Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

It’s a women’s world in my novel: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a medical officer with the government of Jharkhand, India. When he is not busy treating patients, he reads, and writes. His stories and articles have been published in The Statesman, is stories H Indian Literature, The Times of India, The Four Quarters Magazine and elsewhere. His short fiction is included in the anthology, Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II.
His novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (Aleph) takes us into the little-known and fascinating world of the Santhal tribals of eastern India. The Santhals live in small villages surrounded by forests, and follow their own lore and rituals. Eating, drinking and merrymaking, rituals and festivities, are an integral part of the social life of these poor, uncomplicated and lively people. The author, who has first-hand knowledge of this culture, brings this world to vivid life.
Naked witches with wildly flowing hair and rolling eyes, magical spirits, demons and deities of the Santhals’ animistic religion, lurk in the forests. “A ravishingly beautiful jugni, said to cause disease, lived under the taalay tree.” The dhonokundra bhut, which resembles a deformed child, can guide people greedy for wealth to their doom. The Santhals have passed on this lore through the ages to explain death, disease and other inexplicable events in their lives. They also depend upon these spirits and deities to give them a sense of empowerment, which is denied to them by the existing political and social order. The novel draws us into a unique and fascinating world.
The novel spans several decades, tracing the lives of three generations of Rupi Baskey’s clan, as they degenerate from a position of social eminence into mediocrity. Rupi is an attractive, physically strong woman with a simple and generous disposition. Her strange and incurable ailment is a result of Gurubari’s efforts to exploit her through witchcraft, mirroring the plight of her people. The Santhals remain for decades on the fringes of the mainstream of free India. Their efforts to uplift themselves by carving out a separate state of Jharkhand, is thwarted by their own leaders who sell out to the wiles of mainstream politicians. At long last, Jharkhand is created, giving the Santhal people a space of their own. Rupi finally sees her own fading dreams get a new lease of life in her daughter-in-law, Rupali.
Much has been packed into 200 odd pages. There are several interesting characters and story threads. But they are not always explored as deeply as one would wish. The social and political developments crop up in the background in a sketchy way, and at a few points the timeline gets confusing. Their relevance and impact upon the characters could also have been further developed. Overall, this is an engrossing read, leaving readers wishing for more.
Over to Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, who shares some exclusive insights.

When did you start writing? Any anecdotes you would wish to share?
I started writing Rupi Baskey in May 2011. In June 2011, I realized that whatever I had written wasn’t making enough sense. So I deleted everything and started afresh. I finished in October 2011 and took a break, during which I wrote the story which was published in Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II.
Anecdotes? Well, I was angry with myself and felt like a total loser when I had certain blocks, when my writing wasn’t going anywhere, especially when I had to begin afresh. But otherwise it was a smooth journey.

How do you approach your craft? Do you begin with carefully planned and detailed outlines of your stories, or do you believe more in going with the flow and modifying your story as you go along?
I usually write when I already have an idea. My novel was based on certain things that took place in my village. To those real-life happenings I added certain things out of my imagination. So the story was already there in my mind, my characters, the scenes, the lines and paragraphs, when I sat down to write it. In one way the novel was already planned. Yes, my plan failed and I had to begin anew, but that plan was there. When I began afresh it was according to the original plan. The story was the same, the characters were the same.
Sometimes, yes, I go with the flow. But I find it very hard to write something unless I have a clear picture in my mind. If it’s a short story, it should be completely there in my mind. Planning is very necessary for me. Or else, I’ll just sit in front of my laptop, staring at an unfinished MS-Word document, and listen to a favourite song, like Saat Samundar from Vishwatma or Barso Re from Guru or Chitthiye from Henna, or play Minesweeper.
I know, planning is not possible all the time. Sometimes one has to write something on the spot, like extempore. During such times I have to focus very hard and I just hate it. But I sometimes tend to do very well under pressure. I admire writers who do regular columns for newspapers and magazines. I appreciate their skill and imagination as they repeatedly come up with interesting new ideas.
I can write something really fast without any planning when the issue, the theme appeals to me. It should hurt me, jab me, affect me enough to draw out a written response. That is how I wrote my 400-word article, A Different Assam, which was published in the edit page of The Times of India. This was my response to the violence against Adivasis from Jharkhand in Assam in 2007. It was an issue I really felt for.
You are a medical doctor by profession and also a writer. How do you balance these two demanding and intense callings?
There’s no question of balancing. My priorities are set. My job as a medical doctor comes first. Because it has given me my identity, and because I have been trained for it. It is my chief source of income, and is keeping me alive. Writing is what I do when an idea just gets into me and refuses to leave. Otherwise my job is what I do every day. When I have something to write I usually find time out of my schedule to write.

How did you get the ideas for Rupi Baskey? Is there a story behind this story?
HandiI got hints for Rupi Baskey from a family in our village. The old lady of this house lived an amazing, unbridled youth. When she was very old, ninety-plus perhaps, she used to visit our place. Sipping the haandi we offered, she told stories of her family and her life. I based Putki on this old lady. Then I took elements from the stories of gods and ghosts I had heard when I was a child. I made up some stuff of my own. I added them all up. And lo! I had a novel ready.
[Picture shot by Shekhar: "The 'chala' (bamboo sieve) is used to strain the haandi, but the clay pot and the Sal leaf bowls can have several use. The pot can be used for cooking, storing water and cooked food, etc., while the Sal leaf bowls can be used for serving haandi and food, and also during religious rituals to keep the ingredients (sindoor, dhuna, arwa rice, methi seeds, cow dung, etc.) which are used in a puja."]

The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey is rife with fascinating, strong and enigmatic women. The men are relatively shadowy and passive figures, who fade into the background. Why and how did this happen?
That did not happen consciously. In fact, I don’t see my men as passive figures. The thing is, the women are very powerful. Too powerful, in fact. As such, what you say is right, that the men are relatively shadowy, if they are compared to the women. Otherwise the men, too, are quite strong at some places.
Since the novel is about Rupi and her mysterious ailment, I was quite clear that the novel had to be about women. Whether Rupi and Gurubari, who are the protagonist and the antagonist, respectively, or Putki and Dulari, who are in supporting roles, or Della, who makes a special appearance, I was quite clear that women had to hold the centre stage.
But I have also tried to give to the men the space they deserved. I couldn’t force them into the narrative, into a scene where the women were already present and doing very well. That would have looked quite out of place. So I let the women do most of the talking. In fact, all the talking and doing that mattered. They created the narrative, the crisis, the denouement. It’s a women’s world in my novel. The way it’s a women’s world in the traditional Santhali society. Among the Santhals, men and women have always been treated as equal. I guess that reflects on my novel too.

Many authors say that there is a little of themselves in their stories and characters. Do you feel this is true of your own writing? Do you rely heavily on personal experiences, write from what you know, or do you rely more upon research and external knowledge?
[Picture by Shekhar: "This was taken by me at our village jaher during the Baha festival. This is a view of one of the shrines at the jaher. You can see the clay horse and elephant placed as offerings. And you can see the severed head of a chicken. You can also see the bamboo fixed in the ground. This bamboo has been topped by hay. You can also see the sacred Sal flowers."]
In Rupi Baskey, I have drawn from personal experiences, but it is not my story. It is, ultimately, a work of fiction. And whether Rupi Baskey or any of my previous works – short stories, all of them – I let my imagination play around things that I already knew. I did not try to create anything new out of thin air. I won’t be able to create a fantasy land. I always have to rely on things around me to inspire me, to help me write something. My research, too, is limited to what I know. I know about Santhals, so my works so far are about Santhals. Ask me to write a story set in Delhi or Calcutta, and I will find it difficult to do that. I should know the place where I will set my story. I should first feel a personal connection, have some prior knowledge. That’s very important for me. Other writers might completely imagine stuff. I can’t do that readily.

Do you believe that writers are only ‘agents of entertainment’? Is popular and accessible writing far removed from deeper nuanced writing? Is there something more than pure entertainment that makes writers write and readers read? Do you make conscious efforts to be entertaining?
I don’t think that writers are only ‘agents of entertainment’, but I also don’t think that writers are obliged to give a deeper message at every given opportunity. In my opinion, writers should do only one thing: write. Writing in itself is a huge thing to do. If a writer’s work entertains the readers or gives them a message, it will be a bonus.
I don’t think popular and accessible writing is far removed from deeper, nuanced writing. One can find both in the same work. And yes, there’s more to writing and reading than just entertainment. The desire to write is, in itself, a huge impetus. And so is, in the case of a reader, the desire to read. Entertainment can be had in so many ways. Cinema, TV, sports, internet, parties, conversations, even fights and quarrels and petty politics. Why only books? Let people read books just because they want to read.
I did not intend to be entertaining when I wrote Rupi Baskey or any of my stories. I just had it in my mind that I shouldn’t be boring.

With all the litfests, launches, reading and other hoopla being mandatory for writers, how do you plan to cope? How ‘accessible’ writers are these days? The old days of the reclusive writer are gone. Now the writer has to tweet and update his Facebook wall, his blog, god knows what else – how can a writer balance it all?
hansa_selfieI think it is too early for me to answer this question. It’s been only a little over a month, since the release of my book. Things are still the same as they were. Also, I am quite far away from the scenes of action. My publisher is in Delhi. The places, the book stores where my book is available are all in the big cities, and my reviews and press have originated from there. In Jharkhand, where I live and where my book is set, there is absolutely no stir. I am quite far away from everything, far away from all the hoopla – if any – surrounding my book or any book, in general. There has been no launch or reading for me and I don’t know if I’ll have one. I haven’t attended a single litfest and I don’t know if I’ll ever attend one. And I hardly see myself as a writer. That’s not my primary identity. And I am quite accessible. Whether in real life or on Facebook.
[Picture by Shekhar: "This i a selfie I took of myself at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. In the background, you can see the sculpture Mill Call by Ram Kinkar Baij."]

Which ‘current’ and not-so-current authors do you enjoy reading?
This one too is a difficult question because there are so many more books which I wish to read. Here are some books which I have recently enjoyed.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai, Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Old Man who read Love Stories by Luis Sepulveda
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
Difficult Daughters by Manju Kapur
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

In the distant future, when all prophecies and secrets are revealed (and we are returned to the atoms we were made from), how would you want to be remembered?
Remember? Me? For what?

What are you working on now?
Just now I have to wash my clothes. Then I have to go and buy some onions and mustard oil for my kitchen. That’s my immediate plan. And yes, I am working on a second book off and on. I am writing only when I really want to write and only if I have something to write. This one is going to take a lot of time.

This interview is published in Kitaab

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Book review: The World in My Hands by K Anis Ahmed

The World in My hands      

The World in My Hands
Author: K Anis Ahmed
Random House2013, 
pp 376          Rs.299

A tale of friendship, love and loss, Anis Ahmed’s ‘The World in My Hands’ highlights the perils of modern day society and the evils that consume relationships

This is the story of two bosom friends who choose their separate paths, while coming to terms with the excesses of a totalitarian regime. Hissam, the journalist, opts for what he hopes is a pragmatic approach in negotiating precarious alliances with the strongmen controlling his country. In the process, he compromises his deep trust and friendship with Kaiser, the upright self-made business tycoon. 

Both these men find the world; love, status, wealth and everything else that matters to them, within reach. But before they can safely grasp those dreams, they are swept away in the cataclysmic unfolding of events, and the outcomes of their personal choices. Natasha, Hissam’s childhood crush and Kaiser’s devoted wife, is friend and confidante to both men. Warm and gracious, she strives in vain to keep their friendship alive in a chaotic and hostile world.

Ahmed’s novel is set in the fictional country of Pandua, a thinly disguised portrayal of Bangladesh today. A sharp satirist, Ahmed has a sparkling sense of humour. He can make readers laugh out loud as he pokes holes into diabolical military rulers, established social conventions, academics, politicians, irate rioters, intellectual think-tanks and self-righteous NGO promoters. From newshounds chasing scoops to self-help books and spiritual gurus, nothing escapes his sharp eyes and witty barbs.

He does this while delving deep into serious issues through a carefully crafted tale woven around well-delineated characters. His observations are funny but apt. He provokes though while eliciting laughter, never sinking to smart-alecky displays of mere verbal dazzle.

Indian readers will relate to these characters and their foibles since we face similar mindsets and situations in our own country. There’s the “Vice Chancellor’, a literary man, or so he fancied himself, having written an impregnable thesis on the countryside in Hardy’s novels, and known among the younger faculty and smarter students as the Cloud of Great Unknowing.” ...The plot is fast-paced, leading to a poignant and satisfying conclusion. The strongest point of this novel is Ahmed’s sense of humour, delighting us in every page while provoking introspection and thought.
my detailed review is published in Sunday Herald

Friday, February 07, 2014

Chandannagar's multicultural heritage

Chandannagar Strand. Photo by Author
Chandannagar Strand
Chandannagar in West Bengal offers a whiff of French culture on the banks of the mighty Ganga. Broad, clean streets and elegant French-style buildings, a picturesque riverbank promenade, lovely old Hindu temples and French churches and a museum with unusual relics from a French colonial past; Chandannagar, earlier known as Chandernagore, has all this and more.

The quaint and charming French quarter

Chandannagar was already an established French settlement before the British took over a huddle of villages further down the Ganga, laying the foundation of modern-day Kolkata. In the 17th century, when the writ of the Moghul empire ruled over our subcontinent, Europeans made tentative forays to establish trading posts. In 1673, during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, the French established a trading outpost on the banks of the Hooghly river (Ganga) in West Bengal. They acquired legal ownership of the area from the Moghuls in 1688 and built Chandannagar around three villages — Borkishonpur, Khalisani and Gondalpara.

It was only later in 1690 that Job Charnock established a British presence in the village of Sutanuti, heralding a new age of British dominance in Bengal. Joseph Francois Dupleix was appointed governor of Chandernagore in 1730, and the town expanded considerably. The river offered a clear route to the sea, and trade flourished.

The French Governor's Palace

In its heyday, Chandannagar was the primary hub of European commerce in Bengal. Bengalis called it Farashdanga (Farash = French) in those days, and associated it with a classy and luxurious lifestyle. Delicately woven Farashdanga dhotis were preferred by the Bengali elite. Louis Bonnaud was one of the first Europeans to introduce indigo cultivation here.

The Bengalis of Chandannagar were highly enterprising as well. Batakrishna Ghosh was among the first natives to found a cloth mill. Dinanath Chandra was one of the earliest manufacturers of European and traditional Indian medicines. Another local merchant, Indranarayan Chowdhury, was appointed a courtier of the French East India Company in 1730. He was later honoured with a gold medal from the king of France. He was a patron of local Bengali folk culture and constructed the lovely Nandadulal Temple.

Nandadulal Temple

Chandannagar was also a centre for culture and education. Le Petit Bengali, the town’s first French newspaper, was published here from 1879. Educational institutions founded by the French continue to enlighten students to this day. The Sacred Heart Church of Chandannagar is a charming example of French architecture. The imposing French Governor’s Palace has now been converted into a museum. It showcases a rare collection of antique French furniture — cannons used in the Anglo-French wars and artefacts from local Bengali culture. The palace also houses the Institut de Chandernagor, which continues to conduct French classes.
French and Bengali influences gave Chandannagar its own unique culture. Antony Firingi was a famous example of such multicultural influences. Antony was the son of a Portuguese gentleman who had settled in Chandannagar in the 18th century. (The Portuguese had their own settlement on the banks of Ganga, in neighbouring Chinsurah) Antony fell in love with a Bengali Brahmin lady and eloped with her.

He wore a dhoti, learnt Bengali and associated with Bengali Hindus. He founded a group of kabis or poets and started composing his own songs in Bengali, to recite and sing in kobir larai contests. Antony’s poems in Bengali are appreciated to this day.

Chandannagar suffered through several wars between the French and the British. ...
...Neighbouring Calcutta prospered from uninterrupted British rule and soon eclipsed Chandannagar in importance. The French ruled without further interruptions from the beginning of the 19th century. When India became independent in 1947, the French handed over charge to the people of Chandannagar. In a referendum in1949, nearly 99 per cent of the city’s people opted for merger with India. Chandannagar officially became a part of India in 1950.

Strolling down the picturesque Chandannagar Strand, one can enjoy the gentle breeze from the Ganga and dream of glorious days gone by. Tree-lined lanes branch off from the Strand into the old European quarter of the city, offering vistas of gracious buildings and sunlit spaces. European-style old buildings dot the rest of Chandannagar, which is a typical Indian urban sprawl. The tropical climate and time are taking their toll. These once-lovely buildings are often scarred with moss and lichens and overgrown with weeds; a reminder that the old must fade away, making way for the new.

My article is published in Sunday Herald

Saturday, February 01, 2014

My Village Home

I've been living in a medical college campus in rural Andhra Pradesh since nearly a year. My son is an Asst Professor here, and I stay with him. We have a village postal address, and are surrounded by green fields and rocky hills. Within the campus, we have modern housing and amenities such as backup power and internet, not to mention our own large teaching hospital. The villagers come to our institute for medical care, and many of them are employed by the hospital and medical college. We institute residents go to them to buy vegetables and groceries, and employ them  as babysitters, cooks and domestic helpers.
The positives I see are:
1. pure, fresh air. The peace and calm is refreshing

UFOs spotted over our campus. Really!

2. The people are hard working and more honest, sincere and tolerant as compared to huge metros.

3. People are comparatively more friendly, tolerant, hospitable and gentle. The owners of the fruit and vegetable stalls I frequent, have taken it upon themselves to teach me the local language, correcting my mistakes with a smile.
The local women who come to babysit and work here, are very sincere and nice.

4. Locally produced fresh fruits and vegetables may lack the variety of supermarket produce, but they are fresh from the fields. The flavour and nutritional value is unbeatable. Not to mention that this leaves a lower carbon footprint since the produce is not transported over distances.

5. People are doing their bit to make the best use of food wastes. The village women who work here, leave pots for us to toss our kitchen and food waste. They then take it to feed to their cattle.

6. The social fabric is yet to rip apart, as is happening in big cities. People still care for each other, and there is stronger community feeling.

These crows are as polite and friendly as the locals

7. Our privately run hospital provides medical care, and specialist doctors are available around the clock for emergencies. The 108 free ambulance service is excellent. They come to the hospital in a steady stream, bringing in patients. Patients come here from 30-50 kilometres away, sometimes from even more distant places.
The state government's health insurance scheme for people below the poverty line, ensures that they get proper medical care. Hospitalisation and surgeries are paid for by the government.

8. The nearby town has respectable English medium schools as well as vernacular language ones. Some of our institute staff's children go to these schools. They are as well mannered, well informed, and articulate as the children I see in my home town, Bangalore. School buses come from the town to pick up children from the villages nearby.

9. One can see exciting and unusual sights like UFOs (see my photo). As the resident writer, I'm enjoying this retreat.

The negatives.
1. Ignorance. People first go to faith healers and quacks, and sometimes come to the hospital as a last resort, when they are in very bad shape.

2. The feudal system is still entrenched.
A stone age dolman worshipped as the village deity

3. People are poorer compared to city dwellers.

4. Agriculture and animal husbandry are tentative means of livelihood. Rains fail, crops can be blighted, and valuable cattle die.

5. Plastic waste is a huge hazard here. Large piles of waste plastic bags etc pile up over the wayside, and this can grow into an enormous problem, which our cities are already facing.