Reviewed by Dr Usha Bande

ELIXIR

Title: Elixir
Author: Sinjini Sengupta
Publisher: Readomania Publishing, 2017
Price: INR 250/-

 

When a debut novel grips your imagination and disturbs you for long after you have put it down, it certainly is a work to reckon with. Sinjini Sengupta’s Elixir belongs to this category. It grasps the fine line between dream and reality, light and darkness, and life and death to expose the turbulent psyche of its protagonist, Manisha. The novel’s subtitle succinctly classifies it as “A Dream of a Story” and “A Story of a Dream”.  Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, A Dream within a Dream highlights the unreality of this world as ‘Maya’ (illusion, a dream) that is suggestive of the two worlds Manisha inhabits. Yet, to read Elixir as a dream-novel would be to limit its scope. To me, it is the story of the mysteries of the human mind told with masterly strokes. A whole lot of complexity comes to the fore and the novel turns out to be both delirious and dreary, constantly vacillating between the nebulous and the luminous.

In a way, Elixir is a quest novel about the protagonist’s journey to grapple with her self. In the bargain she loses her equilibrium and slides into neurosis. She is not psychotic, but she could well be a border-line case. The beginning encapsulates the problem of marital incompatibility and discord with the resultant silence leading to other complications. The labyrinthine structure is woven around the victim-protagonist and the plot navigates us through the work-a-day life of Manisha Roy, an efficient and award-winning executive vis-à-vis Manisha, the unfulfilled wife and dreamer in search of “pure happiness”.

What is this “pure happiness” she seeks? Do her dreams provide her an escape route from her agonizing existence? Will she find inner peace? A reader has to make his/her way through ominousness, sadness and mystery and get answers to these questions.

Driftwood

The winter this year had knocked in early. It was mid-November and the chilly mornings had now become foggier.  The crowd of morning walkers in the park behind the Joshi home had thinned considerably over the week.

The bell in the old church rang five times to signify the hour of the day. Shweta’s granny had been up much earlier though. An early riser all her life, here at Shashank’s place, she found it difficult to lie in bed after five. Nonetheless, she forced herself to be under the bright maroon quilt, keeping her eyes closed, as she knew that if she switched on the light, Shashank, sleeping in the adjacent room, would be up as his sleep would be disturbed by the light.

But Shashank had been awake long since. For an hour after midnight, he had been sitting in his bed gazing outside. The silhouette of the trees against the dimming sky had been swaying to and fro. A little afar, an uneasy silence brooded over the cluster of shanties beyond the road. Night never fully descended on the haphazard row of a dozen odd houses sprung over a piece of wasteland. With the nights becoming longer and cooler, some of the inhabitants preferred to sit by the fire and gossip the cold night away. Harsher the weather, greater the buzz; such was the norm. For Shashank, however, sleep was at a premium that night. During such hours of profound aloofness, he would become restless and feel as if he had been invaded, torched and shelled by an army of memories. They descended upon him from all sides, coiling around him, like a famished python, tightening its hold if the prey twitched even a muscle.

Memories of Udit were not letting Shashank sleep. Udit was lurking in his mind, playing hide and seek, a game that he so enjoyed as an infant. Shashank could almost see him—a lean figure, brushing his teeth, not caring to close the tap; leaving his wet, crumpled towel in a heap on the bed after a bath; one slipper lying  upturned here and the other flung away no one knew where. Shashank could almost hear the faint sound of the refrigerator door being opened. Stealing goodies from the fridge in the still of the night was a habit that stayed on with Udit, till the day he left home, maybe even now, who knows ….

Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

The Wounds of the Dead

Title: The Wounds of the Dead
Author: Vikram Paralkar
Publisher: Fourth Estate India (2017)
Pages: 224 (Hardcover)
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The Wounds of the Dead is a book which takes risks with almost every element of its narration, and to a large part, makes it work in a way most of us wouldn’t expect. The biggest challenge it faces is the blending together of various genres, and it deftly manages to cross over from one to the other without breaking the flow of the story. Going from one chapter to the next, the narrative becomes a high-tension, tightly bound medical drama at some points and at others, a more relaxed treatise on spirituality. Although it becomes evident which are the high points of the book and which aren’t, the writer does a good job of keeping the margin relatively smaller.

I’ll admit to my initial scepticism when I began with the book. The story at first sounds deceptively simple: a doctor is forced by his circumstances to treat a family that shouldn’t be alive, but is. Probably the most interesting character in the book is that of the doctor, a typical veteran of medicine and melancholy, who tries his best to deal with his past as well as his frustration over being stuck in a land where he doesn’t belong. In doing so, he becomes the most relatable character in the entire mix, one who is dedicated to his trade but hates his job, and doesn’t shy away from unleashing the pent up frustration in his words for the simple minded villager. However, when trouble comes knocking, quite literally, he rises to the occasion, letting his kindness and compassion shine through his otherwise prevalent bitterness. In doing so, the doctor becomes a metaphor for humanity and of how trying times always bring out the best in us. In comparison, the rest of the characters are considerably less complicated and driven by straightforward motivations.

Reviewed by Kusum Chopra

Ladders Against the Sky

Title: Ladders Against the Sky
Author: Murli Melwani
Publisher: Kaziranga Books (2017)
Pages: 453
Price: INR 500

Ladders Against the Sky is a collection of 16 stories, written between 2011 and 2017, which were first published in literary journals and anthologies. One of the stories, “Water on a Hot Plate,” was included in The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, published by Kitaab. Two stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012 and 2013.

Murli Melwani is a short story writer, a literary activist who runs two websites, and a critic, whose book, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: A Historical and a Critical Study, tracks the growth of this genre from 1835 to 1980.

The short stories in the collection can be divided into two broad categories. About half the stories, set in India, reflect social concern, the conflict between tradition and modernity, science and superstition and the pressures on national unity. The other half, set in foreign countries, focuses on a unique Indian community, the Sindhis, whose culture – a blend of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, and their language, written in the Arabic script with linguistic elements of Sanskrit and Persian – are in danger of gradually fading away.

The writer’s approach is determined by the subject of each story. Thus, “Water on a Hot Plate”, with Toronto as the background, a story of cultural displacement and change, captures the interaction of an Indian tourist and a restaurateur, a Chinese lady born in India. They are two enterprising expatriates who carry diminishing bits of home, as well as of the countries they have lived in, to their newest place of sojourn.

Similarly, in “A Bar Girl,” the lifestyles that Amar Badlani and Rak have chosen prevent them from stopping and evaluating their lives or asking where they are headed. Amar Badlani’s visit with Rak to her village brings home to him the fact that his estrangement from his family has its roots in his working life. His damage control efforts lead him to finance the nursing education of Rak on the one hand, and to make overtures to his kids and grandkids on the other.

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Indian Cultures.

Title: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Pages: 222 pages 

 

Culture influences our values, world view, loyalties, behaviour and much more. Very often it is equated with civilisation a term that came to be used to describe societies that boasted of extensive territory, sophisticated language, literature, art and architecture, and above all, a single religion. Under the colonial influence, culture came to be redefined simply as a way of life of elite groups, for instance Aryans in the case of India. Unfortunately, our current understanding of Indian culture is overshadowed by this erroneous interpretation. Heritage, both cultural and natural, consists of ideas, objects and practices; contributes to quality of life, gives us a cultural identity and connects us with our past. India’s cultural heritage has always been subject to debates. While traditional historians favour the ‘unity in diversity’ approach in order to project a homogenised Indian identity and presumably invoke the spirit of patriotism, Thapar, in her latest book, Indian Cultures as Heritage Contemporary Pasts, does exactly the opposite.

A fearless, frequent and outspoken critic of our dogmatic and communal interpretations of the past, Thapar’s  book does not to go into the historical aspect of the making of Indian culture but provides glimpses of what is often omitted, marginalized, trivialized or is even considered irrelevant to its understanding. Drawing on her lectures and essays, published in the recent past, this book challenges the idea that Indian culture is the monolithic phenomenon it is often portrayed as in Indian historical writing or what is being currently imposed on the Indian citizens by cultural nationalists. Identification with a single culture, she argues, despite the existence of many in the country, is risky since it tends to dismiss all that does not conform to the mainstream forms, perpetuates inequality and silences all kinds of reasonable resistance. Culture is deeply linked with historical developments and bound to change. But the two differ as well. While history narrates and explains the past, culture can invent the past without any historical evidence. Therefore, one has to guard against spurious history which can be manufactured by culture. Thapar’s argument that we need to subject the Indian culture to rigorous historical scrutiny and juxtapose historical and cultural forms to understand their interface is highly relevant, especially in the present context when cultural forms are being subjected to identity politics due to ignorance and lack of general or intellectual interest in other cultures, within and outside the subcontinent.

His dreams were still nascent. Titi told Mama that he wanted to be a zoologist. He elicited quiet fulfilment from watching chameleons catching stick insects with their tongues and gulping them whole and ostriches campily gorging star fruits. Mama said that he should stow his dreams for later and wait for the dough to leaven; for the yeast in his mind to breathe and bloom, for him to turn plump, ready to be baked. He chuckled.

And he watched, quietly (well not really), as she plucked the fruits of her dreams. His hands hovered over the preheating oven, despite his mother’s constant reproach. She kneaded cottony dough with her gnarled but tender hands and folded it into itself. The furrow blended seamlessly and disappeared, before she wrung the dough to fold it again. The scattered flour he tried to swipe surreptitiously with his finger. Powdered sugar, he thought as he sneaked a pinch into his mouth. It exploded in his mouth as he puckered his lips, never to permit flour onto his sensitive taste buds again.

Beads of sweat lingered on Mama’s skin as she kneaded and kneaded in the kitchen, with its windows open to the sun-baked outside. Cracked streets and faded sign paints littered about as Aunty Norma, her head covered in a batik tudung of teal and navy blue, doled out nasi lemak, wrapped in newspaper, to passers-by on their way to the bus stop hidden in the far corner of the road. The oven emanated even more heat waves, preparing for the dough’s entrance. Soon, the dough, coated with glistening egg yolk, would bloom. It would turn crisp and fluffy, like a pillow waiting to be pinched and pulled. The boy salivated as he thought about the savoury patches of salt and butter that would soon linger on his tongue. The yolk sheen reminded him of lumps of peanut cookies with their brown egg coats on top, baked by Mama during Chinese New Year; the pasty lumps that crumbled in the boy’s mouth, unlocking sweet, savoury and a child’s gaiety. The boy could not wait for Mama to fire up the ovens for the next batch of CNY cookies again. Few more weeks and he would have school off, with nothing but he and the food.

Mama looked at the little plump 7-year old and smiled as she wiped off her sweat with the apron. Her smile faded as she considered her son’s dreams. She turned to start the laundry.

Short and Sweet Stories Tinged with Melancholy

Reviewed by Namira Hossain

Truth or Dare

Title: Truth or Dare
Author: Nadia Kabir Barb
Publisher: Bengal Light Books
Pages: 120 

There are some books you read that you could probably start reading with your mid-afternoon tea and finish by the time it is sunset and only the last dregs are left in the cup. Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb is a bit like that. Barb is a British-Bangladeshi writer who lives in London. The cover is stark, a black and white negative of a construction site, giving you an insight into the nature of the book. But at a mere 120 pages, it does not feel like a daunting prospect. Her stories represent her multifaceted personality very well, showcasing little quirks of being part and parcel of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom.

Each of the twelve stories packs a punch. In the first one, “Can You See Me?” a suicidal pseudo celebrity meets a roadside bum and they commiserate over the losses in their lives before a cliff-hanger ending. The next story dives into a domestic scene where a housewife is cutting onions in the kitchen while guarding a tragic secret from her abusive in-laws. Despite the dramatic nature of the stories, Barb spins realistic and believable characters, whose lives and losses evoke emotion in her readers. Short stories do not have the liberty to build great characters through their development; instead, it is the minute plot details, ’moments’ that make a character in a short story somebody that the reader cares about.

I think the book really picks up towards the middle, starting with the title story “Truth or Dare”, about two young boys who decide to play truth or dare. Starting from its very relatable experience of being in a boring classroom with an unenthusiastic math teacher, the story takes the reader through different highs as it follows its protagonist Raju’s day of playing with his friend Tareq, who hides the darkness within.