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Book review: Revolt of the Lamebren by Manjiri Prabhu

Reviewed by Monideepa Sahu

Revolt of the Lamebren

Title: Revolt of the Lamebren
Author: Manjiri Prabhu
Publisher: Readomania
Pages:  302

 

Popular Indian mystery author Manjiri Prabhu successfully forays into the dystopian domain with this first part of a proposed series. Imaginative and fast-paced, the story takes us into a disturbing future we might end up creating for our descendants if we are not alert and aware right now. This novel has all the elements of a well-written and entertaining page turner, with enough action and dramatic tension. There is also a thoughtful core, brought out with a light and unobtrusive touch, to draw readers out of their complacency.

The idea for this tale was inspired by a true incident which the author witnessed in her home city of Pune. Some years ago, the municipal authorities were rounding up stray dogs. The author couldn’t help notice how mothers were cruelly torn apart from their puppies. Even a few dogs with collars were caught, simply because they were roaming unattended on the streets. Prabhu was struck by a small boy, dressed in adult style clothes, who smirked with sadistic glee as he watched the dogs crying in pain and suffering. Was this where humanity was headed, she wondered.

In the world of the Super Dome, the privileged Altklugs maintain their superiority over the systematically subjugated Lamebren. Altklugs don’t earn their knowledge and status. All the knowledge of the world gets effortlessly crammed into their heads through capsules which only they get from the K Bank. The Lamebren are denied this and treated as menials and expendables. They are rounded up and summarily liquidated at the whims of their superiors, just like the stray dogs are dispatched to a cruel fate in today’s world.

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With rice stems in her hair

(By Keki N. Daruwala. From The Hindu. Link to the complete article given below)

Glorious autumn! Even Delhi becomes pleasant in this season of amber, never mind the political shenanigans. Forget them. Think of flowers — white-petalled harsingar, also known as night jasmine or parijat, and that flower which sprouts on alstonia scholaris, the tree from which blackboards are made, and pencils. Its fragrance is heavenly. Indian poets went wild this season, once the 10 heads of Ravana were burnt with fiery arrows, the feats of Hanuman recorded, and the Chalisa sung. Now the stage was set, with the sugarcane ripe for the sickle, rivers and streams shrinking, water fowl descending on sand banks, farmers building machaans to keep wild boar and monkey from the crops. Poetry couldn’t have asked for a better setting.

Living nature

The Sanskrit poets, bound to their rigid traditions, left their amours and all the romantic wrestling with rain-wet women to the months of Sawan and Bhado. Sadly, autumn poetry was devoid of sex. For poetry in the months of Ashwin and Kartik, we need to turn to the great man, the author of Meghaduta himself.

Read more at The Hindu link here


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Book Review: Feast – Food of the Islamic World by Anissa Helou

Food of the Islamic WorldTitle: Feast – Food of the Islamic World
Author: Anissa Helou
Publisher: Ecco (29 May 2018)
Pages: 544 (Hardcover)

Reviewed by Shabana Zahoor

How do you feel when you get your eager hands on a multi-cuisine cookbook on Islamic worlds? The food which nourishes the soul, binds the family, brings smiles to friends and gives that moment of enlightenment that life is good.

This is exactly how I felt when I got a notification from my beloved library that my reserved item – Feast: Food of the Islamic World– had arrived and was ready for pick up. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I tucked my three-year old toddler into the pram and rushed to the library to lay my hands on this beautifully wrapped tome (the library had put a transparent cover to it to keep it neat), with its thoughtfully listed recipe after recipe.

At the beginning, this book by Arissa Helou, a London based chef and cookbook writer who specialises in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and North African cuisines, seemed overwhelming, but slowly it took me to a serene, calm journey of soulful food intertwined with equally beautiful snippets of Islamic food history here and there. As you read along, you discover that it is not just a recipe book but a food journey in itself. You travel from street to street, country to country whiffing the best of the gastronomic smells wrapped in magic cloaks. Some you can imagine, some are like friends you befriend at first sight and invite over to your place to have a lovely chat over chai.

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Book review: Indian Nationalism – The Essential Writings, ed. S. Irfan Habib

A review essay by Dr Kamalakar Bhat

Indian Nationalism

Title: Indian Nationalism — The Essential Writings
Editor: S. Irfan Habib
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2017)
Pages: 285
Price: INR 499 (Hardbound)

They used to say when history repeats itself, it becomes a farce. Well, history seems to have a way of throwing irony at us. At least that is what I imagine those commentators would feel who announced the last rites of the concept of nationalism with glee in the last decades of the previous century, amid the oft repeated phrase of globalization. While 20th century saw the rise of nationalism in the first half, it also saw its waning hold towards the turn of the century; many saw globalization as having sent nationalism to the side wings of the world theatre, but come 21st century, and nationalism is back on the centre stage with a vengeance.

The use of the word ‘vengeance’ is perhaps far from being fortuitous at the beginning of a review of a book on Indian nationalism. It is this side of nationalism, the angry, militant, violent side that has been its manifestation in India recently, and as the quotes on the cover page of this book signify, that seems to be the immediate context that has engendered the publication of this book. Readers need only to take a look at its cover page which prominently displays Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, ‘Is hatred essential to Nationalism?’ to understand the raison d’être that has occasioned it. The prefatory note begins by alluding precisely to this context – words that stand out in the first two sentences are: ‘hyper-nationalism’, ‘shrieks’, ‘frenzy’, ‘threatening’, and ‘tear apart’. The contemporary public discourse in India, surfeit with strident, insistent and persistent debates surrounding nationalism are surely the reason this book has been conceived and designed the way it has been. We have today a generation that is ready to go ballistic over nationalism, raise its emotional and nuisance quotient very high in defence of just the word with very little meaning, intent or content attached to the idea behind it. Perhaps it is to remind this generation of ‘nationalists’ that the book provides an account of the history of the idea in India and its various shades as it developed during the era that nation itself was in the making.

It is true that even the earliest theorizations of nationalism refer to the positive and the negative sides of this political concept. And this schismatic view runs through the entire history of scholarly attention to this idea. Every kind of duality may be found attributed to the idea – whether about its nature or meaning. Thus, we have good and bad nationalism, Western and Eastern nationalism, nationalisms of the oppressors and the oppressed, original and pirate, liberal and illiberal, civic and ethnic, etc. The grounds on which these classifications are made are different but in much of the scholarship on nationalism, an urge to employ a schismatic view is common. Such classical experts on nationalism as Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, Ernest Gellner, Horace B. Davis and Eric Hobsbawm have all seen in nationalism some sort of ‘Janus Face’. Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman in their book Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, list thirteen contrasting distinctions to be found in the literature on nationalism. This book too, through its paratext, the essays included and the sections under which these are arranged reminds the readers that one can’t take the idea of nationalism as an unquestionably noble value (as some news anchors are wont to assert), or as a naturally beneficial and benevolent idea. Irfan Habib, noted historian, who has edited this timely collection of essays on “Indian Nationalism”, points out at the outset that nationalism is a double-edged sword which ‘…can be a binding force or a deeply divisive instrument used to cause strife around political, cultural, linguistic or more importantly, religious identities.’ If our polity had better use of its memory then, one doubts whether after the horrors unleashed by parochial nationalism at the dawn of independence, we would have ever allowed it to resurface and resurge.

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Book review: Shillong Times – A Story of Friendship and Fear by Nilanjan P. Choudhury

Reviewed by Ananya S. Guha

Shillong Times

Title: Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear
Author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018)
Pages: 237

Nilanjan Choudhury’s novel Shillong Times, as the subtitle suggests, is a ‘story of friendship and fear’. Friendship’s association with ‘fear’, then, seems to be a thematic focus.

Set against the backdrop of Shillong in the volatile times of the 1980s, the novel is an addition to what is now turning out to be a fairly long list of fiction, including short stories which revolve around this town. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head, Siddartha Deb’s The Point of Return and Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land come readily to mind.

Choudhury, however, builds a more conscious landscape than the others to take us to the world of his fourteen year old protagonist Debojit Dutta, who in Blakeian terms leaves his ‘innocence’ behind to ‘experience’ his new found world, thanks to his friendship with two other teenagers, Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh and the empathetic Audrey Pariat. It is the former who introduces Debojit Dutta, when they meet in mathematics tuition classes, to the world of Pink Floyd and the out-of-bounds restaurant Kalsang.

I mentioned the volatile times of the eighties that forms the backdrop of the novel. Choudhury poignantly interfuses community relations (tribal and non tribal, the Bengali superiority syndrome, the Sylheti speaking Bengalis and the Calcutta Bengalis, etc.) with personal ones. Yet these personal friendships are among teenagers, which their adult counterparts or forebears seem to look askance at. Debojit’s mother reprimands him for this, so does his school teacher (lampooned effectively) Mr. Chakravarty. Clint’s father refuses to help in getting the trading licence of Debojit’s father renewed, although he saves him in a potentially violent squabble.

As ethnic tensions rise in the town of Shillong, resulting also in conflict of relations between Debojit and Clint (thanks also to the meddlesome Mr. Chakravarty), Debojit’s parents contemplate shifting to Calcutta and remove him to a school in Calcutta despite his protestations. Debojit also suffers taunts from his locality members for befriending a tribal, a Khasi. All this while, the petite Audrey plays a quiet mediating role, playing across the broken friendship of Debojit and Clint and building bridges.

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Book Review: Crow Dusk – Poems by Mark Floyer

Reviewed by Rajat Chaudhuri

Mark Floyer Crow Dusk

Crow Dusk – Mark Floyer

 

Title: Crow Dusk
Author: Mark Floyer
Publisher: Paekakariki Press (London, 2017)
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Lilting Bengali melodies drift out of its pages. A crackle of old transistor radios animates the backdrop of ayahs, chowkidars and mosquito nets as crows descend for shelter amongst the banyans of a tropical night. Crow Dusk (Paekakariki Press), Mark Floyer’s collection of poems about Calcutta, the city where he spent his early childhood, is replete with images, sounds, smells and reflections about a place, a people and a country which is intricately woven into the fabric of his life and that of his ancestors.

Floyers great, great, great grandfather was John Shore, Governor General of Bengal (1793-1797) succeeding Cornwallis, who also became President of the Asiatic Society. Shore was a close friend of William Jones. The poet of Crow Dusk, while mentioning his ancestor in conversations, characterises him as ‘obscure’, perhaps rightly so, in contrast to his predecessor Cornwallis. However, in his well-crafted poems Floyer, who cites Arun Kolatkar as a major influence, casts the centuries old association of his family with India and the region as a backdrop for the evocations of boyhood and his renewed engagement with the city of Calcutta.

Half of his Calcutta poems are about his memories of the city, his home here and his family and the other half is about his return to find how it has changed. In the eponymous Crow Dusk, the poet writes,

And always crows
suspended high on rooftops and telephone wires
gathering to croak their dusk chorus

                                                                                          kaaa kaaa

their black hoods
silhouetted against the purple disc of the sun. …

 

Sights, sounds and smells of this Calcutta of the late 1950s come alive in these carefully crafted imagist poems which surprise us with their sharp remembrances, distanced as they are by the smoke and dust of five and a half decades. This digging into the past is never an easy task as he alludes to in the poem Underwater, ‘I probe my diver’s torch for the rusting detritus of memories’.

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Book review: Eleventh Hour by S. Hussain Zaidi

Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

Eleventh Hour

Title: Eleventh Hour
Author: S. Hussain Zaidi
Publisher: HarperCollins (2018)
Pages: (Paperback) 256

In the movie Tiranga, the popcorn thriller which had managed to polarise its critics and eventually gain cult status based solely on television reruns and pirated DVDs, Raj Kumar tells his enemies, ‘Just like my bullets, my tongue also talks straight with my enemies,’ thus setting a precedence for years of patriotic thrillers to come, complete with the same template of over the top villains and an honest-to-a-fault patriotic protagonist. While Bollywood has faithfully followed this template for the next decade or so, Indian literature has forayed into the world of such thrillers only recently but has quickly followed up in the footsteps of the visual medium to deliver stylish and taut, if entirely implausible stories of armies and soldiers engaged in battle with almost melodramatic but invisible enemies.

S. Hussain Zaidi manages to steer his story clear of the comedic element of thrillers in his latest book, Eleventh Hour. His writing reflects his experience as a veteran journalist; it is trimmed down to perfection and maintains a pace that makes the book unputdownable. Usually the problem with any thriller is that either the plot gives away too much at an early stage, thus making the rest of the book clichéd, or it starts too slow and results in the reader losing patience. This book is delightfully balanced. The author drives the narrative at his own comfortable speed, giving us an insight into both the tragedies of the past and the obvious danger looming over the present. He also makes use of his knowledge of the places that he has chosen for his story, describing each location with precise details, whether it’s the streets and slums of Bombay or the luxurious confines of a hijacked cruise ship. At various points throughout the book, the reader has to pause and take in the accuracy of the plot, starting from the internal workings of various bureaucratic, anti-terrorism agencies to the murmuring world of Bombay’s underworld. The panic and paranoia of a post 26/11 city still reeling from the feelings of being held hostage by the unknown forces of terrorism are depicted in their visceral entirety and become the driving force behind the main narrative.

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First You Write a Sentence by Joe Moran review – how good writing makes sense of the world

(From The Guardian. Link to the complete article given below)

On the first page of this book, Joe Moran quotes Gustave Flaubert’s claim (in a letter to his lover, Louise Colet) that his mind is always “itching” with sentences. Flaubert is Moran’s natural literary authority, because for him literature was style, and style came down to the shape and wording of sentences. Later interpreters might read Madame Bovary as an anatomy of sexual hypocrisy or class conflict or the pains of bourgeois marriage, but what the novelist really cared about were its sentences – their rhythm, their wit, their beauty.

Moran shares Flaubert’s values. His book recommends the pleasures of the well-made sentence, to writers and readers. For both, the sentence is the essential unit of expression. Moran remembers the Struldbruggs, the cursed immortals in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, who as they age lose even the solace of reading, “because their Memory will not serve to carry them from the Beginning of a Sentence to the End”. A sentence is what you hold in your head, whether it be Ernest Hemingway or Marcel Proust. A sentence is where you make sense of the world.

Moran says he wants to “hearten, embolden and galvanise the reader”, in order that he or she, as a writer, should take pains over making sentences. He does not want to call his book a style guide, a genre he associates with “prescriptions and proscriptions”. It is, rather, “a style guide by stealth”, “a love letter to the sentence”. It offers us bracing – and often sententious – sentences. “A good sentence gives order to our thoughts and takes us out of our solitudes … A sentence should feel alive, but not stupidly hyperactive.” Moran suggests good habits. He tells us to love verbs and to go easy with nouns, to “cut syllables where you can”, to think about ending a sentence on a stressed syllable, to alternate short and long sentences.

Read more at The Guardian link here


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Book review: The Boat People by Sharon Bala

Reviewed by Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan 

The Boat People

 

Title: The Boat People
Author: Sharon Bala
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 332
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In the world of the privileged, one is inundated with a plethora of choices – what to eat, what to wear, where to study, where to work, how to go to work, where to travel… each second, we unconsciously make decisions, choosing the best amongst the options available to us. It has become so ingrained in our psyche that we take choice for granted. What if you did not have a choice? Sharon Bala’s debut novel The Boat People examines this haunting question.

The book draws inspiration from an incident in 2010 where a Thai cargo ship named ‘MV Sun Sea’ docked at the coast of British Columbia, carrying on board nearly 500 Sri Lankan refugees. In the land of the free, the refugees aboard the ship found themselves suspected of terrorism, having forged ties with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and detained. Having fled the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka, Bala’s protagonist Mahindan finds himself in frosty Vancouver with precisely this fate awaiting him.

While Mahindan is in the detention centre, his six-year-old son is taken away from him, and placed with a foster family. Priya, a law student of Tamil origin, finds herself embroiled in proving Mahindan’s innocence to the law and in the process unearths some dark secrets within her own family. Bala also weaves the internment of Canadian citizens of Japanese origin during the Second World War into her tapestry through Grace Nakamura, a government appointed adjudicator with the Refugee Board. Grace, previously with the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, is inexperienced in refugee law and has a bias against the refugees, partly due to the stand taken by her boss, a government minister. As she struggles with the burden of deciding the fate of Mahindan and others like him, her own mother who is battling early rounds of Alzheimer’s’, reminds her of the injustice meted out to Japanese-Canadian citizens during the war. Cruelly reminded that they were ‘aliens’, with slogans such as, ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the Seas’ openly chanted, the Japanese-Canadians were treated with suspicion and regarded as a threat to the harmony of the state until proven innocent. Kumi, Grace’s mother, slowly witnesses her own mind unravelling, and yet holding on to the strings of the past, she reminds Grace not to inflict upon people a gross injustice that had once been inflicted on her own ancestors.

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Book Review: Karno’s Daughter by Rimli Sengupta

Reviewed by Suneetha Balakrishnan

Karno's Daughter

Title: Karno’s Daughter
Author: Rimli Sengupta
Pages: (Hardcover) 172
Publisher: Context (2018)
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Remember Baby Haldar’s gritty dark memoir of a domestic servant in Delhi, A Life Less Ordinary? If Baby narrated her dark journey from Kashmir to Murshidabad to Durgapur to Delhi, here is ‘Buttermilk’ in Kolkata making a daily commute on the 5.40 a.m. local from Subhashgram to ‘the city’. She goes round on foot then to Tollygunge and to Ballygunge to do kitchen, laundry and cleaning services at half a dozen homes. Why is she called Buttermilk? You get to know when it’s just six more pages to wrap up the book.

Buttermilk hails from a village in Sunderbans, from a farming family. She has a non-maid life back home where Karno Haldar, (yes, another Haldar by pure coincidence) her father, Bashona, her mother, and Buttermilk’s six siblings and her paternal grandparents lived. The village of her marital home, a joint family where agrarian duties are divided, comes later. Karno migrated to the city to pay off a loss of 150 kilos of rice; that’s how the family came to live at Ponchanontola, a Kolkata slum – all because of a crab, a huge crab, that Buttermilk had caught and brought home. This is the story that opens Rimli Sengupta’s debut book, Karno’s Daughter.

The opening chapter, suitably titled “Crab”, gives an impression of an opening in fiction. However, Karno’s Daughter is anything but fiction. It’s one of the best in narrative non-fiction that has been published in recent days in India. The story deals with the rough life of a people who have always lived in correlation to the earth, cultivating their own food.  In a world where hardly one percent of the urban population has an idea of what constitutes our agrarian crisis, Rimli Sengupta chooses an interesting vehicle to impart information on how small-holding rice farmers in rural Bengal subsist.

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