A Surplus of Luminous Quality by Sharmistha Mohanty
by Sharmistha Mohanty
Like many things that later go far beyond the intentions of its maker Almost Island was begun from a felt need and a deep intuition. The need was for a sharp and penetrating literature journal in the English speaking and writing world of India. A great many journals or little magazines already existed in some of the other languages, notably Bengali, Malayalam and Kannada. Writing in English was of course a relatively new thing. Serious poetry in English, essays, or more innovative fiction were sidelined and as a result sporadic in its own efforts to sustain journals or publish. Yet over the last forty years “Indian Writing in English,” primarily the realist narrative novel, had come into the limelight with awards and prizes and large advances from publishers. All of this meant a great deal of attention, which was not necessarily justified by literary merit. The reason for this can be best understood in the words of Hannah Arendt:
“The novels of Proust, Joyce and Broch (as well as those of Kafka and Faulkner, who, however, each in his own way is in a class by himself) show a conspicuous and curious affinity with poetry on one hand and to philosophy on the other. Consequently, the greatest modern novelists have begun to share the poets’ and philosophers’ confinement to a relatively small, select circle of readers. In this respect the tiny editions of the greatest works and the huge editions of good second rate books are equally significant. A gift for storytelling which half a century ago could be found only among the great is today frequently the common equipment of good but essentially mediocre writers.”
As founder-editor of Almost Island, I wanted to create a journal that published work which was philosophical, internal, individual--work which either threatens, confronts or bypasses the marketplace by its depth and seriousness and innovation and form. In times where information is seen as revelation, Almost Island would publish work that was in no way sociological, or a travel guide to a foreign culture, or a substitute for historical or anthropological knowledge. Literature seeks wholeness, not fragmentation, and information is never whole.
I saw the genuinely new work as that which allows unknown connections to arise in the relationships between things; which has abandoned something, and so made space for the new to enter; and which is above all new because it has risen from inside the self.
This was also to be a journal which was international in spirit but with a firm belief in cultural roots and the fact that a sense of place mattered. With this came the need to try and build bridges between English and the Indian languages by seeking out translations of penetrating work. In a country with 22 official languages and countless dialects this was a seminal need. But it was a difficult task because unless there was already a good translation it was near impossible to judge the original. It was a task however that Almost Island knew was necessary. Between them the editors had a knowledge of Tamil, Bengali and Hindi besides of course English. This was a beginning. Eventually we went on to publish work translated from the Sanskrit, Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, and Kannada.
A decade ago the internet was coming into its own and this meant I would not have to think about printing and distribution. This would be an online journal which meant greater national and international dialogue.
I invited a young poet in English, Vivek Narayanan, to be my co-editor. Aside from being a very gifted poet, Narayanan, like myself, had studied in the United States, and done Creative Writing at Boston University, while I had done my MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Narayanan had also spent part of his life in Zambia. What is key here is not our training and degrees but the fact that we were familiar with the writing world outside India. When we put our knowledge and our network of literary friendships together, we had more than enough with which to reach out to the world as well as bring it in to India. That network has only grown more and more in the last decade, leaping out of the Anglo-Saxon literary world to Latin America, Eastern Europe, China, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
The even more crucial fact for the making of Almost Island was that we were both writers. From the onset there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that we would make no compromises on who we published. And we would publish based on our own assessment of the work, no matter how well or little known the writer.
I asked Itu Chaudhuri, one of India’s most innovative designers to do our journal. He agreed to do it well below market rates. As he put it at the time, “This may be one of the few meaningful things I’ll ever do.” He created a sharp and unusual web site and we use his basic template even today. It was my first encounter among many where I would realize that very gifted people were willing to do work at far below its monetary value if they felt convinced that the project had a depth and a probable impact far beyond the immediate. A talented web developer joined up as well as an assistant who was a young potter working in Pondicherry.
The name Almost Island is a literal translation of peninsula, which is the geographical description of India. In the last decade many have used it as a metaphor—of a literary island. Our first issue was only prose, eleven works that approached prose in very different and inventive ways. We had African American writer James Alan McPherson’s landmark autobiographical essay “Going up to Atlanta” at one end and at the other the short prose poem like pieces of Cybermohalla, a writers collective made up of underprivileged young people in New Delhi.
Below is an excerpt from a prose poem/essay by Eliot Weinberger in that first issue. They are lines from a Buddhist text from 2000 years ago, originally written in the Gandharan language:
Two bright bangles on an arm clang, a single bangle is silent, wander alone like a rhinoceros.
A bird who has torn the net, wander alone like a rhinoceros.
Fire does not return to what it has burnt, wander alone like a rhinoceros.
A tiger is not alarmed by sounds in the forest, wander alone like a rhinoceros.
Cold and heat, hunger and thirst, wander alone like a rhinoceros.
A decade later when I assess what the journal has accomplished, I feel a lot has been done. In seeking out work, reading widely to find contributors, spreading out across forms and languages, locating the truly “new.” But I still feel there is a great deal left to achieve. A decade is a good time to think about where we are headed in the future. Perhaps we need to take certain seminal ideas and explore them, hone in on certain crucial elements in contemporary prose and poetry, go further into the impact of the “global” on not so “global” literature.
If the journal was born from a felt need, the intuition gave rise to something different. Why not invite the writers we admired, within India and abroad and have conversations with them face to face? I had very often felt that the great novelists and poets almost always wrote from singular lives and that innovations in form were necessitated by something in lived experience.
In India there has always been a tradition of oral dialogues. In fact, in my own life I had observed the most profound artists sitting with their colleagues, students or simply a younger generation and thinking through their ideas both formed and nascent. Kannada writer, UR Ananthamurthy, who I had known for decades seemed to use his conversations as a way to perfect his thoughts. The filmmaker Mani Kaul brought his vast knowledge of Indian aesthetics and philosophy, Western visual art and cinema consistently into the conversations that were held in his living room at home. For me a great deal of learning happened simply by being with these artists. I recall similar conversations with filmmaker Kumar Shahani, the painter Akbar Padamsee and psychotherapist Udayan Patel, stretching late into the Bombay night.
My own mentor at the Iowa Writers Workshop, James Alan McPherson had been my teacher in more ways than one because I had sought him out outside of class and he had been generous enough to give outside of his formal obligations. From him I absorbed something which changed my seeing—I learnt that one had to be more than a writer to write.
So it made perfect sense to have what I called a series of “dialogues” with writers from India and abroad. We decided to invite a hand-picked audience—students of literature, artists from all fields, thinkers, historians, sociologists, and anyone who was seriously involved with literature, including readers. We would have our discussions during the day and in the evening hold public readings in the gardens of the India International Centre in New Delhi. All of it was to be done without charging the audiences anything.
Many of the writers I did invite were used to talking—many of them taught at universities--and they easily accepted my invitation. But some were reclusive. They were unwilling to risk any kind of semi-public conversation on their own and others’ work. The Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla, a deeply innovative novelist and poet, was one of them. I decided to take a train from Bombay to Raipur, the small town where he lived. It was a journey from the western coast all the way to the eastern side of the country and took thirty hours. Shukla, a reserved and quiet man, was gracious and welcoming. I had lunch with him and his wife and told him about the Almost Island Dialogues. By the end of lunch he had agreed to come and he attended two editions in Delhi.
Another such writer was Allan Sealy, author of The Trotter Namah an iconic work in Indian-English literature and a consistent creator of new forms in his fiction. Sealy lives in Dehra Dun, another small town in the north of India. I spoke to him about what I had in mind. Sealy not only came to the first Dialogues as did Shukla, he has attended many in the last decade.
In an interview to the press Sealy has said, “I imagine this is how Nalanda might have felt in its day … In a world of noise, often literary noise, your ear is committed to a kind of remote sensing. Meeting such a group of fellow writers is like discovering intelligent life out there in the cosmos.”
I knew what I wanted the Dialogues to be. They were to be small, intimate, absolutely non-academic. There were no papers to be presented. We would invite those whom we admired deeply and whose work we had read and reread and knew intimately. The Almost Island Dialogues would be concerned with experience and process, with how things are learnt, explored, created, and created again. It would be concerned with the unraveling of things, in a stretched time, in being within the labour of literature, and not in the end product of its presentation.
We have discussed over the last decade, for example, the properties, the depths, the persistence—and also the possible inadequacies—of the personal lyric in poetry; how fact can push the imagination further; the idea of literary innovation in different cultures; how forms arise in the work of a writer. Occasionally we have had artists from other fields because this makes for a rich encounter. Mani Kaul attended two of the Dialogues. With him we discussed “Narrative and the idea of perspective”, something which both writers and filmmakers were concerned with. With Indian classical musician Bahauddin Dagar we talked about tradition and continuity in the arts.
One clearly articulated aim of the Dialogues was to seed new ideas in a literary field that we saw as largely impoverished in imagination and innovation and increasingly unwilling to take risks. Italian writer Claudio Magris has written Danube, a masterpiece inspired by the river, a book neither fiction nor essay, but including both, a philosophical, historical, and geographical meditation on the area that the Danube flows through, a book that creates a new form necessitated by its content. A writer like him is important here. He leaves behind the thought that every book, every subject must find its own form rather than taking an existing one for granted.
Laszlo Krasnahorkai comes to the Dialogues in 2013. After a three hour talk where he has spoken of his life and work under the Communist regime we head to lunch. I’m still in the world of his talk—the regime which made sure to burn down his library of 10,000 books; his answer to someone at the end of the talk where he said, “I don’t know why I am so helpless in the face of beauty”. And I say “Laszlo thank you for giving so much”. And he says, “I wanted to give.”
Another intuition. Every person invited was a guest and a friend. The Dialogues should have the rigour of a “professional” discussion but not its restraints or rules. I decided I wanted to receive every foreign guest at the airport. One of my colleagues would receive our Indian guests. Almost all flights from abroad landed in the middle of the night. Perhaps this made it all the more magical.
I saw Claudio Magris in the middle of a large crowd outside the Delhi airport. It was three in the morning. When we met the first thing he said was, “I stand on Indian soil. I have wanted this for a very long time.” Magris had told me he had read the Mahabarata and the Ramayana when he was in his teens.
I wanted to make sure that everyone was comfortable in their rooms, that the food was alright and that I and my team were there if they needed anything at all. At times this took a lot of work. Bengali poet Joy Goswami never travels without his wife. He has poor health and severe dietary restrictions. This meant talking to the kitchen at the India International Centre where we all stay, to convince them to allow Goswami’s wife to go in and cook the special rice and dal that he eats every morning and noon.
It was also important that our foreign guests should see and feel a little of the city. Writers are not ordinary tourists and they will always make their own individual relationship with a foreign place. The dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya , for example, was one place I have loved taking everyone. Invariably the writers become quiet, watching, listening.
Standing at the Gateway of India in Mumbai Chinese poet Bei Dao, who has been in exile for nearly two deacdes, says, “You know when I see the poverty here I realize that communism achieved a great deal. Yet when I see the faith that people have here I see the emptiness in China. Without faith there is no compass at all, nothing to restrict material greed.”
I think we are in an age where we forget that we learn from people, from lived lives. And that the most singular poetry and prose is hard earned, born from struggles that have not always been won.
Just as we were bringing in the other languages in India we wanted also to bring in other world languages besides English. This in some ways was an important part of the Almost Island project. We felt that Indian writing, in all languages perhaps, had been excessively influenced by writing from the Anglo-Saxon world. The novel had yet to leave behind the impact of colonization and its resulting concern exclusively with realist narrative. To this end we brought into the journal and the Dialogues, writers from Slovenia, Hungary, Italy, Morocco, China, Japan, Chile and Argentina. We also brought in writers who were translators from some of these languages—George Szirtes, Forrest Gander, Eliot Weinberger, Mariko Nagai, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. The attempt was not to be international, that is easy enough. The attempt was to forge a relationship with writers that were all individual in that they enlarged, through the inventiveness of their work, the spaces of prose and poetry.
One of the most significant exchanges and dialogues Almost Island has had is with writers from China. An idea that came from Bei Dao, these dialogues began in New Delhi in 2009. Three editions have since happened in Mumbai, Beijing and Shanghai, with a fourth due to happen in Hong Kong and Hangzhou this October. These dialogues—a part of the Almost Island Dialogues series—are the first non-official India-China writers dialogues. The Indian sociologist and thinker Ashis Nandy has called them “historical”.
The dialogues were a meeting ground for leading writers from two very old civilizations with very different histories. There were many cultural similarities as well as varied differences. In one of the dialogues, poet Xi Chuan says, “There is a disjunction in this conversation. On the one hand we are talking about social realities, on the other hand Indian writers have been concerned with infinity. This has brought me to a difficult moment, as to in what context our conversations are to take place. Infinity or contemporary reality?”
When the Chinese were in New Delhi I decided to take them to the studio of some gifted young people in their early twenties who call themselves the Cybermohalla group—mohalla being the Hindi term for neighbourhood. These young men and women were writing in Hindi and they were helped in their practice by a mentor who was an artist. The important fact about them was that they all came from underprivileged families—they were children of auto rickshaw drivers, tailors, carpenters. They had come to think philosophically and in a penetrating way about what they saw around them. They wrote prose that was formally innovative and deep. We had three layers of interpretation—from the Hindi to English to Mandarin, and then back the other way. After the meeting, Bei Dao said, “This is the India I want to see.”
A well known Delhi bureaucrat attends one of our readings in the evening. He tells Joy Goswami, “With a lineup like this you should have hundreds of people in the audience. You should publicise it much more.” Joy Goswami says, “We like it this way, all of us.”
The audiences for both the discussions and the readings have fluctuated over time. Bei Dao and Claudio Magris both filled the India International Centre lawns, with people standing at the back. They have both been Nobel nominees and are known internationally. Surprisingly for readings by the Chinese poets, excellent poets all, there were few listeners. We put it down to an ignorance of Chinese literature and the persistent Indian tendency to only admire those things that have already succeeded in the West. Similarly for the singular Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai who has a cult following in many different places, but is not known in India. Later on he won the Man Booker International Prize and perhaps if he were to visit now there would be more of a crowd. We have been covered by the press and online sites through this last decade. But that did not always translate to large crowds for the public readings or more enquiries about the closed door discussions. I realize now that what we are doing has a deeper and longer impact on fewer people. Perhaps that is the way the most luminous things get passed on.
Much of this has been possible because of the nature of our funding. Subhashis Mohanty a computer engineer and entrepreneur from San Diego funded the journal and Munir Mohanty of the Torsteel Research Foundation in India--a company that makes twisted steel bars for construction—funded the Dialogues. Both were unusual sponsors in that they asked for no publicity and imposed no rules. Both have been serious readers all their lives and as Subhashis Mohanty said at the onset, “Literature impacts lives and therefore even impacts and changes how we work in business and computer engineering.”
The third part of the Almost Island project is the publication of books. This idea came slowly and we decided to do a few books, maybe one every two years, books that the mainstream would not publish. Our first was leading Indian English poet Adil Jussawalla’s first work in three decades, Trying to Say Goodbye. This became an iconic book, an announcement of the return of a very strong voice.
In keeping with our concern for bringing in the other Indian languages we did Magadh, a celebrated book of Hindi poems by Srikant Verma, a book of terse, spare poems using places and characters from ancient Indian history. The translation was deftly done by Rahul Soni.
For both these books we worked for months on the editing, along with the poet, with the translator, then with the designer.
Our latest book is Baroni: A Journey, by Argentinian novelist Sergio Chejfec. We discovered Chejfec’s work when one of us met his translator at a party in New York. We found that this novel was as yet unpublished in English. We first published an excerpt in the journal. Then I met Chejfec in New York along with his excellent translator Margaret Carson. We discussed the possibilities of where this novel could be published, which editors in New York to send it to. Both Chejfec and Carson live in New York and nothing except the New York publishers had crossed my mind. Suddenly Chejfec said, “Why can’t Almost Island do it?” And I said, “We’d be honoured, but we’re a small publisher in a far away country, though we do have international distribution.” He said, “But you are the kind of publisher I want.”
I’ve gone on to read all of Chejfec’s work translated into English and know that we have made a rare discovery. He is a brilliant and daring writer with a very original mind. And publishing Chejfec fulfilled another one of our philosophies—to be involved with languages and cultures outside English and even outside the power world of Western Europe and the United States.
Chilean poet Raul Zurita reads from his poetry in Spanish and his singular translator Anna Deeny reads the English version. The reading is outdoors under the trees and a not too strong yellow light illuminates their faces. Zurita is known all over the Spanish speaking world. He began to write around the time he was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime and kept in the hold of a ship. Most of his poems are born from the terrors of his country. As they both continue to read, Zurita with his characteristic passion as if he were reliving the words and Deeny with an empathy which goes beyond her work as a translator, suddenly we see her turning away for a moment. The audience, an intimate group of about forty people, are surprised. When she turns back to face us we see that she is crying. The audience is equally moved.
After the reading Bengali poet Joy Goswami comes up to me. He is an icon in his native Bengal, a poet now almost sixty, only slightly younger than Zurita. He says, “What can I possibly say to a poet like this? Nothing. I can only go and touch his feet.” And he does just that. Zurita jumps back, he is not familiar with this Indian gesture of deep respect.
These are moments that cannot be born from intention. But I do feel they are a gift that comes as a result of believing that in the greatest writers the life and the work are one and that they are true artists who are unafraid to walk alone. That is how true silence and listening is possible within Almost Island. The noise of publicity and fame does not intrude.
From an interview with Krasznahorkai:
SM: For me, you’re one of the great contemporary writers, of which there are few. And I use the word great very precisely and knowingly. I so rarely find depth, narrative power, and a brilliance of language that approaches poetry, as well as a deeply philosophical bent, all in the same writer.
LK: Ah, but I have a trouble. I am very alone because of this.
I have been often been asked whether our Dialogues have been archived. Yes they have been but only on audio. A camera is far too intrusive and breaks the intimacy that is so important to us. But along with that is another thought. That some experiences can rarely be replicated by watching what a camera has recorded. What the dialogues have yielded is a surplus of luminousness that can only be experienced by those who were there. Those who saw the faces and gestures up close, felt the winter sunlight in the room and an intimate immensity opening up.
Joy Goswami, who lived for much of his life in a tiny town in rural Bengal, talks about what formed him as a poet. He talks about his mother dying in his arms when he was quite young, saying, “When my mother died her eyes were open. We didn't realise that sight leaves the eyes of the dead little by little. I haven't expressed this memory in twenty-seven years.”
What follows are the words of the Raúl Zurita, speaking at the Almost Island Dialogues, February 2015. What Zurita offered were utterings, with a natural break created by the pauses required for translation into English by Anna Deeny.
The task was not to write books or to paint paintings, it was to make life a work of art, and that is the task that is still at hand.
I think that poems are the forms in which the earth cleanses itself of human pain. That poems are the dreams of the earth, the earth dreaming of cleaning itself of human suffering.
The greatest aspiration of art, of poetry, is to disappear, because it would mean human life itself would become the greatest work of art.
But up until this moment that has not happened. So that distance between a poem that I write and paradise, that distance is what’s called the world.
Sharmistha Mohanty is the author of three works of fiction, Book One, New Life, and Five Movements in Praise. She has also translated a selection of Rabindranath Tagore’s prose works, Broken Nest and Other Stories. Currently she is working on a book of poems, I Make New the Song Born of Old as well as a book of prose texts. Mohanty has most recently participated in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016-17 with a poetry and sound installation. She is the founder-editor of the online literature journal Almost Island. She lives in Mumbai.