All posts by Nilanjana Roy

Certified hedonomanic. Author of The Wildings (2012) , The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013). Next up, essays on reading: Eating Books, from HarperCollins.

Speaking Volumes: That growth and development thing


In his “new history of the world”, The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan writes of Baghdad in the time of Ibn Sina, a city with a hunger for all kinds of goods, an appetite for information.

“There were materials brought from India, including texts on science, mathematics and astrology written in Sanskrit that were pored over by brilliant men… ‘The works of the Indians are rendered (into Arabic), the wisdom of the Greeks is translated, and the literature of the Persians has been transferred (to us too).’”

The Baghdad of the eighth and ninth centuries was an early example of the kind of “marketplace of ideas” that RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan mentions in a recent speech to IIT graduates. Three things were necessary for Baghdad’s intellectual world to flourish. Prosperity was fundamental; wealth drove the Eastern markets’ passion for everything from silks to Tang porcelain and tropical hardwoods, while an abundance of disposable income enabled the exchange of manuscripts and ideas across Persia, India, Arabia and China.

Curiosity between scholars, mathematicians, scientists and writers across cultures was the second necessary condition; and the third driver was the relative absence of religious intolerance or religious prohibitions that might have mitigated against this free intellectual exchange. For the Baghdad marketplace of ideas to function, all three of these pre-conditions, wealth, curiosity and tolerance, were necessary, alongside a fourth basic necessity, relative political stability.


These are the basics for any country that wants a rich intellectual climate. India has the stability, and in some measure, the necessary prosperity; it is in the areas of curiosity and tolerance that you might want to argue for the most sweeping changes. Curiosity might be defined as an open-minded interest in a very broad world of ideas, influences and ways of living; curiosity requires of students, thinkers and doers alike that they move away from what they know and have grown up with towards new beliefs and worlds.
The most interesting aspect of the Governor’s speech is his proposal that Indians extend the idea of democracy to intellectual thought and creativity itself. If you have to foster competition in the marketplace of ideas, he argues, this means “encouraging challenge to authority and tradition”; it rules out anyone “imposing a particular view or ideology because of their power”. Protection should be extended not to any particular tradition or even to a specific idea, but to the right to question and challenge.

How successful has India been in creating a truly rich marketplace of ideas so far? One rough measure is to look at the strength of general non-fiction and academic writing. The results are very mixed. The quality and depth of Indian non-fiction writing in English has soared over the last decade, with some major gaps: the fear of criminal defamation has asphyxiated business biographies in particular, the rise of religious intolerance across the board has closed off entire arteries of history and made broad-brush studies of religion in India almost inconceivable.

Beyond these restraints, though, Indian non-fiction in English is incredibly varied and robust, and writers have benefitted in recent years from more outlets where they can practice non-fiction journalism, as well as the availability of grants and residencies that provide the necessary time and money.

But non-fiction writing is not thriving in any other Indian language, and this is very worrying. The lack of the necessary investment in either longform journalism or non-fiction writing in other Indian languages ensures that it is chiefly the Indian writer in English shapes the intellectual histories, travelogues, economic and political narratives of this time. This is hardly ideal.

Another index is to look at how well Indian universities are doing in world university rankings. This is complex, but it is safe to say that in the last two years, no Indian university has ranked in the top 200 in reliable global university rankings – in contrast, China and Japan have a respectable presence. The Indian Institute of Science comes in at the 301-400 mark in some listings; Panjab University is listed between 226-250 in one major ranking; the IITs come in at 351-400, and some universities are clustered around the 500-600 rankings mark.

India, for all its potential, is not leading intellectual thought around the world in either the humanities or the sciences. The closed and suspicious worldview of the present rightwing regime will not change this, any more than the limited ambition of previous governments. While primary school education has improved on several fronts, from the building of usable toilets (especially for girls) to the availability of library books, India’s universities have not shone as they could.

Nor has the country been able to create the kind of vast network of polytechnics it needs; from shipbuilding to fine arts and crafts to, say, metallurgy, there hasn’t been the kind of investment in skills that is needed. The public library network is technically vast and thriving, but there is no reliable data on how many of the 54,856 public libraries listed are actually functional, let alone thriving.

Compared to what it could be, the Indian marketplace of ideas has functioned more like a tiny neighbourhood haat: shabby, its basic structures flimsy, its survival alternately threatened or neglected by various political regimes. The country has the necessary prosperity, and will probably have future stability despite short-term political turbulence. But it hasn’t encouraged either curiosity or tolerance to thrive. At present we are debating only tolerance. Asking for curiosity is much harder, because curiosity is inherently subversive and questioning, discontented with the way things are.

As Frankopan records, Adelard of Bath loved what he encountered in the marketplace of ideas in Antioch and Damascus. But when he went back home, he had trouble settling down. He “found the princes barbarous, the bishops bibulous, judges bribable, patrons unreliable, clients sycophants, promisers liars, friends envious and almost everybody full of ambition”. Such are the hazards of curiosity; it takes you to new places, but the view changes when you finally come back home.

(Published in the Business Standard, November 10, 2015)

In Translation: Subimal Mishra, the anti-storyteller


“I do not want my writing to be converted into a commodity, or be capable of being digested in the intestines of middle-class babudom,” Subimal Misra wrote in his 1982 work, Actually This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale. There is little chance of this happening.

The two collections of his short stories that have been published in English so far, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America: Early Stories (2010) and Wild Animals Prohibited: Anti-Stories/ Stories (Harper Perennial, 2015) are loved by poets, film-makers, fiery aspiring artists, exchanged between members of this fellowship like rare gifts. But Subimal Misra’s stories will not be sold at traffic lights, will not be pirated, any more than you will see the author exchange his 3-room house, filled with 15,000 books, for a television studio.

There is a subtle danger to this, as the poet Sharanya Manivannan writes: what if Subimal Misra is propelled to a celebrity he has derided throughout his career? “What will happen then, when his cult becomes conventionally cool?” It is a fearsome thought: the stories in Wild Animals Prohibited are not easily co-opted, as the titles will tell you (Meat Was Bartered, From The Morgue on Bhawani Datta Lane, Mohandas and Cut-Ball), but in some apocalyptic future, terrible things might happen to them.

Misra’s stories might become influential in the same way Kolatkar’s Jejuri was, a generation genuflecting to the craft of the poem while completely ignoring what the poet had to say about the hollowness of religious ritual; hipsters might read them aloud; reviewers might write sweet notices praising his skill in the pink pages of business papers. One of these three dire fates has already overtaken him, but Misra is prepared for this, too, and has written his own reviews in the brief comments he’s made for the preface.

He says that his writing does not conform to the kind of reading that has gained currency, and this is partly true, though writers like Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar are, like him, writing from outside the space of the headlines, paying attention to the world that does not trend on Twitter. He says that readers will definitely be dismayed, and this, too, is only partly true: it takes a strong stomach to stay with his reports from the morgue, from the rotting body in a sack whose stench poisons a city, the half-whores and full-whores, but he reels you in, even as he plays games with language, arranging his sentences into one of his famous collages.

A director struggles to corral the red-light district, Sonagachi, into a frame that stays away from the “very sweet” version created in the Bengali market: bel flowers, tittering laughter, tears, Parvati, Devdas. A writer sees an opportunity to make money by interviewing the man who makes a living playing Gandhi. The Naxal years leave bloodstains and a trail of vanished citizens across some of his stories. One of Misra’s cautions is valid: these stories carry the mark of a particular time, and as he had feared, some have indeed dated.

But one of the joys of this collection and The Golden Gandhi Statue is that V Ramaswamy goes far beyond the traditional tasks of a translator. The introductions, interviews and short essays appended with each book are something of a master-class in understanding Subimal Misra, and in understanding the world of Bengali writing that he emerged from, even though he has so successfully resisted being part of that universe. Ramaswamy’s brief critical essays are, like his translations, simple, lucid and skillful.

“In Bengali, a book is called boi, and a film, which is called chhobi or picture, is also often referred to as boi, because films used to be based on popular or famous novels or books. Subimal Misra, however, calls his stories films, or chhobis,” Ramawamy writes.

This simple insight provides the only key you need to the work of this uncompromising, influential Calcutta writer; it explains why long after you have put his stories aside, Subimal Misra’s images haunt your imagination.

(Published in the Business Standard, October 2015)

How India’s writers are fighting intolerance

In the BBC, 13th October 2015:

“A month-and-a-half later, the murder of this scholar has set off an unusual movement with little precedent. Writers from across the country are standing up in protest against the Sahitya Akademi, a literary body that represents 22 of India’s languages, and the state.

‘Suppression and violence’

On 12 September, the respected Hindi writer Uday Prakash announced that he was returning his Sahitya Akademi award – one of the highest honours bestowed on Indian authors – along with its other components; a shawl, a plaque and cash prize.

He cited the rise in incidents of “suppression and violence” over the last year – book bans, the plight of writers like Perumal Murugan who was forced into silence after attacks by right-wing groups, the killings of rationalists such as Mr Kalburgi and Govind Pansare, as well as the heckling of respected authors such as the late UR Ananthamurthy….

Then the venerable Karnataka author Chandrashekhar Patil returned his state awards, plaques, idols and cheques – “everything except the garland”, he said.

His aim was to protest the murder of Dr Kalburgi, and also to draw attention to what he saw as the growing assault on free speech and the attacks on rationalists.

Many of these assaults and attacks have been perpetrated in the last year by fringe right-wing groups: it is easy for the government to disclaim any connection with them, but it is also glaringly obvious that it has done very little to discourage groups like the Shri Ram Sene, notorious for issuing threats – they offered to cut off the tongues of writers who insulted Hinduism, for instance.

Over the next few weeks, the writers’ protest went from a trickle to a river of discontent, led by veterans and members of India’s youth generation alike, representing languages from Kannada, Punjabi, Hindi and Kashmiri, to Oriya, English, Malayalam, Urdu and Gujarati.”

(Prev post: Murder, and a revolt in the Akademi)

Murder, and a revolt in the Akademi

(On the morning of August 30, 2015, the scholar and former Karnataka University vice-chancellor MM Kalburgi was murdered in his home in Dharwad; he had opened the door to his assailants; his family heard gunshots and found him dead. He had received death threats in 2014 and 2015 over comments he had made at a seminar on the anti-superstition bill.)

The grief that ran through Karnataka’s literary world was genuine, but let me say this: anyone who is shocked at the fact of murder has been sleeping through the last two decades in India. The rise in intolerance and the increasing acceptance of political and religious violence as an inevitable evil has seeped into every part of Indian life. It makes a kind of grim sense that some of our deadliest battles are now fought over literature, art, film and culture.

In these past two decades, there has been a steady waning of freedoms, even as the tab for destruction has run dangerously high. Writers and rationalists have been exiled, banned, forced into silence or self-censorship and physically attacked or seen their books and effigies burnt. Editors, publishers and troublesome journalists or activists have been ring-fenced by legal cases and state intimidation.

No government has clean hands: the responses of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the and the have ranged from tacit approval to appeasement to apathy. All three distance themselves conveniently from the “fringe” elements — either directly affiliated to political parties or inspired by the angry rhetoric of religious and political leaders — who carry out the dirty business of issuing threats or conducting the shooting of unarmed septuagenarians.

Kalburgi’s murderers shot the 77-year-old in his home before escaping on a motorcycle. The murder followed the recent killings of two prominent rationalists, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. The facts strongly suggest that Mr Dabholkar and Kalburgi may have been directly targeted for their outspoken criticism of religion or orthodox communities.

If there is no outcry from civil society, and no attempt to challenge the way of the gun, we should expect more murders. As has been the case in neighbouring Bangladesh, more rationalists, scholars and writers are likely to die as these culture wars intensify.

The first blow aimed at Kalburgi had landed in 1989. Religious fundamentalists from the objected to his research on the life of the philosopher and saint-founder Basava, and to his writings on Basava’s wife and sister. In the face of death threats, Kalburgi was summoned to a mutt  in Hubli and forced to recant: “I committed intellectual suicide that day.”

But he had a lively mind, and he was steeped in the centuries-old Indian tradition of debate, doubt and questioning. Over the last few years, Kalburgi clashed with some Hindutva groups when he backed the late writer U R Ananthamurthy in a long-running controversy. Bajrang Dal activists burnt an effigy of Kalburgi in June last year. Bhuvith Shetty, co-convenor of the Bajrang Dal in Bantwal, tweeted on  August 30 that those who mock Hinduism would die “a dog’s death”, adding a threat against another professor and rationalist: “And dear K S Bhagawan, you are next.” Bantwal police have taken up a suo motu case, citing attempt to cause riots and criminal intimidation, against Mr Shetty, who deleted his account and has not yet been located.

These threats are significant not because they connect the Dal to Kalburgi’s murder — there is no direct link, and the police are investigating other theories, given the background of conflict within the Lingayat community — but because of the climate of impunity they create. If these threats are not addressed, and if the right of thinkers and rationalists to critique religion is not unambiguously upheld, silence is too easily interpreted as permission to persecute or directly harm those who doubt. This cuts across all religions and communities.

Some years ago, the rationalist Sanal Edamaruku faced blasphemy charges and attacks on him by prominent members of the Catholic Church for questioning dogma, miracles and tenets of the faith. In 2012, he proved that water dripping from the toe of a statue of Christ was the result of bad plumbing, not a miracle. The death threats that followed sent him into exile in Helsinki. Every attack on rationalists in India makes it less likely that he might come home some day.

In May this year, an Ernakulam special court finally sentenced 10 convicts from the Islamic group, PFI, to eight years imprisonment for grievously hurting Professor T J Joseph – his “crime” was that he had set a question that appeared to blaspheme the Prophet Mohammed. In both cases, the police and the administration had been reluctant to act to protect either Mr Joseph or Mr Edamaruku, even in the face of escalating threats.

It is particularly dangerous when threats, killings or the exiling of writers and artists go unchallenged by members of the same community, party or religion. The silence of the majority, and the protection extended to those who threaten violence by religious or political leaders, is almost always seen as permission. The only thing more dangerous than a killer who thinks he is acting to protect his faith or community is the killer who knows he is acting with the sanction of his faith or community. In most cases, those who enact violence know that they risk very little, not even a term of imprisonment.

The 2011 Census may have introduced a new element, by counting atheists as a distinct group for the first time. Their numbers are still small, as is the size of the tiny but growing rationalist community in India, and it is significant that zealots have identified such a small minority as such a great threat.

The day after Kalburgi’s murder, Sanal Edamaruku tweeted from Helsinki: “Guns will not stop rationalists.” No; but even one more death would be one too many.

Column on 14th September: The Forgotten Pleasures of History

The Palace of the Pandava Brothers, Nainsukh
In The Spirit of Indian Painting, BN Goswamy includes a light-filled, meditative mid-seventeenth century painting of a gathering of Sufis at the Mughal court.


He writes: “There are a number of paintings of Sufi saints from the – men of learning and insight seated together, most often in a small circle with a little wooden chauki at its heart, on which some books are piled. Most often, these men are of different orders, belonging to different periods of time separated from each other not by years but centuries, and drawn from places that have nothing to do with each other.”


Today’s debates over in India have become increasingly vociferous, intemperate and ugly; they revolve almost exclusively around history as a possession. For politicians and from the rightwing, particularly from the RSS, history is treated much like unclaimed forests — not, unfortunately, as a shared resource to be preserved and tended for the greater national good.


The debates are over who owns history, what “corrective” measures need to be taken, which roads, rulers, schools of history or undervalued artworks must be erased or whitewashed. As the historian Irfan Habib said in an interview this week, “The desire is not to improve anything but to destroy what has been achieved.”


17th century India may have been more liberal than our times; it was certainly more inviting. It is easy to see what we might lose when you think of that unknown painter, beckoning figures from up and down the centuries to sit together in amicable debate, united by their mutual love of books and learning.


Aside from the obvious damage caused by the wilful wrecking of institutions, there is another problem with focusing on just one story about history, whether that story is Liberals versus Leftists, Leftists versus the Rightwing, The Rightwing versus the Rest of India, Brahmin history versus Dalit history, Hindu India versus Muslim/British India etc.


It might seem frivolous to argue that the great casualty of contemporary history debates is also the loss of pleasure in the past, but I would argue that this is actually the more serious loss.


There are two approaches to trying to understand the past. The first is the approach of the bigot, but it is also the path taken by the absolutist. Both are certain that they know from the present what the past should have been. In both cases, history ceases to be about real people, or complex political structures, or economic migration, or gender, or travellers crossing borders in medieval and ancient times. It becomes a minefield where you must explode the facts that do not fit your truth, and preserve the ones that do. There may be serious intent behind this approach – bigots are often voracious, if selective, readers – but there is no pleasure in it, only the grim urge to impose your story on others.


Anything that doesn’t fit with this narrative is either an annoyance or a threat, and this is true of all schools of history-as-certainty, from the Soviets to modern Hindutva extremists. But history is like memory: as malleable as it might seem to be, it is only useful when it rests on truth and accuracy, not a wishful imagining of how things should be.


Following history in the spirit of pleasure is another matter all together, and it leads to surprising discoveries. Postdoctoral fellow Audrey Truschke’s curiosity led her to study Sanskrit and Persian in the Mughal court, consulting archives in India and Pakistan. Her forthcoming book Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court is a fascinating look at exchanges between the Mughal, Jain and Brahmin elites in the 16th and 18th centuries.


Between the 1570s and the 1650s, she records, “dozens of Jains and Brahmins visited the central courts, and worked as resident scholars, musicians, political negotiators, intellectual informants and astrologers”.


This world is messy and complex, displaying neither the cartoon wickedness of the brutal invader crushing all before him or the equally blurry idea that everyone lived in an oversimplified harmony. In the 1590s, Tapa Gaccha Jains defended themselves against accusations of atheism from Akbar, prompted by his discussions with Brahmans at the court. Devavivmala had recorded a debate between Abul Fazl and Hiravijaya over the merits of Islam and Jainism – as Truschke points out, the story may have been apocryphal, but it is revealing that it should be recorded at all.


How much do we lose of ourselves and our own memory if we insist on a limited, narrow view of the past? Truschke’s research opens up another way of seeing the Mughal courts and how the debates of that time eddied and changed over the centuries, fuelled by the mutual, sometimes wary, sometimes open, curiosity between different religious groups. And this is what history is supposed to do, beyond the battles waged by one school against another: make the past more clear, and make it come to life.


In The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and his Empire of Truth, the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty frames a correspondence between Sarkar (1870-1958) and his fellow historian, Rao Bahadur Gobindrao Sakharam Sardesai (1865-1959). The letters were mentioned in the appendix of a book he found in the Regenstein Library in Chicago; he was immediately intrigued: “Here were two of India’s pioneering historians writing to each other for decades about issues crucial to historical research…”


Chakrabarty acknowledges that the pursuit of truth Sarkar believed in is long since outdated, but what drew him to this material was perhaps just the understanding that the past is not a static thing, frozen in textbooks. It is built of human exchanges, like the one between Sardesai and Sarkar. For months, Chakrabarty sat in the National Library, copying some 1200 letters by hand.
 “His was a clear and steady hand… After a while it was impossible not to feel the presence of a person who paid attention to every detail in front of him. It was as if Sir Jadunath reprimanded me from behind every sentence of his that I copied, for there was so much difference between his writing and mine.”


That is the biggest difference between the historian or the reader who follows history for pleasure, and the one who enlists history as a weapon in his cause: one sees the rich muddle of human lives, the other sees only ammunition. We need to recover the first way of relating to the past, before yielding our collective memory so easily.

Column on 12th October: The Writers’ Revolt

The India of and the India of politicians are such different places: the politician might rule over a nation, but it is often the writer who is the true voice of the country.

In this last week, writers have spoken eloquently, and loudly, from regions, states and languages across India and this landmark is only growing larger.

Many writers have either returned awards given to them by or resigned from the Sahitya Akademi. Some have aimed their protest at the Akademi, asking why it has not held condolence meetings for the late M M Kalburgi, the respected scholar and vice-chancellor who was shot dead in his Dharwad home on 30 August.

Some, notably Nayantara Sahgal, Uday Prakash, and G N Devy, have widened their protest, expressing their dismay over attacks on free expression and killings such as the lynching of Mohammed Ikhlaq in Dadri recently. Krishna Sobti, now 90, returned her fellowship saying that India needed no more “Dadris and Babris”. The Karnataka writer Chandrashekhar Patil gave back his state Pampa award in protest at the inaction in the wake of M M Kalburgi’s murder.

Some writers, like the Malayalam author and the English-language poets and Keki N Daruwalla, have chosen other methods of protest, writing to the Akademi to express their disappointment.

Once the leading forum for authors, representing 22 of India’s languages, the Sahitya Akademi is now increasingly seen as a “desensitised” institution; if it cannot express the concerns of writers any longer, it must be replaced by a forum that can. Sahitya Akademi president V P Tiwari admitted in an interview that he could not make a statement against the government, branding the Akademi as one that holds the interests of the establishment higher than the interests of writers.

The anger among writers has been building for a while now. Mr Prakash, the eminent Hindi writer known for his short stories and novellas – Warren Hastings’ Bull, The Walls of Delhi – set the protest rolling when he returned his Akademi award. “He [Kalburgi] was killed and the Akademi did not even send a condolence message to his aggrieved family, let alone express concern about the violent suppression of all dissenting voices.”

In September, six young Kannada writers – Hanumanth Haligeri, Shridevi V Aloor, T Satish Javare Gowda, Chaidanand Sali, Veeranna Madiwalar and Sangamesh Menansinakai – had said they would return their Aralu Sahitya state awards if Kalburgi’s murder was not thoroughly investigated; they have kept their promise.

In September, too, the poet Rajesh Joshi had said independent-minded Hindi writers were being kept away from the World Hindi Conference. “The government was apprehensive they would have discussed issues like murder of Kalburgi which it does not want discussed,” he told In October, he and Mangalesh Dabral return their awards in protest at the Akademi’s continued inaction.

The growing list of authors protesting in one form or another also includes: Aman Sethi, Ashok Vajpeyi, N Shivdas, Shashi Deshpande, Sarah Joseph, Rahman Abbas, K Parakkadavu, Ajmer Aulakh, Atamjit, Gurbachan Bhullar, Waryam Sandhu and Ghulam Nabi Khayal.

Ms Sahgal spoke up on October 6, calling this the unmaking of India: “The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology.”

Just a few days later, Mr Satchidanandan submitted his resignation to the Akademi. “I am sorry to find that you think this is a ‘political issue’; to writers like me, this is an issue of our basic freedom to live, think and write. Annihilation should never be allowed to replace argument, the very essence of democracy.” The linguist Mr Devy was cutting: “I fail to understand why there should be such a deafening silence at Ravindra Bhavan about what is happening to free expression in our country.” The Kannada writer and Dalit poet Aravind Malagatti resigned, believing that the Akademi should have spoken out condemning the murders of Kalburgi and the rationalist Pansare.

It would be a mistake to assume that the fears and the anger that these writers express are not shared by a wider community – and yet in their responses, commentators from the right-wing displayed incredible ignorance. Their first line of attack – that this was an elitist protest – was swiftly silenced when it became clear how many states, languages and classes these writers represent.

Their second line of argument – that these writers were obscure, unknown, irrelevant – was revealing, because it displayed their disconnect with the India outside their small right-wing bubble. Messrs Aulakh, Bhullar, Malagatti, Prakash, Joseph, Champa, Sobti and others have large and loyal audiences. It takes blind arrogance to dismiss those links (an arrogance shared by the right wing and TV luminaries such as Suhel Seth).

The third line of attack is based on denial that India has descended into some of the worst anti-intellectual, communal, violent times. But Mr Aulakh condemned the attacks on “progressive writers, leaders of the rational movement and the forcible saffronisation of education and culture”; Mr Khayal returned his award in protest against the growing hatred of minorities in India.

No amount of whataboutery, references to the Emergency, or demands that protesters silence themselves can erase the list of murders, violent attacks, bans, engineered communal micro-riots that brought these writers out protesting in such an unprecedented way.

“We cannot remain voiceless,” Rahman Abbas wrote, and they are not. They speak for millions across India who are alarmed at where this country is headed.

(Columns published in the Business Standard, August-October 2015)

Oliver Sacks: The mind’s most faithful explorer

sacks-young sacks2

It was no surprise, by the end, that was as good at walking his readers through the mysteries of dying as he had been at analysing the many astonishments of living.

He died at 82 this week of cancer, after a lifetime of inquiry into the oddities and miracles of the human brain. The neurologist left behind an extraordinary body of work, 13 that were exploration literature as much as they were classics of science writing: compassionate, startling in their discoveries, filled with the curiosity that was his hallmark, and strikingly humane. The most popular of these were Awakenings (1973), The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985) and Hallucinations (2012).

The most personal were Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), his Oaxaca Journal (2002), and his memoir, On The Move, published just before his death, where he wrote of his love for biking and weightlifting, his early explorations into travel, sex and hallucinatory drugs, his homosexuality and his decades of celibacy, and of the science and scientists who had filled him with inspiration.

Sacks’ great insight, mapped in Awakenings, was propelled by his use of empathy as a diagnostic tool. Few other neurologists of the 1970s would have been able to look at patients who’d been in coma for years, and see the individual humans suspended, conscious and lucid, in that long sleep, but Sacks could – and his experiments with L-Dopa brought them back to life, with unexpected repercussions.

In a 1985 interview, Sacks said: “Illness and deep illness may force one to think, even if one hasn’t been a thinking person before. And perhaps force one to think in the terms in which all people think of, which are terms of metaphor, of the imagination, of myth.”

Lawrence Weschler, who had collected notes for a biography of Sacks that was never written in the end, tells the story of the neurologist at a medical convention on Tourette’s syndrome. “Ninety-two specialists gave papers on EKG readings, electrical conductivity of the brain – all kinds of technical subjects,” Weschler writes. “Sacks, the 93rd, got up and said, ‘It’s strange. I’ve been sitting here all weekend and heard not one sentence on what it might be like to be a Touretter.'”

In his notebooks – Sacks, like many great writers, was an obsessive collector of case studies, a squirreler of notes, a keeper of journals – the broad frame of his obsessions comes into view. He saw patients as people first, but he was fascinated by the strange and sometimes beautiful way in which neurological dysfunctions could create a menagerie of odd conditions. He had lifelong prosopagnosia, a rare condition marked by extreme difficulty in recognising faces – most sufferers with this condition learn to compensate, becoming experts at recognising voices, character, ways of dressing, and, as Sacks remarked, it made those who had it both friendly and reticent.

Among the case studies he collected were: blind people with “tongue vision”; a grandmother who overcomes aphasia (a language disorder caused by brain damage); colour-blind islanders whose worlds were richly patterned with light and shadow; an autistic professor who has trouble comprehending humans but has an instinctive closeness with his animals; and his own experience after a mountaineering accident where he grappled with the sense that his leg was no longer part of his body.

This was rich material, but what made his writing unforgettable went deeper. It was Sacks’ gift that he understood intuitively that even rare conditions were still part of being human, that what people saw as neurological dysfunction could breed richness and adaptability. As a writer, he followed in the footsteps of the great 19th century neurologists and psychiatrists, writing what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description” – not lumping patients together but looking carefully at their individuality.

Daniel J Levitin, fellow neurologist and author, wrote in tribute: “Oliver taught all of us about the power and joy that come from being curious. Oliver was curious about a great many things: absolute pitch, insects, hallucinations, mind-altering experiences, perceptual disorders, and theatre are just a few.”

This compassion and curiosity was even more remarkable because of Sacks’ childhood. In 1999, he wrote an essay for The New Yorker, “Brilliant Light”, that started with love – the love of metals, his fascination with gold, copper, bronze, zinc, his curiosity with their structure. Growing up in London, he badgered his parents with questions about electricity, colour, science and, always, he returned to metals – why were they so shiny, so hard, so heavy?

In 1939, worried for their children’s safety in war-time, his parents sent Oliver and his brother off to a school in the Midlands. Greystone was a horrible school, punitive in the “beatings, the starvings, the tormentings” handed out by the principal and his staff.

Sacks and his brother never complained. In a response that probably formed his future life, he found refuge in his own mind, turning first to numbers, and then to botany, and then to the elements. “Brilliant Light” is a long essay, but only six paragraphs are given over to the misery he suffered at school; the remainder is about excitement, discovery, the slow, dizzy, irrevocable process of falling in love with science.

At the end of his life, that love shone through the series of absolutely remarkable essays Sacks wrote in The New York Times on dying, transience, and the great good fortune of having been “a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet”.

In February, he wrote of learning that his luck had run out: “Now I am face to face with dying.” He was curious about this part of life, acknowledging that he was not without fear, but more eager to express his gratitude. “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written.” In July, he wrote in “My Periodic Table” of surrounding himself, so close to death, with metals and minerals, as he had done as a boy, “little emblems of eternity”.

And on August 14, he wrote the last of his columns, “Sabbath”, reflecting on his faith (and lack of it), his mother’s cruelty when she learned he was and how those scars finally healed, late in his life, and he wrote of the peace of the traditional Jewish Sabbath. His thoughts were not on the spiritual or the supernatural, but on what it meant to live a good and worthwhile life, and to finally come to a day of rest.

(Published in the Business Standard, September 5, 2015)

Lost and Found Girls


The Island of Lost Girls

Manjula Padmanabhan

Hachette, 376 pages

The first home is in the flesh; the first place where most humans feel at home is embedded in their mother’s body, slowly growing aware of their own flesh and blood within hers. It follows that the most terrifying displacement, the most savage experience of being homeless, would involve being disembodied, in some elemental way.

Manjula Padmanabhan’s of Lost Girls is a sequel to her unsettling 2008 novel, Escape. It is not so much a sequel as an unflinching continuation of the idea she explored in Escape: what kind of world would we live in if it was considered acceptable to think of women as Vermin, and to exterminate them (and Vermin-loving men) as a matter of course?

The Island of Lost Girls takes three characters from the first book, Meiji, her father/uncle Youngest and the General, into a more complex universe. One of Manjula Padmanabhan’s gifts is a kind of writerly precognition. She invented the Forbidden Country, Meiji’s homeland, in the early 2000s, before the mainstream awareness in India of the number of women who are routinely raped to death, strung up from the limbs of trees, burned as witches, or ripped from the womb as unwanted foetuses before they were even born.

“…So the first thing they did when they came to power was to force all the men to destroy all the women of our region. All the women. The women who resisted were hunted down, dragged into the streets and butchered. Grenades were inserted into their private parts. Their entrails were hung from the trees like garlands…” Meiji was born in secret, kept alive by Youngest and her brothers, and grew up unaware of what being a woman might signify.

In Island, the is outlawed. It’s been two decades since eco-anarchists blew up the Suez Canal and poisoned the Red Sea; nations have been replaced by the Whole World Union, and the planet is split into four independent enclaves. The enclaves do not communicate between themselves; dominating the centre of the planet is The Zone – “a giant arena for a continuous, savage and immensely popular cycle of war games”.

The reader sees this world through Youngest’s eyes – rich, fascinating, so intensely imagined that it’s easy to visualise Youngest’s encounter with an immigration officer in hologram form, mechanical toys that screech at pedestrians, “begging to be bought, to be tasted”, a world where clones, transies, feems and drones perform elaborate transactions.

The Island is a place where wounded girls are brought to heal, with the ambiguous blessing of Memrase, but it is also a highly pragmatic utopia, subject to the fluctuations of change – and to the pressures of its own peculiar biology. This is where Meiji grapples with hard questions of identity: what does it mean to be a woman, instead of just a “person”, and what does it mean to have a woman’s body if you share none of the cultural experiences of “womanhood”?

One reason why Island is so gripping is that it deals with multiple questions of identity, without growing didactic. Gender shapes women and transies, in particular; in a brilliant section on drones, and another on cetaceans, Ms Padmanabhan subtly introduces hard questions about sentience versus consciousness. Can an animal feel complex emotions? Could an artificial intelligence programmed only to serve have feelings of compassion, or fear?

Though both and Island are set in alternate futures, they present some of the most disturbing analyses of masculinity, gender fluidity, trans identities and gender hierarchies you’ll find in contemporary fiction. The only protagonist who is certain of his gender identity is the Vermin-hating General, drawn from equal parts of Amon Goeth and old-school Chinese warlord. He is so sure that he is right, that women are not human, and that worlds where they are treated as human are beneath contempt. His certainties hold a harsh mirror up to many in our own times.

Most speculative fiction novels slice neatly into either/or categories: utopia, or dystopia. But Escape and Island straddle both worlds. Sometimes what might be deeply desired, or considered utopian, is just as unsettling as any of the grim cruelties perpetrated by the General.

This, for instance, is what Meiji dreams of: “She imagined herself diving into a swimming pool filled with clear acid. She imagined how it might feel to be stripped of the entire outer sheath of her skin, her body tracing a streak of bloody redness through the pool. All artifice, all disguises, burnt away entirely, transforming her into a clean, shining thing. Pure muscle, pure bone, pure intention.”

If Island were only a novel of ideas, it would be a startling but slightly flat read. But it is also visually seductive, just familiar enough to fit with our worries over climate change and the ritualised conversion of war and horror into entertainment, and also satisfyingly alien in its portrayal of a sea-world where you might ride as a parasite in the body of your vehicle.

In the last few decades, speculative fiction has been shifting ever so slightly away from the US and the UK, with writers imagining alternate worlds inflected with Nigerian mythology, or, like Ken Liu, dreaming up SilkPunk instead of Steampunk.

Manjula Padmanabhan’s vivid, sometimes cynically violent, trip through zones, enclaves, islands and water-worlds takes up where Ursula K Le Guin left off, placing gender at the heart of both dystopia and her protagonists’ tentative dreams of utopia. She offers no happy endings, only precarious ones, but take the ride anyway. It’s wilder, crueller and more hallucinatory than any other novel out there this year.

(Published in the Business Standard, August 17, 2015)

Translations: Ila Arab Mehta, Ismat Chughtai, Arupa Patangia Kalita

(Translations is now a regular monthly column in the Business Standard, covering works by Indian writers.)


Ila Arab Mehta,

Translated from Gujarati by Rita Kothari

Zubaan Books

Rs 350, 200 pages

fence1 fence2vad

In March 2003, a brief news item, a few paragraphs long, came out in The Telegraph. “Muslims in Gujarat face blatant discrimination”, the headline said: this community had difficulty buying houses, and found it hard to get mobile phone connections, housing loans, credit cards and insurance policies.

“Or anything,” the story added helpfully, “that requires the verification of name, address and source of income.” These news stories, their smudged print speaking of the ways in which the lives of numerous Indians had been disrupted and diminished by an institutionalised discrimination, were forgotten as the memory of the 2002 riots in Gujarat faded.

By 2011, when Ila Arab Mehta’s Fence (Zubaan, translated by Rita Kothari) was published in Gujarati, the facts of segregation and prejudice against Muslims in the state were no longer considered newsworthy in an India surging in a different direction. But fiction has a licence that goes far beyond the reach of the news, and with decades of experience as a novelist, short story writer and teacher, Mehta spins a deft tale for the times. It is a pity that the introduction speaks of Fence in isolation, not placing it in the context of Mehta’s other challenging and memorable writings.

The Gujarati cover for (Vad) features a faceless woman in a burkha, her silhouette hovering above a large apartment building bisected diagonally by a single strand of barbed wire. The English language edition replaces this with a burkha-clad woman, her eyes connecting with the reader’s, radiating a sturdy confidence as she rides a motorbike.

We meet Fateema Lokhandwala when she is on her way to work, preferring to ride along the riverbank so that she can see the new housing estates coming up where she hopes to buy a small flat of her own some day. Her story unfolds rapidly. She grows up in a “fragile mud-baked house that could fall any moment” in a village in Saurashtra. By the age of eight, she begins to understand that some classmates are different: she is “different”, so are Dalits.

Education and English give her a way out; soon she has started to dream larger dreams. “Surely, on this wide and beautiful earth that Allah had made, there must be a small piece of land for me?”

Without sentimentality, but with enormous affection, Mehta sets down the many fences in Fateema’s life – when she clears her university exam, part of her wonders at the questions the examiners ask her, about Jinnah and Hindu-unity.

“How much she had prepared for the interview, from ancient to modern India!” But were the examiners really interested in the questions they asked, or were they scrutinising her “Muslim mentality”? When she can finally afford a house, she is told that the builder’s plans are never quite ready yet, that there is no provision in the society rules to allot flats to a single woman. Religion is never mentioned, and yet it stands like a fence between her and her dreams.

A key subplot concerns Fateema’s brother, Kareem, and his immersion in the world of an imported terrorism, of conspiracies “to spread communal tension” and to “incite the youth”, in those twinned phrases. He attempts to draw Fateema in, too, and for a brief while, she finds herself under suspicion for being a traitor, a namakharam. (Kothari, the Gujarati literature expert who has translated Fence, wisely leaves “namakharam” as it is instead of attempting clunky verbatim equivalents.)

This is the weakest section of Fence: the trope of the and the “good”, patriotic Muslim, found in the same family, grates all the more because it is such a cliche in an otherwise subtle and layered novel. Fateema is three-dimensional; Kareem just a plot device. But once the novel returns to Fateema’s dream, it gathers strength again.

The saddest part of Fence is not that the prejudices Mehta sketches so expertly are true; it is that the compassion, trust and practical assistance Fateema receives from strangers, friends and even the police ring slightly hollow. In these times, happy endings are the preserve of fiction, not reality.

My Friend, My Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits

Ismat Chughtai

Translated from the Original Urdu by Tahira Naqvi

Rs 350

Women Unlimited


When I meet readers who know Chughtai only through her most famous short stories, I struggle to explain what they have missed. Ismat became part of my memory so gradually; I read her short stories, old interviews, her account of the infamous obscenity trial that took her and Manto to Lahore, and then her memoir, with an increasing sense of respect and affinity.

She became one of the great joys and influences of my reading life; somewhere between Toni Morrison, Mahasweta Debi, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein, Chughtai lay stretched out on her charpai, chewing ice, her notebook propped up on her pillow.

For those who have not yet had the pleasure of encountering Chughtai’s work in full, Morrison has a useful word: rememory,  which refers to those people and places that should be part of your memory, but have slid just out of reach until summoned.

My Friend, My Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits (translated from the original Urdu by Tahira Naqvi; Women Unlimited) is an essential companion volume to Chughtai’s memoir and her fiction. The 21 pieces here roam from the urgent question facing writers after Partition – how to respond to horror? – to pen-portraits of Manto, of writers from the Progressive movement, sketches of her childhood, peppered with her views on women (and the men who have too many views on women).

In Naqvi’s translation, Chughtai’s voice carries clearly across the decades, her humour and acute observations intact. One minor omission is that the date of publication for each essay is not included, though it may be worked out from context.

Instead of translating words like afsana, fitna, sehra, Naqvi follows the sensible practice of including a translation in brackets at first usage and continuing to use the Urdu word subsequently, or printing it in italics untranslated if the meaning is clear from the context.

Two of the great losses of urban Indian life are repaired in the first sections: the amnesia over the rich debate between the Progressives and the Modernists, and the vivid Urdu literary world in India just before and after Independence.

The communal violence after Partition was covered by so many writers working in Hindi and Urdu: Chughtai names Krishan Chander, Sardar Jafri, Majaz, Ahmed Abbas, Upendranath Ashk, Sahir Ludhianvi and many more. “How could literature, which has close ties with life, avoid getting its shirtfront wet when life was drenched with blood?” she asks; a writer cannot be silent in the dark times.

Ismat retains her usual clarity about Manto – their literary friendship spanned decades and survived Manto’s drinking. “Manto is very fond of things that create an uproar and awaken with a start even those who are fast asleep…. Well, that will impress everyone, he will be famous,” she writes. But when Hanif Ramay attacked him in the 1950s, she was swift to rebuke him: “Manto was neither a giant nor a dwarf. Not everything was for sale in Manto’s life. Friendship, love, honour and privacy – he has not sold any of these values for pennies.”

Chughtai’s views on gender could be transported from her times into ours. She writes with keen intelligence on the heroine and her shadow sister, the tawa’if; with brisk scorn on the kerfuffle over erotic writing in literature. “It’s not necessary to concentrate on every kind of filth imaginable… but what is so shameful about exposing a particular part of the body in order to soak up the sunlight?” And those who venerate women as goddesses, she suggests, would do better to imagine women as friends or companions.

There is so much here, from Chughtai’s hatred of hypocrisy – the wide gap between what was embraced in private, denounced in public – to her swift dissections of the fiery literary debates of the time. But this collection is also a chance to see how she was as a writer, from the stories she wrote in secret in her childhood to her brisk pronouncements: “That’s not dialogue, that’s just the way we speak at home.”

Her advice to writers was typical: “Write, and write so much that people begin to accept you as a reality.” It takes a second before you feel the bite, and the truth, behind the words.

Written In Tears
Arupa Patangia Kalita

HarperCollins India

228 pages


The may be one corner of India where these stories are placed, but their likeness can be found in many areas of the world today,” writes Ranjita Biswas, who has produced a highly competent, fluid translation of Arupa Patangia Kalita’s eight novellas and stories compiled in Written in Tears (Harper Perennial). “One only has to scratch the surface to come face-to-face with the truth.”

Most of these stories were written during Assam’s most turbulent years, and Kalita has always had a way of telling stories as though the landscape formed the paper on which she wrote. But in so many of these stories, she captures that larger truth, placing her along with writers as diverse as Chimamanda Adichie (Half Of A Yellow Sun) or Phil Klay (Redeployment).

This collection is a manual for surviving loss, for living alongside drastic change and uncertainty, and Kalita’s attempt often seems to be on an insistence that the individual be given dignity, not reduced to a statistic or a symbol of the long conflict. Her storytelling unfolds in ripples, moving often towards violence, but within those circles, there are glimpses of beauty, ordinary loves, everyday concerns.

In Anurima’s Motherland, the protagonist dreams, not of the police or of abandoned houses, but of the honey bees she loves in the garden. “She dreamt that they flew away from the honeycomb again and again; once she tried to hold them with the end of her chador. Or she saw a bare branch of the tree trembling in the wind, or the base of the tree filled with dead bees…”

It is often women who centre her novellas, as with Mainao in The Cursed Fields of Golden Rice. Legends and demons, the weaving of shawls, a life built on simple, good things – “the fresh harvested paddy, zumai and the pitha” – of the harvest festivals intersect with the inexorable passage of time, the hardening of history around them as soldiers come to eat rice with chicken curry, oblivious to what they have demanded. “Mainao cooked the rice. She wept when she had to kill the hen, which had just started laying the eggs.”

The reader begins to see violence and insurgency differently: not as events in themselves, not even as the outcome of political movements, but as near-demonic interruptions in the fabric of a life someone is trying to weave on her loom.

When Kalita summarises history, she does so deftly. She writes in Face in the Mirror of the early 1990s in Assam with the exhaustion and clarity of over-familiarity: “It was a time when money was counted only in lakhs and the number of deaths escalated every day. The group that wanted a separate state was becoming like the bharando bird; with its two mouths, it was devouring its own body.” But Written In Tears is not so much a history of that time as it is a history of how people survive these times, and how they survive the multiple losses, the slow bleeding of everything around them – unable to leave, despite the many hardships of staying, the risks of turning to stone.

Some of her insights are startling, inverting what you might think you know. The idea, for instance, that much of the imported English school syllabus has no relevance is challenged as one of her main characters, Surabhi Barua, takes Alfred Noyes’ poem The Highwaymen and breathes the landscape and the times into those tired phrases, seeing in his ghosts her own: “The girl tied to the pole, her mouth gagged by the soldiers.”

But perhaps is at her best when she asks deceptively simple questions. In the final story, Ayengla of the Blue Hills, Ayengla wonders what people want, why they create problems and conflicts. From these ordinary, almost banal thoughts, she moves to a basic and hard question: “If they did succeed in getting their own land, who would rule it and who would have to leave?” Like the stories in Written In Tears, these are timeless, and timely, questions, with no good answers.

(Published in the Business Standard, September-October 2015)