Book Review by Suvasree Karanjai

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

Title: Best Asian Speculative Fiction

Editor: Rajat Chaudhuri

Series Editor: Zafar Anjum

Publisher: Kitaab, 2018

Speculative fiction can no longer be dismissed as low-brow, trashy or pulp, or at the very least, unimportant and weird fantasy if one reads the collection edited by Rajat Chaudhuri, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction. To many readers’ surprise, this marginalised genre has lot to contribute philosophically to the dream of a technocrat’s world. The present age that can be well-described as an era of artificial intelligence (AI) is surely complementary to human intelligence developed with the purpose of mitigating our works in future. But the rise of AI and the philosophy of technocracy have, at the same time, given rise to multiple speculations regarding future of humanity — the fear of Frankenstein.

Speculative fiction is too large a subject to be represented exhaustibly in a book or a collection of Asian speculative narratives. The unique character of this specific genre lies in an impossibility to hold all its threads within a watertight definition. It encompasses several genres under its shed. Chaudhuri’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction is indeed a suitable example of this broad compass.  We are on an enchanting rollercoaster ride as we leap from one imaginative narrative to another coming from diverse authors from sixteen countries of Asia plus more diasporas.

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Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee

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Title: Upcountry Tales – Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India
Author: Mark Tully
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2017

Mark Tully, like the organization he worked for, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), where he was bureau chief, is almost a household name in India. He straddles two worlds in one, as evident in the present collection of seven short stories, Upcountry Tales – Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India. He is in a sense the outsider looking in. He is also the insider looking out. He’s British, and he represented the BBC for thirty long years, a media organisation both respected and disliked by the Indian establishment for its insightful and, therefore, often embarrassing, reportage. But India is also his chosen land, where he was born and spent his early childhood, and where he continues to live after his bitter parting with the BBC in 1994. He is, to borrow and twist a little from writer-critic UR Ananthamurthy’s definition of arguably a far great person, a ‘critical outsider’ (Mahatma Gandhi is referred to by Ananthamurthy as a ‘critical insider’).

Tully’s early books are documentary tracts. No Full Stops in India (1988), his third work, however, comprises a collection of journalistic essays that mark his interest in the changing contours of an India in the remaking. Upcountry Tales is historically located in exactly that period — the 1980s. His other collection of short stories, The Heart of India, was published way back in 1995. He continued with his interest in getting under the skin of the India experience with titles like India in Slow Motion (2002), written in collaboration with Gillian Wright, his partner. Tully later wrote India’s Unending Journey (2008) and Non-Stop India (2011). These books together gather around them an agglomeration of engaging themes — about an India being churned from within and without, and an outsider/insider trying to decode and disseminate that churning.

TBASS

There is very little light in this cell. I stare at her through the iron bars. She looks angry. There is no remorse in her eyes. She is tired, I know she is. I am tired too, like her and Siraji and the two other porters in our small team. But why is she angry? Her smile is gone. Why does she look at me like that? Like I am a stranger? She is the only mzungu here, and people are staring at her. 

My name is Lucas Mtui and I have spent the last five days with her. I am not a stranger to her. I am an assistant guide of the Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA), but after this I am not sure if I will be, because she has taken away my name and given me a number. She says I am a thief.

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction
Stephanie looked up at the corner of the kitchen. The dome was blinking again, but this time with a green light.

“No harm done.”

“I see you started cooking.”

Was that a hint of disapproval in her voice?

“Well yeah, I mean, I had no choice, you were taking longer than expected, and I just had to start first or else I would have no time before—”

“Stephanie, if you had waited, we could have saved eighteen minutes of preparation and cooking time. Furthermore, the spice level in your ayam buah keluak is too high for Sylvia Chan, and the amount of garlic too low for Siti Anissa.”

“How can it be too little garlic? I followed Mama’s recipe to the letter, the only thing I changed was to add sambal.”

“I tailor the recipe accordingly, depending on who you are cooking for. The taste preferences are shared with me by the Dianas of your guests.”

TBASS

She remembers the conversation like it had happened yesterday.

“Is the trip going okay, Ma? You sound tired,” she’d said on the phone, from her hotel room in Kochi.

“Yes, yes, everything is fine. The weather’s been acting up a little. And the helicopter rides were not available. We had to take mules, instead, for the climb to Kedarnath. It was drizzling throughout. But we’re here now.”

“Have you found accommodation?”

“Oh, yes, yes, everything has been arranged by the tour company. We’re staying at a comfortable guesthouse. It’s not far from the shrine. We will go for the darshan in the morning. Don’t worry about us. We’re fine. How is your dance tour coming along?”

Book Review by Neera Kashyap

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Title: The Map of Bihar and Other Stories

Author: Janet H Swinney

Publisher: Circaidy Gregory Press, UK, June 2019

The Map of Bihar and Other Stories is Janet Swinney’s first collection of short stories. Her stories have been acknowledged in a number of competitions, including as runner-up in the London Short Story competition, 2014. She has been published in major journals and anthologies across Britain, America and India.

In this collection, Swinney provides a broad view of two cultures — British and Indian — apart from glimpses of others. These stories with their heterogeneity of social and cultural traditions range from those of the poor and the working classes to that of the monied, each with its distinctive speech and outlook, enriching the oeuvre with depth and authenticity. Swinney herself comes from a family of coal miners. She lived among coal mining families in a council housing state in the north east of England, though her father — an unschooled poet who died at the age of 52 — worked as a clerk with the local bus company.

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Title: That Bird Called Happiness

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Edited by Ratnottama Sengupta

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Year of Publication: 2018

‘You are right, Banerjee, about karun too being an emotion worth dwelling upon,’ Rao said. Then he cleared his throat to go on.

‘Raso vai sah … the name of God, just like God, is filled with rasa, our shastras maintain. But to be able to view it as such we need a certain objectivity; and most of us don’t have that. Which is why tragic incidents spell only sadness in our lives, they seldom transcend to the level of a tragic observation. If we had a heightened sense of objectivity, the entire world would appear to be a vast stage where countless dramas are being incessantly played out. These dramas are not enacted as per the rules of Bharata’s Natya Shastra. The thunderbolts here do strike from the heavens…’

‘Why don’t you cut short your preface?’ Nimbalkar cut in. ‘I will do that.’ Rao nodded with a smile. ‘But allow me to add one more observation before I start. What was the reason for me to fall sick and stop in Pandukeshwar for a rest? Was there a purpose in my coming across the dead body of Shiv Shankar Pillai after twenty years?’

Koi Kye Lee in conversation with author Simon Rowe

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Simon Rowe, an author- photographer- lecturer and avid traveller,  lives in the samurai castle town of Himeji, Japan, and writes from there. He has recently brought out a collection of short stories titled Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere.

Born and raised in Central Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, he moved to Australia where he graduated from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Simon Rowe not only has a passion for words, but also indulges in photography. Many of his works have appeared in TIME (Asia), the New York Times, the Weekend Australian, the South China Morning Postand the Paris Review. His short stories have been published in Flesh: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (2016), Another Time Another Place: A Collection of Short Stories (2015) and Noir Nation: International Crime Fiction No. 3(2013). He holds an MA in Writing from Swinburne University of Technology and is currently a foreign language instructor at Kwansei Gakuin University. He recently published another short story, ‘The Summer Hills of Pourerere’ , a story that talks of three teenage misfits forging a path through a harsh rural environment.

In this exclusive interview, he talks about travel, writing and teaching from Japan, the inspiration behind his stories, and his life as an English lecturer.

Kye Lee: Your stories have appeared in numerous publications. What made you start writing and for how long have you been writing?

Simon: That’s a long story! Growing up in rural New Zealand during the 1980s, my window on the world was National Geographic magazine. Naturally, I wanted to be a travel writer and photographer. My first story was about backpacking from Melbourne to Cape Tribulation in far-north Australia. I sold that tale to a newspaper in Melbourne and with the money bought an onward ticket. This became my existence for the next fifteen years and took me around the world three times. I finally settled in Japan where I now write short fiction, screenplays, and a blog called ‘Seaweed Salad Days’, about life in a traditional Japanese neighborhood.