Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Editor's Choice

Ahmede: What are the ideas behind The Little Magazine?

Antara Dev Sen: We wanted a space for intelligent and informed dialogue focused on South Asia. A space that would reflect our pluralism, cultural diversity and social concerns through well argued analysis and quality art and literature. So we started The Little Magazine (TLM) in May 2000.

Since the mid-1990s, Indian media was decidedly focusing on aspirational, feel-good, market-driven news and views, at the cost of larger issues of development and human rights. It reflected the international trend of news as entertainment - dominated by sensationalism, trivia, personality cults and narrow politics. I called it the chatpataa phase - quick, spicy snacks and mouth-watering fast food becomes the staple, steadily nudging out nutritious but less exciting food. The consumer may love it, but chaats can't replace your daal-bhaat-sabzi for too long, it may starve the consumer of essential nourishment and endanger the nation's health in the long run. We need wholesome information that sustains reliable debate essential for a healthy democracy. So we decided to start an independent publication that would explore social issues through essays and the arts and present a comprehensive picture to the reader.

Here, we would explore news in context, not as daily reports but as part of our living history. Our social circumstance, values and traditions are best expressed through literature, film and the other arts. So in TLM, the arts provide the backdrop for news, bringing out nuances that even the best essays on social concerns cannot. And in an age of short attention spans, many may not wish to wade through an analytical paper but would happily read a short story on the same issue and be influenced by it. Literature is a soft power - it catches you unawares and gets you thinking. So TLM presents serious issues through a colourful mix of essays, fiction, poetry, plays, art and even filmscripts. We have a wealth of culture in South Asia - and it's a shame that we do not know each other's literature while waxing eloquent on writers from Europe and the Americas.

Also, to reflect our diversity of opinion and trends, we wanted a mix of established voices and new ones. So in TLM internationally acclaimed academics, writers and artists share space with emerging scholars, new artists and the first time poet.

Ahmede: While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?

Antara Dev Sen: First, excellence. Then relevance, and finally the inherent importance of the contribution. Since most of our contributions are invited - both for essays and translated fiction or poetry - we choose our contributors very carefully, seeking out credible scholars and mature, sensitive writers. We seek relevance and import and a diversity of angles that would bring out the various aspects of the issue we are dealing with. But there is always the basic requirement: excellence.

This becomes all the more important when dealing with contributions that come in on their own - and we are privileged to get hundreds every week. Some of these are from renowned writers or artists, sharing their new work. Excellence is usually not in doubt in these, but relevance may be, since TLM is theme-based. But the bulk of the voluntary contributions that pour in are from new writers and artists. In these we look for sheer excellence, followed by relevance to the theme we are working on. I also look at how important a contribution is (not the importance of the author or artist) whether it breaks new ground, throws up fresh ideas or succeeds as an experiment - through ideas, genre, form or content.

Ahmede: The Little Magazine puts an extra emphasis on works on translation.
Can you please tell us why it is so?

Antara Dev Sen: Literature is one of the core areas of TLM. And in South Asia, where we have a plethora of culturally rich languages, we also have that many language literatures. For example, in India alone there are 24 distinct languages with 24 corresponding literatures. So we may be prisoners confined to our language, unable to reach out to others, blocked from view of the rest of South Asia and the world. To be able to exchange thoughts with those belonging to other languages, we need translations. We need to tell our stories and hear the stories of others in order to know ourselves better, and to recognize our multicultural, pluralistic identities as South Asians.

So in TLM we translate South Asian language literatures into English, the only language spoken and read throughout the subcontinent, even if it is limited to certain social segments. It allows our literatures to spread beyond our national borders, to our neighbourhood, as well as to the rest of the English-speaking world. In a globalised age, it is not enough to know oneself, it is essential to reach out to the world in order to understand each other better.

And writers in English representing South Asian literatures to the world - whether Amit Chaudhuri or Monica Ali - offer a partial picture, however excellent. The main bulk of South Asia's rich literary heritage in several languages is left out. We need to rectify this imbalance of presentation. So we need to stop thinking of English as the coloniser's language and use it as a tool to bridge the gap both between our different languages, and between South Asia and the world. This is why TLM focuses so much on translations.

Ahmede: How important do you think democracy is for freedom of speech to thrive?

Antara Dev Sen: Freedom of speech can thrive only in a democracy, just as democracy can thrive only when there is real freedom of speech. When many voices are heard, people can choose between different points of view. And democratic freedoms help nurture freedom of speech and expression, which implies freedom of the press, of the creative arts, of academic pursuit.

Unfortunately, even today we often get confused between defending what one says and defending one's right to say that. Protecting someone's freedom of speech or expression doesn't necessarily mean that you agree with the content of that speech. It is very important to make this distinction. For the sake of press freedom, we may defend articles we disagree with. To secure freedom of literary expression, we may oppose the banning of a novel that we personally hate. If we defended only what we agreed with that would not be freedom - it would never allow contrary voices to be heard, harming democratic dialogue.

Democracy and free speech nurture each other, because a vibrant democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry. But even in democracies, free speech is routinely threatened by intolerant groups. The government may allow your free speech, but will you thereafter be protected from the fanatical fundamentalists? It is easier to ban or withdraw a publication or censor a book or an art exhibit than protect the right to free speech.

Unfortunately, with the unnerving rise of fundamentalism around the world, freedom of speech and expression is diminishing even in flourishing democracies. Take M.F. Husain, 92 years old and one of South Asia's most celebrated artists. Religious fanatics hounded him out of India, he is now in exile, not daring to return, especially since the government cannot guarantee his safety. We have seen much unrest and a curtailing of freedom of speech and expression in South Asia recently - just take the curbs and attacks on mediapersons in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. Not surprisingly, democracy is suspended in all these countries right now, except Sri Lanka.

So democracy is very important for free speech, but ultimately it is liberal thought that nurtures it. And when fanatics get too powerful, within or outside the government, our freedom of speech and expression shrinks.

Ahmede: As your website says The Little Magazine is South Asia's only professionally produced, independent print magazine 'devoted to essays, fiction, poetry, art and criticism'. We have seen a flurry of writers making their voices heard in English (a language once considered borrowed), but at the same it does not match with the number of literary magazines published in English in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh...

Antara Dev Sen: Yes, there is a lack of forums for new writers. Traditionally, emerging talent has been discovered in literary publications, mostly small or independent magazines. As I said earlier, one of TLM's aims was to offer a platform for promising writers and artists. And in these seven years we have discovered quite a few talented young authors and poets who have thereafter been picked up by big publishers and become recognised names. TLM provides an initial foothold - the first credible stamp of approval.

We have also started two awards for literature last year, one of which is for new writers. It aims to encourage first time fiction writers and playwrights. The Little Magazine New Writing Award honours a new writer for one short story or play in any South Asian language. The contributions we get are mostly written in English and some are translated into English from the original. Jayant Sankrityayana, an automobile designer from Pune, India, won last year's award for the English story, 'Tsunami'.

Our other award is The Little Magazine SALAM (South Asian Literary Award for the Masters) where we salute one stalwart each in fiction, poetry and drama from any of our languages. The first TLM SALAM went to Bangladesh's Shamsur Rahman for poetry (in Bengali), India's Vijay Tendulkar for drama (in Marathi) and Kamala Das for fiction (in Malayalam and English). It was a liberating experience, a celebration of literature without borders - with nominees and jury members from various parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. We were particularly privileged to have Shamsur Rahman who was not well at all, come down to Delhi for the TLM SALAM. It was the last time he travelled out of Dhaka.

Ahmede: How free do you feel as a woman and an editor?

Antara Dev Sen: As an editor, as free as any editor responsible for a publication feels. The gender is irrelevant.

But as a woman it's more complex. I am lucky to be born in an educated, liberal family, privileged by class, caste and religious identities, in a secular, democratic country. Fortunately, I am empowered by education and freedom of choice. My partner in life, and in The Little Magazine, is a free-spirited, idealistic man with similar views. So I do feel free - as free as any responsible individual in troubled times does. Very free as an individual, but unfree as one belonging to a land tied up in knots of corruption, regressive social convention, religious brutality, caste discrimination, gender violence and other unnerving inequalities that don't allow us to break free. I feel less free as a citizen of a troubled world.

And every once in a while some woman around me - from my chattering maids to the shady politician's wife, women as rape statistics to women as victims of honour killings - reminds me of the very limited freedom I might have had if it wasn't for the accident of birth. In that sense, as a woman in South Asia, you can never feel completely free.

Ahmede: The South Asian sub-continent has witnessed a phenomenal rise in bigotry and intolerance. What do you think are the main causes of this menace?

Antara Dev Sen: Bigotry and intolerance comes either from too much power or from too little. The more helpless you feel, the more desperate you are to be noticed, to establish your might. And this is largely a response to political circumstance. After 9/11, there has been a revival of religious fundamentalism, especially Muslim fundamentalism, around the world, not just in South Asia. I have never seen so many women in hijab in the US or the UK as now. Today, defiantly flaunting one's Muslim identity is a response to the West's appalling 'war against terror'.

For years, the US used Muslim extremism to fight its shadow wars with the USSR, for example in Afghanistan. It encouraged the fundamentalism snowballing through Central and South Asia in the 1990s. Suddenly, after 9/11/2001, this changed to sweeping suspicion and hostility towards Muslims, which polarised people further and cultivated more hatred. South Asia reflects this polarisation. Not surprising, since South Asia hosts half the world's Muslim population - the largest number of Muslims in the world.

But Muslim fundamentalism is just one part of our region's fanatical fury. In India, for example, there has been a revival of both Hindu and Muslim extremism. And one fanatic feeds another. Take the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. It set off the Bombay riots. Which triggered the Bombay blasts. Hatred blossomed spectacularly on both sides of the religious divide. Hindu fanatics have been censoring art and academia, rewriting history, even killing Muslims like in Gujarat in 2002. Muslim terrorists have been orchestrating bomb blasts, and the moderate Indian Muslim society is being whipped into orthodoxy by fundamentalists wielding bizarre and inhuman fatwas.

Fundamentalism is often a grievance redressal system. So the more grievances you have, the more scope there is for such extremism. South Asia is home to half the world's poor, is notoriously corrupt, has a terrible track record in employment, health, education and other development indicators, routinely violates the human rights of women, the low-caste, religious and ethnic minorities and the less privileged. With low accountability and bad governance, there is so much discontent in the region that inciting people is relatively easy for energetic rebels. And for governments, it is easier to crack the whip of fundamentalism than to try and solve their myriad problems of governance.

In short, today's bigotry is primarily a response to social changes and political decisions that offend us. Whether it is the Hindu fanatic, Maoist militant, Muslim fundamentalist or ethnic separatist in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, they are responding to local, national or international issues that affront them. As long as there is this simmering discontent, there will be radicals or politicians who will use it to encourage violence, intolerance and suspension of freedoms.

© Ahmede Hussain