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.

Viking ways


Published on 21 February, 2016 in The Asian Age

The local life in Denmark is quiet and charming, in contrast to the buzzing hub of its capital, Copenhagen, writes Arunima Mazumdar

Vikingespillene i FrederikssundFoto: Wesseltoft 11/2004

Scene from a Viking play

There’s something about summer in Denmark. The sun is imposing, it shines overhead like a big, bright jewel, and yet, at the same time, there’s a nip in the air. Locals while away their days and evenings by the harbour, never tiring of the Danish way of life.

I am sitting by the edge of the sparkling blue waters of the Roskilde Fjord, away from the modern Copenhagen city, watching tourists move around in bundles from point to point, and children prancing about in capes and horned-helmets, dressed as little Vikings. Looking at them, I am reminded of what Mette, our guide here at the Roskilde Ship Museum, had said, “The Vikings never disappeared; they just changed their way of living. Slowly, they stopped being Vikings, had children and had families, and so on and so forth. They are our ancestors.”

Sailing alongside history
Roskilde is known as the Viking city. This is where five original Skuldelev Viking ships were found some five hundred years ago. The king and the bishop, two of the most powerful men in history, who lived here at the time, used these ships to block one of the three major sailing canals to prevent enemy ships sailing into the city. With a population of about a little more than 5,000 people, Roskilde was almost like the capital of Denmark. Much later, in 1962, all of these five Viking ships were excavated around 20 kms off the Roskilde Fjord. These nearly 1,000-year-old vessels now preserved in the Roskilde Ship Museum are proof that apart from being eminent sea warriors and tradesmen, the Vikings were above all experts in boatbuilding.

“The word Viking actually means a pirate, so not everyone would want to consider themselves as a Viking during the Viking period. It’s now cool to refer to oneself as their descendants,” says Mette as I prepare to hop onto one of the replicas of the Viking ships and set sail.

Poetic relics
Known to be outright opportunists, the Vikings made monasteries their main target of loot. Here were men, followers of Christianity and without any weapons guarding over silver. A lot of silver! Imagine how easy it’d be to simply crush over them and steal all their wealth. Ironically, much of what we know about the Vikings is second-hand information. They never wrote about themselves and whatever information we have is from what others recorded. Naturally, their portrayal and interpretation is a bit crooked in the pages of history. But not everything is negative. The museum’s bookshop has a lot of interesting volumes and I am pleased to spot a book on Vikings’ poetry.

According to the book, the Vikings are more renowned for their combat than for poetry, let alone love, but had a keen and overlapping interest in all three. They were known to be cruel and barbaric, but this book by several anonymous contributors has compiled verses written by them. For them, poetry served as a repository of stories about gods and heroes, expressing the ups and downs of daily life.

Village life
Summer days in Denmark are awfully long. There is still time for dusk, so I decide to take a detour to Frederikssund for the annual Vikings Festival in which every summer, hundreds of locals come together and volunteer to put up a traditional Viking play, alongside a huge Viking market with stalls and workshops.

A short bus ride away from Roskilde, Frederikssund is a treat for the eyes. This year’s play is called Hroar and Helge, a tale of two brothers who battle with the enemy king to win back their deceased father’s throne. The play is Danish, but the English scripts provided to us are of great help. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before — extravagant costumes, real horses, fire play, incredible music, and an impeccable performance by 50-odd men, women and children. There’s no better way of getting a taste of local life in a foreign land.

It’s dark enough to retire to the plush quarters of Vesterbro, Copenhagen. En route to my hotel there, I pop into a local microbrewery in Halsnæs Bryghus for a quick beer. “Try our Classens Lise, it’s an American pale ale, flavoured with chamomile and heather honey, and has history behind its name,” I’m told. How so, I ask. “Well, you see, Major-General Johan Frederik Classens founded the towns Frederiksværk and Liseleje; the latter is named after his beautiful stepdaughter, Lise, and the beer is named after her,” he explains. I smile back and request him to bring me the mug of history.

Mining collective history


Published on 13 February, 2016 in The Hindu Business Line – BLink

A Sri Lankan play delves into the common, conflicted past of two very different nations at the 18th edition of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav

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War footing A still from the play Dear Children, Sincerely. Photo: S Thyagarajan Ruwanthie de Chickera. Photo: S Thyagarajan Ruwanthie de Chickera. Photo: S Thyagarajan

Conflict doesn’t know race or region. The nature of war is such that it spares no one. Cities burn, people die, and that is how the pages of history are made. Countries miles away from each other share a common suffering; people with diverse skin colour identify with each other’s pain, for every nation has endured a similar pattern of war, and therefore, everyone’s history is collective.

Taking a slice of this shared history to build the foundation of a theatre project titled Dear Children, Sincerely…, the Stages Theatre Group from Sri Lanka aspired to bring to light the stories and experiences that transpired years ago, but are relevant today. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of this history’s witnesses — the elders of the society — at the 18th edition of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama in New Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, and Kerala respectively.

Under the guidance of director Ruwanthie de Chickera, a cast of 15 Asian and African artistes travelled to perform in India, and brought two diverse nations — Rwanda and Sri Lanka — together for an international collaboration of three performances, unveiling three different perspectives of the past.

While the first story, Seven Decades Deep compared the enormous Hutu-Tutsi community conflict in Rwanda with the Tamil-Sinhala crisis in Sri Lanka, and drew uncanny similarities between the exile of the Tutsi families to the ‘Sinhala Only’ movement in Lanka, the second story, Marriage, Sex and Loveintroduced comic relief by recalling the traditions when it was forbidden for a bride to be seen by a groom before they got married and when dowry was measured in cows. The last performance, Upside-down Land returned to remind of the horror of the bloody insurrections and sustained communal riots that scarred both countries for life.

Dear Children, Sincerely… made its debut at the Ubumumtu Arts Festival in Kigali, Rwanda, in July 2015; the project later travelled to Colombo for its second show in January 2016. In India, the team performed to a full-house in Jammu’s Abhinav theatre earlier this month, before travelling to Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium and Thiruvananthapuram’s Tagore Theatre.

The project, which is based on conversations with senior citizens, mostly public figures and a few ordinary people, delves into their memories, experiences, and reflections in order to create a bank of stories. These are then taken to young people through storytelling and live performances.

“Research into Dear Children, Sincerely… started in April 2015, when we began talking to people born in the 1930s in Sri Lanka. This remarkable generation, born in colonial times and now eight decades old, essentially grew up in parallel lines to their country. The idea of bringing Rwanda into the picture happened naturally. I had a friend there and we spoke about the common histories of both countries. Every scene has been created from a conversation with an elderly person. The idea is to create a number of short performance pieces that will focus on one aspect of history, one opinion, one story,” explains Chickera.

Commenting on the comparison of the theatre scene in India and Sri Lanka she says, “There’s a huge amount of infrastructure in India; the industry is massive and very powerful. India is what Sri Lanka can aspire to be in terms of support, training and infrastructure. Sri Lanka has very good talent, but the industry is very weak. Plenty of young people take to theatre, but they burn out soon because the industry cannot sustain them; there’s not enough money to pay the actors for their training. It’s a very vibrant and young industry, but unfortunately the actors don’t mature, many of them fade out.” And is her country too facing the brunt of intolerance and censorship? “The theatre space has always been under the radar. It continues to be. The previous regime was beginning to crack down on journalists and influencing the artists, but the present system is different. Censorship was very high. It’s no more like that. People are pretty outspoken,” she says.

In a very short span of time, Dear Children, Sincerely… has managed to impress the ARIADNE theatre makers — a group of female theatre directors working in countries of conflict and post-conflict — and through ARIADNE, the project is now being adapted in Ireland, Palestine, Rwanda, Burundi, Serbia, the UK, the DRC, and Belgium. With nine countries on board, the project is all set to go global.

Their stories are real events, witnessed by real people, and real comments that manage to etch the past forever in the chapters of today. The past, as they say, is never truly behind us; no matter how hard one tries to forget, it claws its way back. And perhaps that is imperative to remember.

Home is where the hippie is


Published on 30 January, 2016 in The Hindu Business Line – BLink

Forty-four years after its conception, ‘free town’ Christiania, with its anarchic attitude, continues to exist rather peacefully in Copenhagen

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Welcome to Christiania: Copenhagen’s hippie enclave is a car-free zone

Every year since 2007, the British lifestyle magazine Monocle has brought out a list of the 25 most liveable cities in the world. The study is based on a variety of factors such as the quality of living conditions, architecture, public transport, environmental issues, medical care, and so on. Copenhagen, with its green and sustainable lifestyle, award-winning architecture, and meticulous city planning, has predictably topped the list for 2008, 2013 and 2014 respectively.

On the face of it, the Danish capital seems to have a rhythm of its own. There’s an unspoken and reciprocal respect for pedestrians and cyclists. The Danes seem content and carefree, and they go about their lives pretty simply. It’s almost impossible to nitpick the Danish way of life. But then there’s Christiania, the controversial ‘free town’ that exists contrarily within the controlled existence of Copenhagen, and I wonder if Christiania too has had a role to play in upping the rank of Copenhagen to match the urbane estimates of Monocle’s survey of the world’s most liveable cities.

The anarchic enclave of Christiania was founded by a group of squatters and hippies in 1971. They took over an abandoned military village, about 84 acres in all, and set up their own community — one that was free and unbound by any governmental rules or regulations. They made their own laws, flew their own flag (a red banner with three yellow dots, representing the three ‘I’s in Christiania), built their own homes using old army barracks, and made their own currency (which is no longer in use; they now accept Danish krone). They didn’t want to be part of the city in any way; they wanted to keep distance from the glare of lawful Danish institutions and wished an alternative way of living. They had their way then and they’re going strong even today with about a thousand residents forming the core community, while several others live in the hope of being included in the commune someday.

In its 44th year, Christiania is a car-free zone. One could choose to walk, cycle, or ride a horse. I pack my camera and phone in a rucksack and enter the main gate, which opens directly into the infamous Pusher Street. A refreshingly green cannabis plant grows in a flowerpot kept on the side of the entrance. A sweet, almost fruity fragrance of weed hangs in the air. The street is flanked by makeshift booths, each of them stocked with different versions of hashish. The other thing common among the booths are the masked, bouncer-like men guarding them. Inside, other men sell, buy, smoke, or roll joints. Every wall is adorned with a mural or graffiti. I see colour, I sense controversy. It’s exciting and intimidating at the same time. Sale of drugs is not legal, yet they’re bought and consumed openly, and perhaps that’s the beauty of Christiania. Police visits are also frequent. There’s temporary furore, fines are paid, people are arrested, and then life goes back to normal.

“Christiania is open for everybody, but not everybody can come in, become a part of the community and live here,” says Martha, who became a resident nine years ago and now works at Grønsagen, an organic fruits and vegetable market-cum-café across Pusher Street. She came to Denmark 18 years ago from Peru and fell in love with a man who belonged to the community. “It was easy for me as I married into the community. I didn’t choose Christiania, it was destiny,” she says.

Over the years, Christianites have learned to co-exist more naturally with the ways of the Danish government. They pay for electricity and water, along with an annual rent, and are now an integrated part of Copenhagen. And why not — it is, after all, the second-most visited attraction in Copenhagen after Eriksen’s The Little Mermaid.

They have also found new and smart ways of sustaining themselves — selling stocks of Christiania to outsiders, organising guided tours, hosting music festivals, et al.

Their autonomous approach to life also makes them an innovative bunch. Case in point is the Christiania Cargo Bike, which was invented in 1984 by blacksmith and resident Lars Engstrom as a birthday gift for his wife Annie Lerche, to haul their young kids in and around the commune. It is an award-winning Danish design classic and is a success all over the world.

The citizens of Christiania believe in having room for everyone. Their collective ability to support social freedom is marvellous, and perhaps that is why people are desperate to be a part of it even today. But sadly, there is no such thing as an application for membership. “The difficult way is to work a lot here, say for three, four or even five years. Slowly people start seeing you every day, they start getting to know you. But there are people who stay on for years and still don’t find a house. One has really got to push. There’s no waiting list and it’s only the consensus of the thousand-odd Christianites that matters over whom to include in the community,” explains Martha.

The lake is a short walk from Pusher Street. There are fewer people here. The silence and solitude is mesmerising. As I stroll along the marijuana-scented tracks, I find canoodling couples and youngsters setting up barbecues, each of them smoking thick joints. They’re outsiders who’ve come to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake. The people of Christiania are, however, a mix of Europeans, Americans and Latin Americans, most of whom were part of hippie and rebel movements in other countries. There was a man from India too who, Martha says, died this year — a musician who set up a Jimi Hendrix band and sang his songs. And now, she says, there is an Indian woman named Radha who sells trinkets in the market.

There are no IDs or stamp papers to prove you’re part of Christiania. It’s a small community and everyone knows everyone. There was only one day in the history of its existence when Christiania was closed to outsiders. The situation, however, says Martha wasn’t as tense before 2002 as it is now. “The government takes Pusher Street as a peg to attack our community, which is wrong. There’s a law in Christiania that anyone who sells hash has to live here, but the big bosses don’t live here anymore. The junkies are not a part of Christiania; they come here only for business. They know nothing about the history of Christiania and they don’t respect our ways. We’re working on ways to co-exist with them and even legalise the selling of drugs. But it’s not so easy because Scandinavian countries are very conservative by nature.”

Almost every community in the world is bound by some faith, belief or following, and it’s only a matter of time that they falter, owing to disharmony and disagreement. Auroville is still in full-swing, but it is inclined towards spiritualism. The no-strings-attached freedom that Christiania promises is, frankly, nowhere to be seen. There’s no belief system, there is no leader and there are no followers. It is an anarchist community, but can there be harmony in anarchy?

Martha gives us a knowing smile as she gets up to bring us her favourite carrot, orange and ginger juice, “There have been episodes of violence, but it’s incomparable with other European countries like Spain, which is known for much more violence. As per European standards, we are a peaceful bunch.”

OTT and loving it


Published on 12 December, 2015 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

The fifth edition of the Delhi Comic Con brought with it fans, TV stars, socially-conscientious comics and plenty of good vibes

Kristian Nairn takes a selfie of his fans at Delhi Comic Con 2015

Kristian Nairn, aka Hodor, at the Delhi Comic Con. Pic courtesy: Comic Con India

A sunny winter weekend, plenty of excited (and painted) faces, and a zone full of superheroes: Comic Con India returned to the Capital with a bang and left fans wanting more. The NSIC exhibition ground in Okhla buzzed with action last weekend. Fathers carried their toddlers dressed as superheroes, teenagers pranced about as Hogwarts witches and a somewhat lanky, albeit enthusiastic Spiderman posed generously for every fan.

Founded in 2011 by Jatin Varma as an experiment, Comic Con India has grown with every successive edition: this one had more than 250 exhibitors. “Comics and most things nerdy have been a part of my life since I was a child. I’ve grown up reading what everyone else has — Tinkle, Asterix, Tintin, MAD, DC & Marvel — and later went on to lap up every local and international indie comic I could find. There are so many favourites, but if I were to pick one it’d be Superman,” says Varma.

The first edition, held in Delhi, was free and saw more than 10,000 visitors over that weekend. The footfall has grown massively since and keeps increasing each year.

Comic Con now attracts more than 35,000 visitors a day, with an average ticket price of ₹300 at each show.

Celeb showstopper

Northern Irish actor and DJ Kristian Nairn (who portrays the character of Hodor in the blockbuster television series Game of Thrones) stole the show with a jam-packed session on day two of the festival. With season six a few months away, it was clever of the organisers to have one of the GOT characters make an appearance for fans in India, where the audience for content-focused television has grown phenomenally in the past two years.

For the uninitiated, Hodor is a friendly giant, one of the nicest characters on the show, whose defining characteristic is that he can only speak a single word — Hodor. Fans queued up to catch a glimpse of Nairn as he politely dismissed all questions about the forthcoming season, and refused to reveal if Jon Snow was alive or dead. He humbly admitted to not having read any of the books, but hoped that George RR Martin keeps his character alive till the very end.

Nairn agreed that he wasn’t particularly impressed about being offered the role of Hodor. “The guy only said one word ‘Hodor’, which didn’t make any sense. It was crazy,” he said and added it was his mother who convinced him to take it up. It was only gradually that he started falling in love with the character. “The only way to play a part like Hodor is to have that connect. You can’t pretend: it has to be real. And apart from the size, we had a lot in common. I think I am just as nice as he is,” said an amused Nairn.

First-timers

Comic Con provides a platform for creators and publishers to showcase their stories and characters. But while the hero-villain duo of Batman and The Joker, made more popular than ever before thanks to Christopher Nolan’s films, take centre-stage every time, this year’s edition saw other interesting ideas as well.

Sharing space with established comics stars was a superhero called Shabash, who came all the way from Bangladesh with the Dhaka Comic Con team. The Dhaka team was in the Capital with their ‘Beyond Borders’ theme. The aim was to join forces with the rest of the comics world. Founded by Saadi Rahman in 2012, Dhaka Comic Con is Bangladesh’s first-ever official comic book convention. They’re all set to kick off their fourth edition later this week.

Standing out among the crowd was the ‘Share Good Vibes’ stall that sold merchandise with quotes on peace. “There is so much negativity around us these days. Everyone seems to be getting depressed because of so much wrong happening in the world. Our aim is to spread positive vibes and encourage people to become happier and more optimistic,” says Nikhil Sharma, one of the founders.

Books etcetera

Graphic literature has never really received the attention it deserves: not in the past and especially not now, when people prefer to watch a comics-based film or TV show over reading the original book. Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Iron Man, The Hulk and Jessica Jones: these characters were born in the pages of Marvel and DC comics. But perhaps it’s less time-consuming to watch TV than to read the pages of a book.

This year, along with the usual fare, there were also some books that featured serious socio-political themes. Cartoonist Sumit Kumar’s book Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari, which was originally published as a webcomic, traces the dark history of the Naxalbari uprising and the Maoist conflict in central India. Ram Devineni’s Priya Shakti features a superhero who is also a rape survivor. Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir is an autobiographical book that mixes history with personal recollections to give an insider’s view of the Kashmir conflict and how it shapes the psyche of a young boy.

So the Comic Con had something for every taste of every reader: from the rippling muscles of American superhero comics to the gritty realism of political graphic novels.

The real challenge, however, is to boost comics sales throughout the year, and it will take several successful Comic Cons to pull that off. But we spotted one diehard reader spending ₹50,000 at a single stall. May his tribe increase and flourish.

Men dance on deathless feet


Published on 5 December 2015 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

Celebrating the relevance and genius of WB Yeats, who would have turned 150 this year

yeatsBorn in the summer of 1865 in Dublin, Ireland, William Butler Yeats, who died at age 73, was a man of many interests, many aspirations, and of many talents. He dreamed of shaping Ireland in his own vision and was committed to the idea of Irish independence, both in his literature and life.

This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Yeats. Numerous events are being held around the world to commemorate the occasion. India too celebrated the ideas of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, especially since he had a spiritual connection with the country.

The India International Centre in New Delhi teamed up with the Irish embassy to celebrate his work through academic lectures, documentary film screenings, readings, and a play.

The auditorium might not have been packed, but every attendee listening to Dr Keith Hopper was a Yeats enthusiast. Hopper — who teaches literature and film studies at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education — spoke on Yeats’ interest in India. “Yeats looms over other Irish poets till today and has a tremendous influence on people who’re practising poetry. His agenda of remaking Irish culture was very popular. He put Ireland among the nations of the world. And what makes him all the more special is that everything he ever wrote was read,” he said.

Even though Yeats strove to remake Irish culture, he was never directly involved in the historical revolution, suggested a documentary titled The Mask: Yeats, The Public Man. He worked meticulously for the revival of the Irish language Gaelic, and was considered more important than the political leaders of his time in shaping Ireland’s destiny.

India calling

As a young adult, Yeats was drawn to theosophy. He met Mohini Chatterjee, an Indian theosophist, when he visited Dublin in 1885, and four years later he wrote three poems that referred to India — The Indian to His Love, The Indian Upon God, and Anasuya and Vijaya.

Though he never visited India, the country and its philosophy seeped into his work. Yeats was further influenced by the fourth-century poet and dramatist Kalidasa. He also wrote a poem inspired by the Bhagavad Gita in 1933 titled Mohini Chatterjee. In 1912, he wrote an introduction for Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. He was also instrumental in bringing Tagore’s play, The Post Office to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in October 1913.

His prominence in literary circles led him to establish connections with other Indian poets such as Sarojini Naidu and Manmohan Ghose. His relationship with Indian poets was a symbiotic one; he encouraged a young Indian student in Oxford, Govinda Krishna Chettur, to publish his poems in 1922. Chettur dedicated the anthology to Yeats.

Experiments with theatre

Yeats’ greatest theatrical legacy to his country was the Abbey Theatre, which he founded in 1899 with dramatist and theatre manager Isabella Augusta Lady Gregory and Irish playwright Edward Martyn. Yeats was the key founder and lifelong supporter of the Abbey theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland). He also succeeded in establishing the great modern Irish theatrical tradition.

Dr Vinod Bala Sharma, founder of the Delhi-based theatre society Shaw’s Corner, presented Yeats’sPurgatory, a play that the poet wrote a few months before his death in 1939.

The play tells the story of an old man and his 16-year-old son who are the only two living members of a family that has fallen apart. It deals with issues of decline and death. It also reflects Yeats’ interest in this life and the possibilities of the next.

Sharma, a Shauvian scholar, said at the sidelines of the play, “Yeats is better known as a poet than a playwright. I chose to stage Purgatory because there is something very Irish about it… the Irish never see straight. There is an undercurrent of humour, which is not negative, but neither is it positive.”

On his birth anniversary, there is no better way to celebrate the genius and relevance of Yeats than by reading and re-reading one of his many great poems, such as Remorse for Intemperate Speech, where his fanatic heart and silken tongue are on full display.

Remorse for Intemperate Speech

I ranted to the knave and fool,

But outgrew that school,

Would transform the part,

Fit audience found, but cannot rule

My fanatic heart.

I sought my betters: though in each

Fine manners, liberal speech,

Turn hatred into sport,

Nothing said or done can reach

My fanatic heart,

Out of Ireland have we come.

Great hatred, little room,

Maimed us at the start.

I carry from my mother’s womb

A fanatic heart.

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.