#DesiCraftChat: Moni Mohsin on writing about serious themes with a sense of humor

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Hello. A happy new year and welcome to Episode 22 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

In today’s episode, we have Moni Mohsin in the #DesiCraftChat segment. Her latest novel is The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R. And Moni and I had a terrific conversation about the inspiration for the novel, how she created the main characters, social media, and more.

Also, I’m going to briefly discuss a new upcoming book club for desi books in translation. Stay tuned.

Now please sit back and enjoy.

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NOTABLE NEW BOOKS FOR JANUARY

You can find all the titles mentioned in this “New Books” segment at bookshop.org, which benefits local, independent booksellers directly. Go to bookshop.org/lists/desi-books-2021. This is a US-based site so my apologies to non-US listeners. But you can still see the list of all the books that have come out in 2021 and been mentioned on the podcast.

I know I don’t always catch all new books by writers of South Asian origin. So, if you’ve got a new book coming out, please tag the Desi Books account on Twitter or Instagram to let me know.. The social media links will also be in the transcript and they’re always on the website.

1) Lilavai — This is from the Murty Classical Library collection. The Prakrit romance Lilavai, is an early ninth-century poem attributed to Kouhala and set in modern-day coastal Andhra Pradesh. It is the most celebrated work in its genre. Complexly narrated in the alternating voices of its heroines and heroes and featuring a cast of semi-divine and magical beings, it centers on three young women. It’s been translated by Andrew Ollett.

2) Poems from the Satsai — Also from the Murty Classical Library collection. It means ‘Seven Hundred Poems’, the seventeenth-century poet, Biharilal, draws on a rich vernacular tradition, blending amorous narratives about the god Krishna and the goddess Radha with archetypal hero and heroine motifs from older Sanskrit and Prakrit conventions. Biharilal was the court poet to King Jai Singh of Amber, which is in present-day Rajasthan, in the seventeenth century. The translator here is Rupert Snell.

3) Game of the Gods — Written by Paolo Maurensig and translated from Italian to English by Anne Milano Appel, is a story set in 1930s British India. It’s inspired by the true story of a chess master, Malik Mir Sultan Khan, and about the ancient precursor to chess, which was called chaturanga.

4) Himalaya: A Human History — The award-winning journalist, Ed Douglas, surveys the geologies, ecologies, and civilizations fostered in the world’s highest mountain range. He also looks at the geopolitics of the neighboring countries—like Nepal, Tibet, China, and India—and goes beyond romanticized stereotypes to reveal a fresh, new history of the region.

5) The Cherished Five in Sikh History — Written by Louis E. Fenech, this is the story of the five volunteers who became the first disciples of the Khalsa, which is the martial community within the Sikh religion, as started by Guru Gobind Singh. They came to be known as the Panj Piare, or the Cherished Five.

6) The Last Queen — By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is about Rani Jindan Kaur, the last and youngest queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. She became regent of the Punjab in British India when her six-year-old boy, Dalip, inherited the throne. Calling herself the mother of the Khalsa, she resisted the British bravely by inspiring two wars against them. This book is out in India now.

7) The Begums of Bhopal: A Dynasty of Women Rulers in Raj India — Written by Shaharyar M. Khan, this book is about four nineteenth-century Muslim women rulers who reigned over Bhopal, the second largest Muslim state of India, despite staunch opposition from powerful neighbors, male claimants, and the British rulers.

8) Words of Her Own: Women Authors in Nineteenth-Century Bengal — Written by Dr. Maroona Murmu, this book is about the experiences and articulations of emergent women writers in their own words across various genres: autobiographies, novels, and, travelogues. The book examines the socio-cultural incentives that enabled the dawn of middle-class Hindu and Brahmo women authors at that time.

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#DESICRAFTCHAT WITH MONI MOHSIN — INTRODUCTION

Moni Mohsin was born and raised in Pakistan. She has written two novels, The End of Innocence and Tender Hooks, also known as Duty Free, and two books of collected columns, The Diary of a Social Butterfly and The Return of the Butterfly. She now lives between London and Lahore.

I first came to Moni’s work through the novel, Duty Free. The protagonist’s voice and point of view were fresh, hilarious, and full of that biting insight that came across pitch-perfect with its satirical slants. From there, I began reading Moni’s columns, which were just as delightful.

This latest novel, The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R., came out in December in India. It’s about an idealistic young woman named Ruby Rauf. Dropping out of university in London, she joins the campaign of an actor-turned-politician, Saif Haq, as his social media manager. A lot of twists and turns ensue that test Ruby’s mettle, her emotional strength, her intelligence, and her heart. Mohsin goes deep into the role of 24/7 social media in politics today. She also dives into aspects of the #MeToo debates, South Asian politics, and coming-of-age. And, of course, she does all this with the kind of humor that’s often laugh-out-loud funny but also reveals truths about human nature.

Here’s our conversation.

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#DESICRAFTCHAT WITH MONI MOHSIN

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#DBiT DESI BOOKS IN TRANSLATION CLUB

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about a new project that we’re starting at the podcast: a desi books in translation club.

Ever since the podcast began in April 2020, I’ve been asked about a virtual book club. This is the year we’re going to do it.

In December, I’d mentioned the month-long collaboration project with the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI for short) to spotlight South Asian literature in translation through interviews with the translators. This was a huge success. The GLLI site saw new readership highs and there was a fair bit of interest across social media too. The project showed how we have so many literary gems that have been translated into English over decades from many regional languages across South Asia, which happens to be one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world. However, they’ve received uneven, at best, coverage. In my introduction to that December series, I wrote about why we should read South Asian or desi books in translation. You can read the whole thing because I’ll link to it in the transcript. For now, let me mention this point. In his book, The Three Percent Problem, Chad W Post writes, “It is a historical truism and will always remain the case that some of the best books ever written were written in a language other than English.” I definitely agree with that. And I feel this is certainly true for South Asia, where some of the best literature has been and continues to be written in non-English languages. And there are hardworking translators doing the painstaking work of bringing these brilliant works to new readers through the bridge language of English.

So I’d like to invite all of you to read a desi book in translation a month with me and, hopefully, the translator, if they’re willing to join us. At the end, I’ll invite the translator for a conversation on the podcast.

We’ll start this in March and I’ll include a poll of five books to vote and pick from in the coming weeks. Readers can then share comments and thoughts on social media using specific hashtags (so that we can find your posts and tweets.) And I’ll try to get questions for the translator discussion from those hashtags as well. We’re going to keep this casual and simple. No signups or mandatory participation. The translator is free to offer a book giveaway through the podcast if they would like to do so.

Other than that, we’re going to let this book club take shape and evolve over time. No hard and fast rules. The goal is just to enjoy a communal reading experience. That’s it.

So stay tuned for that.

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You’ve been listening to episode 22 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt.

Episode 23 will be up in a couple of weeks. Follow on Twitter @desibooks or Instagram @desi.books and tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Email at hellodesibooks@gmail.com.

The transcript will be up in a few days on the website, http://desibooks.co.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

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