Sunday, November 13, 2005

Remembering Nirmal Verma and Amrita Pritam

In the last few weeks, India lost two literary figures: eminent Hindi writer Nirmal Verma and Punjabi poetess and novelist, Amrita Pritam.

While I did not have the pleasure of reading Amrita's novels or poetry, I had the good fortune of reading some stories and novels by Nirmal Verma. For the uninitiated, Nirmal Verma is among the most significant names in contemporary Hindi literature. He shot to prominence with his first collection of short stories, Parinde ("Birds," 1959), which gave a major boost to the Nayi Kahani (New Story) movement in Hindi literature. He reinterpreted and reshaped the short story in Hindi, India’s national language. His "art powerfully communicates the elusiveness and complexities of emotions and sensibilities in a way that no narrative can," it noted. Verma has several short stories collections, novels, essays, and travelogues to his credit. I have done a profile of Verma in my latest column in Kitaab. Check it out here (see under Columnists).

For Amrita's profile, there's one by Khushwant Singh (An Stamped Ticket; Outlook) whose "uncharitable remarks" about the deceased poetess has kicked a mini literary storm in the Punjabi literary circles. Excerpts from Mr. Singh's appraisal:

"Amrita was a woman of modest education and wrote only in Punjabi. She could barely read any other language and was therefore unsophisticated in her writing. She was besotted with Bollywood. For her, the ultimate in success was to have some of her novels and short stories filmed. Her first novel to be translated from Punjabi into English was Pinjar (The Skeleton). I did the translation, purely out of love for her. I gave her all the royalties on one condition: to repay me with a candid account of her love life. She did over many sessions. The only passion she admitted to was for the film lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi whom she had never met. But she had corresponded with him. I was disappointed. "All this could be written on a postage stamp," I told her. So when she wrote her autobiography, she called it Raseedi Ticket (Postage Stamp)."

The piece gets more frank as you read further. I am not surprised as it comes from a writer who had written his own obituary!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Roy and Bunty Aur Babli

In the recent months, a Hindi film, Bunty Aur Babli, starring the father-son duo of Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan, did very well on the box office in India. The critics also appreciated the film for its portrayal of the aspirations of the youth of today's middle class India. I was pleasantly surprised when Arundhati Ray quoted a line from this film in her interview in the weekly Tehelka:

"There is the danger, especially for a writer of fiction, that you can become somebody who does what is expected of you. I could end up boring myself to death... It can be maddening, and I want to say like Bunty in Bunty aur Babli, ‘Mujhe yeh izzat aur sharafat ki zindagi se bachao…’"

Save me from this life of honor and gentlemanliness!

The interview is really interesting. In fact, all of Roy's interviews are thought-provoking. She has a fascinating way of putting things together, building a context, making a point. I quote some more--my favs from the same interview.

On the politics of resistence

"The facts are there in the world today. People like Chomsky have made a huge contribution to that. But what does information mean? What are facts? There is so much information that almost all becomes meaningless and disempowering. Where has it all gone? What does the World Social Forum mean today? They are big questions now. Ultimately, millions of people marched against the war in Iraq. But the war was prosecuted, the occupation is in full stride. I do not for a moment want to undermine the fact that unveiling the facts has meant a huge swing of public opinion against the occupation of Iraq, it has meant that America’s secret history is now street talk, but what next? To expose things is quite different from being able to effectively resist things."

On fame

"At the end of the day, fame is also a gruesome kind of capitalism, you can accumulate it, bank it, live off it. But it can suffocate you, block off the blood vessels to the brain, isolate you, make you lose touch. It pushes you up to the surface and you forget how to keep your ear to the ground. "

On money

"As for money, I have tried to take it lightly. Really, I have tried to give it away, but even that is a very difficult thing to do. Money is like nuclear waste. What you do with it, where you dump it, what problems it creates, what it changes, these are incredibly complicated things. And eventually, it can all blow up in your face. I’d have been happier with Less. Yeh Dil Maange Less. Less money, less fame, less pressure, more badmashi. I hate the f***ing responsibility that is sometimes forced on me. I spent my early years making decisions that would allow me to evade responsibility; and now…"

On the culture of celebrityhood

"People are constantly in search of idols, heroes, villains, sirens — in search of individuals, in search of noise. Anybody in whom they can invest their mediocre aspirations and muddled thinking will do. Anyone who is conventionally and moderately ‘successful’ becomes a celebrity. It’s almost a kind of profession now — we have professional celebrities — maybe colleges should start offering a course.It’s indiscriminate — it can be Miss Universe, or a writer, or the maker of a ridiculous TV soap, the minimum requirement is success. There’s a particular kind of person who comes up to me with this star-struck smile — it doesn’t matter who I am — they just know I’m famous; whether I’m the ‘BookerPrizeWinner’ or the star of the Zee Horror Show or whatever is immaterial."

On failure

"In this freak show, this celebrity parade, there’s no place for loss, or failure. Whereas to me as a writer, failure interests me. Success is so tinny and boring. Everyone is promoting themselves so hard."

On search for perfection

"I think we all are just messing our way through this life. People, ideologues who believe in a kind of redemption, a perfect and ultimate society, are terrifying. Hitler and Stalin believed that with a little social engineering, with the mass murder of a few million people, they could create a new and perfect world. The idea of perfection has often been a precursor to genocide. John Gray writes about it at some length. But then, on the other hand, we have the placid acceptance of Karma which certainly suits the privileged classes and castes very well. Some of us oscillate in the space between these two ugly juggernauts trying to at least occasionally locate some pinpoints of light. "

To read the entire interview, click here.

A Converstaion with Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth is touring the world promoting his latest work, Two Lives. A few weeks ago, he was in India and lots of his interviews appeared in the Indian media. Outlook magazine even published an interview in which Seth's mother also played a part (she also wrote a book that was published one or two years ago).

Now Seth is in the US and SAJAers Sreenath Sreenivasan, SAJA co-founder and Aseem Chhabra, SAJA board member, caught him in a web, err, a live webcast! The webcast is archived here. If you would rather read the conversation, go here.

I am quoting some interesting comments here:

On A Suitable Boy: "… the publisher asked, can we have a few more foreign characters to appeal to the foreign market… that’s why I was rather surprised that the… interminable book about a rather obscure period of Indian history in the ’50s… without war, without the assassination of prime ministers, without… much in the way of sex… without even a glossary… was successful outside India…"

On how does a small town writer make him- or herself heard? "I’m sorry, I don’t really know… the first book I wrote… [describes how his dad told him to go to the library and look up publishers, and he mailed unsolicited manuscripts which died unheralded and unmourned on the slush pile]… Finally an editor looked at a chapter or two… I didn’t have an agent in the beginning, and I didn’t know how to get one… when I wrote The Golden Gate, I didn’t think I could sell something as strange as that [a novel in verse] through an agent…
Try to write what you’re [compelled] to write, not what the market tells you… the market didn’t tell me to write a 300-page novel in verse. Selling a 60-page novel in verse would have been impossible, so why 300?… my own method of entering print was rather unorthodox…"

Got the point?