Category Archives: Book

Book review: The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi (translated by Jonathan Wright)

Reviewed by Krishnasruthi Srivalsan

The Bamboo Stalk

Title: The Bamboo Stalk
Author: Saud Alsanousi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Publisher: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
Pages: 384
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The protagonist of Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk is a deeply conflicted man. Jose Mendoza is raised in his mother’s country as a god fearing Catholic who was baptised in the church at the age of ten. Yet, his mother prepares him for a life in the promised ‘paradise’, his father’s country, Kuwait. Jose has a Kuwaiti passport, a Kuwaiti name – Isa al Tarouf – but as the son of his father’s Filipino maid, he’ll never be accepted by his father’s family, despite being the only male heir to carry forward the family name.

Expertly translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, this is an immensely moving novel, weighing heavily on metaphors, that explores multiple themes like race and religion, identity and class, and highlights the often humiliating immigrant experience overseas, especially in the Gulf.

Alsanousi, a Kuwaiti journalist and novelist whose earlier work includes the novel The Prisoner of Mirrors, explores the concept of ‘the other’ in this book. Often the underdog, the ‘other’ is viewed negatively by the majority. Not being able to fit into clear boxes, the ‘other’ find themselves in a murky marshland of mixed up identities, rootless and unwanted. Blinded by one’s own prejudices, society fails to acknowledge and empathise with the ‘other’ and it is precisely for this reason that al Sanousi modelled Jose as his protagonist.

Jose’s story begins with his mother, Josephine, who leaves the squalor of poverty back home in the Philippines and goes to Kuwait in search of a better paying job. She lands at the house of the illustrious al Tarouf family whose matriarch, Ghanima, is as superstitious as she is stubborn. Joza, as Ghanima refers to the Filipino servant girl, arrives on the day a bomb explodes near the Kuwaiti Emir’s motorcade, narrowly missing him. Ever since, Ghanima has viewed Joza’s arrival as a sign of bad luck. Rashid, Ghanima’s only son, an aspiring idealistic writer, is taken by Joza’s good looks, and she agrees to a ‘temporary marriage’ which ends the day Jose is born. Josephine returns home and her son is raised with the promise that he will one day go back to Kuwait.

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Book excerpt: Indian Cultures as Heritage — Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Indian Cultures.

SCIENCE AS CULTURE

Many Indian scientists, competent in their fields of specialization, know less about science as a form of knowledge, or the kind of reasoning involved in the scientific method that can also be applied to other forms of knowledge. This might explain their surprising and tacit acceptance of some of the more ridiculous statements made by non-scientists on the fantasy-based claims pertaining to science as supposedly practised by our ancient ancestors. This reduces their ability to recognize the difference between the remarkably impressive knowledge of premodern Indian thinkers in some of the sciences, and the infantile fancies that are often projected in their name by those ignorant of science in both premodern and in current times. The reasons for doing the latter are more often political rather than due to any scientific assessment.

The onus is not only on the scientist but also on the historian. Not enough attention has been given by historians to integrating the ideas related to the sciences from earlier times to other aspects of culture. The historian’s intervention from this perspective would require the re-crafting even of some historical formulations. This is being done for some other aspects in recent historical reinterpretations. One of these is the notion of ‘civilization’ as a somewhat fixed and continuing historical unit.

Used more casually in the earlier centuries to refer to the softening of manners and to artistic and literary achievements, it became a widely accepted unit of history from the nineteenth century, coinciding with colonial perceptions of history. The world was divided into discrete, geographically bounded areas each with a dominant culture, recognizably different in intellectual, aesthetic, technological and religious attainments, all of which were associated with urban centres, the use of scripts, the existence of a state and of an organized social order. In A Study of History, the British historian Arnold Toynbee counted twenty-six such civilizations, each rising in response to challenges and declining when the response was inadequate. More recently the count has been reduced to eight in Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As a spokesman of the American political right wing, his theory that the future of the world will revolve around the clash of civilizations inspired by religious identities seems to envisage conflicting civilizations as a replacement for the cold war.

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Book review: A Different Sky by Meira Chand

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Different Sky

Title: A Different Sky
Author: Meira Chand
Publisher: Vintage Books (2011)
Pages: 488
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A Different Sky by Meira Chand spans an era of transition in Singapore from 1927 to 1956. The narrative races through a period of rebellion against the colonials, the Japanese occupation, and the move towards an indigenous government. Geographically, it travels through India, Malaysia, England, Australia and Singapore.

The Daily Mail listed it as an ‘extraordinary book’ while the Historic Novel Review says, ‘Chand weaves a gripping adventure, magnificent romance and well informed history into the sort of book it’s difficult to put down.’

Meira Chand, a well-established novelist of Swiss-Indian parentage, has created a grand, multi-layered story. The novel weaves the intricate lives of characters from multiple races and backgrounds into historic events tracing the turmoil faced by Singapore to become ‘a place of dreams, holding the souls of men to ransom’ from being ‘a pinprick on the great body of Asia’. It opens with the communist uprising of Kreta Ayer in 1927, under a sky of unrest in British Singapore and walks through three decades of transition. The three main characters, a Chinese, a Eurasian and an Indian, are introduced in a bus caught in the riot. This is an ingenious start to a story well spun. The Chinese protagonist, Mei Lan, educates herself to rebel against negative traditions. She falls in love with Howard, her Eurasian neighbour. They are torn asunder during the Japanese occupation, suffer tortures and live through horrors. Howard leaves to study in Australia funded by Raj, the rich uneducated Indian businessman whose past was that of a penniless immigrant. When he returns after graduating, he meets a new Mei Lan, almost a stranger after being victimized and tortured during the Japanese occupation despite her law degree from England. Both of them reject multiple relationships overseas.

The story winds through the trauma faced by the characters as they move to create a new Singapore, under a bright sun ‘thrusting out fingers of brilliance through the grey clouds’ with ‘a bank of red balloons drifting under the endless arc of the sky’ holding a white banner with ‘Merdeka’ (a Malay word meaning rich, prosperous and powerful) on it. Will Howard and Mei Lan unite under this different sky with the outgoing first chief minister of Singapore, David Marshall, faced by chaos and the future Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in full control? As Meira Chand intertwines the lives of real historic figures with that of her creations, she adds to the glamour, suspense and appeal of her novel.

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Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories (TBASS) 2018: Winners and selected authors

Today, when latitudes shift, cultures collide, and we are all travellers in one form or another, in ways perhaps unprecedented, these stories must be told.
              — Dr Debotri Dhar, editor TBASS 2018

The Best Asian Short Stories

Putting together an anthology of short stories is not easy. Reading across a continent and picking from among the best of its writers and their stories is a daunting endeavour. TBASS 2018 is the fruit of this undertaking — 24 writers, 13 countries — led by Dr Debotri Dhar, Editor, TBASS 2018 and Zafar Anjum, Series editor.

‘The winners of TBASS 2018 are Rakhshanda Jalil (India), Aditi Mehrotra (India), and Martin Bradley (Malaysia; originally UK),’ said Dr. Debotri Dhar. ‘I also loved the translation of Japanese writer Mogami Ippei by Avery Udagawa (Thailand; originally USA), and there were many other excellent entries, from more than 13 countries.

‘While Rakhshanda Jalil is a seasoned writer known to many in South Asia, Aditi Mehrotra is an aspiring Indian writer whose story delightfully juxtaposed textual passages and news clippings on women’s empowerment with everyday life vignettes of domesticity from small-town India. Martin Bradley’s story highlighted the intersecting themes of travel, historical memory, and communication across differences. Today, when latitudes shift, cultures collide, and we are all travellers in one form or another, in ways perhaps unprecedented, these stories must be told.’

‘The response to TBASS 2017 has been tremendous. That really encouraged us to continue the series and redouble our efforts,’ said Zafar Anjum, Series Editor of TBASS and founder of Kitaab. ‘TBASS tries to represent the best of Asian voices, and we are specially keen to provide a literary platform to emerging, new voices from the region.  The sheer writing talent that we have gathered in this volume is a testament to Asia’s creative fecundity.’

Winners: 

  1. Rakhshanda Jalil (India) Story title: ‘Diamonds are Forever’
  2. Aditi Mehrotra (India) Story title: ‘Don’t Ask! Poocho mat!’ aditi.mehrotra@hotmail.com
  3. Martin Bradley (Malaysia; originally UK) Story title: ‘Bougainvillea’ martinabradley@gmail.com
  4. Also, Avery Udagawa (Thailand; originally US) Story title: ‘Festival Time.’ Translation of Japanese writer Mogami Ippei. She is working on the translation rights. averyudagawa@yahoo.com

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Book Review: Elixir by Sinjini Sengupta

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.

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Book excerpt: The Driftwood by Pratima Srivastava

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 ….

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Book Review: The Wounds of the Dead by Vikram Paralkar

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.

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April 2018 bestseller lists from China: Young readers cheer a celebrity-powered World Book Day

(From Publishing Perspectives)

Our colleagues at OpenBook in Beijing and Trajectory in Boston point out that although Yu Hua’s To Live claimed the No. 1 spot on China’s Overall Fiction list for April, the two titles that follow it are warhorses of the market’s bestseller lists—both from outside China.

OpenBook’s analysis of the strong positioning for Yu Hua’s work points to a particularly robust World Book Day program in China on the 23rd of April.

As it happens, an 18-year-old celebrity named Yi YanQianXi—Jackson Yee to English-language fans—took to his Weibo social media channel to recommend the author’s To Live. Yee may be a book’s best friend: when he appealed for more reviews of the book, some 100 other celebrities jumped in, and more than 2 million followers were quickly following.

Before the activity was over, author Yu Hua had written a public message to Yi YanQianXi, addressing the generation of Chinese citizens he writes about, saying, in part, “You are a unique generation. You are in a period where the future has come and the past has not yet passed.”

The 57-year-old Yu Hua has at times written what’s described as postmodern Chinese fiction, sometimes with elements of magical realism, stories of young people in various eras, particularly building the context of small people in great times and their importance in society and culture. Yu Hua’s work supports the idea that the young Chinese citizens of today will be the leading consumers of pure literature in the future.

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Book Review: Ladders Against the Sky by Murli Melwani

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.

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Essay: “The afternoon wind comes and goes between India and Brazil” – A new literary dialogue through 100 Great Indian Poems in Portuguese

By Prof Dilip Loundo

100 Great Indian Poems

 

In the journal of her trip to India in 1953, the Brazilian poet Cecília Meireles writes: ‘As paradoxical as it may seem, it is easier to understand the East (India) by knowing Brazil, whose problems are curiously similar (struggle for the affirmation of nationality, urgency to adapt to international circumstances, use of wealth, racial setbacks, economic consolidation, education plans), except for their respective ages and the date of their independence[i]. By exploring the potential territory of dialogue that is represented by the poet’s intuition, we witness a fascinating situation. Brazil and India are complex societies with a large territory and population and these countries are regarded, from the historical point of view, as antipodes in birth: India, one of the oldest civilizations of humanity and Brazil, one of the youngest. At the same time, they present a remarkable common characteristic: a content of unity that articulates, intrinsically and organically, a cultural diversity. In other words, they are societies that have two fundamental implications: (i) a dynamic of inclusiveness, a cultural permeability that is, at the same time, matrix of genetic constitution and matrix of historical interaction with external agents; (ii) a dynamic of the imaginary, as an essential structure of articulation of the cultural diversities that confers plasticity and iconographic profusion. This underlies, on the one hand, a postcolonial environment relatively immune to the Cartesian-Enlightenment rationality and, on the other hand, a natural disposition for intercultural dialogue, which emerges as a spontaneity that reinforces and guarantees the continuity and survival of a civilization.

It is within the scope of literature, a privileged sphere of sense building, that the potential of Brazil-India dialogue reaches its most exuberant expression. Although clearly unsystematic, this dialogue registers significant events, both with regard to the presence of Brazilian literature in India[ii] and, especially, with regard to the presence of written and oral sources of Indian literature in Brazil. With respect to the latter, we can identify, initially, a level of predominantly oral subconscious presence, represented by the incorporation of the Indian narratives of the Pañcatantra in the popular folklore of the Brazilian northeast[iii]. Another level, of a more conscious  and written character, is represented by an extensive group of Brazilian authors who, through the most diverse and distinct regions of Brazil, came into contact with the ancient literature of the Vedas, Upaniṣads, Vedānta, Yoga, and Buddhist sutras, and the contemporary literature of key personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. This is the case of Cruz e Souza, Augusto dos Anjos, Machado de Assis, Guimarães Rosa and the modernist writers associated with the Festa group, in which Cecília Meireles stands out, whose philosophical lyric is fundamentally constructed in the light of a sui generis with Indian spiritual sources[iv].

It is in this context, therefore, of the enrichment of the still incipient dialogue between Brazil and India in the sphere of literature, that the importance of the translation of 100 Great Indian Poems (Bloomsbury India, 2018), edited by Abhay K. into Portuguese titled 100 Grandes Poemas da Índia stands out. Abhay K. is an Indian poet-diplomat currently based in Brasilia who has received SAARC Literary Award 2013 for his contribution to the South Asian poetry. He has also edited CAPITALS, a poetry anthology on the capital cities of the world and has published six collections of poems. 100 Grandes Poemas da Índia, has been published as a special edition of Cadernos de Literatura em Tradução, a reputed journal of literature in translation by the University of São Paulo. This edition is entirely devoted to Indian poetry. It is undoubtedly a very important contribution to the cultural dialogue between Brazil and India and a unique opportunity for a radical encounter with the multiple facets of the civilizing soul of the Indian subcontinent and its cultural, social and religious expressions.

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