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Book review: To My Violin by Geeta Varma

Musical Notes from a Courtyard Corner

Reviewed by Shikhandin

To My Violin

To My Violin – Geeta Varma

Title: To My Violin
Author: Geeta Varma
Publisher: Kavya-Adisakrit
Pages: 40

There are some women who wear their accomplishments like jasmine strings looped into their hair. When they pass by, you get a waft of mild perfume, that’s all. It seems to matter little whether you noticed or not. At day’s end, they will take off the flowers without a thought; self-effacing, no doubt, but what they create – their offerings of the day – linger, though not in a demanding kind of way. If you stop to observe, watch, hear or read, you would know how the quietest of voices can move in the smallest, and most immeasurable of ways.

Reading To My Violin, a slim offering of poems, in the light of a night lamp, in a room where we shut the summer out by artificial means, and that means also the sounds and scents of a summer night, I feel her gentle chiding in the very first poem. It’s an untitled poem of ten short lines that remind me of the hypocrisies sitting skin to skin in our society.

In “1961 The Refugee Colony”, Varma sketches exactly that, seven stanzas in swift strokes. What spreads out in the double page is not a pattern of words but complete scenes from a panel of miniature paintings. When you lift your eyes to the top of the page you see a solitary line, a caption of sorts, floating in white space: ‘Some pictures remain…’ The next poem is also dated – “1965 Back in Kerala”. It’s as if Varma had travelled to the place where she had been a tourist watching the refugees in their colony and now is back again in her home state. Here too are pictures that remain. Specifically, of two women characters, one ‘a small figure, small face, small eyes behind thick/ glasses’, and the other who ‘was huge/ and filled the doorway! /she had a loud voice too’. Both loved to feed sweets and other things cooked lovingly.  But while the first, the one in the refugee colony had a secret, Varma’s Ammooma in Kerala was confidently visible, just like the ‘huge bindi/ on her forehead’. One can’t help but ponder – is there a link between the two poems. The unsaid is unsettling.

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Book Review: Elixir by Sinjini Sengupta

Reviewed by Dr Usha Bande

ELIXIR

Title: Elixir
Author: Sinjini Sengupta
Publisher: Readomania Publishing, 2017
Price: INR 250/-

 

When a debut novel grips your imagination and disturbs you for long after you have put it down, it certainly is a work to reckon with. Sinjini Sengupta’s Elixir belongs to this category. It grasps the fine line between dream and reality, light and darkness, and life and death to expose the turbulent psyche of its protagonist, Manisha. The novel’s subtitle succinctly classifies it as “A Dream of a Story” and “A Story of a Dream”.  Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, A Dream within a Dream highlights the unreality of this world as ‘Maya’ (illusion, a dream) that is suggestive of the two worlds Manisha inhabits. Yet, to read Elixir as a dream-novel would be to limit its scope. To me, it is the story of the mysteries of the human mind told with masterly strokes. A whole lot of complexity comes to the fore and the novel turns out to be both delirious and dreary, constantly vacillating between the nebulous and the luminous.

In a way, Elixir is a quest novel about the protagonist’s journey to grapple with her self. In the bargain she loses her equilibrium and slides into neurosis. She is not psychotic, but she could well be a border-line case. The beginning encapsulates the problem of marital incompatibility and discord with the resultant silence leading to other complications. The labyrinthine structure is woven around the victim-protagonist and the plot navigates us through the work-a-day life of Manisha Roy, an efficient and award-winning executive vis-à-vis Manisha, the unfulfilled wife and dreamer in search of “pure happiness”.

What is this “pure happiness” she seeks? Do her dreams provide her an escape route from her agonizing existence? Will she find inner peace? A reader has to make his/her way through ominousness, sadness and mystery and get answers to these questions.

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Book excerpt: The Driftwood by Pratima Srivastava

Driftwood

The winter this year had knocked in early. It was mid-November and the chilly mornings had now become foggier.  The crowd of morning walkers in the park behind the Joshi home had thinned considerably over the week.

The bell in the old church rang five times to signify the hour of the day. Shweta’s granny had been up much earlier though. An early riser all her life, here at Shashank’s place, she found it difficult to lie in bed after five. Nonetheless, she forced herself to be under the bright maroon quilt, keeping her eyes closed, as she knew that if she switched on the light, Shashank, sleeping in the adjacent room, would be up as his sleep would be disturbed by the light.

But Shashank had been awake long since. For an hour after midnight, he had been sitting in his bed gazing outside. The silhouette of the trees against the dimming sky had been swaying to and fro. A little afar, an uneasy silence brooded over the cluster of shanties beyond the road. Night never fully descended on the haphazard row of a dozen odd houses sprung over a piece of wasteland. With the nights becoming longer and cooler, some of the inhabitants preferred to sit by the fire and gossip the cold night away. Harsher the weather, greater the buzz; such was the norm. For Shashank, however, sleep was at a premium that night. During such hours of profound aloofness, he would become restless and feel as if he had been invaded, torched and shelled by an army of memories. They descended upon him from all sides, coiling around him, like a famished python, tightening its hold if the prey twitched even a muscle.

Memories of Udit were not letting Shashank sleep. Udit was lurking in his mind, playing hide and seek, a game that he so enjoyed as an infant. Shashank could almost see him—a lean figure, brushing his teeth, not caring to close the tap; leaving his wet, crumpled towel in a heap on the bed after a bath; one slipper lying  upturned here and the other flung away no one knew where. Shashank could almost hear the faint sound of the refrigerator door being opened. Stealing goodies from the fridge in the still of the night was a habit that stayed on with Udit, till the day he left home, maybe even now, who knows ….

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Book excerpt: Frazil by Menka Shivdasani

 

Frazil

Bass Notes

“How come your hair is so silky?”
the black musician asked, and she,
half-asleep, said Hong Kong was full of gloss
and sometimes the place got into your hair.

He was a professional, and they were playing
games with each other, fine-tuned notes
on silken skin. “The trouble,” he said,
“is you’re too sensitive,” and drew
music from the guitar strings on her head.

It was when he got to the bass
that something changed.
Later, he asked, anxious: “Did you,
Baby, did you?” for, at a crucial moment,
there were silences he didn’t expect.

“I always come quietly,” she told him
not adding: “I always go quietly too.”

 

The Clinging Vine

Put her in cold storage:
let the grey metallic doors
shut upon her. She will
taste good when the time is right.

Toss her into boiling water,
so red and soft, till the skin
splits and the juices ooze.
De-seed her; gently
roast the flesh.

A bit of garlic
is always good, roughly
minced, spluttering
in hot oil. For perfect partners,
try some ginger shreds.

Lastly, put her into the shiny processor.
Choose the blade with care
to ensure the texture’s right.
Chunky bits are perfect for the salads,
but pureeing makes her smoother
Down the throat.

Appetiser, main course,
take your pick.
Let dessert wait.

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Where would we be without the words of Japanese women?

In Japan, female writers are stars within the country’s literary sphere, even if on the international stage their light seems to pale in comparison to the post-war wave of recognized, male writers such as Yukio Mishima (1925-70) or Haruki Murakami.

The contributions of female writers to Japan’s tradition of literature is immense. Looking through history, there are a number of examples of female writers who have outlasted their male compatriots to embed themselves in the annals of the present. While male writers such as Mishima and Murakami are deserved in their celebration, so too must we look toward Japan’s female canon.

Female Japanese writers have already proved their staying power. The two most famous works in classical literature during the Heian Period (794-1185) were both penned by women: “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu and “The Pillow Book” by Sei Shonagon. As with the beginnings of other literary traditions around the world, Japan, too, has its war epics (most notably the anonymously penned “The Tale of the Heike”), but ultimately it is the work of these women on the sidelines of the era that has proved most enduring.

Both “The Tale of Genji” and “The Pillow Book” illuminate court life; the intrigues and strategic maneuvering off the battlefield that defined the Heian Period in an arguably more complete, more complex rendering than the stark absolutes of war. “The Tale of Genji” is considered the world’s first novel; “The Pillow Book” showcases a distinctive Japanese genre, a blend of essays, lists, poetry and vignettes mimicking fragmented thought called zuihitsu, a style still popular today.

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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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How to suppress women’s writing: “She only wrote one good book.”

In about 1971 I was teaching Charlotte Brontë in a women’s studies course and decided to use her Villette instead of Jane Eyre. The number of different publishers who have in print different paperback editions of Jane Eyre I know not; I found several editions in the bookstore of my university (and one more, a year later, in the “Gothic” section of the local supermarket). But there was not one edition of Villette in print in the United States, whether in paperback or hardcover, and I finally had to order the book (in hardcover, too expensive for class use) from England. (The only university library editions of Villette or Shirley I could find at that time were the old Tauchnitz editions: tiny type and no leading.)

In three women’s studies classes in two separate institutions (1972–1974) I asked my students whether they had read Jane Eyre. About half had, in all three classes. Of these only one young woman (almost all of the students were women) knew that Charlotte Brontë had written any other novel, though a considerable number (looking, they explained, for another “Brontë book”) had happened upon Wuthering Heights. Most of my students who had read Jane Eyre had done so in their early teens and most were vague about exactly how they had come to read it, although most were also very clear that it was not through assigned reading in school. It seems to me that these youngsters, who had somehow “found” Jane Eyre as part of an amorphous culture outside formal education (librarians? friends?) would have gone on to read Shirley and Villette—if the books had been physically available to them. But they were not, and Charlotte Brontë remained to them the author of one book, Jane Eyre. None of them, of course, knew of Emily Brontë’s poems, let alone her Gondal poems.

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How women are collaborating to tell stories that break through the noise on Syria

Between the news coverage, reportage and statistics around the ongoing Syrian civil war and the battle against Islamic State the firsthand experiences of ordinary civilians on the frontlines are difficult to source and expose. Yet these are often the very stories that can often provide crucial wartime evidence, chronicle social and historic shifts, or unearth true narratives that can counter official ones. And these stories are increasingly found on our bookshelves rather than on the newsstands.

From testimonies to short stories, graphic novels to memoirs, female writers, journalists and survivors are currently fronting the literatures of war, conflict and exile. The past two years have seen a surge of books and memoirs authored by women that capture the far-reaching human consequences of the Syrian civil war. Amid the fatigued reportage on its increasingly more complex escalations – and the cynical moves of other nations vested in opposing outcomes – these are compelling testaments to what befalls ordinary people as a consequence of fanaticism and powerful interests.

A remarkable example is Farida Khalaf’s 2016 memoir The Girl Who Beat ISIS. Khalaf and her family are Yazidis, members of a Kurdish-speaking minority who follow an ancient, pre-Islamic faith. The book recounts how Islamic State crossed the border into their mountainside village in northern Iraq, killing the men, recruiting the boys, and taking women and girls to slave markets in Raqqa.

Through testimonies of those such as Khalaf, the genocide against the Yazidis was officially recognised by the UN. Khalaf, in collaboration with German journalist Andrea C. Hoffmann, shaped their series of detailed interviews into a first-person narrative. Despite the indiscriminate violence visited on whole communities and towns, her memoir reminds that what women have suffered at the hands of IS, and what they continue to endure in refugee camps, is further devastating still.

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About feminist presses in South Asia

In November last year, the shortlist for the DSC literature prize was announced at LSE. Ritu Menon, co-founder of Kali for Women, and one of the judges of the prize, spoke to Rebecca Bowers about the decline of the feminist press in the West, and the challenges facing women in publishing today.   

RB: As chairwoman of the judging panel for the DSC literature prize, what in your view makes an award-winning publication? What are the ‘secret ingredients’?

RM: I think as part of the jury and speaking on behalf of the jury I think what we were looking for and I think what we have found is exceptional literary quality, confidence and maturity in the writing, skill, good craft, and very compelling stories. I think if you can get that combination then you have very commendable writing, so that’s what I think we have found in the shortlist and as to the winner well that will be decided later.

RB: Although female authors are now rightfully coming to the forefront of the literary world, what challenges would you say that they still face today?

RM: I wish that I could say they are coming to the forefront but I’m not sure that they are. They are being published a little more. A little more. They are somewhat better represented as far as reviews go, as far as reception in the market goes, and I suppose as far as a certain degree of visibility is concerned but I think if one were to look at their representation in awards, they’re still woefully slim. So I’m not sure that they are in the forefront. They are definitely present but there is a way to go. The very fact that we speak of women writers when we don’t speak of men writers, it makes them other than the norm.

RB: That’s very true.  In fact, with that in mind, what do you believe can be done to make literature more inclusive not only in terms of authorship but also in terms of readership as well?  

RM: Well you see, I think there are several aspects to this. There is a literary establishment worldwide which is male dominated – I think the power hierarchy is pretty clear.

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Short Story: Actors by Sowmya Suresh

Life gets exceedingly painful when the metaphorical becomes literal. The average person should want the ‘actors’ in their lives to mean ‘catalysts’ and nothing more. How else could this word apply to you in an everyday setting, except through that one lexical connotation? You especially don’t want actors you barely admire to become actual catalysts.

The first time I saw his face, he was wiping the hood of his car, a dark navy sedan, with a dirty rag. I watched as he wiped for well over twenty minutes, dipping the rag in a bucket of water that was a shade of muddy brown. I couldn’t help looking at his dark, earthy, oddly square face because he was right outside my window, blocking the until-then unrestricted view of the meadow and the lake beyond. That view was mine. Yet, here was this creature, dressed only in a pair of shorts that had seen better days. What was he showing off? His car? His skinny torso? Or his lack of cleanliness?

I sat there waiting for some other resident of our enclave to handle this atrocity. No one came. After a while I went around attending to my chores. Thankfully, I had to go to work and the eyesore was soon forgotten. However, that same evening, when I got home, a shock awaited me. This man had turned that corner into a mini haunt. He had spread out a little straw mat on the beautiful green grass by the front door of the car and had invited a few friends over for a game of cards. I looked at my watch and noted the time. It was around six and the faint light from that day’s ferocious sun was still around, refracting through hesitant clouds, casting a spectacular hue over my view.

When the chai walla showed up with a tray full of cups of hot steaming tea, I just stood there and watched, appalled. One from the group looked up at me and exclaimed, ‘She is staring!’ (or something to that effect) in a Bengali that had Marxist fingerprints. I knew enough to be able to tell the difference between Tagore’s uplifting Bengali vernacular and this filth. They weren’t entirely wrong in their assumption that I wouldn’t understand their language. If the Bengali wasn’t a phrase or a sentence that matched a piece of dialogue from a Satyajit Ray movie, it might as well be gibberish.

The man, playing ‘teen patta’ (a three-card game), sitting on a mat on lush green society-maintained grass wearing a lungi and an odd crooked smile, was pointing at me and calling me an ogler.  All I could focus on was the society-fee I had to shell out each quarter for the maintenance of the ‘common area’. What I had hoped would be taken care of by the end of the day was now settling down like a season.

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