Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

The Circle of Life and Other Tales

Title: The Circle of Life and Other Tales
Author: Haimanti Dutta Ray
Publisher: Locksley Hall Publishing (LLP), 2018
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Considering it is her debut book, the author writes The Circle of Life and Other Stories with a wild abandon and an almost childlike glee, which becomes both the boon and a bane for this collection. What you first notice in these stories are their characters; most of the characters are well fleshed-out, relatable and carry the general essence of being a Bengali in their subtle habits and mannerisms. The author uses her understanding of the Bengali culture to its fullest while drawing out her characters, giving them voices which are at times unique, at times a reverberation of how the community functions.

‘The Final Curtain’ talks about the famed theatre circuit of Kolkata and one man’s journey through life and later, death on the stage. Another story, ‘Mimesis’, features a man and woman who love each other but never really learn how to understand and navigate through the subtleties of their relationship, leading to a tragic, if not unpredictable, conclusion. The characters in both stories, although entirely different from each other in behaviour, hold the same pattern of being souls who live in the present but have their roots stuck somewhere firmly in the past, quite like the city in which these stories are set. Not only are the characters relatable but also the struggles they go through. Whether it’s the marital problems that the characters in ‘Mimesis’ try to deal with or the themes of mortality and loss in ‘The Final Curtain’, the grief and guilt that the characters struggle with remind readers of their own lives. In doing so, the stories become less of fiction and more of a slice from our everyday existence, fragile to a fault and fraught with problems, but with hope and empathy as their saving grace at the end of each day. Her description of the pousmela, the Bengali fair celebrating spring, or the artworks of Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, evoke a sense of deep nostalgia in every Bengali reader, at the same time bringing to the non-Bengali reader a taste of the culture.

However, the characters are only part of the larger stories, which unfortunately suffer repeatedly from other factors. These are largely bad pacing and the conclusions that neither befit the beginnings nor do justice to the erratic assembly of characters. ‘Wait Until Dark’, for example, starts off as a whodunit but eventually devolves to something that can hardly be taken seriously by the end. The endings of most stories are disappointing, building the narrative to a point where it can’t carry through its own momentum. The characters have similar voices, a problem that becomes all the more evident because the stories showcase a wide variety of people from various facets of life, and who are therefore, expected to speak differently.

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.

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.

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 ….

 

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.

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.”