30 years of Writers & Company: Conversations 'In the Field' with 4 remarkable writers from around the world
This special episode revisits conversations with Khushwant Singh, Mandla Langa, Alexis Wright and Tayeb Salih
Eleanor Wachtel has travelled to many countries around the world throughout Writers & Company's 30 years to interview fascinating authors whose stories reflect the social and political events that have shaped their lives.
In celebration of Writers & Company's 30th anniversary season, the show has put together a special episode called "In the Field": conversations recorded on location with four outstanding writers from India, South Africa, Australia and Sudan.
To mark India's 50th anniversary of independence, Eleanor travelled there to meet fascinating writers on their home turf. The series Re-inventing India: Writing Since Independence featured writers from a variety of backgrounds, working in different languages and genres.
One of the most memorable was Khushwant Singh, best known for his 1956 novel Train to Pakistan.
A well-known figure across India, he was a man of many hats: lawyer, diplomat, editor, broadcaster, parliamentarian, novelist and columnist. He died in 2014, aged 99.
Eleanor spoke to him at his home in New Delhi in 1998.
How India was transformed
"I had to tell the story of the Partition of India. It was about the greatest event in the history of the two countries, India and Pakistan.
"I lived through it, because I was living in Lahore, which is now in Pakistan, when the Partition took place. And in a hurry, I had to leave my home and belongings in Lahore. I saw this enormous massacre going on both sides of the border, where nearly 10 million people were uprooted from their homes and had to flee to the other side for safety. Nearly a million were killed.
They picked up all the Sikhs from the other compartments and murdered them on the rail tracks.
"I escaped two or three incidents, twice while travelling by train. Being somewhat better off, I was in a first class compartment and didn't realize that the train had been stopped. One was a little suspicious when you heard some shouting. They picked up all the Sikhs from the other compartments and murdered them on the rail tracks.
"I only discovered when I came to Lahore that this had happened to the train. I didn't know. That kind of thing happened more than once."
In 2000, Eleanor travelled to South Africa to explore changes in the country after the end of apartheid.
Many of the writers she spoke with for the series The New South Africa had suffered detention, banning and exile, such as poet and novelist Mandla Langa. His activism led to his arrest, imprisonment and flight from the country. He became one of the first South African authors to portray the inner turmoil of the returning exile in his fiction.
Eleanor met with him in Johannesburg.
On South Africa's political upheaval
"In the early 1960s, there were political troubles in this country. I grew up among people who were very active in politics. So it happened that when there were riots, in a place called Chesterville, it was the women I remember who would move from door to door, galvanizing people into action. It was not an unusual circumstance at the time.
"As young people there, we started to learn how to survive — how to survive both the state and our surroundings. It is because you are menaced by ever so many things around you. This might sound like romanticizing problems, but I think, growing up in a place where mere survival was a victory, that saying to yourself 'I've lived another day in this place' was a major, major triumph.
In the early 60s, there were political troubles in this country. I grew up among people who were very active in politics.
"It was that which gave me the feeling that there's so much happening here that needs to be explored — that needs to be archived, even if archived in my mind. There was, for instance, the everyday struggles of normal, everyday people, men, women and children."
When Eleanor travelled to Australia in 2009, the country was in the process of reconciliation, confronting the darker side of its history. The series Dreaming Australia: Changing Visions of a Country was inspired by the growing multiculturalism of Australian literature, and in particular the energy brought to it by Aboriginal Australians.
The leading name among them was Alexis Wright, with her remarkable 2006 novel Carpentaria. A kind of national epic, it became the first work by an Indigenous writer to win the country's most illustrious fiction prize, The Miles Franklin Award.
Eleanor met with her in Melbourne.
On living in Australia's colonial shadow
"It's a long history of colonization in this country. My great-grandmother was kidnapped when she was a little girl. My great grandmother and another little girl were found up in a tree in the bush by Frank Hann, who was one of the first cattle ranchers in that area on the Queensland side of Australia.
"That's the story that's in our family. I can only imagine what happened to her family — because why were the two little girls found up in the tree in the middle of nowhere by a white cattleman and his workers?
It's a long history of colonization in this country. My great-grandmother was kidnapped when she was a little girl.
"Historical records have shown that some of the Aboriginal people who worked for Frank Hann were murdered. They had no qualms about killing Aboriginal people in those times.
"There are also records from northern Australia that people were killed and children were taken and virtually brought up as slave labour."
The 2002 series Writing in the World of Islam came about in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, through a desire to understand more about the Islamic religion and way of life. Eleanor met with Muslim writers from countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Sudan.
Prominent among them was Tayeb Salih, Sudanese author of the landmark novel Season of Migration to the North — declared to be the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century. He died in 2009, at nearly 80 years old.
Eleanor spoke to him at his home in London.
On the Nile in the Sudan
"If one lives in a northern Sudanese village by the Nile, the river can be a very overpowering presence. It rises and floods and goes down. Sometimes the floods are devastating. And of course, the whole of life is tied up with the river.
I was always fascinated by the river from my very early childhood. I think I understood somewhat what the river was trying to say.
"I was always fascinated by the river from my very early childhood. I think I understood somewhat what the river was trying to say. The ancient Sudanese civilization, and the Egyptian pharaonic civilization, worshipped the Nile and sacrificed to it. It is continually demonstrating its power.
"One notices the river throws up strangers to these villages — people who look differently, sometimes too white, sometimes too black, sometimes like mystics, sometimes weird characters. So there is a great deal of mythology woven around the Nile."
Author comments have been edited for length and clarity.