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Book review: ‘A Clock in the Far Past’ by Sarabjeet Garcha

Reviewed by Shikhandin

A Clock in the Far Past

Title: A Clock in the Far Past – Poems
Author: Sarabjeet Garcha
Publisher: Dhauli Books
Price: INR Rs 250/ $14/£ 11

Human bodies are heavy, slaves of Earth’s gravity. Human hearts, on the other hand, weighing little more than sparrows, are still strong enough to pull the weight of memory. Perhaps this is where poetry is born.

Sarabjeet Garcha’s book of poems, A Clock in the Far Past, leaves one immersed in a certain feeling. Something more like residue, or a whiff of a sensation, almost like distant memory, or the memory of a memory, ticking away for the sake of what is here and now.

As the titular poem of the volume says:

It wasn’t 10:10, as images of clocks

are fond of showing, but some hour
that’s been swallowed by some windy
darkness of a tunnel, now extinct.
But what you can’t figure out now

Is the sudden urge to make
That stopped clock tick again-
As if a few tweaks to it
in the far past would set at least
something in your present right.

The clock’s hands move. Sarabjeet Garcha’s poems ferry the reader across like a time machine, albeit an astral one. This can be, and is already, disconcerting. These memories do not belong to the reader; and at times they seem not to belong to the poet. Then why this recurring sense of turning back the hands of one’s own clock? Is it because Garcha has made

a handful of lines
out of a lifetime’s work
shine…

These lines speak to me of Garcha’s humility before his muse. And this too – when he recognises with thanks that

seated
figure of some rare unknown
reader of his paltry work, he wants

to snoop on the underscores
and thank her for doing
what was almost
undoable for him…

(From “Radium”, the last poem in the volume)

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Books Revisited: It Takes a Murder by Anu Kumar

Reviewed by Shikhandin

It Takes a Murder

It Takes a Murder
Author: Anu Kumar
Publisher: Hatchette India (2013)
Pages: Paperback, 281
Buy: Available on Amazon and in book stores

 

It seems like years since I first read Anu Kumar’s It Takes a Murder. In reality, it has been only five. A recent news item reminded me of her book — it has been long listed in this year’s MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) Words to Screen Awards. This certainly is interesting and goes to show that reposeful books have lives of their own. I remember that I had enjoyed it – its literary, ruminative, lyrical prose. Now, spending the summer in the unlikeliest of places, a city that everybody tries to escape during this season, I thought of browsing through it, re-reading parts with care while glossing over other bits. At the end of it, I found, unsurprisingly, that my original reactions had remained the same, except for a heightened awareness of Kumar’s prose. It felt like walking down a place I had visited before, only noticing more details the second time round. It’s a good feeling, comforting, I must add, when impressions first formed have no cause to change. It reiterates my feeling of the quiet timelessness of Kumar’s It Takes a Murder.

The book involves a murder (obvious from the title) — that of a prominent resident of Brooks Town. But Kumar’s book is no ordinary murder mystery. It is not a literary thriller or a suspense story, but a literary novel – a dark one, with layered characters that demand closer scrutiny, events that need to be re-looked against a larger historical backdrop.

The narrative, innocuous like a sluggish river, is nevertheless punctuated with suspenseful and hold-your-breath passages, even as it deals with the most basic of all human relations – love. The story is narrated in flashback by an unreliable witness, one who keeps the reader guessing about everything, including the true inclination of her heart. She keeps feeding morsels of information in every chapter, just enough to whet the appetite (or should I say to keep the starved from dropping off?), and sometimes a little more. It’s a device that serves more to throw one off the track than reveal the truth. Finally, towards the end of the novel, she reels the reader in and actually confides, laying bare the whole web of intricacies.

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Book review: To My Violin by Geeta Varma

Musical Notes from a Courtyard Corner

Reviewed by Shikhandin

To My Violin

To My Violin – Geeta Varma

Title: To My Violin
Author: Geeta Varma
Publisher: Kavya-Adisakrit
Pages: 40

There are some women who wear their accomplishments like jasmine strings looped into their hair. When they pass by, you get a waft of mild perfume, that’s all. It seems to matter little whether you noticed or not. At day’s end, they will take off the flowers without a thought; self-effacing, no doubt, but what they create – their offerings of the day – linger, though not in a demanding kind of way. If you stop to observe, watch, hear or read, you would know how the quietest of voices can move in the smallest, and most immeasurable of ways.

Reading To My Violin, a slim offering of poems, in the light of a night lamp, in a room where we shut the summer out by artificial means, and that means also the sounds and scents of a summer night, I feel her gentle chiding in the very first poem. It’s an untitled poem of ten short lines that remind me of the hypocrisies sitting skin to skin in our society.

In “1961 The Refugee Colony”, Varma sketches exactly that, seven stanzas in swift strokes. What spreads out in the double page is not a pattern of words but complete scenes from a panel of miniature paintings. When you lift your eyes to the top of the page you see a solitary line, a caption of sorts, floating in white space: ‘Some pictures remain…’ The next poem is also dated – “1965 Back in Kerala”. It’s as if Varma had travelled to the place where she had been a tourist watching the refugees in their colony and now is back again in her home state. Here too are pictures that remain. Specifically, of two women characters, one ‘a small figure, small face, small eyes behind thick/ glasses’, and the other who ‘was huge/ and filled the doorway! /she had a loud voice too’. Both loved to feed sweets and other things cooked lovingly.  But while the first, the one in the refugee colony had a secret, Varma’s Ammooma in Kerala was confidently visible, just like the ‘huge bindi/ on her forehead’. One can’t help but ponder – is there a link between the two poems. The unsaid is unsettling.

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Book review: Missing by Sumana Roy

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Missing

Title: Missing
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 261 (Hardcover)
Price: INR 599/-

 

Facebook posts have an uncanny tendency to create time pools without dates. So of course I don’t remember when I had actually read it. I am not sure I remember the exact words of Sumana Roy’s Facebook post correctly either. But it went something like this, ‘“You saw the Kanchenjunga on your way back home,” said the spouse. “I can see it in your eyes.”’ The image that post created has remained like a screen shot in my mind. It’s the mountains. In Roy’s works, the mountains are always there. A looming presence or a backdrop or a distant vision. They are there even in their absences, when her narratives unfold at the foothills – Siliguri – bringing in with them the essence of the mountains.

Why do people leave the rush of their lives to rush up the slopes, if not for the hush of tranquillity, the slow of quietude? This is not merely a question that I’d like to pose to prospective readers of Roy’s second book, and her first novel, Missing. This is my dissuasion, though it is primarily aimed at those who seek quick mouthfuls, and instant literary gratification. In Roy’s book speed is missing.

Missing requires unhurried readers. It’s an unsettling demand, because the story revolves around a woman, Kobita, who has gone missing. The people spinning in the void created by her absence are her son Kabir, her blind tea-estate owner and poet husband ironically named Nayan – the refined Bengali word for eyes – and his entourage of menials, who are not necessarily meek. The events in the book span all of seven days, which are marked at the beginning of each section with black and white illustrations of torn off newspaper corners, with the dates and fragments of headlines visible. Naturally, one would expect this novel to possess a thriller’s pace. Instead those seven days are made to stretch until time becomes so elastic, you could pass off a day for a year.

The sections contain dual time zones. For the missing woman’s son, living in faraway United Kingdom and grappling with his own historical mystery about the highway connecting Siliguri with Darjeeling and the lower Himalayas, has his own view points and narrative to share, even as he goes missing from his father’s radar through his “restless migration into silence” again and again.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Sudeep Chakravarti

By Shikhandin

Sudeep by Ushinor Majumdar Colour

Photo Courtesy: Ushinor Majumdar

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several groundbreaking and bestselling works of narrative non-fiction – Red Sun, finalist for the Crossword Award in 2009; Highway 39; Clear. Hold. Build, winner of the Award for Excellence at the Asian Publishing Awards, 2014, and most recently, The Bengalis. He has written two novels (Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings) and his essays and short fiction have appeared in collections in India and overseas; like his books, these have been translated into several languages.
He is among India’s leading independent commentators on matters of conflict and conflict resolution, democracy and development, political economy, and the convergence of business and human rights. An extensively published columnist at Mint and elsewhere, he has over three decades of experience in media, and has worked with major global and Indian media organizations including the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he began his career, and held leadership positions at Sunday, the India Today Group and HT Media.
An avid scuba diver, Sudeep’s key interest away from writing and travelling remains marine conservation. He lives in Goa and in the Velliangiri Hills, Tamil Nadu.

Shikhandin: In the acknowledgements page of The Bengalis, you have touched upon how the book came about. Could you let us know a bit more here?

Sudeep Chakravarti: I have for long wanted to write a book on the social and political aspects of Greater Bengal — by that I mean West Bengal and East Bengal, now Bangladesh — with a personalized touch. My personal history is rooted in both Bengals, as it were, and such an approach lends a great degree of reality and immediacy to seemingly dry history. I had even proposed it to a major publisher, but I put it on ice for a couple of years on account of a few issues with that particular publisher. I subsequently brought the project to David Davidar of Aleph. The Bengalis assumed a more rounded avatar after my discussion with David, whose idea was a fuller portrait of the Bengalis, almost a biography.

I was keen to translate research, interviews, experiences and observations into an engaging son et lumière storytelling. I apply that approach to all my books, fiction as well as narrative non-fiction. The difference with The Bengalis is that I am occasionally involved in the story as a participant. But I was determined to maintain a distance, and address thorny issues of history and ethnicity alongside all that is justly celebrated about the Bengalis. It’s not so much about a different eye as a necessary eye: The Bengalis is not a brochure, it’s an attempt at a portrait of a people painted with what I hope is honesty, honour, some horror and a lot of humour. David liked that approach right from the first draft. A second draft and a couple of proofs later, we were done. He and Aleph’s managing editor, Aienla Ozukum, really got into The Bengalis.

Then there is the cover, a work of great care and aesthetics by Aleph’s art director, Bena Sareen (who also designed the cover of my book Red Sun when she was at Penguin). The cover image of The Bengalis, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali – the people as well as the book: a hankering for history, a faded grand past, the playful and yet focused child a symbol of a possibly energized future, the Bengali obsession with football and politics, the slightly rural tone even in an undeniably urban setting. The image by Plabon Das works wonderfully. As to the content, the book of course attempts to deal comprehensively with all this and much, much more.

There was a process to the selection of this image. We were very concerned that the image should not crudely reflect a stereotype, or alienate a vast number of Bengalis. There were other images in the initial design line-up; for instance, a beautiful image of a rickshaw puller in front of a grand North Kolkata mansion. I felt that was too ‘guidebook’ or ‘coffee-table’, like a couple of other options. In any case we didn’t want something to be too Kolkata, as it were, as if other places in what I like to call Banglasphere don’t exist.
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Book Review: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Bengalis Cover Low Res (546x800)

Title: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community
Author: Sudeep Chakravatri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: Hardcover 457 pages
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‘Ergo, no matter who you listen to, we are pretty much mongrel.’

That little sentence in page 43 of Sudeep Chakravarti’s vade mecum, The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, floats up with a beastly smirk. Unless of course, you have done your job as a reader and read it not out of context, but as part of the whole subject, including the weighty preceding pages.

Still, for argument’s sake, were you to disbelieve the mongrel bit, or dismiss it as self-deprecation, you would do an injustice to the community. Yes, you read that correctly, and Chakravarti provides carefully compiled data on the origins of the Bengali race to prove it.

Being a mixed breed is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you are not mixed up, which is not a compliment one can pay to the so-called pure bloodlines, whatever that is, if at all such things exist. Besides, further up the book one comes upon this beautiful explanation of what it means to be a Bengali mongrel:

‘Our so-called purity is rooted in mongrelisation. It has taken us a long journey to arrive where we have, with our distinct streams of culture, distinctive sub-languages and dialects with a unifying super-language that is itself mongrel.

‘It is through our openness to the world and cultures other than our own, that we have evolved our Bengaliness that is so distinctive, so unique. It’s what makes us enduring, indolent, insular, outgoing, endearing, adventurous, gypsy-like, nesting, sentimental, adaptive, rebellious, questioning, accepting, and infuriating in turn – or all at once. To be anything else would probably be so very boring’ (chapter 13, page 315).

Perhaps after reading the book, some ill-informed not-Bengalis will call out ‘Mongrel Bengali’ instead of the earlier taunt of ‘Bhookha Bengali!’ Then again, those who wish to insult will always find some term or epithet suitable enough, however misguided. Bengalis ought to take the higher ground, because we know who we are and do not need to explain ourselves. So, why do we need a book about ourselves at all?

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Dr Mohammad A. Quayum

By Shikhandin

Dr Quayum

Dr Mohammad A. Quayum is the author, editor and translator of 32 books in the areas of American literature, Asian Literature and Postcolonial literatures. He is also the author of more than sixty articles in distinguished peer-reviewed journals. His research interests range from 19th and 20th century American literature to contemporary Asian literature, with special focus on Indian literature, Bengali literature and Malaysian-Singaporean literature.

He is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Asiatic: An International Journal of Asian Literatures, Cultures and Englishes (indexed in Web of Science and Scopus) and is on the advisory board of several leading journals including Journal of Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, UK; ISI indexed), Transnational Literature (Australia; ERA indexed), Interdisciplinary Literary Studies (USA; WoS indexed), Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies (USA), Literature Today (India), The Apollonian: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (India), and The Rupkatha Journal of the Interdisciplinary Studies of the Humanities (India; Scopus indexed).

Dr Quayum is dean of the Kulliyyah (Faculty) of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and an Honorary Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia.

 

Shikhandin: Most of us only know of you as Dr M.A. Quayum the academic and mentor. Tell us a bit about your early life, and what drew you to pursue literature.

Dr M.A. Quayum: I was born in a small town called Gopalganj, in the district of Faridpur in Bangladesh. This was before Bangladesh was formed and was still known as East Pakistan. I grew up in this small, near-idyllic town and got my early education in the only Government school for boys there, S.M. Model Primary and High School. When I was eleven, my father sent me to a public residential school several hundred kilometres away, known as Jhenidah Cadet College. This marked a turning point in my life. It was an English medium school and the fees were very high. My father could hardly afford the fees and yet he sent me there, mainly to secure a good future for me. A second reason was that my father, who was a lawyer in Gopalganj, had a great admiration for English language and literature. Probably he thought that sending me there would also give me a good grounding in the language. I don’t know how and where he picked up his love for English, because my grandfather was a religious teacher at a primary school in our village who had little interaction with the language. My father was, however, educated at the Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College) in Calcutta (Kolkata), and perhaps it was there that he developed his great love for both English language and literature. You would be surprised to know that my father could recite several poems by Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson and Browning from memory. He would take enormous pride in reciting Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in particular. Maybe I was infected by his love in childhood and therefore developed a natural penchant for literature from an early age, reading all kinds of books, in both Bengali and English. My father would often buy me books and take me to the local library and encourage me to participate in various literary activities such as essay writing and poetry recitation competitions. I remember participating in an essay writing competition on the life of the Prophet when I was seven or eight years old, and then being invited to read my essay at a local mosque. I also remember my father giving me a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of short stories, Galpagucchha, for my eleventh birthday, and I recollect reading almost all of it in a great rush. My recent attempt to translate some of Rabindranath’s short stories into English, which was first published as Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories by Macmillan India in 2011 and then as Rabindranath Tagore: The Ruined Nest and Other Stories by Silverfish Books Malaysia in 2014, was a means to share that childhood excitement and discovery: firstly with my daughter who, being born and brought up in Australia, has in a way lost touch with the language and the culture; secondly, with my students and friends in Malaysia and elsewhere, who have great curiosity about and admiration for Tagore but cannot read his work in the original because of the language barrier.

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Book Review: The Lucknow Cookbook by Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Lucknow Cookbook

Title: The Lucknow Cookbook
Authors: Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: Soft Cover, 228

Years ago, before Narcopolis, the DSC Prize winning author Jeet Thayil had shared a moment during a reading at a poetry festival. He had said that he read and collected cook books, not because he cooked, but because he enjoyed reading them. Cook books provided both welcome relief from an excess of poetry, and also stirred up creative juices. His words had immediately resonated with the men and women, many of whom were poets, writers and artists, present among the audience.

Thayil’s words came back to me when I held my reviewer’s copy of The Lucknow Cookbook written by the mother and daughter duo, Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli. Books from Aleph are a pleasure to hold and behold. This book of recipes and family food lore does not disappoint. A comfortably sized book with an elegant outer cover and a rich olive green inner cover, it immediately leaps at you from the shelf. Since no food book is complete without appetite inducing pictures, The Lucknow Cookbook has them too. Bang in the centre, an eight-page long visual feast, spread back to back with photographs of Lucknowi fare laid out in style, rather like an Awadhi dastarkhwan, as Sunita Kohli notes in her forward, ‘a Persian term literally meaning a meticulously laid out ceremonial dining spread…’

The Lucknow Cookbook is one family’s chronicle of what turns out to be more than just about food. It is about an era, a city and a society where culture and refinement absorbed from various influences produced food, the first and foremost expression of good hospitality, that was as intricate and nuanced as the art and architecture, the jewellery and furniture of a people who loved to live well.

Lucknow, according to Kohli, ‘had a high degree of refinement as compared to Delhi. It was known for its “tehzeeb, tameez aur nafaasat (manners, etiquette and sophistication).”…Lucknow was home to some of the most vibrant and artistic expressions of its time.’ Even in comparison with Lahore, a vibrant city in its own right, Lucknow stood out. In her words again – ‘The hospitality in Lahore is extraordinary and its food is legendary. There are some striking similarities to the cuisine of Lucknow. But one difference is that the cuisine of Lahore is more robust, in the tradition of the Punjab. The traditional cuisine in Lucknow is more refined, more aromatic, more aesthetically creative and it is served with a greater nazaakat (elegance).’ For Lucknow is the place where Hindu and Muslim traditions blend and become something exclusive to the city, whose chefs ‘took the best …, absorbed them into their current cuisines and made it into a uniquely Lucknowi experience.’

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Charles Adès Fishman and Smita Sahay, editors of Veils, Halos & Shackles

By Shikhandin

16th December 2017 came and went. With barely a murmured remembrance. That’s five whole years since Nirbhaya, the name this brave girl, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was hailed by, the one who fought her attackers and then fought to survive in hospital. Ultimately she could not overcome her grievous injuries. So what happened? Why are we still not enraged? Have we slipped into our usual drugged sleep of forgetfulness?

Sometimes protest becomes still. We lose heart and start to despair. I like to believe that it is during times of stillness that protest gathers steam. During that still period, we need poetry. The poetry of protest. That is why I dare to visualise Veils Halos & Shackles in the hands of not just random or selective readers but anyone who wishes to become more conscious across societies, across the world. Even those who are not diehard fans of poetry; yes, even them. I visualise this book as reading material in classrooms, and not just for literature or liberal arts students. It is no longer enough to be outraged by newspaper and television reports. Poetry must outrage us. Oppression fears poetry. The winds of change feed on poetry. Hence the need for Veils Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, published by Kasva Press, 2016.

Here we get behind the scenes regarding the making of this volume and also try to get an understanding of what the editors – Smita Sahay and Charles Fishman – experienced.

Shikhandin: Tell us about the beginning, that little seedling from which this book grew, apart from the accounts of the horrific crimes that sowed the original seed. And why the name/inspiration behind it – Veils, Halos & Shackles?

Charles Fishman: Thank you for this opening question, Shikhandin, and for the others that follow. I’m delighted that Smita has agreed to respond to your questions, whenever possible; wrestling with complex issues effectively and persuasively is one of her many gifts as a poet and thinker.

Smita Sahay: Charles and I were in conversation about his last book of poetry, In the Path of Lightning, and I found sanity in his justice-demanding yet hope-and-love-filled verses in the days after Jyoti Singh Pandey was assaulted and later passed away. There was no way to come to terms with what had happened and I was mute within my fury and grief. The violence with which Jyoti’s life had been snuffed out had left Charles, thousands of miles away from India, as horrified. As we tried to find comfort in each other’s emails, our intent to give artistic expression to this fury led us to conceptualise Veils, Halos & Shackles. We first contemplated co-writing a book, but then we were convinced that there were multiple voices that needed to be united and decided to go ahead with an Indo-American anthology. This initial version of the anthology grew organically into the international volume of Veils, Halos & Shackles that eventually came out, and this expansion is proof that sexual violence is more universal than we admit, that survivors are caged unspeakably within their own suffering and that uniting in the face of sexual violence is possibly the only way to fight it.

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Book Review: Review in Perspective of Veils, Halos & Shackles

Five years ago, in January 2013, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay conceived of Veils, Halos & Shackles, dedicated to ‘Jyoti Singh Pandey, Nadia Anjuman and the uncountable number of other women and girls who have been victims of gender violence’. 

This is a two-part feature consisting of the book review and an interview with Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay. Today we carry the review to be followed by the interview tomorrow.

By Shikhandin

Veils, Halos & Shackles

 

Title: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women
Edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay
Publisher: Kasva Press, 2016
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On the night of 16th December 2012, in New Delhi, Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped and tortured – which included the removal of her intestines with a metal rod – in a moving bus, and thrown out. She and her friend lay on the road for a long time before anyone stopped to help. She died in Singapore a few days after. For those who would like to know the details, it is here in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Delhi_gang_rape.

New Delhi is a city notorious for its treatment of women, where assault of all kinds occur with alarming regularity, with percentages being somewhat more than in the rest of India. This time, there was such brutality involved that it shook a nation which is normally in a state of extreme torpor with regard to women’s dignity and safety. India erupted into nationwide protests and not just through marches and candle lit vigils. In the hearts of Indian women and sane Indian men, a single voice seemed to rise – ‘Enough!’ The world too, took note, with horror. That was five years ago.

Since then, newspapers, television channels and other media, including social, have regularly reported similar outrages meted out to women and children, both girls and boys. At times it seems like the number of incidents has increased, and that instead of a nation trying to become better, India has regressed into perversion and misogyny. A number of cases have been reported of foreign objects being inserted into girls as young as two. The crime rate seems to be spiking. Women and survivors from other genders braving social media with their protests and stories are being trolled regularly. Parents are still worried sick for their daughters when they come home late or are unreachable on their phones.

Did Nirbhaya die in vain?

The rumble went deeper than imagined. It created fissures at depths where visibility is near non-existent. Nirbhaya was the turning point.

Now people are increasingly open. They refuse to be intimidated into silence. We hear of more cases because more people are reporting them. There is greater support and understanding for survivors and victims not just in India, but across the world, for while India may have a terrible reputation with regard to all those who identify as women, the situation is far from good even in developed and apparently liberal societies.

Across the world, much needs to be done. In India, we are a long way away from being a safe and respectful society towards girls and women and gay men. The change, unfurling all around us, often so quietly we barely note its presence, is shaking the core of our society. However slowly, however timidly. There is protest through vigils and media outcries. Much of it is inner dissent. A lot of it is quiet. Some of it pours out in artistic expressions.

The shape of protest is protean. The colours of its pain and beauty are myriad. Protest’s life span is longer than that of placards, and the decibel level of its call is higher than that of individual angry voices. The storm brewing, gathering and collecting force has a language. One of the languages of this protest is poetry.

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