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Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing, Ed. Andrew Schelling

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

 

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

 

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,


Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion. They questioned, complained to and even castigated the deity who had their undivided attention. Mirabai, the 16th-century Rajput princess-queen who left her life of royal luxury for the “only man” she knew, the dark-complexioned Krishna, echoes the candid spiritual eroticism of 12th-century Mahādēviyakka from Karnataka, when she says,


Dark One,
how can I sleep?
Since you left my bed
the seconds drag past like epochs,
each moment
a new torrent of pain.

— Mirabai (16thcentury), Tr. Andrew Schelling

Nearly two hundred years since Mirabai, Ramprasad Sen takes issue with his mother deity, goddess Kali, in a manner of ninda-stuti, which, as the annotation following his section in the book, defines as “praise in the form of abusive reproach”. Ramprasad approaches Kali as an errant child who, despite all his wrongdoing, must be comforted by the Mother. He doesn’t stop there but goes on to remind the goddess that she must deliver him for the sake of her own reputation. For there could be many


Bad children, but who ever heard
Of a bad mother?

— Ramprasad Sen (18thcentury), Tr. Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely

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Book Review: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Bengalis Cover Low Res (546x800)

Title: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community
Author: Sudeep Chakravatri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: Hardcover 457 pages
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‘Ergo, no matter who you listen to, we are pretty much mongrel.’

That little sentence in page 43 of Sudeep Chakravarti’s vade mecum, The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, floats up with a beastly smirk. Unless of course, you have done your job as a reader and read it not out of context, but as part of the whole subject, including the weighty preceding pages.

Still, for argument’s sake, were you to disbelieve the mongrel bit, or dismiss it as self-deprecation, you would do an injustice to the community. Yes, you read that correctly, and Chakravarti provides carefully compiled data on the origins of the Bengali race to prove it.

Being a mixed breed is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you are not mixed up, which is not a compliment one can pay to the so-called pure bloodlines, whatever that is, if at all such things exist. Besides, further up the book one comes upon this beautiful explanation of what it means to be a Bengali mongrel:

‘Our so-called purity is rooted in mongrelisation. It has taken us a long journey to arrive where we have, with our distinct streams of culture, distinctive sub-languages and dialects with a unifying super-language that is itself mongrel.

‘It is through our openness to the world and cultures other than our own, that we have evolved our Bengaliness that is so distinctive, so unique. It’s what makes us enduring, indolent, insular, outgoing, endearing, adventurous, gypsy-like, nesting, sentimental, adaptive, rebellious, questioning, accepting, and infuriating in turn – or all at once. To be anything else would probably be so very boring’ (chapter 13, page 315).

Perhaps after reading the book, some ill-informed not-Bengalis will call out ‘Mongrel Bengali’ instead of the earlier taunt of ‘Bhookha Bengali!’ Then again, those who wish to insult will always find some term or epithet suitable enough, however misguided. Bengalis ought to take the higher ground, because we know who we are and do not need to explain ourselves. So, why do we need a book about ourselves at all?

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Book Review: Memories Cached by Cameron Su

Reviewed by Shruthi Rao

Memories Cached

Title: Memories Cached
Author: Cameron Su
Publishers: Cameron Su (co-funded via the Act!on for a Cause programme of Kids4Kids Hong Kong)
Pages: 302

Across the world, there are tremors of the beginnings of a youth movement, sparked by young people tired of the status quo – teenagers who are no longer satisfied with sitting around and waiting for adults to do things for them; youngsters who want change, and are not afraid to take on any situation by the horns.

There is still a considerable amount of eye-rolling about millennials and disapproving head-shakes at ‘this new generation’ that will ‘never amount to anything’. I believe that this attitude is unfair to those young people out there who are actually standing up and making a difference.

Cameron Su is one such person. He is a 17-year-old high school student in Hong Kong, who wants to tackle the issue of bullying through his book Memories Cached. Set in a high school in Singapore (which is ranked by a study as third in the world in bullying among 15-year-olds), Memories Cached takes the reader through a few months in the life of a handful of high school kids on the cusp of college. Dominic Chiu is a regular high school guy who, on a dare, kisses his girlfriend in school. Savannah Dixon, another high school student, captures it on her camera, and on an impulse, uploads it on YouTube. The video promptly goes viral.

Dominic is now in trouble, both from the principal (PDA is banned in the school!) and from Ryan Chang, the school bully and the brother of Talinda, the girl he kissed.

The rest of the book takes us through the repercussions of this incident, in two POVs – that of Dominic Chiu, and that of his cyber bully, Savannah Dixon. Savannah’s POV is interesting. It highlights the reason why she chose to upload the video, her almost-immediate regret but with the knowledge that once a video is out there, she has no control over it. It takes us through her insecurities, her wanting to fit in, and makes us feel sorry for her. She wants to make amends, however, and at the end, she redeems herself.

This incident in the book highlights a very important aspect – that a private moment that would’ve gone unnoticed or uncommented upon in an earlier era is now potentially in the public domain, up for everybody to see. You need to have eyes at the back of your head; if you drop your guard for a moment your privacy is not yours any longer.

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Beyond Asia: Book review of Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

Reviewed by Usha K.R

Spaceman of Bohemia

Title: Spaceman of Bohemia
Author: Jaroslav Kalfar
Publisher: Sceptre (an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton), 2017
Pages: 273

In our history books, Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century was the hot chestnut of Europe, perennially a bone of contention between its neighbours, and a catalyst for the Second World War. I recall an illustration from my world history text book, a photograph of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, looking triumphant, having won ‘peace for our time’ after signing away part of Czechoslovakia to Germany in the Munich Agreement. (It was cold comfort that the country that had colonised us had messed up elsewhere in the world and even at home in Europe.) A year later, in 1939, the Second World War broke out and what was left of Czechoslovakia was overrun by German troops. When the war ended in 1945, Czechoslovakia became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, part of the Eastern bloc, and the Soviet yoke persisted despite lulls like the Prague Spring in 1968. After several long years – with Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika, and side by side with the dismantlement of the USSR – there were similar movements in Eastern Europe, with countries throwing off the Soviet and Communist yoke. In Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution ushered in democracy in 1989, and expelled Communism; Vaclav Havel, litterateur, humanist, became the president of the country, and in 1993, the Czech and Slovak republics were established as separate entities. Here, the history books stop, suggesting that with the restoration of democracy, countries would ride into the sunset. For us, in the context of a country newly independent from colonial rule, democracy and self-rule seemed to go hand in hand with new ills like corruption, and from our experience, privatisation was not the silver bullet in answer to a controlled economy. The history books seemed to leave us in a vacuum.

It is in this interstice of history that Jaroslav Kalfar sets his novel Spaceman of Bohemia. As his protagonist declares in the opening of the novel, ‘My name is Jakub Prochazka. … My parents wanted a simple life for me, a life of good comradeship with my country and my neighbours, a life of service to a world united in socialism. Then the Iron Curtain tumbled with a dull thud and the bogeyman invaded my country with his consumer love and free markets.’ Beginning with these straightforward opening lines, Kalfar – heir to a long tradition of writers such as  Jaroslav Hasek (The Good Soldier Švejk), Bohumil Hrabal, and Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) – explores the predicament of his protagonist, juxtaposing it with the history of the Czech nation. It is a formidable list of forebears, and to Kalfar’s credit, he holds down his place in the line.

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Book Review: Tweet by Isa Kamari

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Tweet

Title: Tweet
Author: Isa Kamari
Publisher: Kitaab
Pages: 80
Price: S$15
ISBN: 9789811107269

Tweet, published in 2016, is the award winning ASEAN writer Isa Kamari’s first attempt at writing a novella in English. Isa Kamari is a Malay writer who has had seven out of his nine novels translated to English. With Tweet, he decided to take a ‘short-cut’ and write in English himself, he said during a panel discussion – Exploring Literature in the Languages of ASEAN, 2018.

Tweet refers to birdcall. It is a double stranded metaphysical novella. On one level, it focuses on the exploration of Singapore’s famed Jurong Bird Park by a young Singaporean child Ilham and his grandfather, Jati. As he reaches the end of his trip to the park, Ilham comes face to face with his inner dream. ‘He has decided what he wants to be when he grows up.’

The second strand is a journey made by different species of birds in quest of the legendary Simuk, or the Simorgh, brought to life by the 12th century Persian poet, Farid-ud-din Attar, in his famed poem, Conference of Birds. The birds in both the poem and in Tweet make an astounding discovery as they fly in quest of the mythical being.

Both the strands are woven into a single fabric of the story by the elusive ‘green man’, Khidr. Khidr becomes a part of the extended reality of Ilham and the birds as they journey through their parallel universes of discovery. Khidr has been syncretised over time as an angel, a saint, a warrior, a mythical being… and even associated with Alexander the Great.  The illusive ‘green man, the quest of the birds and Ilham’s unique way of viewing the bird park adds to the suspense of the novella. You read on, egged by curiosity.

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Book Review: Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain

Reviewed by Gita Viswanath

Djinn City

 

Title: Djinn City
Author: Saad Z. Hossain
Publisher: Aleph, 2017
Pages: 447
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Saad Hossain conjures up a fantastical world of djinn in his second novel, Djinn City. As an allegory of contemporary times, the novel, peopled by strangely named characters such as Indelbed and Sikkim, psychotic men, overbearing women and drunken louts, creates a world of business conglomerates, deceit and revenge, crime and passion and existential crises. This is a world that oscillates between the human and the djinn worlds in which djinn play havoc by causing earthquakes, tsunamis and fires.

The novel opens with the motherless child Indelbed, the quintessential poor cousin in a family of diplomats, subjected to ridicule and negligence alongside denial of access to school education. His cousin Rais, the diplomat’s son, is the only one sympathetic to Indelbed. His father Kaikobad, who lives in a permanent state of inebriation, is later revealed to be an emissary to the djinn world. Kaikobad goes into coma induced through the machinations of the evil Matteras, a psychotic djinn with enormous powers. He is endowed with impressive auctoritas – a term that indicates the massive influence a djinn has on djinndom. Indelbed, a cross between a djinn mother and human father has to be sent away as he could be the next victim of the evil djinn. From then on, the novel races through complexly twisted plots narrated with elements of the bizarre, the grotesque and with dark humour.

The book ends with a Great War fought to reclaim the glory of Gangaridai in a narrative of heightened pace and descriptions of deadly weapons, airships, submarines and nuclear warheads, all of which reveals the author’s sharp understanding of technical details. At the centre of the war is Gangaridai, the seat of an ancient civilization now in a state of ruin, its population decimated in the Great War. Unlike epic wars that claim to be fought on sublime moral grounds with victory of good over evil as a given, this war ends with the retrieval of more mundane but important things for survival in the modern world. ‘This was enough to take back power, it was everything,’ (emphasis original) says the omniscient third person narrator.

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Book Review: Hills of Slow Time by Ananya S. Guha

By Namrata Pathak

Hills of Slow Time

 

Title: Hills of Slow Time
Author: Ananya S. Guha
Publisher: Dhauli Books, Bhubaneswar, 2017
ISBN: 9788193546703
Price: ₹ 250

 

“The hills I have known, paraded with / my destiny, the hills that moulded clay into my mythic doll. Yes these were the hills I knew. Molten clay, shrapnel hirsute legs the hills were/ not man made” (“Hills of Slow Time”).

What strikes you first when you take up Ananya S. Guha’s latest collection of poetry is the incongruity of time – time is a snail-paced, animating, pulsating organism that crawls backwards and eats its own trails. As the title tells you, all the poems are steeped in the “hills of eternity”, a place that does not boast of the usual synchronicity of time – it seems the poet has hijacked time and stolen it away. Time is a keep. Here are Guha’s “hills of slow time”, mostly the pine-shrouded, icy, and pinkish Shillong, a city that dances bare foot on the poet’s dreams, lifts his spirits, rigorously kneads his thoughts – a place that is born again and again in Guha’s verse with a new skin, a new throbbing propensity. The poet contends, “There must be a story in these”, but the hills also reflect a grim vehemence, especially at times when they “lie comatose/in disappointment”, in total abandonment. Guha is more than aware of the Janus-faced hills; this is a facet that is dualistic – he has pinned the hills down as both utopic and dystopic; partly the charm of the poet lies there.

There is “a story” in the hills that Guha excavates, digs deep, to unbare for you. Mark that the “bluish strokes of the sun’s haze” matches with the agility of a “quiet bird” plummeting to pluck at “an oceanic vastness” – mind the movements of escalation, the act of zeroing in to the ground, giving in to the gravitational pulls, also defying it, flying high in the sky – mind the game of physics here. As evident in most of Guha’s poems (that are published elsewhere), Shillong, for him, is nostalgia. It is that viscous desire that drips from the pine spikes in wintery nights, those one, two, three droplets of incandescent light. Shillong’s sky is an empty vessel. You fill it up with whatever colour you choose. Sometimes it is leaden; at times it is tangerine; also a dash of florescent green of the hills that it mirrors; and it can also be the colour of the onlooker poet’s eyes – dreamy, probing, and deep. Guha’s representation, the imbrications here, transports us to a realm that is an admixture of contrary traits or opposites – we have the meeting point between the living and the non-living, the biotic and the abiotic, the mass and the matter, the universal and the specific, not to mention the subjective and the objective.

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Book Review: 1984: India’s Guilty Secret by Pav Singh

By Nilesh Mondal

1984 India's Guilty Secret

 

Title: 1984: India’s Guilty Secret
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (2017)
Pages: 295
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1984: India’s Guilty Secret does something most books in its genre can’t – it keeps its promise. It’s a scathing and almost brutal journalistic read rich with data and mention of instances that have become a permanent fixture in the memories of one of the largest communities of our country, unfortunately. While most books in the genre of journalism either manage to alienate their readers by the use of jargon or disappoint by eventually turning out to be shallow fluff pieces lacking anything of relevance, this book by Pav Singh fulfils on both counts. It manages to pull in the reader by the sheer honesty that leaps out of every page, and keeps them firmly invested by a streamlined account of facts and discussions which affirm the need to learn more about our history in order to understand the present scenario in our country.

In the foreword, the author apologises for and justifies the use of gory and violent details, and it is an apology made for a reason – this book contains distinct and often detailed descriptions of the atrocities committed against the Sikh community in the wake of the infamous 1984 riots. However, the real horror of the incidents discussed in this book, does not come from the details but rather from the calm way in which the author chooses to talk about them. Pav Singh plays both roles to perfection here, as a narrator who isn’t divorced from the trials and tribulations of the Sikh community as a whole, at the same time, as a journalist, focussing more on facts to support his arguments, relying on the readers’ understanding of the truth and not just their sympathy. At recurring intervals the author reminds us that it’d be a grave error on our part to call the chaos that unfolded in those four days, a riot. Riot is spontaneous, he reminds us, but what happened in 1984 was something that had been planned well in advance, against a community which had no idea what violence awaits it and was thus unable to either fight back or even defend itself; massive propaganda and media blackouts were used by the forces in power to make sure there was no escape from the death and destruction that’d follow, making it in essence, something much closer to the genocide initiated by Hitler during WW II. Indeed, stories from the Nazi camps and inhuman circumstances that had plagued Germany are used at many instances, as a method of drawing parallels between these two occurrences separated by time and space but brought together by intent and its fallout.

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Book Review: Mirror Image by Rama Gupta

By Dr Usha Bande

Mirror Image

 

Title: Mirror Image.
Author: Rama Gupta
Publisher: Prabhat Prakashan, 2017
Pages: 238
Price: Rs. 500/-

 

Rama Gupta’s Mirror Image is a collection of 17 stories written in a simple narrative style, depicting realistic and actual scenarios and experiences that most of us past middle age go through (or have gone through). As the title indicates, the stories are a reflection of life; they focus on the spontaneous response of the main characters as they encounter small quirks of fate that have great implications in their lives. These are stories of men and women, mostly from urban upper middle-class but some represent different age groups and class like ‘Sumangali’ and ‘Bye-Bye, Blackbird’. The point of view is primarily that of the female narrators; the narratives delve into the psyche of men, women and children and as such, the portrayal revolves round how the principal characters respond to the attitudes and events in their lives.

Rama Gupta started writing these stories after her retirement, a time when many would close the logbook of an active academic life. Not Rama! She has always had dogged determination and ambition to do something new. In that sense, this is a big wish come true.

Of the seventeen stories, two stories fall neatly into the rapidly growing diasporic experience. The experiences of immigrants in a multicultural country like Australia are outlined in ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’ and ‘Darkness under the Blazing Sun.’ One more story that is set partly in India and partly in Australia is ‘The Love of a Good Daughter.’ The average reader can easily feel the wistful, quiet sadness of the overall situation, and a reader familiar with the immigrant experience knows the truth behind the emotion of a parent who sees his/her child withdrawing into a shell; a well-settled man suddenly feeling lonely and helpless during a calamity, or a daughter settled in Australia being callously negligent of her mother who has come to help her with her new-born. Aannant gains his composure when the floods recede. Seeing river Brisbane flowing in its usual smooth rhythm, Aannant, after days of uncertainties, understands the significance of connectedness as he decides to help people to fight the aftermath of the devastating floods.
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Book Review: Review in Perspective of Veils, Halos & Shackles

Five years ago, in January 2013, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay conceived of Veils, Halos & Shackles, dedicated to ‘Jyoti Singh Pandey, Nadia Anjuman and the uncountable number of other women and girls who have been victims of gender violence’. 

This is a two-part feature consisting of the book review and an interview with Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay. Today we carry the review to be followed by the interview tomorrow.

By Shikhandin

Veils, Halos & Shackles

 

Title: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women
Edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay
Publisher: Kasva Press, 2016
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On the night of 16th December 2012, in New Delhi, Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped and tortured – which included the removal of her intestines with a metal rod – in a moving bus, and thrown out. She and her friend lay on the road for a long time before anyone stopped to help. She died in Singapore a few days after. For those who would like to know the details, it is here in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Delhi_gang_rape.

New Delhi is a city notorious for its treatment of women, where assault of all kinds occur with alarming regularity, with percentages being somewhat more than in the rest of India. This time, there was such brutality involved that it shook a nation which is normally in a state of extreme torpor with regard to women’s dignity and safety. India erupted into nationwide protests and not just through marches and candle lit vigils. In the hearts of Indian women and sane Indian men, a single voice seemed to rise – ‘Enough!’ The world too, took note, with horror. That was five years ago.

Since then, newspapers, television channels and other media, including social, have regularly reported similar outrages meted out to women and children, both girls and boys. At times it seems like the number of incidents has increased, and that instead of a nation trying to become better, India has regressed into perversion and misogyny. A number of cases have been reported of foreign objects being inserted into girls as young as two. The crime rate seems to be spiking. Women and survivors from other genders braving social media with their protests and stories are being trolled regularly. Parents are still worried sick for their daughters when they come home late or are unreachable on their phones.

Did Nirbhaya die in vain?

The rumble went deeper than imagined. It created fissures at depths where visibility is near non-existent. Nirbhaya was the turning point.

Now people are increasingly open. They refuse to be intimidated into silence. We hear of more cases because more people are reporting them. There is greater support and understanding for survivors and victims not just in India, but across the world, for while India may have a terrible reputation with regard to all those who identify as women, the situation is far from good even in developed and apparently liberal societies.

Across the world, much needs to be done. In India, we are a long way away from being a safe and respectful society towards girls and women and gay men. The change, unfurling all around us, often so quietly we barely note its presence, is shaking the core of our society. However slowly, however timidly. There is protest through vigils and media outcries. Much of it is inner dissent. A lot of it is quiet. Some of it pours out in artistic expressions.

The shape of protest is protean. The colours of its pain and beauty are myriad. Protest’s life span is longer than that of placards, and the decibel level of its call is higher than that of individual angry voices. The storm brewing, gathering and collecting force has a language. One of the languages of this protest is poetry.

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