Posted in Books, Literature, Russian literaure

“No Day Without a Line”

Roshen Dalal

[I had written this article earlier and it was published in the Garhwal Post, a different version in Hindustantimes.com]

“In everything I want to reach
The innermost kernel
In work, in life’s constant quest
In the heart’s trouble;”
(Boris Pasternak)

Literature of the former Soviet Union was once popular, but has now largely been forgotten. Though ‘Soviet literature’ is perhaps too wide a term, the great writers of the USSR, had something in common – like Boris Pasternak in his poem above, their writing had a certain intensity, reflecting that ‘constant quest’ to reach ‘the innermost kernel’ of everything. Their greatness was recognised in the West, and some of them– Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Josef Brodsky– were Nobel Prize winners. Other brilliant writers included Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Sinyavsky, and many more.

Several of the Soviet writers were imprisoned or faced problems of some kind with the authorities in…

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Posted in Books, Literature

Reading plans for 2017

I have already read a number of books this year. But my future reading plans are to focus on literature from India. I’d love to read all the Jnanpith award winners, and am hoping to find translations of all, in either Hindi or English. I have read some of the authors, but not many. Next I will focus on the Sahitya Akademi winners–some are common to both.

The Jnanpith Award is given for the best creative literary writing by any
Indian citizen in any of the languages included in the VIII Schedule of the
Indian Constitution.

Here is the list:
Year : Name – Works (Language)
1965 : G. Sankara Kurup – Odakkuzhal [Flute] (Malayalam);

1966 : Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya – Ganadevta (Bengali)
1967 : Kuppali Venkatappagowda Puttappa (Kuvempu) – Sri Ramayana Darshanam
(Kannada)
1967 : Umashankar Joshi – Nishitha (Gujarati)
1968 : Sumitranandan Pant – Chidambara (Hindi)
1969 : Firaq Gorakhpuri – Gul-e-Naghma (Urdu)
1970 : Viswanatha Satyanarayana – Ramayana Kalpavrikshamu [A resourceful
tree:Ramayana] (Telugu)
1971 : Bishnu Dey Smriti – Satta Bhavishyat (Bengali)
1972 : Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ – Urvashi (Hindi)
1973 : Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre – Nakutanti [Naku Thanthi (Four Strings)]
(Kannada)
1973 : Gopinath Mohanty – Paraja (Oriya)
1974 : Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar – Yayati (Marathi)
1975 : P. V. Akilan – Chitttrappavai (Tamil)
1976 : Ashapurna Devi – Pratham Pratisruti (Bengali)
1977 : K. Shivaram Karanth – Mookajjiya Kanasugalu [Mookajjis dreams] (Kannada)
1978 : Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan ‘Ajneya’ – Kitni Navon Men Kitni Bar
[How many times in many boats?] (Hindi)
1979 : Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya – Mrityunjay [Immortal] (Assamese)
1980 : S. K. Pottekkatt – Oru Desathinte Katha [Story of a land] (Malayalam)
1981 : Amrita Pritam – Kagaj te Canvas (Punjabi)
1982 : Mahadevi Varma – Yama (Hindi)
1983 : Maasti Venkatesh Ayengar – Chikkaveera Rajendra [Life and struggle of
Kodava King Chikkaveera Rajendra] (Kannada)
1984 : Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai – Kayar [Coir] (Malayalam)
1985 : Pannalal Patel – Maanavi Ni Bhavaai (Gujarati)
1986 : Sachidananda Rout Roy (Oriya)
1987 : Vishnu Vaman Shirwadkar (Kusumagraj) – Natsamrat (Marathi)
1988 : Dr.C. Narayana Reddy – Vishwambhara (Telugu)
1989 : Qurratulain Hyder – Akhire Shab Ke Humsafar (Urdu)
1990 : V. K. Gokak (Vinayaka Krishna Gokak) – Bharatha Sindhu Rashmi (Kannada)
1991 : Subhas Mukhopadhyay – Padati (Bengali)
1992 : Naresh Mehta (Hindi)
1993 : Sitakant Mahapatra – “for outstanding contribution to the enrichment of
Indian literature, 1973-92” (Oriya)
1994 : U. R. Ananthamurthy – for his contributions to (Kannada) literature
(Kannada)
1995 : M. T. Vasudevan Nair – Randamoozham [Second Chance] (Malayalam)
1996 : Mahasweta Devi – Hajar Churashir Ma (Bengali)
1997 : Ali Sardar Jafri (Urdu)
1998 : Girish Karnad – “for his contributions to (Kannada) literature and for
contributions to (Kannada) theater (yayati)” (Kannada)
1999 : Nirmal Verma (Hindi)
1999 : Gurdial Singh (Punjabi)
2000 : Indira Goswami (Assamese)
2001 : Rajendra Keshavlal Shah (Gujarati)
2002 : D. Jayakanthan (Tamil)
2003 : Vinda Karandikar – Ashtadarshana (poetry) (Marathi)
2004 : Rahman Rahi – Subhuk Soda, Kalami Rahi and Siyah Rode Jaren Manz
(Kashmiri)
2005 : Kunwar Narayan (Hindi)
2006 : Ravindra Kelekar (Konkani)
2006 : Satya Vrat Shastri (Sanskrit)
2007 : O. N. V. Kurup (Malayalam)
2008 : Akhlaq Mohammed Khan ‘Shahryar’ (Urdu)
2009 : Amar Kant (Hindi)
2009 : Shrilal Shukla (Hindi)
2010 : Chandrashekhara Kambara – for his contributions to Kannada literature
(Kannada)
2011 : Pratibha Ray – Yajnaseni (Oriya)
2012 : Ravuri Bharadhwaja – Paakudurallu (Telugu)
2013 : Kedarnath Singh – Akaal Mein Saras (Hindi)

2014 : Bhalchandra Nemade – Hindu: Jagnyachi Samrudhha Adgal (Marathi)
2015 : Raghuveer Chaudhari – For his contributions to Gujarati literature
(Gujarati)

Posted in book review., Books, History, Literature

Red Scarf Girl

 A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution  by Ji-Li Jiang [Harper Collins, 1998].

Many years ago I was involved in a project on post-Mao China. Reading through copies of the Beijing Review, I was captivated by the Chinese method of encapsulating long statements and concepts in a couple of words. Of course, the ‘double hundred’, was easy to understand, it was Mao’s policy stating ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,’ but several others were not so simple. The ‘two whatevers’  referred to following whatever policy Mao laid down, and whatever instructions he gave, which in the post-Mao period was not recommended.  ‘Eating from the same pot’, meant that everyone got the same payment, regardless of the amount and quality of the work done, while ‘the iron rice bowl’ was a term for a permanent job, which could not be terminated on any grounds.  Even some longer phrases were intriguing, for instance, ‘The Kremlin wants to pluck the ripe apple and put it in the basket.’ In this case, the ‘ripe apple’ was a reference to Iran.

I was reminded of all this when I read Red Scarf Girl, and the key phrases, the‘Four Olds’ and the ‘Four News’. Red Scarf Girl by  Ji-Li Jiang, is actually a book for young people, describing Ji-Li’s life between the ages of twelve and fourteen, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966-1976. The red scarf they proudly wore was a symbol representing communism and Mao. The name ‘Ji-Li’ means ‘lucky and beautiful’, and Ji-Li was a happy young girl till she was twelve. In the prologue to the book she says, ‘I never doubted what I was told: “Heaven and earth are great, but greater still is the kindness of the Communist Party; father and mother are dear, but dearer still is Chairman Mao.”’

Ji-Li’s family lived in Shanghai. Her father was a theatre actor, who also loved reading and was knowledgeable about all sorts of things. Her mother worked in a sports store, and her grandmother had been the vice-principal of a school.  The family included Ji-Li’s younger brother and sister, as well as a housekeeper, who had been their nanny and was was like a family member. There was also a pet cat, to complete the household.

Chairman Mao’s picture adorned her classroom, and was respected and revered. Ji-Li was a bright and confident girl, who excelled in school and had many friends. Her life began to change when a Liberation Army member from the Arts Academy, visited their class and chose Ji-Li as one of the students to audition for entry into this Academy. When an excited Ji-Li shared this news with her parents and grandmother, they asked her not to go for the audition, and explained that she would not be selected, because of a wrong background. Later, Ji-li learnt that her father was the son of a landlord. In the new China landlords were criticised,  yet  tradition mingled with the new, as the background and ancestors of a family were still considered important. Every day the people of China listened to Chairman Mao on the importance of removing the ‘Four Olds’, old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits, but did not seem to realise that  looking at a family through its background, could also be one of the ‘four olds’, an inability to break with the past.

As the Cultural Revolution set in, the names of shops reflecting old culture had to be changed, for instance ‘Great Prosperity Market.’ ‘Prosperity’, ‘good fortune’, ‘innocent’ and even ‘peace’ were among names considered part of old culture. ‘Prosperity’, for instance, could only be achieved by exploitation, and ‘good fortune’ indicated superstition. Clothes too reflected the old, such as pointed shoes and  pants with narrow legs. At first Ji-li and her siblings felt proud and excited to contribute to the new way of life and wondered why their parents and grandmother were not as enthusiastic, when initially they had been staunch supporters of Chairman Mao. Gradually Ji-li felt increasingly confused, as the ‘Four Olds’ were extended to all walks of life, and youngsters gained the right  to torment others. Respecting parents, teachers and elders, long hair worn in braids, the prevailing educational system, protecting one’s own property, storing old clothes of the pre-revolutionary period, reading stories from other lands, were all among the ‘four olds’. Even pictures of people of the past wearing long gowns or mandarin jackets, were burnt. Weak students used the opportunity to criticise those who did well . Getting good marks in school was a hazard. Youngsters became Red Guards while those even younger were named Red Successors. Final exams were abolished in Ji-li’s school. She could not go to the high school of her choice. Red Guards approaching with gongs and drums ransacked houses looking for ‘four olds’. Punishments began to be meted out to older people by these young Red Guards. When Ji-li’s house was searched even her stamp album was taken away. Her father was detained, her mother and grandmother suffered.

Confused by what was going on, Ji-li even thought of changing her name and repudiating her family, something she was encouraged to do. But finally the love for her family prevailed. One thing that stands out in this book, is that there was no discrimination on the basis of religion. Ji-li and her family were Muslims, and there were very few in Shanghai, but among all the problems they faced, this was not one of them.

The Cultural Revolution had some good points, it emphasized equality, the dignity of labour and the need to forget about a ‘glorious heritage’ and move into the future. But everything was taken to  illogical extremes. Behind this revolution were  political struggles  and Mao’s attempts to retain his power. Gradually the extreme phase of the Cultural Revolution subsided, and after Mao’s death in 1976, China began to rethink its policies. According to statistics 1.5 million people died during the Cultural Revolution. Many were killed by Red Guards, others committed suicide. Fighting among Red Guard factions, killed some more. Did this phase in China’s history have long-term effects? Was eliminating aspects of the past a contributing factor in making China an economic super power? Today China once again has huge inequalities.

Ji-li  moved to the USA in 1984, where she wrote this book. Though there are several books on the Cultural Revolution, this memoir is among those that provide the details of everyday life at the time,  the difficulties that so many ordinary people faced, and the insanity of those times. Other memoirs include Ji Xianlin’s, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, and several more.

 

Posted in History, Literature

Literature and history

Recently I was part of a panel discussion at a literary festival, with the topic ‘Literature and history’. The topic generated a number of thoughts which we could not discuss because of the limited time available–Here are some random thoughts.

History and literature are closely connected, as most books are set in a time and place, which can provide a historical background. In addition there are categories of literature that are more closely related to history,  biography, memoir, historical fiction. Some books deal with a particular event. Fiction generated by a historical event is usually based on some disastrous occurrences–for instance in India, Partition or the Emergency. Such fiction provides an intensity and a desire to discover more about an event that may be not known to too many. Fiction resulting from the World Wars and the Cold War is well known. These are just one or two examples of this vast genre of literature.

Apart from this, there is a huge body of historical literature, literature of the past, that includes within it all categories, i.e., poetry, drama, stories, religion, myths and legends, and everything else. Literature of the past exists in every country in the world, and can be looked at in two ways. It can be read for pleasure, just as we would read today’s works, or it can be  used to analyse various aspects of earlier times. For India, I would include here not just very early works, but everything up to about 1945. This literature exists in numerous languages, beginning with early Sanskrit, classical Sanskrit, Prakrits, Pali, Apabhramsa, Tamil, and later all the regional languages and English.

I would like to post more on this theme, and perhaps we could have some guest posts too?

Posted in Books, India, Literature, Sahitya Akademi

Sahitya Akademi

Medieval Indian Literature
Medieval Indian Literature
Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature
Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature

The Sahitya Akademi is in the news these days, with one writer after the other returning their awards to protest against intolerance in the country, while other writers are against this form of protest. I don’t belong to that elite category of writers whose opinions matter, but it got me thinking about why I appreciate the Akademi so much. It is nothing to do with its awards but about the unsung people who form its staff, about the editors and translators, and the wonderful books they produce.

It is only through the publications of the Akademi that I have been able to read and know about Indian literature, past and present. I can read English, Hindi, and minimal Sanskrit and Gujarati [not enough to understand a book], have tried to learn Bengali and Telugu without much success, but what about the other languages, Tamil, Malayalam, Manipuri etc etc?

On my shelves is the wonderful Encyclopaedia of  Indian Literature in six volumes, that I went through page by page, a wonderful resource that I used to identify writers on religion for my book on Hinduism. Once I had chosen a few out of the hundreds, I used the Akademi translations to read their work. It is because of these my Hinduism book is so different from others on the same topic, as I have been able to include the best of regional literature.

And I hope the Akademi continues to produce these books, which I feel are its most important work.

[spell-check is trying to correct the spelling, but this is how the Akademi spells its name]