Reviewed by Koi Kye Lee

Pakistan Independence Day Special

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Title: Beyond the Fields

Author: Aysha Baqir

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish (2019)

Beyond the Fields is an impressive and poignant debut novel from the Pakistani writer, Aysha Baqir, who also founded the Kaarvans Crafts Foundation to provide business development and market-focused training for women in her country.

Baqir centres her narrative around grief and family bond and then expands into a macrocosm of larger issues. The story starts with a young teenage girl’s harrowing life changing journey from a remote village in Punjab to the big city of Lahore. It was Zara’a first trip out of her remote village in Bahawalpur, a district in Southern Punjab. She has a mission to complete — she needs to rescue her twin. Born to a poor, landless farmer, Zara was inseparable from her twin sister, Tara, and their elder brother Omer.

Growing up in a village, Zara and Tara are already at a disadvantage in life. Living in an agrarian society, where acres of land are controlled by big land owners, the girls are not allowed to go to school unlike their brother Omer. They are also not allowed to pursue dreams which will give them independence as their fate is determined by their parents, especially their father, whom they refer to as ‘Abba’.

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Bajra

Title: Footprints in the Bajra

Author: Nabina Das

Publisher: Cedar Books, 2010

We go from place to place. In Durjanpur, to nearby villages in that temporarily parched but exquisite Bihar landscape, in schoolyards and open bazaars. We present our play to young and old, masters and servants, women and men. We drive by expansive bajra and wheat fields, breathtaking floral carpets of white sesame and purple bush beans, starving peasants clutching their ribs and staring at us by roadsides and motorcycle-borne landed gentry – supposedly the most powerful and influential folks in the region – asking us city folks where we are headed next. None of these rural folks have ever seen a street play where actors don’t wear flashy make-up or gaudy clothes but just a pair of jeans and a shirt, where a woman acts and touches the men, and where no nachanias or dancers sway their hips to raunchy music – a staple non-family entertainment by travelling troupes in rural north India. The very first day we arrived in Durjanpur, I remember kids went running helter-skelter announcing us to the villagers. “Nachanias have come, nachanias have come!” they screamed, to which married women and young girls covered their face with an extra hard tug of the dupatta or the sari and hookah-smoking men sat in shock thinking the old headmaster has gone crazy inviting this impudent city bunch that is bound to corrupt good moral village folks. I am quite aware that nachanias connote immorality for them. Also a woman – that is me – in our team adds to their confusion they find tough to hide. For them, decent women in the village do not go about anywhere with a bunch of men, unless they happen to be her son, a relative or a client desirous of specific pleasures. My jeans and shirts – I brought limited change of clothes – attract attention, as does my scarf, briefly, which I wear for propriety’s sake only for a week and then discard, generating more palpable shock. Our hectic schedule doesn’t allow me to wash my shoulder-length hair regularly, so I myself chop further around the mop with a pair of scissors to make it look like a boy’s head. I thank my common sense for bringing a pair of sturdy sneakers. They literally keep me on my toes. It’s only when I come back to rest in the evening, that Muskaan amuses herself examining my precious box of skin creams and moisturizers, the stuff that I religiously use for fear of losing my feminine side. “Ah now I know why city women look so delicate!” Muskaan enjoys hurling banters at me. I give her a tube. “Keep that for yourself, aloe vera and vitamin D.” She laughs, the serpentine braid slithering on her back. Then poking me on my arm she says, “Sheherwali, chew tulsi leaves every morning. Even your backside will not get pimples! Besides, Maoists might still recognize you as a woman and not shoot.”

**

Things don’t turn out to be dreadful. The Ghost at the Altar runs into several shows. The play seems to have intrigued this sleepy region and its lethargic inhabitants. Not so sleepy really. Frequent ambushes by Maoists, deep-rooted caste feuds and occasional Hindu-Muslim tiffs keep this place alive and awake. And these influence periodic activities like elections, public works or other significant government projects.

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Cover illustration for the London edition of Miguel Cervantes Don Quixote

In 1981, Salman Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, with its focus on Partition won a Booker Prize. And now, more than four decades later, his new novel Quichotte, due for release this September, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2019. But this time, his book is a take-off on Don Quixote, immortalised by sixteenth century Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes and often labelled as “the first modern novel”.

Midnight’s Children was given not just a Booker Prize but also a “Booker of the Bookers” Prize (1993) with its story set around the Partition of India and steeped in magical realism. His fourth book Satanic Verses (1988) was  a finalist for the Booker Prize. However, a  ‘fatwa’ was issued against his book calling for Salman Rushdie’s death by no less than Ayatollah Khomeini  one year after it was published. India had banned the book as “hate speech” against a particular religious group.

Book Review by Namrata

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Title: The Crooked Line

Author: Ismat Chugtai (Translated from Urdu by Tahira Naqvi)

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019

Narrating the tale of a lonely child called Shaman, the novel, The Crooked Line, by Ismat Chugtai is considered to be one of her finest works. Written is an extremely poignant and evocative manner, Shaman’s story takes us through her experiences of growing up as a woman in a conservative Muslim family.

Ismat Chugtai  is regarded as one of the most rebellious and provocative women writers in Urdu and continues to be a luminary till date. The Crooked Line was originally published in 1945 and was translated into English fifty years later, after it was compared to The Second Sex (1949) by de Beauvoir for its strong portrayal of gender and politics. However, the two books are starkly different in their approach with The Crooked Line being a novel while The Second Sex is a treatise;  though it has always been argued that the former could be semi-autobiographical.

To begin with, her birth was ill-timed.”

These powerful lines announce the arrival of Shaman, the youngest child in a large and affluent family. In a way, they also set the tone for what is yet to arrive in the novel. Everything about Shaman is encapsulated in these lines —  ill-timed, ill-mannered and ill-fated. Tracing her journey from her childhood to her old age, this story is beautifully layered with deepest desires, darkest secrets and emotions interwoven with the fragility of human relationships.

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‘Small is beautiful’ was a term popularised by EF Schumacher in his  book of the same  name.

But how small is beautiful?

Now we have a writing contest offering an award for a story that has a maximum of 500 words.

Do you have one for the picking? 

The last date for entry is 31 st July, 2019.

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Elif Shafak,  the award winning Turkish- British writer, who writes in Turkish and English,  is under investigation by prosecutors from Turkey along with other writers, for infringing obscenity laws. Said the writer:

“In the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report, Turkey ranks 130 of 149 countries. Only around 15% of child and adult sexual abuse cases are reported. The number of child brides is alarming. We need to talk about our problems rather than pretending they do not exist. The art of storytelling should dare to talk about difficult subjects.

“In all my novels I have tried to give voice to the voiceless. I have written about outcasts, minorities, the displaced and exiled … I wanted to make their stories heard. So I really find it tragic that instead of changing the laws, building shelters for abused women and children, improving the conditions for the victims, they are attacking fiction writers. That is very sad.”

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

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Title: Voice of the Runes – When Souls Connect, But Vengeance Speaks 
Author: Manjiri Prabhu
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2018.
Voice of the Runes begins with a vision and a death. The stage is set and readers plunge into the mystery even before they have seen Lund University, Sweden, the setting for Dr Manjiri Prabhu’s Nordic noir. The thriller brings back Re Parkar, the investigative journalist with the ability to sense things and chase visions. With him in this adventure is Magdalena Lindberg, Maddy, who assists him in tracing the messages the runes offer.

The story begins with Professor Heinz delivering his annual address to the university’s students a day before the university’s 350th year celebrations. He is a revered practitioner of runology – a controversial subject in an academic atmosphere that relies heavily on its scientific temperament; Maddy is his research assistant. As he delivers the lecture, he turns to a moment of drama, shuts his eyes and picks out a rune stone from his bag. The first kiss of stone and the professor collapses, suddenly, shockingly.

The stunned silence that follows will soon give way to chaos, suspicions, intrigue, arson, vandalism, treachery and deaths while Maddy interprets the clues in the runes for Re Parkar and they arrive closer and closer to the truth — a truth that will shock and unnerve the characters as well as the readers. Manjiri Prabhu delivers a masterstroke by bringing in this twist in the tale, firmly establishing the story’s emotional core.

 

No No- Boy by John Okada  (1956) was the first novel by a Japanese American dealing with the Japanese internment camps in America after the bombing of Pearl harbour. The book was not well received by the Japanese  American community initially. It dealt with issues like racism and army drafting.

The novel centres around a Japanese American who refused to draft for the second World War by pledging loyalty to the Emperor Hirohito backed by the allied troops and to fight against those that “misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest”.

It was so hard for Okada to find a publisher in America that he published in Japan in 1956 with a Japanese English language publisher. In 1971, CARP ( Combined Asian-American Resources Project) found the book  and republished it. Now a copyright controversy rages between the University of Washington professor Shawn Wong  ,who republished the book in 1976 for CARP and Penguin. Penguin recently republished the book in May 2019 as part of a series featuring Asian American writing. Penguin claims that as the book was never registered in America, it has no copyright protection in USA, where it sells well and is taught as part of university curriculum.

Physical Map of Asia

When we travel or go on a holiday, we look forward to discovering spaces and cultures new to us. Here is a list of ten books that can vicariously give us a flavour of diverse cultures in the same way. The selection zips across Asia collecting books that have won Man Booker Prize, Man Asian Literary prize and more.

The books sail from Philippines to China, Mongolia, India, Japan, Vietnam to satisfy the fussiest of palates with fiction from different cultures.

Books by award winning and popular writer Haruki Murakami of Japan; Man Asian literary prize winner Bi Feiyu of China; Man Booker prize winning writer Arvind Adiga from India and the last and only female winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, Korean writer Shin Kyung-sook , are featured in this listing.

By Ratnottama Sengupta

So much of sci-fi uses science as a starting point and then uses fiction to fill up the gaps in our present knowledge. We use what we know today to imagine a different tomorrow –- a better tomorrow — for the world. Still, sooner rather than later, sci-fi that looks out-dated as science fiction becomes a scientific fact. Don’t we all know that Sage Valmiki wrote in Ramayana of the Pushpak Vimana ( mythical flying chariots in Hindu lore) and the giant bird Jatayu that clashed in mid-space aeons before the Wright Brothers wrote their names into aviation history or before the Central Science Laboratory in UK estimated that worldwide, the cost of bird-strikes to airlines had soared to US$ 1.2 billion annually!

But why does this possibility of fiction becoming a fact excite me? Admittedly because of my association with Me and I, which my father, well-known author and scriptwriter Nabendu Ghosh, had written for his two grandsons, and was translated by my son Devottam Sengupta for his grandpa’s birth centenary. Published by Hachette India, the novel breaks the barriers of space and time. Let me quote from the synopsis to give readers a glimpse of this. “They all had the same question for Mukul: ‘Why didn’t you recognise us? And why did you look so dark?’ Mukul was perplexed. The day had started as any other Sunday morning would, with him going out to meet his aunt, his friends and his mentor Noni Kaku of the Telescope. But when everyone, including his own parents insisted that he was lying about his whereabouts, Mukul had to look around for this imposter. And he found Lukum, who had travelled light years to meet his intergalactic ‘twin.’ Little did Mukul know that he had set out on the longest Sunday of his life…”