Best Young Writers

Young Writers
Ten writers in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi and Bengali, chosen for The Indian Express by a panel of acclaimed poets, novelists and critics

Hindi

Poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi picks Vyomesh Shukla and Geet Chaturvedi as two contemporary Hindi writers with great promise

The poet of Kashi

Vyomesh Shukla i 31

Padmavat, a medieval epic poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, is on his reading list. Earlier, he translated American writer Eliot Weinberger's slim anti-war book What I heard About Iraq (2005). Vyomesh Shukla is the latest claimant to the illustrious legacy of writers of Banaras. A poet, critic, and chronicler of Kashi, he is among the most profound voices of the post-reforms Hindi sensibility in search of its identity.

He calls himself a poet of resistance, and attributes the birth of his poetry to the resurgence of the right wing in the early '90s. "RSS men would cast bogus votes of Muslims in elections. They would threaten minorities. It was the moment I felt the only way to resist them was through words," he says.

Shukla is a versatile poet and has two books, Phir Bhi Kuch Log and Hona Ab Jyada Hoga, to his credit. His poem Bahut Sare Sangharsh Sthaniya Reh Jate Hain won the Bharat Bhushan Agrawal award in 2009. While his poems on Gujarat and sectarian violence radiate anger, his verses are in the search of ethereal love: "Tum itne gaur se kyu sunti ho/tum aankho se kyu sunti ho". He can also surprise you with his playfulness: "I did live/ Like fatigue in the sweat of your socks/in mis-spelt words, In stuttering bond of gender with verbs/ In your annoyance." His poetry explodes with a minimalist fervour. Palpable details, without ornate words.

Shukla has also written on classical music and other art forms. In his obituary on Ustad Bismillah Khan, he asks: "Why did the Ustad choose to take the indigenous, ordinary and fraught path of engaging with folk music instead of the reputable and glorified one of classical music with its alankaars, taans and alaaps? Why did he pray that his God grant him not the knowledge of music and its subtleties, but notes that could stir emotions?" He offers an insightful answer: "The temple of Balaji, where he did riyaz, is situated at the periphery, barely, of Hindu religiosity. Unlike the temples of Vishvanath or Sankatmochan, it is not at the centre of the city's religious life."

This understanding of the Banarasi spirit comes naturally to this writer who has spent 31 years in the city of his birth and now runs a school there. "Though I write in Hindi, I address a sensibility that is essentially Indian," he says.

A writer of the 25th hour

Geet Chaturvedi i 33

He is one of the few writers of his generation who is skilful in both verse and prose — both as a fiction writer and critic. Geet Chaturvedi has written two short story collections and a book of poems, translated Charlie Chaplin's autobiography, Pablo Neruda's selected prose pieces, and poets from across the globe. The shelf of this computer engineer, who once wanted to be a rock star, is adorned with works by Vyas, Homer, Kalidas as well as Borges, Marquez and Pamuk. The work of this Bhopal-based journalist, consequently, evokes a yearning for the classic and the contemporary.

From his major influences, Borges and Shankaracharya, he learnt a talisman. "I find that a writer or an artist lives in the 25th hour of the watch. This is not independent of the 24 hours (of a day). It's (about) residing in what is absent. When you do so, you participate in all other presences of the cosmos," he says.

In his long poem Ubhaychar, published last year, Chaturvedi subverts the notion of the hero and announces that the contemporary hero, can, at best, be an amphibian: "Vah apni prajati ka pehla tha jiski vyapak utpatti ke liye sarkar ki manjuri darkaar thi (He was the first of his creed who needed government permission for his large-scale production)."

In his 2007 poem Mother India, which won the Bharat Bhushan Agrawal award, he poignantly portrays two naked women on the streets: Yeh striyan hain hamare andar ki jinke liye jagah nahi bachi andar/Yeh imtihaan hai hamare andar bachi hui sharm ka.

He doesn't delve in abstractions. His poems discover a world, palpable and tangible, with all the music and mystery that would otherwise go unnoticed. For him writing poetry amounts to waiting, and all writing is essentially poetry writing. "I write in Hindi because I am among those who believe that your best expression is possible only in your mother tongue, the language which follows me even in my subconscious. Still, I know that Hindi has its own pressures. My greatest creative dream is to transcend those," he says.

To transcend the linguistic barriers, he looks elsewhere. Deeply influenced by cinema, he employs narrative techniques of master filmmakers in his fiction. Krzysztof Kieslowski, for instance, tells him how a frame can swiftly carry a couple of overlapping or independent tales, the secondary characters emerging as primary ones in the next. While he can appreciate Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki's minimalism, his fiction weaves a complex structure of incidents and characters. From the restless stink of Mumbai's chawls to the decadent corporate world, his fiction covers a vast canvas. His stories, though, sometimes lacks the tautness of his non-fiction.

Tamil

When we asked distinguished author Ambai for her choice of young Tamil writers, she picked Thenmozhi and Mu Harikrishnan. She also mentioned two other authors. She gives her reasons below

Moonbeams on a roof

S Thenmozhi i 37

She doesn't have a name for her literary style. "Maybe it is modernist, maybe it is post-modernist, I don't know the terminology," she says. Hailed as "the future of Tamil literature" by writer Indira Parthasarathy, and with several short stories and poems published in various anthologies, Thenmozhi is a study in contrasts: writing of rural life though settled in a town; talkative yet lapsing into deep silences; poetic but practical. It was this practicality that made her pursue a PhD in chemistry. "I opted for the sciences because of job prospects. But I was always interested in literature, having learned to read Ramayana, Silappathikaram and the poems of Bharathi at an early age," says Thenmozhi, talking on the phone from Thanjavur, where she is assistant commissioner in the income tax department. "Literature will not guarantee a comfortable life. Having a job is important," she says.

In her latest collection of short stories, Nerkunjam (Grain Bunch), she focuses on rural landscapes and uses metaphors to illuminate her inner world. "In my stories, there are no characters, only thoughts. There is no time period, there may not even be a story," she says playfully. In the title story, Thenmozhi grieves over a sparrow that died in her hostel room in Trichy; in Marappachimozhi (Language of Wooden Dolls), the carved dolls that are traditionally given to girls at their wedding turn against their owners, tired of their woodenness and mute submission. "I am interested in feminist issues, in Dalit issues," says the poet, whose verses revisit the lives of women in classical mythology, be it Sita, Urmila or Soorpanaka. One of her stories, Pechi maram, is now set to be published in an Oxford University Press anthology of Tamil Dalit writings.

Thenmozhi wakes at 3 am, a throwback to the time she spent at her grandmother's village near Thiruvarur as a child, and writes till 5.30 am. "It is suddenly fashionable and respectable to write about rural life. Most contemporary Tamil writers have realised this. For me, too, village life, with its relationships and community dependence, has its charm," she says. Mother of nine-year-old Govarthani, she is a busy woman: she is now working on a novel she hopes to finish in a year, and simultaneously writing and translating short stories.

It all started as a way out of her loneliness. "I started writing while in college. It was a difficult time. My mother had left us and I was away from home," she says. Her second collection of poems, Thinai punam, is set to be published this year, as well as her second short story collection, as yet unnamed.

Va Mu Komu is the pen name of VM Komakan from Erode district of Tamil Nadu. He is a poet and a regular writer in the literary magazine Sugan which also brought out his first collection of stories Azuvachi Varuthunga Sami (I feel Like Crying, Sir). His second collection Mann Bootham (Demons of Sand) came out in 2006 and a novel Kalli (Thief) in 2007. Sollak Koosum Kavithaikal (Poems You Cringe from Uttering) and a third collection of stories, Thavalaikal Kuthikkum Vayiru (Jumping Frogs in the Stomach) came out in 2008. His unabashed language and the manner in which his stories speak about sex and sexuality broke all rules of sophistication and "dignity" associated with creative literature. The youth in his stories are constantly dealing with notions of love and the reality of sex, deceit and disease. There is a feeling that he writes to shock people out of their delusions. I find his language deliberately merciless for the lives he is dealing with lack the luxury of "grace" and "dignity".

Che Brindha is a poet who has a magical language that can make an ordinary moment seem extraordinary.

She was born in the rainy month of November which may be the reason why rain is a constant metaphor in her poems. Her first poetry collection Mazhai Patriya Pakirthalkal (Matters of Rain Shared) made a quiet entry in 1999 like the unannounced monsoon. Nearly 10 years later, came the second publication Veedu Muzhukka Vaanam (A House Full of Sky). It is an extraordinary collection of poems which reveals the distance she has travelled in these 10 years; the uneven roads, the plateaus and the natural beauty that are part of this journey become the brushstrokes of these poems. Brindha's poems are like thunderclouds, they never fail to bring refreshing rain.

Her poetry has reached that perfect weather when it is waiting to pour heavily.

— Ambai

Life in the raw

M Harikrishnan i 37

His raw, colloquial prose has cut through the complacence of contemporary Tamil literature, raising sensitive issues in its wake. Every time an editor frowns at his stories, Harikrishnan knows he has achieved something. An electrician at the Jindal steel plant in Salem district, Tamil Nadu, and a koothu artiste — koothu is a form of rural street theatre that incorporates music, dance and dialogue — Harikrishnan refuses to dilute his prose to make it palatable. "I have submitted many stories to magazines, but editors are reluctant to publish them. For example, when I am writing about a girl's rape, I use language that is very raw and unrefined, like the subject matter. I write it the way the impassioned character would speak in her mother tongue, but to the editor, it's just another piece about sex," he says.

Harikrishnan wrote his first story, Man paasam (The Love of Land) in 1996. Published four years later in a regional literary magazine, the story dealt with the problem of agricultural land being diverted for other uses. He would go on to explore more contentious matters, tracing the lives of transsexuals and travelling koothu troupes in ever-shocking ways. "In a way, my stories reflect my upbringing," he says, adding, "It is very difficult to translate them." To quote from an awkward translation of one of his more recent stories, Nay Vay Seelai (Cloth Caught in a Dog's Mouth), a commentary on the social rejection of transgenders: "Is there any medicine to cure this poor soul if its foul-smelling body turns desirous? Nobody cares, nor hates us." With his literature of subversion and social protest now published in magazines like Pudiya Kodangi, which deals with Dalit and women's issues, Harikrishnan is all set to pen a novel. "It will be about koothu and bommalattam (puppetry) artistes," he says.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Harikrishnan enjoys staging koothu with his troupe of 14 artistes at village festivals, temples and homes of the bereaved. "In the month of thai (a festive month that begins halfway through July), we go around staging street plays at 20-25 villages," he says. He recently set up a trust, Kalari, for artistes and hopes to produce a documentary film on them. "City life is extensively chronicled in modern literature, but the lives of villagers are untold stories. I hope to change that," he says.

Born in a rural family and formally educated only till Class X, Harikrishnan owes his love of books to his brother. "My parents didn't know enough to ask what I read or what I wrote. To this day, while they are proud to see that people recognise my name, they don't know what inspires me to write," he says. The father of a 12-year-old, Harikrishnan manages to find time to not only write but also bring out a bi-monthly literary journal, Manal Veedu (House of Sand). "I spend my own money — Rs 12,000 for 750 copies per edition — to publish it, with literary contributions from well-known writers like Perumal Murugan and Va Mu Komu. It is now in its 15th issue," Harikrishnan says.

Malayalam

The short story is perhaps the most vibrant genre in contemporary Malayalam literature, says poet and critic K Satchidanandan. He picks Benny Benyamin and KR Meera as promising practitioners of the genre, and "critical observers of the paradoxes of existence, both individual and collective"

Home and the world

KR Meera i 41

KR Meera's stories create the everyday world in all its nuances and possibilities. She writes not to shock or titillate but to reveal the mysterious working of relationships. If in the bargain, she ruffles sentiments, she remains unfazed, as she believes her stories must reflect realities. "I always try and write the truth, believing it's stronger than fiction," she says.

Her short story Ave Maria, which won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009, dealt with the sensitive issue of how different generations have conceived communism and its transformation in Kerala.

In 2009, her story Yellow is the Colour of Longing was one of three stories from South Asia chosen for an issue of the Feminist Review, London.

Having worked as a journalist for more than a decade at Malayalam Manorama, Meera's stories draw heavily from social and political scenarios. In 2006, she gave up journalism to become a "jobless writer", living in Kottayam, located on the green Vembanad backwaters. She has now completed four novels, four short story collections, two novellas and books for children. This September, Penguin will release a translation of a collection of her short stories. Ten years ago, her prolific writing would have surprised her. She explains, "Initially I did not want to publish my stories. Being a journalist is safe. But in short stories you reveal yourself."

Back in 2001, her husband chanced upon one of her stories on the computer and sent it without her knowledge to a magazine. When she received the acceptance letter, "it was like getting the first love letter, I was devastated," she says. But on her husband's insistence, she revised it and had it published. When she received warm applause, she found herself reluctantly on centrestage.

Since then, her stories have stretched from news events to sentimental stories to feminist assertions. Her short story on George Fernandes received critical acclaim. Yellow is the Colour of Longing, on the other hand, is far removed from politics and tells of the solace found in the company of strangers and the moments of ephemeral joy that sustain us all. But Meera distances herself from tags like "feminist writer", instead she says, "As a woman and a human being, I'm not inferior to anyone. My stories reflect that sense of equality."

Meera started writing in Class VI. When she was in Class VIII, her first short story, about the dashed dreams of an old woman, was published. Her father wanted her to become a doctor, she even completed a degree in chemistry, but literature pursued her and a writer she became.

Notes from a Foreign Land

Benny Benyamin i 40

"I am an expatriate writer, not a writer of exile," says author Benny Benyamin, who tells the stories of Malayalis who live in the Gulf, millions who might relocate by choice but often find their expectations estranged from reality.

His fourth novel Aadujeevitham (Life as a Goat) won the 2009 Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Best Novel and the 2008 Abu Dhabi Sakthi award; and is now taught in universities in Kerala. It is based on the true story of a Malayali man, Mohammad Najeeb, who comes to Saudi Arabia on the promise of a job, but instead finds himself stuck in a desert as a goatherd. Denied human necessities and deprived of human contact, he starts identifying with the goats. The author came to know of Najeeb through a friend. The novel arises from the many interviews he had with him. "It was an unusual story and I had no doubt that it was the story I was waiting to tell the world. My conviction paid off," he says.

While the novel draws on Najeeb's experiences, it also encompasses the isolation of expat life. Benyamin himself took to writing fiction as an escape route. "Loneliness, boredom, depression, numbness and an excess of time in the Gulf made me a writer," says this author of eight books.

Benyamin grew up in a town in Central Travancore. He was a voracious reader but went on to study engineering in Coimbatore. He moved to Bahrain on April 4, 1992, a date he vividly remembers, when his cousin sent him a visa. He says, "In that era before globalisation, the visa was a symbol of escape for the unemployed youth of Kerala who were aspiring to be something big and the Gulf was everybody's dream land. Bahrain was not a choice, it was a prospect."

Benyamin doesn't feel that Najeeb's story reflects the life of the average person in the Gulf. But it is a true story, which he believes needs to be told, since the single-column newspaper articles of missing men disappear in the sea of success stories. Having lived in Bahrain for 19 years, this project-coordinator for an electro-mechanical company believes, "as a writer from this disappointed community, I have to raise my voice for the concerned authorities to hear".

His stories are not confined to the Gulf, but speak for displaced people searching for home the world over. Addis Ababa tells the story of an Ethiopian girl who lost her home in a tribal conflict and now lives in exile. If Gessan's Pebbles deals with the struggle for a homeland in Palestine, Two Army Men in Another Arabic Story illustrates the fear of American soldiers in Iraq. His next novel, which will soon be published, deals with life on an island. "It's not a true expatriate story. But there are some traces of expatriate life in it," says this writer of people living in foreign lands.

The common man of Konkan

Pravin Bandekar i 44

His first and only novel starts by describing the struggle of a poet to "metamorphose" into a novelist. Chalegat, published in 2009, means a "dissatisfied ghost" in Malvani, a dialect of Konkani. It sketched for readers the slow dissolution of the worlds of farmers and fishermen through the eyes of a first-time novelist who realises that the medium of poetry is no longer adequate to write about that change. It was a novel that forced the Marathi novel out of its preoccupation with Pune and Mumbai, and talked about the wider swathes of the "rest of Maharashtra". It found its readership in both urban and rural areas, in the young and the middle-aged, in cities as diverse as Aurangabad and Nashik.

"Though I have said that it is not my autobiography, the poet-turned-novelist in Chalegat is, to a great extent, me," says Pravin Bandekar, who started out as a poet in his college days. His two critically acclaimed collections of poetry are Yeru Mhane — Yeru is a Marathi term for a not-so-important common man, and the title means, "Yeru says" — and Khelkhandobachya Navane, a poem that talks about the effects of globalisation on the lives of common people.

Chalegat is set in the late 2000s, when small farmers and fishermen in Konkan faced the troubling forces of change — from land acquisition rows to the clout of the fishing mafia, and the steady destruction of habitat from mining. "It was painful to be a silent observer of the struggles people were going through. I felt I had to write about it in a different medium, not poetry. I had to struggle to write a novel. So I feel the work is incomplete. Like the novelist in the novel, even I am a dissatisfied soul," says Bandekar.

Konkan, the setting of the novel, is where this author's roots lie. "My family is originally from Banda, the south-western tip of Maharashtra. Though my grandfather worked with a mill in Mumbai, our ancestral home near Venular is in a picturesque valley with a river flowing nearby." In Chalegat, we either visit or find references to these places, and hear the language that fishermen use, as Bandekar creates a gallery of characters and evokes the surroundings.

The strong political tenor of the novel comes from the depiction of a political party named Tiger Sena, on the lines of Shiva Sena, and Bandler narration of the local exploitative politics. "After I wrote the book, I got many calls from Shiva Sena activists with whom it struck a chord. I had closely observed how emotionally suffocated party workers had become after their leaders shifted loyalties for personal interests."

Bandekar has also written extensively on the effect of unchecked mining on the environment and wildlife of the region — a strain that runs through Chalegat and a collection of literary essays, Ghungurkathi.

He is a lecturer at a college in Santayana. His poems have been translated into other Indian languages and English.

Marathi

Marathi writer and critic Shanta Gokhale picks two novelists, Pravin Bandekar and Sachin Kundalkar, as writers to watch out for

The outsider inside

Sachin Kundalkar i 35

Sachin Kundalkar tarted on his first novel at 20 and finished it when he was 22. The novel was Cobalt Blue, the story of a brother and sister who fall in love with the same man, and how a traditional Marathi family is shattered by the ensuing events – a work that both shocked and spoke to Marathi readers. "Thankfully, no one calls it a gay novel anymore. That term is so passι. Now about 12 years later, I feel the brother and the sister are not two people but masculine and feminine sides of the same person. And the book is thus, in turns, a feminine and a masculine monologue," says the author.

Kundalkar is not only a novelist, but also a playwright and an acclaimed filmmaker whose work belongs to the new wave of Marathi cinema. In all his roles, he remains greatly interested in the deceits of the Marathi middle class — which he belongs to and which he grew up to question. "I believe that the Marathi community wears a pragmatic and progressive face but it is very conservative. Inside the four walls of his home, the Marathi manoos is still tied to tradition. When I wrote Cobalt Blue, I was going through a phase of turmoil and loneliness. I wanted to write a story of a brother and a sister who find themselves liberated in the losses they incur," he says. His plays such as Chotyashya Suttit (On Vacation) and Fridge madhe thevalela prem (Love Kept in the Fridge) unmask those double standards and redefine interpersonal relations in the framework of individualism.

Kundalkar grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in Pune; his father worked for a private company and his mother ran a crθche, while writing short stories that she never published. One of her short stories became the basis of his acclaimed film Gandha.

Kundalkar labels all his work as urban. "My work is about individuals. My characters are alone. Not lonely," he says. "From the literary point of view, loneliness, the loss of a lover and leaving one's home are tragic things. But having experienced them myself, I found them liberating. If we really have to embrace a positive individualism from Western civilization, I believe that this is it," he says.

Kundalkar is now working on a second novel while writing his first Bollywood movie to be directed by Anurag Kashyap.

Bengali

Bengali novelist Suchitra Bhattacharya recommends Tilottama Majumdar and Sangita Bandyopadhyay, both vastly different writers characterised by "passion for their craft"

Fault lines of change

Tilottama Majumdar i 44

In a writing career spanning more than a decade, Tilottama Majumdar has established herself as an insightful observer of the changing face of Bengali society. In the novel that attested her position as one of the most important writers of this generation, Rajpath (2009), she talks about the socio-political effect of river erosion in the Murshidabad district of Bengal. "I wanted to point out how an ecological process manages to change interpersonal dynamics too," she says.

Her other bestseller, Jonakira, is about the cosmopolitan nature of urban life in Kolkata, but with a twist. "When we talk about a city being cosmopolitan, we automatically presume that we are talking about high society. But I set this novel in a slum where people from different communities negotiate their differences at every step of their lives," says Majumdar.

Her childhood in the tea estates of North Bengal, where her father worked, gave her a lot of beautiful memories. But most importantly it opened her eyes to the class division contained in a microcosm. "As children it wasn't spelt out to us, but as we grew older we realised that there were invisible walls. As a daughter of a babu, I couldn't interact with the son of a common worker," she says.

Majumdar has consistently pulled off the unusual feat of writing literary novels that sell like commercial ones. Starting from Rii (1996), her debut novel, moving on to Basudhara and Jonakira, most of Majumdar's works have topped bestseller lists — and won her critical acclaim. According to Suchitra Bhattacharya, in Majumdar, Bengalis have found a true chronicler of their time.

Does she feel that she would be remembered in the history of Bengali literature? "How can I determine whether my writings will be perceived as something that changed Bengali literature? That would be ridiculously presumptuous," says Majumdar.

Politics of Sex

Sangita Bandopadhyay i 36

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that 36-year-old Sangita Bandyopadhyay and her novels have, in the last few years, both fascinated and shocked readers of Bengali fiction. She writes about confident young women aware of their sexuality. Her controversial novel Panty (2006) created a furore among uptight Bengali readers.

The story, as the title suggests, is about a panty that a young woman finds in an abandoned cupboard. It's of foreign make and is "soft and sensuous". It acts as a sexual trigger of sorts, egging her on to explore her hidden desires.

When Bandyopadhyay talks about Bengali middle-class women and their aspirations, she does so with fierce loyalty to her kind. Defending their needs and their convictions in a defiant tone, she says. "Yes, of course, I am fascinated with sex and my body. I would be lying if I said I am not. But when people accuse me of being obsessed with sex, they are being hopelessly myopic. It's not the act that fascinates me. That's boring. I like the politics of sex," she says.

In a later novel Jogini (2008) too, Bandyopadhyay doesn't shy away from describing bodily functions like menstruation with a mix of honesty and sensationalism. "When a man writes about sex, he satisfies his voyeuristic fantasy. But when a woman writes about her sexual experiences honestly, there is a lot of untold emotions in it. It's almost like catharsis," she says.

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