Reviewed by Sheila Kumar

A Faceless Evening

Title: A Faceless evening and other stories
Author: Gangadhar Gadgil
Translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra
Publisher: Ratna Books
Pages: 201
Price: Rs 299

 

Of the human condition…

Fourteen evocative short stories by the Marathi master

Gangadhar Gadgil carved a niche for himself in Marathi literature decades ago and is a known name to those who read translations but is yet unknown to scores of other readers. Ratna Books and translator Keerti Ramachandra have rectified that omission with this book – A Faceless Evening and Other Stories.

In this book, Gadgil runs the gamut of human emotions and the human condition. Life plays out in full intensity on these pages, each story a microcosm of people like us, people unlike us. A couple travelling in a train are locked in a bittersweet battle for emotional control. Ten years ago, she was a toy to him, now a shackle. On her part, hatred raises its hood, poised to strike, before pragmatism overcomes both of them. And so the journey continues, just as the deadlock between the two continues.

There is Bandu (a favourite character of the writer) is desirous of getting himself a new umbrella, but his luck with brollies has never been good. Plastic handles come off in his hand; old umbrellas shower rat droppings, dead roaches and such detritus on his unsuspecting head; umbrellas with wooden shafts just refuse to open, leading to unseemly struggles. Then he buys a stainless steel one that he can ill afford, but soon, one cloud tells another of his new acquisition and Bandu is given no opportunity to use the dratted umbrella.

There is a take that lays bare the politics of a joint family with all its attendant drama: the shrewish mother-in-law, the faintly sinister father-in-law, the victimised elder sister-in-law, the conniving younger sister-in-law and the narrator, a cheerful bahu of the house. Things reach a flashpoint but like all domestic crises, this one too blows over and the members of the family prepare to face another day and take things as they come.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Bit of Earth

Title: A Bit of Earth
Author: Suchen Christine Lim
Publisher: Times Marshall-Cavendish, Singapore, 2001
Pages: 420
Price: S$21.40
ISBN: 9812321233

A Bit of Earth is a multi-layered novel by Suchen Christine Lim that explores the history of Malaya under the British regime. The saga stretches from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The protagonist, Wong Tuck Heng, journeys from being a poor, hounded immigrant to a rich towkay, a big boss in local parlance, guided by the principle that helped him achieve his dream of growing into a rich and honoured man. He states his viewpoint, ‘Land and properties, you can lose. But if you lose your spirit, then you lose the very thing that makes us human. Courage and loyalty. That’s part of our spirit as human beings…’

We first see Wong in 1874, a teenager on the run with a price on his head, chased out of his homeland Sum Hor in Canton Prefecture, by the Manchu rulers. He considers the Manchus as invaders and intruders into China; the Manchus had wiped out his entire family, loyalists of the preceding Ming dynasty, as rebels. The saga starts with Wong landing in Malaya after a perilous journey, saved by loyalists and brave supporters from the clan of White Cranes. He finds work in the tin mines of Malaya and struggles to become rich. He acquires two wives, a Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese) wife and a Chinese one from the mainland, chosen by his foster mother Wong-soh. His Nyonya wife is thrust upon him by the wealthy Wee family that his foster father married into to upscale himself in wealth and power, after disowning his earlier wife, Wong-soh.

There is a splattering of colourful Chinese, Malay, Indian and British characters in the story with a close look at the Baba culture, an intrinsic part of Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Wong gives a description of this culture to his son as he talks of his first wife’s family: ‘Your mother’s family is Baba. They’re like the Monkey King. Their ancestors left China and settled in this country a hundred, maybe two hundred years ago. Maybe longer. Married local women and adapted to the life here. They can change themselves seven times seven like the Monkey King. When the Malays were powerful, the Babas spoke Malay, wore Malay clothes and hungered for Malay titles. Then the English barbarians came. The English were more powerful than the Malay kings. So, your mother’s family changed again. They learned to speak English and do things the English way.’

By Jhilmil Breckenridge 

Frazil

Title: Frazil
Author: Menka Shivdasani
Publisher: Paperwall Media
Pages: 154
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According to the dictionary, ‘frazil’ is the soft, needle-like ice on top of lakes and rivers that are too turbulent to freeze. Living in Lancashire, near the lakes, I often see this. Thanks to Menka Shivdasani’s new collection, Frazil, I now have a word for them. The poems in Frazil are a lot like the needle-like ice, glittering and beautiful on the surface but hiding angst within. Her unusual imagery allows you to see the world forever altered while her humour lurks, teasing.

Shivdasani’s wry look at women, their worth as defined by breasts and ovaries, in the poem, ‘The Whole Deal, states, “It takes much to know the burning coal / that lay inside of you / is now a charred and empty space / and the river is no longer red.” Much of this collection, spanning 37 years from 1980 to 2017, speaks of love, desire, sex, and issues that concern many women, but her keen mind also writes, with sarcasm, on religion, eating fish, bees, the ethics of killing animals for our own pleasure, and of course, as with many poets, death – there are a lot of death poems in Frazil.

‘Bees’, for instance, mulls over the beehive adjoining her own home, sharing the same wall, and ends with, “Now I carry their sweetness squeezed into a jar, / alone again, except for that one queen bee / who keeps flapping about / wondering where her home disappeared.” Poetry is often political and Menka Shivdasani’s politics is displayed clearly and openly in her work, be it talking of how a bee’s home is as important as ours, or in ‘What We Do To Our Gods’: “… we serve death on our dining tables / and the taste on our tongues is great.”

By Shelly Bhoil

Bhuchung D Sonam

Photo credit: Tenzin Sangmo Dharamsala

Poet, translator Bhuchung D. Sonam is the author of four books, including Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film & Politics and Songs of the Arrow. He has edited Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry, and compiled and translated Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet. His writings are published in the Journal of Indian LiteratureHIMAL Southasian, Hindustan Times and Tibetan Review among others.

Burning the Sun’s Braids is Bhuchung Sonam’s most recent work, perhaps the first collection in English of new poetry from Tibet. This book provides an alternative view of Tibet where creative artists play a crucial role to assert their voice as well as to inspire the ordinary people to carry out resistance against an outside force.

Bhuchung Sonam’s permanent address was stolen.

 

Shelly: What a violent yet necessary, audacious yet logical, and unusual imagery of the burning of the pigtailed-sunrays in the title of your poetry anthology Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet! Can you throw some light on the title and also the intriguing cover of the book?

Bhuchung: The title of the book Burning the Sun’s Braids comes from the poem ‘Farewell Prostrations’ by Khawa Nyingchak who died at the age of twenty-six in 2015 while preventing Chinese poachers from killing endangered golden fishes from Kokonor Lake in eastern Tibet. The cover image is a painting titled ‘Two Spirits’ by Tsering Sherpa, a contemporary Tibetan artist based in California. I put them together to indicate the reality in Tibet today. Readers need to make their own interpretations and conclusions.

Shelly: As a bi-lingual book, Burning the Sun’s Braids accomplishes many things; not only does it cater to the Tibetan and English speaking readers but also reinforces the idea of rooting one’s identity in one’s home language, especially for the exile-born generation of Tibetans who have circumstantially drifted away from the Tibetan language. What was your idea behind translating poems into English from Tibetan?

Bhuchung: In an ideal world, I think, a work of art should not have any agenda or aim. But the world, as it is, is far from our dreams. This is even more so for people such as Tibetans living under occupation and as refugees away from their homes. For the third and fourth generation of Tibetans in exile who are growing far from their culture and language, I hope this bi-lingual book introduces what writers in Tibet are writing about and also inspires them to learn their language and strengthen their sense of identity.

The other goal is to get a wider audience for the poets from Tibet who have been suffering harassment, arrests and jail terms under China. I have immense respect for their courage and the least that I can do is to translate their work into a language that has, by and large, a global audience.

Shelly: The Tibetan language has undergone massive changes in the last few decades inside Tibet where a socialist ideology was introduced into it. In exile too, the Tibetan language had to be standardized in the schools for refugees who spoke different regional dialects. As I am told, the newcomer refugees (those who have come from Tibet in the last decade or so) and the born-refugees (those who were born in India to exiled parents) speak in a language which is mutually intelligible but not necessarily the same. Did you confront any issues of variations in the Tibetan language of the poems from what is standardized in the exile community, and the problem of the un-translatability of certain Tibetan nuances into English? If yes, how did you deal with these? Could you illustrate with an example or two?

Reviewed by Ranga Chandrarathne

Lullaby_cover (1)

Title: Lullaby of the Ever-Returning
Author: Sarabjeet Garcha
Publisher: Paperwall Media & Publishing Pvt. Ltd
Pages: 74
Price: INR 200/-

 

Sarabjeet Garcha’s poetry collection titled Lullaby of the Ever-Returning is, in essence, a masterly exploration of universal themes coloured by cultural conditioning and geography. It gives the book a universal appeal, while at the same time codifying the unique culture of the soil.

Love is a recurrent theme in the book, a theme which is craftily manifested not only in a finely woven tapestry of poetry but also in prose which belongs at one level to the exclusive cultural experiences of the Sikh community and at another to the entire humanity. Both in the pieces of prose and in poetry, what Sarabjeet encapsulates is the multifaceted-ness of love beautified and made colourful by the powerful human agent. Although love is a universal experience, it has been aesthetically situated in the Sikh culture, adding a unique cultural dimension to it yet preserving its universal character.

A significant aspect of love in Sarabjeet’s work is the portrayal of its social manifestation, by and large defined by the moral codes of a given society. The poet amply manifests and reinforces the universal adage that a writer or a poet cannot afford to be universal without being local or without being firmly rooted in one’s own culture. The contours of the poet’s discourse of love are defined by a diction enriched with powerful metaphors and imagery masterly employed in the poems and in the pieces of prose in the collection. It is a literary feast that one would partake with delight.

Your Handwriting
for Sudhanshu

the silt of
an ink river

rolling into

a relic chamber
painted with

the heart’s hieroglyphs
the soul’s trompe l’oeil

The poem is dedicated to his friend and the nostalgia is reawakened through the lines of a link, obviously written in his handwriting. It is not just the feeling of love, but something much deeper than that. On the one hand, the poem is dedicated to someone’s handwriting and, on the other, it hits out at the destiny that unfolds layer by layer before us. The changes would happen for the good. The poem is marked for its brevity of expression and the metaphor-rich language.

Why I am a Hindu

Pages 24-27

…. When Buddhism sought to reform Hinduism, Hinduism turned around and sought to absorb it too, by including the Buddha as a reincarnation of Vishnu and his agnostic teachings as merely a nastika form of the mother faith. As a result Buddhism has hardly any strength or presence in the land of its birth, having been absorbed and overtaken by the religion it sought to challenge. Hinduism could well have tried the same with Christianity and Islam, too, had it been allowed to do so; but these faiths were not interested in being embraced by Hinduism, since they saw themselves as the revealed Truth rather than as one among multiple versions of truth.

Hinduism is also unusual in seeing God, Man and the universe as co-related. As the philosopher Raimon Panikkar has explained, in Hindu thought, God without Man is nothing, literally ‘no-thing’; Man without God is just a ‘thing’, without meaning or larger purpose; and the universe without Man or God is ‘any-thing’, sheer unexisting chaos. In Panikkar’s explanation, nothing separates Man from God; ‘there is neither intermediary nor barrier between them’. So Hindu prayers mix the sacred with the profane: a Hindu can ask God for anything. Among the tens of thousands of sacred verses and hymns in the Hindu scriptures are a merchant’s prayer for wealth, a bankrupt’s plea to the divine to free him of debt, verses extolling the union of a man with a woman, and even the lament of a rueful (and luckless) gambler asking God to help him shake his addiction. Prayer and worship, for the Hindu, are thus not purely spiritual exercises: they enhance the quality of his life in the material world, in the here and now.

 GANESH, MY ISHTA-DEVTA

Hindus are often asked, during certain ritual prayers, to imagine their ishta-devta, their personal God, or rather that way of imagining the abstraction of the Absolute in an anthropomorphic form that most appeals to them. I pick Ganesh, or Ganapathi, as we prefer to call him in the South, myself, not because I believe God looks like Him, but because of the myriad aspects of the godhead, the ones He represents appeal most to me.

Om maha Ganapathe namaha,
sarva vignoba shantaye,
Om Ganeshaya namaha…

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Louisiana Catch

Title: Louisiana Catch
Author: Sweta Srivastava Vikram
Publisher: Modern History Press
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Sweta Srivastava Vikram couldn’t have written Louisiana Catch at a better time. Across the world, women’s resistance is marching on a stronger footing than ever before. To rephrase the title of an Indian poet’s recent collection, more and more girls are coming out of the cages – self-erected or societal – to make themselves heard on sexual exploitation. Social media networks have provided grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter, the women’s march to Washington and the recent Me too campaign the potency of exponential outreach. Ahana Chopra, the young protagonist of Vikram’s novel lends a credible face to this epoch of evolution in the women’s movement with her story of survival and comeback.

For Ahana, the stakes are high from the get go. As if her recent divorce from a decade-long abusive marriage weren’t enough, her mettle would be further tested with her mother’s sudden death. This double whammy notwithstanding, she must carry on – with life and with No Excuse, her passion project that gets accepted as the main theme for an annual women’s conference in New Orleans. No Excuse also serves as the fulcrum around which Vikram pivots her novel. The aim of the campaign is as straightforward as its name – to make sexual abuse unacceptable, no matter the excuse.

On a personal level – and this is the parallel track on which Louisiana Catch runs – Ahana joins an online therapy group to cope with the grief of her mother’s loss. The group brings her closer to people dealing with emotional trauma. One of them is Jay Dubois from New Orleans, who is also grieving his mother’s death. Ahana and Jay strike an immediate bond, brought closer by their loss and also their mutual admiration for J.D. Salinger.