Place: India

Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part VI

she will continue her quest / for a world bereft of homes.

We’re thrilled to present the sixth and final installment of our Indian Languages Special Feature here at the blog. This time, Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan gives us an inside look at the life of the featured poet via the following interview. Thanks for sticking with us on our tour of the language-rich Indian subcontinent! 

Images of writer Salma receiving honours and awards from Chief Ministers and Presidents line the living room walls of her Chennai flat. It’s the home of an acclaimed public figure, but she has fought to be able to declare this success as a writer, even to herself. Having grown up in an orthodox Muslim community in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and married at nineteen into a conservative family, Salma had to hide her identity as a writer. Her years of struggle as an imprisoned woman are well recorded, including in an award-winning documentary by Kim Longinotto. Her poems, short stories, and novels are deeply melancholic reflections on life as a woman in her culture. “I don’t think I have ever felt happy. Not even when I receive recognition for my work. I always feel a sense of sorrow, having lost a lot,” she said during our interview.

“How did you reach my apartment? Did you take a taxi?” she asks. My scooter gets a nod of approval. “Parava illaye!” [“Not bad!”] A woman must have mobility. She sits down with a newspaper upon which she cleans and removes spinach leaves from their stems to prepare lunch, while we speak about her life and art. Later, she takes a picture with me and the spinach as a rebuke to Tamil writer B. Jeyamohan, who once insulted a bank teller, suggesting she was not capable even of picking spinach leaves.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview, translated by the interviewer and Asymptote’s Assistant Managing Editor, Janani Ganesen, as well as one of Salma’s poems, translated by N Kalyan Raman.

Janani (J): Your life and struggle has been widely recorded. Yet, for the sake of our readers, I hope you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. You grew up in a cloistered environment. How did you access books?

Salma (S): There was a library in my town that I liked going to. It wasn’t big, but I read as much as I could. In those days, New Century Book House used to bring out translations of Russian writers. I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others. I read and admired Tamil writers like Balakumaran. But it is from these Russian greats that I got a sense of what literature is about. I also read Periyar and wondered, “Why am I not being allowed to go to school or do the things that my brother is allowed to do? How am I different?” I felt angry.

J: When did you start writing?

S: Although I wrote my first short story when I was in class seven, I wouldn’t look at it as my beginning. It was about a woman, whose husband abandons her and yet she goes back to help him when he is in need. I was influenced by the movies I watched and what older people told me: “Kallanalum Kanavan.” [“A husband remains a husband even when he is hard like a stone.”]

I would say my writing career began with the publication of the poem “Swasam” [“Breath”] in a little magazine called Suttum Vizhi Chuddar, when I was seventeen.  I received a lot of reviews only after that poem.

J: What is “Swasam” about?

S: What is my identity? Things were happening around me without my being aware of it. My breath should be mine. Somebody else can’t breathe on my behalf. But that was how it was. Everybody else was deciding the course of my life. My education, my activities, my movements, my marriage, all of this was decided by someone else. That’s what the poem is about. The poem became controversial in my village. “How could you let a girl who has attained puberty let her name be printed? It’s a disgrace for her to show her face outside. A disgrace to the family. A disgrace to her society,” they said. I didn’t understand this then. Why could you not print my name? A girl’s name is printed in a marriage invitation; is that a disgrace too? But I couldn’t argue with them.

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Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part V

trying to befriend the strange / waiting for time to pass / to get ourselves to come to terms with it

In our penultimate iteration of this special feature on Indian poetry, we bring you the beautifully spare yet charged verse of Gurpreet, from the northern-most region of India, translated from the Punjabi by Monika Kumar. 

The sold out house and that sparrow

In our sold out house
we are here for the last quarter of our stay

Why was this house sold
how come it was sold
it has to be explained to everyone

My wife, sister and younger brother
were packing things
and that’s how my mother is rather packing us all including herself
in a fist of courage

Father is getting the things loaded
affectionately
arranging things in a row
attentively
stretching his wisdom
to rise up to the need of the moment
that’s how he saves our heart
that’s how he saves his own heart
from the heartbreak

I give up on the clichéd reasoning
and mother’s wet eyes
father’s rambling heart
wife’s false smile
the flabbergasted face of my son
I try to console everyone including myself
no idea where I muster courage from

Bidding farewell to the sold out house
I discovered
the places, walls, doors and windows breathe too
I was reminded of the sparrow
the sparrow I wove many stories around
to narrate to my son Sukhan

It is the first time
we are living in a rented house
trying to befriend the strange
waiting for time to pass
to get ourselves to come to terms with it

Parents think of taking a dip in holy waters
to pray for clemency
I bow my head before the doorstep of Muse

And there is chirping
the sparrow
The same sparrow

Listen to the poem in Punjabi:  The_sold_out_house_and_that_sparrow

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Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part IV

Our suffering / turned into / bruises on our backs

The ongoing blog feature on Indian poetry, tied to our Special Feature in the Winter 2017 Issue of Asymptote, has reached its fourth installment. This time, we present a poem by Gujarati Dalit poet Priyanka Kalpit. She is one of the very few women writing Dalit poetry in Gujarat today. Her text below was translated by Gopika Jadeja.

 

Bitter crop

Our ancestors
sowed their sweat

In return
we reaped
bonded labour

Our suffering
turned into
bruises on our backs

At times, that searing pain
turns into a firefly
and burns

For a little while
the horizon of the soul
turns burning red.

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What’s New in Translation? February 2017

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from French, Kannada, and Danish.

 

Goblet_cover_for_web_1024x1024

Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet, tr. Sophie Yanow, New York Review Books

Review: Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

Dominique Goblet’s Pretending is Lying, translated by fellow cartoonist Sophie Yanow in collaboration with the author, immediately recalls the best work of those figures like Alison Bechdel, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware, who have done so much to insist on both the relevance and elegance of the graphic narrative form in the Anglophone world. Fortunately, New York Review Books is dedicated to showcasing the many voices contributing to an ongoing, worldwide comic conversation, and its latest contribution is this Belgian memoir. Originally titled Faire semblant c’est mentir, it centers on the experiences of Dominique—a fictionalized version of the author herself—as she navigates fraught relationships with her parents, including with her looming lush of a father. Also sketched out is a romantic relationship where Dominique attempts to grapple with that most fundamental question of heartbreak: why did he leave me?

A certified electrician and plumber, Goblet clearly understands a thing or two about the necessary connections running through structures to make them work, and her illustrations carry this skill into Pretending is Lying, her first work to appear in English. Image and text perform an intricate choreography, reveling in an aesthetic that frequently slips between the easily imitated and the utterly remarkable. If the easy analogy for reading comics is the process of examining a series of film stills—and even if we might be tempted to label parts of the construction of this work cinematic—I would instead suggest that Goblet offers something that more closely resembles a well curated series of photographs, each of which could easily stand on its own, given each frame’s clarity of vision and attention to detail.

In illustrations that move from Rothko-like explorations of pure color to nuanced collections of penmanship that gradually reveal a series of ethereal forms, the melancholia that we often find in other works emerges here as well—maybe there’s something about the form that lends itself well to expressions of such emotions in its ability to match words with alternatively visceral and measured strokes. The muted color palette of Pretending is Lying is also remarkably expressive. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your update from Taiwan, India, and Finland!

This week, put on your walking shoes so we can follow Vivian Szu-Chin Chih, Editor-at-Large for Taiwan, through Taipei, from an international book exhibition to a history museum. Then we’ll zip over to India to meet Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan for discussions about literary translation and, wait for it—bull fighting. And finally in Finland, Assistant Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen has some Finnish Publishing Industry gossip for us. Cheers! 

Editor-at-Large Vivian Szu-Chin Chih reports from Taiwan:

As the Chinese Lunar New Year ushered in the Year of the Rooster, as well as the Ding-You Year (丁酉年) in the Chinese Sexagenary cycle, readers in Taiwan have been anticipating the annual Taipei International Book Exhibition, which is kicking off on February 8 and will last till February 13. The international event for book-lovers will take place at the Taipei World Trade Center, only a few steps away from the landmark 101 building. Among this year’s featured sessions are a forum specifically dedicated to children’s books in Taiwan and a discussion concerning how local bookstores can be redefined and reshaped, featuring several Taiwanese and Japanese speakers and the founding chair of the Melbourne Writers Festival, Mark Rubbo. The eminent Chinese novelist and poet based in the U.S., Ha Jin, will also deliver two speeches, one on the art of humor writing in fiction, the other to announce his two latest books, “The Boat Rocker” (《折騰到底》) and a poetry collection, “Home on the Road” (《路上的家園》). The female poet and publisher from Paris, Anne-Laure Bondoux, will travel to the island to attend the book exhibition as well, giving several talks including a discussion with the Taiwanese novelist Nathalie Chang.

The 90-year-old Taiwanese poet Luo Men passed away this January in Taipei. His poems are rich in imagery, with an emphasis on the spiritual search of the human mind. The TSMC Literature Award will see its fourteenth iteration this year, presented by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to encourage emerging young Sinophone writers in Taiwan and overseas. For 2017, all writers under the age of 40 composing in Chinese, traditional or simplified, are welcome to submit a piece of a novel. The deadline will be at the end of August. Since its establishment, the award has provided young Sinophone writers with a platform to debut their literary works. For example, the 2013 first-prize winner from Nanjing, Fei Ying’s novel, was published in Taiwan by INK this past week. One of the previous winners, Liou Dan-Chiou’s latest book on a couple surviving in the wild, is forthcoming, as well.

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the 1947 228 Incident followed by one of the longest martial law periods in the world, imposed upon the island by the Kuomingtang government. To help the society further comprehend this historical trauma and to commemorate the victims of the incident, the National Museum of Taiwan History in Tainan is holding an exhibition and a series of talks on the event. The exhibition will last until late May.

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Dispatch from Diggi Palace: The Politics of International Publishing

But as the Dalit writers discuss their literature and politics, turbaned working class men serve rotis.

“Voice of Rajasthan,” exclaims Zee News, a right-wing national news channel and the official sponsor of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), over and over again from big, bright roadside billboards. As I ride from the Jaipur airport to Diggi Palace, I am reminded of the commercial scale of this event. Formerly a royal palace, the venue now services a different kind of royalty as a heritage hotel and the site of the tenth JLF in the capital city of Rajasthan. Paradoxically, it is this corporate sponsor, which recently made headlines for telecasting fake news, that enables the participation of a panel of Rajasthani Dalit writers, among other lesser known writers such as Kashmiri poet Naseem Shafaie, Rajasthani writer and critic Geeta Samaur, and Odia translator Jatindra K Nayak. It also renders JLF the world’s largest free event of its kind, according to the official website. But as the Dalit writers discuss their literature and politics, turbaned working class men (Rajasthan is notorious for its discrimination against women) unaware of such a panel, serve rotis, providing the silk-clad speakers and delegates with an “authentic” and exotic Rajasthani-Indian experience. These servers aren’t invited to attend the panel on “Cultural Appropriation” either. I eat rotis off their tongs all five days. In a hurry to catch a beloved writer or a publisher “contact” at the lunch table and pushed by the impatient hungry guests, I don’t stop to ask what the turbaned roti-makers think of all this. I collude as well, to appropriate their stories and voices.

Jaipur BookMark (JBM) is a B2B event that focuses solely on translation. In this glitzy literature festival, translation finds a spot for the third-year running and Asymptote Editor-at-Large for India, Poorna Swami, and I, are at JBM to represent the journal. The B2B format asks that the speakers pay for their travel and accommodation, as opposed to the main JLF event. We camp with a generous family friend in the suburbs, but are still of a class that can afford flight tickets. Feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books would later rue this lack of funds in one of the panels, but not without asserting that some voices simply must be recorded and made available to the wider audience, even if it means waiting a long while before some of these books see the dingy light of a printing press.

Far from the madding crowd dressed in their winter festival best, right at the entrance to Diggi palace but unnoticeable, and covered by at least three security guards at all times, is the JBM venue. On a quaint terrace, it’s exclusive to invitees—translators, publishers, and writers. As one eager member of the audience fights to be let in, the Festival Producer Sanjoy Roy, who happens to be passing by, waves her in with a welcoming hand. The tame audience, hovering between ten and thirty, reveals that not many others have come upon such serendipitous generosity. The recurring few participate in enriching discussions over five days—on the politics of translation; the difficulty and the joy of it; and the omniscient complaint of abysmal funds and supporters, despite the obvious necessity for literary translations in an ever divided world.

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Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part III

Tell these sons of the earth / That we are all bothers.

This week, as part of our ongoing feature on Indian poetry, tied to our Special Feature in the Winter 2017 Issue of Asymptote, we present two writers of the Miyah poetry movement, both translated here by Shalim M Hussain. Like Siraj Khan, featured in the new issue, they advocate the use of language to defend the rights of the marginalized Bengal-origin, Assamese Muslim community to which they belong. Miyah is a term used interchangeably to mean illegal immigrant or Bangladeshi, and is targeted at the Muslims who live in the Char Chapori region of Assam.  In the spring of 2016, members of the Char Chapori community began reclaiming the term Miyah via poetry posted on social media, and a movement was born. 

My Mother (1 May 2016)
by Rehna Sultana

I was dropped on your lap my mother
Just as my father, grandfather, great-grandfather
And yet you detest me, my mother,
For who I am.
Yes, I was dropped on your lap as
a cursed Miyah, my mother.

You can’t trust me
Because I have somehow grown this
beard.
Somehow slipped into a lungi
I am tired, tired of introducing myself
To you.
I bear all your insults and still shout,
Mother! I am yours!
Sometimes I wonder
What did I gain by falling in your lap?
I have no identity, no language
I have lost myself, lost everything
That could define me
And yet I hold you close
I try to melt into you
I need nothing, my mother.
Just a spot at your feet.
Open your eyes once mother
Open your lips
Tell these sons of the earth
That we are all bothers.
And yet I tell you again
I am just another child
I am not a ‘Miyah cunt’
Not a ‘Bangladeshi’
Miyah I am,
A Miyah.
I can’t string words through poetry
Can’t sing my pain in verse
This prayer, this is all I have.

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Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The editors of our Indian Languages Special Feature share how they curated the incredible poetry lineup

We begin the week again with an update on a new initiative that will help us continue beyond April 2017: This week, we’re thrilled to welcome Shelley Schanfield and Fiona Le Brun as our new sustaining members! Our most updated tally, as reflected on the right-hand column, is now 37! If you’re considering becoming a part of the family too, why not let lighthouse keeper (and hit author) Reif Larsen take you on a tour, before you sign up here!

*

This body didn’t burn itself:
It was burnt down.
These bones didn’t scatter themselves:
They were scattered around.
The fire didn’t combust on its own:
It was lit and spread around.
The fight didn’t initiate on its own:
It was started somehow.
And the poem didn’t compose itself:
It was written down.

—from “Mohenjodaro” by Vidrohi, translated from the Hindi by Somrita Ganguly

India, according to its constitution, has twenty-two ‘scheduled’ languages, with hundreds more spoken across its twenty-nine states and seven union territories. While it is impossible to capture the full swath of India’s languages in a single Special Feature, Asymptote’s Winter 2017 issue offers a glimpse into the political and aesthetic possibilities of Indian languages. The Feature’s nine poets, covering seven languages, were chosen with the aim of celebrating the diversity and dissent within contemporary Indian language poetry.

Vidrohi’s “Mohenjodaro” emerges directly from a site of protest, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the revolutionary spirit of which has recently come under attack from various political factions. Vidrohi spent most of his life as the unofficial, resident poet-activist of JNU, reciting but never writing down his poems—as a mark of resistance. But his words have been preserved in differing transcriptions by various students. “Mohenjodaro,” like many of Vidrohi’s works, has no definitive text—it carries on the centuries-old tradition of oral poetry in the Indian subcontinent. Aggressive and unabashed, the poem, with each line, builds its indictment of patriarchy, colonialism, and of the nation itself. To honor the poem’s orality and to observe how literature can exist in multiple lives, the Special Feature includes two translations of “Mohenjodaro.” Each translation stems from a different ‘original,’ and so is markedly different, reminding us that language resides beyond the page, in telling, listening, and remembering.

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Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part II

Do not sing sad songs, O wind

This is the second installment in a five-week spotlight on Indian languages, to complement the Indian Poetry Special Feature in the new Winter Issue of Asymptote. For the next few Thursdays, you can discover a spectrum of new voices translated from different regional languages. These writers, in many cases, have never been featured on the blog or in English before. This week’s poem is Kshetri Prem’s translation of Arambam O Memchoubi’s Manipuri text “O wind, do not sing sad songs”. 

 

O wind, do not sing sad songs

O wind, do not sing sad songs
Look at the falling leaves
One after another, scattered
On a distant
Straw-strewn Jhum field
Look at the deserted pigeon
Sitting alone, sitting in agony
On a branch of a leafless oak tree
Don’t you hear
The plaintive song
Of a lifeless ravine
And, the reddened morning sun
From a night spent in tears.
Do not sing sad songs, O wind,
Do not tell sad stories any more
Tell me instead
How you spent the dreadful night
How you resurrect yourself on your grave again.

From Tuiphai O Ningthibi, (2012)

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Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part I

The entire city was a river—impossible to find a shore.

We’re thrilled to present the first installment in a five-week spotlight on Indian languages, to compliment the Indian Poetry Special Feature in the new Winter Issue of Asymptote. For the next few Thursdays, you can discover a spectrum of new voices translated from different regional languages, which, in many cases, have never been featured on the blog or in English before. To kick things off, we have Niyati Bhat’s translation of Naseem Shafaie’s Kashmiri poem, “Tale of a City,” for you today. 

Tale of a City

Those who lived by the river Vyeth, now naked,
are drowning in their shame today.
They, who wrapped themselves in Shahtoosh and Pashmina
and wore silk brocades from head to toe everyday.
A delicate thread of that vanity
slowly came apart.
The skies, too, loosened the reins, a little.
King Nimrod would’ve fled
at the sight of this spectacle.
It took one moment, just one
to wipe out the entire city.
Those who lived by the river Vyeth, now naked,
were stupefied.
No pillar, no mud wall to hold on to,
No one lending their arms across the window sill for rescue,
No one at the doorway to quench their thirst.
They were flooded over their heads,
The entire city was a river—
impossible to find a shore.
They, with empty hands and empty pockets,
had no coins to pay the ferryman
to take them across.
Nor any murmurs to console each other.
Those who lived by the river Vyeth, now naked,
used to be rich until yesterday.
Those who lived by the river Vyeth, now naked,
lived in palaces until yesterday.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Shubham Shree

I know this poem is really weak—just like a menstruating woman.

Our Winter 2017 issue, hot off the presses yesterday, celebrated our six years of publishing world literature with new work from 27 countries by authors such as Colm Tóibín, Cesare Pavese and Monika Rinck, alongside a Special Feature on Indian poetry focusing on marginalized voices. Here, via acclaimed translator Daisy Rockwell, we present two works from this Special Feature by 2016 Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Prize winner Shubham Shree—who recently caused great controversy with her bold use of slang and English words, considered a desecration of the tradition of Hindi poetry.

My Boyfriend

(An essay proposed for the Grade Six Moral Education Curriculum)

My boyfriend is a two-legged boy human
He has two hands, two feet, and one tail
(Note—I’m the only one who can see his tail)
My boyfriend’s name is Honey
At home, he’s Babloo, on his notebooks, Umashankar
His name is also Baby, Sweetie-pie, and Darling
I call my boyfriend Babu
Babu also calls me Babu
Babu has dandruff in his hair
Babu crunches when he eats
Babu slurps when he drinks
When he’s annoyed he packs a 440 volt punch
He has vaccine scars on his arms, twin half-lemons
If you poke them he screams
My Babu also cries
in a hiccupy sort of way
And he laughs with his eyes closed
He loooves salty food
When he sleeps, he snores from his nose and mouth
I am a good girlfriend
I swat away the flies trying to sneak into his mouth
I even smacked a mosquito on his belly
I always start laughing when I see him
He has very nice cheeks
If you stretch them out they get five centimeters bigger
He gave me a teddy bear named Kitty
We are the world’s best couple
Our anniversary is the 15th of May
Please congratulate us

*What we learn from my boyfriend
Is that you should smack mosquitos on your boyfriend’s belly
And swat flies away from his mouth
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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your literary updates for the turn of the year from Brazil, India, Mexico, and more!

Before we jump into our weekly world news tours of 2017, here at the blog we wanted to look back at the waning days of 2016 and give the literary achievements that closed such an eventful year their full due. There is already so much we’re looking forward to in the year ahead, but no piece of writing or writer exists in a vacuum; each new publication, reading, and translation takes from and makes space within the existing cultural consciousness. To be able to understand the developments in the literary scenes around the world this year, we have to see the full scope of 2016’s progress. Luckily, Asymptote has eyes and ears in every hemisphere!  

First stop on the map: India, where we check in with our first contributor this week, PhD student of postcolonial literature Tanushree Vachharajani:

2016 saw a huge uprising across India for Dalit rights. The suicide of Hyderabad PhD student Rohit Vemula in January 2016 and the assault of a Dalit family of cow skinners in Una, Gujarat in June 2016 have led to a resurgence of Dalit identity in social and literary fields, along with much dissent and unrest about the government’s attitude towards lower castes. The Gujarat Dalit Sahitya Akademi in Ahmedabad issued a special edition of their literary journal Hayati, on Dalit pride this fall under the editorship of Dr. Mohan Parmar. Also in September, under the editorship of Manoj Parmar, literary journal Dalit Chetna published a special edition on Dalit oppression, featuring works written by Dalit as well as non-Dalit writers.

The well-documented human rights violations continue to inspire a flood of responses. For the first time last month, Delhi saw a literary festival dedicated entirely to Dalit protest literature, offering a platform for Dalit regional literature and its translations into English, French, and Spanish to increase accessibility and broaden the demographic of its readers.

Dalit literature is also no longer in the realm of the purely literary. Inspired by the death of Rohit Vemula, three young activists from Mumbai—Nayantara Bhatkal, Prem Ayyathurai, and Shrujuna Shridhar—have set up the unofficially titled Dalit Panther Project for which phone numbers were collected on December 6, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Through the popular social messaging app WhatsApp, they will transmit four videos on the origins and legacy of the Dalit Panther literary movement. The videos were shot at the homes of Dalit Panther supporters, and are in Hindi. The creators are also looking to bring out a full-length feature film on the subject this year.

Hearteningly, the Dalit community is pushing back strongly against abuse of any members of the lower castes. From threatening a sanitation strike to bringing Dalit literature into mainstream circles and creating inclusive literary institutions and awards, Dalit protest movements across India only seem to be getting stronger as the New Year begins.

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What’s New in Translation? December 2016

Asymptote reviews the latest translated books from Spanish, German, and Konkani

peter

The Moravian Night by Peter Handke, tr. Krishna Winston, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review: Laura Garmeson, Assistant Copyeditor

Not long after midnight, with wintry constellations etched across the Serbian sky, a group of six or seven men make their way through the darkness from various nearby villages to approach the Morava River, a tributary of the Danube. They have been summoned by the owner of a houseboat moored by the riverbank, guided by its neon sign blazing the boat’s name: “Moravian Night”. Once on board, they are greeted by a man who was formerly a well-known writer. He extinguishes the glowing sign, calls for silence, and begins to tell the listeners his story.

So begins The Moravian Night, the latest shimmering, introspective novel to appear in English from the renowned Austrian author Peter Handke, translated from the German by Krishna Winston and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Handke is no stranger to controversy, with his support for Serbia’s Milošević in the 1990s provoking widespread outrage, and the alchemy of this work seems to draw from the political life and writing life of its author. Employing cameo appearances of characters from previous Handke novels and plot points about the fallout of Central European projects and failed Balkan states, Handke toys with reality, as he sees it, through the cracked lens of fiction.

The resulting book, which on the surface is the story of the nameless writer’s journey across Europe from east to west, is really a travelogue of the mind. This obscured narrator travels through the Balkans, Spain, and Germany, retraces his own steps from previous decades, and reencounters figures who were once figments of memory: “the longer he walked the more he fell into his previous footsteps, footsteps of air”. The parallels to One Thousand and One Nights are established in the book’s first scene, and continue with the same undercurrent of danger and threat of death that forced Scheherazade’s stories into being. The narrator seems impelled by the same threat in the dark on board the Moravian Night. Storytelling here is the antithesis of death – the recreation of a life – and a disrupter of time.

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In Review: Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man by U.R. Ananthamurthy

Asif he had become a stranger to himself, the Acharya opened his eyes and asked himself: Where am I?

NYRB Classics’ reissue of this book comes at an opportune moment, as societies around the world face the dangers of religious extremism and its focus on ritual and regulation rather than humanity. U.R. Ananthamurthy, in A.K Ramanujan’s translation from the Kannada, tries to teach Indian society a lesson in this story about the trouble with prioritizing tradition over compassion.

Samskara begins with one of the central cleansing and purification rituals in the rites of Hindu worship. Praneshacharya, the most respected Brahmin in his traditional and conservative agrahara, begins each day by bathing the sickly and desiccated body of his infirm wife.  Praneschacharya has faithfully carried out this ritual for more than twenty years. He views sexless marriage as a penance and a sacrifice that will deliver salvation in this life and in the next.  But the death of an impious and sinful Brahmin, Naranappa, in the agrahara brings Praneshacharya to a spiritual crisis of his own that makes him question his long-practiced rituals and beliefs. The cleansing ritual that he performs on his wife at the beginning of the story is the last time that he will perform this expiating routine; this is the beginning of the end for Praneshacharya’s spiritual cleanliness and purity.

Samskara—the compulsory rite given to Brahmins at their passing—becomes the central controversy of the novel. Naranappa has renounced the Brahmin rituals of the agrahara and has carried out the most outrageous and offensive acts to show his disapproval of his fellow worshippers and neighbors. He’s taken up excessive drinking, spent time with Muslims and ate meat with them, and caught fish from the sacred temple pond. The most impious of his actions, however, was casting off his lawful wife and his choosing to live with a lower class, outcast woman named Chandri.  Despite his hedonistic behavior, the Brahmins never excommunicated Naranappa from their small, conservative village.

It is Chandri, Narranappa’s low-born lover, who delivers the news of his death to the agrahara.  This announcement causes an immediate conflict over the performance of the death rites for this blasphemous man whom they continued to allow to live among them. The Brahmins’ failure to act in the face of Naranappa’s sacrilege can be viewed as the first of Ananthamurthy’s many criticisms of the Brahmins way of life; their laziness or fear or lack of conviction, or a combination of all three, prevent them from expelling Narranappa from the agrahara.  Now that he has died, none of them want to be responsible for performing the death rites for his body.

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