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.

Missing

I.

‘I think I’ve found the missing girl at last.’

Because we forget that even words have childhoods, Nayan cannot be sure that he has heard it right. Then the phone line goes blank—it might have choked on his silence, or it might have been Kabir’s tempestuous indifference to the listener. Whatever it is, it is no longer new, his son’s disappearance for days, sometimes weeks, his unpredictable resurfacing before his restless migration into silence again.

But he had, at least, called. Kabir’s mother hadn’t even done that.

The silence had begun to seem like an accident.

›There was someone at the door. A snatch of a bhatiali in a trained voice, a trail of toe steps, knocking that turned the door into a temporary percussion instrument. It could only be one man.

‘Bimal-da?’

‘Who else?’ came the reply. ‘Who else comes like a cheque past its expiry date?’

Heavy slippers, their underside pimply with screechy wet sand, fell gently on to the floor.

‘You won’t change your habits, Dada. Look at the darkness in this room. Why do you live your life as if it was a permanent funeral?’

Nayan smiled. He enjoyed allowing this old man his rehearsal of taunts.

And then it struck Bimal-da. He had forgotten it again. The sudden rush of guilt turned his mind into a bird at midday, looking for darkness. ‘Sorry,’ he said, relying on the foreignness of the word to give his apology some weight.

Nayan smiled. Or Bimal-da imagined that he did. His eyes moved to the sad piece of bread on the white plate in front of Nayan. Why the rich preferred funereal white crockery was something he would never understand.

‘Your food. It’s getting cold,’ he said. That is one thing that the blind shared with the deaf—both cannot sense their food growing cold. Bimal-da touched his old glasses, the thing that connected his eyes to his ears, and he said his prayers of gratitude: he was poor, always hungry, but he was, at least, not blind. What use was all the wealth to Nayan if he could not see it? For wasn’t that what riches meant—an exhibition to the eye?

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.