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Book review: Shillong Times – A Story of Friendship and Fear by Nilanjan P. Choudhury

Reviewed by Ananya S. Guha

Shillong Times

Title: Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear
Author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018)
Pages: 237

Nilanjan Choudhury’s novel Shillong Times, as the subtitle suggests, is a ‘story of friendship and fear’. Friendship’s association with ‘fear’, then, seems to be a thematic focus.

Set against the backdrop of Shillong in the volatile times of the 1980s, the novel is an addition to what is now turning out to be a fairly long list of fiction, including short stories which revolve around this town. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head, Siddartha Deb’s The Point of Return and Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land come readily to mind.

Choudhury, however, builds a more conscious landscape than the others to take us to the world of his fourteen year old protagonist Debojit Dutta, who in Blakeian terms leaves his ‘innocence’ behind to ‘experience’ his new found world, thanks to his friendship with two other teenagers, Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh and the empathetic Audrey Pariat. It is the former who introduces Debojit Dutta, when they meet in mathematics tuition classes, to the world of Pink Floyd and the out-of-bounds restaurant Kalsang.

I mentioned the volatile times of the eighties that forms the backdrop of the novel. Choudhury poignantly interfuses community relations (tribal and non tribal, the Bengali superiority syndrome, the Sylheti speaking Bengalis and the Calcutta Bengalis, etc.) with personal ones. Yet these personal friendships are among teenagers, which their adult counterparts or forebears seem to look askance at. Debojit’s mother reprimands him for this, so does his school teacher (lampooned effectively) Mr. Chakravarty. Clint’s father refuses to help in getting the trading licence of Debojit’s father renewed, although he saves him in a potentially violent squabble.

As ethnic tensions rise in the town of Shillong, resulting also in conflict of relations between Debojit and Clint (thanks also to the meddlesome Mr. Chakravarty), Debojit’s parents contemplate shifting to Calcutta and remove him to a school in Calcutta despite his protestations. Debojit also suffers taunts from his locality members for befriending a tribal, a Khasi. All this while, the petite Audrey plays a quiet mediating role, playing across the broken friendship of Debojit and Clint and building bridges.

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Excerpt: The Bride’s Mirror – A Tale of Life in Delhi a Hundred Years Ago by Nazir Ahmad (Trans. G. E. Ward)

About the book:

The Bride’s Mirror (Mirat ul-‘Arus) was the first bestseller in Urdu. First published in 1869, within twenty years it had gone into several editions and sold over 100,000 copies. An English translation was published in England in 1903 by G. E. Ward, and the book has been almost continuously in print ever since. The novel tells the story of two sisters, Asghari and Akbari, who are married to two brothers in Delhi. Akbari, the spoilt, mean-tempered and impetuous sister, fritters away all the advantages she is offered and makes a mess of her life. Asghari, who has to contend with all sorts of disappointments and setbacks, prevails in the end and makes a success of everything she turns her hand to.

All through its existence, The Bride’s Mirror had been hailed as one of the most important works of Urdu literature ever published. The portrait it provides of the lives of those who lived in Delhi over a hundred years ago is an indelible one.

Bride's mirror-1

When the news of Batúl’s death reached him, Dúrandesh Khán sáhib was very greatly distressed, and it was with a troubled heart that he wrote to his daughter the following letter:

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Book Excerpt: Ultimate Grandmother Hacks by Kavita Devgan

Ultimate Grandmother Hacks

Chapter 13

Where’s Your Milk Moustache?

There has never been any doubt about the great love that we Indians have for all things dairy, from milk to all the products that milk can churn out—yoghurt, buttermilk, butter, cottage cheese, you name it. Perhaps this has always been so because of the abundance of buffaloes and even cow milk here. There never was any doubt about its importance in our diet, and the goodness it bestows on our body, for both children and adults alike.

However today, like all good things, milk and its need is also being questioned. Why do you think this milky white elixir is tainted all of a sudden? There are no easy answers here. Perhaps, it just succumbed to unnecessary research and even more unnecessary shunning of fat that has gone on an overdrive over the last few decades. When you scrutinize a food too much, you are bound to find something amiss, or rather construct an anomaly using half-baked evidence. That is probably what must have happened with milk as well. Suddenly, it is being associated with weight gain, high cholesterol and multiple other ills in spite of the fact that there is no ‘clear’ reason for it.

No, you are never too old for a milk moustache!

Ultimate Grandmother's Hacks - illustration

Illustrator: Ritabrata Joardar

 

There is no one who is unaware of the benefits of milk. It is the first source of nutrition for humans and continues to be an important food all through their lives. However, it is wrong to think that milk is unnecessary or maybe even harmful for them, and that they can do away with it. It is a healthy snack, a fulfilling appetizer and a perfect breakfast drink. Nothing else can compare to a wholesome glass of milk. Our elders knew and followed this, and we should be smart enough to go back to this school of thought as soon as possible.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 15 questions with Janice Pariat

By Neha Mehrotra

Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories, Seahorse, a novel and The Nine Chambered-Heart, a novella, published by HarperCollins India in November 2017 and HarperCollins UK in May 2018. In 2013, Janice won Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writer Award and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction; in 2015, she was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize for her novel Seahorse.

Janice studied English Literature at St. Stephens College, Delhi and went on to study History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She currently lives in Delhi; among other things, writes a monthly literary column ‘Paperwallah’ for The Hindu and teaches creative writing at Ashoka University.

The Nine Chambered Heart is currently being translated for publication into six languages, including Italian, Spanish, French and German.

Janice Pariat.jpg

Janice Pariat

How do you identify as a writer?

By writing? I don’t see what else would suffice. Although I’d hasten to add that identifying as a writer implies something of a stasis–and I think, for me, it’s about “being” a writer or seeing that identity (as with all?) as something that’s perpetually in flux. One is always “becoming” a writer. It isn’t some pleasant destination you arrive at, at the top of a mythical hill. It’s also an identity to which people are keen to prefix with labels – “woman”, “Northeast”, “Indian” – while I would prefer to shrug them all off. Labels say very little about me, and tend to skew expectations of what I should write, the kind of stories I should be telling, where my books should be set.

What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?

I’m afraid I’m not very good at anything else – painting, pottery, playing a musical instrument. I feel kinship though with literature and books and writing. Reading impels me to write. As does remembrance, and memory. Bleakness. Joy. Frustration. Fun. Anger. Sadness. At the risk of sounding like one of those terrifically earnest people, writing is at the very centre of everything I do because it helps me make sense of the world, to record it, unravel it, and give it away. They say we write the books we want to read? Perhaps. I guess I write the books I do to explore aspects of myself, and other people and the world that most intrigue me.

Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.

A terrible poem which must never see light of day. Hastily scribbled notes, which may make it into the next book. To be honest, I’ve been reading more than writing this summer.

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Book Review: Karno’s Daughter by Rimli Sengupta

Reviewed by Suneetha Balakrishnan

Karno's Daughter

Title: Karno’s Daughter
Author: Rimli Sengupta
Pages: (Hardcover) 172
Publisher: Context (2018)
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Remember Baby Haldar’s gritty dark memoir of a domestic servant in Delhi, A Life Less Ordinary? If Baby narrated her dark journey from Kashmir to Murshidabad to Durgapur to Delhi, here is ‘Buttermilk’ in Kolkata making a daily commute on the 5.40 a.m. local from Subhashgram to ‘the city’. She goes round on foot then to Tollygunge and to Ballygunge to do kitchen, laundry and cleaning services at half a dozen homes. Why is she called Buttermilk? You get to know when it’s just six more pages to wrap up the book.

Buttermilk hails from a village in Sunderbans, from a farming family. She has a non-maid life back home where Karno Haldar, (yes, another Haldar by pure coincidence) her father, Bashona, her mother, and Buttermilk’s six siblings and her paternal grandparents lived. The village of her marital home, a joint family where agrarian duties are divided, comes later. Karno migrated to the city to pay off a loss of 150 kilos of rice; that’s how the family came to live at Ponchanontola, a Kolkata slum – all because of a crab, a huge crab, that Buttermilk had caught and brought home. This is the story that opens Rimli Sengupta’s debut book, Karno’s Daughter.

The opening chapter, suitably titled “Crab”, gives an impression of an opening in fiction. However, Karno’s Daughter is anything but fiction. It’s one of the best in narrative non-fiction that has been published in recent days in India. The story deals with the rough life of a people who have always lived in correlation to the earth, cultivating their own food.  In a world where hardly one percent of the urban population has an idea of what constitutes our agrarian crisis, Rimli Sengupta chooses an interesting vehicle to impart information on how small-holding rice farmers in rural Bengal subsist.

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Book Review: The Sunlight Plane by Damini Kane

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’.

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Book Excerpt: Two city poems from ‘Like Earth to Stars’ by H.S. Shiva Prakash

‘Like Earth to Stars’: Forthcoming from Poetrywala, Mumbai

Heracleion and the City of Shiva Prakash

Thank you, archaeologists, for excavating
the great ancient city
of Heracleion,
hidden in the depths of the Mediterranean
for one thousand and two hundred years.

Our stone children,
gods and goddesses,
still lie there
dreamy-eyed and smiling
though heads and limbs are broken
and eroded by sea salt.

Why did this city drown?
Experts reason:
It stood on the foundation of sand
that could not bear and support
its ever increasing weight of buildings
and statues of gods and people,
poor sand gave way…

But a lot of the city’s glory still survives poignantly
hidden in water and surrounded by unmindful fish
waiting to be discovered and admired…

My heart too is a city
bursting with palaces, temples and gardens
I built for you.

So many pilgrims and merchants come here day and night
and most settle down
as they cannot say goodbye to a city so exquisite,
because of you and my art
but, alas, I have built all this
on the foundation of wet sands
of your ever dwindling faith in me.

So the City of Shiva Prakash too will collapse
due to a great error of the builder:
He never thought of the strength
of the foundation.

But,
once it goes under the sands of the ever-changing world
will someone discover its wonders
when neither of us will be around?

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Books Revisited: It Takes a Murder by Anu Kumar

Reviewed by Shikhandin

It Takes a Murder

It Takes a Murder
Author: Anu Kumar
Publisher: Hatchette India (2013)
Pages: Paperback, 281
Buy: Available on Amazon and in book stores

 

It seems like years since I first read Anu Kumar’s It Takes a Murder. In reality, it has been only five. A recent news item reminded me of her book — it has been long listed in this year’s MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) Words to Screen Awards. This certainly is interesting and goes to show that reposeful books have lives of their own. I remember that I had enjoyed it – its literary, ruminative, lyrical prose. Now, spending the summer in the unlikeliest of places, a city that everybody tries to escape during this season, I thought of browsing through it, re-reading parts with care while glossing over other bits. At the end of it, I found, unsurprisingly, that my original reactions had remained the same, except for a heightened awareness of Kumar’s prose. It felt like walking down a place I had visited before, only noticing more details the second time round. It’s a good feeling, comforting, I must add, when impressions first formed have no cause to change. It reiterates my feeling of the quiet timelessness of Kumar’s It Takes a Murder.

The book involves a murder (obvious from the title) — that of a prominent resident of Brooks Town. But Kumar’s book is no ordinary murder mystery. It is not a literary thriller or a suspense story, but a literary novel – a dark one, with layered characters that demand closer scrutiny, events that need to be re-looked against a larger historical backdrop.

The narrative, innocuous like a sluggish river, is nevertheless punctuated with suspenseful and hold-your-breath passages, even as it deals with the most basic of all human relations – love. The story is narrated in flashback by an unreliable witness, one who keeps the reader guessing about everything, including the true inclination of her heart. She keeps feeding morsels of information in every chapter, just enough to whet the appetite (or should I say to keep the starved from dropping off?), and sometimes a little more. It’s a device that serves more to throw one off the track than reveal the truth. Finally, towards the end of the novel, she reels the reader in and actually confides, laying bare the whole web of intricacies.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with H.S. Shiva Prakash

By Dr Kamalakar Bhat

H.S. Shiva Prakash

O my Kannada words
You became my companions
In far-off Peru
Thanks for keeping me company
From day dreams amidst clouds
To the heights of Machu Picchu
Where eagles circle
And from there
To the cities of the ocean-goddess
And of a god with thunder’s name
With bricks and stones stained with blood
And from there
To the depths of Caral the mother city
And you, voices from the Machu Picchu poem
By my elder brother Pablo
Beloved hearts of my dear readers
That befriended me on my lonely journey;
The fruit of our journey
Was not sand, stone or ancient Peru’s mother city
But these few proverbs I stole from primordial dreams:
Peace is inevitable; not war
Dying is inevitable; not killing
Worship is inevitable; not sacrifice
Mating is inevitable; not longing
Trade is inevitable; not cheating
Enchanting flowers, the dreams of rocks;
Beauteous forms, the dreams of deserts;
Exquisite cities, the dreams of void;
The joy of all, the longing of the soul
Write these down in the slips of paper
Of our dying worlds,
Tie them to the claws of dream doves,
Let them go flying
Into all times
Into all spaces
Into all worlds

— From “Heights of Machu Picchu, Depths of Caral” by H. S. Shiva Prakash

Poet, playwright and translator, H S Shiva Prakash (born 1954) is among the foremost living writers of India. He began as a poet and playwright writing in Kannada and eventually became a bilingual poet and a translator across multiple languages. He teaches English at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and has served as the Director of the Cultural Centre at Berlin, known as the Tagore Centre.

He has nine collections of poems, fifteen plays, and several other books to his credit in Kannada. He has also published a collection of poems in English and many of his plays are available in English translation. His works have been widely translated into French, Italian, Turkish, Spanish, German, Polish, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. His plays have been performed in Kannada, Hindi, Meitei, Rabha, Assamese, Bodo, Tamil and Malayalam. Shiva Prakash has also translated the Kannada vachana literature into English. His interests include Bhakti movements of India, and Sufi and other mystic traditions. He has to his credit many ‘best book’ prizes for his books of poems, plays and translations accorded to him by Sahitya Academy, Delhi, Sangeet Natak Academi, Delhi and Karnataka Sahitya Academy. He is also the recipient of many awards including the Rajyotsava Award given by the Karnataka government and the Kusumagraja Award given by YCMOU, Nashik. While he has been invited to read his poems or present talks in various countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and America, he was also invited to the International Writing Program in School of Letters, University of Iowa.

Shiva Prakash began his writing career when ‘navya’, the modernist literary movement was dominant in Kannada. No doubt influenced by some of the major modernist Kannada writers, when he began writing, Shiva Prakash, wrote out of the many memories housed in him through the years of his growing up. In so doing, in his initial output, he marked a distinct poetic manner – both in form and content – from the one that was then popular. By the time his second collection was published, this difference began to be celebrated by his readers.

Kamalakar Bhat: Your poems forsake the path of obscurity that much of the navya Kannada poetry had chosen though you began writing during the period. Was reaching out to the reader important to you? 

Shiva Prakash: When I first started writing, I thought that my business is to write without bothering about reach and accessibility. Because I was influenced by modernist poetics and thought that one writes for a discerning individual. That was my belief at that time. Later, I discovered that when I read my poems in person, well-read people expressed admiration but the common people were not feeling good.  Then I said no, I must write for these people, not for the scholars and critics. I decided I should make the simple style my model.

Looking at the whole tradition of Kannada poetry and what kind of relationship exists between the poet and the audience, I discovered that in the best of Kannada poetry, even in classical Kannada poetry, the most memorable lines are very simple and they are immediately communicable. Whether it is Pampa, Ranna, Raghavanka, Kumaravyasa, all are very simple.

See, once a poet establishes a kind of rapport with the audience, people remember him.
Because poetry is not a communication of meaning. It may be the discovery of meaning for the critic and the scholar, but for people poetry creates an impact. And nobody reads poetry for accessing meaning. I think I endorse the classical notion that poetry is about impact, not communication.

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Waiting for the monkey’s return: Review of Amitabha Bagchi’s ‘Half the Night is Gone’

(From The Hindu. By Shreevatsa Nevatia. Link to the complete review given below)

One would think the Ramcharitmanas is impossible to include in modern literature. Tulsidas’ epic poem drips with a piety and excess that are seemingly hard to make relevant. In Half the Night is Gone, Amitabha Bagchi not just climbs that mountain, he lifts it. Of all the references he makes to that sacred text, there is one that is repeated more often: “Ardh raati gayi kapi nahi aayau/ Ram uthai anuj ur layau” (Past midnight and the monkey has not returned/ Ram lifted his brother’s prone body and held him to his heart). The couplet describes a scene Hinduism has, of course, made iconic over the years.

Lakshman has been fatally wounded in battle. Only a certain magic herb can save him. Hanuman flies to fetch it. He gets confused and brings back the entire mountain. We know Lakshman will be saved, but in the moment when half the night is gone, the prince is something of a Schrodinger’s cat: dead and alive. Like Lakshman, the characters of Half the Night are simultaneously one thing and its opposite: loyal and selfish, banal, yet oddly poetic, brawny and weak, familial, yet very individualistic.

Three generations

The architecture of Bagchi’s novel is intricate. He details the turbulence that besets two families and their three generations.

Lala Motichand is a typical Delhi merchant who does not let patriotism preclude profit. All revenue, he realises, is hard-won in a pre-independent India.

Read more at The Hindu link here