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Book Review: The Guru Who Came Down from the Mountain by Roshen Dalal

Reviewed by Sujata Raye

The Guru who Came Down from the Mountain FINAL

 

Title: The Guru Who Came Down from the Mountain
Author: Roshen Dalal
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Pages: 236
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This first novel by Roshen Dalal is ideal to read during a train journey or while waiting for a flight, when a cup of coffee and a racy book with intrigue and murder are sufficient to make the wait enjoyable. It begins with the introduction of the novel’s two main characters. Dev and Nityanand or Nitya. Devdarshan is Nityanand’s Guru and dying of AIDS. The initial few chapters, alternately, tell the reader the background of both Dev and Nitya.

The story is Dev’s; Nitya is only a tool to unfold it, the foil to Dev’s negativity. Nitya comes down to see his dying Guru at his ashram in Rishikesh. Out of sheer ignorance he has stood witness in the court, swearing Dev’s purity and celibacy, facilitating unknowingly, the dismissal of all cases of sexual coercion against his guru. Nitya is angry with himself for betraying the innocent. He remembers the accusations of drug dealing, of guns and weapons, of murders and deaths, while he was in Dev’s ashram in the US.

The story unfolds through Dev’s writings that he hands over to Nitya to read. That part of Dev’s life is a reminder of the recent shenanigans and expose` of several godmen in the country. It is quite apparent where the story is leading, yet the details of how ashrams are opened, how greed and weak minds can succumb to the lure of going to foreign lands – how women become easy victims of the Guru they blindly follow, keep the reader engaged.

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Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing, Ed. Andrew Schelling

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

 

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

 

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,


Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion. They questioned, complained to and even castigated the deity who had their undivided attention. Mirabai, the 16th-century Rajput princess-queen who left her life of royal luxury for the “only man” she knew, the dark-complexioned Krishna, echoes the candid spiritual eroticism of 12th-century Mahādēviyakka from Karnataka, when she says,


Dark One,
how can I sleep?
Since you left my bed
the seconds drag past like epochs,
each moment
a new torrent of pain.

— Mirabai (16thcentury), Tr. Andrew Schelling

Nearly two hundred years since Mirabai, Ramprasad Sen takes issue with his mother deity, goddess Kali, in a manner of ninda-stuti, which, as the annotation following his section in the book, defines as “praise in the form of abusive reproach”. Ramprasad approaches Kali as an errant child who, despite all his wrongdoing, must be comforted by the Mother. He doesn’t stop there but goes on to remind the goddess that she must deliver him for the sake of her own reputation. For there could be many


Bad children, but who ever heard
Of a bad mother?

— Ramprasad Sen (18thcentury), Tr. Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely

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Book Review: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Bengalis Cover Low Res (546x800)

Title: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community
Author: Sudeep Chakravatri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: Hardcover 457 pages
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‘Ergo, no matter who you listen to, we are pretty much mongrel.’

That little sentence in page 43 of Sudeep Chakravarti’s vade mecum, The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, floats up with a beastly smirk. Unless of course, you have done your job as a reader and read it not out of context, but as part of the whole subject, including the weighty preceding pages.

Still, for argument’s sake, were you to disbelieve the mongrel bit, or dismiss it as self-deprecation, you would do an injustice to the community. Yes, you read that correctly, and Chakravarti provides carefully compiled data on the origins of the Bengali race to prove it.

Being a mixed breed is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you are not mixed up, which is not a compliment one can pay to the so-called pure bloodlines, whatever that is, if at all such things exist. Besides, further up the book one comes upon this beautiful explanation of what it means to be a Bengali mongrel:

‘Our so-called purity is rooted in mongrelisation. It has taken us a long journey to arrive where we have, with our distinct streams of culture, distinctive sub-languages and dialects with a unifying super-language that is itself mongrel.

‘It is through our openness to the world and cultures other than our own, that we have evolved our Bengaliness that is so distinctive, so unique. It’s what makes us enduring, indolent, insular, outgoing, endearing, adventurous, gypsy-like, nesting, sentimental, adaptive, rebellious, questioning, accepting, and infuriating in turn – or all at once. To be anything else would probably be so very boring’ (chapter 13, page 315).

Perhaps after reading the book, some ill-informed not-Bengalis will call out ‘Mongrel Bengali’ instead of the earlier taunt of ‘Bhookha Bengali!’ Then again, those who wish to insult will always find some term or epithet suitable enough, however misguided. Bengalis ought to take the higher ground, because we know who we are and do not need to explain ourselves. So, why do we need a book about ourselves at all?

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Book Review: This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab

Reviewed by Mayeesha Azhar

This House of Clay and Water

Title: This House of Clay and Water
Author: Faiqa Mansab
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: 499 INR
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
https://penguin.co.in/book/fiction/house-clay-water/

 

For those who need one more reason to dream about visiting Lahore someday to take in the juxtaposition of the city’s pandemonium, history and romance, Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water only adds to the list. The protagonist, Nida, wanders along the boundaries between the walled estates of the metropolitan’s wealthy, to the markets of the underclass and, finally, the shrines that offer refuge to the disowned. Nida has lost much to the rigid patriarchal structures of her life — a child, freedom, her right to choose, a sense of self. In a way, this book is about Nida’s journey of rediscovering her dignity, and the immense price that she ends up paying for it.

Among the three main characters that narrate the story by turn is also Sasha. Bringing glitz and glamour to this tale, Sasha is indulgent, decadent, and a siren by choice. In dusty Lahore, Sasha’s ephemeral aura marks her out as a creature from a different world. She is an object of desire incarnate and she knows it. What is more, she is not hesitant to use it to get what she wants — designer fashion and a thrilling escape from a life she feels is too ordinary for her. Try as hard as she might to deny this, sometimes to herself, this respite is only fleeting. Her image is a mirage that Sasha has carefully constructed even as she makes it look effortless. She does indeed sashay into every scene that she inhabits — cafés, the hotel rooms of her lovers, even spiritual ground like the Daata Sahib dargah. This is where the two women first meet.

The contrast between them is softened for both by their distance from Bhanggi, the transgender Qalandar, a title that is typically held by holy men. Bhanggi’s is a short life full of cruelty and exclusion, first from society itself after being abandoned at birth and then from the Hijra community where he was raised. In exchange for being allowed to live at the shrine, Bhanggi must be indentured to the administrative clerk there. This is part of the clerk’s deal with the Hijra community, who rely on sex work to make a living.

Bhanggi’s voice is enough to make this book rare. The Hijra community is ever-present in South Asia, but can exist only on the edges, hardly ever coming into the purview of the respectable milieus that Sasha and Nida come from, let alone be featured in a novel. Rarer still is Mansab’s mention of the violence committed daily against these bodies. One such instance is that of a man paying a Hijra woman, Chameli, to have sex, and then killing her, just one instance in a series of systemic murders of trans-people around the world that occur with minimum ado and furore.

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Book Review: Memories Cached by Cameron Su

Reviewed by Shruthi Rao

Memories Cached

Title: Memories Cached
Author: Cameron Su
Publishers: Cameron Su (co-funded via the Act!on for a Cause programme of Kids4Kids Hong Kong)
Pages: 302

Across the world, there are tremors of the beginnings of a youth movement, sparked by young people tired of the status quo – teenagers who are no longer satisfied with sitting around and waiting for adults to do things for them; youngsters who want change, and are not afraid to take on any situation by the horns.

There is still a considerable amount of eye-rolling about millennials and disapproving head-shakes at ‘this new generation’ that will ‘never amount to anything’. I believe that this attitude is unfair to those young people out there who are actually standing up and making a difference.

Cameron Su is one such person. He is a 17-year-old high school student in Hong Kong, who wants to tackle the issue of bullying through his book Memories Cached. Set in a high school in Singapore (which is ranked by a study as third in the world in bullying among 15-year-olds), Memories Cached takes the reader through a few months in the life of a handful of high school kids on the cusp of college. Dominic Chiu is a regular high school guy who, on a dare, kisses his girlfriend in school. Savannah Dixon, another high school student, captures it on her camera, and on an impulse, uploads it on YouTube. The video promptly goes viral.

Dominic is now in trouble, both from the principal (PDA is banned in the school!) and from Ryan Chang, the school bully and the brother of Talinda, the girl he kissed.

The rest of the book takes us through the repercussions of this incident, in two POVs – that of Dominic Chiu, and that of his cyber bully, Savannah Dixon. Savannah’s POV is interesting. It highlights the reason why she chose to upload the video, her almost-immediate regret but with the knowledge that once a video is out there, she has no control over it. It takes us through her insecurities, her wanting to fit in, and makes us feel sorry for her. She wants to make amends, however, and at the end, she redeems herself.

This incident in the book highlights a very important aspect – that a private moment that would’ve gone unnoticed or uncommented upon in an earlier era is now potentially in the public domain, up for everybody to see. You need to have eyes at the back of your head; if you drop your guard for a moment your privacy is not yours any longer.

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Beyond Asia: Book review of Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

Reviewed by Usha K.R

Spaceman of Bohemia

Title: Spaceman of Bohemia
Author: Jaroslav Kalfar
Publisher: Sceptre (an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton), 2017
Pages: 273

In our history books, Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century was the hot chestnut of Europe, perennially a bone of contention between its neighbours, and a catalyst for the Second World War. I recall an illustration from my world history text book, a photograph of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, looking triumphant, having won ‘peace for our time’ after signing away part of Czechoslovakia to Germany in the Munich Agreement. (It was cold comfort that the country that had colonised us had messed up elsewhere in the world and even at home in Europe.) A year later, in 1939, the Second World War broke out and what was left of Czechoslovakia was overrun by German troops. When the war ended in 1945, Czechoslovakia became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, part of the Eastern bloc, and the Soviet yoke persisted despite lulls like the Prague Spring in 1968. After several long years – with Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika, and side by side with the dismantlement of the USSR – there were similar movements in Eastern Europe, with countries throwing off the Soviet and Communist yoke. In Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution ushered in democracy in 1989, and expelled Communism; Vaclav Havel, litterateur, humanist, became the president of the country, and in 1993, the Czech and Slovak republics were established as separate entities. Here, the history books stop, suggesting that with the restoration of democracy, countries would ride into the sunset. For us, in the context of a country newly independent from colonial rule, democracy and self-rule seemed to go hand in hand with new ills like corruption, and from our experience, privatisation was not the silver bullet in answer to a controlled economy. The history books seemed to leave us in a vacuum.

It is in this interstice of history that Jaroslav Kalfar sets his novel Spaceman of Bohemia. As his protagonist declares in the opening of the novel, ‘My name is Jakub Prochazka. … My parents wanted a simple life for me, a life of good comradeship with my country and my neighbours, a life of service to a world united in socialism. Then the Iron Curtain tumbled with a dull thud and the bogeyman invaded my country with his consumer love and free markets.’ Beginning with these straightforward opening lines, Kalfar – heir to a long tradition of writers such as  Jaroslav Hasek (The Good Soldier Švejk), Bohumil Hrabal, and Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) – explores the predicament of his protagonist, juxtaposing it with the history of the Czech nation. It is a formidable list of forebears, and to Kalfar’s credit, he holds down his place in the line.

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‘The Book Hunters of Katpadi’ review: A Madras and a Chennai novel

Opens up the magic casement to the land of book adventures

While bibliomysteries, or adventures centred on books and the surrounding world, are quite common in the West — Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón has recently quite popularised the genre — in India, they are still a rarity. With The Book Hunters of Katpadi, Pradeep Sebastian opens up the magic casement to this forlorn land.

Of course, it needs a bit of specialisation to know that a battered copy found in a second-hand bookshop or a book leaf perforated by silverfish can be worth a fortune or a murder or two (there is no murder in Book Hunters though).

But anyone who has been following Sebastian’s column, ‘A Typophile’s Notes’, in these pages of Literary Review would be familiar with the significance of rare print editions, bookmaking, book collecting, antiquarian book dealing, and so on. Book Hunters also explains these topics at length, preparing the ground for more bibliomysteries to follow in the future.

Lost world

Fittingly, this book about books is a lovely object in itself, with its quaint pen-and-ink illustrations, silk-ribbon page-marker and dust jacket in black, green, gold and white. For many book lovers, it will bring back a lost world of gilt-edged hardbacks found in shadowy library nooks or grandparents’ damp-decorated bookcases.

Book Hunters resurrects a bygone era not just in its form but also in its content. While being set in contemporary Chennai, it invites you to imagine, via the bibliomysteries it sets out to solve, the Madras and Ooty of yore when sahibs and memsahibs walked the streets.

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Book Review: Tweet by Isa Kamari

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Tweet

Title: Tweet
Author: Isa Kamari
Publisher: Kitaab
Pages: 80
Price: S$15
ISBN: 9789811107269

Tweet, published in 2016, is the award winning ASEAN writer Isa Kamari’s first attempt at writing a novella in English. Isa Kamari is a Malay writer who has had seven out of his nine novels translated to English. With Tweet, he decided to take a ‘short-cut’ and write in English himself, he said during a panel discussion – Exploring Literature in the Languages of ASEAN, 2018.

Tweet refers to birdcall. It is a double stranded metaphysical novella. On one level, it focuses on the exploration of Singapore’s famed Jurong Bird Park by a young Singaporean child Ilham and his grandfather, Jati. As he reaches the end of his trip to the park, Ilham comes face to face with his inner dream. ‘He has decided what he wants to be when he grows up.’

The second strand is a journey made by different species of birds in quest of the legendary Simuk, or the Simorgh, brought to life by the 12th century Persian poet, Farid-ud-din Attar, in his famed poem, Conference of Birds. The birds in both the poem and in Tweet make an astounding discovery as they fly in quest of the mythical being.

Both the strands are woven into a single fabric of the story by the elusive ‘green man’, Khidr. Khidr becomes a part of the extended reality of Ilham and the birds as they journey through their parallel universes of discovery. Khidr has been syncretised over time as an angel, a saint, a warrior, a mythical being… and even associated with Alexander the Great.  The illusive ‘green man, the quest of the birds and Ilham’s unique way of viewing the bird park adds to the suspense of the novella. You read on, egged by curiosity.

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Book Review: Sanskarnama by Nabina Das

Reviewed by Namrata Pathak

Sanskarnaama

Title: Sanskarnama
Author: Nabina Das
Publisher: I write imprint (2017)
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Of Dough, Clay and a Nation: Brewing up a Rebellion in Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama

If you have to fold
to fit in
it ain’t right

—“Shape”
By Yrsa Daley-Ward

These words, minimal, adroitly sculpted and bare, tell us about women and shapes – how women are aligned to shapes and how these shapes strikingly constrain them. Like Yrsa Daley-Ward, if a woman has an affinity towards what is ‘shapeless’ or nebulous, Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama, Poetry for Our Times, tolls similar bells. The alliance is quite daring, even bursting at the seams, though Das’s is a loud clarion call that is difficult to miss, and more so she is not always looking at the imbroglio by installing a framework of gender to flatten everything. There are vivid convergences between Das and Daley-Ward that teased me in many ways. But Das’s Sanskarnama holds me captive as it seeks to answer the number of questions it raises, a charming peculiarity that leads to the installation of more than one worldview, the onset of intriguing possibilities. The text provides you an exposition, you trace a line of thought only to realise later that you are standing at crossroads, a mesh of thoughts, rather, coagulation. Das gives you the freedom to take any route you want, to chalk out your own road map. You are that traveller-flaneur who sucks in the cityscape wholeheartedly. You let your hair loose and dance in the streets, your heels digging deep, marking your share of fragile secrets as you slip in and out of your incarnate ‘shape’.  All the while the poet takes sideways glances at you, lest you stop dabbling in the dirt, slush, mud, clay, and earth, lest you undo the primordial instincts in you, lest you cease to ‘unmake’ yourself; overall, you emerge and dissolve, and how badly you pine for this dissolution.

The burning hope in Das to configure ‘free spaces’ in a country that has otherwise gone to the ‘gau rakshaks’, the saffron-clad yogis, the conserver of our rigid ‘sanskar’ makes her test her limits to such an extent that the poet raises her fangs, spits venom, and this she does even at the risk of being branded anti-national.

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Book Review: Orientalism, Terrorism, Indigenism, South Asian Readings in Postcolonialism by Pavan Kumar Malreddy

Reviewed by Sourav Banerjee

Orientalism, Terrorism...

 

Title: Orientalism, Terrorism, Indigenism, South Asian Readings in Postcolonialism
Author: Pavan Kumar Malreddy
Publisher: SAGE Publications India Private Limited
Pages: 170
Price: INR 795/-

The author of this book is Pavan Kumar Malreddy, a Researcher at the Institute for English and American Studies, Goethe University, Frankfurt. He is famous for his essays in various journals on radical issues affecting the world in the field of race, post-colonialism, terrorism, and indigenous politics. In this book, the author successfully contributes to the detailed aspect and conceptualization of contemporary subjects such as terrorism, orientalism and Dalit Bahujan movements and how the same is received in popular media along with academic literature. The author has taken excerpts from contemporary occurrences with regard to the efflux of postcolonial structure of terrorism and orientalism that has emerged in South Asian countries. The contradiction took place internally between South Asian approaches to post colonialism (Subaltern Studies) and its European counterparts along with the resistance produced by the indigenization of local literary traditions in the work of select South Asian literary figures.

In “Discourses: Orientalism, Terrorism and Popular Culture” the author illustrates how, as if the advent of the cold war and its impact on the world at large was not good enough, the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, famously known as 9/11, altered the landscape of western thought process, infusing notions of terrorism and religious intolerance as serious existential challenges, along with its approach to the Orient. While governmental issues quickly aligned to the changing world requirements, the vocabulary of the worldwide talks slurped up terms up to this point, sneaking in the shadowy interests of the Orient, as seen by the west. At the same time, with the collapse of communism in Europe, dialogues arrived at the decision to terminate ‘privatization’. The attack by ‘Al Qaeda’, headed then by Usama ibn Mohammed ibn Awad Ibn Ladin (popularly known as Osama Bin Laden) on 9/11, gave birth to phobias, suspicion, segregation, and furthermore, a still staggering nativism. It further narrates how the orientalists believed that Arabs are uncivilized and Islam was a religion meant to be followed by terrorists. Muslims in massive numbers propagated Islam and called for stability, unification, the only way for development and hope to sustain on this planet, carrying the slogan of ‘Islam is the solution.’ With the attack of 9/11, ‘Terror from the east’ emerged and the world’s supposedly most powerful nation, the United States of America, found itself in a fragile and vulnerable position as prey to religious extremism. The orientalists brought to light the lesser developed eastern countries to take an upper hand of their might over the rest.

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