Showing posts with label Diaspora. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Diaspora. Show all posts

Friday, June 27, 2014

South Asian Ensemble Winter-Spring 2014


Editor’s Note

A lot of good South Asian writing is taking place outside the dominant circuits of recognition. It was our assumption when we started SAE. Five years down the road, it is a conclusion.
Leafing through pages from the past, we see many installed stereotypes crumbling. Yet much survives that seems to identify us.
            What is still awaited is a radical mobilization of the elements of the ensemble that is us and our experience, a mobilization that dislocates, disassembles and creates afresh beyond merely reproducing. This would require infusion of energies from outside the ensemble’s boundaries.
But haven’t cultures always outsourced? Isn’t imagination the great outsourcing machine? Isn’t literature always in another place, always already elsewhere?
            South Asia is a horizon that must be transcended. Only when it begins to be transcended – with freedom, without guilt, with responsibility – shall great writing again begin to find home here. De-domestication is a pre-requisite. Homelessness, a necessity.
Perhaps we should seek our singularity in losing ourselves in one’s own ways.

Rajesh Sharma

Website here:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

South Asian Ensemble

Summer and Fall 2013 Vol 5 No. 3 & 4

The unprofitable work of literature

Rajesh Sharma   

The oldest memories with me include a balding and bespectacled old head reading a book held up by a hairy hand with cracked brown skin. A reflective grin spreads or shrinks, prompted by mysterious proceedings in the magic mirror in front.
Memory’s selection tool functions strangely.
            Sood Uncle. He ran a shop that never had more than… ten books? A banyan had grown in the shop’s forehead, hanging down like hair from aging eyebrows. Seven steps into the shop you faced darkness that tasted damp with the odor of rats’ droppings. I bought my first books, on credit to be paid by my mother’s brother, from Sood Uncle. My mother’s mother once confided to me that this Sood Uncle was a legendary kanjoos. Unlimitedly kanjoos, she said.
            Why did he run a book shop? I had never seen anyone other than himself there. Not even a departing buyer’s shadow. Did he do it to read the books he was supposed to sell? Was the shop a retreat from a hostile wife’s nagging intrusions? I remember my uncle and I stayed at his house for a week or so when he with his wife had to go to Bahrain to spend some time with their son. It was a bookless house, strictly and austerely bookless.
            In my memory he is the only book seller who actually read books. He must have made no profits in the business.

Writers have often noted the peculiar demand of their vocation. That they have to transact in used currency – the currency of words – and work on it to produce novelty. The work of literature consists largely – not entirely, though – in this. Yama, the teacher in Katha Upanishad, tells Nachiketa that immortal truth is produced by rubbing against each other, one upon the other, two pieces of (the oh-so-mortal, termite-loved) wood. For the sake of this truth, Nachiketa has spurned the offers of all wealth… all other wealth.
Perhaps here is one secret of literature’s immortality: the value that your labour’s work produces in the stuff, already available, of mundane exchange.
In this secret stands disclosed the indistinction, extremely demanding, between production and creation.
The indistinction, achieved as much as glimpsed, transfigures the nature of profit.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sasenarine Persaud's review of South Asian Ensemble

An extract from Sasenarine Persaud's review of South Asian Ensemble:
"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."- Sasenarine Persaud's

Complete review here:

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


By Rajesh Sharma

Gachcoo must have died. He had to. The henna on his white head, the gold rings on his great flappy ears, the paint brush moustache, the crow's feet nesting like a river's delta beside eyes old as the seas – nothing would have stood between him and the hand of death. His back had curved like an autumn leaf so that when he walked he looked like a curled dry leaf carried by an unsuspecting beetle stuck underneath. But that was years later – when, away from my eyes, the old man had aged after a long spell of agelessness that had lasted almost as long as my childhood.

How did he get that crisp-hard-crinkling nuts-and-jaggery name though he never sold gachak? No one will perhaps ever find out. He, his world, his memories all have disintegrated. What remains is like fiction, a figure drawn by a flight of birds in the late spring sky, a sheer contingency against the void. Yes, he did coo – huskily, in accents smoked with memories of other landscapes now tucked away beyond borders inked with blood in 1947. His profile suggested a falcon's, yet he was more of a cooing dove when he spoke to us children. He was the one big adult none of us feared. 'Gachcoo!' we'd shout, and his blue-grey eyes beamed. The smile hid under the paint brushes.

            He was a tall pathan who had, for no reason it seemed, made the small town of Hoshiarpur in eastern Punjab his home. Perhaps he had lost his way. Perhaps he had forgotten the way back to the north west. Perhaps some association with the town tied him down. A dead wife, maybe. That he had had a wife we knew for sure: his daughter accompanied him sometimes and stood beside his rehri. She was a tall dry-haired girl with sad eyes and a silence she never broke, even when surrounded by chirping little girls and loud-mouthed nosy boys. 

Gachcoo always wore salwar-kameez tailored out of a generous length of cloth with folds as numerous as wrinkles on his temples. Did we like him because he looked like a lovely toy the size of a monster with an undersized head and an indulgent gaze? Or did we like him because he was a kind of magician?

He sold choorans and chutneys and golis and imli. His real jadoo was the satranga chooran, the seven-hued sour-sweet powder which he dispensed after conducting a whole elaborate ritual. Obviously, not everybody could afford this costly pinch of a feast; only once in a while a child had the means to enjoy this luxury. But the moment an order had been placed, all mouths around the rehri would shut up and begin to water. He would take the coin, examine it closely, lift his kameez a little, and send his long arm and large hand to deposit it in some obscure interior pocket of one of his probably several vests. All other transactions put on hold, he would proceed with the great ritual like the priest of some ancient temple.

            He would take out a small and square colored paper, spread it on the patrhi before him, and begin to turn open the lid of one of the many jars of churan. With a brass baby spoon he would lift a measured quantity of the first churan and slowly unload it like a miniature hill on the paper, leaving the centre vacant. Then he would reflect, mumble something to himself as if consulting another magician invisible to us, open another jar (not ever the next), pick the churan of another shade, and drop another hill around the paper's empty centre. One after another, seven hills would arise, each of a different nuance and colour. Now he would take a little round brass dabbi out of a glass-and-wood box, open it with demonstrated effort, dig out a small wet something – a kind of moisture-laden powder, a rain-flavoured stickiness – and deposit it in the central empty space.

He would, then, close his eyes, mutter a few syllables under his suddenly agitated forest of moustache, open the eyes, lift a bronze bell – his insignia – that was as large as his hand, and swing it ringing in three circles over the seven hills. Meanwhile his other hand would have been searching for the box of matchsticks. The bell back in its place, he would light a matchstick, resume the mantras, and lower the flame slowly over the moist centre amidst the seven hills.

The centre would catch fire with a little hissing explosion.

This would be the moment we'd be waiting for, the moment in which we invested our great rare coins, the moment of sacrifice in which the the yajaman and the spectators felt equally gratified.

The next moment the fire would be gone and he would be wrapping up the seven hills in an angular packet to be handed to the proud buyer, who would walk away opening the packet and licking the fallen hills and the scars of the blaze under the gaze of so many craving eyes.

            One day when the school attendant forgot to ring the bell to announce recess, a boy picked up Gachcoo's bell and kept on shaking it by its pony tail of motley rags until the teachers looked at their watches and moved their heads just enough to tell the students to go.

            On holidays, we saw his rehri parked near a small garbage dump in a street near our school. We did not know where exactly he lived, but he must have lived under one of the falling roofs among a cluster of houses slowly turning to ruins.

            When we left school at the end of five long years, we left him too. Now we had moved on to high school. Returning to him would have meant we had not grown up. We had grown bigger than his magic, bigger than our need for it, maturer than our attachment to him. He became like his rehri, his rehri became like any other rehri – a dying flicker in a corner of memory's eye.

(From the forthcoming issue of South Asian Ensemble)

Monday, January 10, 2011

My father and what he could not say

- Son’s tribute to Taseer

Aatish Taseer, the Delhi-based son of slain Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, mourns his father’s death

I have recently flown home from North America. In airport after international airport, the world’s papers carried front-page images of my father’s assassin.
A 26-year-old boy, with a beard, a forehead calloused from prayer, and the serene expression of a man assured of some higher reward. Last Tuesday, this boy, hardly older than my youngest brother whose 25th birthday it was that day, shot to death my father, the governor of Punjab, in a market in Islamabad.
My father had always taken pleasure in eluding his security, sometimes appearing without any at all in open-air restaurants with his family, but in this last instance it would not have mattered, for the boy who killed him was a member of his security detail.
It appears now that the plan to kill my father had been in his assassin’s mind, even revealed to a few confidants, for many days before he carried the act to its fruition. And it is a great source of pain to me, among other things, that my father, always brazen and confident, had spent those last few hours in the company of men who kept a plan to kill him in their breasts.
But perhaps it could have been no other way, for my father would not only have not recognised his assassins, he would not have recognised the country that produced a boy like that.
Pakistan was part of his faith, and one of the reasons for the differences that arose between us in the last years of his life — and there were many — was that this faith never allowed him to accept what had become of the country his forefathers had fought for.
And it would have been no less an act of faith for him to defend his country from the men who would see it become a medieval theocracy than it was for his assassin to take his life.
The last time I met or spoke to my father was — it seems hard to believe now — the night three years ago that Benazir Bhutto was killed. We had been estranged for most of my life, and just before he died we were estranged for a second time.
I was the son of my Indian mother, with whom my father had a year-long relationship in 1980. In my childhood and adolescence, when he was fighting General Zia’s dictatorship alongside Bhutto, and was in and out of jail, I had not known him.
I met him for the first time in my adult life at the age of 21, when I went to Lahore to seek him out. For some time, a promising but awkward relationship, which included many trips to Lahore and family holidays with his young wife and six other children, developed between us.
The cause for that first estrangement, my father had always explained, was that it would have been impossible for him to be in politics in Pakistan with an Indian wife and a half-Indian son.
And, in the end, as much as Pakistan had been the cause of our first estrangement, it was also the cause of our second, which began soon after the London bombings, when my father wrote me an angry letter about a story I had written for Prospect magazine in which I described the British second-generation Pakistani as the genus of Islamic terrorism in Britain.
My father was angry as a Muslim, though he was not a practising man of faith, and as a Pakistani; he accused me of blackening the Taseer name by bringing disrepute to a family of patriots. The letter and the new silence that arose between us prompted a book, Stranger to History, in which I discussed openly many things about my father’s religion, Pakistan and my parents’ relationship.
Its publication freakishly coincided — though he might well have been offended even as a private citizen by what I wrote — with my father’s return to politics, after a hiatus of nearly 15 years.
The book made final the distance between us; and a great part of the oblique pain I now feel has to do with mourning a man who was present for most of my life as an absence.
And yet I do mourn him, for whatever the trouble between us, there were things I never doubted about him: his courage, which, truly, was like an incapacity for fear, and his love of Pakistan. I said earlier that Pakistan was part of his faith, but that he himself was not a man of faith.
His Islam, though it could inform his political ideas, now giving him a special feeling for the cause of the Palestinians and the Kashmiris, now a pride in the history of Muslims from Andalusia to Mughal India, was not total; it was not a complete vision of a society founded in faith.
He was a man in whom various and competing ideas of sanctity could function. His wish for his country was not that of the totality of Islam, but of a society built on the achievements of men, on science, on rationality, on modernity.
But, to look hard at the face of my father’s assassin is to see that in those last moments of his life my father faced the gun of a man whose vision of the world, nihilistic as it is, could admit no other.
And where my father and I would have parted ways in the past was that I believe Pakistan and its founding in faith, that first throb of a nation made for religion by people who thought naively that they would restrict its role exclusively to the country’s founding, was responsible for producing my father’s killer.
For if it is science and rationality whose fruit you wish to see appear in your country, then it is those things that you must enshrine at its heart; otherwise, for as long as it is faith, the men who say that Pakistan was made for Islam, and that more Islam is the solution, will always have the force of an ugly logic on their side.
And better men, men like my father, will be reduced to picking their way around the bearded men, the men with one vision that can admit no other, the men who look to the sanctities of only one Book.
In the days before his death, these same men had issued religious edicts against my father, burned him in effigy and threatened his life. Why? Because he defended the cause of a poor Christian woman who had been accused — and sentenced to die — for blasphemy.
My father, because his country was founded in faith, and blood — a million people had died so that it could be made — could not say that the sentence was wrong; the sentence stood; all he sought for Aasia Bibi was clemency on humanitarian grounds. But it was enough to demand his head.
What my father could never say was what I suspect he really felt: “The very idea of a blasphemy law is primitive; no woman, in any humane society, should die for what she says and thinks.”
And when finally my father sought the repeal of the laws that had condemned her, the laws that had become an instrument of oppression in the hands of a majority against its minority, he could not say that the source of the laws, the faith, had no place in a modern society; he had to find a way to make people believe that the religion had been distorted, even though the religion — in the way that only these Books can be — was clear as day about what was meant.
Even before his body was cold, those same men of faith in Pakistan had banned good Muslims from mourning for my father; clerics refused to perform his last rites; and the armoured vehicle conveying his assassin to the courthouse was mobbed with cheering crowds and showered with rose petals.
I should say too that on Friday every mosque in the country condoned the killer’s actions; 2,500 lawyers came forward to take on his defence for free; and the chief minister of Punjab, who did not attend the funeral, is yet to offer his condolences in person to my family who sit besieged in their house in Lahore.
And so, though I believe, as deeply as I have ever believed anything, that my father joins that sad procession of martyrs — every day a thinner line — standing between him and his country’s descent into fear and nihilism, I also know that unless Pakistan finds a way to turn its back on Islam in the public sphere, the memory of the late governor of Punjab will fade.
And where one day there might have been a street named after him, there will be one named after Malik Mumtaz Qadir, my father’s boy-assassin.



Saturday, October 30, 2010

Leadership and Leitkultur -


That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn’t make things any better that today leitkultur is defined not by “German culture” but by religion. With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism — and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany — the apologists of the leitkultur now appeal to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which distinguishes “us” from the foreigners.

Nevertheless I do not have the impression that the appeals to the leitkultur signal anything more than a rearguard action or that the lapse of an author into the snares of the controversy over nature versus nurture has given enduring and widespread impetus to the more noxious mixture of xenophobia, racist feelings of superiority and social Darwinism. The problems of today have set off the reactions of yesterday — but not those of the day before.

Leadership and Leitkultur -

Sunday, September 5, 2010

May sanity prevail

Here is an urgent message from Amritjit Singh, Langston Hughes Professor of English, Ohio University, USA

Dear Colleagues,

Much is happening around the country right now to inflame hatred toward Muslims and Arabs. As one dear colleague noted today with understandable alarm, “I am deeply worried about the poisonous environment swirling around the Park51 initiative. Glen Beck and his ilk have given public permission to revile and attack Muslims and their institutions. Mosques are being burned, there is a threat to torch Qur'ans on 9/11, and individuals are being physically assaulted.”

Further, those of us with origins in South Asia or the Middle East (Muslim or not) – that is, those of us who are perceived as Muslim or Arab based on our phenotype or our dress – are also beginning to catch the fire.

As educators or as individuals otherwise concerned about civil rights and civil liberties, we need to be on the alert and be prepared to do whatever we can to speak up and to educate.

At the very minimum, we could take a few minutes of class time to address this burgeoning social issue and help in raising our students’ awareness of how such bias might hurt and scar real human beings around us.

We could also consider developing and sharing information sheets or power-points on Islam & Islamophobia for our courses and offer some programs for campus at large.

Have a good Labor Day weekend, Amrit

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Duet for Two Pens

From The New York Times

“Where literature exists, translation exists. Joined at the hip, they are absolutely inseparable, and, in the long run, what happens to one happens to the other. Despite all the difficulties the two have faced, sometimes separately, usually together, they need and nurture each other, and their long-term relationship, often problematic but always illuminating, will surely continue for as long as they both shall live.”

Book Review - Why Translation Matters - By Edith Grossman - Review -

Thursday, December 31, 2009

South Asian Ensemble on the Web

South Asian Ensemble
An Interface of Arts, Literature and Culture for South Asian Diaspora

South Asian Ensemble is a Canadian quarterly devoted to the arts, literature and culture of the South Asian diaspora.

The inaugural issue is now available online:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Roma People

From Manzur Ejaz of

The gypsies or the Roma people, presently settled in Europe, are of Punjabi origin. In this movie if you follow the dailogues you will recognize Punjabi words like pee (drink) kha (eat) main (me) tu (you) etc . This is very intresting film about seperated Punjabis.

Some artiles about Roma people.

On the road to Roma people

Tarot of the Romas

Roma People

Sunday, November 8, 2009

From Pokharan To Private Ryan

A Day In New York Remembered

By M L Raina

My New York is not the city Thomas Pynchon’s V explored through its sewers, nor the city that Garcia Lorca thought diabolic as well as inviting. My New York is a city on whose symmetrical streets and avenues I have walked miles and capped milestones of memory and remembrance. One such memory is of a day more than ten years ago, a memory that is evoked as I rediscover those streets on a day’s walk.
I arrive in New York a few days after India blasted its way into the nuclear club. Suitably puffed up with patriotic fervour I recall the words of the actor George Scott, playing World War II’s prima donnish general Patton in the Hollywood movie of that name: “No poor bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other bastard die for his country”. So, on arrival, my first impulse is to see how the other bastards, Pakistanis, were coping with our new-found pride and self-respect. What right, I ask, has the American President who couldn’t hold his own zipper in place, to lecture to us on the ‘immorality’ of owning an atom bomb? How dare the Chinese, the Brits, the Japs and the Ruskies deny us a place in the nuclear monopoly? And what right have the Pakistanis to cry fire when all along they were readying their own bomb with stolen uranium? My pride balloons further when I read my fellow academic Harish Trivedi ticking off the New York Times for not taking note of us as a nuclear power. Armour-plated with assertiveness I set out to reconnoitre.
I call up my friends at the university where I occasionally lecture to know how they felt about us. They respond with the usual familiarity. I notice no awe in their voices at my new status as the citizen of a nuclear–armed nation. The same banter, the same opening gambits to conversation about who was in and who was out in the market place that is an American campus. No hallelujahs at my new avatar as a nuclear-toothed third world academic. A close friend, particularly sympathetic to India, doesn’t even bother to know how it feels to be saying with Wordsworth ‘we are seven’ not five. Instead she asks when my niece Priya, a Columbia university undergraduate, is giving her next Bharatnatyam performance and if my friend’s daughter would be invited. I begin to simmer with indignation. While the rest of the world shivers with the tremors from Pokharan, here is a friend who isn’t even aware (or pretends not to be) of our achievement. Is it envy or racial arrogance (two excuses the friends of BJP in America offer) that keeps the West from genuinely acknowledging our feat? Access the BJP’s website and their print columns to grasp their swaggering self-righteousness.
Turn to the people on the streets of New York and you are assailed by their yawning indifference to what is happening outside their yard-sized self-absorbed world. Does the American establishment hate us? I wonder. Shouldn’t they be rejoicing at the world’s largest democracy squaring up with the world’s ‘greatest democracy’? I recall William Hazlitt’s 1826 essay “On the Pleasures of Hatred” wherein he speaks of hatred as a spur to achievement. Then the penny drops. First it was the Russians and America’s hatred spurred them into space exploration. Would the blasts from Pokhran and Chagai spur them on to some deadlier technologies?
To feel how our ‘traditional enemies’, the Pakistanis, were cowering under our nuclear threat, I saunter into Nagma House, the famous Pakistani electronics store on Lexington Avenue (now gone without trace, as everything in New York disappears when you look for it after many years), where subcontinental shoppers would pick up their gadgets in 240 volts and shop for papers and magazines from India and Pakistan. The affable young owner greets me with the same warmth as on other occasions and asks why I hadn’t stepped into the store for a long time. I sense neither bitterness in his voice nor any menace in his manner. Knowing my preference for Urdu papers he signals his Nepali assistant to bring me latest issues of Jang and Nawai Waqt. With screeching headlines threatening the destruction of India, the papers carry extensive reports on how the country is facing up to India’s ‘hegemonism’. A middle-aged Muslim enters the store and asks for a Bhim Sen Joshi CD. Nodding to me as fellow shoppers do in a store, he says, “You don’t get them in Pakistan”. A youngster, another Pakistani, asks if Amol Palekar’s film Dayara was available in video-cassette (DVDs appeared much later). Meanwhile Javed, the owner, sells me a pay-per-view for the India-Pakistan cricket series soon to be held in Toronto. A bubbly girl with her semi-rouged mother in tow comes in to return the cassette of the Pakistani TV serial Marvi. “What a relief from the dreary fare from Doordarshan”, she chortles. Papers tucked under, I leave the store rather dismayed at the absence of hatred inside.
Are the ‘other bastards’ just putting up a brave face? Or are they just stupid? Or are they unconcerned as long as I buy their papers and they our CDs? Suddenly, as if in a flash, I realize that these private gestures are more revealing of the inherent commonality of us all than the public postures of belligerence. Inside Nagma house you sense no war but commerce of cultural give and take as well as an occasional cordiality if not a total bonhomie. (Cynics call it sheer business instinct which it also is.). Nuke rattling would kill these sentiments. After all, in a real sense, there is no patriotism but only an instinct to preserve our private selves under the grandiose slogans of ‘Love Your Country Above Everything Else”. These private transactions constitute our civilized individual responses to the scabrous reverberations heard at Pokhran and Chagai. These only endure amidst the war cries of our ruling establishments. They are incorporated into our common vulnerabilities, our not-to-be-wished away desire to defend our private selves against the jingoistic assaults on both sides. Patriotism has no meaning unless it is private—a fact brought home to me in Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan.
In this film the gung-ho war-mongering of the likes of Patton or the chief protagonist of the 1962 film The Longest Day is put to a severe close scrutiny. “Private Ryan opens and closes with the Stars and Stripes spread on the screen. But unlike in Patton, it is faded suggesting the difficulty of surrendering our private selves to the state’s version of patriotism. A clear shift is visible here: ones private prerogatives are preferred over the aggressive public demands for conformity. Private Ryan is more important than all the blather about defending our country against our enemies who also, it would appear, have their own private Ryans. Even the mission undertaken by Captain Miller to find Ryan (the two brothers are already dead on the Omaha Beach) is justified in the hope that in the end, “I could go back to my wife”. The first thirty minutes of the film showing broken limbs, hanging entrails, bodies torn asunder in tender spots, mock the hollow exhortations to war. Every death becomes my death, every pain my pain. Spielberg has ripped the mask from all consoling vocabularies.
Private Ryan is appropriate to the present sub-continental occasion as it reveals the enormities of war behind sensational slogans. I wonder if it is more moral and just to oppose nuclear war on the ground that it negates my private world as well as my enemy’s, than to support ideologies that encourage all round destruction. Americans needed Vietnam to cool their patriotic frenzy for a time. But they learnt no lessons then in Vietnam and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do the new Godzillas of Pokhran and Chagai need other enactments of the killing fields before they step back from the Armageddon?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Re-Markings : The Journal of English Letters

is a biannual journal of English Letters. The journal aims at providing a healthy forum for scholarly and authoritative views on broad cultural issues of human import as evidenced in literature, art, television, cinema and journalism. Special Numbers/Sections devoted to events, issues and personalities are a regular feature of Re-Markings. Launched in March 2002 Re-Markings is in its seventh year of publication in 2008. In this short span the journal has made its presence felt emphatically in literary and academic circles with appreciative comments coming from senior academicians, statesmen and writers in India and abroad. Charles Johnson, the most persuasive voice in Afro-American writing today, responded to Re-Markings thus: “I've now read (twice) this issue's (March 2004) introduction, and looked over the material included on poet David Ray. All in all, with its impressive global range and vision, and especially the international writers included, this issue is magnificent, critically and creatively. Congratulations! There is really nothing quite like this fine publication in America--every issue is to be treasured”-- Charles Johnson, Winner of National Book Award, USA., and author of Middle Passage, Dreamer, Soul-Catcher and other Stories,

The following comment is by Professor Jonathan Little, Chairman, Department of English, Alverno College, Milwaukee, WI, U.S.A.: “I finally received Re-Markings and read it through. I was very impressed by the range of the articles and the issues they covered, including Nietzsche and Mukherjee, for example. The articles were clear and to the point. I also liked the prose-poem you included. Very good idea to include some creative work! I wish more academic journals would do that. I'm honored to have my writing included in it.”

Prof M.L. Raina, Distinguished Scholar & Former Head, Dept. of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh: “Just a word to say that you are doing a very good job with Re-Markings. The journal carries promising articles and has a variety that is not to be found in the Indian journals that come my way. I hope it is around for a long time.”

For details regarding Subscription/Contribution contact Dr. Nibir K Ghosh, Chief Editor, at or 919897062958

Chief Editor : Nibir K. Ghosh
Editor: A. Karunaker
Associate Editor: Katy Howe
Executive Editor : Sundeep Arora
Advisory Board: Dr. Charles Johnson, Jayanta Mahapatra, Dr. Amritjit Singh, Dr. Ruediger Kunow, Dr. S. Ramaswamy, Dr. Jonah Raskin & Dr. C.R. Visveswara Rao

Re-Markings ISSN 0972-611X
68 New Idgah Colony, Agra-282001, U.P. (INDIA).
Tel: (0562) –2420330; 2420116; E-mail :

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Recipe Fiction and the Undercooked Nightbird

Reading Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

“‘The thing is to give them what they want. . . . I am simply using it to make a living.’” (Badami 126)

“As for the authentic ingredients to create the authentic taste? Well, Bibi-ji knew where everything could be found.” (136)

“By the simple act of writing to her, Nimmo realized, she had gathered up those shards of memory and looked straight at them for the first time.” (161)

The first impression that Anita Rau Badami leaves on a reader with her novel Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? is that she is an impressive storyteller. She knows the ways of the word, can spin the yarn back and forth with a seductive elegance, and seems to command an accurate measure of her reader’s sensibilities. She tantalizes, but stops short of inflicting strain. In short, she is a clever and safe player who takes only calculated risk.

But great writing demands more than this modest set of writerly virtues. On the farther end, it demands the dismembering of Orpheus. Short of that, it demands at the very least an authentic, resolutely confronted subject position, for want of which the writer remains vulnerable to any current that might sweep her off her feet (Blanchot 171-76).

Badami’s basic problem in this novel is her inability to confront the constitutive ambivalence of her subject position as a postcolonial-diasporic writer in a specific situation under late capitalism. This inability undermines the potential of her writing, thwarting and compromising it severely. Unable to peer into the abyss of writing, she balks at the edge. And fails writing’s demand.

In fact, she has little to offer to writing’s consuming demand precisely because in her case Orpheus has not yet attained self-consciousness. Hence, sacrifice is not even a possibility yet.

The evasion of a clear-eyed encounter with her subject position sets off a series of lesser evasions, which are lesser only in comparison with the evasion of the abyss of writing that would crack open, in this case, a slit upon the other’s unspeakable suffering and shatter the writer’s designs. But neither can she avoid a deep sense of guilt over the evasions. As a result, she drags herself repeatedly to the edge, but only to retreat yet again. At the same time, her displaced guilt breaks through the surface of the narrative to poison the lives of several of her characters, particularly Bibi-ji and Leela. Indeed, the multilayered conflict of evasion and guilt determines and even constricts the movement of the narrative, leaving under-accomplished a novel of great promise.

The inability to confront the ambivalence of her subject position is most obvious in her ambivalent stance vis-à-vis the intended reader. She tries to write for the white Canadian reader in particular and the Western reader in general. Her transcontinental tale is woven over the timeline of Indian, not Canadian, history; moreover, the greater part of it is located in India. When she mentions the names of Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi, she scrupulously explains in each case that they have been India’s prime ministers. But not so in Brian Mulroney’s case: the reader is supposed to know her ABC of Canadian political history (66; 396). Similarly, Nanak is explained as “the founder of Sikhism” and Amritsar as “Sikhism’s most holy city” (147; 33). Mangalasutra, in a charitable act of cultural translation, gets defined –with little profit if any– as “the gold and black marriage beads around [Leela’s] neck” (97). There are “munda Sikhs” (by which she probably means sahajadhari Sikhs) and the badly overdone and exclusivist stereotype of “Sikhs chattering in Punjabi” (354; 134). There is a surfeit of jis: Pa-ji, Bibi-ji, Indira-ji and even Helen-ji of Hindi films (Pa-ji is obviously quite a transliterational climb-down from Bha-ji, the correct Punjabi word, for which English has no phonetic equivalent). And there are “mynah birds”, a wretched tautology but probably melodious to the ears of latter-day cultural informants and their target readers (345). Badami is obviously writing a potable and commodifiable India from within Canada (sitting, perhaps, in a Canadian library) for a white Canadian readership. Even the apparent spread of her historical canvas over nearly a century wears rather thin, with events –like her cities of Delhi, Amritsar and Vancouver with their coffee-table book descriptions– never really coming to life. She would bring history and memory face to face (as an epigraph to the novel proclaims), but would not carry the burden of history.

But even as she tries hard to address the white Canadian/Western reader, her attitude remains ambivalent, for her assumed role of the diasporic cultural informant as the other’s other is not unproblematic. She cannot not write for the Indian reader back home too. Her readership is thus fractured and it would require that she position herself as a writer vis-à-vis this fractured readership, a strategic operation contingent upon a lucidly comprehended subject position with all its ambivalence (Sartre 60; 91; 113-114). The fracture is, moreover, multiple: addressing the Indian reader, she happens to be writing as a South Indian straining with a good conscience to pen the tragic (hi)story of Punjab, particularly of the bloody turmoil of the 1980s. The writing with a good conscience, however, conflicts with the temptation of ethnic typecasting for quick consumption through popular media imaginary: the result is easy reduction of the people to caricatures. Notably though, the South Indian characters in the novel do not suffer this reduction; only the Punjabi characters do.

Because she both loves and hates the “white people” who are her principal intended readers, they too, like the Punjabis, get to be refracted through her caricaturing lens (115). The description of Mr. Longbottom, the Principal of Jasbeer’s school, through Bibi-ji’s eyes as “this milk-faced man with his prissy mouth and the chin of a horse” plays on fantasies of infancy and the subliminal associations of stereotyped Punjabi masculinity with lions (211). Similarly, her nativist anger against the xenophobic Colonel Samuel Hunt of the British India is barely concealed:

Her [Bibi-ji’s] eyes fell on Colonel Samuel Hunt, ex-British army, one of the regulars and the only gora in a sea of brown-skinned desis, deliberating over the brief menu before ordering, as always, the same items–mutton curry with naan and a pint of lager to wash it all down. In the six years since the restaurant had opened, Samuel Hunt had become known for his uncomplimentary sentiments towards immigrants who did not share his racial heritage–a fact that used to aggravate Bibi-ji no end, until she came to see him as a sad old man whose eyes and ears were so sealed by his skin that he could neither witness nor understand the changing world. But whatever his feelings towards the desis who gathered at The Delhi Junction, Sam Hunt could not resist their food. After twenty-five years in India, the old man had developed a taste for curries. (57)

The double-edged irony of “the only gora in a sea of brown-skinned desis” and the attempt to reach out and understand him as a helpless “sad old man” vanquished by his intractable taste buds clearly point to a deeper ambivalence which can be traced to Badami’s own uncertain subject position.

It is also arguably this uncertainty which explains her vulnerability to the temptations and imperatives of the postcolonial global marketplace in which literary business process back-sourcing is a favourite diasporic strategy for niche marketing. The postcolonial-diasporic writer’s urge to profitably position her work in this unequal marketplace has to be seen in the light of colonial relations of literary production: these relations survive and even flourish in the postcolonial world in the form of relations essentially of neocolonial-global literary production. The predictable product of these relations is recipe fiction which reins in both authorial agency and writing’s demand in the interest of ‘global’ marketability. And it has certain identifiable ingredients, such as stereotype and caricature, sex, sentimentalism, intellectualist jargon and a lavish garnishing of culturalist images and symbols. The wish to “give them what they want” by throwing in “the authentic ingredients to create the authentic taste” appears to be a really smart move but it remains an evasion for all that. An evasion of writing’s demand, of history and memory, of truth when it must be spoken to power, of ethical responsibility to the other.

It is significant that most of the major characters in the novel are stereotyped or caricatured, or both: that saves them from being seen as they are. Pa-ji, or Khushwant Singh, is a doting husband who drinks in order to be a “lion in bed” (204). He has put together a fake personal ancestry and claims to be penning The Popular and True History of the Sikh Diaspora (200). We never get to look at the pages of that book but it is ironic that this reasonable and kind man of moderate political opinions has no idea of the harm that such quirky and imaginary notions of history as his can wreak on impressionable young minds, like that of his adopted son Jasbeer. Bibi-ji, who speaks with “a posh BBC accent” in Vancouver but in “ripe Punjabi” in Delhi, is described, through Leela’s eyes, as a “woman with the loud voice and louder clothes” (116; 168; 134). Lalloo, with his un-Punjabi name, appears to Leela “like an exotic insect” (132). And Leela is “a small, sparrow-shaped Southie” in Bibi-ji’s eyes (135). The writer’s ostensibly comic insight conceals a relentless process of complex calibanisation in which her gaze jumps across races and ethnicities to take contradictory adversarial positions. Traversing through Pa-ji and Samuel Hunt, Bibi-ji and Mr. Longbottom, Lalloo and Leela, it sets up multiple identifications and objectifications. The only character with whom absolutely no identification is established is Dr. Raghubir Randhawa from Southall, the man who preaches a separate Sikh homeland. Could it be because his representation evokes, beyond the comforting though bewildering ambiguities of the diasporic subjectivity, the self-assurance, clarity and naiveté of a nationalistic subjectivity in the writer’s mind?

Among other ingredients of the recipe, sex finds its place in the amorous encounters of Pa-ji and Bibi-ji and Satpal and Nimmo (206-7; 244-46). While the former encounter is reported with the brevity and carnality of voyeuristic yellow journalism, the latter is woven, through memories of pain and sorrow, into the wider fabric of human existence:

Even later, the time came when she [Nimmo] would sit in the same room, dark and filthy and smelling of death rather than fresh paint, and yet when her eyes landed on those faded handprints, the single large one beside her own two, she would feel a tiny spark of that distant, joyous moment when her husband’s body had lain on hers, warm and so very alive. (245-46)

The two entirely disparate instances of the use of sex exemplify what is at stake in the writing of the novel.

Similarly, sentimentalism often gets the better of Badami’s instinct for economy. Driven by it, she can put her authorial omniscience to an embarrassing use by repeatedly anticipating Leela’s untimely and violent death in the air. Leela wishes, as a young girl, “to die in [her] own bed, under [her] own roof” (101). Later, she is seen musing over death and urging her son to perform “the correct rituals” when she is no more (231-32). To top it all, in the high tradition of sentimental Hindi TV serials, she is visited by Yama in her dream on the night before her last flight (384-85).

The brutally raw pain of the innocent Satpal’s undeserved public execution on a street is bartered away when the writer renounces verbal economy for deadening repetition for the sake of sentimental effect:

The heat burned his eyes and his last thought was that he could not even weep. He could not even weep. (371)

As if to balance sex and sentimentalism, the writer throws in some intellectualist jargon, the trade lingo of the diaspora specialist. Here is Leela, instructing her daughter Preethi on how to make an auspicious first entry into their new home in Vancouver:

“And don’t stop in the doorway,” she called over her shoulder. “Remember, it’s an in-between space. Neither here nor there. It is dangerous.” (110)

When Bibi-ji looks at the maps that Dr. Randhawa is holding up, her thoughts miraculously turn to diasporic theory:

Like me, she thought. A series of tracings, a palimpsest of images, the product of so many histories, some true, some imaginary, all valid, but surely not all necessary? (255)

In fact, Bibi-ji with her innate knowledge of theory understands well Pa-ji’s compulsive need to give himself a fictional history:

Bibi-ji understood his need to possess a piece of history, she knew all about keeping dreams alive. What harm, she thought, could his small private fictions do in a world where larger truths were reshaped to suit those in power? (204)

While such ingredients of the recipe stick out obtrusively like flies in a pot of milk because they do not belong there, there are others that serve the purpose of garnishing. These include an assortment of culturalist images and symbols and several loose ends that brush annoyingly against the reader’s attentive face. The image of falling, which seems to define Leela’s destiny, is overdone. From a falling pot of geraniums in a London street that brings together her parents Rosa and Hari in a doomed wedlock, through Balu Bhat’s tripping over Leela’s extended leg and then his sudden decision to leave Bangalore for Canada which is motivated by a falling arch that spares his life, to the mid-air bombing of Kanishka and its fall into the Atlantic that ends Leela’s story, it all looks too neat, overdesigned and childish (77; 90; 96; 98; 393). Likewise, Yama, Trishanku and Indra’s Net are pinned up on the narrative like exotica on a literary shop window. Even the nightbird of the title, apparently intended to be a powerful symbol, fails to make a song: it does not grow beyond an unfinished image. The only images that stay to haunt the memory are those of the bharoli and the soap with the fragrance of lavender. The reason is that both are intrinsic to the tale: they grow out of it and with it, and in both alike are intertwined the contradictory emotions of security and fear, of caring and violence. One can glimpse here Badami’s immense talent, elsewhere unfortunately constrained and corrupted.

There are, then, quite a few loose ends: Balu’s reported interest in discussing books with prospective brides, the “darkness” inside Jasbeer that his mother intuitively senses and that draws him to Dr. Randhawa and terrorism, his long absence, police custody and eventual return that remain shrouded in mystery, and the insinuations of Lalloo’s and Bibi-ji’s complicity in Leela’s killing. The writer seems not to know what to do with these loose ends. This is really surprising, given her otherwise powerful, economic and level-headed treatment of the issues of racism, ethnic fundamentalism and religious fanaticism.

Badami’s real, and self-appointed, test however lies in her response to the challenge posed by memory and history. “My memory keeps getting in the way of your history” – the first of the three epigraphs of the novel, taken from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Farewell” – carries a tremendous promise: that the novel will challenge official history with the resources of personal memory. And the promise seems to be all the more tremendous when you see that here is a history spanning eight decades, beginning with Sher Singh’s departure to Canada in 1906 and ending with Jasbeer’s return to home in Delhi in June 1986. The sweep of the narrative carries three generations and two continents, World War II, India’s Partition, the Chinese invasion of 1962, the India-Pakistan conflicts of 1965 and 1971, the imposition of national emergency in India in 1975, Operation Bluestar in 1984, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the subsequent massacre of innocent Sikhs, and the bombing of Kanishka in 1985. But this is history reduced, more often, to a theatre backdrop and a calendar of events, intended to lend – at best – only an illusion of temporal depth to the narrative and an effect of historicity to characters and incidents. The opening of Chapter Four, “The Delhi Junction”, illustrates this cosmetic use of history rather well:

Nineteen sixty-one was a momentous year for the world: the handsome young John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, and a few months later a Russian named Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It was also a banner year for Pa-ji and Bibi-ji, who formally opened their restaurant, The Delhi Junction Café–realizing yet another of Bibi-ji’s ambitions. (56)

Badami’s use of history is not very much unlike Pa-ji’s whose restaurant displays quite a variety of pictures and clocks. There are pictures of the Sikh Gurus, Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, Meena Kumari, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Dev Anand. And the various clocks show the time in different countries in which the Punjabi diaspora can be found.

Guided by the signpost of the epigraph, one would expect to see the narrative encounters of personal memory with the blind spots of official history. But with history turned into an idiosyncratic display on the walls of Pa-ji’s restaurant, memory has nothing to engage and overwrite. The events in Punjab’s post-independence history, for example, hang like plastic skeletons without an ounce of flesh. One would be tempted to infer that the vast canvas of eight decades requires a pace and a compression that rule out dwelling over certain moments and persons, but the narrative does slow down at many places (in Chapters “Half-and-Half”, “The Small Joys” and “The Safest Place”, for instance). However, those are precisely the places where official history is not under scrutiny or interrogation.

Indeed, it is precisely before the profound and unsettling implications of the encounters of memory with history that Badami flinches in hesitation. Harjot’s Komagata Maru tale remains untold. His abrupt departure from the village and into oblivion never seems to trouble the lonely nights of his wife Gurpreet. The catastrophe of the Partition literally gets a short shrift: Nimmo’s fragmentary and unsure memories, instead of bringing it out, help to repress the pain of the Partition. Kanwar’s rape in the seventh month of her pregnancy and her disappearance quietly fade out of the narrative. Pa-ji’s death in the holy premises of Harmandir Sahib during Operation Bluestar is told, at best, like a well-drafted news report. And the little Kamal’s fate, and that of her corpse, after she is baked to death in the steel almirah by Indira Gandhi’s self-ordained revengers, is just not looked straight in the eye.

These are so many –and so perturbing– hours of darkness that brood in the shadows of Badami’s narrative. Each is an abyss caught from the corner of the eye like a vague glimpse, but not confronted in its terrifying lucidity. None, hence, sees the light of day.


Because here is writing done after a recipe. Like the Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Works Cited

Badami, Anita Rau. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? Canada: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. 1982. London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Sartre, Jean Paul. What is Literature? Trans. Bernard Frechtman. UK: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1950. 1993. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Of course, Sartre invokes the concept of a fractured or split (reading) public in a historically and ideologically very different context: he broods over the missed opportunities for creative inner tension that the fracture offered to the writers in the nineteenth century Europe but which the writers, in his opinion, squandered. My appropriation of the concept in the context of contemporary Indian diasporic writing is intended to point, not without irony, to the resulting tension that is often anything but creative.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Cite as:
Sharma, Rajesh Kumar. "Recipe Fiction and the Undercooked Nightbird: Reading Anita Rau Badami's Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?". URL: Accessed: 2008-05-21.
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