Six months of South Asia Speaks

Here's what the mentees (and mentors) are doing so far

Hello and welcome to the first-ever newsletter from South Asia Speaks, a literary mentorship program. We launched our program in 2020 to give early career writers in South Asia the opportunity to workshop a major project with a published author. And we were blown away by the response:

More than 500 people applied from seven countries, and we had a tough time making a final decision. Several of our authors took on extra mentees because they were so impressed with the quality of the applications. We are currently 20 authors and 28 mentees and have reached the midway point of our program.

This newsletter is an opportunity to showcase some of the wonderful work by our mentees, and mentors too, and to celebrate resilience in the midst of taxing times.

This year, despite the challenges, our writers published books and journalistic investigations and worked on films. Congratulations all! Here’s a quick rundown.

  • Journalist Tenzin Sangmo has published her first-ever article in English, with the support of her mentor McKenzie Funk. “Sharing news about Tibet is high risk for all,” she writes for Voice of America. “Tibet is one of the least-free territories in the world with Tibetans risking arrest for petitioning authorities, sharing images about the Dalai Lama on social media, or exposing corruption by local officials. News outlets are controlled by China, and foreign journalists are allowed access to the region only on official media tours, meaning that Tibetans wanting access to independent news have to circumvent the Great Firewall.”

  • Nusrat Jafri, a cinematographer who is working with mentor Aanchal Malhotra, has a new short film called Pilibhit. It’s already been screened at the Indian Film Festival Stuttgart,  The  New York Indian Film Festival and the Sedona International Film Festival. “Siraj, a righteous, impoverished flute maker, resides at the edge of the forests of Pilibhit, North India, where man eating tigers thrive. His mounting livelihood pressures and tragedies corner him to take a drastic measure that threatens to tear down his values and a loved one.” Trailer.

  • Pallavi Narayan has co-edited an anthology of short stories by writers in Singapore and the subcontinent. Singapore at Home: Life across Lines is published by Kitaab (2021) and is available as a paperback and e-book. Pallavi’s mentor is Mira Kamdar.

  • Chandrima Das is set to publish her debut collection of short stories, Young Blood (Harper Collins India) later this year. Indrapramit Das, author of The Devourers, calls the book "a compelling, creepy and always entertaining campus road trip around an India haunted by horrors both societal and supernatural." Chandrima’s mentor is Aruni Kashyap.

  • Sonia Gomes wrote the Portuguese subtitles for the Konkani film Nachom-ia Kumpasar (“Dance to the Beat”). Produced by Goa Folklore Productions and directed by Bardroy Baretto, the film is available for streaming on GoaFlix. Sonia’s mentor is Arunava Sinha.

  • Arslan Athar, who is working with mentor Fatima Bhutto, wrote an op-ed for Newsweek on how Pakistan is killing its own digital dreams. He writes: “The authorities banned access to Indian streaming service Zee5 because it aired a Pakistani online series called Churails (roughly translated to Witches), which was the first attempt by the local entertainment industry to produce a feminist, female-led show.” Here’s Arslan’s review of a coffee table book on the history of Pakistan’s fashion industry.

  • Mohit Manohar published a piece of flash fiction called “Tamarind” in The Los Angeles Review. “We loved the taste of tamarind. A shop not far from our school in Bihar, India, sold pulpy tamarind candies. They were embedded with sugar crystals and coated with black pepper. The sweetness cut into the sourness and left a hint of spice on the tongue. If you mixed sugar and pepper, you wouldn’t get anything exciting. The magic element was tamarind.” You can read Mohit’s brief history of the ghazal at Live History India. His mentor is Mahesh Rao.

  • Monika Mondal investigated the environmental cost of India’s booming sugar market for The Third Pole. Her investigation prompted an official enquiry by India's environment court. Monika’s mentor is Fatima Bhutto.

  • Amna Chaudhry’s “Cheap Cheap Ganaay” was published by Behenchara. What is a cheap ganaa, you ask? “A cheap gaana is the song all male relatives shake their heads at whenever someone is surfing channels during a daawat.” Amna’s mentor is Nikita Lalwani.

  • Sona Srivastava, who is working with Arunava Sinha, translated a short story by the satirist Harishankar Parsai from Hindi to English. You can read “The Pact” in the inaugural issue of Rhodora Magazine.

  • Rahee Punyashloka is writing a series about food through the lens of his Dalit identity. “Today, the Dalit culinaire faces a curious paradox. On the one hand, she feels like she has to discard practices from a past life. On the other hand, the alternative often means the pressure to gentrify her taste-buds to suit an order of things that she feels is out of place. All her life she has had to negotiate with this double-edge, hiding her own culinary identity as she navigates the new-found urban-public spaces, often, at a great cost.” Read “Peeling Onions; Or, to be Dalit, and Eat” at Dalit Camera. And “Strange Fruit: Or, to be Dalit, and Eat” at Café Dissensus. Rahee is working with Madhuri Vijay.

  • Aditi Mittal’s going on tour! You can watch the stand up comic perform her new special “Unreliable Narrator” on Zoom through July. Tickets here. Aditi’s mentor is Marc Herman.

Our mentors have also been keeping busy:

Arunava Sinha’s new book, a translation of Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s Khwabnama, is available now.

Samanth Subramanian’s A Dominant Character, first published to critical acclaim last year, is now out in paperback. And don’t miss his Guardian longread on the rich vs. the very very rich: “With its groves of pine and rhododendrons, its houses named Heatherbrook or Bluebell Wood or Silver Birches, and the gentle hillocks of its club’s fairways, Wentworth Estate holds dear a vision of pastoral Englishness. But since the 1980s, Wentworth has been reshaped – just like England itself – by money.”

Nikita Lalwani’s You People was published in the US to glowing reviews. The Seattle Times said, “Fiction is not a blueprint, but it can be a gilded mirror, or a four-dimensional map. Living, loving, dying — You People is an elegant work of all three.” Nikita tells The Guardian about her top ten platonic friendships in fiction. “The use of the qualifier just for good friends has always felt inadequate to me,” she writes, sagely.

Spend a weekend perusing Isaac Chotiner’s archive at The New Yorker. His latest story for the magazine is a profile of LeBron James’s agent Rich Paul, whose rise “has led to heated conversations about what it takes to be a good agent.” 

Madhuri Vijay’s short story “You are my dear friend” was also published in The New Yorker. Listen to her read the story and then hear her discuss the piece with the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman.

Also for The New Yorker, Rahul Bhatia on India’s epidemic of false covid information.

Fatima Bhutto on channelling the fearlessness of Malcolm X, on rich countries hoarding vaccines, and on a new drama that Pakistan first banned and then submitted for an Oscar. And here’s Fatima talking about some favourite things with The Guardian: Which book changed your life? “James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time electrified me. I walked around with that book for days, heart beating at a gallop.”

Samar Halarnkar’s delightful India Love Project is a palate cleanser. Here’s what he told the BBC: “There is a narrative that love is being weaponised. But we didn't know anyone who had any other motive than love for getting married.” Through India Love Project, he says, "we are providing a platform where people can share their stories.”

Mahesh Rao’s harrowing dispatch from the centre of India’s covid crisis is up at Prospect magazine. “How did we get here?” he wonders. And if you prefer lighter fare, here’s his delightful piece on rediscovering the Vikram Seth classic, A Suitable Boy.

Aruni Kashyap spoke to Eastern Eye about his new collection of short stories, “His Father’s Disease”. “The violence on ordinary people that the world is watching with shock in India is so well-orchestrated because the Indian state has rehearsed it on the bodies of tribals, Muslims, women and lower castes,” he says.

Karan Mahajan on India’s streaming auteurs for The New York Review of Books. “Before HAHK, my cousins and I hadn’t known that the girl’s side in a wedding could ransom the shoes of the groom for a hefty sum; now we turned into ardent shoe-snatchers.”

Mira Kamdar on why she left America for France (The Atlantic): “Health care, education, affordable housing, paid parental leave, and five weeks of annual paid vacation are seen as rights, not pipe-dream privileges. I feel less vulnerable in France, knowing that if I can’t take care of myself, France will take care of me.”

Sanam Maher on Leena Ghani, Lala Rukh and Pakistan’s Me Too Movement (Al Jazeera). “What feels strikingly immediate is the way in which these cases have forced a conversation about our bodies and the right to determine how they are treated.”

The V & A is hosting historian Aanchal Malhotra on August 5, when she talks to independent curator Moad Musbahi on the material memory of the 1947 Partition of India. Tickets here.

And read Sonia Faleiro on fact checking Modi’s post-truth India at Rest of World. Sonia will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 17 to discuss her new book, The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing. Tickets here.

That’s all for now. We’ll be back soon. Till then, come say hi on Twitter, we’re at @AsiaSpeaks.

South Asia Speaks