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Chinese workers in the snow constructing the first American transcontinental railways

In the 1860s, roughly 20,000 Chinese from the Guangdong province were shipped to America to labour at building the transcontinental railways. They came for the lure of gold. However, few of them moved outside their camp or learnt English. They faced a lot of hardships, breaking rocks and living for a pittance. What drove them there? What did they face? 

Author Gordon H. Chang  has uncovered the plight of these workers in his latest book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. Chang is Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford University. He has written a number of books on Asian-American history and US–East Asian interactions. 

Washington Independent Review of Books says Chang “ has dedicated himself to speaking for a group that cannot speak for itself, even in absentia. He’s dubbed them the ‘ghosts’ of his title because, while the work they did was about as tangible as it gets, their individual identities have evaporated.

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Book Review by Mitali Chakravarty

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Title: Billionaire Raj

Author: James Crabtree

Publisher: One World, 2018

Billionaire Raj by the former Financial Times Bureau chief in India, James Crabtree,  is a journalistic assessment of not only how the British Raj in India has been replaced by entrepreneurs and politicians who work symbiotically to create a close nexus of exclusive crony capitalism but also gives an optimistic outlook for the future… with a few strings attached.

The book comes across as a series of clear well-researched articles strung together thematically in logical order. From British Raj, India moved to ‘License Raj’, where a license was needed to start any venture. Once that was lifted, the age of billionaires sets in. He has compared this period to the Gilded Age of American history, an era in the nineteenth century of robber barons and rich bankers, just after the American Civil War.

Crabtree plunges in with stories of people he calls ‘Bollygarchs’, a new term which has evolved to define billionaire-entrepreneurs with Russian oligarchic tendencies like, Vijaya Mallya, Ambani and Adnani and more. The best way to understand the Bollygarchs is perhaps to imagine the flashy Bollywood culture (like that seen in the Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham) brought to life.

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

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Title: The Assassination of Indira Gandhi

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019

 

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019) is a collection of short stories on different themes and motifs by acclaimed writer Upamanyu Chatterjee. Winner of the prestigious Indian Sahitya Akademi Award and the French Officier des Arts et des Lettres, his debut novel, English August: An Indian Story, was  made into a highly successful film.

The title of his new book, The Assassination of Indira Gandhi, is at once striking, for it echoes a dark chapter in 20th  century history, the assassination of one of India’s most iconic prime ministers and the social tensions that followed within the country. The title aptly sets the tone for the stories that are a tour de force of the trials and tribulations of modern India’s journey. This assortment of twelve short stories covers diverse themes and settings, each one of them, delving into the issues that strike at the heart of  the emerging idea of India. 

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

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Title: Voice of the Runes – When Souls Connect, But Vengeance Speaks 
Author: Manjiri Prabhu
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2018.
Voice of the Runes begins with a vision and a death. The stage is set and readers plunge into the mystery even before they have seen Lund University, Sweden, the setting for Dr Manjiri Prabhu’s Nordic noir. The thriller brings back Re Parkar, the investigative journalist with the ability to sense things and chase visions. With him in this adventure is Magdalena Lindberg, Maddy, who assists him in tracing the messages the runes offer.

The story begins with Professor Heinz delivering his annual address to the university’s students a day before the university’s 350th year celebrations. He is a revered practitioner of runology – a controversial subject in an academic atmosphere that relies heavily on its scientific temperament; Maddy is his research assistant. As he delivers the lecture, he turns to a moment of drama, shuts his eyes and picks out a rune stone from his bag. The first kiss of stone and the professor collapses, suddenly, shockingly.

The stunned silence that follows will soon give way to chaos, suspicions, intrigue, arson, vandalism, treachery and deaths while Maddy interprets the clues in the runes for Re Parkar and they arrive closer and closer to the truth — a truth that will shock and unnerve the characters as well as the readers. Manjiri Prabhu delivers a masterstroke by bringing in this twist in the tale, firmly establishing the story’s emotional core.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

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Title: Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair

Author: Suzanne Kamata

Publisher:  Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2019

Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair by award-winning author Suzanne Kamata is more than just a memoir. It is a travelogue written by a mother about travelling with her disabled daughter, a manual on parenting, not only for a disabled child but also for a normal one, a heart-warming account of an expat well able to adjust and enjoy her life in a country where she was not born and an extensive guide to living cheerfully and with optimism despite hurdles.

Suzanne Kamata moved to Japan to teach English, fell in love and married a Japanese man. She gave birth to premature twins one of who suffers from cerebral palsy. Though Kamata’s daughter, Lilia, spends her life on a wheelchair, she loves travelling and dreamt of going to Paris. To realise her daughter’s dream, Kamata applied for a grant to travel to Paris and to write this book. She received a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation to fund her trip to Paris. In an earlier interview , Kamata explained that though for funding the writing of this book, she won the Half the Globe Literati Award in the novel category, her narrative is “actually a memoir”.

Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee

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Title: The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2018

Some book titles are a giveaway. Given the political climate in India today, with so many conversations centred on the subject of meat eating, one might be forgiven for assuming that The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh book, a novella, is a satirical take on contemporary India. In English August(1988), and in The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Chatterjee’s pen is acerbic, and educated-middle-class-privilege tipped, displaying a wit that wafts out of the 1970s generation in mainstream Delhi University. The temptation is to assume that Non-vegetarian presents more of the same. It does not. It is a sombre story, set in a small town (Batia) in early post-Independence India, and told with uncharacteristic restraint.

The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian features Agastya Sen’s father (who we met in English, August, writing peremptory letters to his ennui-stricken son), and hearkens back to an older milieu, both in terms of the frame, and in the person of Madhusudan Sen, ICS, sub-divisional magistrate in the small town of Batia. The murder of six people who Sen considers friends, or the murderer that sparks the tale of revenge, present little mystery. The suspense is built by the narrative that unfolds from the edges of the grim event and the role Sen plays in giving shape to it over a period in time with issues swiveling around death penalty. Unlike his spiritually dispirited son from the celebrated debut novel, in this somewhat less ambitious novella, Sen is self-possessed, intellectually restrained, committed to the world in which he enjoys the trappings of state power, and a steadfast friend.

Reviewed by Koi Kye Lee

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Title: Good Night Papa, Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere

Author: Simon Rowe

Pages:191

Publisher and date of publication: Atlas & Jones. Co (2016)

Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere is a collection of stories written by Simon Rowe. His stories have appeared in publications such as TIME Asia, The New York Times, The Australian, The South China Morning Post, among others. Rowe is currently teaching creative writing and media studies to English language learners at university level.

Born and raised in New Zealand and Australia, Rowe has lived in Japan for more than twenty years.  He writes from Himeji, a city in the Kansai region. The city is famous for the spectacular Himejijo, the Himeji Castle. Perched on a hilltop, the castle is also known as the White Heron Castle (Shirasagijo) due to its elegant, white appearance.

The title story in this collection, “Good Night Papa”, which was adapted for screenplay and subsequently won the Asian Short Screenplay Contest in the United States in 2013, is also set in Himeji.

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

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Title: That Bird Called Happiness – Stories
Author: Nabendu Ghosh; ed. Ratnottama Sengupta
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2018

Nabendu Ghosh was born in Dhaka, raised in Patna, then a part of the Bengal Presidency, moved to Calcutta in 1945. In 1947, India woke up to its ‘tryst with destiny’, but this destiny had two heads, creating a splintered sense of national identity and geographical boundaries. On the eastern side of the country, Bengal was divided not just by a line but also, unnaturally, by language. With Urdu imposed as the national language on a Bengali speaking population, books from West Bengal could not be sold in East Pakistan. By then Nabendu Ghosh was already a prominent voice in Bengali fiction.

In 1951, when Bimal Roy asked him to script movies that would become classics of Hindi cinema – Bandini, Abhimaan, Devdas, Sujata, among others, he moved to Bombay. Though these films were based on stories by other literary greats,  Nabendu Ghosh had already found his footing and the subjects that would preoccupy him in his own stories and novels: the social and political upheavals of the time, famine, Partition, riots, socio-cultural mores, and most significantly, love.

That Bird Called Happiness is a collection of translated stories of Nabendu Ghosh, edited by his daughter Ratnottama Sengupta, a national award-winning journalist, writer and film director. The nine stories in this collection are narratives of a newly formed nation, still nascent in its certainties and assurances, mindful of the social dogmas that were briefly subsumed by the larger ‘ism’ of nationalism. The writer’s stance is bold, reformist; it searches for language in which to explore the newness of thought, of an emerging nation-hood played out in individual lives, as in “The Path” and in social groupings as in “Full Circle”.

  • Reviewed by Eshadi Sharif (sourced by Bangladesh country editor Farah Ghuznavi)

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Title: It’s all Relative

Pages: 192

Publisher: Bengal Publications

( http://www.bengalpublications.com/its-all-relative/)

In an era of shortening attention spans, a new and unique offering of short stories seems to be the ticket to allow us to squeeze in a little more reading into our hectic lives.  It’s All Relative, an anthology from Bengal Publications, fits the bill with its diverse set of stories designed to capture the reader’s imagination.

The editorial reviews state that the book professes to shine the spotlight on the best English-language writers… from our region”. The collection presents us with a range of narratives that represent life in Bangladesh, serving tempting fare from everyday existence. Some of the stories “take their readers into fictional zones, straddling the borderlands of the real and the unreal, making them trespass into surreal realms”

By Suvasree Karanjai

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Title: The Butterfly Effect

Author: Rajat Chaudhuri

Publisher : Niyogi Books,2018

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

(W.B. YEATS, The Second Coming)

                                          The earth is doomed to be a ghost,

                                         She who rocks all death in herself.

(Sophia De Mello Breyner, I Feel the Dead)

We all dream of a utopia, an ideal, the zenith of flawlessness and excellence. With the concept of utopia comes  its inverse, dystopia, which lurks behind curtains with equal power to devastate and destroy. In recent times, dystopias have become an independent literary genre, a potent medium to envision and warn against catastrophes, a result of what could have started as an alternative futuristic ultra modern/utopian state. Rajat Chaudhuri’s “well-oiled” and polished novel, The Butterfly Effect,is a welcome addition to such tellings that aim to reiterate obliquely the oft-quoted saying: “With great power comes great responsibility” and to question whether we are ready to shoulder that liability.

The Butterfly Effect is a brilliant exploration of the local and the global, Calcutta and the world, in a post-apocalyptic state in the face of ultra-modernisation, totalitarianism and technologization.

Rajat Chaudhuri, an esteemed bilingual (Bengali and English) novelist and short story writer with a number of prestigious fellowships under his belt, has been involved with environment and development. His concerns are reflected in his  earlier works (like Hotel Calcutta, Amber Dusk) as well as in his recent novel The Butterfly Effect (2018).