By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2018), for her novel Home Fire – also long listed for the Booker Prize in 2017 – an extraordinary book that serves as a reminder of the times in which we live. Her other books include In the City by the Sea (shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), Salt and Saffron that won her a place on Orange’s ‘21 Writers for the 21st Century’, Kartography, Broken Verses, Burnt Shadows (shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction), and A God in Every Stone.  She was one of the five judges for the Golden Man Booker winner and is one of the three judges for The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, 2018.

Kamila_shamsie

Kamila, welcome to Kitaab! Congratulations on winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Sucharita: Antigone sets up a conflict that ruptures a family and raises complex ethical questions related to the personal and the state, family and identity. When you decided to write Home Fire, what was the immediate trigger to turn to Greek Tragedy and to this particular text?

Kamila: Sometimes the best ideas come from other people.  In this case, it was Jatinder Verma, the artistic director of Tara Arts in London who suggested to me that Antigone could work very well in a contemporary setting. That made me go back to the text, and as soon as I started reading it I saw how directly it spoke to our contemporary times.

Sucharita: Home Fire is a political story firmly rooted in the age of global terror and what it does to individuals and families. It is also about the difficulty of moral certitude in an age of deepening schisms, most evident in Karamat Lone, making him perhaps the most conflicted character in the book, dealing with much more, it seems, than Eamonn or Aneeka – a complex, modern adaptation of Creon’s character in Antigone. The moral burden is terrifying and rests squarely on his shoulders. What led to this positioning of the book’s moral complexity?

Kamila: I’m always interested in the ways in which different readers respond to the characters in the novel. Some see Karamat as shouldering a moral burden; others see him as acting out of political expediency with no interest in the moral questions. I prefer not to interpret the characters and get in the way of readers’ freedom to do so. So all I’ll say is that Karamat and Isma are the two characters who really inhabit the world of adulthood with all its messy complications and contradictions.

Sucharita: At the time of writing the book, the idea of a Tory from a Muslim immigrant, working class family as the country’s Home Secretary would have seemed unbelievable. In fact, you thought it to be ‘ridiculous’. Eventually, when Sajid Javid became Britain’s Home Secretary, how did the writer in you respond? What does prescience mean to a writer?

Kamila: I would love to claim prescience, but the truth is, my first instinct was, as you say, that the idea of such a Home Secretary would be ridiculous, but then I thought a little harder about it and considered the fact that Britain had three prominent up-and-coming politicians from Muslim backgrounds: Sajid Javid, Sadiq Khan and Sayeeda Warsi. One or two is an aberration; three suggests that something has shifted in the political culture. That’s why I was able to create Karamat Lone – because I started to see that actually a Home Secretary from a Muslim background was possible. But it also seemed to me that Muslimness would be something he or she would have to find a way to negotiate around, possibly by creating distance from it.  So what I’ll say about prescience is that actually it’s just paying attention to the currents around us and guessing what’ll happen if you move things forward just one step.

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Reviewed by Nandini Varma

Sunlight Plane
Title: The Sunlight Plane
Author: Damini Kane
Publisher: Authorpress (2018)
Pages: 312

 

To reach out and urge us to inquire into our deepest emotions is the most beautiful gift a writer can give to a reader. To flap open an ear, to have our feet dangling from our beds, to imagine carefully the sound of an airplane pass by in a book, and listen to its heightened music in our heads, to brush the air as if for a moment it weren’t needed: these are acts of a reader only witnessed when a writer has produced something marvellous. Readers live double lives, much like writers, when they kick the earth unexpectedly, when they dance to a silently beating heart, when they crouch as though scared to break the dream.

Damini Kane’s first novel The Sunlight Plane does exactly that. It is a beautiful exploration of a friendship between two 9 year old boys — Tharush and Aakash, living in the posh Reyna Heights in Bombay. The cover art carries a paper plane flying across the city of Bombay, illustrated by Nivedita Sekhar. The book is divided into three sections: ‘The Sun’, ‘The Clouds’ and ‘The Sky’, each depicting a phase in their friendship – a brightness, or tension.

As we begin reading, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Tharush, the embodiment of curiosity and imagination, giving us a rich insight into the questioning mind of a child. We’re also introduced to his parents and find in them a family that doesn’t attract much trouble. Humour is therefore often seen paying a light and lovely visit in the moments shared between Tharush and his mother, another powerful character that represents deep intelligence and sensitivity, especially in her response to Tharush’s appeal for another fighter plane when they sit for dinner with eggplants floating ‘in the middle of yellow curry like dead rats’.

Quite early in the narrative, we’re given hints of what is to become a contrasting second main character of the book, Aakash, also meaning the sky as Tharush, but another shade of it – much darker as the clouds on a rainy day, more mysterious as a ‘stealthy, almost invisible, shadow’.

The sun was a ball of fire shooting white-hot needles over the limitless stretches of Jornada Del Muerto. The dead man’s desert.

It was a terrain of sand and salt with causeways that lead to a kind of nothingness only dead men know of. The salt-washed mountains surrounding it used to be volcanoes, raging and spewing streams of lava into the desert sand thousands of years ago, carving out canyons and arroyos in the ash-brown malpaise that interspersed the sandy stretches. The hills are silent now, their jagged peaks sandpapered away by dust and brine flung on their faces by the relentless winds.

All that remains is the quiet fury of the desert, pulsating in the heat like the belly of a beast. The old farmers revere and fear it. In earlier times, they journeyed to the Parajito plateau through the treacherous landscape of Jornada Del Muerto to escape the impossible heat and grow summer crops and berries. They corralled together during the journey, a retinue of nervous travellers, each murmuring a silent prayer to be able to pass through its pale gold expanses.

Today the mighty desert was subdued by another force. A force born out of insatiable amounts of energy. Its image was etched onto Robert’s mind like a daguerreotype, even though fourteen hours had passed since The Test. It had been another long excursion to Alamogordo for the team. July afternoons were bad days for experiments in the heart of the desert, but they were running out of time. The war had gone on for way too long, and matters were now passed on to unlikely soldiers like him, who toiled far away from the battlegrounds for a permanent solution.

The makeshift quarters of their base in Alamogordo were bursting with an assemblage of people, a cortege of junior scientists with knotted brows and voices trembling with anticipation, the porters with weather-beaten limbs hauling equipment, the poker-faced guards, barely twenty-something who guarded the precinct. The device rested on Ground Zero like a giant steel orb, nestling in its womb, coils of plutonium ready for implosion. It was time. A trill of anxiety buzzed in their ears; they tried to quell it with superfluous jocularity and mock sparring, but the collective thump in their hearts they couldn’t ignore. Be it Robert, Giovanni, or Leo, each one of them, handpicked from various universities for this singular purpose, was acutely aware of it. Would they succeed? Could this be The Weapon to end the war?

Book Review: Horizon Afar and Other Tamil Stories
by Jayanthi Sankar

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Horizon Afar

Title: Horizon Afar & other Tamil short stories
Author: Jayanthi Sankar
Translated by P. Muralidharan
Publisher: Kitaab, 2016
Pages: 230

Horizon Afar is a collection of twenty-one translated short stories from the Singapore-based Tamil writer, Jayanthi Sankar. Spanning the last two decades, the stories shuttle between life in Singapore and India, creating links between the two countries and drawing on the writer’s multicultural experiences and interactions in the country where she lives.

Often her stories centre on teenagers and young people. The title story is about a teenager who shuttles through a surrealistic experience to find his footing in junior college (high school in Singapore). The most interesting read was a darker story, Mother’s Words, which deals with a reformed convict who is ostracized by the world yet loved by the mother.

A Few Pages from Yuka Wong’s Diary depicts the changing mindset of a multicultural population and their ability to transcend hatred to discover a fascination for a country that had unscrupulous expansionist ambitions in the 1940’s Japan.  The story is told through the pages of a young girl’s diary and makes an interesting and effective use of the device.

Melissa’s Choices is about a young man’s discovery of the fickleness of a young girl’s choices. School Bag, Revelation and Rehearsal are stories about teenagers’ journeys of discoveries in a multicultural society. Seventy Rupees, set in the midst of an auto-rickshaw strike in India, is a glimpse of the apathy of middle class towards the plight of the poor.

The stories often circle around the tedium of modern day existence and focus on the darker aspects of life. The issues faced by workers ‘imported’ from small villages of Tamil Nadu are dealt with in a couple of stories. While Cycle focuses on a flesh trader located in Singapore preying on an innocent Tamil migrant woman, Migration deals with an Indian domestic helper’s inability to adjust in Singapore. There are stories about unwed mothers, a girl who rebels to adopt a trans-sexual lifestyle, university life, school life and marriages arranged within the Tamil community in Singapore.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Secret Sorrow of Sparrows

Title: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows — A Collection of Lives
Author: Siddhartha Dasgupta
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017
Pages: 316
ISBN: 978-981-11- 4966-5

The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows is a collection of ten short stories by Siddhartha Dasgupta that seem to be created out of a gossamer web of words flung accidentally into the right place. The writer’s artistry and skill lies perhaps in recreating an aura of ephemerality and serendipity, the two elements that are part of the wonder of everyday existence.

The book is structured into a prelude and ten stories. In the prelude, the author explains, ‘…these aren’t particularly sad stories. At least they weren’t mean to be.’ Yet, there is often a lingering sadness – though not despondency – that strings together the stories in this collection. The sadness is tinged with hope and the stories build up to a crescendo leading to the exposition of the author’s worldview in the concluding story. The stories are best experienced if read in order though they can stand as independent vignettes of poetic prose.

The book starts with “The Baker from Kabul” and his reactions to his family, from whom he has been sundered by the Afghani unrest. Located in Dubai, the story gives an insight into the life and thoughts of a common baker who found refuge in this affluent city. “The Train Rolled through the Night” is a recap of two brothers who return home, where they had slept as children ‘to the sound of Indian local trains’, to uncover a murder mystery in their past and reach a surprise conclusion that scars them forever with a tinge of sorrow.

“Gulmohar Drive” delves into the grief of Shenaz Wadia. Shenaz returns to Pune to visit the home of her beloved dead grandmother. As she tries to come to terms with her loss, a brief, intense, incomplete romance evokes a sense of longing in the reader… a longing like Shenaz feels for the wet Gulmohur flowers. “Dawn’s Fatal Betrayal”, while glancing at life in traditional Lucknow, imparts a deeper sense of loss, except the mystery of death is left untouched. The reader is left wondering if this is done intentionally to emphasise the uncertainty and whimsicality of existence.

“Once Upon a Mystic Sky” is the story of the poignant reunion of a qawal, his childhood sweetheart and their child… a story par excellence, one of the best in the collection. It has pathos, love, tolerance and what could be seen as a satisfying ending, with mystic music and qawali ably highlighting the values within the narrative arc. “The Thousandth Bridge”, set in Isfahan, Iran, explores creativity beyond destruction. At the end of the story, though the bridges that are painted by the protagonist are destroyed in an earthquake, will the artist draw from the ‘light’ that glows within her to recreate what was? The ‘light’ within her in Isfahan is touched upon in the last story by the narrative of a Sufi dervish who whirls through the world  peopled also by the characters from the book.