This year, like in the past, we tried to expand the scope of how we cover books. Apart from reviews and excerpts from newly published books, we also focused on mining the wealth of existing literature to help explain the news through older books, ones that provide a background to current events. As always, we also carried interviews with authors, translators and publishers as well as essays on just about everything to do with writing and literature in India and the world.
Here are the ten pieces on books published this year that the readers of Scroll.in engaged with the most:
The fascination with everything to do with Padmavat, triggered by the controversy around the Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, continued through most of 2019. In this excerpt from his book, Padmavat: An Epic Love Story, Purushottam Agrawal writes that in Malik Muhammed Jayasi’s epic poem, Ratansen’s wife is “a woman who was forced to suffer for absolutely no fault of hers”.
Padmavat is not only about the grand love of Ratansen and Padmavati, but also the third person in this love triangle – its poor victim, Nagmati. As indicated earlier, it is through her that we get a sense of a woman’s plight in a patriarchal system – irrespective of her status. Unlike Padmavati, she does not carry an aura of divinity around her. She is a queen, but in Jayasi’s articulation of her suffering, Nagmati could be the woman next door.
In an interview on the 43rd anniversary of the declaration of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi, the writer who publicly criticised the Prime Minister (and her cousin) at the time, spoke about the parallels between then and now.
Well, we have an undeclared Emergency, there is no doubt about that. We have seen a huge, massive attack on the freedom of expression. We have seen innocent, helpless Indians killed because they did not fit into the RSS’s view of India. We have seen known and unknown Indians murdered. Writers like Gauri Lankesh have been killed. And there has been no justice for the families of the wage earners who have lost their lives in this fashion. In fact they are now being called the accused. So we have a horrendous situation, a nightmare which is worse than the Emergency. During the Emergency we knew what the situation was. The Opposition was in jail, there was no freedom of speech, etc. Now we are living in a battered, bleeding democracy.
Bollywood affairs, Indian kids, kaali daal: Imran Khan’s ex-wife spares nothing and nobody in memoir
Reham Khan’s sensational and no-holds-barred book about her ex-husband came right before elections in Pakistan, leading many to think that her revelations about the political leader (such as his indulgence in black magic and rubbing black lentils on his genitals) might harm his chances of becoming Prime Minister. Of course, while it may have caused a fair share of controversy at the time, it didn’t sway public opinion enough to prevent him from winning.
On Thursday, his former wife Reham Khan released a memoir, titled Reham Khan, that left no salacious stone unturned in recounting her time with the politician. Reham Khan, a British-Pakistani, tied the knot with Imran in January 2015. The marriage lasted less than 10 months.
Tales of drugs, sex and black magic abound in the book, which is quite problematic for Imran Khan given his positioning as a conservative Muslim. That aside, there is much for a watcher of Pakistan’s politics or a fan of Imran Khan. There is plenty in the book connected to India as well.
The creator of the world’s most famous wizard has garnered her fair share of negative attention in recent years for her often problematic attempts at revising the Harry Potter canon. But when the trailer for the latest Fantastic Beasts film revealed that Voldemort’s pet snake, Nagini was originally a woman and a South Korean actor was cast in the role, many felt she had gone too far (once again).
Rowling has made history, it is true. She created a world that has entranced children and adults across the world, encouraged many to read, and even been the inspiration behind real world action (fan groups like Lumos and the Harry Potter Alliance have taken up charitable causes and effected change in various communities). Yet she refuses to accept that her position as creator does not entitle her to rewrite cultural histories and rebrand different mythologies according to her own convenience, especially when this rebranding is so fraught with political implications.
In April this year, Congress leader Kamal Nath was appointed the chief of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee, a move criticised by many because of his role in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. This excerpt from Manoj Mitta’s When A Tree Shook Delhi places him at the scene for over two hours when a violent mob that burnt two Sikhs alive at a gurudwara in 1984. In December this year, however, Nath was sworn in as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.
Since Kamal Nath spent two hours in front of Rakab Ganj Gurudwara on November 1, The Indian Express reported the next day that he had led the mob. The inference of his complicity was no reflex action, as made clear by journalist, Sanjay Suri, in his report as also in his affidavit before the Misra Commission, and oral deposition before the Nanavati Commission. Suri found that Kamal Nath was “controlling the crowd” which he said was “looking to him for directions.” Though he could not vouch for what exactly Kamal Nath had told the crowd, Suri said that “some mobs had charged at the gurdwara” in the Congress leader’s presence. Equally significant, he testified that while all that drama was going on, the bodies of those Sikhs were “still burning on the roadside.”
As the current government moves to rename cities named after Muslim rulers and right-wing forces bristle at anything to do with the Mughals, Parvati Sharma, the author of a new biography of Jahangir, writes that even though they left behind much of the art and architecture, culture and cuisine by which India is still renowned, it is the Muslim identity of the Mughals that is leading them to be labeled “foreign”.
And yet, in Koch’s very words lies a hint of why Jahangir’s dynasty is considered eternally alien. She does not juxtapose “Indian” with “foreign” after all, but with “Muslim”. The Mughals may have loved mangoes; they may have celebrated Diwali and Dussehra, Shivratri and Rakhi; they may have had more Rajput blood than Central Asian, but there is one thing they were not: Hindu.
In November, social media was set aflutter when a photo of Jack Doresy, co-founder and CEO of Twitter holding a poster saying “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” went viral. This excerpt from an essay by Sharmila Rege details BR Ambedkar’s explanation of the inferior status of women within caste groups.
By thus framing caste within gender differences that determined the value of surplus man and surplus woman, Ambedkar was laying the base for what was, properly speaking, a feminist take on caste.
We learn that the surplus woman is “disposed of” in one of two ways. When sati – burning a woman on her husband’s pyre – was not possible, enforced and degraded widowhood was pressed into service. Of course, “male superiority among groups” did not allow a surplus man, or a widower, to be subject to the same treatment. Because losing a man was losing labour and depleting group numbers, the problem was resolved by marrying him to someone from a not-yet marriageable group, a moral fence scaled by institutionalising girl child marriage. It is precisely for this reason that Ambedkar’s view of caste was entrenched in endogamy, which by its prohibition on intermarriage provided the basic framework for the development of the caste structure.
An excerpt from Nazia Erum’s book, Mothering A Muslim, which tells of Muslim children being beaten up and called terrorists by their classmates and teachers who look the other way, or worse.
Quite often, the battles start even earlier. “My little one is only six and a half years old and got hit for being a Muslim in school,” says Zareen Siddique, whose daughter Samaira studies in an internationally accredited school in Noida. A student sitting on the same bench as her asked, “Are you a Muslim?” He then started hitting Samaira, saying “I hate Muslims.” Zareen says it took a few days before her daughter could open up about it. “I was appalled and shocked. I immediately called up the class teacher who had a two-word response, “It happens.”’
“I was tired of translating detailed descriptions of male desire and women’s breasts,” Daisy Rockwell says in this interview about how she got into Hindi and translation, why Hindi literature might be more difficult to translate than Urdu, and where translations stand in the larger scheme of publishing.
There is a fluidity to the South Asian language-scape that is wholly lacking in the United States, which is, despite the diverse population, ferociously monolingual. Code-switching, the practice of sliding effortlessly from one language to the next, or mixed idioms, like Hinglish, are practically non-existent in the US, outside of immigrant communities. I find it very hard to switch back and forth mid-stream between Hindi and English.
I do think all of this difficulty makes me extremely attentive to linguistic details and nuances. Hindi and English do not flow into each other in my mind, the way they might for a bilingual person, and when I am translating from Hindi into English, I’m carrying every word and phrase to a completely different territory.
In September, the Supreme Court said that the arrest of former Indian Space Research Organisation scientist Nambi Narayanan in an alleged spying case was “needless and unnecessary” and granted him compensation of Rs 50 lakh. In this excerpt from his memoir, Narayanan recalls the brutal and malicious interrogations he faced.
A new team that came after the DIG’s lightning visit was more brutal. One of them shouted, “Get up, you bastard! You don’t deserve to sit anymore.” I stood up. I’d had no food all day. I had kept asking for water, which they gave. Now they stopped giving me water. They threatened to take me to a torture cell somewhere in Pathankot or Kashmir, where they said I could be killed and my body thrown away, without anyone asking any questions. “We would say that you escaped from our custody,” one of them said.
I visualised being killed and my body being thrown into snow- covered wilderness. And then, images of my father crossed my mind. I remembered his advice. If you face a crisis, he had told me as a child, be prepared for the worst. That night’s questioning by teams that came in shifts, not allowing me to sit or sleep for more than thirty hours, drained me.