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Wednesday, January 09, 2019

A novel of people

Review of There’s a Carnival Today by Indra Bahadur Rai (Translated from Nepali by Manjushree Thapa), New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2017, Rs 350/


When I first picked up the Manjushree Thapa’s translation of celebrated Nepali author Indra Bahadur Rai’s There’s a Carnival Today, the first thing I remembered was reading Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin all those years ago, especially his concept of carnival as a social institution and his idea of novel as polyphony.

Perhaps the English title of the novel and the bright white, indigo and red cover, featuring a protesting mob, among others, were the triggers. As I read on, my hunch proved to be not altogether wrong, but not entirely correct either.

On the surface, the novel tells the story of Janak, a garment trader, and his family, his wife from across the border in Nepal, Sita, and their two children, Ravi and Divya making a living in Derjeeling, a decided British town, now a part of West Bengal, hosting diverse communities such as Bengali, Nepali, Lepcha, Bhutia, Tibetan, among others.

Dig deeper and several stories emerge. It is a story of a country in transition from independence to self-rule to development (The novel begins at the dawn of Independence when Janak returns home after completing his studies in Kolkata and ends during workers agitation in 1950s.).

It is the story of the struggle of the Tea Garden Workers’ rights that led to a full blown protest in Derjeeling in the 1950s. In one sense, it is a story of the communist labour union movement in the tea plantations.

It is also the story of building a cultural identity, the ‘Gorkha’ identity and the rise of the demand for a Gorkhaland state. At the same time, it is the story of cultural diversity, the comingling of different peoples — settlers from Nepal, who while using the language, formed a separate identity as Gorkha (which the novel highlights in the confrontations between Janak and his father-in-law, who is from mainland Nepal); Lepchas; Limbus; Bhotias; Bengali administrators and tea plantation owners (exemplified by Janak’s neighbours MK and Ajoy Dasgupta); and the Bihari and Marwari traders (as represented by Jayabilas, once Janak’s business partner, now his bitter enemy). There are also vestiges of the colonial past (the movie theatre in the market and even Goan Jazz).

This inevitably leads to another story, a story of clash of cultures, between the Gorkhas and their Bengali leaders ruling from Kolkata, between the indigenous population and the migrants, between the tea garden owners and the workers (This clash between capitalism and communism comes to a full circle in the clash between Janak and Ravi, a businessman and a teacher fighting for workers’ rights. The first half of the novel concerns Janak as struggles to build a perfect family while the second half shift towards Ravi, who against his father’s wishes, becomes a teacher and gets involved in the politics of the tea gardens.). At one point, Janak says, “Good habits are as useful as Bihari servants; bad habits are as evil as Bengali masters.”

Above all, There’s a Carnival Today is a novel about a city, known the world over for its tea and for the Kanchenjunga peak — a novel about Derjeeling, her people and their political aspirations. The story isn’t over yet, and Rai knew, as he ends the novel with Janak’s transition as a man without courage to a man acting as though he has courage.

So, we could perhaps read the novel using Bakhtin’s philosophy after all. For one thing, Rai’s narrative is classic polyphony. Unlike a classic western novel, which follows the protagonist’s journey, seeing the world from his point-of-view, Rai shows an unfailing curiosity towards all his characters, and their unique situations. The novel is purportedly centred on Janak and his travails, but Rai is in no hurry to narrate the story of his struggles — his identity crisis, his struggle to succeed in business, his conflict with his children and his doomed extramarital affair.

Instead, Rai’s narrative digresses at every possible opportunity to tell us more about the people in Janak’s life, his neighbour MK and his long-suffering wife Babuni; Ravi and his love for an anglo-Indian girl; Bhudev, Janak’s partner at the party and soon his bitter rival; Jayabilas, Janak’s business partner; Namgyal and his wife Yamuna, and even occasional Madhesi servants.

This apart from Rai’s interest in describing mundane activities in illuminating details, like shopping, food habits, drinking habits, customs and clothing, which he does in such a way that they take a life of their own.

In the introduction to the book in 1958, Rai wrote, “I saw that life was moving forward, but not in an organised manner, with everything falling into place. I have disarranged this novel in a similar way. I didn’t see life as a singularity, or as the chemical purity and unhindered progress of a single subjectivity. Love is the mother of all emotions: Touch it, and all of our other emotions awaken and writhe.”

Love, then, is the key to understand There’s a Carnival Today — the love that Rai’s characters display, and love that Rai feels for his characters, and their causes.

At this juncture, Bakhtin’s philosophy doesn’t help us much, for There’s a Carnival Today defies comparison to the western novel tradition, and we must read the book in its own term, in the context of its own creation.

Indra Bahadur Rai (who passed away this year) was the first Nepali-language writer to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for a book of literary criticism on Nepali literature, Nepali Sahityaka Adhaarharu, in 1976. Together with two prominent modern poets from Nepal, Bairagi Kainla and Ishwor Ballav, Rai founded the abstract ‘Tesro Aayam’ (Third Dimension) school of writing, introducing an abstract, modernist aesthetics to Nepali-language literature. Later, Rai invented the exuberant and lyrical deconstructionist aesthetics that he called ‘Leela-Lekhan’ (play-writing).

There’s a Carnival Today (the only novel by the author of thirteen other books), originally published in 1958, is Rai’s early work, and as such, instead of literally experimentation, we notice a rather plain narrative highlighted by his desire to do right by his people and his land. Here lies the pleasure of reading the novel, like a grandfather’s tale, without discernable beginning and end, yet each moment illuminated by lived experiences.

In this sense perhaps, Rai’s Derjeeling is like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the political struggles are like the numerous wars Colonel Aureliano Buendia fought. Yet’s unlike Marquez’s long passages, Rai’s narrative is filled with conversations, both as communication and as a code to understand character motivations. And Rai’s approach is joie de vivre. He approaches everything with a lightness of touch, never allowing the readers to get bogged down by the complexities of it, never allowing the proceeding either to turn maudlin or tragic. This masterwork of fine balance is one of the joys of reading There’s a Carnival Today.

In her note, the translator, Manjushree Thapa, writes, “There’s a Carnival Today doesn’t capture the wry tone of Aaja Ramita Chha, which deploys the word ‘ramita’— a combination of fair, a show, a spectacle or some fun— ironically.”

Yet, Thapa’s translation is on point. At no point in the novel you feel that you are reading a translated work — it flows perfectly.

{First published in Indian Literature, the bi-monthly magazine of the Sahitya Akademi, November-December 2018}

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Four Indian and two Pakistani authors in contention for DSC Prize 2018

The much-anticipated shortlist for the USD 25,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2018 has been unveiled at a special event, which took place at the London School of Economics & Political Science. Now in its 8th year, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is one of the most prestigious international literary awards specifically focused on South Asian fiction writing.

The shortlist of six novels was announced on 14 November 2018 by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, chair of the DSC Prize 2018 jury panel, who along with the other four jury members, Claire Armitstead, Nandana Sen, Firdous Azim and Tissa Jayatilaka, had met a day prior to the event to arrive at the shortlist.

The shortlist comprises four authors of Indian origin and two authors of Pakistani origin and despite some of them being based outside the South Asian region, their work poignantly brings alive a wide spectrum of themes and emotions that are so relevant in contemporary South Asian life.

The shortlist also includes a translated book where the original writing was in Kannada. The shortlist announcement was well received by publishers, authors and literary enthusiasts who attended the event.

The six shortlisted entries contending for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2018 are:
Jayant Kaikini: No Presents Please (Translated by Tejaswini Niranjana, Harper Perennial, HarperCollins India)
Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire (Riverhead Books, USA and Bloomsbury, UK)
Manu Joseph: Miss Laila Armed and Dangerous (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, India)
Mohsin Hamid: Exit West (Riverhead Books, USA and Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, India)
Neel Mukherjee: A State Of Freedom (Chatto & Windus, Vintage, UK and Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, India)
Sujit Saraf: Harilal & Sons (Speaking Tiger, India)

Speaking on the occasion, Mukherjee, said, “Being the chair of the jury of the DSC Prize has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I say this for two reasons. One is the sheer intellectual excitement of reading, evaluating and discussing these works of fiction. The other is the interactions I had with my four colleagues on the jury. I know I learnt an enormous amount from all of them and for this I am profoundly grateful to all of them. Evaluating these books reminded me once again of the importance of reading in human lives."

Administered by the South Asian Literature Prize & Events Trust, the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature has helped to raise the profile of South Asian writing around the world by rewarding authors who write on the region. Founded in 2010 by Surina Narula and Manhad Narula, the winning author is awarded a USD 25,000 prize. This year the prize received a record 88 entries, which included stunning portrayals of migration, war and the pain of displacement, poignant love stories, the exploration of new found relationships and identities, and vivification of the personal struggles, hopes and aspirations that symbolize the urgent and divisive realities of contemporary South Asian life.

Surina Narula, co-founder of the DSC Prize, said, “My heartfelt thanks and commendations to the jury panel for the detailed deliberations over the last few months, and coming up with such a good shortlist. The longlist announced last month was an impressive list; it must have been a challenging task for the jury to bring this down to a shortlist of six books. The shortlist represents the very best of South Asian fiction writing, and the depth, creativity and unique narrative of each of these novels is indeed both impressive and inspirational. My congratulations to each one of the shortlisted authors and translator and I wish them the very best for the final award ceremony.”

The announcement evening also featured a special panel discussion moderated by Claire Armitstead, associate editor, Culture, for The Guardian on the ‘Importance of literary prizes, with Alexandra Pringle, and Sathnam Sanghera.

Following the announcement of the shortlisted entries, the jury will convene again to select the winning author, ahead of the final award ceremony to be held at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet which would take place in Kolkata, India between 22 and 27 January 2019.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Keki Daruwalla writes on Book of Prayers in his column ‘Poetry Wire’ in The Hindu.

Dibyajyoti Sarma is both poet and small-time publisher of beautiful volumes of poetry. His Book of Prayers could be placed in an art gallery. But nowhere does he say that the illustrations are his. The reader is baffled. His poetry is a mix of myth and history. His grandfather returns as a beggar to Nalabari from East Pakistan, with a few gold coins of Queen Victoria tucked in the knot of his dhoti, and tall stories of the wealthy life he had lived. His poems are well grounded in fact and reveal a culture which he displays lovingly and yet subverts dangerously.

Read the complete piece, ‘With rice stems in her hair’ in The Hindu

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Women writers, debut novelists dominate DSC Prize 2018 entries

As the longlist for the DSC Prize 2018 is scheduled to be announced on 10 October, Dibyajyoti Sarma looks at the trends among the 88 submissions received this year.

Women writers rule the roosts in South Asian Literature. At least, this seems to be the consensus at this year’s USD 25,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The international literary prize received a total of 88 eligible entries, of which 45 are by women.
The other significant aspect of this year’s submissions has been the proliferation of debut novelists, with a significant 30% of the submissions being debut novels. Even among them, 15 are by women writers.

The DSC Prize, now in its eighth year, has always encouraged new and upcoming talent writing about South Asia. Last year, the Prize was given to Anuk Arudpragasam of Sri Lanka for his debut, ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’. Other authors who took home the Prize for their first novels include HM Naqvi for ‘Home Boy’, Shehan Karunatilaka for ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’, and Jeet Thayil for ‘Narcopolis’.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which was instituted by Surina Narula and Manhad Narula in 2010 is administered by the South Asian Literature Prize & Events Trust, and is specifically focused on showcasing and rewarding the best talent writing about the region and presenting it to a global audience.

On the submissions received this year, Surina Narula, founder of the DSC Prize, said the entries include a healthy mix of debut novelists along with established writers, women writers, translated novels, stories set in South Asia and beyond. “Close to a quarter of all the entries have come in from publishers outside South Asia, which highlights the growing importance of the region in the global literary landscape,” he said.

She also said 88 eligible entries received this year was the highest ever since the prize’s inception in 2010. These entries have come in from 40 publishers and across 56 imprints from across the globe and represent a healthy diversity in terms of publishers and region.

The prize has been able to attract the interest of not just the large well established publishing conglomerates, but also several smaller publishers with special interest in South Asian writing. The prize has received close to 25% of the submissions from publishers based beyond South Asia, which highlights the growing interest of publishers and authors across the world in South Asian writing.

The novels are at present being read and evaluated by a five-member international jury panel who would first announce a longlist of 12 to 15 books on 10 October. Thereafter, the shortlist of five or six books would be announced at the London School of Economics on 14 November and the eventual winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2018 would be announced at a special Award Ceremony to be held in February 2019 in a South Asian country.

In line with its South Asian essence, the award ceremony is held in various South Asian countries by rotation. The winner of the DSC Prize 2015 was announced at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the winner in 2016 was announced at the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, and the winner in 2017 was announced at the Dhaka Lit Fest in Bangladesh.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Friend and former colleague Medha Dutta asked me about poetry for a long piece published in The New Indian Express on 7 October 2018.

Here's what I apparently said.

"Poet and publisher, Red River, Dibyajyoti Sarma was invited to this year’s Bengaluru Poetry Festival both as a poet and a publisher. This year, he says, there were more than 50 poets who had been invited—both well-known and emerging—writing not just in English but in all Indian languages. Everyone was given the opportunity to share their works in a hall full of eager listeners. “Usually, poetry readings are fringe events. Bengaluru Poetry Festival has managed to take it to the mainstream,” he adds. According to Dibyajyoti, poetry was always popular, but its readership was always limited. But with Facebook and other social media, Indian poets, especially younger ones, have managed to find a community to share their work, or be a part of it. This visibility has also been helped by experiments like ‘Insta poetry’ or ‘spoken word poetry’, he adds. He published his first book with Writers Workshop, Kolkata, in 2004. “It was a buy-back arrangement. I could recover at least some portion of the investment,” Dibyajyoti explains.

"According to him, poetry has a limited market and for a commercial publisher, it’s a risk. This becomes a roadblock for new poets who are keen to be published by a mainstream publisher. But the landscape is slowly changing. About a decade ago, Poetrywala was established as a dedicated poetry press. Today, there are several such initiatives, such as Hawakal (Kolkata), Copper Coin (Delhi) and Red River (Delhi), among others. Besides, initiatives such as The (Great) India Poetry Collective, and RL Poetry Awards run by Linda Ashok, are a major encouragement."

Read the complete story, InstaRhyme Time by Medha Dutta in The New Indian Express.