Reviewed by Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee

(Sourced by Bangladesh country editor, Farah Ghuznavi)

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Title: Dust Under Her Feet

Author: Sharbari Zohra Ahmed

 Publisher: Tranquebar/ Westland, 2019

 

The particularly enchanting quality about Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is her ability to make under-discussed historical eras come to life while still holding potent resonance in the present era. Dust Under Her Feet, Ahmed’s debut novel, measures how much and how little we’ve changed both in South Asia and on a global scale, by drawing us into a rather cinematic setting.

The novel subverts our collective imagination of the 40s in India, a decade that was largely defined by the lead-up to Independence and the death of the British Raj. Our protagonist, Yasmine Khan, shows us a micro-culture of the second World War from her point of view. She has us compellingly engaged with the U.S army presence in Calcutta. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Chinese-Burman-Indian Theatre that evolved when the United States went in support of the Chinese against Japan.

Calcutta, because of geographical proximity, was critical to facilitate resource trade. The Allied forces built the Ledo Road that connected India to China, to deliver supplies, and a significant portion of the workforce was American. In fact, the road also came to be known as the Man-a-Mile road because of the number of American casualties during its construction. The Ledo road played a large role in facilitating the movement of US troops from India through Burma and into China during the early 40s.

By Nishi Pulugurtha

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It was a Sunday or maybe a holiday, I think, as all of us were at home that morning. I think I was in grade two. I still remember that day so very vividly. It involved my maternal grandmother, ammamma, as we called her. The four of us, my parents, my sister and me, were all in the living room talking. The grill gate in our home had a big lock and to knock we used to bang the gate with the lock. As soon as I heard the sound of the lock banging on the gate, I ran out to the verandah to check out our visitor.  I saw ammamma, standing at our gate!

My joy and surprise knew no bounds. I rushed in to tell amma (mother) and appagaru (father) that ammamma was at our gate. They were stunned to hear the news, rushed out to open the gate and welcome her. Relatives from distant Kakinada coming over to our place in Calcutta did not happen often and as children we were always excited and overjoyed whenever they came over.

After a cup of piping hot coffee, ammamma freshened up before sitting down with all of us to talk. As amma had been unwell, my father had written to her folks in Kakinada. On receiving the letter, ammamma had decided to come to Calcutta to be with her eldest. Upon purchasing the train ticket, my eldest mama (maternal uncle) had been asked to send a telegram to my father letting him know of ammamma’s travel plans. She took the Madras Mail (as it was then called) from Samalkot Junction which is about 15 kms from Kakinada town.

The train reached Howrah station early morning. Ammamma alighted from the train and looked around. Hari garu, that was how she addressed my father, would surely be there to receive her. But he was nowhere to be seen. She then took out an inland letter that my mother had written to her some time ago, that letter had the sender’s address on it. She walked out of Howrah station after waiting for quite some time. Just outside the station she met a traffic sergeant. She showed him the address. He looked at it and started speaking to her.

By Ankita Banerjee

The skyscrapers along the nameless street grew four times bigger that afternoon, like a dozen of Hulks coming to life all at once. I picked up pace, but tripped over something and fell down on the sidewalk.  The result was a palpable twinge on my left arm. There was a clothesline tied across what seemed to my eight-year-old self as two gigantic green  skyscrapers and on it hung my mother’s petticoats and a pair of her old red ribbons. “Slow down, it’s going to pour,” she called out to me from faraway. But I was so close to where I wanted to be; I couldn’t wait.

“Fresh catches for only 50 taka (rupees in Bengali) per kilo!” fishmongers cried from the ferry terminal down the street. I walked down gingerly through its slushy stairs. Across the mighty river, Chandannagar sparkled with lights that brought to life mythological birds and animals and vivid blooming flowers sketched on display boards. And then I saw the silvery hilsa (fish found in the Indian subcontinent) — gleaming with a touch of regal pink, stacked all around.

I was still eight, sitting at the doorstep of my mother’s old kitchen and watched her fry ring-shaped pieces of the hilsa in mustard oil. She put two heaped spoons of steamed rice on my plate and mixed it with the oil of hilsa roe and a pinch of salt with her turmeric stained peaky fingers. “Let me pick out the bones for you,” the warmth in her voice echoed from the other end of time and coiled into a globe of ache in my chest. The pain on my left arm was no longer obscure.

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’.

Review by Rajat Chaudhuri 

majumdar-firebirdThe Firebird, Saikat Majumdar, Hachette, 2015, pp 233, INR 499

From the few visits to Circarina—the Calcutta playhouse with the revolving stage—that one made in the early flush of youth, the figure of an elderly dhoti-clad gentleman who would sit in the front row rises up from the depths of memory. He would always be holding a freshly-picked rose in his hand, which he would present to one of the performers immediately after a song and dance sequence. It was a heady experience watching those plays, the throbbing darkness inside the hall, the coloured spotlight beams lighting up the elaborate sets, the filmi music, the Bollywood style bump and grind and the crackling storylines. All of it came back in a rush while reading The Firebird, Saikat Majumdar’s novel set in the world of commercial theatre. A powerful story of subversion, decay and dissonance in a north Calcutta family with a young boy at its centre.

Ori. A complex and slightly unpredictable child whose mother Garima Basu is a stage actress, a profession that doesn’t find favour in their middle-class family. The young Ori, who studies in class five at the beginning of the book seeks refuge in the tales told by his grandmother—Mummum—or hangs out with his cousin Shruti and her college friends. Ori’s own father is an alcoholic and a sleeping pill-addict who is mostly at the margins of the plot.

Joseph-Conrad
From the shores of Haldia the Tilkhurst could have looked like anything, with lanterns perched at various heights conveying only a meagre outline. But there was no one to see it from the shore. Inside the ship, in a dank cabin beneath the deck, there was a sailor’s feast in progress.

Both the party and the ship’s overnight anchoring off Haldia had been Captain Edwin John Blake’s orders. He believed it better to spend another night at sea before taking the river towards Calcutta. Right now, he was addressing an audience of sailors seated on the floor. Few in the audience were paying heed to the captain’s words about Calcutta and its culture, and those few were amazed in witnessing a complete reversal in their captain’s usually calm demeanour. Józef, the only Pole on the ship, was in this lot, and although he could not entirely comprehend what the captain said in his perfect English, he was nevertheless fascinated, possibly because of the liquor he had had, by the way this complex language, this English, always seemed to open the world—unpacked it, so to say. To Józef, who aspired to one day be called a writer, the choice between English and French was becoming somewhat clearer in the head, though only part of it was due to the unpacking quality of English. He could not really hope to write as well as the Frenchmen did, competition in French would be way tougher, already he knew that Flaubert was inimitable, and so on. To write in Polish was unthinkable anyway. Who wanted to read Polish other than a few Poles?

Amit Chaudhuri has grown from a writer with humour to one in love with excess words. Dilip D’Souza reads out loud.

calcutta_bookCalcutta, especially, leaves you puzzled, groaning and ultimately, just baffled. Yet, if you read both , there’s a certain epiphany to be had.

I’ll return to that.

For now, consider: “The problem of sexuality gives to [EM Forster’s fiction]… its modernist disquiet, its obsession with duplication, alterity, otherness, and with echoes.”

Consider: the “decorative peacock feather [that] was still”, and “that stillness comprises, for me, an inalienable continuity with the child who first observed this world of relatives”.

Hotel Calcutta-bookcoverSushma Joshi reviews Hotel Calcutta for Kitaab.org

I specifically wanted to read “Hotel Calcutta” because the book flap description seemed to imply this book was a little out of the ordinary. I was tired of great narratives, tour de forces, award winning books, and writers who epitomized their generation. A heritage hotel that is under threat of demolition, a monk at the bar,  a wall of stories, a producer of porn flicks, a woman who hears dead soldiers in the corridor? Okay, bring it on!

The book was a satisfying read, and yet it wasn’t, all at the same time. While I enjoyed the sheer quirkiness of it—plus the flow of words from the writer who was clearly well versed—I should say, greatly at ease—with the writing traditions of great writers of the hoary past. At the same time, a certain something was missing from the book. If I was his editor, I’d say the writer needed to do a second and a third edit. Yes, perhaps that’s what was missing—a certain soul-analyzing content edit.

To get back to the book: the Hotel Calcutta is under threat of demolition. A monk shows up at a bar and advises Peter Dutta, manager-cum-bartender, a way to fend off the demons. “Keep telling stories,” he says. “Build a wall of stories around Hotel Calcutta and no one will touch it.”