Reviewed by Nisha Misra

Invisible Ties

Title: Invisible Ties
Author: Nadya A. R
Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Pages: 272

A scintillating saga of longing and desire, love and lust, betrayal and trust, reality and illusion, Invisible Ties keeps the reader hooked till the very end. Sprinkled with historical references and political undertones, the novel seems to read like a Bildungsroman tracing the physical as well as the psychological journey of Noor, its protagonist. As Noor moves out of  Karachi, marries into Singapore, strays into Malay and ‘surfaces’ in London, the reader cannot but be baffled by the enigma that she is.

The novel may seem to be the tale of a young, coy, overprotected girl whose Page 3 narcissistic mother’s only desire is to find a suitable rich match for her (preferably outside the volatile atmosphere of Pakistan) and whose father is a case in hopelessness and self-pity. Nurtured in the confinement of home and country, Noor’s life takes an unexpected turn when a robbery at their palatial bungalow by their own guards, who also abduct her mother, tears the family apart. The most painful part of the episode is the death of her trusted driver, Uncle Joseph, who lays down his life in order to save hers. Her marriage to Meekal, who is settled in Singapore, is a compromise of sorts for the sake of her family, but a compromise that reveals itself to be so only when she joins her husband there.

The author skilfully weaves the mystery shrouding the relationships or the ties that bind the various characters in the novel – be it the mystery surrounding the abduction, the release and subsequent silence of Noor’s mother on the topic, her mother-in-law’s eccentricities and secret life, Meekal’s complicated love-hate relationship with his ex-girlfriend Jyoti, Noor’s illusions surrounding the ghost of Uncle Joseph, her Chinese friend Ella’s attempt at keeping her marriage intact or Jake’s depression and fatal attraction towards his ex-girlfriend – and is an insightful study in the workings of the human mind and the complexities that define and govern human relationships.

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Reviewed by Pia Ghosh-Roy

 

Table Manners

Title: Table Manners
Author: Susmita Bhattacharya
Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Year of Publication: 2018
No. of pages: 159
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True to its title, the stories in Table Manners seem to be seated around a long dinner-table having a conversation over the course of an engrossing evening. With each story, I was invited into homes and lives that had their own unique rhythms. The stories wear different personalities, inhabit different parts of the world — India, Singapore, Italy and the UK — but sit beautifully in each other’s company and make for a meal to remember.

Many of the stories took me into the heart of traditional marriages and relationships, with their set dynamics, power imbalance, the dominant male and the ‘good wife’. Yet, within that, there are hidden moments, quietly captured and gently exposed, that reveal more. You will meet women, who while living the life that is expected of them — adjusting their hopes, and lowering their expectations — keep aside a bit of themselves that belong to no-one and answer to no-one. I found these private selves opening themselves up to me in these pages, where they share their concerns, their contemplations, and their inner chaos, where they show their bruises both visible and invisible.

In the first story, a wife nurses a childhood love for her male cousin, and is torn between this reckless and doomed emotion, and “The Right Thing To Do” by her staid marriage. It is told by the female house-help, whose thoughts are consumed by two things: her mistress’s irresponsible heart, and a neighbour, Mrs Dalal, who is regularly beaten by her husband and ‘turns up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times’.

In one of my favourite stories in the collection, Li, a young woman, plans a quiet evening with a bowl of “Comfort Food”, but gives it up when she has to accompany her husband to a business dinner with a potential client – a potential male client, who subjects her to an evening of unwelcome attention and lecherous stares.

Reviewed by Shabana Zahoor

Vegetarian India

Title: Vegetarian India – A Journey through the best of Indian Home Cooking
Author: Madhur Jaffrey
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 416

It’s a challenge as well as a delight to review a book as elaborate as Vegetarian Indian by Madhur Jaffrey. When I first got hold of the book, I made a kadak cup of chai for myself and sat down to slowly savour the book along with the freshly made strong concoction.

The book tasted better with every sip, whetting my appetite and my curiosity. What we’ve got here is a seriously huge book, one that claims to bring together Indian vegetarian dishes from north to south and from east to west. The very thought of such geographical vastness and diversity of region and people brings to mind the many possibilities of vegetarian dishes from across the country. I don’t know how Jaffrey has managed to do this with detail and meticulousness; this is not an easy feat when you have so much to choose from.

The range she brings to the table is breathtaking. It goes from as simple a snack as boiled peanut with shells to bondas, fritters, to stir fries, mouth-watering gravies… the list is endless, but a pattern emerges – Vegetarian India focuses on simple preparations; most of the dishes featured here are easy to make, without the need to sweat it out in the kitchen.

The book has various sections such as soups and appetizers, vegetables, dals, grains, eggs, drinks, and desserts. The appetizers are inviting. It’s not that I haven’t cooked or eaten any of these, but the pictures make you salivate. Fried Okra, bondas… fresh and crisp… ummm….

By Mitali Chakravarty

Was that Mountain Really there? by Park Wan-Suh, an award winning and well-known Korean novelist, has recently been translated by Hannah Kim and published by Kitaab. The novel depicts the trauma of partition faced by civilians in a war that reft the country in two, less than a decade after India was sliced into multiple segments. While Indians suffered in the name of religion, Was that Mountain Really There? portrays the suffering caused by a war created by the clash of communist and capitalist ideologies.

Park Wan-Suh was separated from her mother and brother by the border etched by the Korean War (1950-53) and found herself in the South while her family was in the North. Korean critic Kim Byeong-ik states that her writing is ‘the only record of how people survived in Seoul during the Korean War;’ however, her book is equally relevant in the current context of the ravages of war and refugee influx, a worldwide concern to date.

According to Theodore Hughes of Columbia University, ‘Park Wan-Suh is important for the ways in which her writing is at once popular (nearly all her works are best-sellers) and canonical. She is widely discussed in Korean academia and she has become the subject of dissertations. While this is also the case for many male writers, Park Wan-Suh may have combined the two levels more successfully than any other novelist.’

More than half a dozen of her novels have been translated into English, the latest being Was the Mountain Really There? Translating a book of this calibre is undoubtedly a daunting task and one that Hannah Kim performs very well. This translation highlights both the uniqueness of Korean life and culture and the universality of human sufferings and interactions that transcends borders of all kinds.

Hannah Kim is a translator and writer at Arirang TV. She has translated works on a variety of topics including literature, politics, music, visual arts, history and economics. She currently works in conjunction with the Department of Anthropology, Seoul National University. She combines a passion for music along with her passion for words and performs as a classically trained soprano in concerts in Southern California. In this interview, she highlights the challenges of translating and talks of Park Wan-Suh’s contributions to literature and the importance of words that can ‘inform, connect, and change the world’.

Hannah Kim

Mitali: The book is very personal – autobiographical in its historical sweep and    emotional proximity. How did you, as the translator, negotiate this emotional core? Did it involve research?

Hannah: Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh was one of the most remarkable women writers of her times. Can you tell us more about her life and works? What made you choose her and this particular book of hers for translation?

Hannah: She was and still is one of the most beloved and celebrated writers in Korea. What was so remarkable about her was how prolific she was given that she had made her debut as a writer in her 40s. She never received formal training in writing — she had attended only one semester at Seoul National University before dropping out at the outbreak of the Korean War.

I chose Was the Mountain Really There? because I liked her writing style. Her writing is unembellished, frank, piercing, and vulnerable all at the same time. Also, having grown up in the U.S., I was always interested in learning more about Korean history. My father was in middle school when the war broke out and he told us stories of how his family survived when my siblings and I were young. South Korea was destroyed and reduced to rubble when the armistice was signed and the war was suspended in 1953. The miraculous economic development of South Korea since the end of the war was dubbed as the Miracle on the Han River. I wanted to trace its history and see how the war was experienced and narrated by a civilian, not by a second-source historian.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Her first hand experiences are found in her autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All The Shinga, translated in 2009. In her foreword to the sequel, Was The Mountain Really There? she says she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern (she) truly wanted’. What could have been the pattern, the sense of relentless change or of man taking over and destroying a natural way of life? Do you think the book has been able to convey this ‘pattern’ quite well despite how she felt about it as its writer?

PATNA BLUES

SIX

During the month of September, Arif shut himself in his tiny study room, spending all his waking hours preparing for the mains. The previous month Amma had made Abba buy two large cylindrical steel containers to store grains, and these were then placed in the corridor outside his study room. A mason had been deployed to cut through the brick wall and construct a window that opened into the backyard. Amma had also got the study room whitewashed and the table and chair had been given a new coat of polish.

‘My son needs privacy to prepare for a prestigious and difficult exam like this,’ Arif had heard her saying to Abba.

He stopped going over to Mritunjay’s place, fearing he might run into Sumitra. He knew that if she was around, he would not be able to stay away from her. Whenever Mritunjay complained about his reduced visits, Arif invented new excuses.

But Sumitra kept popping up in his mind. The scene from that rainy night played in his mind continuously. Whenever he conjured up the moment she had embraced him, he got goosebumps. At times he also recalled Simran, his childhood crush from Darbhanga, and felt nostalgic. He convinced himself that Sumitra would vanish from his memories the way Simran had.

October finally arrived and Arif felt that he had performed exceptionally well in the exam. He was sure to get an interview call. The very next day he went to Ashok Rajpath and bought the books required to prep for the interview. He also created detailed notes on his personal and academic backgrounds, the areas he would be questioned on during the interview.

‘A part of our ancestral house in Jamalpura has collapsed in the rain. One of the walls requires immediate repair. I want you to go there and oversee the construction,’ Abba told Arif.

Arif was eager to leave for Jamalpura instantly. This way he would be away from Sumitra. He also wanted to test Zakir’s hypothesis – maybe staying away from her would help him forget her. He would also be able to concentrate on his studies. His ultimate dream to join the civil services was just one hurdle away and he couldn’t mess up all his hard work and his family’s dreams now.

‘See, Arif, you are close to your goal. In Jamalpura, you’ll have a comfortable space to study for the interview. Here, the continuous footfall of guests will distract you,’ Abba said. ‘Sometimes I feel guilty for not sending you to a good coaching institute like Mritunjay’s father did,’ he added with a heavy sigh.

‘Don’t say that, Abba. You have been a wonderful father.’

#

The bus crossed Gandhi Setu over the majestic Ganga and entered Hajipur. It turned and speeded towards Muzaff arpur. Between Muzaff arpur and Hajipur, there was no road, only a long stretch of potholes and cobbled paths. The bus jerked like a horse cart. A bespectacled old gentleman cursed the chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, for the condition of the roads and ridiculed Yadav for claiming that he would make Bihar’s roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks.

The curly white shavings fell in clumps onto the metal plate with each aggressive scraping. Slender hands grasped the coconut shell and with mechanical motions scraped it on the sharp edge of the grater. She sat crouched on the narrow wooden board and wiped away a stray bead of sweat from her brows. Her long thick hair was knotted into a low bun and her starched white mundu had stains of coal on it. Despite being tired from cooking since morning, Devi had a shy smile lingering on her lips as she picked up the plate of coconut shreds. The big mound of shredded coconut was set aside and she blew through a long pipe into the fireplace to get the fire started. She set the vessel of water to boil on the fire stove and dissolved two handfuls of ada in it. The preparations for the Ada Payasam had just begun.

 Vishu was the day when Devi took control of the entire kitchen. She would have wrapped up lunch with a simple milk payasam, but today was extra special.  Ada Pradhaman was his favorite. She wanted to take her time and celebrate this year’s Vishu in the most auspicious way. She had arranged a beautiful Vishukkani for herself and her three kids before the first ray of sunlight and had given each of them five paisas, which was much more their usual Vishukkaineettam (pocket money given on Vishu). It had been a whole year since she had enthusiastically taken part in the preparatory activities in her kitchen. She took the vessel off the stove when the water started boiling, set it on the slab and covered it with a small plate. The ada had to soak in it for a while. She looked down at her charcoal stained mundu and the old blouse she was wearing. It was almost noon and she needed to change. ‘Ammini, ithuonnunokkike!’ She called out to her maid who was sweeping the ground right outside the kitchen back door, asking her to keep an eye on the preparations while she changed.

She ran through the kitchen doors to the inner ara. Her henna painted feet skipped across the polished black stone floors and the clinking anklets came to an abrupt halt on the wooden boards of her bedroom. Her daughter had laid out a beautiful, cream-white settu saree with a dark green blouse for her. She held the saree on her and looked at her reflection in the oval mirror leaning against the wall. The woman standing in the mirror looked very young. Days without him were adding more years to her face than time, but today the sleepless darkness around her eyes was replaced by a heavenly glow, the gold border of the saree throwing a faint glow on her creamy skin. She closed her eyes and reminisced how she’d stood before the steps of the house for the first time, next to him, holding the lighted nilavilakku. She’d taken her first step into the threshold with her right foot, her fingers tightly entwined with his. The saree she was holding in her hands was a gift from him on their wedding day. She opened her eyes and wiped away the droplets of tears that were threatening to spill onto the spotless fabric.

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Daughterrs of the Sun

Title: Daughters of the Sun
Author: Ira Mukhoty
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)

Babur’s defeat of Ibrahim Lodhi in the first battle of Panipat, 1526, marked the establishment of the Mughal Empire in India. Nurtured by his several illustrious descendents, this infant empire, which grew from strength to strength, united a large part of the subcontinent for two centuries and left an indelible impression on Indian history and culture. To this date the history of this empire has been largely studied from the point of view of its political conquests and the socio-economic and cultural developments of its emperors. With a few notable exceptions, women are conspicuously absent in these accounts, despite the fact that Babur owed his success in no small measure to the efforts of the women in his life.

Academic research on Mughal history has so far showcased prominently the characters of Noorjahan, wife of Jehangir, and Jahanara, the favourite daughter of Shahjahan. Books published in the area dating from 1960 onwards, such as Rekha Misra’s Women in Mughal India 1526-1748 A.D. (1967), Renuka Nath’s Notable Mughal and Hindu Women in the 16th and 17th Centuries A.D (1990), Soma Mukherjee’s Royal Mughal Ladies and their Contribution (2001) cover the domestic arena of the Mughal empire in a limited manner.  Written in a prosaic style, these encyclopaedic accounts do not analyse the ramifications of the contribution of Mughal women, much less the sources on which their books are based. This dominant trend was challenged by Ellison Banks Findly’s book Nur Jahan, Empress of Mughal India (1993), which concentrated on how Muslim and Hindu women negotiated power inside the harem, and later in 2005, by Ruby Lal’s Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World.  Spanning the period from 1487 to1605, the latter highlights the influence of the familial world, especially the role of women, upon the first three Mughal rulers: Babur, Humayun and Akbar. Along with her research papers on the same subject, this book stands out as a remarkable exception to all others written on Mughal women thus far.

Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun endorses and carries forward Lal’s school of thought. An enthralling sociological piece, it covers a bigger time frame, giving us an unusual peep into the private lives of Mughals from the times of Babur to those of Aurangzeb as well as the attempts to drive out the banal images of the harem as a sexualised space, created largely by European accounts. Her nuanced narrative gives voice to fifteen influential but otherwise disappeared Mughal women while throwing light on their complex and changing socio-political status, economic and personal ambitions and the boundaries of their domestic arena.