Monday, May 12, 2008
The Bengal Renaissance: Identity and creativity from Rammohun Roy to Rabindranath Tagore
pp 280; Rs 595
Sir William Jones, who translated the play Sakuntala into Latin, wrote to a friend about Kalidasa, calling him the Indian Shakespeare, saying, (it was written at a time) ‘when Britons were as unlettered and unpolished as the army of Hanumat’. Jones was a product of Sir Warren Hasting’s new India policy during the Raj, according to which, (all Britons in India) must ‘think and act like an Asian’. He was India’s first Governor General, before that he served as Governor of Bengal. It gave birth to a legion of thinkers now known as British Orientalists in India. The seeds of Bengal Renaissance were sown long ago. Bengal Renaissance, for its turn, has seen the rise of Raja Rammohun Roy and Brahmo Samaj, the idea of a monotheistic Hindu church that Rabindranath Tagore later believed in.
Subrata Dasgupta’s new book tries to dissect the great minds behind Bengal Renaissance. He talks about a ‘cognitive revolution’. By which he suggests, ‘a radical transformation in the way one thinks, perceives, reasons, and conceptualizes’. Throughout the book, Dasgupta tries (and he does it successfully) to prove that the ninetieth century Bengal was ‘a seed time rich in possibilities’, unlike what his contemporary Tapan Raychaudhuri believes. Dasgupta portrays a vivid detail of time, from Michael Madhusudan Datta to Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, he meticulously anatomises the matrix of the time, vibrant and mettlesome that it has been. He has rightly tracked the way creative minds in general work: ‘There are times when a new experience or situation is at odds with one’s stock of schemata; or the creator may be quite dissatisfied with his existing repertoire of schemata. In either case, he may radically alter an existing schema or invent a new schemata are brought into existence is to gain insight into his creativity. Michael Madhusudan Datta took Miltonic blank verse as a model-- his initial schema; but in writing his great Bengali epic poem Meghanadbadh Kabya (The Slaying of Meghanada) he reshaped it for his particular Bengali needs and created the Bengali blank verse form (amritaksar).’
About Derozio, whose disciples (at Hindu College) ‘were only a little younger than their teacher’, Dasgupta says, ‘Derozio’s cross-culturalism was dominated by an “overidentification” with Western beliefs and knowledge systems, and yet in his poetry he drew upon Indian themes as sources of schemata for some of his poems, which he then elaborated and developed based on his English literary sources.’ The book is, in fact, an authoritative guide on the Bengal Renaissance.
Another important aspect of the book is the scientific approach that its author takes to understand the period. He divides Mahendra Lal Sircar’s ‘Belief/Knowledge Space’ into three distinctive categories and endeavours to find in it metaphysical aspects like ‘Curiosity’, and ‘Pride’.
Students of Indian history, especially that of Bengal, should be delighted to find famous texts like ‘Vande Mataram’ discussed at length. ‘The delicate, platonic relationship’ that Tagore had had with Kadambari also comes under scrutiny. ‘Over the years that followed Kadambari’s death, Tagore would embed his memory of and feelings for her in poems and songs; and in fiction-- his novella Nastanir (The Broken Nest, 1901), which became Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata (1964), was influenced by their relationship.’
The prose may feel a little pedantic for those who are not attuned to Dasgupta’s style. Then again, it is no bedtime read, this is a serious book, a must-read for anyone interested in one of most glorious periods in the history of Bengal.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Gregory Betts is the Editor of PRECIPICe.
What are the ideas behind your journal?
St. Catharines is located between Canada's largest city, Toronto, and one of North America's top tourist destinations, Niagara Falls. We are located in the most fertile and productive wine region of the country, just at the lip of an 800 kilometre ridge called the Niagara Escarpment (over which the Niagara River falls). PRECIPICe is published by Brock University, which sits atop the same escarpment, looking down over the city and the network of rivers, valleys, and creeks below. Traditionally, travellers have moved back and forth between Toronto and Niagara Falls without paying much attention to the region in between. In recent years, however, the wine has improved dramatically and there is a sense that St. Catharines is becoming a centre in its own right. People from outside are starting to stop and discover the area. At the same time, the area has increasingly more to offer. The magazine, and its history, reflects this transition. Previous incarnations of PRECIPICe were focussed on local writers, and on the local community. My co-editor Adam Dickinson and I have remade the magazine so that it is more connected to the national and international literary conversation. There have been two issues so far, with a third just about to be released. We have had remarkable success in publishing great new work by established and emerging authors from across Canada and the United States. There’s some really great work going on, and we’re delighted to be a part of it.
While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a submission?
We get a lot of submissions from writers all around the world. This might surprise some people, but the thing we pay the least attention to is the cover letter. We are trying to unravel the Catch-22 of publishing: you don’t get into our magazine by having already gotten into other magazines. Every piece is numbered and evaluated by our editorial board, which includes a diverse range of tastes. We all, however, look for an exceptionally high degree of linguistic competence coupled with new conceptual approaches to form and subject matter in both poetry and short fiction. “Competence” doesn’t need to mean that our authors must use proper, grammatical English – competence comes from the Latin word for “coincidence” and “agreement.” We are looking for works in which the language matches (or coincides, or agrees with) the subject of the particular work. We publish a high amount of experimental texts – including some that have no conventional language at all. We are always on the lookout for works in which the language and the ideas coincide in a revealing, even uncanny way.
How important do you think it is for a writer to know her audience/reader?
There are a lot of presumptions built into that question. Can an author ever know their audience? Should an author presume to know enough about their audience to customize the work in order to suit them? There are no easy answers to questions of that sort. When we use language to express particular ideas, the relationship between the writer and the audience must be carefully proscribed. But linguistic expressiveness is only one of the many different options available to an author. Some writing has no expressive qualities at all, but is more interested in being itself a beautiful object. For instance, the great Canadian poet bpNichol once walked past a bed of crocuses in full bloom and realized that he had never written a poem about crocuses. Moreover, he realized that he never wanted to write a poem about crocuses. He realized that he wanted his poems to BE like crocuses: beautiful, living, things thrusting themselves into the world, insisting on their own survival. How important is it for a crocus to know its audience?
Do you think every novelist writes history, both at a personal and a social level?
No. I personally don’t think that history is available to a novelist. The medium of literature is one of experience in the present, unfettered from the physical world by the abstraction of language. When we read a text that purports to be historical, we can imagine the world being described, can even feel ourselves a part of it. Ink blots on a page, however, are too tightly constrained and orchestrated and individualistic to ever be the equivalent of the dynamic forces of material history. A novelist can create an experience that conforms to our sense of what it would have been like, but that sense is overwhelmingly determined by the values and experiences of the present. It is for this reason that historical novels are constantly being re-written, as in the Alfred A. Knopf “Myths” series, because values change and our sense of what was important about the past changes too. Through this twisting sense of what was important (and consequently what was not), our changing values can dramatically alter our sense of what happened in the past. Novelists may write about historical events, but novels are never historical (except in the most elusive metaphorical sense).
In Canada, we are undergoing our very first Truth and Reconciliation hearings (the first in the Western world, actually) regarding the abuse of aboriginal peoples and their cultures. It had been an overwhelming trope of Canadian novels that considered the subject to depict aboriginal culture as inevitably dying. Contemporary novelists and readers, however, return to the past to look for signs of life despite the hard times of Small Pox and cultural genocide. The past and the future were both changed by a change in attitudes in the present. To your question, I would counter that novelists write about the present, at a personal and social level.
Do you think the world has become a dangerous place in which to live?
I think, as always, the answer to that question is primarily determined by where you live and how much money you make. People in Canada have almost never been as safe from war, crime, and disease as they are at present. At the same time, though, we are presently at war in Afghanistan where people probably don’t feel so sure about the state of the world. For people in Iraq, Algeria, Congo, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Sudan, Tibet, and other conflict spots, the world has probably become much more dangerous. Compared to the Hitler/Stalin/Mao years, though, is it fair to say that present the world is more dangerous than the past? As always, in terms of non-domestic violence, the experience of poor people is far different for rich people even living in the murder capital of the world (whether it be Baltimore or Bogotá). The same applies to the global climate crisis: the devastating effects, should we fail to prevent them, will primarily be felt by the world’s poorest citizens. Looking back over the history of human civilization, was there ever a time where this was not the case? Has the world become dangerous, or has it always been dangerous – especially for the most vulnerable in our midst? At PRECIPICe, we wrestle with the writer’s responsibility in light of the inequalities of danger. In general, we conclude that a work does not need to engage with ideology and politics directly, but if it does it must, at the least, be well written and new.
M. Scott Douglass is the Publisher and Managing Editor of Main Street Rag Publishing Company founded in 1996 with the publication of his quarterly literary magazine, The Main Street Rag. His company has since blossomed into a bindery and publishing house that has produced a multitude of books under its own label as well as designed, produced, or coordinated magazine and book projects for other publishers. His poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he was the recipient of a NC Arts & Science Emerging Artists Grant in 2001 that was used to publish his first full-length poetry collection, Auditioning For Heaven. In 2003, he published, Balancing On Two Wheels, as well as a how-to publishing manual, Book Building 101. STEEL WOMB Revisited and Dip Says Hi were released in 2005, the latter published by Rank Stranger Press. A former 20 year dental technician, he has a degree in Graphic Arts and has taught Graphic Design at Central Piedmont Community College. Among other occupations, he’s worked construction, demolition, coached baseball and basketball, and bred rats for the University of Pittsburgh. He’s also owned an independent bookstore.
What are the ideas behind your magazine?
Our magazine is the root of what we have become, but it is only a small part of what we do any more. The idea behind it at start up in 1996 was-like so many new publications-to be unique, to be the voice of Main Street America. We started out as a poetry-only journal that published mostly edgy poetry. But as we grew and became better known, we had a wider variety of material offered to us by a greater number of authors. We started publishing short fiction, reviews, interviews, essays, photo essays-pretty much whatever was offered to us if we thought it would interest our readers.
In America, the literary scene is broken into factions that take turns leading the way in terms of what is literarily in vogue. For most of my life, academia has decided what is and isn't poetry. As a result, if you were a part of that faction, you could get anything you wrote published, even if it was a lifeless list of words on a page. And then there was the non-conformist crowd that was most closely related to "Beat Poets." They were not much on revision of their work, they were edgy, but not much on polish. Still, there were places that would publish it simply because it was non-academic. Main Street Rag resides somewhere in the middle.
In our magazine, we prefer material with an edge, but we like it to be refined somewhat. We want it to be involved in life-the good and the bad-not counting the petals as they unfold through the filter of the kitchen window.
But we are no longer just a magazine. Main Street Rag is the most prolific publisher in the state of North Carolina-which may not mean much to your readers, but it gives us some amount of bragging rights. Since we are now both a print house and a bindery, we produce our own magazine as well as 60-120 books each year under one of our own imprints, but we have also produced books and magazines for over 100 other small press publishers.
While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?
I'm pretty eclectic. I like things with a political and social bend, but I also like humor-usually dark humor. As far as style goes, it's always nice when writers use good grammar and know how to spell, but I'm open to pretty much anything that flows well. For essays, I like it when a writer gets to the point quickly and provides evidence, but I'm not much on repetition. If a writer circles through the same reasoning more than a second time, I usually set it down and ultimately reject it. Publishing space costs money. My time to tell a writer how to edit it is also has value-as a matter of fact, my time is my most valuable asset, so I don't give a lot of writing advice. It's either something we like or it's not.
How important do you think it is for a writer to know her audience/reader?
I don't think there is a single answer for this question that would apply to all writers. I am a poet first. A poet, much like a musician, must do what he or she knows best and let the audience find him or her.
That said, every writer will be more effective within a certain audience, but unless he or she is writing commentary or editorials for a living, a writer should NOT put the audience first. The ideas, the story, the craft of writing should come first. If a writer does his or her job of crafting a product well, an audience will find him or her-especially in today's age of electronic communication.
Sir VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How do you view the issue?
I apologize, but I am not familiar with Sir Naipaul; however, I believe a writer must be able to step outside the material and read it from that perspective in order to edit and refine the work. When I used to offer advice on submissions, this was one of the biggest obstacles to helping a writer refine his or her work. I would identify a weak spot, they would tell me, "But that's what really happened." Unless you are reporting an event, writing a memoir or historical text, what "really happened" is irrelevant to telling a good story or conveying the emotions within the framework of poetry. So many of us use our personal or familial experiences as a basis for what we write. Often that's enough to warm an audience to our work, but when we are able to transcend the actual and put our work into a plane where others can relate to it, become a part of it, then it stays with a reader like a song or a piece of music that you can't get out of your head.
Do you think the world has become a dangerous place in which to live?
The world has always been a dangerous place and will remain such until people learn to respect other peoples' rights and sovereignty. Whether it's my country sticking its nose where it doesn't belong for the sake of oil, the Chinese insisting on one China or the Taliban trying to inflict their beliefs on everyone within their borders; until the people of this planet learn to respect the rights of others to be different, to have their own beliefs, their own ideas, their own culture-and allow it to flourish within the greater society-their will be conflict; until we, as a world are able to break the chain of Newton's Third Law (For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), this world will always be a violent and dangerous place. It is, unfortunately, human nature to mold the world around us to our own wants. There are currently more than 6 billion of us. We don't all have the same wants.
Monday, May 05, 2008
In an interview Renee Hansen, Editor, South Loop Review, America’s leading creative non-fiction magazine talks about her life and works
What are the ideas behind your magazine?
South Loop Review publishes primarily creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is exactly that—it’s writing about the nonfiction world in a creative way. Creative Nonfiction offers a document of the world from a personal perspective. It engages the audience in personal, political and artistic truths all at once. A good creative nonfiction writer will be able to engage his/her audience in the story behind the event. That is to say, a newspaper might report on a fire, but a creative nonfiction writer will tell about the experience—what was it like to go through that fire, what does the writer know about life before and after the fire?
The South Loop Review, the journal which I edit, looks for writing where you can feel the voice and life of the author behind it. The writers of creative nonfiction are journalists in one way—they bring an event to the attention of the world—but more than that they are poets. In this sense, the creative nonfiction writer knows about language, word choice, metaphors, and theme. In a way, the “real” story is difficult to tell and grasp. The real effects and resonances of a story are deeply hidden, and The South Loop Review looks for the writer who is on that journey of discovery-- the writer who is trying to seize the real meaning of our lives. To that degree, writing is more about the journey. Some writers are able present that journey in the most artful way-- through extraordinary cadence, and word choice. I am a fan of James Agee because of his cadence, his writing is almost like a meditation, you need to follow it for a long time, and suddenly it comes over you, everything he was trying to get to. I am also a fan of Bharati Mukherjee, her word choices are always juxtapositions, a light image against dark. She is extremely poetic, she’s always leading you towards a blending of the familiar with the strange.
As editor of the South Loop Review I think that the language and art and sound of a story is more important than the fact that the story happened. The fact that it happened will be reported and catalogued. What is more important than the event, is the way the event resonated, the effect upon the individual, and the way it is being told. For this reason The South Loop Review looks for writers who have a strong voice. The voice is both the texture and the container. There can be a static nature to the voice, or it can feel powerful and pulsing; there can be ornateness or sparseness; the voice can sound colloquial or practiced. It’s important that the writer knows her voice, and uses it, experiments with it, allows it to move freely, and in the end brings us to whatever point or pointlessness she wanted us to see.
While making editorial decisions, what do you look for in a write-up?
I think it’s unusual that more writers don’t think of their voice as product. That’s what it is, it is what they produce, what emerges, what in the end, they are left with. It is an organic product. Good storytellers know how to captivate an audience and they know the techniques of their craft. Creative nonfiction writers employ literary elements such as the use of description, setting, characters, language, and repetition of certain themes. My brother is a good storyteller and he tells me he practices the story in his head, as he’s driving in the car. By the time he gets to the family gathering, he’s set up his story-- he has his beginning and his points of repetition. This is only my brother—a very good amateur story teller. Every good, professional storyteller and writers has this awareness. They are masters at what they do. I think Jamaica Kincaid is a master at what she does. Thomas Mann is a master at what he does. Naomi Shihab Nye is master at what she does. I think good writers know their effect. For instance, Jamaica Kincaid has a distinctive cadence. Her sentences, and therefore the meaning of the piece, is always flipping back on itself. This is seen in “Biography of a Dress” when she writes, “…that my mother saw, a picture on an almanac advertising a particular fine and scented soap (a soap she could not afford to buy then, but I can now), and this picture of this girl wearing this yellow dress and smocking on the front of the bodice created in my mother a desire to have a daughter who looked like that or perhaps created the desire in my mother to try and make the daughter she already had look like that. I do not know now, and did not know then, And who was that girl really?”
When looking at a submission I look to see if the writing has held up from beginning to end. Oftentimes writers know what they want to say in the beginning, then lose their way. This is not to say that one needs a pointed ending. In fact, some endings are too much to the point, too contrived and obvious. But the reader needs to know the path, and the sight they are being led to. If I had advice for authors first sending out their material, it would be to send out a shorter piece, as short as five pages, but a piece that holds up from beginning to end. Another thing I would advise writers to do is to experiment with language and form until they feel an authentic sense of self on the page.
How Important do you think it is for a writer to know her audience/reader?
Toni Morrison said that when she sat down to write The Bluest Eye, she wrote the book that didn’t exist for herself-- the book she had always wanted to read. I think most writers write for themselves. They are trying to get to a sense of discover, or a beauty, or a point of meditation, they are trying to unwrap the rubric, and to find something in the writing; I think for each writer the reason is slightly different, but when they sit down they are on the path, trying to get to that essence of self that is both kernel and galaxy, both small, and glacial.
That being said, I think the second audience, that of the reading public looms large in the back of each writer’s mind. Every published writer wishes for the same: to bring forth the private into the public. Though J.D. Salinger is famously reclusive as an author, he has said that he has never written a word that he could not imagine in print.
I think it’s very important for the writer to have an audience in mind. To this end I think writers are both cynical and hopeful. They write of loss, or death, the fallacies of institutions, the disintegration of culture… and yet they hope for that audience, the audience who might become more humane or at least knowledgeable for having read this work.
Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, in their introduction to creative nonfiction, call creative nonfiction a “transactional” form of writing, that is to say, the writer inhabits and experiences the work. I think somewhere in the writing process there is the transactional experience, mixed with the real life notion of making it all understandable.
The South Loop Review looks for for writers who are developing new voices. I like the genre crossing that is going on now in Creative Nonfiction. The illustrated memoir is an example of this—for instance Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi provides a glimpse into revolutionary Iran by combining image with writing.
Sir V.S. Naipaul has talked about the separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How do you feel about this issue?
I think Sir Naipaul intimated, in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in literature, that it is our innermost self that we secret away; we work in solitude, and in this solitude we experience the epiphany. If I may attempt to paraphrase Sir Naipaul—it is this moment of inspiration that in itself creates the mystery of creative writing. I think he would say that other forms of writing share an incompleteness, in that they have not been produced from the revelatory moment. Sir Naipaul believes that the creation of the piece is somewhat of a mystery to the writer herself, and I agree with him there. But he further concludes that we live the rest of our lives apart from this experience—this mystery. In this sense he thinks there is a separation of the man from “the man as writer.” If I interpret this correctly, then I would have to disagree. While I think the act of creation is a mystery, I don’t think it is sacred to only some, or sacred only some of the time—it is sacred to all, and for all time. I think everyone lives creative, and, at points, inspired lives-- everyone is a mystery to themselves. We pass by epiphanies every day of our lives. There are many people in our lives who bring these epiphanies forward every day, and they will tell you about it in everyday conversation. I think that mystery and wonder and inspiration are a part of everyday life. It is the writer’s job to recognize these moments of wonder and mystery, and to not live separately from them.
However, I do think some writers may think one way, and then write another, and it is this diaspora of the mind can lead to a tortured existence. I think it is very western to mythologize the mystical moment, and to back away from it. Some are willing to see a separation of the experience of humanity from the creative process, and I think it is this thinking that leads to the acceptance of anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia in the canon of writing—as if thought and human kindness were somehow outside of the creative mystery. I think being an artist is the practice of opening up oneself to the world. It’s a belief in the connectedness of things. Being an artist should seep into everyday existence. All one has to do is walk through the stalls of any market in any country, or start talking to the next passerby who waves hello, to experience the artfulness of life.
Do you think the world has become a dangerous place in which to live?
Yes, it is dangerous, no doubt. So many people have separated themselves from art and from god-- and by this I mean the godliness that is already in us as individuals. I think fundamentalist belief is the antithesis of belief in the individual. I am not alluding here to what is happening in other countries but to what is happening in my own country, the United States. The danger to free thought is fundamentalism. Fundamental beliefs are prescribed codes of behavior which comes from ignorant and overzealous community and religious leaders. It is dangerous when that code is prescribed with zero tolerance. We see inane practice of zero tolerance everywhere in the United States—in our schools, in our criminal justice system, in our approach to diplomacy. Because of zero tolerance we have an overflow in our jails, a belief that security and police departments will solve the issue of why we murder each other, a paranoia and ignorance of those outside our borders, and the insanely overreaching Patriot Act . We have stopped thinking for ourselves. It is no mystery how George W. Bush became elected president-- he epitomizes this practice.
Our leaders in journalism and media, who used to be the sentries of thought, have sold themselves out to the cheapest among us—those whose veracity of life depends upon the sensationalized story of someone else’s downfall— that of Michael Jackson or Britney Spears, for example.
I think being an editor, and being a professor at Columbia College Chicago, an arts and communication school, is the best place for me to be right now. I know it is old fashioned and very pre-post-modern to say, but I think most people create art in hopes of making a difference. Many writers wish to engage in, and shape, culture. When I first started reading for the South Loop Review I thought it was an amazing experience. All these people writing because they have something wondrous to show us. Some of the pages of writing actually dazzled me; It was like discovering the ocean for the very first time.
Sunday, May 04, 2008
In an interview Hirsh Sawhney, India editor of Wasafiri, world’s leading literary journal, talks about his life with literature
How important is it for you to know your audience/reader?
Writers and editors certainly need to keep their audiences and readers in mind. Writing a short story or article for an Indian audience, for example, has a slightly different set of rules and requirements from writing an article on a similar subject for a British or North American audience. The same applies to fiction OR POETRY. That being said, the US-based Indian author Manil Suri, for example, seems to write with his US and UK audiences in mind, and his fiction suffers because of this. The (deceased) Spanish-language author Roberto Bolano seems to have written his fiction without worrying about what Anglophone readers might think. Yet his work is brilliant and has received acclaim in countless English-speaking countries. It really comes down in the end to the quality of the work
In regions like South Asia, social reality takes a primary role over art, many say. How do you perceive this issue? Are the roles of a novelist different in our part of the world where an artist has to deal with 'basic issues' like women's rights or freedom of speech?
The role of a novelist in any part of the world is to critically reflect upon his or her society and the individuals who inhabit it--to empathize with and understand social structures and people and also to highlight their flaws. Every nation or region has a different set of socio-economic realities, and WRITING from different countries will inevitably reflect these differences. But increasingly, the world is becoming a similar place--with similar disparities and fascistic tendencies, injustices and evolutions. Perhaps international writing will reflect this tendency--perhaps it already does. Is Chinua Achebe's African fiction that different from the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi's? Hanif Kureishi's from Philip Roth's? In any case it is not so much a question of which local issues are dealt with, though that is certainly important, but more a question of practice, of how the writer communicates and how well. If the writing in good he or she will be able to communicate with a wide variety of audiences whatever the details of the subject matter. This accounts for the large number of works in translation surely?
Sir VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How is it like for you?
The writing I like best is by individuals who write about people and situations that seem very close to their hearts and lives--I'm talking about people like Hanif Kureishi, or a Finnish novelist I recently read named Elina Hirvonen. Then again, Kazuo Ishiguro has created brilliant characters and mesmerizing novels that seem very far from his existence--take the butler in The Remains of the Day. Chang-Rae Lee, a Korean-American author, wrote an incredibly moving novel called Aloft about a third generation Italian-American immigrant.
While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?
Writers who have something new to say and who have painstakingly worked on their WRITING and are willing to keep on doing so. It does not matter whether they are already famous or unknown.
A language has its own history, a past of its own. In South Asia English is given us (or imposed) during the Raj, and for a good many years it has remained the language of a particular class... How important do you think class is to South Asian reality?
It's difficult for me to speak of a South Asian reality, the only South Asian country I'm somewhat familiar with is India. In India, class boundaries continue to be a burden of unfathomable dimensions. In his novel Moth Smoke, Mohsin Hamid suggested, somewhat playfully, that Pakistani society was divided into those who have air-conditioners and those who do not. Along the same lines, urban India is partitioned by linguistic boundaries--into the Hindi medium people (in the north that is) and English-medium people. In terms of literature, there are and have been countless writers in South Asia who've written in languages besides English. My favorites are Manto and Quaratalun Hyder. I've enjoyed the short fiction of a present-day Pakistani writer named Mazhar ul Islam, and his contemporary across the border in India Uday Prakash. Of course Bengali writers and the Bengal Renaissance have played an invaluable role in the shaping of modern South Asian intellectualism, literature and government. This renaissance, ironically enough, was a product of Bengal's interaction with European ideals and the English language.
The themes that Shawakhat Tipu, one of the foremost poets of his generation, deals with are fundamentally Post-modern in nature. As both his collections suggest, his work is littered with the mastery of the language, with which he plays as a juggler might with his balls. He creates images, gives new meanings to it, only to break the signs and symbols that the society or the dominant culture imposes on them. In the broadest sense of the phrase, Tipu’s poems are subversive in nature, even though not overtly so. Take Shri, which in Bengali is a way of salutation: Shu is also the same, but is only used for the feminine gender. Interestingly there is a gender-neutral Bangla word, which goes thus: Shrichoroneshu. But splitting them into three, as Tipu does in the title of his second collection, changes the meaning, which is the woman at the man’s feet.
The tone, not nature, of his poems are swayed by the poets of the middle ages, where the approach is more direct, colloquial, and natural. What makes him even more interesting is the way he plays with the language, especially the structure of it. There is something special about Bangla, which changes its structure in every 20 miles; trying to create a monolithic flat language will not work on this delta-- Tipu's poems are a testimony to that. But unlike his peers, for some of whom playing with words is everything they have to offer, Tipu’s poems take us to a different level, a world in which myth and reality intermingle. He shuns false myth, myth that our collective consciousness creates when it cannot interpret reality. But make not mistake, he neither is dealing in myth, nor in any urban myth so to speak. His realm is eerily similar to Shri Choitonno Dev and Lalon, a lyrical ballad that refuses to confine itself to the mere boundary of poetry.
His work defies the Bhoktibad of mystics though, for he raises questions, a skeptic about almost everything. From Derrida to Raja Ram Mohan Roy, important literary figures become objects of his close scrutiny. For the poet creates layer upon layer of ambiguity, it will be difficult to tell the real Ram Mohan from his counterpart in Tipu’s work. Read:
Otol Bagane Potol Tulia Kural Khunti Daa
Kahader boma toma nai achen Derrida
(Kicking the bucket in that great garden-- axe, machete, iron spatula
Those who don’t have bombs or guns have Derrida)
Tipu, as a poet, should be admired and encouraged; one only hopes that, next time, his muse will endow him with an illumination that has a keener vision.