Why writers from Pakistan are looking to publish in India


Published on 9 October on Scroll.in

Indian publishers are readying to bring out a host of books by writers from across the border.

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That India and Pakistan share cultural similarities is not new. What is new, perhaps, is the fact that an increasing number of writers and translators from Pakistan are finding respite and respect with publishers here in India.

It began as a stream with well-known journalists and authors like Raza Rumi, Bilal Tanweer, Saba Imtiaz, Bina Shah, and Musharraf Ali Farooqi, among others, all of them publishing with Indian publishers. Now, the stream has almost become a flood.

A multitude of factors contributes to this increasing number. While some feel Indian publishers understand the nuances of their themes better, others blame the political history (or the lack of it) of Pakistan that has consistently and systematically destroyed the literary culture of the country by not investing in public libraries and shutting down independent presses.

Add to that the emergence of literary agencies in India who are matching Pakistani writers with Indian publishers, and the momentum is evident. Kanishka Gupta of Writers Side alone represents more than 22 Pakistani authors, almost a third of whom were added in the past 12 months.

New books in the offing

Lahore-based social scientist, book critic, and translator Raza Naeem has clinched a three-book deal with Speaking Tiger (to be published in 2017, 2018, 2019).They are all translations: a novella and a collection of long short stories by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, and a novella by Abdullah Hussein. Both Qasmi and Hussein are regarded as giants of 20th century Urdu literature, who are woefully – and shockingly – under-translated.

Haroon Khalid’s third book, Walking with Nanak, is slated for a November 2016 release with Westland. The book describes Khalid’s travels across the length and breadth of Pakistan as he visits the many gurdwaras and other locales associated with Guru Nanak, delving into their history and musing about their place and significance in a Muslim country.

Pakistani columnist Mehr Tarar too has found herself an Indian publisher. Her book, Many Malalas: Ordinary People Fighting for Change in Pakistanwill be published by Aleph sometime in 2017.

Two of Sabyn Javeri’s novels – Nobody Killed Her and Hijabistan ­– are slated for a 2017 release from HarperCollins India’s literary imprint Fourth Estate. While the first is a literary political thriller centred on the assassination of a female politician, the latter is a collection of interlinked short stories exploring the world behind the veil. Then there’s Faiqa Mansad whose debut novel This House of Clay and Water is going to be published by Penguin.

“Publishing in Pakistan is a pretty slipshod business”

Ali Madeeh Hashmi, the grandson of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and the author ofLove and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The Authorized Biography (Rupa, March 2016) recounts his experience dealing with a Pakistani publisher: “Except for one or two (Oxford University Press for one, although they have their own issues), publishing in Pakistan is a pretty slipshod business. The way it works is that you write something (book, poetry, whatever), then go around looking for publishers, begging them to publish it. If one of them does decide to take a chance on you, forget about anything like a contract or money. You’d be lucky if you don’t have to pay them to publish your work. They make the author do all the work – including proof-reading, editing, even composing the manuscript and the cover – and then sell it to make money off it. The author will never see a penny unless you are a big name like Mustansar Hussain Tarar or Amjad Islam Amjad in Lahore. And if you are a first time author with no connections, it’s quite possible that your manuscript will be stolen and published under someone else’s name. You will have no legal recourse since there is no written contract. So, it’s a pretty depressing landscape for authors with little or no incentive to publish locally. We (Faiz Foundation) dug up Faiz’s translations of Iqbal’s Persian poetry from 1977, a rare treasure. I had the whole manuscript re-composed, proof-read and prepared and then we had to pay a local publisher Rs 1 lakh to publish it! It has sold really well of course but we haven’t seen a penny of the royalties.”

No country for picture books and baseless rejections

Karachi-based Ayesha Tariq, author of Sarah: The Suppressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter (Penguin India, 2015) met with many difficulties when she approached publishers back home. “Most books published here are textual and coffee table books require the author to be well-connected (to be able to generate sales). My book required full page printing, which makes it expensive. Secondly, people usually avoid touching upon risky topics to avoid negative results. Since our publishing industry is young, the book to print may not have been financially viable for a lot of publishers.”

Similarly, Haroon Khalid’s first book, A White Trail: Minorities in Pakistan(Westland, 2013) came to be published in India only after an initial and complicated rejection. “I was in talks with a major Pakistani publisher forA White Trail and, as is the convention, I sent them a sample chapter and synopsis. Usually publishers either sign a deal after looking at the initial proposal or reject it, but since I was a first-time author I was asked to submit the whole manuscript. I was told that the manuscript was being vetted internally and would be sent to external experts for feedback. Later, they asked for my resumé. I think that’s where things didn’t work out. After almost a year of reading and re-reading they finally rejected the book without any explanations.”

Khalid doesn’t want to name the publishers, but mentions that they prioritise academic books and even though his book was academically solid and significant, he has been unable to put a finger on why things didn’t work out.

A short (and it cannot be long) survey of recent English erotic writing in India


Published on 29 May 2016 in Scroll.in

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Cinema, television and life itself have raced far ahead of what’s been written under the label.

It was about eleven in the night when a friend called up for a chat. He asked what I was up to and I cheerfully told him about the book of erotic short stories I was reading. He smirked at my response and asked me to “carry on”.

I am not sure what it is about erotic writing that, on the face of it, amuses people. The impulsive tendency to relate it to something perverse is rather strange and I wonder if it’s the doing of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy written by EL James, that has confined erotic literature to a space where it is perceived as kinky, and not beautiful. Of course, a good portion of that perception comes from how comfortable one is when it comes to talking, writing, or reading about sex. But it’s not for nothing that the trilogy sold over 200,000 copies in India which goes on to show that some readers are slowly embracing the genre, albeit shyly.

I don’t have statistics to qualify my point here, but most of the readers I have encountered reading the book – in trains, buses and offices – have been women and the slight smile forming on the corner of their lips appeared to symbolise their fascination and fantasies.

Formula sex writing

Making headlines in the world of book publishing are Sunny Leone’sSweet Dreams and Sweet Dreams Part 2. The former adult film actress has discovered the power of the written word, thanks to Chiki Sarkar’s Juggernaut, which has made her erotic short stories available for download at a most reasonable price of about Rs 6 per story.

Sadly though, the tales aren’t stirring enough. Regular episodes of a home or office situation, a predictable sexual tension building between two characters, some teasing here and there, eventually leading to you-know-what. Leone tries very hard to inject romance and emotion, but it just doesn’t work. Her prose is simplistic and the content is over-focussed on getting the scene right.

The two books are the top-sellers on the Juggernaut app, which helpfully lists the top of its own charts. But they only suggest that sexually stimulating writing is still pornography by another name for many – fortunately, not all – erotica writers. Not that there is anything wrong with pornography, but you don’t neither need the erotica label, nor the packaging of a book, to read as much of it as you want, thanks to the internet.

Sex as liberation

And yet, there were signs that erotic writing in India might have been coming of age, although whether readers are beginning to accept without preconceived expectations and moral judgement is another matter.

Take for instance A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories, an anthology of nine short stories by Aranyani, the nom de plume of the Goa-based Amrita Narayanan. Published by the Aleph Book Company in 2013, the stories have women taking the lead, unabashedly expressing and being led by their sexual fervour. The act for them isn’t limited to penetration. Eroticism is synonymous with liberation here, and there are heavy undertones of arousal in ordinary household chores such as chopping and cooking.

These are everyday women and it is a relief to know they’re aware of their appetite for sex, which is not dependent on anything remotely phallic. Aranyani’s tales free themselves of definitive closure and deliberately so, for the purpose of leaving the reader feeling a pleasant kind of heavy is successfully achieved.

Sadly, the book has turned out to be more of an exception than the beginning of a rule. Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire (2014) did try to take up the cause of the quintessential middle-class Indian housewife and her hush-hush sexual plight. This is traditionally fertile ground for pornographic fantasies, but Kundu’s book managed to hit the right spots and bring sex to the fore, though in an over-cooked and not really liberating manner.

Life or art?

Ultimately, it has to do with the success of the writing in provoking expectation and desire, in reaching out to parts of the body-mind combination that are not usually touched by the mundanity of everyday life, even of everyday sex. Graphic descriptions of checkbox sex are increasingly irrelevant for titillation in a world ruled by free video.

So, if erotica is really an upgrade of the commercial love story, with more explicitly depicted sex thrown in, it falls into the no-person’s land between merely entertaining and deeply affecting and disturbing. Ananth’s Play With Me is an example of a commercially-oriented love story packaged with a racy, narrative generous with sex.

It’s not often that you get to know the genesis of a book. Ananth’s idea started out as a conversation at the time when EL James was ruling the shelves. He said, “This genre was largely untapped, especially in terms of contemporary fiction. I had earlier written two erotic pieces for my own pleasure that I showed to the editors and that’s how the idea for the book got started.”

The question, of course, is, whether erotica is being written for a market or as a form to express an essential aspect of life. Says Ananth, “I didn’t approach the subject reluctantly and there was no back-footed approach to sexuality in the book.” He believes he wrote about pleasure in the context of a romantic – or not – relationship. “This is something that we don’t do in real life – approach the effect of pleasure on love,” he elaborates. “It’s dichotomous and one can’t say at what pleasure crosses overs to love.” But while that might be a fascinating literary approach, more often than not, erotica is commissioned, or accepted, with both eyes set firmly on sales.

To complicate matters, real life sexuality and sexual behaviour in India are far ahead of their literary depiction. It’s edgy, it’s multi-layered, it’s outside conventional moral standards, it’s even radical in many cases. At the same time, it also operates within the conventions of patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of regressive orthodoxy. Capturing any of this is obviously a challenge.

Then there is the question of personal comfort in taking on a theme that isn’t widely written or depicted. There are hindrances and restrictions that we create for ourselves when it comes to talking, reading or writing about bodily pleasures.

Yet, there have been one or two inspiring projects. Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories edited by Ruchir Joshi is one example of a bunch of Indian writers coming together to produce heartbreakingly real stories “about and around the erotic and the sexual.” In the book, Samit Basu writes about passionate seduction and voyeurism (The Wedding Night Or, Bachelor’s Boudoir), Abeer Hoque breaks all barriers of lust (Confessions), Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan puts to rest the curiosity about a man’s perfect first time (The First Time), and Rana Dasgupta unveils action in the swimming pool (Swimming Pool). The anthology has a total of thirteen effortlessly written stories that are provocative and interesting to read.

Perhaps that’s the thing about excellent erotica. It is devoid of boundaries. It is bereft of rules. It may or may not have sex at all. It may or may not have more than one participant. It may or may not have participants of different genders. It is meant to be fluid, powerful and intense. It should not tug only at your heartstrings, but pull at your very being. It should allow you the pleasure of your imagination. And it should satisfy you right upto the very end.

Thirteen Instagram handles booklovers must follow


Published on 22 May in Scroll.in

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If you’re still looking for book recommendations and the kind of book pictures and videos that make you want to hit the ‘Like’ button (so that, you know, your friends know you’re cool that way) on Facebook, you’re so last year.

The place to be is Instagram, and the hashtag to use is #Bookstagram. But since that will mean a problem of plenty, we picked a baker’s dozen of handles for you to follow.

Just literary

@theparisreview
Every now and then, one must pause and reflect upon some words of wisdom. But not just any words. Here you’ll find snippets of previously published poems and past interviews with iconic writers, along with illustrations and their most memorable covers. The literary magazine was founded in 1953 and is one of the most-widely read journals today.

@epicreads
If you’re into Young Adult fiction – reading it for a friend if not for yourself – this is the account you should be following. A bright community for YA book lovers pin-points the hottest teen books.

@fictionnotfriends
Talia is all of 16, lives in London, and has a penchant for books and travel. She blends her reads with some of the most stunning backdrops – the ocean, the rocks, the London Eye, and more! Her perspective on books is most swoon-worthy.

Book people (who doesn’t love them?)

@hotdudesreading
He’s got the looks and he’s got the books. So, stop everything and take note of the three most interesting words for, ahem, a female booklover – hot, dudes, reading. Follow for regular images of scenes of hot dudes reading straight from the streets and subways of New York City. Could it get better than this?

@subwaybookreview
What’s the most common way of passing time while traveling in a train? Yes, we know it’s Whatsapp. But this handle goes on to prove that the NYC subway has some of the most interesting readers in the world – native Americans and tourists included. They’re constantly reading – from Toni Morrison to Greek myths, and Agatha Christie to David Foster Wallace. Best of all, each picture comes with a short review of the book photographed. This is a lovely black-and-white account of strangers reading on the subway. Wouldn’t it be great if someone archived the book-people here in India too – on the Delhi metro or in Mumbai locals?

Food and design (books too)

@bookbaristas
NYC-based college grad Natasha describes herself as “Just a book person recommending you hot drinks and hotter reads”. She’s got the combination of books and brews right, and the stylish pictures work impeccably in her favour (she’s got over 94k followers). You won’t get many book recommendations here, but you’re sure to get ideas on how to style your reads with a brew! Also, she owns super cool socks.

@coffeeandbookss
Is there a better pairing than coffee and books? Echoing our thoughts here is Tanbir Minhas, who records her book-coffee moments in beautiful rustic cafés and indie bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area. And her recommends are worth watching out for. There’s an eclectic mix in there – from Jhumpa Lahiri to Haruki Murakami, Henry Miller to Voltaire, and Ray Bradbury to Gillian Flynn. (Don’t miss the extra ‘s’ in the handle.)

@imjustahuman
Anna is a Ukrainian student who’s in love with books, just like the rest of us, but what sets her apart are the creative pairings she does with her favourite reads. Be it flowers, fruits, coffee, cake, candles or lights, Anna’s got everything going great.

Pets. Yes, pets.

@ernest_hedgingway
“Ernest is a persnickety hedgehog with a love of books, antiques, and sleeping. These are his adventures.” Nikki, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma is a reader, writer, photographer, cook, creator, dreamer, believer (phew)… according to the bio on her blog. She owns a pet hedgehog whom she’s lovingly christened after you-know-who. Tiny Ernest spends his days with Nikki discovering the joy of reading. At times he’s found solving a crossword puzzle, other times he’s seen resting upon a pile of books. Oh, he has his own book too!

@catbookbclub
Cats and books. That should break the internet. Sleepy cats, inquisitive cats, bored cats, curious cats – each one sprawled and perched over one or more books.

@dogbookclub
There are dogs. There are books. What’s not to love? This handle captures all those moments when the furry canines interrupt your time with books. The captions are the funniest and in all caps because hey, “BOOKS ARE EXCITING”, right?

Bookstores

@strandbookstore
New York City’s landmark bookstore has been around since 1927. The 86-year-old bookstore holds 18 miles of books and has three floors of used and rare books on Broadway and 12th. Here you’ll find pictures of author events held inside the store (readings and signings), along with shelfies and giveaways. Every now and then, the staff post their book recommendations too.

@chroniclebooks
Chronicle Books, the San Francisco-based independent publisher, is an Instagram pro. The company publishes books on food, architecture, interior design, and home & garden, and children’s books. And they never get their frames wrong.

Meet the four Indian writers in the running for 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize


Published on 24 April, 2016 in Scroll.in

Over 4000 entries from across the world were narrowed down to just 26 stories from 11 countries.

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An Indian may have a serious chance of winning, first, the regional 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and then the overall prize. After all, four of the seven entries shortlisted for the Asia region are from India (two are from Pakistan and one, from Bangladesh).

If an Indian does win the regional prize, their story will be one of the five competing for the grand prize. The last Indian winners were Siddhartha Gigoo, who won one of the regional prizes in 2015, and, before him, Anushka Jasraj, who won in 2012.

While the regional winners (£2,500 each) will be announced on May 4, the overall winner (£5,000) of the prize will be announced in June 2016.

The jury this year is chaired by South Africa-born and London-based Gillian Slovo, who has authored 13 books, including five detective novels, a family memoir, and a thriller. The other judges: Helon Habila, Associate Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, USA; Pierre J Mejlak, a writer from Malta, who has been living in Belgium since 2004; Olive Senior, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her first short-story collection, Summer Lightning; Patrick Holland, an Australian writer who grew up working cattle and horses on the western plains of Queensland; and Firdous Azim, a Professor of English at BRAC University and a member of Naripokkho, the woman’s activist group in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Who then are the four new writers from India who have been shortlisted?

Dirty White Strings, Kritika Pandey
Growing up in a traditional middle-class family in Ranchi, Pandey ended up studying engineering even though she had a keen interest in books. Since Ranchi did not have big bookstores for a long time, this was a hindrance to her penchant for reading and writing.

Her first tryst with writing was in the seventh grade, when she wrote a poem on Naxalism. Life changed after she attended the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University, where her training in liberal arts contributed greatly to her work.

Dirty White Strings is Pandey’s attempt to grapple with the idea of love. Having grown up in a family of conservative elders who dismiss the very idea of love marriages, she tries to dissect the word “love” for ordinary, middle-class people. And it’s not just any love. Her story is based in the Kathputli Colony of Delhi, where a 45-year-old puppeteer, who lives from hand to mouth, ends up falling in love with his only daughter.

The reader, Pandey says, may not be entirely comfortable with the protagonist’s situation, but will still find it hard to judge him for the choices he makes.

Pandey finds her inspiration in the works of contemporary writers like Rohinton Mistry, Zadie Smith, Jerry Pinto, Aatish Taser, and Anjum Hasan. She is currently working on a sequence of interconnected short stories.

Girdhar’s Mansion, Sumit Ray
Ray’s parents were in the civil services, and he spent his growing up years in Kolkata, Mumbai, and, most prominently, in Delhi, attending as many as six schools along the way! He studied English at Hindu College, Delhi University and wrote prolifically in spurts – a guide book on Delhi, comics, artist interviews, essays, a short play, and every other form in between.

Girdhar’s Mansion flows out of Ray’s love for South Asian writers till the 1950s, who wrote stories that are social in intent but universal in communication. In this story, Girdhar is a farmer who has come into adulthood after India’s independence, and is trying to keep his family’s dignity intact when a calamity robs them of their means.

South Asian writing, Ray feels, has an incredible impact on readers. There is something very real and yet very provocative about them – the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Premchand, Banaphool, Ismat Chughtai, UR Ananthamurthy, and Rabindranath Tagore being cases in point. In building his story around a farmer facing personal tragedy, witnessing India’s Independence and the Partition from a distance, and trying to make sense of a world gone haywire, Ray feels his work is not just part of South Asian literature but also a story about South Asia.

Cow and Company, Parashar Kulkarni
From keeping scores on Star Yaar Kalakaar (the TV game show hosted by Farida Jalal) to hanging out on the sets of Movers and Shakers, Kulkarni went on to study commerce at RA Podar College in Matunga. After meandering through a few economics related programmes in New Delhi and Germany, and working at some financial firms and NGOs, he went on to a doctoral programme in politics at New York University.

Cow and Company is about four men in search of a cow. Eventually, they do find one and take her to their office. Kulkarni spends a lot of time in the archives or with archival documents, and his interest in fiction is related to his research. The cow issue in the early twentieth century could have been a go-to for an entrepreneurial politician. Things haven’t changed much over the past 100 years.

Kulkarni likes reading GK Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, F Scott Fitzgerald, PL Deshpande (a short portion of whose work he’s translating), Arundhati Roy, and Premchand.

Instant Karma, Vinayak Varma
Varma moved to Bangalore from Chennai in 2000 to study art, design and filmmaking. Some of his earliest memories of writing are horror/sci-fi stories, which he wrote as a child. After that there were several adolescent years when he would begin and immediately stop work on several series of science-fiction novels. Somewhere in between were a few poems and also some comedy sketches. He took to writing seriously only after having worked a few years as an editor.

Instant Karma is fluffy spiritual comedy told in three parts and a few interludes. While the story, avers Varma, won’t heighten the reader’s sensitivity to the human condition, or reveal deep existential truths about old age and death, it will teach them to temper expectations.

Varma, who is currently working on a novel, has a reading list that includes American comic book writer and cartoonist Ed Brubaker’s entire oeuvre. He admits to having discovered the writings of Dorothy Parker, Robert MacFarlane, Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh a little late in life, and plans to re-read Rafi Zabor, GV Desani, Saul Bellow and OV Vijayan.

A reader’s guide to the six books in the running for the Muse India Young Writer Award


Published on 22 November, 2015 in Scroll.in

Meant for writers below 35, the award is helping the discovery of many first or second novels.

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Young writers are almost the default mode of Indian publishing in English. That’s why awards for young writers are always a valuable way to discover new fiction. Here are the six writers – and books – in the running for the Muse India–Satish Verma Young Writer Award, which is given to a writer below 35 years of age for producing an outstanding original work in English, or in English translation from any Indian language. This year, all the contenders are books in English.

The Dove’s Lament, Kirthi Jayakumar
Having worked as a volunteer with the UN agencies and collaborations, Kirthi Jayakumar has had a chance to speak to many victims and survivors of wars, conflicts and trafficking. This very experience forms the genesis of her book The Dove’s Lament, a collection of twelve short stories, each of them recording and reflecting on conflict and violence. While one story brings to life the Rwandan Genocide, another laments the Israel-Palestine conflict. From Baccha Baazi in Afghanistan to child marriages in India, and from suicide bombings in Sri Lanka to the drug trade in Colombia – every theatre is familiar and acts as a reminder of the wrongs that we desperately try to ignore.

The Courtesans of Karim Street, Debotri Dhar
Debotri Dhar with her new book The Courtesans of Karim Street challenges the conventional notion of the term courtesan and gives us two strong, intelligent female characters – Megan and Naina – who shine through the course of history, fiction and mystery. Megan Adams, a professor in the US, receives an anonymous letter stating she’s a whore, not a scholar. She enquires about her dead mother’s past and travels all the way to India to find the answers. Here she meets Naina, the daughter of her mother’s friend, who’s undergoing her own set of trials and tribulations. Together they form a bond of sisterly friendship and attempt to resolve matters of the heart and of the past.

Blue: Tales of Reddumone, the Two-Faced, MR Sharan
Twenty-five-year-old MR Sharan’s ultra-modern take on the Ramayana has everyone talking about him. An economist by profession who harbours a fascination for Indian mythology, he has produced a debut work which plays with philosophy while being grounded in realistic politics. Reddumone is clever, loyal and powerful. He is the perfect Lankan spy. Rama is noble, strong and brave. He is the quintessential king. Paired against the backdrop of gruesome civil wars, their friendship endures the test of ideals and mutual respect.

I Do, Do I?, Ruchita Misra, HarperCollins India
What happens when things fall apart suddenly? Story of most of our lives, isn’t it? Ruchita Misra’s I Do, Do I? has Kasturi Shukla in the limelight, a young lady who is all set to marry the man of her dreams and lead the perfect, happily-married life. But life’s never without hurdles – a messy engagement, a moment of indecision, a hopeful mother-in-law, an angry colleague, and so on. In Misra’s own words, “the book is a masala entertainer and full of hearty laughs with a love story that is full of theatrics.”

The Half Mother, Shahnaz Bashir
Shahnaz Bashir’s first novel The Half Mother is set in 1990s Kashmir, and focuses on the involuntary disappearances of young men during the long war. The story spans three generations in Natipora near Srinagar – there’s Ghulam Rasool Joo, his daughter Haleema, and her teenage son Imran. One night, Imran is mistaken for a separatist and picked up by the Army, and so begins Haleema’s search for him. She battles not for her own lonely existence, but for answers about her son. She visits torture camps, jails, and even morgues to find a trace of Imran. She hopes for a sign, a clue, that’ll lead her to him. The valley of Kashmir has so many untold stories; The Half Mother is just one of those.

The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
The story is about a woman named Rupi in Kadamdihi, a Santhal village in Jharkhand, who was once known to be the strongest woman in the village. She is now found bed-ridden, rotting away under the influence of a mysterious disease given to her by Gurubari, the wife of her husband’s best friend. Rumour has it that Gurubari has used witchcraft to ruin Rupi’s health. The novel travels through the life of the Baskey family and unveils notions of good and evil in the village life.

Stephenie Meyer has swapped her characters’ genders in a new version of ‘Twilight’, but why?


Published on 25 October, 2015 in Scroll.in

Taking a half a leaf out of EL ‘Fifty’ James’s strategy, Meyer has created a somewhat pointless retelling of her bestselling series.

meyerThey say there are two sides two every story. Two points of view, two perspectives, and two different versions circling around a common plot. Popular fiction authors seem to have taken a cue from this. From Stephenie Meyer to EL James, writers seems to be either retelling their bestselling novels from the PoV of their male protagonists, or swapping genders to present the same story in a somewhat new light.

So when Stephenie Meyer recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of Twilight, her insanely popular human-vampire love story, by releasing a brand new book titled Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, everyone thought she would be retelling the Twilight trilogy from Edward Cullen’s perspective. Turns out we’ll have to wait for Midnight Sun for that story.

This book, however, is a strange, summed-up version of the whole Twilight series, with protagonists Edward Cullen and Bella Swan swapping not just places but genders too. Edward becomes Edyth (female and human) and Bella becomes Beau (a male vampire). To emphasise the transition, the new book has a green apple instead of a red one on the cover. Meyer has also practically changed the genders of every character in the series, the only exception being Beau/Bella’s dad.

Repetitive much?

It’s one thing to stretch the length of a book by introducing new characters or prolong it with sequels, but to retell the same story without any novelty is plain boring. EL James’s fourth book Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian, a follow-up of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, retold from the male protagonist Christian Grey’s PoV, received severe flak from critics and reviewers. While some labelled it “revolting”, others called it “creepy beyond belief”.

It’s possible that with Grey, James attempted to find answers to the inexplicable controlling tendencies of her hero and the reasonable causes of his unconventional, BDSM-practising relationship with Anastasia Steele. But since the story doesn’t drift much from the original trilogy, James’s new version only allows one inside the head of the “megalomaniacal sociopath” that Christian Grey is.

But since when did James care about reviews, especially when the sales figures speak for themselves? According to The Week, the book sold “more than 647,400 copies in the UK” in the first three days of its release. It also “beat the previous UK record holder Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which sold 551,000 copies in five days in 2009.” In the US too, 1.1 million copies of Grey were sold in just four days.

Following suit

Those who’ve read Meyer will agree that her books are nothing like the films they’ve been adapted into, as is the case with most book-to-film renditions. Meyer writes for a YA audience and the Twilight series justly delivers the right proportions of fantasy, romance and action. But this new summarised anniversary edition seems to have failed to entice both critics and fans.

To begin with, there is a definitive and hurried closure to the story, which means there is no possibility of a sequel whatsoever. Secondly, teenager Beau isn’t insecure or self-doubting, as was Bella in the original Twilight book. One can imagine the plight of reviewers confronted with a book that instead of breaking gender stereotypes in the present day and age reinforces them. Her creation of the new male protagonist doesn’t in any way challenge the twisted gender biases that the world is trying very hard to counter.

A review in The Daily Beast reads: “He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t stare in the mirror and inspect his perceived flaws, he doesn’t imagine himself inferior to his superhuman lover with the intensity that Bella imagined herself inferior to Edward.”

One wonders then what’s new about this anniversary reprint, because the story more or less remains the same. In another interview with The Daily Beast, Meyer said:

“[Bella] has also been criticized for being too consumed with her love interest, as if that’s somehow just a girl thing. But I’ve always maintained that it would have made no difference if that human were male and the vampire female – it’s still the same story.”

It is unclear whether Meyer’s decision to write a gender-swapped version of the human-vampire love story was an attempt to redeem Bella’s damsel in distress disposition, or was it simply a 10th (has it been 10 years already?) anniversary celebratory book. Perhaps Meyer wanted to assert the fact that men too can be fools in love. However, in making Beau appear as the confident brat in love with a superhuman Edythe, she may have accidentally created a stereotypical, full of himself teen boy.

Forget fiction and non-fiction, adults are turning to colouring books


Published on 10 October, 2015 in Scroll.in

The unlikely pursuit of filling intricate drawings with colours has become a publishing opportunity.
Beauty Needs Space CoverThree years ago, when artist and illustrator Indu Harikumar designed a few colouring panels for a non-profit organisation which works with under-trial prisoners at the Byculla jail in Mumbai, she was told that colouring calmed and relaxed the women. These were women incarcerated for petty and serious crimes, and made to share one large dorm in the jail.

Privacy is not an option in prison and most other activities that inmates are usually made to participate in are in groups that they may or may not prefer. In that sense, colouring was one activity that could perform in solitude.

“I could feel the energy that they were not at peace with each other. The bed was the only space they had and I can imagine why colouring had a positive effect. There is a lot of detail in colouring books for adults and because of that, the mind doesn’t wander and one finds it easier to focus,” says Harikumar.

Colourful beginnings

Harikumar was at an art residency in Vienna in 2014 when the idea of Beauty Needs Space, a colouring book for adults, first came to her. She was out on a date and shied away from eating cake by saying “I feel fat”. That’s when her Viennese date said to her, “But beauty needs space”.

“It wasn’t an idea I could push away because in between work (which is usually drawing) I doodle and I find it very relaxing. During the residency, I used to do this series called Vienna Diary where I would wake up and make a quick drawing and put it out on my Facebook page. I would write on themes that I faced every day – culture, perception, trying out Tinder in Vienna, patriarchy, food and travel etc. The series was hugely popular.

“I thought I was talking to a very Indian audience, but I received email from Scotland, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, and, of course, India. The “beauty needs space” comment got me thinking and that’s when I started putting up my drawings for the colouring book just to test the waters. The response was great. So I started drawing the first one – Beauty Needs Space – which appears on the cover. I decided to self-publish because I had buyers writing in saying, ‘I am in whenever you are ready.’ That meant a lot.”

A meditative palette

As a concept, colouring books for adults have been around in the West for a while now. Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford published her Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Bookin 2013; since then, the book has been translated into 14 languages and has sold more than a million copies.

In 2015 she has published two more books – Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Colouring Book andLost Ocean: An Inky Adventure and Colouring Book. French illustrator and graphic designer Emma Farrarons has been smart enough to pitch her book, The Mindfulness Colouring Book, as an “anti-stress art therapy for busy people”. And UK-based publishing house Michael O’Mara has sold over 300,000 copies of the different colouring books it has published, even claiming that “colouring can lower anxiety, stabilise mood, increase attention span and serve as a sleep aid.”

It’s believed that colouring increases powers of meditation, especially because the panels in these books for adults are far more intricate than those for children. However, Harikumar, being the first Indian to initiate the concept here, isn’t suggesting that her book will do any of that.

“I just hope that people will enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed creating it. If you enjoy it, you will find it relaxing. I hope people are able to find a part of themselves somewhere in the drawings,” she says.

Many of the colouring panels in Beauty Needs Space have been drawn with consciously positive messages, which can be found inside the back cover of the book. It has twelve high-quality A4 prints that one can colour and frame, stick on, and add one’s own beauty to it. There are empty spaces for users to fill in their own messages as well.

Says Harikumar: “I started the book as a social media experiment. As I put out each drawing, I heard from people across the world and the stories have been very heart warming. I have sold only through my social media accounts which go by the name of @Induviduality and I am happy to have sold to most continents except South America.”

Her next project for adults? Titled Women on Top, it’s a colouring book based loosely on theKamasutra.