Book Review by Namrata

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Name: The Merman and the Book of Power- A Qissa

Author: Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2019

The Merman and the Book of Power is the retelling of a qissa, a classic storytelling form in Urdu. This epic novel combines myth with history to give us a glimpse of the evolution of civilisation.

Author Musharraf Ali Farooqi works have been critically acclaimed and have been a finalist for both, Man Asia Literary Prize 2012 and DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2008 apart from being longlisted for IMPAC/Dublin Literary Prize. Along with being a writer, he is also an editor, translator and founder of the Storykit Program.

As Farooqi says in the Author’s Note, “This book merges the parallel histories, myths and multiple personas for Apollonius of Tyana, Hermes Trismegistus and Alexander the Great in the Western and Eastern literary canon, and the various religious, occult and apocalyptic traditions associated with them.”

Book review by Namrata

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Title: The Prospect of Miracles

Author: Cyrus Mistry

Published by: Aleph Book Company, 2019

 

The Prospect of Miracles revolves around the life of Pastor Pius Philipose or rather, his death. Interestingly, in this long-awaited novel, author Cyrus Mistry’s primary character is a dead man. His seemingly natural death is perceived as unexpected to his adorners while his wife experiences the opposite. The rest of the story is about what everyone including his wife think of him.

Mistry — the novelist, needs no introduction. His novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2014 while his other works have also won many awards and accolades. However, it must be noted that this is the first time, he has moved beyond writing about the Parsi community. Almost all his previous works revolved around the culture, with primary characters also being Parsi. His early works were clear reflection of all his observations of growing up as a Parsi in Mumbai. Few years ago, he moved to a non-descript location in South India which seems to have largely inspired him to write this story.

Set in Kerala, the story has the fragrances of that state neatly wrapped within. From lush cardamom farms, to the coconut trees swinging in the air. From the delectable flavours of the local delicacies cooked in coconut oil to the festive celebrations throughout the year — this story has it all in the backdrop while the core story unravels for the reader. While talking about the culture and traditions of Kerala, he also talks about the oppression and the staunch belief system prevalent there.

Reading Cyrus Mistry’s work is like walking through years of patriarchy prevalent in our society. Clearly reminiscent of one the many characters from Anita Nair’s literary gem Ladies Coupe, this book promises to leave a reader perplexed. With a complex array of characters and a non-symmetrical plot line, Mistry invites you in a world which is so similar to the real world and yet so different.

By Farah Ghuznavi

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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I enjoy playing god with my characters. I like building worlds that are not quite real, but reflect parts of reality for different people. There are a lot of hypothetical situations you can explore when you’re writing fiction, and even more when you’re writing fantasy and sci-fi. But mostly, I like telling a good story, I like making up characters, I enjoy the idea that I’m creating something that other people might appreciate.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I’m editing my second novel, which is tentatively called Djinn City. It’s about djinns living in Dhaka, causing mayhem, and the subset of humans who interact with them. I’m not taking the folk tale approach to djinns, but I’m building up their culture, their history, their character from the ground up.

This is a Bengal centric novel. In genre fiction, the centre of the world, the kind of focal point of history and the future is always some place like London, or New York, white places with Eurocentric cultures. This is normal, since almost all genre writers in English are of European descent. In my novel, Bengal is the centre of history and magic and the future, everywhere else exists in peripheral darkness.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I got nothing. Writing aesthetic is for prize winners. I’m a genre guy. The most I can hope for is to rip off George RR Martin twenty years from now and get on HBO. If HBO still exists in 2036.

By Aminah Sheikh

Sumana Roy photo

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

If I knew the answer to that I probably wouldn’t be able to write. It’s a question as difficult to answer as “Why do you love me so much?” I came very late to writing, and because this was after my divorce from standardised academic writing, I decided, almost moodily, that the reason for this would be cathartic. Soon after, fortunately, I realised that writing wasn’t therapeutic in the way I’d heard it was. Or at least that it wasn’t a painkiller. I write to make sense of my relationship with the world, I suppose.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My most recent book is my first. It’s called How I Became a Tree (Aleph Book Company). It’s a work of non-fiction, something between the essay, memoir, and meditation, and it’s a reflection on what constitutes the difference between human and non-human experience. I look at people like myself, writers, artists, filmmakers, scientists, lovers, thinkers, who felt the desire to become a tree. What does it mean to live to what I call “tree time”? Or what is so special about sitting under a tree, or to live in a forest or make love to a tree? Is it true that the childless or childfree feel closer to plant life? My book gives a home to such speculations and investigations.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

This is a really difficult question. As an apprentice one is evolving and looking for a home – or homes – in genres. I find that I am repulsed by genres that have solidified into something readymade. I like the fluidity between genres, so that one can never say whether this is fiction or nonfiction, a poem or a found text. I gravitate towards the shorter forms, the poem, the essay, the novella. In subject matter too, the more neo-bureaucratic models of seriousness bore me. There are very few things I know about myself, but this I certainly do – I find the seemingly non-serious immensely interesting (my interest in plant life comes from that space too) and everything that is declared to be conventionally useless occupies my thought and attention.

Who are your favourite authors?

Amit Chaudhuri opened up the possibility of unusual – unconventional – ways of seeing the world. His novels challenged the way I’d allowed myself to become conditioned to the 19th-century novel and the various hand-me-down versions that have become the only way we understand the novel today. His essays, with their unique voice and the fluidity of movement between the personal and the political or aesthetic, allowed people like me to write a book such as the one I’ve written, with its meanderings and digressions and halts at different kinds of philosophies and their interactions with life. Not to forget that he is one of the best prose stylists in the English language. I was recently introduced to James Salter and I like the prose in a couple of his books. George Eliot’s prose style remains a go-to from my university days. I rarely read fiction now. I read a lot of poetry in Bangla – Shakti Chattopadhyay, Jibanananda Das, Rabindranath Tagore, the usual suspects, but also a lot of young poets in the little magazines.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

I find it difficult to reproduce – report? – the neighbourhood of everyday sounds that I meet every day: the shrill announcement of the pressure cooker, the whirr of the ceiling fan, vegetables scalding in burning oil, the sound of wet sand screeching from a slipper brushing against the floor, the creaking of a door, a growling stomach, the sound of leaves in the wind, and so on. It’s not onomatopoeia that I’m aiming for. I’d like these sounds to be the poem, without the crutch of adjectives. I’ve failed.

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By the end of the nineteenth century, India was Britain’s biggest source of revenue, the world’s biggest purchaser of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants and soldiers all at India’s own expense. We literally paid for our own oppression.

Taxation remained onerous. Agricultural taxes amounted at a minimum to half the gross produce and often more, leaving the cultivator less food than he needed to support himself and his family; British estimates conceded that taxation was two or three times higher than it had ever been under non-British rule, and unarguably higher than in any other country in the world. Each of the British ‘presidencies’ remitted vast sums of ‘savings’ to England, as of course did English civil servants, merchants and soldiers employed in India. (After a mere twenty-four years of service, punctuated by and including four years of ‘home leave’ furloughs, the British civil servant was entitled to retire at home on a generous pension paid for by Indian taxpayers: Ramsay MacDonald estimated in the late 1920s that some 7,500 Englishmen were receiving some twenty million pounds annually from India as pension.)

While British revenues soared, the national debt of   India multiplied exponentially. Half of India’s revenues went out of India, mainly to England. Indian taxes paid not only for the British Indian Army in India, which was ostensibly maintaining India’s security, but also for a wide variety of foreign colonial expeditions in furtherance of the greater glory of the British empire, from Burma to Mesopotamia. In 1922, for instance, 64 per cent of the total revenue of the Government of India was devoted to paying for British Indian troops despatched abroad. No other army in the world, as Durant observed at the time, consumed so large a proportion of public revenues.