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Found In Translation : Stories from India

August is Women in Translation month. The campaign was started in 2014 by the translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski after she discovered the low numbers of women published in translation. Translated books only form three percent of published literature in English markets and only 30% of these works are written by women. As the month comes to an end, we have put together a compilation of some of the most compelling books we have translated. A collection of memoir, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, it offers fascinating stories from god-forsaken villages and chaos filled cities of India. Each of these books, originally published in a regional language, deserves a wider audience especially because these are stories marginalized by the mainstream. The authors— including a political prisoner in Kashmir, the wife of a communist leader in Andhra Pradesh, a domestic worker in Gurgaon, an eighth century Tamil poet and a contemporary one— are all women. Some of them spin beautiful fiction out of lived realities while for some just the honest story of their life leaves us astounded by the limits of our ignorance but all of them provide a new understanding of what it means to be not only a woman but a citizen of India.

10yr-a life less ordinary

A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder, translated from Hindi by Urvashi Butalia

Baby Halder had worked as a domestic help for a series of exploitative employers in Gurgaon before she landed, purely by chance, at the home of the retired academic Prabodh Kumar. With his encouragement she read the Bengali books at his home and eventually started writing her life-story. The story of a vanished mother, a murdered sister, marriage at the age of 12 and an abusive husband.  In the words of The New York Times she “recounts her story in plain language without a trace of self-pity”. Sangeeta Pisharoty writes in her review for The Hindu that during a conversation with the author she found it difficult to absorb her methodical narration of her life’s struggles. Halder’s nonchalant narration is evidence of the extent to which violence is intrinsic to the life she had growing up as a dalit woman in Durgapur, West Bengal. Nothing can highlight the importance of what the book stands for more than these direct words of Halder “Many girls back home go through a similar life and yet nobody sees it as any different”. The book became a bestseller which highlights how removed society is from the everyday realities of those who work for us. That Halder was surprised by the response the book received should not come as a surprise to us.

Prisoner No

Prisoner No. 100: An Account of my Days and Nights in an Indian Prison by Anjum Habib, translated from Urdu by Sahba Husain

The book is a passionate and moving account of the five years Anjum Habib, a young woman political activist from Kashmir, spent in jail after she was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). In an interview Anjum Habib said “Being a woman and that too from Kashmir makes your life in jail a living hell.” She describes how police officials in Delhi verbally assaulted her saying “You are a separatist leader of the Muslim Khawateen Markaz; we will strip you naked, take snaps and distribute them all over India, defaming you forever.” When she entered the jail premises, she was the only Kashmiri woman; the hostility of the other jail inmates, she said, will remain etched forever in her memory. A review of the book in Kashmir Lit says “To know that it is not fiction, but an exposition of the condition of living, breathing people, makes it profoundly disturbing.” Bashrat Peer, author of Curfewed Nights, has remarked “Everyone interested in Kashmir should read it” and has called it "A brilliant critique of patriarchy in politics, a searing tale of the terrible humiliations visited upon political prisoners, a poignant story of a woman who dedicated her life to political change in Kashmir, a passionate love letter to Kashmir."


Fence by Ila Arab Mehta, translated from Gujarati by Rita Kothari

The cover of this book by the award winning Gujarati author sketches a girl on a scooty dressed in a burkha. The Indian Express review of the book remarked “The symbolic cover deserves appreciation. Seen through the burkha is only a pair of eyes— apprehensive, circumspect and moving ahead with confidence.” It symbolizes what the protagonist of the novel aims to achieve: mobility on her own terms. Fateema is a young ambitious woman who climbs over the fences of poverty and illiteracy to pursue an education and a job in the big city. Mehta was inspired to write the story when she read a piece by a Muslim woman in a Gujarati magazine on how difficult it was for her to find a house. Her protagonist dreams of buying her own house but in the deeply communalized society of Saurashtra a house can only be on either side of the fence—the Hindu or the Muslim. Fence explores the deep seated communal prejudices that work against Fateema’s arguably ordinary dreams. In the review for Indian Express, S.D Desai finds the book “Heartening, for Gujarati literature is largely unconcerned about the trauma the Muslim community suffers. Gujarati Hindu teachers supporting Fateema in her struggle bring a breath of fresh air, indeed. "

hour past midnightThe Hour Past Midnight by Salma, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom

For many years no one knew that a woman (named Rokkaiah by her in-laws) confined within the four walls of her husband’s home in the rural interiors of Tamil Nadu was the sensational author known as Salma. She wrote secretly in the toilet at night and sent manuscripts to editors through relatives. She started writing because of the anger she felt when she had to stop going outside her home once she attained puberty. Her works include poems, short stories and novels all of them depict the life of women within the conservative Tamil Muslim community. Her poems, which are known for explicit sexual imagery, have received wide critical acclaim. The novel The Hour Past Midnight is based on her childhood in a village near Tiruchi. However, it is not an autobiography but as this review puts it “It is the story of the girl child in the deep South, the story of daughters and sisters and hapless mothers and grandmothers, all caught in an inexorable web of growing up, getting married, bearing children and dying. It is the story of "woman in the set framework", her life’s purpose limited to four walls, the walls slowly rising brick by brick, inexplicably; this is not a story about breaking barriers.”

 Motherwit by Urmila Pawar, translated from Marathi by Veena Deo

motherwit front cover

Pawar identifies herself as a Dalit woman writer, a Buddhist and a feminist and all three identities reveal themselves powerfully in this collection of short stories. The Hindu called them “unashamed and bold stories of the travails of the Indian woman.” Her heroines are clever women from all classes of society in urban and rural Maharashtra. They brave caste oppression, defy insults and are unhesitant in opposing their in-laws while guarding their interests. “These are the women sitting next to you on the Churchgate-Virar fast local, or processing your forms in the Pune municipal offices, or checking into the maternity ward in Pimpri-Chinchwad” says the review at LiveMint remarking that “the women sparkle with agency and complexity that is a delight to read.”  Pawar’s writing is sprinkled with the characteristically coarse Marathi humour (which lends the book the titular wit). Asian Age writes about the translation “Deo meets the challenge by keeping to an earthy, conversational style”. The review at LiveMint recommends “slip her in alongside Mahashweta Devi and Ismat Chugtai and Jhumpa Lahiri and Anjum Hasan and every other writer with the skill to render the minutely personal as piercingly political.”

The Sharp Knife of Memory

The Sharp Knife of Memory by Kondapalli Koteswaramma, translated from Telugu by Sowmya V.B.

Kotasweramma has always been popularly identified as the wife of Kondapalli Sitaramaiah, founder of the Maoist movement in Andhra Pradesh, even though she herself was a core member of the communist movement. Inspired by the Bolsheviks, Koteswaramma took up party life early on in life. She went underground in the forties, living a secret life, running from safe house to safe house. In her own words this struggle paid dividends when her famous husband deserted her after an extramarital affair. She educated herself, got a job, raised her grandchildren, wrote poetry and prose and established herself as a thinking person in her own right. The story of her life spans a century of the independence movement and the communist insurrection in Andhra Pradesh. The stories of her struggle against the odds accompany her deep understanding of the workings of the party and the fragility of the political institution. On its first publication in India, this moving memoir took the Telugu literary world by storm.



Seventeen by Anita Agnihotri, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha

Anita Agnihotri travelled extensively in Orissa and Jharkhand for her work as an IAS officer. Her travels inspired her to document the lives of those who remain in the shadow of India Shining. The characters of her stories and the images they evoke seem real because she works with details to eke out their lives of poverty and injustice. She does not believe in writing from the desk; she meets people and connects with them. She spins her stories around these experiences and as a reviewer puts it, her stories are perfect illustration of how fiction can begin in fact and not be limited by it. Apart from far-flung towns and villages, her stories are also set in metros and international suburbia, documenting the lives of landless peasants, migrant workers, abandoned wives and their companions in struggle. Seventeen is a collection of some of her stories from among more than a 100 of her published works. Apart from far-flung towns and villages her stories are also set in metros and international suburbia. Translated by Arunava Sinha, the book won the 2011 Economist Crossword Book Award for Translation.


Swarnalata by Tilottama Misra, Translated from Assamese by Udayon Misra

Considered one of the finest historical novels in Assamese Swarnalata is set in 19th century Assam when the forces of tradition were being challenged by the concepts of modernity. It takes the reader into the social milieu of the times when issues like widow remarriage and women’s education held centre stage. It traces the story of three Assamese girls, each facing personal struggles which reflect the larger societal truth of the times. Swarna, the daughter of privileged, educated parents cannot escape the biases faced by other women, her friends Lakhi and Tora are respectively a child widow and a convert to Christianity with a mind of her own. These girls are surrounded by revolutionary young men eager to break bondages of tradition. Swarnalata also provides a delectable blend of history and fiction by placing real historical figures like Rabindranath Tagore side by side with fictional characters. Arunava Sinha in his review has said “In capturing the collective aspiration of a people from a part of India whose literature is unjustly under-circulated, Swarnalata becomes a rich panel in the patchwork quilt that is contemporary Indian fiction.”

Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess

 Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, translated from Tamil by Priya Sarukai Chabria, Ravi Shankar

Andal, the eighth century Tamil poet, is the only female saint among the twelve Alvar saints of South India dedicated to the worship of Vishnu. Chabria and Shankar’s elegant translation of the corpus of poetry by Andal cements her status as the Southern corollary to Mirabai. However, as this review says “Her love for Vishnu is about an unequivocal affirmation of women’s sexual agency. Unlike Mira’s Krishna, Andal’s Hari is a full-bodied masculine presence. Like Andal’s wearing of the deity’s garland doesn’t defile it, her carnal longing for his form, while rejecting mere mortal lovers, also does not sully the bhakt-bhagwaan relationship.” This book translates Andal’s Tamil poems into contemporary English idiom, reimagining them as lyric poems keeping the philosophic meanings in the background. About the translation, Sumana Roy in her review for The Scroll said ‘The brilliance of the translators is also easy to see in the way they remain invisible, in the way we meet Andal directly, without the service of middlemen” hailing the Introduction for the book as “a great handbook for future translators on the subject”.

Here are some recommended reads from other parts of the world:

13 Translated Books By Women You Should Read

A Celebratory List of non-fiction books by leading thinkers and writers

An Essay on the Gender Politics of Translation





ON TOPIC: Dalit Protests in Gujarat, Trans Rights, Irom Sharmila, and Kashmir

Here’s what we have been reading while being subjected to loud, off-key singing by the devotees of Lord Shiva from the temple next-door (Why? Because it is the holy month of saawan! If you are still unaware of this annual national phenomenon and are curious, read this before going further).

In India:

Recently, a Dalit couple was hacked to death because they owed a shopkeeper Rs. 15. A few weeks ago in Una, Gujarat four Dalit men were flogged, tied to an SUV and paraded for skinning a dead cow. Moreover, the flogging was filmed as a warning to other Dalits. In response, the Dalit community has been protesting in the state like never before. The Sunday before last (31st July), they gathered in large numbers in a rally in Sabarmati. This is a report on the event by Scroll, largely comprised of accounts on social media pf the lack of relevant reporting in the mainstream media. Anandiben Patel has stepped down as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Here is a list of issues compiled by The Hindu faced by the Gujarat government during her two-year term. Kancha Illaiah writes in the Indian Express about how a cow democracy has come to mean the oppression of Dalits. The underlying ideology of these violent atrocities, he argues, seems to be “skin for skin” punishing Dalits for their very occupation of skinning carcasses.

Meanwhile, two Dalit women have been appointed as priests in this Mangalore temple, and here is an article on how a Maharashtrian village in Beed forced the elected Sarpanch, a Dalit woman who speaks her own mind, out and installed a pliable proxy instead. This is often how upper caste men manipulate mandatory reservations for women and Scheduled Castes.

Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society has started the Blindspot campaign in an attempt to raise internationl awareness about the violation of human rights by the Indian state. The use of pellets by the Indian Army has caused injuries to the eyes of more than 300 people in aftermath of Burhan Wani’s funeral.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 was tabled in the Lok Sabha last week. While it was touted as a bill seeking empowerment of one of the most marginalized communities in India, here is a list of pros and cons you should know about the bill.

Mamata Banerjee, tired of being the last one to speak during inter-state council meetings, has decided to correct the logical fallacy that has led us all to call a state in the east of the country ‘West Bengal’. Rajyasree Sen writes here on why this makes complete sense.

In other, less amusing news, the parliament recently passed the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Amendment Act. Vijaylaxmi Balakrishnan examines the connections this has with other recent political developments and why this leaves children above 14 (who can now be legally employed in family businesses) vulnerable by stripping them of the Right to Education. Another example of state-sanctioned apathy faced by marginalized children comes from Assam. The chairperson of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights is reportedly being pressurized to change her report on the status of 31 tribal girls taken by RSS affiliated organizations to Gujarat and Punjab.

Mahasweta Devi, the Bengali activist and writer, passed away at the age of 90. Urvashi Butalia remembers what discovering her works meant during the early years of the women’s movement in India here.

In Assam, the state with the highest maternal mortality ratio in the country, communities are coming together to prevent maternal health violations. Here is an article by Sarita Santoshini where she writes, ‘The High Court of Delhi expanded right-to-life provisions to include the right to safe motherhood and recognised maternal death as a human rights violation. This landmark decision was the first of its kind globally. However, India spends only 1.4% of its GDP on public health, and the policies under its National Health Mission (NHM), which entitles pregnant women living below the poverty line to several free benefits, are poorly implemented.’

Late in July Irom Sharmila announced that she will end her fast today (9th August). Ita Mehrotra gives us a glimpse of the activist’s sixteen year long struggle here. Mehrotra has also written about how her meeting with Irom Sharmila not only changed her ideas of nationhood but also impacted her daily work as an activist in her contribution The Poet,  Sharmila for Drawing The Line (Zubaan Books, 2015).

Mahmood Farooqui has been sentenced to seven years of imprisonment for sexually assaulting an American research scholar at his home in Delhi. Last week, journalist Rama Lakshmi, acquainted with Farooqui and a friend of the victim, penned a Facebook post (later published on the DailyO, here), powerfully describing the victim’s struggle. She also censured the hypocrisies of the circle of ‘progressive’ friends who tried to convince the victim to withdraw the complaint. This has now become the first case after the 2013 amendment, which recognised forced oral sex as rape, to result in a conviction for this crime.

Over at The Wire, Prem Shankar Jha writes about Arvind Kejriwal’s continuing tussle with the Modi government, as the latter seeks to ‘incapacitate the AAP government in Delhi ever since its humiliating defeat in Delhi in December 2014.’ Jha comments on the BJP government’s increasingly ‘scant respect for the law and the Constitution’, making a case for taking Kejriwal’s warnings seriously.

Two Indians are on the list of the six winners of the 2016 Magsaysay Award. Bezwada Wilson who has been fighting for the abolition of the practice of manual scavenging (here's an extensive interview with the activist) and Carnatic musician TM Krishna a non-conformist who seeks to democratize Carnatic music.

In the world:

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump officially accepted their Presidential nominations at the DNC and the RNC respectively. Notable speeches include two speeches by Michelle Obama. First, her moving speech at the DNC about the greatness of America, where she, a black woman, wakes up in a house built by slaves. The second, her speech from the 2008 election which was plagiarized this year by Melania Trump. Read here Ms Magazine’s take on why the glass-ceiling-shattering by Hillary Clinton is not enough for women in politics.

(On a side note: If you’ve been feeling out of touch with your sense of wonder for the world, check out Bill Clinton discovering balloons.)

While the interminable list of gross things said by Donald Trump now includes this gem on workplace sexual harassment, here’s Barack Obama reminding everyone of his feminist dad status. Here’s a response to this brand of feminism which focuses on familial relationships as the reason for men to be feminists.

Peter Pomerantsev explores here the reasons we ended up in a ‘post-fact’ world where the truth no longer matters. In a world with a digital cascade of information everyone can feel justified to cherry-pick ‘their own truth’— no facts, only interpretations. Perhaps this is how Donald Trump wins the presidential candidacy (even though 78% of the things he says are untrue) and Britain leaves the EU (because of a factually incorrect campaign run on the side of a bus later dismissed as a ‘mistake’).

Iran has put job tests on hold while investigations are carried out on the gender discriminatory vacancies for government jobs.

Nayyeema Ismat writes a genuine account of her frustrating experience of being queer in Pakistan. With the lack of a uniquely local LGBTQ narrative she finds herself shuttling between defending her Sunni Muslim spaces from the orientalising gaze of western feminists, and then using their language to explain female empowerment to her family.

In Culture:

Agents of Ishq conducted the Great Indian Penis Survey in an attempt to start a conversation about men and their very personal relationship with their penises. Here are the results of this first-of-its-kind, extremely non-heteronormative survey, presented in a very witty report.

Finally, if you have plans for a movie we would recommend that you skip Suicide Squad. Here’s a compilation of reviews for the movie. Apparently, ‘the film’s biggest laugh comes at the expense of Batman punching Harley Quinn’s face.’ You can definitely watch Ghostbusters though. As this review says, ‘There’s a thrill in seeing an action-movie team made up not only of women, but of women who fall blissfully outside the narrow definition of the Hollywood hottie.’

ON TOPIC: Kashmir Protests, Castile and Sterling, Legislation, Trans Rights and Sex Work

A lot has happened and a lot has been written since we wrote last. Here is what we have been reading:

Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, was killed in an encounter on July 8. As thousands of mourners began to gather for his funeral in South Kashmir, the Indian State opened fire on the protestors, leading to the death of 18 people so far, apart from hundreds who have been injured. In addition, hospitals were raided, minors, disabled and terminally ill people were harassed, and ambulances were attacked. As severe militarization and human rights violations intensify in Kashmir, Ipsita Chakravarty and Rayan Naqsh discuss what oppression, death, mourning and memorializing the dead means in the Valley, after more than two decades of state-sanctioned impunity to the Indian Army.

It might also be appropriate to remember how insidiously the oppression has entered homes and villages in Kashmir. Sindhuja Parthasarathy’s photo essay on widows and ‘half-widows’ of Dardpora village in Kashmir looks at how unexplained ‘disappearances’ have result in social and economic isolation of different generations of women in the Kashmir Valley.

The murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two black men, by the American police within a gap of two days, have sparked powerful and emotionally charged outrage across the country. Doreen St. Félix in this article talks about the two kinds of summers experienced in America: one of picnics, walks and spontaneous trips, and the other of such killings which become public spectacles. Roxane Gay talks about the murder of Alton Sterling and what it says about the universality of the American justice system.

[Back home, Mahesh Shantaram documents testimonies of palpable fear of racism faced by people from Africa in the urban village of Soladevanahalli, Bangalore, in this photo essay.]

Women and the Law

Nausheen Yousuf discusses the current, multi-sided campaign to ban the triple talaq system, drawing on her experience of litigating on behalf of Muslim women. She attempts to unravel the myths and misconceptions around the triple talaq system and how women negotiate the complex web of institutions and government/religious bodies. You can read the full article here.

Germany passed a historic law redefining both rape and consent. Both physical and verbal cues from the victim will now affect the decision making process. The law is being seen as a consequence of widespread outrage after several women alleged sexual assault on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. Read the BBC report here.

Back home, early in July, a young 21-year-old woman from Salem district committed suicide after finding her face digitally superimposed on the semi-nude body of another woman. In a similar case last October, a 15-year-old girl from Bengaluru committed suicide. Ashwaq Masoodi in this article discusses how cyber stalking and bullying figures within the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act, 2000.

A draft Anti-Trafficking Bill was introduced in the Parliament by Ministry of Women and Child Development and has evoked criticism from several quarters. Geetika Mantri in this article argues that the Bill is incomplete and ambiguous and how it fails to address several issues that it claims for itself.

In this article, Mona Mishra discusses the Bill vis-à-vis the debate between the anti-trafficking campaigners and campaigners fighting for the rights of sex works. Mishra talks about how ‘work’ is conceptualized both socially as well as legally and how sex work often lies outside it, thereby denying basic human rights to its practitioners.

In a similar context, Smarika Kumar discusses the underlying moral judgement and ‘fear of recreational sex’ in legal and social opinions on sex work. She talks about this in the context of the Ministry of Home Affairs seeking to ban 240 websites offering female escort services:

“All this in effect implies that sexual material in human expression, which can only be surmised in 19th century Victorian vocabulary such as  “lascivious” and “prurient” tends to deprave and corrupt persons and when published or transmitted in “electronic form” must be punished quite severely. But why in electronic form, and why on the Internet? Or, what is different about sexual expression on the internet that it is sought to be so specifically curbed by Section 67?”

To move beyond legislations, an insightful article by Ei Cherry Aung discusses the need to do more to protect the rights of women who migrate from rural Myanmar to the urban centres in order to work as housemaids. Read it here.

Trans Lives and Rights

Arvind Narrain analyzes the implications of India’s abstinence from voting to establish the first Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) in the UN Human Rights Council. In this interview, Narrain talks about how in a larger sense, Indian Government’s abstinences reflects its larger apathy towards the LGBT community.

The Wire published a powerful conversation with activist Raina Roy where she talks about her personal and political journey as a trans-woman and her arrival at Samabhabana, a group committed to work for intersectional positions within gender, caste, class, disability and age. You can read the full account here.

Here is an interview with Qamar Naseem, a member of the advisory council of Trans Action Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He talks about trans rights, sexual violence and torture against transgender people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and whether their situation as changed after the government issued them National Identification Cards in 2012. Violence against trans people has been on the rise in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in spite of criticism from several groups, including a fatwa by Ittehad-e-Ummat Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in India, Debaditya Bhattacharya discusses the Central Government’s recent attempt to delimit the meaning of the term ‘third gender’ as given by a Supreme Court Bench on April 15, 2014 as an attack on individual freedom to decide one’s sexual identity:

“Given the degree of emphasis in the judgment on processes of self-assignation of gender, the Centre’s call to empirically ‘delimit’ the exact number of beneficiaries of a third gender legislation is no less than an attack on civil rights. The same freedom that the NALSA judgment attests as an individual right is what the state appropriates for itself by reserving the authority to determine who to recognise as third gender and who not to. Going by the text and spirit of the Radhakrishnan judgment, this is an assault on the fundamental right to freedom of expression as including self-identifications of gender. Such illegal usurpation of an individual civil right by the government underscores an attempt to reduce a progressive ruling to a debate about definitions.”

Here is a powerful account of growing up with a variety of gender based labels and the continuous sense of alienation that they produce.

Ruth Padawer discusses how gender boundaries for women continue to be policed in the world of Sports in order to arrive at the ‘right’ type of female body.

Women, Media and Politics

Arundhati Roy’s interview for Elle Magazine has stirred up some interesting responses, to say the least. In the interview, she discusses her literary art, life and political opinions, making some rather problematic statements in the process. Apart from several other problems that surface in what she says, Mishka Wazar discusses what it means to call yourself a ‘black woman’ and claim that experience for yourself (which Arundhati Roy does at the outset of the interview). You can read the response here.

This fascinating article narrates the history of the Hindi soap, from 1980s Doordarshan to the present, looking at how intersections and alliances of caste, religion and neo-liberalism affect the representation of women on Hindi Television.

Here is an entertaining as well as frustrating account of a woman’s experience at working in a feminist magazine.

J Devika reminisces about Kamala Das and her legacy of women’s political participation, poetry and an ‘affective community’, a few days after her birth anniversary. You can read the full article here.

Caste, Protest and Appropriation

P.S. Jaya painted herself black everyday for 150 days and roamed Kochi’s streets to protest the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. The idea was to make the community face its own prejudices. The responses, however, have ranged from support to outright rejection.

Here is a response by Archana Bidargaddi and Prabhu Venkat to this instance of ‘artivism’, as Jaya calls it, arguing that the protest is not only an attempt to appropriate the everyday experience of a Dalit woman, but also rests on outdated theories of castes and races.

On Topic: Imagery of lynching, sexist liberals, free speech, Orlando shooting

The long summer is upon us, and as we wait for respite from the blistering heat, here is what we have been reading in June.

From home:

According to current Indian medical textbooks, one of the methods employed to determine the rape of a woman is the two-finger test. The two-finger test is deeply patriarchal, invasive and insensitive to rape victims since it is often used to determine a woman’s sexual history in order to decide if her claims are true or otherwise. However, the good news is that a new edition has scrapped the use of this test as reported here.

Nirantar has put together an anthology of writing by Muslim women titled Kalam-e-Niswan. The anthology comprises of wide range of selections from Urdu magazines, and can be accessed here.

Nagaraj Manjule, the director of the critically acclaimed Sairat, has been accused of abuse by his ex wife. Deepika Sarma wonders why we overlook the sexism of liberals in her insightful piece in The Ladies Finger. In a similar vein, Advaita Kala’s article looks at a recent attempt to exonerate Tarun Tejpal, and argues that we must call out the underlying patriarchy of those who claim to represent the liberal cause.

Vqueeram Aditya Sahai writes about his experiences with crossdressing here.

Along with the freedom of speech, there is an urgent need to uphold artistic and creative freedoms, argues Gautam Bhatia in his commentary on the recent attempt to censor and stall the release of Udta Punjab. Bhatia argues that the Censor Board and the Cinematograph Act cannot be the arbiter of what people should be allowed to watch or take pleasure in.

As a follow up to our previous post, which looked at different responses to the JLF sponsored by Vedanta, Omair Ahmad in this article wonders, given the time in which we live, about how safe or radical literary/cultural fests are, and the ethical dilemma faced by writers who participate in such spaces endorsed by corporates and big business houses.

This report gives an account of at the recent protests against outside Manipur Bhawan in the capital.

In the end of May, Rana Ayyub released her self-published book, The Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. The book is a product of eight months of undercover research, and has been read as an unfinished work. You can read an excerpt here.

There is a narrative behind that piece of fish you are eating— a narrative that involves industrialized deep-sea fishing, the precarious livelihoods of fisherfolk, and dietary fads that celebrate seafood. In this account a former captain of a conservation vessel explains why he made a difficult but ethical choice of giving up seafood.

The soon to be pulled down Lohapul or the Old Iron Bridge over the Yamuna river is a site of neglect and decay. Yet, Sreedeep’s lens provides us glimpses of those who inhabit and eke a living in this rusting, dilapidated space in this photo essay.

Long reads:

In this fascinating essay, Megha Anwar excavates the genealogy of lynching by analyzing a series of photographs of lynched subjects. Her compelling argument is that there can be no lynching without spectators, and that these photographs were taken as trophies, souvenirs, or self-congratulatory markers of evidence. She provides a way of seeing images of violence and argues that repetitive, violent imagery does not result in desensitizing the reader. In stead the affective states aroused by such imagery is contingent upon the social context and the politics of the viewer

The camera at lynching sites was not therefore a neutral apparatus objectively recording what transpired. It was an actor in the catastrophe, one that normalised and prolonged the agony of the victim: the mob would often stop their torture in order to have their pictures taken with the battered, torn and quartered bodies of their prey writhing in the background.

Anwar finds a pattern in the lynching photograph— the fact that subjects are lynched in twos. In her essay she goes onto delineate the reason for this pairing, and twinning and the kind of impact it has on the viewer:

Lynching in twos, then, does not just terminate lives but marks the banishment of dangerous liaisons. To be murdered as a twosome is to be punished not simply for a tangible crime, but for forging a bond that ties us unacceptably to another. It converts the very holding of an outlawed affinity – between soldiers, or among racially/communally demarcated men and women, or even a parent and a child – into a punishable offence.

In this interview Lawrence Liang, legal researcher at the Alternative Law Forum reflects on sedition and hate speech laws in India and the United States. He argues that provocative speech of any sort cannot be classified as seditious unless it can be proved that such speech has resulted in violence and material damage.

To my mind one of the credibility tests for determining whether the threat of violence is imminent would be to understand the context of the speech, the status of the speaker and the addressee of the speech. If for example a prominent political leader made a formal speech to his armed cadre threatening to harm another community, one could reasonably assume that the nexus between the speech and the possibility imminent lawless action is very high. But if you were to compare this formal speech with say the Facebook status posted by a 21-year-old girl in Maharashtra after Bal Thackeray’s death, which observed that the state had shut down out of fear and not out of respect, one could also reasonably conclude that there is no real nexus that could be established between the speech and any possibility of violence.

And away:

Recently, Brock Turner a former star swimmer at Stanford University was sentenced to six months imprisonment and probation for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in January 2015. While this light sentence has been criticized, Turner’s father has chillingly dismissed his son’s deed as ‘20 minutes of action’ as outlined in this report. Opposition to the judge who handed down the lenient sentence grows daily as indicated here. The victim has written an account of what she was subjected to and its aftermath in her impact statement, which can be accessed here.

The shooting at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando has raised questions not only about the easy accessibility of guns in the United States but also the underlying homophobia that resulted in the massacre. This editorial in The Guardian calls it a hate crime driven by a deep-seated abhorrence for sexual diversity. Omar Mateen who carried out the shooting has avowed allegiance to ISIS and has been seen as self-radicalised. Praveen Swami perceptively analyzes the psychology of lone wolf attackers in this article. However, it is also necessary to look at Indian responses to the massacre, and most of them have condemned the loss of lives, rather than acknowledging the queer identities of those who perished. In his critique, Rohan Venkataramakrishnan notes that while such gestures of solidarity are necessary they do not transform the lives of queer subjects in the country. He argues that a concerted effort towards striking down section 377 of the Indian Penal code would be an empowering response to the Orlando shooting.

On Topic: literary fests, India's racism, Pinjra Tod and public apologies

News from home:

The controversy surrounding Vedanta’s sponsorship of the London edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival continues; the primary issue being the funding of a literary space (considered by many to be a free space) by a mining conglomerate with a chequered human rights record. Here is an open letter signed by writers, academics and others addressed to the speakers - to reconsider their participation and even consider a boycott. Several writers have expressed their reasons for participating in the event, despite knowledge of the sponsor, as have other public intellectuals who have emphasized the necessity to make visible the transgressions of Vedanta through a boycott, and to interrogate the public legitimacy the company has gained by sponsoring, endowing literary and cultural festivals.

Recently Masonda Ketada Olivier, a French tutor from Congo, was beaten to death in the capital, in what was obviously a racist attack. In a similar instance of violence in February, a Tanzanian girl was beaten, stripped and paraded naked by a mob in Bangalore. African envoys condemned these acts of racism and xenophobia by boycotting their participation in the government-organized Africa Day celebrations, as documented in this report. But they have taken back their objections after the Indian government was forced to do some damage control. Also, from the archives Joshua Muyiwa, a Nigerian-Indian journalist writes on experiencing racism in Bangalore.

Here is V Geetha’s response to Jayalalithaa’s victory in the recent assembly elections in Tamil Nadu:

Jayalalithaa’s victory is not as conclusive as it might appear. She has perfected a style of populism that is fundamentally cynical — and relies on what might win favour both in a political and “moral” sense. The cynicism is apparent in the much praised PDS handouts. The quality of the rice that is given free is invariably poor, there is a dearth of goods, especially cooking fuel, pulses, and it is never quite clear whether these are unavailable or have been diverted into the shadow economy. It is also evident in the freebies, which are procured at unbelievably low prices and are sold and resold by the recipients — the charmed circle of the party faithful affords an efficient patron-client setup that manages these transactions.

The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of criminal defamation in a recent ruling. Gautam Bhatia in his incisive response writes about why this sets a dangerous legal precedent for freedom of speech. Here is an excerpt:

In general, criminal defamation is disproportionate because it uses the criminal law to prosecute a wrong that is purely private in nature. A private wrong is one that is purely between the offender and her victim, and has no implications for the society at large. For example, if I fail to control my dog, and it bites you, then you may sue me for compensation in a civil court. Society, the state, and the criminal law have nothing to do with it. However, if I murder a person, then it is not just about one individual taking the life of another, but has ramifications for public peace, order and security. This is why murder is a criminal offence, involves a term in jail, and is prosecuted by the state.

 This article provides a feminist reading of the ruling, and looks at how criminalizing defamation would adversely impact women who want to speak up about sexual violence and harassment.

As a follow-up to Jisha’s story, here is an insightful commentary by J Devika about how the welfarist policies in Kerala have failed its marginal citizens. She writes of how the social exclusion faced by marginal subjects— lower caste, Dalit women, and the urban poor—is not assuaged by education or employment.

Finally, there's good news for the activists and supporters of the Pinjra Tod, a student activist group that has been contesting discriminatory rules faced by women in hostel accommodations provided by Delhi colleges. The Delhi commission for Women (DCW) has sent a notice to 23 registered universities in Delhi asking them to explain restrictions on mobility of female students. Members of Pinjra Tod react to the notice in this interview  on The Ladies Finger.

Justin Trudeau offered a formal apology in the Canadian parliament for the Komagata Maru incident that took place in 1914. Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship carrying mostly Sikh immigrants was turned away from Canadian shores in 1914, due to fears of an impending “Hindu invasion”. Pramod Nayar, in this excellent article , looks at similar instances in the past, and delves into the ethics of formal, public apology, which is often used as a means to assuage collective guilt.

Revelation and recognition, therefore, are clearly the first stages in the offering of a public apology, as David Boyd has proposed. What is revealed, however, is what is already part of the historical record. But it is the admission of wrong-doing or culpability that characterises this particular revelation within the framework of the public apology. The country recognises its culpability in the act/event. However, we also recognise that such an admission must be read only as an admission of regret and not as either justification or defence. The public apology cannot, then, ever be offered in the sense of justifications or defence: it is assumed that a nation apologises because its actions which may have been justified or defensible then, are not so now. This is an interesting conundrum because a nation’s actions, which might be necessary or justified at their historical moment in that nation’s political views, may have to be apologised for at some point in the future. The public apology is therefore a communicative act that stretches from past to the future.


Meanwhile, away from home:

A saddening report on the death of a Pakistani transgender activist, caused by delay in treatment after being shot multiple times.

Elena Ferrante, probably the most famous and critically acclaimed of contemporary writers speaks about the Neapolitan quartet in this email interview with Nicola Lagioia, featured in The New Yorker. The entire correspondence will be published in Ferrante’s forthcoming book. And Elena Ferrante’s real identity remains a secret, still. Here is an except:

One learned very early to have the greatest concentration amid the greatest disruption. The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with, the results being at times good-natured, at others aggressive, then again good-natured. The dead were brought into quarrels; people weren’t content to attack and insult the living—they naturally abused aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no longer in the world.

The word 'Dalit' will remain in Californian school textbooks, as will the history of caste discrimination, as per a recent verdict. This report provides us with a trajectory of the debate, and also tells us about what is at stake in these troubling efforts to whitewash certain unpalatable truths about India’s history. Here's a piece on why the verdict is a victory.

Thomas Pogge, a philosophy professor at Yale stands accused of sexually harassing a former student. Read this Buzzfeed essay on the ongoing investigation into Pogge’s behaviour.


Here’s news that should cheer you up:

This is a gem of a conversation among three leading Indian women poets, Meena Alexander, Priya Sarukkai Chabria (who has been published by Zubaan) and Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Ranjani Pandit has a singular vocation— that of catching unfaithful partners. In this piece she writes about her experience as a private eye, and being called a ‘love detective’.


On Topic: student politics, workers' protests, cyberspace misogyny, Ambedkar's legacy

And we're back!

Here’s what we have been reading:

We must begin with what has been termed the ‘Indian spring’—the student protests that began with slapping sedition charges on a few students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. This has been seen as an attack on the autonomy of the university, indicative of a general sense of intolerance toward dissent and a spirit of enquiry that is the foundation of all education institutions. Not only have the students of JNU viewed as freeloaders being educated at the expense of the taxpayer, but also they have been publicly delegitimized as ‘immoral’. Amidst the cacophony, Janaki Nair, in this essay offers a rational and lucid analysis of the role of the public university in the current time:

“The perceived illegitimacy of “politics on the campus” is aimed not against the various shades of the Left, which, till recently, stood dangerously isolated and endangered in the surge towards the dominance of market forces, but against at least two strands of politics which have, at least in a university like JNU, been uniquely and visibly allied. These are the Ambedkarite forces and the feminists. Not only has the public university, for the first time in post-Independence history, enabled the participation of the widest range of its citizens in higher education, it has given them the resources to think their social worlds anew, in an institutional space that permits and encourages new structures and relationships”

…the university is being pushed away from being a full-blooded and lively institution, which encourages critical thinking, if necessary, of the state, and dreaming of new worlds, to being a mechanism for training people to fit the world they know and receive."

Here is a brilliant discussion among Saikat Majumdar, Arunava Sinha, Gita Hariharan and Anjum Hasan on the recent attacks on writers, and the general milieu of intolerance festering in the public sphere.

Towards the end of April Bangalore witnessed unprecedented protests by garment factory workers against changes to EPF norms. T.M Veeraraghav spotlights the disparities that undergird a city like Bangalore in his piece for The Hindu:

“These factories exist in clusters and hence workers in garment manufacturing units could mobilise themselves instantly. There are an estimated 5,00,000 people working in garment factories in the city. Predominantly women (estimated to be around 85 per cent) and for them, usually with salaries of around Rs. 6,500 a month, the few hundred rupees they save as PF is the only social security.”

…. “It is important to address the difference in the way PF is looked at by those surging with a booming corporate economy and workers, like those in garment factories — PF is not the only saving mechanism for the young manager or techie, for many it’s just a mandatory contribution that one has to make.”

Chandan Gowda, in his response, reads the protests as a challenge to the idea Bangalore being the ‘Silicon Valley of India’, and in a sense, argues that this is a means for garment workers to make their claims to the city visible:

“But these workers, and those involved in manual or non-glamorous work, are invisible in the dominant imaginations of Bangalore. If the pleasures of anonymity in urban areas are celebrated, the pain of invisibility there is less talked about.”

“The garment factory workers' protest was a confident and dignified announcement of their presence in Bangalore: they are a sizable workforce; their work matters to the city's economy; they could not be taken for granted; they need to be respected.”

Delta Meghwal a 17-year-old artist pursuing a degree in teaching was raped and consequently murdered by her physical training teacher. This report looks at attempts to pass of her rape as consensual sex. Sharanya Manivannan, in her article, questions the mainstream media’s silence about Delta’s death.

We found an older post from last year, and we think it must be read. Zenisha Gonsalves’ account of the treatment meted out to women by Indian female gynaecologists is perhaps the first step towards sensitizing medical students, and practicing doctors about the ethical codes they must practice with every patient. Conservatism, morality lessons and outright shaming of women goes against this code of civil, responsible behaviour. The best part is that the piece ends with a crowd-sourced list of progressive gynecologists across Indian cities. A much needed database indeed!

This longish essay in The Guardian looks at the rise of the doctor-writer, and how such autobiographical medical narratives are therapeutic to doctor and patient alike.

Monobina Gupta writes on the inherent sexism that undergirds news reporting in India. Kate Middleton’s so called ‘Marilyn moment’ made it to the front page of one of India’s well-known newspapers, and here is Gupta’s critique of such invasive reportage.

What happens when the pillars of access and anonymity that buttress cyberspace are used to perpetuate and air highly misogynist opinions? Stephen Marche offers a nuanced commentary on The Red Pill, an online community hosted by Reddit, which acts as a virtual space where ‘men can be men’:

“In the hours upon hours I spent wandering this online neighbourhood, I saw mostly feral boys wandering the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, howling their misery, concocting vast nonsense about women, and craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling. The discussion threads are a mixed bag of rage and curiosity: screeds against feminists, advice on how to masturbate less, theories on why women fantasize about rape, descriptions of arguments with girlfriends, guides to going up to strangers on the street, and, most of all, workout schedules and diet regimes.”

Finally, R.K. Pachari has been fired from TERI, as reported here.

Mohammed Junaid writes on Rollie Mukherjee’s images of Kashmir.

On the occasion of Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, Ananya Vajpeyi looks at the attempts to appropriate his ideas both by the Hindu wing and the left. She looks at the afterlife of Ambedkar in our time and his increased visibility in the public sphere. In her analysis she poses crucial questions about the possibility of an alternative political philosophy:

“The novelty and the idealism of these mass (student) protests were clear for all to see; but as a participant in many of these events in Delhi, I can testify that they were also marked by uncertainty and a lack of direction: Who is leading this inchoate Indian Spring? Does it have a clear agenda? Will it develop into a real political alternative in the future? Can a student-led movement, which is by definition transient (like students who enter and pass through the university), acquire a staying power of its own, or will it be subsumed under the banners of existing political parties and held hostage to their failures and limitations?”

Tired of all male panels? The Ladies Finger spots a recent one for you. But here is an alternative.

How image driven is the publishing industry? To what extent does an author’s size determine whether she will be published? This article looks at the unacknowledged nexus between physical appearance and the chances of being published.

Meanwhile, solidarity pours in for the continuing the hunger strike by students of Jawaharlal Nehru University . Here is a report on professors showing solidarity by undertaking a one day fast.

The gruesome rape and murder of a young Dalit law student Jisha, has been ignored by the mainstream press. The Ladies Finger offers a roundup of the case.

Letter from the Publisher: the year that was and the year that is


Dear author, supporter, friend of Zubaan,

Another 365 days have gone by (and then another 31) and somehow, although the new year begins with just another day, there’s always a sense of new beginnings, new hopes, of looking back, and looking forward.

At Zubaan, we’ve had a busy year: we published some wonderful books, and reissued some of the best of our classics, our academic list grew from strength to strength, and our non fiction books covered a wide range of subjects. You’ll find a full list, with brief descriptions, of our 2015 titles below.

It’s also been a year of changes: in 2014 Preeti Gill, longtime editor at Zubaan and the brain behind our Northeast list, left to start a new and different professional life. In 2015, Anita Roy, who’s also been with Zubaan from the beginning, relocated to England to be with her parents, although she still continues to work with us, and is a virtual presence in the office every day through Skype.

Monetary constraints – all independent publishers are struggling, we’re no exception – meant that we were unable to bring in new people, and the existing Zubaan team, Shweta Vachani, Ishani Butalia, Meghna Singh bravely took on additional work, with support from our colleagues Satish Sharma, Elsy Paul, Santosh Singh and Usha, who keeps us well fed and ensures a regular (crucial) supply of coffee and tea.

Towards the end of 2015, we began to wind down our three year long project on Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia, a project supported by IDRC (International Development Research Centre), as a part of which 50 research papers were commissioned from across South Asia, and these will now be published in a set of volumes, the first of which came out in time for the Jaipur Literature Festival where we had an excellent and well attended (over 600 people!) discussion. The panel was called ‘Body of Evidence: Sexual Violence and the Search for Justice in South Asia’ and it was moderated by our co-coordinator of the project, Laxmi Murthy, with Meghna Guhathakurta from Bangladesh, Sumathy Sivamohan from Sri Lanka and Essar Batool from Kashmir as speakers.

As always, we organised a number of events – our regular Critical Conversations at Oxford Bookstore which featured two lively discussions, one on sexualities and the other on writing from the Northeast. In collaboration with the Heinrich Boll Stiftung, we held a number of discussions on Partition in Delhi, at Jindal University Sonepat, in Kolkata (along with Peaceworks, a unit of Seagull Books) and Ahmedabad (along with Ahmedabad University). Cultures of Peace, our annual festival of the Northeast (also in collaboration with the Heinrich Boll Stiftung) made its way this year to Guwahati (where we partnered with the North East Writers Forum) and Bangalore, and in Delhi. A unique partnership was with EUNIC, the European Union Institutes of Culture, with whose help we brought over eight writers from Europe for a one day programme where they were in conversation with Indian writers. Cross Border Conversations, the programme, will now translate into a book. Our Young Zubaan programmes included discussions and workshops in schools, in bookshops (Full Circle Bookshop, one of our favourite places) and more.

And there’s much to look forward to in this year: we’ll soon be publishing a book that traces the lives of the mothers of Manipur, the women who staged a naked protest outside Kangla Fort in Imphal; a riveting and moving account of her life as a Transgender activist by A. Revathi, a book on the mass rape of women in Kunan Poshpora in Kashmir entitled Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?, a volume that traces questions of impunity, of speech and silence in relation to sexual violence, by V. Geetha, and our South Asian volumes edited by Uma Chakravarti, Meghna Guhathakurta, Seira Tamang, Mandira Sharma, Neelam Hussain, Laxmi Murthy and Urvashi Butalia.

We’re lucky to be working with a set of people on whom we can rely for quick turnarounds of our work – these are our typesetters and our printers, who just never say no to our demands and who do their very best to meet our deadlines.

All this put together helps us to survive. But more than ever before, for independents, breaking even, making a profit, however small, is an issue. In this last year, we reorganised ourselves a bit, to enable us to work towards being sustainable. We set up a company, owned by the senior staff at Zubaan, that took over all the publishing activity, leaving the projects to the Zubaan Trust, so creating a hybrid structure. As well, we set up a unit called Track Changes, that takes on consultancies, that offers self publishing, that does design and print jobs professionally, to earn some revenue for Zubaan. Track Changes has been making slow progress, and we’re hoping that very soon it will start generating good business that will help Zubaan to survive. And here again, we’d like to ask for your help: if you know of people who want things edited, who need readers’ reports on manuscripts, who need editorial feedback, or writing skills, or design and production, do please send them our way. We need to work towards making Zubaan sustainable and self supporting, and this is one way of doing this: we’re happy to produce books, reports, take on writing assignments, etc.

We continue to be inspired and moved by the books our writers offer to us, the books that we go out and find; women are writing so much more, they’re doing exciting, joyful, serious, funny and just stunning books. The tragedy though is, that while the books are lovely, it seems to become more and more difficult to sell them. Brick and mortar bookshops have been closing, ebook sales have not picked up enough, so to survive, one has to find new ways of getting the good word out. It’s here that we’ve been helped by our authors and our friends, who put out the word about new books and we want to thank you all for this and to ask for your continued support. Do please review our books, talk about them, tweet about them, and get the word out. For our part, we’ll continue to publish against the grain, and to put in whatever efforts we can to reach the books to you.

We have a whole new set of ideas about how to do this, but we’d also like to engage you, our readers, our authors, our friends, in the exercise of thinking where you would like Zubaan to go in the future, and we plan to come back to you with this question very soon. All ideas, radical and otherwise, are welcome.

So do write and tell us what you think, give us your ideas about how we should develop, change, adapt, and of course that most important thing, survive!


An Interview with Dr. Bhalla: The physicist-turned-Partition-archivist

You may have heard of a little project called The 1947 Partition Archive. It started about five years ago, with a tiny part-time team that put all their waking hours into it. Since then, it has exploded in popularity. It now has about 250,000 likes on Facebook and a team that spans the globe. The Archive’s mission is to interview the people who lived through Partition and record their stories — before the entire first-hand memory of the lived experience of Partition is gone.

Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla is the founder of this mammoth endeavour. I first meet her at a Zubaan event about Partition: The Long Shadow. I’m kind of bowled over by her whole existence; she is a physicist with a doctorate, who quit a plum job at Berkeley to start the Archive. She’s also incredibly unassuming and down to earth. The next morning, we meet at Café Turtle in Khan Market — an interesting space to be talking about Partition, given that it is named after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan — to embark on a long conversation about her life and work.

Dr. Bhalla grew up in and lives in the U.S., so I am curious about what brings her to Delhi. It turns out that she comes here three times a year for work. This time, she’s here because the Archive is moving into a new phase and formalising into a trust. She’s here to fundraise and get people on board.

However - surprise! - “I’m actually looking into moving here now and at least getting the Delhi part of our branch off the ground.” Whoa! How does she feel about that? “Well, you know, I was born in Delhi! I spent the first ten years of my life here. And I come here often enough so it doesn’t seem that foreign to me. But it’s changing a lot and every time I come it seems like a [different] country. It’s not the same place I left. The only thing is — I’m used to being completely independent in the U.S. That’s normal [for me], but in Delhi there are a lot of barriers to being that way. And you know you hear all these crazy stories about Delhi being so dangerous and this and that so — there’s that. But I’m actually excited about it.”

Dr. Guneeta Bhalla

Dr. Guneeta Bhalla

Her answer pretty much leads me straight my next question, about what it was like conducting Partition research as someone who doesn’t live in the Subcontinent. “The first interviews I ever conducted were in Faridkot, in Punjab, when I was visiting my family. And there I used to just switch into Punjabi mode — you know, were in the village, speaking Punjabi.” She thinks that the only difference between her and everyone else who had been listening to the same stories was that she, perhaps by virtue of being of the diaspora, of having been educated in the U.S., saw the value in recording the stories. “Maybe other people around me were not seeing [these stories] in the same way because maybe they were used to it.”

“I think also, as part of the diaspora, there’s always the identity issue. [Recording stories] was like reconnecting with my identity and understanding why things are the way they are now and how we ended up in the U.S. And it’s all related to Partition - why our families ended up over there.”

Her father’s family came from Lahore, and she has many stories from his side. I want to hear one, so she tells me: “The story goes that my grandfather didn’t want to leave Lahore. He thought all of this would blow over. All his friends had moved, had sold their properties. He so firmly believed that nothing would happen — it was his ancestral city, all our ancestors had lived there for who knows how many generations — that he stayed on till August 13, when his neighbour said that I’m taking your family (his sister, my grandmother, my dad and his siblings) to the other side because things are getting bad.” The neighbour in question, by the way, was Faiz Ahmed Faiz — Dr. Bhalla had always heard that her grandfather’s family lived next door to a poet, but she only recently found out who the poet actually was. The train her grandmother and her father were on turned out to be a military train, and the family saw many horrifying things on the way to India. They ended up in the Amritsar refugee camp, where her grandmother’s brother took them in. Dr. Bhalla remembers stories her grandmother told of going places in a Jeep and driving over dead bodies. She was flabbergasted to hear those stories — “[they] sounded completely crazy!” Meanwhile, in Lahore, the Pakistani military showed up at her grandfather’s residence on August 14. “They said this is now Pakistan, and you have to leave. So [my grandfather] called some trucks and filled them up with everything in the house and got ready to leave. But as he was leaving, [the military men] said all of this is now property of Pakistan and you have to leave on your own.” He begged them, Dr. Bhalla says, to let him keep a few things, and finally he was able to take some financial documents and an heirloom Guru Granth Sahib belonging to the family that was a few hundred years old. The family still has the blueprints of one of their two houses in Lahore, a house on Lake Road that has now been turned into a government building.

“My grandfather and grandmother were separated for a very long time — they didn’t know what had happened to my grandfather. Eventually they reunited in a refugee camp. My grandmother never really got over it. She had a lot of interesting habits later in life such as taking a few possessions with her wherever she went and being very possessive about them. They lost everything. They were very — I didn’t know this because I didn't grow up wealthy — but they were very wealthy and they lost everything during Partition… Resettlement was very challenging for them, and [my grandmother] never quite got used to this side.”

She’s going to Lahore next week, she tells me, for a “personal-slash-Archive visit”, for the very first time. She’s been asked to take the blueprints to whoever occupies the Lake Road building now, and to show them this pre-Partition memory. She sounds nervous yet anticipatory to visit her ancestral city. “I’m going to be visiting our family’s old house and seeing Lahore for the first time.”


What led her to start this project? Did she ever imagine it would take over her whole life?
This story, too, is about family. In 2010, her grandmother’s brother died. “I couldn’t sleep that whole week… It was just like a bout of madness — an intense and completely irrational desire to put everything aside and just do this without even looking at the future, making no plans.” Initially, she says, it was totally haphazard — the small team was just doing whatever it took to record as many people as possible. She couldn’t do it herself, of course, even though she worked every evening after her job and throughout the weekends — so people kept joining, and all of them had to be trained, and equipment had to be acquired for every member of the team. Cameras were borrowed, handed out, returned, and so on. “Our house turned into almost this weird little cafe, where all these people kept coming in to borrow all this equipment, and I was living with my partner at the time and he was just like what’s going on?!”

She had no intention of leaving her career as a physicist at all — but there was a moment when the project grew so big that a decision had to be made. In January 2013, Dr. Bhalla left her job and started managing the Archive full time. She volunteered at this for almost two years, living only on her savings. When her savings ran out, she says, it was one of the hardest periods in her life. “You don’t realise the insecurity that goes along with [not having money until you experience it].” The insecurity becomes a mindset that is hard to get out of.

Eventually, luckily, they got a couple of very generous donors in Silicon Valley who saw the value in their work and donated enough money for five salaries. That’s where the Archive is right now, but Dr. Bhalla wants to raise more money now and expand the scope of the project, and the team.

How did they find this funding? “It was completely crowdfunded — we would go to mosques, gurudwaras, mandirs [in the U.S.] and make announcements, ask for money… People whose interviews we recorded, some of them would just donate. We had this policy of not asking [interviewees] for money but a lot of them… ended up becoming our donors.” The donations they have gotten thus far have been largely unsolicited. They’ve only started their first major solicitation effort now. Yet people seem to want to donate. Funnily, “[t]he only reason we turned into a nonprofit/NGO is because somebody gave me a cheque and I didn’t know what to do with it. You know how much they gave me? It was… $194.70. And I said, what am I supposed to do with it? [The donors said] well, you should form an NGO and deposit it in the Bank.” For six months, the team held on to that check. They were a small group, they didn’t even have a name at that point. Then someone came up with the name 1947 Partition Archive, and they formally registered the organisation, and finally deposited that first donation.

This project is huge — in size and impact. No one has ever recorded the oral history of Partition on such a gigantic scale. Dr. Bhalla tells me that the Archive was inspired by a project that memorialized the trauma at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 by recording the survivors’ oral histories. There are also Holocaust museums around the world that do similar work. However, Partition — an event that is considered the largest mass migration in human history and shaped the Subcontinent as we know it today — has not been given that kind of attention — until now.


Dr. Bhalla thinks that being nurtured in Silicon Valley is really what gave the project the big push it needed. She had always told people about her long-standing desire to do this, but she never encountered the kind of excitement or interest that was really needed - even when she talked about it in India - until she went to Berkeley as a physics postdoc. “I was so obsessed with the idea I kept talking about it everywhere I went. I had just moved to California so I didn’t have any friends there yet. I just kept going to student clubs, and I started talking to people, and a lot of students were the ones who originally joined in.” The Archive, strangely enough, became part of a tech incubator. People were pretty confused, she says, about what to do with a nonprofit in a tech incubator because naturally they couldn’t accept venture capitalist money. Still, “it worked out well for us! Because we learned a lot of intersting ways of doing things that we would not have otherwise. We started out with just me, and we went to a team of sixteen people in that space.”

Berkeley was also the perfect place to start this project because it is one of the few universities in the world that has an Oral History Centre. The Archive team had a world of resources right at their doorstep, and that’s how physicist Dr. Bhalla ended up becoming well-versed in oral history. Her phsyics background, though, is not totally irrelevant to the Archive. “The thing with physics is that I’m trained to build efficient systems to gather data from nature. With the archive, I used the same mentality - this is going to sound cold and horrible,” she laughs, “ - to build a system to gather data efficiently from humans.” They also brought on board a lot of people who had different types of talent - in history, in the humanities. “But maybe it helps that I’m not from the humanities because I don’t have the same sort of ownership over the stories because I’m not doing research on them, I’m just gathering them and putting them out to the world.” She thinks that the fact that they are not actually collecting these stories for research makes the process a lot more efficient, and helps them accomplish their goal of archiving as many memories as they can as quickly as possible.


However, she does admit that the team struggles with not having enough time to think through everything - especially urgent ethical issues. “Putting [the stories] out to the world is a whole other story, and we realised quickly that that’s not something that we can take very lightly, and it has to be done very carefully…It’s something that requires skills and knowledge and understanding, and looking at pros and cons, understanding how the public will receive it. [We] just don’t want to cut any corners or do anything too quickly and make a mistake.” They’re trying to balance the desire to collect, collect, collect, as quickly as possible, with the need to pause and think. An aspect of this ethical struggle is representativeness and possible biases towards one’s own community. Initially - since Dr. Bhalla is Sikh and Indian - people were suspicious, thinking she would only gather Indian stories, or only Sikh stories. However, since they were careful to build a diverse team, people no longer have that suspicion, she says. But naturally, these things have to be thought about.

Another aspect is the ethics of collection. They were lucky to have the Oral History Centre, which helped them develop a methodology of collection. Again, the Archive team faces a struggle to balance the urgency of collecting the stories before they’re gone with the need to respect the people who are giving them their stories. I ask Dr. Bhalla about ownership. There’s a release form, which is in legal language, and story collectors also give interviewees a version in plain English or whichever language the interviewee speaks, and explain the contents. People have to wilfully sign over ownership of that particular recording to the Archive - and if they don’t, the Archive doesn’t collect that story. “In terms of ownership, they own their story forever. The only thing they are giving us ownership of is that particular recording… They also sign a form to donate their story to us. The form also says we can only do something educational with their stories as stated in our mission.” Laws in first-world countries like the U.S. and the U.K. are very strong, but similar laws don’t exist in India, and probably not in Pakistan or Bangladesh either, which Dr. Bhalla admits makes story collection much more difficult here.
They are now trying to work on a way to bring [interviewees] their digital files for free. “The files are way too big to just stick on a DVD or email - so we’re working on things like sending everyone their audio files for free. It’s a matter of resources…[earlier,] volunteers were putting in their own pocket money to do this for people until we just ran out. [We’re working on building] a better system to send people their recordings. It’s just that it’s happening so fast that a lot of these things are not happening in the way that they would if we were to sit down and do it properly. But we just don’t have the time; we’re trying to rush and focus on just recording. Which means that these things like sending people their recordings get left behind, and it does cause distress, we do realise that, but it’s not as bad as not recording their story at all. That’s how we’ve justified it. But we…realise we have the responsibility to work on that.”

Making the Archive sustainable as a nonprofit is also an ethical issue. What they do is, they ask for contributions from the individuals who want to use their stories for research, or for writing or filmmaking. For example, a human rights museum in Canada wanted to display some stories. The Archive requested that the licensing contribution be waived. Similarly, “We have authors and documentary filmmakers who are very interested - and if the authors are going to be making a profit - if they’re academic, it’s okay, they can use the stories - but if they’re going to be making a profit, a portion of their proceeds have to go back to fund the Archive. Because if they’re benefiting from these stories, if they’re making a profit, some of that profit has to go back into story collection. [Being a nonprofit means] fundamentally that whatever money comes in goes back into story collection, it never goes into our pockets. Our salaries are public information and they’re set in advance, and they’re actually poverty level, so none of us are getting rich or anything off of this.” She laughs. “And if anybody did make a lot of money it would never be us, it would always be the institution and then that institution would put that money back in the mission.” The nonprofit structure makes her more comfortable ethically with the work that the Archive is doing.

But how do they deal with making the trauma and the guilt of Partition stories public?
“Good question! So we actually haven’t made them public because we don’t know how. We’re forming a Task Force on how to institutionalise the memory of partition. These are the questions that will be answered by that group of people. We have a number of individuals are already on board from the U.S., and Urvashi [Butalia] from here. And we’re looking for more individuals.”

The little previews that they put up on their Facebook page, which is the only bit that goes public, “[is] created in collaboration with the interviewee. So the editor work[s] directly with the interviewee, and [goes] back and forth until they [are] happy with the clip. As a nonprofit we not only have the burden of doing that, but we also can do that - unlike a for-profit [where it] would be like we’re using too many resources.”

And how does the Archive balance perspectives of gender, caste, class and ethnicity? Partition played out very differently for different communities. Dr. Bhalla nods in agreement. That is certainly an issue they grapple with, especially considering that initially, the Archive only ended up collecting the stories of middle class and upper middle class people. That’s why, she says, they started their Story Scholars Program. “[These are] paid scholars who go out within their geographical and language regions to record stories, and they’re encouraged to record stories in every economic group. We have had stories come in from people who [are] tribal, or transgender. We’ve had stories come in from a lot of communities who are often underrepresented in the mainstream. And that was our way of trying to addressing this problems, to have paid scholars who went out to rural areas, to villages.”

Their goals? What do they want to do with the stories once they are collected?

“Our biggest goal is 10000 stories by 2017, which is the 70th anniversary [of Partition] and we are looking into devising some sort of public awareness campaign…while everybody’s alive we’re just focused on recording the stories. In the future the idea is to disseminate the stories, to engage the public - you know, what the Holocaust memorials do now. They have everything from K-12 education curricula, and…different projects, essay contests, tolerance education [to engage students]. This is just the beginning is how we see it. The first step…How do we bring the memory of partition to the world in a way that is educational?” They want the stories to have a positive effect on society, to prevent things like the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and 2002 in Gujarat, and also the recent Dadri lynching. “It’s almost like it’s become okay, and it’s become normal. And that’s not okay. Those things should not become the norm like they have. I hope this work will help guide hearts and minds in the right direction - and I think it can. We see that on our Facebook page every day. It’s amazing the interaction between Indians and Pakistanis that occurs.” Laughing, she says, “When I need inspiration, sometimes I go on our Facebook page and I’m like, yeah, we’re doing the right thing.”


It’s interesting - they have such a massive Facebook following, when the people who use Facebook are largely of an age demographic that is, in terms of generations, twice removed from Partition. What is it like having created a project that is about the fading memories of people who will be gone in a few years, but is also about the passion of younger people to record those memories? Their team, too, is very young. How do younger people, people of Dr. Bhalla’s generation, of my generation, relate to Partition? How do they contribute?

“What happened is - when I recorded stories, I found myself getting carried away. It was like watching a movie, except even more engaging. Because you really got carried away in this other person’s life.” And all of a sudden, she says, along with this, other things also happened in the process of hearing someone’s testimony. “There [is] this bond that [is created] with this [older] person, there [is] this incredible trust.” She says that she realised that young people in the old days used to experience this all the time with their grandparents, “but in our modern day and age, these interactions have become so non-existent that when we have them, we experience this sort of emotional transformation, and I felt more and more people my age needed this experience.” She told other people about these transformational experiences she was having. When they joined in the process of story collection, they experienced it and told other people about it. “It was such a beautiful way to connect with another human, to non judgmentally record their story; and both people come away transformed.”

She also finds the intergenerational heritage of Partition experiences among families displaced by Partition very interesting. In her and her team’s experiences of story collection, she says, the vast majority of people who lived through Partition did not harbor violent feelings towards other communities. They had bonds with members of other communities and did not consider them the Other. Of course, there was a lot of inter-community Partition violence. However, she says, this did not seem to lead to prejudices based on religion or community in that generation. And on the occasions that it did, “when we break it down, we find that the love is usually for people that they knew personally - and the hate is for - oh, the bad Hindus or the bad Muslims, just this group they don’t know.” She finds that the next generation, “our parents’ generation, didn’t experience the bonds with the Other. They only heard stories about the bad things the Other did. Because they didn’t experience the bond, they seem to harbour very strong communal feelings.” Finally, the young generation that is participating wholeheartedly in the project now is simply curious. “We seem to have a kind of curiosity - like what? Why do we hate them again?” In their interview process, they try to spend a lot of time on pre-Partition memory. They often see the surprise of family members listening to the interview - “I had no idea my grandmother had a Sikh friend. I had no idea that my grandfather’s best friend was a Muslim.”

I remember an ad I saw a few years ago, a Google ad. Another Silicon Valley connection. She knows what I’m referring to. This is an ad in which a young girl is talking to her grandfather in India, who recounts memories of living in what is now Pakistan, playing with his friend Yusuf whose father ran a halwai shop, from where they used to steal sweets. The girl later sits down at her computer, in order to - guess what - google “park with ancient gate in lahore”, which turns up the result, “Mochi Gate,” after which she googles “oldest sweet shop near Mochi gate.” She calls the number of Fazal Sweets near Mochi Darwaza, which is picked up by Yusuf’s grandson, who flies Yusuf to India. Cue the sniffles. Long digression, but it seems so relevant to me to think about how the internet makes such a project possible, is the perfect place for the curiosity of the third generation to find its answers. Of course, not all answers will be as delightful or easy to find as Fazal Sweets. Some answers will unearth terrible violence and trauma. But there is curiosity about the pain as well. Maybe that’s why the Partition Archive has taken off like it has on Facebook.

Dr. Bhalla sees this curiosity in her Story Scholars: “We have a digital meeting every month, and they’re very excited to meet each other across the border. I remember scholars in Pakistan wanted to see if they could come to India - they tried to get a visa but it didn’t work out. Even for me, I’m very curious, I wanna know what’s going on on the other side of the border.” And I find it interesting she says that - as someone who has collected all these stories, she still is curious about what is “going on on the other side”. The Internet can’t answer everything - there is something, some information, some felt experience, that cannot be conveyed, that still remains “on the other side”, and this curious generation feels its absence keenly.

But to say that this generation, this age, is totally removed from Partition, as though Partition was some event that happened and is now over, is also an act of erasure. Partition is still there, in the now. The fact is that Partition was what formed these three nations - Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. Whenever we identify ourselves as a citizen of any of these three nations, we reference and call upon the memory of Partition. And this is what I want to talk about next. Dr. Bhalla invokes these ideas when she says, “When you interview someone [and they talk about their pre-Partition life], they did not identify themselves as Pakistanis or Indians…Punjabis identified themselves as Punjabi, Bengalis as Bengalis. So the concept of India, the making of that identity, was a very conscious effort by the Nehru government. It didn’t just happen.”

And in the case of Bangladesh, this memory reverberated when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Indeed, this memory reverberated (for India) in 2002, in 1984, during the Dadri lynching. Are those events, I ask, experienced as a repetition of Partition?

“We first interviewed people who first survived the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942. They walked for a month [to get back home]… some of these people were Punjabis, some Bengalis - and some walked all the way to West Punjab. And then a few years later they experienced Partition - and then they experienced the wars, if they were living near the border - and then they experienced 1984. I met somebody who experienced four migrations and is now living in the U.S. - and he doesn’t even trust the U.S.’s seeming security and stability. He [says] no, this could fall apart any second.” She continues, “And that was really really interesting to me, because I had never fathomed it ever falling apart. I was always raised with such an illusion of security and I was like, that’s not going to happen! And he was like nope - everything you think is not going to happen will happen and can happen.”

ON TOPIC: Matriliny, Ishq, and solidarity / save the climate, save the world

A statement by women’s groups, students’ groups, progressive groups and individuals, on the eve of December 16:

If we turn to cases filed under the new amendments to the law against sexual assault that were passed in the wake of the movement in December 2012, the scene is dismal. Be it the women in Muzaffarnagar, Bhagana or Bastar, or the women employees of Tehelka or TERI, they all await justice.

The Wire comes out with a compelling article on domestic labourers in the city, and access to toilets.

"Anchita Ghatak, one of the founders of Parichiti (an NGO that works with domestic workers in Kolkata), believes that rather than having been rooted out, casteist ideas about purity and pollution have instead been ‘modernised’ into a more socially-acceptable discourse about class, literacy, and hygiene – a pattern which has been observed in other parts of India. Whereas employers may have once explicitly invoked caste in order to bar domestic workers from using the toilet (as well as from other parts of the house), today they are more likely to claim that their employees ‘do not know how’ to use toilets and are ‘too uneducated’ to learn."

There is finally a verdict for Suzette Jordan's rape case.

Eli Saslow's moving story in The Washington Post about the physical and emotional challenges mass shooting survivor, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, faces.

In this insightful piece, Surya P. Sethi talks about how the Paris Agreement is nothing more than a feel good statement that still doesn’t allow the bottom half of the world to achieve a certain level of development and tackle the impacts of climate change efficiently.

Have you seen Agents of Ishq yet? On the website of Parodevi Pictures’ new project to “give sex a good name,” Devdutt Pattanaik writes about the day his mother came home.

What ended Kerala's matrilineal society?

But as the scholar K. Saradamoni points out, "None of these theories appear to have taken note of the fact that matriliny offered an identity and security to women." Nair women always had the security of the homes they were born in throughout their lives and were not dependent on their husbands. Sexual freedom was also remarkable so that while polygamy was happily recognised in other parts of India, in Kerala women were allowed polyandry. Nair women could, if they wished, entertain more than one husband and, in the event of difficulties, were free to divorce without any social stigma. Widowhood was no catastrophic disaster and they were effectively at par with men when it came to sexual rights, with complete autonomy over their bodies.

What was the first sex question you asked Google? A lovely article on Medium explores the sex education '90s and '00s kids got through the internet.

On white debt: Eula Biss's article in the New York Times explores the debt white people owe to racism.

Once you’ve been living in a house for a while, you tend to begin to believe that it’s yours, even though you don’t own it yet. When those of us who are convinced of our own whiteness deny our debt, this may be an inevitable result of having lived for so long in a house bought on credit but never paid off. We ourselves have never owned slaves, we insist, and we never say the n-word. ‘‘It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill,’’ [Ta-Nehisi] Coates writes of Americans, ‘‘and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.’’

An article in The Atlantic investigates how slavery is still alive and well. "There are now twice as many people enslaved in the world as there were in the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade."

How did Balochistan become a part of Pakistan? Yogeena Veena uncovers the history of nation-building.

Two trailblazing scholars passed away this month: Fatima Mernissi and Benedict Anderson.

Women face trouble within and without homes; Chatura Rao (a Zubaan writer!) writes about abuse, women, and homelessness.

"The girls who come here,” Farida says, indicating with a tilt of her head, the women sitting in the porch, ”have quite some options. Urja [a shelter] helps you choose who you want to be. But many cling to the memory of that one love or marital relationship that went wrong, and refuse to move on. A man-woman relationship is just one aspect of a person’s life. More important is personal growth and developing an independent identity. Not as a woman in traditional roles, but as a human being."

"The idea that computers are for boys became a narrative." NPR writes on when women stopped coding.

In Chennai, Living Smile Vidya, a trans woman, has opened her home to other young transpeople.

In October, the same month when her biopic was released (can we pause for coolness), Vidya wrote at length about one of the hardest aspects of her life. Finding a house to live in. Landlords who say no outright, passive-aggressive ones, ones who hide behind ‘this is a decent neighbourhood’, greedy ones. Transpeople spend half their lives looking for a place to live, she wrote. It didn’t matter if you were well-known, accomplished, frequently seen as a treasure of the arts world. Landlords have a way of grinding you down to ‘unsuitable’.

A beautiful piece in Time Magazine on a possible shift in rape culture we are witnessing in the wake of #solidaritywithstoya:

What was astonishing was not the courage it doubtless took for Stoya to type those 55 words and hit send — knowing that she would be accused of lying and attention-seeking, knowing the number of people who would claim that as a sex worker, she cannot expect to claim rape and be believed. What was astonishing, though, what had my heart between my teeth, was the number of people who did the opposite. Even before more former partners and colleagues of Deen came forward with more accusations of rape and violence, major porn studios dropped him as a performer, and many outlets publishing his work and writing cut ties. The hashtag #solidaritywithsoya trended around the world.




Sunday was Delhi Queer Pride! Did you go?


Aanchal Tuli reports on a discussion about Fire, Deepa Mehta’s alternately celebrated and reviled movie:

“In a clip presented at the session, we were reminded of how posters were torn and theatres damaged by Shiv Sena activists, who thought the movie was against Bhartiya Sanskriti. During their session, the director remembered how she was told that there were 'no lesbians in India' and that she should be banned for introducing this 'western devil' in the country…we concluded that a film like Fire would never have seen the light of the day had it been made in 2015."


Paromita Vohra says some brilliant things about selfies, the gaze, and the multiple meanings of our actions.

“Recently, I got into a small debate online about whether men take more selfies or women do. Research based on data from Selfiecity indicated that women take more selfies. A more recent survey indicates men might have overtaken women…The question may be: why does it matter?…What is this anxiety rooted in?”


The Ladies Finger blessed us this week with this hilarious list of things to avoid saying as a dude in a feminist space: “As a feminist man I will acknowledge my privilege, like the PRIVILEGE of being surrounded by these pretty women.” (Who hasn’t heard some douchebag say this at least once?!)


On these online forums, Indians seeking maids can be classist, casteist, and generally disgusting with exceptional candour. “BookMyBai was in the news this month for their problematic ad saying, “Diamonds are useless. Gift your wife a maid.” Terrifyingly, that’s an ad for a product, not a service.”


On the intolerance debate:

  • Arundhati Roy says that intolerance is not an accurate description for the violence visited upon minorities in India, and argues that the current government promotes Brahmanism. The ABVP takes offence, calling her words anti-national, anti-Indian-Army, and pro-Pakistan.
  • Ratna Kapur in The Wire argues that tolerance in an inadequate concept: “Tolerance operates as a gatekeeper, policing the boundaries and drawing a line between those we like and those we do not like. It does not offer any vision of transformation and becomes a substitute for justice.”


Arundhati Roy, John Cusack, Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg talk about the rise of the surveillance state:

“I was glad to see that when Snowden made his debut on Twitter…he said, “I used to work for the government. Now I work for the public.” Implicit in that sentence is the belief that the government does not work for the public. That’s the beginning of a subversive and inconvenient conversation. By “the government”, of course, he means the US government, his former employer. But who does he mean by “the public”? The US public? Which part of the US public? He’ll have to decide as he goes along. In democracies, the line between an elected government and “the public” is never all that clear. The elite is usually fused with the government pretty seamlessly. Viewed from an international perspective, if there really is such a thing as “the US public”, it’s a very privileged public indeed. The only “public” I know is a maddeningly tricky labyrinth.”


Why science fiction matters to the postcolony:

“But Dune is more than a direct allegory for the tragic unfolding of history. It recasts the Middle East and North Africa and its peoples into a new, and perhaps truer, image of themselves; an image that can only be appreciated through the experience of reading. Yes, events have not unfolded as triumphantly [for MENA] as they do for the Fremen. But the literature of science fiction and fantasy expresses the irrationality with which the real world violently comes into being. It draws out the metaphors with which reality is made.”


Katha Pollitt’s take on the shooting at a women’s health clinic in Colorado - “Abortion opponents are at the forefront of a wider effort to punish poor women and attack social services.”


Jason Hickel says, enough of aid - let’s talk reparations for colonialism.

“It is tempting to see [colonialism] as just a list of crimes, but it is much more than that. These snippets hint at the contours of a world economic system that was designed over hundreds of years to enrich a small portion of humanity at the expense of the vast majority…This history makes the narrative of international development seem a bit absurd, and even outright false. Frankie Boyle got it right: “Even our charity is essentially patronising. Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself. Alternatively, don’t poison the fishing waters, abduct his great-grandparents into slavery, then turn up 400 years later on your gap year talking a lot of shite about fish.”


In the wake of the death of Laquan McDonald at the hands of yet another police officer, Black Americans stage an economic boycott of Black Friday, the U.S.’s annual post-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza, vowing to give #NotOneDime to the capitalist state.


In her new video 'Borders', M.I.A. fuses biography with art and politics to create compelling commentary on refugees - commentary not prompted by the current European 'crisis', but by the invisibility of other, past, forgotten 'crises'. Sinthujan Varatharajah writes:
"As a Tamil woman and refugee, M.I.A. has been subject to racist and sexist discourses on refugees before they became public grounds of debate. She today applies these tropes as a political strategy to subvert mainstream conceptions on refugees, borders and security regimes. Shorthanded accusations of exploitation made by some, specifically people of color with no refugee background, divorce her from the tremendous work she has done for her own refugee community - and beyond to support refugee advocacy over years. MIA has always articulated her art and politics from the position of a former refugee, a position not many of her critics can claim for themselves. Her "refugee-dom" has always been paramount to her career and has been reflected in her multimedia art long before her most recent video. It was never a trend or bandwagon she jumped upon, but one that was created and picked upon by others: non-refugees."


Fatima Bhutto in Granta writes about the pleasure and the labour of the kitchen - her “other thing”, when she’s not writing:

“I love to cook. It’s joyous. I love the creating and the sharing. I think of how it connects mood and sentiment, occasion and celebration. But cooking has always been a luxury to me, all indulgence and praise. I never worked seriously on it, never so thanklessly. No one who comes into the Delaunay, or any other restaurant for breakfast, however well-meaning, thinks to thank the tourier. No compliments are sent to the chef, who has given up his night and also his day, when he returns home to sleep through the afternoon.”


PS: Join us for this Saturday for a day of conversations between European and Indian women writers! Curated by Zubaan with support from EUNIC India, this event will feature, amongst others, Annie Zaidi, Paromita Vohra, Bee Rowlatt, Espido Freire, Mrinal Pande. What else are you doing with your Saturday anyway?

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