By Archana Pai Kulkarni

Anees Salim

Acclaimed as one of our most gifted raconteurs, Anees Salim won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2018 for his novel, The Blind Lady’s Descendants. The book also won the Raymond Crossword Book Award for Best Fiction in 2015.

His other books include The Vicks Mango Tree (2012), Tales from a Vending Machine (2013), Vanity Bagh (Winner of the Hindu Prize for Best Fiction, 2013), and The Small-town Sea that won the Atta Galatta Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize for Best Fiction, 2017, and was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize as well as the Tata Literature Live! Award, the same year.

Salim is Creative Director, FCB Ulka, Kochi, and an avid traveller.


Archana
: Anees, welcome to Kitaab! Congratulations on winning the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Blind Lady’s Descendants.

You are known to be a literary hermit and have mentioned that these recognitions have made you unnecessarily wary and self-conscious. Do you worry that the baggage of expectations that comes with awards, coupled with a surge in readers’ interest in you, may be too invasive and affect your writing? What makes you shy away from social interaction and literary platforms, when being out there could mean better sales and a larger readership?

Anees: Thank you. Yes, recognitions have put extra load on me and I have started discarding more story ideas than I used to do in the past. I don’t know if readers’ interest in my books has affected my writing because I haven’t written a book since The Small-town Sea was published.

Coming to my lack of social interaction, it has always been like this. All my books were released without official launches or book tours. And most of them have done reasonably well. But you are right, a few public appearances could have helped the books do better. The truth is I find it extremely hard to change myself.

Archana: The characters in your novels are consummate storytellers, be it the unnamed protagonist of The Small-town Sea or Amar Hamsa in The Blind Lady’s Descendants. Stories are also told from the perspective of a fish or a bird, narrators buoyed up by the protagonist who presumes what they are witnessing. ‘What did they see?’ is a recurring adjunct, a narrative device you use to offer an unusual overview, which cannot be relied upon entirely. Could you elaborate upon the choice and use of this tool?

Anees: Well, I believe children are the most imaginative and fearless storytellers. They have a unique way of looking at mundane things and their points of view can sometimes make you feel liberated. As a child, I used to imagine how birds would see my home, how my school would appear to earthworms, how chickens would heave a sigh of relief when we demanded lamb biriyani.  Since The Small-town Sea is narrated by a thirteen-year-old – my youngest ever protagonist – I thought of using my favourite childhood pastime as a tool.

Archana: Death arrives early in some of your books. Your characters seem accepting of it, including their own. While there is a sense of melancholy and foreboding that shadows their rumination upon death, the characters succumb to it willingly, as if this cessation of their lives, however premature, is elemental and not so unpleasant, an inspiration even. They seem to meet death halfway, walk towards it, so to say. You also juxtapose a death with a birth. Amar in The Bind Lady’s Descendants is born on the very day that Javi, his doppelganger, dies. Vappa in The Small-town Sea dies three days after the unnamed protagonist’s thirteenth birthday. Why this preoccupation with death, and the mention of birth and death days alongside? What does the subject do for you as a writer?

There is something about the autumn air in India, a general sense of leisureliness. The slow air touches you in a fashion that launches and fills festivity in your senses. No doubt there are so many festivals that queue up in the Indian calendar during this season.

Bidyut had joined the Durga Puja mass celebration near his ancestral home in his lane in Cuttack. There is a distinct trait to how people in old cities celebrate their festivals. The thousand-year-old city, where he had spent his childhood, was draped in a shawl dotted with countless lights. There was none in the city who was left untouched by the thrill. Everyone was soaked in the mood of the festival.  But Bidyut was one who liked time alone. He preferred sombre darkness over light, which doesn’t let you hide. He knew many people in the city and was not really a shy person, but given a chance he liked to keep a distance. He enjoyed watching people celebrate but could never be a part of the party.

He moved away from the luminous surrounding to a hazy corner and lit a cigarette. The smoke that swirled up from his mouth formed different shapes. He raised his head, at an obtuse angle, to recognize the shapes – a human female without a head, very slender at the waist, followed by a broad exclamation mark, and then an irregular circle. Nothing finite, a figment of his imagination.  He loved the moment.

“Got a light?” a female voice intruded into his zone of seclusion.

He passed the matchbox to the lady without a word.  She was about the same height as he was. Maybe an inch smaller, but she had an erect posture and that, combined with her slim body, made her appear taller. Her hair was short and her head was a lovely egg shape. She must have been no older than twenty-five. She wore a pale yellow dress with a sapphire blue cotton jacket with lots of embroidery on it. She didn’t wear lipstick and her lips clearly indicated that she smoked a lot. She exuded confidence and freedom. An astonishing buoyant character. The first impression.

“Mind if I stand next to you?” she asked.

“Not at all.”

A minute or two of silence. Then a shrill alloy sound of conch shells, bells and hulahuli cries of women from near the Durga pandal, tore the stillness into hundreds of pieces. Both of them turned behind to the dissonance. Reflex action.

They nodded and smiled together. Bidyut folded his hands together as an obeisance to the goddess of divine Shakti, an old habit since his childhood.  Though he was not religious, he loved the fun element of following a harmless tradition.

Bidyut made it a point to be in his hometown with his brother’s family during Puja. In this big world, they were the only ones he could call his own. His mother had succumbed to cancer while he was studying in Cincinnati and his father died a couple of years back. There was no way he would break his connection with his blood. His brother had a seven-year-old daughter and Bidyut was extremely fond of her. She was the main reason he kept coming back to Cuttack frequently, at least once in three months.

Reviewed by Soni Somarajan

That's How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate

 

Title: That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate
Author: Namrata Pathak
Publisher: Red River (2018)
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Mirai is a riddle.

The title of Namrata Pathak’s book of verse ― That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate ― sets you off on a wild-goose chase. The question is, where do you eventually reach?

Along the way, you travel a new world of sweeping sights. Instantly you fall back on experience, your memory, to grasp the world you just found. Restless you are ― to consign what’s new to the realm of understanding, the mind’s habitual neediness to own everything in its path. But that’s not easy here. You are urged to open up to the stranger, and evolve a syntax of understanding beyond what’s known so far.

Pathak’s poetry marks a fresh voice ― mysterious, mystical, sometimes cryptic, inexplicable. It draws you out, with not a polestar in sight to find your bearing, an invite to a terrain not your comfort zone. In a world that hinges on hurry, time slows down in her verse ― you must look around, beyond you, a world lost long ago.

The verse rides on memory as its motor, I wonder if it’s autobiographical, the clue being the vigour, the lustiness in every line, too original to be imaginary. It is a miracle how things of the ordinary, the daily horror of living as well, how all those years of meanderings, the personal journey of coming into one’s own turns into a language at once original, yet unsettling.

Mirai is a trope that’s phantasmic. A likeness of what? It is the poet; no, it’s also the woman. One segues into the other. You know for sure, but you can’t pin it down. But isn’t it the language of all things that matter to this world yet are inexplicable, the things difficult to render in everyday conversation, the imagination of what moves and what doesn’t in a dim, murky wildscape, the eerie domination of the elements, the fear of the unknown.

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Hermitage

Title: Hermitage
Author: Aamer Hussein
Publisher: Ushba Publishing International
Price: Pakistani Rs 800/-

 

In 1968, Aamer Hussein met Qurratulain Hyder, the literary stalwart from the subcontinent who was also his mother’s friend. He was 13 at the time. This meeting with Hyder – Annie Khala to him – and her presence in his life, despite the miles separating them, would become one of the defining influences on Aamer Hussein’s life as a writer. He wrote about her ‘intellectual influence’ on him in his introduction to Fireflies in the Mist, 2008 (translated by her from her Urdu Aakhir-i-Shab ke Humsafar). A decade later, he writes, once again, about the relationship and her continuing influence on his writing and reading sensibilities: ‘Annie would guide my reading, criticizing one writer and praising another in a dialogue that continued from trip to trip,’ he writes in “Annie” from Hermitage, his most recent collection of short fiction, published in 2018 by Ushba Publishing International, a small independent press in Pakistan.

‘We shared a past in three countries and two languages… I’d like her to know, I did keep the promise that I made to our shared mother tongue and, tacitly, to her, and tell her as I had at that last meeting: Annie Khala, your hand was always on mine.’

There are others who guide him, shared pasts and literary traditions – Attar, Rumi, Shefta, Ada Jafri, Hussein’s grand-uncle Rafi Ajmeri. Hermitage borrows from their writings and their lives, from stories heard and read. It spreads the oeuvre, drawing from the mystics, from traditional storytelling of the subcontinent and its tradition of storytelling through fable, myth, memoir and music. Persian and Urdu narratives and poetry inform its tonality; the structure of the stories is most often parabolic, the references inter-textual, the undertone one of deep, reflective conversations with the self woven through with a filigree of images and the restrained prose of folklore and metaphor.

Hermitage is a tribute to storytellers, to music and art from this shared past, layered with cultural memory and influenced by oral and written narratives. Love that is ephemeral is made eternal through the words on the page that not only reflect but speak of its melancholic beauty, its music clearer in the gaps and the unsaid than in what is crafted for the reader. ‘And it seemed to him that if one listened to the silence, everything sang to everything else: breeze to water and leaves, water to cloud and branch, birds to the sky…’ (“Lake”).
The larger theme of love and longing draws into itself the sub themes of exile and homelessness, migration, creativity and identity, themes that have occurred earlier in Aamer Hussein’s stories. In Hermitage, their iterations are more intense and subtle, requiring of the reader a greater engagement with the very act of storytelling.   As meaning deepens, brevity becomes meditative.

Exile is not only a physical truth but also a state of mind. Aamer Hussein’s characters are exiles, belonging to yet torn apart from the very sense or place of belonging, often leading a sutured existence, giving rise to the solitude that layers many of the stories. Love and longing, unfulfilled and unrequited, whether for geographical spaces or for emotional geographies, meanders like a stream through these stories, both imprisoning the characters and releasing them.

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.