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Internal affairs

If you want the truth about the new trend in Confessional Literature in India, don't mention the C word and it will be fine. "A confession has Biblical connotations. Paramita Ghosh writes. What’s cooking in memoirs

books Updated: Jun 26, 2011 02:09 IST
Paramita Ghosh

If you want the truth about the new trend in Confessional Literature in India, don't mention the C word and it will be fine. "A confession has Biblical connotations. You confess to a sin," says Arpita Das of Yoda Press, a publisher whose list of books by virtue of giving many marginals voices, changed a few rules about autobiographical writing in India. No hoary politician or celebrity gets to have his say with Yoda.

"If I were to say that my author Lata Mani (her book Interleaves is about facing life after a head injury) has written a confessional or misery memoir, she would be very upset. What works better is saying she is telling her story."

Publishers have a point. 'Misery Memoirs' was the genre success of the '90s in the West. It began trending with the publishing of American Dave Pelzer's A Child Called It detailing the abuse by his alcoholic mother. And book chains like UK's Waterstone chasing up the craze with a 'Painful Lives' section in their stores. The life stories of Indian writers - mostly in their late 40s - published recently, on the other hand, say experts, are books about memory, laughter and forgetting. These are not end-of-life autobiographies. But young writers looking at their lives with a certain writerly distance, constructing themselves without issuing character certificates to the family, rolling out new fables of mobility, adventure and misadventure, to face the contradictions of their culture.

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Publishers have thrown their weight behind this new trend. This year, 13 new titles in memoirs/confessionals are being published; nine were published last year. For example, Rupa snapped up Amandeep Sandhu's Sepia Leaves in 2008, a touching memoir of his life with his schizophrenic mother. It will publish his Roll of Honour - a story of split loyalties as a Sikh boy in a boarding school during the Khalistan movement - by this year-end. The print run of this book will be around 4,000, roughly the same print run of a regular Rupa fiction like Nirad Chibber's Zero Percentile.

Tell some, not all
In 2009, Penguin published Amen - The Autobiography of a Nun, the same year that Picador India brought out Aatish Taseer's Stranger to History, A Son's Journey, the well-received travelogue through Islamic lands by which Taseer tries to understand his estranged history with his father, the late Pakistani politician, Salman Taseer.

Penguin's 2011 list does include the memoirs of the son (Zareer Masani) of famous parents and the wife (Padma Desai) of a famous economist - but they are more examples of what he didn't or couldn't do in the first book's case and what she made of herself in the second, rather than family genealogies. Roli is now bringing out adman Swapan Seth's snatches of life-story set in free verse. It is called This is All I Have to Say.

Time to examine the 'all'. Just as cinema verité was about keeping things authentic with a rough-and-ready style of film-making even at the cost of the 'look' of the film, literature of the real often tells its 'truths' - by subtracting from it. All writers leave things out in their memoirs; what they leave in is the truth as they remember it. "You can't ruffle all feathers," says Priya Kapoor, publisher, Roli. "Shobha De did write about turning 60, but she didn't write about her ex-husband even though that would have been more interesting."

What is the manner, nature or purpose of the confessionals of this generation? How do they see themselves as a 'subject' - as they create themselves as characters in the course of their writing? Characterisation, was a problem, admits Sandhu. "It was about getting into my mother's head. Finally I could not, which also helped me understand my father's struggle." In Sepia Leaves, one notices his looking back on his childhood as if one turns back on a life in exile to make its meaning, more meaningful. "Schizophrenia was the longest word I heard until then, longer than elephant and dinosaur and more difficult to pronounce," he writes, analysing his loss of childhood as a loss of articulation.

Noted psychoanalyst Ashok Nagpal makes an interesting point about the confessional phenomenon when it gets written up as literature - especially in India, a country and culture that is slowly opening up to psychoanalysis. "Memoirs are an attempt to re-stage with dialogue, as in a theatre scene, to look at what is not easy to look at - in us," he says. "Memoirs are a more intuitive way to address those people who did or received something wrong."

Or, as Ranjana Sengupta, editor, Penguin India, puts it: "Basically inventing a narrative of a life as you would want to be seen by others."

In Swapan Seth's book, for instance, he names the teacher who insulted him, but not the girl he loved - a classic case of a memoirist becoming his own biographer by isolating elements of his life to impose a logic that might delude other people - never himself. The author's cheeky defence: "I wrote about him and not her only because while it was fine of me to invade my own privacy it was not right to invade hers. I have been selective in terms of ethics here."

"Our libel laws which follows the British model is also a stumbling block in telling all," says Sengupta. "Diana's butler had to go to America to take out his book…. It is difficult to say very much here. Even if your uncle is dead you can't say 'he abused me'. His kids might object."

Go Gandhi
Confessions are rare in Indian autobiographies, Gandhi's My Experiments with Truth was the "only exception", says sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan. "Nehru gave glimpses of history [in his works], never himself." Gandhi's memoirs, most agree, does him credit. For him, it was not to put forward a theory of individual 'difference', but to show that you can take the battle into your personal life.

"Radicalism today," says Vishwanathan, is an individual act. The autobiographical is being used to make a statement. "Going abroad, having a fling, meeting a horrendous husband and divorcing him, marrying an incompatible person... legitimising choices is the stuff of literature today. The family is too sacrosanct but the presence of the diaspora has allowed Indians to see what they couldn't see or talk about in their local selves. So you get Padma Desai in America where she now feels it's easy to rework her economics and her life."

Place and time
When Desai (later happily married to economist Jagdish Bhagwati) writes of her "violation by a man following a deliberate seduction", it brought memories of how "the marital relation had infected (her) with a venereal disease," she is, says her editor, Nandini Mehta, not just airing sexual victimhood as is common in 'misery memoirs'. "Hers is not a story of a first bad marriage, but about breaking social taboos," says Mehta. "Sixty-four years post independence, this is seeing in the family's story, a record of India's social history. Much has changed, especially the woman's role."

In this background of achievement, where do we place Anjum Zamarud Habib's Prisoner No 100 (translated by activist Sahba Husain), a searing account of life as a Kashmiri woman inmate in Tihar jail?

Habib's 'story' of, her "five years compressed in a 226-page book" clearly hints that another memoir is on the way. "Prisoner is not a story," she argues, "it happened to me. I was a political prisoner and I was treated like a common criminal. It is my moral duty to say that my rights were violated." Her next book, will be "more about herself". Says Urvashi Butalia, her publisher: "I don't think Anjum was looking for sympathy as much as for understanding. She did not want to overdramatise her experience, just to tell it as it was."

Kashmiri assertion, squabbling parents, divorce, sex scandals at the heart of the church - are Indians memoirs breaking the back of old taboos? Yes and no.

Let's say the old restrictions - what to show, what to talk about, and how we talk about it - depending how hard we push, are on their way out. "The spread of social media has certainly led to a greater acceptance in publishing for new kinds of content. What is taboo or not is inversely proportional to what comes out," says Kapish Mehra, publisher, Rupa.

Confess to rebel
There is, however, a class of memoirs that is even revolting against the conventions of 'confessionals'. Photographer Sunil Gupta's two photo-memoirs (Wish you were Here and Queer), and Dalit writer Om Prakash Valmiki's Joothan are portraits of non-conformism - against the genre in their attempt to construct an alternative world.

Says Gupta: "When I started out, there were no pictures of gay Indians, so I thought if they are not there, I will put them there." Arpita Das remembers how this 'manifesto' made people of all sexual orientations pick it up. "They saw his journey, they saw people like themselves in it so that reduced the sense of the 'other'. They saw it was not about sex even though there were intimate pictures as well…so slowly they began to see it as art. It was more effective that the book had less words than pictures."

For Valmiki, on the other hand, Joothan's publication and subsequent translation into English was to "to challenge the notion that our stories cannot be told. People would tell me untouchability is not a north Indian issue, it happens in Bihar. Why are our books full of the virtue of giving alms and not about labour?" Valmiki's memoir talks of living on leftovers, teachers abusing Dalit children…. "There are other Dalit memoirs. Read Sharan Kumar Limbale, Vama," he urges. "To repeat memory is not to forget."

Next to the scandal of not being allowed to speak is the scandal of forgetting. Whether it is the first line of a poem or the last fight we have had to fight.