Book review by Tan Kaiyi

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With the rise of the Asian Century, the global community typically shines its spotlight on the economic progress of the region. Much is made of the advancing wealth of nations like India, China, Singapore and Vietnam. But while the economic progress is an easy unifying narrative that could be woven through the different countries, equally important — but much more challenging — is charting the breadth and depth of the Asian literary imagination.

The Best Asian Short Stories 2019 is up to the monumental task. The editor of the anthology, award-winning author Hisham Bustani, highlights the main obstacle to the endeavour when assembling the collection:

“…there is no such thing as a well-defined, self-contained, concrete, unified Asian identity…”

He explains the issue by contrasting it with Europe. While similar to Asia with a geography that contains multiple language and cultures, the region “claims a unique identity and set of ‘European values’ that separate it from others…” This consequently gives a literary landscape in the region a halo of universalism. Whether it is true at heart or not is certainly up for debate, as Bustani rightly points out that some communities like Turkey are isolated from the Eurocentric ideological bloc.

By Shah Tazrian Ashrafi

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Rosey, formerly Jameel, lived in Dhaka, a city which fumed like a truck in trouble and grew out of an old patch of fertile land. When the first rods seeded its soil, buildings bloomed like concrete flowers and  native tigers ran away for dear life, their footprints erased by the tires of metallic animals. The new city with its poor infrastructure, claimed its victims on a regular basis — rivers, animals, earth, air, people. Rosey walked the streets dressed like a paste jewellery store, a shiny horse with a rose in her hair and high heeled hooves. Her hair was an undulating ocean of embers when lit by the sun’s fiery rays. She trotted on the busy roads like a cautious horse as her high heels rang in the pedestrians’ ears — thak, thak, thak.

Some children would run away when they noticed her, some would hide behind their mothers as their mothers would say, “Bhoy er ki ache? Kicchu hobena. (What is there to fear? Nothing will happen.)” She was aware of their dread when they saw her emerge from a crowd of ordinary and ‘acceptable’ people. She knew they thought she would abduct them and turn them into her kind. She also knew how stereotypical the human mind was — how unwholesome, how hostile it was towards anything different. As opposed to the children who feared her kind and those grown-ups who abhorred them, there were still some she knew who wore the garb of humanity, who did not fling the term “Hijra (eunuchs)” as a slur — people like Saleem bhai (brother), Ruma chachi (aunty), the vegetable vendor, Kakoli, and Rubel, the postman.

On that day, the air in the market was thick with flies and the unholy stench of meat, sacrificial animal gut and excrement; the ground was tinged with blood and boric acid. Beggars, Hijras and Bedes (nomadic tribals) populated the streets; some in their usual clothes, some in their best; and some with all of their limbs in proper places, some amputated. It was as though Qurbani Eid ( where animal sacrifices are made to God on a particular date by a particular person) had given them a secret clarion call — a call only those living in the cages of poverty and in the margins of society could decipher — as if it was their turn to sacrifice the meat.

 

Reviewed by  Haimanti Dutta Ray

 

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Title: Beyond the Himalayas Journeying through the Silk Route

Text: Goutam Ghose, Michael Haggaig

Photographs: Goutam Ghose

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Date of publication: 2019

Beyond the Himalayas Journeying through the Silk Route is  joint collaboration by award-winning Indian filmmaker Gautam Ghose and British writer and producer, Michael Haggiag. Ghose in his introduction has named this  venture ‘a film-book’ because it is based on his five-part documentary, a cinematic marvel, also named Beyond The Himalayas.

Made in 1996, his documentary had been screened extensively on Doordarshan (India), Discovery and BBC in the late 1990s. The book, Beyond the Himalayas, commemorates the silver jubilee of the journey he undertook to make the documentary in 1994. Ghose writes in his introduction:“The so-called ‘present’ is a fraction of fractions between  the past and the future and hence the present moments are stored in our memory as recent or remote past. …. This book narrates one such vivid memory , a once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure.”

In his introduction to the book, Ghose reveals how he came across old negatives and slides which featured  their journey through the meandering valleys and endless deserts of the fabled Silk Road more than two decades ago in a ‘caravan’ of jeeps. Breath-taking reproductions of these negatives and slides intersperse the narrative which is based on the script of the documentary.



IMG_0476Title
: The Billionaire Raj

Author: James Crabtree

Publisher: Oneworld

Year of publication: 2018

Pages: 384

Price: S$22.40

Links: https://singapore.kinokuniya.com/bw/9781786075598

About: India’s explosive rise has driven inequality to new extremes, with millions trapped in slums as billionaires spend lavishly and dodge taxes. Controversial prime minister Narendra Modi promised ‘to break the grip’ of the Bollygarchs, but many tycoons continue to thrive amidst the scandals, exerting huge influence over business and politics. But who are these titans of politics and industry shaping India through this period of breakneck change? And what kind of superpower are they creating? A vivid portrait of a deeply divided nation, The Billionaire Raj makes clear that India’s destiny – prosperous democratic giant or corrupt authoritarian regime – is something that should concern us all.


IMG_0370Title: Indigo Girl

Author: Suzanne Kamata

Publisher: GemmaMedia

Year of publication: 2019

Pages: 258

Price: US$14.95/ Rs 1,326.00

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Indigo-Girl-Suzanne-Kamata/dp/193684673X

https://www.amazon.in/Indigo-Girl-Suzanne-Kamata-ebook/dp/B07RV7PG7D/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Indigo+girl+by+Suzanne+Kamata&qid=1559100922&s=gateway&sr=8-1

 About: Fifteen-year-old Aiko Cassidy, a bicultural girl with cerebral palsy, grew up in Michigan with her single mother. For as long as she could remember, it was just the two of them. When a new stepfather and a baby half sister enter her life, she finds herself on the margins. Having recently come into contact with her biological father, she is invited to spend the summer with his indigo-growing family in a small Japanese farming village. Aiko thinks she just might fit in better in Japan. If nothing else, she figures the trip will inspire her manga story, Gadget Girl.

However, Aiko’s stay in Japan is not quite the easygoing vacation that she expected. Her grandmother is openly hostile toward her, and she soon learns of painful family secrets that have been buried for years. Even so, she takes pleasure in meeting new friends. She is drawn to Taiga, the figure skater who shows her the power of persistence against self-doubt. Sora is a fellow manga enthusiast who introduces Aiko to a wide circle of like-minded artists. And then there is Kotaro, a refugee from the recent devastating earthquake in northeastern Japan.

As she gets to know her biological father and the story of his break with her mother, Aiko begins to rethink the meaning of family and her own place in the world.

On May 7 th, 1861, was born a man who left an indelible mark in the world of literature, philosophy, music, education and on the  lives of many people. He wrote the national anthem for at least two countries, India and Bangladesh, and influenced the writer of the national anthem of a third country, Sri Lanka.

Rabindranath Tagore, the first non- European Nobel prize winner, was a remarkable man. Despite having his songs picked for national anthems and providing inspiration to other national anthem writers, he was critical of a system that drew borders among men and created hatred or intolerance. He withdrew from the politics of nationalism. He wrote: “…my conviction (is) that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Memory in 324 Words

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Adil Hasan was born in 1971 in Shillong, north-east India and has made Bangalore his home for the past eighteen years. He is a visual artist and freelance writer, having previously worked in the banking industry. Escape The Dark, an exhibition of his digital art was held in 2014. He is presently working on a mixed media project titled Great Industrial Dreams which pairs artwork with speculative prose and poetry. 

Jugaad Yatra

 

Throughout 2015 and 2016, the Twitter hashtag, #JugaadNation became a social media sensation with popular websites like BuzzFeed showcasing the ‘hilariously creative ways Indians get shit done no matter what’. There was a bicycle where a missing handlebar was replaced with a car steering wheel, a broken shower head replaced with a taped plastic water bottle pricked with dozens of holes at the bottom. Household irons were shown being used to straighten women’s curls or upturned as hotplates to boil milk. Air conditioner units with missing grills became chillers for beer while a desert cooler was adapted to cool two neighbouring rooms by attaching a pair of old trousers to divide the flow, one leg for each. There were pressure cookers propped up by two bottles and heated by burning candles taped together, a shattered clock missing numbers 1 to 7 made good with the digits scrawled onto the wall on which it hung, and endless varieties of crop-sprayers and ploughs made from bicycle wheels, discarded oil barrels and bits of old scrap metal.

There were stories too, along with pictures. In November 2016, when Narendra Modi scrapped ₹ 1,000 and ₹ 500 banknotes to target black money and corruption, India’s ATM machines were suddenly under siege and customers were forced to queue for many hours to get cash. Satjeet Singh Bedi had a jugaad solution to hand—he set up BookMyChotu.com to supply labourers to stand in line on behalf of the well-to-do who could hire a chotu—which literally means ‘little one’—for ₹ 90 per hour to take the pain out of Modi’s demonetization.

These pictures and tales went viral on a global wave of LOLs and OMGs, shared by Indians as a celebration of their inspiring resourcefulness and optimism amid scarcity and poverty. It reflected the extent to which jugaad had been claimed as a treasured ‘we are like that, only’ Indian trait.

In his book, India’s Century: The Age of Entrepreneurship in the World’s Biggest Democracy, veteran Congress leader and former cabinet minister Kamal Nath described how jugaad creativity had blossomed in the hardship of India’s early post-independence years. The shortage economy—when Jawaharlal Nehru’s government curbed imports and restricted foreign investment in favour of domestic production—demanded frugality and turned ‘every Indian’ into a ‘master of jugaad’.