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.

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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.

Reviewed by Rajat Chaudhuri

Mark Floyer Crow Dusk
Crow Dusk – Mark Floyer

 

Title: Crow Dusk
Author: Mark Floyer
Publisher: Paekakariki Press (London, 2017)
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Lilting Bengali melodies drift out of its pages. A crackle of old transistor radios animates the backdrop of ayahs, chowkidars and mosquito nets as crows descend for shelter amongst the banyans of a tropical night. Crow Dusk (Paekakariki Press), Mark Floyer’s collection of poems about Calcutta, the city where he spent his early childhood, is replete with images, sounds, smells and reflections about a place, a people and a country which is intricately woven into the fabric of his life and that of his ancestors.

Floyers great, great, great grandfather was John Shore, Governor General of Bengal (1793-1797) succeeding Cornwallis, who also became President of the Asiatic Society. Shore was a close friend of William Jones. The poet of Crow Dusk, while mentioning his ancestor in conversations, characterises him as ‘obscure’, perhaps rightly so, in contrast to his predecessor Cornwallis. However, in his well-crafted poems Floyer, who cites Arun Kolatkar as a major influence, casts the centuries old association of his family with India and the region as a backdrop for the evocations of boyhood and his renewed engagement with the city of Calcutta.

Half of his Calcutta poems are about his memories of the city, his home here and his family and the other half is about his return to find how it has changed. In the eponymous Crow Dusk, the poet writes,

And always crows
suspended high on rooftops and telephone wires
gathering to croak their dusk chorus

                                                                                          kaaa kaaa

their black hoods
silhouetted against the purple disc of the sun. …

 

Sights, sounds and smells of this Calcutta of the late 1950s come alive in these carefully crafted imagist poems which surprise us with their sharp remembrances, distanced as they are by the smoke and dust of five and a half decades. This digging into the past is never an easy task as he alludes to in the poem Underwater, ‘I probe my diver’s torch for the rusting detritus of memories’.

Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

Eleventh Hour

Title: Eleventh Hour
Author: S. Hussain Zaidi
Publisher: HarperCollins (2018)
Pages: (Paperback) 256

In the movie Tiranga, the popcorn thriller which had managed to polarise its critics and eventually gain cult status based solely on television reruns and pirated DVDs, Raj Kumar tells his enemies, ‘Just like my bullets, my tongue also talks straight with my enemies,’ thus setting a precedence for years of patriotic thrillers to come, complete with the same template of over the top villains and an honest-to-a-fault patriotic protagonist. While Bollywood has faithfully followed this template for the next decade or so, Indian literature has forayed into the world of such thrillers only recently but has quickly followed up in the footsteps of the visual medium to deliver stylish and taut, if entirely implausible stories of armies and soldiers engaged in battle with almost melodramatic but invisible enemies.

S. Hussain Zaidi manages to steer his story clear of the comedic element of thrillers in his latest book, Eleventh Hour. His writing reflects his experience as a veteran journalist; it is trimmed down to perfection and maintains a pace that makes the book unputdownable. Usually the problem with any thriller is that either the plot gives away too much at an early stage, thus making the rest of the book clichéd, or it starts too slow and results in the reader losing patience. This book is delightfully balanced. The author drives the narrative at his own comfortable speed, giving us an insight into both the tragedies of the past and the obvious danger looming over the present. He also makes use of his knowledge of the places that he has chosen for his story, describing each location with precise details, whether it’s the streets and slums of Bombay or the luxurious confines of a hijacked cruise ship. At various points throughout the book, the reader has to pause and take in the accuracy of the plot, starting from the internal workings of various bureaucratic, anti-terrorism agencies to the murmuring world of Bombay’s underworld. The panic and paranoia of a post 26/11 city still reeling from the feelings of being held hostage by the unknown forces of terrorism are depicted in their visceral entirety and become the driving force behind the main narrative.