told mainly from a female character's perspective and serve as sensitive portraits of reflections on caste, disability, love and careers. In 'To Be Recognised,' a teacher is forced to 'sign for the full salary' even though she gets paid only a fraction of the salary due to her. In 'Pathways', a bright student refuses to take help from a sympathetic upper caste woman, who nevertheless can't help saying: "What would Sanjay have done with himself as a software engineer?... The system in our society was created for a reason." As Bhanot points out in her translator's note, a lot of Savarna hostility is directed towards 'reservations' or affirmative action in education or jobs. Kajal weaves this enduring hostility into many of her stories, including one set in the lockdown/pandemic when many students from marginalized backgrounds were forced out of learning altogether because of lack of equipment and wi-fi networks. 

Resentment and exploitation play out in a very different way in 'Suffocation', where an older woman has to learn how to live with her husband after a lifetime spent apart because of his job. Women's social isolation and their unstated fears feed into 'The Newspaper' where a mother begins to develop a phobia of the world outside after reading negative reports everyday. These are stories that do not leave you easy, but they also tend to surprise you with their refusal to go too far down the dark road. 

The book is not published in India yet but I do hope that it will be, and soon. 

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Sad Stories You are Old Enough to Hear

Eight years ago, I had my first essay accepted in the Griffith Review. 'Embodying Venus' was a meditation on women's bodies and (un)covering and the politics around it. There were a few more pieces in the journal since: 'Golden Girls' about the rise of young female wrestlers in India, 'Dangerous Little Things' about the significance of student politics, and a short story about ideological wars on Twitter, 'Cows Come Home'.

This year, again, I have a piece in their newest edition, Creation Stories. It is written in the form of a letter to a beloved young person who is growing up in fraught times: Sad Stories You are Old Enough to Hear

Dear A, 

The other day, I told you to stay out of it when two adults were talking about something serious. I saw your face, startled perhaps that this should come from me. I regretted it at once, partly because you are not a child. You are what we call ‘young adult’ in the world of literary endeavour and a young adult must be allowed into adult conversations. I know that my concerns may not be yours and perhaps even your sense of identity is not the same as mine. Perhaps you will be content to define yourself through pronouns or talent and no other struggle will be necessary. Still, we share blood, history and a love of stories, and I want to tell you some true stories today. Destabilising stories that offer neither resolution nor catharsis. Stories that go on, like an underground railroad loop inside your head. Stories that may explain the prickly, fragmented being you sometimes catch a glimpse of, before I clumsily gather myself. You will not remember it, but there’s a fragment of me permanently embedded on a railway platform in Mumbai...

The whole piece is behind a paywall but do read it here: 

Saturday, April 15, 2023

A review of Moyukh Chatterjee’s Composing Violence: The Limits of Exposure and the Making of Minorities

If a government is driven by the need to secure majority mandates, what incentives does it have to secure minority rights? In fact, if all institutions are ultimately answerable to majoritarian sentiments, if the creation of an unyielding majority is a constant political necessity, it stands to reason that the re-creation of minorities is also essential. Moyukh Chatterjee’s Composing Violence: The Limits of Exposure and the Making of Minorities addresses this question in direct and rather unsettling ways...

He argues that violence against minorities is not an exceptional event in the Global South, that it is essentially political violence – garbed as religious or ethnic violence – used to construct more or less permanent majorities and minorities. While this book focuses on India, it reminds us that modern Western states like the US and Canada were built on ‘the expulsion and subjugation of Indigenous and Black people’ and that contemporary violence against such racial minorities is ‘not a deviation from modernity but an integral aspect of the making of the modern nation-state itself.’ There is something foundational about antiminority violence and as postcolonial countries have developed into modern democracies, their respective pogroms and ethnic ‘conflicts’ have served to establish dominant racial or religious majorities as stable political majorities. 

Posing the question – ‘What can India tell us about the power of public violence against minorities to act as a catalyst for the creation of a permanent majority?’ – the author attempts to answer it through this book. His title – composing violence – is an attempt to understand ‘how violence persists, motivates, and animates social and political life beyond the scene of horror,’ and to move away from the idea that violence is ‘a breakdown, interruption, and exception,’ to instead describe it as ‘a constitutive force.’ This transformational quality of violence serves as a catalyst for turning Muslims in India into permanent minorities and ‘outsiders’. 

Read the full review here:


Friday, February 24, 2023

A belated note of gratitude

 I had intended to do this around the new year but better late than never. I have been thinking about unpaid labours of love, art and so on. Gender stuff aside, I have benefited from other people putting their work and their knowledge into the world for free. They do this via multiple platforms (many people make apps and other software and tech stuff available for free too) and in diverse media. I sometimes get tired of sitting and reading all the time, so the videos and podcasts and explainers made by strangers, friends and acquaintances have not merely enriched my life, but probably helped my physical and mental health, especially over the last three years. I am making a brief list of the ones that come to mind immediately. 

People who read aloud fiction and poetry: There's Jameel Gulrays and others at Katha Kathan, and also the Adbi Duniya YouTube channel. Some other narrators have read short fiction that I have heard on Audible and I'm grateful that at least some content is free. Rekhta and its videos bring poetry and fun discussions to me even though I haven't been able to attend. I have watched and enjoyed a lot of Hindi Kavita and Urdu Studio videos too, over the years. Am also grateful for people who organize litfests and music concerts and then share the videos later. So many recordings of shows held in the 1980s and early 90s are now popping up and some of them are a joy. Also people who share Hindi film songs from the 1950s and 60s.

People who do explainers of literary theories or texts: The University of Hyderabad has some stuff up on YouTube. Raja Masood also has some clear videos which help people who are either intimidated by or just totally new to literary theory. Even after you read an essay or book, you may struggle with its context and wonder why these ideas are significant. The videos offer conversational aid, sort of base tutorials, or online engagement for people who aren't getting enough of it within their institutions. I am not a fan of online instruction. However, many people find it impossible to continue formal education. Even those of us who return to education after a long gap, as I have, or those who have jobs but would like to improve their understanding of literature, psychology and gender, do benefit from such videos. 

So much thanks to YouTube, for talks from historians and watching musicians and dancers. I really like listening to Amit Varma's podcast Seen and the Unseen. It brings me closer to my community of writers, offers deep conversations with people I cannot meet or talk to in person. Also, a shoutout to Mariyam for her podcast, Main Bhi Muslim, and to, and more recently, Ruchika Sharma's Eye makeup and Itihas channel. 

Also, thank you to people who put up cooking recipe videos, sewing and knitting tutorials. And those who do how-to videos that help fix errors on heating systems, and how-to cut and sew dresses videos (I have successfully cut and stitched a shalwar during the pandemic by watching 3 different YouTube videos). And people who make memes (I am a top fan of Mad Mughal Memes). 

A note of gratitude to stand-up comics too. Many of them young people who have obvious grief lurking in the backdrop of their lives, and who put up at least some of their work on YouTube for free. They have been a much-needed source of laughter at the end of the day, and there must be millions  who look for levity in the midst of their gloom, but can't afford to buy tickets too often. 

I've also looked for, and found, audio recordings of several plays, some classic and some modern. Some cold reads that popped up during the pandemic. These have helped and continue to help.

I do buy a lot of books. I watch plays when I can. I do subscribe to Netflix and Prime and I do watch the comedy specials and the longer acts. I am hoping all these guys make their fair share of money. But there are many people who cannot afford the subscriptions or the comedy clubs, the tickets to readings, the samplers of literature that help them broaden their horizons. Those who offer to share the little they can afford to share by offering time,  know-how, insights for free, thank you. 

A translated poem, and a wonderful new poet

Recently, I translated a poem of the contemporary Hindi poet Amitabh Bachchan (not the film actor). It was entirely spontaneous for I saw him share the poem on Facebook and was so moved by it, I immediately wanted to share it with a non-Hindi reading audience. 

I share, below, the poem in the original and the translation. 

Life of a grave
Graves don't just live in graveyards
Some live at intersections
Some right on the street
They receive none of the thick shade from giant tamarind trees
They are circled by medical stores and bicycle shops
No river comes forward to kiss them
No grass grows upon them
Dry leaves do not cover them in autumn
They listen, day and night, to the sound of shutters rising, falling
Their ears ring with the sound of bicycle bells
And people scrambling about in their haste
They live out their lives
Between electric wires
Watching a compact sky
Breathing smoke all day
Only after midnight
Do they catch a bit of sleep.
- Translation mine (Annie Zaidi) and the Hindi original below.

कब्र का जीवन
कब्र सिर्फ कब्रगाहों में नहीं होती
कुछ चौक-चौराहों पर
कुछ बीच रास्तों पर होती हैं
उन्हें इमली के विशाल पेड़ों की घनी छाया नसीब नहीं होती
वे दवा या साइकिल की दुकानों से घिरी होती हैं
किसी दरिया का पानी उन्हें चूमने नहीं आता
कोई घास उन पर नहीं उगती
पतझड़ के दिनों में सूखे पत्ते उन्हें ढ़कने नहीं आते
वे दिन-रात सुनती हैं शटर उठने-गिरने की आवाज
उनके कानों में बजती रहती है साइकिल की घंटी
हड़बड़ी में भागते लोगों के साथ
बीतता है उन कब्रों का जीवन
बिजली के तारों के बीच से
वे देखती हैं छोटा सा आकाश
दिन भर धुआं पीती हैं
आधी रात बाद ही
मयस्सर होती है उन्हें नींद
(December 10, 2014 )
- Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh's first collection of poems, Samastipur, is now out, available online (amazon etc) as well as through the publisher (you can write to if you want to order it).

I've also offered an endorsement for the book, which goes as follows: A strong, fully-formed poetic voice has emerged from the belly of great uncertainty. Amitabh Bachchan's aesthetic expression is unclouded and unsentimental even though it remains firmly rooted in the landscape of sentiment. It is an emotional and political response to every shade of injustice around us and Hindi literature is doubtless richer for it.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

A review of 'In Your Tongue, I cannot Fit'

This is a difficult book to review in that it does not adhere to any literary format. It includes poetry, but it is not an anthology. It includes art, but it is not an art book. Broadly, the book serves as a document and a testament, a creative intervention on a continuum of silencing. In the photographs of the art installation, where poems were printed and placed on spikes, it is impossible to escape the mental image of heads of rebels placed on pikes though there is no blood in sight. Describing his first reaction to the exhibit, Tripathi says that the “arrogant spikes” appeared as flagpoles and the sheets of paper as white flags. The microphones, he writes, were not meant to be spoken into. Instead, the artist placed speakers in the microphones to amplify the poets’ words.

Gupta’s artwork also includes silhouettes traced from photographs of poets and activists who were arrested or have simply disappeared, and other objects associated with the denial of freedom. In an interview with Tina Marie Monelyon, Gupta says, “Power likes freedom and certainty for itself and not for others,” and goes on to make a connection between those who were killed and those who are viciously trolled online. The intent is the same—to ridicule, to harass, and to distract and confuse all others who might otherwise have been inclined to listen and think. However, as the editors point out in their introduction: “Empires have risen and fallen and national boundaries have changed. But the words of poets have survived.”

Full review here:

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Two new poems

I have two poems out in a special edition of the Portside Review, focused on what is 'Endangered'. Editor Sampurna Chattarji picked two very different poems though they are thematically linked in that they look at danger from different perspectives.

In ‘The sky fails to fall’, I address the destruction implicit in a lack of consequence. What if the skies don’t fall when they should? There are events that should stop us in our tracks, freeze our blood. There are conditions under which we should become dysfunctional and refuse to conduct business as usual. If we don’t, those destructive conditions become stronger, and yet, that happens so rarely. The skies do not fall even as, metaphorically speaking, the sky is actually falling.

The other poem is a sort of list or litany and it derives from my current research on 'witches' in South Asia. While mine is a literary project, I have been reading some anthropology too. In Witch Hunts: Culture, Patriarchy and Structural Transformation (Cambridge University Press, 2020), Govind Kelkar and Dev Nathan argue that a witch-hunt enforces or reinforces patriarchy.‘I found a witch’ is a ‘found’ poem series that draws directly from Kelkar and Nathan’s work. It foregrounds women who were ‘hunted’, weaving together key phrases that jumped out at me into compact micro-narratives, citing only the barest facts. Part of the reason I adopted this style was the need to emphasize the violence and the motivations behind witchcraft accusations, and partly because the psychological terror, the isolation, and the heartbreaking betrayals were already present. I have tried to write so that the women might confront readers more directly.

You can read both poems here:

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Current research

Many of you do not know but over the past year, I've gone back to studies. I'm in the second year of a PhD (English Studies/Creative Writing) at Durham University in the UK. (Please hold your congratulations until I've actually finished doing this; send good luck and fortitude instead). It has been over two decades since I was a scholar and I was rather nervous about my own aptitude viz academic reading and writing. I am mainly a practitioner and a background in journalism teaches you something about research but it does not involve quite the same degree of immersion in one topic and any analysis you offer doesn't have to be supported/evidenced to the same extent. Doctoral research, even if you do it via artistic practice, is different. I've made it past the one year mark, so I thought I should let more people know. Some of you have been reaching out, inviting me to places and events now that things are opening up again after the Covid-19 situation. Or asking me to read and review or blurb books and I have not been able to do much because there is SO MUCH reading to do towards my own research.

In case you're wondering, I'm looking at the figure of the witch in contemporary South Asian fiction, and starting to feel like I do know something about it. In case you're also wondering, unlike an MFA, a creative writing PhD is not geared towards the production of a novel or a collection of poetry. One submits some creative work but it is research based, AND a critical thesis that contextualizes the research, provides a theoretical framework for it either within the field or across disciplines where necessary.

When I started to apply, someone had asked me: why do you need to do this? Need is the wrong word, of course. I want to do this. I've just never been able to afford it before. I have applied and been accepted twice before, at a Masters' programme in the UK when I was in my early 20s and then an MFA programme in the USA in my late 20s. But there was no money, not even enough money to defer admission and to reapply the next year for more scholarships, or to take a year off just to build a stronger application. I was determined not to ask anyone else, not even my own family, for that much money. So it took me much longer. It was during the pandemic that I finally began to clear my head and think about how far I've come and how much further I want to go, and what kinds of things I want to work on in the future.

A PhD is very hard work; it is not the same as starting a new literary project. There are days when I am physically exhausted from trying to understand yet another chapter or theory. However, if you want to go back to studies after a long break, I recommend you do so. Here, I am relieved to notice some grey heads and harried parents of teenagers at conferences and seminars. It is good to be free of that nonsense about 'Why are they still in university?' Education is for everyone and research especially (in my view) gets more interesting when you have some experience of the world. I feel better prepared to undertake my research now, with more confidence and curiosity than when I was in my 20s.

Friday, November 11, 2022

On Reading Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

What a thing it is to discover a good book decades after it has been written! I wonder why nobody told me to read Sara Suleri's Meatless Days before? There were so many South Asian, especially diasporic, novels discussed over the last twenty years but not once did I hear anyone say: if you just want to look at good writing -- experimental writing that defies assumptions of genre -- read Meatless Days. I am both moved and startled by it. Some of the sentences are of such a sensory quality that I find myself wanting to lick them off the page (I don't actually do that. I don't! Really, I don't!). The language is a felt one, communicating itself with such a sharp metaphorical edge at times, it is like a new flavour on the tongue; at other times, it engages my literary senses with a sweet viscosity.

On the other hand, I am glad that I did not read this book before I wrote my own Bread, Cement, Cactus for it may have influenced the style in which I attempted a memoir of belonging and home, and this would not have been a good thing. Suleri's book is, in its own way, a sort of reaching for home but I needed to write a very different kind of memoir. I needed to grasp home as a sociocultural and political concept rather than reach for it within my own heart.

Suleri wrote a memoir that does something other than giving us a story about a well-known person, that opening of social doors and letting secrets spill, or even an account of living in a particular place at a particular time, taking us on a journey with a character with all their trials. Instead, it tells us what an emotional life is constructed of, using emotional tools that must be fashioned with one's own hands and memories so that, in the end, we are left with the author's heart rather than an account of her days. It is a memoir of love, not an account of relationships but a cloudy distillate in memory.

I did get tripped up sometimes by the language of the academic that sits within the writer. She uses 'discourse' instead of conversation or talk but she uses the term precisely, letting it describe an environment. A person can turn into a discourse, within himself or for the people in his life, or on account of a particular way of living and writing, seeing and refusing to see. She uses the word casually, but conscious of its possibilities. It is a pity she didn't write more fiction; I would have liked to see what she did with it but perhaps it is just as well. I think I will look out for her other book, also a personal narrative by the sound of it.

In the meantime, I leave you with these brief bits, where she talks about 'sentences' and her relationship with them from her earliest days, and the way she recalls her late mother and elder sister.

Monday, November 07, 2022

After Sappho: a review

Spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the story introduces the reader to women who rejected factory and homestead and immersed themselves in classical poetry, plays, novels, pamphlets, paintings, dancing. The performers among them responded to contemporary works such as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Oscar Wilde’s Salome, while others such as Colette, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf wrote their own novels and plays.

Living in France, Italy, Greece or England, many of these women had privileges associated with a middle- or upper-class background. Apart from one named working-class character—Berthe Cleryrergue, a housekeeper who wrote a memoir about the years she spent working for Natalie Barney—most characters appear to be women of some means. They are able to host and attend salons in Paris or travel across the continent, to Lesbos or Capri. They refuse to slip easily into the robes of obedient wives and mothers, and if they cannot flee, they subvert the norms of heterosexual marriage.

Yet, this is not a novel about privilege though it does draw attention to the nature of privilege through the prism of gender. After all, what privilege does a businessman’s daughter have if her father simply hands her over to her rapist? What does privilege mean if you have no say in the workings of the nation, no matter how educated you are or how ignorant the men who rule against you?

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Review of C

I've written a long, critical review of the 'C: A Novel'. A short extract and a link to the full review below:

She moves to the more prosaic revelation that she cannot counter a man who says the right things but does not give her what she needs. While other details of space and location do pull the narrative in other directions, it arches back to the question of a relationship that is intense but unfulfilling. Aside from this theme, much of this novel is about the struggle to create. The city and the storyteller want to go ‘go for the kill’, to capture some essential truth. The writer’s self-doubt is projected onto the voice of the city who observes: “Have I chosen the wrong storyteller?”

Most chapters read like a writer’s journal. They describe her determination to make her time abroad add up to something, her experiences in libraries, admiration for Sylvia Plath, and her pondering experiments in writing from a male perspective. Through her struggle to live a creative life and to resolve her complicated relationship, the reader gains insights into the formation of the narrator’s literary self – exposed to seminal literature in at least two languages – as well as to a wounded self, the one that was mocked and knuckle-rapped by teachers, sexually assaulted, romantically involved with ‘scumbags’, and guilty. As the ghost says, “What you’re writing is who you are.”

Thursday, July 07, 2022

Seven notes on Hope

A few weeks ago, I was invited to contribute to the Hope Project by the University of York. This is a series of conversations with writers and scholars, those looking for a way forward despite all the bad news. In the midst of intense climate change, illness, a pandemic, cultural and physical destruction in various parts of the world, how do we hold onto hope? 

I responded with a long prose-poem, taking off from the famous Emily Dickinson poem where hope is compared to a bird. As a starting note, I wondered what kind of bird this might be. Surely, not a fragile thing for it must withstand hard times. This turned into a reflection that become the first note on hope (shared below). Then I began to draw images and ideas from two major books: Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope: Ethics in the face of cultural devastation (2006) and Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark: Untold histories, Wild Possibilities (2016). I have also sought refuge from despair in the works of several Urdu poets, including the work of my own grandfather, Ali Jawad Zaidi. All of these ideas add up to seven 'notes' or one long prose poem. 

The first part of this text is below and the full version is linked to, and can be read on the York website. I also share a link below to the talk with Claire Chambers where I discuss the work and its images and my attempt to engage with hope. 


If it is a thing with feathers calling through chill lands, perhaps it has a curved beak and talons

It cannot be a snowflake. A bird of prey, surely. Sharp-eyed hawk looking far into the distance, swooping when the moment is right, swallowing little mice

A scavenging thing perhaps, living off that which cannot weather the sore storm. On land, it seeks small mammals. On strange seas, fish. A feathered thing that can poach from bears and mountain lions. Strong, STRONG. Fierce in the knowledge that every desert has snakes and lizards, every lake has toads. Every posh enclave has a garden where lunching ladies eat ham and cucumber sandwiches. The magpie ability to grab, to sneak into alien nests to conserve her future. A crow is also a bird after all.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

A staging, at last

It has taken thirteen years but, finally, my play 'Name, Place, Animal, Thing' got staged. The Bay Area Drama Company produced it and Rita Bhatia directed the shows ran at Sunnyvale Theatre recently.

This script was shortlisted for The Hindu Playwrights prize in 2009, but was not staged at the time, partly because I was a freelance journalist who had very little contact with theatre makers. A couple of wonderful readings happened during the pandemic (Atri Bannerjee directed a dramatized reading for the Almeida Theatre in the UK and the Panas Panas Theatre in Kuala Lumpur did a Zoom reading) but this is the first time the play has been staged with costumes, props et al. 

I am glad that the artistic director, Basab Pradhan reached out and made this happen. I couldn't be there to watch the show but many others, especially the South Asian community in the Bay Area, did come to watch. This matters a great deal to me since the play focuses on the intersection of domestic work, class and gender as it plays out in South Asia. 

I was asked to write a blog post too, to help audiences engage deeper with the themes of the play. I wrote at some length so that readers may have a bit of historic perspective viz domestic work and child labour in independent India. Here's something to chew on: 

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, was applicable to 64 professions that were deemed hazardous; domestic work was not included. Activists lobbied the Indian government to change the law so that children under the age of 14 could no longer be employed as domestic workers. Initially, the notification was restricted to government servants, who comprise a negligible percentage of the population. Still, the government did concede that children should not be employed in households. The work can be never-ending (a domestic worker can be woken up in the middle of the night to perform a chore) and the risks of exploitation are high since constant oversight is not possible.

In 2006, the government of India finally expanded this order into a law so that children under 14 are no longer permitted to undertake domestic work. However, there are an estimated 150 million child labourers between the ages of 5 and 14, of which at least 7.4 million are domestic workers. More recent studies suggest that 74 percent of child domestic workers in India are between the ages of 12 and 16. Clearly, implementation of the law is weak. Besides, the law only applies to children under 14. What happens to the 15-year-old who lives and works in someone else’s house?

One of the activists I'd met in 2006 told me that if the law were properly implemented, employers are afraid they will be “orphaned for the lack of a slave”.

The script is included in a set of three published in book form as well and you may buy it  online or, ideally, in any bookstore that stocks it. A Kindle version is also available here: 

Sunday, June 05, 2022

"Against the impossible dimensions of this city, the 12 small lives flicker bravely..."

A new review of City of Incident

"Against the impossible dimensions of this city, the 12 small lives flicker bravely under the razor-gaze of the author’s lens. It begins with a moment, an image, a mood that flowers into a story. One life is linked to another, seeds are sown in an early chapter that will sprout in a later one. Sometimes it is a vague intersection, the sort of thing that is natural in a thrumming metropolis, sometimes a deep connection is forged. But mostly each is returned to their own life – who can refuse to live it?! – by the metronome of their own circumstances.

Riot was urgent and political; City is restrained and almost entirely focused on the individual. We are to know no names; identities are linked mostly to class. As in Greek tragedy, the moments of greatest drama are all conducted off-stage and we get to hear of it only through the chance words of others. In my view, it is the economy of this stylistic choice that makes City so compelling."

- Devapriya Roy writes in The Indian Express

Thursday, June 02, 2022

City of Incident: Reviews

"We are reminded that the author’s voice, shining through the telling, illuminating the prose, is what keeps the novel vital and alive. While binge-watching leaves us exhausted and glazed-eyed in the wake of a series, when we dive into the quiet, transformative pool of powerful prose, we emerge renewed."

- A review by Devapriya Roy in the Indian Express

"Sight and insight; every episode, and there are twelve interlinked ones, appears at first glance a stand-alone narrative even though the blurb advises us they are interlinked. But the interlinks are subtle and demand of the reader the embrace of that same cinematic gaze that defines the telling of this novel: the reader has to remember that a the plastic bag will reappear as a defining moment in the emotive core of other protagonists inhabiting this city whose own core is defined by the precincts of the railway line at one end and high rise apartments at the other. In between the skywalk on which the dispossessed make their homes as ladies in their clackety-clack heels pass by. For Zaidi, this contrasting scene of poverty and middling affluence is not the site for social realism, breast-beating about the iniquities that plague the city. They are the locations of illusions, of yearnings, and glimmers of redemption from love denied or a life despised."

"Haruki Murakami once asked, “Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves.” Zaidi posits a painful answer to this question, unflinchingly marking the social divisions that proliferate her web.

Some of these social markers inevitably crisscross – like gender complicating class relations. Zaidi also pays attention to how these divisions are uniquely manifested in the space of a city, which is as merciful as alienating in its bequeathal of anonymity."

- A review of City of Incident by Gayathri Shankar in

"This sense of something just beyond — something nameless that is tantalisingly within one’s grasp, but recedes as soon as one stretches out a hand to it — unites Zaidi’s characters, all of whom labour under different forms of constraint: everyday constraints imposed by class, patriarchy, age."

- A review by Gautam Bhatia in The Hindu

"City of Incident captures the aspirations and losses of a bunch of people irrespective of their socio-economic status—there’s a trinket seller, a bank employee, a policeman, a security guard, etcetera. Most of them are unhappy in their own ways, some more than the other. As an author, Zaidi doesn’t provide her characters with many dialogues. She sets the stage simply by establishing the scene and ruminates on the peripheries that carry it forward."

"This is where people meet; this is where they fall in love and this is where they settle down. Those riding its trains, buses and ferries have their dreams too, though mostly unfulfilled. That is a given. But one cannot brush them aside or push them under the mildewing carpet of memory."

- A review by Ganesh Saili in The New Indian Express

"The narration is lively and attractive. The story is not to delve deeper into the lives but to understand the merging of the city, its color, and the people’s psyches."

"Short sketches are meant to be packed with detail, not a word out of place, and this is exactly the vividness that characterises this collection. And yet there is a sense of universality about the sketches as the reader will instantly recognise such characters in their lives too. The empathy with which she writes is at the heart and soul of every story. The stories linger with the reader after the book is closed."

- A review by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose 

"A diverse cast of characters — a cop, a bank teller, a security guard, a fragile woman having an affair, her lover, his ex-wife… — show up and, one by one, reveal parts of themselves: their thoughts, their observations, how other people see them, how they see other people, a significant life-altering incident. The local train runs in the backdrop."

Other reviews on Goodreads: 

More reviews on Amazon: 

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