Kuzhali Awesome Is the Most Fun Kind of Awesome

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Dude, yes, I mean this, and I mean it in a Bill and Ted’s 3 kind of way. Like, totally. Be excellent to each other and READ THIS WRITER, Kuzhali Manickavel. Her writing is like familiar + familiar = delightful strange, and will leave you with the best kind of unsettled in the pit of your stomach.

A long time ago I joined Sepia Mutiny and saw Kuzhali Manickavel’s website (not necessarily in that order, although I think probably). And then I read her blog a lot, and then I laughed and laughed, and sometimes felt like crying, because she is so very funny but in a way that is also sad. And then I became the interim fiction editor of The Michigan Quarterly Review, and got her to give me a fabulous (FABULOUS) story called “The Underground Bird Sanctuary.” And then I got her to e-chat with me for Sepia. Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of a dark, hilarious collection of short fiction called Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, which you should RUN OUT AND BUY BECAUSE OF IT BEING JUST WIZZOW. I do not use CAPS LOCK or WIZZOW lightly. Please do this in an independent bookstore, if you still live in one of the places on earth that has one. And if you don’t, via the Amazon link (above), which will support the Scoobybunkergang in a teeny tiny way.

The story in MQR begins:

Kumar’s bones were pushing up under his skin like silent hills. His ribs rippled up in hardened waves while his shoulders and wrists stood out in knotted clumps. In the afternoons, I would count Kumar’s bones while he tried to sleep. [continued] Continue reading

How to Write About Pakistan …

The last time the venerable literary mag Granta focused on the subcontinent was when India turned 50. I’ve saved that issue as I will be saving the current one which is all about Pakistan and features fiction, reportage, memoir, contemporary art, and poetry by recognized authors such as Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Fatima Bhutto, and Daniyal Muennudin, as well as voices lesser known here in the West.

The issue’s themes and cover art by truck artist Islam Gull is brought to life in this cool short video

I’m still working my way through the issue, but How to write about Pakistan, an online collaboration between Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Muennudin, and Kamila Shamsie caught my eye. Inspired by Granta’s most popular feature Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical piece, How to write about Africa (“Always use the word “Africa” or “Darkness” or “Safari” in your title’,” it begins), here are the the top ten rules for novices keen to write about Pakistan:

  1. Must have mangoes.
  2. Must have maids who serve mangoes.
  3. Maids must have affairs with man servants who should occasionally steal mangoes.
  4. Masters must lecture on history of mangoes and forgive the thieving servant.
  5. Calls to prayer must be rendered to capture the mood of a nation disappointed by the failing crop of mangoes.
  6. The mango flavour must linger for a few paragraphs.
  7. And turn into a flashback to Partition.
  8. Characters originating in rural areas must fight to prove that their mango is bigger than yours.
  9. Fundamentalist mangoes must have more texture; secular mangoes should have artificial flavouring.
  10. Mangoes that ripen in creative writing workshops must be rushed to the market before they go bad.

[Don't stop here. Do read the whole piece.]

Those of you who have been long-time SM followers will surely remember Manish’s Anatomy of a Genre from back in the day.

Here’s my question: If you were amending this list into an “How to write about India” or “How to write about Sri Lanka” or “How to write about Bangladesh” what would you change? What would you keep the same? Continue reading

Talking About Terror

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[Amitava Kumar and Lorraine Adams will be in conversation today, August 27, at 6.30 PM at the Aicon Gallery in New York City. Admission is free.]

I have just received a letter from a man in prison. His name is Hemant Lakhani. Lakhani was a women’s clothing salesman who, in 2005, was convicted of selling an Igla missile to an FBI informant posing as a member of a jihadist organization.

Lakhani is one of the people I write about in my new book A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. He learned about the book’s publication by reading a review in the New York Times.

Mr. Lakhani writes to congratulate me but also to invite me back. There is more to tell, he writes. If I listen to his story, and write about it, he promises me that the book will be a bestseller. I will be interviewed by the mainstream press, including Charlie Ross (sic).

The Times review had also mentioned that I had visited a strip-club outside the Missouri high-security prison where Lakhani is incarcerated. I had a conversation there with a dancer about the man I had come to meet in Missouri. This didn’t sit well with Mr Lakhani and he writes in his letter that I must promise him that I will not go back to the strip-club again. Continue reading

Five Reels Later

96a8f5d0.jpg The media event today was Amardeep’s saying goodbye to Sepia Mutiny. Why, Amardeep, why? And why did you have to make your intelligent commentary on my novel your swan-song? menu_unda_chicken.jpg Have you read the comments section? What happened to the discussion of the point you had made, for instance, about provincial cosmopolitanisms? Talking of swan songs, you could perhaps have done this. Much better, nahin?. A friend ate a kati roll today and told me I should point this out in the comments section myself. Continue reading

On Amitava’s “Nobody Does the Right Thing.” (and bye for now from Amardeep)

“Write what you know” is one of those creative writing class truisms that actually happens to be true, if our goal is to tell a realistic story about a society at a given moment in time. Writers want people to believe that the kinds of fictional lives they’re asking them to live with and care about for a few hours, as they read, are actually plausible. Chances are, what makes a story seem plausible is the fact that it is based, even if only partially, on the truth.

But “write what you know” is also much, much harder than it might seem. At times, it can even feel like a chain around your neck — though that doesn’t mean you can just walk away from it. In his new novel, Nobody Does the Right Thing, Amitava Kumar acknowledges the problem directly in what might be my favorite line of the book: “If you could tell just any story you wanted, no demands ever needed to be made on your honesty.” [Another favorite line: "Bihari society was conservative; it was also corrupt, hollow to its core; you put a finger on its thin, distended skin and it split under your touch, revealing white worms"]

For Amitava Kumar, who was born and raised in Patna, in the Indian state of Bihar, it’s Bihar that encapsulates the memories and history that are what the author “knows,” and what he returns to (always slightly differently), in book after book. “Honesty” and “Bihar” live in the same site for Amitava, and yet the content of that Honesty — the Truth one seeks to represent — remains stubbornly elusive. Kumar’s recently-published novel Nobody Does the Right Thing, which was first published as Home Products in India in 2007, continues to develop this theme. It’s a terrific novel, which I think will be challenging to many readers in the Indian subcontinent as well as the West, but many of the elements that make it challenging are also what make it great. Continue reading

Not All Indian Émigrés Are Engineers

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[Originally published in The Caravan under the title "A Normal Man in a Not So Normal World." Photos by Preston Merchant.]

On a warm July morning, I boarded the London Tube to Boston Manor station. The southbound Piccadilly Line, represented by a Navy Blue line on my map, would terminate at Heathrow airport. My stop came a few stations before the line ended.

The people I had come to meet were waiting outside in a car, and after introductions had been made, we drove to a store to buy meat and beer for lunch. The man who was driving was in his early 30s. He wore a stylish shirt and dark glasses. His name was Aryian Singh, but he later told me that this wasn’t what he had been named at birth. He had changed his name after he had come out of prison. When I questioned him about his job, he said he was working on a couple of film projects but didn’t provide details. I noticed that there were small scars on his face. I later learned that a couple of them were from injuries inflicted by his mother when he was a kid–once, his mother had smashed his face with a milk bottle.

The man whose face I was now watching in the rearview mirror interested me. His name change and the reason for it wasn’t what one has come to expect as a staple of Indian fiction about diasporic lives–Samiullah changing to Sam or a Madhu becoming Maddy, one pining for the neem tree outside his ancestral home and the other for her mother’s cardamom-scented fish curry. In those stories, particularly those written in the US, the only crime a human seems capable of is forgetting to write a letter home. Or if there are transgressions they seem to have blossomed out of a fantasy spun out in a garden called a creative writing MFA program. But Aryian Singh’s story appeared to be different. Sitting in the backseat of the silver Mercedes E220, I imagined an entry into another life. Not one offered as homage to quiet domesticity but one lived in recognition of the reality of the street. Continue reading

Let’s Fly First Class

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Objects are like people: they can tell you where they come from. I count objects that look desi. Look at the plane above. You have probably seen that art on trucks in places like Lahore or Ludhiana. It might be two in the afternoon. It is hot and dry around you, the man selling sugarcane juice is sleeping in the shade of a tree, and there’s no one else around. Your shadow is the smallest you’ve ever seen in your life. And then a truck comes to a stop beside you. The exhaust pours out as if from a chimney in a brick kiln. If you look past it, however, you see painted on the side of the truck, a landscape that includes snowy peaks, colorful huts, cool skies, fields brimming with flowers that will live longer even than plastic. Folk utopia!

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We Regret To Inform You That Your Condolences Cannot Be Accepted At This Time

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As Amardeep noted last week, we are at about the one-year anniversary of the end of the war in Sri Lanka. For the occasion, Groundviews did a special edition, to which I contributed a short story. I’m cross-posting it here.


We Regret to Inform You That Your Condolences Cannot Be Accepted At This Time

a short story

We regret to inform you that your condolences cannot be accepted at this time. At present, both our pain and our hope defy that word, which has been offered and denied us, which we need and do not need, and which in any case we cannot accept, because they (your condolences) will not reach from what has happened to what will come.

We find the word condolences stunning in its insufficiency for past and future.

We evacuated our homes in the light; we vanished from our homes in the dark; we walked away from our families, toward the weapons, and wished that we could turn around. Our bodies entered the earth in places we cannot now identify, and so we are everywhere, blown to dust. By both dying in and surviving this place, we will live here long after your condolences become a ghost in your throat.

We joined others’ battles, willingly and unwillingly; we walked forward on paths not our own when the paths we would have chosen were closed to us. We were incidental; we were vital; we were enemies; we were friends; we were disputed; we were uncounted. In a small country, we felt far away from you. In a small world, we felt far away from you. We were your people and not your people.

We could not wait for you to remember us.

Continue reading

In Support of Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood

Nilanjana Roy, at Akhond of Swat, has done a pretty thorough round-up of the recent controversy surrounding Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood’s decision to accept a prestigious Israeli literary prize, and I won’t rehash it all here. Ghosh and Atwood were offered the Dan David Prize this spring, and were urged to refuse to accept it by pro-Palestinian groups, including a significant number of academics from the Indian left (based both in India and in western universities).

I just wanted to put in my own two-cents’ worth: I support the decision made by Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood to accept the prize. In contrast to many of my colleagues who signed the recent open letter to Ghosh, I do not think there was anything to be gained by boycotting a cultural prize given by an institution outside of the Israeli government. Far better to stay, to continue to engage, and to dissent where necessary.

A viable argument against “cultural” boycotts is that they simply don’t do anything, though defenders of the practice might say that the symbolic value and media coverage is worth it. (Note that I’m not talking about economic boycotts, which may be more effective.) Ghosh himself points out that in writing In an Antique Land, he worked with Israeli as well as Arab academics to learn the written language (Judeo-Arabic) used by Abraham Ben-Yiju; a boycott would have made that project impossible. Similarly, this kind of cultural boycott would also lead us to be unable to engage with dissenting Israeli cultural expression, such as the recent film Waltz With Bashir.

But for me the most compelling argument against this way of reacting to Israeli cultural institutions is that, as bad as things are for the Palestinians, what the U.S. itself has engaged in over the past decade — especially the debacle of an unjustifiable and badly executed war in Iraq — is far worse. By any reasonable standard, if we’re boycotting Israel, we should be boycotting ourselves! (And similar kind of accusations could be made against India or Pakistan, for any number of reasons.) In short, this kind of thing doesn’t get us anywhere. Structurally, if we pay taxes and receive benefits from a government, we are all “complicit” in what that government does. Continue reading