Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

TBASS

Title: The Best Asian Short Stories 2018
Editor: Debotri Dhar
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab
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The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 is a collection of nineteen short stories, that saunter through the wonderland of Asia to dwell on vignettes of life in the vast continent. Edited by Dr Debotri Dhar and series editor Zafar Anjum, the second volume of the series has a mix of stories by eminent and upcoming writers.

Our emotions are played on from all angles as each story flavours our palate with different moods. We pause to smile over an unusual light-hearted Goan romance among the elderly in Geralyn Pinto’s “Cakes” and cringe with horror at the impact of acid attacks on women, a reality in Bangladesh and Pakistan as portrayed by Reba Khatun. Dr Rakshanda Jalil’s story with the tale of Zuliekha’s transformation from a shy Muslim girl to a glamorous club diva brings to mind Eliza Doolittle, heroine of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, except this story has a twist which colours it with class stratification that are essentially Indian.

“Festival”, a translated story from Japan, gives us a glimpse of the intermingling of old and new in a country that retains its traditions despite its modernity. William Tham Wai Liang’s nostalgic “At the Moonlit River’s Edge” brings us close to the theme that has been explored in The State of Emergency, the 2018 Singapore Literature prize-winning novel – the communist insurgency in 1950s Malaya. Strangely, Martin Bradley’s “Bougainvillea”, set in modern day Malaysia also hovers around the same theme as the protagonist journeys to Ipoh in search of his father’s grave, his father having lost his life in 1951 during an encounter with communist insurgents. However, this is a story that transcends the angst of history to bring in themes of friendship and wonder generated by the multicultural flavour of life in this region. We have another lovely story of ASEAN friendship in the Singaporean Thai romance named after the delicious Thai dessert, “Mango and Sticky Rice”.

The unusual and paranormal have been explored by a couple of writers. “The Rescuer” is a supernatural adventure set in a Japanese railway station, a strange tale that leaves the reader stupefied! “The Grey Thread” by young Vanessa Ng is another one that explores an unusual, bizarre journey into a world of paint and paper.

Some of the stories fiddle with recent natural disasters and contemporary issues. The impact of the historic cloudburst in the Himalayas in 2013 and the arbitrariness of all existence is explored in “The Cosmic Dance”. “Begin Again”, set in Phillipines, explores teen adjustment issues. “For Chikki’s Sake” not only comments on marital issues, parenting but also on caste based marriage, which still exists in parts of India. The dichotomy that exists in women’s world between feminism and reality in India is well captured in “Don’t Even Ask! Poochho Mat!” “The Amulet” explores the disappointment of a diva; “The Bureaucrats’s Wife” reflects the breakdown of values in a rich man’s home; “Lola’s Honeymoon” is a strange tale which gives a glimpse of moneyed life as does “The Cycle”, though this story does ascend social boundaries drawn by economic barriers and the futility of addiction to drugs and violence.

The doors to the metro parted. Roshan stared up and down the platform, eyeing the few stragglers that shuffled in. The train was surprisingly empty. Perhaps word hadn’t spread. Or perhaps the trains peopled by public-spirited, justice-loving citizens had hummed past earlier in the day. Feeling a stab of disappointment, he stepped in, a moment before the doors slid shut.

He contemplated the rows of empty seats – a rare luxury. Nervous energy, an unfamiliar sensation, kept him on his feet. No doubt he had expected company on this short commute, of strangers, and was annoyed to be left alone with his thoughts, but he would step into company soon. He was truly on the way. His palms prickled. Feeling one with the train as it hurtled towards his destination he allowed the significance of the moment to wash over him.

Roshan couldn’t help but feel that this was one of the defining moments of his life. In the past, he had scorned such occasions as insignificant rabble-rousing, feckless anti-statism from an otherwise dormant populace. Earnest friends had often asked, if not now, when? He’d dismissed the question each time. It was an unfair tactic, he reasoned, an oversimplification of the unfailingly complex issues at hand, each of which required threadbare discussion, something he never allowed himself to get entangled in. His arguments always kept up with his comrades’ desire to rush off to central Delhi; he was a master of intellectual self-defence, of shifting the goal-post till his adversary was exhausted. They always capitulated after a few rounds, leaving him somewhat pleased. He had come to look upon it as a triumph of his arguments, rather than his obduracy.

He had grown accustomed to watching streams of people – several of his friends often in tow – parade past and make headlines, only to see the issue soon peter out. He claimed to be a champion of democracy, yet he took the fizzling out of these protests as a vindication of his own views, of his conviction that one has to pick one’s battles. He had finally picked his.

A friend had once remarked, half in jest that had the youth of the 30’s and 40’s been cut from the same cloth as he, independence would have remained a distant dream. He had taken fierce exception; of course, he would have risen to the occasion had the circumstances demanded. The friend knew better than to probe the meaning of ‘had the circumstances demanded’ and Roshan was secretly grateful, for he didn’t know himself. He said all the right things, he knew, thought all the right things, read all the right articles, but somehow, he had never been moved to act. Some argument, some qualifier, some excuse had always provided cover, protecting him from the discomfort of facing his true disposition – that of a coward.

He slowly drifted into wakefulness with the smell of wood fire burning and its muted crackling. Then the touch of her hand on his ankles, and her husky voice calling, “Kunje?”1. Smiling, he turned over and reached out for her, eyes half open. She smelled fresh and her skin felt cool. The fine droplets of water from her hair fell on his face and shoulders, bringing him awake, his body fully aroused.

A few minutes later, he climbed over her body, off the creaking woven bed, and walked out into the still dark, early dawn. Drawing water from the well, he cleansed himself and his sacred thread while chanting his prayers. Back in his little kitchen, he helped himself to the black coffee still in a pot on the fire, drank it hot and steaming and looked over at Bhadra and smiled.

‘It’s good and strong,’ he told her. ‘Drink some before you leave.’

‘I will, Thirumeni’ she replied.

Of pure body. That was the literal meaning of the word. She addressed him knowingly, because after his ritual bath, he was now a priest. Unsullied and deserving of the right to go into the sanctum to worship the Goddess.

Now, she could no longer touch him.

She stood in the doorway watching him leave, while Easwaran Kunju, the tall lanky Namboothiri made his way to the little temple, about a furlong away through the winding path in the woods. The eastern sky had just taken on a light pink hue as he opened the heavy bronze lock more by feel than sight as he had done almost every day for the past five years. Those chapters in the story of his life lived as a priest in this small hamlet on the foothills of the Western Ghats.

 

It was a Friday and likely to be busy, bringing in the villagers who believed it to be auspicious for their Goddess, and a good day to pray to her. Today was also the annaprasanam, the first rice feeding ceremony of the village officer’s granddaughter. Easwaran cleaned out the fireplace, lit up the hearth and into a bronze vessel, measured out the raw rice to be cooked for the payasam2. While it cooked, he made his way to the sanctum sanctorum and parted open the heavy wooden door. As his eyes rested on the Goddess he felt his soul lighten up and all the burden of his insignificant life seep away, leaving serenity in its wake. This was his favourite time of the day – just he and his Devi, in a wordless commune. He cleared out yesterday’s wilted offerings, bathed her carved figure, draped her in her rich red satin and lit the lamps, all the while chanting verses in a song as ageless as time. Soon the business of the temple would start, bringing in the others, but for now, he was alone in her presence. Enveloped in light from the oil lamps and her benevolence, he looked upon the shiny ebony contours of her stone form with reverence. This was his time to offer her his worship and his adoration; his penance and his devotion.

The first one to arrive was Maraathi Thankamma, the only other staff at the temple. Although employed by the temple committee, hers was a hereditary position. Thankamma, and others of her family, were Maraars, whose job it was to keep the temple clean – sweeping and scrubbing twice a day. So also were most of the other chores that went into the running of the temple – like fetching flowers and fashioning them into garlands for the deities. Fortunately for Thankamma, the neighbourhood homes had generous Tulasi bushes and Hibiscus, laden with scarlet flowers that the Goddess favoured, and these, she gathered on her way to the temple. She set the basket of flowers inside the forecourt of the temple and straightened her stiff back. A bird-like woman of uncertain years, she had a weathered face marked by penury and a bright smile that shone with the acceptance of it all. Thankamma and Easwaran shared a fondness that was inevitable given the time they spent together in the midst of conversations and silences. She kept him abreast of the happenings in the countryside, which he found useful since he did not venture out much into the village square. Easwaran brought out the greasy bronze lamps and placed them on the verandah for her to scrub. Thankamma looked up at him and asked, ‘Did Bhadra make you something to eat?’

‘No, I told her not to. I will eat only after the naivedyam.’3

‘Why do you bother with it anyway?’ she continued, not even pausing to listen to him. ‘It’s only some rice and chilli paste in a banana leaf. I told you I can make you some nice hot rice and sambhar right here.’

Easwaran turned away, silent, smiling to himself – he did not want to be pulled into another argument as routine as the temple rituals. For the next five hours or so, he was kept busy with a steady stream of devotees. Pujas, special prayers and flower offerings, dedication of lamps lit with ghee and the distribution of prasadam. The village officer brought his family for the annaprasanam, and this special ritual brought in a substantial income for Easwaran Kunju. He contemplated the money and wondered if it would get him a pair of ear studs to put into the empty holes on Bhadra’s shapely ear lobes. Around noon time, after the rituals and Devi’s lunch pooja were done, the temple closed its doors till evening.

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Clone

Title: Clone
Author: Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Publisher – Zubaan Books
Pages: Hard cover 285
Price: INR Rs 595 / $25 / £19

In 1897, the French artist Paul Gaugin, who had relocated to Tahiti some years earlier, painted his masterpiece – a wall sized fresco-like oil painting, in which flowed the summation of his ideas through the medium of sensuous Tahitian figures against lush Tahitian backdrop and motifs. He titled it in French, the English translation of which reads: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ These are existential questions, asked by humans down the centuries. Poets have asked through poetry, story tellers or minstrels have sung of those who cried out to the wheeling universe. Philosophers have pondered and mathematicians have tried to solve them through equations. Priya Sarukkai Chabria, in her richly textured novel, has written about one who seeks answers to similar questions. Her quester though, is a clone.

The subject of clones with heightened sensitivity has been treated in literature before, and also rendered into cinema.  Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, made into a movie of the same name later, is one of the most thought provoking and based on Earth. An earlier novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick in the late 1960s, renamed Blade Runner, was made into a movie by Ridley Scott in 1982. Other novels and movies too have dealt with clones, mostly in far off space colonies and space ships.

Sarukkai Chabria’s novel evokes luscious images, even as the narrative throws up unsettling theories of the future of humans. She comes across as a demanding writer, one who expects her readers to be informed and attentive. Her prose urges closer scrutiny, heavily embossed as it is with imageries culled from myths, legends and history. The reader has to know the sources, or at least be curious enough to find out, or else be left bereft of the contexts of her narrative. The extensive use of esotericism in her novel is both its strength and a weakness – the former as it adds layers and dimensions to the story; the latter, because the profusion of references and allusions, imageries and motifs, draws the reader in too deep into specific portions, slowing down the pace, and yet one must read on for the tale hasn’t ended, making the book exhausting at times. It is a relief therefore to know that the plot of Clone is fairly straightforward.

The Assassinations

The evening sky had deadened to the colour of cigarette ash by the time Jaswant left his office. On his way home, he passed cars and buses on fire, burnt shells of shops and houses billowing smoke, dead bodies of Sikhs cremated alive, bands of goondas brandishing machetes and crowbars… It was as if Partition had descended one more time. The stench of fire and smoke, the hapless victims and their remorseless tormentors, even the mob’s war cry of khoon kabadlakhoon. Everything was the same, right down to the dread rising from his soul.

He could feel the goondas’ eyes probing the car as it went past. They were stopping cars at random to check if there were Sikhs inside. Many times they’d tell the driver to open the boot to make sure no Sikhs were being smuggled to safety. But they made no move to impede his progress. That he was in a government car kept them at bay. That and the fact neither he nor his driver appeared to be a Sikh.

No sooner had they entered the posh southern part of Delhi than the goondas melted away. The stench of fire and smoke receded. The burnt bodies and buildings disappeared…instead, there were shuttered shops and deserted streets and empty pavements…. Even the dogs were not barking. It was as if someone had thrown a blanket of silence over the entire place. The silence resounded louder than all the mayhem Jaswant had witnessed. It spoke of fear and apathy.

Even though it was still evening, the first thing he did after reaching home was lock his front gate. Deepa, Savitri and Rakesh were waiting for him in the drawing room. Deepa’s face was wan, her eyes puffy. She had been crying since getting home from Rakesh’s school. Rakesh was hunched in a chair. Normally, it was hard for him to sit still. But that day he looked as if all life had been sucked out of him.

Savitri told him about the attack on the Sikh they witnessed while returning from Rakesh’s school. The sheer brutality of the assault took Jaswant unawares, despite what he had seen on his way home. When Savitri came to the part where the Sikh’s assailant shoved locks of his hair into his mouth, Jaswant recoiled. It was several seconds before he could find his voice.

He told them that he had no news of Prem. He had contacted one of his friends who was a superintendent in the Home Guards and stationed less than ten kilometres from Trilokpuri. His friend had promised to call him with information in the morning.

Deepa, who was dying for news of Prem, erupted. “He said that and you accepted it?” she shouted. “You didn’t tell him to send a man there at once? You didn’t tell him that this is your future son-in-law?”

Her voice collapsed as she finished. She leapt up from the sofa to half-run, half-stumble in the direction of her room. Savitri went after her. Jaswant dropped into the sofa. It pained him to see Deepa so upset. He wished he had better news.

“Will everything be all right, Daddy?” Rakesh asked.

His voice betrayed how much he was struggling to make sense of what was going on. It was as if they had gone back in time and Rakesh was a little boy all over again. A lump grew in Jaswant’s throat. He went over to embrace Rakesh. “Don’t worry, beta, everything will be all right,” he told him. “Now go put your mind elsewhere.”

There was a short pause before Rakesh nodded and left for his room. Jaswant slumped on the sofa, wishing he could feel some of the conviction with which he had assured Rakesh that things would work out.

His friend in the Home Guards had sent a man to Irfan’s flat. That man got nowhere near the flat. Instead, he came back with news of a neighbourhood under siege. An army of goondaswas running wild in Trilokpuri. They had cut all the telephone wires and blocked the way out with a huge concrete pipe. Near the pipe, there was a car all smashed up. From the description, it appeared to be Prem’s. There was no sign of Prem; so there was a chance that he had survived. But it didn’t appear likely, given the evidence on hand.

He hadn’t been able to look into Deepa’s teary eyes and tell her the man she loved was probably dead. On the phone with Amarjeet, he had found himself just as powerless. So he had lied to both of them, saying his friend would call with news in the morning.

What was worse? The hammer blow of tragedy or the torture of not knowing?

As far as he could tell, there wasn’t much to choose.

It was almost morning before Deepa gave in to sleep and Savitri could leave her room. She plodded, heavy-footed, through the house. Although she had been up all night and was aching everywhere, she had no wish to go to bed.

Jaswant was still fast asleep on the drawing room sofa. She had found him sitting there last night when she came out of Deepa’s room to get her a glass of water. He had wanted to come speak to Deepa. She had talked him out of it. It would be hard for him to deal with her, given the mood she was in. Evidently, he had stayed where she left him, until fatigue got the better of him. Because of Deepa, she hadn’t been able to speak to him last night. She wondered whether she should wake him up. She decided against it. Before that she needed a few moments to herself.

Reviewed by Gouri Athale

Title: Divided by Partition United by Resilience
Editor: Mallika Ahluwalia
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (2018)
Pages: 210 (Paperback)

The title says it all, these are the first person accounts of people who suffered the partitioning of their provinces (now called states) and of some, like those from Sindh and Northwest Frontier Province, who lost even that province/state.

An important and positive contribution of this book is that it reminds us that our history does not end with gaining independence; that history continues to be made even after 1947. The anthology has stories mainly on the fallout of partition of the Punjab, a few from Sind and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and just one story from Bengal. Yet, this is the most touching, heart wrenching, made worse because it is so rarely heard. There ought to have been more, since Bengal was first partitioned in 1905 and then again in 1947.

For most Indians born after 1991, partition is believed to have affected only the Punjab, because that is a well-documented story and it happened in one stroke, around August 1947. Bengal, on the other hand, had as great a trauma in 1947 but refugees came in waves, going on well up to 1971, which leaves Sindh, or Sind, where there was no partition. The entire state was given away so that those who came as refugees from Sindh lost not only their property, their culture but also their entire state, making them state-less. Bengal and Punjab got some part of their old states so they didn’t lose their identity totally in the form of a home state.

This collection of short stories, told most of the time in the first person, gives the impression that partition happened across many more than the two states; it makes no differentiation between Sindh and the NWFP (which weren’t partitioned) and Punjab and Bengal, which were.

Reviewed by Nandini Varma

Green is the Colour of Memory

Title: Green is the Colour of Memory
Author: Huzaifa Pandit
Publisher: Hawakal Publishers (2018)
Pages: 64 (Paperback)

In a class on Mahmoud Darwish, we are reading aloud “Promises of a Storm” – a moment where the poet’s eyes search for flowers blooming beneath the ashes – ‘I will go on serenading happiness/ somewhere beyond the eyelids of frightened eyes.’

After class, I reach out for a borrowed copy of Huzaifa Pandit’s book of poems, looking for poetry as real as Darwish’s, and read the first poem, “A Kashmiri Fairytale”, pulled out as though from the same song of longing for happiness that Darwish sees in the future.

‘Green green grass will dance in the drowsy sun/ of warm, warm May/ we will quarrel and quibble night and day…’ writes Huzaifa in the poem which opens his debut collection, Green is the Colour of Memory. Consisting of 36 poems, this book stands out not just in the truth it aims to convey but in how it brings it to us through narratives that we don’t quite get to hear or read microscopically in newspapers or news channels that have promised a responsibility of recording history and have failed repeatedly. Little pieces of history are recorded in Huzaifa’s poems.

Huzaifa Pandit comes from Kashmir and writes poetry that deals with the everyday realities of those living in Kashmir, as well as what it is like to carry that identity into spaces like local train journeys, to having brief encounters with people outside Kashmir, to academic spaces, and it is themes such as these that appear most prominently in this collection as well.

Camus had once written, ‘Art cannot be a monologue,’ asserting that an artist cannot create in isolation and must speak of the ‘reality common to us all.’ Huzaifa’s work emerges as an excellent example then of this art, in the form of poetry that creates a tiny corner and opens its arms wide for a dialogue to begin; not only does he offer us a counter-narrative, he also engages with the reader through the sharpness of his language—sometimes you hear it from close quarters and sometimes it is a distant whisper making space for you to step in. Reciprocating then, it is in reading his poems slowly, that we’re in sync with their breathing, and it is in their breathing that we find our own lives momentarily paused. Yet there is transcendence, yet we are being transformed.

When the book opens, we find the poet addressing a denied harmony — a quarrel which is softened by love, a moment so far away, one may only see it in a fairytale. What does one do then? What does one do? It is perhaps in search of an answer to this question, that the poet begins many poems in the collection with dreams and returns to nightmarish encounters, or eventualities.

By Runa Bandyopadhyay

What is a poem? “A poem is a constant transformation of itself and every poem is a model of a possible world that only comes into being when reading is active, activated,” will be Charles’s answer. What is the relation between poetry and poetics? “Poetics is an extension of the practise of poetry, and poetry is an extension of thinking with the poems and also the reflection of poetics,” will be his answer. Bernstein doesn’t believe in any conventional poeticism, but his own Pataquericalism, as he explains in this interview, taken during the creation of the anthology, Bridgeable Lines: an Anthology of Borderless World Poetry in Bengali with American poets.

Charles Bernstein’s poetic idea is similar to the “Notun Kobita (New Poetry)” movement of Bengal, which was started in the ’70s by a group of Kaurab poets – Barin Ghosal, Swadesh Sen, Kamal Chakraborty, etc. in Bengal.

Charles Bernstein lives in Brooklyn, New York and is the Donald T. Regan professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as co-editor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-1981), the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound and co-founder of SUNY- Buffalo poetics program. He was awarded both the Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry and the Muenster International Poetry Prize. Bernstein is the author of Pitch of Poetry (University of Chicago, 2016) and Recalculating (Chicago, 2013), among many other books.  In 2010, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. More information at writing.upenn.edu/authors/bernstein

Charles Bernstein
Charles Bernstein

Runa Bandyopadhyay: Tell us something about how you started your journey in poetry.

Charles Bernstein: The journey never started and so doesn’t end. It feels like it is an active presence. A river of words flowing through me, which I tap into, or perhaps which taps into me (which traps me).

Runa: Is there a relation between the poetic language and the body language of the word? Is a poetic idea revealed in the physical body of the poem?

Charles: Yes. Yes. I am interested in the body of the poem. This is not “material” body but as Blake says, “Spiritual Body”. That is to say, the poem is symbolic space, an imaginary space, where the value lies in not “representing” the world but exploring the “real” in and as language.

Runa: Poetry is form, or process, or [de-]construction or idol-making –– which one of these is closer to your way of writing and why?

Charles: I am interested in intensifying metonymy and iconicity. Not fragments but constellations of particulars. Not de-construction but re-constructions as a process without endpoint. In the Jewish tradition there is a prohibition of “graven images,” which is to say, images of idols. In my secular mutation of this idea, I would say –– in place of images are actions and processes that allow the readers/listeners a space to project their phantasies/desires/anxieties. But I do this not by minimalism or abstraction but by rhythm and association.

Runa: Poetry requires space, where the reader participates in the poem while at the same time remains outside it. What is your opinion on this dichotomy?

Charles: It’s possible to try to break down the divide between viewer/viewed, that is break down the voyeurism by eliding word and object. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is a key work in this respect, part of a “dialogic” space opened up also (in American poetry) by Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and H.D. and also such second-wave modernists as Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. I explore this issue in Artifice of Absorption (http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/bernstein/books/artifice/), in particular the possibility for rhythmic oscillation between inside/outside.

Runa: Is poetry a search for “reality” and existence, or a search for mystery? Or none of those? Then what is it?

Charles: Poetry isn’t one thing, even for an individual poet. “Reality” is perhaps always at issue, but whose reality, what aspect of the real? I don’t accept the “realities” imposed upon me by family, state, literary history, and convention; but then I can’t fully reject them either. In poems, I explore these “controlling interests,” to use the title of an early book.

Runa: Is Poetry more than resonance of ideas in the mind? If so, if more, what is it? Is poetry to be understood?