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.

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.

Reviewed by Namrata Pathak

Sanskarnaama

Title: Sanskarnama
Author: Nabina Das
Publisher: I write imprint (2017)
Buy

 

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.

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.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

River's Song

Title: The River’s Song
Author: Suchen Christine Lim

Publisher: Aurora Metro Books
Total number of Pages: 306
Price: Pounds 9.99
ISBN: 978-1-906582-98-2

The River’s Song is an epic novel by the ASEAN award-winning writer Suchen Christine Lim about people living in and around the Singapore River, from the mid-twentieth to the start of the twenty first century. Published in 2013, it spans an era of change and development in Singapore, which could be compared with the passing of an age as in Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone with the Wind. The story begins with the portrayal of people who lived by and around the water body for generations prior to the 1977 Singapore River cleanup. The cleanup changed the way of life irreversibly for immigrants who lived by the river, as did the American Civil War for the American settlers.

Most of the river dwellers prior to 1977 are shown to be immigrants from China or Malaya. Among them are the protagonist, Ping, and her mother, the pipa songstress, Yoke Lan. Yoke Lan insists that her daughter address her as Ah-ku, aunt in Cantonese, because she does not want to divulge her maternal status to her fans and customers. Ah-ku’s attempt to rise above poverty and move to respectability defines many of her actions. Ah-ku is more passionate, more like Scarlett O’ Hara, a colourful persona vis-à-vis her timid daughter, who is befriended by Weng, a dizi player. The story revolves around Ping and Weng till Ah-ku, who disappears from Ping’s life for some years, reclaims her daughter as a poor relative. Ah-ku returns to visibility as the wife of a rich and powerful towkay (a rich businessman), moving around in more educated circles.  The ascent to a better life removes both Ah-ku and her daughter from the proximity of the river. Ultimately, Ping goes to university in USA, where she spends the next thirty years of her life away from family and friends. She flits in and out of a marriage with an Indian who wears pink pants and calls himself Jeev. She befriends braless feminists and learns to call their country her home.

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Lucknow Cookbook

Title: The Lucknow Cookbook
Authors: Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: Soft Cover, 228

Years ago, before Narcopolis, the DSC Prize winning author Jeet Thayil had shared a moment during a reading at a poetry festival. He had said that he read and collected cook books, not because he cooked, but because he enjoyed reading them. Cook books provided both welcome relief from an excess of poetry, and also stirred up creative juices. His words had immediately resonated with the men and women, many of whom were poets, writers and artists, present among the audience.

Thayil’s words came back to me when I held my reviewer’s copy of The Lucknow Cookbook written by the mother and daughter duo, Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli. Books from Aleph are a pleasure to hold and behold. This book of recipes and family food lore does not disappoint. A comfortably sized book with an elegant outer cover and a rich olive green inner cover, it immediately leaps at you from the shelf. Since no food book is complete without appetite inducing pictures, The Lucknow Cookbook has them too. Bang in the centre, an eight-page long visual feast, spread back to back with photographs of Lucknowi fare laid out in style, rather like an Awadhi dastarkhwan, as Sunita Kohli notes in her forward, ‘a Persian term literally meaning a meticulously laid out ceremonial dining spread…’

The Lucknow Cookbook is one family’s chronicle of what turns out to be more than just about food. It is about an era, a city and a society where culture and refinement absorbed from various influences produced food, the first and foremost expression of good hospitality, that was as intricate and nuanced as the art and architecture, the jewellery and furniture of a people who loved to live well.

Lucknow, according to Kohli, ‘had a high degree of refinement as compared to Delhi. It was known for its “tehzeeb, tameez aur nafaasat (manners, etiquette and sophistication).”…Lucknow was home to some of the most vibrant and artistic expressions of its time.’ Even in comparison with Lahore, a vibrant city in its own right, Lucknow stood out. In her words again – ‘The hospitality in Lahore is extraordinary and its food is legendary. There are some striking similarities to the cuisine of Lucknow. But one difference is that the cuisine of Lahore is more robust, in the tradition of the Punjab. The traditional cuisine in Lucknow is more refined, more aromatic, more aesthetically creative and it is served with a greater nazaakat (elegance).’ For Lucknow is the place where Hindu and Muslim traditions blend and become something exclusive to the city, whose chefs ‘took the best …, absorbed them into their current cuisines and made it into a uniquely Lucknowi experience.’