Reviewed by Nisha Misra

Invisible Ties

Title: Invisible Ties
Author: Nadya A. R
Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Pages: 272

A scintillating saga of longing and desire, love and lust, betrayal and trust, reality and illusion, Invisible Ties keeps the reader hooked till the very end. Sprinkled with historical references and political undertones, the novel seems to read like a Bildungsroman tracing the physical as well as the psychological journey of Noor, its protagonist. As Noor moves out of  Karachi, marries into Singapore, strays into Malay and ‘surfaces’ in London, the reader cannot but be baffled by the enigma that she is.

The novel may seem to be the tale of a young, coy, overprotected girl whose Page 3 narcissistic mother’s only desire is to find a suitable rich match for her (preferably outside the volatile atmosphere of Pakistan) and whose father is a case in hopelessness and self-pity. Nurtured in the confinement of home and country, Noor’s life takes an unexpected turn when a robbery at their palatial bungalow by their own guards, who also abduct her mother, tears the family apart. The most painful part of the episode is the death of her trusted driver, Uncle Joseph, who lays down his life in order to save hers. Her marriage to Meekal, who is settled in Singapore, is a compromise of sorts for the sake of her family, but a compromise that reveals itself to be so only when she joins her husband there.

The author skilfully weaves the mystery shrouding the relationships or the ties that bind the various characters in the novel – be it the mystery surrounding the abduction, the release and subsequent silence of Noor’s mother on the topic, her mother-in-law’s eccentricities and secret life, Meekal’s complicated love-hate relationship with his ex-girlfriend Jyoti, Noor’s illusions surrounding the ghost of Uncle Joseph, her Chinese friend Ella’s attempt at keeping her marriage intact or Jake’s depression and fatal attraction towards his ex-girlfriend – and is an insightful study in the workings of the human mind and the complexities that define and govern human relationships.

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Reviewed by Pia Ghosh-Roy

 

Table Manners

Title: Table Manners
Author: Susmita Bhattacharya
Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Year of Publication: 2018
No. of pages: 159
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True to its title, the stories in Table Manners seem to be seated around a long dinner-table having a conversation over the course of an engrossing evening. With each story, I was invited into homes and lives that had their own unique rhythms. The stories wear different personalities, inhabit different parts of the world — India, Singapore, Italy and the UK — but sit beautifully in each other’s company and make for a meal to remember.

Many of the stories took me into the heart of traditional marriages and relationships, with their set dynamics, power imbalance, the dominant male and the ‘good wife’. Yet, within that, there are hidden moments, quietly captured and gently exposed, that reveal more. You will meet women, who while living the life that is expected of them — adjusting their hopes, and lowering their expectations — keep aside a bit of themselves that belong to no-one and answer to no-one. I found these private selves opening themselves up to me in these pages, where they share their concerns, their contemplations, and their inner chaos, where they show their bruises both visible and invisible.

In the first story, a wife nurses a childhood love for her male cousin, and is torn between this reckless and doomed emotion, and “The Right Thing To Do” by her staid marriage. It is told by the female house-help, whose thoughts are consumed by two things: her mistress’s irresponsible heart, and a neighbour, Mrs Dalal, who is regularly beaten by her husband and ‘turns up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times’.

In one of my favourite stories in the collection, Li, a young woman, plans a quiet evening with a bowl of “Comfort Food”, but gives it up when she has to accompany her husband to a business dinner with a potential client – a potential male client, who subjects her to an evening of unwelcome attention and lecherous stares.

Reviewed by Shabana Zahoor

Vegetarian India

Title: Vegetarian India – A Journey through the best of Indian Home Cooking
Author: Madhur Jaffrey
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 416

It’s a challenge as well as a delight to review a book as elaborate as Vegetarian Indian by Madhur Jaffrey. When I first got hold of the book, I made a kadak cup of chai for myself and sat down to slowly savour the book along with the freshly made strong concoction.

The book tasted better with every sip, whetting my appetite and my curiosity. What we’ve got here is a seriously huge book, one that claims to bring together Indian vegetarian dishes from north to south and from east to west. The very thought of such geographical vastness and diversity of region and people brings to mind the many possibilities of vegetarian dishes from across the country. I don’t know how Jaffrey has managed to do this with detail and meticulousness; this is not an easy feat when you have so much to choose from.

The range she brings to the table is breathtaking. It goes from as simple a snack as boiled peanut with shells to bondas, fritters, to stir fries, mouth-watering gravies… the list is endless, but a pattern emerges – Vegetarian India focuses on simple preparations; most of the dishes featured here are easy to make, without the need to sweat it out in the kitchen.

The book has various sections such as soups and appetizers, vegetables, dals, grains, eggs, drinks, and desserts. The appetizers are inviting. It’s not that I haven’t cooked or eaten any of these, but the pictures make you salivate. Fried Okra, bondas… fresh and crisp… ummm….

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Daughterrs of the Sun

Title: Daughters of the Sun
Author: Ira Mukhoty
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)

Babur’s defeat of Ibrahim Lodhi in the first battle of Panipat, 1526, marked the establishment of the Mughal Empire in India. Nurtured by his several illustrious descendents, this infant empire, which grew from strength to strength, united a large part of the subcontinent for two centuries and left an indelible impression on Indian history and culture. To this date the history of this empire has been largely studied from the point of view of its political conquests and the socio-economic and cultural developments of its emperors. With a few notable exceptions, women are conspicuously absent in these accounts, despite the fact that Babur owed his success in no small measure to the efforts of the women in his life.

Academic research on Mughal history has so far showcased prominently the characters of Noorjahan, wife of Jehangir, and Jahanara, the favourite daughter of Shahjahan. Books published in the area dating from 1960 onwards, such as Rekha Misra’s Women in Mughal India 1526-1748 A.D. (1967), Renuka Nath’s Notable Mughal and Hindu Women in the 16th and 17th Centuries A.D (1990), Soma Mukherjee’s Royal Mughal Ladies and their Contribution (2001) cover the domestic arena of the Mughal empire in a limited manner.  Written in a prosaic style, these encyclopaedic accounts do not analyse the ramifications of the contribution of Mughal women, much less the sources on which their books are based. This dominant trend was challenged by Ellison Banks Findly’s book Nur Jahan, Empress of Mughal India (1993), which concentrated on how Muslim and Hindu women negotiated power inside the harem, and later in 2005, by Ruby Lal’s Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World.  Spanning the period from 1487 to1605, the latter highlights the influence of the familial world, especially the role of women, upon the first three Mughal rulers: Babur, Humayun and Akbar. Along with her research papers on the same subject, this book stands out as a remarkable exception to all others written on Mughal women thus far.

Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun endorses and carries forward Lal’s school of thought. An enthralling sociological piece, it covers a bigger time frame, giving us an unusual peep into the private lives of Mughals from the times of Babur to those of Aurangzeb as well as the attempts to drive out the banal images of the harem as a sexualised space, created largely by European accounts. Her nuanced narrative gives voice to fifteen influential but otherwise disappeared Mughal women while throwing light on their complex and changing socio-political status, economic and personal ambitions and the boundaries of their domestic arena.

Reviewed by Michelle D’costa

Sunita DeSouza Goes to Sydney

Title: Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney
Author: Roanna Gonsalves
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018)
Pages: 227

Sunita DeSouza Goes to Sydney is the Indian version of The Permanent Resident published in Australia in 2016, published by Speaking Tiger Books in India in 2018.  A collection of 16 stories, it is refreshing like a splash of cold water in Bahrain’s heat.

Roanna’s characters have something at stake; their stories keep you on the edge of your seat, you root for them as she explores the depths of her characters with themes like child loss, divorce, writing, maternal love, ambition and more. I think some of the writer’s strengths show in the stories in her exploration of the dark hidden corners of a relationship, the domestic setting, work-life balance and more; however, these are not the only things she addresses in the collection.

Roanna’s craft is brilliant. Her prose is poetic and the sentences make you pause and savour them, reminding me of poets I have read. There are no superfluous lines but the restraint doesn’t affect the stories – they feel full and complete.

Most metaphors and similes are Catholic. Here’s an example of a character struggling with Catholic guilt – ‘Fuck off, I said to them, pretending to be filled with the fearlessness of someone who has nothing to lose – I, who once told my best friend she should wash her mouth with Holy Water when she called a bus conductor stupid behind his back.’ Another one – ‘I will, I said, like Judas.’

Reviewed by Sujata Raye

The Hippie Trail

Title: The Hippie Trail – A History
Authors: Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland
Publisher: Aleph

The Hippie Trail is a long awaited book about the history of an era that still evokes fascination. While the ‘hippies’ who made the journey from the west to the east were ordinary people, to the people of the countries they passed through, they were not. They had fixed ideas about white women, formed from images in magazines and in films, and, sometimes, looked upon these visitors as intruders, ‘people looking for drugs and sex’; but that was not the truth, as the 57-58 interviews in the book tells the reader. By the time they finished their journey and returned home, the travellers themselves did not remain ordinary any longer. There were those who were fascinated by the Eastern religion, more specifically the development of Western Buddhism and Hinduism, and by practices like yoga, meditation and alternative medicine. Many looked at their journey as an inner journey; they were simply not interested in drugs.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Felix Cheong - B-Slides and Backslides

Title: B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018
Author: Felix Cheong
Publisher: Math Paper Press by Books Actually
Pages: 95
ISBN 978-981-11-7304-2

B-Sides and Backslides is the award-winning Singaporean poet Felix Cheong’s collection panning the development of his poetry from 1986 to 2018.  In the foreword, the poet writes, ‘These are pieces which… could not find their place in my published volumes.’ The title alludes to ‘the flipsides’ of his poetry. He compares them to the B-Sides of Beatles’ albums, which often had songs that were really interesting but not top of the charts. They remain an interesting part of a creative process. However, he claims that he has not ‘blackslid even if it might appear so,’ and in that spirit, his poetry touches our lives with its humour and variety.

The book is divided into different periods of his development as a poet. In “Juvenalia”, the section tracing his development as a poet for the first nine years, he says, ‘In various voices and versions, I have been trying to rewrite Prufrock the past thirty years…’ However, through the course of his poetry we can see how he transcends the torpor of the procrastinating Prufrock (“Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, T. S. Eliot, 1910) and the angst generated by Hollow Men (T. S. Eliot, 1925) to become a caricaturist of Singapore life, politics and culture. In “We are the Salarymen”, with an epigraph of the first two lines of Hollow Men, he concludes,

We maybe the hollow men,
but the least we own
is our honesty to know
we have the means to fill
and fulfil this emptiness,
unlike you,
stuffed fool and full of yourself,
little more than moans and bones
on a high horse galloping
with the weight of a lost world.

Reviewed by Monideepa Sahu

Revolt of the Lamebren

Title: Revolt of the Lamebren
Author: Manjiri Prabhu
Publisher: Readomania
Pages:  302

 

Popular Indian mystery author Manjiri Prabhu successfully forays into the dystopian domain with this first part of a proposed series. Imaginative and fast-paced, the story takes us into a disturbing future we might end up creating for our descendants if we are not alert and aware right now. This novel has all the elements of a well-written and entertaining page turner, with enough action and dramatic tension. There is also a thoughtful core, brought out with a light and unobtrusive touch, to draw readers out of their complacency.

The idea for this tale was inspired by a true incident which the author witnessed in her home city of Pune. Some years ago, the municipal authorities were rounding up stray dogs. The author couldn’t help notice how mothers were cruelly torn apart from their puppies. Even a few dogs with collars were caught, simply because they were roaming unattended on the streets. Prabhu was struck by a small boy, dressed in adult style clothes, who smirked with sadistic glee as he watched the dogs crying in pain and suffering. Was this where humanity was headed, she wondered.

In the world of the Super Dome, the privileged Altklugs maintain their superiority over the systematically subjugated Lamebren. Altklugs don’t earn their knowledge and status. All the knowledge of the world gets effortlessly crammed into their heads through capsules which only they get from the K Bank. The Lamebren are denied this and treated as menials and expendables. They are rounded up and summarily liquidated at the whims of their superiors, just like the stray dogs are dispatched to a cruel fate in today’s world.

A review essay by Dr Kamalakar Bhat

Indian Nationalism

Title: Indian Nationalism — The Essential Writings
Editor: S. Irfan Habib
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2017)
Pages: 285
Price: INR 499 (Hardbound)

They used to say when history repeats itself, it becomes a farce. Well, history seems to have a way of throwing irony at us. At least that is what I imagine those commentators would feel who announced the last rites of the concept of nationalism with glee in the last decades of the previous century, amid the oft repeated phrase of globalization. While 20th century saw the rise of nationalism in the first half, it also saw its waning hold towards the turn of the century; many saw globalization as having sent nationalism to the side wings of the world theatre, but come 21st century, and nationalism is back on the centre stage with a vengeance.

The use of the word ‘vengeance’ is perhaps far from being fortuitous at the beginning of a review of a book on Indian nationalism. It is this side of nationalism, the angry, militant, violent side that has been its manifestation in India recently, and as the quotes on the cover page of this book signify, that seems to be the immediate context that has engendered the publication of this book. Readers need only to take a look at its cover page which prominently displays Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, ‘Is hatred essential to Nationalism?’ to understand the raison d’être that has occasioned it. The prefatory note begins by alluding precisely to this context – words that stand out in the first two sentences are: ‘hyper-nationalism’, ‘shrieks’, ‘frenzy’, ‘threatening’, and ‘tear apart’. The contemporary public discourse in India, surfeit with strident, insistent and persistent debates surrounding nationalism are surely the reason this book has been conceived and designed the way it has been. We have today a generation that is ready to go ballistic over nationalism, raise its emotional and nuisance quotient very high in defence of just the word with very little meaning, intent or content attached to the idea behind it. Perhaps it is to remind this generation of ‘nationalists’ that the book provides an account of the history of the idea in India and its various shades as it developed during the era that nation itself was in the making.

It is true that even the earliest theorizations of nationalism refer to the positive and the negative sides of this political concept. And this schismatic view runs through the entire history of scholarly attention to this idea. Every kind of duality may be found attributed to the idea – whether about its nature or meaning. Thus, we have good and bad nationalism, Western and Eastern nationalism, nationalisms of the oppressors and the oppressed, original and pirate, liberal and illiberal, civic and ethnic, etc. The grounds on which these classifications are made are different but in much of the scholarship on nationalism, an urge to employ a schismatic view is common. Such classical experts on nationalism as Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, Ernest Gellner, Horace B. Davis and Eric Hobsbawm have all seen in nationalism some sort of ‘Janus Face’. Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman in their book Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, list thirteen contrasting distinctions to be found in the literature on nationalism. This book too, through its paratext, the essays included and the sections under which these are arranged reminds the readers that one can’t take the idea of nationalism as an unquestionably noble value (as some news anchors are wont to assert), or as a naturally beneficial and benevolent idea. Irfan Habib, noted historian, who has edited this timely collection of essays on “Indian Nationalism”, points out at the outset that nationalism is a double-edged sword which ‘…can be a binding force or a deeply divisive instrument used to cause strife around political, cultural, linguistic or more importantly, religious identities.’ If our polity had better use of its memory then, one doubts whether after the horrors unleashed by parochial nationalism at the dawn of independence, we would have ever allowed it to resurface and resurge.

Reviewed by Ananya S. Guha

Shillong Times

Title: Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear
Author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018)
Pages: 237

Nilanjan Choudhury’s novel Shillong Times, as the subtitle suggests, is a ‘story of friendship and fear’. Friendship’s association with ‘fear’, then, seems to be a thematic focus.

Set against the backdrop of Shillong in the volatile times of the 1980s, the novel is an addition to what is now turning out to be a fairly long list of fiction, including short stories which revolve around this town. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head, Siddartha Deb’s The Point of Return and Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land come readily to mind.

Choudhury, however, builds a more conscious landscape than the others to take us to the world of his fourteen year old protagonist Debojit Dutta, who in Blakeian terms leaves his ‘innocence’ behind to ‘experience’ his new found world, thanks to his friendship with two other teenagers, Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh and the empathetic Audrey Pariat. It is the former who introduces Debojit Dutta, when they meet in mathematics tuition classes, to the world of Pink Floyd and the out-of-bounds restaurant Kalsang.

I mentioned the volatile times of the eighties that forms the backdrop of the novel. Choudhury poignantly interfuses community relations (tribal and non tribal, the Bengali superiority syndrome, the Sylheti speaking Bengalis and the Calcutta Bengalis, etc.) with personal ones. Yet these personal friendships are among teenagers, which their adult counterparts or forebears seem to look askance at. Debojit’s mother reprimands him for this, so does his school teacher (lampooned effectively) Mr. Chakravarty. Clint’s father refuses to help in getting the trading licence of Debojit’s father renewed, although he saves him in a potentially violent squabble.

As ethnic tensions rise in the town of Shillong, resulting also in conflict of relations between Debojit and Clint (thanks also to the meddlesome Mr. Chakravarty), Debojit’s parents contemplate shifting to Calcutta and remove him to a school in Calcutta despite his protestations. Debojit also suffers taunts from his locality members for befriending a tribal, a Khasi. All this while, the petite Audrey plays a quiet mediating role, playing across the broken friendship of Debojit and Clint and building bridges.