Life | Words’ Worth

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Words’ Worth
Text by Supriya Nair
Published: Volume 17, Issue 6, June, 2009

The power of the written word inspires in various ways – particularly in gender-based and historical points of view. Supriya Nair evaluates two new books this month, in conversation with the authors

For many of us, the books and comics we read as children give us our first sense of power in the abstract. When we make that cognitive jump from Spiderman to Foucault, we realise somewhere along the way that all literature is an expression of power: just the act of storytelling gives the teller a voice that privileges them over the silent.

Borders between fact and fiction can be so porous that the power of one voice can resound in the silence. In Salma’s novel, The Hour Past Midnight (translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holstrom), it is not only her characters who bring about change in their lives by breaking silence – the very act of narration draws attention to, and empowers, Salma and the cloistered world of Muslim women in Southern India she writes about. In The Long Walk Home, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s novel examining life in a border town in Punjab, the story of life and its problems post-Partition is told through the chronicle of one man. Touching on subjects that Indian fiction in English have long missed from the catalogue, it demonstrates that the voice of an author can function as truthfully, if not more so, than a chorus of public record.

Novels give power and potency to the voices of the individual. Whether refracted through multiple points of view, in which the complexity of a situation are manifested far more plainly than facts could ever make them, or a complete dislocation into a character different from a writer’s own, the act of writing fiction forces writers – and readers – to be at their most objective, paradoxically, when they are at their most personal. The novel as an art form is about empathy: when we are looking into the private lives of others, we are trying to see something of ourselves in them, across barriers of gender, class, and more. By making sense of alien worlds, literature teaches us to make sense of our own. That empathy is power, and power, as Spiderman taught us in early childhood, is responsibility.

After Midnight
Salma, who began writing out of her small village in Tamil Nadu, has grown into an international figure of inspiration for speaking for the little-heard voices of Muslim women in conservative South India. In the English translation of her landmark The Hour Past Midnight, the closed doors and conversations of the women’s world slides into plainer view, in the authentic, poetic voice of the novelist.

Excerpts from an interview:
When you wrote ‘The Hour Past Midnight’ did you anticipate the reactions you got to it?

It was a huge issue for the community of the small village where I started writing. “Ah, an unmarried Muslim girl has her name published.” That was enough for people to ridicule and insult me. I must tell you that I knew right from the beginning that what I thought and wrote about would go against the grain of popular thinking, with social critique and assessment that will have to bear certain consequences.

That also happened to be when Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer, was in the news for the controversies her writing lead to. This had a general impact on my understanding of myself as a Muslim woman and writer. I also knew that since I was to write about women’s bodies, desires, and sex, I would perhaps face more opposition than a non-Muslim woman writer might. The hardest to deal with was the effect some of it had on my family. Later, when I contested elections, my opponents photocopied and made posters of those pages from my writing that had already been singled out as being vulgar and distributed them among people. They cashed in on the anger of the Muslim community.

I often feel that I should be careful not to lose this space I have carved for myself to some controversy that distracts from my writing and my voice towards just being a news item. The Hour Past Midnight was the first novel in Tamil about Muslim women and their families. It felt like a responsibility.

The voice of Muslim women in conservative society is very rarely heard in English. Do you see that changing?
As far as I have seen, writing in English from India comes from writers who are shaped by different kinds of education, livelihoods, and lifestyles. They stay at a certain distance from marginality and the experiences that brings. The lives and experiences of these marginal voices seem to be closer to the registers of regional languages. And they will be heard first in those languages.

What does power mean to you?
For me, the first shade in which the word ‘power’ colours itself is in terms of the power wielded over women. It functions in the name of love, family, society, religion, and more, from different sources and in different forms.. But I am not blind to the other possibilities and manifestations of it. I am surprised at the changes in my own life, as a writer as well as a politician. Women’s participation in politics accords them a certain power with which it is possible to do things, bring about changes. And, let us be honest, that power is not something many of us would say no to.

Homeward Bound
What Indian writing in English gains in its class and location-bound urbanity it has often lost, to an extent we can never fully realise, the attachment of its subjects to concepts and cultures that can be explained in a native language, but only imagined in English. Redolent of her native Ferozepur in Punjab, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s second novel The Long Walk Home, does something we haven’t seen for a while from this part of the country: saying what has been unsaid, and for many people remains unsayable, in its chronicle of the fortunes of a man and a town in post-Partition Punjab, and of faith, fundamentalism and a way of life.

Excerpts from an interview with Manreet:
What motivated you to write this story?

When I first started to write, the subject of ‘Sikh militancy’ had not even been dealt with in fiction. I realised that for me to be able to tell the story well, the narrative arc would need to start from pre-partition to the present through Partition, the linguistic division of Punjab, the Green Revolution, the rise of fundamentalism, Operation Bluestar. In my novel I have attempted to illuminate this history by refracting it through the life of one ordinary Punjabi.

We’re at a moment in Indian culture when Sikh history – the ’84 riots – is in the spotlight again.
In India, perhaps because of the absurdities and hassles of everyday living, the emphasis is on looking forward. The ’84 riots are a case in point – the subject has never been dealt with?from the perspective of bringing the guilty to justice.

What has been done instead, is to shove it under the carpet, as if the loss of loved ones, of deliberate mal-intent, of calculated, murderous assault on one community, of the callous disregard for the law of the land, can be swept away like so much rubbish. A society that forgets history is condemned to repeat it.

Power-packed Summer Reads
A Better India A Better World – NR Narayana Murthy
Infosys’ iconic founder-chairman distills his thoughts on bridging India’s economic divide
The Seven Secrets Of Influence – Elaina Zuker
A communications expert explodes myths about what it takes to have influence, and offers methods to acquire it
Value Investing and Behavioral Finance – Parag Parikh
Investing becomes a psychological tour de force with this insightful book on the effects of human behaviour in finance.

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