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Book Review: Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast by Sanjoy Hazarika

Reviewed by Gouri Athale

Strangers No More -- Sanjoy Hazarika

Title: Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast
Author: Sanjoy Hazarika
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 472 (Hardcover)
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The title says it all: they are no longer strangers. They are now part of the Indian mainstream despite hiccups in the form of discrimination against them in the rest of India merely because they look different. These are people of the North East, alienated from the rest of the country due to many reasons, not least that of geography (access was difficult), social set up and appearance – differences that were deliberately cultivated and exploited by the former imperial power, Britain.

The book gathers steam only after a very long (nearly 50 page-long) ‘Introduction’, which brings the region to the reader. This is an irritant. After this over-long Introduction, the author notes the many causes for the feelings of alienation among people of the Seven Sisters but omits (at least in this book) the role of the Church in creating this sense of alienation, or its continuing role in Nagaland and Mizoram (and that of the Mother’s Committee of Manipur) in insisting on prohibition. Liquor companies could provide a better insight regarding the sale of liquor (including beer) with alcoholism a serious problem in the region.

In the very first chapter, Hazarika comes to grips with the demand which reverberates across the North East as well as in the Kashmir valley: repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Or at least make it more humane and make armed forces personnel liable for their conduct under relevant sections of the civil and criminal law. Like many opponents of AFSPA, the author’s view does not take into account that an insurgency or an internal revolt is essentially a civil war fought in a limited area. It is, nevertheless, war and the rules of war, not civil law, apply. The armed forces cannot operate without the legal cover of AFSPA while the other side (freedom fighters or revolutionaries) is free to use tactics like patrolling, raids and ambushes.

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Short story: Coming Home by Pravinsinh Chavda

Translated from the Gujarati by Mira Desai (from Pravinsinh Chavda’s short story collection Ek Evun Ghar Maley, published by Gurjar Granthratna Karyalaya, 2005)

Pravinsinh Chavda

Ranjit dressed in clothes that he’d carefully ironed and told his father, ‘I’ll be back in a while.’

His father would drape a napkin on his shoulder and sit in an armchair on the front porch all day; his loss of vision had bestowed a certain grace to his posture. If he heard a vehicle pass by or footsteps approaching, he would smile in expectation and his smile would last even after the footsteps had faded away. Ranjit was at a loss as to how to fill in the vacuum of unending time even on Sundays, so he’d pick any direction and begin to walk, enjoying whatever he encountered along the way. His vision had been sharpened, so everything that he saw sprang to life.

Where will you go, son? His father didn’t ask such questions. There wasn’t much that was different in sitting idle on the otlo, the porch, or wandering about like his son did; perhaps he knew this.

That morning Ranjit walked with a special energy; he’d remembered Shriram Mulay as if he’d stepped forth from an old sepia photograph, dressed in his school uniform khakhi shorts and a toothy smile. They didn’t meet very often now; at times a gap of six months or a year would pass before they met, but Shriram’s riverside house and the surrounding backyard often impinged on his memory. When he’d reach Salvivad with his schoolbag on his way to school, Shriram’s Ayi would be waiting on the porch to see him off. All the happenings and news that they collected during the course of the day would be brought out carefully and shared in the evening by that house. Shriram would lead him indoor for a drink of water, and from there they’d step into the backyard as if drawn there. He could still see Shriram’s Ayi walking up to them with a bowlful of goodies, a ladoo or perhaps a til sweet.

The rustic tea stall and the flour mill at the entrance to the neighbourhood were still there. There weren’t too many changes in the locality either; he felt as if he were stepping into the past as he climbed up the steps to the porch. He stood there quite a while after he had gently knocked on the screen door. After what seemed like infinity, Shriram trudged to the door pulling his shirt into place and stared at him quizzically from behind the door-bars.

‘Who is it, bhai?’

‘Just a passer-by. I’ve come here for some water.’

Shriram didn’t laugh out loud. ‘Come,’ he said indifferently and turned away. This was a new way of greeting. Whenever they met in the past, they would trade accusations by way of greeting: You’ve become an important person. Your time is too precious… Only after both of them were satisfied that neither had become overly important would Shaliniben offer a cup of tea as a peace offering.

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It was or it was not: Femininity in Arabic folktales

The folktales in Pearls on a Branch, oral survivors from a preliterate era, resemble a quilt made with the fabrics of well-loved clothes. Just as patches of cloth in a quilt are arranged in different combinations to form a design, traditional folk motifs appear and reappear in a variety of settings and plots to shape the stories. One prince falls in love with the grocer’s daughter next door, another can’t take his eyes off the Bedouin girl he sees on his way to the hunt, all to the horror of the royal mothers. Here a golden anklet, and there a voice heard out of an open window, inspire obsessive love for their unknown owners. A songbird with green feathers reveals one crime and a speaking nightingale another. In the stories, love conquers all, but inevitably there are obstacles on the way to the happy ending. These are tales told by women to women so, not surprisingly, the main characters often are young women with remarkable courage, wit, and endurance. Whatever their unfortunate circumstances at the beginning, whether poverty or oppression, they are the heroines in the end.

The thirty texts gathered in Pearls on a Branch have been chosen from a hundred tales, recorded and transcribed by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and published in Beirut in 2014. Captured on tape, these are verbatim renderings of the storytellers speaking. The translation, like the transcriptions, adheres word for word to the Arabic original. The aim is to allow the English reader to listen in as the storytellers, older women living in Lebanon in the last quarter of the twentieth century, pass on the stories they had heard in childhood. Only in the verses that ornament many of the stories does the English sometimes need a few added words to be comprehensible.

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Book Review: The Guru Who Came Down from the Mountain by Roshen Dalal

Reviewed by Sujata Raye

The Guru who Came Down from the Mountain FINAL

 

Title: The Guru Who Came Down from the Mountain
Author: Roshen Dalal
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Pages: 236
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This first novel by Roshen Dalal is ideal to read during a train journey or while waiting for a flight, when a cup of coffee and a racy book with intrigue and murder are sufficient to make the wait enjoyable. It begins with the introduction of the novel’s two main characters. Dev and Nityanand or Nitya. Devdarshan is Nityanand’s Guru and dying of AIDS. The initial few chapters, alternately, tell the reader the background of both Dev and Nitya.

The story is Dev’s; Nitya is only a tool to unfold it, the foil to Dev’s negativity. Nitya comes down to see his dying Guru at his ashram in Rishikesh. Out of sheer ignorance he has stood witness in the court, swearing Dev’s purity and celibacy, facilitating unknowingly, the dismissal of all cases of sexual coercion against his guru. Nitya is angry with himself for betraying the innocent. He remembers the accusations of drug dealing, of guns and weapons, of murders and deaths, while he was in Dev’s ashram in the US.

The story unfolds through Dev’s writings that he hands over to Nitya to read. That part of Dev’s life is a reminder of the recent shenanigans and expose` of several godmen in the country. It is quite apparent where the story is leading, yet the details of how ashrams are opened, how greed and weak minds can succumb to the lure of going to foreign lands – how women become easy victims of the Guru they blindly follow, keep the reader engaged.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Sudeep Chakravarti

By Shikhandin

Sudeep by Ushinor Majumdar Colour

Photo Courtesy: Ushinor Majumdar

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several groundbreaking and bestselling works of narrative non-fiction – Red Sun, finalist for the Crossword Award in 2009; Highway 39; Clear. Hold. Build, winner of the Award for Excellence at the Asian Publishing Awards, 2014, and most recently, The Bengalis. He has written two novels (Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings) and his essays and short fiction have appeared in collections in India and overseas; like his books, these have been translated into several languages.
He is among India’s leading independent commentators on matters of conflict and conflict resolution, democracy and development, political economy, and the convergence of business and human rights. An extensively published columnist at Mint and elsewhere, he has over three decades of experience in media, and has worked with major global and Indian media organizations including the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he began his career, and held leadership positions at Sunday, the India Today Group and HT Media.
An avid scuba diver, Sudeep’s key interest away from writing and travelling remains marine conservation. He lives in Goa and in the Velliangiri Hills, Tamil Nadu.

Shikhandin: In the acknowledgements page of The Bengalis, you have touched upon how the book came about. Could you let us know a bit more here?

Sudeep Chakravarti: I have for long wanted to write a book on the social and political aspects of Greater Bengal — by that I mean West Bengal and East Bengal, now Bangladesh — with a personalized touch. My personal history is rooted in both Bengals, as it were, and such an approach lends a great degree of reality and immediacy to seemingly dry history. I had even proposed it to a major publisher, but I put it on ice for a couple of years on account of a few issues with that particular publisher. I subsequently brought the project to David Davidar of Aleph. The Bengalis assumed a more rounded avatar after my discussion with David, whose idea was a fuller portrait of the Bengalis, almost a biography.

I was keen to translate research, interviews, experiences and observations into an engaging son et lumière storytelling. I apply that approach to all my books, fiction as well as narrative non-fiction. The difference with The Bengalis is that I am occasionally involved in the story as a participant. But I was determined to maintain a distance, and address thorny issues of history and ethnicity alongside all that is justly celebrated about the Bengalis. It’s not so much about a different eye as a necessary eye: The Bengalis is not a brochure, it’s an attempt at a portrait of a people painted with what I hope is honesty, honour, some horror and a lot of humour. David liked that approach right from the first draft. A second draft and a couple of proofs later, we were done. He and Aleph’s managing editor, Aienla Ozukum, really got into The Bengalis.

Then there is the cover, a work of great care and aesthetics by Aleph’s art director, Bena Sareen (who also designed the cover of my book Red Sun when she was at Penguin). The cover image of The Bengalis, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali – the people as well as the book: a hankering for history, a faded grand past, the playful and yet focused child a symbol of a possibly energized future, the Bengali obsession with football and politics, the slightly rural tone even in an undeniably urban setting. The image by Plabon Das works wonderfully. As to the content, the book of course attempts to deal comprehensively with all this and much, much more.

There was a process to the selection of this image. We were very concerned that the image should not crudely reflect a stereotype, or alienate a vast number of Bengalis. There were other images in the initial design line-up; for instance, a beautiful image of a rickshaw puller in front of a grand North Kolkata mansion. I felt that was too ‘guidebook’ or ‘coffee-table’, like a couple of other options. In any case we didn’t want something to be too Kolkata, as it were, as if other places in what I like to call Banglasphere don’t exist.
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Book Review: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Bengalis Cover Low Res (546x800)

Title: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community
Author: Sudeep Chakravatri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: Hardcover 457 pages
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‘Ergo, no matter who you listen to, we are pretty much mongrel.’

That little sentence in page 43 of Sudeep Chakravarti’s vade mecum, The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, floats up with a beastly smirk. Unless of course, you have done your job as a reader and read it not out of context, but as part of the whole subject, including the weighty preceding pages.

Still, for argument’s sake, were you to disbelieve the mongrel bit, or dismiss it as self-deprecation, you would do an injustice to the community. Yes, you read that correctly, and Chakravarti provides carefully compiled data on the origins of the Bengali race to prove it.

Being a mixed breed is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you are not mixed up, which is not a compliment one can pay to the so-called pure bloodlines, whatever that is, if at all such things exist. Besides, further up the book one comes upon this beautiful explanation of what it means to be a Bengali mongrel:

‘Our so-called purity is rooted in mongrelisation. It has taken us a long journey to arrive where we have, with our distinct streams of culture, distinctive sub-languages and dialects with a unifying super-language that is itself mongrel.

‘It is through our openness to the world and cultures other than our own, that we have evolved our Bengaliness that is so distinctive, so unique. It’s what makes us enduring, indolent, insular, outgoing, endearing, adventurous, gypsy-like, nesting, sentimental, adaptive, rebellious, questioning, accepting, and infuriating in turn – or all at once. To be anything else would probably be so very boring’ (chapter 13, page 315).

Perhaps after reading the book, some ill-informed not-Bengalis will call out ‘Mongrel Bengali’ instead of the earlier taunt of ‘Bhookha Bengali!’ Then again, those who wish to insult will always find some term or epithet suitable enough, however misguided. Bengalis ought to take the higher ground, because we know who we are and do not need to explain ourselves. So, why do we need a book about ourselves at all?

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Book Review: Geoffrey Manning BAWA: Decolonising Architecture by Shanti Jayewardene

Reviewed by Ranga Chandrarathne

Decolonising Architecture

Title: Geoffrey Manning BAWA, Decolonising Architecture
Author: Shanti Jayewardene
Publisher: National Trust, Sri Lanka
Pages: 237
Price: LKR 4800

In the monograph titled Geoffrey Manning BAWA, Decolonising Architecture, the author, architect and historian, Shanti Jayewardene examines the enduring architectural legacy of Bawa and how he sought to decolonize architecture from within the tradition, incorporating indigenous Sri Lankan motifs and spirit into the existing corpus of western architecture.

It is Bawa’s attempt that culminated in the birth of Sri Lankan modern architecture, which is now also known as tropical architecture.  The author emphasizes, in no uncertain terms, that the term ‘decolonizing’ does not mean anti-colonial and that Bawa’s architectural legacy should be looked at from a broader perspective, perhaps, as a part of the process of indigenous knowledge production.

At the very beginning of the book the author points out that the field of architecture and study of architecture, like almost all other subjects, was a colonial legacy and the essential part of ‘colonising the mind’ was to look down on the indigenous knowledge as unscientific and obsolete.

‘The architectural “profession” in Sri Lanka has a colonial lineage. Its birth in the nineteenth century announced and affected a distinction in knowledge through apartheid policies of employment linked with knowledge. Only Western-trained individuals were recognised as architects or engineers. J. G Smither was appointed architect of the Public Works Department (PWD) around 1864. The post was held by Britons until independence. In Colonial institutions indigenous knowledge was officially subordinated to Western or so called modern “scientific” knowledge. Overlap between two systems of knowledge was suppressed in the colonial culture.’

It was obvious that the process of colonization was not confined to conceptual level of architecture.  The author observes that one has to understand the process of decolonization from a broader perspective to look back and re-read Bawa’s work. ‘De-colonization is not simple anti-colonialism – it is “the attempt of the previous colonized people to reflectively work out a historical relation with former colonizer, culturally, politically and economically”.’

The study has been carefully divided into several chapters covering Bawa’s birth, the socio-cultural backdrop against which Bawa grew up, his education and his practice in Sri Lanka. Early chapters of the book help readers to learn the myriad of influences of famous architects, diverse architectural traditions, works and books on Bawa and how his Western education shaped his early practice as an architect and how deeply he studied the Sri Lankan age-old architectural legacy, which the author has quite rightly emphasized, was not pan-Sinhalese architecture. In fact it was a tradition which was made up of diverse influences such as ancient Sri Lankan architecture, Dutch, Portuguese, Islam and Tamil architecture.

One of the prominent influences on Bawa was his wide reading over the years. Some of the major influences which shaped his world view were the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy and books such as The Wonder that was India by Arthur Basham and Senake Bandaranayake’s Sinhalese Monastic Architecture (1974).

As observed by the author, a prominent architect who influenced Bawa was Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902 –1988).  Barragán developed his own vision with an inimitable Mexican spirit. The author observes a characteristic influence of Barragán work on Bawa’s creations in areas such as the stairs, courtyards, pools and spaces. However, both architects never met personally but it was obvious that Bawa had read about Barragán’s work featured in I.E Myers seminal work Mexico’s Modern Architecture (1952) that he possessed.

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Rescued from the footnotes of history: Lal Bihari Sharma’s “Holi Songs of Demerara”

MY NAME RINGS no bell […]
but footnotes know me well
footnotes where history
shows its true colors
and passing reference is flesh

These lines, from John Agard’s poem “The Ascent of John Edmonstone,” give voice to an enslaved man, born in British Guiana, whose influence has been all but erased from history. Edmonstone taught Charles Darwin the taxidermy skills he deployed during his famous voyage on the H. M. S. Beagle, and his descriptions of the South American rainforests may have inspired Darwin to explore the tropics. Yet Edmonstone, muse and teacher, has gone unacknowledged.

In Agard’s poem, footnotes are where history shows its true colors: they reveal how power, held or withheld, has muted the contributions of people like Edmonstone. To be called a footnote to history is usually a put-down. I would, however, like to rehabilitate a footnoted existence, somewhat, in this essay. To be footnoted is to be cited, and to be cited is to be published. Lal Bihari Sharma, author of the 1915 songbook Damra Phag Bahar, or Holi Songs of Demerara, also could have declared: footnotes know me. First-person testimony, written by indentured immigrants, is rare: only three literary texts about the system that replaced slavery in the British Empire, by laborers who experienced it personally, are known to exist. Holi Songs of Demerara is the only one to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean. The other two were memoirs by men from Fiji and Suriname.

It was in fact as a footnote that I first encountered Lal Bihari Sharma. I learned about him in June 2011, while reading a scholarly monograph during the final lap of research for my 2013 book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. That book is partly a narrative history about indentured women in the Caribbean and partly a memoir about my attempts to uncover the mystery behind my great-grandmother’s exit from India, in 1903, as a “coolie” (or indentured laborer). She was born in the very same district of the very same region of the very same state in India as Sharma, and they came from the same caste background. The monograph’s author, a Delhi-based labor historian, described the songbook as rich with sensory details about life on a sugar plantation in British Guiana, told from the perspective of an indentured man.

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Book Review: This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab

Reviewed by Mayeesha Azhar

This House of Clay and Water

Title: This House of Clay and Water
Author: Faiqa Mansab
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: 499 INR
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
https://penguin.co.in/book/fiction/house-clay-water/

 

For those who need one more reason to dream about visiting Lahore someday to take in the juxtaposition of the city’s pandemonium, history and romance, Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water only adds to the list. The protagonist, Nida, wanders along the boundaries between the walled estates of the metropolitan’s wealthy, to the markets of the underclass and, finally, the shrines that offer refuge to the disowned. Nida has lost much to the rigid patriarchal structures of her life — a child, freedom, her right to choose, a sense of self. In a way, this book is about Nida’s journey of rediscovering her dignity, and the immense price that she ends up paying for it.

Among the three main characters that narrate the story by turn is also Sasha. Bringing glitz and glamour to this tale, Sasha is indulgent, decadent, and a siren by choice. In dusty Lahore, Sasha’s ephemeral aura marks her out as a creature from a different world. She is an object of desire incarnate and she knows it. What is more, she is not hesitant to use it to get what she wants — designer fashion and a thrilling escape from a life she feels is too ordinary for her. Try as hard as she might to deny this, sometimes to herself, this respite is only fleeting. Her image is a mirage that Sasha has carefully constructed even as she makes it look effortless. She does indeed sashay into every scene that she inhabits — cafés, the hotel rooms of her lovers, even spiritual ground like the Daata Sahib dargah. This is where the two women first meet.

The contrast between them is softened for both by their distance from Bhanggi, the transgender Qalandar, a title that is typically held by holy men. Bhanggi’s is a short life full of cruelty and exclusion, first from society itself after being abandoned at birth and then from the Hijra community where he was raised. In exchange for being allowed to live at the shrine, Bhanggi must be indentured to the administrative clerk there. This is part of the clerk’s deal with the Hijra community, who rely on sex work to make a living.

Bhanggi’s voice is enough to make this book rare. The Hijra community is ever-present in South Asia, but can exist only on the edges, hardly ever coming into the purview of the respectable milieus that Sasha and Nida come from, let alone be featured in a novel. Rarer still is Mansab’s mention of the violence committed daily against these bodies. One such instance is that of a man paying a Hijra woman, Chameli, to have sex, and then killing her, just one instance in a series of systemic murders of trans-people around the world that occur with minimum ado and furore.

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Book Review: Memories Cached by Cameron Su

Reviewed by Shruthi Rao

Memories Cached

Title: Memories Cached
Author: Cameron Su
Publishers: Cameron Su (co-funded via the Act!on for a Cause programme of Kids4Kids Hong Kong)
Pages: 302

Across the world, there are tremors of the beginnings of a youth movement, sparked by young people tired of the status quo – teenagers who are no longer satisfied with sitting around and waiting for adults to do things for them; youngsters who want change, and are not afraid to take on any situation by the horns.

There is still a considerable amount of eye-rolling about millennials and disapproving head-shakes at ‘this new generation’ that will ‘never amount to anything’. I believe that this attitude is unfair to those young people out there who are actually standing up and making a difference.

Cameron Su is one such person. He is a 17-year-old high school student in Hong Kong, who wants to tackle the issue of bullying through his book Memories Cached. Set in a high school in Singapore (which is ranked by a study as third in the world in bullying among 15-year-olds), Memories Cached takes the reader through a few months in the life of a handful of high school kids on the cusp of college. Dominic Chiu is a regular high school guy who, on a dare, kisses his girlfriend in school. Savannah Dixon, another high school student, captures it on her camera, and on an impulse, uploads it on YouTube. The video promptly goes viral.

Dominic is now in trouble, both from the principal (PDA is banned in the school!) and from Ryan Chang, the school bully and the brother of Talinda, the girl he kissed.

The rest of the book takes us through the repercussions of this incident, in two POVs – that of Dominic Chiu, and that of his cyber bully, Savannah Dixon. Savannah’s POV is interesting. It highlights the reason why she chose to upload the video, her almost-immediate regret but with the knowledge that once a video is out there, she has no control over it. It takes us through her insecurities, her wanting to fit in, and makes us feel sorry for her. She wants to make amends, however, and at the end, she redeems herself.

This incident in the book highlights a very important aspect – that a private moment that would’ve gone unnoticed or uncommented upon in an earlier era is now potentially in the public domain, up for everybody to see. You need to have eyes at the back of your head; if you drop your guard for a moment your privacy is not yours any longer.

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