Ignoring our heritage of the Kama Sutra, bold sculptures and a booming population, and despite heroic efforts by Khushwant Singh, Indian writing in English has mostly shied away from sex. So it was a bit of a surprise when a friend whispered that Ruchir Joshi, film-maker and author, has just edited a volume of erotica by South Asian writers.
Guest of honour: Coetzee will be at the Ubud Festival in October. Tiziana Fabi / AFP
When asked, this is what Ruchir told me: “The basic idea was to push a bunch of talented writers into writing stories that had to do with sex and desire and then to see what came out. We in the subcontinent still live trapped in a cat’s cradle of taboos and repressions and the idea was to see how a diverse group of fictionists tackled the brief of writing directly about sex, and to see which boundaries got poked and pierced. What we’ve ended up with is exciting because it’s very fine writing and as startling and mixed up as these crazy societies we have made in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh…” The book, titled Electric Feather, will be published by Tranquebar Press in September. So why not do your bit for a neglected aspect of our glorious heritage, and buy a copy?
“Sexual awakenings” also play a role in Saleem Peeradina’s memoir, The Ocean in My Yard. But largely, it is a varied autobiographical account of Peeradina growing up in Mumbai (then Bombay) in a Muslim family of the sort that I could recognize from my own childhood: people who believed in a personal and non-dogmatic way. I am sure that readers who knew suburban Bombay in the 1960s will get an extra bit from the book, but it also charmed a non-Bombayite like me with its perceptive and poised prose, interspersed with samples of Peeradina’s poetry.
In the process of staying abreast, one often fails to do justice to books accumulating on one’s shelf. Peeradina’s The Ocean in My Yard was published a couple of years ago: I am glad I finally caught up with it.
Do you recall me snorting about mainstream writing on god and atheism in my last column, and about how the only decent book on the matter (on either side) was a defence of the radical aspects of Christianity by the atheistic Marxist, Terry Eagleton? Well, add another to the list, and this time by a non-Marxist.
Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God, sets out to defend religious thought. Renowned as a scholar of religions, particularly Islam, Armstrong highlights the richness of religious thought, suggesting that dogmatic believers (and unbelievers) simply do not understand what it is all about. If the “unbelieving” Eagleton claims that the current crop of pop-atheists is tilting at a scarecrow of religion, the “believing” Armstrong suggests that dogmatic believers caricature their own religions.
Read and eat
If literature is supposed to provide food for thought, then the sixth Ubud Festival in Indonesia (7-11 October) is poised to do so literally. Featuring authors ranging from venerable Nobel laureates J.M. Coetzee and Wole Soyinka to fresh one-book aspirants such as Fatima Bhutto (yes, of the Bhutto clan), it intends to lay out repasts featuring “favourite recipes from writers in a breezy pavilion on the edge of the rice fields”. Janet DeNeefe, director of the Ubud Festival, explains that the idea is to enable participants to “feast on exotic dishes from Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Turkey, Pakistan, Mexico and Nepal while our writers share their family secrets and stories of making these treasured dishes...” So if you are heading for Indonesia and love reading or recipes (or both), remember to check out Ubud.
The longlist for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, awarded to unpublished Asian novels (entered by the authors), has just been announced, and I was pleasantly surprised to find four familiar names in it: Omair Ahmad, Siddharth Chowdhury, Sriram Karri and K. Srilata. Who says it is not a small world?
Tabish Khair is the Bihar-born, Denmark-based author of Filming. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org