Tag Archives: India

Fodor’s Essential India

Guidebook ♦

essential indiaI wrote several chapters for Fodor’s Essential India guidebook and helped update others for the second edition. This included articles on Indian history and culture, food, archaeological monuments and Delhi.

You can preview some of the content here.

Originally published in 2011, updated in 2012.

Published: May 8, 2013

Going off script

A cross-border blog spreads the word of South Asian literature ♦

Shiraz Hassan

Shiraz Hassan

In India, Pakistani writers in English are considered common property. Their books are often published here first, and writers like Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie and Nadeem Aslam frequent our literary festivals. But when it comes to contemporary Hindi or Urdu fiction crossing the border, the script barrier can be more difficult to surmount. Shiraz Hassan, an Islamabad journalist with the Urdu daily Jehan Pakistan, decided to start transliterating and posting Urdu and Hindi stories online last August. He told us about the challenges and rewards of running Kahani Khazana, a literary blog in the two languages.

How did you come up with the idea for a Hindi-Urdu exchange?
The idea developed when I started studying Hindi in Punjab University, Lahore. In Pakistan, though many people understand Hindi – as Bollywood films and TV soaps are quite popular – Devanagari is considered “alien”. As far as the film or TV industry is concerned, it isn’t an issue, but for literature lovers it’s the biggest hurdle. So I learned Devanagari and tried to read Hindi stories. After reading “Naukar Ki Kameez” by Vinod Kumar Shukla in Urdu, I thought more Hindi stories should be translated. So, I just started, keeping in mind that there is a treasure of stories written in Hindi and Urdu, both in India and Pakistan, by well-known, lesser-known and even unknown authors. Most of these stories are a mirror image of the prevailing circumstances of the people living in the two countries, which comprise a common South Asian culture. The readers may appreciate that there are barely a handful of words that need actual translation.

Why short stories?
We deliberately chose stories and not poetry, as poetry can still be shared through mushairas. In this regard Ilmana Fasih, an India-born friend based in Canada helped me kick off this project.

What were the technical difficulties of setting up the blog?
Managing a blog in Urdu is very hectic, as Windows systems do not support Urdu script well. We have to use Unicode scripting, which is hard to read for some. People suggested using JPEGs of the Urdu in Nastaliq, which is easy to read. But then there were problems in designing the web page. In Pakistan, Hindi typing software is not available, so I have to rely on Google transliterate. For Urdu I use Urdu InPage software, then convert the text into Unicode for web. The idea is to put the same story in both Devanagari and Urdu in a single post.

What are your editorial criteria?
The basic criterion is writers who started writing post-Partition. Most people in India and Pakistan know about Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Munshi Premchand, Krishan Chandra, Ismat Chughtai and others. But what happened after that – how prose literature developed in India and Pakistan – is a big gap. In Pakistan, literature about Partition is just one aspect. We saw the fall of Dhaka, martial law, political turmoil and terrorism – all these have their effects on literature. What Hindi writers wrote post-Partition, and are writing nowadays, we have no idea. When I got the chance to read the Hindi stories, I found that they are very much like ours. The stories I picked for Kahani Khazana are mostly narratives of our society – the political turmoils, poverty; few of them are related to India-Pakistan relations. After reading Wajahat Asghar’s “Aag”, one cannot identify whether it is a Pakistani story or an Indian one.

Who are the authors so far?
I selected Rasheed Amjad, Mirza Athar Baig and Muhammad Mansha Yaad – renowned and well-established Urdu writers, but not many people know them outside Pakistan. Selecting Hindi stories was a hurdle. Several Indian friends suggested names. I found the short stories of Wajahat Asghar, Vishnu Prabhakar, Usha Priyamvada, Anindita Basu, Sushant Supriya and Anand very catchy and relevant.

Did you consciously decide not to include English translations?
The prominent names of Urdu and Hindi literature have been translated into English. Contemporary literature has also been translated, and many Indian and Pakistani writers write in English. My idea was to explore Hindi and Urdu contemporary literature without killing the taste of the language. If you are reading a Hindi story in Urdu, it is almost 100 per cent what the writer wrote and wanted to say; it’s just like reading the original text.

Do you think Hindi (and Urdu) in India and Urdu in Pakistan face similar challenges?
In Pakistan, Urdu literature is being ignored at several levels. Though Urdu is compulsory until 12th grade, it is not a breadwinner language like English. But there are still many writers who are writing in Urdu. I can say that Urdu is facing almost the same kinds of challenges Hindi is facing in India. At the recent Lahore Literary Festival, almost all the sessions were in English, most guests were English-writing and speaking, and just a couple of token sessions were dedicated to Urdu.

Do you know other online cultural initiatives that connect people across borders?
The Internet has opened wide the doors on both sides of the border. Sometimes, some random person messages you, saying that he read your articles and it’s his first time interacting with a Pakistani. It happens. Social media has provided this opportunity for people to share thoughts. Aman ki Asha [The Times of India and Jang Group’s campaign] also played a good role in this regard. Other than that, Pul-e-Jawan (across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan), Romancing the Border and Folk Punjab are online groups that are playing a commendable role.

How do you plan to keep Kahani Khazana going?
Kahani Khazana is running on a volunteer basis. I am translating more stories, Ilmana is helping, and some friends proofread the Hindi. I would like to include Punjabi stories also, as Punjabi in Pakistan is written in Shahmukhi, and the Gurmukhi script is used in India. It’s just a matter of time until you see Punjabi stories in both scripts at Kahani Khazana as well.

Kahani Khazana is online at www.kahanikhazana.wordpress.com.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 12, 2013

The Butterfly Generation

Palash Krishna Mehrotra on India’s flitty young things ♦

butterflyForm shouldn’t always mirror content. Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s musings on “the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolour Youth” flit from subject to subject in short chapters, resting a moment on the bloom of homosexual rights (“Gay ho!”, eight pages), then on the thorny issue of morality policing (“V-Day”, seven pages), and off again to the rotten core of domestic arrangements (“Servants of India”, nine pages). Billed as “part memoir, part travelogue and part social commentary” (and also, unabashedly “one of the finest, most original works of non-fiction from India in years”), The Butterfly Generation is an attempt at diving, Gonzo style, into the world of Indians who grew up (or failed to do so) during the Liberalisation era. Mehrotra comes up with a cocktail of drug-and-sex anecdotes, deep thoughts and music reporting – and a fresh helping of the obsession with defining India that publishers seem to be unstintingly piling on their plates of late.

Like many of his fellow columnists and journalists who have published books, Mehrotra is an engaging, adept writer. He also has the intellectual advantage of literary parentage – his father is poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. This, his first full-length piece of non-fiction, has some fine linguistic craftsmanship. Mehrotra is particularly good at the ironic turn of phrase and well-timed notes of sarcasm and humour. He also has a knack for collecting bizarre stories and fascinating characters (Captain Andy, a pilot; Nandu, an auto-rickshaw driver with a penchant for porn). The problem is one of unfocused ambition: the pages flutter from college ragging to ecstasy parties, from smack-addicted call centre employees to stand-up comedians.

Possibly inspired by that other Rolling Stone contributor Hunter S Thompson, Mehrotra embarks on a project of literary journalism – he even mentions Gay Talese’s genre-defining piece on Frank Sinatra in passing. The book is divided into three sections: profiles, essays on social phenomena, and longer pieces on music and pop culture. Mehrotra does better in some of the longer chapters, in which he evokes his childhood in Allahabad, the joy of discovering rock music, and the influence of MTV. A contributing editor to the Indian Rolling Stone, Mehrotra began his career writing music criticism, and this book might have been far more compelling as an in-depth exploration of Indian rock and pop. The chapters on metal bands and other musicians are intriguing, but perhaps still too cursory for anyone somewhat familiar with the scene. As for the rest of the Technicolour social milieu, it’s a fair assumption that most of this book’s readers will recognise more than a few of the characters, whether or not they’re hidden behind perfunctory pseudonyms.

The book ends abruptly in the opprobrium of money and materialism. Mehrotra barely hints at what the future might hold for the butterfly generation – a metaphor that gets little attention beyond its bold typeface across the cover. This motif, at least, deserved a more concentrated effort. Or not.

The Butterfly Generation, Rain Tree, ₹450.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2012.

Published: February 4, 2012

Mission accomplished

An American architect in Delhi ♦

scan0004Some of Delhi’s most beautiful buildings sit on foreign soil. In Chanakyapuri, the American Embassy’s Chancery and Ambassador’s residence are two of independent India’s oldest diplomatic buildings – and arguably the most successful at blending modern minimalism with motifs from Mughal and British architecture. Architect Edward Durell Stone, who had already co-designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, completed the Chancery in 1959. The Ambassador’s residence, called Roosevelt House, opened in 1963.

The complex was much admired in the West, garnering a Time magazine feature and the praise of Frank Lloyd Wright, who called it “a perfectly beautiful building”. The Delhi buildings were especially celebrated because they were the first to implement a new American diplomatic policy of building foreign missions in a culturally sensitive manner. After a trip to Agra, Stone was inspired by the Taj Mahal, and drew on Indian elements to design a climate-sensitive building. A roof canopy above the top-floor ceiling dissipates the heat, and there was extensive jali-work in the residence, which became climbing walls for Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith and his sons in the ’60s. It became a tradition for guests, including Jackie Onassis Kennedy, to step across the water garden in the Chancery’s central courtyard. Once, a visiting US Colonel marched straight into the pond.

The building contracts went to Mohan Singh and his sons, who would later extend American influence in Delhi by partnering with Coca Cola when it arrived here. Stone formed long-lasting friendships with the Singh family: Stone’s son Hicks told us that the Singhs nicknamed the building the “Taj Maria”, after Edward’s new wife, who had helped him through a low point in his career just before the Embassy project. Besides being the backdrop for 50 years of diplomacy between Delhi and Washington, DC, the Embassy buildings had a far-reaching architectural impact. Stone took the same ideas and spun them into landmark buildings in the US, notably the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, back in the American capital.

Watch a newsreel of the inauguration of the US Embassy in New Delhi:

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2011.

Published: September 5, 2011

Damn nation

 Siddartha Deb finds life less than shiny in the new India ♦

the-beautiful-and-the-damnedIn The Beautiful and Damned, F Scott Fitzgerald’s profligate main characters embody the two adjectives in the title. The novel – an attempt to critique the excesses of America’s jazz age – ended up as a rather self-indulgent byproduct of it instead. Fitzgerald’s narrative only superficially encounters the oppressed classes, on whose labour the froth of that era floated.

Siddhartha Deb added an article to that title for his first non-fiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India, and the alteration is significant. Here, the adjectives describe two discrete groups: the beautiful who, like Fitzgerald’s characters, are the face of India’s wealth; and the damned – those pinned to the peripheries of modernity by corrupt systems and the spread of capitalism.

The Beautiful… is a smooth, under-300 page read, dressed in a tastefully kitsch cover, and well-suited as a catalyst for conversation. Through a reflective introduction and five chapters, each profiling a different individual or group who represents a larger swathe of society, Deb concludes that a culture-wide acceptance of aspiration sustains the lopsided economy that separates the beautiful from the damned.

Deb opens with the story of Arindam Chaudhuri, the private management school mogul. A version of this chapter appeared in the February 2011 issue of Caravan magazine, which, along with the author, Penguin India and Google India, was sued for defamation by Chaudhuri’s institution. That chapter, conspicuously absent from the Indian edition, is still being circulated on the Internet, where it has spawned a lively debate. “I like to think it’s become a bit of a multimedia project, Deb told Time Out. “The missing chapter is [the plaintiffs’] contribution. It’s a collaborative exercise.” While he felt that the Indian edition was “kind of an amputed version,” he’s Deb is glad that “in a way, it’s part of the debate that’s opening up”.

Deb had less provocative intentions when he took on the book. It began as a “wildly overambitious” way to secure a publishing advance, to cope with the financial demands of being a new father. Through five years of research, writing, and winnowing down, he settled on “five kinds of characters, who provided sufficient contrast to brush against each other.” Besides Chaudhuri, Deb explores engineers and identity crisis in IT-fuelled Bangalore in “Ghosts in the Machine”. He reports from the “navel” of India, writing in deft, evocative prose of the dusty farmlands of Telengana in “Red Sorghum”, and of steel factories stoked by the human fuel of migrant labour in “The Factory”. Finally, “The Girl from F&B”, follows a Manipuri waitress in an upscale Delhi restaurant.

As reportage, the chapters from the geographic heart of India are the strongest. Deb said he wanted to go beyond narrative journalism, to add “the layer of a novel”. Each chapter is prefaced by a series of outlining phrases, which bring to mind old-fashioned travelogues, or a novel published in installments. While writing, Deb watched The Wire – “a modern version of a nineteenth-century Dickensian serialised novel”. Other inspirations included George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s book includes the expenditure lists of unemployed miners, and Deb “was stunned by the fact that he could make weekly accounts so interesting”.

Apart from his engagement with similar accounting (digestible statistics punctuate and anchor the text), what makes Deb’s book so likeable is the narrator’s unhidden presence. The Beautiful… is a trustworthy account of a series of conversations with characters, each sketched with a novelist’s attachment (“I don’t think there’s a character I dislike”). Deb, who has published two novels, lays bare his alienation from events, and admits to sometimes viewing harsh reality in fictional terms. During his travels, he sees a limbless man approach an official to complain about government-issued footwear for lepers: “It was an absurd yet poignant detail, making Nizamabad… feel suddenly like a magical-realist setting, a feeling that was enhanced as we… saw nearly 100 children appear from nowhere… in the courtyard and shouting slogans.”

Though Deb doesn’t feel disconnected from India (he retains citizenship), as a US resident he is able to detach from this “vast, fascinating and grotesquely unequal country”. Appropriately, a main reason for staying abroad – his young son – ties him to his characters in the most fundamental way. For despite their wrenching poverty or blinding wealth, the common denominator among new Indians is still an old truth: the people around you, especially family, always take precedence over idealism or the common good. The Beautiful… isn’t an attempt to reverse this psychology – it’s a firm reminder that the personal and the universal go hand in hand. “I want people to know that we’ve been in a fever dream about becoming a superpower,” he said. “And if we don’t treat each other well, it won’t last.

The Beautiful and the Damned, Penguin, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2011.

Published: August 4, 2011