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Friends, writers & fighters

Book Bazaar

They have survived together for 14 years. They have instituted an award for women writers in India. They have held three book fairs. And this week they unveiled an art journal that showcases women’s writing and the arts.

“When Soi was formed, people thought we won’t last. Women usually don’t and I’d be lying if I said we never fought. But we fought and made up again and again,” said Nabaneeta Dev Sen, the president of Soi — Women Writers’ Association of Bengal, to a round of applause from the gathering at the launch of Soi Sabud at Oxford Bookstore.

“Calcutta is proud to own this group of creative women who are bringing out the second edition of the cleaned-up and extended journal,” said Jasodhara Bagchi, emeritus professor of women studies, Jadavpur University, adding how the title is “an audacious appropriation of patriarchal legal jargon by feminist subversive humour”.

Soi Sabud includes memoirs, poems, stories and essays by women across the country. It also has a few colour plates of sculptures and paintings by Shanu Lahiri and Uma Siddhanta.

Urvashi Butalia, writer and publisher of women’s writing, flew to the city for the launch despite a packed schedule as she is “scared of Nabaneetadi”. Speaking of the challenges of being a feminist publisher, she recalled how she had to address multiple marginality in the process — “of gender, which was our focus anyway, and also of language, region, location and context and eventually caste and class as well”.

When she started to look for writings to publish, Butalia realised that women were either not writing or were hiding their writing. “Women often lacked the self-belief that they had something important to say. And once we started to find texts that could be translated, the next challenge was how to insert marginalised voices into a mainstream that was unaware of or indifferent to such voices or was hostile to them,” she said.

Butalia recalled her experience of finding a market for A Life Less Ordinary, an autobiography of domestic worker Baby Halder that she had translated and printed. “The feedback we got from the market in Britain was it was not miserable enough. The expectation was that a poor woman from India would have been so badly treated that the writing must graphically describe every inch of that violence. But for a woman living through that every day, the violence becomes routine, and so does its description. To understand that requires a cultural leap from the reader. That is another hurdle of translation.”

Among the translators present, Sanjukta Dasgupta spoke of Sakhi Samiti that Swarnakumari Devi, a torch-bearer in the tradition of women’s writing in Bengal, founded in 1896 which, like Soi, was by women and for women. But she lacked encouragement. When her novel Kahake was published in translation, her younger brother Rabindranath Tagore wrote to William Rothenstein that she had “more ambition than ability”.

Women fared no better in 19th century England. Anusuya Guha, another translator, referred to the creaking of the door which made Jane Austen hide her manuscripts before a visitor came in. “In the 16th century, women could hardly read and she was slave to the man who put a ring on her finger,” said Guha, who has translated Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, in which Judith, Shakespeare’s fictional sister with literary capabilities, is deduced to be bound to domesticity, denied opportunities that her brother had, forced into marriage and finally commits suicide.

Nikita Singh at Starmark, Quest mall, for the launch of Right Here, Right Now. Picture by Arnab Mondal

Life @ present

Her book is all about living in the here and now but with a catch. The protagonist, Kalindi, is suffering from amnesia and has no recollection of the past 17 years of her life.

This is what Nikita Singh had to say of her seventh novel, Right Here, Right Now (Penguin Books India, Rs 175) at its launch in Starmark, Quest mall.

The 22-year-old author was also in conversation with former journalist and coordinator of the Kolkata Literary Meet, Yajnaseni Chakraborty, who was fascinated by how a graduate in pharmacy could become one of country’s bestselling authors.

But writing was never difficult for Singh. “In fact, the first thing I had ever written was what became my first book (Love @ Facebook),” Singh said.

The author said she found it easier to write about teen protagonists. “My readers can relate to my stories better,” she said.

Singh believes that research for every plot is important. For Right Here, Right Now, she spent a couple of weeks researching about retrograde amnesia that her protagonist suffers from. She insisted that memories help shape identities. “What memories are in the present are actually experiences from the past. And experiences are always educative. They definitely make you who you are,” said the author.

Singh added that her books offer instant gratification, something everyone is looking for in the modern world. “My books provide readers just that. All that matters is good content with good craft. It helps as long as you can connect,” she added.

Save the lake

(From left) Chittatosh Mukherjee, governor M.K. Narayanan, Firhad Hakim and S.S. Kumar at the launch of Rabindra Sarobar — Lakes at Raj Bhavan. Picture by B. Halder

The Rabindra Sarobar lake has got a fresh lease of life, even as most water bodies in Calcutta are disappearing or lying in neglect. A coffee table book, Rabindra Sarobar — Lakes, with text and photographs by S.S. Kumar highlights this landmark.

The book, which includes photographs of the Lakes along with explanatory notes, was launched by governor M.K. Narayanan at Raj Bhavan on May 20. Other guests included minister Firhad Hakim, and Chittatosh Mukherjee, former chief justice of Calcutta and Bombay high courts. This book is the third of a series, the earlier two being on the Sunderbans and Darjeeling.

“Our surveys revealed that 45 per cent of water bodies in the city have been filled up in the last two decades. It is very important to conserve water bodies in and around us. The Rabindra Sarobar, popularly known as Dhakuria Lakes, are an example of how a water body can be preserved and beautified,” said the governor.

“In the 1930s, when Lake Gardens was a vast expanse of agricultural land, a particular flower — keya in Bengali —was found there. I don’t see it anymore. The Santragachhi and Beleghata lakes are lying in neglect. I wish the administration would beautify them as well,” said Mukherjee.

The author also expressed concern over the disappearing water bodies along the EM Bypass. “I hope my book makes some impact,” he said.