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Book Review: The Wounds of the Dead by Vikram Paralkar

Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

The Wounds of the Dead

Title: The Wounds of the Dead
Author: Vikram Paralkar
Publisher: Fourth Estate India (2017)
Pages: 224 (Hardcover)
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The Wounds of the Dead is a book which takes risks with almost every element of its narration, and to a large part, makes it work in a way most of us wouldn’t expect. The biggest challenge it faces is the blending together of various genres, and it deftly manages to cross over from one to the other without breaking the flow of the story. Going from one chapter to the next, the narrative becomes a high-tension, tightly bound medical drama at some points and at others, a more relaxed treatise on spirituality. Although it becomes evident which are the high points of the book and which aren’t, the writer does a good job of keeping the margin relatively smaller.

I’ll admit to my initial scepticism when I began with the book. The story at first sounds deceptively simple: a doctor is forced by his circumstances to treat a family that shouldn’t be alive, but is. Probably the most interesting character in the book is that of the doctor, a typical veteran of medicine and melancholy, who tries his best to deal with his past as well as his frustration over being stuck in a land where he doesn’t belong. In doing so, he becomes the most relatable character in the entire mix, one who is dedicated to his trade but hates his job, and doesn’t shy away from unleashing the pent up frustration in his words for the simple minded villager. However, when trouble comes knocking, quite literally, he rises to the occasion, letting his kindness and compassion shine through his otherwise prevalent bitterness. In doing so, the doctor becomes a metaphor for humanity and of how trying times always bring out the best in us. In comparison, the rest of the characters are considerably less complicated and driven by straightforward motivations.

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Book Review: Ladders Against the Sky by Murli Melwani

Reviewed by Kusum Chopra

Ladders Against the Sky

Title: Ladders Against the Sky
Author: Murli Melwani
Publisher: Kaziranga Books (2017)
Pages: 453
Price: INR 500

Ladders Against the Sky is a collection of 16 stories, written between 2011 and 2017, which were first published in literary journals and anthologies. One of the stories, “Water on a Hot Plate,” was included in The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, published by Kitaab. Two stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012 and 2013.

Murli Melwani is a short story writer, a literary activist who runs two websites, and a critic, whose book, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: A Historical and a Critical Study, tracks the growth of this genre from 1835 to 1980.

The short stories in the collection can be divided into two broad categories. About half the stories, set in India, reflect social concern, the conflict between tradition and modernity, science and superstition and the pressures on national unity. The other half, set in foreign countries, focuses on a unique Indian community, the Sindhis, whose culture – a blend of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, and their language, written in the Arabic script with linguistic elements of Sanskrit and Persian – are in danger of gradually fading away.

The writer’s approach is determined by the subject of each story. Thus, “Water on a Hot Plate”, with Toronto as the background, a story of cultural displacement and change, captures the interaction of an Indian tourist and a restaurateur, a Chinese lady born in India. They are two enterprising expatriates who carry diminishing bits of home, as well as of the countries they have lived in, to their newest place of sojourn.

Similarly, in “A Bar Girl,” the lifestyles that Amar Badlani and Rak have chosen prevent them from stopping and evaluating their lives or asking where they are headed. Amar Badlani’s visit with Rak to her village brings home to him the fact that his estrangement from his family has its roots in his working life. His damage control efforts lead him to finance the nursing education of Rak on the one hand, and to make overtures to his kids and grandkids on the other.

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Book Review: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Indian Cultures.

Title: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Pages: 222 pages 

 

Culture influences our values, world view, loyalties, behaviour and much more. Very often it is equated with civilisation a term that came to be used to describe societies that boasted of extensive territory, sophisticated language, literature, art and architecture, and above all, a single religion. Under the colonial influence, culture came to be redefined simply as a way of life of elite groups, for instance Aryans in the case of India. Unfortunately, our current understanding of Indian culture is overshadowed by this erroneous interpretation. Heritage, both cultural and natural, consists of ideas, objects and practices; contributes to quality of life, gives us a cultural identity and connects us with our past. India’s cultural heritage has always been subject to debates. While traditional historians favour the ‘unity in diversity’ approach in order to project a homogenised Indian identity and presumably invoke the spirit of patriotism, Thapar, in her latest book, Indian Cultures as Heritage Contemporary Pasts, does exactly the opposite.

A fearless, frequent and outspoken critic of our dogmatic and communal interpretations of the past, Thapar’s  book does not to go into the historical aspect of the making of Indian culture but provides glimpses of what is often omitted, marginalized, trivialized or is even considered irrelevant to its understanding. Drawing on her lectures and essays, published in the recent past, this book challenges the idea that Indian culture is the monolithic phenomenon it is often portrayed as in Indian historical writing or what is being currently imposed on the Indian citizens by cultural nationalists. Identification with a single culture, she argues, despite the existence of many in the country, is risky since it tends to dismiss all that does not conform to the mainstream forms, perpetuates inequality and silences all kinds of reasonable resistance. Culture is deeply linked with historical developments and bound to change. But the two differ as well. While history narrates and explains the past, culture can invent the past without any historical evidence. Therefore, one has to guard against spurious history which can be manufactured by culture. Thapar’s argument that we need to subject the Indian culture to rigorous historical scrutiny and juxtapose historical and cultural forms to understand their interface is highly relevant, especially in the present context when cultural forms are being subjected to identity politics due to ignorance and lack of general or intellectual interest in other cultures, within and outside the subcontinent.

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Book Review: Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb

Short and Sweet Stories Tinged with Melancholy

Reviewed by Namira Hossain

Truth or Dare

Title: Truth or Dare
Author: Nadia Kabir Barb
Publisher: Bengal Light Books
Pages: 120 

There are some books you read that you could probably start reading with your mid-afternoon tea and finish by the time it is sunset and only the last dregs are left in the cup. Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb is a bit like that. Barb is a British-Bangladeshi writer who lives in London. The cover is stark, a black and white negative of a construction site, giving you an insight into the nature of the book. But at a mere 120 pages, it does not feel like a daunting prospect. Her stories represent her multifaceted personality very well, showcasing little quirks of being part and parcel of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom.

Each of the twelve stories packs a punch. In the first one, “Can You See Me?” a suicidal pseudo celebrity meets a roadside bum and they commiserate over the losses in their lives before a cliff-hanger ending. The next story dives into a domestic scene where a housewife is cutting onions in the kitchen while guarding a tragic secret from her abusive in-laws. Despite the dramatic nature of the stories, Barb spins realistic and believable characters, whose lives and losses evoke emotion in her readers. Short stories do not have the liberty to build great characters through their development; instead, it is the minute plot details, ’moments’ that make a character in a short story somebody that the reader cares about.

I think the book really picks up towards the middle, starting with the title story “Truth or Dare”, about two young boys who decide to play truth or dare. Starting from its very relatable experience of being in a boring classroom with an unenthusiastic math teacher, the story takes the reader through different highs as it follows its protagonist Raju’s day of playing with his friend Tareq, who hides the darkness within.

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Play Review: Hayavadana

A face/off set in the world of mythology and folklore

By Zafar Anjum

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Conceptualised by: Monisha Charan and Dr Siri Rama
Executive producer & Director: Monisha Charan
Artistic director and choreographer: Dr Siri Rama

 

Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana is considered one of the landmark works in the annals of Indian theatre. The play brings about the interplay of questions of love, identity and sexuality through a panoply of characters set in a world of mythology and folklore.

Recently, Izaara Productions brought this famous play alive on stage in Singapore under the skilful direction of Monisha Charan.

Hayavadana

The play’s director Monisha Charan (right) with the High Commissioner of India in Singapore, Mr. Jawed Ashraf (Centre) and Mr. Abhay Charan (left).

The play began with a brief narration on the play’s antecedents: one of the influences behind the play was Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads, which in turn was borrowed from a Kathasaritasagara story. In keeping with the spirit of the play, Monisha Charan paid a rich tribute to the myths and legends of the Hindu religion.

The plot revolves around two parallel stories, both involving questions of love and identity (the heart and the head). In the main track, a well-built kshatriya, Kapila (Avtar Bhullar), finds that his best friend Devadatta (Justin Lee) has madly fallen in love with Padmini (Dr. Siri Rama). Although Kapila harbours an attraction for Padmini, his love and loyalty stands above all; he arranges the match for Devadatta and Padmini and they get married.

The director has made sure that the two actors present a contrast in their physicality and demeanour: Kapila is a Kshatriya with a muscular and manly appearance; Devadatta is a learned Brahmin and poet with a weak physique. The playwright cleverly poses the question to the audience: what if their physicalities are switched? What if the weak Brahmin poet becomes muscular and the sinewy warrior takes the body of the weak poet? Are they happy in their new avatars? What happens to Padmini’s love in that case?

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Subtly, the play comments on the rigidity of the caste system which imposes a hierarchy on people. Along with the main track, the sub-plot features the Hayavadana (the horse-man), played with gusto by De Zhong Chia, who is unhappy because he feels incomplete with the face of a horse and the body of a man; yet, he is the object of affection of a beautiful lady, played by Renita Kapoor. I wish this track had more layers to it, as we find in the main track.

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Book Review: A Faceless Evening and Other Stories by Gangadhar Gadgil (Trans. Keerti Ramachandra)

Reviewed by Sheila Kumar

A Faceless Evening

Title: A Faceless evening and other stories
Author: Gangadhar Gadgil
Translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra
Publisher: Ratna Books
Pages: 201
Price: Rs 299

 

Of the human condition…

Fourteen evocative short stories by the Marathi master

Gangadhar Gadgil carved a niche for himself in Marathi literature decades ago and is a known name to those who read translations but is yet unknown to scores of other readers. Ratna Books and translator Keerti Ramachandra have rectified that omission with this book – A Faceless Evening and Other Stories.

In this book, Gadgil runs the gamut of human emotions and the human condition. Life plays out in full intensity on these pages, each story a microcosm of people like us, people unlike us. A couple travelling in a train are locked in a bittersweet battle for emotional control. Ten years ago, she was a toy to him, now a shackle. On her part, hatred raises its hood, poised to strike, before pragmatism overcomes both of them. And so the journey continues, just as the deadlock between the two continues.

There is Bandu (a favourite character of the writer) is desirous of getting himself a new umbrella, but his luck with brollies has never been good. Plastic handles come off in his hand; old umbrellas shower rat droppings, dead roaches and such detritus on his unsuspecting head; umbrellas with wooden shafts just refuse to open, leading to unseemly struggles. Then he buys a stainless steel one that he can ill afford, but soon, one cloud tells another of his new acquisition and Bandu is given no opportunity to use the dratted umbrella.

There is a take that lays bare the politics of a joint family with all its attendant drama: the shrewish mother-in-law, the faintly sinister father-in-law, the victimised elder sister-in-law, the conniving younger sister-in-law and the narrator, a cheerful bahu of the house. Things reach a flashpoint but like all domestic crises, this one too blows over and the members of the family prepare to face another day and take things as they come.

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Book Review: A Bit of Earth by Suchen Christine Lim

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Bit of Earth

Title: A Bit of Earth
Author: Suchen Christine Lim
Publisher: Times Marshall-Cavendish, Singapore, 2001
Pages: 420
Price: S$21.40
ISBN: 9812321233

A Bit of Earth is a multi-layered novel by Suchen Christine Lim that explores the history of Malaya under the British regime. The saga stretches from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The protagonist, Wong Tuck Heng, journeys from being a poor, hounded immigrant to a rich towkay, a big boss in local parlance, guided by the principle that helped him achieve his dream of growing into a rich and honoured man. He states his viewpoint, ‘Land and properties, you can lose. But if you lose your spirit, then you lose the very thing that makes us human. Courage and loyalty. That’s part of our spirit as human beings…’

We first see Wong in 1874, a teenager on the run with a price on his head, chased out of his homeland Sum Hor in Canton Prefecture, by the Manchu rulers. He considers the Manchus as invaders and intruders into China; the Manchus had wiped out his entire family, loyalists of the preceding Ming dynasty, as rebels. The saga starts with Wong landing in Malaya after a perilous journey, saved by loyalists and brave supporters from the clan of White Cranes. He finds work in the tin mines of Malaya and struggles to become rich. He acquires two wives, a Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese) wife and a Chinese one from the mainland, chosen by his foster mother Wong-soh. His Nyonya wife is thrust upon him by the wealthy Wee family that his foster father married into to upscale himself in wealth and power, after disowning his earlier wife, Wong-soh.

There is a splattering of colourful Chinese, Malay, Indian and British characters in the story with a close look at the Baba culture, an intrinsic part of Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Wong gives a description of this culture to his son as he talks of his first wife’s family: ‘Your mother’s family is Baba. They’re like the Monkey King. Their ancestors left China and settled in this country a hundred, maybe two hundred years ago. Maybe longer. Married local women and adapted to the life here. They can change themselves seven times seven like the Monkey King. When the Malays were powerful, the Babas spoke Malay, wore Malay clothes and hungered for Malay titles. Then the English barbarians came. The English were more powerful than the Malay kings. So, your mother’s family changed again. They learned to speak English and do things the English way.’

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Book Review: Frazil by Menka Shivdasani

By Jhilmil Breckenridge 

Frazil

Title: Frazil
Author: Menka Shivdasani
Publisher: Paperwall Media
Pages: 154
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According to the dictionary, ‘frazil’ is the soft, needle-like ice on top of lakes and rivers that are too turbulent to freeze. Living in Lancashire, near the lakes, I often see this. Thanks to Menka Shivdasani’s new collection, Frazil, I now have a word for them. The poems in Frazil are a lot like the needle-like ice, glittering and beautiful on the surface but hiding angst within. Her unusual imagery allows you to see the world forever altered while her humour lurks, teasing.

Shivdasani’s wry look at women, their worth as defined by breasts and ovaries, in the poem, ‘The Whole Deal, states, “It takes much to know the burning coal / that lay inside of you / is now a charred and empty space / and the river is no longer red.” Much of this collection, spanning 37 years from 1980 to 2017, speaks of love, desire, sex, and issues that concern many women, but her keen mind also writes, with sarcasm, on religion, eating fish, bees, the ethics of killing animals for our own pleasure, and of course, as with many poets, death – there are a lot of death poems in Frazil.

‘Bees’, for instance, mulls over the beehive adjoining her own home, sharing the same wall, and ends with, “Now I carry their sweetness squeezed into a jar, / alone again, except for that one queen bee / who keeps flapping about / wondering where her home disappeared.” Poetry is often political and Menka Shivdasani’s politics is displayed clearly and openly in her work, be it talking of how a bee’s home is as important as ours, or in ‘What We Do To Our Gods’: “… we serve death on our dining tables / and the taste on our tongues is great.”

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Book Review: Lullaby of the Ever-Returning by Sarabjeet Garcha

Reviewed by Ranga Chandrarathne

Lullaby_cover (1)

Title: Lullaby of the Ever-Returning
Author: Sarabjeet Garcha
Publisher: Paperwall Media & Publishing Pvt. Ltd
Pages: 74
Price: INR 200/-

 

Sarabjeet Garcha’s poetry collection titled Lullaby of the Ever-Returning is, in essence, a masterly exploration of universal themes coloured by cultural conditioning and geography. It gives the book a universal appeal, while at the same time codifying the unique culture of the soil.

Love is a recurrent theme in the book, a theme which is craftily manifested not only in a finely woven tapestry of poetry but also in prose which belongs at one level to the exclusive cultural experiences of the Sikh community and at another to the entire humanity. Both in the pieces of prose and in poetry, what Sarabjeet encapsulates is the multifaceted-ness of love beautified and made colourful by the powerful human agent. Although love is a universal experience, it has been aesthetically situated in the Sikh culture, adding a unique cultural dimension to it yet preserving its universal character.

A significant aspect of love in Sarabjeet’s work is the portrayal of its social manifestation, by and large defined by the moral codes of a given society. The poet amply manifests and reinforces the universal adage that a writer or a poet cannot afford to be universal without being local or without being firmly rooted in one’s own culture. The contours of the poet’s discourse of love are defined by a diction enriched with powerful metaphors and imagery masterly employed in the poems and in the pieces of prose in the collection. It is a literary feast that one would partake with delight.

Your Handwriting
for Sudhanshu

the silt of
an ink river

rolling into

a relic chamber
painted with

the heart’s hieroglyphs
the soul’s trompe l’oeil

The poem is dedicated to his friend and the nostalgia is reawakened through the lines of a link, obviously written in his handwriting. It is not just the feeling of love, but something much deeper than that. On the one hand, the poem is dedicated to someone’s handwriting and, on the other, it hits out at the destiny that unfolds layer by layer before us. The changes would happen for the good. The poem is marked for its brevity of expression and the metaphor-rich language.

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Book Review: Louisiana Catch by Sweta Srivastava Vikram

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Louisiana Catch

Title: Louisiana Catch
Author: Sweta Srivastava Vikram
Publisher: Modern History Press
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Sweta Srivastava Vikram couldn’t have written Louisiana Catch at a better time. Across the world, women’s resistance is marching on a stronger footing than ever before. To rephrase the title of an Indian poet’s recent collection, more and more girls are coming out of the cages – self-erected or societal – to make themselves heard on sexual exploitation. Social media networks have provided grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter, the women’s march to Washington and the recent Me too campaign the potency of exponential outreach. Ahana Chopra, the young protagonist of Vikram’s novel lends a credible face to this epoch of evolution in the women’s movement with her story of survival and comeback.

For Ahana, the stakes are high from the get go. As if her recent divorce from a decade-long abusive marriage weren’t enough, her mettle would be further tested with her mother’s sudden death. This double whammy notwithstanding, she must carry on – with life and with No Excuse, her passion project that gets accepted as the main theme for an annual women’s conference in New Orleans. No Excuse also serves as the fulcrum around which Vikram pivots her novel. The aim of the campaign is as straightforward as its name – to make sexual abuse unacceptable, no matter the excuse.

On a personal level – and this is the parallel track on which Louisiana Catch runs – Ahana joins an online therapy group to cope with the grief of her mother’s loss. The group brings her closer to people dealing with emotional trauma. One of them is Jay Dubois from New Orleans, who is also grieving his mother’s death. Ahana and Jay strike an immediate bond, brought closer by their loss and also their mutual admiration for J.D. Salinger.

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