The Assassinations

The evening sky had deadened to the colour of cigarette ash by the time Jaswant left his office. On his way home, he passed cars and buses on fire, burnt shells of shops and houses billowing smoke, dead bodies of Sikhs cremated alive, bands of goondas brandishing machetes and crowbars… It was as if Partition had descended one more time. The stench of fire and smoke, the hapless victims and their remorseless tormentors, even the mob’s war cry of khoon kabadlakhoon. Everything was the same, right down to the dread rising from his soul.

He could feel the goondas’ eyes probing the car as it went past. They were stopping cars at random to check if there were Sikhs inside. Many times they’d tell the driver to open the boot to make sure no Sikhs were being smuggled to safety. But they made no move to impede his progress. That he was in a government car kept them at bay. That and the fact neither he nor his driver appeared to be a Sikh.

No sooner had they entered the posh southern part of Delhi than the goondas melted away. The stench of fire and smoke receded. The burnt bodies and buildings disappeared…instead, there were shuttered shops and deserted streets and empty pavements…. Even the dogs were not barking. It was as if someone had thrown a blanket of silence over the entire place. The silence resounded louder than all the mayhem Jaswant had witnessed. It spoke of fear and apathy.

Even though it was still evening, the first thing he did after reaching home was lock his front gate. Deepa, Savitri and Rakesh were waiting for him in the drawing room. Deepa’s face was wan, her eyes puffy. She had been crying since getting home from Rakesh’s school. Rakesh was hunched in a chair. Normally, it was hard for him to sit still. But that day he looked as if all life had been sucked out of him.

Savitri told him about the attack on the Sikh they witnessed while returning from Rakesh’s school. The sheer brutality of the assault took Jaswant unawares, despite what he had seen on his way home. When Savitri came to the part where the Sikh’s assailant shoved locks of his hair into his mouth, Jaswant recoiled. It was several seconds before he could find his voice.

He told them that he had no news of Prem. He had contacted one of his friends who was a superintendent in the Home Guards and stationed less than ten kilometres from Trilokpuri. His friend had promised to call him with information in the morning.

Deepa, who was dying for news of Prem, erupted. “He said that and you accepted it?” she shouted. “You didn’t tell him to send a man there at once? You didn’t tell him that this is your future son-in-law?”

Her voice collapsed as she finished. She leapt up from the sofa to half-run, half-stumble in the direction of her room. Savitri went after her. Jaswant dropped into the sofa. It pained him to see Deepa so upset. He wished he had better news.

“Will everything be all right, Daddy?” Rakesh asked.

His voice betrayed how much he was struggling to make sense of what was going on. It was as if they had gone back in time and Rakesh was a little boy all over again. A lump grew in Jaswant’s throat. He went over to embrace Rakesh. “Don’t worry, beta, everything will be all right,” he told him. “Now go put your mind elsewhere.”

There was a short pause before Rakesh nodded and left for his room. Jaswant slumped on the sofa, wishing he could feel some of the conviction with which he had assured Rakesh that things would work out.

His friend in the Home Guards had sent a man to Irfan’s flat. That man got nowhere near the flat. Instead, he came back with news of a neighbourhood under siege. An army of goondaswas running wild in Trilokpuri. They had cut all the telephone wires and blocked the way out with a huge concrete pipe. Near the pipe, there was a car all smashed up. From the description, it appeared to be Prem’s. There was no sign of Prem; so there was a chance that he had survived. But it didn’t appear likely, given the evidence on hand.

He hadn’t been able to look into Deepa’s teary eyes and tell her the man she loved was probably dead. On the phone with Amarjeet, he had found himself just as powerless. So he had lied to both of them, saying his friend would call with news in the morning.

What was worse? The hammer blow of tragedy or the torture of not knowing?

As far as he could tell, there wasn’t much to choose.

It was almost morning before Deepa gave in to sleep and Savitri could leave her room. She plodded, heavy-footed, through the house. Although she had been up all night and was aching everywhere, she had no wish to go to bed.

Jaswant was still fast asleep on the drawing room sofa. She had found him sitting there last night when she came out of Deepa’s room to get her a glass of water. He had wanted to come speak to Deepa. She had talked him out of it. It would be hard for him to deal with her, given the mood she was in. Evidently, he had stayed where she left him, until fatigue got the better of him. Because of Deepa, she hadn’t been able to speak to him last night. She wondered whether she should wake him up. She decided against it. Before that she needed a few moments to herself.

Reviewed by Saba Mahmood Bashir

patna blues

Title: Patna Blues
Author: Abdullah Khan
Publishing House: Juggernaut Books
Year of publication: 2018
Price: Rs 499

 

Yeh maikad-e-ishq hai yahan  jaam-e-junoon milta hain
Giriya-e-deed-e-Qaisha wa Qalb-e-Laila ka khoon milta hai

To say that Patna Blues, the debut novel of Abdullah Khan, is about the life of a young boy, an IAS aspirant from Patna, is limiting the scope of the book and the author. Strongly set in the history and politics of the nation of the last 30 years or so, the story is woven on the desire of a middle class, hardworking family to see their son as an administrative officer. What gets sewn in the storyline is the infatuation of Arif Khan, the protagonist, with a Hindu married woman, Sumitra, who is much older to him. However, in actuality what lies within the fabric of the story is the socio-political situation of the country in the background and which keeps jutting out throughout the main narrative. Right from the building up of the political mood of the nation before the demolition of the Babri Masjid to the Gujarat carnage and the then Chief Minister being denied the US visa, the story continues along the arc of political changes that happen in the country. One notices the changes in the storyline with the rise of extremism and its impact on the common man. There are references of how his honest father, a respectable police inspector, had to pay the price for his honesty, and how the corrupt officials tried to settle scores with him after he retired. This issue of corruption has been dealt with rather sensitively, portraying at length the helplessness of an honest officer. Again, when Arif’s younger brother, an aspiring actor, goes missing from a Muslim dominated locality in Delhi, there are suggestions of corruption and an existing fear of the police.

Gowri Kishore

Karthi was in love.

Whether it was right for him to be in love, being only eight years old, was a different matter.

He thought Mari was the most beautiful thing he had ever set his eyes on. And though he was trying hard to do his maths homework (the terrifying prospect of facing Varadarajan sir with a blank notebook urged him on), he just couldn’t. He had been sitting in the corner of appa’s room with his back against the wall, his books spread out around him, chewing the end of his pencil and trying to focus on the problem at hand.

‘Joseph had three dozen roses. He gave half of them to Alice. How many roses did each of them have?’

Oh, lucky boy Joseph! He had three dozen roses to give away to whoever he liked. Whereas he, Karthi, could not find a way to get hold of just one rose to give to Mari. It would look beautiful in her hair that swung down her back in a thick, long plait. She would pin it just behind her ear, like the heroines in the black and white film songs paatti watched on TV.

But where could he find a rose?

There were all sorts of plants in the yard outside, but no rose among them. On his way home from school, he had seen women selling large, colourful baskets of roses. But the school bus did not stop anywhere near the market and asking the driver to let him down midway was out of the question. The driver was an annoying fellow with a knowing laugh and a hundred questions; he would want to know what business R. Karthik from III-B had in the flower market, whether his parents knew he was making such a strange request to the bus driver, and what the school principal would say if he found out.

No, it would be foolish to even try.

Getting an auto from the stand outside the school was also risky—the auto drivers had regular riders and knew most of the students by name. They knew he usually took the school bus and if he dared ask one of them to take him to the market, there would only be more questions. Briefly, he considered walking to the market but no, it was too far—even by bus, it took twenty minutes. He wished he had a cycle like some of the older students—that would make things so much simpler.

By Vinayak Dewan

 

The Town that Laughed

Title: The Town that Laughed
Author: Manu Bhattathiri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 262 (Hardcover)
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Manu Bhattathiri’s latest novel leisurely reveals deep insights into the human mind through its dysfunctional army of sleepily adorable characters.

The cover page of Manu Bhattathiri’s The Town that Laughed depicts the novel’s protagonist-antagonist duo: Yemaan Paachu, a retired former local police chief; Joby, the town drunk that Paachu takes on the job of reforming. Standing true to its promise of being a twenty-first century novel, it does not betray which is antagonist and which protagonist — a complexity that extends to many of the sleepy town’s residents. Instead, they are simultaneously comical and troubled, happy and sad, silly and incredibly intelligent.

The Town that Laughed evokes nostalgia for Malgudi, the titular setting of Malgudi Days (1943), a collection of short stories by Padma Vibhushan winning novelist R. K. Narayan. India has come a long way since 1943, and has, in the process, concocted its own multiple Englishes. As a postcolonial novel, The Town takes a big leap from Malgudi that hesitated to speak English, often italicizing, parenthesizing or poorly translating many aspects of Indian rural life for the western audience — diluting idlis to rice cakes, for instance. The Town, on the other hand, finds an audience situated closer to home and more adept at understanding the novel’s cultural milieu. Dialogues in the vernacular often find no translation or explanation in English. This might sometimes alienate a non-Malayali speaking reader such as me but allows the writer to write his story with confidence.

Provided by a robust toolkit, the omnipresent narrator is kind and funny and honest: ‘… you must be completely honest if you are seeking to give the reader a true picture.’ Bhattathiri is seamlessly able to don the skin of the novel’s diverse characters, revealing insights into their psyche with a heart winning tenderness. A case in point is the aunt-niece duo Sharada and Priya, Yemaan Paachu’s wife and niece respectively.

PATNA BLUES

SIX

During the month of September, Arif shut himself in his tiny study room, spending all his waking hours preparing for the mains. The previous month Amma had made Abba buy two large cylindrical steel containers to store grains, and these were then placed in the corridor outside his study room. A mason had been deployed to cut through the brick wall and construct a window that opened into the backyard. Amma had also got the study room whitewashed and the table and chair had been given a new coat of polish.

‘My son needs privacy to prepare for a prestigious and difficult exam like this,’ Arif had heard her saying to Abba.

He stopped going over to Mritunjay’s place, fearing he might run into Sumitra. He knew that if she was around, he would not be able to stay away from her. Whenever Mritunjay complained about his reduced visits, Arif invented new excuses.

But Sumitra kept popping up in his mind. The scene from that rainy night played in his mind continuously. Whenever he conjured up the moment she had embraced him, he got goosebumps. At times he also recalled Simran, his childhood crush from Darbhanga, and felt nostalgic. He convinced himself that Sumitra would vanish from his memories the way Simran had.

October finally arrived and Arif felt that he had performed exceptionally well in the exam. He was sure to get an interview call. The very next day he went to Ashok Rajpath and bought the books required to prep for the interview. He also created detailed notes on his personal and academic backgrounds, the areas he would be questioned on during the interview.

‘A part of our ancestral house in Jamalpura has collapsed in the rain. One of the walls requires immediate repair. I want you to go there and oversee the construction,’ Abba told Arif.

Arif was eager to leave for Jamalpura instantly. This way he would be away from Sumitra. He also wanted to test Zakir’s hypothesis – maybe staying away from her would help him forget her. He would also be able to concentrate on his studies. His ultimate dream to join the civil services was just one hurdle away and he couldn’t mess up all his hard work and his family’s dreams now.

‘See, Arif, you are close to your goal. In Jamalpura, you’ll have a comfortable space to study for the interview. Here, the continuous footfall of guests will distract you,’ Abba said. ‘Sometimes I feel guilty for not sending you to a good coaching institute like Mritunjay’s father did,’ he added with a heavy sigh.

‘Don’t say that, Abba. You have been a wonderful father.’

#

The bus crossed Gandhi Setu over the majestic Ganga and entered Hajipur. It turned and speeded towards Muzaff arpur. Between Muzaff arpur and Hajipur, there was no road, only a long stretch of potholes and cobbled paths. The bus jerked like a horse cart. A bespectacled old gentleman cursed the chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, for the condition of the roads and ridiculed Yadav for claiming that he would make Bihar’s roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks.

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.