By Manisha Lakhe

feet-in-the-valley

You don’t have to read the writer’s bio to figure out that the writer is a civil servant. The book, Feet in the Valley by Aswini Kumar Mishra, is an ode to the “sarkari daftar” and its ways and means of working less and making more money.

Somen, the protagonist of the book doesn’t start out as being likeable, because he fails his exams and generally seems to not care whether his family has to put up with hardships due to his “studies” late into the night. He takes it for granted that his parents and sister would be crammed into one room in order for him to study into the night. When he fails, you wonder if his mother’s love for him (she feeds him pakoras and samosas and cut fruit – by her own hand – at different points in the book) is deserved. He is 28 years old and seems to be self-centered and “useless”, and it seems to be a patriarchal setup because his sister Minati seems to have more brains than him.

Somen’s father works in the Railways, and the working ways of the booking office creates a fine picture of bribery and corruption. It is so beautifully written that you feel that you are standing in the booking queue, waiting for your turn, witnessing the way government offices work (or don’t). It is a record of frustrations with the system. Even the details in the offices of the Block Development Officer and the nexus between the different departments and the avarice of the people, with utter disregard to the welfare of the people they are meant to serve is wonderfully depicted in the book. You feel every bump in the road, and hear the music played by the crooked owner of Hotel Amar (where everyone goes, from the BDO to the contractors and the subcontractors and the Tehsildar and his cronies and anyone with money and interest in making money off the government).

“At times, it was discovered that Nanda’s motorcycle ran on the fuel supplied by Patnaik. When relatives arrived at the resident of Rath, another JE, Mishra the Sub-Contractor, provided the entertainment packages. As soon as the office opened, Patnaik would arrive, with folded hands to greet both Nanda and Rath.

‘Yes… Patnaik.’

‘Sir, namaste… My bills, sir.’

‘Not prepared yet, please come later.’

‘Sir… I badly need the money to pay my labourers.’

‘But the BDO is out of station.’

‘No, but he sure to return soon… Sir.’

‘Oh! You are so bothersome, as always.’

‘Sir, please.’

Patnaik laid a packet of cigars on Nanda’s table while suggesting the mode of preparation of the bill. Nanda, puffing a cigar from the pack, asked Patnaik to leave the room so he could go ahead with the present task. Patnaik left immediately. Nanda once again shouted at him, ‘Please ask for some coffee.’”

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By Pallavi Narayan

kq

The cover of Kappa Quartet is striking. It’s simple — a subway car opening onto a station platform, with Japanese signs hung up, a man in a hat reading a newspaper on the left, a woman in a dress with a closed book on her lap. The man and woman are faceless, and the person entering is incomplete —  a faceless individual with a pair of red glasses perched on (in?) air. Indeed, waiting is the trope the novel appears to be premised on. Water is the element kappas are most comfortable in and around, and it too plays a vital role in moving the narrative forward.

The novel plunges right into the action by taking as self-evident the presence of the mythological figure of the kappa, a river demon of Japanese folklore, in the everyday life of humans and cities. Kappas enjoy a solitary existence and distance themselves from even their families, yet they are integrated into fast-paced society: they drink at izakayas, consume nabe at restaurants, play instruments in orchestras, relax at cafes and hotels, marry other kappas and procreate, marry humans and don’t, get adopted as children, go to school, in short, do everything that humans do. How they are differentiated is through a hole in the head (while bathing, it is apparently a custom for them to have another individual present scoop up some water and pour it into the hole). In some kappas like Takao the hole is very small, say, “no larger than a five-hundred-yen coin”, while his nephew “Goro’s was probably three or four times bigger” (p. 145), because of which he is picked on by his classmates.

Kappas can also take away human souls. It is specialists or senmon-ka such as Ms Neo, Haruhito Daisuke and Ahab who are able to see who is without a soul, and which kappa is prone to turn dangerous. It is not elaborated as to how they gain their powers, and how they protect their souls from being sucked away by kappas. The senmon-ka appear throughout the novel, putting forth the question of what is fabricated and what the actual happenings are.

By Abhishek Sikhwal

an-era-of-darkness-the-british-empire-in-india

I have been waiting for a book like An Era of Darkness for quite some time. While much has been written about the British empire and the brutality of colonization, none of those accounts came from an Indian perspective. African-Americans have been able to recount the horrors of slavery through books such as Inhuman Bondage and Many Thousands Gone, but Indians have only been served an ersatz history of the empire by apologists such as Niall Ferguson (Empire) and Lawrence James (The Rise and Fall of the British Empire). In reviewing this book, my slight bias, of which I’m forthcoming, arises squarely from the fact that there hasn’t been anything similar that singularly deals with the Indian experience of colonization.

Tharoor’s book, which took shape after his speech on the subject went viral last year, is an extensive examination of the economic and cultural damage wreaked upon India over the 200 years it was under British rule. In order to establish their dominion, the British dismantled the organic structure of the subcontinent which was always, as the historian Jon Wilson noted, “a society of little societies”.

Tharoor rubbishes the argument that the British were better than the native kings they were supplanting by citing the good governance in kingdoms such as Travancore, Mysore and Oudh. Even the Moghuls, who ruled India for over three centuries, assimilated themselves into the region and the capital extracted under their empire never left the country. The British, however, kept themselves aloof from the customs of the indigenous people and systematically siphoned off the country’s wealth to Britain. According to Tharoor, “By the early 1800s, India had been reduced from a land of artisans, traders, warriors and merchants, functioning in thriving and complex commercial networks, into an agrarian society of peasants and moneylenders”.

While some think that the British should be thanked for introducing the railways, press and parliamentary system into India, Tharoor argues that these were only introduced in order to accelerate the purloin of the country’s riches and to maintain control over the land. He also points out how India is still suffering under a system that was framed with Victorian values. Our bureaucracy, corruption and unfortunate laws pertaining to homosexuality and sedition can all be attributed to the archaic system set up by the British. Even the divide-and-rule policy initially used by the British to keep Indians quarrelling amongst themselves, created a gulf between communities that continues till today.

By Chandra Ganguly

calamities

How do you make sense of life when your friend dies? How do you make sense of life when thousands were washed away by waters in a tsunami or killed ruthlessly in a genocide? How do you make sense of lives lived in pain whether due to atrocities committed by other or genetic mutations that make every day living a study in pain and forbearance? Peter Trachtenberg’s The Book of Calamities examines the meaning of life through these occurrences while asking five questions, “Why me? How do I endure? What is just? What does my suffering say about me and about God? What do I owe those who suffer?”

The book is a compelling first hand account of not just the author’s own suffering due to substance abuse, the death of his friends and his parents but also a first hand account of other people’s pain as he travels to places of strife such as Rwanda and Sri Lanka, follows up with families who lost loved ones on September 11, and interviews those in grief, seeking an answer to his questions.

The beauty of the book lies in the author’s ardent and almost unflinching seeking. He intersperses his travels and experiences with philosophies and religious texts from the Bible and Buddhism mainly but those chapters and paragraphs are like supporting documents, almost theoretical in their references. It is his travels and walks through the trenches of human suffering that pulls the reader in. How many people do we know who have travelled to Rwanda after the genocide or Sri Lanka after the tsunami? How many brave the hostility of these climates to ask questions? Trachtenberg recounts his experiences in such places and interviews people such as the Daley twins who suffered from Epidermolysis Bullosa, a form of affliction that made living in your own skin literally almost possible. The author befriends the people he seeks out in his journey to find a meaning and makes his research into suffering an empathetic and intimate look into lives we read about and normally keep at a distance. By describing his own sufferings, Trachtenberg draws us further into his story and his own search for meaning — “. . . suicide suddenly appealed to me as something I could do . . . I used about fifty Fiorinal and a razor blade that I was too squeamish to do very much with.” ( p. 57)

By Aminah Sheikh

malika

Born to Communist parents Amar Shaikh and Kusum Jaykar, Malika Amar Shaikh was raised in an inspiring environment at a time when history was being staged – Maharashtrian politics of the 1960s. Cushioned by her father, a legendary Marathi folk singer and trade union leader, Malika, who was an ailing child lived the world through books. And, her only outlet was her poetry.

Hirve, hirve gawat, phule bhovti jamat

Jaate mi, maaghaari yete mi…ramat, gamat

(In the green green foliage, the flowers dance

There will I follow, there will I prance.)

She had written her first poem at the age of seven. Riding on the loving shoulders of her father, a respectable man, Malika floated through the art, cultural and political circles as a school-going girl, observing and silently soaking in all that was on offer.

Published by Speaking Tiger, I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir by Malika Amar Shaikh, translated from Marathi by author, poet and translator Jerry Pinto, tells a tale of despair. The original autobiography Mala Udhhvasta Vhaychay was published in 1984. The book takes the reader on a journey of a girl, from being young, self-aware and with dreamy eyes, to a woman choking under the burden of her own choice. The choice of following her heart and loving a man who she believed would be her true companion.

When the man of her dreams Namdeo Dhasal, co-founder of the radical Dalit Panthers, is introduced to the reader, you are bound to fall in love just as she did. So honest is her memoir that it will jolt you and leave you wondering – how did she pull through!

I Want to Destroy Myself has been beautifully crafted by Malika as she shares some intense experiences in a matter-of-fact manner. From loving the rain as a girl, sitting with her family with a book in hand, to wading in almost waist-deep water with her husband during her menstrual cycle and ending up at a friend’s doorstep for shelter — one of the many moments when she swallows her self-respect — the book tells many stories. She arouses raging emotions in the reader that make the book a heavy read.

By Manisha Lakhe

night

As with any book of short stories, one tends to open a story and allow the writer to steer you into worlds you have not experienced. Mitra Phukan’s A Full Night’s Thievery takes us to Assam, and gives us a glimpse into the lives of her characters filled with music. But when those worlds are described in ways where Indian words like aanchal, punkha walas, Krishnasura tree, aalna, deuta intrude upon the senses, then the story comes second. It’s all ambience. Only ambience.

The book blurb promises that “music is a hard taskmaster” and you want to experience that. The bleeding fingers, the pain of missing a beat in front of an audience, the ecstasy of hitting the right notes and the loneliness of the riyaaz, we want to feel it all. But the characters don’t seem to be real. They’re given to rants (“The Choice”) where a Rudra Veena player is attempting to tell himself why he’s giving away his instrument. And after a couple of pages you wish the damned instrument would break to make him stop whining. If you’ve started with that story (since it’s the first in the book), then it sounds the death knell to the book, doesn’t it?

But if you’re like me, you’ll seek out the title story which is about a thief. And when you have trampled through pointless descriptions of characters in the little town who have nothing to do with the plot of the story, you realise that you saw the end coming a mile away. And who uses words like “delicious bits” for breasts? It’s practically Victorian.

The stories are charming, if you are unfamiliar with Indian writing. But if you have read works of regional authors translated into English, or Indian writers writing in English, you will realise that this book suffers the same fate. The descriptions seem to be written for non-Indians. Take the coconut seller in the train. His method of chopping the tender coconuts or how he cuts them after the “sweet” water has been consumed for the delicious “cream” seems to be utterly needless because Indians know what a tender coconut is and how to consume it.

By Anurima Chanda

wind-blows

It is interesting how every culture’s literary history almost always begins in verse – for they say verse comes easier to mankind than prose. It is maybe for this inherent nature in all of us that makes us, at least at some point of time in our lives, try to dabble in the art of writing poetry. However, not all of us have the energy to sustain that spirit. Not all of us are able to give birth to the poet in us. But those that do, truly know the joy that it brings to be able to express oneself in rhyme and the pain that it takes to get that rhyme right. What is also pleasantly surprising is how similar these ideas generated in the early stages of writing are to that of the other poets at a similar juncture of creativity. Similar but how beautifully different – different in the way that they then go on to form roots of their own to branch out in their creator’s essence. This is what Ashish Khetarpal’s debut book of poetry When the Wind Blows and Other Poems (2016) offers you – the freshness of the early stages of birth, the resonances it bears to the poetic genetic makeup of mankind and the promise of branching out to create its own unique type.

As the wonderfully written blurb at the back of the book tells you, the poems in this collection are like leaves of the fall; painted in different colours of poetic thought, waiting to spiral away to glory on the winds of the reader’s sighs. In these multicoloured leaves, one will find carefully plucked memories from the poetic mind. Memories of how poetry entered his life, how it made his life colourful, how those colours brought him love, how love took on a life of its own, how love left him heartbroken at times and how it consumed him at other times – snippets from the poet’s everyday life told with an unabashed honesty to the point of baring his vulnerable naked soul to his readers without being afraid of its risky consequences. These poems remind you of what it felt like in those early stages of musing when everything seems like a tale that should be told, when it is important that every tale is dressed with precision and care, and when poetic inspirations are to be celebrated rather than surreptitiously hidden between the lines. It is this very raw spirit of his poems that will enchant and make one sigh – sigh in remembrance of a youth gone by.

By Neeti Singh

love-of-pork

For the Love of Pork, 2016, by Goirick Brahmachari comes through as a collection of brilliant and ambitious verse that is intensely contemporary, thickly layered and imagistic, and reads like beat poetry as it interrogates on one hand the presence and forms of borders in daily life; and celebrates on the other hand the excesses of modern living with its new-found freedoms that thrill in the flouting of social taboos. Brahmachari, who belongs to a younger line of Indian poets writing in English, draws profusely from his readings and understanding of literature, history, cultural theory, culture and politics. His writing explores the matrix of socio-political and existential issues, as it negotiates at the same time, the paradox of acceptance and irreverence in the lives of the middle class. In terms of poetic style and content, Brahmachari’s is a strong and impressive voice, equipped with both the conviction and the courage that a poet needs to explore new pathways in poetic craft, experience, and creative expression.

Goirick Brahmachari, who is an economics research consultant settled in Delhi, hails from Silchar, Assam. This fact is amply reflected in For the Love of Pork, his first book of poems, which is a collection of forty-five poems that map the poet’s years at home, the pain of borders in the hilly terrain of Assam, and that strange sense of being away from home – free, footloose and available to cosmopolitan lifestyle issues far away in dynamic Delhi. As happens with most cities, the Silchar of his growing up years has decayed and is reduced now, to –

Stinking gutters

of hypocrisy and mediocrity.

Broken roads, of hope once,

of disgust now, ignored

through years of slumber

and laziness, and an age

of rage-less youth.

Your universities

do not speak. (18)