Best Young Writershttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/best-young-writers/

Best Young Writers

As a teacher at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi,teaching mostly classics and Urdu poetry,it’s natural that Dr Mahfooz Khan — Ahmad Mahfooz among friends — will have a similar bent of mind when it comes to his own writing.

Urdu}

Professor Sadiq-ur-Rehman Kidwai,former dean,school of languages,Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU),Delhi; secretary,Ghalib Institute; eminent scholar and writer,has nominated Rizvanul Haq and Mahfooz Khan

The New Classicist

Mahfooz Khan

As a teacher at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi,teaching mostly classics and Urdu poetry,it’s natural that Dr Mahfooz Khan — Ahmad Mahfooz among friends — will have a similar bent of mind when it comes to his own writing. “It is not as if I use words like bulbul,parvana,chaman etc,but I am deeply influenced by classical poetry and its conventions and framework. My own work is of that mood,” says Khan,46.

A cause of concern for Khan is the decline in formal instruction in Urdu,particularly the view that it won’t change things much if the script is exchanged with Devanagari or Roman. A script,he says,is not just a communication tool. It is also a culture,a way of seeing the world. Urdu carries with it a multidimensional worldview. “What about what has gone by? Who will transcribe that in this ‘other’ script? A script is not just clothes you can pull on or off a language at any time,” he says.

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His classical leaning is also manifest in his reading list. Khan has,of course,read the Urdu greats but he is equally,or perhaps more,influenced by classical Persian poets like Bedil,Sauda and others,French writers like Guy de Maupassant and Russians Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov,read in translation. Most of all though,he still recalls his town,Jhunsi,near Allahabad,very wistfully,particularly the nashist (a regular gathering of poets) by Dr Suhail Ahmed Zaidi,who organised mushairas on the last Sunday of each month. “Mushairas are common in small towns but this was like a workshop. You had to be punctual and had only time for seven shers.” One had to read new poetry each time as repetitions were not entertained. “Each session would begin with an invocation of a great poet and lines from his work and end with recitation from modern poets,” he says. The idea was to encompass a wide range of work — from classical heavyweights to the moderns. Called Idaara — Fan -o- Adab,the association of art and literature,this is where young Mahfooz gained confidence as he was pressed into constant innovation.

Selected by BBC Urdu as one of 10 young writers to watch out for early in his career,his rise has been fast. For the Urdu poetry contest at the annual festival at JNU in 1991,the year he joined,Khan wrote on the first Iraq invasion by the USA for the topic Khoon Aakhir Khoon Hai,winning the first prize and acclaim from his fellow students. Publications in Shabkhoon,a prestigious literary journal followed and since then he has published three books and earned a name for himself in poetry.

Despite his concerns over the language,Khan doesn’t see the role of a literary figure in the working of a nation quite so linearly. “It is not necessary for a poet to overtly write or speak about political or social events. The job of a literary mind is often to process the influence or awareness that is different from a commentator or evaluator. None of my work reflects or talks of events directly,but it is influenced,no doubt,by the times we are living in.”

— Seema Chishti

Playing the Field

Rizvanul Haq

Bhopal-based Dr Rizvanul Haq defies stereotypes of a navel gazing writer. This soon-to-turn-40-year-old Urdu writer,an associate professor at the NCERT,has a multifaceted approach to not just his work and the work of his peers but also of the literary greats of the language. Recognising the constraints that everyday life puts on individuals,he contextualises literature as a product of man’s interaction with his surroundings,rather than as an abstract love for expression. His unconventional approach,perhaps,lies in his origin. The son of a bus conductor from Mehmoodabad in UP,Haq started out as a science student before switching streams after his graduation. Writing happened rather dramatically,when he had spent five years managing his elder brother’s typing school for him.

His inspiration,he admits,was “Bombay cinema”. “I went to see movies of Rajendra Kumar,Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan. It was only later I realised that the movies weren’t the stars,but the writers,the lyricists and dialogue writers were.” No wonder,his best known work is titled Urdu fiction aur Cinema,which was published in 2008. Haq says he is proud of the work that is now in its second edition — “very quickly,compared to other Urdu works,which take nearly 10 years for a second edition to be published”.

What makes Haq’s work so exciting is his combination of classical sensibilities with a desire to tell things anew each time. His love for philosophy is an incentive,adding layers to his narrative. “Philosophy must be absorbed in order to create any kind of new work,” he says. His short story Chawanni,written and published shortly after the 25 paise coin was phased out in 2011,illustrates this view. It uses the mundane and the simple to tell a complex story,imagining what its absence could mean to an entirely unconnected set of things.

Haq also moves from one genre to the next,working on plays,short stories and novels with equal ease. “My first short story Kuch Saman was published in Shabkhoon,but it was also staged at National School of Drama in 2002. It went on to win the Katha Prize for writers under the age of 40. I was not even 30 then,” he says.

Haq,like most people,is enamoured of the works of Ghalib,Mir and Faiz Ahmed Faiz,the doyens of Urdu literature,but he refuses to believe that the best of Urdu literature is behind him. “In their own lifetime,none of these people were acknowledged. It was only later that the magnitude of their contribution became clear. What is happening now will only be evaluated with the passage of time.” A deep admirer of 52-year-old Urdu writer Khalid Javed,whom he terms the finest voice in fiction today,his favourite writers include Saadat Hasan Manto,Nayyar Masood,Intezar Husain and Mahashweta Devi. “I read a lot of other Indian languages too.”

Right now,Haq is busy working on a play on the life of Mir Taqi Mir,who he feels has not been as appreciated “as Ghalib,for example”. There is also a collection of short stories called Bazar mein Talib,where he is trying his hand at something new. “Talib figures in all the stories,but each character is completely different. So unlike say Ibn Safi’s Imran,who has particular characteristics that play out in different stories,here the character itself changes completely.” He knows Franz Kafka’s Mr K has similar overtones in his character,but insists,“I thought of it independently”.

— Seema Chishti

Kannada}

UR Ananthamurthy,Jnanpith Award winner and Padma Bhushan recipient,chooses Ankur Betageri and Arif Raja.

Voice of the Earth

Arif Raja

Arif Raja was born and brought up in a remote village in northern Karnataka’s dry and arid Raichur district. His elegant,compassionate Kannada verse got him early recognition. He has published two poetry collections so far — Saitanana Pravadi (Satan’s Prophet) and Jangama Fakirana Jolige (The satchel of the mendicant fakir) and a third Benkige Todisida Batte (Cloth covering for fire) will be out soon. His poetry is a restrained critique of human relationships and socio-religious practices.

Raja,28,who teaches in a government primary school 20 km from Raichur,started writing when he entered his teens. He remembers that his first poem was written for a school recitation competition. Lacking the nerve to recite what he wrote,he passed the poem to his friend who went on to win school and district-level prizes. But that gave him confidence and writing slowly became a habit,and then an obsession. Raja looks back at the many months of bunked college classes,reading in the library or roaming aimlessly in the hills near the college. His writing sharpened,he says,after a girl spurned him. He goes on to recite: “Ninna yugadiya bevu bella/Nanna ramaznani doodh kurma/Endhu ondagavudilla/Ee hudugarige mathe rakthadalli prema patra baraeyuva huchu” (Your Ugadi’s neem and jaggery / My Ramzan’s milk porridge / Will never mix / These boys are foolishly writing love letters in blood again.” — Saritha Rai

The Democratic Writer

Ankur Betageri

In Ankur Betageri’s Malavika from Bhog and Other Stories,the protagonist Malavika is a young urban judgmental girl who befriends the poet. She commodifies every aspect of life including his writing,feels empty and heads for an emotional breakdown. Atmaram Harbhaji is a surreal story about a child who is born as five fragments but begins to think of himself as whole as he basks in his mother’s love and affection. In both,Betageri’s writing rues the destruction of human values and humanises gentler emotions.

Betageri,28,who was born and grew up in Bangalore,lives in Delhi. He has published two collections of poetry in Kannada Hidida Usiru (A breath caught) and Idara Hesaru (Its name) and another in English,The Sea of Silence. He has two short story collections,Malavika Mathu Itara Kathegalu (Malavika and Other Stories) in Kannada and Bhog and Other Stories in English.

A Masters in clinical psychology,Betageri is currently an assistant editor at Indian Literature,the literary journal published by the Sahitya Akademi. He started writing during his teens and published his first poetry collection at 16. For him,writing is a weapon against injustice of all kinds,whether it’s economic disparity or ruthless state policies. He says a creative artist can find a resting place only in art. “For me,writing is inevitable,I have to do it.” He is fazed by society’s uprootedness. He calls this trend in poetry the “writing of un-belonging” and describes it as dangerous. “In writing,you are

pretending to be somebody else — some Indian writers in English do this.” Through his Kannada poetry,Betageri forges an organic connection with his background,conveying his innermost thoughts.“Writing in Kannada is exhilarating,” he says.

In Delhi,Betageri has founded Hulchul,a public arts social initiative,which promotes art work in public spaces — in public washrooms and on roads near bus stops. Through these initiatives,Betageri wants to democratise art and literature.

— Saritha Rai

Oriya}

Eminent Oriya novelist Bibhuti Patnaik picks Ashish Gadnayak and Gayatribala Panda as two promising exponents of Oriya literature

A Man of Few Words

Ashish Gadnayak

Till late evening,Gadnayak is like any other journalist,editing typographic errors in the stories and poems sent to the monthly Oriya literary magazine Katha or putting together Rabibar,the Sunday section of popular Oriya daily Sambad. But once he is through with what he calls his “bread and butter”,the storyteller in him pushes forward to indulge in his biggest passion: telling a story like it is.

Essentially a short story writer,Gadnayak started out as a poet,writing for a children’s magazine while still in school. But it was his first short story,Bhata (Rice) (Katha,1994) that created a sensation in the somnolent world of Oriya literature. The story,which he wrote during his post-graduation days in Cuttack’s Ravenshaw College,is a simple narrative on how hunger propels a middle-aged woman to prostitution. A smouldering story which showed the dark reality of deprivation in Orissa,it put him in the league of well-known writers overnight. “The story of Bhata starts with the curiosity of a college student,eager to know the background of the prostitute he is spending the night with. The woman asks him to hurry up with his lovemaking,and for a moment,he feels it’s not a prostitute he is with,but a mother eager to feed her child,” says Gadnayak. The story got him the Katha Nabaprativa award and 250 letters from readers,which he treasures as his biggest award to date.

Since then,Gadnayak has written three books. After Bhata,came the philosophical novella Krusha (Cross) in 2002. A satirical book,it tells the story of a man who is never satisfied by material gains and craves for more.

Gadnayak is among a handful of short story writers in Orissa,where the literary firmament is littered with poets. And unlike them,his works are deeply rooted in reality,often dark,but always unvarnished,be it on the rape of a Dalit girl in a temple (Bhoga) or on prostitution.

“The biggest problem of Oriya literature is that writers get too involved. There is too much nostalgia about village life and too little about the urban nightmare that people face. I chose short story over poetry as my medium as it gives you the liberty of mixing fact and fiction. I believe short stories have to be contemporary,believable and realistic,” says Gadnayak,who reads the works of Orhan Pamuk,Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and popular Oriya novelist Manoj Das.

Gadnayak’s next novel on the Maoist problem in Orissa is expected to hit bookstores in early 2013.

If there’s one thing that Gadnayak rues,it’s the fact that he can’t write everyday. “Lot of preparation is needed to write a short story. It’s like meditation. Unless I have at least five-six hours available,I can’t write. But once I get the plot,I finish it at one go,” he says. While sales of his books don’t interest him much,he takes pleasure from the fact that it’s his short stories that get the maximum appreciation. “My writings are aimed at young as well as old people who are socially and politically aware. But there have been times when people who don’t understand social issues,have read the short stories and liked them,” he says. “More and more Oriya literature need to be translated into Hindi and other languages as our writings have improved vastly compared to other languages.”

— Debabrata Mohanty

I am a Woman

Gayatribala Panda

She is not comfortable with the tag of a feminist,but the anguish of women — particularly that of the ordinary,the dispossessed and the tortured — forms the core of Gayatribala Panda’s poetry. Her language is eloquent but simple,making it appealing both to the masses and the intelligentsia. Panda,35,winner of the 2011 Kendriya Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar,says her choice of words and their simplicity are deliberate. “I like to say things without using heavy words. Since I write on women’s issues,there is no point in being intellectual. Simple words do the needful,” she says.

While contemporary Oriya poetry is largely abstract,making it difficult for readers to connect to,Panda stands out for her direct approach. There’s only one thing,she says,that she tries hard to safeguard against: being influenced by her favourite poets — Maya Angelou,Jayant Mahapatra and K Satchidanandan.

A former journalist who is now pursuing a PhD in Library Science from Utkal University,Bhubaneswar,Panda wrote her first poem when she was 12. “I had written it just like that and someone in my class copied it and sent it to a children’s magazine,where it was published. When I claimed that it was my poem,no one believed it. I felt bad. But it gave me confidence that my writings are good enough to be published. Thereafter,I started sending my poems to children’s publications,” she says. She graduated to modern poetry a few years later. This time it was her father who sent some of her poems for publication for the State Youth Award,which she won at 22. After completing a postgraduate diploma in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Dhenkanal,Panda joined the Oriya daily Sambad. But she soon chose poetry over journalism.

Her poems speak of gang rape and dowry victims and women who have been driven out of their homes. In her much-celebrated poem Maripari Nathiba Gote Stree Loka ( A woman who could not die),she captures the helplessness of a woman,who was raped a few years ago on Puri’s Marine Drive. It’s pithy,poignant and shorn of embellishments. “The woman wishes to die,but she can’t. Her anguish touched a chord in several readers’ minds,” she says.

Anyaa (The other),the quarterly magazine that Panda has been editing for the past five years,is,likewise women-centric,where she focuses on social injustices and inequalities faced by women in Orissa’s largely patriarchal society.

Since Maripari nathiba…,she has authored six volumes of poetry which include Ahata Pratisruti (Hurt promises),Aspasta Ishwar (Vague god),Anayatta (Uncontrolled),Gaan (Village),Jetiki Dishuchi Akasha (The sky you can see) and Dhoop ke rang,a compilation of her poems translated to Hindi. Though she has had 600 poems published so far,she confesses that she can’t churn out poetry as and when she wants. “It so happens that the muse does not strike me for six-seven months and then suddenly I am writing 15-16 poems within a span of a few days,” says Panda,who has participated in the SAARC Young Writers Meet in 2008 and the Commonwealth Writers Meet in 2010 and won numerous literary awards in the last few years.

— Debabrata Mohanty

Assamese}

Harekrishna Deka,noted Assamese poet,short story writer,critic and Sahitya Akademi award winner selects Prasanta Kumar Das and Bijoy Sankar Barman.

The Poet from Rupiabathan

Bijoy Sankar Barman

Thirty two-year-old Bijoy Sankar Barman,an employee of the postal department in Guwahati,is so obsessed with his ancestral village Rupiabathan in Nalbari district in lower Assam that critics refer to him as the “Poet from Rupiabathan”. “Yes,I love my village. What I am today is because of my village,” says Barman,who wrote his first poem,about a butterfly,in 1993 when he was a Class VIII student.

In 1991,when he was 21,his first poem was published in Prantik,for which he also got his first cheque as a writer of Rs 80. In 2008,two popular writers Ila Devi Adhikari and Rabendra Kumar Das brought out a collection of Bijoy’s poems Rupiabathanor Kavi aru Prantikor Kavita (The poet from Rupiabathan and his poems in Prantik). It also contained several critical essays about his poems,apart from English translations of 12 of his poems,and an account of his village that Barman compiled,depicting the socio-economic condition of his people,including details of its agriculture,the famous Gauranga puppet theatre group,a mobile theatre company,etc.

A double MA (in Sociology,from Pondicherry University,and in English,from Gauhati University),Barman has two other collections of poems,Deo (2010) and Ashokastami (2011).

In 2010,on the day he married Payel Hazarika,the duo released two interesting books. One was a novella in verse called Margherita,mor Bishad Baibhav (Margherita,my melancholy,my grandeur) about the industrial town in upper Assam where his wife hailed from,the other was Ami Kiman Dusta Asilon (How naughty we were),a collection containing the childhood pranks of the groom and the bride.

“I write poems to share certain feelings,when I get a response from my readers and friends,I suddenly feel I am not alone. I know I can’t bring about any change in society by composing poems. But my poems provide courage to those who consider themselves weak,” he says.

Three of his poems are about three visually-impaired persons,which beautifully ask what colour means to a person who can’t see.

Currently pursuing a PhD on tribal myths of Assam,Barman has also recently completed translating Kuruntokai,a classical Tamil poetic work dating back to the third century. “I have translated only a portion of the Tamil verses,from the English translations by AK Ramanujam. But I think this is the first time Assamese readers will get a taste of ancient Tamil poetry,” he says.

He has also recently edited a collection of poems by 50 Assamese poets below 30 that will be published shortly. His works have also been translated into Bengali,Hindi etc.

— Samudra Gupta Kashyap

A Chronicler of Modern Maladies

Prasanta Kumar Das

A science graduate with a major in botany,Prasanta Kumar Das,40,works for Sadin,a weekly Assamese newspaper. But while he spends much of his day editing other people’s copies,he plays with thoughts and ideas and binds them with words after a hard day’s work. “My experiences are generally the subject or theme of my short stories. Every time I experience something new,something different and disturbing,I wonder how to express it through a story. But when I sit down to write,I do not bind myself to a central character or a typical beginning and a typical end. In several of my short stories,there are no people at all,” says Das,who has written about 40 short stories. Twelve of these stories,mostly published in Prantik,the prestigious Assamese fortnightly,came out in a collection called Eta Sadiyar Galpa,an-to Prithivir (A story about Sadiya,another about the world) in 1997.

A year later,he brought out Othello,with well-known Assamese actor Tapan Das. It was,however,The Downtown (2006) that attracted accolades from critics. Well-known critic and Dainik Asam editor Munin Bayan says,“Prasanta has a unique style of triggering off a series of thoughts in the reader’s mind,he weaves his thoughts around modern man’s boredom and agony in a manner not been seen earlier in Assamese short stories.”

Father of twin sons,Das admits he finds it tough locating the appropriate words in Assamese for universal feelings and experiences. “How do I express in one word the feeling or meaning of a word like ‘hangover’ in Assamese? Yet,it is a feeling people experience in Assam too,” says Das.

While most authors burn the midnight oil,Das,a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and famous Assamese author,Saurabh Chaliha,loves writing in the daytime. “I don’t believe in staying awake till late at night to write,so a number of story ideas have withered away in my mind due to paucity of time,” he admits.

He is bothered that there is no monetary gain from writing stories in Assamese. “The magazines hardly give you anything close to the actual value of your story. Publishing in Assam is simply unprofessional. This has stood in the way of quality writing in Assamese,” says Das.

— Samudra Gupta Kashyap

Gujarati}

Taarak Mehta,humourist,writer and playwright,best known for his work Duniya ne Oondha Chashmah televised as Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah recommends Shishir Ramavat and

Kaajal Oza Vaidya

The Serial Novelist

Shishir Ramavat

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Mumbai-based author Shishir Ramavat,41,is a household name among Gujaratis living in Jamnagar and New Jersey. His novel Vikrant,written in a serialised format,is hugely popular among readers. Goaded by a former editor to write in this genre,it is a story about a high profile couple. “The protagonist is a media mogul and his wife,a film producer. Unfortunately or fortunately for me,my novel had echoes of the Mumbai blast that took place a year later. My novel starts with a terrorist attack where the terrorists come from the sea and capture a building next to a huge hotel located in Mumbai,” says Ramavat.

He too,arrived in Mumbai,wanting to be a journalist,having bunked his last mechanical engineering exam.

He admits that Gujarati authors have to fight epic battles to find their readers. Serialised fiction gives writers like him an avenue to present their work. “It would have been very difficult for me to make it on my own. The “ready-made captive audience” of a weekly magazine made it easier for me to test the waters. Gujarati readers like stories that titillate,are fast-paced,racy,which thrill and intrigue. So,a serialised novel cannot afford to be slow and contemplative,” he says.

His second novel (that appears in a news weekly) dwells on the theme of human trafficking,a topic that has perhaps,been unexplored before in Gujarati fiction. In Mane Andhara Bolaave,Mane Ajvaada Bolaave (The darkness calls me,the light calls me),the protagonist is eight-months pregnant Niharika who becomes blind. She overcomes her disability,rescues girls from a brothel and helps rehabilitate them.

As his novel goes online on Fridays,responses from readers are almost instantaneous. Ramavat says,“A blind woman once called to say her sister reads out my novel to her every week. Even before I have read my piece on Fridays,I get feedback from my readers on Facebook. The connect with the audience is very gratifying. As an observer,I feel that there needs to be new voices in Gujarati literature. To some extent,writers such as Dhruv Bhatt and Kaajal Oza are changing the literary landscape. My icons are Chandrakant Bakshi,Madhu Rye and Kundanika Kapadia.”

Ramavat also wrote a Hindi play for theatre called Jeete Hai Shaan Se,that was staged at Prithvi Theatre. He has Bollywood dreams too,yet the lure of an independent book beckons,although he isn’t sure if the Gujarati reader is ready for it. “There are issues that cannot be dealt with in a serialised novel in a weekly magazine. Currently,I am working on a book that will be a psychological thriller. Just like Chetan Bhagat changed the definition of a bestseller,I hope to be the change in Gujarati,” says Ramavat.

— Lakshmi Ajay

The Maverick

Kaajal Oza Vaidya

Kaajal Oza Vaidya is Gujarati fiction’s live wire. The 46-year-old has 45 publications on the shelf. She is translated in six languages,has scripted 16 television soaps,writes plays,hosts a radio show and writes columns in the dailies. “I have created the Gujarati reader. Many youngsters have started reading in the language after picking up my books and the conversion has happened in thousands. My Facebook page gets at least 5,000 hits a day,” she says. Her yen for keeping her characters edgy has found a resonance with the audience who first were repulsed and then attracted to her books. These include bestsellers such as Krishnaayan,Ek Sanjhna Surname,Vaali Aastha,Purna,Apurna,and Draupadi.

Vaidya seamlessly connects with her audiences while straddling four mediums — print,radio,books and television. “Her earlier book Krishnaayan has been well accepted with 15,000 copies sold. We are currently running its 12th edition,” says Jayesh Shah,director,Navbharat Sahitya Mandir in Ahmedabad.

The day her first serialised novel Yog Viyog ended in a weekly Gujarati magazine,the book was launched too. Readers rushed to get a copy and it has already seen four editions. While six of her books have been translated into English,three more are in the pipeline.

“I am perhaps the only female writer in Gujarati who lives on her writing. I have two typists in my office who send my work to the dailies and to publishers. I have no other business,what I write is how I earn,” she says. Vaidya uses her literary license for bold themes,to lure the unsuspecting reader. “Unlike other communities,Gujaratis are very cautious about certain themes,” she says. Her fiction explores topics such as homosexuality,extra-marital relationships and lately transgender issues too. “Most women writers fear the outrage,” says Vaidya.

One of the protagonists,in her novel Madhya Bindu,is a married woman who makes a convincing case for her relationships with two men,which is considered a rarity in Gujarati literature. “Yet I am not a feminist and write for men as well,” she says. “I have a reader in Sabarmati jail who after reading my book in Marathi,picked up the Gujarati version. I sometimes meet my readers and even my harshest critics,as the connection is important to me.”

Growing up as the daughter of acclaimed Gujarati journalist Digant Oza helped Vaidya delve into the unconventional. “I was allowed to make my own mistakes and was bought up as a colleague and a friend rather than a daughter,” she says. “I read Lolita when I was 14.” Her influences in Gujarati literature include stalwarts such as Harkishan Mehta,Ashwini Bhatt,Jayant Chandrakant Bakshi,and KM Munshi.

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Four of Vaidya’s novels are available in an audio format as well for her Non Resident Gujarati readers. Currently,she is working on a novel based on her experiences in America. It will be launched in English too,tentatively titled Lost and Found. She is also writing a script for a Gujarati film that will be an Indo-American production.

— Lakshmi Ajay