Category Archives: Aleph Book Company

Manto & I by Nandita Das

Manto & I by Nandita Das Title: Manto & I
Author: Nandita Das
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-8194365747
Genre: Nonfiction, Film
Pages: 264
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I remember watching a play in the year 2007. A friend and I on a lark went to Prithvi theatre and decided right there to watch the play, “Manto Ismat Hazir Hain”. It’s been thirteen years now since I was introduced to Manto, and yet there is so much left to read. So much left for translators to translate. So much left for the world to know the man he was, and is, as he continues to live on. Writers always do. Creative people always do.

I also remember watching Manto in a small theatre in 2018 with my mother. My mother always admired his short stories. She took time to warm up to his style, but it was worth the wait she says, and I believe her. Manto is an acquired taste, perhaps. And I was ecstatic to see a film made on a writer’s life. I was overjoyed because not many writers get that – not in India at least. Kudos to Nandita Das for bringing a part of Manto’s life and stories to our lives.

Manto, the film is a story of a writer who is unafraid to speak his mind and heart. He says what he wants to without regret or thinking twice. There is no self-censorship. There was no question of that. To know Manto, read his stories. Read as much as you can. To know more about the movie, and its intricacies and in knowing that to also know about Manto, read Manto & I by Nandita Das.

The book reached me about two days ago and I was honestly fascinated by the way it was done. A coffee table book, and yet to my mind not quite. Not a memoir either. Not a slice of life. Just a love letter of sorts, from Nandita to Manto – for how she has gotten to know the man, over the years – right from thinking about this movie to the research to everything the movie led to – the casting, the sound design, the costumes, the works, including how actors worked pro-bono, and other such stories from the film and Manto’s life.

I loved the part of how she integrated the stories in the film, and how some essence of Manto was captured. The way she so lovingly speaks of the film, the writing process, how she got Nawazuddin to act, how he became Manto, and more than ever how everyone else on set also became Manto.  The letter written to Manto by her moved me to tears. It isn’t just about the movie then, or about one book. To me, Manto and I is about Manto that exists in all of us. Thank you, Nandita for this book and for the film.

And it suddenly sprang on me while reading this book, that we need Mantoiyat today more than ever. We need voices who believe in unity than division. We need to believe that we will overcome. The divide that he tried to bring down through his stories and works must be worked on again with great vigour. Read Manto. Read Manto & I. Evoke the Manto in you. May he never die.

Outcaste by Matampu Kunhukuttan. Translated from the Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan

OutcasteTitle: Outcaste
Author: Matampu Kunhukuttan
Translated from the Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayana
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9388292498
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

For me, personally, it isn’t easy to read a book on how women are treated in India. It disturbs me and rightly so. It upsets me and it should. It should shake my core, because how else will we become aware and perhaps do something about it? How else will we know more and understand the atrocities committed in the name of caste and religion time and time again, without any repercussions at all?

Outcaste is the kind of book that jolts you from your cushy and comfortable existence, making you see the injustices perpetuated by upper caste men in India. A problem that sadly is relevant even today. A problem that shouldn’t have been relevant, after 72 years of Independence and yet it is.

The book is about the revenge of a single woman named Paptikutty on her lovers who belong to the most powerful families of the land. The book is based on a 1905 trial – where Paptikutty was tried for adultery. Outcaste also looks at the arc of the Namboodiri family in Kerala who were most powerful in Kerala and how Paptikutty’s revenge weakened them. It was the Namboodiri men who took her court to outcaste her because she had so many lovers. She was one of them and they wanted nothing to do with her.

Outcaste is a book that is about the patriarchal society but deep down it is also about its downfall and how that happens slowly and steadily at some level or another. This isn’t an easy read and yet I could not stop turning the pages. The book explores ancient Kerala culture and there were a lot of words and phrases that needed me to refer to Google, but it was all worth it because that’s the essence of the book. Vasanthi’s translation and Matampu’s writing gives us a cast of characters that are victims of their own choices and situations that they choose to be in because of society constructs. Outcaste is a love story of sorts, but also a march against injustice, inequality, and is a call to heal the broken with only justice and vengeance at the core.

Love and Lust: Stories & Essays

Love and Lust Title: Love and Lust: Stories & Essays
Author/s: Various
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9388292528
Genre: Anthology
Pages: 152
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

How can an anthology on love and lust go wrong when it has writings by Kamala Das, Vikram Seth, K.R. Meera, and Rajinder Singh Bedi to name a few? Can it go wrong at all? Aleph Book Company has got it bang on with these mini-anthologies, titled Aleph Olio. There are a couple of other titles in this series as well, but for now we will focus on Love and Lust.

It isn’t about the range as well, as much as it is about what these writers are trying to communicate. We live in times where perhaps both love and lust are looked down on in most places. Lust a little more than love. Anyway, the point of this collection is to show us both love and lust through various lens – whether it is that of a mother who just won’t have her khatri daughter dating a Muslim man (an excerpt from A Suitable Boy), or whether it is Kamala Das demonstrating feminism and all shades of desire through her story A Little Kitten, or even of course Manto who doesn’t stop at anything to make us see our hypocrisy when it comes to matters of the flesh in Tang (translated from the original Boo), this short but extremely effective collection has it all.

I also think that it has been edited very cleverly in so many ways – first what I have already mentioned earlier – the authors, what to select from what these authors have written, and the order also in which these stories and essays are placed. And might I also add that I did think earlier about representation – in the sense of covering identities, however, one cannot encompass everyone when it comes to a limited anthology such as this. So it worked for me, irrespective.

Aleph Olio series are perfect to understand the writing of a particular writer whose work you want to explore in detail. Pick these series for that and also of course for the broader themes. The ones that are out are: In a Violent Land, The Essence of Delhi, Notes from the Hinterland, and Love and Lust.

Interview with Sikeena Karmali

If you have to perhaps read historic fiction, and as we all know there are only two months left in the year, then you should read Sikeena Karmali’s, The Mulberry Courtesan. I read it earlier this year and absolutely loved it. It is a story of a courtesan in the last court of the Mughal Empire, that of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Karmali has written the book with great skill, passion, and accuracy. In my opinion, everyone must read this book because of the language and the plot. I got a chance to interview her via mail, and here goes:

What inspired you to write a historical fiction novel, that too set in 1857? What drew you toward that time? 

The novel was actually very much inspired by a visit to the Humayun’s Tomb and Gardens complex in 2003 – before it was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. At that time I was living in Uzbekistan, directing a human rights project. I had just visited Ferghana – the birthplace of Babur and Samarqand and Bukhara are both also in Uzbekistan so the Central Asian/Timurid/Mughal civilization was already playing in my imagination but for some reason I was not really expecting to find that in India so when I visited Humayun’s Tomb I was kind of blown away at how beautifully this heritage had married with the civilization of the Indian subcontinent to create this breath-taking architecture. So I wanted to try to capture some of that.

I’ve also always been fascinated by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 – Ghadr. It was actually the first serious challenge that the British East India company faced by the people it had colonized.

Bahadur Shah Zafar thankfully isn’t made a caricature of in the book. What kind of research went into ensuring that more facets of his personality came to light? How did you manage to translate that or incorporate it in the book?

I did a lot of research and I read his poetry. I visited the National Archives in Delhi where I also found a lot of information. He impressed me and I tried to understand him as a poet and a mystic rather than a ruler.

Laale is headstrong, independent, and yet has to adhere to the societal constructs of that time and age. What were the courtesans like in that period?

It is certainly true that there were societal constructs for women at that time, as there are today – however they are not always what we imagine them to be. Courtesans were often quite empowered as women. They were educated and erudite, they moved and circled in public spaces, often in male domains where they would have to hold their own among Nawabs and Mirzas. They were also not merely sexual slaves – many courtesans were respected women who came to wield a fair amount of power at court. Beghum Samru for example was a nautch girl who ended up becoming the head of a professionally trained army. Or Mah Laqa Chanda who became the first Urdu poetess and whose Divan is currently at the British Library in London.

How is Laale different and how was it like to place her in around 160 years ago, though she could very well fit in today’s time and age? 

It is funny you should ask that because The Mulberry Courtesan was originally about two women Laale and a contemporary women who is like her mirror or soul mate. So that contemporary story is now going to be The Mulberry Courtesan Book Two.

Image result for sikeena karmali

The book moves between multiple nations and times. How easy or difficult was it to write about that? 

That is actually how the book unfolded so it’s how I wrote it. At the time that much of the book was written, I used to travel quite a lot so it didn’t feel unusual for me.

How is it to bring the interactions to life in a historical novel, given the context and plot? How does that work? Is it any different from say setting the novel in the 21st century?

I’m an avid student of history so it’s quite normal for me to be inhabiting another century in my imagination while I go about my daily existence in the 21st century. I think with historical fiction writing you really have to take the time to set the scene, to illustrate the details that will really transport your reader to another time and place.

Your top 5 historical fiction novels 

In no particular order:

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Song of the Assassin – M.G. Vasanji
My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

What are you currently reading? 

I have just finished Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhtoy and I am in the middle of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien which is really lyrical and beautifully written.

You can buy the book here: 

https://amzn.to/2PCXUIt

 

 

Interview with Manu Bhattathiri

The Town That Laughed

I had a ball reading The Town That Laughed and couldn’t wait to interview Manu Bhattathiri. The Town that Laughed is reminiscent of Malgudi Days, of small towns, and small lives that amount to a lot when viewed from their side. And yet there is always change that takes place in small towns and things perhaps aren’t what they used to be. The fictional town of Karuthupuzha, nestled within the Kerala countryside, is home to eccentric and the unexpected. The predictable lot of people and the ones who aren’t easy to gauge at all. This is one book that I would recommend to all, who are looking for a light read. It is hilarious and quaint and rather charming.

Here’s my interview with Manu Bhattathiri: 

When and how did you start telling these stories?

I think I picked up my passion for storytelling from my granddad. He would tell me stories from mythology when I was a child. I always wanted to tell stories the way he told them – fantastically, mixing real characters with incredible happenings, lending life to creatures and even inanimate objects. Somewhere along the way, somewhere during adolescence perhaps, I picked up the art of lying: yes, simple lying, to friends and family, just for the sake of saying something I had made up! It was only in my mid-thirties, though, that I realized instead of making things up in my talks with others I can actually just write fiction.

Were you inspired by R K Narayan and similar others who have created fictional towns?

R K Narayan is a legend. It sometimes makes me a little self-conscious when Karuthupuzha is compared to Malgudi. But I must say, I have read very little of R K Narayan. I have only read The Guide, and I think a couple of other books. No, my fictional town is not really inspired by his. I cannot trace it to any particular imagined town at all, to be honest. I draw from a real village called Cherupoika in Quilon district of Kerala. This was home to my maternal grandparents and was where I spent a lot of my holidays as a kid.

MB

Karuthupuzha is almost idyllic and I am guessing that's how it is meant to be. Was it easy or difficult to write that?

I think it is when you keep your characters simple on the surface that you can dive deep into them, like the stars can be well studied on nights without too many clouds. It certainly isn’t easy to define your characters strongly and yet portray them like simpletons. But fortunately in the villages and small towns I draw from, there are real people like this: people who are simple yet deep. They are a reference for me.

How did you manage to excel in characterization given there are so many cameos, and yet each one seems fleshed out so perfectly? Was it difficult or easy when it came to that?

Perhaps that has to do with the fact that for my writings I pull out not from other literature but from life. Every day you meet people and connect with them, but their story—their character, emotions, inclinations—is not any less detailed even if you only met them briefly. You might get chatting with an old man waiting for the same bus as you and never see him again in your life, but even in that brief meeting you can see he isn’t a flat character. There is still a complete and complex story of his life that he carries with him. I think literature must emulate life in this. So whether a character is major or minor
in your novel, I don’t think he/she ought to be flat and lifeless. Working this way takes a lot of thought and careful orchestration between characters, but it is also very satisfying.

Who are your favourite novelists and have any of them inspired the writing of this novel?

My favorite authors are Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, more recently, J M Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro. While The Town that Laughed is not directly inspired by any of them, I do believe they make me who I am. So the stories I think up will have something to do with them, yes.

There you go! This is my interview with Manu Bhattathiri. Do read the book. It is fantastically written.