Forbidden Stories From North Korea



The Accusation is a collection of seven stories and two poems written under the pseudonym ‘Bandi’ or firefly by a dissident writer still living in North Korea and set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim-Il Sung and Kim-Jong Il. The stories are a window into the secret world of the hereditary dictatorships of the Kim family characterized by propaganda, corruption, nepotism and bureaucratic ineptitude where the government controls every aspect of a citizen’s life. While there are many works published by writers who have defected to South Korea, this is presumably the first collection written by a writer still living in North Korea to cross the border. The author risked his or her life to make these harrowing stories see the light of day. The account of how the manuscript made it out from North Korea into South Korea is an interesting story in its own right and is included as an afterword.

The chilling and profoundly sad stories are fictional but based on the experiences of real people and they all share a common thread. They reveal the fear and despair of the citizens, who, living under the watchful eye of authority, have to be constantly on guard as anything can be construed as conspiracy against the state. Each and every story is about an accusation. A person could be banished to the countryside, forced into a life of hard labor or even executed for a slight infraction, real or perceived.

Record of a Defection reveals how you have to atone for the sins of your ancestors. A peasant was accused of being an anti-revolutionary and of sabotaging the Party’s agricultural collectivization project as he was not abreast with the latest technology of growing rice seedlings in greenhouses. Years later his entire family suffers the consequences of his actions. His young grandson cannot run for Class President at his school. One black mark against you which can be a trifling offence or even an absurd non-offence can taint not only you and your family but many future generations.

City of Specters– A two year old is frightened by the gigantic posters near Central Square of Karl Marx and Kin Il-Sung visible from his apartment window. He mistakes them for monsters. His mother tries to allay his fears by drawing the curtains but the neighborhood is expected to exhibit uniformity in appearance for the upcoming National Day parade and her action is viewed as an infraction. Although she is a privileged woman, she has to pay a heavy price for this misstep. It is a richly symbolic story. These specters of Communism haunt not just the little boy but all the citizens in all of the land.

Life of a Swift Steed– A decorated war veteran  had planted an elm tree in his youth as a symbol of the growth of a new socialist state. He had envisioned a life where everyone would live in a tile-roofed house, eat meat and rice and wear silks but the reality is that the people are living in poverty and there is a dearth of fuel in the freezing weather. The state wants to cut down his beloved elm which is interfering with a power line. The tree ends up being a symbol of his disillusionment as he comes to the painful realization that his medals mean nothing and that his entire life has been a sham.

So Near Yet so Far– Myeong-Chol, a hard-working miner wishes to visit his sick mother in the countryside but the state will not give him a permit to leave his province as there is a Class 1 celebration for the leader in his mother’s town and travel is forbidden to the district. After his application for a pass is denied three times, the man who has always been a stickler for rules, decides to make the journey illegally with the help of a friend. He gets tantalizingly close to seeing his mother as the title suggests but will he see the dying old woman and what will be his punishment for violating travel regulations?

Pandemonium– An old woman is traveling with her husband and granddaughter to visit her pregnant daughter but they end up being trapped in a crowded railway station. All traffic has come to a halt as the Great Leader Kim Il- Sung is about to visit the area. In desperation, she sets out on foot to visit her daughter and ends up getting a ride in the leader’s personal entourage and accidentally becomes part of a propaganda video. The government’s report of her happy laughter is in striking contrast to the pandemonium at the station where her husband and granddaughter suffered injuries.

On Stage– Even a month after the demise of the leader, authorities would monitor how many times people put flowers at his altar. The people risked venomous snakes and landslides to pick flowers to demonstrate their grief.  Grief was closely monitored and people became experts at faking it. An improvisational comic skit had once landed a young man in hot water. He was suspected of being brainwashed by South Korean anti-Communist freedom broadcasts and now, much to the ire of his father, he is in trouble again for having held the hand of the daughter of a political prisoner and for picking flowers in a state of intoxication. He explains to his father how living in North Korea is akin to being on stage.

The Red Mushroom– A man requests a journalist to clear his uncle’s name. He has become a scapegoat of the party when the bean paste factory where he works runs short of supply due to mistakes made higher up. Unfortunately, even sincere journalists have to toe the party line:

“Eventually, he decided that he had no other choice than to knuckle down, amend the article so that the praise was meted out as the Party demanded it be, and submit it to the newspaper, all the while heaping curses on the field of journalism which he had been unfortunate enough to enter….”

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Deborah Smith who has translated these stories beautifully into English retaining the local color and turn of phrase. The writing is stark but yet imbued with poetry. Whether it is a description of a cuckoo ‘crying out as if it were choking on a clot of blood’ or of people assembled in the square like ‘blocks of tofu’ or of a person shedding ” a pitcher’s worth of tears from a cup of sadness”, the similes and metaphors startle and suit the melodramatic nature of the tales. Many of the stories are repetitive but the repetition only serves to reinforce the shared plight of all the citizens whose fates are determined by the accident of birth and hang precariously on a piece of paper in a bureaucratic office.

There are Orwelian overtones in the stories but sadly this is not a dystopian world. It is a scathing indictment of a dynastic totalitarian regime which hasn’t changed much since the time the stories were written. In The Red Mushroom, the last story of the collection, the municipal building which stands for the red European specter is compared to a poisonous mushroom, the root of all misfortune and suffering and the story ends with the protagonist’s heart crying out the collective silent yearning of the people: “Pull out that red mushroom, that poisonous mushroom. Uproot it from this land, from this world, forever!” 

The afterword to the stories reveals the interesting trajectory of the manuscript as it made its way to South Korea thanks to a relative of the author who enlists the help of a human rights activist. We learn that Bandi is a writer of the Chosun Writers’ League but other biographical details have been altered to protect his or her identity. Bandi who sees himself or herself as a firefly illuminating the darkness that engulfs North Korea includes, in lieu of acknowledgements, a poem imploring us to read his words. We owe it to the daring author to honor his request. Please read his book as an act of solidarity.


The Hideaway of a Young Girl : A Literary and Historical Pilgrimage

Six year old Anne at Montessori School in a happier time.

The Diary of a Young Girl is one of my most cherished childhood books. I was around the same age as Anne Frank when I first read the book and like many other adolescents, I could relate to the young girl and her angst. I was vaguely aware of the chilling horrors of the holocaust but at that age I mainly found a kindred spirit in Anne for she was a normal teenager like all of us encountering the same problems –squabbles with her sister, feeling misunderstood by grown-ups, dealing with the awkwardness of puberty, the onset of the first period and crushes on boys. Anne poured her heart out in her diary, her friend and her confidante whom she lovingly addressed as ‘Kitty’, during the two years she spent in hiding in ‘The Secret Annex’ with her family when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam. Little did I imagine that one day I would be entering this personal space so vividly described by the spunky and precocious teen! I re-read her diary before going on a trip to Amsterdam and had quite a different perspective on it as an adult. The book, along with the moving and sobering experience of visiting the house, brought home with full force the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.


The Anne Frank Huis located at No. 263 in Prinsengracht in Amsterdam is where Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family for twenty-five months during World War 2 along with the van Pels family and the dentist, Dr. Fritz Pfeffer. They hid in the Achterhuis or back house (Secret Annex) located at the back of the Opekta and Pectacon office and warehouse where her father, Otto Frank, ran businesses making spices and seasonings for meat and pectin for jelly. Otto decided to find refuge here when the Nazis began rounding up all the Jews to send them to Westerbok, a transit camp near the Dutch town of Assen before deporting them to Auschwitz- Birkenau and Sobibor in German occupied Poland where they were ruthlessly exterminated.


Otto’s employees and friends played an important role in keeping the businesses running and the family safe. I am going to name them all as they risked their lives to protect the family- Johannes Kleiman, Miep Gies and her husband Jan Gies, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl and her father Johan Voskuijl. They did grocery shopping and brought food for their survival and books and magazines to entertain them and were their only contact with the outside world. Bep signed up for correspondence courses in shorthand and Latin in her own name to continue the children’s education. These well-wishers whom Anne referred to as ‘helpers’  represented hope in their small acts of kindness and show us how human nature is as capable of compassion as it is of cruelty.

The self-guided audio tour began in the warehouse which has a door to the left which immediately leads to a staircase up to the first floor where the offices were located. The interactive displays and audio clips shed a lot of light on the era and prepared us for what was to follow. We then entered the storeroom to access the secret annex which is connected to the main house by passageways. The doorway to the annex was concealed behind a moveable bookcase expressly constructed for this purpose by Bep’s father, Johan Voskuijl. It was a surreal feeling to step behind the original bookcase and enter Anne’s world. The living space was only 540 square feet in area. On the first floor we walked through the room shared by Anne’s parents, Otto and Edith and her sister, Margo, and then entered a small room shared by Anne and Fritz, the dentist who got on her nerves. On the wall we could see posters of celebrities just like the room of a typical teenager.

On the second floor is the area where the van Pels lived. It is the largest room of the annex and also served as the communal living room and kitchen as it had a stove and sink. Next to it is their son Peter’s room which is just landing space coming down from the attic. The house is bare other than a few photos and mementos but that adds to the poignancy and as a reminder of how the Nazis ruthlessly stripped them of their lives along with their belongings. Yet there are a few things here and there that make you well up with tears like the original strip of wallpaper where Otto marked the girls’ height as they grew.

Canal side entrance to the museum

Anne’s diary reveals how during the day they had to be very quiet and tiptoe around the place, tense and fearful,  lest they be discovered by the workers of the warehouse. They washed and got ready before the workers came in and then they got busy with their reading and school work. They prepared their own meals and canned food for future use. They were most relaxed at night after the workers left. They would listen to the BBC and Radio Oranje and discuss the war and politics. They celebrated birthdays, Hannukah and Christmas and tried to keep their spirits up. But they also had arguments living in such close proximity to each other and as the war progressed the tiffs got worse when they started running out of supplies. Often sleep was elusive as air raid sirens and bombings could be heard throughout the night. In spite of all the difficulties and dangers they faced, Anne’s diary was laced with her youthful idealism and optimism:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

“The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.” Photo courtesy of


The entrance to the attic was barred. I was eager to climb up the stairs and take a peek in the area which served as a meeting place for Anne and Peter and their budding romance and which also had a narrow window from which they could furtively look outside into the world. Anne loved looking at a giant chestnut tree in the courtyard, a little slice of nature to soothe her confined soul. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go there but immediately realized how painful it must have been for the inhabitants who couldn’t go anywhere and as prisoners had nothing but the little hurried glance from the window to content themselves with. They were deprived of fresh air, of sunlight, of nature, robbed of all the little freedoms we take for granted every day.

After the tour of the annex, I descended to the museum area which houses photographs, documents and objects that belonged to the family including Anne’s original diary. It was heartbreaking to see the pictures of the family in happier times. There are touching video clips with interviews with people who knew the family including Miep Gies who was particularly close to Anne and Anne’s friend who met her on a few occasions at the camp and managed to survive the war. Anne made her last entry in her diary on August 1, 1944. Their hiding place was revealed on 4th August, 1944 when they were betrayed by someone who tipped the Gestapo and they were taken to the Westerbok transit camp on a passenger train and eventually to Auschwitz on a freight train.

Only Otto Frank survived the war. It broke my heart to imagine the pain of the man who lost his entire family all at once. Anne’s mother died of tuberculosis at Auschwitz and the girls contracted typhus at Bergen- Belsen where they were transported to from Auschwitz. And isn’t it a cruel joke of fate that they were on the verge of freedom, that their camp was liberated just two weeks after their death? It was Miep Gies who gathered Anne’s papers and notebook after the hiding place was ransacked and gave them to Otto who sent it for publication. Somehow the Gestapo had left these papers alone. Anne had expressed a wish to become a famous writer in her diary. Ironically, her wish came true but not in the way she wished for it to happen. Who knows what she would have achieved if she hadn’t been plucked before her prime? A young life was robbed of its potential. Millions of lives were robbed of their potential.

I stepped out of the building with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat. Outside it was business as usual in the city with the hustle and bustle of tourists and their bikes and boats calmly floating down the same canal from Anne’s time and the same chiming of the bells of the Westerkerk that Anne heard regularly throughout the day. But a small nondescript corner in this bustling city will forever bear witness to the tribulations and trauma of not just one family but a race at large and to the resilience and indomitable spirit of a young girl who showed so much dignity in her suffering. And as for the old chestnut tree, unlike Anne it died a natural death. It finally succumbed to disease but not before scores of cuttings were taken from it and planted all over the world to grow new trees. And similarly Anne’s legacy lives on through her story which continues to inspire countless people everyday around the world.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: I recommend booking tickets online in advance before visiting the museum. The lines outside can be very long if you decide to purchase tickets on the spot. I had tried to buy my tickets online a few weeks before my trip but they were already sold out. I tried again a few days before my visit and luckily I was able to obtain them as they had some cancellations. Keep trying even after they are sold out. There are always people cancelling the last minute. Photographs are forbidden in the museum not only to preserve the original artifacts but also as a respect to the sanctity of the place. 





A Book About Books

Chinese Propaganda Poster- “Scatter the old world, build the new.”

Could you picture a world devoid of books, a world where books are forbidden and where free expression in the arts and literature is restricted? We take the freedom of the written word for granted. Yet, there are places around the globe where books have been banned in the past and sadly still are subject to censorship in our present day world. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) by Dai Sijie is a book about books and a beautiful ode to literature. It’s a tender story of friendship and survival through the transformative power of literature, set in a very somber period in Chinese history and loosely based on the author’s own life.

The year is 1971 and we are in the mountainous countryside of China during the cultural revolution. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a movement initiated in the sixties by Mao Zedong to implement Communism and to eliminate capitalist influences and also to root out China’s ancient cultural heritage and the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits , old ideas. To achieve this objective, places of worship and of historic interest were vandalized and ancient artifacts and relics which were once treasured, ruthlessly destroyed. Needless to say, it was a period of great unrest, turmoil and violence. Rapes, murders and suicides were commonplace. The young children of bourgeois intellectuals were banished from urban centers to rural areas in order to be purged of western ideas and to be re- educated by the peasants. The youngsters or China’s ‘lost generation’ were deprived not only of educational opportunities but also the right to live with their families and they experienced feelings of alienation brought on by the sudden exile.

In this tumultuous era, two young boys, a nameless narrator and his friend Lou, both sons of doctors, are sent for re- education to Phoenix Mountain in China. They are separated from their educated and well- off families and forced into agricultural labor. Their tasks include working in dangerous coal mines and carrying buckets filled with excrement on tortuous and slippery trails. They hope that they would be one among the three in a thousand to be sent back to the city despite their parents being deemed enemies of the people. They have to use their ingenuity and wit to get the better of the villagers and the village headman. They meet the little seamstress, a local girl who has not been exposed to books, music or the western way of life and both fall head over heels in love with her although it is Luo who manages to catch her attention. The boys discover that one of their friends from the city, Four Eyes, who has been sent to a neighboring village for re-education has a suitcase of forbidden books in his possession. They succeed in getting him to lend them a translation of a book by Balzac in exchange for a favor and once they have had a taste of the formidable French author, they have an insatiable thirst to read more.

“Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”

When Four Eyes becomes the lucky one to get the opportunity to leave Phoenix Mountain, Luo and the narrator devise a plan to steal his suitcase of hidden books before his departure. They succeed by means of their cunning and resourcefulness and their lives are changed forever. The books have a profound effect on them and on the little seamstress too for the boys enact scenes from the books to her. So just as the boys are being re-educated to the ways of the peasants, the little seamstress is re-educated, in turn, by them in this Pygmalion like story.

I admire the author’s skill in managing to weave an enchanting tale interspersed with moments of comedy in spite of portraying a very grim period in history. The book is told from the perspective of the narrator except for the last few chapters where the point of view shifts. I don’t understand the rationale behind the change in structure as it disrupts the flow of the text. I was also a little disappointed by the conclusion. The romantic in me would have preferred a fairy tale ending for a story which reads like a fairy tale but on reflection, I can see why the ending is what it is and why it would not have been as impactful otherwise. I was a little taken aback by one sacrilegious act which seemed to negate the premise of the book. But I will not reveal anything more and risk ruining the plot for future readers.

The book transported me to a time and place foreign to me and gave me an insight into the political and cultural upheaval in the China of that period. I firmly believe that the best way to understand history is through travel or literature rather than following a bland textbook. But I mostly enjoyed the story for celebrating three pursuits close to my heart – storytelling, translating and reading. Luo and the narrator entertain the villagers by enacting stories of films they’ve watched and embellish their performances with the aid of their fertile imaginations. Luo laments the inevitable demise of this art form as people have moved beyond the age of The Arabian Nights. The art of storytelling is even more threatened in our modern digital world. The book is also a tribute to the art of translation. First of all, this book is itself a translation and the translator, Ina Rilke, has beautifully rendered the translation from the original French to English with her richly descriptive and evocative language. Secondly, the boys devour books by Flaubert, Gogol, Balzac and Dumas translated into Chinese in spite of the cultural differences, reinforcing the universal appeal of literature. I was reminded of my college days in India when my friends and I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus and other authors in translation. I am grateful to translators for making an entirely different canon of literature available to readers all over the world.

Finally, it’s a book celebrating the love of books. Books allow us to escape and make life more bearable. The narrator, moved by Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe declares:

“I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.”

I could say the same about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It’s an unforgettable book that stays with you forever and rekindles your love of reading.


A Franco-Russian Christmas Tale

snowtreesPapa Panov’s Special Christmas is an endearing and heartwarming tale written by Tolstoy that captures the essence of Christmas by reminding us that being kindhearted and giving selflessly to those in need is what the holiday is all about. It’s a timeless story but particularly apt for our times when the true meaning of Christmas seems to be lost in materialistic wants and the frenzy of shopping. It’s perfect as a bedtime story for children or for the whole family to read aloud together.

A village shoemaker called Papa Panov is expecting Jesus to pay a visit to his humble home on Christmas Day. His wish is to give him the finest pair of shoes he has ever made. On the night of Christmas Eve, he was promised in a dream that his wish will come true but that he should look carefully as he may not be able to recognize his visitor. Will his much awaited guest arrive? You can read the translation of the story here:

Anyone familiar with the Bible will know that the story is an illustration of a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which is an exhortation to care for the poor and the needy:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. ( Matthew 25: 35 to 40- King James Version)

This story was written during Tolstoy’s twilight years after his return to Christianity. Tolstoy was raised in the Russian Orthodox Christian faith but he was against organized religion and rejected the authority of the State and the Church. After going through an anguishing spiritual and existential crisis, he decided to give the religion a second chance as he was touched by the faith of the simple peasants around him. He sought solace in the Bible and was particularly moved by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and responding to evil not by resisting or retaliating but with love and forgiveness. He was a Christian anarchist (although he himself did not use the term) who felt the church had betrayed the compassionate teachings of Jesus Christ by choosing to focus instead on superstitions, miracles and rituals. He was eventually excommunicated by the Church for his apostasy.

As interesting, if not more, is the story about the story. Tolstoy’s story is a retelling of a French tale entitled Le Père Martin, originally written by Ruben Saillens, a French pastor and author, in 1883, and eventually published in his book of fables and allegories ( Récits Et Allégories).* The English translation of the fable made its way to Russia and was unintentionally plagiarized by Tolstoy who rewrote the story in Russian with just a few minor changes. The story traveled all the way to Russia only to return to France as a Russian story translated in French. Understandably, Saillens was perturbed by the discovery of his own story being passed off as a Russian one and broached the subject, not once but twice in separate letters to Tolstoy. Tolstoy did reply with apologies on both occasions. In the first letter, he explained that he came across an anonymous English translation of the story in a journal and retold the story in Russian adding a Russian setting. In the second letter, Tolstoy assured him that he had attributed the source in all the subsequent Russian editions of the story but the translated versions in the US and other parts of the world were beyond his control as he had relinquished all copyrights to his work. **

The title of my blog post credits the story to its rightful source as in my own little way I hope to clear up this widespread literary misconception. I have the utmost respect for the creator of Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the story is a virtual copy of the French one. Imagine what a furor such an act of plagiarism would have caused in our contemporary literary milieu! In any case, this is probably a folktale with many variants transmitted down generations via oral tradition and probably penned initially by Saillens.

A Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate and whether we believe or not, may we, like Papa Panov, find moments everywhere in our everyday lives to help those who are less fortunate than us!



* You can read the story in French and the preface to the story here:  Le Père Martin

** For more on the two letters, click on the following links:

A Wrong Attribution.


A Russian Christmas

‘Tis the season to read Christmas stories. I recently read two short stories related to Christmas by two different giants of Russian literature: Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Both stories are distressing and unsettling and they may not be the best selection for Christmas when you want to read something cheerful, but let’s be realistic; life is full of ups and downs and Christmas is not a happy time of celebration for everyone.

At Christmas Time by Anton Chekhov is a poignant story of a poor peasant family, written in two parts. In the first part of the story, an illiterate couple hires an innkeeper’s relative during the holiday season to write a letter to their daughter Efimia whom they haven’t seen for four years since she got married and moved to St. Petersburg. They have only received two letters from her during that period and they are not even sure if they have any grandchildren or not. The mother, Vasilissa, has a deep love for her daughter and gets emotional while speaking out her affectionate Christmas message to Yegor, the scribe. He, on the other hand, is indifferent to her suffering. He is not interested in the couple or their daughter and adds nonsensical thoughts about the military in the letter which have no relevance to the mother’s sentiments. The second part of the story takes place at Efimia’s house which is a room attached to the medical establishment where her husband works as a porter and where they live with their three little children. She bursts out sobbing while reading her parents’ letter.

You can read the story here:
At Christmas Time

We learn that Efimia’s husband neglected to send her letters home as he was preoccupied with important business and eventually the letters got lost. It’s obvious that the young woman is trapped in a miserable marriage to an indifferent and intimidating man. She is terrified of her husband and stops speaking when he enters the room. “ She was very much frightened of him—oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.” And while reading out the letter from her parents, she cries out, “Queen of Heaven, Holy Mother and Defender, take us away from here!” Chekhov reveals a lot without being explicit about details. The heightened fear of the woman points out to emotional abuse and maybe even physical abuse. Similarly, we don’t know how the old couple feels about not hearing from their daughter. They miss her immensely and are not sure if she is alive or dead. They are lonely and we wonder if they feel abandoned by her as they have no inkling about her misery.

The dark and disturbing story emphasizes the fact that Christmas is not always a happy and hopeful time for all families.The ending is typical of Chekhov who leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. Life is not always orderly with definite and happy endings and his stories reflect the painful reality. Let’s proceed to the second succinct story which also manages to pack a punch in a few lines.

The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree is a powerful short story by Dostoevsky, reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl.


You can read the story here:
The Beggar Boy at Christ's Christmas Tree

On Christmas Eve, a poor six year old boy, freezing to death and suffering from terrible pangs of hunger, leaves the cellar where his mother is dying and steps out into town. He is fascinated by the lavish window displays of Christmas trees and fancy cakes that he comes across while strolling in the streets. Through a huge glass window, he sees a lovely Christmas tree and well dressed children laughing and playing and eating cakes of all sorts in a house, but when the boy opens the door and goes in, he is shooed out. A wicked boy on the road hits him on the head and makes off with his cap while he is peering through another glass window to admire dolls.

He betakes himself to someone’s courtyard behind a stack of wood where he has a vision of the Christ’s Christmas tree surrounded by dolls. They are the spirits of other children who have died and gone to heaven. They tell him that this is Christ’s Christmas tree for the little children who have no tree of their own. These angels were all little boys and girls like him who froze, starved or suffocated to death and they are now joyfully reunited with their respective mothers. In the morning, the porter finds the dead body of the frozen child on the woodstack and they find his mother too who had died before him. The story of the little boy is not unique to him but represents the plight of thousands of children who are starving and freezing during a time of merriment and joy. It’s a Dostoevskian world of misfortune and misery but there is a Christmas message underlying the sad story. The contrast between the affluent and the poor is startling in its injustice and it’s heart-wrenching to see that everyone in town is either oblivious or indifferent to the condition of the little boy. “A policeman walked by and turned away to avoid seeing the boy.”

Dostoevsky ends the story saying that what took place in the cellar and on the woodstack might have happened but he’s not sure about Christ’s Christmas tree. He is quite sure about the wretchedness of our existence but who knows what happens beyond the grave. A grim and sobering statement indeed!

I’ve always wondered what it is about 19th century Russian literature that moves me so profoundly? Is it the universal appeal of the works which portray the sorrow and suffering of the human condition or the fact that the writers can reach the depths of our souls with their sensitivity? My only regret is that I haven’t learnt Russian to read these gems in the original although I think we are fortunate to have access to some excellent translations. In my next blog post, I promise a more uplifting Christmas story by yet another literary giant of Russia. Meanwhile, I wish you all a very happy ‘Litmas’ season! Happy Reading!


In Other Words: A Love Affair With A Language

Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone from the British Museum
By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Every immigrant’s story is a story of exile. Many works of fiction and non–fiction have explored the alienation of the diaspora in many forms. Along with the change in customs, cultural and religious practices, economic status and dietary habits, there is also a linguistic estrangement which inevitably accompanies spatial displacement. Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, In Other Words (In Altre Parole), poetically addresses the exile of language which leaves you with an inexplicable vulnerability along with a keen sense of loss. As someone who loves learning languages and who inhabits a world of multiple languages, I found the concept of the memoir captivating even before I plunged into the reading. I could relate to many aspects of the linguistic expatriation and right away Lahiri’s story became personal and my own.

The memoir is a paen to language, specifically to the Italian language. For some unexplained reason, Lahiri develops a fascination for learning Italian from the time of her first visit to Florence with her sister where with the aid of a pocket dictionary, she navigates her way through the city. It’s love at first sight with the language. On her return to the US, she learns Italian under various tutors. She later returns to Italy many times to promote her books and finally decides to move to Rome for a couple of years with her family. The memoir describes the agony and ecstasy of learning Italian and is presented in a dual language format: Italian on the left page and English on the right. The Italian is written by Lahiri who wants to find a new voice in her writing through another language and it is translated into English by Ann Goldstein, the famous translator of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan books. Lahiri makes a conscious decision to stay away from English and to write exclusively in Italian and therefore refrains from translating the work herself. She feels a profound connection with the Italian language but at the same time is also detached from it. These ambivalent feelings make up her memoir which is essentially about writing in a language she is in the process of learning.

To complicate matters, there is a third language in the picture which incidentally happens to be the first language she spoke, raised in the US to immigrant parents from Calcutta, India. Bengali is her mother tongue but she feels distanced from it as she doesn’t know the language perfectly. She bemoans the fact that her mother tongue is “paradoxically, a foreign language, too.” I can relate to the estrangement from the mother tongue. My mother tongue is Tamil but as I spent my entire childhood in northern India, I was more fluent in Hindi than I ever was in Tamil. People would marvel at my impeccable Hindi but I was still the outsider defined by my name. I never learned Tamil formally. I could understand and speak the Tamil spoken by my parents but I could not read and write in it. I was more comfortable with Hindi but it was English, the language of colonial imposition that became by default the language I became most proficient in. As Lahiri laments, what relationship can you establish with a language that is not part of your blood and bones? She makes a distinction between inherited and adopted languages. Bengali is the mother who died and English is the stepmother who has arrived.

Lahiri uses a lot of metaphors to describe the painstaking endeavor of learning a new language. . Learning a language is like learning to swim across the shore, it’s like climbing a mountain, it’s like pulling weeds in a garden. It indicates a perpetual state of growth and possibility. It’s almost a Sisyphean task. Italian is the newborn demanding full attention and English is the older sibling left to his own devices. The Italian verb ‘sondare’ meaning to explore or to examine encapsulates her project. She is researching something that will forever remain out of reach. She compares writing in Italian to a bridge in Venice; it’s fragile and on the verge of collapsing but it also serves as a passage into another world. She also compares her writing to Daphne’s flight and transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her journey of learning a foreign language is imperfect as the imperfect tense she confuses with the simple past. “ I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures.”, she declares. I found the memoir tedious and repetitive in parts drilling the same point with countless metaphors. Lahiri comes across as a perfectionist who holds herself up to an unattainable ideal instead of just experiencing with abandon the joy of learning a new language. And somewhere between all the metaphors, she has squeezed in two short stories. Lahiri seems to take no more than a pedantic interest in learning Italian. I would have enjoyed reading stories about her family life in Rome, about her interactions with neighbors and friends, about the food, the culture and the people of the glorious city of Rome. Language is after all about connecting with others and is inextricably linked with culture. She also tends to take herself a little too seriously. The memoir could have benefited from some humor. Learning a language lends itself to humorous situations. One has to just think of the faux pas, the double entendre, the malapropos remarks and the miscommunications that can leave any student or teacher in splits.

One interesting point Lahiri makes is that her physical appearance often comes in the way of her immersion. How much ever she masters a language, she is, and will always be viewed as a foreigner. She speaks fluently in Italian to a saleswoman in Salerno but the lady assumes, solely based on looks, that her husband who barely knows a few lines is the one who is Italian and speaks perfectly.  On a trip to Quebec, I recall speaking in perfect French to a shopkeeper, but to my surprise he replied in English. It’s hard for people to shed the stereotypical image they have in their minds of a nation or its people. Many people in the United States are surprised by how well I speak English and I have to constantly explain that India was a former colony of the British and that I went to a school where English was the main medium of instruction. In fact, I speak English better than any other language. I could venture to say that English is my first language but would anyone believe it based on my appearance or my name? People are even more shocked when they find out that I’m fluent in French. There is a French word called’ dépaysement’ which has no English equivalent but literally means ‘uncountried’. Lahiri lyrically evokes this feeling of being stripped off your country :

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

I understand her exhilaration. I understand her frustration. It’s a love affair but a one- sided one. It’s unrequited. She needs the language but the language does not need her. I belong to Hindi. I belong to Tamil. I belong to English. I belong to French. But they do not belong to me. I know her pain and I can relate to the sense of alienation she experiences but I don’t despair and I don’t share her pessimism. I also know that my life is richer and more expansive because I know so many languages. Gaining proficiency in a language opens up a window or rather many windows into different worlds. Instead of feeling excluded from many cultures, you could revel in the rich plurality of your experiences. In Other Words, is, in other words, a love affair with no passion. Though this book struck a chord with me, I don’t see it appealing to anyone who has not learned a foreign language. As I’m proficient in French, it was exciting for me to try and decipher the Italian, a fellow Romance language, on the left side of the page.

I respect the fact that Lahiri seeks the literary freedom to write in a language of her choice. The memoir is about being vulnerable as a writer and looking at your work from a fresh angle. Every writer deserves a room of her own. Heck, she deserves a country of her own. But I hope Lahiri will return to English and that this self-imposed linguistic exile will remain temporary. Nabokov, whom Lahiri brings up in the memoir as an example of a writer writing in a different language, himself said that a writer’s nationality is of secondary importance and a writer’s art is his real passport. Indeed, writing, like any other art, transcends all languages and barriers.


A Writer By Any Other Name

Naples, Italy

The literary world is abuzz with the news of the unveiling of the identity of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian author of the tremendously popular and successful Neapolitan quartet of novels. The person responsible for unmasking the reclusive and private author is Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative journalist who used Ferrante’s financial and real estate records to reveal her real name. Not only has his conduct been viewed as an intrusion of the artist’s privacy but as a sexist act of violation by her millions of fans around the world. I will respect her wishes and not divulge her name in this post. Her identity had been shrouded in mystery for many years and needless to say piqued the curiosity of many readers. Some speculated that the author was a man writing under the name of a woman while others thought that there were two writers and even made the assumption that she collaborated with her husband in writing the books. Why did the author feel the need to conceal her identity in this day and age when it is very difficult to stay away from the public eye?

Many authors have written under assumed names including male authors like Stephen King, Voltaire and George Orwell to name a few. Often writers wish to distance themselves from their previous work and take on a different pen name while attempting a new genre. The works of women writers have historically been viewed as inferior compared to the writings of their male contemporaries prompting many of them to either remain anonymous or to take noms de plumes in order for publishers to think they would be a commercial success. Virginia Woolf, in her essay, A Room of One’s Own explains how the patriarchy has suppressed women and states: “Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The Brontë sisters wrote initially under the pseudonyms of three brothers, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell and only revealed their identity when they were confused with Jane Austen. Colette, the highly acclaimed French author, published her first four novels of the Claudine series under Willy, the nom de plume of her first husband. And then we have the two Georges of the 19th century, George Eliot and George Sand whose real names were Mary Ane Evans and Amantine-Lucile-Aurore- Dupin, respectively. We don’t even have to go back that far for examples. Even in our contemporary era, we have J. K. Rowling who dropped her first name Joanne and made it an initial to become less gender specific. She also wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling under the name Robert Galbraith to make the work appealing to both boys and girls but it didn’t take long for her identity to be uncovered. Interestingly, Elena Ferrante assumed a female pen name for writing her novels. She believed that her anonymity facilitated the creative process and she shunned any kind of publicity whether in the form of book signings, interviews or a social media presence.

The fact that the protagonist- narrator’s name is Elena in the Neapolitan novels adds to the conjecture that the novels could be autobiographical or semi- autobiographical in tone. The four books in the series, in flash-back form, follow the trajectory of Elena and Lila, two friends growing up in the working class neighborhood of Naples in the fifties and sixties. Both girls are brilliant but couldn’t be more different than each other. Lila is bold, feisty and mercurial whereas Elena is more reserved and timid. Elena’s education allows her to break free from the confines of her restrictive upbringing whereas Lila cannot escape the neighborhood of their childhood. I’ve read My Brilliant Friend, the first book of the bildungsroman quartet, translated by Ann Goldstein who deserves as much if not more praise as Ferrante herself for creating ‘Ferrante fever’ with readers all over the English speaking world. My Brilliant Friend is the story of an intense and enduring friendship. But it is not just a sweet and touching account of friendship. It is also a complex and antagonistic relationship fraught with jealousies and insecurities. It is definitely not chick-lit but a dark and disturbing book. Early on in the novel, Elena says “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.” With searing honesty and passion, she describes dysfunctional families with their macho culture, sexual harassment, family feuds and class conflict amidst the poverty and violence of post- war Naples. It took me a while to get into the book. For one, there are too many characters with multiple names. Secondly, reading a book in translation however well-rendered requires a little bit more of an effort from the reader. The unexpected cliffhanger of a denouement and the fact that my friend urged me to be patient with the first book made me eager to read the next book in the series. The writing is raw and brutal, almost visceral in parts which I suspect led many to believe that the author might be a man. Somehow my instinct told me all along that Ferrante was a woman but does that even matter?

Do you think a work of art should be an entity by itself or seen in relation to the author? I personally like to keep the author separate from the book. A reader’s relationship is with the book and not the author. I have trouble reading Ezra Pound or Hemingway objectively after reading so much about their lives and exploits. With living authors it is even harder to separate the person from the work. Readers tend to interpret everything as autobiographical especially if it is a female author. According to Gatti, knowing the identity of an author is important to understand the fiction. He feels Ferrante misled her readers in La frantumaglia , a collection of letters, essays and fragments where she describes herself as a daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress and believes that he did a favor to her readers by exposing the truth about her. It is very difficult to be anonymous these days and an author who is deliberately mysterious will always ignite curiosity. Was Gatti right in ‘outing’ her under the guise of unveiling the truth? If she has consciously sought privacy, then why unmask her? Before the publication of her debut novel, Ferrante wrote to her publisher: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” Let’s leave Elena Ferrante alone. She deserves a room of her own.