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.

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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.

Reviewed by Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan 

The Boat People

 

Title: The Boat People
Author: Sharon Bala
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 332
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In the world of the privileged, one is inundated with a plethora of choices – what to eat, what to wear, where to study, where to work, how to go to work, where to travel… each second, we unconsciously make decisions, choosing the best amongst the options available to us. It has become so ingrained in our psyche that we take choice for granted. What if you did not have a choice? Sharon Bala’s debut novel The Boat People examines this haunting question.

The book draws inspiration from an incident in 2010 where a Thai cargo ship named ‘MV Sun Sea’ docked at the coast of British Columbia, carrying on board nearly 500 Sri Lankan refugees. In the land of the free, the refugees aboard the ship found themselves suspected of terrorism, having forged ties with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and detained. Having fled the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka, Bala’s protagonist Mahindan finds himself in frosty Vancouver with precisely this fate awaiting him.

While Mahindan is in the detention centre, his six-year-old son is taken away from him, and placed with a foster family. Priya, a law student of Tamil origin, finds herself embroiled in proving Mahindan’s innocence to the law and in the process unearths some dark secrets within her own family. Bala also weaves the internment of Canadian citizens of Japanese origin during the Second World War into her tapestry through Grace Nakamura, a government appointed adjudicator with the Refugee Board. Grace, previously with the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, is inexperienced in refugee law and has a bias against the refugees, partly due to the stand taken by her boss, a government minister. As she struggles with the burden of deciding the fate of Mahindan and others like him, her own mother who is battling early rounds of Alzheimer’s’, reminds her of the injustice meted out to Japanese-Canadian citizens during the war. Cruelly reminded that they were ‘aliens’, with slogans such as, ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the Seas’ openly chanted, the Japanese-Canadians were treated with suspicion and regarded as a threat to the harmony of the state until proven innocent. Kumi, Grace’s mother, slowly witnesses her own mind unravelling, and yet holding on to the strings of the past, she reminds Grace not to inflict upon people a gross injustice that had once been inflicted on her own ancestors.

Reviewed by Suneetha Balakrishnan

Karno's Daughter

Title: Karno’s Daughter
Author: Rimli Sengupta
Pages: (Hardcover) 172
Publisher: Context (2018)
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Remember Baby Haldar’s gritty dark memoir of a domestic servant in Delhi, A Life Less Ordinary? If Baby narrated her dark journey from Kashmir to Murshidabad to Durgapur to Delhi, here is ‘Buttermilk’ in Kolkata making a daily commute on the 5.40 a.m. local from Subhashgram to ‘the city’. She goes round on foot then to Tollygunge and to Ballygunge to do kitchen, laundry and cleaning services at half a dozen homes. Why is she called Buttermilk? You get to know when it’s just six more pages to wrap up the book.

Buttermilk hails from a village in Sunderbans, from a farming family. She has a non-maid life back home where Karno Haldar, (yes, another Haldar by pure coincidence) her father, Bashona, her mother, and Buttermilk’s six siblings and her paternal grandparents lived. The village of her marital home, a joint family where agrarian duties are divided, comes later. Karno migrated to the city to pay off a loss of 150 kilos of rice; that’s how the family came to live at Ponchanontola, a Kolkata slum – all because of a crab, a huge crab, that Buttermilk had caught and brought home. This is the story that opens Rimli Sengupta’s debut book, Karno’s Daughter.

The opening chapter, suitably titled “Crab”, gives an impression of an opening in fiction. However, Karno’s Daughter is anything but fiction. It’s one of the best in narrative non-fiction that has been published in recent days in India. The story deals with the rough life of a people who have always lived in correlation to the earth, cultivating their own food.  In a world where hardly one percent of the urban population has an idea of what constitutes our agrarian crisis, Rimli Sengupta chooses an interesting vehicle to impart information on how small-holding rice farmers in rural Bengal subsist.

Reclaiming the Power of the Feminine

Reviewed by Soni Somarajan

Reclamation Song cover

Title: Reclamation Song
Author: Jhilmil Breckenridge
Publisher: Red River
Pages: (Paperback) 100
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Holding Reclamation Song in my hands is sheer joy – here, at last, is a book of poetry made beautifully, an object of art in itself. Much thought is given to the cover design, the choice of paper, and the font – in this case, a Fell Type. The publisher, Red River, seems to have insight into how poets would love their books to be designed, evocative of the content as well as the fine delicateness of poetry itself. Thanks to Jhilmil Breckenridge, the poet who is also a painter, the illustrations in the book complement a poetic landscape that refuses to wear off days after.

The 55 poems in Reclamation Song are anything but ‘let it be light, it should float’ kind that Jhilmil aspires to, because the personal tragedy and anguish – the crux anchoring this collection – is of an enormous scale. The verse may be light but the effect is anything but floating, the weight of angst becoming our own – threatening to undo the objectivity of a review. For a debut collection, it has everything going for it – including a glowing introduction by the Master himself, Keki Daruwalla, who terms it ‘solid poetry grounded in pain’. Also, add a cluster of luminous blurbs from the who’s who in the world of letters.

Divided into three sections, we can easily say the first, “Overtures” hinges on the autobiographical – a diverse terrain: separation from children, graveyards, being born dusky, the mother’s influence, a lost childhood, abuse, longing, meeting expectations, and relationship dynamics. One begins to picture a comfortable couch, each poem a session of opening up – the release of the memories, vulnerability subject to public gaze, the poetry an attempt in and becoming the catharsis.

In “Letter to Liam”, notice the contrast between ‘I feared for your life and I let go’ and the delicateness of ‘grass and the daisies’. We focus on the poet’s earnest efforts for control over the turn of events as recalled from memory, the loss of her children. In the light of past events, note the second stanza’s ‘I love you more than words can express’ escalating into a superlative trope, ‘like an endless daisy chain’ – the mother’s love rendered in an unusually higher register, disguising a scream of helplessness. In “Love and Other Stories”, love of another kind, bruised by life’s experiences, comes full circle, inwards: ‘So now the safest place for my heart/ is with me. It beats a triumphant song…’

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Senserly Amako 3

Title: Senserly Amako
Author: Anita Thomas
Total number of pages: 269
Publisher: Simurg
Price: Rs 249/-

 

Senserly Amako by Anita Thomas has been described by the author as a ‘scrap-book journal of the “growing up” years (seven to eleven, in this instance)’. Written in the epistolary technique, it consists of a series of phone messages, sketches and emails from a young boy who calls himself Amako, a name he has devised for himself, derived from the ‘mackerel shark’. Drawings of the shark splatter the book and give it an interesting perspective.

Amako grows up with loving parents, a house help from Philippines called Essie, a dog, and a cat. He writes of his life in Singapore, travels in Australia, England and India. The author has taken the persona of a young boy to give a child’s perspective of the world around him, which is refreshing and humorous; for instance, the child defines ‘amber’ (pg 52) as ‘that spewy thing that catches flies’. There are bad jokes as only a child would crack, his reaction to his mother disciplining him, his perception of his school, teachers and friends, religion, his immense love for his father and his interactions with grandparents living overseas.

Reviewed by Nandini Varma

Sunlight Plane
Title: The Sunlight Plane
Author: Damini Kane
Publisher: Authorpress (2018)
Pages: 312

 

To reach out and urge us to inquire into our deepest emotions is the most beautiful gift a writer can give to a reader. To flap open an ear, to have our feet dangling from our beds, to imagine carefully the sound of an airplane pass by in a book, and listen to its heightened music in our heads, to brush the air as if for a moment it weren’t needed: these are acts of a reader only witnessed when a writer has produced something marvellous. Readers live double lives, much like writers, when they kick the earth unexpectedly, when they dance to a silently beating heart, when they crouch as though scared to break the dream.

Damini Kane’s first novel The Sunlight Plane does exactly that. It is a beautiful exploration of a friendship between two 9 year old boys — Tharush and Aakash, living in the posh Reyna Heights in Bombay. The cover art carries a paper plane flying across the city of Bombay, illustrated by Nivedita Sekhar. The book is divided into three sections: ‘The Sun’, ‘The Clouds’ and ‘The Sky’, each depicting a phase in their friendship – a brightness, or tension.

As we begin reading, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Tharush, the embodiment of curiosity and imagination, giving us a rich insight into the questioning mind of a child. We’re also introduced to his parents and find in them a family that doesn’t attract much trouble. Humour is therefore often seen paying a light and lovely visit in the moments shared between Tharush and his mother, another powerful character that represents deep intelligence and sensitivity, especially in her response to Tharush’s appeal for another fighter plane when they sit for dinner with eggplants floating ‘in the middle of yellow curry like dead rats’.

Quite early in the narrative, we’re given hints of what is to become a contrasting second main character of the book, Aakash, also meaning the sky as Tharush, but another shade of it – much darker as the clouds on a rainy day, more mysterious as a ‘stealthy, almost invisible, shadow’.

Reviewed by Shikhandin

A Clock in the Far Past

Title: A Clock in the Far Past – Poems
Author: Sarabjeet Garcha
Publisher: Dhauli Books
Price: INR Rs 250/ $14/£ 11

Human bodies are heavy, slaves of Earth’s gravity. Human hearts, on the other hand, weighing little more than sparrows, are still strong enough to pull the weight of memory. Perhaps this is where poetry is born.

Sarabjeet Garcha’s book of poems, A Clock in the Far Past, leaves one immersed in a certain feeling. Something more like residue, or a whiff of a sensation, almost like distant memory, or the memory of a memory, ticking away for the sake of what is here and now.

As the titular poem of the volume says:

It wasn’t 10:10, as images of clocks

are fond of showing, but some hour
that’s been swallowed by some windy
darkness of a tunnel, now extinct.
But what you can’t figure out now

Is the sudden urge to make
That stopped clock tick again-
As if a few tweaks to it
in the far past would set at least
something in your present right.

The clock’s hands move. Sarabjeet Garcha’s poems ferry the reader across like a time machine, albeit an astral one. This can be, and is already, disconcerting. These memories do not belong to the reader; and at times they seem not to belong to the poet. Then why this recurring sense of turning back the hands of one’s own clock? Is it because Garcha has made

a handful of lines
out of a lifetime’s work
shine…

These lines speak to me of Garcha’s humility before his muse. And this too – when he recognises with thanks that

seated
figure of some rare unknown
reader of his paltry work, he wants

to snoop on the underscores
and thank her for doing
what was almost
undoable for him…

(From “Radium”, the last poem in the volume)