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A Conversation With: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

A Conversation With: Literary Critic and Novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi ♦

faruqiIndia’s literary establishment is abuzz about the recently published novel “The Mirror of Beauty,” a 984-page fictional account about the life and times of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the famed Urdu poet Daag Dehalvi, set mostly in Delhi and its environs during the 19th century. A beautiful and spirited woman, Wazir mingles with the noblemen of the Mughal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the English officers of the East India Company, the poets of the age and a whole panorama of other unforgettable characters.

“The Mirror of Beauty” is a translation of the original 2006 Urdu-language novel “Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasmaan” by its author, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Mr. Faruqi, 78, who retired as a top bureaucrat in the Indian Postal Service, is a leading figure of Urdu literary criticism. He spoke to India Ink in Delhi about how he created the world of 19th century Delhi for “The Mirror of Beauty” and what he hopes young readers will get out of the book.

You live in Allahabad, a relatively smaller city, and your work has mostly been read by those within the Urdu-speaking or academic world. Suddenly you have a celebrity author like Orhan Pamuk calling your book “an erudite, amazing historical novel.” What’s it been like to step into the global literary spotlight?
I feel uncertain about all this. I am not sure that I really deserve all this attention, all this lionizing. I told my editor that I feel small, knowing that you guys are building me up so much, like a colossus. I am now long past those things. I have faced so much criticism in my life, from my own people, and also I have earned praise, love and appreciation. It makes no difference to me whether it is the global environment or the backwater of Allahabad. If Orhan Pamuk writes well about me, I’m happy; if he didn’t write well, I wouldn’t mind.

Writers in English can usually assume a global readership. Though Urdu was a lingua franca, at least in India, 150 years ago, its contemporary literature has a more specific audience. How did the shift in audience affect your translation?
The novel is slightly longer than the Urdu version, because I had to explain certain things. And of course translating two lines of verse in Urdu might expand to four or five lines in English. One theory of translation is that it is worthless unless it sounds like translation. I really don’t agree with that at all, because when you are transferring a certain kind of cultural code and symbolism, which is so utterly alien, it is unfair on the reader to make her feel, all the time, that “yes, I am reading something in high Urdu in the English form.” Like some English woman wearing Indian dress.

How did you go about researching and reinventing the worlds of 19th century Delhi — from the descriptions of carpet-weaving to courtly etiquette?
I didn’t do any systematic, formal research. As I wrote, I did consult a few books when I needed to verify some particular detail, dates mostly. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the novel had always existed in my head as an amorphous, identity-less entity. Facts, memories, impressions — and of course my reading before I’d began to compose the novel — it was all there — a chaos, especially because I didn’t have anything like an idea to write a novel with Wazir Khanam as the chief character.

Of course, I was incomparably enriched by my love for pre-modern Persian and Urdu poetry. Later, what went into my unconscious, more than I realized, was my reading of the Dastan of Amir Hamza, a series of loosely linked oral romances whose 46 volumes and 42,000-plus pages and more than 20 million words I read, and in some cases reread, since about 1980. I’ll always remain obliged to Frances Pritchett [professor emerita at Columbia University] who directed my attention to the Dastan.

For both Urdu and English novels, you restricted yourself to words from the 19th-century lexicon. “The Mirror of Beauty” is very readable, but is the original book a challenge for native Urdu speakers?.
People have been admiring it for sheer size and expanse, but everybody has complained: you didn’t give a glossary, you should have given the Farsi [Persian] in translation. Even in Pakistan, people complained. Not that it was not popular – it went through two editions in four years or so, which is somewhat remarkable for an Urdu novel. I made it the way it is quite consciously, writing in a register which is no longer spoken — archaic Urdu which is unfamiliar to most people. I didn’t care. I was doing my thing. I had to be faithful to my own vision.

There’s a strong rapport between Indian and Pakistani authors writing in English – they review each other’s books, travel to each other’s festivals, make the same award lists. What about Indian and Pakistani writers in Urdu?
On a personal level, there is a lot of friendliness, a lot of coming and going and writing and reading, but it’s not wholehearted promotion. I can promote a Pakistani writer or book wholeheartedly, but the Pakistani literary establishment is reluctant to promote Indian writers so strongly. Almost every important writer who died in Pakistan or is taken as a Pakistani now – take Faiz [Ahmad Faiz], Rashid, [Saadat Hasan] Manto – everybody has written about them in India. You can’t find a comparative example [in Pakistan]. Otherwise, they are extremely cordial; they will feed you, they will wine you, they will dine you.

You’ve mentioned your interest in the historical fiction of A.S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd, among others. Are there any fictionalizations of India, particularly its Mughal history, that you looked at?
In English, Amitav Ghosh’s novels, which I have read and admired: “Sea of Poppies,” followed by “River of Smoke.” A lot of history has gone into them, although it is a history of a very narrow area, that is Bengal of the early 19th or late 18th century, particularly the opium trade. He certainly has full grasp on the material.

You’ve suggested that you wrote “The Mirror of Beauty” not just as a pleasant trip back through time. Could you talk a bit more about that?
I was hoping that if young people read this book, they will learn more about themselves – where they came from, how they were formed — the pain of separation, of discontinuity [from] what the world was before 1857. Though it was already crumbling, they had a world which was self-conscious, which was sure of its self-worth, which could match with any other culture or any other society anywhere – but for the adverse information and propaganda handed out to us by our colonial master.

In any case, every past is worth revisiting, even if it is the dirtiest possible past. But this past is not dirty. This past is honorable. And this past is more literate, more cultured, more sophisticated than today’s present. I am hoping people who take the trouble of reading it will find it an easy book to read, in the sense that the story goes along and keeps you interested, and ultimately they will know where they came from, what they were.

Originally published in The New York Times“India Ink” blog, July 17, 2013.

Published: July 17, 2013

News flashback

Anuja Chauhan’s third romantic comedy is set in Delhi of the 1980s ♦

Those-Pricey-Thakur-Girls-600x864A tall, dark and distinctively handsome journalist with a conscience meets a beautiful, intelligent “DeshDarpan” newsreader with four sisters, a house on Hailey Road and a distinctive mole on her chin. Delhi in the 1980s and India’ widening mediascape are the backdrop of Anuja Chauhan’s latest romantic fiction – her third after The Zoya Factor (which drew on cricket culture) and Battle for Bittora (politics and electioneering).

Debjani, the second-youngest of retired Judge Thakur’s five overprotected daughters is a dreamer with a love for underdogs, who is finally blooming, as her mother might say, into a proper young lady with romantic prospects. She’s just started a job as a national news reader on DD when she meets Dylan Singh Shekhawat, an investigative reporter thirsting for justice for the victims of the 1984 anti- Sikh riots, which he witnessed.

As in her previous books, Chauhan thinly disguises historical characters and events, stirring up a familiar stew of places, dates and personalities. Political scandals, cultural phenomena and a society in transition form a pleasantly recognisable milieu in which the action unfolds on the scale of one family’s dramas. Chauhan chatted with Sonal Shaha about the book.

What were you up to in Delhi in the ’80s and where did the idea of this house on Hailey Road come from?
I passed out in ’88, so most of the ’80s were spent in school. I was exactly where Eshwari [the youngest sister] is in the book. I wanted to write a book about a family property dispute because I know lots and lots of families who were going through that. More and more we all have some grandmother’s house or something which is owned by lots of uncles and aunts. Everywhere people were breaking down bungalows and going in for this condo sort of living, so there was this transition phase I wanted to catch. People had so many brothers and sisters those days and that’s why, I think, those houses are so fiercely disputed now. Also I felt that there was lots of scope for humour. Only in Indian families people will have sued each other but they’ll still be eating breakfast together; they meet at weddings and they’re all hugging and dancing together.

Then Hailey Road – one, I wanted people from all over India to understand, so I thought next to Connaught Place is a good place, because people know [it] and it was like a big hub. Then, I had an uncle, as in a dad’s friend uncle, who had a big old house on Hailey Road – it was notoriously famous for these disputed houses.

The alphabetical naming of the five Thakur sisters was a masterful way of organising the characters…
I gave my husband an initial draft to read and he was like, “Oh my god, I can’t…” So then I thought, I’ll make it alphabetical – and it sort of works with the Judge’s personality. People do these things… name children Raja and Rani… Like my sisters have rhyming names.

anuja

Anuja Chauhan

There’s this dark backdrop of the 1984 riots, but the house on Hailey road seems constantly drenched in sunshine.
Yes, and that was what was really pissing Dylan off, because he was like: “You guys are clueless! You sit in here and it’s all about girls and their little embroidered shorts! What’s wrong with you!” I just wanted to create that walled garden, where they haven’t even noticed the riots, they have no clue.

Can you tell me more about next year’s sequel, The House That BJ Built?
When I started writing [Those Pricey Thakur Girls] I realised that I can’t write it in one book, because you have to trace several generations. I actually toyed with starting it in the ’50s, but then I thought that’s too [far back]. My daughters are 15 and 17 now and they seem quite into this whole ’80s thing; they were very intrigued.

So in [The House That BJ Built], all these girls are gonna be aunts and it’s going to be a lot about fashion actually because Bonu [a child in the current book] is going to be running, you know, a lot of girls have these little tailoring boutiques and a Masterji and ten people sitting… Because her dad believes in being a businessman, she’s going to have, like, a very strong sense of business, and she’s going to be ripping off clothes from Hindi movies. Anyway, I shouldn’t be talking about it so much…

Do you see the family saga spiraling out into other stories?
I thought I needed to do Eshwari and Anjini’s book, [set] in the ’90s and then come to Bonu’s book in the 2000s, but I don’t know. I’m so un-enamoured by the ’90s. I spent [them] having children.

How did you keep track of all the individual histories?
With this one I went a little crazy. Actually, I must have written about 800 pages, and the book is only 400 pages. So I took it forward a lot more before I realised, oh god, I need another book. I was just completely ruthless – I chopped out and threw. But the only thing I felt really bad about cutting was Dylan and Debjani’s church wedding and then a Hindu wedding and then a wedding night…

If you could imagine writing about 2013, 30 years in the future, what kinds of details do you think you might pick out?
I think that only with the wisdom of hindsight can you write that kind of stuff. Because if you were writing in the ’80s, you’d have assumed that Doordarshan was powerful… booking a trunk call after 10.30 and all that… these are things that only make sense because you have the benefit of hindsight.

Those Pricey Thakur Girls, HarperCollins, ₹350.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2013.

Published: March 4, 2013

Holy trinity

Manil Suri on writing the third of his mythological novels ♦

deviMath professor and writer Manil Suri grew up in Bombay, but has lived in the USA since attending college there in the 1980s. Suri revisited his home city in his first novel, Death of Vishnu, which was long-listed for a Booker in 2001. His next book took up the theme of Shiva, and the third and last of this mythological trilogy, The City of Devi, revolves around an apocalyptic Mumbai of the near future, in which the city’s patron goddess enjoys a cultish following. Suri spoke to Sonal Shah about the novel.

The book revolves around a love triangle formed by Sarita, her husband Karun, and his ex-boyfriend Jaz, but only two of them narrate the story. Was Karun ever a voice in the book too?
I never had him as a narrator; I always thought that two people would be talking about this third person, who you never really see. You can’t really record what he’s thinking that easily on the page so that was kind of challenging. It works well because he is supposed to be sort of inscrutable –it’s only towards the end that you sort of understand what is in his mind.

After finishing the book, I felt a sense of relief that the world isn’t quite as embroiled in conflict as in The City of Devi. Do you feel the world is as close to the brink as in the novel?
The possibility that something like this could happen is very small, because there are many safeguards. The reason that things go so far is that India and Pakistan, they’re at this pre-nuclear stage – they had reached that in 2002, where embassies were evacuating their people from India. But the US and the UN stepped in and brokered a peace agreement, so things calmed down. Here you don’t have that safeguard because the West is involved in its own problems – cyber attacks and so on. This is definitely on the edges of the possible. But even improbable events, they do occur. We are in a kind of vulnerable position because Pakistan is – it’s not clear what’s going to happen there… the political system is unravelling and they have nuclear weapons, so it’s a little scary.

Though your book is set in a semi-imaginary time, I suppose it’s difficult to strike a note of authenticity when you’re writing about recognisable scenes and people, especially if you’re at a distance from them.
One thing that helps is that I do come back pretty often – three times a year for a while and now once or twice a year. All the places that are in that journey by train [in the book], I actually walked most of it myself to see what things were there… even little things, like there’s some sculpture made out of gloves in Bandra, and that’s actually there. There’s a scene where the train goes off the tracks, and I kind of scouted that like shooting a film, looking at locations.

manilSexual relationships – and their ups and downs – drive much of the book’s plot. Why did you decide to use sex to shape your narrative arc?
One of the things you want to be sure of is that any sex is not gratuitous. Here you keep learning more about the characters in terms of what’s happening between them. India always has this strange relationship with sex – obviously people have a lot of sex but they’re a little reticent to talk about it. In my two previous books as well, I’ve kind of tried to write about it, and it’s very easy to go overboard. I think I’m always a little careful, and it takes me a long time to do it. But especially in this book, once I had the character of Jaz, this had to be a very honest book in terms of his sexuality. And there’s this final [sex] scene at the end – that took some time to figure out. Once I thought of it, it made perfect sense. The structure came slowly, but once I saw it, I had a goal.

Half the book is the voice of this gay Indian Muslim character, who is also an outsider in other ways. What inspired him?
Originally Jaz was an American – part of this book actually occurred in the US and Jaz was not a particularly fun-loving guy. He didn’t have this irreverent tone to his voice. Then I thought this wasn’t working, so let me make him an Indian. Then, it seemed to make sense – how about someone who is really quite globalised, almost a symbol of globalisation. He’s travelled all over the world, so he has this very multi-faceted personality. Once I had that, then suddenly the voice came. This guy is really out there, he’s completely uninhibited when it comes to sex. Jaz in some sense is an agent of change. India has been interacting more and more with the rest of the world, so this is kind of the frontier that it’s crossing. Incidentally, I just bought an issue of Time Out Mumbai – the gay issue which is on stands right now – it’s amazing to see how far the country, or at least Bombay, has come.

What’s next after this trilogy?
I’m working on something that’s going to draw on both mathematics and fiction, sort of a math novel. I know it’s going to have an ebook format, and also might have some video in it. I’m making sketches for the videos and hopefully will have a professional animator.

Manil Suri’s The City of Devi, Bloomsbury India, ₹499.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2013.

Published: February 4, 2013

Eternal returns

William Dalrymple on researching Return of a King, his history of the First Afghan War ♦

returnkingIn Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, William Dalrymple’s third book set during the decline of Mughal rule, the Scottish historian and adoptive Dilliwala chronicles the first British military foray into the land of Khurasan, between 1839 and 1842. To tell the story of this failed expedition and the British-backed reinstatement of Shah Shuja, the last Sadozai Durrani ruler, Dalrymple not only drew from several neglected Afghan sources but also retraced the routes of various campaigns and retreats – thus bringing to life the arduous terrain and colourful cast of the conflict in an engaging, anecdotal style (the book also includes a wealth of archival images, miniature paintings and useful maps). Besides sharing some of his travel photos with Time Out, Dalrymple discussed his trip – and the far-ranging implications of the First Afghan War – in an email interview.

Given your interest in languages, what was it like to travel in an area with so many different ones, from different backgrounds, intermixing? Can you recall any anecdotes in Afghanistan where a knowledge of any particular language played a crucial part in the outcome of your trip (or even just provided amusement along the way)?
Given that so many Afghans were refugees in Pakistan, and many more love Bollywood, Hindi is surprisingly widely understood across the country. But Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi, is the key language, and most of the new sources I’ve used in this project – two epic poems, the autobiography of Shah Shuja, three court histories and the letters of various resistance leaders – are in Dari or Farsi. The Durrani court at this period was Persian both in court culture and language.

While physically tracing back over the routes you were researching must have been incredible, your list of sources – some of them never used before – indicates that a good many of your adventures must have taken place within the dusty reading rooms of the archives of Delhi, Lahore, Kabul and London. Can you describe a particular wonderful moment of discovery within the stacks?
The first big discovery I made, and the one which convinced me there was a book here, was the archive of the first Great Game spymaster, Sir Claude Wade, which I unearthed in the Punjab Archives which lie in Anarkali’s tomb in Lahore, the most romantically situated archive in the world. Wade was the first to train up Indian agents to send him intelligence from beyond the Hindu Kush and he built up a whole network of “intelligencers” across the region. I found new Afghan sources in Herat, Kandahar and even in the Persian collection of the National Archives in Delhi, but the biggest haul was from Kabul. Here, a young Afghan Fulbright Scholar took me to a bookshop in Jowy Sheer where the bookseller, Hayatullah Habibi, had bought up many of the princely libraries in the the 1970s and ‘80s. In a few hours, I had in my hands nine major printed Persian accounts of the First Afghan War, all well-known to Dari-speaking Afghan scholars but entirely unused by historians working in English.

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels

In the book, you talk about how people you met and Afghan sources you read tended to mythologise the First Afghan War and use this story to paint the current American occupation of the country. As a foreigner travelling in these parts, how do you think your efforts to retell this history were perceived?
The First Afghan War is largely forgotten in Britain, but is remembered by every Afghan. It is their freedom struggle, their Waterloo, their Trafalgar, their Battle of Britain, all rolled into one. It is the defining conflict that the Afghan remember as the source of their independence – that they alone in this region never succumbed to colonial rule. The diplomatic district, Wazir Akbar Khan, the Chanakyapuri of Kabul, is named after the Afghan prince who murdered the British envoy while he was negotiating the surrender terms.

Conversely, you argue that Western powers still haven’t taken to heart the story and lessons of their first military foray into the region. Do you think this is in part due to the kinds of histories that have been written about the struggle for a English-speaking audience? In the context of Western historiography, what’s your hope for the political power of Return of a King?
The First Afghan War is a conflict with remarkable parallels to the current mess. Around the time I was finishing The Last Mughal, I became aware that events in Afghanistan were beginning to closely resemble what had happened there in the 1830s and 1840s and that to some extent, history was repeating itself. The closer I looked, the more the West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distinct echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day. For the First Afghan War was waged on the basis of doctored intelligence about a virtually nonexistent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was exaggerated and manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks to create a scare – in this case, about a phantom Russian invasion. As John MacNeill, the Russophobe British ambassador, wrote from Tehran in 1838: “We should declare that he who is not with us is against us… We must secure Afghanistan.” Thus was brought about an unnecessary, expensive and entirely avoidable war.

The failures then contain many instructive lessons for us today. Indeed, the whole conflict today proves Burke’s famous dictum: those who do not know history are destined forever to repeat it.

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels in Afghanistan

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels in Afghanistan

It’s been almost 20 years since the publication of City of Djinns and your exploration of the strong Sufi tradition of South Asia in Delhi. What was your impression of the legacy and potential power of this mystical strain in Afghanistan today?
The Taliban tried to crush the Sufis, and in many shrine-tombs in Afghanistan you find barriers they erected to stop people circling the saints’ mazars. But such deep-rooted habits, and such profound philosophies, are difficult to crush, and I saw thriving Sufi dargahs all over Afghanistan, and an especially powerful wajd ceremony at the great Timurid shrine of Gazar Gah outside Herat.

What was the most hair-raising moment during your travels?
As my car entered the airport perimeter in Kandahar we received a sniper shot in the rear window. Luckily the car was armoured and the bullet didn’t penetrate the second layer of glass. I also witnessed an IED go off just below Kandahar at the shrine of Baba Wali – just beside the compound where Bin Laden plotted 9/11.

And the most exhilarating or wonderful point of your trip?
Visiting the shrines and ruins of Herat. The city is the Agra of Afghanistan, containing the ruins of the great buildings constructed by Shah Rukh, the son of Timur, and Gohar Shad, one of the great women of Islamic history. Anywhere else in the world these spectacular buildings would be swamped with tourists. But today you have them to yourself.

In many ways, the history of the First Afghan War is a knot with many threads tied to other very interesting stories – the tale of the Koh-i-Noor, the rise of the Sikh Empire, and the 1857 Uprising. Has researching this book inspired you to embark on any new projects, or are you thinking of working on something completely different next?
This is the third of my trilogy set between the fall of the Mughals and the rise of the British and it is bookended by White Mughals and The Last Mughal. Next, I’d like to do a book which uses my training as an art historian – a sort of updated, art historical version of AL Basham’s classic, The Wonder that was India. I’d love to do something really ambitious and sweeping – a wide-ranging cultural history. I know the landscape I want to explore but haven’t yet found my map through it. So lots of reading and museumvisiting lie ahead of me – and I’m much looking forward to it.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Bloomsbury, ₹799.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 2012.

Published: December 4, 2012

Long exposure

Chirodeep Chaudhuri captured Durga Puja at his ancestral village in Bengal over 12 years ♦

chiroTwelve years is a long engagement for an artistic project. But by saving up his vacation, Chirodeep Chaudhuri (formerly Time Out’s national art director), managed to capture Durga Puja in his family village of Amadpur over just such a length of time. He chatted with Sonal Shah about putting together A Village in Bengal.

The black-and-white photos recall a pre-Incredible India approach to shooting the country. Why didn’t you shoot in colour?
When I started the project, since it was completely self-funded, black-and-white was cheaper. I was also working at the Sunday Observer, where I had access to a dark room so I would print free of cost. [Later] I’d set up a little dark room at home where I would be processing my films late in the night. All of this allowed me, in those early years, to keep costs down. Secondly, I don’t think in those initial years I was very good at shooting colour – it required a certain kind of discipline. It would have been a completely different book; none of these pictures would actually translate in colour. The time when Durga Puja happens, it’s a very odd time of the year, the light is very bad, very harsh. I don’t think in those days I had the requisite skill to pull off something of that nature in colour.

This also recalls the atmosphere of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, which you mention as an influence in your introductory essay.
The one very important aspect of this whole work was this sense of silence, which you encounter in that place. It’s very hard to describe if people haven’t spent time in rural settings of a certain kind – obviously you get used to it, but on that first day, when you get out of the station and you’re making your way out of the market on those kaccha roads and stuff, after a point this silence kind of hits you. I thought that was a very important aspect to maintain. Colour would have added a certain amount of noise to the overall mood.

And typically, images of Indian festivals tend to suggest noise and tamasha…
This is something which I have been accused of very often with some of my Bombay work: “Your Bombay pictures are too quiet”. In this case, this whole setting is quiet; it’s also a very slow pace. I would imagine at least a third of the pictures are of people seated. I don’t think that’s necessarily a misrepresentation, but it was done as a very conscious decision to create this ambience of slowing down of pace. In Calcutta, someone like my mother, I rarely see her sitting down. [In Amadpur] I would see them basically kind of lounging about.

There’s also an unposed intimacy to these pictures of people lounging…
The pictures I’d shot of my family in those early years – people were very self-conscious. Most people didn’t really know me. It would be like, you know, “He’s come on his little exotic vacation”. It took me a couple of years for people to accept my presence. Towards the later years, nobody gave a damn if I was taking pictures. Some of my uncles would be like “Kitna tu shoot karega? Har saal same cheez shoot karta rehta hai.” After a point, I was as much part of the regulars as a lot of others. One of my really favorite pictures is of my sister-in-law talking with my niece, and she’s kind of bent over – those kind of pictures, I don’t think I could have done them in year two, or year three.

There are actually three different stages where this whole story’s being played out. There’s the complete public space, which is the village: you’re seeing cattle, you’re seeing villagers. Then you’re seeing this kind of common private-public space, which is the thakur dalan – where people usually assemble at certain predetermined times for reasons of worship and all that. After that, people kind of go off into their respective houses and things. I started going into those more private areas in a much later stage. After year seven, year eight, people just stopped caring – this was the guy [who] would have his bloody cameras and he would go gallivanting into the village… it became a bit of a joke in the family.

And you carried on shooting in film?
Except the last year, when I shot digital, because I lost my entire bag of equipment and didn’t think it made sense to buy a film camera, given the way the scene had changed completely. The last year was really about tying up loose ends – so digital helped, in the sense that I don’t think I had any more patience to say “Oh shit, ye hua nahin, I’m going to go back 360 days later and just do that one picture.”

Will you keep up the yearly tradition of returning to Amadpur?
I don’t think this is going to go on for too long. Most people have kind of moved out of a milieu like this. If it was exotic for me, for the next generation it’s even more exotic. I don’t think they would really ensure that it continues. It would probably just die off for all you know, however terrible it makes me feel. I don’t see it continuing into the next generation, unless there’s something dramatic that happens. West Bengal tourism, in Calcutta, have this thing where they take tourists around to certain old family Durga Pujas. From this year, supposedly, our family Puja in Amadpur has been included. Now I don’t know what this means for the whole thing – does it give it a new lease of life? Does it turn things on its head completely and make it into something very crass? I mean, a busload of 30, 40 people just landing up suddenly, I don’t know what it would become.

Do you see another long project ahead?
Most of the ideas I work on are long engagements, relatively speaking that is. I can be very very obsessive about ideas once I’m on to it. I realised over the last two years that I was finding myself getting tired a little quicker, so I don’t know if I would be able to continue with this in the village for another 14 years now. Also, in the course of doing this, there was a lot of wisdom that was accumulated in terms of photography and understanding various things about narrative construction and things like that. A lot of the stuff I’m doing now would therefore come quicker. With that project it was all kind of meandering around and there were things which I was figuring out.

The meandering style does suit the subject.
It just seems like the most natural way that this project could have have gone off – I’ve been looking at this first copy of the book since it arrived –I’m questioning it myself: why the fuck did it take like 14 years? This could have been done during one Durga Puja…

Yes, but then you’d be out there with a shot-list – it’s refreshingly not savvy in that way.
There’s a huge amount of reflection which kind of happens in those intervening 360 days each year. The weird thing is that it’s actually been shot over 60 days over 12 years – so it’s actually the amount of time which a lot of photographers nowadays spend on their projects. But I think they don’t have the luxury of those in-between spaces which I had.

A Village in Bengal, Pan MacMillan India, ₹2,499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2012.
Chirodeep Chaudhuri captured Durga Puja at his ancestral village in Bengal over 12 years

Published: October 4, 2012

Murder most fowl

Tarquin Hall discusses his latest Delhi mystery ♦

butterFor the third of the Vish Puri mystery series, journalist and author Tarquin Hall dispatched the Punjabi private eye far from his Khan Market office. Hall met Sonal Shah at Khan’s L’Opéra patisserie to chat about The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken.

Did you set out to write so much about how Delhi has changed?
The whole idea is to show India today. Obviously Puri lives in Delhi, I live in Delhi, so this is what I’m familar with. In my lifetime, London has changed dramatically, so has New York. But Delhi’s been through unbelievably rapid change. I mean people go on about ‘Khan Market has changed beyond all recognition’. It hasn’t really. Here you’ve got croissants and these little meringue things that sell for like R500 each, but the pavements are still the same. I came by the other day, and there was a Dalit going down into a sewer. The market behind hasn’t changed at all. You’ve got this new version of India bolted on to all the older versions. You only have to have Vish Puri walk through Khan Market and it’s there.

When Puri travels to Pakistan, it’s almost like a throwback to an older India.
I wanted to do a story about a Pakistani murdered in India, and I wanted the backstory to be Partition. I first went to Peshawar when I was 19, to travel with the Mujahideen. When I was in India in the mid-’90s, I used to travel there quite often, by air. I decided Puri would go overland, because he hates flying and it would be int­eresting to have him cross phy­sically over the border. So I had to go do that last May. It was incredibly poignant – I had tears in my eyes. But I had to do it through the eyes of a 52-year-old chubby guy. It’s interesting to travel like that; see things his way. The Pearl Con­tinental in Ra­walpindi, where I put Puri – those hotels in Pakistan are just like the Taj used to be or the Oberoi here. They haven’t been all swankified. It reminded me of India in those days – everything’s slightly musty-smelling; you sort of felt nostalgic.

There’s always a nice pitter-patter about what Puri is eating. Are you a glutton like him?
I try not to be. We eat at Colonel’s Kababz a lot. But I don’t think you can have a Delhi Punjabi detective without him being a foodie. Some of these new restaurants though, you get sticker-shock from. Puri would probably find the food too overpriced  – he’s a bit of a chicken frankie man and that generation doesn’t like eating in restaurants that much. We went to – is it Floof? Ploof, in Lodhi Market. It was great, but, my god, the bill! Given what the majority of people are living on in this country, you can’t help but think about that.

It’s something you contend with in the book as well…
There’s this huge disconnect – we had it yesterday. Our children’s ayah had been coming for the last week with this bag [of laundry] everyday. Apparently, half of Delhi hasn’t had water for about a week, because some pipe burst. And you know, we’re going to Floof, Ploof, whatever – floofy floofy – you know, eating our pork chops.

You’re already working on the next Vish Puri book?
A lot of it is set in rural India, which I haven’t really sent Vish Puri into yet. The main plot is about a couple from different castes – one Dalit and one upper-caste – who want to marry, from rural UP. And meanwhile, [Puri’s mother] and a whole bunch of the family go on the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage, which I just did a few weeks ago. It’s fun doing that stuff and putting it in these books.

You seem to have a lot of fun with the subplots…
In India there is always a lot going on. Every shopkeeper’s serving five customers at once; every bus­inessman is answering three phones. So a private detective always has god knows how many cases. Like with the whole Surat [subplot in Butter Chicken]. I want to do a whole piece about diamonds. The Angadia couriers are just phe­nomenally interesting. I was there for a few days, and I did go and talk to a couple of them but they’re really guarded and secretive. I would like to go back and do that story. All these indigenous systems and ways of doing things are just extraordinary. When I come across something like that, I’ve got to get that in, it doesn’t really matter how. So the plot has to be secondary to work with that, which is probably a mistake. I like to think that my plots are getting better, but then I never thought I’d be writing detective fiction – I was a journalist. When I started, I just thought I’d write about what I’ve seen, and there should be some kind of plot. Which I don’t think is how Agatha Christie did it.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, Random House India, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, June 2012.

Published: June 22, 2012

Yoko Ono

The avante-garde artist performs and exhibits in Delhi ♦

yoko ono

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This article is part of a cover story on performance art in India.

Yoko Ono’s artistic journey has been a strange one. When she became a household name, her avant-garde art became just one more reason for the mainstream media to vilify her. But as Dilliwalas are finding out, all that was a very long time ago. Ono recently performed “To India With Love” and inaugurated a show, Our Beautiful Daughters, in Delhi – giving the capital a first-hand look at why she is, and always has been, much more than Mrs John Lennon.

What marks Ono’s first working visit to India is not her celebrity status, but the fact that the show (which runs parallel to a retrospective, The Seeds) is a notable addition to the artist’s body of work – the latest in a number of polished exhibitions that have, since her first major retrospective Yes Yoko Ono (New York, 2000), increasingly ensured her canonic position in contemporary art. Ono’s India outing encompasses participatory work, film, performance, activism, installation and sound. Despite its breadth and celebrity shine, this event is a particular success because it channels the raw, off-key edge that has fuelled Ono’s work since the 1950s.

324500_362154970477208_792094657_o“My intent has not changed,” Ono told Time Out over email, before arriving in Delhi. Then, as now, “I was working without the concern of the size of the audience of my work.” That intent – to change the way people think – infuses everything she does: from haiku-length “instructions” to the 30-foot column of light that shoots up from Iceland’s Imagine Peace Tower – the 2007 fulfillment of a dream born during her first meeting with Lennon.

Besides these physical pieces, Ono’s most iconic work is “Cut Piece”, first performed in 1964, in Japan. Ono sat on stage while audience members cut off pieces of her clothes to create an intense interaction charged with violence and intimacy. Ono performed the piece several times, including at Carnegie Recital Hall. Depending on the audience, the show could be tame and polite or a threatening free-for-all. Ono downplayed the work’s importance: “‘Cut Piece’ and other performance I have done around then may have motivated some people to be less afraid of expressing themselves,” she said. But the work is a milestone in performance art: a riveting minimalist piece, devoid of the blood and gore that so many avant-garde artists use to grab attention.

That quiet wit, often leavened with puckish humour, is a quality Ono shares with others of her time. Around 1961, artists like John Cage, La Monte Young and George Maciunas coalesced at her New York loft, and the colla­borative creative space was instrumental in kick-starting Fluxus.

Collaboration has continued to be an important aspect of Ono’s work. Her shows are created as much by attendees following instructions as by Ono herself. (See Ono’s instruction postcard included in Time Out subscriber copies) One floor of Our Beautiful Daughters is dedicated to interactive pieces: “Mend Piece”, which involves fixing broken ceramic bowls; “My Mommy Is Beautiful”, an art wall to celebrate motherhood; “India Smile”, a photo booth that adds participants to the global Smiling Face Film; and others. There’s also a wish tree (one of 20 around the city), one of Ono’s most popular projects, in which people write and tie their dreams on a tree. We asked her if she was familiar with the Indian practice of tying threads around trees. She replied with a little story: “A very clever Japanese warrior of long time ago was asked by the lord to report how many trees were in his land. The lord did not think the warrior can do that. But the warrior brought the number very quickly. The warrior tied every tree with a string, and later took the strings off and counted them. I see the uncanny resemblance of that and the Indian practice you speak of. Do Asians have similar DNA? :)”

That response is vintage Ono: slightly off-topic, a little deflecting, but still seeking to connect through humour. The emoticon is typical too: An avid Twitter user, Ono tweets 140-character koan-like instructions, and answers fan questions every Friday. Social media hasn’t changed art, Ono said, “It’s the other way around. We performers changed the understanding of the social media. That’s what artists do.” Ono said new technology has made it possible to fulfill old, “farfetched” dreams (like the Imagine Peace Tower), but the dreams themselves haven’t changed.

These dreams, for Ono, have centred on promoting non-violence and addressing feminist issues. For India, she created a large installation “Remember Us”, a comment on the rules that bind women. “I wanted to share the worth of women of India with both women and men,” she said. Fifteen silicone female bodies, ranging in age and size and cast from real people, lie in segmented black boxes filled with coal. Three bowls of ash on the far end of the room stir associations with sati, or, less dramatically, cooking fires. At night, the bodies, which are soft to the touch, are covered by textiles made by Rajasthani women.

Besides the installation, posters in the style of the Ono and Lennon’s famous “War is Over! (If you want it)” advertisement, are up around the city. (See facing page for an ad created for Time Out Delhi.) As a committed peace activist in the last couple of bloody decades, Ono remains optimistic about art’s potential to change the world. Speaking about last year’s revolutions and protests around the world, she said, “The protests are performance art, with the intent of changing the world for the better. Don’t criticise. Enjoy.” In characteristic instructive fashion, she added, “We are at the point of stepping into the new world. Let’s not be negative about the fantastic vision we have of it. It’s time for action!”

At 78, Ono herself is energetically active, producing dance floor hits and travelling the world. Despite those who might dismiss her, she is the consummate survivor. The WWII bombing of Tokyo, the male-dominated mid-century art scene, marriage to the world’s most famous rock musician, the kidnapping of her daughter, and the murder of her soulmate – she’s lived through a lot. Yet Yoko Ono’s artistic strength lies in the universal concerns that echo through her work, transcending these individual experiences of suffering.

Read more about performance art in India.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2012.

Published: January 20, 2012

Consuming passion

Anjum Anand ♦

anjumAnjum Anand served a station full of beefy British fire-fighters naan and lamb curry – cooked by one of their fellows – in the last season of her debut cooking show Indian Food Made Easy. However, the meal was not as heavy as the usual lunch the fire-fighters consume. “Light” Indian food is London-based author and chef Anand’s forte. Before publishing her first cookbook Indian Every Day (2003), she worked in hotels in New York, Los Angeles and New Delhi, but wanted to focus on “stylish food that is simple enough to cook at home”. The first season of Indian Food…taught kitchen-phobes how to make “easy” dishes. The second season follows the same format, but focuses on regional food. Anand shares some insights before her show airs this fortnight.

How is this second season different from the first?
The premise is that we find hubs of Indian communities in Great Britain. Each episode focuses on one community and its food. It is a great way of imparting information about the regions of India, their history or culture…

What new information would an Indian audience find in the series?
The food is what pulls in the audiences and it is both traditional and contemporary. In one show I had to feed a team of rugby players with Gujarati food. I wanted to keep the show vegetarian, but these big-built rugby players associated Indian food with lamb or chicken curry. I ended up teaching them a lamb curry inspired by Gujaratis who have started to eat meat. I used typical Gujarati cooking styles like adding gram flour and fenugreek dumplings (muthiyas).

What are your impressions of India’s food industry?
It has, until recently, been dominated by a handful of cooks who were cooking Indian food in the same way it has been prepared for decades. That is all changing. Younger people are bringing in their creativity and their enthusiasm for foreign cuisines. Indians have always loved food and are now able to eat from almost any country in the world. It is a really exciting time.

Any negative impressions?
I see a move away from home cooking to buying in your food or eating out. I do think this is a little sad as home food is often healthier. Also, this is the first step to losing some of the cookery knowledge that passes down from one generation to the next. I met a Kashmiri recently who told me that many of their dishes were disappearing from kitchen repertoires as girls were not interested in cooking. He was concerned about who will teach them [those dishes] to the next generation. I feel the same way.

People call you the Indian Nigella Lawson. Are you flattered by that?
I take it all with a big pinch of salt. I am very flattered to be called the Nigella of Indian cuisine as she is fantastic at what she does – but in truth our styles of cooking and presenting are very different and I can only dream of having her kind of success.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2009.

Published: July 24, 2009

Flights of fantasy

An interview with Alia Syed ♦

1911Experimental filmmaker Alia Syed was born in Swansea, Wales, to Indian and Welsh parents. Over the last thirteen years, Syed’s films have discussed diaspora, subjectivity and narrative, creating mesmerizing visual experiences. From the 24th of December to the 31st of March, Delhi’s Talwar Gallery held Syed’s first solo show in India, Elision. Recently, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, screened Eating Grass (2003) – a film ‘inspired’ by Pakistani former president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s 1974 promise to Pakistanis that they would have weapons of mass destruction to rival India’s, even if they had to eat grass to fund them. Syed weaves political and historical references into her work, but she also captures the process of filmmaking itself. Sonal Shah gets into a Q and A with the London-based Syed.

Sonal Shah: You are an artist and a filmmaker. Do you see ‘film as art’?

Alia Syed: Art is not medium-specific. I don’t classify ‘film as art’ any more than I do painting or sculpture. Film has been part of human consciousness since the late 19th century and it is part and parcel of Modernist thought, influencing the way we think of time, perception and notions of the real. Man Ray made his first film Le Retour à la Raison (Return to Reason) in 1923 and artists have been experimenting with notions of the moving image ever since.

S. S.: Have there been any specific influences on your work?

A. S.: I remember being very influenced by a film by the Taviani brothers, Kaos, which encompasses four separate tales of Sicilian life. It opens in the Sicilian hills with a group of shepherds who find a male crow on a nest full of eggs. At first, they want to kill him, but then one shepherd ties a bell around the bird’s neck and sets him free. Each folk story is linked by the image of this large black ungainly bird flying and the incessant sound of a bell. I also like Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie.

S. S.: You’ve mentioned that you write stories and poems as well.

A. S.: I do not see this as a separate activity; it is very much part of my overall process.

S. S.: Broadly speaking, your films fall into two categories. Swan (1989) and Priya (2008) are abstract pieces that contain a fixed subject, repetition and a build-up towards a visual crescendo. Other works such as A Story Told (2006) and Eating Grass (2003) are more narrative. How do these different types of works relate to each other?

A. S.: We tend to think of narrative as linear, but how it affects our inner emotional landscapes does not always conform to a rational sequence. I am affected by the world in many different ways – sometimes all that is left is to stand still and observe. For me (the two modes of observation) are different aspects of how we exist in the world.

S. S.: Your films also incorporate the process of filmmaking – through the use of heightened colour effects or the inclusion of “rough cut” editing in the final works, for instance. In Priya, you treated the film like an object by burying it. Would you call this a stylistic approach?

A. S.: Style is not something that interests me. My interest lies in showing how our gaze is infinitely complex. I am concerned with notions of rupture: how to arrest the gaze, how to hold the gaze so that it becomes a meditation, a reflection. The original shot that lay before me was problematic; it was too easily consumed. I wanted to draw attention to the layers I felt lay within it. For a long time I didn’t really know how to deal with it. In between this, I made other work. I became interested in notions of the “trace” and decided to bury the film and deal with what was left.

S. S.: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Priya is a bit like a diary…

A. S.: All the vegetable matter left over from cooking went into the compost bin, so all our household waste has left marks on the surface of the film. I was very aware of seasonal changes. I planted a walnut tree in my garden and, in the late autumn, walnut juice (which behaves like a black dye) was the main component of the bin.

S. S.: Your work has been screened in both 16mm and digital formats. How much hinges on the way a gallery screens your films?

A. S.: When you show a film in a gallery, the work extends beyond the actual film. The space of projection impinges on the work. This is also true of the cinema space – there are no two cinemas with exactly the same sonic conditions. There are even more variables within the gallery. This interests me: how the work takes on other meanings; how the space enforces external geographical edits. Modern technology does offer more ways of intervention. However, the filmic image is formed very differently to the digital image and I think it has its own specificity. Whenever possible, I do prefer to show my work as 16mm projections.

S. S.: Your solo Elision was titled after a term used in film editing. Why?

A. S.: The Latin root of the word is “elidere” which means “to crush out” – this is quite literally what was done to the image in Priya. The emulsion has been crushed in the ground, forced to decay. I like the term; obviously, it describes many of the processes inherent in filmmaking and also the processes that are integral to creative thought. We begin with a certain notion, certain aspects of which are then discarded. Sentences, phrases and notes are juxtaposed to create meanings and tensions. But the contemporary world seems to hinge on elisions or omissions that maintain particular fictions. These fictions are political: they are very much about increasing control whilst creating the illusion of increased freedom.

S. S.: As a ‘diaspora artist’ your work is often seen to refer to cultural synchrony, identity and belonging. To what extent do you agree with this classification?

A. S.: I think the notion of synchrony is interesting in musical terms. It means that one has to be in time, in sync. Cultural synchrony becomes a very controlling notion – the idea of keeping in step. Time is something that is very intrinsic to filmmaking: how to pace things, when to come back, when all of the layers and associations have been exhausted.

The reality of the post-industrial era is that diaspora is made up of successive waves of migration. Narrative needs to be rethought along these new realities. It is very comforting to be able to see your own personal narrative extend before you both in terms of lineage and personal progression. We are brought up to believe that this is good, but in fact this is rarely the case. To be still is also to hold power. Ironically, it is also easier to exert control and meaning onto something that is still.

S. S.: Your third film, Swan, and your latest one, Priya, share formal similarities in their capturing of a relatively fixed subject in motion. Yet the raw, black-and-white simplicity of Swan is a sharp contrast to the riot of colours and textures in Priya. How has your work changed over time?

A. S.: When I made Swan I also made a film called Unfolding (1987), which is set in a public launderette. It is a document not only of the women who used the launderette but also of my feelings about making the film, as an outsider from a very different background. What happens throughout the piece is an analysis of language, storytelling and the politics of representation. I don’t think my concerns have changed that much. I am interested in how we represent the world through film.

S. S.: Are you working on a new project?

A. S.: I am working on a number of things – all of which have to do with notions of performance, endurance and the roles we play within the family unit.

S. S.: Speaking of family, aspects of your South Asian background are obvious in your work. Does your Welsh heritage also figure?

A. S.: I do not think you can delineate the two so sharply, as families create their own micro-culture. Oral history played an important part in my family life. Storytelling is very much part of my practice and I have inherited this concern from both my parents. My current project deals with four generations of women in my family: me, my daughter, my mother and grandmother. I use two central metaphors to investigate memory and tradition. One is the wallpaper my grandmother made and the other is the bike ride my great-grandmother used to take – travelling from a small Welsh mining village every weekend to her place of work in Neath. The journey as the crow flies is 24 miles. I intend to reenact this ride with my mother and daughter.

Originally published in Art India, 2009.

Published: June 7, 2009

Charred minars

Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie surveys the world from Guantanamo to Peshawar in an interview ♦

kamila-shamsie

(Photo: Mark Pringle)

Extending from the callousness of the Nagasaki bombing to the compassion of a spider whose web hid the Prophet Mohammed, Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, won praise from critics for its scope and detailing. Shamsie’s characters survive (or succumb to) three historic tragedies, travelling from Japan to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and New York over six decades. Despite its peripatetic plot, Burnt Shadows is tightly written, with rich relationships. It is a provocative rendering of the strong forces of history and the resilience of love. While Shamsie’s novel deals with political events and though her home country (she now lives in the UK and the US) is embroiled in conflict, she affirmed in her email interview that she is, above all, a novelist.

Where did the idea for starting the story – with a Japanese woman as its central character and the Nagasaki bombing as its central event – come from?
I had a vague idea of writing something around the Indo-Pak nuclear tests and/or the threat of nuclear war in 2002. And my central character was going to be a Pakistani whose grandmother was Japanese and had survived the bombing in 1945. This would give the character a different way of thinking about a nuclear age to most of the people around her. But very soon after I had that idea – and before I could start to develop it in any way – I thought, who is this Japanese character who survives a nuclear holocaust and how does she end up in Pakistan? And I knew the story had to follow her through the years before getting to her grandson. As it so happened, the plot (as it always does with me) twisted away from its original notion so there was no grandson at all, and Indo-Pak nuclear confrontations become only a very small segment of the book.

Did it feel like a brave step to you, to render American and Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan so explicitly?
I don’t actually say very much in the book about America’s political relationship with Pakistan beyond the fact that America and Pakistan worked closely together during the Afghan war of the 1980s… I don’t think this is a disputed historical fact. That both Pakistan and America were following their own agendas and were quite suspicious of each other doesn’t seem particularly controversial either – though for specifics on the US-Pak relationship I relied on two books: Afghanistan – The Bear Trap by Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin and Ghost Warriors by Steve Coll. And no, I don’t think of myself as being particularly courageous; and I don’t think I’m committing to one version of a political truth. Within the novel different characters have different ways of viewing history and politics.

Burnt-Shadows-by-Kamila-S-002The novel ends in 2002, with the fallout of the event (9/11) that bring us to present day. How do you see the present geopolitical situation in light of the events of Burnt Shadows?
Well, the novel starts with someone about to be shipped off to Guantanamo Bay. I’m glad that’s no longer something that’s likely to happen! So that’s one good thing. But the whole War on Terror world, with its accompanying rhetoric and fear, is still very much among us – and likely to remain so for a while. And the longer it goes on, it seems the more people both from within “Islam” and within “the West” believe that the other is intent on destroying them. We are still in that situation. I wish we weren’t.

Do you see any way for “the world to stop being such a terrible place”?
Those words are spoken by a character in a moment of deep despair. It doesn’t reflect my view, which is that the world is never only one thing. Look in one direction you see terror, look somewhere else you’ll find hope. A few days ago in Pakistan, it seemed there was nothing but terrible news to be found. And then just recently, the two-year-old lawyers’ movement for the independence of the judiciary ended in victory – it’s a reminder that civil society has a role to play, and can take on even the most powerful.

Where do you see the possibility for redemption in Burnt Shadows?
Near the end of Burnt Shadows there’s talk of “the spider dance”, which the two central families engage in with each other. In one version, it’s full of betrayal and bloodshed; in another version it is characterised by love and friendship, and support.

Does the “promise of democracy” apply to Pakistan?
If I’ve learnt anything about Pakistan, it’s that it is an unpredictable place. As for “the promise of democracy” – well, democracy is a deeply flawed system of governance. But it’s so much better than any other option that we really have to find a way to stick with it.

Burnt Shadows, Penguin, Rs. 425.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2009.

Published: April 17, 2009