Category Archives: Aleph Book Company

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.

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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

 

 

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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.

Interview with Sumana Roy

Reading Sumana Roy’s books only make you humble. The magnanimity and scope of her writing will only make you feel small and aspire to perhaps write, imagine and feel like her.

I remember reading, “How I Became a Tree” and it left me stunned and hapless. With her recent work of fiction, “Missing” – I felt so many feelings, that it became kind of difficult to contain them.  You can read my review of the book here

And that’s when I knew I had to interview Sumana to find out more about Missing and its writing process. Hope you enjoy the interview.

missing-by-sumana-roy

What made you write “Missing”? What led to its conception? Did you always have clarity about the plot or did you struggle with it? 

SR: I wanted to see, imaginatively, what might happen if a woman of my socio-economic class left everything and disappeared. I was interested not in the gossip and social repercussions but in the afterlife of love – what happens to those whom we’ve loved and those who love us? How do they continue to live?

The other trigger for writing this was to show the gap between the everydayness of our lives, its joys, and frustrations, and the artificiality of news that condensed time and turned it into noise. I reject news (its current mode of dissemination) and the artificial time of news. I also saw how time had become a very artificial thing in the novel – James Wood has called the last sixty pages (or was it fifty?) the most artificial thing in literature. I was interested in restoring the speed of our life into the novel – moment to moment. There is no climax in our life though we often delude ourselves into thinking of death as life’s climax. Why should the novel have a climax then?

No, I never have any clarity – I love the journey into unknowingness, not knowing where I’ll reach. I’m as clueless as the reader. The writer doesn’t know anything more than the reader – I’m certain about that.

To answer your question about the plot – the plot wasn’t my aim, Vivek. I was interested in communicating the experience of what it might feel to live through those seven days in Siliguri. Woh Saat Din, as it were. I think of the novel as an experience, not as a means of acquiring knowledge (like the writer rewarding the loyal reader with information about the identity of the murderer in a whodunit, for instance).

Kabir’s character is always in the shadows. Almost like he exists on the fringe. Was this intentional? Or did it happen organically as the book progressed? 

SR: I could be completely wrong in my understanding of this, but I have the sense – as an outsider of course, for I don’t have children of my own – that my friends and I were closer to our parents than children are to theirs today. It is also possible that our relationships were more embodied. Even when our relationships were difficult, there was more of ourselves, our bodies, our throats, our hands, our tears and our laughter. Even our indifference, whatever its duration, was visible – the closing of a door, not looking at them in the eye, turning away from them to look at the wall when sharing a bed, and so on. Today, because of technology and the way it has impacted relationships, there are more words, but something is ‘missing’. To use your metaphor of the ‘fringe’, children don’t realize how central they are to their parents’ lives – they choose to keep the parents on the fringe of their lives. Perhaps it was this that I felt when I thought of Kabir? Also, he’s far away, and his search can only be two-dimensional. Even the photograph, in the end, is two-dimensional, of course.

How tough or easy was the transition from writing non-fiction to fiction?

SR: I’d begun writing Missing in July 2012, as some of the events mentioned as news reports in the book were happening. I began writing How I Became a Tree the next year, I think. But it wasn’t really meant to be a book – I was making notes on my phone on my way to work. I began to see the shape of the book much later. I really don’t believe in the presumed distinction between genres. At any given point, I could be reading or working on a poem, an essay, or a story on the same day. For me, it is like having watermelon juice for breakfast, mutton curry for lunch, baingan bharta for dinner. I don’t need to change the settings of my tongue. I suppose, similarly with my mind.

So somehow in the first half, I never took to Kobita. In the second-half, I fell in love with her. Is that how it was supposed to be? Why is she so emotionally distant and yet seems connected? 

SR: But do we ever know Kobita? We presume we do, from recollections and semi-reportages from the people who knew her – husband, son, household staff, a student’s father, and so on. I suppose we’re not meant to see the poetic completely – something is kept away from us, isn’t it? We see her through the prejudices of people (and all of us are prejudiced, even about those we love) – all our impressions of her are formed from what men tell us if you’ve noticed. Her physical distance is turned into emotional detachment in a way that might not have been the case had a man gone on a work-trip leaving his blind wife in the care of household staff.

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Distance, absence, and loss of the self all come at a very high personal cost in the book. At some point was it cathartic for you to write it? Has all of it come from a very personal space? 

SR: All kind of writing is cathartic in some way, I suppose, though everything might not leave us ‘calm of mind, all passion spent’. Yes, it comes from a personal space, as did How I Became a Tree. I suppose I am a very passionate person – I can only write about things that affect me deeply and spiritually. In both, I was interested in the disappearance of the human from social life – whether by transforming into a tree, even on the level of metaphor, or disappearing from family and the familiar.

Nayan as a character, being at the center of it all is always under tremendous pressure. He knows he has to do something – anything at all and yet is always hesitant. At some point, it even felt to me that he didn’t want Kobita back. What does it take to write about such passive-aggressiveness and veiled emotions that can shatter in a moment? 

SR: As you said in your review of Missing, Kobita means ‘poetry’. Nayan is a poet. What could it mean for a poet to find the poetic gone missing from his life? Please don’t think I’m talking about it allegorically. I am not. The artist has a very complicated relationship with his or her chosen art form. A singer is always trying to tame their voice – they never seem to be satisfied. It’s like riding a tiger, a kirtan singer (whom you might know as Bimal-da from the novel) once told me.

I think all relationships are difficult, Vivek – the joy is in finding the right sur. It doesn’t come to us every moment, but when it does, it erases memories of all the tears and all the hard work, the sadhana. The singer smiles when he gets the sur right, the poet smiles though we can’t see it. This is not very different from the smile of the lover who’s loved and been loved back, a moment of synchronicity that justifies all the striving.

What is next on the cards? 

SR: I am trying to write something about the experience of reading.

Your top 5 favourite books and why? 

SR: This keeps on changing. George Eliot, Middlemarch; Amit Chaudhuri, A Strange and Sublime Address; Rabindranath Tagore’s songs (I don’t mean the Gitanjali); Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali; Bangla poetry – Jibanananda Das, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Buddhadeva Bose (I like his translations of the European poets in Bangla more than I like them in English).

Do you think that the art is separate from the artist or are they interlinked? 

SR: Is that a kind of Yeatsian question – How can we know the dancer from the dance? J

I can perhaps guess the slant of your question, and I’ll be completely honest with you, even if it is not a politically correct answer. I think we live in an age where the artist has become more important than the art – it’s a cult of the personality, and it’s one that I find repulsive. It has taken away attention from the art, from the text and moved the locus to the person – what is this celebrity figure? We’ve forgotten that art was once anonymous. Whether that was a good or bad thing is not for me to say. All I’m trying to say is that we’ve forgotten that. Lok Sangeet – lok, people, people’s songs, composed by people, through generations. The songs are the autographs. They did not need to sign books. I studied in a small town with generous teachers – they were not celebrities of the kind you find in academic mafia circles (I use ‘mafia’ with irony, of course – why would anyone call an academic a don, tell me?). One thing I learnt from them was that everything was in the text and it was from this that I’d need to make my deductions. I continue to read in this way. Funny as it might sound, I try not to look at author photos on the jacket – I don’t want the face of the writer to be on my mind when I’m reading. That is also the reason why I don’t socialise with writers – I write about them often. I don’t want to be writing about a person whose voice I can identify. I want to be immune to everything except the voice in the book.

If you had one book to give to the PM of the country to read, which one would it be and why? 

SR: It’d be a DIY kind of book – the Constitution of India.

What is on your reading stand right now?

SR: Michel Serres, The Five Senses – a book I’ve been reading very slowly; Sonali Deraniyagala, Wave – a gift from a friend, and I’m looking forward to reading it; Debesh Roy, Teestapuran; Rohit Manchanda, In The Light of the Black Sun – a book published in 1996, which I’ve only discovered now.

That’s that then! I cannot recommend “Missing” enough! Please do read it, if you haven’t already.

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree, a work of nonfiction, and Missing, a novel. She writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.

You can follow Sumana Roy on Twitter:  @SumanaSiliguri

You can buy the book here

Missing by Sumana Roy

Missing by Sumana Roy Title: Missing
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN:978-9386021991
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 267
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

There are some books that seep deep into​ your skin and sometimes you don’t even realize what they have done. “Missing” for me is one of those books. The premise as the title suggests might be that of a missing person, in this case, a missing woman, but at the core, it is about parts that go missing of ourselves and sometimes, actually most of the time, we don’t even know it.

“Missing” by Sumana Roy is so much more than what meets the eye, that it will be very difficult for me to explain what is going on in the book and in effect, what I felt as I turned its pages.

“Missing” is the kind of book that sneaks up on you in ways you wouldn’t imagine (when I say this, I mean it with the utmost good intentions). It is the summer of 2012. A young girl is molested in Guwahati. Kobita, a fifty-four-year-old activist, based out of Siliguri decides to travel to Guwahati to search for the molested girl who has gone missing. Her blind husband and poet, Nayan, is left at home, constantly waiting to hear from her. They have a son, Kabir, who is doing his research in England, on the Hill Cart road that connects Siliguri to Darjeeling. The book is about the seven days that happen in the month of July, 2012.

I will tell you why I loved Missing so much. “Missing” is a book about common people, going through life, leading seemingly common lives, till something happens. The relationship of Nayan and Kobita (so ironic that their names mean eyes and poetry when translated) is so fragile and yet Roy very tactfully doesn’t show things to the reader, till a certain time has passed in the book. In all of this, there is the making of a new bed for Nayan and Kobita, and Nayan has no choice but to depend on the carpenter and his family when it is clear that Kobita will not return anytime soon.

“Missing” to me was also about relationships that are lost and at sea and perhaps have no chance of being repaired. Do you know how that feels? Has it ever happened to you?

The writing will leave you melancholic for days and if you still want to feel a little distraught and liberated at the same time, I recommend Roy’s other book, “How I Became A Tree”. Roy’s writing is not the usual run of the mill. Why do I love her writing? She doesn’t judge anyone through her writing. There is no right or wrong. Her narration skills are superlative and research on point.

All in all, what I think is: “Missing” is a book of dashed hopes, of wanting to account for more in life and above all about what it is that makes us human or not after all. It is a book that will make you feel differently in different points of the read and will perhaps also make you question what you believe in or not.

The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica: Edited by Amrita Narayanan

The Parrots of Desire Title: The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica
Edited by Amrita Narayanan
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9383064090
Genre: Literary Fiction, Erotica, Anthology
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

If anything, we have to acknowledge that we are the land of the Kamasutra – the ancient and divine art of lovemaking and that would perhaps be the first step toward a more progressive future than a regressive one. This thought came to mind after I finished reading yet another supremely brilliant anthology from Aleph Book Company, “ Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica”, edited by Amrita Narayanan. Amrita Narayanan is the one who has written “A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and other Erotic stories” which I loved, so I wasn’t surprised when I loved this anthology.

According to me, it takes a lot to edit an anthology. It isn’t as easy as it seems. To be able to pick the right pieces that fit with the theme is a lot of intelligence, empathy and hard-work at play, which reflects in this collection, maybe more so because it is erotic. It does what it must – the pieces liberate, titillate, make you want to engage in erotica, they make you want to be with someone in bed and explore each other’s bodies and maybe even read pieces from this collection today, before or after coitus.

The entire book is divided into 12 sections – right from why bother with sex to the art of seduction to men’s wish to be women (that’s India for all the regressive people) right to suspicion and confusion when it comes to bodies, Narayanan’s selection of pieces is also unique. The book covers parts of Kamasutra (but obviously) and writers such as Nagarkar, Kamala Das, Ismat Chughtai (Lihaaf but of course), Tarun Tejpal, Tagore, and so many more make this collection delightful.

What I found amusing at times was the looks I got on a bus or also while travelling in a rickshaw, at a signal as I was reading this one. Perhaps only when it generates curiosity will people bother to read and educate themselves on the art of erotica and love-making and not see it as a taboo.

As I said earlier, this collection wouldn’t have been what it is if not for the editor. Props to Narayanan for tracing erotica in India to 3000 years ago and collecting it piece by piece for this anthology. The writing is only richer because of the pieces and also the varied kinds of emotions – sexual and sensuous that are evoked through it. Read it for sure. Tease yourself a little. Give in to desire.