Intizar Husain: Basti

So, my friend, time is passing. We’re all in the power of time. So hurry and come here. Come and see the city of Delhi, and the realm of beauty, for both are waiting for you. Come and join them, before silver fills the part in her hair, and your head becomes a drift of snow, and our lives are merely a story.

Basti is a lovely Urdu word that hints at space and community, a human settlement of any dimension, from a few houses to a city. 

The word alone is enough to pique my interest. But because some books lead you to other books, that is exactly what Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand did for me. I stopped counting at six — the number of times Intizar Husain’s name was raised in the novel. 

Now I see why. Basti can be looked upon as a literary father of Tomb of Sand in the family of borderland literature. Both also defy the borders of literature.

Basti maps the life of Zakir who experienced the divisions that created Pakistan that created Bangladesh that separated him from the love of his life.

I have to admit that it took nearly half of the book before I was able to get into its rhythm and flow, but I allowed its poetic beauty to lead this reader from outside the Indian subcontinent to be drawn into its history and heritage; and sadly, into the tragic quotient of its divisions.

Geetanjali Shree: Tomb of Sand

“Anything worth doing transcends borders.”

Samadhi, a word that denotes a meditative calm greets like a namaste on the first page.

And then, cacophony! An onslaught of sounds, smells, colors, and wordplay! You are planted right smack at the center of a palpable, household chaos — the matriarch sinks into depression, the matriarch disappears! Bickering. Finger-pointing. A familial upheaval. What samadhi?!

But cacophony, if we listen closely and do not shut it out immediately, can turn into polyphony; and we chase after as many melodic lines that make themselves heard to us. Although sometimes, as in the case of the old woman, just one particular melody line, the one that meant most to her in her last days, the one that muffled all others, the one she pursued as the path to her own personal samadhi. 

– – –

Tomb of Sand, winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize; written by Geetanjali Shree and translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell is the culmination of Women in Translation Month that came to me by chance, but just in time.

If not for a dear friend who mailed me her copy for infinite adoption after reading and reviewing it insightfully, then I would not have rushed into acquiring one.

Tomb of Sand turned out to embody in its polyphony the leitmotifs explored in my significant picks for #WiTMonth:

Egyptian Nawal el Saadawi’s The Fall of the Imam and Moroccan Leila Slimani’s Sex and Lies on gender and the freedoms or, to be more accurate, non-freedoms that come along with it.

Georgian Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life on the topic of how we are all reflections of our own time but inheritors of intergenerational memory. In Shree’s words, “I feel as though a bullet was fired in some other century but didn’t stay in that century. It keeps hitting the people who came later…”

Hungarian Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad on the relationship of mother and daughter and the collision of old and new.

Palestinian Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail on the painful subject of encroached boundaries and artificially imposed borders; reminding me that there were two massive Partitions in world history that transpired in 1947, and that both involved religious segregation. “Divisions. A jubilee of hatred. The joy of rifts.”

But Tomb of Sand’s old woman, whose life and interfaith romance was a victim of the Partition, has this powerful thing to say about how borders should be: “Do you know what a border is? What is a border? It’s something that surrounds an existence, it is a person’s perimeter…. However a border is not created to be removed. It is meant to illuminate both sides…. A border does not enclose, it opens out… Where two sides meet and both flourish. 

Every part of the body has a border. So does the heart. A border surrounds it but it also binds it to other parts. It doesn’t wrench the heart from the rest. Fools! If you cut a border through the heart, you don’t call it a border, you call it a wound…

Asses! A border stops nothing. It is a bridge between two connected parts…

A border is a horizon. Where two worlds meet. And embrace.

A border is love. Love does not create a jail… A border is a line of meeting… It is a confluence…

A border, gentlemen, is for crossing.

The border exists to connect, one to another. If there’s one, there’s another. Through love.

If you hate, the blood that flows through arteries to deliver strength from here to there will flow out and away; each side will die bit by bit. What fool would want this?

But this is what you fools want. You’ve made the border a sort of hatred. Not an exquisite border enhancing beauty on both sides, but one that kills them both, a murderous beast cutting the artery. Ignoramuses!

…borders running with blood can have only one consequence. The blood will burst their borders and seep away, all the limbs will dry up and stiffen, but everyone will keep chanting Allahu Akbar and Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

Though it marches to its own rhythm, the literary symmetries it shares with the works of other women authors across borders only pronounce the universality of this novel.

It is life, crossing the boundary to literature.

Thank you, Gabi, for passing on the tears and the lessons along with a pretty bookmark!

_ _ _

WiTMonth Wrap-Up

It is my first time to observe Women in Translation Month since its birth in 2014. I’ve never felt the need to participate because of a consistent presence of translated works by women in my literary diet. But now that I’m back to maintaining a book blog, I feel this is the time that observing #WiTMonth will make a difference.

Meytal Radzinski started this tradition after a critical assessment of the publishing world led to the discovery that only thirty percent of translated literature were works by women authors.

So here I am, along with those celebrating, reminding the publishing community that there is an overwhelming readership eager to tip the scales.

Freya Stark once wrote, “No medium has yet been devised for the translation of life into language.”

Most of this month’s selections come rather close.

_ _ _

Minor Detail – Adania Shibli (Palestine) | Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

Life with Picasso – Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake (France)

The Fall of the Imam – Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) | Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata

Fire in the Blood – Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine under the Russian Empire) | Translated from the French by Sandra Smith

The Mirador – Élisabeth Gille (France) | Translated from the French by Marina Harss

Embroideries – Marjane Satrapi (Iran) | Translated from the French by Anjali Singh

Sex and Lies – Leila Slimani (Morocco) | Translated from the French by Sophie Lewis

Love – Hanne Ørstavik (Norway) |Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aiken

Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi (Oman) | Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Iza’s Ballad – Magda Szabó (Hungary) | Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

The Eighth Life – Nino Haratischvili (Georgia) | Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

Sculptor’s Daughter – Tove Jansson (Finland) | Translated from the Swedish by Kingsley Hart

Tomb of Sand – Geetanjali Shree (India) | Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

Nino Haratischvili: The Eighth Life

The first few things you will ask yourself after reading this are questions in the vicinity of, “Was that really 934 pages long? How was I able to read that so quickly?”

Tougher questions will follow: The question of identity, the question of who you are and what shaped you. The question of history and how you cannot ever separate your personal history from history in general.

What do you really know about history? What do you really know about yourself?

“For me, the greatest reward was her stories.”  Nino Haratischvili, The Eighth Life

At the beginning of the century that would suffer two World Wars, and many other wars, a chocolatier prospers in Georgia under the Russian Empire. His chocolaterie thrives and caters to townsmen and Russian nobility, but after a tragedy following the devouring of the the secret recipe in its purest form, he soon suspects that it holds a curse. The recipe would, however, always manage to find its way to the next generation and throughout the entire century. 

The accursed hot chocolate recipe was something I would normally expect to savor from Latin American magic realists and I was initially unsure of how I felt about coming across this flavor in The Eighth Life. I thought it could easily be dispensable in the grand, cinematic scope of the story.

But wasn’t this family saga set in junctions of the immeasurable Silk Route where anything could happen, and where the influence of Scheherazade’s fantasies still linger at every bend?

I eventually gave in to this literary ingredient and pondered if it was meant to symbolize the intergenerational curses — inherited pain, memory, and trauma — to which we become heirs and which we unknowingly impart.

_ _ _

The casual tone of the narrative deceived me at the onset. You could tell you were not reading Vasily Grossman or Olga Tokarczuk. (The comparison is unavoidable as theirs were the novels I read this year that are similar in length and with similar intersecting eras and geographies.)

It is, after all, addressed to Brilka, an adolescent; and so the narrator spells things out. We know that this is something masters of literature usually avoid, but it was this casual and explanatory tone that made me so unsuspecting of how it would sweep me up in its emotional and historical hurricane. I found myself wiping away tears a number of times, grieving for the characters with their extinguished hopes and dreams, and for the entire broken century that was also partly my own.

It is remarkable how the novel captured the spirit of each era it depicted, even the confusions and the troubles of each age reflected in the characters. To present these — along with the complex convergence of Russian and Georgian histories and politics, and how Soviet tyranny affected so many lives across borders — in such a readable manner only made me recognize Nino Haratischvili’s command of such topics.

This novel is a strange oxymoron to me: For being simultaneously accessible and wise, for being both painful and satisfying, and for lending answers as it asks questions.

_ _ _

What do you really know about history? What do you really know about yourself?

Could it be true, that chilling thing Kostya said about everything waiting to come back?

‘What statues and pictures?’ I asked.

‘You know, of Lenin, Marx, and Engels, the Generalissimus — all those men!’ He seemed to be giving it serious thought.

‘They’ve gone.’

‘But they can’t all just disappear, just like that!’

‘Apparently they can. Everything disappears sooner or later.’

‘Nothing disappears. Nothing, Niza!’ He laid is hand on mine.

‘You mean, everything is hidden somewhere, waiting to be found again?’ I tried to bring myself to smile. 

‘Everything is waiting to come back.’

_ _ _

Thank you, Anna, for recommending this book!

Jokha Alharthi: Celestial Bodies

“Mongoloid” as a term for Down syndrome has been considered offensive and obsolete by the time this book was published, and yet it is still being used here to describe a minor character. It is but a small spot in a galaxy of details and I’m not usually one to nitpick on political correctness, because I also tend to be guilty of political incorrectness at times, but this somehow cast a cloud on my appreciation. And although I read this about a week ago, it took some time for me to gather my thoughts.

_ _ _

Jokha Alharthi is the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English. Marilyn Booth, the translator, has translated works by two favorite authors in my Silk Route & Fertile Crescent Reading Project, Elias Khoury and Nawal El Saadawi.

With that in mind, perhaps I set my expectations too high.

There are elements that I highly value: How each chapter is named after a character, and through these various perspectives from different social strata unfold the story and tapestry of Omani history and society; unique details of traditional wedding preparations through the eyes of the mother; captivating descriptions of Bedouin life; and Abdallah’s musings during an airplane flight that often wax poetic. The historical aspects led me to look into the British-mediated Treaty of Seeb and, hardly ever mentioned in reviews, the master-slave dynamic in such a society that plays a significant role in this novel, reminding the reader that it was only in 1970 that slavery was abolished in Oman.

Orbiting around the lives of three sisters in the village of al-Awafi, I immediately found a favorite in the middle sister, Asma. The reading sister, the one through whom references to the region’s literary traditions are made, the one who has read enough to see through the nonsensical beliefs and superstitions.

These three sisters in the cusp of a modern Oman, although bound to customs, had relatively more freedoms compared to women from other stories I’ve read of the region. And so it was with disappointment that I read how Asma readily agreed to an arranged marriage while the younger sister who spent more time prettifying herself was resolute in refusing hers. It can be argued that Asma did it in the hope of furthering her education and the younger had more foolish reasons for her refusal, but something still did not add up. The strong character that I admired at the beginning seemed to give way to a weaker one towards the end.

On the other hand, there is more to the novel than that. The fact that there is so much to pay attention to borders on both distracting and brilliant, but as far as novels translated to English are concerned, this is still currently the most intimate look into Omani life available to us.

In a way, it makes me look forward to what lies ahead in translated Omani literature — especially those written by women.

Satrapi: Embroideries | Slimani: Sex and Lies

“If women haven’t fully understood the state of inferiority in which they are kept, they will do nothing but perpetuate it.” Leïla Slimani, Sex and Lies

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” — Harriet Tubman

It was the hottest month of 2019 in Morocco, and I was at a station in Chefchaouen waiting for my bus to Fez. Even with my nose buried in a book, I had an odd feeling that someone was watching me. 

Sure enough, when I looked up, two large eyes framed by a hijab glinted and stabbed me like the blades of a koummya. I could see she was seething. I had to glance around and check if the anger was meant for someone else, but her sustained glare guaranteed that they were directed at me.

She said something to the man beside her who turned his back towards me while she continued to glower. Admittedly, my first instinct was to glower in return.

Then I remembered where I was; a foreign country whose laws are not known to be very kind to women. Confused, I immediately lowered my head to avoid trouble.

And there it was. The offending sight. The bag’s leather strap strung across my body had unbuttoned my dress shirt and revealed an undershirt and a little bit of chest!

I who had been so careful about dress codes in my travels, I who wore a buttoned-up long-sleeved shirt over an undershirt over a bra despite the temperatures rising up to 46°C during the day, accidentally exposed a little bit too much of my body in one of the worst places to have a wardrobe malfunction.

I felt so embarrassed, horrified, and even guilty.

As soon as the bus arrived, I hurriedly boarded to avoid bumping into the couple. I saw them saying goodbye to each other. A worried look now replaced the anger on her face as her expressive eyes followed the man inside the bus.

Imagine the horror on her face when she saw through the window that the man’s seat number was the empty one right beside mine — her man would be sitting beside this immoral woman for 4 to 5 hours!

I hid behind my scarf for the rest of the trip while next to me, he showered himself with crumbs from the pastries that he ate.

– – –

I had an incredible trip to Morocco, but despite being amply covered, I have never been catcalled more in any of my travels; I was followed by a stranger through the alleys of Fez; and two random acquaintances in Marrakech said they wanted to marry me. But somehow it was that incident with the woman that made me shudder. It accented how difficult it must be to be a woman in such a place.

This memory came back to me while reading Leïla Slimani’s book. Coincidentally, it was exactly on this day when I left for my Moroccan adventure three years ago.

– – –

Feminist voices from Islamic nations have been part of my reading life for quite some time already, and I don’t wish to write another cliché by saying that reading this made me grateful for the liberties I take for granted — even though it still rings true.

Sex and Lies is a broader and more serious version of Marjane Satrapi’s hilarious graphic novel, Embroideries. They both bring to light the double standards of men and their laws, and the many predicaments of what it means to be a woman in such a setting.

Let us take note that this setting is such where love and affection are as taboo as sex; where women are not allowed to feel desire; where religious pressure and social humiliation lead to nearly six hundred abortions carried out in secret every day and hundreds of women die as a result of the appalling medical conditions in Morocco; and while men can sleep around all they want, they require “virginity certificates” from their brides; hymen restoration clinics exist (which is not far from the kind of “embroideries” Satrapi hints at); and it was only in 2014 that article 475 of their penal code was amended, two years after a sixteen-year-old took her life after being forced to marry her rapist. The rapist who married his victim could avoid punishment under article 475.

Each important female writer has their own approach to broaching the subject of women in repressive cultures. Iranian Marjane Satrapi does it with humor while Moroccan Leïla Slimani curiously makes a case for a healthy relationship with traditional, religious, and cultural backgrounds. I am not Muslim but I think it is significant how she did not make this into an assault on Islam. (Although she does mention the soullessness of certain sects.)

“I try to explain that a society in which women had more freedom would not necessarily be contrary to the faith but rather could allow us to protect women better.”

“For the Muslim religion can be understood as primarily an ethics of liberation, of openness to the other, as a personal ethics and not only a Manichaean moral code.”

“Muslims can turn to a long written tradition, led by scholars, that saw no incompatibility between the needs of the body and the demands of the faith.”

While Sex and Lies unveils real and enraging accounts of the unnatural demands their society imposes on their women, it remains hopeful for a Morocco in transition. Another thing that stood out for me was how many of the women who shared their stories recounted that it was reading books that opened their eyes. Leading by example, Slimani highlights the necessity for women to use their most powerful weapons at hand:

“If… Scheherazade appears a magnificent character, this isn’t because she embodies the sensual and seductive oriental woman. On the contrary: it is because she reclaims her right to tell her own tale that she becomes not merely the object but the subject of the story. Women must rediscover ways of imposing their presence in a culture that remains hostage to religious and patriarchal authority. By speaking up, by telling their stories, women employ one of their most potent weapons against widespread hate and hypocrisy: words.”

Nawal El Saadawi: The Fall of the Imam

“No one of you has ever possessed my mind. No one. And no matter how often you took my body my mind was always far away out of your reach, like the eye of the sun during the day, like the eye of the sky at night.”

In a culture where a buffalo has more worth than a woman, where love and marriage are usually two different things, where there is a disconnect between religious devotion and actions, where a man has the freedom to sin but where a woman can get stoned for being a victim, Nawal treads dangerously with her words.

She throws difficult questions at religion and those who are in power, beats us out of complacency and privilege, and prods us to be angry at injustice and inequality.

This is not the book I would recommend to someone who is new to her writings, but a seasoned Nawal reader would probably consider this an epitome of her literary prowess.

Prose-wise, it is the most ornate. Content-wise, it is the most potent. Form-wise, it is her most sophisticated. And wading through all of that is not so easy.

Different narrators for each chapter can get disorienting; the victims narrate, the criminals narrate, so do the dead, and oftentimes about the same incident. When it comes to the women, one can get confused trying to identify whether it is the mother speaking, or the daughter, or the new wife, or the first wife, or the mistress, or the sister. But I realize the intention: It is to emphasize the fact that they are women, and because they are women they suffer all the same.

“Like in The Thousand and One Nights, the beginning of each tale merged with the end of the one which had preceded it, like the night merges with the day…” And then she draws us away from Scheherazade to a lesser-viewed aspect of this literary heritage and culture, and points the spotlight at the hypocrisy of King Shahryar.

Through it all, the question that seems to reverberate loudest in my mind is this: What can we do if the leaders, those who are in power, the ones assigned to mete out judgment, are the perpetrators of the crime?

Because at times, they are. Not only in some culture foreign to us. But in ours, too.

Adania Shibli: Minor Detail

Adania Shibli has a sharpshooter’s precision;

in her choice of words and in her choice of details major or minor,

in her choice of literal depictions that have the power to stand as metaphors,

even in splitting the book accurately in half to give an equal number of pages for the first part and the second part of the story,

in her sense of irony in picking a character who seems to have an inability to identify physical borders and who is obsessed with an actual news report of a rape and murder case that was committed exactly twenty five years prior to the day she was born,

and in her choice of singling out a story of the rape of a Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers in a place where senseless killings occur on a regular basis.

What Adania Shibli does not need to spell out is that a story of violated boundaries is always a story of rape, and vice versa.

This incisive portrait of the Palestinian plight begins as a bullet in motion, without you knowing.

You’ll only know upon impact,

when it hits you,

at the very last page.

Joseph Brodsky: Watermark

“In those days we associated style with substance, beauty with intelligence…
we didn’t know yet that style could be purchased wholesale, that beauty could just be a commodity.”

Venice, through the pen of a mediocre writer, can easily become cliché.

But this is Joseph Brodsky. 

If you, like me, have read Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell and thought it was alone in its indefinable sub-genre or sur-genre (if there’s such a thing), we can rejoice! Venezia’s Watermark is the worthy soulmate of Corfu’s Prospero’s Cell.

Meditative with a sensual rhythm but not without intelligent humor, here is travel literature that casts an enchanting haze on the borders between poetry and prose, a place and the self.

I would slip this in my handbag in a heartbeat on a return trip to the best city to get lost in.

Michael Ondaatje: Running in the Family

Whenever something momentous happens anywhere in the world, the first instinct of a reader is to read. Whether they be articles, books, or contrasting views on social media posts, a reader reads. And books, even when they are not capable of telling you everything, can still tell you a lot.

As soon as Sri Lanka’s protesters occupied their president’s palace and called for his resignation, I paused from this month’s reading goal to look into Sri Lanka.

The bad news: There is only one Sri Lankan on my shelf. The good news: It is Michael Ondaatje.

“Ceylon falls on a map and its outline is the shape of a tear,” writes this favorite author who is none other than the one who wrote about “the sadness of geography”.

Although I initially hoped otherwise, Running in the Family is not a thorough overview of the nation’s history or politics and turned out to be about family history; and yet I became so absorbed in it that I forfeited an early morning run to read it and finished it on the same day. Because after all, you learn a lot about a country through its people, through its literature, and reading along or between the lines.

There were times when it felt like I was reading about my own country: From superstitions, to drinking tubâ (coconut toddy), the humidity, the smell of durian, the attitudes, and our colonial past — “… the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword or bible or language.”

The ousting of leaders has been one of the recurring themes in my readings these past few years and I have read quite a bit to know enough that overthrowing a corrupt leader is not always an assurance of a better government (but also enough to know that the faults of the successor should never erase the sins of the previous one from the memory of its people, otherwise the vicious cycle only continues).

By the end of the book, I already felt a kinship with Sri Lanka’s people; and for now, we wait with bated breath for what is to come. While it is tempting to hope that, by some stroke of serendipity, my country and this land that used to be called “Serendip” by Arab sea traders will stumble upon great things in the future of our governments, we know we cannot leave it all to chance.

There is so much work to be done.

Neal Ascherson: Black Sea

On a trip to Turkey in 2016, we landed at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, which is on the Asian side of Turkey and closer to the Marmara Sea. The Istanbul Airport that opened in 2018 is on the European side, and just before landing on the meeting point of the world, one is gifted with a breathtaking view of the Black Sea.

I saw the Black Sea thrice from an airplane window on my most recent trip, and the irony dawned on me that this body of water that has sadly become the “largest mass of lifeless water in the world,” in fact, teems with so much history and so much… life!

This book written by Neal Ascherson about this birthplace of civilization and barbarism accompanied me, although I only finished reading it on my way back home. I don’t think I’ve read a more poetic history book!

“Human settlement around the Black Sea has a delicate, complex geology accumulated over three thousand years. But a geologist would not call this process simple sedimentation, as if each new influx of settlers neatly overlaid the previous culture. Instead, the heat of history has melted and folded peoples into one another’s crevices, in unpredictable outcrops and striations.”

Reading it brought me back to the landscapes of Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob and to where I’ve just been, merging the lands of my dreams with those places that are the epicenters of current world events. Because somewhere in the midst of this all, is the history of the Black Sea.

From its first mention in literature in the Bronze Age (where Jason and the Argonauts sailed upstream the Bosphorus to the Black Sea); to the different Central Asian tribes and kingdoms; to chapters that made me understand better the Russian Revolution and Communism’s life, course, and death in that region; to the question of Crimea, Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and to many things in between, I am in awe of how Ascherson sustained a poetic voice!

In a way, it answers our suspicions about how, despite all the earlier discoveries of the East in almost all fields, the West is still seen as more superior and more “civilized”. It is an enlightening investigation on the definitions of civilization and barbarism that surprisingly touches on feminism and immigration, which is quite different from what most minds have been programmed to believe.

Here is a history book that does not merely record events and dates, but most importantly, relationships. For as the author compellingly reveals, the Black Sea is not just a place but a pattern of relationships, and nothing like the symbiosis of the Bosporus Kingdom has ever happened.

A beautiful thing about traveling and reading is to be able to measure ourselves against the expanse of time and history, with the intention of acquiring more perspective, if only to acquire more life.