Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The General Is Up

"This Brilliant novel, based on the Asian Expulsion by the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, does what all great novels do: seamlessly blur the line between truth and untruth."  Sasenarine Persaud, from front cover flap

How many people remember Idi Amin's expulsion of Indians from Uganda 40 years ago? You can almost hear someone saying: You didn't mean Asians, did you? This was how the press largely termed this variety of ethnic cleansing. No, Indians. Every year, there is a reissue of a book, or a new book, or movie on the cleansing of Hitler's Germany of Jews. We cannot, should not forget. To be sure, others were cleansed--the Roma, for instance, the largely forgotten, maltreated and discriminated Indians of Europe. You can almost hear someone say: ah, perception of slight. Indians in Europe, the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean--the Diaspora--are supposed to be quiet, are supposed to be good world citizens. In Guyana, in the 2008 Lusignan Massacre, 12 villagers were murdered just because they were Indians, or perceived to be Indians--11 of Indian ancestry--the trial making headlines in September of this year, and still ongoing. The Goebbels of Caribbean Literature call this kind of discrimination, this massacre, perception of slight. Meaning, do not write about the discrimination of Indians, or we will punish you any way we can. Write about flowers, love, sunshine...but not about the discrimination of Indians in the Americas, Europe, or Asia, or Africa. Sam Selvon, the great and famous Indo-Caribbean novelist, once said, "but what that means to me is that we best don't talk too loud before we antagonize the black people and cause further botheration." This from his opening address at a conference at the University of the West Indies in 1979--7 years after the Indian expulsion from Uganda by Idi Amin. The General Is Up.  The generals are up, a few occasionally wearing skirts.The facts and figures are around on this thing we call the Internet. Quarrel with Wikipedia if you will: 60,000 fled Uganda (27,000 to the UK; 6,000 to Canada; 4,500 to India; smaller amounts to other countries; and some 20,000 unaccounted for) almost all Indians--people of Indian ancestry, if we must water this down. Peter Nazareth's novel, a brand new reissue by a third publisher, the third edition, is based on this cleansing of Indians from Uganda under Idi Amin. This novel, The General Is Up, is cause for celebration on, at least, three counts: (1) It is a fine novel (2) Nazareth refuses to be silent (3) It is a very fine novel. Selvon again, at that 1979 conference: "If we feel we are being oppressed and suppressed, all the more reason, I say, to blow our trumpet loud and fly our kite high."                     

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

South Asian Ensemble

Cover photo by Rupinder Pal Singh

If there is any doubt that some of the best writing in the world is being done in languages other than English, the latest volumes of South Asian Ensemble (Winter & Spring 2013, and Autumn 2012) quickly dispel this notion. South Asian Ensemble is published in Canada and India. The chief editor, Gurdev Chauhan, is based in Canada; the honorary editor, Rajesh Sharma, is located in India. That the journal is a print journal going into its sixth year of publication is an extraordinary accomplishment. Paper, I read recently, is one of the greatest invention and technological advancement of all times. From the energy efficient walls of modern buildings, to toilet paper and articles of hygiene to clothing to furniture to books to the manuals and packaging of computers and smart phones, a world without paper is almost unimaginable. Holding these volumes in my hands, even before flipping the pages, all this, and more, come to mind: the peculiar paper of India.

Stories, excerpts, poems, essays, photography, paintings, reviews and interviews all go into making this eclectic publication. The contributions are not only by, or about, South Asians. The great strength of South Asian Ensemble is the translations from Indian languages. The outstanding pieces in Volume 4 are the Hindi poems of Nilesh Raghuvanshi translated by Alpna Saini and the Punjabi poem, ‘Darkness’ by Pritam Dhanjal translated by Gurdev Chauhan. The biographical note on Raghuvanshi indicates that she is, among other things, a dramatist, poet and translator. She didn’t translate her own poems. Of the many original English contributions Nalini Warriar’s fiction, ‘Legends’ is an intriguing, even if Bollywood-like, juxtaposition of an ancient story and a white, Canadian in India.

The most recent volume, a double issue, is full or great pieces. There are translations from Malayalam, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.  K Satchidanandan’s translation of his own poetry from Malayalam stand out, as do poems by Neeru Aseem (translated from Hindi by the poet and Gurdev Chauhan). Satchidanandan has won multiple awards for his poetry. Of the poets writing in English there is much to be thankful for: Priscila Uppal (a Canadian writer) whose poems have the writerly feel of the academic and of creative writing schools (‘Rilke and I Exchange Emails’, ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ –“Milk distributed at lunch like the first letters of/ the alphabet…”[?]); Kavita Jindal (‘Matter Grows Thin’ & ‘Chaining the Ecstatic’ – “white flowers begin to gleam/ fresh against green hedges/ in the slowpouring darkness”); and Harpreet Kaur (‘Silence Returns’ –“Silence perches on the awning/ on the tongue/ of the moon/ when speech is threatened/ between you and me.”).

The prose is as rich as the poetry. The piece by Cyril Dabydeen is in the vein of Naipaulian travelogue grappling with the quirks of a trip to India by someone from the 180-years old Indian diaspora of South America and the West Indies. Dabydeen’s piece is wide ranging, if disjointed and reading like unedited travel notes. Gagan Gill’s ‘Hour of Father, Hour of Death’, translated from the Hindi by Kuldip Singh is engaging except towards the end, after the death of Daarji, when it becomes almost a tract on Sikhism. The death rituals of Sikhism that has come out of that ancient culture that has come to be called Hinduism were revelatory. Perhaps, I also enjoyed this piece for some of the untranslatable Hindi words of my childhood still used in the Hindu/Indian communities in South America and the Caribbean (and in this community’s the second and third exiles in North America and Europe), words such as: Mamoo (mother’s brother), Chacha (father’s brother), Bua (father’s sister), and that indescribable act of the offerings of water for the departed and in puja.

There are fine shorter pieces of fiction by Kapil Chaudaha (‘Gravitational Love’) and Subhash Chandra (‘The Gynaecologist), and  essays by Shikha Kenneth on Sartre, Swaraj Raj on Rushdie and Jagtej Kaur Grewal on Rabindranath Tagore’s approach to art.

The short prose (fiction) piece that stands out is Jaiwanti Dimri’s ‘The Story That Hung Around the Neck.’ This is a translation from the Hindi by the author. As the title suggests, this is a story about writing a story—or so it seems. The playful voice in this story is a reminder that Indians have been writing stories/fictions since ancient times and that the institutional knowledge, technique and expertise that come with this lengthy engagement with this art form is unsurpassed in English Literature. Yes, I did say that this was a translation. Thus far, South Asian Ensemble’s great and extraordinary contribution to contemporary world literature is, perhaps, in its offerings of translations from Indian languages.