In the Durbar Hall, K. Anis Ahmed and Esther Syiem are introduced to us. Esther Syiem started writing because her grandmother would tell her stories, and Esther as a kid couldn’t help but become a part of this oral tradition which she committed to writing. She is a professor of North Eastern Hill University. K. Anis Ahmed is the author of ‘Goodnight Mr. Kissinger’, he is also the co-founder of ‘Bengal Lights’, a prominent magazine in Bangladesh.
After the introductions have been made, each of these authors reads out excerpts from their work.
K. Anis Ahmed’s new book, ‘The World in My Hands’, deals with the Emergency decreed in Bangladesh and the way the lives are altered by it. Some learn to mould themselves to adapt to the situation, while others break. K. Anis Ahmed begins by reading the first few pages of his book, ‘The World in Our Hands’.
“All great success, like all true failure, is ultimately a thing of mystery. One discovers principles and casualties post facto. One imposes order and progressions on the most spectacular of fates and detects patterns that may or may not exist. Here was the formula that anyone could follow to execute a meteoric rise: believe in yourself, wake with the dawn, never give up, make a daily list, aim big, be a maverick. Hissam Habeed – Deputy Editor of ‘The Daily Pandua’, man of letters, with a pungent wit, and deep-seated heresies; and also a possessor of ambitions as huge and hidden as his anxieties – knew it all. He had, in fact, tried it all.”
But despite all of this, we see that Hissam is not successful in life. His life is fraught with risks. With the enforcement of Emergency, and the new curfew in place, Hissam has to alter his life, and mould it to prevent himself from being broken.
We oscillate between Anis Ahmed and Esther Syiem. And now Esther shares a part of her poetry with us. She speaks of how some Indians think of her as a foreigner and inquire into her heritage. We are presented with the exciting opportunity of hearing her recite her unpublished poem, ‘To the Rest of India from Another Indian’. Here is a verse of the same:
“We have no Ram, no Sita, no Arjun,
Ours are differently named.
No wars were fought on grounds named
Kurukshetra and Lanka,
Ours were a camouflage up the stony tracks of the antelope
down the impossible ruins and through impassable jungles.
We move temples, none to be purified.
Litanies and incense to even crimes of the night
No one river too sacred to purify impurities.
None of our Gods bear God-names like yours.”
There is a beautiful line where she asks her fellow Indians who live in the mainland, to learn to twist their tongues around her name, to get the taste of the nymphs, their gods and deities, and such.
Myths and folklore are a way of human beings to make sense of things which seem beyond their realm of understanding. Myths and folklore are also sometimes incorporated into prose and poetry. Esther Syiem’s poem, ‘The Incestuous Moon’ deals with a local folklore of the Moon, who has less than noble thoughts about his sister, the Sun. During a dance, the Moon tries to grapple his sister, who, in response, throws hot ash on his forehead. The ashy appearance of the moon is explained through this. Here is a glimpse of what she read:
“The ash that marks me, confines me to my shame
And brings images of sordid desires…”
She invokes a very celestial erotic imagery, peculiar and unique to this poem. A poet who also writes of social issues, she reads a poem about coal miners in due course of time, called ‘Welcome to the Jaintia Hills’. She speaks of the metallic sheen of rivers, and the inflow of immigrants and labourers. Like most North-Eastern poets, we see in her poetry, a restlessness and lack of pretence. The oscillation continues and it is during the question-answer round that we get to know more about these brilliant writers.
During the question-answer round we see Anis Ahmed being asked the difference between writing a novel and short stories, Anis Ahmed speaks of how short stories were easier to write as “they could be written as and where on a strong inspiration over the process of a weekend or a long weekend or a week, you could put together the basic outline or the basic narrative and then you took up your own time to flush it out and edit it.” The novels took a great amount of time to write, and required a lot more work.
One very interesting question asked by an audience member was regarding languages. Since both these authors were bilingual, the person asked what language did they think in when they wrote prose or poetry.
Anis Ahmed says when he is writing in English, he also thinks in English, and when he is writing in Bengali, he thinks in Bengali. Although, when writing in English, if there is a certain scene he has to imagine taking place between Bengalis, his thought process happens in Bengali and then later he has to translate it into English.
Esther confesses that she writes her plays in Khasi and her poetry in English. She cannot imagine switching the languages for either forms of writing.
When asked why he named his novel, ‘The World in My Hands’, Anis Ahmed replied, “It’s both the extreme ambition of some of my characters as if they could possess or that they wanted to possess the world in its entirety,” he speaks of the audacity of his characters of wanting such a thing, but also of their desire of owning a small of portion of the world, of nurturing it for themselves.
This session struck the perfect balance between reading and interacting, poetry and prose. Through this session we explored folklore in poetry, we traveled to the unexplored North Eastern India and to Bangladesh. We hope to see more of these writers in next year’s Jaipur Literature Festival!