Sunday, 2 December 2012

Amandeep Sandhu's Roll of Honour

I had the opportunity to attend yet another delightful event at my local library, Easy Library, last evening! The event was an author talk with Amandeep Sandhu, author of Sepia Leaves and Roll of Honour. With him in conversation was Dr. Shekar Sheshadri, Professor at Child and Adolescent Services, NIMHANS.

The event started with Prof. Sheshadri reading out some disturbing statistics on the state of education in general in India, and the steps being proposed by not just the UGC, but other bodies as well, to bring about some much-needed reform in our system. For instance, he revealed that almost 60% of school children show an intolerance towards immigrants from other states. Even more shocking is the appalling attitude towards the differently abled people of our country - 70-80% of those surveyed believe that the differently abled are "burdensome" and "unhappy"...If figures like these weren't enough, Prof. Sheshadri also stated that 48% feel household finances dictate whether girls should be educated, as often household expenses are considered more important than the education of girls in the family!

Given that such are the prominently-held views of society and students today, it is indeed not surprising that efforts to stop ragging, or "ragra"as it is called in Amandeep's work, have been in vain. The book incorporates several layers in that it not only depicts life in a residential school, but that of a boys' residential school, and a military one at that. In addition, it was also based in Punjab and in Punjab of the mid-1980s, which adds an altogether interesting perspective to the narrative. Prof. Seshadri then put forth a series of questions to the author about the nature of the book in question, Roll of Honour. Amandeep's response to them was affirmative - Yes, the book is a Rite of Passage book; Yes, it is a book about Identity Formation; Yes, it explores violence in our educational system...

As the author explained, ragging or bullying is prominent in residential schools, especially in boys' residential schools. The world itself is rift in violence and this is naturally reflected in various microcosms too, including schools. Bullying was very much seen as the "right" of senior students, who would revolt if prevented from bullying the newcomers. Sodomy was often the preferred means of bullying in residential schools. Residential schools in India were modelled on Eton and other public schools of England, which took in only the upper classes. However, the military residential schools were different in that pedagogy tried to invert the social classes! And herein lay the root of much malaise...

Amandeep has used India of 1984 as the background to tackle this rather difficult subject at hand. As he explained, "Orwell's 1984 really came true in India." That was the year a lot of major issues came to a head in this country - it was the year Operation Blue Star was ordered and begun, the year the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple, the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated, the year of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy...among other significant events. Amandeep believes that "Operation Blue Star was an act of sodomy on the nation. The Indian Army attacked the Sikh community at a place where they could not defend themselves." The 1980s was when we lost a centre as a nation, and if we took that decade as ending in 1992, the demolition of Babri Masjid concluded possibly the most violent decade in Indian history...and this in an age of rising literacy!

Amandeep also alluded to John Hopkins Professor, Veena Das' work on the Delhi riots and explained that while such anthropological works have been carried out in the context of the events of 1984, not many have looked into its consequences at the microcosmic level. It must be acknowledged that students have faced and continue to face a lot of violence in their worlds today. As Prof. Sheshadri explained, Lifeskills Education does give prominence to Decision making too. But, is this enough to combat the violence they face,sometimes on a daily basis?

To wind up a rather thought-provoking session, Amandeep revealed that it took him 7 years to write the book as personally, the book was an investigation of his own fears. He also drew on the significance of a work like this on contemporary life. While the book itself is set in 1984, the parallels can be drawn in everyday student-centred violence even today...being cocooned in gated communities is not going to protect today's students/children. Its time parents, the community and the country itself took measures to change the lives of students.

I belive that this is a book that needs to be read and digested by every parent in India today...Its time to act, not just sit back and watch in horror!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Shriram Iyer and the Wings of Silence

Last Sunday, it was time to head out to my local Easy Library, in Koramangala, Bangalore, yet again...The scheduled event was the promising launch of Shriram Iyer's Wings of Silence...Attendees were promised an enjoyable performance from the soundtrack that accompanies the book. Author Shinie Antony quizzed Shriram Iyer on the various facets of his authorial debut.

Shriram Iyer started off by talking about the dynamics at play between siblings. He explained how, as a single child, he had always wondered how his life would have turned out if he had had a sibling, though he never really felt a "lack" of siblings. As an only child, he had the very best that his parents could offer him and it was a delight to have his charming parents in attendance too at this event! The author believed that "younger kids are almost assured of success in the world", and this observation of his is what prompted him to pen down the novel. What would the younger one choose when it came to other members of his family? In order to explore this issue, Iyer chose to tell the story of Raj, the elder child of a couple, who had been born deaf and hence, unable to express himself verbally. This character was not meant to be gifted in any way. His younger sibling, on the other hand, rose to be a popular sportsperson in school.

Iyer explained how being a deaf child in the 1970s was different from being a deaf child in today's world. He had carried out extensive research into the topic and about 5% of his research made its way into the final version of his novel. His research validated the decision to make the character deaf. The main challenge for anyone with a disability is to let the other senses take over from the disability itself. The author read out 3 excerpts from his coming-of-age novel, which gave us a fascinating insight into the world of the two brothers through Raj's diary. As to why he chose the 1980s and the Moscow Olympics as a backdrop to the novel, he said it was because the Olympics are the higest pinnacle of sports and sports is a lot about human character and endurance. The Cold War too provided an interesting setting for the Moscow Olympics.

As for the way the novel shaped up, Iyer observed how storytelling could be through different media - books, music, theatre and so on. The novel, though a debut novel, is entirely fictional and there is nothing autobiographical about it. The author candidly admits, "The protagonist was what I wanted to be"! He enjoyed writing in crowded malls as it gave him an opportunity to observe and integrate the conversations around him. He felt that dialogues are always difficult and the main task of a writer is to "show" rather than "tell". 

Shinie Antony asked Iyer about the highs and lows of writing the book. Iyer said the thrill of spontaneously chanelling the story over 4 years was a high, while he would count his earlier rejections by US and UK publishers as the lows. He explained how this was not a niche book, but was more of a coming-of-age story. While characters are young adults, it was not just another teenage book. The author commented on how his second attempt had overlaps with this first one and he was forced to drop the idea. His second book is a murder mystery that he is terribly stirred about, while the third book he is working on is a mythological thriller!

To finish this extremely engaging session, Shriram Iyer said that being a trained singer, he wanted to see how the readers would react to an accompanying soundtrack that would express the emotions of the characters through music. He regaled the audience with a few chosen songs from the soundtrack...It was interesting to note that while Iyer writes fiction only in English, he is able to pen lyrics only in Hindi. This, I believe, calls for an excellent translation effort in the near future! 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Dr. Amitabha Bagchi's Storytelling Approaches

As yet another Sunday dawned, I was eager to spend time with a bunch of literary aficionados and headed to Easy Library, my local library in Koramangala. There was a scheduled author meet with Dr. Amitabha Bagchi, faculty member at the IIT, Delhi and author of Above Average and more recently, The Householder. As an academic myself, I was keen to see how he balanced the two vocations - that of an academic scholar and a fiction writer.

Dr. Bagchi read out a few extremely thought-provoking excerpts from his latest book, The Householder, and the audience wasted no time in bombarding him with questions about his literary techniques. Dr. Bagchi insisted that not all storytelling was necessarily an allegory. However, the notion of storytelling does spread out from its point of origin. Readers must learn not to read the story only as a specific story or only as an allegory.

When asked by an audience member if he thinks in a specific language while writing fiction, Dr. Bagchi explained that language was what one thinks in; though his writing voice is English, the positioning of his characters and what they think was an extension of what he himself has read in Hindi Literature. Shrilal Shukla has long been one of Amitabha Bagchi's inspirations, as the author himself explains.

Another audience member enquired about whether Dr. Bagchi had carried out extensive research to draw the characters of Naresh Kumar and others in The Householder. The author elaborated on how the setting of the novel was a familiar one for him, as he was the son of a bureaucrat, and his own personal experiences and observations in his home town helped him while writing the novel. However, he had done some research into the Stenographers' Guild and other such institutions. In addition to keen observation, Dr. Bagchi also lists his intuition as an important aid to his writing endeavours. He would not write a book set in a place that he did not share a certain intimacy with, which is why Delhi was so critical as the setting of his novels. He explained how the richness of layering in memory leads to the enchantment of a novel's setting. Later, he added that the best way to write about a city was to write about specific aspects of it, and not about its entirety.

When asked about the use of humour in his novels, Dr. Bagchi insisted that though his sense of humour is considered above par, he did not normally bring it to bear on any scene! The writer was also quizzed about the issue of preserving culture. He let on that he had a tremendous suspicion of people who tried to preserve culture. Cultures also die, like human beings, so why the need, and indeed the effort, to preserve culture, he asked. It was interesting to note that he had recently started learning Arabic calligraphy, to know more about Delhi's historic monuments.

Then on, came the rather crucial issue of how much background information/description Indian writers need to give their readers. Dr. Bagchi explained that when a writer worries about how much/whether the reader would understand his work, it would not be possible to go in-depth into the various aspects of the literary work itself. This was the main reason, he says, why Hindi literature just flows - its writers are not concerned with how much background information the readers know. He also reiterated that his own intention was not to show his readers Delhi, but to link emotional interactions with physical experiences.

Dr. Bagchi also disappointed some of his readers by declaring that he would not be writing sequels to any of his works, as he considers them to be over when the first work ends. If he were to write a sequel, it would be like trying to rewrite the characters' lives, which does not happen in real life! He also shared that when he got down to starting any fictional work, he needed to have the end in mind; the last scene was very important to him as a writer. And, finally, he also divulged some statistical data with an eager audience: The Householder's manuscript runs to about 60,000 words, and took him 7 months of thinking and 11 months of writing!

I, for one, can't wait to read The Householder! We look forward to reading many more novels by Dr. Bagchi, including the one that, he said, remains unpublished...

Dr. Vijay Nagaswami's Take on Relationships

A few weeks ago, I attended an author meet at Easy Library. The writer was Dr. Vijay Nagaswami, renowned Chennai-based psychiatrist. I must admit I had been eagerly looking forward to his take on relationships, in the current Indian context, having been away from my homeland for the last few years!

The talk was well-attended, with most in the audience being couples, as was to be expected. Writer Shinie Anthony led the group in interactions with the writer, who has authored several books, including The 24X7 Marriage, The Fifty-50 Marriage and 3's A Crowd, among others. According to Dr. Nagaswami, deception was the main issue in most marriage failures. He drew heavily on his own personal experiences as a counsellor. He lamented the lack of good resources in India, since the only congregated data about marriages and divorces available for/about Indians is the national census. The data from the 2011 census is not yet available, he informed us.

Dr. Nagaswami then went on to explain the concept of Toxicity in Marriages. He described how a series of unfulfilled and unarticulated expectations formed the main cause of/reason for toxicity. It is vitally important to de-toxify the toxic elements in the marriage to make it work. He also insisted that affairs happened not just in bad or toxic marriages, but in several good marriages too! Much of it, in the Indian context, he believes, is due to liberal thought processes that have emerged in the last thirty years.

Dr. Nagaswami also detailed how "Template clash" often led to the break-down of a marriage. These templates he alluded to are nothing but the ideas and expectations that we have formed, during our early years, about the institution of marriage. Most Indians have only their parents' marriage on which to base their own individual templates. "Parents do not plan to be anything other than a parent", he declared. Not many Indian parents actually sit down and chat to their children about marriages and what make them work. Hence, to avoid any template clash, what needs to be done is both partners need to create their own "final marriage template", which would essentially mean retaining the best of both their individual templates and rejecting all that would possibly work against a good marriage.

We are a marriage-obsessed society, Dr. Nagaswami noted, which had the audience nodding their heads vigorously in agreement! To ensure that a marriage works, he stressed, boundary definitions need to be set in order to prevent unsolicited advice and intrusions not just from parents and in-laws, but from so-called well-meaning friends and neighbours too...I do personally believe that this setting of boundaries would need to be implemented not just for marriages to work, but in all other personal/private spheres too! Dr. Nagaswami also commented on how a few years at least of nuclearisation would help most marriages.

He then moved on to talk about marriage counselling. There are two types of people who approach him for counselling: the solution-seekers and the enhancement-seekers. Counselling was not just about advice, he reiterated. In India, the concept of counselling has slowly begun to catch on, but it is not yet at the levels seen in the West. The bond, says Dr. Nagaswami, is much more substantive in a live-in relationship than in a traditional marriage. He also felt that intellectual abuse (where one batters the partner intellectually) was becoming more common these days. The 4 Cs in a marriage are what keep it working and make it a "good" marriage: communication, commitment, compatibility and communion.

To finish off, Dr. Nagaswami touched on how, in the present Indian economic climate, women entering the workforce are trying to become more like men. However, the psychiatrist stressed that rejecting one's feminity was not the way to break the glass ceiling. As a final note, he declared that "never" and "always" are to be avoided to make one's marriage work...

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Ashok Banker at Easy Library, Bangalore

This morning, a few of us were fortunate enough to attend a cosy Book Talk by renowned Indian writer, Ashok Banker, who surely must be one of the most unassuming persons on the planet! He started by narrating how he came upon the concept of re-telling Indian mythologies by giving us listeners a fascinating insight into his familial background, which formed the essential prompt for him personally. He hails from an essentially Catholic/Christian/Anglo-Indian background, with both his mother and maternal grandmother having spent a few years in the then-Ceylon (Sri Lanka). His devout Catholic mother met his Hindu birth-father in India and they divorced within a few months of marriage. The divorce process was enabled by Banker's mother's conversion to Islam (for legal reasons).

Thus, Banker explains, he did not believe he "belonged" to any particular religion per se. It was only in school when fellow-students questioned him that he began to question himself about his religious identity. While classmates were being pressurised to attend Sunday Catechism classes, he was under no such obligation. They had reason to resent this pressure, while he took pleasure in reading and indeed studying the very same verses and psalms they hated. He had always been a voracious reader too. Banker said his family frequently visited religious places; not only churches but also dargahs and mosques. He took a personal interest in learning about Hindu mythology too, in order to understand his feelings towards his biological father (and a step-father). In short, it was this melting-pot of religious myths and stories in his own persona that prompted him to embark on a series that would interest today's Indian children.

Though Banker's earliest works were successful, he is more widely-known today for his series on Hindu mythological stories - all this while he does not claim to be "Hindu". He believes that while young Indians do need to be exposed to other literatures, they also need to get a better grounding in our own literary heritage. This is what he aims to do with his massive projects. He also gave us his take on the Ram/Ravan and the Ramayana/Mahabharatha dichotomy. According to Banker, there is neither a black-n-white universe nor are there shades of grey. Instead, each one of us is a distinct colour, a unique hue, which cannot be replicated. I found this an extremely engaging concept...

He explained that he did not aspire to re-write the Ramayana by changing its end. For instance, he has neither challenged Sita's banishment by Ram nor has he given it a feminist twist by making Sita banish Ram instead! Banker reiterated that he was both a radical and a feminist in its truest sense. Another feature of his works is that he does not attempt to "paint" his characters, in that there are no vivid descriptions of the mythological characters' body and form/features. As one audience member pointed out, the average Indian today simply cannot identify these mythological characters with the cast of a televised version that appeared on Indian screens several years ago! And this Banker totally agreed with. He also spoke of his mode of working, which was to read available versions of these mythologies translated into English (which is his mother tongue) as well as read up on the Sanskrit texts (of which he has sufficient knowledge). Then, one closes the books and switches on the computer...and the words start flowing...He does not immediately send his manuscripts for publishing. Instead, he carefully analyses the readers' reception of his works and then decides on the right time to send his next work to the publisher. Hence, some of his manuscripts have sat on his desk for almost 5 years! It is indeed heartwarming to know of authors like this, who keep their readership, and not the potential revenue, in mind...

Banker has also taken to new media and is a frequent user of Twitter, as many will know from his reaction to recent episodes in the Indian literary scene. His books are available in e-book format too. He is extremely generous with his time and attention and I do hope we readers get to benefit more from his knowledge and intellect in the years to come. And lastly, a massive Thank You to Vani, owner of Easy Library, who is instrumental in arranging such fantastic Author Meets...