31 May 2015

English has given me some new access but it is Hindi which has got me fame: Geetanjali Shree

An interview published in Scroll.

The Hindi novelist and short-story writer speaks on why being translated is wonderful, but it is not nearly enough.


Geetanjali Shree is the author of four critically acclaimed novels – MaiTirohit, Hamara Shahar Us Baras, and Khali Jagah – and six collections of short stories, in Hindi. She has also published an intellectual biography of Premchand, in English. Often described as a lyrical and uninhibited writer, she has received the Krishna Baldev Vaid Sammaan, Hindi Akademi Sahityakar Sammaan, Dwijdev Sammaan and Indu Sharma Katha Sammaan for her contribution to Hindi letters.

Shree’s fiction has travelled far and wide in translation, with versions published in English as well as German, French, Serbian, Czech, Japanese, Bangla, Urdu, Malayalam, Oriya and Gujarati. The Empty Space, Nivedita Menon's English translation of Khali Jagah, which unfolds against the backdrop of a bomb explosion, was longlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. In 2002, Nita Kumar's translation of Mai won the Sahitya Akademi award for English translation, and was also shortlisted for the Hutchinson-Crossword Translation Award. Hamara Shahar Us Baras (1998), which traces the slow communalisation of an imaginary city, was staged as a play by the National School of Drama Repertory in 2011-2012. Most recently, Tirohit (2001) has been translated into English by Rahul Soni as The Roof Beneath Their Feet (2013).

The writer speaks on her beginnings as a Hindi writer, the experience of being translated into English and other languages, and how the Hindi literary milieu differs from the Indian English one. Excerpts from an interview:

You've been publishing fiction since the 1980s. When and how did your writing start to be appreciated by Hindi readers?I was lucky to have a good start. The leading Hindi publishing house, Rajkamal, then in the hands of one of the most dynamic entrepreneurial figures, Sheela Sandhu, immediately took to my writing and agreed to publish me. That was straightaway an acknowledgement of the quality of my work. Then the senior writer Rajendra Yadav did something similar – he brought out three of my stories in succession in his very popular journal Hans, as a special introduction to a new writer. These two events were a great launch for me and I got noticed quickly.

How much of that attention, and the actual copies of your books sold, do you think, was a result of book reviews, media coverage and/or literary awards in Hindi?Book reviews, media coverage, awards have an uneven importance. Who has spoken up for you is more determining. And in the final analysis, a wider readership, with or without the above, plays a role.

When were you first translated into English?
My first novel Mai was published in English by the publishing house then called Kali for Women. Nita Kumar, a well-known scholar, cared for the book for its “feminist” potential, apart from other merits, and took the initiative to translate it. Urvashi Butalia approached me just at that time for the possibility to publish my work. The two fitted together quite providentially.

Has the Indian readership for English translations from Indian languages grown larger and more interested in recent years? If so, is it because the quality of translations has improved, or for some other reasons?
I think it comes in a package. Publishing itself has increased in all languages, and book launches, promotions, book-talk have grown phenomenally. So too translations. The attempt is to capture the market as widely as possible. But, no, it hasn't led necessarily to better translations. Sometimes it is only quicker translations! A readership is forming for translations, but it is still haphazard and abysmal compared to English originals.

How was the media reception to the English editions of your books different from that in the Hindi Press? How would you compare the two experiences in terms of the texture and insight of conversations and coverage?
The reception is on different platforms. English took my books to new spaces, including English centres located in other regions and languages. English enjoys a prominence in today’s world which comes across as greater visibility and coverage. I was a little seduced by that initially.

But – and I want to underscore this – while English gave me some access to an English market and readership, mostly within the country, the lag between the interest in English in translation and English in original showed up clearly as I went along. And my Hindi books have sold better than English translations, for sure!

This has nothing to do with the worth of a book, but more to do with the atmosphere available for its reception. There are attempts to create this, but a large part of the hegemonic and powerful world continues to be Anglophile!

Each language has its own world and centre, some better than others, Hindi being one of them. And while everyone has begun to care for being translated in the more “powerful” languages far and near, it is from within their own world teeming with activity and exchange. Not, I wish to make plain, a case of sitting in neglected corners and looking hankeringly at the world (English!) out there!

How would you evaluate the Hindi literary sphere, in contrast to the Indian English one?
English has come in later – new confidence, new ways of the market, and has moved into it aggressively and efficiently. The Hindi literary universe is older. But there are Hindi events and there are enough Hindi speakers too, even if they sometimes lack some of the glamour and glitter of the English world.

Would you agree that it was the translation of Mai into English that brought you nation-wide fame? What is your take on that experience?
English has given me some new access but so far it is Hindi which has got me fame. A notable contrast was the interest other languages across the world, such as German, French, Russian, Korean, Italian, Polish etc. have shown in my work. And mind you – again I wish to underscore this – they have reached me through Hindi, not English! I have been taught in some of these languages and translated too, in and from the Hindi, not English. My writing continues to be routed through Hindi.

Were there miscommunications, misreadings when people read your work but didn't understand the context in which it was written?
Different contexts? Yes and no. We belong to the same opened-up world and many of us are evolving our languages, whether Hindi or another, in this new context. It is not like one language belongs to an archaic world and another to a current one!

Would you say that being translated into English led your work to be seen as part of a national conversation in a way that it wasn't before? Also, has the English version of your book brought you interesting and different reactions than the responses you have received from the Hindi-reading world?
Becoming accessible in any language brings another world to one, but why talk as though that happens only through English?! We are a polyphonic country and world and conversations keep flowing in a very creative “cacophony”!

Is being translated into English different in impact from being translated into any other language? What have been the pros and cons of being translated into English for you?
English can give one entry into many more markets because of its spread in the world. But these things don't happen automatically. It is wrong to presume that a good book comes and is straightaway seen. There were good English writers before Rushdie and those who followed, but they never got the stage these later writers got.
Some combination of factors which “prepares” the market for the new “cuisine”, as it were, is the condition for its success. It is great to be available in other languages, including English. But the showcasing has to be worked on for its real success. That has to be done by publishers, readers/reviewers, writers, sellers, et al.

As someone who writes in Hindi, and has also been translated into English, what is your response to the recent comments of Bhalchandra Nemade on Indian writing in English, and the use of English in general in India?
It is as stupid and “illiterate” as the one made by Salman Rushdie years ago! (Interviewer: “The true Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind,” Rushdie wrote infamously in 1997.) What also tells a tale, though, is the furore Nemade's rubbish created and not Rushdie’s. Think of the “prejudice-rubbish” too that many of us thereby reveal.

Men Aren't From Mars

In today's Mumbai Mirror, I return to the subject of Tanu Weds Manu Returns. This time, the men:

Tanu Weds Manu's male characters are definitely flawed, but they are also profoundly recognisable.
Last week, I wrote about Tanu Weds Manu Returns, its take on the double-role heroine and how it made me think of Hitchcock's Vertigo. Much newsprint since has been expended on the film. But we've been so busy thinking about the women that no one seems to have bothered to think about the men. 
And yet the men are crucial to Anand L Rai's vision. They were perhaps given more space when Rai first set out to create this world, in 2011. If TWMR spins around Manu Sharma's struggle to decide between two models of womanhood (both embodied by Kangana Ranaut), the pivot of the first film, Tanu Weds Manu, was Tanu's choosing between two models of masculinity. On one hand was her old love Raja Awasthi, a sharp-shooting Lucknow boy with a tongue to match. On the other was Manu Sharma, a suitable boy of the obedient sort who became a doctor because his parents wished it and was now set to marry the same way. 
Jimmy Shergill, arguably the most underrated leading man of our time, effortlessly produced the tough guy exterior and inner vulnerability that made Raja so affecting. Shergill's "introduction" scene was among the quiet marvels of the 2011 film: the Awasthi family is in the midst of the ritual humiliation of displaying their daughter to a prospective groom (Manu) when Raja returns home, carrying fresh scars from some street battle. Embarrassed and angry, his father berates him for being a goonda. Shergill's response captures a superbly specific Indian lihaaz that can still bind our most loutish young men: his eyes flash, but he does not answer back. For what seems like an eternity, as his father speaks, he holds out the bag of samosas, and holds his tongue. 
A minute later, we see another possible reason for Raja's silence: cast in the role of ladkiwala, with a sister who has a slightly deformed left hand, he knows he cannot jeopardise her chances any further than he already has. And then, in a moving statement that marks our surprise nowadays at anyone who isn't pulling rank, Raja tells Manu that he seems like a good man - "Nahi toh kahan aise milte hain London ke aadmi hum Lucknow walon se?
Screenplay writer Himanshu Sharma has created characters whose roots extend deep below the visible. Without stating it in so many words, the film makes apparent that the contrast between Raja and Manu isn't only one of temperament (though it is that, too). Both are born into middle class families, but Raja, coming of age in '80s Uttar Pradesh, has arrived (perhaps correctly) at the conclusion that good breeding isn't quite going to cut it in contemporary Lucknow. Manu, whom one imagines as shielded from the cut-and-thrust of the Indian street by good marks and an academic bent, has further removed himself from it by living in London. 
But what was remarkable about the face-off between Raja and Manu was that it reversed the usual hierarchy of masculinities, in which status is determined by who gets the girl. "Getting the girl" has long been the subject of heterosexual male discourse, and every cultural milieu generates informal categories to predict who the getters will be. Siddharth Chowdhury's unabashed novel Day Scholar described one such concept in rather graphic terms: "Just like every door has a dwarpal every ch*t has a ch*tpal. A ch*tpal never gets the ch*t just like the dwarpal never gets to sleep in the master bedroom. Every good girl needs at least one ch*tpal, to run errands for her and listen to her bitch about her mother." Whether one finds the terminology unpalatable, it is clear that the concept has currency. And so, having shown the obliging Manu escort Tanu to the beauty parlour and help her shop for dupattas, as the bride-to-be of another man (Raja, who wouldn't be caught dead doing either), Rai's decision to have Tanu eventually reject Raja's heroic histrionics for Manu's almost boring sweetness was nothing short of radical. 
TWMR continues to deal in similar categories. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, playing the smitten young fellow who provides chauffeur-service when Tanu gets Manu's divorce notice, describes himself with touching self-knowledge as the "kandha", literally "shoulder" - but is somehow still enraged when his affections aren't reciprocated. And there is Deepak Dobriyal's hysterically funny Pappi, whose misconstruing of Komal's messages reveals yet another example of how easily Indian men, starved for interaction with the opposite sex, confuse friendliness with love. Rai's Raanjhanaa pushed this premise to its utmost, casting Dhanush as the boy who thinks stalking a girl all the way to Delhi reveals the persistence of his "love". 



Rather than the high drama of Raanjhanaa, or even TWMTWMR goes for a lightness of tone, and I think Rai is better served by it. Among the delights of the new film is the updated Awasthi, performing rituals like a proper Hindu householder though he hasn't found a bride. Shergill has acquired a moustache and lost some of his fire, but his pronouncements retain the cut-the-crap hilarity of old. The mellowness suits him - and he's certainly more self-aware than the other men in Rai's world. Can the next film be about him, please?

26 May 2015

Secular Deities, Enchanted Plants: the art of Mrinalini Mukherjee

My essay on the late sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee, published in the new website The Wire.

In one of AS Byatt’s Matisse Stories (1995), a self-declared “artistic family” is stunned to discover that their silent, reliable, long-time housekeeper Mrs. Brown has been making more with their cast-off clothes than the patchwork tea-cosies they grudgingly display. The person most in shock is Robin, serious artist and irritable man of the house, whose repetitive paintings of single objects – ‘problems of colour’, he calls them – are summarily rejected by a fashionable London gallerist. In favour of Mrs. Brown’s dazzling cavern of creatures, knitted and stitched from scraps of wool and cloth.
Mrinalini Mukherjee was no Mrs. Brown. She was the only daughter of the artists Benode Bihari and Leela Mukherjee, and trained in fine arts at Baroda’s MS University. Today, her work is part of the public collections at Bharat Bhavan and Lalit Kala Akademi, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Tate Modern in London–and international interest is only getting stronger. But as the artist Nilima Sheikh, Mukherjee’s close friend and contemporary, points out, “For a very long time, the sculpture world, especially in Delhi and Baroda, didn’t accept her as a sculptor, because ‘woh toh kucchcraft mein kar rahi hai‘. But she kept improvising, and pushing the boundaries. Her work became much more relevant [than theirs].”
Peter Nagy, curator of the Mukherjee retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art that opened on 27 January 2015, a week before her unexpected death, goes further. “She got her final revenge,” he chuckles. “Because all those men chiselling away at their chunks of marble in Garhi studio, who pooh-poohed her – very few have gone anywhere, really. In terms of scale, her work just kicks sand in their faces.”
Female, not feminine
Walking into ‘Transfigurations’, as the show at the NGMA is titled, there can be not the slightest doubt that one is in the presence of a brilliantly assured artist. The largest pieces here are the hemp-fibre sculptures that were Mukherjee’s signature for a quarter century, from the early 70s to the mid-90s. The painstaking knotted construction and fluid organic forms may have been responsible for that early, wounding dismissal of this work as ‘craft’, but what leaps out at you is Mukherjee’s ability to turn her malleable, ‘female’ material into stable, imposing, often monumental forms. Frequently, these also display a powerful sense of the sexual.
Close to the entrance, for instance, we are met by ‘Pushp’ (1993) and ‘Adi Pushp’ (1991), which despite their names, belie any idea of the floral as we usually think of it: pretty, summery, sweet-smelling. ‘Adi Pushp’, ‘the first flower’, in particular, is a marvellous evocation of organic growth, the tubular black forms at its centre unfurling into impressive red and brown ‘petals’. Nature in Mukherjee’s conception is no mild, tameable thing. Yet what also emerges from many of her figures is a harmonious continuum between plant, animal and human form; sometimes with the addition of a superhuman element.
The arresting reds and purples of ‘Aranyani’ (1996) combine the sense of some forest flower writ large with that of a female sexual form, and an enthroned regal figure. The three free-standing figures that make up ‘Vruksha Nata’ (1991-92) appear plant-like at first, with their layered stems and fronds in light brown and lime green. But as one looks at them again, their inescapably humanoid qualities come to the fore: a sad, drooping head, a bent back, what seems like the start of a slow, painful hobble towards the other.
The forest is never far away, and Mukherjee’s forms of divinity are often particular to it. ‘Vanshree’ (1994), woven of yellow and mauve, has what seems undeniably like a face. Her eyes are sunken in, or perhaps hooded, with age, or sleep. Her lips protrude, sulkily. An umbrella above her, she sits grandly upon a golden throne, and may or may not grant you an audience. ‘Van Raja’ (1991-94) is even grander. Placed in a woven alcove arched like a temple is a standing figure, very definitely male, but also animal. Is this a tiger turned god, his golden body made erect, to be worshipped amidst his unruly jungle of green?
Crafting Art


For Mrinalini Mukherjee, refusing the hierarchy of high art and low art came naturally. Seeing craft and art as parallel to each other was part of her artistic legacy, both from her parents, and from her mentor at Baroda, Prof. KG Subramanyan. Subramanyan himself had studied at Shantiniketan, and been Benode Behari Mukherjee’s student. “So there was a sort of lineage going on,” says Sheikh. Shaped by Tagore’s rejection of the colonial aesthetic, Shantiniketan’s teachers and practitioners had long taken interest in Indian art forms and indigenous materials. While primarily a painter, Subramanyan took craft seriously enough to have left his teaching job and joined the All India Handloom Board as a Deputy Director for a couple of years in the 1960s. Later, in 1975-76, he was also elected a member of the World Crafts Council.
But how did Mukherjee arrive at her unusual material? In the late 1960s, says Sheikh, during MS University’s annual Fine Arts Fair, the campus was thrown open to the public. Students would often make “gateways, sculptural forms, design units… to make things more festive.” One of the materials used for these was hemp fibre, and even as an undergraduate, Mukherjee was drawn to the possibilities of the material. So she chose mural design as the option for her MA, and asked Subramanyan whether she could specialise only in hemp in the final year.
Subramanyan himself had worked a little in hemp, but Mukherjee’s conception of the material was very much her own. For one, she was remarkably invested in scale. As early as 1972, she was commissioned to produce a 30-foot fibre sculpture for the DCM pavilion at the Asia 72 trade fair. She then did a 45 X 4 foot one for the Ashoka Hotel, and a 14 X 70 foot mural for the Gandhi Memorial Institute at Mauritius. (The Mauritius work still exists, it has recently been photographed by an art enthusiast, hung on the wall on either side of what appears to be an auditorium stage—sadly somewhat robbed of its original grandeur by large black speakers.)
Her second crucial departure was to make her sculptures freestanding, or at least viewable in the round. Mural design, which she trained in, involves working on walls or ceilings: think Italian frescoes, or the Ajanta caves. But after early works, like the Mauritius one, and another on display here, Water Fall (1975), Mukherjee seems to have consciously abandoned murals. A couple of other works at NGMA do lean against a wall, like Sitting Deity (1981), whose trunk-like form and playfully disc-shaped ‘stomach’ gesture to the elephant-headed, pot-bellied Ganesh. On the whole, though, there is a clear progression being marked from hemp netting as a ‘decorative’ element—something to enhance the look of an already existing structure, like a doorway or wall—to independent forms with a definite structure, shape, bulk. Mukherjee’s work gave hemp heft, metaphorically and literally.
Material matters
But it wasn’t quite enough. In the 1990s, Mukherjee slowly stopped working with hemp. We don’t quite know why. She had been working in a single material since the beginning of her career. Also, from the mid-70s, she had been aided in the laborious knotting and twisting by a woman she had trained, known as Budhiya. By the 90s, Budhiya was too old to assist her, and the work seemed tedious to do alone. There is something interesting here, about the collective labour demanded by craft.
Whatever the reasons, a chance workshop at the Sanskriti Kendra in Anandgram, followed by an invitation to the renowned European Ceramic Work Centre in Den Bosch, the Netherlands, enabled her to explore ceramics. Almost immediately, she began making larger works than most ceramic artists do. A decade or so later, in the early 2000s, she moved into bronze, perhaps the most traditional material for sculptors. “She chose bronze for its longevity, its stature, its seriousness,” says Nagy, who showed her bronzes at a solo show at Nature Morte in 2013, and had earlier curated her ceramics at Lokayata Gallery in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village.
Looking at the bronzes, one feels, first and foremost, a sense of loss at the disappearance of the deep reds, forest greens and coal blacks that had made her hemp work so vivid. The ceramics, happily, are a mix of unglazed flesh tones and glazed vermilions and purples. All her work is striking, but to me the hemp sculptures remain the most memorable. I would even say she went from a complex mediation of organic forms (in hemp fibre) to a more simple translation of them (in ceramic and bronze).
Natural, sexual, human
But it is nature that brings her work together. The lovely arrangement of ceramics called ‘Lotus Pond’, Nos. I to VIII, gives us overlapping lotus leaves on the water surface, tubular stems turning into chutes and spongy thalamus-like forms. Several of the glazed ceramics are cabbage-like, with veined leaves. Others are flowers opening slowly to the sun, upturned half-globes erupting into life—and yet preserving a sense of hidden orifices.
That keen eye for the voluptuous complexities of nature also extends to the cast bronzes. Most of these are purely vegetal in inspiration, the pleasure of them arising from making us see naturally-occurring textures and shapes anew: the stippled interior of a calyx, the gleaming smoothness of an outer stem, the single palm frond slowly detaching itself from a trunk. Here, too, you see a scalar progression, from the smaller Natural History series (2003-2004) to the bronzed plant limbs of Palm Scapes (exhibited in 2013), massive pieces whose precise sense of balance once led Peter Nagy to describe them as “only slightly perturbed by gravity”.
Speaking at the inauguration of the NGMA retrospective, with her friend Mrinalini in hospital, Nilima Sheikh spoke of the child ‘Dillu’ growing up between Shantiniketan and Dehradun (she studied at Welham School, where her mother Leela taught art). Both were places where people went to be with nature, where artists lived with flowers. “Flowers were planted and grown in gardens, worn, sung in praise of, painted, worked into shorthand in textile and rangolis.” But that childhood love of plants and flowers was transformed, in the artist’s hands, into something anthropomorphic and awe-inspiring.
Talking about art
The Mrinalini Mukherjee retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, continues until May 31, 2015.

24 May 2015

One for two, two for one


Watching Tanu Weds Manu Returns set me thinking about doubles, and Hitchcock's Vertigo.




Tanu Weds Manu Returns opens with its most ridiculous scene. The pair united in matrimony (to the disbelief of many in the audience) at the end of Tanu Weds Manu, Manu Sharma (Madhavan) and Tanuja Trivedi (Kangana Ranaut), are receiving couples' counselling from a team of British psychiatrists, when Manu's hysterical outrage at his wife's version gets him put away in what looks like a Victorian dungeon-cum-prison, which is then consistently referred to as "paagalkhana". But after a few more minutes spent floating unconvincingly round British coffee shops, sylph-like in sari and trench coat, Ranaut and the film thankfully return to the territory that director Anand L Rai knows his way around so wonderfully: small town North India. 

The small town here is no mere colourful backdrop. It is crucial to the characters, the sparkling dialogue, the texture of the film. The way Rai stages Tanu's return makes immediately clear what paragraphs of complaining to the counsellors couldn't: how can the big fish from the small pond adjust to the anonymous sea of the foreign city? Within minutes of getting to Kanpur, she has flirted with a rickshawalla, fired up the children, and generally set the neighbourhood aflame. For such a heroine to be tucked away in some obscure London suburb, deprived of an audience for her karnaame, is social death. The shaatir young Rampuria who is a non-paying tenant in her parents' old house (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, superb in a role that finally gives him something new to chew on) cottons on quickly: "Aap toh is mohalle ki Batman hain," he tells a preening Tanu. 


Ranaut is already at the top of her game as Tanu. But the film's masterstroke is to set her up against a version of herself. As Datto, the youthful Haryanvi sports quota student from Ramjas College, Ranaut absolutely steals the show. What's crazy is that she steals the show from her own double. 


In what is arguably the cleverest take on the old Hindi movie double role in years, Datto is the good girl to Tanu's bad girl. Armed with a hockey stick, short hair and a solid Haryanvi accent, she is tweaked so there's no chance of mistaking her for the docile, dabbu good girl of yore, a la Sita aur Gita or Chaalbaaz. But there is something moving about a young woman voicing the sentiments usually reserved for young men in our films: the pressure of family and community expectations, a bumbling sort of romantic inexperience. Add to that a disarming honesty, and you have an even more appealing character. In contrast, Tanu is painted as the irresponsible one, who lives to flirt and flirts to live, who proudly announces that she "never even gave her father a cup of tea", and who -- as Datto gets to point out in one rather harsh speech -- has never had to earn a penny. 


But watching Manu's Madhavan, in the process of divorcing Tanu, fall in love with Datto, made me think of a very different film about a double: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. At the emotional centre of that 1958 film is Scottie's (James Stewart) discovery of a look-alike of the woman he loved, after what he thinks is her death, and his obsessive desire to remake the new lover (Judy) in the image of the lost one (Madeleine). Scottie's discovery of Judy is very close to Manu's discovery of what he first thinks is Tanu with a boyish new haircut, in sportswoman's garb in Delhi. There is something deeply worrying about a man falling in love with the same face twice, if only because it suggests that there is nothing beyond the physical to fall in love with. 


TWMR does make fun of it, with at least one hilarious line where Manu's sozzled friend Jassi says to him, "Phir se Tanu-jaisi le li? Kucch aur dekh lete, Aishwarya type, Katrina type, Deepika type". And thankfully Manu seems uninterested in re-making Datto into Tanu: it is the difference, the film suggests, that makes her appealing. 


But I see a homage to Vertigo in the fact that the two Kanganas are identical in looks, but completely unlike each other in manner, style, degrees of sophistication. Madeleine Elster is the sophisticated San Francisco woman with a platinum blonde topknot, while poor Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas wears her hair bright red, with tacky hoop earrings and a twang to match. 


Interestingly, it is the relatively sophisticated Tanu who tries, in a remarkable sequence, to make herself over to look like Datto, drunkenly waking a beauty parlour lady at midnight, to acquire a pixie wig. 


One could choose to read this moment in ideological terms, as many read the Deepika-making-biryani-to-woo-Saif moment in Cocktail, but it seems to me to turn on something that isn't just about what kind of woman you're allowed to be on the Hindi film screen. Perhaps more fundamentally, it's about what women are willing to do for love. As the teary Judy says to Scottie, "If I let you change me, will that do it? If I let you do it, will you love me?"


Published in Mumbai Mirror.

21 May 2015

Interview: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

"Urdu was a neglected language, damned as 'foreign' or 'Pakistani'": The renowned writer SR Faruqi speaks about fiction, criticism, translation and the litfest craze, in an interview published in Scroll.




Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is among modern Urdu's most renowned voices, both as a critic and as a fiction writer. His critical ouevre includes a pathbreaking four-volume study of the poet Mir Taqi Mir, and another influential four-volume work on Urdu's rambunctious romance epic, the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza. His fiction is also highly acclaimed, and he is somewhat unique in having been his own translator into English. He speaks on how he began writing, moving from fiction to criticism, translating from Urdu to English, and his experience of the Urdu and English literary spheres.

Could you tell me a bit about when and how your fiction first began to be published? Was it in literary journals, or newspapers/magazines, or was it directly in book-form? 

I am known generally as a critic, but I began as a fiction writer in Urdu. I wrote stories from a very early age and got some of them published in Urdu literary magazines. (More rejections, as I remember, than acceptances.) I wrote a short novel when I was about 15 or a bit more. The year must have been 1950, or early 1951. I was lucky to get it published in a four instalments in a literary magazine published from Meerut (Merath). 

I saved neither the manuscript (I wrote it twice), nor the issues in which it was published. I am not sorry that I didn't preserve anything, because I am quite ashamed of it now. I was young and I believed that I was older than my years, and full of confidence that I knew about most things in the world.

I don't think I had any ambitions to write in English. Getting my work printed in minor Urdu magazines was as much as I could manage at that time.

There is a strong tradition of literary discussion in Urdu. Would you say that book reviews, media coverage and/or literary awards in Urdu helped you gain readers? 

Yes, Urdu literary culture is perhaps the most self-aware among the literary cultures that I am acquainted with. But I am not sure that reviews, favourable or unfavourable, help gain readers in my literary culture. Those who want to read will read. An adverse review could damage a book of poems – though even that is doubtful – but there as many kinds of fiction as there are kinds of readers, almost. So whatever you write can get published, given a degree of luck.

Popular publishing (there was, and is some money in it), or what is now called 'pulp fiction' needs no publicity, no reviews. 'Literary' fiction in Urdu was almost always backed some established parameters – fiction about women, about the life and problems and struggles of rural folk, about the urban blue collar type, so on. When I began writing, the parameters most solidly established were those set up by the Progressive Movement. I somehow fought shy of becoming one of them.

In mid-twentieth century, when I was trying to become a writer, there were no awards, no prizes, no media coverage for Urdu. The Progressives got some media coverage in some of the liberal left wing popular magazines like the weekly Urdu Blitz. That was all.

Urdu at that time was a neglected language, a language damned as 'foreign' or 'Pakistani'. The cultural supremacy that it enjoyed over most of northern India at the time of independence dissolved and disappeared very quickly.

Why  – and when – did you decide to start translating your own work from Urdu to English? 

As I said a minute ago, I had no intention, no hope, no ambition to set up as a writer in any language other than Urdu. Indian writing in English was confined to a few 'privileged' writers, long established and unchallenged. Even G.V. Desani's remarkable novel All About H. Hatterr (1948) attracted no attention in India. Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi (1940) had attracted attention in Progressive circles because Ahmed Ali at that time was a leading light of the Progressive movement. Setting up as a writer in a 'backward' and maligned language like Urdu was itself a big challenge in the 1950's and early 1960's. And I certainly didn't imagine that my writing in Urdu was rich or strong enough to merit being translated in English, or any modern Indian language. In fact, those things were so far and so much below (or above) my horizon that they didn't cause me any concern at all.

I wasn't really interested in translating my fiction into English. Penguin had a plan to get it translated into English and all the major modern Indian languages. A fairly competent translator was found for Hindi but no translator could be found for English. My daughters, who are the most faithful of my followers, were sure that I was the best person to do the translation. They kept after me and I decided to make the translation just to get them off my shoulders. After the novel, it was quite obvious to everyone, including me, that the stories deserve me as their translator.

But you had translated your work into English before this?

About the same time that I wrote my novella, say in early 1951, I wrote a short story. It was about the oppression suffered by innocent, harmless people in the Soviet regime. One of my teachers, who read the manuscript, said: 'This reads like a story written by some major writer!' Foolishly, instead of thanking him, I replied sheepishly that indeed I was the author. I don't remember if I published the story somewhere, but I saved a copy, and in 1953-1954, when I was reading English for my M.A. from the University of Allahabad, I translated the story into English and submitted it to the Professor in charge of the University magazine. Somewhat to my surprise, he accepted the story and printed it in the magazine for 1953-54.

I didn't save the Urdu, nor did I save the English version, far less keep a copy of the Magazine. I regarded the whole matter as just one of those things. I had no intention to set up as a writer in English, either through translations of my own stories, or writing directly into English.

The Urdu title of the story was Surkh Andhi. I translated it as 'The Scarlet Tempest.' My Professor made no change in the title, but I later realized that Shakespeare (perhaps in Richard II) had 'crimson tempest' and I was a fool not to have thought of it myself, or borrowed it from Shakespeare. Well, that was the end of my foray into translating my own work (or even writing stories) for I soon found that I could do better service to Urdu as a critic.  

Do you think the interest and readership for English translations of Indian literature has increased in the last five years, and if so, why do you think it is happening?

Certainly, the readership has grown manifold over the last decade or so. The sub-continent is now a major market for literature in English, translated from the Indian languages or composed directly in English. The main reason for this is the unprecedented and extraordinary prestige – almost universal – of the sub-continental writing in English. The other reason is the growth of Indians who are only fluent in English. The third reason, I think, is the increased awareness among us of the literature being written in modern Indian languages. Some of the interest trickles down to pre-modern literatures too.

How was the reception to the English edition of your books different from the response your fiction has received in the Urdu press?  

The reception in all the languages – Urdu, Hindi, English, was warmer than I should have expected. In Urdu, there were only three unfavourable reviews, two of them on 'moral' grounds, that the novel projects a 'prostitute' as the central character. In English and Hindi, the reviews and opinions can be described as fulsome. the media coverage in English was rather more extensive than in Urduor Hindi, for obvious reasons. And the Urdu circles were already aware of my stories, so the novel came more as natural sequel than as a discovery. In English and Hindi the sense of wonderment was greater.

How would you compare Urdu literary award functions – and litfests, if they exist – to the ones that you have attended where the audience is largely English-speaking? 

The Urdu award or book launch functions are always formal and small, and the audience is kind of pro-forma. Litfests are something else again. The atmosphere is cordial and the audience well informed when the festival is held in an Urdu speaking or Urdu knowing location, like Karachi or Chandigarh. But festivals like Jaipur have deteriorated into politics, showbiz, celebrity-catching, so forth. And they're too big to be enjoyed really. I was fortunate in Jaipur merely because the people who came to hear me were generally aware of the novel, and some of them knew it in Urdu as well.

As an acclaimed writer in your own language and literary universe, can you comment on what it was like to be treated as a new 'discovery' at the national level, when
The Mirror of Beauty came out in English? 

I don't know if my appearance in English should be described as a 'discovery at the national level.' In any case, I was and am quite happy to be known as an Urdu writer and India is too big a country for me to have illusions about a 'national' status. I was not unknown in non-Urdu circles, especially English and Hindi. Now the opening in English fiction has given me another space. But nothing more.

Your writing was now routed via English: did that feel strange in any way? Were there misreadings when people read your work, but lacked contextual understanding? Did English readers offer any new perspectives, from which new insights emerged?

I am not sure that there were miscommunications, or that the English window on my work felt strange or outlandish. I have spent a very great part of my life reading English, so the language is not really alien to me.And having written criticism in English (or translated my work from the Urdu into English), I felt quite comfortable. I have translated a good bit of my poetry in English too and have been fortunate in having good translations of my poetry made by really competent native speakers of English too. And since I was the author and also the translator, I had no qualms about sacrificing or trading off. 

In effect, I wrote the novel and the stories as original English works and many readers told me that as they read the novel they felt that they were reading an Urdu work, and still, the English didn't sound alien. I don't know if this could have happened if someone else translated my fiction into English. As for new insights, I feel the English readers found the world of my fiction so fascinating, the characters so compelling that they didn't need to find new perspectives. I think it became more a matter of identifying with the new, almost alien world depicted there.  

Would you say that English translations of your work have made it part of a 'national' conversation in a way that was not true earlier?

That's something that I can't really comment upon. It's possible that the novelty of the fiction and also its familiarity at some subliminal level enabled it to be welcomed. But 'national conversation' is something that I can't even aspire to.

What, for you, have been the pros and cons of being translated into English? 

I think the availability of a text in another language is something that should be always desirable.

What are your thoughts on Marathi writer Bhalchandra Nemade's recent comments, dismissing Indian writing in English? Nemade has been quoted as saying Don’t make English compulsory, make its elimination compulsory”. What do you think the role of English ought to be in our literary lives, more generally? 

I haven't given much thought to Bhalchandra's observations. I personally would be happier if we wrote in our own languages. But the social and cultural situation in our country is such that Indian writing in English seems to have become part of our literary scene and is well set to remain so for quite some time.
I respect Bhalchandra Nemade, and can see his point. I would be happier to see English playing a smaller, not larger role in the Indian literary culture. But literature is produced by human beings and human beings can't but be part of a social culture. And the social culture at present seems too favourable to English.

18 May 2015

All That Glitters

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday:

As flamboyant and luxurious as the Art Deco era it's set in, Bombay Velvet ends up being all shine and little soul.




A little boy comes to Bombay, his mother earns a living as a sex worker, he becomes a small-time crook. Then his mother runs away with his ill-begotten stroke of luck (gold biscuits, no less), and he decides to become a big-time crook. The steep rise of the local hoodlum unfolds against the backdrop of the spectacular growth of the city itself, and is clearly meant to echo it. Like Ranbir Kapoor's Johnny Balraj, we're shown a Bombay that thinks it can do better -- be larger, get grander, become what The Roaring Twenties (the James Cagney film referenced here) would call a "big shot". 

With Bombay Velvet, director Anurag Kashyap, too, has made the big filmi film he wanted to make, complete with old-movie childhoods for the hero, heroine and hero's best friend. But sadly, neither this, nor the spectacular visual recreation of 60s Bombay (on an immaculate set in Sri Lanka), nor the sensational jazzy soundtrack, can make this film the epic it wants to be. 

The primary problem is that the characters do not compute. When we first see our hero, he's a cute little boy with an uncanny resemblance to Ranbir Kapoor, shyly, slyly watching another little boy do the dirty: deliberately bumping into a rich man walking past, so as to swipe his wallet. By the time we see them next, roles seem to have been reversed - shy little Balraj has become the mop-haired, ambitious, stop-at-nothing Ranbir Kapoor, while the expert pickpocket Chiman has become his silent sidekick. We never learn quite why Chiman has lost his panache and signed it over to Balraj. The heroine, meanwhile, makes her entry as a little Goan girl with a golden voice. We skate too smoothly over Rosie's journey from singing in church to sleeping in a rich man's bed, and even more quickly over her escape to Bombay, where she works glumly in a beauty parlour by day and sings Geeta Dutt songs -- even more glumly -- in a bar by night. 

And then everything changes again, faster and more inexplicably than before: Balraj fails at a robbery and acquires an unexpected Parsi benefactor, a man called Kaizad Khambatta who is a bootlegger, real estate shark and tabloid editor rolled into one -- Karan Johar, playing himself with a fake touch of evil. Balraj is quite literally picked up from the Bombay streets and thrown up to an enviable position at the city's Art Deco acme. Anointed Johnny, he becomes the manager of a nightclub that is the emblematic centre of everything that 60s Bombay is: Bombay Velvet, a stunningly re-imagined version of the city's real-life Eros Cinema. Meanwhile our nightingale has acquired a Parsi benefactor, too. Jamshed Mistry is Khambatta's oldest rival, and he, too, runs a newspaper. And sure enough, Rosie, too, gets a position as singer at Bombay Velvet. 

So our hero and heroine are ostensibly all grown up, the stage is set for their epic love story - but they seem like they're just play-acting. Other than a single song picturisation ("Dhadaam-dhadaam"), Anushka Sharma's performance as Rosie has neither oomph nor dard nor Goan-ness. There is more 60s sexiness in Raveena Tandon's minute-long appearance as Rosie's nightclub replacement than there is in Sharma's acres of silken costumes. 

As for Ranbir, he imbues Johnny with hotheaded angst, but we never quite get why Johnny's so angry, either with the world or with Khambatta. We're told he willingly gets his face beaten in every night in the boxing ring, even when he's got a job managing the fanciest club in town. But we never really see why. This is a hitman with many murders to his name, pathologically violent - and yet his fights with his girlfriend are almost childish, with none of the brute force one imagines. And to paint this character as a victim, as the film wants to, would take much more doing. Sharma and Kapoor are talented actors, but they clearly don't yet have it in them to transcend themselves. Satyadeep Mishra, playing Chiman, is perhaps the one actor with a major role to convincingly inhabit it. 

But if the depth of the performances is too little, the spread of the canvas is too wide. Like Dibakar Banerjee in the recent Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Kashyap and his team of writers (including the historian Gyan Prakash, whose non-fiction book Mumbai Fables is the seedbed of this film) clearly have no dearth of detail. This is Prohibition-era Bombay, where Indians can't get a drink unless they're with a foreigner. It is also Art Deco Bombay, when the young and chic (like Rosie) are moving into multi-storeyed buildings that line the city's seafront. It's the last stage of Back Bay Reclamation, new commercial buildings are being planned, the government is in cahoots with builders and tabloid magnates against mill-workers and union leaders. The film is punctuated with fake tabloid headlines interspersed with real news, and what plot there is revolves around photographs - a 'revealing' advertisement, a blackmail photo that stays secret, and another that gets splashed on the front page. But in trying to capture multiple urban worlds - leisure, commerce, media, politics, crime - the film loses its grip on all of them. 

Bombay Velvet could have been a big shot. But it misfired.

13 May 2015

Slice of life, served warm

My Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday: 

Caught between too much Bengali-ness and too little, Shoojit Sircar's 'Piku' mines dysfunction for gentle comedy.


By the time you read this, you would have heard and watched the PR machinery grinding away for days, anointing director Shoojit Sircar as the new Hrishikesh Mukherjee. While this is only a symptom of how desperate we are for labels (and maybe of how much we secretly miss 'Hrishi Da'), Sircar has done something that counts as a rather fun tribute to Mukherjee. He's taken Bachchan's original quick-tempered, reserved 30-year-old Bhaskar Banerjee of Anand (1971), and aged him into the crabbily eccentric, garrulous 70-year-old Bhaskor Banerjee of Piku. More amusingly, the hypochondria of richer patients like Asit Sen's Seth Chandranath, that so annoyed Bachchan as a young doctor in Anand, has now become his own. The new old Bhaskor, nursing his boxful of homeopathic tablets as close as his now-generous paunch, lives in Delhi's Chittaranjan Park and spells his first name with a deliberately underlined Bengali 'o'. (That 'o' is a sign for you to wonder: did Amitabh Bachchan make a better Bengali when he wasn't trying so hard to play one?)

This is Sircar's second cinematic take on Dilli Bangalis. The first, Vicky Donor (2012), which still remains his finest film by far, had Ayushman Khurrana's persistent Lajpat Punjabi boy woo Yami Gautam's gently dignified Ashima Roy, resulting in wedding negotiations that bring out each community's most ungenerous view of the other: superior, killjoy Bengalis believe they're being forced to deal with moonhphat money-minded Punjabis -- and vice versa. But despite Sircar's penchant for broad stereotype, his affection for his characters shone through, as it does in Piku.

Here, Sircar seems to suggest that Padukone is a Delhi girl, her Bengaliness expressed as culture and not as language—note the scene where she dismisses a potential suitor for not having watch any Ray films. But even if she were cast as a Hauz Khas Enclave girl instead of a Chittaranjan Park one, Padukone's Bangaliyana would be too little, and Bachchan's too much. Still, despite Bachchan's overdone accent, I didn't completely cringe at the jaanishes that occasionally punctuate the father-daughter conversations. And drawing my half-Bengali self up to the full height of its limited authority, I shall vouch for the joyful appropriateness of both the Bangla song references: the playfully romantic Hemanta-Sandhya Mukherjee song from the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen classic Saptapadi (1961) 'Ei Poth Jodi Na Shesh Hoye' ['What if this road were to never end'], which Bhaskor breaks into on their already interminable road journey, and Manna Dey's cheerful 'Jeebone ki paabo na, bhulecchi shey bhabona' ['What I won't find in life, I've stopped thinking about that'] to which a tipsy Bhaskor shakes a leg in much the spirit of Soumitra Chatterjee's original twist in the 1969 film Teen Bhuboner Paarey.

But the Bengaliness in Piku is at its best when least remarked upon: such as the fact that 'Piku' is what Padukone's character is known by, not just to family and friends, but pretty much to everyone. Colleagues and cowering taxi drivers alike call her Piku Madam, anointing with respectable publicness what would otherwise be *just* a nickname. There is probably a long and impressive bhalo naam, but it's so long and impressive that no-one ever uses it. I also loved the non-underlined way in which Sircar uses a ridiculous battle over a knife: it was about an old man's stubbornness, but it was also a gentle suggestion that what Hindi belt masculinity might consider a way of keeping safe (having a weapon in the car) is, to the Bengali bhadralok, a source of clear and present danger.

Another aspect of Bengaliness that the film quietly demonstrates is the family conversation as argument, with people quite happy to cut across each other and squabble joyfully over pointless things. (I must mention here that Moushumi Chatterjee, as Piku's aunt Chhobi Mashi, is an absolute gem. I've thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this grown-up, un-coy version of the actress in two wonderful Aparna Sen films, The Japanese Wife and Goynar Baksho, and I'm waiting for Hindi cinema to give her a truly meaty role to sink her teeth into.)


What's best about Piku, though, is not its droll Bengaliness, or its unending succession of alimentary conversations (which are not half as bad as I expected, and even contain some useful homespun wisdom on bowel-clearing from Irrfan Khan's fantastically wry Rana). It is the film's affecting ability to draw out our complicated feelings about our parents—the frustration at their embarrassing quirks, the reversal of positions that becomes inevitable as they age, and the fierce protectiveness with which we guard them from the criticisms of others. Piku's combination of annoyance and amusement, of being weighed down and standing tall alone, will strike a chord with every middle-aged person who's taken care of an irritable parent (often a parent irritable at having to be taken care of).

There is also the un-heavy-handed, thoroughly endearing way the film deals with the subject of ageing and death. Irrfan, playing a taxi company owner who ends up driving Bhaskor, Piku and their Man Friday Budhan (the servants in this film could do with a separate column) to Calcutta, gets some of the best lines: “Tapak gaye toh Banaras jaisi koi jagah nahin,” he announces as they drive past the city Hindus consider the holiest place to die. But to see how to meet death with a twinkle in your eye, you have to see the film. Perhaps it is an Anand homage, after all.