Thursday, June 23, 2016

Out of Print 23!

Out of Print 23 features six stories whose settings span the rural to the urban, whose writing explores the experimental to the more traditional narrative.

It is the second time that we will publish a piece by Subimal Misra. Lord You Showed Me the Way, Didn’t Show the Road excerpted from Actually This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale was brought to our attention by its fine translator V Ramaswamy. It is a disturbing critique, a brutal commentary on the city and its corruptions, the division of Bengal, and the staggering amorality of politics and religion.

Another brutally direct piece, this time told from a deeply personal viewpoint that examines home and intimacy is Gitanjali Dang’s Burial at Sea. The protagonist must negotiate an alienated city full of dangers and is forced to move underground because it is almost an imperative for women to control the ‘velocity and sound of their streams’ when they urinate and ‘all loos everywhere are under surveillance’.

Nighat Gandhi’s Sharmaji’s Shoes  and Janet H Swinney’s Drishti have a pacing that allows their readers to enter their characters’ worlds with great engagement. Sharmaji, an army man, flawed, inherently misogynistic, disconnected and unaware of his failings finds his shoes have gone missing at an ashram retreat. He is drawn so subtly by author Nighat Gandhi that we are deeply sympathetic to his intense loneliness even as we feel revulsion at his arrogance and his lack of self-awareness. The principal character in Janet Swinney’s Drishti, a lifeguard at a sea resort lives in an odd transitional social space. His observations, his commentary on the world he is guarding from the unpredictabilities of the sea form a backdrop for the tension of the story in which he entertains himself playing elaborate games on his phone while on the job of protecting the resort guests.

Salil Chaturvedi’s story resonates most literally with the cover image by Ranjeeta Kumari, because the main character, Ramakant also makes a journey from his village in Bihar to the city every year. Ramakant’s acute observations have taught him that a person’s pillow carries a person’s dreams, and have also led him to conclude, from his diligent reading of the newspaper, that  what may have given rise to the unusually powerful floods that besiege his village that year may be deliberate and man-made.

An obsessive attention to the photograph of his first woman lover introduces the reader to the asthma-ridden protagonist in the O Henry Prize winner Shruti Swamy’s Black Dog. Set in the IIT, there is a compelling intensity with which it examines friendship, love, sexuality, and when something ‘flared up, nearly electric between’ Raju and him, the sharp severance that must accompany distancing.

The image is by Ranjeeta Kumari and is titled Afternoon (water colour on paper, 14”x 20”, 2016). Ranjeeta, who is from Patna now lives and works in New Delhi. About the work, she says, I found this piece of cloth, a gamcha, at the workers' site. I clicked a few pictures of it alongside some other objects and tools. The subtle lines drawn upon it give it the look of an abstract painting indicative of the myriad perspectives regarding the issues faced by the workers. The image became very significant to me as a metaphor of the silence which speaks a million words. The cloth can be viewed as a flag; the cloth is symbolic of the identity of the workers as it is tied by them on the head, the shoulders, the hips, and is used in multiple ways; the cloth is an icon of the existence of the workers and is the red colour of revolution.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Out of Print Author Series: Rheea Mukherjee

Rheea Mukherjee, two of whose stories have appeared in Out of Print, has a collection, Transit for Beginners, just published by Kitaab. We are thrilled for her, and really pleased to publish a conversation that emerged after editor, Indira Chandrasekhar read her collection. Both A Larger Design and Rectification Still that appear in the collection were first published in Out of Print.

O of P: Your work is rife with stories of families coming part at the seams – something that only embeds them more deeply in the inexplicable bonds that make meaning out of that ambiguous unit called family. I think particularly of Wedding Guests, and, in an odd way, of Unspeakable. Would you care to comment on that?

RM: You know, I honestly think even the most functional families are coming apart at the seams. I am not saying this in a pessimistic manner. And I don't think it's always a bad thing. There are several individual ‘other narratives' going on even in the closest of families. Some of them are straightforward: double lives and secrets. But most of them are psychological: the private battles of interpreting life and reality. And those experiences aren't discussed (nor can they be easily translated) at the dinner table. 

I had someone in mind when I created Mrs Bose [in Wedding Guests]. I wrote her character with a lot of sensitivity, which is ironic because in real life I would be blunt or uninterested having a conversation with a person like her. In comparison I was so gentle and understanding with her confusion, her cultural identity and her eroding relationship with her son. In my own family there have been times I have been so dismissive of that generation’s emotional complexity and battles. Mrs Bose allowed me to fix that. It allowed me to sit down and think through a generational gap. The story, Unspeakable, on the other hand is a doomed love story, but I think the narrative was built on the complexity of family. It let me write about the utter unfamiliarity that exists between the closest of people. The truth is, you will never know your mother’s deepest angst or private passion. You will never have a handle on how your sibling really feels about life or what emotional scars they hide. We use the phrase 'family secret' a lot, but I think it's less to do with secrets and more to do with humans attempting to simplify things that are intensely complex. 
O of P: Many of your characters have a sense of honour. I find that somehow touching, and hopeful. Sai, in Hungry is an obvious candidate, but also, Rudra, in an abstruse way, in Transit for Beginners. In Cigarettes for Maya, Maya’s awareness of what is the honourable way to act and the conflict caused by social hierarchies is acute. Are these deliberate characterizations, did you want to create people with honour, or did the stories make these characters emerge this way?

RM: I always look for the good in people I least expect it from. Some of my stories have examined people who exhibit stereotypically ‘bad behaviour’. That said, I also hint at their capability for good. Subconsciously though, I want to work with a far more sinister idea – that it’s the people who are passive, mundane, the cogs-in-the-wheel, if you will, who are capable of the most dangerous behaviour, and that’s apathy. Apathy lets so much evil go on. In comparison I find the people who struggle with moral codes and reject standard protocol far more hopeful. Because they have drive and purpose. There is something deeply disturbing about a country of people following, doing, working, and consuming without any trace of inner motivation.  

In Cigarettes for Maya, the cigarette wala Maya befriends does comment on inter-class relationships. However Maya and her urban flimsiness are ripe in the narrative, while the lower-middle class cigarette wala seems to be respectable and honest. In retrospect, I think I played it very safe with that story. It was a black and white narrative. It is also the first story I ever wrote, and although it’s gone through rounds of edits, you can see how that story stylistically is very different from the rest.  You mentioned hope, and I am glad you find that in my work. I think a lot of this book is about finding hope in one particular moment as opposed to finding final closure. I think that represents life, we’re living and resolving things every second.

O of P: Even in the searing and often tragic conflicts in your stories, the sense of setting is layered with observation, and occasional nostalgia. As if the difficulties are only more enhanced by the affection for place that you, as a writer are conveying to the reader. How do you work on describing places – do you, for example, make notes when you are somewhere in case it will be useful for a future story? Do you retain a visual memory in your head? Do you take photographs?

RM: It’s funny that you mention that because I am a terrible documenter. I never take notes, and never use pictures as a reference for my work.  I think my life has contributed to how a sense of place pops out in some of my stories.  I take a lot of emotional cues from different environments. My life was spent between two countries quite literally. I was born in the US lived there till I was 10, then moved to India and finished my schooling here. At 18, I moved back to the US for college. I had my degree in social work so I worked as counsellor for a bit and then did my MFA in creative writing before coming back to India. Bangalore has always been home, but the amount of transition I have experienced has organically allowed me to write about place without any effort.

O of P: May we spend a moment on your writing method? As a writer, I like talking about this because writers can be so diverse in their approach to their work. Are you a systematic writer – do you write everyday? Or do words spew out of you in fits and starts? How do you begin to overlay the necessary layers of restraint?

RM: I am anything but a systematic writer. I am also a very lazy writer. I solely rely on creative bursts and caffeine. It’s very random; I’ll have an idea, a certain piece of news, or some mundane conversation with a friend, something will trigger a story, and it comes to life in my head. One thing that has been happening a lot less is creating an end in my head before I type it out. Unspeakable had an ending in my head, but that was an easy end. Bitter-sweet love and a family secret that can never resolve itself does not allow for a comprehensive ‘ending’.

When I was writing Transit for Beginners I felt a stronger sense of closure. I also think it is the only story in the book that is plot directed. The reason for this is because it was inspired by something that happened to me in Changi airport. The actual story is pure fiction, but let’s just says that there was a similar experience. 

I need a purpose to write – something happening in the world that is sitting uncomfortably with me, needs to resolve itself through writing. When I wrote Doldrums it was a reflection of how my life had partly become, trapped within an urban paradigm with expectations and duties that were not motivating my imagination. Sexual abuse and depression are other themes that show up in my work a lot. I think they will always show up in my work directly or indirectly. 

Creating regularity as a writer is tremendously difficult. In the last year running Write Leela Write with Kalabati Majumdar has allowed me to grow as a person and as an entrepreneur, but it has also cut into my fiction writing time. I have been writing a lot more non-fiction; these pieces are easier for me, because they are for magazines with deadlines and one thing I do really well is sticking to deadlines. With fiction it’s my own pace, and I can be tragically lazy about it. I have to finish my novel by the end of this year, and thinking about it makes my hands sweat. Because at the end of the day writing is hard work, it’s going beyond that spark of an idea and putting meat on it. It’s layering your characters and creating narrative arcs. I think writing a novel is much harder, because you can’t get your little idea out there and be done with it. In that way the short story has been indulgent, it’s the best of both worlds, it lets me create a world, get my point across and be done super quickly. One reason I have been struggling with finishing my novel is because of the amount of consistency I have to create while continuously developing the heart of the idea. I suspect it will take a moment of potent creative energy to get me on track. Let’s just say that I am waiting for it.

O of P: As an editor, I am always curious about how much writers engage with an editor before publication. Did you work with someone, or did your publishing house impose any editorial rules on your work?

RM: Well, one thing about these stories is that they read very differently from what they initially were. My book spans stories I have written over the past ten years and during that time I have sent many of them to literary magazines. That’s when the rejections started to roll in. It was a force that propelled me to revise my stories and really understand the beauty of editing. If you were to see some of my stories as first drafts you would have shaken your head with utter disappointment. For some stories I changed major plot points, for example in A Good Hostess, Asha resorts to medicating her husband for attention.  For years that story did not have the medication bit in it. That crucial bit came to me only 2 years ago and the story is 8 years old. It changed the whole feel of the story.

So coming back to your question, by the time my stories got published they were in much better shape. I had dozens of literary magazine editors write me personal rejection notes about some of my work; it allowed me to flesh out my narratives a lot more. Kitaab was very permissive about how my stories read; they did not have any issues with the macro parts. I had a super copy editor from Kitaab, Shruti Rao who went through everything line by line and caught some ironic mistakes and inconsistencies. I struggle with mild dyslexia so I can’t proof anything, even if my life depended on it. When it came to final proofing at the typesetting phase, my partner Indra diligently did it for me.

Out of Print 22!

Mequitta Ahuja:  Seated Scribe (oil on canvas, 84”x80”, 2015)

We released Out of Print 22 in March with nine diverse works.

K P Purnachandra Tejasvi’s An Indentured Spirit, translated by Chandan Gowda is set in the estates around Chikmagalur. It examines the not always comfortable intersection between the estate owner’s rational thinking, and the ‘thoughts, logic and intelligence, and the beliefs that suffused … [the] blood’ of Maara, an elderly watchman.

Two stories address crime, both set coincidentally in Tamilnadu. Karivardan by V Sanjay Kumar, is set in the slum underworld in Chennai and is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel Accustomed Earth. The story, about the rise of a new don is woven with multiple narrative threads that range from brutal to affectionate. Thalaivar versus the Killer Toddlers is a graphic work. When the story by Pravin Vemuri was being reviewed in late 2015, editor Ram Sadasiv was inspired to illustrate it. The resulting piece, a mad super hero story with pictures of Thalaivar is simultaneously a critique and a comic.

Bikram Sharma’s Family Tapestry is about a young man and his grandfather and the bond of affection between the two. It is also about the young man coming to terms with his father’s loss. Interspersing boyhood memory with the narrative, the story is finely told and deeply evocative.

Beautiful by Kamalakshi Mehta bears a similarity to the story of Miss Tapna in Out of Print 19. It too tells the tale of a young woman who finds a way out of an untenable situation through the possibilities offered by working in a beauty parlour.

Uma Parameswaran’s Sridevi is from her project, Maru’s Memoirs. Set in the late 1960s, the uncompromising social prejudices that dominate a middle class neighbourhood emerge through the story of a young family.

In the next story, Enrolment by Ajay Patri, a timid young man from Bidar and a young man from Bangalore with a sense of entitlement are at a government office awaiting enrolment in the bar council. The different ways they respond to discovering the enrolment has been postponed are a view into character and social differences.

Aravind Jayan’s narrator in Trickle, recounts to his wife a somewhat suffocating encounter with a high school friend in a late-night coffee bar. Through it he examines who he was when he was young, and the anxieties that coloured his youth. Rihan Najib’s An Age of Prudence is also about the discords and difficulties of growing up. Sister and brother are penitent and try and find a conscience to guide them through the obstacle-ridden course to prudence and find that even though their mother ‘lends us her God to help’ them, they ‘need more’.

The artwork is by Mequitta Ahuja, a contemporary American painter of African American and Indian descent who resides in Baltimore. Her biography may be accessed in the Editor’s Note.

Monday, December 21, 2015

An Introduction to Hoshruba by Shahnaz Aijazuddin

The December issue of Out of Print features an excerpt from the Tilism-e-Hoshruba translated and retold by Shanhnaz Aijazuddin. The origins of the tale are story in themselves, and we are pleased to feature a piece by Shahnaz contextualising Hoshruba here on the Out of Print blog:

Tilism-e-Hoshruba – A Summary 
Shahnaz Aijazuddin

Outlines of Hamza Nama
The Dastan of Tilism-e-Hoshruba is the continuation of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, the adventures of the legendary hero Amir Hamza. Although the Tilism is a narrative complete in itself, it helps to be familiar with the outlines of the earlier Hamza story to which there are frequent references in the text of the Tilism.
According to the Hamza Nama, the legendary Persian monarch Nausherwan had a troubling dream. He consulted his gifted astrologer Vizier Buzurchmeher, who interpreted the dream as indicating that Nausherwan would lose his kingdom to a rival for several years, and that it would be restored to him by a young Arab to be born in Mecca at the auspicious moment of the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. That child was to be Amir Hamza, which is why Hamza was later known as Sahib-qiran or Lord of the Conjunction.
Nausherwan sends his vizier Buzurchmeher to Mecca (then part of the Persian empire) to identify the baby and to ensure that he is reared as a ward of the Persian court. Hamza’s father is identified in the narrative as Abu Muttalib, the leader of the Hashemite clan. The choice of the name Abul Muttalib who was the grandfather of the Holy Prophet Muhammad was not accidental, for it used him – a real figure – as a corner-stone character into an essentially fictional text.
Hamza grows up to become a warrior of formidable strength and intelligence. Hamza, being blessed, receives gifts that have supernatural powers. He is also given the Great Name (legendary unknown name of God) that prevails over all forms of magic. His childhood friends - the wily trickster Amar and the loyal archer Muqbil - are also blessed with divine gifts and remain his companions during his numerous adventures.
In time, Nausherwan uses Hamza to fight on his behalf, but in his heart he fears him. His Vizier Bakhtak fuels Nausherwan’s insecurities and plots against Hamza. Amar shields Hamza against Bakhtak’s fiendish schemes. Hamza and the beautiful Meher Nigar, daughter to Nausherwan, fall in love and Nausherwan reluctantly consents to the marriage. Just before the wedding Hamza is wounded in battle and rescued by Jinni-king Shahpal’s vizier.
In return for the kindness Hamza promises the Jinni king that he will vanquish the defiant devs who have taken over his kingdom. Hamza is trapped in Koh Kaf (land of Jinni and fairies) for 18 years due to the machinations of the Jinni king’s daughter Aasman Pari who is besotted with him. Eventually, Hamza returns to Persia and marries his beloved Meher Nigar who has loyally waited for him.
The last part of Hamza’s story involves his return to Mecca. Here, the fictional Hamza becomes the real Hamza bin Abu Muttalib, who defends his nephew the Holy Prophet Muhammad against the Kaffirs of Mecca and is subsequently martyred at the Battle of Uhud. 
Amir Hamza re-appears as a hero in the Tilism-e-Hoshruba. The literal meaning of the word Tilism is enchantment. Hoshruba is an empire of enchantments that contains many other magic-bound realms within it. The Tilisms are deemed to have been created by an ancient pantheon of gods such as Samri, Jamshed, Laat and Manaat who have been long dead but whose magic remains alive through their creations. The realm of Hoshruba itself consists of the Visible and the Invisible Tilisms (divided by the River of Blood) and a mysterious place of the darkest magic best described as the Veil of Darkness. These Tilisms are populated by wizards and witches whose names reflect the kind of magic they practice. Witches are as powerful as wizards; they rule kingdoms; they lead armies, and they are given equal importance in the narrative. .
Tilism-e-Hoshruba recounts the adventures of Amir Hamza and his sons and grandsons - all of them (like their illustrious forebear) brave, chivalrous and stunningly handsome.
The Tilism-dastans usually involve a quest for the Lauh-e-Tilism - the magic tablet or keystone that is closely guarded by the ruler of the Tilism. The keystone is so designed that only the person destined to vanquish the Tilism, known as the Tilism Kusha, is able to reach it. The keystone requires some sort of sacrifice, usually of blood before it reveals its secrets to the Tilism Kusha and guides him.
The story begins with Hamza as the commander-in chief of the Islamic army defeating a Persian ruler Laqa, who has been making false claims to divinity. Amir Hamza chases him out of the Tilism of a Thousand Faces into Kohistan. Laqa takes refuge in Kohistan because it shares a border with the Tilism-e-Hoshruba. The ruler of Hoshruba Afrasiab is the formidable King of Wizards who reveres Laqa and deputes his wizards to help Laqa fight Hamza.
Laqa’s allies include the sons of Naushervan, Hamza’s old patron and adversary from the days of the Dastan-e-Hamza. Laqa’a vizier is Bakhtiarak son of Bakhtak, the vizier who had schemed against Hamza and Amar in the earlier legends.
Hamza’s childhood companion Amar has a pivotal role in the later narrative. Because of his talent for disguises and trickery, Amar is known as king of Ayyari or tricksters. (Ayyari or the art of trickery is a profession with its own costumes, codes and sign language.) He has an army of over a hundred thousand other tricksters who acknowledge him as their leader and teacher. Amar uses divine gifts such as the cloak of invisibility and the magic pouch that contains many worlds to succeed in his tricks.
Hamza’s astrologers are the sons of the great Buzurchmeher, vizier to Nausherwan. At his behest, they cast an astrological chart and inform him that his grandson Asad is the Tilism Kusha of Hoshruba. Hamza sends Asad to invade Hoshruba with a large army. Amar and four other tricksters accompany this army. The invaders are beset by magical snares and enchantments at every step, but due to their superior moral authority and physical prowess, they manage to overcome all these hurdles. 
Afrasiab, both the King of all Wizards and the emperor of Hoshruba, sends his lesser functionaries to combat Asad and the five tricksters. Afrasiab’s concern is accentuated when his own niece Mahjabeen falls in love with Asad and elopes with him. His consternation is absolute when Mahjabeen’s grandmother – the powerful sorceress Mahrukh – also defects to Asad’s side. Many powerful wizards of Afrasiab’s camp, disgruntled with their own ruler, join the Tilism Kusha Asad and Mahrukh. At this, Afrasiab sends his own wife Hairat along with his best people to confront the rebels, confident that they will be disposed of easily. Despite that, Afrasiab suffers defeats and humiliations at every turn. Eventually he conjures the deepest and darkest magic at his command but is consistently foiled by the cunning ploys used by Asad’s five tricksters. 
Afrasiab however manages to capture Asad and Mahjabeen but finds that he cannot execute Asad as that would go against the constitution of the Tilism written by its ancient creators.
Despite the absence of their leader Asad, the rebels gain increasing strength, culminating in their securing the alliance of Kaukab, the powerful ruler of a neighbouring Tilism. 
Once Asad is released, the rebels along with their allies help him in the quest for the Loah or keystone. Afrasiab, now desperate, turns to the ancient wizards surviving from the time the Tilism was created. 
Eventually after fourteen years of conflict, the Tilism Kusha Asad kills Afrasiab. The land of enchantments is finally rid of all magical illusions. Hamza restores the throne to the former ruler of Hoshruba who had been deposed by Afrasiab and imprisoned by him. The living god Laqa escapes and is rescued and given refuge by another powerful wizard.
The History Of The Tilism
As the Tilism contains so many characters from the original Dastan of Hamza, it has a strong Persian and Arabian flavour. The Tilism dastans evolved in the days of the later Mughals when the kingdom of Awadh was in a decline. Although many of the idioms, language and culture are recognizably derived from courtly life at Lucknow, the Tilism belongs to a time and a space that is all its own. There are few oblique references to the 1857 War of Independence/Mutiny and the presence of the British. However, there is no direct mention of any specific places or towns, as we know them. 
The seven daftars or volumes of Tilism-e-Hoshruba form one continuous narrative of prose, interspersed with poetry. Dastan narration was an intrinsic part of the court ritual. It enjoyed a common appeal that encouraged the narrators to tailor their stories to suit their audience. 
In the late nineteenth century, the Naval Kishore Press in Lucknow commissioned dastan- narrators or known as dastan-gohs to compile the primarily oral tradition into written form. These were first published between 1883 and 1905.

My interest in the Tilism began as a child when I came across an abridged edition which I read with an almost insatiable appetite. It was written in highly Persianised Urdu but despite its archaic style the beauty and richness of the language and the sheer magic of the story has captivated me over the years. I realised though that for the Tilism to be appreciated by others, it needed to be translated into English while at the same time, its inordinate length – padded by lengthy often gratuitous passages of purple prose and poetry – had to be edited and re-interpreted into a readily intelligible idiom while retaining the flavour of the original.