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: https://readdurhamenglish.wordpress.com/2023/07/22/rollicking-review-of-a-midsummer-nights-dream-by-elysium-theatre-company/

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: https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/sad-stories-you-are-old-enough-to-hear/?fbclid=IwAR2xV0B2_KcjkLdCvNQH2TT9yRNNS697-_Slrq2GwCd43R5RKtlTFlC64hI 

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: https://thewire.in/books/book-review-majoritiarian-violence-moyak-chatterjee


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 heritagetimes.in, 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 threeessays@gmail.com 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:


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