Behind the Shadows - A Review by Anchita Ghatak

November 7th, 2012 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Africa, Books, India, Women No Comments »

Share

Do you roll your eyes in horror every time you speak to a call centre executive? Emmanuel Sigauke in his story entitled Call Centre takes us into the world of these frontline soldiers of the twenty first century globalised market economy. In a call centre in California, a Zimbabwean is mocked by a customer for his accent and abused as an Indian, a terrorist and then bin Laden. Borders dissolve and identities collide as the call centre employee tries to deal with arrogance and ignorance.

Behind the Shadows is an anthology of African and Asian short stories in English, born out of a meeting between writers, Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner. In March 2011, Chowdhury and Wanner, with the objective of bringing together the two continents of Africa and Asia, sent out a call for stories with the theme outcast, to be interpreted by the writers as they pleased. The writers could be from Africa or Asia, or in the Diaspora, but it was necessary that their stories deal with the theme as experienced by Africans and/or Asians. The result is a collection of twenty one compelling stories from the two continents. The stories are all originally written in English. At present, this anthology is only available as an e-book.

Nandini Lal writes of the melting pot that is the United States of America – where people of different nations and races live together. But does a change of location result in greater acceptance or tolerance? Maybe it does. However, prejudice and ignorance can live side by side with acceptance, protectiveness and understanding. Stereoptypical notions of child-adult dynamics, child-adult relationships and man-woman interactions result in a terrible wrong. Lal’s story is an exploration of the fact that ignorance and prejudice are not just part of the psyche of the majority. Minorities – immigrants in this story - also distrust immigrants from a community or race other than their own.

Behind the Shadows pulls out things not often talked about. Philip Begho writes of tribal conventions that can’t dissolve in urban anonymity. Several stories in the collection deal with traditional ideas about life, health, disease and death and their interaction with modernity. In Maroko Outcast, we see how a self declared progressive man, who has himself railed against the caste system, becomes a prey to deeply ingrained prejudice. In Cape Farm No 432, Jayne Bauling writes of the Leprosy Repression Act of 1892( South Africa), where state intervention in leprosy created a situation where people with the disease were treated like criminals instead of getting the care and compassion they deserved. Himanjali Sankar, on the other hand, weaves an amusing tale about the interactions amongst the world of the dead and that of the living in Granny’s Parapsychological Services.

Tasneem Basha’s story gives the collection its name and talks about wife beating in an Indian South African family. Maryam is battered mercilessly by her husband Yusuf and also treated with contempt by his mother and other relatives. However, Maryam finally decides to put an end to her life as a punching bag and become a person instead. 

Cast Out by Sucharita Dutta Asane focuses on prejudice that is intrinsic to India. She writes of a village that can be accessed by mobile phones and television cameras, yet is fiercely misogynist. Girl babies are routinely killed and buried in the village but neither the villagers nor the television journalists, who occasionally turn up in the village, seem to think that this killing of baby girls should be discussed and something done to stop it. A menstruating woman polluting the temple seems a matter of much greater concern. In a story focused on menstrual taboos, it was disconcerting to see the phrase ‘menstrual cycle’ used to mean ‘menstrual period’. Surely better attention could have been paid to terminology?

The Last Rhino in Mutare looks at the tumultuous politics of Zimbabwe through a little girl’s eyes. Delia wonders about the white women who never gave a thought to the true name of things. Child she might be but she has an astute view of racism. Many events play in the background and Delia makes her own world with Ronald, Gift and Ichabod. Who is the outcast here - a child in search of harmony or the adults who are overturning her world?

The collection introduces the writers in a delightfully lighthearted way. Behind the Shadows doesn’t make any claims of being representative. The use of the terms, African and Asian, nonetheless, raises expectations. From Africa, we have stories from Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. It is disappointing that Asia is represented largely by India and there are two (one and a half?) stories from Singapore.

This is an anthology that should be read widely. I am not sure how accessible e-books and especially Kindle editions are to readers in Africa and Asia. The unique collective of editors and writers that has put this book together will have to find ways to overcome technological barriers and work to ensure that the book reaches an eager, international readership.

Anchita Ghatak is a development professional who works on issues of poverty and rights. She has also translated Dayamoyeer Katha into English (A Life Long Ago).

 

Behind the Shadows, Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia

Available to buy and download as an e-book on Amazon ‘s Kindle store:

Behind the Shadows
Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia
Editors: Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner

US$ 4.99

On amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Behind-Shadows-Contemporary-Stories-ebook/dp/B009H77OLU/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1349080606&sr=8-4&keywords=zukiswa+wanner

For UK readers:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Behind-Shadows-Contemporary-Stories-ebook/dp/B009H77OLU/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1349080680&sr=8-4

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


A Special Friendship …and a Special Book

October 1st, 2012 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Africa, Books, India, Short Stories, Women No Comments »

Share

They say that love happens when we least expect it. Well, that is true of friendship too. It was on the 28th of March, 2010, that I first wrote to South African writer Zukiswa Wanner. I didn’t know anything about her except what the British Council had told me when they asked if I would ‘buddy’ her during the London Book Fair that April. They had ‘matched’ us together  – according to our ‘literary accomplishments’. As it turned out, the match was a match of minds, and one which has turned into one of the most enriching friendships of my life.

We met first at Zukiswa’s hotel, and then she came home for a meal. I don’t remember what I had cooked or what we ate – but I do remember that we talked. And talked. And talked. And have been talking ever since. We talk books and children, men and marriage, love and life.  We’ve seen each other through good times and bad, we’ve laughed and cried together, and picked each other up when we were down. She has become a part of the fabric of my life, my sister from across the seas.

And through the weave of our friendship runs a magic thread – our common passion for writing. Words are the music of our lives, and writing our joy, our salvation and yes, even our livelihood! It didn’t take us long to recognize this passion in each other, and very soon we both knew we wanted to work with each other. We liked the way the other spoke, we liked the way the other wrote, and most of all, we liked the way the other THOUGHT!

So began our discussions on creating a piece of work together. We talked about a novel – each writing separate bits to make up a whole; we talked about a collection of tales, some by Zukiswa, some by me, that we could weave into a collection – and then one day we had it! Why limit ourselves to us when the whole world lay out there, waiting to be included? And so we thought of an anthology of stories, written by writers across the world, selected and edited by us; a collection that would bring together our two continents of Africa and Asia, with their shared history and shared humanity. The theme  – ‘outcast’– presented itself quite naturally to us: with apartheid in South Africa, and caste in India, and discrimination against women practised in both cultures.

And when we sent out the call for short stories, we were overwhelmed by the response. Clearly, the theme resonated with many  - not just across Africa and Asia, but across the world.  More than two hundred writers responded to our call from  Hongkong and Singapore to India, Egypt and the USA.  More than a hundred and fifty sent in their stories. Zukiswa and I spent several months reading and re-reading the stories and making our selection. Then came the sometimes tedious, but always fulfilling task of editing, of the stories flying back and forth between us and the writers for tweaks and cleaning up. And at long last, the manuscript was ready.

The twenty-one stories that we have chosen are the ones that touched us most. They deal with love and hope, despair and darkness, and despite the sombre theme, some of them even made us laugh.

 

Behind the Shadows, Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia

Available to buy and download as an e-book on Amazon ‘s Kindle store:

Behind the Shadows
Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia
Editors:  Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner

US$ 4.99

The title, Behind the Shadows, is from one of the short stories in the collection by writer Tasneem Basha. The collection also includes Penguin-shortlisted author Isabella Morris; Caine Prize-shortlisted writer Lauri Kubuitsile; renowned Singaporean Young Artist Award recipient, author and poet, Felix Cheong; and emerging Indian writers Rumjhum Biswas, Monideepa Sahu, and Sucharita Dutta-Asane.

On amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Behind-Shadows-Contemporary-Stories-ebook/dp/B009H77OLU/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1349080606&sr=8-4&keywords=zukiswa+wanner

For UK readers:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Behind-Shadows-Contemporary-Stories-ebook/dp/B009H77OLU/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1349080680&sr=8-4

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


In a Railway Carriage…

November 18th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Journeys, Women No Comments »

Share

I was a student, studying in far away Ahmedabad that summer. The term ended, and I boarded the train home to Delhi. That summer, instead of the fast, overnight train, I chose to take the long slow train that wound its way leisurely through Gujarat and the deserts of Rajasthan for a night and a day before reaching Delhi. It was the middle of the afternoon. The compartment I was in was packed with people - men, women and children, talking desultorily amongst themselves or nodding drowsily in the heat. We had sitting room only – it was impossible to stretch out or lie down. And if you made the mistake of getting up from your seat on the hard wooden berths, chances were you wouldn’t get your place back when you tried to sit down again.

I was sandwiched between the window (mercifully) and a tall, silent, middle-aged man dressed smartly in trousers and shirt, the only person in Western attire in that compartment. Opposite me sat a woman, who couldn’t have been much older than I, but who was accompanied by two small children - a little girl with large, dark eyes and tightly plaited hair, who sat demurely by her side, and a baby boy who slept peacefully in her lap. The woman wore her sari draped the traditional way, the aanchal covering her head, and falling in front across her right shoulder. She smiled at me, with the pleasant happy smile of a person content with her life.

Now, I am not much given to making conversation with strangers on a train, and so I buried myself in a book, and shut out the world as best I could. Suddenly I became aware that the tall, silent man was trying to look sideways into my book. That made me uncomfortable, but not willing to make a fuss, I ignored him. I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring; not a book that interests many people, I knew, and definitely not the kind of book that would interest this man I decided. It was after all a fairy-tale, a satire. Not the traditional good read at all. But I was mistaken. The man was interested in my book, very interested.

‘Look, she is reading a book,’ he announced suddenly to the other passengers. His voice was derisive, taunting. I realized that he was talking about me. I looked up, but not wishing to draw any more attention to myself, I said nothing. The others looked at him for a moment, then at me, nodded politely and resumed their various conversations. The woman across smiled at me again.

‘Are you reading an angrezi book?’ he tried again after a while.

Jee, haan, yes, I am reading an English book,’ I replied. (We had, of course, been speaking all this while in Hindi.)

A look of incredulity, indignation and anger passed across his face.

‘Are you sure you can read that book?’ he asked again, still in Hindi, glaring at me disapprovingly.

‘Yes, I can read it,’ I replied. I was now feeling puzzled as well as uncomfortable.

He leant back, his arms crossed, a look of grim annoyance on his face. For a while he said nothing, and I hoped that he would now let me be. I once again buried myself in my book.

A little later, ‘Can I see your book?’ he demanded, holding out a peremptory hand. Intimidated by his tone, and now more than a little frightened, I silently shut the book and handed it to him. The other passengers ignored this exchange, all except the woman sitting across. She was watching and listening with great interest.

The man scowled at the cover, and opened the book at random. He glared at the illustrations (cartoon-style, black-and-white line drawings) and began reading. He read silently, slowly, with difficulty, his expression angry and disapproving. A few sentences later, the anger was replaced by surprised disbelief. He turned the page, and then several more. ‘Par yeh to bakwaas hai! This is nonsense!’ he cried.

Then, holding the book up and waving it about so that all and sundry may see and hear, he announced, ‘This book is rubbish! It is not possible to understand a word that is written in here! She is lying! She can’t read! She is only pretending!’ He handed the book back to me, and settled back into his seat triumphantly.

I was too stunned to respond. I was also close to tears by this time. What was he saying? Of course I could read! Why would I lie? I could see no reason for his accusations or his attack.

The woman opposite had continued to watch and to listen. ‘Don’t listen to him!’ she cried fiercely. ‘Men like him know no better. They don’t want women to read. If women could read, how would these men subjugate us, dominate us?’

I understood what had happened - I realized that I had, quite unwittingly, upset the man’s world completely. Here I was, a woman, comfortable enough with the written word to read a book, and that too in English! In his world, I saw, he was used to being the dominant male, a great part of his dominance deriving from his knowledge of English, and his ability to read and write in that language, as well as from the fact that the women in his world, even if literate, did not read, not even in their own language.

The woman glared angrily at the man. ‘Leave her alone! What do you know of books or learning? Only because you wear a shirt and trousers does not make you wise!’ she cried.

The man ignored her and me – he was leaning back, his eyes shut, a smile of great satisfaction on his face. He had managed to prove to himself and the entire railway compartment that women couldn’t read English after all!! He had restored order in his world. It was ironic that it had been his own failure to understand the book that I had been reading that had given him the assurance of my inability to read.

The woman turned back to me. ‘I can’t read,’ she continued, ‘but I know that you are not lying. You can read. And you can read English. It makes me proud that a woman can do all that you are doing. You must study, you must read, and you must make us women proud.’ She smiled at me again, that lovely, happy smile, and patted me reassuringly on the knee.

I smiled back at her, and wiping my tears, settled back into my seat.

More than twenty years have passed since this incident. Over the years, I have thought often of that woman, I can still see her smile, and hear the belief she had in me. She couldn’t read, but she had the courage to speak out against what she believed was wrong. I could read, I was equipped to take on the world, but I had given in to fear – of the man’s hostility and aggression, and had been unable to defend myself against his accusations. I am much wiser in the ways of the world today, less sheltered, less protected. I know that men and women carry their own insecurities with them, and that their fears often make them attack others, much as the man attacked me. I don’t know where the woman is now, I hadn’t even asked her her name … but her smile and her words are still with me.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button