The Best Asian Short Stories is one of the finest compilations of short stories I have read in a long time. The short stories cover a diaspora of Asian cultures, histories, societies in transit, shifting borders and values. They embrace an array of emotions that are universal and touch the heart of the reader. Established authors (Shashi Deshpande, Poile Sengupta, Farah Ghuznavi, Park Chan Soon, to name a few) and newcomers (N.Thierry, Wah Phing Lim, etc.) rub shoulders with stories that nudge one another, creating a wide range of reading experiences.
In this one book, I have travelled from the backstairs of Singapore’s government subsidized flats to Malaysian ports, to Phillipino slums, to Mao’s China, to Korea’s madly competitive society, to the lonely world of an Old Japanese, to a Syrian refugee’s boat, to the shifting borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to the rebellion against restrictions in the conservative Middle East, to Canada, America and England. These stories have grasped values that leave the reader absolutely spellbound.
Asia reborn… but what next?
He is a keen watcher of Asia, having spent the last 25 years putting the economies of this wonder continent under his microscope. Economist Prasenjit K Basu is eminently qualified to write this weighty tome, which runs into 680 pages. His research is painstakingly done with the notes and references alone going into 41 pages.
At first flush, Asia Reborn is intimidating. The title doesn’t seem to tell anything new and the voluminous nature of the book might put off many potential readers who want information on the go. Still, those interested in a deeper perspective of Asia and why some countries succeeded and others failed will find it worthwhile to plumb through its pages.
The author’s style is engaging; he makes sure that his research findings don’t interfere with his prose. He adds spice to his narrative with anecdotes that will keep the subject matter alive. For example, he brings to life one about Lee Kuan Yew. The former PM was among other students at Raffles College when they heard an explosion at the Causeway. The Allied forces had blown a hole in the Causeway to stop the Japanese army from moving into Singapore during the Second World War in 1942. The principal asked the students what the explosion was about. LKY’s reply: ‘That is the end of the British Empire.’
Blind interfaces between being a thriller and a symbolic multi-layered novel. It starts in a home for the visually impaired and soars into the political and social arena of the world in which we live. Mr Joginder Paul, the author, based this story on his experiences in a blind people’s home near Nairobi during his sojourn as a teacher in Africa. In the book, he has relocated the home to India and the inmates are Indians.
Through the course of his narrative, he highlights the struggle faced by people with vision and without vision. He uses ‘sight’ symbolically to contrast physical, moral, intellectual and value-based vision. Some of the blind have a ‘third eye’ with which they can sense the world around them. Some of them are excellent craftsmen and have ‘eyes on their fingers’. The blind are so attuned to their condition that they fear external sight. Being free of vision gives them a sense of freedom in their interactions with each other and with the world around them.
Professionals in the development sector often complain that putting together the notoriously impersonal, jargon-filled proposals and reports eats away at their ability to write evocatively. In her novel, The Inheritance Powder, Hillary Standing proves that it is possible to be otherwise. A long career in international development allows her to draw out a relatively refreshing story from this field.
Like her, one of the two main characters is Carl Simonovsky, an agricultural economist based in London. He specializes in East Africa but feels compelled to take on an assignment in Bangladesh so that he can add to the income generating portfolio of his employer, the fictional Institute of Poverty Alleviation. Carl is needed for a cost benefit analysis of solutions to Bangladesh’s arsenic problem on behalf of an aid agency. He is not convinced he should take on the task—he has not heard of the problem before and has no experience in South Asia. His faith is dwindling in the kind of economic models he has been asked to make. However, he reminds himself that ‘in the last year, considerations of ignorance, ethics and scepticism had not stopped him from providing policy advice’ on topics as far-flung as tourism and healthcare in other geopolitical regions outside of his expertise. Even after he arrives in Bangladesh, Carl muses about this ‘small, slippery compromise with integrity’.
The Librarian by Kavitha Rao is a novel that strolls through the old corridors of a library in Bombay, meanders through the lanes of London and returns to the dystopian world of the terrorist bomb blast that ripped Mumbai in 2008. Kavitha Rao has created a suspense-filled, layered story of a young girl’s passions, of the annihilation caused by uncontrolled obsessions and has unravelled the mystery behind the disappearance of Mrs. Sen, the assistant librarian. It has facts, romance, history, glamour, murder, robbery and gore, somewhat like a Dan Brown.
The protagonist, Vidya Patel, journeys through her childhood, guided in her passion for books by the intrepid librarian, Shekhar Raghavan. The library is also home to rare manuscripts; it reflects in microcosm a world in which Shekhar is the presiding deity. He supports Vidya when she rebels against her parents’ conservative Gujarati outlook and moves to a hostel for working women, trying to live life as she wants.
Available Light is a collection of new poems by C.P. Surendran appended with his four previous books of poetry — Gemini II (1994), Posthumous Poems (1999), Canaries on the Moon (2002) and Portraits of the Space We Occupy (2007) – of which the first three are out of print. The publication of Available Light brings these early poems back into circulation, and to our attention, helping us survey the achievement of this mid-career poet.
Like most collected works, Available Light is chronologically ordered, as though requesting a biographical reading or an evaluation of how the poet’s craft progressed or changed over time. I duly read this book from the end to the beginning so that I might arrive in the present, maybe with Darwinian notes; instead, I found a circle. After the stunning opening of Gemini II, the next two books were disappointing; Portraits returned to the passion and technical brilliance of the first book, with added maturity. The latest poems in Available Light continue to soar, but now the political and impersonal has become personal and C.P. draws his blood and ink from the wider world. The circle has come around, but now it is wider.
The book also includes an essay written by C.P. as a tribute to his friend, poet Vijay Nambisan, who died in August 2017, in which he describes the 90s Bombay. The inclusion of this essay helps us contextualize the angst in C.P.’s previous work. It also illuminates C.P.’s own milieu and lets us locate his time and place in the history of Indian English poetry.
The story of finding one’s true passion and sense of purpose through confrontations with hardships has become a trope in itself. One can even say it has been overdone, although new variations crop up every year, driving home profound life lessons. However, despite their often clichéd premise or plot, some stories still manage to deliver a heart-touching performance in terms of fully sketched characters and a sense of anxiety through a gripping story which serves us with a steady sense of exhilaration when we finally see the protagonist come out of all trials, injured but wiser. That in a nutshell is why Snowfed Waters works well despite its shortcomings.
It is surprising that the books published by the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) haven’t been widely reviewed despite the international attention the project received. Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition, a translation of the early poems of Sur Sagar, is a contentious volume with right wing propagandists saying it is sacrilege that a quintessential Bhakti poet should be translated by Americans. These purists, however, do not sit down to do the work themselves.
Translated by John Stratton Hawley, a professor at Columbia University, and edited by Kenneth E. Bryant, an indologist from the University of British Columbia, the book is divided into eight sections, beginning on a dark rainy night in the month of Bhadon, when Krishna was born.
The second most interesting thing about former High Court judge Mahesh Sharma’s peacock theory is that somehow being celibate makes the peacock a superior animal. The first thing of course is that it’s a completely unscientific fact which has been quoted while giving judgment in a criminal case. The judge needs to be reminded that he as well as the entire human race is a product of sexual reproduction. Then why celebrate and put organisms that reproduce asexually on a higher pedestal?
For years students of science have been taught that sexual reproduction is better than asexual reproduction for evolution because it creates genetic variety. This helps a species in adapting to constantly changing and challenging environment, even though sexual reproduction is more cumbersome and less efficient. That is the reason sexually reproducing species are at the highest rung of the ladder while single cell organisms which reproduce asexually are at the very bottom of the pyramid.
Adventures Stories of Great Writers is a collection of episodes from the lives of well-known writers across the world through different periods in history. These vignettes from the biographies focus on adventures faced by twenty such persons transcending borders and nations. The different stories touch upon the lives of great writers like Winston Churchill, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Knud Holmboe, Washinton Irving, Herman Melville and T.E. Lawrence ranging from a variety of countries including Denmark, India, America, England, to name a few. The stories are set on the rough seas around the world, including the Arctic Ocean, where Arthur Conan Doyle was thrown off his ship among frozen chunks of ice in the cold waters; in the deserts of Arabia and Africa where, T.E. Lawrence fought for the Arabs and which Knud Holmboe made into his own home; in India, where John Masters battles a deadly man hunting tiger; in apartheid ridden South Africa, where Gandhi learns never to give in to injustice…
As the title indicates, the eleven stories in the collection Immoderate Men focuses on the unrestrained response of the main characters as they encounter seemingly small quirks of fate that go on to have great implications in their lives. The author who has used a pseudonym, Shikhandin, has made it a point to include stories about men from different classes of society as well as from different age groups making each story unique in its perspective. Though the point of view is that of the male gender, the narratives do not actually delve into the psyche of men as such; rather, the portrayal revolves around how the principal characters respond to the attitudes and events in the lives of the women around them.
Mohsin Hamid weaves a compelling saga of love, loss, identity-crises, immigration, personal and worldly conflicts and much more in his latest book Exit West. Set in “a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”, it could be an allegory of any nation such as Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or another, perched precariously at the brink of civil war yet discovering pockets of peaceful life whilst turmoil lurks nearby. The story revolves around the protagonists Saeed and Nadia, and the reader gets instantly drawn into their world when they meet at “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding” and eventually end up having coffee followed by a Chinese dinner and start the process of getting to discover each other.
Eve Out of Her Ruins is a powerful, disturbing book by Ananda Devi, a Mauritian writer of Indian and Creole heritage. The original book Ève de ses décombres is in French; Eve Out of Her Ruins is a masterful English translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman.The writing is eloquent, the imagery stark, and yet, the overall effect is dreamlike. It is a book that is difficult to put down; hands reach out from the pages, grab you by the collar and compel you to read on.
The story is set in an impoverished neighbourhood of Port Louis, a part of Mauritius that is far-removed from the Mauritius of glossy travel brochures. The book is made up of monologues by four troubled teenagers, growing up in a changing world, tossed about by the turbulence of sexuality, the rage and the desperation of their daily lives, fear of the future and the urge to escape from everything, all of these underlined by a sense of futility and inevitability. Weak adults, difficult circumstances, and bleak futures cause these teenagers to “grow up” too soon, but emotionally, they are stunted, directionless and hopeless.
Madhura establishes from the beginning of the book itself what her idea of travelling is: the mingling of myriad cultures and taking the stories from one city and spreading it into the corners of another. Poetry for her is akin to the traveller’s spirit, unperturbed by boundaries and borders, spread across a range of geographical dissimilarities.
This is the best prose—if the unmetered poetry can be called that—you could have ever read.
The main character in the book is a teenage girl called Anna whose life is surrounded by her family consisting of her mother, father, sister and two younger brothers. Somaiah writes about the different challenges and obstacles that Anna, along with her sister, have to face at school in terms of peer pressure, self esteem, tests of loyalty and friendship, striving for academic excellence, making big decisions and generally trying to fit into a society that has various other demands. Somaiah has efficiently laid out a specific scenario under each story involving the input and role play of various other characters who help Anna make her decisions and conclusions, thus leaving a “lesson learned” for the reader who might find the story relatable. In the early chapters, Anna uses the term “never mind” frequently until she is baptized as “The Never Mind Girl” by one of her colleagues at school. “I am not the never mind girl! I do care about things!” she retorts in an outburst to her mother when she is overcome with emotions and the tension to fit in.
Recipient of the Muse India-Satish Verma Young Writer Award (2016) and Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize (2016), Goirick Brahmachari is worth mentioning in the new tribe of Indian poets writing in English. He brought out his maiden collection of poems, For the Love of Pork (2016), from Les Editions du Zaporogue. Rich in content and craft, this slim collection of forty-five poems in the Neo-Beat parlance was received well by the critics and lovers of poetry. These poems have propelled him as a writer having maturity and solemn engagement with current social issues and humanity at large.
Goirick Brahmachari’s second chapbook of travel notes and experimental poems, joining the dots, is a significant addition to the genre of travel writing. His poetic eye captures the mystifying curves of the ascending mountains from Bilaspur to Kullu-Manali in Himachal Pradesh during an overnight journey by bus. In a transit from the plains of Punjab and Haryana to the mountain pass of Rohtang, these short poems, one after the other, bring about a newer mis en scène of people and places.
When a cop writes fiction depicting the unholy nexus of crime, politics and religion, the line between fiction and fact is bound to get blurred. The Party Worker by Omar Shahid Hamid is a realistic crime thriller.
Omar Shahid Hamid, son of a slain bureaucrat is currently SSP Intelligence of counter Terrorism Department in Karachi. He studied at London School of Economics and University College London.
After his father was murdered in cold blood, Hamid joined the Karachi Police as an officer, witnessed the crime world from close quarters, survived Taliban’s attack on his office, took a sabbatical and decided to write. Omar produced three bestsellers one after the other; each overshadowing the previous ones. The Prisoner is based on the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl; the second novel, The Spinner’s Tail is on the root of terrorism within Pakistani society and the third one The Party Worker is on the crime and politics of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.
Collections of place-themed fiction can be powerfully evocative with descriptions of indigenous sights and sounds, unique references to the geographical landscape, and above all, glimpses into the minds of local characters, who, with their attitudes, mindset, dialogues, dreams and desires represent the collective ethos of the place in the given time setting. Examples include Dubliners and The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran which transport the readers to early twentieth century Dublin and Bangalore in the late nineties respectively. The Book of Dhaka aspires to add to this worthy genre. As K. Anis Ahmed mentions in the introduction, this collection of stories by various writers tries to capture the present-day ethos of the “world’s most densely populated city” of rice fields, lakes that overflow during the monsoon and “concrete structures, among roads far too narrow for anything to thrive but despair”.
When Ernest Hemingway was famously quoted as saying “there is nothing to writing, all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”, you can well assume he was either being sarcastic, or making an understatement of epic proportions. Writing poetry, especially, is a task both arduous and more often than not, unrewarding. It boils down to the understanding of one’s own perspectives, expertise in the observation of occurrences both mundane and trivial, and with the deftness of an artist, the ability to weave them into happenings at once exaggerated but magical.
Sanjeev Bansal, in his debut collection of poetry attempts to do the same with places and people he has long formed a sturdy emotional attachment with. However, despite his efforts, his poetry doesn’t dazzle but leaves a strong sense of unfulfilled expectations at the end of his book.
Akbar in the Time of Aurangzeb is arguably the most readable and riveting book written on Akbar. History, biography or historical novel — call it what you may, Shazi Zaman has pulled a major tour de force. This is way better than what the Dalrymples and Rutherfords of the Indian historical fiction industry keep churning out. It has little exotica. Not much trivia. Hard historical facts. Culled from the primary sources, and strung together to make a seamless narrative with minimum speculation and intervention from the author. He lets the historical texts speak. And they speak loud and eloquent. It’s not about empire building, wars, conquests and administration. Not much. Not directly. If anything—and if the word can be retrospectively used—it’s about nation-building.
It’s about Akbar, the thinker. The seeker, not the believer. The restless contemplator yearning for the resolution of myriad contradictions whirling in his mind. The free-thinker whose mind was free from the shackles of inherited wisdom and certitudes. The man who had the audacity, eagerness and enterprise to go beyond the limits set by his time, place, tradition and culture.
Horizon Afar is a collection of short stories by Jayanthi Sankar, translated from their original Tamil by P Muralidharan and published by Kitaab International. While it falls neatly into the rapidly growing, ever-fertile genre of diasporic literature, this collection is interesting in the myriad glimpses that it accords us of the Tamil diaspora in Singapore.
The experiences of Tamil immigrants in a multicultural country like Singapore are outlined by the author, herself a member of that very community – this is belied by the intimacy with which she writes about them. “Won’t she crawl anymore?” a despairing father asks of his wife, on learning that his child whose early years he has missed on account of working abroad, has now learned to walk on her own. The average reader can easily feel the wistful, quiet sadness in his question, and a reader who is familiar with the immigrant experience knows the truth behind the emotion, of a parent who has missed their child growing up.
Ather Farouqui has translated The Life & Poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar by Aslam Parvez. This is as good as translation gets. Textual integrity does not mar the flow of the narration.
I read this book in the Urdu original. Long back, in 1996, when in JNU. So, when I read Dalrymple’s bestseller, The Last Mughal,in 2006, there was a sense of having been there and done that, which made me wonder whether Dalrymple’s would still be such a roaring success if this one had already been available in English. This book is not only the spine and skeleton but also the muscle and sinews which Dalrymple fleshed out rather sumptuously in his book. He acknowledged as much. This, and Zaheer Dehlavi’s chronicles of the Great Uprising, and a slew of Urdu newspapers, published from Delhi, first sourced by Aslam Parvez, beside the elegies of the failed uprising such as Rashid ul-Khairi’s and Khwaja Hasan Nizami’s et al.
This intriguing mystery by an Indian author is set entirely in Europe, in the historic city of Salzburg, Austria. The novel brings to life the beauty and rich heritage of an old European city, which serves as a striking backdrop for an exciting intrigue. The three-century-old heart of a princely archbishop is mysteriously stolen from its place of rest. Who would do such a thing, and why? An insane criminal is out to destroy the pillars of the city’s heritage and culture. Re, a photo journalist and psychic, Isabel the beautiful local historian, police chief Stefan and hotelier Dan, who is managing the prestigious high profile Salzburg Global Seminar in the Schloss, are compelled to work together to stop impending disaster. As the threats materialise and mayhem unfolds, they must figure out which of the city’s many historic landmarks will be the next target, and prevent further chaos.
Yours Etcetera, Ikhtisad Ahmed’s debut short story collection, shifts the setting of the stories dramatically from rural Bangladesh to urban London in a jiffy, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle finding their precedent space. Although a book of short stories, the flow of the stories and character build-up at many intervals gives it a novel-ish feel.
As an example, let’s take “A Half Life”, the very last story that steals the show with its apt resemblance to incidents that might have happened right after a Rana Plaza collapse: a well-to-do family, and its demise; or maybe the unaffected rhapsody that suffers the brunt of time, only to pick up and go on undeterred.
Imagine a country with one race, one language, and one religion where the state intrudes into the personal life of citizens. The state decides pregnancy and the traits of progeny to be born, distributes a quota of a type of food for each individual, decides the profession of people and promotes one language and one religion. The control is draconian and the thought process is manipulated and conditioned. It is boastfully declared that “Multi-culturism is dead”. It is a futuristic imaginary country depicted by Madhav Mathur in his new novel Dvarca.
Mythology remains a vast source of interesting and sometimes intimidating stories that writers have constantly been trying to draw from. Whether it is the subtle parallels drawn from mythology, or the more direct approach of retelling or reimagining epics and adapting them into more contemporary narratives, both have been tried by many writers to varying degree of success. However, Amruta Patil’s second attempt to combine the tales of Mahabharata and the knowledge from Puranas, after the highly successful Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, is neither of the two. It is one which deals with Indian mythology head on; narrating the epic we’ve known and loved always with glorious precision and straight-forwardness.
This is why Sauptik: Blood and Flowers sets a precedent for a very different kind of mythological retelling, one that is both devastatingly thought-provoking and disarmingly honest, one which depends entirely on the epics themselves to impart readers with lessons on life and justice, and the art of war.
From the very beginning, we know this isn’t going to be the usual run-of-the-mill bit of story-telling, since Sauptik is first and foremost, a graphic novel.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no singular language of poetry. Every writer is unique in the way that they bring words together to create feeling and emotion, and every poem is a reflection of the world that they inhabit. A book of poems, then, is often an exercise in world building at the end of which the reader is left with a new vision with which to see what is around them, the vision that the poet lent them through their verse.
Rukmini Dey’s In the Garden of My Freedom, from Writers Workshop, is a collection of poetry on subjects ranging from the spiritual to the mathematic, the latter being somewhat appropriate given that Dey is a professor of the subject, but more so as the poems in the collection combine to give us a very real, almost tangible look into Dey’s world.
I purposely read as little as I could about this novel before picking it up, so as not to colour my perceptions. The Prologue seemed to hint towards Hindu gods in a somewhat contrived fashion, so I was surprised that when I hunkered down to read the novel on my iPad at a coffee shop, the story was so enjoyably written that, to my surprise, I had read over 80 pages in an hour. I polished off the rest within that night and the next day.
The broad arc of the novel encompasses generations of women in the Kumaon region during the British Raj, from families based in Naineetal (that’s how it is spelt in the book) and Almora, the seemingly slow time around the placid waters of the Naina Devi Lake. However, the protagonists interestingly appear to be men, the women following them to wherever they choose to go next. Here, the author seems to be pointing to the patriarchal functioning of much of society—documenting the histories of men while conveniently absenting the women, or portraying them as shadow figures. But what the novel is primarily about is the tussle of women with their dependence on men, and how this frames a woman’s identity within that of the man “taking care” of her at the moment.
Warfare is as old as human civilization and so is its history. The Indian subcontinent has been witness to bloody conflicts and clashes since ages. Epics such as Mahabharata, Ramayana, Alha-Udhal are masterpieces of South Asia’s age old tradition of rendering conflicts in different literary and art forms.
India inherited thorny issues left behind by colonial masters at the time of partition, which led to altercation and conflict with neighbours. These issues are still festering, making the understanding of military history an essential part of statecraft. India can ill-afford to ignore the history of conflict in this part of the world. Still there are a few good books on this topic worth visiting. Academics have largely ignored this important area whereas one comes across accounts of military conflict in memoirs of politicians or retired soldiers. There is a dearth of well-researched accounts on the military history of India. This gap has been filled by Arjun Subramaniam, a soldier-scholar and an expert on military matters. The account of conflicts faced by India after freedom in 1947 to 1971 comes directly from the horse’s mouth. India’s Wars: Military History, 1947 – 1971 by serving Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam is well-researched, and deftly-written without personal or profession prejudice. With this book, the author seeks to create a missing link between the study of military history and its impact on contemporary strategic culture.
Books about mountains usually evoke the same sense of wanderlust and serenity in readers that they expect from an impromptu trip to a hill station over a weekend. It is the feeling of glossing over the calm surface of a land, visiting spots endorsed for their natural beauty and renowned as tourist attractions. The audience here expects to look at these lands through the eyes of a chance traveller, the voyeuristic gaze that finds only beauty, but not the struggle underlying this snowy exterior. Guru T. Ladakhi however, isn’t one of those poets, and his poems bring out the skeletons in the cold closets of places he belongs to, and has travelled to.
In his debut collection of poetry Monk on a Hill, he divides his poems into sections: people, places, seasons, haikus and postscripts, meticulously fleshing out a narrative that is unafraid, loud and clear. He doesn’t take the easy way out with his poems, instead choosing to delve deeper into the heart of the mountains and bring out for us pieces steeped in the fragrance of melting snow as much as it carries the stench of spilled blood.
Compiled by Soniya Kapoor and brought out by Artson Publisher House, From the Closet of the Heart is a collection of letters and short stories that can be categorized under the broad themes of confessional and closure. They are deeply personal, evocative, and extremely emotional.
There are love letters that were never posted, missives to former best friends, touching letters to a deceased parent, and letters addressed to lovers not yet found. Apologies, too, are included in this array of correspondence gathered from various young writers across the globe.
Ladakh district — a bikers’ paradise and the dream destination of travel junkies — prides itself in not only the gigantic mountains of the Himalayan range and its enchanting sceneries, but also in a historic place — Kargil. Kargil lies in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and stands witness to infiltrations, the Indian armed forces guarding the borders and the lives of locals that are mired in politics. Lives that come under the scanner for merely having homes in sensitive regions; the mysterious deaths of locals that get swept under the carpet as deaths caused by “suspicious activities”; images that echo across media channels, if headline worthy.
Praveen Swami’s short story “Ice: A Farooq Reshi Investigation” published by Juggernaut Books is thought-provoking. An expert on Islamist terrorism, Praveen is known for his skilled investigative journalism in conflicted regions of India. “Ice: A Farooq Reshi Investigation” draws upon various dimensions from his years of award-winning reportage, and provides a fresh perspective on grave and sensitive issues with non-intrusive slap-stick humour.
Sarvat Hasin’s This Wide Night has been described as Little Womenmeets The Virgin Suicides. While this is not entirely wrong and there are some clear parallels between the works, the description belies the levels of meaning the author has packed into this work, and the comparisons fall short.
The majority of the story is told through the eyes of Jimmy, who, like Laurie in Little Women, is fascinated by the women who live in the house across the street from him. As he learns more about them, to live among them and love them, so do the readers. We grow to share his fascination with the Malik sisters – the beautiful Maria, firebrand tomboy Ayesha, shy Bina and the petulant Leila, and their mother Mehrunnisa who is as lovely as she is mysterious. In the absence of the patriarch of the household, Captain Malik, these women form parts of a whole that does not leave any room for outsiders. Even as Jimmy feels welcomed into their world he is aware that he will never be completely privy to it. They share “an invisible net of sisterhood” that he cannot penetrate, try as he may.
The Great Indian Publishing Machine has been churning out Indian writing in English for years now. Most of it is culture-apologetic, where authors explain how idlis are “steamed rice dumplings”, and other “literary” novels are plain pretentious pomposity where the authors suffer from a colonial hangover, write paragraph after convoluted paragraph to show how clever Indians can be in writing a “foreign” language. But when you come across a story that casually embraces the English language to tell the story from gun country, which is completely Hindi centric, is a rare thing of joy.
The author Prashant Yadav is not just telling us a story in The Jeera Packer, he is telling it with love. Love for the language as well as for the characters.
“The car moved as slow as the thoughts in the professor’s head” followed by: “Why would he and his son be thrashed with chappals and thrown into jail?”
James Tod, the British army official and administrator, came to Bengal in 1799. Within the span of twenty years, the East India Company entrusted Tod with the responsibilities of Political Agent in the states of Western Rajputana. During his residency, he surveyed the regions of Bundi, Mewar, Kota, Marwar and Sirohi to collect material on Rajput rulers. In 1829, Tod published his research on Rajputs in Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan or the Central and Western Rajput States of India.
Florence D’Souza re-analyzes the literary production of Tod in her book titled Knowledge, Mediation and Empire: James Tod’s Journeys Among the Rajputs to set the parallel and contrast between Rajasthan and Europe. D’Souza embarks on this project to uncover the multifaceted talent of Tod.
Kolkata is presented as every note from the seven strings of a divine veena, carried by the musician best known for the tragic beauty of his playing, Orpheus himself. Each string is a section of the city; the para and its nest of roads, the Esplanade and the heart of the city, and the quiet of Jorasanko Thakur-bari, where Tagore the master musician lived and wrote. Orpheus hears the music of the city, plays the music of the city; and in Kolkata, Winter sees the heart of an “India of old”. The myth of Orpheus can be seen as what links this collection of poetry together. Like the myth of the man who could not gaze back on his love to keep her, there is the ceaseless movement of time, the change that time brings, and the constant reminder that one cannot return to the past. As a translator of some of the stalwarts of Bengali poetry, Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore, Winter is no stranger to the city or its people. In his poetry, Winter takes us on journeys into Kolkata and its psyche, and to the world beyond.
Chris Mooney-Singh’s new collection of poetry The Bearded Chameleonis the work of a new voice engaging with the “diaspora discourse”. As a Caucasian Australian who has converted to Sikhism, his is a kind of reverse-diasporic point of view. Mooney-Singh’s close empathy with the land of his adopted way of life and philosophy creates in the reader the impression of a second-generation “returnee” to a familiar time and place, when in reality, he is a son of Antipodean soil. This is evident from the dropped hints in selected poems throughout the collection. Otherwise, this is poetry that could have been written by an Indian with all its insider knowledge.
The title itself hints at Mooney-Singh’s chameleon-like position within the Indian landscape and the agility with which he writes about it. Thus, his example as a cultural convert needs its own reverse-diasporic category to differentiate it from mere travel writing.
Gandhi on Non-Violence was first published in 1965. It would be hard for any book on Gandhi not to be full of Gandhi’s own seemingly rather intractable views on non-violence as well as the author’s views, either in support or not, of the activist. The author, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), was well-known in the fields of spirituality, philosophy and social justice. In this book he brings forth a collection of Gandhi’s quotes on non-violence along with a couple of essays with his own views, mainly in support of Gandhi and non-violence as a doctrine.
In many ways, regardless of one’s own personal take on the man or the doctrine, this book is a fascinating read because it brings together effectively for the reader so many of Gandhi’s ruminations, convictions and sometimes contradictions about non-violence as a political act of defiance.
There is only one thing wrong with the book Three Days of Catharsis by Atrayee Bhattacharya — there is no editing at all. By the author or by the publisher. Everything else collapses around this one fault.
It’s 2017, and there’s no point whining about a life lived between different cities across the world: Singapore, Kolkata and Chennai. The obsession that Indian authors have about balancing culture and upbringing across borders should be celebrated. Instead, this book is a 241-page-long whine about how “no one understands me” and how difficult it is being a TamBong (a Tamilian and a Bengali) who lives abroad. If only the protagonist/author (it is autobiographical) had cared to read multi-cultural authors like Jhumpa Lahiri (one passing mention) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni instead of Chetan Bhagat (his Two States is mentioned as a mirror to her own life)! Had someone, like a reliable editor, asked the author to put this book away as the first draft of an idea, it would have helped.
~ Dark Diamond
From the beginning of the novel, I could picture every page like it was a scene from a historic movie from the Mughal era — vibrant and mystical, yet with clouds of darkness settling in. The colorful and multi-layered characters seemed to fit right in with the grandeur of the palace, as well as the hidden truths and loves lost. There are certain themes that recur throughout, greed and love being two of them; but that does not go to say that they go hand in hand, or do they?
Shayistha Khan, Subedar of Bengal is our central character, aptly portraying the traits of Mughal warriors, and could well be inspired by a real one. His innermost characteristics, some of them being his Robinhood-ish philosophies, the messiah to the poor, avid reader and believer of God are almost in stark contrast to his hard exterior, further hardened by war and its lasting effects on a nation. He is presented in strong juxtaposition to Pir Baba, who is also the grandfather of Champa (the female lead of the novel). Pir Baba’s one and only aim in life is to get the Kalinoor, which is rumored to be in the possession of Shayista. The Pir’s deeply rooted superstitious values as well as physical prowess at times feels like a stretch too far but overall works well to give the character its profile and once again feels like a true calibration of Pirs in our part of the world.
When we talk about a poetry collection, the opinion about individual poems often contradict each other, which in turn makes it harder for the reader to take a stance regarding his/her feelings about the collection as a whole. These flaws become glaringly evident as one navigates one’s way through the new poetry collection of Amit Sharma.
My Elementary Life is a collection of poems with no dearth of ambitions. The collection contains 70 poems exploring a varied range of emotions — love, loss, spirituality and everything in between. The poems are short, and thus do not ramble or lose their way in a muddled narration of emotional outpouring. The cover is colourful and almost surreal, as if foreshadowing the circle of life and colours of different seasons that this collection tries to decipher. I say tries, because although the effort behind this collection garners applause, it unfortunately falls prey to its own ambitions.
Short stories? Who writes short stories these days? Aren’t we reminded time and again that publishers are no more interested in this form? But then, isn’t the novel too going to give up its ghost in a couple of hours as grey haired Cassandras predict with the regularity of automatons? Aren’t we advised that narrative nonfiction and its close cousin the diary or even the memoir, is the go-to form for the author who doesn’t want to be put on an artificial respirator? And just when this cumulonimbus of bad news bears down upon you, the fiction author (or the reviewer) you chance upon a book which simply says the “genre” is in safe hands and that this oldest of storytelling arts still has a lot to offer.
The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Anu Kumar, published by Kitaab. The stories in this slim volume travel the distance from tony upper class neighbourhoods of Singapore to back of beyond villages of India, from futuristic urban settings with robot newsreaders to the ruins of the Indus Valley civilisation, taking the reader on a journey of discoveries that she will cherish for long. But what is definitely the strength of this book is the range of subjects and themes in which Kumar engages, without overburdening her audience.
The advent of autumn always brings with it an innate sense of solitude and the smell of the approaching winter. Such is the idea present in the autumnal season of the human life as well. This is the prevalent emotion in Gouranga P. Chattopadhyay’s second collection of poems, Managing the Journey through Rough Terrain. What is most interesting about this collection is that even though it dwells mostly on the sentiments of loss and longing that become the inevitable part and parcel of old age, this collection of poems promises to appeal to the emotional recesses of the mind, irrespective of the reader’s age.
What did the Celt tell Alexander when Alexander asked him what it was that his people feared the most? The Celt had replied that they feared nothing, so long as the sky did not fall or the sea burst its limits. I remembered this anecdote from a book on druidry while reading The Great Derangement, a path-breaking work on climate change that sweeps across a vast landscape of scholarship, finally reaching out to chart new maps for understanding the greatest crisis that humanity faces today.
But we will return to our druid later. To structure this review, we will attempt to discuss the book in the same way that the author has organised his material in three sections: Stories, History and Politics.
The Temple Road by Fazlur Rahman is a memoir that cracks you up as often as it teaches you something. Rahman writes in a candid, conversational voice that has the ability to immediately establish a relationship of trust between the narrator and the reader. The book is divided into two parts – the first, tracing the author’s life from his village, Porabari in Bangladesh to his medical training at Dhaka, and the second, dealing with his journey to the United States of America as a medical intern, and his eventual career in the country as one of the best oncologists of his time. Rahman writes of spending an idyllic childhood among the pastoral greens of Bangladesh, where he inhabited a distant world heavily tainted by nostalgia and thickly populated with coincidences. He has a non-dogmatic, almost secular upbringing in an old aristocratic Muslim family, and is exposed in equal share to the rituals and festivals observed by both the Hindus and the Muslims of Porabari. He paints his life in rich, careful detail embedded onto a framework of compelling storytelling.
Emperor Chandragupta by Adity Kay is a well-researched novel based on the life of Chandragupta Maurya. Published by Hachette India, the novel has shades of Walter Scott’s historical novels with an Indian flavour. The subtitle “Can One Man Build an Empire” suggests that it was not just Chandragupta who founded such a great empire but there was somebody else too. It was his political Guru and strategist Chanakya who chose a boy called Moriya, raised by a tribe of peacock tamers and christened him as Chandragupta. As he wanted to take revenge against the ruthless ruler of Magadha, he trained Chandragupta and helped him emerge as a great leader under his tutelage. Most of the time, youngsters are taught to develop leadership qualities but an example is never presented in front of them. This book delineates lucidly the rise of a leader because he was willing, and learnt to be a leader.
It isn’t rare for a poetry book to plunge its readers into uncertainty regarding how to perceive it. The Remnant Glow does the same, at times feeling like intriguing monologues between two strangers who’ve met at a convention or on a flight to the said convention, and then switching into an interesting back-and-forth banter between two friends who have known each other all their lives. These two voices, sturdy but distinctive, bring a much-needed balance to the book, and can be considered probably the greatest triumph of this beautiful collection.
The Remnant Glow is published by Writers Workshop, and in all respects, bears the trademark exquisiteness that comes with every WW publication. Gold embossed, hand stitched, hand-bound with handloom sari cloth, this book is a joy to possess, if only for its sheer aesthetics. The book is divided into two parts, one for each poet, with each section containing 20 poems.
It is no easy task to write an epic, but a job more difficult than that would be to attempt retelling one of the most complicated and incredible epics to ever have been written. Kavita Kane does exactly that, although to her credit, she already is an established name in terms of retelling Indian mythology. One can only assume it was this confidence that made her choose to venture into the retelling of the Ramayana, the exploits of the Prince of Ayodhya and his nemesis, the king of Lanka. A retelling of such an enormous, extensive and breath-taking epic can be a hit-or-miss situation, where on one end lies the risk of falling prey to clichés or getting lost in the convoluted plot of the original epic, and on the other, the befitting reward of satisfaction.
Kavita Kane tackles this opportunity head on, and fortunately ends up with something of high finesse and value.
You don’t have to read the writer’s bio to figure out that the writer is a civil servant. The book, Feet in the Valley by Aswini Kumar Mishra, is an ode to the “sarkari daftar” and its ways and means of working less and making more money.
Somen, the protagonist of the book doesn’t start out as being likeable, because he fails his exams and generally seems to not care whether his family has to put up with hardships due to his “studies” late into the night. He takes it for granted that his parents and sister would be crammed into one room in order for him to study into the night. When he fails, you wonder if his mother’s love for him (she feeds him pakoras and samosas and cut fruit – by her own hand – at different points in the book) is deserved. He is 28 years old and seems to be self-centered and “useless”, and it seems to be a patriarchal setup because his sister Minati seems to have more brains than him.
The cover of Kappa Quartet is striking. It’s simple — a subway car opening onto a station platform, with Japanese signs hung up, a man in a hat reading a newspaper on the left, a woman in a dress with a closed book on her lap. The man and woman are faceless, and the person entering is incomplete — a faceless individual with a pair of red glasses perched on (in?) air. Indeed, waiting is the trope the novel appears to be premised on. Water is the element kappas are most comfortable in and around, and it too plays a vital role in moving the narrative forward.
The novel plunges right into the action by taking as self-evident the presence of the mythological figure of the kappa, a river demon of Japanese folklore, in the everyday life of humans and cities. Kappas enjoy a solitary existence and distance themselves from even their families, yet they are integrated into fast-paced society: they drink at izakayas, consume nabe at restaurants, play instruments in orchestras, relax at cafes and hotels, marry other kappas and procreate, marry humans and don’t, get adopted as children, go to school, in short, do everything that humans do. How they are differentiated is through a hole in the head (while bathing, it is apparently a custom for them to have another individual present scoop up some water and pour it into the hole). In some kappas like Takao the hole is very small, say, “no larger than a five-hundred-yen coin”, while his nephew “Goro’s was probably three or four times bigger” (p. 145), because of which he is picked on by his classmates.
I have been waiting for a book like An Era of Darkness for quite some time. While much has been written about the British empire and the brutality of colonization, none of those accounts came from an Indian perspective. African-Americans have been able to recount the horrors of slavery through books such as Inhuman Bondage and Many Thousands Gone, but Indians have only been served an ersatz history of the empire by apologists such as Niall Ferguson (Empire) and Lawrence James (The Rise and Fall of the British Empire). In reviewing this book, my slight bias, of which I’m forthcoming, arises squarely from the fact that there hasn’t been anything similar that singularly deals with the Indian experience of colonization.
Tharoor’s book, which took shape after his speech on the subject went viral last year, is an extensive examination of the economic and cultural damage wreaked upon India over the 200 years it was under British rule. In order to establish their dominion, the British dismantled the organic structure of the subcontinent which was always, as the historian Jon Wilson noted, “a society of little societies”.
How do you make sense of life when your friend dies? How do you make sense of life when thousands were washed away by waters in a tsunami or killed ruthlessly in a genocide? How do you make sense of lives lived in pain whether due to atrocities committed by other or genetic mutations that make every day living a study in pain and forbearance? Peter Trachtenberg’s The Book of Calamities examines the meaning of life through these occurrences while asking five questions, “Why me? How do I endure? What is just? What does my suffering say about me and about God? What do I owe those who suffer?”
The book is a compelling first hand account of not just the author’s own suffering due to substance abuse, the death of his friends and his parents but also a first hand account of other people’s pain as he travels to places of strife such as Rwanda and Sri Lanka, follows up with families who lost loved ones on September 11, and interviews those in grief, seeking an answer to his questions.
Born to Communist parents Amar Shaikh and Kusum Jaykar, Malika Amar Shaikh was raised in an inspiring environment at a time when history was being staged – Maharashtrian politics of the 1960s. Cushioned by her father, a legendary Marathi folk singer and trade union leader, Malika, who was an ailing child lived the world through books. And, her only outlet was her poetry.
Hirve, hirve gawat, phule bhovti jamat
Jaate mi, maaghaari yete mi…ramat, gamat
(In the green green foliage, the flowers dance
There will I follow, there will I prance.)
She had written her first poem at the age of seven. Riding on the loving shoulders of her father, a respectable man, Malika floated through the art, cultural and political circles as a school-going girl, observing and silently soaking in all that was on offer.
Published by Speaking Tiger, I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir by Malika Amar Shaikh, translated from Marathi by author, poet and translator Jerry Pinto, tells a tale of despair. The original autobiography Mala Udhhvasta Vhaychay was published in 1984.
As with any book of short stories, one tends to open a story and allow the writer to steer you into worlds you have not experienced. Mitra Phukan’s A Full Night’s Thievery takes us to Assam, and gives us a glimpse into the lives of her characters filled with music. But when those worlds are described in ways where Indian words like aanchal, punkha walas, Krishnasura tree, aalna, deuta intrude upon the senses, then the story comes second. It’s all ambience. Only ambience.
The book blurb promises that “music is a hard taskmaster” and you want to experience that. The bleeding fingers, the pain of missing a beat in front of an audience, the ecstasy of hitting the right notes and the loneliness of the riyaaz, we want to feel it all. But the characters don’t seem to be real. They’re given to rants (“The Choice”) where a Rudra Veena player is attempting to tell himself why he’s giving away his instrument. And after a couple of pages you wish the damned instrument would break to make him stop whining. If you’ve started with that story (since it’s the first in the book), then it sounds the death knell to the book, doesn’t it?
It is interesting how every culture’s literary history almost always begins in verse – for they say verse comes easier to mankind than prose. It is maybe for this inherent nature in all of us that makes us, at least at some point of time in our lives, try to dabble in the art of writing poetry. However, not all of us have the energy to sustain that spirit. Not all of us are able to give birth to the poet in us. But those that do, truly know the joy that it brings to be able to express oneself in rhyme and the pain that it takes to get that rhyme right. What is also pleasantly surprising is how similar these ideas generated in the early stages of writing are to that of the other poets at a similar juncture of creativity. Similar but how beautifully different – different in the way that they then go on to form roots of their own to branch out in their creator’s essence. This is what Ashish Khetarpal’s debut book of poetry When the Wind Blows and Other Poems (2016) offers you – the freshness of the early stages of birth, the resonances it bears to the poetic genetic makeup of mankind and the promise of branching out to create its own unique type.
For the Love of Pork, 2016, by Goirick Brahmachari comes through as a collection of brilliant and ambitious verse that is intensely contemporary, thickly layered and imagistic, and reads like beat poetry as it interrogates on one hand the presence and forms of borders in daily life; and celebrates on the other hand the excesses of modern living with its new-found freedoms that thrill in the flouting of social taboos. Brahmachari, who belongs to a younger line of Indian poets writing in English, draws profusely from his readings and understanding of literature, history, cultural theory, culture and politics. His writing explores the matrix of socio-political and existential issues, as it negotiates at the same time, the paradox of acceptance and irreverence in the lives of the middle class. In terms of poetic style and content, Brahmachari’s is a strong and impressive voice, equipped with both the conviction and the courage that a poet needs to explore new pathways in poetic craft, experience, and creative expression.
One thing we know about Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, whether through her writings or hearsay, is that she doesn’t mince words. Her memoir follows this legacy. Exile is about the fight of a woman against the state, a commentary on India’s struggle to maintain its secular credentials, the rapidly diminishing arena of free expression, and the ugly effect of vote bank politics on her life. Her open attacks on religion, patriarchy and intolerance are distilled into a retelling of her seven-month ordeal in 2007 against the Indian state’s coercive mechanisms.
Nasrin has many epithets: former physician, humanist, human rights activist, proponent of freedom of expression and women’s rights, battler of fatwas. Forced to leave Bangladesh in 1994 after the religious furore caused by her book Lajja, she led a nomadic existence in Europe and America for a decade. Her repeated attempts to return to Bangladesh were rejected by the government. The last of her three-part memoir, Ka, published as Dwikhandito in West Bengal, was banned by the local government in 2003 for hurting Muslim religious sentiments. In 2004, she was granted a residency permit in India and made a home in Kolkata, the place closest to her homeland in language and culture.
While some poets choose to wait for inspiration to strike, others fling themselves into the arms of poetry, seeking out and stringing together poetry from the mundane. Rohinton Daruwala takes the second path, and succeeds in forging out a collection of poems, which not only choose its subjects from activities as simple as brewing a cup of morning tea, but adorns them with an almost disarming appeal.
The Sand Libraries of Timbuktu (Speaking Tiger Publications) reads like the poet’s personal journal, wherein he archives moments from his day, and makes sure to let the reader know just what makes these activities so special in their own rights. Take, for example, the first few lines from his poem about “Making Tea”: Boil the water, she says/ till it’s warmer than common lust/ but cooler than a hot temper/ Pour the water, let it sit/ longer than an impatient child’s pleading/ but not as long as brooding jealousy. In fact, from the very first poem in this collection, Mr. Daruwala makes it clear why his poems deserve multiple readings; they are an exquisite mix of sensations and sentiments, steeped in familiar delight. The poems are short and invoke beautiful imageries, the kind that don’t fade away abruptly, but endures instead. The book itself is divided into 9 segments, containing a total of 37 poems. His poems are like travellers, some seeking shelter from their fear of unguarded roads, some exploring the different facets of the city, or the sand libraries of Timbuktu.
We see the various stages of birth – the birth of a piece of writing, in Shelly Bhoil’s maiden collection of poems An Ember from Her Pyre. She begins at the beginning, when there exists only the turbulent blank that comes before the beginning. The germs of assorted ideas squirming in the brain, while the mind is still trying to process which one of it needs to be carried for a full term and finally given birth to. This is what the poems in the first section of her book – “The Recalling” give you a sense of. Bhoil seems unafraid to let the reader penetrate deep within the poet’s mind space, where everything is still raw, half-processed and unbaked. It is like the dustbin full of scratched out first lines written down on papers that have now been reduced into crushed little wrinkly balls. Here the poet is not yet a mother, but still the one whose egg has not met its fertilising agent. The “dream” of a poem, the imprint of another poem or poet on your poem, the struggle with words, with meanings, with grammar, the play with form, with diction and with dialects, and the lure of stories heard and memories made – millions of these seeds of ideas ejaculated into the poet’s mind womb is put out on open display as they swim towards the egg trying to reach it before the others.
When you talk about this book, you have to talk about two people: Asia’s first postmaster general, Bala Subramanion, and the writer, Nilanjana Sengupta.
The story of Subramanion, 94, is a throwback to a Singapore that doesn’t exist today. He grew up in a forgotten past when the British, Japanese, then the British and finally Singaporeans ruled the country. It is a grandfather’s war story that many must have heard their old folk talk about. Subramanion’s story is interwoven with those of his struggles in a country torn apart by incendiary politics, abject poverty and big power rivalry. A combination of luck and smart instincts saw him rising up the ranks to reach the very top of the job he chose to be in. That profession is fast disappearing in a familiar narrative of disruptive technology. Singapore, My Country is a useful documentation of not just how the ubiquitous the post office was at one time.
The story of India’s involvement in the Second World War is a story untold, so that its history — and in one sense India’s collective history — has “remained unopened and unknown, until it rotted”. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, the Iranian novelist, meant those words for Iran, but they are universal, and Raghu Karnad has recognized them to be so, pulling this vital bit of history out of its rot. In Farthest Field, Karnad has dusted this history up for us, and presented it to us in a better form than perhaps anybody else would have, in part because this is also his personal history.
We don’t know of the exact moment the war came to India, or rather the exact moment when the Indians realized that the Panzers and the Heinkels might land up at their doorsteps, but Karnad tells us, in the very first sentence, that the news of the war reached Calicut “along with the morning eggs”.
Humera Ahmed is a writer and a poet who recently retired from the top echelons of India’s civil service. She had an illustrious career across various departments and ministries across the country and its capital. One stint in Shimla caught her imagination and she uses her notes to write a lovely book, which is part-travelogue, part-autobiography, part-historical and in parts, a contemporary review of the state of Himachal. She also talks insightfully of how the postal service works and how it has transformed itself during the recent past. Not much has been written about this fascinating part of North India and therefore this book becomes a priceless manuscript documenting one of our most exotic provinces.
Vijay Mahajan has been researching neglected markets for over two decades. His first work on this issue pointed out that Africa was rising. The second discussed the 86 per cent solution where the corporate world focuses only on the top 14% of the world and now must look at the rest. Mahajan’s third stated that the Arab World was a large market indeed. His latest that releases this month talks of the rural consumer in ten countries with the largest rural populations, with India leading the pack. The book titled Rise of Rural Consumers in Developing Countries: Harvesting 3 Billion Aspirations discusses the strategies being used to reach 3 billion rural consumers in developing countries, a vibrant, aware and aspirational market yet untapped.
“I’ve begun moving mechanically like a zombie, like a sleepwalker. And everything appears to be like a bad dream . . . nothing but a sleepwalker’s dream.”
The Sleepwalker’s Dream is the first novel in English by prolific Assamese writer Dhrubjyoti Borah. He is one of the eminent writers in Assamese, and has received several awards, most notably the Sahitya Akademi, a prestigious literary award of India. Being a practicing medical doctor, Borah deftly deals with the psychology of individuals and groups. The many shades of human persona are finely depicted by the author. Loyalty and treachery, cooperation and suspicion, discipline and defiance, love and lust are in the nature of human beings, and the same is displayed in this remarkable work of fiction.
The Silk of Hunger by Vinita Agrawal is a collection of 30 crisp elegiac poems embedded in urban sensibility, a wide range of symbols and thick metaphor. This collection of poems which is dedicated to the poet’s late father, makes a tidy offering – like a bouquet of the finest of roses in shades of black to burgundy – it is an epitaph that is both an offering and a coming to terms with loss, absence and the finality of death.
These tightly knit poems that are somber in tone and brilliant in terms of poetic craft and structure, deeply move and nourish as they foray with surgical precision, through symbol, narrative and objective inquiry, into the emotion or experience at hand. Mostly pain, separation and death – be it the death of an animal, a planet, a town, a relationship or a father – the loss must be faced and purged squarely so that a catharsis can be achieved and a closure struck by both the grieving poet and all of grieving humanity.
Veils, Halos and Shackles, an international anthology of poetry was conceived in the wake of the gang rape and torture of Jyoti Singh Pandey (a physiotherapy student) by six brutes in a moving bus in New Delhi on the night of December 16, 2012,resulting in her death in a few days. It contains 250 poems by 180 poets, most of whom are women except some two dozen male voices living in different countries of the world. Most of the contributors are from the Indian subcontinent and the United States of America. It is for the first time that poets have opened their hearts and expressed their feelings about different forms of oppression and torture on women and the ways of their empowerment on such a large scale, making a global impact of the grave issue.
I was sitting in an open air café, out under a midday sun, as I read Han Kang’s Booker prize-winning book, The Vegetarian. I was cold. That is what the book does to you. The story turns the choicelessness in the life of a woman into a motif that chills and frightens the reader. The story centres around the decision of the protagonist, Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian. Her husband had married her because as he says in the opening lines of the book that he, “always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” The book then proceeds to turn that statement on its head.
I read Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment during my first visit to New York, which coincided with the massacre of twenty people in a café in Bangladesh. In the big city, I found myself adrift between the busyness of the city, the meaningless and brutality of the lives lost in Bangladesh and the surreal state of abandonment of Olga in this book. Nothing meant anything, I told myself, and I struggled to make sense in the three realms I crossed and inhabited — reading the book on the subway, catching snippets of news on the papers and television, and navigating the busy roads and people of this city. For me, Mario, the protagonist’s husband, began to represent the fallacies and illusions we hold about love and life that for Olga become nothing but figments of her imagination and her longings for meaning and safety. In this city, like her, I too grappled with the underlying sense of the danger in everything, “…there began to grow inside me a permanent sense of danger.” (p.27)
Saeed Naqvi’s “Being The Other: The Muslim in India” (Aleph, 2016) is part memoir and part account of a series of unfolding events in modern India which he witnessed from close quarters as a journalist. Naqvi says that the shilanyas ceremony of 1989 at Ayodhya–that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992–acted as the catalyst for writing this book which had gestated in his heart and mind over six decades.
The collection consists of sixty poems structured under seven pronoun-ed section headings namely: i, he, them, they, her, there, those. I found the section titles interesting, then distracting as I wondered about the choice of “he” but then the switch to “her” instead of “she”. Perhaps the intention was to be elusive, so I let it go and dove straight into the writing.
This fresh collection of short stories by Southeast Asian writers, set in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore, opens with a young girl in Manila who spontaneously erupts into flames. This sets the tone for the stories that follow, some of which are even more fantastical, encapsulating speculative fiction, science fiction, snippets from contemporary urban landscapes and possible ominous futures. All the stories play with the motif of heat in its various manifestations—its literality and its associations with frantic cities, crowded streets, busy street sides, spicy food, family warmth, raging passions, burning forests and fevered fancies that the tropical climate of the region generates.
In a world where writers seem to increasingly expend more energy screaming for attention, Monideepa Sahu comes across as a breath of fresh air. This also means that readers can miss her altogether, and in the process deprive themselves of fiction that is both sensitive and well rounded, satisfying as well as just a bit out of reach, providing more food for thought. Going Home in the Rain and Other Stories is a book that can easily fit into a ladies bag or the side pocket of a backpack. You could read it on a train, at an airport during that pause between journey and destination, and find yourself carrying the stories along after the book is spent. The thing about this collection is that the stories themselves are about journeys.
In terms of the writing itself, this is one of the best-written books by an Indian journalist. No flowery prose or tired clichés, just language marked by its sharp immediacy, and not too many judgements. She paints evocative, often graphic pictures, drawing the reader in with her words, for example (from ‘In the Name of God’), when describing an incident she covered for TV news during the Gujarat riots of 2002, when her TV news team was alerted about a group of 40 Muslim villagers trying to run from a bloodthirsty mob, in a small milk van. She rushed to the spot, but arrived too late, only to find that the van had been set on fire: ‘There was no one there but the woman, whose name we would never know, lying on the road. By the side of her body the aluminium handles of overturned milk cans gleamed through the orange of the flames that were consuming the van.’
Author of books like Recasting India (2014) and The Liberals (2012), Editor-at-Large at Fortune India, and the youngest and first Indian writer to be nominated for the Hayek Prize, Hindol Sengupta sets out to understand and negotiate in this work of non-fiction what it means to be a Hindu/what Hinduism is. Through a thorough research of the poly-faceted texts of Hinduism, simplified for the modern reader, Sengupta reiterates the essence in the book’s cover
A Bond So Sacred is Usha Rajagopalan’s tryst with a most fascinating era in modern Indian history. There is so little written about ordinary lives during the freedom struggle that what happened less than a hundred years ago appears so exotic and remote. Raman and Kokila are siblings who live during the twentieth century, with each mega event casting its shadow on their personal lives; The struggle against untouchability, emancipation of women, the salt agitation, widow remarriage, freedom from the British, the trauma of partition and the India Pakistan wars that follow. Each of these incidents come alive through the lives of these two protagonists who take us through the making of modern India and its various trysts with tradition and modernity. Vey subtly, the novel brings in Gandhiji and Vaikom Basheer, among other stalwarts who become players in this story of a few simple people wanting to live a full life with their loved ones.
Throughout the stories, Zafar Anjum tries to depict myriads of realities from diverse parts of the globe yet all of them without doubt depict the milieu and diverse lives that people leads. For instance, in the short story Waiting for the angles, the author deals with the old age in modern context in which traditional support base for elders has completely eroded, compelling them, sometimes to lead lonely lives in high rise condominiums. In the short story The Thousand-yard Stare, the author deals with human tragedy that is unfolding in Gaza and how continuing atrocities have shaped the lives of the ordinary citizens.
Safe House, brought out by Poetrywala, an imprint of Paperwall Media and Publishing, India, is a slim volume comprising thirty-nine poems. The book is small and slim enough to fit into a coat pocket or a small ladies handbag. The cover (photograph by Hemant Divate and design by Shilpa Dinesh) takes a Dali-esque look at a house’s façade. The surface so wobbly, can it be safe?
Vigorously researched, so much so that Dalrymple nearly lost his life, while doing the same, and immensely readable, Return of a King is history and literature at its best. The anecdotes by Mirza ‘Ata, Shah Shuja himself, British officers add colour and personality to a book, which otherwise could have been a mundane narration of history. During his perilous stay in Kabul, Dalrymple unearthed a plethora of lost, valuable literary resources. He made use of Afghanistan’s national archives, discovered the remains of private libraries abandoned by their aristocratic owners, epic poems and reconstructed a web of factions and friendships among the Afghan leaders, a world which blissfully eluded the British. The screeching details take the form of capsule biographies of almost each character. His words make the worst military disaster of the 19th century come alive for the reader.
The author intended it as a tribute to her maternal uncle, her grandma and her mother, all of whom walked a difficult path, of caring for the uncle, who developed schizophrenia at a young age. Yet equally, it is a moving memoir of growing up in a Singapore which was very different from the one we live in today, in which we read about a Balestier plagued by ‘gangsters’, the author’s grandma travels long distances to wash the clothes of well-off people for a small payment, people frequent bomohs to get cured of illnesses, and many similar vignettes.
In Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air, we are faced immediately with the bane and challenge of any memoirist – how much do you give away of what you know and how soon? The question gathers a new grave importance when the outcome is a certain death, which in Paul’s story comes about with his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer early in the narrative. Paul, a neurosurgeon, is faced with the question of what he wants to do with his remaining days and he decides to write, to have a baby. He tries to practice medicine too for a while and must accede defeat to his fading body. What does a dying memoirist write about? About death, surely but more importantly what emerges is how a book about dying becomes a book about life and living and meaning. And isn’t that what we are all looking for? Isn’t that the purpose of our every day? Isn’t that our raison d’etre? A search for meaning?
Rabindranath Tagore’s literary output can well be compared to a perennial source; the more you use it, the more it gushes out. On the same analogy, no new book on Tagore is one too many, nor is it saturating. The work under review, Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translation, is a welcome addition to the scholarly discourse on Tagore that attempts to locate the “feminine” in his oeuvre. The volume offers selections from his memoirs, Gitanjali, travelogues, poems and songs, epics and mythology, letters, essays, lectures, and short stories, and in that, it becomes a journey of re-discovery and a not-so-easy exercise in translation. The contributing translators are all renowned scholars in the field with command over both Bengali and English. That speaks for the quality of the work.
Urmila, in Saket’s book, challenges her fate, using her own set of colours and brushes to repaint her destiny. Stroke by stroke she reclaims her canvas, even when she too has to go through (her personal) fourteen years of neglect. The perpetuator in her case is her husband Shree, and Shree alone. (It is interesting how Saket has preferred to use a generic term for man to name her Urmila’s husband; read her views in the interview.) Shree is the younger brother who prefers to follow his older sibling and sister-in-law without a backward glance at his wife.
I am also a sucker for books written by journalists. Many of these books are written with a clarity and real-life incisiveness that only a journalist who has had his or her boots on the ground can bring to life. So when I was given the book, Midnight’s Furies, to review I grabbed it. Bloomberg journalist Nisid Hajari’s account is a valuable addition to the many heard and unheard stories of India’s bitter fight for Independence and the bloody road to Partition. Hajari’s claim is that Partition is still not understood fully even though so much has been said in books, art, film and music. The disdain he reflects in his writing about these past works will make one wonder: So how is his take different and refreshing? For one, Hajari uses his skills as a story teller to good use. He brings to life personalities we have read or heard about. In the process, the author makes them look human.
In this day and age, when nearly everybody is churning out a book whether they have a book in them or not, here are these 26 essays by Amitava Kumar, compiled under the title Lunch with a Bigot. In his note as a preamble to the book, the author states that when he encountered a judge at a poetry competition, he was asked by him, “If you have nothing to say, don’t write. Please.” That itself is enough compulsion for a reader to attempt going through this eclectic collection of essays that the writer has meticulously divided into four sections: Reading, Writing, Places and People.
Kafka in Ayodhya and other Short Stories, written by Zafar Anjum, the founder of Singapore-based literary journal Kitaab, is a brilliant experiment in quirky and offbeat literature with a Kafkaesque twist (pun intended!) Written in an easy interactive style with a twist at the end in most tales, these stories are delightful and have what it takes to keep the reader engrossed till the very end. In that, the author has established his mastery over his craft!
Twenty nine poems with their dense and highly concentrated images take the readers through different shades of life—the past and the present, the near and the far, the distances and the proximities are all there to look at. She intermingles language, metaphors and realities to skilfully bring to the fore concepts each one of which represent by itself an episode of significant happenings around her. Her poems dazzle and she has very successfully tackled themes (though she says her book is not theme-based) with remarkable flair. The beauty of depth of thought accompanies her poems.
The story is fiction, and there is no need to or purpose for inquiring how much of it comes from the true experiences of the author. Such preoccupations are banal, the sign of tired and unimaginative literary inquiry, and too often fall on female authors. However, Khan herself is the daughter of a Dutch mother, as is Aliya in the novel. Aliya is around the same age as Khan. She ends up living in upstate New York, as does the author. These details mean that however hard a reader works to separate the novel with the author’s life, the two repeatedly converge. This is not necessarily a barrier to enjoying the novel, but it is distracting, and left me feeling dissatisfied by the fictional world that was created. When entering a fictional world—even one that closely resembles the real one—I want to enter it fully, not be repeatedly teased into thinking it may not be fiction.
With this collection, Hansda sets before us not just the romp and frolic of indomitable women as in his debut novel, but the pains and passions of men and women, and children as well. His characters are just as strongly delineated as in his first book. Their lives and times are just as vibrant. But here, Hansda’s voice is raised higher. He treads deeper waters, whose currents can be treacherous. This book is not a light read, and nor are the stories meant to be taken lightly. Readers should be prepared to have their emotions trampled upon.
For a start, the title of the book is strong and direct, as are the individual story captions. I was quite surprised to see the work of none other than the master Kafka himself in this collection. It was wonderful to see it here among other contemporary powerhouses of the genre. While it might feel like just a passing moment in time, Kafka’s story, “An Imperial Message” is far more than that. It is written in the present tense about an unidentified ruler and a so-called messenger. The story starts off without hesitation, and the writing is lucid. But as usual, it carries a deeper message all through it. For one, the reader is invited to use his or her imagination while reading the story. Kafka is a painter and the painting he creates is realistic and often feels like a deep canvas where one is belittled by the power of the artist’s brush.
The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped is a fine-layered collection of 17 short stories by Nabina Das, a Guwahati-born author with one novel and two poetry collections to her credit. Apart from the rich imagery that lingers on like a good melody, Das’ stories show a unique depth of plot and control of her characters. The reader feels the intensity of the stories through the complexities of the situations or characters.
The Arithmetic of Breasts and Other Stories by Rochelle Potkar (Kindle, 2014) doesn’t have just its Maths, but also its Chemistry, Physics and Biology in the right measure. These bold and tantalising tales of myriad men and women grappling with issues of relationships and passion, offer much insight into the dark recesses of the human mind pertaining to their romantic pursuits. Rochelle Potkar’s easy style of writing and her ability to conjure up images whilst narrating her “seven and a half stories” draws the reader into the worlds of the characters, and enables the reader to empathise with their peculiar predicaments.
Like the repetition and difference of the fractal, the poetic work of Hula Hooping comprises patterns that turn or spiral towards an ineffable centre, where a kaleidoscopic differentiation of affections is inscribed on every page. And it is in these pages that readers are invited to probe without judgement, by feeling with and through layers of verse that draw us into a world that is never ours in the absolute. Perhaps the gift of poetry expressed in Ho’s collection does not pertain to the mastery of the object, where the poetic work is denuded to be comprehensible, since comprehension may easily be reduced to the trap of delineating and hence deciding between the true and the false. Rather, it is the reader who receives, or comes to share the life of the other adorned in verse. In many ways, the verses of Hula Hooping make for a delightful exemplification of the elliptical celebration of the poetic work, where the words do not only move, but dance in celebration of life.
David Mason’s acute observation in The Hudson Review that “The poetry industry fuels itself on shallow rewards, lines on a resume, praise in a workshop, none of which has anything to do with the solitary effort to write real poems” reflects poorly on the state of poets and the kind of stuff being oozed out in the name of poetry. But there are honourable exceptions like the two poetry collections I read recently—Vita Nova by Louise Gluck and The Seduction of Delhi by Abhay K. The latter is a collection of forty-seven poems. Abhay K. is an Indian Foreign Service Officer and a winner of the SAARC Literary Award. He is the author of two memoirs and five poetry collections. In a unique way in itself, the poet presents his thoughts and emotions in measures exquisite. The well-known Italian artist Tarshito has created the artwork for this book.
A book that seems to subscribe to the edict of “Valar Morghulis”, Brutal takes us on a high-adrenaline chase from one dangerous secret to another, revealing layers upon layers of organised crime and vanity noir. The narration and style are so grippingly matter-of-fact that it makes it very difficult for a reader to miss the all-men-must-die paradigm of justice prevailing in the criminal underbelly of the Indian subcontinent.
In the presence of compassion even the mightiest demons melt. To have someone as loving and compassionate as Maa present in one’s life, Faith and True Love by Sangeeta Maheshwari, is perhaps an apt tribute to someone who lived, preached and breathed love. For Sangeeta it is perhaps a journey to inner peace as she recollects her experience with Maa who was love personified. For the reader, it’s a tapestry of vivid calm colors of peace, serenity and innocence as the scenes shift from innocent tender years of being introduced to Maa, being showered in untold and affection to the concreteness of challenges yet faith and love being the common fuel leading her throughout her journey of life.
Fall Winter Collections (Niyogi Books, 2015) by Koral Dasgupta has a style about it that is unique. Dasgupta’s entry into fiction writing is as unique and smooth as the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. The book is simple, yet poetic; and being set in Shantiniketan, it is very Bengali. The two protagonists, Sanghamitra Banerjee and Aniruddh Jain Solanki, are so real that you almost believe that it is a non-fiction story written as fiction. The protagonists being depicted as real and human is a real win for the writer. The reader wants to meet the protagonists, as both seem talented, unique and flawless in their own ways.
From the few visits to Circarina—the Calcutta playhouse with the revolving stage—that one made in the early flush of youth, the figure of an elderly dhoti-clad gentleman who would sit in the front row rises up from the depths of memory. He would always be holding a freshly-picked rose in his hand, which he would present to one of the performers immediately after a song and dance sequence. It was a heady experience watching those plays, the throbbing darkness inside the hall, the coloured spotlight beams lighting up the elaborate sets, the filmi music, the Bollywood style bump and grind and the crackling storylines. All of it came back in a rush while reading The Firebird, Saikat Majumdar’s novel set in the world of commercial theatre. A powerful story of subversion, decay and dissonance in a north Calcutta family with a young boy at its centre.
Several things about this book suggest a medieval manuscript – not literally of course, for this is a publication designed for a twenty-first century world – but in the sense of it being precious, valued, holy and unique. The title, which translates as Holy, Holy, For a Long Time Holyemphasises this mood as does the epigraph by Allen Ginsberg. An essential part of the atmosphere is enhanced by the quality of the actual publication itself – fine paper, black and white geometric designs, the luxury of a single line per page, the cover with the rising/falling bird.
“Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated in Rawalpindi,” whispers the narrator’s father into the phone, while the family is waiting for a relative’s health status at hospital. The Upstairs Wife (Beacon Press, 2015) takes readers on a swift journey through Pakistan’s political and social history via a personal, family history. Rafia Zakaria’s school-going Pakistani girl’s perspective provides a mysterious narrative voice. She observes her aunt’s marriage crumbling because of a Pakistani law that permitted Pakistani men to take legal second wives in the 1980s.
Admittedly, The Patna Manual of Style is hard to describe, even harder to like. But it is easy to love–travel through its pages and you will see Delhi as it was a decade ago, with its mentions of what the North Campus looked like and perhaps still does, how the winter sunlight slinks gently into an apartment, how you can catch a glimpse of the Qutb Minar from a South Delhi barsati, the traffic around Sarai Kale Khan, the atmosphere around Connaught Circus, and you will automatically fall in step with Hriday Thakur, the aspiring writer from Patna who has loved and not lost, and somehow made a life for himself in Delhi, says Anu Kumar
Ayushmann Khurrana’s Cracking the Code is a thin volume, simply written and conversational in its tone. This is no hi-fi book, but it makes its points. For those who are looking at learning how to “get there”, they can read the codes and apply them. The codes he gives are not special to entering and doing well in the film industry, i.e. making it as an actor, but can be applied to any field.
Saadia Faruqi’s evocative collection of stories entitled Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan is like a breath of fresh air as it breaks through all the clutter of violence, terrorism and fear and offers much hope and faith in humanity despite the odds. Each story has a common Pakistani man or woman as the protagonist who is dealing with myriad issues. The revival of their confidence and self-belief is the common thread tying these tales together.
Other reviews of this novel have pointed out the title’s similarity to Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis,suggesting that—or perhaps even accusing—Singh is somehow trying to ride upon Thayil’s shirttails of success. The novels are, however, extremely different in genre, content, style and substance, and the only worthwhile connection that should be made is that Necropolisis as strongly situated in Delhi as Narcopolis was in Bombay, and can be enjoyed as one among many portraits of a city that is as beautiful and it is sinister.
RK Biswas’s Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women, a collection of short stories is ample testimony to this. Comprising of 32 stories that have been published individually in India and globally, the book dwells on women from different walks of life, cuts across ages and brings out the resilience which women are known for. This mixed bag of stories opens with a sensitive story told most beautifully in “Breasts”. A simple phone call in the dead of the night can be ominous and when Ila learns that it is a perverted prankster at the other end of the line, she disconnects the line with just a word, ‘Idiot’. As the story progresses, Biswas brilliantly changes Ila’s mood into a tender moment. This poignant story is my favourite.
Siddhartha Gigoo, the author, a Kashmiri born in Srinagar, sets his tales of poignancy and sadness in his birthplace. What struck me most was the innate sense of loss, despair, profound grief and sorrow that haunt each story. Such is the lilting quality of his mesmerizing prose that even misery appears ennobling and redeeming in these tales. The manner in which Siddhartha has adopted pain and heartache almost reflects a kind of yearning of an unrequited and unhappy soul. This is very relatable, considering that for long, Kashmir has been a metaphor for the suffering and atrocities inflicted upon its paradisaical soil owing to terrorism, fundamentalism and mindless violence, bloodshed and killing of native Kashmiris.
Singular Acts of Endearment is an enticing book, full of humour and fascinating trivia as well as profound and thought-provoking ideas. A multi-layered book that will stay with the reader long after the final page, says Mandy Pannett in this review. Part of the strength, the sheer readability of ‘Singular Acts of Endearment’, lies in the author’s clever use of juxtapositions. There are many literary references but they are not just introduced and left to their own devices but are paralleled with the personal touch: ‘Heaney’s grandfather’, says Jaz, ‘sounds a lot like mine.’ Again: ‘Heaney’s grandfather liked the digging. So does Ah Gong.’ She wonders how Heaney’s friends reacted to the news of his death and relates it to her own relationships, her own emotions: ‘I wonder how I’d react if Jeremiah died on me.’
The very model of acceptable modern poetry, many of the poems, despite being melancholic and disturbing–“that deep darkness/that deep emptiness/that unexpressed grief”–involve a large array of emotions and feelings, and the poems are more “meditations” in nature than mere simple poems. The images evoke remnants of questions that keep hovering and dispersing long after these poems have been read. Sitakant’s poetry befits Lenore Kandel’s description of poetry as “a medium of vision and experience…bursts of perception, lines into infinity.”
Divided into eight neatly segregated sections, India Shastra: Reflections on the Nation in our Time talks about the events that have shaped India until May of 2014. Section I, “India Modi-fied,” scrutinizes the first six months of the BJP government’s performance chart. Interestingly, despite himself being a Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor has displayed a remarkable sense of appreciation for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s genuine accomplishments such as the Cleanliness Initiative, but is equally critical of Modi’s purported “silence” on communal voices rearing their ugly heads from time to time in myriad nooks and crannies of the country.
While Urdu became victim of prejudices in its birthplace – India, it brimmed in the far off regions. An original Urdu work of Anees Ayesha, Urdu Poetry: An Introduction is an English translation by Singapore based author Zafar Anjum. Presenting the knowhow of Urdu poetry to Singaporean readers, it is a valuable addition to literature on Urdu poetry for those willing to learn Urdu poetry’s distinct features or stages of development. Prejudices have relentlessly shrunk Urdu in its country of birth. But it has advanced worldwide in many forms, especially by translations to give strong message. Anjum’s translation is an archetypal effort for English readers to learn the richness of Urdu poetry. This book briefs Urdu’s role from its inception to shaping Indian societies and cultures since the 17th century to the colonial British period and its challenges while encouraging nationalistic revolutions and spreading the message of Islam.
Thoroughly enjoyable, and offering much food for thought, particularly to every Indian woman and man who are going, or have gone through any hiccups or interesting situations in inter-personal relationships, ‘Arya and Other Stories’ is a delightful collection of original and sometimes eccentric tales, with their heart in the right place, writes Monica Arora.
Elen Turner reviews Joe Niemczura’s The Sacrament of the Goddess (Austin: Plain View Press, 2014. 263 pp.) and Martin David Hughes’ Jaya Nepal! (Asheville: Simi Books, 2014. 335 pp.): Joe Niemczura’s The Sacrament of the Goddess and Martin David Hughes’ Jaya Nepal! are two fictionalized accounts of American aid workers’ experiences in Nepal, published by small North American presses. They both have at their heart naïve young men with the best of intentions, who find love and friendship in Nepal. Both Niemczura’s protagonist Matt and Hughes’ protagonist Ben end up working in Nepali hospitals—Matt in the small town of Beni (the site of a large battle between Maoists and the Nepali army in 2004) in the Annapurna region, and Ben in an improbably-named settlement on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Pepsicola Townplanning. Both men have experienced love and heartbreak, the underlying reason for their being in Nepal.
The book is not only for those whose mind permits the elasticity of its openness to myriad personalities that Iqbal was but also for unenthusiastic wanderers. Zafar makes this well-researched book available to a scholar as well as a novice reader in equal measure. Even a swift, fast reading will help any reader to absorb the crux as all comprehension flows from vivid description of background material which Zafar lays bare before his readers prodigiously. Elegance and condensation marks Zafar’s work. Nothing is over-explained, writes K K Srivastava.
In this beautifully produced collection of prose poems and vignettes, Desmond Kon amazes and enchants the reader with his usual dexterity of thought and language. Here, in extraordinary, surreal settings, we find ourselves having a ‘dialogue with the juniper shrub’ while a dugong is ‘mistaken for a mermaid in the fog’ and a straight line on a white wall turns out to be de Chirico ‘hiding in his own silhouette.’ This is a lyrical, bitter-sweet realm as well, slight as ‘a spray of allegory in the dried out tobacco leaves’, a place where ‘even the small teacups have lost their chestnut and clover-tree cities to become one unremitting saffron’.
In the opening of Kulpreet Yadav’s third novel, Andy Karan expresses his appreciation for his favourite fruit – “Easy to eat, a banana wasn’t time consuming.” Much like the humble banana, Catching the Departed is an easy, quick read.
The book is shortlisted for the Hachette-DNA ‘Hunt for the next bestseller,’ and I can see why: with a delightfully mad villain at the helm of an evil conspiracy, the main storyline is entertaining indeed. In terms of the plot, Yadav combines the quick pace of English crime fiction with a good splash of masala – romance, action, a good versus evil showdown, and tragedy. There are enough twists and turns to keep the reader involved and guessing until the end – helped along by Yadav’s clean, fluid writing
Normally memoirs by superannuated bureaucrats: their filled creative vacancy representing surrender to nothing grandeur- neither ideas nor emotions nor imaginations are replete with hackneyed facts, suffer absence of esthetic vigilance and are by and large divorced of literary merits. Rarity, of course, shines. The book by a former CAG late C. G. Somiah—The Honest Always Stand Alone, an autobiographical venture really stood alone as not much media coverage or reviews accompanied it. Nor was there any somber discussion over the value addition it has made to the society or any group of people. But Vinod Rai’s book Not Just An Accountant—The Diary of the Nation’s Conscience Keeper is certainly not standing alone. Massive media coverage and interviews hailed the arrival. And for some with irrepressible glee galore, it is time for rejoice: ’Hey presto-there we are.”
At the end of Lim’s book, it is Ah-ku who does appear in very many ways, the story’s central character. She is not a character one finds easy to like and this fact itself speaks of her strength of character and will power, and Lim brings this out wonderfully. Ah-ku’s spirited nature, the ways she remade herself, rising from sheer insignificance to someone much loved, mirrors the river itself as it runs through Singapore. Suchen Christine Lim moves her narrative between what happens in the lives of Ping and Weng, and there is indeed much that is left unknown about Ah-ku, so much so, that in the end, as with Ping, Ah-ku’s life has to be explained to us. This often happens with a novel of ideas, and ‘The River’s Song’ takes on many themes. It would be worth the reader’s while to step into this absorbing, engaging story, for the book maintains that careful balance between story and idea, and Lim’s wonderful control of the narrative structure for the most part, assures the reader that while all endings will not be neat, the story will still be complete in every sense.
The format of The Singapore Decalogue (subtitled Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent) is creative: it is a novel, of sorts, but it is also akin to a collection of interrelated short stories. Each chapter narrates events from one month in the life of Asif, who, at the beginning, October 2005, is a Bangalore bachelor about to immigrate to Singapore. The protagonist, Asif, is the focus throughout the book; his life progresses from one event to the next, his consciousness and worldview undergoing development, suggesting the label of novel. However, each chapter stands alone to some degree: characters who take central roles in one chapter are entirely put aside in the next, sometimes never seen again. Asif’s life progresses, but author Zafar Anjum suggests, through this structure, that life can be compartmentalised, for good or ill.
The oft-debated dichotomy between modern scientific research and wisdom of traditional values, religious beliefs and spiritual propensities have formed the basis of several discussions, debates, deliberations and continues to dog the human sensibility, constantly torn between the two. This conflict between science and spiritualism forms the basis of the engaging novel by Gabriel Constans, entitled ‘The Last Conception’.
There are some rough patches but the author’s spontaneity, coupled with a radiant wit makes this a memorable novel. Beyond the hard-hitting storyline, the variety of experiments with form would keep one engaged, marking out this book as an important debut of the year. Finally we may ask — does the story offer some sort of closure for the villagers of Kilvenmani? Will the landless labourers finally sigh and whisper `Mudivu kandachu’? Which means `It has been completed’ or `We have seen the end.’ The reader would be intrigued to know, and this is one more reason for picking up Kandasamy’s novel.
The warp and weft of multi-hued human emotions weaves these intricate sagas of loss, longing and hope. As the inimitable Khalil Gibran has stated, ‘Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.’ Leela Devi Paniker’s stories have that depth and pathos, the few reluctant albeit genuine smiles, the tears of grief and longing and eventually eternal hope, sprouting from the womb of the earth, whilst inducing the character(s) to move on and rediscover life. The experiences and sufferings endured by each character lend texture and nuance to this rich tapestry of stories inspired by life and inspiring life thereon.
The “others” in the title could easily refer to family members other than oneself, those whom Purnima envies at the beginning perhaps; those whom Purba watches from a distance; those whom Sandhya worries about, that is the aunts and uncles, the cousins, the siblings, even the servants, some of whom at least are like extended family. However, make no mistake. The “others” really refers to those less fortunate than the Ghoshes and other middle and upper middle class Bengalis like them with their safe and comfortable lives. Supratik acts as the conscience of his community, but he too is a product of his upbringing and whether not his attempts to break the gulf between them and the “others” will succeed remains to be seen. But Mukherjee’s success is not in any doubt. He has delivered on the promise of his first novel. This one, currently long listed for the Booker Prize, is a tour de force.
This literary bouquet will excite readers everywhere by offering an intricate mosaic depicting Sri Lanka’s peoples and their cultures. Translations from Tamil and Sinhala are also included to give a faithful representation of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and literary diversity. For Indian readers, this collection shows how similar we are beneath the superficial differences. It also serves as a warning, portraying the dire consequences, the stupendous human toll, that results when neighbouring linguistic and religious communities sharing the same homeland push their differences to the point of fratricide.
A Book of Stolen Moments by Usha Bande is a collection of twenty one short stories that capture, or to say, click on some momentous and revealing moments in the lives of people belonging to various regions, nationalities and ethnic identities. Written in the early 1970s and 1980s, these stories were published in journals and magazines. However, the basic thematic concerns and issues addressed in these stories are still very much contemporary and contextual as they touch upon the simple yet penetrative, day-to-day realities of life in terms of the joys and pains and the twists and turns of life. Based on the ‘lived experiences, observations, reaction to and interaction with life” (Preface) by the writer’s own admission who is a fine mix of an academic scholar and creative writer, the collage of these tales unfolds the multi-faceted moods and manners of the people like the flow of the river.
This intriguing story set in West Bengal during the 1980s, explores the decline of the region’s culture through the eyes of two strong, unusual women. The bulk of the narrative revolves around Agnirekha, the firebrand journalist and snobbish “pedigree pooch” from the metropolis of Calcutta, as Kolkata was called in those days. Agnirekha’s life intertwines in mysterious ways with that of Agnishikha, an innocent and beautiful girl from the obscure town of Bisrampur, who is caught up in the dangerous underbelly of the big, bad metropolis. These two mirror-image names have a deeper significance in the narrative. As the author explains, “The two women Agnirekha and Agnishikha are from very different backgrounds and appear to be dissimilar. They are in fact opposite sides of the same coin; somewhere in the book the narrator calls them daughters of fire.”
The sixteen stories contained in the book depict a bustling and brash contemporary India; it is Delhi-Gurgaon of the corporate houses where life is held in a precarious balance between work and parties, short holidays and the frantic search for relaxation. Rain, water logging and consequent traffic jams become symbols of clogged in life. It is a kaleidoscopic view of modern metropolitan existence with its usual ups and downs; irritants and reassures; the will to fight and an urge to flee.
Shekhar’s narration is at times vivid and also in turns subtle and suggestive. There is though on occasion his overuse of the onomatopoeia for effect – ‘shappal, shappal shappal’ for men crossing the river, for example. He also does not overdo the explaining, which in this case, seems the obvious thing to do. Does he tell a story then? Yes, in very many admirable ways given that it is a difficult story to tell.
The scale and precision of imagery and rhetoric are very real. Doyali grapples with multitude of positions and scenarios but the sense of pacing is unique. Readers will not miss a feeling that poems, written in compressed manner, bleed with mystic love for Sufism and highlight the fundamental unity of all religions. The spiritually rich images of ‘ ‘when I enter paradox/you are there/longing constricts the vessel of self/until self becomes a seed.’ are difficult to forget. Her poems can withstand and reward the intense, close scrutiny with criteria of poetry of aesthetic order. That apart, thoroughness of craft, poetic insight, sheer strength, verve and vitality may arrest readers’ attention. To round up, it is relevant to recall what 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize winner Sylvia Legris says of Doyali’s book,’ It marks not only the debut of an extraordinary poet, but a fearless fusion of conviction and imagination, spirit and ink.’
All blood and gore apart, Reading New India: Post-Millennial Indian Fiction in English by E. Dawson Varughese is a very patriotic book, written in a post-colonial temperament. The Hindustaani expression “dil se” hooks you effortlessly. It is obvious in many ways, the first being the red line that accompanies as I type each word…the baffling response of the computer to each part of the author’s name. But as the sea goes calm after a tempest, now the red mark of doubt/incomprehension sticks to the surname only, it is accepting most of the things coming in its range. The new millennium announced its arrival with various new ideas and concepts, strewing them around; we collected some in a rush, some in a thoughtful mode. So does the world to any evolving culture and ideology.
The Arbitrary Sign-The Most Misunderstood Alphabet Book in The World by its author Desmond Kon Zhicheng Mindge’ is a book that reminds me of poets who seek wisdom and knowledge comprehensive enough to acquire solutions to problems of the generalities or overall map of the realities of the whole universe. A poet-metaphysician is usually conversant with a number of concepts in order to be able to utilize his range, depth and quality of experience and temperamental interests for transforming these concepts into key notions.
If there is a single city in India that has most accurately served the function of the proverbial melting pot then it has to be Bombay. In addition to “snacks and slang,” as Fernandes points out in his book, the city has historically proved to be an amalgamation of people from different cultures, religions, occupations, and classes. Bombay has always attracted immigrants in search of a better life and, in the past, acted as a symbol of tolerance and cosmopolitanism, not least as portrayed in the fabled cinema it produces. However, throughout much of this book the author laments the recent decline in these values, a decline that corresponds with growing signs of “progress.” He attributes much of the growing divisions between not only the rich and poor but also between religious communities, to the rise of the Shiv Sena and “ad hoc urbanism.”
The title of this little book (I Ate Tiong Bahru) does not let on what the contents are about, though the author’s note in the end does throw light on the intent. Living up to its name, the book seems to be a personal walk, as well as a gastronome’s account, of one of the well-known streets of Singapore.
A woman osctracised for marrying beneath her caste, a closeted homosexual, a frustrated Oxford graduate taking care of her father-in-law, a fallen writer, a formidable grandmother, a eunuch servant and a white American. Welcome to Prajwal Parajuly’s debut novel Land Where I Flee. Think of it as a Jane Austen novel set in modern day Sikkim, except the characters are the cattiest fictional characters you have come across.
This book represents an ambitious project: to tell stories of the Partition of India through graphic narratives. It contains twenty-eight short pieces on different aspects of the Partition in 1947, from various locations. Present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all represented, and while most of the texts were originally written in English, a number have been translated from Urdu, Hindi and Bangla. The majority of entries are collaborations between a writer and an illustrator/artist, often in different locations, particularly across national borders.
Marco Ferrarese’ exciting and engrossing novel explores racial animosity and urban crime. Steeped in local colour, this very Malaysian story has wider relevance in today’s world of the global village. Urban conglomerates the world over are rapidly becoming cultural melting pots. People are migrating to far corners of their country and abroad in search of a better job and life. This trend can heighten the insecurity of indigenous populations, who feel threatened as they perceive outsiders to be vying with them for finite resources and jobs. Urban crime and racial tensions are the inevitable result.
Mythological tales, parables, and so on are genres completely different from the short story or the novel, so one should not expect a book such asBrahma Dreamingto read like these other genres. However, I felt that Jackson’s narrative style was rather stale, again far too reminiscent of the European manner of telling these types of tale. It wasn’t the content that disappointed me, but rather the flat, telling-not-showing manner in which everything happened. In the end it was the pictures that propelled one through the book, rather than the stories. As with the illustrations, the storytelling technique demonstrates a missed opportunity to do something more innovative.
The first story, ‘Cheese’, is particularly amusing, describing the luxury cachet of foreign goods that many in the west would consider banal (but, western ex-pats in Nepal may recognise the aura that becomes attached to some good cheese!). This theme of the lure of the foreign, something that often turns hollow and superficial, is a refrain through many of the stories.
The name Sulawesi, Indonesia invokes mystery and the lure of the exotic and unknown. This book offers a knowledgeable and entertaining account of an anthropologist’s journey through a remote, largely uncharted region and culture. The author succeeds in making us laugh page after page with hilarious accounts of his travels rife with the human touch. He also offers enough insights to engage serious readers. The spontaneous flow of humour is sustained throughout the book, with only a few points where it could seem contrived. This is certainly no mean feat.
The poems here are a blend of abstract and figurative. And the beauty of many of these poems is in the way it settles in next to you, and gives you company, no matter what you are feeling. The meanings change with your moods and your thoughts will coalesce with the words on the page. Das shines in her craft and makes a strong statement with her prose poems. Sea Aria is one of my favorite poems in the book, the lilt, the music of the words tinkle in my ears and conjure childhood nostalgia.
I was left with an image of the author observing people in a mall, who are unsure of what to do on the escalator, stepping nervously or losing a slipper, bewildered by the new contraption. The act of observing and recording this scene implies a similar kind of condescension that Kumar objects to in literature about Bihar. However, throughout the book, his compassion is evident. A the end of the day, Kumar feels a bond with Patna, a deep-seated affection and loyalty that drive him to explore it, to write about it, to present it to the world. He feels a moral obligation to do so. Patna is the home of his aging parents, and in the epilogue Kumar captures the single-most important source of connection with the city that will strike a chord in anyone who has left their hometown to settle elsewhere. It’s about being a non-Resident Indian or a non-Resident, period. It effectively evokes the longing for one’s childhood and parents. This book never glorifies Patna or defends it. And yet, despite the decline, or perhaps because of it, it feels like a love poem rather than an elegy.
I specifically wanted to read “Hotel Calcutta” because the book flap description seemed to imply this book was a little out of the ordinary. I was tired of great narratives, tour de forces, award winning books, and writers who epitomized their generation. A heritage hotel that is under threat of demolition, a monk at the bar, a wall of stories, a producer of porn flicks, a woman who hears dead soldiers in the corridor? Okay, bring it on!
The period of the novel Trade Winds of Meluha by Vasant Davé is 2138 BC and set in the Bronze Ages of Mesopotamia and Indus Valley Civilization. The novelist puts on array a total of fourteen characters, ranging from single women, to seven and nine year old boys, to villains with marks across their cheeks. There is a hero who is a Mesopotamian stable boy and the story kicks off with a murder which precipitates the boy’s journey from Mesopotamia, which is obviously today’s Iraq to Meluha, an imaginary land, and the novel is all about what happens there and to him. The story spreads across 45 chapters, that may sound scary, but it’s just 3-4 pages per chapter, and this is an e-book after all.
At the first glance, the cover of Ankur Betageri’s collection of poems, with the portrait of a man in a turtleneck and a jacket, and a crow perched on where his head should have been, reminds you of a Milan Kundera novel – somber, philosophical, and abstract. You read the title – The Bliss and Madness of Being Human, and it sort of fits. Don’t be in a haste to judge the book though. It has more to offer than either bliss or madness, or for that matter, the secrets of being human. Here lies the beauty of this brave collection; it defies your expectation at every stage. As you start reading, you come close to catching the pulse of the young, serious poet and when you think you have nailed him, he offers you another poem, and you are caught off guard. You are up for an adventure. As Betageri himself defines poetry: “(it) simplifies/ the humdrum, amplifies/the hum,/ until the hum rearranges your essence.” His poems promise to do simply this.
This remarkable memoir brings to life a complex and at times strikingly beautiful Afghanistan beyond the news clips of war and violence the rest of the world has seen since decades. The author remembers the society of his early childhood as warm and benign. As a respected citizen without any elected position, young Omar’s grandfather talked after prayers at the mosque on how to keep the neighbourhood clean, solve civic problems, and create better facilities for the children to play together. People listened to him, and he discreetly helped neighbours in financial straits.
Through these stories, Kumar explores a range of human emotions, both carnal and spiritual and always with a touch of wit and humour. In Kingfisher Morning, for example, Sindhu’s affair with Deepender comes to an abrupt end when she finds out that he was two-timing with Seema, her own sister, in Delhi. There is even a slow-mo moment when this discovery takes place but instead of feeling blue after encountering her sister, Sindhu thinks of Seema’s hairy armpits. Deepender loathes women with hairy pits. “Hope Seema has done something about hers,” she contemplates.
The Singapore Decalogue is different, so to say, on many counts. Thematically, it is the story of Asif Basheer (or for that matter of many a middle-class young man) for whom a job in Singapore is the ultimate in professional achievement signaling the end to financial problems and the beginning of a good life. Structurally, the ten episodes are connected yet separate, each eventful experience offering a finely wrought tale but the book is not an anthology of short stories; you cannot call it a novel either. It is realistic and partly autobiographical but not an autobiography. Maybe it is the story of Singapore — exciting and despairing, sparkling and dull, luxurious and uncomfortable. Richard Lord in his ‘Introduction’ to the book calls it a compelling portrait of the Lion City in which Singapore emerges as a nation of immigrants and also as “a nation looking to define itself, to sketch out the parameters and contours of its own soul.”
As a reader, one of the most precious pleasures I enjoy is being given a window into reality, into the simple yet profound events that surround a character and her or his life. Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue does exactly that. Like the perfect host, it invites you in with grace and promise, makes you comfortable, delights, feeds, and entertains. And then, once you become good friends, it hits you hard with its revelations and keeps you hooked with its well-written narrative, right to its surprise (in fact a dash shocking) ending.
You may agree or disagree with the author’s decision to mix up the worldviews, but one thing you must admire is the language that she has employed in her novel: lush, vivid and evocative. It is a welcome relief, given the state of immaturity of commercial Indian writing in English. The danger was that she could have fallen into pushing the language of her narrative into theatricality. She has thankfully avoided that.
K. R. Usha’s latest novel takes a fresh, deeply sensitive and insightful look at life in Bangalore, India’s fastest growing city. Shortlisted for the for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and winner of the Vodaphone Crossword prize for her previous novel, A GIRL AND A RIVER, this consummate storyteller takes readers into the heart of a city zooming beyond the technological stratosphere while teetering on the brink of chaos.
Monideepa evokes the city of Bangalore and its history and geography with a deceptive ease. But what I loved most in the novel is her use of metaphors and similes in the story which often comes from the point of a view of a vermin (a voice sweet as a carrot halwa, a girl’s eyes has been described as a pair of lovely burnt frying pans). She also shows interesting parallels between the human and the vermin world by using imaginative devices such as V-Mail (for Vermin Mail) and WWW (Wonderful Wide Web). What fun!
When I finished reading the last story from Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations, I was briefly filled with sadness. This was the book I was reading for the past several weeks. I had been dipping in and out of Kittur, sharing the anger and sorrows, hopes and joys of its various inhabitants. Adiga’s imaginary town and its curious inhabitants had kept me enthralled for days on end. I read the book whenever time (and my daughter) allowed me to enter its world: on the way to office, during lunch break, watching over my daughter in the playground or before going to bed.
What is late style? It is something that Said sees heralding the culminating phase of a great artist’s career; a phase when the artist as an old man (Said does not discuss any woman artist who has distinguished herself by her late style in these books) has intimations of mortality and therefore forges a distinctive but disturbing manner of envisioning times past, the present, and the future. It is worthwhile here to remember that Said’s second book was called Beginnings (1975), as if to intimate that with it he was beginning again, decisively, swerving away from the conventionally scholarly inaugural book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. In the works under review, on the other hand, Said seems to have veered off towards an exploration of the repercussions of lateness in his favorite artists in the winter of his own life.
My first brush with Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin’s material was in the pages of the New Yorker. I don’t remember the exact year but I had noticed the title of the story (Nawabdin Electrician) and the author’s name—not a very common feature in the noted American weekly. I was not going to miss it.