20 February 2010

Bhanu Athaiya Interview

‘Before My Designs for Waqt, Women Wore Dumpy Salwars’

Bhanu Athaiya, 83, was born Bhanumati Annasaheb Rajopadhye in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, the third of seven children. After graduating from the JJ School of Art, she found her niche as a costume designer in Hindi cinema, and has never looked back, winning India’s first Oscar in 1982 for her costumes in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. She spoke to TRISHA GUPTA on the eve of launching her memoir, The Art of Costume Design, describing her five decades in the Mumbai film industry. Excerpts:

How did you end up working as a costume designer in Mumbai films?
I had a two-page spread in the popular magazine Eve’s Weekly where my brief was to draw inspiration from Indian heritage. My fashion illustrations were noted by directors and film stars. They asked my editor to set up a boutique, where I started to design dresses. That boutique was visited by everyone from Kamini Kaushal and Nargis to Ramanand Sagar. It was Kamini Kaushal who gave me my first assignment. I started by designing her personal wardrobe, and soon went on to design her costumes in films like Shahenshah and Chalis Baba Aur Ek Chor

How did you meet Guru Dutt?
Guru Dutt’s sister was studying with me in JJ School. My illustrations had made me famous. I had also presented my paintings at the Kala Ghoda Artists’ Centre alongside MF Husain and Krishen Khanna. Guru Dutt asked me to design costumes for CID.

How did costume design in cinema work when you started?

The director had a clear idea of what he wanted, and the art director and he would brief the tailors. Actors would also join in. I became a bridge between director and actor.

Who were the directors you particularly enjoyed working with?
Guru Dutt had the sensitivity to do what was needed. Like during Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, he felt I should make a trip to Calcutta. So I visited the old mansions, and met people, and shopped. The films I did for Guru Dutt were based on reality. Raj Kapoor, in contrast, demanded something unique. One had to be more creative: Satyam Shivam Sundaram, the Prem Rog dream sequence, which was an Arabian Nights fantasy. Or Henna’s Pakistani gypsy. Hindi cinema makes all kinds of demands. Songs, dream sequences, rain sequences — all these give scope to a costume designer.

Any clothes or ‘look’ that you created that became particularly popular?
Waqt (1965) brought in the form-fitting salwar kameez and made it the rage. Before that, women had been wearing broad kurtas and dumpy salwars. Then Mumtaz’s sari in Brahmachari (1968) — the orange stitched sari that was wound round her body so that every twist revealed something — that was copied even by designers. In Nikaah, I gave the nawabi look a contemporary spin, focussing not on embroidery but on Hyderabadi pearl jewellery.

Has Hindi cinema’s approach to costume design changed?
The costume designer should design the whole look of a film. Like in Lagaan, I created the costumes across the board, from the villagers to the British elite. In the Oscars, that is a rule – that all costumes must have been designed by one person. But in most films here, even to - day, actors’ clothes are taken care of by costume designers and someone else fills the gaps. Stars come and say, ‘Get my dresses designed by so-and-so’. The 1980s brought in a lot of fashion designers into cinema. But designing for a star and designing for a character – that is a different cup of tea.

16 February 2010

The Quiet Riot: Dibakar Banerjee profile

The middle class loves Dibakar Banerjee’s films. If only they knew that this is unrequited passion.

The first thing Richa Puranesh, Dibakar Banerjee’s wife of eleven years, remembers about him is his introductory line: “Hi, I’m Dibakar. I’m going to make films.” They were both in advertising then, and Richa remembers saying, “Right. Television commercials…?” To which Dibakar responded, with an air both casually explanatory and utterly certain, “No, films. The kind that Satyajit Ray makes.” Sitting in his 18th floor Parel apartment some fifteen years later, Dibakar Banerjee, highly-feted director of two of the most layered, thoughtful Hindi films of the last decade, Khosla ka Ghosla (2006) and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), laughs an embarrassed laugh.

It is tempting, especially when you know what happens in the end, to create an epic back- story. But Dibakar Banerjee is not the man to take the easy way out in any narrative, least of all an autobiographical one. He denies emphatically the self-confidence of that anecdote. “It sounds very glamorous, very determined. But nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. In a recent blog post, he has bluntly refused the romance of the struggle: “No one had it easier than me… I didn’t sleep on the platforms in Bombay, didn’t cart around my dog-eared script to various stars fresh out of make up in Juhu. I didn’t even call a producer. All I had were some silly ideas and a lot of arrogance...”

Dibakar’s story does start out quietly: a bright Bengali boy growing up in Delhi’s New Rohtak Road. It was an insular upbringing, in the way that a Bengali middle class upbringing can be, especially when your classmates are the North Indian children of West Delhi businessmen. The rest of the world is money-minded (“don’t play with them”), you’re told, while being drilled in what writer Amitav Ghosh once called “the jungle-craft of gentility”: the barely-hidden hysteria about academic success. Because “it would take just a couple of failed examinations” to end up over there, on the street. Dibakar was the model child: he topped his class, he won interschool quizzes, he learnt the tabla. But things didn’t stay smooth long. “In Class XI, his principal called me and said, Mr. Banerjee, Dibakar has failed in all subjects!” The stunned father swiftly put his son through a rigorous tuition routine, and Dibakar managed a 74% in Class XII. He also signed up for Agarwal Tuitions for the joint engineering entrance examinations and trotted off, several mornings after his Boards, to take the tests.

But secretly, he had applied to study Visual Communication at the National Institute of Design (NID), and once he made it, managed to persuade his befuddled parents to let him go. It was a few days after Dibakar had left for Ahmedabad that the engineering entrance results arrived. A friend happened to call his mother, who expressed her puzzlement that her son had gone off to this strange design thing when he’d got an A in every entrance test. “Aunty, A ka matlab hai absent,” the friend said, laughing. Dibakar hadn’t attended a single exam.

“He said nothing, but always did exactly what he wanted,” says his mother. She laughs now about finding an NID entrance form that asked: “Do you obey your parents?” and Dibakar’s response, in big bold letters: “NO”. But neither she, nor his father, were amused when, two and half years after having insisted on going there, Dibakar dropped out of NID. “My parents were pretty shocked. In achiever Bengali families, you do academically well. You don’t get chucked out and come back home,” says Dibakar wryly. His father somewhat shamefacedly admits to taunting his son as he sat around at their Ashok Vihar home, silent and bespectacled, seeming to do absolutely nothing: Since he was so clever, since he’d decided that he had nothing left to learn, what was he going to become: a Rabindranath or a Satyajit?

It took seven months before Dibakar found a job, as a trainee with a corporate film and AV maker called Sam Mathew. “Within one year, he was drawing 20,000 rupees,” says his father. Dibakar became first a copywriter, then a Creative Group Head for Contract Delhi, a subsidiary of ad major JW Thompson. It was at this time, around 1992, that he met Jaideep Sahni. Jaideep was brought in as the head of a competitor group, but Dibakar and he hit it off from day one, brainstorming on campaigns “across the partition”, physical and metaphorical. “We soon formed a firm alliance against the rest of the world,” laughs Dibakar. In 1997, both left the company, within months of each other. Dibakar started an ad film company called Watermark with two ex-NID friends, while Jaideep moved to Mumbai to work with Ram Gopal Varma on the script of Pyar Tune Kya Kiya, Jungle and later Company. “I used to miss him a lot. I’d call and say ki tu hamare saath aake kaam kyon nahi karta yaar?,” says Dibakar.

What happened eventually was the opposite. In 2002, Jaideep, ostensibly fresh from the success of Company but in fact increasingly unsure about whether the industry would ever allow him to write the kind of films he wanted to, called Dibakar. Savita Raj of Tandav Films, “essentially a Delhi-based ad agency”, wanted to produce a film about generation gap. Would he direct? Dibakar jumped at it, but it took four years of hard work and harder waiting (the grilling, tightly-budgeted, 45-day shoot was the easy part) before Khosla ka Ghosla saw the light of day. UTV finally decided they’d take it – on a second viewing that Boman Irani might have had something to do with – and from there on, things were smooth sailing. UTV even decided to co-produce Dibakar’s next project, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!

People who’ve watched both Dibakar’s films are often at a loss to reconcile them. Khosla’s deep identification with a middle class, with being “decent people”, seems irrevocably at odds with Oye Lucky’s merciless indictment of the hypocrisy of that very class. Dibakar himself is clear-eyed about what each film is doing. “The only thing patently false about Khosla is its climax – but that’s what also made it the darling of the middle class,” he says carefully. He describes an alternative ending, where the Khoslas, having failed to get back their plot from the swindling Khurana, join their son Cherry in the US visa queue. Jaideep remembers being “extremely attracted” to that ending, but ultimately persuaded Dibakar that no one was going to come and watch a film which didn’t give them something to hold on to.

The ‘born-again Hrishikesh Mukherjee’ tag is something Dibakar threw off with Oye Lucky, where a thief is betrayed by a respectable, smooth-talking doctor. He takes savage delight in having subverted the attempt to slot him as a clean, family entertainment sort of guy. “You’re a good filmmaker, you stay in the multiplex where good audiences with good taste come. The rabble can watch the Bollywood extravaganzas,” he says in a cutting imitation of our arbiters of taste. It’s clear that Oye Lucky’s darkly comic vein runs much deeper than the gentle laughter of Khosla. “He used to write Bengali verse, chhora. It was funny, but always satirical,” says his sister Mallika, eight years older. She recalls a poem he wrote as a ten-year-old about a zamindar whom no food can satisfy. The poem ended with the chilling phrase, “Shob theke bhalo khete goriber rokto” (What’s most delicious is the blood of the poor). [Dibakar later corrects this fond sisterly account, saying the line wasn't one he wrote himself but one he took from a renowned Bengali poet.]

It comes as no surprise to see that acerbic gaze directed at his own audience. “I know that many who like Oye Lucky actually laugh at the characters, not with them,” says Dibakar sharply. He himself may have an OSIAN’s audience in splits with his rendering of a Delhi Jat accent versus a Meerut accent, but as Richa Chadda (Dolly in Oye Lucky) puts it, “his characters never come from a space of mimicry.” Everyone has a context, a reason for being. The foul-mouthed Dolly who dances for a living but keeps a Tuesday vrat is as searingly observed as her sister Sonal, who won’t touch stolen money (or Dolly when she’s drunk), but quietly accepts her burglar boyfriend’s gifts.

Dibakar’s vivid eye and ear for worlds beyond his own owe much to the Bengali childhood mentioned earlier. It may have been insular in some ways, but it was also richly eclectic, immersed in a post-Nehruvian cultural universe. His mother, a municipal school music teacher and Hindustani vocalist, turned on Vividh Bharati’s Lok Sangeet every afternoon (planting the seed of Oye Lucky’s stunning folk music track, for which Dibakar wrote magnificent lyrics in Punjabi). Daily family music sessions embraced everything from Rabindrasangeet and classical to folk and film songs. The same omnivorousness extended to films (everything on Doordarshan, from Aan Milo Sajna to Jean Cocteau) and books: devouring the Hindi Champak and Nandan alongside the Bengali Shuktara and the racy pulp his grandmother borrowed from Bangiya Sansad Library. At fourteen, he made a storyboard of Bibhutibhushan’s adventure classic Chander Pahar (Mountain of the Moon) – in English translation. Dibakar remembers the linguistic shift to English as propelled by a quest for “higher knowledge”: looking up Brahms and calculus in the school library’s Encyclopaedia Brittanica. NID opened up a world “five times as big”, introducing him to rock and blues, history and anthropology, American Cinematographer, Bladerunner and Istvan Szabo. By the time Jaideep Sahni met him, “Dibakar had seen every film ever made.”

For someone so rooted in place and time, Dibakar is surprisingly unwistful about his move to Mumbai. “Delhi is about communities, stereotypes, mentalities. Bombay is about work, money, living spaces: pure lebensraum. It has an urban politic I’m excited by. And in any case, Delhi is a depressing place for a filmmaker to be.” As always, Dibakar’s grasp of the essentials is acute, unsentimental. He is matter-of-fact even about being nostalgic. “My kind of filmmaking depends on local detail to intensify the drama. Though if you psycho-analyse me, you might find I make films to capture what is gone,” he muses. He wants to make the films he does, but he doesn’t want to lose money on them. So he plans his budgets and runs an office that makes ad films on the side. And just when you think you’ve pinned him to down to a genre or locale, he ups and moves on to something else.

The edgy, digitally shot, Love Sex aur Dhokha, to be released this March, promises a raw, unapologetic take on love in the time of the media. LSD’s three interwoven tales, involving a suicidal sting journalist, a security camera company executive and a film institute student, reveal a world where desire is no longer pure or intimate, tinged as it is with exhibitionism on the one hand and voyeurism on the other. And yet these are love stories. Like the man – and unlike so many of his cool contemporaries – his films manage to be both riotous and thoughtful. As always with Dibakar Banerjee, cynicism is layered generously with humour, the humour layered with love, and so on until the circuit closes. One wouldn’t have it any other way.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 07, Dated February 20, 2010

7 February 2010

Textures of time: Book Review

If it is Sweet
By Mridula Koshy
Tranquebar Press, New Delhi, 2009, 283 pp., Rs 295

Mridula Koshy’s narrative style is not easy to enter into, because her stories don’t necessarily move forward. Like the characters whose internal lives she chooses to map, they move two steps ahead, then take a quick sidestep into an imagined parallel reality, only to loop back without warning and begin to retrace their journeys – sometimes returning to the same place several times before reluctantly, slowly, letting go. Memory, as you can imagine then, is crucial to Koshy’s characters. No-one lives entirely in the here-and-now. Adults remember themselves as children; children remember parents before they were old; migrants, both young and old, long for the places they have left behind. But this is no nostalgic book. The past here is not something soft and warm, in which one can seek refuge. If anything, the dark swirls of memory constantly threaten to rupture the skin of surface calm that people seek to lay over the present.

Even memories of a shared time can divide people. We remember things differently. Often because we experienced them differently – but sometimes simply because we want to. In ‘When the Child was a Child’, the grown-up Emma clings to her childhood memories of “the year they ate fish every night”, trotting out details of rice and fish curry and yogurt in the face of her mother’s insistence that “they were too poor to cook like that very often”. “Emma… won’t allow corrections. She murmurs her memories the better to savour them alone.”

In ‘Once in 1982’, memory is blinding, like the jasmine bush that the five-year-old Maya once conjured up as a “sun” for her elder brother. For the brother, the vividness of that remembered childhood comes interlaced with a bumbling realization of how the years that have passed have passed between them, reversing the hierarchy of elder and younger, leader and led. “He is surprised at his sister. When did she start thinking of him like this – as a problem for her to solve. He feels a faint sense of outrage. ‘I was with her till the end, Maya. That’s not living in the past. Daddy has not been here in five years. I was all she had. I was living with her here. Not in the past. Here.’ ” (All Maya says in response is ‘Grow up’.)

In ‘Jane Eyre’, too, disparate routes to the present drive a wedge between people who have shared a past. The woman who returns to India after years spent abroad is full of unvoiced resentment about the adjustments she has had to make to become the person she now is, wondering continuously if even today “there isn’t, herself still living, having continued with the life she imagines she would live – a girl, a bride, a woman, a wife, a daughter-in-law, a mother of neither winter nor summer, a mother of a pig-tailed, red-ribboned girl, or two, or three”. Grudgingly, she acknowledges that her “friends from the past” have also had to adapt to “lifestyles unlike anything she and they imagined in the pre-infotech era that was the landscape of their childhood.” But the resentment is quick to resurface: “they switched from one life to another as a group. In their possession is a collectively re-imagined and collectively re-endorsed life. They, she argues, have the comfort of having done it together. I was forced to go it alone.”

Koshy is adept at delineating the contours of female friendships: the swinging between immeasurable generosity and petty jealousy, the power wielded over one another’s lives by the single cutting remark, the back-handed compliment. We can only laugh and cry simultaneously at the petulance of the upper middle class Suroma (in ‘Stray Blades of Grass’) who revels in – but will not acknowledge her desire for – the company of the obliging Renu, the presswali’s daughter, or the less subtle machinations of the protagonist’s friend Chinky (in ‘Not Known’): “When Kalyani’s sister got married, Chinky said we have to wear saris to the wedding. I said, ‘All right, but I don’t have a good sari.’ She said, ‘No problem. You can borrow mine.’ Then she saw me wear it one day when we were just trying on clothes to see how we would look for the wedding. She realized how good I look and said, ‘You shouldn’t wear a black sari. You look exactly like a witch.’… After Chinky took the sari back, she said we can wear jeans for the wedding. I knew what she was doing but still I agreed… Then when I reached there she was wearing the same dark blue net sari I was going to wear. But I didn’t care.” She captures perfectly, too, the texture of time spent in girlish pursuits of the non-consuming variety. Story after story (‘The Large Girl’, ‘Intimations of a Greater Truth’) conjures up the dreamy, half-realized sense of eroticism so crucial to adolescent afternoons, where nothing really happens but everything seems strangely possible. That below-the-surfaceness seems part of the sexual frisson of a different time, a time irremediably distant from the bombardment by consumable, in-your-face sexiness that we live with now. But Koshy manages to make both seem believably contemporary, to make worlds co-exist.

And this, when she succeeds, would seem to be her greatest achievement. The piece that sets out to achieve this goal most consciously is ‘Jeans’, an ensemble of monologues or dialogues in the voices of different characters – a girl fretting because she’s left a pair of beloved jeans behind in an auto (“Those jeans made me look tall. The trick is you have to be willing to wear tight jeans. Tighter than tight. And low. That makes you tall, no matter how short you start out.”); a woman whose husband has got rid of her jeans because they reveal the contours of her body too much for (his) comfort (“You should see yourself from the back. Each of your behinds is separate and your underwear cuts each one into half again… Your behind jiggles in four different sections. Disgusting!”); a young man initiating a friend into the pleasures of the city (“You’ve seen the melons on the movie heroines… I got a big surprise for you in the city. The city sisters, you se, they wear these pants – jeans… You get to see a whole second set of melons.’) If the collection is taken as coming together to create a portrait of Delhi, then there are class juxtapositions aplenty: the obviously well-connected wealthy Delhi family of ‘Once in 1982’, its sprawling Tilak Road bungalow and overgrown garden sharply reminiscent of the musty melancholia of Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, is as far apart as possible, socially and spatially, from the overcrowded, stuffy, privacy-starved Ali Gaanv houses of ‘POP’, where the terrace is fought over as a place to sleep. Here one world seems not to intrude on the other. There are other stories where Koshy attempts to etch more intimate cross-class relationships, with varying degrees of success. The premise of a Panchsheel Enclave inhabited equally by the koodawalla and the elderly gentleman possessively watching his maid’s flirtations is an interesting one, but the voice of the old man never quite persuades us of the powerful emotion his words describe. On the other hand, in ‘The Large Girl’, a surefooted, moving account of the protagonist’s relationship with an old schoolmate called Janet, class is the placeholder for a lasting bitterness, a sense of disjuncture: “How can you understand me?” [says Janet] “You are the little Miss Richie Rich who ignored me all through school.”

Koshy’s language is fine-grained and draws its beauty from the unexpected juxtaposition of images: “Now her pregnant beauty startles him like the fish that rustle and slip past his shins in the flooded fields of paddy he bends over to seed”. Her ability to look at the world through the eyes of children is remarkable, whether it is in the accuracy of responses (“When Renu’s father accuses the malis of “sleeping the day away”, what we hear next is “Renu could not imagine anyone ever willingly sleeping during the day”) or the acuteness of sensations – smells and sounds and feelings – when one is younger. Sometimes, though, the preoccupation with detail becomes excessive, as in the case of ‘Same Day’, with its repetitive description of the internal life of the body/mind: “It’s as if he has been anxious about something, maybe her, maybe the questions of whether he would see her again. He isn’t sure what he’s been anxious about since he doesn’t actually remember feeling that when dissipated should allow him to feel such relief. But the relief is certain, even visceral, more than a mere lightening of his spirit, or the lifting of a burden. Yes, he feels as if he could float, as if a burden has been lifted. But even more strongly he feels light flooding recesses of darkness in him, recesses that he had not known were dark or he had even known were there. It seems to him that if he were to unbutton his shirt and peer down at his belly he would see through the skin to his entrails which, just at present, feel as if they are shivering themselves awake from a long sleep. And now he names the recesses one by one – Charu and ChukChuk, the old school building, the chink of yellow under the door somewhere (where?), the feel of the earth in the evening releasing stored heat, the feel of the earth against his cheek, the feel of the footpath releasing heat which isn’t the same thing as the feel of the earth…”. The tale, such as it is, is lost in the elliptical-ness of the telling. Koshy’s writing is barely invested in plot in any case, so if you’re looking for resolutions or pay-offs, you’re bound to be disappointed. These stories are really all about atmosphere. They do not so much begin and end as they carefully trace the contours of a chosen terrain. If you’re looking to linger – rather than reach anywhere in particular – then these are perfect reading.

Published in BIBLIO, VOL. XIV NOS. 11 & 12, NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2009

Don’t Just Say Cheese!: The festival of France in India, 2010

A huge new festival is changing our perception of French culture as something inaccessible.

IT’S A regular Sunday outside Select Citiwalk, one of the malls that form a buffer between the South Delhi neighbourhood of Saket and the older urban villages of Khirkee and Hauz Rani across the road. There’s the usual mix of people: serious shoppers, given away by their purposeful stride; moviegoers rushing for the evening show; the majority simply shooting the breeze. Suddenly, everyone stops short at the sight of a herd of giraffes, their crenellated crimson necks moving gently up and down to the discordant, otherworldly music, like creatures from some surreal forest. The crowd gathers in hushed anticipation, pointing out to their children the stiltwalkers inside the fabric limbs. Mobile phone cameras whirr and click as the woman in white fur begins to sing. First come the unfamiliar French lyrics in a tremulous operatic voice. Then, amid a shower of red confetti, come the familiar Hindi words, “Par ab yeh mera jeevan sathi hai…” (But now he is my life partner…).

The crowd is spellbound. “Is this an Indian company?” asks the lady next to me. When told they’re French, she seems both thrilled and disbelieving. Her reaction is one echoed by many viewers at Bonjour India events in 18 Indian cities since December 2009. “I went expecting sobriety, sophistication. That was my notion of French culture. But Dobet Gnahoré had the audience dancing in the aisles, singing along to lyrics they didn’t understand,” says a delighted Radhika Puri, who attended a concert by the 24- year-old Paris-based singersongwriter, originally from the Ivory Coast. “Gnahoré is part of the new vision of France that the festival represents — a France that goes beyond cheese and wine,” says a spokesperson from the French Embassy, which is organising Bonjour India along with Teamwork Productions. Jérôme Bonnafont, French ambassador to India, concurs: “We decided to focus not on the classical France that people are used to, but a France of diversity and youth, along with glimpses of France’s links with India.”

So Indian audiences “used to classical dance” were treated to the stunning hip hop acrobatics of Wasteland–Compagnie Käfig. If we saw early 20th century images of princely and plebian India from the Albert Kahn Collection, we also had three shows from the cutting edge of contemporary photographic practice: Yann Arthus- Bertrand’s astonishing aerial views of everything from tilapia fish nests in Gabon to Gujarati fabrics drying in the sun; the arresting, surreal images of Bernard Faucon; and Olivier Culmann’s affecting portraits of television viewers hypnotised by their screens. “In Morocco, it was difficult. People insisted on giving me the place in front of the TV, as the guest,” says Culmann. “In India, access was easy. In Kochi, I knocked on people’s doors when I heard the television from inside, and asked to photograph them. Many agreed. I was surprised at how easily people forgot me in their own drawing rooms.”

The India connection forms a running thread through the festival. There was an 1852 French opera (If I Were King), but with the crucial inclusion of Indian dancers and musicians. Jean Francois Lesage’s consummate reproductions of classic French embroidery panels were exhibited alongside demonstrations by his Madras-based embroiderers. Lesage, who comes from a French line of embroiderers dating back to 1868, set up the Maison Lesage in Madras in 1993 after finding a community of craftsmen in Sriperumbudur. But our textiles, of course, have a long historical connection with Europe. “Old French castles would have a kalamkari from Masulipatam,” Lesage says. Like Lesage, the Bonjour India festival is reviving old links while creating new ones.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 06, Dated February 13, 2010

Travelling Light

GEOFF DYER, 51, has made a career of wry, elegant transitions between places and subjects, says TRISHA GUPTA

GEOFF DYER is the sort of man one instantly thinks of not as lean but as lanky. He is all arms and legs, a physical awkwardness that seems entirely in sync with the deadpan expression. Reading from his recent novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009), Dyer remained poker-faced as the Jaipur audience roared with laughter at his (or rather, Jeff’s) existential encounter with a monkey in Varanasi, or his lifeand- death battle with the man in the ATM queue. It’s never clear, in writing or in life, whether Dyer is being entirely serious — or entirely not. The monkey episode, for instance, while side-splittingly funny, allows for a revealing segue into the lack of a boundary between men and animals in Varanasi. “English kids have cuddly toy bears, or go to zoos, and as John Berger writes, animals in zoos are monuments to their own near-extinction,” says Dyer. “Real animals [in the West] are seen as dirty, unhealthy. So a city shared between animals and humans seems to me fantastic, unusual — and a bit revolting.”

Dyer’s sharp-eyed observations on Varanasi bear out one of his pet theories: that one needn’t understand everything about a place to write about it. But unlike DH Lawrence — his hero, who was once described as writing only about the state of his own soul — Dyer insists that place “has been overwhelmingly important” to him. 1980s Brixton was where he began to see himself as a writer, and set his first novel, (The Colour of Money, 1989) while Out of Sheer Rage (1997) travels to all sorts of places in Lawrence’s footsteps. Dyer has been peripatetic in other ways too, moving from literary criticism to fiction to writing about jazz (But Beautiful, 1991). Recently he’s been writing on photography (The Ongoing Moment, 2005), which he calls a town he is tempted “to stay put in”.

'No, not everyone in Bangladesh is a drug addict!'

SHAZIA OMAR’s first novel, Like a Diamond in the Sky, was published by Zubaan in August 2008. She spoke to TRISHA GUPTA about drugs, being Bangladeshi and the English literary scene in Dhaka.

Your first book is about heroin junkies in Dhaka. Why did you choose the subject?
A group of my friends in Bangladesh are recovering addicts. They’re beautiful people, but they have such dark pasts, and they’ve had such a struggle to get where they are. There’s a growing problem of drugs in Bangladesh, cutting across all classes – depending on what you can afford. But nobody talks about it: even in elite society, good schools, it’s completely taboo. Parents don’t recognize signs or know how to deal with addicts. I grew up in Canada where we had drug awareness classes from Grade 4! So I wanted two things: to share the story of the struggle that my friends had been through, and for people to start talking, to know more about what an addiction is: how you prevent it, how you get out of it.

How do you see your relationship to Bangladesh? Since there are so few novels in English coming out of Bangladesh, do you feel that you’re pushed to represent the country to the outside world?
After Canada, I spent the last two years of high school in Bangladesh, before going to the US for college. Then I worked in New York and London before going back to Bangladesh four years ago. I hope people aren’t going to think that this is the entirety of Bangladesh after reading one novel. I’ve been told that I haven’t been given a fair representation to Bangladesh – and no, not everyone in Bangladesh is a drug addict! But that’s the world I tapped into in this novel.
I personally do feel a certain sense of responsibility, although I don’t think writers have to. I think being both an outsider and an insider is a good thing: the window I gave my readers in this novel is an insider’s perspective that even most people in Bangladesh don’t have access to. On the other hand, having lived abroad, I question a lot of things that maybe people who live there have become desensitized to: like poverty on the streets and the question of whether things have to be this way.

What kind of research did the book involve?

I did my masters’ in Social Psychology in London, and I worked on representations of happiness amongst ultra-poor women. I spent a month in Bangladesh, understanding what they believe happiness to be and what their different sources of happiness were.. That led to the character of Falani, the dealer in the basti. She’s the only happy character in the novel – and that’s because of faith. I also spent two months in a rehabiliation centre in Bombay – that was earlier, when I was exploring whether I wanted to pursue that as a career.

What’s the English writing scene like in Bangladesh?

It’s starting out. It’s very fresh. Nothing like India, or even Pakistan which has done very well. There’s been one novel by Tahmima Annam, and there’s a book of short stories coming out this year by Mahmud Rahman, which is being published by Penguin India. I’m part of a Dhaka writers’ group called WritersBlock, about ten people who will all be publishing books over the next five years. There’s a vibrant Bangla literary scene – though there are few young voices – but the readership for English is very small. If you had a festival – like the Jaipur Litfest – in Dhaka, there would be some five people attending. Thankfully Indian publishers have opened up their doors to Bangladeshi writers.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 05, Dated February 06, 2010

The Dalit Deliberations

TRISHA GUPTA traces the Dalit thread at the Jaipur Literature festival

In a festival where discussions often hovered in the most rarefied literary realms, the Dalit literature panels served as a useful and necessary corrective. Going back to the basics of the written word, the opening session pointed out the inherently privileged position of the writer in India. If Kancha Ilaiah (author of the seminal Why I Am Not a Hindu, 1995) stressed that writing on the subcontinent had long been the preserve of the upper castes, Hindi Dalit writer Om Prakash Valmiki wondered aloud why there are still disgruntled rumblings about the idea of a Dalit literature when such categories as Vedic literature or Marxist literature are taken for granted. Earlier mainly poetry or autobiography, and thus seen as being limited by its “confessional” mode, Dalit literature has now expanded into fiction and criticism. Academic Christophe Jaffrelot suggested at one panel that Dalit autobiography, like Lakshman Gaikwad’s hard-hitting Uchalya, had provided an answer to Gayatri Spivak’s question ‘can the subaltern speak?’ Meanwhile, newer work, represented at Jaipur by Ajay Navaria and P Sivakami alongside Valmiki and Gaikwad, showed that Dalit writing — while still clinging to the power of rhetoric — is ready, too, to embrace a variety of literary aesthetics.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 05, Dated February 06, 2010

‘Can Labour Pain Be Illustrated Better By A Man?’

I met P. Sivakami at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2010. 

Author of four acclaimed Tamil novels — including The Grip of Change (published in English translation in 2006) — dealing with Dalit socio-political concerns, P. Sivakami, 52, is also active in politics. She took voluntary retirement from the IAS to join the BSP, but has recently left to launch her own political party. 

Excerpts from an interview:

How and when did you start writing?

I started writing when I was a student. I used to enter essay competitions in school and my teacher encouraged me to write for the Christian magazine, it had a very local circulation. I was growing up in a small town called Parambulur. Later when I came to college, I started getting exposed to foreign writers. Usually Russian books, because they used to be sold for one or two rupees. That’s how I acquired a liking for fiction.

Then there was an intercollegiate short story writing competition, and I won a prize at the state level. The story was published in a magazine called Dinamani Kadir, and I received a lot of letters. The story was about a shepherd boy and his daily timetable, so they started asking me, are you a shepherd yourself? What is your solution for his problems? Somehow this triggered lots of questions about what literature is, why am I writing about what I am, and so on. Instead of inspiring me, this arrested my spontaneous writing. I continued to write, but didn’t publish. I concentrated on academics. I got a gold medal in my MA History. Then I took the IAS exams. I thought it is socially well-laced, and paying well, so why not? I got through. Only after that I started wondering, have I had truly become what I want to become? All the while, I had been thinking of myself as a writer. Reading and writing gives me a lot of pleasure. So then I started writing again, short stories.

I couldn’t find a publisher for the first collection. A friend of mine came forward to publish it and I gave him some money, but he never returned it. The book was lying in the press – all I got were a few copies. The book never reached the public.

All this was while you were employed as an IAS officer?

I wrote the first book under a pseudonym because I didn’t want to reveal who I was. The second book I wrote under my own name, but I didn’t want to use my being an IAS officer to sell it. So I gave it to one of my friends and asked him to sell it if he can, without revealing my identity. The first publisher he approached said the language is very colloquial, not up to literary standards, and they refused to publish it. Subsequently my friend took it to Madurai where his friend ran a publishing house. After two years, when it was finally published, it hit the roof. Many people read it and discussed it. The left movement took the book to villages and organized meetings discussing it. It centred around a Dalit village leader called Muthu, with another character called Gowri, who is a college girl. It was about the caste structure in the villages of Tamil Nadu, how the backward classes and Dalits should come together and fight the system, as well as exploitation by power brokers within the community, Dalit patriarchy and so on. Since then, I have had no trouble in publishing my books!

When did you first begin to think of yourself as a Dalit writer?
It was not an identity I claimed, it was an identity thrust upon me after my novel was published. Initially I was not happy to be labelled as such. But then I thought, I am trying to expose issues within the community but to bring to the notice of the outside world the oppression of Dalits, and the change that has to come. So why not accept it?

Is the term Dalit commonly used in Tamil Nadu? In the context of Tamil Nadu’s own long history of anti-caste politics…
The term Dalit is used, very much. It has been gaining ground since the 80s.
Before Ambedkar, even, we a lot of people struggling against caste in Tamil Nadu. Ayuddhadas Pandita set up the Adi Dravida Mahajanasabha, in parallel to the Madras Mahajanasabha. He argued with them: we will support you against the British if you agree to three demands: temple entry, separate schools for Adi Dravida children, and distribution of land to Adi Dravidas. The Hindu Mahajanasabha agreed to the latter two, but not the first. The land recommendation was raised by the erstwhile British collector of Chingalpet. On his request, the papers were eventually signed, but the land was not actually given. So Pandita took it up. Later, parallel to Ambedkar, we had figures like Nettamalai Srinivasan who refused to shake hands with the British queen, saying I am a Paraiah by caste, thereby sensitizing the world that there is such a community.

The Periyar movement started off as the Palla-Paraiah movement. It integrated most of the agendas of the Dalits, but it did not materialise them.

Could you tell us about the Dalit literary sphere in Tamil Nadu?
After the centenary celebrations of Ambedkar, particularly, the Dalit concept has become very vibrant. Now we have at least a hundred prominent writers from different Dalit communities and three journals for Dalit writing: Dalit Murasu, Bodhi, Dalit, Adi Tamil. I’ve edited one magazine myself, for almost 15 years. It’s called Puthiya Kodangi: Puthiya means ‘new’ and Kodangi is an instrument that is played to drive away the evil spirit. So here caste is symbolically the evil spirit. These magazines have limited circulation. Their main preoccupation is to deconstruct existing institutions, including literature. Though mine is the only primarily literary magazine, our literature is not only for aesthetics and celebration of identity. So I started off with a literary focus, but soon decided to include discussion on political and social issues.

Maybe because I was editing a literary magazine, deconstructing and criticizing, there was great resistance in translating my work into English. Nobody came forward to translate my books.

So it’s quite a contestatory sphere?
Yes, yes. For example, some people argue that if only Dalits can write Dalit literature, it should be children writing children’s literature. The argument came from leftists, so I said, should workers’ literature be written by capitalists? Also, I said, if you agree that labour pain can be illustrated better by a man than a woman, then we can agree to this argument.

Even among Dalits, there is a lot of difference of opinion. One Professor Raj Gautama argued that Dalit literature should be satire. He wrote a story about a grieved worker who is angry with the customer in a canteen spitting in the coffee and serving it to him. I said, this is silly! If you have a problem with the person, if you have the guts, you can encounter him directly.

What are called the weapons of the weak…
Exactly. Like I said, this is not Dalit empowerment.

It’s not hatred that keeps me away from them, it’s lack of strength in their arguments. So by day, I strengthen myself by conducting camps for Dalits, adivasis, women, expanding myself to transgenders. We should strengthen our bastion – though it’s not enmity or anything. Dalithood, as Ambedkar said, is the socio-economic and political situation of being victimised by Brahminical realities. So anybody who is marginalised by Brahminism can be part of the Dalit fold.

Do you believe that non-Dalits should not write about Dalits?
See, nobody can stop people writing about others. But the perspective is different. And that difference will get exhibited when you publish your writing, and then if there is criticism, you should be open to criticism. That is how we grow. If you always justify yourself and there is always reprobation, then we cannot move forward.

What kind of an experience have you had at the Jaipur Literature Festival?
I was glad to be here, to meet Laxman Gaekwad whose autobiography I admire, and Sister Jesme who is so popular, and Christophe Jaffrelot. I also got to meet new writers like Mridula Koshy, and even got to hear Chetan Bhagat!

We are moving towards a collective writers’ forum where we can address the issue of caste. Each person I have seen here is trying to be an agent of change in their own way, but together we can do better.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 05, Dated February 06, 2010