Book Review by Mitali Chakravarty

Suralakshmi Villa

 

Title: Suralakshmi Villa

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Publisher: Panmacmillan, 2020

 

In these troubled times, where exclusivity seems to be the norm, Suralakshmi Villa, a novel by Sahitya Akademi winner, Aruna Chakravarti, seems to rise like a tsunami with its syncretic lore spanning different parts of India—Delhi and Bengal, especially the hinterlands of Malda — and flooding the narrative with gems of not just culture and fantasy but also feminist and progressive concerns.

Developed out of her short story of the same name on the advice of Ruth Prawar Jhabarwala, an eminent author and the subject of Chakravarti’s PHD dissertation, the story is narrated from various perspectives. It is an interesting technique as the story rolls out different aspects of the development of women and society across almost half-a-century — from post-independence to the pre-internet days.

The first introduction to the Villa in the book is given by the youngest generation — Joymita, an avant-garde journalist. The story coils around generations of Indranath Choudhary’s clan or should one take a non- patriarchal stand and say — Suralkashmi’s family? Suralakshmi was the middle daughter of the man who build separate houses for each of his five daughters and named them after the girls. Suralakshmi was perhaps the most unusual of all the sisters and therefore a good protagonist for any novelist. Was she a feminist or did she live by her beliefs? We have to read to discover.

Chakravarti, in Jorasanko, her best- selling historical novel, took up the concept of abarodh, a kind of purdah that was practiced among women in Bengal prior to the late nineteenth- early twentieth century. In this one, she pauses a little on abarodh but introduces women who have already moved out of the confines of the purdah and have a right to decide their lives, though the less-educated and impoverished have difficulty in finding their independence. She says in an interview: “Like all my other novels Suralakshmi Villa focusses on the lives of women. It is about two sets of sisters. The first belongs to a wealthy, modern, enlightened, household of Delhi. The other, a goatherd’s daughters living in a slum in Malda, comes from the dregs of society.  But close inspection reveals that there is not much difference in their lives and fates. There is emotional violence in one world…both physical and emotional violence in the other.”

By Tan Kaiyi

Singapore flag on HDB

I was setting up the livestream on the living room’s television when Ma called. “Ah Boon, hand me the gift packs on the table.” I ignored her for the moment, playing around with the video settings. Finally, the words “The Parade Will Start In…” appeared on screen, followed by a countdown timer below them.

There was an ongoing discussion to call the parade ‘a ceremony’. I remember a member of the opposition questioning a minister of the ruling party on the choice of words. “It’s a show of power, of our strength,” the minister had said. “Is it? Many performances seem more like acts of reverence, not deterrence,” his opponent had fired back. She had a point though. The parade usually began with protective blessings from the leaders of our four major religions.

But nothing changed. It was still called a parade.

Ma shouted for me again. I yelled back, saying that I heard her.

I took up the four scarlet packs, one for each of us, from the dining room table and walked into the kitchen. There used to be five but that was two years ago.

 

It took me a while to recognise Herbert.

I was visiting my parents in Bombay after some years, and a friend had dropped in. When I walked her to the gate, Herbert was standing across the road. As he crossed over, he greeted me, “Utuma!”

But for that, I would not have known him, for the yellow-eyed, shabbily clad dark youth had little in common with the chubby, curly haired neighbourhood boy who had anglicised my name in our childhood.

“Seeing you after a long time!” Herbert exclaimed.

“Fifteen years at the least,” I replied.

“Where are you living now?” he wanted to know. I told him that I had moved to Delhi and asked him when he had got back from Kuwait.

“When Mummy died,” he said. “You know that we’ve sold the house?”

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

He swept his gaze on her from head to toe. “Who are you?” he asked.

She turned towards him and stared back. “I’m the pink rose you kept on top of this table here,” she explained, pointing at the table by his bed.

He ran towards the table. Frantically he looked around for the rose. The king noticed that around the soles of her feet there were rose petals. “DID YOU STEAL IT?” he yelled.

“No, I did not. I am that rose. I’m here to tell you that …”

“LIAR! GUARDS, TAKE THIS THIEF TO WHERE SHE BELONGS!” he shouted, cutting her off mid- sentence. He grabbed her upper arm and threw her down to the floor.

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 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.

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Film Critic, author, journalist, director… Ratnottama Sengupta

Ratnottama Sengupta is a well-known personality in the world of media and films in India.

Formerly Arts Editor with The Times of India, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication, writings books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written widely on Hindi films; served the CBFC, the NFDC Script Committee, the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National award. In recent times she has authored, translated and edited Chuninda Kahaniyaan, Kadam Kadam, Me and I, That Bird Called Happiness. In 2018, she debuted as a film director with And They Made Classics, a film that captures the journey of her eminent father, an award winning screenwriter cum author, Nabendu Ghosh.

Having grown up in an atmosphere surrounded by all the Bollywood greats, Ratnottama Sengupta gave Team Kitaab an exclusive with stories of growing up amidst Bollywood legends like Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari and Nutan, taking us with her through her unique journey to both penmanship and films. We present her journey to you in two parts…

Part 1

Team Kitaab: What made you choose your calling that of a person who writes on cinema? From what stage in your life have you been writing, especially on cinema?

Ratnottama: Sometimes, life decides your choice of calling…

I was born into a household which had books on the shelves, on the table, on the bed, underneath the bed too. I grew up ‘playing’ with books, ‘reading’ books even before I knew the alphabet, looking at the illustrations and admiring the images. Since my father was an MA in Literature, he had the cream of world literature in his ‘library’. And because he was simultaneously writing screenplays (for most of the major names of Hindi screen through 1950s-60s), he would get the film magazines and cine broadsheets too. So I grew up symbiotically connected with the parallel worlds of letters and images.

By Neera Kashyap

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Title: Lion Cross Point

Author: Masatsugu Ono

Translated by: Angus Turvil

Lion Cross Point by Masatsugu Ono has been recognised as a lyrical and a psychologically astute novel, lucid but spare, haunting with a tangible evocation of mystery. It has been beautifully captured in translation from Japanese by Angus Turvill, an award-winning translator.

Masatsugu Ono himself is the recipient of the Asahi Award for New Writers, the Mishima Yukio Prize and the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary honour. Born in 1970 and having first published at the beginning of this century, Ono’s work belongs to the post-Murakami period, strongly marked by the seriousness of modern Japan’s literary tradition.

Lion Cross Point portrays the mind of ten-year-old Takeru, who arrives in his village to live in his mother’s home by the sea. He is haunted by memories of unspeakable atrocities committed against his mother, his older brother and himself in distant Tokyo. As Takeru is befriended by Mitsuko, his new caretaker; by Saki, his spunky neighbour and by Ken Shiomi, his mother’s childhood friend, he discovers his mother’s history and moves inch by inch from the palpable and submerged layers of trauma to a new idea of family and home. The book emphasises the fact that memories and dreams are not individual aspects of one’s personality, but shared by the community and the environment, making it possible to heal through others, and through the forces of dreams and the seascapes that imbue them all. The boy  returns to his mother’s roots to  find catharsis and truth in a setting by the sea.

 

By Rajat Chaudhuri 

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“Anything conceivable I believe is possible.”

Black to the Future, Walter Mosley (Dark Matter)

A sorcerer-librarian in ancient Korea who transforms people into books locking them up in his shelves for ever, a far-future civilisation on the planet Ruo, remembering their ancestors in the drowned world of BlueGemm — finished off by greed and climate change, a time travelling ghost in Hong Kong disconcerted by the rules of afterlife.

These are just a few of the characters and situations that we present before you dear reader in this book of amazing tales — stories from Asia, a continent blessed with mindboggling creativity and chutzpah, zen and brio, or what they sometimes call the Asiatic imagination, which is born of course out of its chequered fabric, the diversity of its peoples, the textures of our histories. Asia, a multitudinous hundred-headed medley of contemplativeness and chaos, a mélange of landforms, a kedgeree of ideas, a crucible of cultures, and you get it all here in this book, served fresh, sizzling, wok-fried and ready to tease your taste buds.