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Countries in focus: Singapore: Book review

Book review of The Magic Circle by Charmaine Chan

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Magic Circle

Title: The Magic Circle
Author: Charmaine Chan
Total number of pages: 302
ISBN 978-981-11-3996-3
Publisher: Ethos Books, 2017
Price: S$18.60

The Magic Circle is a memoir by Charmaine Chan written for her sister who died of cancer. This book was justifiably short-listed for ‘The Singapore Literature Prize, 2018’. According to Jennifer Chen, the editor of The Peak, it is ‘a breathtaking rumination’.

The book is an attempt to recreate the sister she knew for her niece, Yazmin, and to bring the youngster closer to her maternal heritage and culture. Elaine, the sister who dies of cancer, spent a major part of her life in New Zealand and eventually married a New Zealander; her daughter, born and bred in New Zealand, was merely six when the mother passed away. On the brink of death, Elaine made an impassioned plea to her globetrotting sister, Charmaine Chan, writer, journalist, editor, poet and former lawyer from Singapore. ‘Don’t let Yazmin forget her Asian side, make sure she knows all the Asian dishes I love,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t let her forget me…’

Charmain Chan kept her promise and spent a decade creating a perfect memoir for her niece. She writes, ‘For her (Yazmin), I have sealed them(memories of Elaine and her heritage)into black and white, preserved them in print.’

The book is poignant when it deals with sorrow and the impending death that looms over her sister. A skilful weaver of words, Charmaine Chan creates a tapestry of images and feelings that bring to  the fore a lively, vivacious woman cut off from her propensity to enjoy life by the throes of a lingering death, a loving family, grief, a childhood full of sunshine and youthful nostalgia about a sister who formed part of a ‘magic circle’. The three sisters born and brought up in Singapore eventually moved to different corners of the world and had what Chan called ‘a magic circle’, an invisible bond, which was sundered by the untimely death of the middle sister Elaine.

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Who is S. Hareesh?

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

As Kerala’s paddy-rich Kuttanad reels under its worst flood in recent times, the region’s most promising storyteller is fighting a deluge of religious hate. Award-winning writer S. Hareesh, whose stories are imbued with an undertone of caste and politics at play in daily life, withdrew his debut novel, Meesha (Moustache), barely into its third instalment in the Mathrubhumi weekly, after some right-wing groups did not take kindly to a “misrepresented” fragment in it. On Wednesday, the novel was published by DC Books, the premier imprint in Malayalam, with 5,000 copies selling out. That did not pass off uneventfully though, as copies were burnt in Thiruvananthapuram. The case has reached the Supreme Court, too; on Thursday, it asked counsel for the petitioner to produce within five days the English translation of the “objectionable” portions.

Why the controversy?

A conversation between two characters on the intent of upper caste women visiting temples in the narrative set in the feudal Kerala of yore was taken out of context and circulated on social media, imputing it to the author. A vilification campaign ensued, as Hindutva organisations and caste groups trained their ire on Mathrubhumi and the writer for “maligning Hindu women and temple priests.” In the face of threats and online abuse, also targeting their parents and young children, Mr. Hareesh and his wife shut down their social media accounts and switched off phones.

Read more at The Hindu link here


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Short story: The Witch by Muddasir Ramzan

‘I believed, like everyone else, that the stories about wild creatures, particularly about Rantas and Wan-Mohneu, were only myths, created to scare children. Until I was lugged here.’

‘Would you like to share your story?’ Talib asked. ‘How did you reach here?’ asked Hamid, Talib’s master. They lowered their gazes, stealing the odd glance at the Wildman.

‘My name’s Bashir. It was sometime in the winter of 1998 or 1997, no, 1999. No! I don’t remember the exact date. I awoke in the middle of a night. My wife Laalie and my little son Aalim were fast asleep. I didn’t bother to wake them and went outside to check the cow. Snow fell heavily, making the trees arch. There was a thick white blanket of snow in my lawn.

‘I took my umbrella in one hand and lantern in another and went straight to the cowshed to check if the cow was fine – she was to give birth to her calf soon. She seemed fine, so I locked the cowshed and began walking back to my house, stopping a while to watch the whirling snow. What an amazing sight it was!

‘As I tried to shake off the snow from some trees, I heard a woman’s voice calling out my name. I thought it was Laalie and responded but recalled immediately that I had locked the main door of the house from outside. The voice wasn’t Laalie’s. Couldn’t be. I waited. The voice called out again. Afraid but excited, I looked around, trying to locate the voice as I walked towards the pomegranate tree. There was so much snow on the tree’s leaves and branches that the main branch had snapped and fallen on to the snow-covered ground. As I went closer, I saw what I thought was a woman dressed in white, looking at me. It was a mere illusion created by the snow, I told myself, but the lantern slipped from my trembling hands and the light went out. Was it an evil spirit or an apparition? Then, just as I began to run towards my house, which was only a few steps away, she called out, ‘Stop!’ My pounding heart, quivering legs and the deep snow made the few steps to my door seem like a thousand miles. With great effort, I managed to reach the steps and breathed deeply in relief. I had escaped her!

‘I was wrong. As soon as I tried to push open the main door, a huge hand grabbed my left shoulder; I struggled to free myself but it was no use. Even as I cried out, a hand capped my mouth and another clasped my head. I struggled; I even managed to kick the door but the powerful hands dragged me back. I could see her closely now. Her stench filled my nostrils. She had a hairy face, a huge, dirty, hairy body with heavy breasts and long nails. Her untidy hair fell over her shoulders. I noticed her feet last: they were turned backwards.

I was terrified. Rantas! She was exactly like the creature whose stories grandmother told me in my childhood, to distract me whenever I cried or wanted something that was not available. For some time, I thought she would eat me alive. I had lost all my strength and began to think she had cast a magic spell on me. Helplessly, I let her tie me to her back with her long hair. I could have cried or made some noise, asked for help, or at least struggled to escape.

‘I…

‘Yes, carry on, what happened then?’ asked Talib, listening keenly to him. When the Wildman didn’t reply, the young man looked towards his ustaad.

‘It is clear she brought him to this cave then, isn’t it?’ Hamid remarked loudly, hoping to stir the Wildman from his thoughts.

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Forget Cinderella, these 5 books tell kids it’s okay for boys to cry and girls to be strong

(From edexlive. Link to the complete article given below)

From Cinderella to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Little Red Riding Hood to Sleeping Beauty — traditional stories may come with morals, but there is no denying the fact that they tend to pander to gender stereotypes and perpetuate biases. The fair maidens and chiseled princes, the damsel in distress and the knight in shining armour routine, kissing women in their sleep (sexual assault lawsuit, anyone?) — these stories are riddled with ‘chivalrous’ crap (for lack of a better word) like this. Who said girls can’t rescue themselves or that all boys are brave?

In today’s world, there is no scope for kids to relate to these characters or situations, despite the various retellings and re-readings of these tales over the years. Children need, scratch that, deserve better stories that they can resonate and relate with. And for that, we need better writers. This is where ‘The Irrelevant Project’ comes in and it’s more relevant now than ever. Started by Alishya Almeida and Meghna Chaudhury as a series of workshops, which has now turned into a power-packed punch of five illustrated books that were released this January, these books tell children that it’s okay for boys to cry and girls to be strong.

Let’s do this

If every conversation between Almeida and Chaudhury, ever since they met through the Young India Fellowship, was subjected to the Bechdel Test, they would easily pass as all they spoke about was intersectionality, feminism and the education scenario. “There is space for more and there needs to be more,” says 29-year-old Chaudhury, during our call with the feisty duo. They decided to initiate a pilot workshop to understand the deep-rooted biases that creep into the minds of kids, in 2015. This was done in four classrooms of two government schools in New Delhi. The activities that they conducted helped children recognise the stereotypes that exist in their minds and the environment, along with certain critical thinking and problem-solving exercises. The inferences they gathered compelled them to start The Irrelevant Project. “We have five books with children, who are all of different builds and temperaments so that more and more children connect with them, as the protagonists,” explains 26-year-old Almeida. And this is just the beginning.

Read more at the edexlive link here


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What rereading childhood books teaches adults about themselves

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

When I return to my parents’ house and the neighborhood where I grew up, the tension between sameness and difference is disorienting. The gym is still there, but the bookstore where I hung out after school is now a Target. There are new neighbors renovating the house next door. My parents might turn one of our childhood bedrooms into a study. I see versions of my old self in local kids, running around the back alley or aimlessly browsing our local Sephora. They make me feel both nostalgic and relieved to be an adult.

That’s when I find myself reaching for a comforting set of pastel-colored spines on my childhood bookshelf: L. M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables series. My mom first read it to me when I was a toddler, and I’ve been rereading it ever since. For many years, the main draw was Anne’s love interest, Gilbert Blythe, whom I had a crush on. But now I read it more for the compelling female friendships—“bosom friends,” as Anne would call them—and the gorgeous descriptions of the jewel-toned countryside. Most of all, Anne’s home of Avonlea, animated by Anne’s idealism and exuberance, feels like a refuge from the real world, where those traits can be hard to find.

People’s favorite childhood stories often stick with them throughout their lives. When the book-centric social media site Goodreads tracked the books most reread by its users, many of them were children’s books, including J. K. Rowling’s entire Harry Potter series, C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

Read more at The Atlantic link here


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Book Review: The Circle of Life and Other Stories by Haimanti Dutta Ray

Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

The Circle of Life and Other Tales

Title: The Circle of Life and Other Tales
Author: Haimanti Dutta Ray
Publisher: Locksley Hall Publishing (LLP), 2018
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Considering it is her debut book, the author writes The Circle of Life and Other Stories with a wild abandon and an almost childlike glee, which becomes both the boon and a bane for this collection. What you first notice in these stories are their characters; most of the characters are well fleshed-out, relatable and carry the general essence of being a Bengali in their subtle habits and mannerisms. The author uses her understanding of the Bengali culture to its fullest while drawing out her characters, giving them voices which are at times unique, at times a reverberation of how the community functions.

‘The Final Curtain’ talks about the famed theatre circuit of Kolkata and one man’s journey through life and later, death on the stage. Another story, ‘Mimesis’, features a man and woman who love each other but never really learn how to understand and navigate through the subtleties of their relationship, leading to a tragic, if not unpredictable, conclusion. The characters in both stories, although entirely different from each other in behaviour, hold the same pattern of being souls who live in the present but have their roots stuck somewhere firmly in the past, quite like the city in which these stories are set. Not only are the characters relatable but also the struggles they go through. Whether it’s the marital problems that the characters in ‘Mimesis’ try to deal with or the themes of mortality and loss in ‘The Final Curtain’, the grief and guilt that the characters struggle with remind readers of their own lives. In doing so, the stories become less of fiction and more of a slice from our everyday existence, fragile to a fault and fraught with problems, but with hope and empathy as their saving grace at the end of each day. Her description of the pousmela, the Bengali fair celebrating spring, or the artworks of Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, evoke a sense of deep nostalgia in every Bengali reader, at the same time bringing to the non-Bengali reader a taste of the culture.

However, the characters are only part of the larger stories, which unfortunately suffer repeatedly from other factors. These are largely bad pacing and the conclusions that neither befit the beginnings nor do justice to the erratic assembly of characters. ‘Wait Until Dark’, for example, starts off as a whodunit but eventually devolves to something that can hardly be taken seriously by the end. The endings of most stories are disappointing, building the narrative to a point where it can’t carry through its own momentum. The characters have similar voices, a problem that becomes all the more evident because the stories showcase a wide variety of people from various facets of life, and who are therefore, expected to speak differently.

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Short story: Dearest Pyari Amma by Ayeda Husain

Dearest Pyari Amma,

As salaam alaikum. I hope this letter finds both you and Baba Jan in the best of health and spirits. Please let me begin by apologizing for not writing earlier. Pinku and Bablu have both been under the weather with recurring cold, cough and chest infection all winter. Thank God for the long winter break or they would have missed most of school the past month.

Besides being so busy with them, I…

 

As salaam alaikum again. I am sorry it took me two whole days to get back to writing this letter. There was a loud crash in the kitchen followed by some screaming and I was sure the new cook had done something to anger the old territorial dragon Ami and Abu are trying to replace. Luckily, it was just a frying pan which had fallen down and scared Bashiraan the cleaning woman who had screamed so loudly that the old man had told her off in his usual, extremely vocal fashion. Thank God I arrived in the nick of time to diffuse the tension. By the time Ami and Abu came back from the Club, all was peaceful. Just the way they like it.

Ooof! The dramas in this house never end. I often think of my childhood growing up in our house with only Baba jan, you and the four of us. What a perfect life it was. Of course I am extremely grateful for you to have picked such a good family for me to marry into. Just last week at Ami and Abu’s anniversary party for 100 people I realized how lucky I was to be part of this family. All the guests were so khaandani, the women wore huge, old jewellery and everyone praised my cooking. I met three women who had once been potential prospects for Salim. They are married now. But so thin, Amma Jan, I don’t know how they do it after children.

I tried to go on a popular diet a fancy nutritionist gave me but…

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The 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction longlist is announced in London

(From Publishing Perspectives. Link to the complete article given below)

‘Slavery, ecology, missing persons, inner-city violence, young love, prisons, trauma, and race’ all are said to figure into the Man Booker Prize for Fiction longlist, as the award starts its second 50 years of competition.

Just two weeks after being handed the “Golden Man Booker” award for The English Patient, Canadian Michael Ondaatje is on the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2018 longlist, announced today (July 24) in London. Ondaatje’s Warlight is in contention with 12 other longlisted titles by American, British, Irish, and Canadian authors.

The best-recognized and most-honored literary fiction prize in the English language, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction—not to be confused with the translation-focused Man Booker International Award—is entering its 51st year with this “Man Booker dozen” longlist of 13 titles.

The prize confers a purse of £50,000 (US$65,606). The shortlist of six titles is to be announced on September 20, with the winners’ announcement scheduled for a ceremony at Guildhall on October 16.

This year’s list has several distinctive elements, many involving the number four:

  • Four titles are debut novels: The Long Take, The Water Cure, In Our Mad and Furious City, and Everything Under
  • Four authors are younger than 30: Sally Rooney and Daisy Johnson are the youngest, both of them 27
  • Four independent publishers are on the list: Faber & Faber has two titles, while Granta and Serpent’s Tale have one each
  • Four nations are represented, with six writers from the UK, three from the USA, two from Ireland, and two from Canada
  • One work, that of American author Nick Drnaso, is the prize program’s first nominated grahpic novel

And of key interest in the industry, the effect of a Man Booker win can be lucrative, organizers say, using last year’s winner as the example.

Read more at this Publishing Perspectives link


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Rohzin in Germany – The Urdu novel that has attracted readers in the West

‘The novel unravels the complexity of human relations’- Martin Gieselmann

Gonsenheim

Rahman Abbas, Musician Jan Köhler and Dr Almuth Degener

Twice Academy award winning Urdu novelist Rahman Abbas has astonished the world of Urdu literature with his fourth novel Rohzin, which has been in discussions in the mainstream media since its publication on the occasion of Jashn-e-Rekhta, 2016. The novel has been praised by stalwarts of Urdu literature in both India and Pakistan, like, Gopi Chand Narang, Sayyed Muhammad Ashraf, Shafey Kidwai, Nizam Siddiqui, Mustansar Hussain Tarar, Baland Iqbal, Salahuddin Darwesh, Neelam Bashir and Muhammad Hameed Shahid.

Rohzin is one of those rare Indian novels that have been translated into a European language soon after publication and received praise from academics, professors, artists and students abroad. German linguist and translator Almuth Degener translated Rohzin in German and Draupadi Verlag published it in February 2018. The German title Die Stadt, Das Meer, Die Liebe (The City, They Sea, The Love) was first launched and discussed in Switzerland in a three day literary event, ‘The Day of Indian Literature’ organized by Literaturehaus, Zurich.

Recently, Rahman Abbas was invited to undertake a literary tour from 23 March to 15 June to attend the readings of his novel at South Asian Institute (Heidelberg University), Bonn University, Ev. Akademie (Villigst), Indian Consulate (Frankfurt), Café Mouseclick, Tisch Hochst, Pakban (Frankfurt), Lokalezeitung, Gonsenheim (Mainz), Pfalzer Hof Schonau (Bei, Heidelberg), Bickelmann Family (Heidelberg). Most of the events were organized with the cooperation of Draupadi Verlag and Literature Forum Indian, and South Asian Institution (Heidelberg).

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Reading at Indian Consulate General (Frankfurt)

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

……

Lucknow, of course, does show up in Masud’s fiction. Its artisan culture features in many stories: the glass worker in “Sheeha Ghat,” the chikan embroiderer in “Ganjefa,” the perfume maker in “Essence of Camphor.” In “Interregnum,” a mason carves designs of fish into the facades of buildings. Fish designs just like these were once the emblem of Awadh, and they adorn Lucknow’s Asifi Imambara, as well as the frontages of many buildings in the neighbourhoods of Chowk, Ashrafababad and Aminabad. Whenever I spot a fish on an old Lucknow building, I inevitably think of the mason in “Interregnum.”

I am, however, uncomfortable with tributes that bind Masud to Lucknow. They form part of a larger tendency to read South Asian authors, particularly those who write in Indian languages, as windows into a distinctive local culture. This approach misses the essence of Masud’s fiction. His Spanish translator, Rocío Moriones Alonso, once noted that Masud’s stories show us that the universal can be found in the extreme local. The blind grandmother cracking betel nuts in “Destitutes Compound” might be an undeniably Lucknavi—or at least north Indian—character, but the sensation she evokes is that of motionless time and placelessness.

Moreover, Masud was in many ways a global writer. He was a professor of Persian, a former global language, and a translator of Persian and English into Urdu. His own works in Urdu were translated into many languages. A few years ago, I found a Spanish translation of a collection of Masud’s stories in Mexico City, in a bookstore called Libreria Gandhi. As I sat rereading “Essence of Camphor,” I realised that Masud might have hardly left his native city, but he travelled more widely than most who board a transcontinental flight every year. One of his most commendable accomplishments is that, through his stories, he ultimately expanded Urdu’s reach. And he did so precisely at a time when the language—as well as its speakers, readers and writers—faced harsh political pressure, and many in India actively sought to restrict and confine it.

I had the pleasure of knowing Masud during the last decade of his life. By then he was ailing. Nonetheless, it was not hard to see how his writing reflected his lifestyle. He owned several books about crafts, and his home was decorated with pieces of art he had created. Masud once told me that he often was afflicted by “craft spells” and described how, two decades earlier, he had become obsessed with making wood and clay sijdegah—small tablets used by Shia Muslims to rest their foreheads on during prayers. He made many sijdegah and gave several dozen away to friends and relatives. Some of them, however, are still lying around his house, and his son, Timsal Masud, offers namaz on one of them every day.

Read the complete article at this link