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Book review: B-Sides and Backslides by Felix Cheong

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.

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Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi: The man who taught us humour

(From Herald. Link to the complete article given below)

Baba was behind the steering wheel. I was sitting right behind him beside ammi and my younger brother, peeking out of the window with an inquisitive gaze. Our car was briskly negotiating a road in Buffer Zone, a predominantly Urdu-speaking neighbourhood of Karachi. We were headed to a mushaira that baba had put together. There, I was finally going to see this Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi that he always spoke about.

A taped tennis ball came flying in through the open window and smashed baba’s spectacles. He fell on his side from the impact and the car screeched to a halt. A shard of glass tore into his right eye and as he lay cupping it with his hands, blood trickled down from between his fingers.

Across the street, a group of boys was playing cricket. The bowler had delivered the ball so quick that both the batsman and the keeper missed it and it traveled all the way to baba’s window. As we got out of the car panicking, the boys came running to apologise. Baba was taken to the hospital and we were taken home. I didn’t see Yusufi that day, but baba did. He managed to convince the doctors to delay the surgery to remove the shard until the next morning; they washed out his eye and fixed him up with bandages. The mushaira was saved and so was baba’s eye. I got busy growing up and we soon stopped telling the horrific tale at family get-togethers. I didn’t revisit the incident for over a decade — until 2014. Yusufi hadn’t forgotten it. He recalled it years later at an event of Anjuman-e-Sadat-e-Amroha, and the speech made it to the book, Sham-e-Sher-e-Yaraan.

Baba didn’t stop talking about Yusufi. As a child, all I knew was that Yusufi was a funny man who he would quote often and everyone would chuckle. His frequently employed superlatives filled me with enough envy to steal Zarguzasht from his room. Yusufi’s language was beyond comprehension and my mental faculties failed to process the humour. However, I compensated by expressing unnecessary amusement at the few sentences that I understood. I was engaged in an activity of a higher order and felt important.

Zarguzasht fulfilled my pubescent longing for refinement. I would take special care in casually slipping it into everyday conversations with friends. I was automatically better than them because I knew Yusufi and they didn’t. It was a great feeling to have.

In Pakistan, anything upcoming is either seen with disinterest or dread. This, however, was not the case when, in 2014, word went around that Yusufi is ready with his fifth book, Sham-e-Sher-e-Yaraan. The excitement was evident. Even President Mamnoon Hussain flew in to inquire about his health and tell him that the work is eagerly awaited. It was as if the moribund Urdu literary milieu was being brought back to life against its wishes. Yusufi hadn’t published in 24 years. Urdu humour was bereft of vitality and Yusufi was willing to once again breathe life into it.

Read the complete article at this Herald link


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Book Review: Frazil by Menka Shivdasani

By Jhilmil Breckenridge 

Frazil

Title: Frazil
Author: Menka Shivdasani
Publisher: Paperwall Media
Pages: 154
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According to the dictionary, ‘frazil’ is the soft, needle-like ice on top of lakes and rivers that are too turbulent to freeze. Living in Lancashire, near the lakes, I often see this. Thanks to Menka Shivdasani’s new collection, Frazil, I now have a word for them. The poems in Frazil are a lot like the needle-like ice, glittering and beautiful on the surface but hiding angst within. Her unusual imagery allows you to see the world forever altered while her humour lurks, teasing.

Shivdasani’s wry look at women, their worth as defined by breasts and ovaries, in the poem, ‘The Whole Deal, states, “It takes much to know the burning coal / that lay inside of you / is now a charred and empty space / and the river is no longer red.” Much of this collection, spanning 37 years from 1980 to 2017, speaks of love, desire, sex, and issues that concern many women, but her keen mind also writes, with sarcasm, on religion, eating fish, bees, the ethics of killing animals for our own pleasure, and of course, as with many poets, death – there are a lot of death poems in Frazil.

‘Bees’, for instance, mulls over the beehive adjoining her own home, sharing the same wall, and ends with, “Now I carry their sweetness squeezed into a jar, / alone again, except for that one queen bee / who keeps flapping about / wondering where her home disappeared.” Poetry is often political and Menka Shivdasani’s politics is displayed clearly and openly in her work, be it talking of how a bee’s home is as important as ours, or in ‘What We Do To Our Gods’: “… we serve death on our dining tables / and the taste on our tongues is great.”

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Shovon Chowdhury: ‘People need stories’

ShovonChowdhuryJaya Bhattacharji Rose interviews Shovon Chowdhury, a Delhi-based humorist and author of a novel, The Competent Authority 

Shovon Chowdhury’s  grandfather ran away from Dhaka to escape Japanese bombing in 1945, not realising that the war was about to end, and arrived in Calcutta just in time for the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946. These shared family experiences have left him deeply averse to sudden movement, which is why he has lived in Delhi for the last 20 years. In his spare time, he does advertising work for clients who cannot, he says, find anyone cheaper.

His first novel The Competent Authority took him 11 years to complete, because he can type with only one finger.

I know people keep saying the novel is dying, and I’m sorry if I drove another nail in, but can you imagine a world without stories?

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