Archive for the ‘Issues at stake’ Category

The challenge of having Western readers see past culture and gender

August 16, 2008

There has been a certain anglophone appetite of late for female authors from the Middle East. “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea, the tale of four young women living and loving in Saudi Arabia, sold millions in Britain and the US, generating a few positive reviews and many column inches for its taboo-busting stories.

Similarly, “Persepolis,” Mariane Satrapi’s stylish graphic novel about her Iranian childhood, has proven popular with curious Westerners whose newspapers feature more about Iran every day. Lebanon’s Joumana Haddad, already widely translated in the rest of Europe, is publishing a collection of her poetry in English this autumn.

The curiosity of the English-language readership has clearly been helped along a little. On one hand, the media has been flooded with news from the Middle East – even before the events of September 11, 2001. On the other hand, academic programs focusing on Middle East studies and women’s studies have been a staple of left-liberal universities in North America and the UK for some time now.

Whatever the reason for the piqued curiosity, the interest itself is clearly a cause for celebration. Nevertheless, some women writers, particularly in Lebanon, have expressed reservations.
They are nervous about being lumped together with the other countries of the region, concerned that diversity will be ignored. Neither do they want to be considered separately from men as “women authors” rather than as simply authors.

Most particularly, some of these writers are conscious that the books that find commercial success in translation are those that reinforce stereotypes about the Middle East – of hijabs and forced marriages as well as repression.

Haddad welcomes the increased number of women writers in the Middle East, however. It is, she says, a slow process and partly the result of the gradual erosion of the patriarchal society, something she is keen to point out is not peculiar to this region, but a global phenomenon.

Alawiya Sobh, whose novels include “Maryam al-Hakaya” (Mariam of the Stories) and “Dunia,” also welcomes the increased number of women’s voices in literature. Nowadays, she says, there are “good women writers who have their remarks and contributions in pushing forward Lebanese literature and activating and lighting the Arabic literature as a whole.”

“Frankness is very necessary to art,” Sobh says, “but it’s not enough to make art.” Yet it is sometimes frankness, specifically the frank confessionals of women writing about negative experiences in “the East,” that sells in English translation.

One of the best-selling books in the US by a Middle Eastern woman was not a novel or a collection of short fiction but one that purports to be a memoir. Jean P. Sassoon’s “Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia” was depicted in the Washington Post as portraying the “position of women in Saudi Arabia … out of its historical and sociological context.” The result, the reviewer wrote, “reeks of tabloid journalism.”
Another memoir, “Sharon and My Mother-in-law,” Suad Amiry’s account of life in Palestine, is a more-recent popular hit. While this book is indeed interesting and well written, the subject matter is once again the Middle East itself, and in particular women here. Books by women that are recognized as literature in their own right, rather than true-life confessions, are rare in English translation.

The way the books are received can also be frustrating for the authors.

Rajaa Alsanea’s “Girls of Riyadh” tells a story of young Saudi women living within the restrictions of Saudi society. Just 25 years old when she wrote the book, Alsanea was then living in Chicago, and the book was banned in Saudi Arabia.

Writers are also nervous about assumptions that all authors across the Middle East and Arab world are the same.

Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat, whose books include “Hajar al-Dahik” (The Stone of Laughter) and “Harit al-Miyah” (The Tiller of Waters), sees the gradual increase of women writers as part of the “natural evolution of things. Women are more numerous in the workplace, in schools and so as a consequence they are more numerous as writers.”

(Source: The Daily Star)


Treasure in ruins

July 25, 2008

The National Library at Kolkata houses over 24, 00,000 books with more than 6,00,000 in Indian languages alone, apart from divisions in the foreign languages category.

The National Library situated at the Belvedere estate near Alipore Zoo in Kolkata is the largest library in India. It stands proudly under the surveillance of Department of Culture, Ministry of Tourism And Culture, Government of India. The national library is a storehouse of Indian culture, knowledge and heritage. It was the residence of the former Lieutenant Governor of Bengal. The presence of over 24, 00,000 books (in almost all the Indian languages, including some foreign languages as well), and manuscripts numbering over 3000, bear testimony to the above statement. The library houses more than 6,00,000 books in Indian languages alone.

The rich heritage of India is incomplete without Sanskrit. The library possesses a separate division for the collection and preservation of this ancient dialect. More that 20,000 Sanskrit books in Devnagari script enrich the shelves of the library. The collection is so rich and varied that research in Sanskrit is almost impossible without paying a visit to this treasure house. Apart from Sanskrit, there are about 500 books in Pali and almost quite the same number of books in Prakrit.

The National Library contains many rare manuscripts of ancient literature like the Bengali translation of the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’ by Krittibash and Kashee Ram Dass, dated 1805 and 1802 respectively. Other notable rarities include original manuscripts of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and all the works of Rabindra Nath Tagore. A separate division for the Hindi language was established in the year 1960. Today, it houses more than 80,000 Hindi literary works.

Other language works enriching the library are the works in Tamil, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Kashmiri, Oriya, Punjabi, Telugu and Urdu. The library not only has Indian divisions as far as languages are concerned, it also has divisions in the foreign languages category. They are the East Asian Language, Germanic language division, Romance languages division, Slavonic Language division, West Asian and African language Division.

A distinct division of the library houses the rare books. Books published prior to 1860 are stacked separately to take special care of these books. At present, the division has about 4700 monographs, 3000 manuscripts and 1500 microfilms. The xylographs presented by the Dalai Lama are also preserved in this collection.

One of the basic functions of the National Library is that of conservation and preservation of the printed heritage for the future. All the books damaged by human error or by natural decay due to time are bound in the special division called the Bounding Division. An advanced system of chemical treatment is adopted to preserve and restore the damaged and brittle books. A new fumigation chamber has been indigenously developed to destroy termites and insects. Encapsulation is another method of preservation adopted.

The Reprography division has already produced the ancient newspapers, journals, Arabian, Persian and Sanskrit into more than 5000 microfilms to preserve the rich heritage. The scanning and archiving of rare and brittle books on compact discs have been undertaken. So far 6600 selected books have been reproduced in more than 540 CDs. The historians get the richest collection of newspapers and periodicals. It also contains the original letters and notes of famous personalities like Pandit Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and others.

Although different divisions look after the welfare of the numerous storehouses of knowledge, there are many problems creeping round the corner. The library receives numerous books and periodicals in almost every Indian language under the Delivery of Books & Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act of 1954.

Well, many of the inhabitants of Kolkata do not even know what or where is the National Library. It has turned from a strategic place of knowledge to an old architecture gathering dust. In the past, book used to be damaged by readers but nowadays they are being destroyed by termites, eaten by rust and ruined in the hands of time. Emergence of the Internet and such other faster means of communication have left the library neglected. The habit of reading has almost disappeared in the current generation. We are so driven by shallow fantasies that we have forgotten a national treasure.

Is English really mandatory? – II

July 13, 2008

Yesterday we talked about a few examples of atrocious language, in India, specifically in the State of Gujarat.

Here are a few more over the world:

Cocktail lounge, Norway:
Ladies are Requested Not to have Children in the Bar

At a Budapest zoo:
If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty

Hotel, Acapulco:
The Manager has Personally Passed All the Water Served Here

Car rental brochure, Tokyo:
“When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn.
Trumpet him melodiously at first,
but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.”

In a Nairobi restaurant:
Customers who find our waitresses rude
ought to see the manager.

On the grounds of a private school:
NO TRESPASSING without permission.

On an Athi River highway:
TAKE NOTICE: When this sign is under water,
this road is impassable.

One of the Mathare buildings:
Mental Health Prevention Centre

In a cemetery:
Persons are PROHIBITED from picking flowers
from any but their own graves.

Tokyo hotel’s rules and regulations:
Guests are requested NOT to smoke
or do other disgusting behaviors in bed.

Hotel lobby, Bucharest:
The life is being fixed for the next day.
During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.

Hotel elevator, Paris:
Please leave your values at the front desk.

Hotel, Japan:
You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.

Supermarket, Hong Kong:
For your convenience, we recommend courteous, efficient self-service.

From the Soviet Weekly:
“There will be a Moscow exhibition of the arts by
15,000 Soviet Republic Painters and Sculptors.
These were executed over the past two years.”

In an East African newspaper:
“A new swimming pool is rapidly taking shape since the
contractors have thrown in the bulk of their workers.”

Hotel, Vienna:
In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.

A sign posted in Germany’s Black Forest:
It is strictly forbidden on our black forest camping site
that people of different sex, for instance, men and
women, live together in one tent unless they are
married with each other for that purpose.

Hotel, Zurich:
Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests
of the opposite sex in the bedroom,
is it suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.

An advertisement by a Hong Kong dentist:
Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists.

A laundry in Rome:
Ladies, leave your clothes here
and spend the afternoon having a good time.

The box of a clockwork toy made in Hong Kong:
Guaranteed to work throughout its useful life.

In a Swiss mountain inn:

Airline ticket office, Copenhagen:
We take your bags and send them in all directions.

One may find “humour” in this, but not I. When we talk about languages, everything matters, from a word to grammar, and a comma to a full-stop.

Is English really mandatory? – I

July 12, 2008

In a hotel in Ahmedabad:

It Is forbidden to steal hotel towels please.
If you are not a person to do such thing is please not to read this notice.

In a hotel lobby in Surat:
The lift is being fixed for the next day.
During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.

In the elevator in Hotel in Surat:
To move the cabin, push button for wishing floor. If the cabin should enter
more persons, each one should press a number of wishing floor. Driving is
then going alphabetically by national order.

In a hotel elevator in Baroda:
Please leave your values at the front desk.

In a hotel in Jamnagar:
Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and
11 A.M. daily.

In a hotel near Gujarat College, Ahmedabad:
You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.

In a Laundry on Relief Road, Ahmedabad:
Drop your trousers here for best results.

In a hotel in Bhavanagar:
Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in
bedroom, it is requested that the lobby be used for this purpose.


In a laundry in Anand:
Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.


In a heritage hotel in Junagadh:
Take one of our horse-driven city tours – we guarantee no miscarriages.


Advertisement for donkey rides (on the famous white asses) in Rann of Kutch:
Would you like to ride on your own ass?


In a 5-Star Hotel cocktail lounge in Ahmedabad:
Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.


In the office of a Gynecologist in Ahmedabad:
Specialist in women and other diseases.

In a hotel in Bharuch:
The manager has personally passed all the water served here.

Did you find this humourous or ironical?

The question is – If the need be to write in English for a wider audience, shouldn’t we be careful to say it right?

Proper communication comprises of error-free and meaningful text, irrespective of language. Use of one’s own native language does not make one less educated or ignorant. On the contrary, in the age of globalization, those who respect their own language are far more respected than those who do not.

OK, such incidences are seen in many countries and at various places. So? As a language-lover how good it is of us to make a fun of such atrocious errors? Can’t we be just frank enough and point it out to the concerned person/authority or at least make the person understand what is actually meant by that erroneous statement/notice/instruction?

Often a small step goes a long way. And to take just one step, only one word makes a lot of difference and that is – Attitude.

Marathi libraries fade away

June 24, 2008

While politicians are vying with one another to hog the limelight as the “protector of Marathi interests”, libraries in the city meant for readers of Marathi books are closing down.

Out of 29 Marathi libraries run by the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya (MMGS), 11 have closed down in the past two years. In the past two months, the libraries at Dadar and Abhyudaya Nagar, Parel, have shut down because of insufficient number of members and lack of infrastructure. Similarly, eight more libraries are expected to pull their shutters down soon.

Former editor of a newspaper and well-known Marathi writer Arun Tikekar was of the opinion that the Marathi libraries are not keeping the kind of books that can draw the younger generation. “Most of the Marathi literature is religious, spiritual, or relating to cookery and technology. The young are hardly interested in such literature. Also, the Marathi literature available in the libraries is not good enough to hold the attention of young readers. There are nearly 2,000 types of Marathi books coming in the market every year, but hardly any of them are of general interest.”

“In English, people get a variety of books. Marathi literature needs to catch up to attract readers. Moreover, the government does not have a specific policy over library and book printing. There should be integrated approach. Also, the government should increase its grant to improve the infrastructure and the variety of books in libraries. Old book shops are closing down,” he said.

(Source: Mumbai Mirror)