Tag Archives: Seagull Books

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi. Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi Title: Romtha
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-8170462576
Genre: Indian Writing, Novella, Novelette
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I remember the time the movie Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa had released. It was directed by Govind Nihalani and had got not such a great theatrical release. I think it barely must have released in a couple of theatres in Bombay. The year was 1998. That was the time I got to know that the movie that touched me so deeply was based on a book. I also discovered to my pleasure that one of my favourite movies released five years ago in 1993, Rudaali, was also based on the same author’s short story. Those were the times when great literature was converted to films in Indian cinema – till of course the likes of Govinda movies took over. That’s not the point though.

It has been 20 years since I have been reading Mahasweta Devi’s works. Repeatedly. Sometimes, chancing upon one of your favourite authors’ works, purely by accident is the best that could have happened to you. Thankfully, she has written prolifically, and we have so many of her works at our disposal, thanks to Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books.

Mahasweta Devi’s writing is not easy, no matter how big or small her works are. The beauty of the short story written by her is that it has the same impact as that of a novel penned by her. Romtha (Criminal, Convict) is one such example. I cannot believe I hadn’t read it till now, but this lament is for a later date. Back to the book.

Romtha is a story of a criminal – a beautiful young man, Sharan, who is condemned to death for a crime of passion – that of his lover, a beautiful courtesan, Chandrabali. He has killed her and mourns for her, almost yearns for her. In all of this, there is a lonely widow, Subhadra, pining for Sharan – wanting him and yet wants nothing more than her freedom as well. All of this takes place in twelfth century Bengal – shifting from the royal city of Gaur and the rural landscape of Bengal – focusing on how the Romtha culture came to be, drawing details on casteism, hypocrisy of the world, and chalking characters who find no redemption or second chances at life.

Mahasweta Devi’s writings are not comfortable. They make you uncomfortable and rightly so. She talks of issues that she has experienced first-hand. You cannot expect getting into a Mahasweta Devi work and not be reeled by the injustice meted by our society to the less privileged. Romtha speaks of so much more and the muted silences in-between do most of the talking. Every character – from Gopal – the chief security who forces Chandrabali to get intimate with him, Subhadra – just wanting a better life, and Chandrabali who is dead before her time – each of them are threaded by Sharan – the Romtha, who is so ironically named, as there is no refuge for him at all.

Twelfth-century Bengal – its customs, traditions, are brought out with nuance so much so that it had me Googling and finding out more about that time. Also, please do not skip the very insightful interview, Naveen Kishore has with Mahasweta Devi – on words, language, and how they have been used in the story. Pinaki Bhattacharya’s translation is on point – I think it must have been tough given the stream of consciousness that jumps in at the reader, which I loved. Every terrain, texture, emotional landscape, and the beauty of unrequited love, desire, and the possibility of more is expressed empathetically and more so with stark reality.

Mahasweta Devi’s works are par excellence and there is no doubt about it at all. One of my projects this year is to go through all her books – the ones that are translated in English. Thank you, Naveen Kishore, for what you do.

 

 

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The Armenian Champa Tree by Mahasweta Devi. Translated by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee

The Armenian Champa Tree by Mahasweta Devi.jpg Title: The Armenian Champa Tree
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated from the Bengali by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-8170461463
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Works
Pages: 54
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember reading my first Mahasweta Devi book at the age of twenty-two I think. It was a long time ago or so it seems like. Since then, I have read and re-read her works. I have tried to make sense of her world or the worlds she creates from reality. I have often found myself helpless, not because I can’t do anything for the under-privileged but because I am perhaps lazy.

At the same time, reading her makes you feel so many things that you just feel them – you don’t fight her writing and you mustn’t. However, “The Armenian Champa Tree” is the kind of book which is layered by politics and caste system and yet doesn’t seem like that. It is one of those books by her which is easy to read (also given that it is so short) and yet makes you think about what she is trying to say.

Mato is a young Buno tribal boy of ten and all he does is daydream, which is mother despises. He is most attached to his pet baby goat, Arjun. A tantric saint demands Arjun’s sacrifice to the goddess Kali and thus begins Mato’s quest to save the baby goat, even if it means entering the Armenian church for it. This is where the stroke of genius of Mahasweta Devi lies. She talks of religious superstitions and makes us see the world for what it is through the eyes of a young boy and a goat. To me, just that was enough to pick up the book.

Also, might I add that the translation by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee is spot on. The reason I say this without reading this in the original form is that some words and phrases are as is which only add to the flavor of the book, at the same time, leaving not wanting for more.

“The Armenian Champa Tree” seems to be an easy book to read and absorb on the surface and it is. Till the layers start peeling and you enjoy it even more.

The Village Indian by Abbas Khider

The Village Indian by Abbas Khider Title: The Village Indian
Author: Abbas Khider
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-0857421012
Genre: Literary fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Seagull books are most interesting. There is something about the list that makes you want to read everything they publish. Their fiction is superlative. Their non-fiction mesmerizes you as a reader. Their concepts and what they choose to publish is beyond anything that I have seen come from other publishers. So when I started reading “The Village Indian” by Abbas Khider, I knew I had struck gold.

“The Village Indian” is not an easy read – in the sense that it is difficult to get your teeth into – yes it is a difficult read from the look of it, but when you immerse yourself in the book – then you cannot get out of it, till it is done and finished with.

The novel though is drawn from the author’s experiences as a political prisoner and the years he spent as a refugee. It will not be easy for some to stomach this, but there is no sugar-coating in this book at all. The hero Rasul Hamid describes the eight different ways in which he fled his home in Iraq and how in those eight different times he failed to find himself a new way home.

This is the summary of the plot – so to say but there are so many layers to this book that will take you by surprise and throw you off-guard. The humour bites you and at the same time it has you wondering about the refugee condition and what happens to those who do not make it – what about the people living on the margins? Do they have a future at all?

Khider’s writing is razor-sharp and doesn’t miss a beat in any sentence or page for that matter. It is a joyride of a novel – that takes you through various turns and twists, and at the same time at some level makes you see what the world really is like, and surprisingly I was a little hopeful, a little bittersweet and a whole lot of happy after reading this book.


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Attachment by Florence Noiville

Attachment by Florence Noiville Title: Attachment
Author: Florence Noiville
Translated by: Teresa Lavender Fagan
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 9780857422330
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages:128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

A young girl and an older man fall in love. She is all of seventeen – not yet an adult. He is close to fifty and her professor. She loves him and he loves her. He is but obviously married and that is how the novella is played out – between the two – not to forget her daughter, who after years is trying to make sense of her mother’s life, her affair and what love really is in the larger scheme of things – if it is anything at all.

“Attachment” by Florence Noiville is a stunner of a novella. It is epistolary – letters written by Marie (which her daughter chances upon) to her lover H and that is how the novella opens to the reader.

The book explores the obsessive nature of love – how it can resurrect you and how it can ruin you completely. It is also about that one thing inside of us that makes us attached to people whom we shouldn’t have approached to begin with.

The writing is crisp and to the point and that is what I guess any reader will love first and appreciate about the book. The book doesn’t go on and on without any end. To a very large extent, credit must also be given to the beautiful translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan and the ability with which, the translation is able to stick true to the aesthetics to the original – or so it seems, given the flow and the meanings that emerge.

“Attachment” to me is an immensely powerful novella – that very skillfully manages to integrate pasts and presents of people alive and dead. Honestly I would give this book to anyone who has ever been in love or is in love as of now, just for the poetry of prose that it has to present.

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Literary Miniatures by Florence Noiville

Literary Miniatures by Florence Noiville Title: Literary Miniatures
Author: Florence Noiville
Translated by: Teresa Lavender Fagan
Publisher: Seagull books
ISBN: 978-0857421067
Genre: Literary Criticism, Interviews
Pages: 183
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Twenty-seven writers in one book. 27 perspectives on wide-ranging topics. What else could a literary lover ask for?
This book is all about the world and views of these writers. It is also about how their most famous works came to be. “Literary miniatures” is a wondrous world of words, books, and authors. Being a bibliophile, this volume was God-sent. Well not God-sent but Seagull sent and might I add here, that Seagull books publishes a lot of gems that are lesser-known and have to be discovered through their site.

Back to the book. “Literary miniatures” is a collection of interviews that appeared in Le Monde, a French daily evening newspaper and conducted by Florence Noiville. These are to me unparalleled in literary journalism. Why you ask?

Here are some reasons why:

The choice of authors. The length and breadth of authors chosen for interviews by Noiville are superlative. This collection has interviews with A.S. Byatt, Kazuo Ishiguro, Don DeLillo, Enrique Vila-Matas, Mario Vargas Llosa, William Trevor, Toni Morrison and more. Need I say more why you must read this?

The passion with which they speak of writing, reading and other topics. Trust me, as a reader I could not take my eyes off this book.

The writing is effortless. It is also easy and not taxing.

Even after all this, you don’t want to pick this up and you claim to love these writers, then I have nothing to say to you. But I still would urge you to read this one.

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