Translations: Pyre, by Perumal Murugan


“The mob was frantic with delays and would hear to nothing but burning at the stake.”

In 1899, newspapers in Florida reported the lynching of Sam Holt, a black man who was tortured, mutilated and burned in front of 2,000 people. In 1997, almost exactly a century later, 58 Dalits were massacred in the village of Laxmanpur Bathe. All 26 of the accused would be acquitted for lack of evidence some 20 years later when the final verdict in the case was pronounced.

It is assumed often that the madness of crowds is dangerous, that a mob running amok is a fearsome thing. This is only partly true. Far more frightening and commonplace than the madness of crowds is the assent of the majority, the complicity of crowds, the agreement between ordinary citizens that their neighbours deserve, for whatever reasons, death.

This truth is something that the best of our novelists know – writers like Bhisham Sahni, Vivek Shanbhag, Arundhati Roy, and now Perumal Murugan: violence and complicity is a timeless Indian theme.

Murugan’s Pyre (Penguin India/ Hamish Hamilton) was published in Tamil in 2013; this sensitive, richly-textured translation is by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who has also translated (published in Tamil in 2010).

“This is a novel about caste and the resilient force that it is, but it is also about how strangely vulnerable caste and its guardians seem to feel in the face of love, and how it often seems to assert itself both in everyday acts of discrimination as well as in moments of most unimaginable violence,” writes Vasudevan.

[Read: N Kalyan Raman in Caravan on Perumal Murugan’s Kondanagu novels:]

The Korean novelist Han Kang said recently that she sees the world as a place of mingled violence and beauty, a phrase that perfectly captures Murugan’s landscapes. In Pyre, the new bride, Saroja, thinks when she sees the cremation ground in front of her husband’s village: “This place hid all sorts of secrets within itself while displaying a modest appearance to the world.” Kumaresan’s village is set in “a barren landscape scorched into whiteness by the heat”; his home is a thatched hut set on a sun-scorched rock, the colour of a dried-up stream of blood.

The cruelty of the villagers, and of Saroja’s mother-in-law Marayi, is casually relentless; the dislike of an interloper, the implacable determination to cast out the outsider is so well portrayed that the reader shrinks a little inside her skin, along with the bride. The village’s insistence on purity outweighs humanity; and yet, is a love story, too, and Murugan writes with a gentle, sensual tenderness that is unforgettable.

Kumaresan worries that his wife, faced with the hostility of the relatives who “curl like worms” around them, might splutter and wither “like a little sesame seed on this heated rock”. But later, it is through the landscape that Saroja begins to feel a sense of home, so difficult to come by when the crowd outside her hut brings only hard words and an unfriendly curiosity as their rough gifts. “She had never set her bare feet on a rock before. It touched her with the combined sensation of Kumaresan’s soft hands and his rough embrace, the memory of which made her shiver with pleasure every time she walked on the rock’s surface.”

The village council excommunicates them, Marayi’s tirades start and stop their days as Kumaresan attempts to run a soda shop some villages away, and Saroja dreams of losing herself in the safety of town crowds who would not care about her caste, would not call her a witch.

And yet, even here, there is a touch of tenderness; Marayi has her own memories, shadows and small almost-forgotten joys, her anger is love gone sour. Murugan writes with cinematic power, and the final images of Pyre will sear your heart, though he makes sure that the reader writes the ending with him.

One Part Woman was met with intolerance of such a degree that it forced him into silence. Pyre, written before the storm of bigotry swept through the author’s life, is even more accomplished, bitterly haunting, a love story, and an indictment of those who hate with such staunch righteousness.

[Read: Perumal Murugan’s poems, translated in Guftugu:]

Published in the Business Standard, April 2016



Speaking Volumes: Swadeshi Essence and asli nationalism


The firm of Kundoo & Chatterjee, of Cornwallis Street, Calcutta, did a brisk trade in “Swadeshi Essence” in the 1920s.

They offered essence of moharaja bukul, moharaja dildaria (“it really makes mind cheerful”), motia, chameli, white rose, cherry and Indian Bouquet: “It is in no way inferior to the Foreign Cashmere Bouquet and is long-lasting.” For a mere 10 annas, those of nationalist views could buy a phial of scent of true, Made in India freedom.



Their advertisement appears in the pages of The Modern Review, a periodical started by Ramananda Chatterjee in 1907 that began by promoting Home Rule, saw India through to Independence, and finally shut shop in the 1960s. I spent the last year reading The Modern Review‘s massive archives – on average, 1,600 pages of the magazine produced each year in 12 volumes – for a personal project.

The nature of this kind of reading is seductively digressive. An editorial in The Modern Review mentioned its sister-paper, Prabasi, published in Bengali, and I slipped gladly down that rabbit-hole. Another piece spoke of The Hindustan Review; I found stirring poems and rousing editorials in its pages, and a mention of the Indian Social Reformer, which Ramachandra Guha has written about.

The Indian Social Reformer, “issued every Sunday morning”, from its Hornsby Road offices in Fort, Bombay, had a sharp view on the world. It led me back to The Mahratta and The Servant of India, both published from Poona, the Leader, popular in Lucknow, Tilak’s Kesari, C R Das’s Forward and so on. The Hindustan Review, edited by Sachchidananda Sinha, Bar-At-Law, had as its motto: “Too much must not be demanded of any editor” – The Rt Hon Augustine Birrell, K C, M P.

As a rule, the local language journals were far more outspoken than their English language counterparts. At the end of some months of reading, I am convinced of two things: that nothing could benefit this generation of Indians more than time spent reading the opinions, skirmishes, and friendly debates, of that generation of freedom fighters that were represented in these journals, and two, that this is unlikely to happen.

The journals of that time were not perfect. To get to the good stuff, readers have to wade through pompous prose, unstoppable floods of bad poetry, over-long essays and the like. But there were also gems, and unexpectedly moving or insightful pieces.

Many of the urgent issues that Indians face today are mirrored in the pages of the papers of the past: rising communalism, the ugly sweep and force of rumour that fuelled action by mobs, the fear that the ruling powers would grow more illiberal, the state’s over-eagerness to declare the nationalists terrorists, or communists.

All these woes were set against an unstoppable hope for the future. The many disparate voices among the nationalists were united by their urgent desire for equality between all Indians, of all communities, and many argued for a dismantling of caste too.

They were natural writers; from Dadabhai Naoroji to Lokmanya Tilak, Netaji Bose, Lala Lajpat Rai, Maulana Azad, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu to Nehru, Gandhi, Bipin Chandra Pal, C F Andrews and the rest, the amount they wrote puts our SMS-and-email culture to shame. They wrote telegrams, constantly, diaries, letters, speeches, regular editorials and long essays on all sorts of subjects.


This outpouring of thought makes it so clear that the leaders of that generation had a deep respect for rational argument. They often disagreed, with heat, with respect. They exchanged letters endlessly, Tagore writing to Andrews; Andrews to Patel; Gandhi and Tagore disagreeing over swaraj in the Modern Review and Young India as Guha has documented; Bose sending dispatches from Europe as he shaped the INA. There is a difference between reading historical accounts and the original pieces, as they were published in journals of the day.

The journals sanitise little – the Congress’s history is much larger than just Nehru’s life, the Hindutva parties’ woeful track record on communalism and their lack of participation in the freedom movement is glaring, the Left’s denial of the giant failures and tyrannies of communism is equally stark. Few politicians today are brave enough to encourage a close reading of the archives.

It is a pity, because the past has much to teach us. In 1917, Ramananda Chatterjee wrote in the Review of the state of affairs. Indians had been deported during the Swadeshi agitations, interned during the war for no good reason, died in jail, subjected to house-searches.

“There was a feeling of great insecurity in the public mind, nobody knowing whose turn it would next be to be deported.… But, though the relatives and intimate friends of the men deprived of their liberty keenly feel for their buffetings, there is not the same feeling of consternation, vague fear and insecurity in the public mind as there was in the days of the swadeshi agitation. Evidently, then, repression cannot now have the same deterrent effect as it had in those days.”

That pattern is etched strongly in the journals that recorded the true history of Indian freedom – authoritarian regimes inspired fear, even despair, but in time, that was replaced by an even deeper thirst for freedom. Repression rarely remains a strong deterrent for long in this country.

(Published in the Business Standard, April 25, 2016)

Speaking Volumes: The Lives of Women


As recently as 2005, you could search for writings by women on their creative lives that mapped their younger selves too and come up near empty-handed.

I remember picking up The Paris Review’s Latin American Writers at Work, published in 2003, and feeling the cold wind of exclusion. Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado – and one woman, Luisa Valenzuela, to represent all of that continent of women writers, one only. I did not grudge the male writers their place, but I felt the absence of the women who should have been there too, felt its wrongness.

The previous generation of women writers filled these gaps with oral histories, imagined lives, as they went about the business of creating their own work. Mary Karr said once that there were few really good books about female adolescence. Her memoir, Cherry, is one, and now there are two more, Olive Witch and Drawing Blood.


These memoirs by the writer and photographer Abeer Hoque and the artist Molly Crabapple speak to anyone, but especially women, seeking to understand and build a creative life for themselves.

“My mother’s studio was a wonder, filled with things children weren’t supposed to touch: rubber cement that stank of poison; X-acto blades that left me with stitches in my hands; rows of foul-smelling markers and T squares lined up neatly; an airbrush she wore a ventilator to use.” Ms Crabapple writes in Drawing Blood. She learned to draw at the age of four, and slid into the artist’s life sideways, finding herself as a teenager through reading, punk rock, special-interest groups on Usenet.

“This early Internet was simpler than today’s. Because only nerds and freaks really knew about it, online was safe… Girls like me used the Web in all the ways our parents feared. We read anarchist manifestos and exchanged lurid porn with grown men.”

At 17, she went to Paris, lived at Shakespeare and Company, drawing to fill the hours. An older man, a grubby British academic, based a character in a play that he never completed on her. She steals the name, becoming Molly Crabapple with as much ease as she’d put on burlesque costumes later for her performances as a dancer and fire-eater, or paint backdrops and drawings for the Manhattan nightclub The Box.

In time, Ms Crabapple, who steps into different selves as easily as you might exchange one rented house for another, transforms the early protest energy that had led her to join rallies against the Iraq War and participate in the Occupy Wall Street, into the challenge of political art. Some of this work is in MOMA’s permanent collection, as part of Occuprint.

Ms Crabapple neither minimises nor draws out the hazards of the artist’s life – they are simply there like bad weather, the lack of money, art world politics, and the powerful men whom the powerless have to learn to duck.

She’s at her glowing best with insider stories of New York’s overheated pre-2008 nightclub scene. Always, she works, drawing “hundreds of tiny girls”, audiences as “pigs on the page, snorting cocaine life truffles”, releasing “the anger that dragged my pen across the paper, the cynicism that narrowed my chorines’ eyes”. Her artist’s credo is worth a dozen self-help writing books: “I grew better. I worked more.”


Abeer Hoque’s Olive Witch is seductive and sharp, but it is the way she shares the most heartbreaking parts of her personal life that is transformative. Ms Hoque grew up in Nigeria. Her family is from Bangladesh, and her mother sang Tagore songs to her and her two siblings in the dry heat of the harmattan. Briefly, she wishes she had darker skin so that she might fit in better, but even at that age: “I want all or nothing. It might be too hard to almost belong. Not belonging, on the other hand, is cut and dried, an easy place to find.”

In class, they learn Blake’s “The Tyger” by heart: “wot de hamma, wot de chain/ in wot furnace was dye brain”. In her 13th year, life splits: from Nigeria, the family goes to Pittsburgh. She gets used to the stiff new Sears jeans, the snow like grey rice falling, learns about discrimination.

Negotiating what her parents expect and what her instincts drive her towards, creatively, sexually, intellectually, becomes a never-ending balancing act. She is a deft writer, excellent at explaining the alienation that comes from only being at home in your body but rarely elsewhere.

In her twenties, studying the wrong subjects, unaware that she might want to write, be a photographer, her creative self not withering so much as concealed deep beneath the earth, she takes an overdose of sleeping pills.

Ms Hoque writes with skill about what previous generations of creative women used to call “a nervous breakdown” and before that, hysteria. Depression and suicide attempts are difficult subjects to tackle, not just because they are taboo, but because it is hard to write about the scattered parts of your life with clarity and honesty. Ms Hoque pulls off both in short hospital chapters, scattered lightly and memorably through Olive Witch. Instead of a cartoon moment of redemption, she tells a far more moving story of the imperceptible shifts forward, into the writer’s life that she hadn’t known she wanted.

She makes a word wall, “not a journal, more like pieces of poems”. The wall is “all rough paper”. The poems are fragments, but like shards of clear glass, they catch the light. As the book ends, Abeer understands herself far better: “I might be able to create something from the so-called skin, from the outside in.”

She has, and Olive Witch will become a compass for others, women who write, but also anyone who travels between many worlds, and many selves.

(Published in the Business Standard, April 11, 2016)

Speaking Volumes: When Breath Becomes Air


As a species, we suck at handling death. Except for a few evolved souls and practising Tibetan Buddhists, the rest of humanity hurtles towards the one part of their lives that is inevitable and unavoidable with a blend of screaming fear and absolute denial.

Atul Gawande wrote about this movingly in Being Mortal, reflecting that though modern medicine had changed people’s life expectancies and the arc of ageing, we had lost the art of dying well. “Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs,” he wrote. “Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular; a 1415 medieval Latin text was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe.”




But most people are uncomfortable thinking about the prospect of their own deaths. It is hard enough to fully accept your mortality, harder still to accept that you have no control over how or when you will die. Given how much effort most humans put into controlling every other aspect of their lives – their work, their homes, whom they choose to live with or befriend, their diets, even their hair colouring – this is the deal-breaker, the thing that makes us unable to talk about death with the same curiosity and openness that we bring to other phases of our lives.

The few who can face death with calm acceptance are heroes. But to face death bravely is one thing. To be able to write about the imminence of dying, to place your life and your life’s joys and challenges in perspective when you are gripped by an illness that takes the decades you had planned for and cuts them down to months – that is an act of transcendent courage and humanity.

This is what Paul Kalanithi accomplished in When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir published posthumously after his untimely death at the age of 37 from cancer. Kalanithi was a practising neurosurgeon, and is survived by his wife, Lucy, and daughter. Lucy compiled his writings, letters and articulate posts from internet forums, and contributed one of the most moving epilogues in memory to this book.

Kalanithi grew up in Arizona, where he read books given to him by his mother, from Thoreau to Sartre. This early reading may have shaped his style – lucid, but also classically beautiful, a surgeon’s neatness married to a writer’s imagination – and explains his love of poetry. He took his title from a poem, Caelica 83, by Baron Brooke Fulke Greville:

“You that seek what life is in death

Now find it in air that once was breath

New names unknown, old ones gone

Till time ends bodies, but souls none.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 12.04.03 pm

The impression you get of Kalanithi is of a man of driving intelligence, quick humour and compassion, who scorched the earth with his determination to do and know as much as he could. He had acquired two BAs and an MA in literature at Stanford as well as a Master of Philosophy at Cambridge, before he joined the Yale School of Medicine. At Stanford, he became a surgeon and pursued a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience.

He had already accomplished so much in his life, and planned for so much more, when the first signs of cancer intruded: pain in his lower back, weight loss, fatigue.

One of the most poignant passages in When Breath Becomes Air is an account of his last day at work as a practising surgeon. His immersion in his work, his care with the patients whose ailments he succours as he cuts into their bodies, sutures incisions, patiently repairs an assisting surgeon’s inadvertent blunder, is so evident. The joy he took in being a healer is obvious, and so painfully touching, as he crosses the bridge that takes him from being a doctor to being a patient himself.

It astonishes me to think that he set down the chapters with such a steady mind, recording his life before and after his cancer diagnosis with honesty and clarity. There are moments of bittersweet joy: “Our daughter was born days after I was released from the hospital. Week to week, she blossoms: a first grasp, a first smile, a first laugh. Her pediatrician regularly records her growth on charts, tick marks of her progress over time. A brightening newness surrounds her. As she sits in my lap smiling, enthralled by my tuneless singing, an incandescence lights the room.”

And of unflinching wisdom. “Every day brings me further from the low of my last cancer relapse, but every day also brings me closer to the next cancer recurrence – and eventually, death.” People might respond in two ways to such a diagnosis, he writes: one would be an impulse to frantic activity, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. But cancer limits his energy as well as his time: “I plod, I ponder, some days I simply persist.”

“I got to know Paul only after his death. I came to know him most intimately when he’d ceased to be,” Abraham Verghese writes in the foreword. Many readers will know Paul only posthumously, too, and will feel the loss of not having known this vibrant, self-aware, wry, wise man when he was alive. I thought of Oliver Sacks, and what he wrote when he faced death: “I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return.”

When Breath Becomes Air, written by a dying man about his condition, is one of the most life-affirming books I have read in a while. Kalanithi gave so much in return to the world where he lived so richly as surgeon, husband, father, writer.


In translation: Bhisham Sahni’s truths



Only four episodes of Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas had been shown on Doordarshan when Ramesh Dalal petitioned the courts in the 1980s, asking them to stop the telecast. He felt that Tamas could disrupt public order, promote feelings of enmity and argued that “truth in its naked form may not always be desirable to be told or exhibited”.

But Sahni spent his life as a writer chasing the truth in its naked form, relentlessly honest in his memoir, Boyhood, about the family, neighbourhood politics, his terror of nocturnal emissions, the shadowy travails of their domestic servant Tulsi. He was well aware of the slipperiness of memory: Boyhood begins with fragmented images of the past flying around in his mind like so many scraps of paper.


He knew that an image from one time could merge with an event from another to create something true to both. He was in Rawalpindi in 1926 when the grain market was set on fire. He fused the memory of the flames leaping high – frightening but also fascinating – with a smaller fire that had been set in the markets of Bhiwandi during 1947.

Penguin India has brought out a set of four of Sahni’s classics in translation. The covers by Pia Hazarika are striking, bearing single images – an owl on the branch of a tree for Mansion, a boy with his nose pressed to the ground for Boyhood, a woman’s plait strung with joyous red ribbons for Basanti – in a vivid and tempting colour palette. stands apart, in a severe black on grey typographic design that signals the novel’s grim Partition background but not its textured richness.
has translated Basanti and Mansion, Anna Khanna is the translator of Boyhood, and Daisy Rockwell has translated Tamas, which is in hardback and is the only book to carry a translator’s note. This is disappointing; a translator reads with a particular and piercing attention, and this would have been a rare chance to have the perspectives of three translators on the same author’s work. (The publishing house confirmed that they had intended to carry introductions, but the pressure of deadlines and health complications prevented them from doing so.)

Mansion will be a pleasant surprise for Sahni’s fans who haven’t encountered this multi-chambered novel about the collapse of the Khalsa Raj in Punjab and the rise of the firangi company. The fortunes of the lord of the mansion, Diwan Dhanpat Rai, rise and fall too; perhaps, as one character says, you need an owl’s vision to handle the currents of history, to see ruins where palaces stand at present, to understand that power is temporary. Basanti is far more contemporary; Sahni follows the escapes, flirtations, loves and dramas of a girl who grows into womanhood through a city shaped, then as now, by the ongoing rumble of demolitions, evictions and the rebuilding of chawls.

But it is Tamas, in either Rockwell’s translation or the original Hindi, that remains an essential text for the times. “Sahni’s meticulous, detailed chronicle gives the lie to the notion of Partition violence as a spontaneous burst of maniacal behaviour; of people losing control of themselves; of a madness that takes hold of the populace. This riot is the result of careful planning and politiciking.”

She suggests that unlike Govind Nihalani’s television series, Tamas, the novel “offers us no such solace in neat endings, tidy narrative patterns… Reading about the life of a riot is chilling and uncomfortable”.

In the matter of Ramesh s/o Chotelal Dalal vs Union of India and Others, the learned judges ruled in favour of allowing Tamas to be telecast. They observed that illiterates are not devoid of common sense, or unable to grasp the calumny of the fundamentalists and extremists. “This is how they [the judges] have viewed it: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

All these years later, Sahni’s hard-wrested knowledge that violence is learned behaviour, that riots are planned, manufactured events, should haunt and warn us of what lies ahead. The naked truth is often undesirable, but its lessons are inescapable.

(Published in the Business Standard, March 2016)

Speaking Volumes: Into the abyss


One of the few joys of researching blasphemy, a crime with increasingly bleak consequences for those found guilty of it, is that it’s a fine excuse for watching a Satanist rocker for a Polish death metal band spin his hair expertly as he belts out the lyrics to ‘Christians To The Lions’.

In September 2007, Behemoth’s frontman Adam Nergal Darski ripped pages out from a Bible when he was onstage in Gdynia, calling it a “book of lies” and saying that the Catholic Church was “the most murderous cult”. Behemoth was sued, first for “promoting Satanism” – the case was dismissed – and then under Poland’s religious offence laws.

In 2012, the European Union made a strong statement in Darski’s support, citing the definition of freedom of expression set out in the European Convention on Human Rights: protection not just for information or ideas that were favourably received or regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock or disturb. Darski was acquitted only in 2015, and by August, Behemoth was back to playing numbers from their album, The Satanist, at Bloodstock.

Darski’s case feeds into the uneasy approach to religious offence laws on the subcontinent in many ways: the length of time spent in the courts, between 2007 and 2015 (when he also successfully battled cancer) and in the tension between the respect for the Church in Poland pitted against the strongly held belief that artists must be given immense latitude. But one element was, luckily for the rocker, missing: there was no threat of violence from mobs, organised or spontaneous, to muddy the blasphemy debate.

In the subcontinent, the presence and the threat of violence from three fronts – political parties, religious bodies and far more rarely, spontaneously formed mobs – has shaped the debate on blasphemy and religious freedom laws, in ways that are downright dangerous. India is approaching a critical junction on religious offence laws.

This month, the Kerala newspaper Matrubhumi was forced to apologise to the radical Muslim confederation, the Popular Front of India (PFI), and to the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, for publishing a comment that is said to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad. (In May 2015, 13 members of the PFI were found guilty of chopping off lecturer T J Joseph’s palm after he was accused of insulting the Prophet in 2013.) This was the second time in recent months that Matrubhumi had faced pressure from religious fanatics – in September 2013, their columnist Dr M M Basheer stopped writing on the Ramayana after a sustained campaign and threats from Hanuman Sena activists, who declared they would not let a Muslim write on a Hindu epic.

The lawyer Gautam Bhatia points out in Offend, Shock or Disturb that Section 295(a) in India is a variant of a blasphemy law, and that its potential for abuse, since police are authorised to arrest accused persons without a court warrant, casts a chilling effect on free speech. The comedian Kiku Sharda was arrested under this law for mimicking the godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh; Yogesh Master, the author of the Kannada novel Dhundi, has faced several cases on the charges of offending Hindu religious sentiments.

Last year, the Shri Ram Sene openly threatened to cut off the tongues of writers if they did not stop insulting Hindu gods: this was in the context of threats made to Professor K S Bhagwan and the writer Chandrashekhar Patil. A year after she was forced to go into hiding for publishing an image from Charlie Hebdo in the Urdu paper Avadhnama, editor Shireen Dalvi still faces threats from extremist Muslim organisations, and has no job.

This January, a court in Anantapur issued a non-bailable warrant against the cricketer M S Dhoni for an old 2013 magazine cover depicting him as Vishnu; the Shiv Sena Hindustan and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are among those who’ve filed cases against him. Last year, top comedian act All India Bakchod apologised to the Archdiocese of Mumbai for jokes that “offended religious sentiment”.

This February, the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind staged a massive meeting in Meerut demanding blasphemy laws. There’s been unrest in Punjab over the burnings of copies of the Guru Granth Sahib and other Sikh holy books, last week, and also in May and October 2015.

There are enough organisations and individuals in India who would gladly set a match to the powder keg of religion. The offence laws form the ground for a power grab, as competing religions deploy them as ammunition in a war for primacy.

Religious offence laws are usually seen as legal barriers to free speech. But their use is also an indicator of whether a country is moving towards or away from greater violence, a privileging of religious belief over basic human rights, and the viral spread of fear in the body politic. Countries that are moving towards more equality and less turbulence either do not have or do not use religious offence laws.

The fallout from blasphemy laws in Pakistan, where these were used to persecute minorities such as the Ahmadis and to settle personal scores, and in Bangladesh, where laws were used as justification for murderous attacks on atheists and to muzzle criticism of clerics, has been devastating. Both countries are cautiously examining the role of religion in a functioning democracy, and there are faint signs of hope after many years of violence and disruption, much of it traceable back directly to blasphemy laws.

Once the laws were in place, more and more groups pressed them into service. It is a small step from arguing that religious beliefs require special protection to arguing that religious beliefs should outweight Constitutional rights and basic human rights.

Fifteen years ago, I would have argued that India’s democracy was too strong for the country to go down this route. But the present climate is both religiously and politically volatile. In the past two decades, the erosion of what used to be fundamental free speech rights has been steady, the protections of outlier and minority free expression weak at best.

The rise of religious offence laws has been accompanied by outbreaks of actual, deadly violence. India is not immune to the twin viruses of fear and hate, but if its institutions acted now to prune religious offence laws, the country might veer away from the path that our neighbours took with such disastrous consequences.

(Published in the Business Standard, March 14, 2016)

The post-Partition booksellers

bahri sons


In the days when set up Bahrisons, was a refugee market, not the upmarket, slightly soulless South Delhi hangout it is now. Sovereign Dairies, Empire Stores, grocery shops and small mithai shops kept him company for decades before the invasion of luxury brands and smart restaurants.

Bahri died last week; he was 87. His passing signals the sunset of the era of the many across India who came over after Partition. His story is emblematic of the struggles and enterprise of that generation of refugees. He had grown up in Malakwal in undivided Punjab, and studied in Rawalpindi. He was a teenager when riots broke out ahead of August 1947. The family was one of the thousands crowded on to a train to Amritsar; they eventually found their way to Delhi and Kingsway camp.

Bahri bought the original shop in the 1950s, selling his mother’s gold bangles to raise the Rs 200 they needed to start a business, “far from the familiarity of busy Chandni Chowk, Dariba and Nai Sarak”. They did not guess, he wrote in his history of Bahrisons, “that this scheme to benefit refugees, this Khan Market, would one day become such a success”.

He took to bookselling as an offshoot of selling stationery. Every day, he took down his customers’ requests for books. At 1 p m, he shut the shop, cycled from Khan Market to Connaught Place to meet his mentor, Prem Sagar, and sourced the books he needed from the Old City. By 5.30 p m, Bahri would open for business again and stay open till 8.30 p m. His son, Anuj Bahri, keeps the shop open all day but maintains the tradition of studying his customers’ tastes in detail.

Bahri’s generation of booksellers were marked by their extraordinary patience and courage. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (MLBD), the legendary Indology bookshop, had been set up in Lahore in 1903. Lala Motilal Jain named the shop after his eldest son. On 14 August 1947, riots struck the city and the was burned to the ground.

The family moved to India, starting over again with small shops in Patna, Varanasi and finally Delhi. Varanasi old-timers tell the story of how one of the founders of MLBD, Shantilal Jain, sold books off a wooden plank for the first few years, slowly building the business up to its present, formidable status.

The Jawahar Road bookstore in Delhi is known for its remarkable catalogue, spanning everything from religious classics to New Age popular bestsellers, and is run by the fifth generation of booksellers. Their history is echoed on a smaller scale by Bargain Bookstore in Connaught Place, a secondhand bookstore whose owners had come to Delhi in 1947 after Dera Ismail Khan was struck by violence and riots.

At the time of Partition, V G Mani’s London Book Company had 11 branches, with flagship stores in Peshawar and Islamabad. As with J Ray and Sons, a chain of bookshops run by Ram Advani’s grandfather in the North West Frontier Province, the proprietors had not anticipated the extent of the disruption that 1947 and Partition would cause in their lives. Mani closed down the London Book Co’s shops in 1947, and explored possibilities in Delhi and Bombay before opening Manney’s in Pune, where it remained one of the city’s best-loved bookstores until its closure last year.

Advani had shifted tracks from teaching to learning the book trade only in 1946, when he joined the Lahore bookstore. His family came to India after Partition, and he first started a bookstore in Shimla before shifting to Hazratganj in Lucknow, where Ram Advani Booksellers remains a city institution. In a tribute, the historian Ram Guha wrote, “Advani has more experience in the book trade than anyone in India.” Advani died this Wednesday, at 95, leaving an aching gap in the shelf of Indian bookselling history.

[Ira Pande’s tribute to Ram Advani in Scroll:

Ram Advani on their bookshop in Lahore and his career as a bookseller, interviewed at Leeds:,%20Lucknow%20Pt%201.mp3


In Khan Market, for the first time in decades, closed its shutters, to mourn Bahri. A day later, they were open again, and Mithilesh Singh, who has been with the shop for years, was quietly helping customers find the books they wanted. When someone asked for a book not in stock, he scribbled the title down on a pad immediately, just as Bahri and generations of the Partition-era booksellers used to do.

(Published in the Business Standard on March 12, 2016)

Book review: Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani

Nainsukh, Villagers Around A Fire


“India’s history is a curiously unpeopled place,” Sunil Khilnani writes, in the very first sentence of Incarnations: India in 50 Lives. “As usually told, it has dynasties, epochs, religions and castes – but not many individuals.”

The individuals were mentioned in blurry sheets of emperors or Leaders Of The National Movement sandwiched in between equally blurry collections of Festivals of India, Good Habits, and People of the World. Outside of school, they were commemorated in statues, now growing to cancerous proportions, or in politicians’ self-congratulatory billboards.

Mr Khilnani’s project, the apparently simple goal of telling “India’s story through fifty remarkable lives” spanning 2,500 years of history, is inherently, and pleasingly, subversive. He moves from Buddha to Dhirubai Ambani via Ashoka, Annie Besant, Birsa Munda, Iqbal, Kabir, Kautilya, Lakshmibai, Mirabai, Malik Ambar, Periyar, Subbulakshmi and many more, his journeys fuelled by a quiet, relentless curiosity and an extraordinary ability to capture the sweep of history. Incarnations is an essential, and timely, read, and while the BBC radio show was well-produced, the book outstrips the show.

[Listen to the Incarnations podcasts here:]

It is also an exceptionally liberating intellectual journey to take. Mr Khilnani’s prose is light and fast-paced. He doesn’t burden the reader with the amount of work that has gone into visiting many of the places mentioned, from the Oriental Library in Mysuru to schools in Rajasthan, villages in Karjat, as he conducts interviews with a Hindu Samrajya Sena leader in Ahmedabad, or listens in the cramped houses of Bazardiha for Kabir’s “insistent, urgent tone” to emerge in conversations.

But the solid labour of travel, research and meetings with other scholars as well as interviewees builds a stronger foundation for Incarnations than most non-fiction books about India can claim. And a more entertaining one than most, too:

“At the Mysore library, the Arthashastra is presented like a sumptuous dish, or a holy icon, on a plate bedecked with fresh flowers. Their scent mixes with the smell of citronella oil, which the library uses to preserve its store of palm-leaf manuscripts.” That charming encounter leads into a reflection on power, and where Kautilya stood in “the balancing act between liberty, security and prosperity.”

That quality of engaged attention informs some of the most interesting chapters in the book – readings of individuals as distinct as Periyar, the Buddha, Mirabai, Indira Gandhi, Ashoka, where Mr Khilnani retains his ability to offer an unusual, surprising interpretation of a history you thought was familiar. In the chapter on Adi Shankara, he says: “Hinduism itself remains much as it was in the eighth century, when the Arabs first tried to label it: multiple in form, bubbling with internal arguments, accepting of different types of belief.” The statement has more weight when you trace these internal arguments across 2,500 years.

Mr Khilnani’s ability to empathise with people long since dead is also astonishing. He imagines Rajaraja Chola’s grand temple coming up before the eyes of “the medieval peasants of the Kaveri river belt who watched the structure rise, block by granite block, over their rice paddies”, and then switches to speculation about what the project might have had to say about the king’s uneasiness about his power.

He’s equally good at summing up cities, as in this portrait of Delhi slipped into his profile of Khusrau: “ambiguous in its cultural mixing – not a melting pot, but home to hundreds of different communities, living adjacent to one another, often with benign indifference.”

One of the few areas where Incarnations disappoints is that there are only six profiles of women – Mirabai (not Lal Ded), Lakshmibai (not Razia Sultana), Annie Besant (not Sarojini Naidu or Aruna Asaf Ali), Amrita Sher-gil, Subbulakshmi, Indira Gandhi. His chapter on Jyotirao Phule mentions Savitribai, but does not do full justice to her. I understand the constraints of space, but perhaps that is an argument for another 50 to be added to the list.

A historian says of Lakshmi Bai that she dreams of some day finding the lost box that contains the missing voice and records of the queen. Mr Khilnani writes, “I can imagine many such boxes, which together might contain the greatest lost treasure of Indian history: the voices of its women.” As if to compensate, some of the strongest chapters in the book restore the histories and struggles of Birsa Munda and Ambedkar to the central position they should occupy; if not gender, then the long-running history of caste struggles gets some fair play here.

As you go through these brief and richly layered profiles, some stretching no longer than ten pages, your view of past, nation and history is likely to be both unsettled and enriched.

There are many areas of darkness in contemporary India. In these past few months, majoritarianism, nationalism and sedition, diminishing freedoms, tolerance and the withdrawal of it, the deliberate perpetuation of gross inequalities, and eruptions of both licensed and unplanned acts of violence have been under the scanner.

An especially disturbing feature of this time is the reduction of complex histories, lives and arguments to often inaccurate statements circulated as viral memes on television channels and social media. Incarnations embodies a passionate argument for the opposite of this crude and dangerous reductionism.

“Here’s one argument to start with: that India’s non-fictional past is sufficiently complex, unexpected and rich in inspiring example that fictionalised heroes are a little redundant. By insisting that figures from India’s past be preserved in memory as saints, above human consideration, we deny them not just their real natures, but their genuine achievements.”

Incarnations reminds me of B N Goswamy’s The Spirit of Indian Painting. These are ambitious books buttressed by decades of scholarship; they will radically reshape our understanding of India, if we can keep our minds open long enough to read them.

(Published in the Business Standard, March 1, 2016)

Translations: Masud, Shanbhag, Valluvar, Lahiri


(Published in the Business Standard in December 2015, January 2016 and February 2016)

The Tirukkural: A New English Version
Tiruvalluvar, translated by Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Aleph Book Company


One of my most cherished possessions was a T-shirt, hand-painted by a friend, that said simply: “Mirabai Lived.” It was a typo; she had meant “Mirabai Lives”, but I preferred the accidental version.

“Mirabai Lived” was a reminder that historical figures had once been alive; that the past is never frozen in amber. Reading Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s crackling introduction to a new English version of (Aleph Classics), I felt reminded of the same simple fact: that Valluvar, far from being an abstract name, a poet set on a pedestal, had once been as alive as any of us.

“No stone tells us, nor any ancient leaf, whether he was a sage or a minister, teacher, soldier or even king.” But reading his famous couplets, Gandhi draws closer to Valluvar: he knew what poverty meant, he lived along the coast and “knew his sea for sure”, he knew animals, birds and plants well, he had compassion “in a very modern, very humane way”.

For Tamil readers, this translation of the Tirukkural will stand perhaps as an unusual, often sparkling, addition to the translations already made by and G U Pope. For the non-Tamil reader, especially for those unfamiliar with the 1,330 couplets of the Kural, Valluvar’s fresh, pragmatic and sensual poetry will be a revelation.

For Indians who read in English, this has been a rich decade for poetry from the medieval and ancient world. Particularly stirring are the translations of poets by poets – Lal Ded (Ranjit Hoskote), Kabir (Arvind Krishna Mehrotra), an anthology of Bhakti poetry edited by Arundhati Subramaniam. Surdas’s poems, The Therigatha and now The Tirukkural have found able translators in scholars. These translations cast ripples into our understanding of Indian thought; and besides, the poetry is beautiful.

The translator is often seen as an interpreter, but Gandhi’s view has far more juice to it: “When smitten by a book, readers want to become part of it, immerse themselves in the life of the volume they hold in their hands… The most ambitious, even audacious, way of finding a union with the work – for that is what the smitten want – is to try translating it and thereby enter the work’s very soul.”

The three books of the Kural are a complete education. Being Good explores what it means to lead a virtuous life, sets down rules for domestic life, right speech, gratitude and self-control. Valluvar’s meditations are positively contemporary: “Forgiving the wrongdoer, in life’s book, has grace/ But forgetting the wrong itself has an even higher place.”

I was initially uncomfortable with the neat rhymes, craving the occasional astringence of blank verse, but the rhythms soon become familiar, and welcome, as in this couplet: “The heart, the heart, it knows the true from the false.

It burns, yes, burns when falsehood breeds within its walls.” This is a book to be read aloud, not to be read silently on the page.

Being Politic is where you see the worldly side of emerge, and his advice to kings is shrewd, its sharp wisdom carrying down the ages, applicable to rulers in our time.

“The king guards his realm, yes, but who guards the king?

His sense of doing right by each and every thing

The king who isn’t easy to reach is blinded by his biases

His nemesis is certain, whatever its shape and size is.”

These warnings are followed by pragmatism of the highest order: “The spy must watch the king’s foes, of course, but also his officers and kin…”

The third section, Being In Love, reveals yet another Valluvar, one capable of savouring, and lamenting the loss of, pleasures of temporary variance. This is the poetry of breathless seas, and love’s iron-fastened door, and fatal glances. Behind it is Gandhi’s warning murmur, that Periyar didn’t think much of Valluvar’s view of women, but that caution has to war with the Kural’s ancient sweet-tasting nectar.

“His couplets, called ‘Tamil’s epigrams’ read like Time’s telegrams,” Gandhi writes. “Telegrams speak in the words, signal in the gaps. Telegrams convey tidings both good and bad.

So do Valluvar’s.

And they are always urgent.”


In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri, translated by Ann Goldstein

Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin India


In Other Words is the kind of book that sets editorial-and-sales meetings on fire in publishing houses. A well-known of four of fiction, revered for her fine style and insight, will write her first non-fiction book in Italian, about “a passion that verges on obsession: that of a writer for another language”.

The book, “written with an intensity and clarity not seen since Nabokov” (from the blurb again), is translated from the Italian, In Altre Parole, by back into English, the language in which most of Jhumpa Lahiri’s readers know her best.

In Other Words is Lahiri’s most personal work, breaking the skin of her usual reticence, but only the skin: the tone is intimate, not autobiographical. It begins promisingly, as she makes the reader a secret sharer in the grand love story between her and Italian.

The flirtation commences with a pocket dictionary, “the dimensions of a bar of soap”, clad in a green plastic cover, which she buys at Rizzoli, a bookshop in Boston; the details, you understand immediately, are as significant as a first meeting with someone who will later become a lover.

Over 20 years, she pursues Italian, infatuation turning into obsession. “I’m in love, but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me.” In 2009, she takes lessons with the third of her teachers, who is from Venice, and the future shapes itself: she will move to Italy, as one does, to be closer to the beloved.

This is where her quest, the obsessiveness with which she stalks Italian, is most tantalising, as her writing life takes a sharp, unexpected swerve. What does it mean for a writer to admit that her first language, English, no longer satisfies her, and that she wants to read, and write, in the unmapped territory of an alien tongue?

She is both renunciate and novice: she suffers the humiliation of never knowing enough, of losing the tools -words, contexts, allusions – that were hers by right in English. “I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures,” she writes, and it is around here, 89 pages in, that you start to suspect that the remaining 114 will be a long slow slog.

There are two problems with In Other Words. The first will sort in time, as Lahiri develops the same fluency and dexterity in Italian as she had in English. Until then, the reader must settle for admiring her bravery in writing a book on such demanding subjects – language, belonging, exile and memory – in a language that she possesses, but does not yet entirely inhabit. But admiring a writer’s courage is of no consolation when you would rather have been in a position to admire her turn of phrase, which is lost somewhere between the first language, the second, and the translation.

There are cliches, as in this sentence on falling in love with Italian: “It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.” There are clunky metaphors: she constantly hunts for words, they seem more valuable than money, she collects them in a basket, and finds that scarcely a handful remain, for “the basket is memory”.

I survived the phrase “the sweater of language”, because it appeared in a short story, about a woman searching for something lost, that had a touch of the classic Lahiri magic. But there were thickets of banal epiphanies: “Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable.”

This flaccid prose is annoying, but Lahiri is too intelligent and too fine-grained a writer to continue writing baggy-sweater sentences, in any language. What can’t be fixed is everything that’s missing from this meditation on language. In this century, millions of people have been evicted from their homelands, and often forcefully exiled from their mothertongues. Knowing this, it is sometimes difficult to empathise with Lahiri’s hardships as a new learner, given that her exile was voluntary and self-imposed.

She touches lightly on her awkward relationship with Bengali – she knows it haltingly, and has never felt at home in it. She mentions her struggles fleetingly, but she need not have shared the personal in order to explore the political choices she made. Language choice is always political, and this is not so much about Italian versus Bengali as it is about the pull of Europe over Asia.

In the last few pages of In Other Words, Lahiri discovers the writings of Agota Kristof: The Illiterate, The Notebook. She reads Kristof obsessively, “both stunned and comforted”, treating her as a guide, a companion, kin. And yet there is a fundamental difference: “Kristof was forced to abandon Hungarian. She wrote in French because she wanted to be read. I, on the other hand, choose willingly to write in Italian. I don’t miss English…”

Kristof’s voice has clarity, resonance, a diamond edge. “I read. It is like a disease,” says the protagonist of The Illiterate. She learns French with her body; the women at the watch factory where Kristof worked taught her the words for body parts, used body language to teach her the names of objects. Following Lahiri’s lead, I read Kristof’s books, as obsessively, flinching from some of her experiences, seduced by her knifeblade prose. It is a strange feeling: one writer, Lahiri, arouses your curiosity about language, about moving house from one to another. But Lahiri’s essays only play with that curiosity; it is Kristof’s harsh, rich novels that answer all the reader’s questions, the difficult ones, the unspoken ones.


Ghachar Ghochar

Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur,


The Indian domestic novel has long taproots, many of them carefully nurtured by male writers as much as women: Rajendra Yadav’s (The Endless Sky), Saratchandra’s (The Final Question) or O Chandu Menon’s Indulekha.

As a general aside, here is a truth about novels that centre on the home – both sexes write them, but it’s only when women tackle this territory that they are belittled for being too domestic, too narrow, too safe in their ambitions. And yet, writers (of all gender orientations) who tackle “home” know what rich quicksand this is: home is where humanity goes to be itself, with all the yearning, the ferment, the danger, the joys, the irrevocable mistakes, the risks and the unvarnished truths that accompany “being yourself”.

Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar, runs to just 115 pages, but it’s one of those novels that are bigger on the inside than on the outside. The narrator is at Coffee House; he has no real reason for coming here, except as respite from domestic skirmishes: “But who can admit to doing something for no reason in times like these, in a city as busy as this one?” For a moment, you think that his story will be moored at Coffee House, that he will observe the world from the safety of those tables, with Vincent the waiter pulling everyone’s quarrels and meetings into some sort of narrative order.

But Ghochar has a lovely riverine curve to it, and the story slides easily into introductions of the narrator’s family. They used to live in a small house with “four small rooms, one behind the other, like train compartments”, before prosperity descends upon them, which his Appa enjoys “with considerable hesitation, as if it were undeserved”. They shift from a life of oil lamps, where the purchase of a gas stove is a luxury, to a new house, crammed with expensive mismatched furniture.

There are two big changes in the lives of Amma, Appa, Chikkappa, Malati, the narrator and his wife Anita: wealth changes the relationship between the family and its possessions, they have the luxury of treating things, and then people, carelessly. And they live without the ants who are the only legitimate tenants of a certain kind of rented house in India. In their old house, the ants gathered around rings left by tea cups on the floor, squeezed into boxes where the lids hadn’t been shut tight, raced in lines along the window sill. “In time we began to be openly cruel to ants… became a family that took satisfaction in the destruction of ants.”

In Shanbhag’s hands, the Indian family is revealed in layers; as one layer peels away, what lies beneath is left raw and exposed. Violence is part of living, of running a business – even a small one like Sona Masala – part of family life, of excluding a brother’s former lover from the circle of the loved and accepted, part of terrorising in-laws under the pretext of claiming back one’s inheritance. Cruelty lies strewn around the pages of Ghachar, Ghochar – an evocative term for the inevitable ghich-pich of human relationships that is explained beautifully in the book – like rubbish heaps; small and large incidents that readers negotiate just as we do broken foothpaths and scattered garbage in our daily lives. You only stop when the rot, and the violence, piles up in sufficient quantities to obstruct your way forward.

But family is the thing you cannot escape because you don’t want to; the narrator doesn’t know what to say about himself that isn’t connected with family, and in this predicament, he mirrors so many other Indians. Privacy, solitude and individuality fit uneasily with family life; it is only in a moment at home, when his wife has left for a while, that the narrator stumbles across “a strange mixture of feelings” that lie outside his grasp – “love, fear, entitlement, desire, frustration”. And this emerges when he is going through his wife’s wardrobe, almost stealthily, discovering a person who is, like everyone else in the family, possessed of a secret self that has little to do with her family role.

About the only thing missing from Ghachar Ghochar is a translator’s note; Srinath Perur translated Shanbhag’s novel from Kannada. I have no access to the original, but Perur’s translation carries what I imagine is the quiet observational quality as well as the repressed electricity of the original, and it would have added to this book to have one writer known for his ear for voice talk about another who has the same gifts. Despite this omission, Ghachar Ghochar is one of the most striking novels you’ll read this decade – don’t miss its persuasive, slowly unsettling world.

Collected Stories

Naiyer Masud, translated by Muhammed Umar Menon,
Penguin India


The photograph shows a boy, about five, lying on a richly caparisoned couch against a backdrop of redoubtable carved wooden almirahs, a finely embroidered curtain breaking the gloom of the dark wood. The boy faces the photographer, Lucknow’s Mirza Mughal Beg; he clutches his favourite plaything, a ball.

This photograph of was the preface for a classic translation of The Essence of Camphor; it had been taken when he was ill with typhoid. He told his translator, Muhammad Umar Memon, that after he had gone through 40 days of fever, his parents feared he would not survive and commissioned this as a future keepsake.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 11.16.17 pm

In this short anecdote, you have many of the qualities of Masud’s stories: the unexpected depth behind the rich, detailed surface, a touch of the macabre, a sense of being taken unawares by life’s surprises.

The wide divide between those who read in Urdu and those who have not had the pleasure of knowing Urdu are perhaps at their sharpest with a writer like Masud. For readers familiar with Urdu, Masud’s short stories – 35, written slowly over a period of decades, typically about one or two a year – are part of their emotional and imaginative landscape.

I had never taught myself Urdu, and part of the punishment was to read like a scavenger, grabbing Masud’s now-classic stories in fragmentary pieces – Sheesha Ghat, The Essence of Camphor – then looking for Memon’s translations in The Journal Of Urdu Studies and other places.

It took the skills of R Sivapriya, something of a legend herself as an expert translations editor, as well as Muhammad Umar Memon’s thoughtful work over years to produce a volume as monumental and definitive as this one – Naiyer Masud: Collected Stories (Penguin Books). Masud has always had a following as a writer (and a scholar) in the Urdu world, but this collection should make him visible to readers in India and outside the country as one of our greatest living practitioners.

All the short stories from Seemiya (The Occult), Essence of Camphor, The Myna From Peacock Garden and Ganjefa are included here, plus a few miscellaneous, uncollected stories – Dustland, Whirlwind, The Aster. An interview is included; at one point, Asif Farrukhi, the interviewer, says to the writer: “People don’t work nearly so hard on revealing as you do on concealing.”

In response, Masud explains that he tries not to refer to specific times and places – a habit that gives his stories some of their uncanny, dislocated, time-transcending atmosphere – because of an exaggerated sense of responsibility, a fear of getting place and time wrong in even the smallest of details. He denies that his stories are “fantasies”, even though they are often claimed as such, and this is true – he is just a better fisherman of reality than most.

I would not recommend reading Collected Stories at one sitting, any more than you would watch all of Bela Tarr or Wong Kar-Wai’s films in one weekend. But at present, two of Masud’s stories are bringing me some comfort. Dustland, a brief tale set in a city prone to duststorms, where an “earth-coloured haze had begun spreading”, is perfect for winter this year, when the pollution is so intense that you can taste the yellow smog on your tongue as you walk around Delhi.

And I am growing as obsessed with Custody as I once was with Masud’s The Essence of Camphor. Custody is less well-known, and so is less well-worn. The narrator, Saasan, who lives above Nauroz’s shop explains that there has always been a Nauroz, some of whom go mad in time.

Then the present Nauroz disappears, leaving behind two tiny girls. The narrator finds Nauroz, briefly, and asks him, “What are the girls to you?” “Merchandise,” Nauroz says. What was their mother to him? Merchandise, Nauroz says again, before leaving. But Nauroz’s Shop must always have a Nauroz; and some of the Naurozes grow mad in time. This much would be enough for many short story writers; it is Masud’s genius that he keeps the reader as interested in everything that happens before the ending as in the ending itself.



The brief version:

I’ve written a few books: The Wildings (Aleph Book Company, 2012, winner of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2013), The Hundred Names of Darkness (Aleph Book Company, 2013) and The Girl Who Ate Books (HarperCollins, 2016).

I write about the reading life for the Business Standard, read (a lot) and cook (a little). I’ve been a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and also contributed essays and op-ed pieces to Granta, Al-Jazeera, The Huffington Post and the BBC in 2015.
My partner and I live in Delhi; we are jointly owned by two demanding cats and it is a distinct possibility that we jointly own too many books.

Cunning attempt to pretend that we do not have a book-collecting problem, by including only half of one bookcase in this frame… Photo credit: ©KaviBhansali
…and the truth, ie, the books have spread like alien spores, colonizing any available surface in their wake.

The longplaying version:

Nilanjana Roy is the author of The Wildings (Aleph Book Company, 2012), which won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award (2013). (Other shortlists: the Tata Literature First Book Award (2012), the Commonwealth First Book Award; longlisted for the DSC Prize (2013).)

Model: Tiggy (“will work for catnip”)

The Hundred Names of Darkness, part two of The Wildings, was published by Aleph in 2013. A collection of essays on books, reading and bibliophagy, The Girl Who Ate Books has just been published by HarperCollins. Nilanjana is also the editor of A Matter of Taste, an anthology of food writing (Penguin India, 2005).

Editor, sleeping on the job, so unlike his betters at Aleph.
Copy-editor: eats, proofs and leaves.

Her column on the reading life for the Business Standard has run for over 15 years; she has also been a contributing op-ed writer for the International New York Times and has written the Kolkata Telegraph on gender issues in India.

Over a decade-and-a-half in media and publishing, Nilanjana has been chief editor at Westland/ Tranquebar, edited and contributed to the Outlook Books page, Biblio and several other literary magazines/ periodicals, served on the jury for the Crossword Prize and the DSC Prize among others.

She had a brief but enjoyable second life as Hurree Babu, whom she borrowed from Kipling in order to start India’s first literary blog–Kitabkhana, which the Babu ran for several years. She has worked extensively on free speech and censorship issues in India.

Her fiction and journalism have appeared in several journals and anthologies, including Caravan, Civil Lines 6, the Sunday Times, the New York Times, The Hindu and Biblio. Some of her stories for children have been published in Scholastic’s Spooky Stories, Science Fiction Stories and BeWitched. Nilanjana can be found at, or, and very occasionally, on the yoga mat, practising handstands.

Yes, we’re sitting on the edge of the stage. (Long story.)