The Assassinations

The evening sky had deadened to the colour of cigarette ash by the time Jaswant left his office. On his way home, he passed cars and buses on fire, burnt shells of shops and houses billowing smoke, dead bodies of Sikhs cremated alive, bands of goondas brandishing machetes and crowbars… It was as if Partition had descended one more time. The stench of fire and smoke, the hapless victims and their remorseless tormentors, even the mob’s war cry of khoon kabadlakhoon. Everything was the same, right down to the dread rising from his soul.

He could feel the goondas’ eyes probing the car as it went past. They were stopping cars at random to check if there were Sikhs inside. Many times they’d tell the driver to open the boot to make sure no Sikhs were being smuggled to safety. But they made no move to impede his progress. That he was in a government car kept them at bay. That and the fact neither he nor his driver appeared to be a Sikh.

No sooner had they entered the posh southern part of Delhi than the goondas melted away. The stench of fire and smoke receded. The burnt bodies and buildings disappeared…instead, there were shuttered shops and deserted streets and empty pavements…. Even the dogs were not barking. It was as if someone had thrown a blanket of silence over the entire place. The silence resounded louder than all the mayhem Jaswant had witnessed. It spoke of fear and apathy.

Even though it was still evening, the first thing he did after reaching home was lock his front gate. Deepa, Savitri and Rakesh were waiting for him in the drawing room. Deepa’s face was wan, her eyes puffy. She had been crying since getting home from Rakesh’s school. Rakesh was hunched in a chair. Normally, it was hard for him to sit still. But that day he looked as if all life had been sucked out of him.

Savitri told him about the attack on the Sikh they witnessed while returning from Rakesh’s school. The sheer brutality of the assault took Jaswant unawares, despite what he had seen on his way home. When Savitri came to the part where the Sikh’s assailant shoved locks of his hair into his mouth, Jaswant recoiled. It was several seconds before he could find his voice.

He told them that he had no news of Prem. He had contacted one of his friends who was a superintendent in the Home Guards and stationed less than ten kilometres from Trilokpuri. His friend had promised to call him with information in the morning.

Deepa, who was dying for news of Prem, erupted. “He said that and you accepted it?” she shouted. “You didn’t tell him to send a man there at once? You didn’t tell him that this is your future son-in-law?”

Her voice collapsed as she finished. She leapt up from the sofa to half-run, half-stumble in the direction of her room. Savitri went after her. Jaswant dropped into the sofa. It pained him to see Deepa so upset. He wished he had better news.

“Will everything be all right, Daddy?” Rakesh asked.

His voice betrayed how much he was struggling to make sense of what was going on. It was as if they had gone back in time and Rakesh was a little boy all over again. A lump grew in Jaswant’s throat. He went over to embrace Rakesh. “Don’t worry, beta, everything will be all right,” he told him. “Now go put your mind elsewhere.”

There was a short pause before Rakesh nodded and left for his room. Jaswant slumped on the sofa, wishing he could feel some of the conviction with which he had assured Rakesh that things would work out.

His friend in the Home Guards had sent a man to Irfan’s flat. That man got nowhere near the flat. Instead, he came back with news of a neighbourhood under siege. An army of goondaswas running wild in Trilokpuri. They had cut all the telephone wires and blocked the way out with a huge concrete pipe. Near the pipe, there was a car all smashed up. From the description, it appeared to be Prem’s. There was no sign of Prem; so there was a chance that he had survived. But it didn’t appear likely, given the evidence on hand.

He hadn’t been able to look into Deepa’s teary eyes and tell her the man she loved was probably dead. On the phone with Amarjeet, he had found himself just as powerless. So he had lied to both of them, saying his friend would call with news in the morning.

What was worse? The hammer blow of tragedy or the torture of not knowing?

As far as he could tell, there wasn’t much to choose.

It was almost morning before Deepa gave in to sleep and Savitri could leave her room. She plodded, heavy-footed, through the house. Although she had been up all night and was aching everywhere, she had no wish to go to bed.

Jaswant was still fast asleep on the drawing room sofa. She had found him sitting there last night when she came out of Deepa’s room to get her a glass of water. He had wanted to come speak to Deepa. She had talked him out of it. It would be hard for him to deal with her, given the mood she was in. Evidently, he had stayed where she left him, until fatigue got the better of him. Because of Deepa, she hadn’t been able to speak to him last night. She wondered whether she should wake him up. She decided against it. Before that she needed a few moments to herself.

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Reviewed by Nandini Varma

Sunlight Plane
Title: The Sunlight Plane
Author: Damini Kane
Publisher: Authorpress (2018)
Pages: 312

 

To reach out and urge us to inquire into our deepest emotions is the most beautiful gift a writer can give to a reader. To flap open an ear, to have our feet dangling from our beds, to imagine carefully the sound of an airplane pass by in a book, and listen to its heightened music in our heads, to brush the air as if for a moment it weren’t needed: these are acts of a reader only witnessed when a writer has produced something marvellous. Readers live double lives, much like writers, when they kick the earth unexpectedly, when they dance to a silently beating heart, when they crouch as though scared to break the dream.

Damini Kane’s first novel The Sunlight Plane does exactly that. It is a beautiful exploration of a friendship between two 9 year old boys — Tharush and Aakash, living in the posh Reyna Heights in Bombay. The cover art carries a paper plane flying across the city of Bombay, illustrated by Nivedita Sekhar. The book is divided into three sections: ‘The Sun’, ‘The Clouds’ and ‘The Sky’, each depicting a phase in their friendship – a brightness, or tension.

As we begin reading, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Tharush, the embodiment of curiosity and imagination, giving us a rich insight into the questioning mind of a child. We’re also introduced to his parents and find in them a family that doesn’t attract much trouble. Humour is therefore often seen paying a light and lovely visit in the moments shared between Tharush and his mother, another powerful character that represents deep intelligence and sensitivity, especially in her response to Tharush’s appeal for another fighter plane when they sit for dinner with eggplants floating ‘in the middle of yellow curry like dead rats’.

Quite early in the narrative, we’re given hints of what is to become a contrasting second main character of the book, Aakash, also meaning the sky as Tharush, but another shade of it – much darker as the clouds on a rainy day, more mysterious as a ‘stealthy, almost invisible, shadow’.

By Pervin Saket

Siddharth Dasgupta
Siddharth Dasgupta

Siddharth Dasgupta is an Indian poet, novelist, and travel journalist. His words have appeared in global literary journals such as Litro, Entropy, Cha, Punch, The Bombay Literary Review, Coldnoon, and Burning House, included. He also undertakes cultural immersions with the likes of Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveller, and Harper’s Bazaar. He has three books to his name thus far; the short-story collection The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows and the poetry collection The Wanderlust Conspiracy emerged in 2017. Siddharth is currently looking to secure an adequately courageous publisher for his next literary release – a new collection of poetry. He writes at https://citizenbliss.squarespace.com | @citizen.bliss

 

Pervin: You’ve worked with the long-form and the short-form of fiction, as well as with various kinds of verses. What are your reflections on the processes behind all of these? In what ways are all three distinctly demanding and fulfilling?

Siddharth: The most compelling thrill for me in all of this is not knowing what comes next, and not knowing how exactly to control or demarcate ‘the process’ once it finally does arrive. In that sense, I treat each form the same – as an arrival with whom a courtship needs to be formed over time. Whether this leads to a relationship that is thrillingly brief or a drawn-out epic, sometimes manifesting itself over years, the frame of mind doesn’t actually alter itself all that much. You simply go in with the knowledge that with some journeys you’re going to have to buckle in for the long ride, while with some it’s more of a ‘wham-bam-Amsterdam’ time frame. Novels and stories will test time, patience, friendships, and perceived ideas of sanity. Poetry will test line lengths, dance forms, the heart, and an almirah of desires. The sense of fulfilment from both is proportionate, and dare I say it, contagious.

Pervin: Your work is very firmly anchored in various geographies, whether remembered or imagined or explored, and yet, there is rootlessness, a wandering, a yearning that characterizes your narratives. Where does this absorption with nostalgia and voyaging come from? And do you use place to actually talk about time?

Siddharth: I find this shared habitat between lastingness and rootlessness to be an entirely natural one. It speaks to our human existence as a motley crew of nomads, refugees, and wanderers. A sense of movement has always been integral to my life; it’s only natural that this state of being would extend to my life as a writer as well. It’s often been second nature to find myself at home, or at least something resembling home, at different places in the world. Concurrently though, I’ve found that you can very well be in a specific place at a specific point in time, and yet find yourself longing for it. You’re right: I think nostalgia lies at the heart of it. Some of us were assembled in that manner, I suppose, with a deep ache for another time and other horizons resident as permanent companion in our lives, nestled peacefully beside this to-and-fro between finding home in different longitudinal addresses and fleeing. In my literature, place is often the strongest indicator of time, even more so than character. A place doesn’t have to speak or gesticulate or enter into lengthy monologues; a place simply conveys.

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.

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.

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?”