Reviewed by Anushka Ray

scorpion_cvr

Title: The Scorpion (Trans)
Author: Kim Won-il
Publisher: Kitaab International, Singapore
Pages: 445
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There is a throbbing ache of subdued anger throughout The Scorpion, an ever-present bitterness, which seeps through the most deadpan of narration and into the hearts of the readers. The Scorpion by Kim Won-il finds its footing with this: a constant pragmatic voice, but full of resentment, to emphasize the loss of desire to romanticize the world in which these characters find themselves.

The novel follows Kang Jae-pil, his father Kang Cheon-dong and, briefly, his father’s father Kang Chi-mu, as each man navigates the tension he faces in Korean society. Each alternate chapter adopts a different perspective as a way to seamlessly and organically transition between timelines and generations. We venture into the narrator Jae-pil’s thoughts and feelings as he grapples with life right out of prison. Kang Jae-pil’s matter of fact observations are riddled and tangled with acute detail, giving way to a man who perhaps has deep sensitivities, a startling recognition of guilt and gratitude for the family he let down. Jae-pil’s meetings with his step-sister Myeong-hee (who holds greater importance as the story continues) as well as his grandmother, excel in showcasing glittering remnants of humanity that he holds onto despite his seven years in prison.

Jae-pil vows to leave behind his gangster lifestyle in Seoul as he travels to meet his family and eventually begins writing his deceased grandfather’s biography as a way to show his respect and perhaps as a way for him to move on from the years he spent behind bars. His story is by far the most engaging, largely attributable to the first person narration, a man who feels regret and has potential. Won-il travels in time through flashbacks and dialogue to explore Jae-pil’s perilous journey and brings alive the Korean society as it morphs through the ages. As the novel unfolds, Won-il seems to gain in confidence and fluidity with Jae-pil’s character and begins to introduce more graceful description of the beauty found in nature. Despite this, at its core the story remains dark – Jae-pil is haunted by vices, much like his father was; we find ourselves screaming at him to resist his temptations when he begins turning to drinking and crime. While the lack in build up does not prepare us for this, it’s not surprising in the context of the character’s past. Regardless of this, Jae-pil stays the most likeable man of the three.

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Musical Notes from a Courtyard Corner

Reviewed by Shikhandin

To My Violin
To My Violin – Geeta Varma

Title: To My Violin
Author: Geeta Varma
Publisher: Kavya-Adisakrit
Pages: 40

There are some women who wear their accomplishments like jasmine strings looped into their hair. When they pass by, you get a waft of mild perfume, that’s all. It seems to matter little whether you noticed or not. At day’s end, they will take off the flowers without a thought; self-effacing, no doubt, but what they create – their offerings of the day – linger, though not in a demanding kind of way. If you stop to observe, watch, hear or read, you would know how the quietest of voices can move in the smallest, and most immeasurable of ways.

Reading To My Violin, a slim offering of poems, in the light of a night lamp, in a room where we shut the summer out by artificial means, and that means also the sounds and scents of a summer night, I feel her gentle chiding in the very first poem. It’s an untitled poem of ten short lines that remind me of the hypocrisies sitting skin to skin in our society.

In “1961 The Refugee Colony”, Varma sketches exactly that, seven stanzas in swift strokes. What spreads out in the double page is not a pattern of words but complete scenes from a panel of miniature paintings. When you lift your eyes to the top of the page you see a solitary line, a caption of sorts, floating in white space: ‘Some pictures remain…’ The next poem is also dated – “1965 Back in Kerala”. It’s as if Varma had travelled to the place where she had been a tourist watching the refugees in their colony and now is back again in her home state. Here too are pictures that remain. Specifically, of two women characters, one ‘a small figure, small face, small eyes behind thick/ glasses’, and the other who ‘was huge/ and filled the doorway! /she had a loud voice too’. Both loved to feed sweets and other things cooked lovingly.  But while the first, the one in the refugee colony had a secret, Varma’s Ammooma in Kerala was confidently visible, just like the ‘huge bindi/ on her forehead’. One can’t help but ponder – is there a link between the two poems. The unsaid is unsettling.

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Woman to Woman Stories

Title: Woman to Woman Stories
Author: Madhulika Liddle
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 176
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The title of Madhulika Liddle’s 2017 collection, Woman to Woman Stories, draws us into sororities with the whispered promise of shared secrets. One could think, conveniently enough, of images culled from life, literature, movies – the murmur of shared afternoons, coffee table chat, restroom gossip or the giggles, chatter and tears of a morning spent amid pickles and spices drying in the sun, the aroma mingling with the salt and tanginess of the telling and the sun-warmed terrace… woman to woman. Yet, the title beguiles, for the book’s cover lays out a warning within this seemingly casual – the shadow of death, of violence, of abuse, of beauty that could slip through the fingers any moment. This then is no book of snug tales; these are stories of being a woman, of beauty and hope perhaps, but primarily of the underside of her life and lived experiences.

Woman to Woman Stories is Madhulika Liddle’s shout out to listen, and to listen with care, with humour when needed, with compassion, anger, love, empathy. These are stories told without frills, as in ‘Ambika, Mother Goddess’, not an unusual narrative, the kind that screams out to us daily from television screens and newspaper headlines – the rape of a minor in a nondescript alley of her city. Her life, it is obvious, was never hers to live, a continuum from her mother to her and to her new born daughter. The narrative doesn’t overtly ask the question but leaves its shadow in the reader’s mind, a question that rises to the surface with frightful intensity because of its possibility: will Ambika’s daughter live a similar narrative?

The initial stories are told with an apparent simplicity that shouldn’t fool the reader. As one progresses into the collection, the stories are less innocent, the emotions more tangled, complex. Told primarily from the perspective of a child at play, ‘Mala’ meanders through a house and the spaces that surround it, hinting innocuously at human lives and their equations, with just a sliver of a threat hanging around it. When the threat materialises, it is conveyed harmlessly but leaves behind its resonances, the discomfort stronger for the casual way in which it is inserted into the structure.

Reviewed by Paresh Tiwari

Rochelle Potkar

Title: Paper Asylum
Author:
Rochelle Potkar
Publisher: Copper Coin (2018)
Pages: 103
Price: INR 295/-

 

Among the many sub-genres of poetry, haibun might be the hardest to categorise. Is it in essence poetry or prose? Or a tapestry woven from the two threads by a skilled practitioner? Is it distilled from personal experience or a product of the fanciful flight in a fabulist world created by the poet?

Haibun, despite being a 500-year-old form, assiduously escapes the narrow confines of a definition. Yet, the critical elements of this form – sincerity, brevity, suspension of cleverness, living the moment, and experiencing the world afresh (to name but a few) – are universal. They lay the foundation for works which stop being a collection of words, images, memories, or feelings and invite the reader to embrace the poetry and own it.

Rochelle Potkar’s full-length prose poetry collection, Paper Asylum, is humanity turned inside out, flesh, bones and soul, painted skilfully on every page. Her poetry deftly navigates a plethora of complicated subjects and themes – love and lust in their myriad shades, longing, pain, loss, gears of society, growing up in a world that makes little sense, and the multifarious joy at finding and being found in the bargain. These poems are explorers journeying through the self and its projection on the universe beyond.

Potkar’s prose poems (most of which could be categorised as haibun) strengthens my belief that one of the qualities of good poetry is its ability to surprise. Much like life itself. In that sense, I propose that poetry and life are one and the same. Paper Asylum brims with life, in all its visceral, raw, urgent, messy glory.

Sample this:

He missed her after the breakup. Although he was the one who had broken off. He didn’t know what came into him when he got too close to women. When he poured everything into her like an ocean into a jug of wet earth.

 He felt deeply wronged.

                                                                                                                                           fish catch –

                                                                                                                                 the boat swinging

                                                                                                                                           in surrender

– “About Turn”

 

Anyone who has ever had a breakup would instantly recognise the truth in those lines. The hunger of loneliness and the need are not only palpable but instantly identifiable.

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.

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.

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.