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Book review: A Different Sky by Meira Chand

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Different Sky

Title: A Different Sky
Author: Meira Chand
Publisher: Vintage Books (2011)
Pages: 488
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A Different Sky by Meira Chand spans an era of transition in Singapore from 1927 to 1956. The narrative races through a period of rebellion against the colonials, the Japanese occupation, and the move towards an indigenous government. Geographically, it travels through India, Malaysia, England, Australia and Singapore.

The Daily Mail listed it as an ‘extraordinary book’ while the Historic Novel Review says, ‘Chand weaves a gripping adventure, magnificent romance and well informed history into the sort of book it’s difficult to put down.’

Meira Chand, a well-established novelist of Swiss-Indian parentage, has created a grand, multi-layered story. The novel weaves the intricate lives of characters from multiple races and backgrounds into historic events tracing the turmoil faced by Singapore to become ‘a place of dreams, holding the souls of men to ransom’ from being ‘a pinprick on the great body of Asia’. It opens with the communist uprising of Kreta Ayer in 1927, under a sky of unrest in British Singapore and walks through three decades of transition. The three main characters, a Chinese, a Eurasian and an Indian, are introduced in a bus caught in the riot. This is an ingenious start to a story well spun. The Chinese protagonist, Mei Lan, educates herself to rebel against negative traditions. She falls in love with Howard, her Eurasian neighbour. They are torn asunder during the Japanese occupation, suffer tortures and live through horrors. Howard leaves to study in Australia funded by Raj, the rich uneducated Indian businessman whose past was that of a penniless immigrant. When he returns after graduating, he meets a new Mei Lan, almost a stranger after being victimized and tortured during the Japanese occupation despite her law degree from England. Both of them reject multiple relationships overseas.

The story winds through the trauma faced by the characters as they move to create a new Singapore, under a bright sun ‘thrusting out fingers of brilliance through the grey clouds’ with ‘a bank of red balloons drifting under the endless arc of the sky’ holding a white banner with ‘Merdeka’ (a Malay word meaning rich, prosperous and powerful) on it. Will Howard and Mei Lan unite under this different sky with the outgoing first chief minister of Singapore, David Marshall, faced by chaos and the future Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in full control? As Meira Chand intertwines the lives of real historic figures with that of her creations, she adds to the glamour, suspense and appeal of her novel.

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Book Review: The Wounds of the Dead by Vikram Paralkar

Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

The Wounds of the Dead

Title: The Wounds of the Dead
Author: Vikram Paralkar
Publisher: Fourth Estate India (2017)
Pages: 224 (Hardcover)
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The Wounds of the Dead is a book which takes risks with almost every element of its narration, and to a large part, makes it work in a way most of us wouldn’t expect. The biggest challenge it faces is the blending together of various genres, and it deftly manages to cross over from one to the other without breaking the flow of the story. Going from one chapter to the next, the narrative becomes a high-tension, tightly bound medical drama at some points and at others, a more relaxed treatise on spirituality. Although it becomes evident which are the high points of the book and which aren’t, the writer does a good job of keeping the margin relatively smaller.

I’ll admit to my initial scepticism when I began with the book. The story at first sounds deceptively simple: a doctor is forced by his circumstances to treat a family that shouldn’t be alive, but is. Probably the most interesting character in the book is that of the doctor, a typical veteran of medicine and melancholy, who tries his best to deal with his past as well as his frustration over being stuck in a land where he doesn’t belong. In doing so, he becomes the most relatable character in the entire mix, one who is dedicated to his trade but hates his job, and doesn’t shy away from unleashing the pent up frustration in his words for the simple minded villager. However, when trouble comes knocking, quite literally, he rises to the occasion, letting his kindness and compassion shine through his otherwise prevalent bitterness. In doing so, the doctor becomes a metaphor for humanity and of how trying times always bring out the best in us. In comparison, the rest of the characters are considerably less complicated and driven by straightforward motivations.

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April 2018 bestseller lists from China: Young readers cheer a celebrity-powered World Book Day

(From Publishing Perspectives)

Our colleagues at OpenBook in Beijing and Trajectory in Boston point out that although Yu Hua’s To Live claimed the No. 1 spot on China’s Overall Fiction list for April, the two titles that follow it are warhorses of the market’s bestseller lists—both from outside China.

OpenBook’s analysis of the strong positioning for Yu Hua’s work points to a particularly robust World Book Day program in China on the 23rd of April.

As it happens, an 18-year-old celebrity named Yi YanQianXi—Jackson Yee to English-language fans—took to his Weibo social media channel to recommend the author’s To Live. Yee may be a book’s best friend: when he appealed for more reviews of the book, some 100 other celebrities jumped in, and more than 2 million followers were quickly following.

Before the activity was over, author Yu Hua had written a public message to Yi YanQianXi, addressing the generation of Chinese citizens he writes about, saying, in part, “You are a unique generation. You are in a period where the future has come and the past has not yet passed.”

The 57-year-old Yu Hua has at times written what’s described as postmodern Chinese fiction, sometimes with elements of magical realism, stories of young people in various eras, particularly building the context of small people in great times and their importance in society and culture. Yu Hua’s work supports the idea that the young Chinese citizens of today will be the leading consumers of pure literature in the future.

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‘The Book Hunters of Katpadi’ review: A Madras and a Chennai novel

Opens up the magic casement to the land of book adventures

While bibliomysteries, or adventures centred on books and the surrounding world, are quite common in the West — Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón has recently quite popularised the genre — in India, they are still a rarity. With The Book Hunters of Katpadi, Pradeep Sebastian opens up the magic casement to this forlorn land.

Of course, it needs a bit of specialisation to know that a battered copy found in a second-hand bookshop or a book leaf perforated by silverfish can be worth a fortune or a murder or two (there is no murder in Book Hunters though).

But anyone who has been following Sebastian’s column, ‘A Typophile’s Notes’, in these pages of Literary Review would be familiar with the significance of rare print editions, bookmaking, book collecting, antiquarian book dealing, and so on. Book Hunters also explains these topics at length, preparing the ground for more bibliomysteries to follow in the future.

Lost world

Fittingly, this book about books is a lovely object in itself, with its quaint pen-and-ink illustrations, silk-ribbon page-marker and dust jacket in black, green, gold and white. For many book lovers, it will bring back a lost world of gilt-edged hardbacks found in shadowy library nooks or grandparents’ damp-decorated bookcases.

Book Hunters resurrects a bygone era not just in its form but also in its content. While being set in contemporary Chennai, it invites you to imagine, via the bibliomysteries it sets out to solve, the Madras and Ooty of yore when sahibs and memsahibs walked the streets.

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When real life outstrips fiction…

Hussainul Haq’s novel “Amawas Mein Khwab” initiates a new debate on the Hindu-Muslim relationship

At a time when people cherish to be lied to, what can scare away the spectre of an unprecedented assault on the very idea of truth? Is truth a sociological reality or an unachievable ethical reality? Does the narrative of homogeneity set in motion by new information technology produce a kind of immodesty that allows us to recognise falsehood but we still treat it as if were a reality? Does our intent on peddling fantasy as a fact correspond to “Suspended Disbelief” that Coleridge found essential for literature? These frightening and unsettling questions thrown up by the post-truth period are impeccably sewn together in a novel of a celebrated Urdu novelist and short story writer Hussainul Haq and his latest novel has been doing rounds in the Urdu knowing circles of the subcontinent.

His recently published novel, “Amawas Mein Khwab” (Dreaming in the last night before the new moon), poignantly tells a tale of Ismael Rajai, who lost all his family members in a communal riot but a marked Indian passion for free-flowing of inter-personal relationship unencumbered by religious and cultural affinity and uncontaminated by self-interest enabled him to begin a new life. Ismael, lived in Bombay, Bhiwandi and Patna, and is exposed to many cultures and as a power loom owner, teacher, a friend of a landlord, a father and a thinking human being, he tries to understand why common people do the uncommon to transform themselves. His stint as a lecturer at a college in Bihar provides him with a space where several mediations are carried out. Arousal of mass-hysteria in the name of caste and religion acquaints him with the aggressive and self-destructive potential of conflict and disharmony. His tantalising journey of a new life transcends inadequacies and presents a higher level of synthesis where being apart and being together emerge a reality as audaciously as they can.

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Book Excerpt: Pal Motors by Devraj Singh Kalsi

PalMotors cover

CHAPTER 1

There were incidents of Bibi Amrit Kaur losing her gold ring in the temple, Sardarni Nasib Virdi forgetting her purse in the market and Preet leaving her mobile phone in college, but it happened for the first time that the three residents of Bungalow number 10 lost what was precious, rather, most precious, on the same day in the house.

Nasib clashed her wrists to break the bangles into pieces. The bangles – made of solid gold – produced a jarring clink. Those around her heard it. She pitched the impact of her unbearable loss with a loud cry that choked in her dry throat. She gagged her inaudible sobs using the chunni. Sardar Pal Singh, her voice, had left her forever.

Bibi Amrit, fondly called Biji, doubled her thunderous output on realizing that she had an opportunity to overpower Nasib, to show the train of mourners that a mother’s grief was heavier than a widow’s. She wept inconsolably, beating her chest wildly to gather sympathy as the most unfortunate survivor.

Preet, who had never expressed her deepest emotions in the midst of a public gathering, appeared inhibited. Her father’s dead body lay in front of her, shrouded in white. Her mother and grandmother were engaged in a competitive tearful farewell. The daughter, too, was supposed to whip up hysteria. It was the last chance to show how madly she loved him, how terribly she would miss him. The world waiting to judge her grief was disappointed. She remained conscious of drawing public attention with her cries. Her sobs emerged irregularly like hiccups. Despite her best effort to react to the cold reality staring in the face she failed to put up an impressive debut.

Sardar Pal Singh’s funeral attracted large crowds. He was popular among all communities, cutting across age groups, in the small multi-cultural town where he was born, raised, educated, and married. Almost everyone in bustling Kendrapara knew him as the bountiful, cheerful, delightful, helpful, merciful, resourceful and respectful Sardar who owned Pal Motors – his automobile spare parts shop beside Uttam Market on Station Road.

Plenty of hands jostled to pay last respects, to establish the final physical contact, to touch the body, the feet or at least the white cotton sheet. Many showed up for the sake of attendance and melted into the crowd. Throngs of mourners waited to see the farewell and funeral proceedings in a Sikh family. Some trooped in just because they wanted to enter the bungalow that looked impenetrable like a fortress. The spiked iron gates were thrown open for trucks and general public.

Biji detested the sight of Nasib kissing her husband’s face and resting her head on his chest. She half-closed her eyes to avoid the intimate scene. When Samir trained his lens to shoot these candid moments, Biji opened her eyes and objected, “What’s the use of taking photos now?”

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Book Review: Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain

Reviewed by Gita Viswanath

Djinn City

 

Title: Djinn City
Author: Saad Z. Hossain
Publisher: Aleph, 2017
Pages: 447
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Saad Hossain conjures up a fantastical world of djinn in his second novel, Djinn City. As an allegory of contemporary times, the novel, peopled by strangely named characters such as Indelbed and Sikkim, psychotic men, overbearing women and drunken louts, creates a world of business conglomerates, deceit and revenge, crime and passion and existential crises. This is a world that oscillates between the human and the djinn worlds in which djinn play havoc by causing earthquakes, tsunamis and fires.

The novel opens with the motherless child Indelbed, the quintessential poor cousin in a family of diplomats, subjected to ridicule and negligence alongside denial of access to school education. His cousin Rais, the diplomat’s son, is the only one sympathetic to Indelbed. His father Kaikobad, who lives in a permanent state of inebriation, is later revealed to be an emissary to the djinn world. Kaikobad goes into coma induced through the machinations of the evil Matteras, a psychotic djinn with enormous powers. He is endowed with impressive auctoritas – a term that indicates the massive influence a djinn has on djinndom. Indelbed, a cross between a djinn mother and human father has to be sent away as he could be the next victim of the evil djinn. From then on, the novel races through complexly twisted plots narrated with elements of the bizarre, the grotesque and with dark humour.

The book ends with a Great War fought to reclaim the glory of Gangaridai in a narrative of heightened pace and descriptions of deadly weapons, airships, submarines and nuclear warheads, all of which reveals the author’s sharp understanding of technical details. At the centre of the war is Gangaridai, the seat of an ancient civilization now in a state of ruin, its population decimated in the Great War. Unlike epic wars that claim to be fought on sublime moral grounds with victory of good over evil as a given, this war ends with the retrieval of more mundane but important things for survival in the modern world. ‘This was enough to take back power, it was everything,’ (emphasis original) says the omniscient third person narrator.

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2017 in Books

As 2018 waits tantalizingly at the threshold, we look back on a year in which dissent and speaking up became necessary to survive, when books alone stepped up to the challenge, helped keep our sanity or question it. As we look ahead, there is a kind of willfulness in taking stock, a ritual with solemnity inherent to the idea. In a year when so much has been written, published and read, it is difficult to gather only a few names. Here is a list of 10 books (fiction) that we have read and loved and a quiet acknowledgment of those that space omits.

The Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil
Jeet Thayil’s book is rich in characters and stories. Homage to the world of art and literature, it is a startling book of incandescent prose, a masterpiece in the Roberto Bolaño mould. Narrated in a variety of voices and styles, The Chocolate Saints promises to become part of literature’s most memorable.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
Roy’s second novel in two decades was a much anticipated book – the anticipation started, perhaps, from the day she won the Booker in 1997. It brings together many of the ideas that inform her non-fiction, speaking up with passion and compassion for ‘minorities’ across the socio-political-economic spectrum, making it a book of the times, for the times.

Leila – Prayag Akbar
Described as ‘dystopic’ by some reviewers, Leila is about a mother’s search for her daughter. Whether dystopic or not – the author certainly rejects categorizing – the novel uses the fantastical to probe urgent issues related to the urban spaces and the society we create and which we inhabit.

The Small Town Sea – Anees Salim
Small towns come to life in Anees Salim’s books; sorrow is a lasting trace and satire a way to deal with the sorrow. The Small Town Sea is about a son’s bereavement, the challenge he faces in being uprooted from the big city to a nondescript town and the unsettling aftermath of his father’s death.

Mrs C Remembers – Himanjali Sankar
The family is often a place of dys-function, of intense politics couched in familial love. Himanjali Sankar’s book relates the family with subtle story-telling, incisive observation and compassion. The first-person narration of Mrs C and her daughter Sohini heightens the sense of unease regarding credibility and layers the narrative of this Bengali family within which the mother’s mind slowly disintegrates and the daughter’s comes into its own.

Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories (ed., Monideepa Sahu; series editor, Zafar Anjum)
Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories explores the idea of what it is to be an Asian. The anthology combines fresh voices, emerging writers and established names from Asia – Jordan and Syria to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand, Japan and Korea. The stories transcend social and political divisions within which they arise, drawing readers into the lives and places they explore while simultaneously raising uneasy questions and probing ambiguities. Crafted with love, they continue to resonate after the last page.

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Contemporary Nepali literature: Fiction — the short story

Nepali short story has achieved its present state of development in shorter time than other genres. This area of literature has already been enriched by a number of classic world-class short stories. The contribution of the figures such as Guru Prasad Mainali, Pushkar Samser Rana, Posan Pande, Indra Bahadur Rai, Biseswor Prasad Koirala, Bhimnidhi Tiwari, Bhawani Bhikshu, Paarizaat can hardly be exaggerated. The short story writers like Ramesh Bikal, Parashu Pradhan, Sanat Regmi, Dhruba Sapkota, Shailendra Sakar, Nayan Raj Pandey, Benju Sharma, Sita Pandey and their peers are those well esteemed writers who join the past with the present. These writers have written stories of artistic intent with themes related to Nepal and Nepali’s cultural life and have made short stories even popular among Nepali people.

In the ’60s Nepali stories saw a change in their characterization and tone. It was the most influential movement Teshro Aayam (The Third Dimension) that has its impact on short stories too. Indra Bahadur Rai, one of the trios to launch the movement is a very innovative short story writer. Although the Third Dimension triggered an intellectual debate in literary circles and provided a stimulus to Nepali literature, it could not produce a generation to follow it. So its impact gradually wore off. Indra Bahadur Rai has come up with Leela Lekhan (Leela Writing). It’s a literary theory to approach literary works and a philosophy in itself. His Kathputaliko Man (The Heart of a Puppet) is the first collection of short stories based on Leela Lekhan. Some writers are putting it into their works successfully.

Realism has been the sustained base of Nepali short stories from the past to the present. Other trends include progressive ideology, psychological realism and experimentalism. Leela lekhan and other post modernist experiments operative in the latest decade seem to shake realism. Writers are breaking away from the established norms and values and are seeking to explore new heights and new horizons. This group of writers has been providing Nepali readers with thoroughly new texts. Village life, life in Kathmandu and Darjeeling, the lives of women in a male-dominated society, caste, class, and ethnic relations, the Gurkha soldier, poverty, corruption and most recently the impact of technological development on life have been the recurring themes of Nepali short stories.

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Han Kang: ‘Writing about a massacre was a struggle. I’m a person who feels pain when you throw meat on a fire’

Early in 2015 a buzz began to build around a slim novel called The Vegetarian. It was about a woman who turned her face to the wall, refusing to eat meat and scandalising her friends and family, as a prelude to rejecting life itself. “It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions,” wrote its Guardian reviewer.

Its author, Han Kang, is a poet, short story writer and novelist who has for years been one of South Korea’s best kept secrets. Her three-part fable of refusal hit the sweet spot for fiction in translation, or indeed any fiction: it mined universal truths from the culturally particular, it was both painfully close to home and mysteriously “other”.

She returns this year with a novel that is even more disturbing and provocative; it certainly splashes its violence across a bigger stage. Human Acts opens with the 1980 massacre of student protesters in the South Korean city of Gwangju and spares no detail in its scrutiny of the carnage: the slashed throat with its red uvula sticking out, the putrefying toes swelling up “like thick tubers of ginger”.

The writer who has borne witness to this devastation is a quietly spoken 45-year-old mother of one, with a growing circle of admirers in the UK. They include the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, who found in The Vegetarian a common interest in “pain, the body and how the struggle to be human involves many strange ways of trying to look after oneself in the face of hurt, cruelty, confusion”, and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, for whom Human Acts is “an intense and magical achievement – a brutal yet lyrical reflection on the universal legacy of injustice seen through the prism of one act of atrocity”.

Han is a charismatically thoughtful woman, who wrote herself into the final section of Human Acts in order to explain why she felt compelled to tell the story. “I was nine years old at the time of the Gwangju Uprising,” it begins. Gwangju, a city in the south of the country, had been her home until four months before the massacre, when her father gave up his teaching job to become a full-time writer and moved the family to the capital Seoul.

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