He slowly drifted into wakefulness with the smell of wood fire burning and its muted crackling. Then the touch of her hand on his ankles, and her husky voice calling, “Kunje?”1. Smiling, he turned over and reached out for her, eyes half open. She smelled fresh and her skin felt cool. The fine droplets of water from her hair fell on his face and shoulders, bringing him awake, his body fully aroused.

A few minutes later, he climbed over her body, off the creaking woven bed, and walked out into the still dark, early dawn. Drawing water from the well, he cleansed himself and his sacred thread while chanting his prayers. Back in his little kitchen, he helped himself to the black coffee still in a pot on the fire, drank it hot and steaming and looked over at Bhadra and smiled.

‘It’s good and strong,’ he told her. ‘Drink some before you leave.’

‘I will, Thirumeni’ she replied.

Of pure body. That was the literal meaning of the word. She addressed him knowingly, because after his ritual bath, he was now a priest. Unsullied and deserving of the right to go into the sanctum to worship the Goddess.

Now, she could no longer touch him.

She stood in the doorway watching him leave, while Easwaran Kunju, the tall lanky Namboothiri made his way to the little temple, about a furlong away through the winding path in the woods. The eastern sky had just taken on a light pink hue as he opened the heavy bronze lock more by feel than sight as he had done almost every day for the past five years. Those chapters in the story of his life lived as a priest in this small hamlet on the foothills of the Western Ghats.

 

It was a Friday and likely to be busy, bringing in the villagers who believed it to be auspicious for their Goddess, and a good day to pray to her. Today was also the annaprasanam, the first rice feeding ceremony of the village officer’s granddaughter. Easwaran cleaned out the fireplace, lit up the hearth and into a bronze vessel, measured out the raw rice to be cooked for the payasam2. While it cooked, he made his way to the sanctum sanctorum and parted open the heavy wooden door. As his eyes rested on the Goddess he felt his soul lighten up and all the burden of his insignificant life seep away, leaving serenity in its wake. This was his favourite time of the day – just he and his Devi, in a wordless commune. He cleared out yesterday’s wilted offerings, bathed her carved figure, draped her in her rich red satin and lit the lamps, all the while chanting verses in a song as ageless as time. Soon the business of the temple would start, bringing in the others, but for now, he was alone in her presence. Enveloped in light from the oil lamps and her benevolence, he looked upon the shiny ebony contours of her stone form with reverence. This was his time to offer her his worship and his adoration; his penance and his devotion.

The first one to arrive was Maraathi Thankamma, the only other staff at the temple. Although employed by the temple committee, hers was a hereditary position. Thankamma, and others of her family, were Maraars, whose job it was to keep the temple clean – sweeping and scrubbing twice a day. So also were most of the other chores that went into the running of the temple – like fetching flowers and fashioning them into garlands for the deities. Fortunately for Thankamma, the neighbourhood homes had generous Tulasi bushes and Hibiscus, laden with scarlet flowers that the Goddess favoured, and these, she gathered on her way to the temple. She set the basket of flowers inside the forecourt of the temple and straightened her stiff back. A bird-like woman of uncertain years, she had a weathered face marked by penury and a bright smile that shone with the acceptance of it all. Thankamma and Easwaran shared a fondness that was inevitable given the time they spent together in the midst of conversations and silences. She kept him abreast of the happenings in the countryside, which he found useful since he did not venture out much into the village square. Easwaran brought out the greasy bronze lamps and placed them on the verandah for her to scrub. Thankamma looked up at him and asked, ‘Did Bhadra make you something to eat?’

‘No, I told her not to. I will eat only after the naivedyam.’3

‘Why do you bother with it anyway?’ she continued, not even pausing to listen to him. ‘It’s only some rice and chilli paste in a banana leaf. I told you I can make you some nice hot rice and sambhar right here.’

Easwaran turned away, silent, smiling to himself – he did not want to be pulled into another argument as routine as the temple rituals. For the next five hours or so, he was kept busy with a steady stream of devotees. Pujas, special prayers and flower offerings, dedication of lamps lit with ghee and the distribution of prasadam. The village officer brought his family for the annaprasanam, and this special ritual brought in a substantial income for Easwaran Kunju. He contemplated the money and wondered if it would get him a pair of ear studs to put into the empty holes on Bhadra’s shapely ear lobes. Around noon time, after the rituals and Devi’s lunch pooja were done, the temple closed its doors till evening.

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Reviewed by Paresh Tiwari

book of prayers front and back

Title: Book of Prayers for the nonbeliever
Author: Dibyajyoti Sarma
Publisher: Red River (2018)
Pages: 128 (Paperback)
Price: INR 400

To read Dibyajyoti Sarma’s, Book of Prayers, is to see — in one’s own lifetime — the birth of a modern mongrel mythology, rendered skilfully on every page. Dibyajyoti’s poetry deftly fuses together bits from Mahabharata, ancient Assamese lore, and his own story. The terrain is one of love, loss and longing, and that in itself isn’t something new or particularly unique. What, however is, is his voice. Dibyajyoti’s poems are travellers. Brimming with symbolist images, the poems move deftly from deeply personal experiences to mysticism and fables, relentless in their pursuit of the self.

Dibyajyoti opens the book with a warning where he candidly owns the reader, when he says – this book is about you, and me. In this one sentence, so seemingly innocent, he establishes a tone of confession – almost as if he and the reader are lovers – and it is this tone of confession that roots the book in a pursuit of truth. With this one line, which isn’t even a poem but a precursor relegated to a page before you dig your teeth into his work, he joins the pantheon of Walt Whitman, striking an intimate relationship with his reader. And we gladly hold his hand.

Book of Prayers is divided into five sections, the first four named after an element each and the last titled ‘An Unfinished Yantra for an Unnamed Personal God’. In each of these sections, Dibyajyoti shines a light on humanity, in all its messy, heartbreaking, soaring glory. He gets down into the soil of his roots, digging with his bare hands. His poetry deftly navigates the history of an entire community, touching briefly yet deeply, myriad subjects and themes – love, lust, longing, pain, memories, to name but a few. And he juxtaposes them with mythology known and unexplored, which reminds us that the universality of human emotion is not even a factor of time, and in this timeless saga, life germinates over the pages one ink blossom at a time.

Gowri Kishore

Karthi was in love.

Whether it was right for him to be in love, being only eight years old, was a different matter.

He thought Mari was the most beautiful thing he had ever set his eyes on. And though he was trying hard to do his maths homework (the terrifying prospect of facing Varadarajan sir with a blank notebook urged him on), he just couldn’t. He had been sitting in the corner of appa’s room with his back against the wall, his books spread out around him, chewing the end of his pencil and trying to focus on the problem at hand.

‘Joseph had three dozen roses. He gave half of them to Alice. How many roses did each of them have?’

Oh, lucky boy Joseph! He had three dozen roses to give away to whoever he liked. Whereas he, Karthi, could not find a way to get hold of just one rose to give to Mari. It would look beautiful in her hair that swung down her back in a thick, long plait. She would pin it just behind her ear, like the heroines in the black and white film songs paatti watched on TV.

But where could he find a rose?

There were all sorts of plants in the yard outside, but no rose among them. On his way home from school, he had seen women selling large, colourful baskets of roses. But the school bus did not stop anywhere near the market and asking the driver to let him down midway was out of the question. The driver was an annoying fellow with a knowing laugh and a hundred questions; he would want to know what business R. Karthik from III-B had in the flower market, whether his parents knew he was making such a strange request to the bus driver, and what the school principal would say if he found out.

No, it would be foolish to even try.

Getting an auto from the stand outside the school was also risky—the auto drivers had regular riders and knew most of the students by name. They knew he usually took the school bus and if he dared ask one of them to take him to the market, there would only be more questions. Briefly, he considered walking to the market but no, it was too far—even by bus, it took twenty minutes. He wished he had a cycle like some of the older students—that would make things so much simpler.

By Rahman Abbas

K7

‘To write is to fight…’

Dr Gopi Chand Narang (born 11 February 1931) is one of the finest literary critics in the history of modern Urdu criticism. His works deal with the cultural study of classics, stylistics, oriental poetics, post-modernism, structuralism and post-structuralism. He has taught at Delhi University, University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, University of Oslo and Jamia Millia Islamia University, and in 2005, the University of Delhi named him Professor Emeritus. He is also Professor Emeritus at the Jamia Millia Islamia. The Aligarh Muslim University, Central University of Hyderabad and the Maulana Azad National Urdu University have conferred D.Litt. Honorus Causa on him. He is the only writer who has been decorated by the President of Pakistan as Sitara-e Imtiyaaz and by the President of India with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Sri. He was vice-chairman of the Delhi Urdu Academy (1996-1999) and the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language-HRD (1998-2004), and Vice-president (1998-2002) and President (2003-2007) of the Sahitya Akademi, National Academy of Letters. His important books includes Urdu Zabaan aur Lisaniyaat (2006), Taraqqi Pasandi, Jadidiat, Maba’d-e-Jadidiat (2004), Urdu Ghazal aur Hindustani Zehn-o-Tehzeeb (2002), Sakhtiyat, Pas-Sakhtiyataur Mashriqui Sheriyat (1993), Adabi Tanqeed Aur Usloobiyat (1989), Amir Khusrow ka Hindavi Kalaam (1987), Saniha-e-Karbala bataur Sheri Isti’ara (1986), Usloobiyat-e-Mir (1985), Hindustani Qisson se Makhooz Urdu Masnaviyan (1961) and others.

His seminal work on Mirza Ghalib – Ghalib: Ma’ni-Afrini, Jadliyaati Waza, Shunyata aur Sheriyaat (Ghalib: Innovative Meaning, Mind, Dialectical Thought & Poetics (2013) has been considered a milestone in understanding Ghalib. Besides the Padma Bhushan (2004) and Padma Shri (1990), Narang has received hundreds of awards across the globe – Bharatiya Jnanpith Moorti Devi Award (2012), Madhya Pradesh Iqbal Samman (2011), the European Urdu Writers’ Society Award (London, 2005), Mazzini Gold Medal (Italy, 2005), Alami Faroghe-e-Urdu Adab Award (Doha, 1998), Sahitya Akademi Award (1995), Amir Khusrow Award (Chicago, 1987), Canadian Academy of Urdu Language and Literature Award (Toronto, 1987), Ghalib Institute Ghalib Award (1985), and the Association of Asian Studies (Mid-Atlantic Region) Award (US, 1982). Besides India and Pakistan, he has made presentations almost all over Europe, USA, Canada as well as Russia, Uzbekistan, China and Japan.

 

 

Rahman Abbas: You are the most discussed literary critic in the world of Urdu literature. How do you assess this unparalleled journey of your life which started from Balochistan when the subcontinent was undivided? Could you also put some light upon your early connections with Urdu?

Gopi Chand Narang:   I am simply a lover of Urdu. I was born in Balochistan. My mother tongue is Saraiki, but my father spoke Baluchi and Pushto. He was a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit as well. I was brought up in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural environ. The common speech of bazaar and school was Hindustani and Urdu. Language is nobody’s monopoly. It belongs to whosoever loves it. The newly independent India gave hope to many young people like me that there would be ample opportunities for fulfilling our ideals and aspirations. The Urdu Department at the Delhi University had come into being at the personal intervention of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was Minister of Education, also played a role in this. As I later pursued my doctoral degree, I was extremely fortunate to have had guidance and patronage of some of the brightest minds of that time, including Dr. Zakir Husain (who later became President of India), Dr. Tara Chand, Dr. Syed Abid Husain, Prof. Mohd. Mujeeb, Khwaja Ghulamus Syeddain, Dr. Khwaja Ahmad Faruqi, Sajjad Zaheer, Prof. Ale Ahmad Suroor, Syed Ehtisham Husain, Maulana Imtiaz Ali Arshi, Qazi Abdul Wudood, Malik Ram, Masood Hasan Rizvi Adeeb, Najeeb Ashraf Nadvi, and Dr. Syed Mohiuddin Qadri Zore. These people symbolized values of our composite Indian heritage and they were true role models of our highest ideals. When I look back and remember these unique personalities, I cannot but feel very fortunate for having had them as my patrons and role models.

Rahman Abbas: Some years ago, due to your stark criticism of the fake modernism in Urdu, you were personally targeted. It was unfortunate that instead of countering your opinions, your minority identity was targeted. Did that affect you? What was your reaction then and now?

Gopi Chand Narang: It is a sad story. As a young writer you must have witnessed all that happened. As long as Ale Ahmed Suroor, Khalil ur Rahman Azmi, Waheed Akhtar, Sulema Arib, Mahmood Ayaz and some seniors were alive and active, they wanted to develop a dynamic model which was alive to India’s  new social and pluralistic needs. But soon after, when Shams ur Rahman Faruqi and his journal Shab-Khoon took over, a period of misconceived notions and a hidden agenda of sectarian fake modernism set in. This is a period of great turmoil and overlapping. Faruqi with his arrogant self-esteem, one-upmanship and know all bravado started polemics which had more sound than sense. He and his cronies, through over heated debates, set flawed standards for fiction, poetry and ghazal.  This confused and misguided a whole lot of promising young writers. Waris Alvi, Baqar Mehdi and some others resisted but they had no theoretical base. At this stage, avoiding labeling and indulging in the misguiding polemics, I switched from my earlier cultural studies and stylistics base and started writing on Theory (both Western and Oriental) and postmodernism. Across the border, Wazir Agha, Qamar Jameel, Intezar Husain, Jameeluddin Azmi, Zamir Ali Badayuni, Faheem Azmi and many other genuine writers joined hands. We wanted to respond to the new social and epistemological shift absorbing the new light of the times, stressing the freedom of the creative voice of the writer, while constructing a genuine model which should be alive to our own pluralistic cultural, realistic and truly subversive, ingenious and in tune with our practical complex social concerns.

Reviewed by Mayeesha Azhar

This House of Clay and Water

Title: This House of Clay and Water
Author: Faiqa Mansab
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: 499 INR
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
https://penguin.co.in/book/fiction/house-clay-water/

 

For those who need one more reason to dream about visiting Lahore someday to take in the juxtaposition of the city’s pandemonium, history and romance, Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water only adds to the list. The protagonist, Nida, wanders along the boundaries between the walled estates of the metropolitan’s wealthy, to the markets of the underclass and, finally, the shrines that offer refuge to the disowned. Nida has lost much to the rigid patriarchal structures of her life — a child, freedom, her right to choose, a sense of self. In a way, this book is about Nida’s journey of rediscovering her dignity, and the immense price that she ends up paying for it.

Among the three main characters that narrate the story by turn is also Sasha. Bringing glitz and glamour to this tale, Sasha is indulgent, decadent, and a siren by choice. In dusty Lahore, Sasha’s ephemeral aura marks her out as a creature from a different world. She is an object of desire incarnate and she knows it. What is more, she is not hesitant to use it to get what she wants — designer fashion and a thrilling escape from a life she feels is too ordinary for her. Try as hard as she might to deny this, sometimes to herself, this respite is only fleeting. Her image is a mirage that Sasha has carefully constructed even as she makes it look effortless. She does indeed sashay into every scene that she inhabits — cafés, the hotel rooms of her lovers, even spiritual ground like the Daata Sahib dargah. This is where the two women first meet.

The contrast between them is softened for both by their distance from Bhanggi, the transgender Qalandar, a title that is typically held by holy men. Bhanggi’s is a short life full of cruelty and exclusion, first from society itself after being abandoned at birth and then from the Hijra community where he was raised. In exchange for being allowed to live at the shrine, Bhanggi must be indentured to the administrative clerk there. This is part of the clerk’s deal with the Hijra community, who rely on sex work to make a living.

Bhanggi’s voice is enough to make this book rare. The Hijra community is ever-present in South Asia, but can exist only on the edges, hardly ever coming into the purview of the respectable milieus that Sasha and Nida come from, let alone be featured in a novel. Rarer still is Mansab’s mention of the violence committed daily against these bodies. One such instance is that of a man paying a Hijra woman, Chameli, to have sex, and then killing her, just one instance in a series of systemic murders of trans-people around the world that occur with minimum ado and furore.

Mrs. Prakash opened her eyes and began to sit up in bed, picturing her aging joints as rusty bolts creaking with every movement. She looked out of the window where the tender rays of the sun reached the corner of her garden. There was the young mango tree, robust and flowering, ready to bear its first fruit that summer. The jasmine, its small white flowers scenting the fresh morning air, was right next to it, leaning on the compound wall for support.

This image had also been part of a dream that had floated away just as she woke up. Avin was there. The young man, sitting on one of the lower branches of the tree was looking down at her.

‘Idlis’, he said.

Having prepared the batter the night before, she planned to steam them that morning.

‘Don’t eat all of them!’ He told her in the dream.

Mrs. Prakash got up, thinking of all the packing she had to do. In a week, she would be moving in with her brother’s family. She was going to miss her home as well as the neighbourhood, which had become an extension of herself, like limbs fused to the body.

*

Mrs. Prakash first met Avin soon after moving into her house, back when he was a chubby 10-year-old. His mother probed Mrs. Prakash on how many children she had, her eyes lingering on the streaks of grey that had begun to show in Mrs. Prakash’s hair.

‘None,’ Mrs. Prakash replied in an even voice, trying not to show the disappointment that had lessened but never disappeared over the years.

Then she changed the subject before Avin’s mother had a chance to make sympathetic noises about her being widowed and childless.

‘I’ve often seen your son playing outside. Aren’t we lucky to have at least some space around our houses in this crowded neighborhood?’

Soon Mrs. Prakash had transformed the bare and scruffy-looking area around her house into a blooming garden. Working outside on her plants, she would call out to Avin’s talkative mother. Both women would stand on either side of the low compound wall and chat while Avin flitted around them like a hummingbird.

On Saturday mornings, she would make him steaming hot idlis for breakfast. He passed freely in and out of her house, dipping his hand into a box of sweets here and savouries there. He helped bring books to her from the library and began to take an interest in reading. She began to involve him in the upkeep of her garden. They planted a mango sapling and he would get excited about it growing into a large tree.

‘What can we do to make it grow faster?’ He kept badgering her.

‘We do the best we can with water and manure. Protect it from pests, remove dead leaves and give it all the love we have.’

‘Love?’

‘Yes, my dear. All living things need it. And love can be between anyone, even this tree and you.’

‘Well then, here is some of it,’ he said, throwing his arms around its frail stem as she looked on with amusement. He began to come over to water it and unfailingly embraced it every single time.

By Mitali Chakravarty

When Wings Expand

Author: Mehded Maryam Sinclair
Publisher: The Islamic Foundation
Total number of pages: 217
Price: US$ 9.95
ISBN 978-0-86037-499-2

When Wings Expand is a novel in the epistolary technique that highlights a young girl’s battle to accept losing her mother to cancer, conquering her fears and anxieties with love and deep-rooted faith. Though the author, Mehded Maryam Sinclair, intended this to be a book that would be ‘about how fully and conscientiously practicing Muslims see and deal with their losses’ (http://productivemuslim.com/interview-with-maryam-sinclair/), her narrative has transcended the boundaries of a single faith to reach out to the hearts of all mankind.

The protagonist, as in Young Adult fiction, is a young teenager called Nur (‘sacred light’). Located in Canada, she is battling her sense of loss as her mother succumbs to cancer. With the legacy of her mother’s love and faith, Nur discovers that ‘what makes a person different is how they choose to deal with the pain’. She learns to build on her strengths, travels back to her mother’s home in Turkey and finds courage in the love that surrounds her and her family. After she returns to her home in Canada, she slowly learns to help her younger brother as well as other young cancer-afflicted patients and their families come to terms with their pain. Her journey towards recovery helps her conclude that ‘It seems life has gotten bigger, like more things are possible — it’s like pain is a smaller thing inside a much larger me.’ She exudes a sense of light and joy to sufferers around her, proving to them that after a loss wings can still expand, as does that of the butterfly coming out of a chrysalis.

The image of the chrysalis runs through the book. The body of the butterfly shrinks and the wings expand after it emerges from the pupa so that it can fly. Nur feels this is what love and faith does to sufferers. Love and faith shrinks the body of their grief so that the sufferers can grow wings and fly towards a better future.

468336-padma-laksmi-123In the 324-page memoir, “Love, Loss and What We Ate,” Padma Lakshmi opens a window into her life, weaving together stories from her childhood, her love affairs and her work through the lens of the culinary experiences that eventually shaped her fame. The book appears to spare little, delving deeply into personal details about uncertainty over paternity during her pregnancy, the pain of a custody case and her efforts to overcome the insecurity she felt being Indian.

Lakshmi particularly highlights her high-profile relationship with author Salman Rushdie, which was overshadowed by a fatwa, or religious edict, that had been issued in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s former supreme leader. It called for Rushdie to be put to death for his supposedly blasphemous book “The Satanic Verses.”