Book Review by Samarpita Mukherjee Sharma

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Title: You Beneath Your Skin

Author: Damyanti Biswas

Publisher: Simon & Schuster India, Sept 2019

You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas came into my radar when I was reading few excellent thrillers by Indian women authors. I had already been won over by the clever skills with which each of those stories had been crafted, so my expectations were on a rise. The blurb of the story says that You Beneath Your Skin is about relationships and crimes set in Delhi. However, what the last sentence might make you believe, the story isn’t your run-of-the-mill kind of crime committed by people in some relationship.

What You Beneath Your Skin  about is a whole lot of different yet related aspects of life. From personal relationships, each different from the other, to professional relationships, the story is mainly about Anjali and Jatin. While it has a lot to do about their relationship, there is a lot else that is quite important to the story that hold ground without taking allegiance from the protagonist couple.

We have Anjali, a single mother of Indo-American descent with an autistic teenage son. Anjali is a psychiatrist and works at a hospital. Her work extends to NGOs and the downtrodden. This takes her to the dark underbelly of the national capital, Delhi. She is shown as an independent woman who has a lot in her plate yet tries her best to add more to it and make everything work. Her son Nikhil is a teenager — a quite problematic age as it is — his autism adding to troubles for the mother-son duo. Nikhil’s condition, Anjali’s treatment of it, and how situations are handled have been described in a very smart and sensitive manner through the eye of someone who has probably worked with similar situations.

By Dr Naina Dey

Lucy Villa was a beautiful house almost palatial in grandeur and standoffishness. Built on a large patch of sloping land it was surrounded by a once lush garden of myriad fruit trees and exotic flowering plants. Now with years of neglect, the fruit trees had gone wild and the plants that had managed to survive, were smothered by weeds and brambles. No shears trimmed the wayward shoots, no one watered the plants that stood under the scorching sun and waited for merciful rain. The only fountain had run dry, its water trough sickly yellow and green with slime, its stone fairy now decrepit. At night however, Lucy Villa was an elfin realm. Its colourless walls, broad balustrades, wide balconies and layered terraces, gleamed in the moonlight though its tall elegant windows looked dark and forbidding.

Lucy Villa was named after the wife of a sahib who had it built with the intention of enjoying the quiet of this far-flung town and to entertain the occasional guest. Unable to bear the death of his beloved collie and then of his childless wife, the sahib had returned to England leaving the house under the care of a friend who lived in the city. That was more than two decades ago. At present it was under the supervision of an attorney, a little bald sly-eyed man.

When we entered the house, it was still furnished with whatever Hamilton sahib had left behind. Moth-eaten carpets and teak furniture inlaid with delicate floral motifs in brass adorned the living room. The rest of the rooms were bare their dusty floors emanating a suffocating musty smell. The house itself was still in excellent condition despite the neglect barring a few damp patches. The walls had been white-washed for the new tenants. It was a pity that a house fit for a prince was in disuse for this long. It also became evident shortly after we had moved in that this was a house of disrepute.

As I stood one evening under the oleander tree just outside the walls, two Sikh boys on a scooty had screamed raucously – “Bhootiya Bungla (haunted bungalow)!” and sped away as fast as they could leaving me confused and angry. True, the house stood by itself, its high walls and garden isolating it from the rest of the neighbourhood. It was hardly unusual for houses which were once dwelling places of the rich, who preferred privacy, to be associated with strange stories once they had been abandoned.

Book Review by Nabina Das

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Title: Bulletproof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict

Author: Teresa Rehman

Publisher: Penguin Random House India, 2019

Conflict journalism is a term that evokes certain hard-hitting images in the head. These are mostly to do with the news coverage of militaristic activities, hyper-masculine behavior and code of conduct, and a breakdown of order in a state or society. And the immediate corollary that follows is that a male journalist must be at the helms writing about wars and skirmishes across countries and continents, an extraordinary brave and exclusive act. This nearly is a post-colonial post-truth — if one may use such jargon — even in the 21st century. The first thing that comes in the reader’s mind after reading Teresa Rehman’s Bulletproof is the sense of foreboding laced with hope and empathy. Unlike a lot of war or conflict journalists we have known and read, she shuns frills or any show of sensationalism. More than conflict, her focus is peace.

An award-winning journalist specializing in combat reporting from the Northeast and Kashmir, Rehman recounts in this book her dangerous forays in a matter of fact tone. The chapters are each devoted to major assignments she undertook as a fulltime journalist. The book starts with the meeting with Th. Muivah, the vastly charismatic leader of Naga liberation, chief of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). It’s a fascinating account full of details one doesn’t see in run-of-the-mill reports on Naga insurgency from especially mainland India. Here one sees Muivah not simply as a militant Naga leader, but as a human being with a sense of humor, and “Uncle” to his followers.

With most accounts of conflict journalism being a male bastion that is also loud and demonstrative, Rehman writes in a remarkably balanced voice sans any overt dramatization. As a woman writing about experiences that normally would have any seasoned journalist all warped and twisted, her accounts flow with grace and human consideration. The reader also gets glimpses of places like Dimapur, its dingy hotels, the alleyways, and even of the accompanying driver or attendant (who apparently had no clue why Rehman was visiting Nagaland).

By Meenakshi Malhotra

 

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen

What do you say when a doyenne in the field of literature dies? That she was a colossus in the field of literary studies? Any summing  up  of the achievements of Nabaneeta Dev Sen would sound and seem like  a comprehensive survey of a substantial chunk , if not the entire field of comparative literature in India.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen was one of the finest minds in the world of literature, in terms of both her creative and critical work. A pioneer in the field of Comparative Literature, she is often perceived  as having played a transformative role in  transforming  Comparative  Literature  as a discipline in India,  from a mechanical reading of texts across languages to a rigorous theoretical discipline. Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s scholarship brought her international fame and acclaim. She was not only a scholar and researcher , but also a popular teacher both in Jadavpur, as well as in the many institutes where she taught ranging from reputed academic institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Germany, France, Japan and Israel. A graduate of Presidency College, she had  masters’ degrees from Jadavpur and Harvard universities and a PhD from Indiana university.

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A Nobel laureate, a legend and a writer par excellence who can perhaps only be imitated but never surpassed — Rabindranath Tagore lived and wrote more than a century ago. Yet, he lives on through his works and becomes the nodal point of festivals, arguments and awards.

Tagore founded the University of Shantiniketan, which he named Visva Bharati. Tagore himself gives us the purpose of having this institution:“Visva Bharati represents India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best.” 

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Tagore, Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi at Shantiniketan

By Sunil Sharma

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It was a daily ritual.

On the way to office, Grandpa would peep in to find the little Neha sitting quietly in the corner, her red-nosed, big-eyed clown near the books, on the bare stone floor.  He would say nothing and leave.  As soon as the cook, that fat old lady, went out to chat with the neighbours, Neha, now empress of a silent cottage near the small railway station in the middle of the desert, winked at the clown and said: “Come on, let us play, my little brother.”

The clown, waiting for the invitation from his human mistress, would nod, jump up and down, roll and make faces at the puny girl.  Neha screamed with laughter, eyes lit up.  His red nose twitching, white hair under a faded cap, the ill-matched bright-hued tunic upon a thin body, the clown danced, his painted enormous eyes full of laughter and kindness.  Neha and the clown played together in the silent house.  When the cook returned home, the clown shrank back and resumed his place either on the iron table or the pile of the books.  Neha sat quietly, staring out of the barred window, at the huge expanse of the moving sand and across the stretch of desert, at the village many miles away from the railway station, shimmering in the hot sun.  Bare brown hills, except an occasional babool tree here and there, loomed up high in the arid landscape of hot sun, shifting sands and a cold moon.

TBASS

Ranjana is a rummy fiend.

She is eyeing her cards with the smile of a sphinx.

Soon her fingers will wield magic, and she will complete, with a flourish, her fourth consecutive run. Natasha will throw her hands up in surrender. Sara will curl her lips. Mrs. Sawhney, a veteran member of the Prometheus Club, will wink at her, with a rakish grin only a septuagenarian can pull off. Four decades ago, Mrs. Sawhney was pretty much like Ranjana herself, only slightly more voluptuous. The coterie of women in the club yearned to be like her, although they wouldn’t admit it even at gunpoint.

Ranjana, daughter of a celebrated diplomat and wife of the Honourable Commissioner Surendra Raghuvanshi, evoked similar emotions amongst her peers. The genteel curve of her brows, arched over eyes twinkling with an adamantine sheen, her high patrician nose, and her plummy, sophisticated voice made her the mascot of an aristocratic lineage. Surendra was quite a dark horse in his circle. His burning ambitions only added to his boyish charms and pushed him higher up in the ranks at a dizzying speed. Forty-three and at the top of his game already! Everything about him exuded a heady animal magnetism people found hard to resist. He was a connoisseur of art, music, and vintage collectibles. It was no big surprise that he chose a wife as delectable as everything else he possessed. If Surendra was a dark horse, Ranjana was a chestnut gazelle. Her slender frame moved with fluidity and grace. Her kohl-lined eyes were dark as absinthe and equally intense. So was she. Strong-minded and opinionated, men found her airs hypnotic. Women had a more visceral reaction, a melange of awe, envy, and resentment.

(Deepavali & Kali Puja Special)

By Avik Chanda

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The village had long forgotten its own name. Once, a culvert drawn from the holy river had brought water here, filling the land all around with rice-fields. Hutments came up swiftly, growing into a sizeable village along the fringe of the fields, and extended up to the edge of the forest. One day, deep inside the forest, someone discovered an ancient temple. How old it was, no one could tell. But the Goddess within, which was made of stone, was intact: fiery, naked and many-limbed, the tongue protruding like a weapon, thirsty for obedience and worship. And perhaps blood. The villagers cleared a thoroughfare through the woods. Each evening, as the moon rose, they would proceed to the temple, kneel before the idol fearfully and pray. Women washed the yard and decorated it with rows of flowers, and on the night of the feast, a goat was sacrificed, to appease the Goddess.

Then the stream dried out, and after two rainless monsoons, famine struck. For two years, the villagers relied on the forest. The trees were all cut down, wood for the fires, the leaves and berries roasted and consumed. When even that was gone, and there was still no sign of rain, they began to slowly starve to death. Those that still had strength loaded their meagre belongings onto their cattle, or their own backs, and journeyed to the big city, where it was said that the householders ate only fine rice and always had starch to spare for the beggars. No one gave any thought to the old temple they were leaving behind, and to its Goddess that for some reason would not – or could not – protect them any longer.

A phaeton clopped to a halt in front of the abandoned temple. The carved arch gateway that was supported by columns on either side had collapsed, its debris almost blocking the entry path. Over the rubble, he could see the way ahead covered with an undergrowth of brambles. On the outer walls of the temple, plaster and paint had shed away, revealing an unwelcoming structure of ribs, tanned dark by the sun. The entrance, too, was dark and opaque, so that from where he sat, he couldn’t see what lay beyond. The temple had no dome. Had the roof itself collapsed, shattering everything inside?

From the back of the carriage, Aslam leapt onto the dust-covered ground and scurried around to help his master, flapping open a stack of steps. The Rai Bahadur got down delicately, always the right foot forward, dragging the other one painfully behind him, supported by the long, stiff cane with its ivory handle. He treaded over the concrete rubble, and then, transferring the cane to his right hand, hacked a walking path as best he could through the high brambles, beating down on the thickets, wincing, as the thorns sprang back in retaliation. At the entrance, he stopped to catch his breath, but it seemed like a very long moment. His throat was parched, and he could feel his whole body trembling with trepidation. He ran a hand through his wavy white hair, sweat dripping down his temples, took a deep breath, and then stepped into the dark.

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For successive days, there was this recurring dream that was troubling him. Each time, it was a female that appeared, each time in a different form. Even so, in the midst of his dream, he had the sense that they were all one and the same person, and so the experience of it was that of one single, unrelenting dream. On the first night, it was an old decrepit woman in tattered clothes, the sort one would associate with the casting and dispelling of spells, strange rituals and incantations in some alien, unknowable language. But in her eyes was a plea that went beyond the need for power.

Ramayana is an age old epic said to have been written by Valmiki, who was himself a reformed dacoit called Ratnakar. Ratnakar took to crime to feed his hungry family. 

Uttara Kanda, the seventh book of Ramayana explains it all in details. Sage Narada, a character who shuttles between heaven and Earth in Hindu lore, asked the bandit to check with his family if they would stand by him if he were punished. When they said they would not, the dacoit turned to God. Ratnakar was so ferocious that he could not pronounce the name on which Narada asked him to meditate and said ‘Mara‘ which means death. Eventually, he was covered by an anthill and the ‘mara‘ had become Rama. Then he created one of the greatest epic in the history of mankind Sanskrit, Ramayana.

Down the ages, it was converted to multiple languages, some of them being — Persian in the Mughal court, Awadhi Hindi by Tulsidas (1532-1623), Kannada, Tamil and more. The Tamil one was translated by famed novelist RK Narayanan into English as far back as 1972. Now, it has been proliferated into dozens of lore by the likes of Devdutt Patnaik, Chitra Divakaruni, Amish Tripathi and many more.

Recently Dastangoi revivalist, Mahmood Farooqui, adapted this lore for the inmates of Tihar jail, a prison in New Delhi. He used a version by Raghunandan Sahir which fulfilled the needs of uneducated prisoners in Tihar.

Book Review by Namrata

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Title: She Stoops to Kill — Stories of Crime and Passion

Editor: Preeti Gill

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Date of Publication: 2019

She Stoops to Kill is a collection of crime stories written by some of the most illustrious women writers of India. A chanced discussion at Guwahati airport between Preeti Gill and the featured authors about the rising crime rates featured in daily newspapers matured into an anthology of murder stories.

Preeti Gill is a renowned name in the literary circles, having worked in the publishing industry for more than two decades now. She has donned various hats during this period, ranging from being a writer, commissioning editor, rights manager, script writer, researcher and is now, an independent editor and literary agent.

This collection brings together a heady combination of renowned authors like Paro Anand, Venita Coelho, Uddipana Goswami, Manjula Padmanabhan, Janice Pariat, Mitra Phukan, Pratyaksha and Bulbul Sharma. Interestingly, each one of them is a stalwart in their own merit, having written award-winning titles but none had ever written crime or mystery. As the editor, Preeti Gill mentions in the introduction, “The writers I chose for this anthology don’t usually write crime, and much less murder, but once they decided to take this on I was absolutely stunned by the variety, the enthusiasm, the imaginative detail and also the macabre bloodiness of their stories.”