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Country of Focus: Singapore

Book Review: Horizon Afar and Other Tamil Stories
by Jayanthi Sankar

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Horizon Afar

Title: Horizon Afar & other Tamil short stories
Author: Jayanthi Sankar
Translated by P. Muralidharan
Publisher: Kitaab, 2016
Pages: 230

Horizon Afar is a collection of twenty-one translated short stories from the Singapore-based Tamil writer, Jayanthi Sankar. Spanning the last two decades, the stories shuttle between life in Singapore and India, creating links between the two countries and drawing on the writer’s multicultural experiences and interactions in the country where she lives.

Often her stories centre on teenagers and young people. The title story is about a teenager who shuttles through a surrealistic experience to find his footing in junior college (high school in Singapore). The most interesting read was a darker story, Mother’s Words, which deals with a reformed convict who is ostracized by the world yet loved by the mother.

A Few Pages from Yuka Wong’s Diary depicts the changing mindset of a multicultural population and their ability to transcend hatred to discover a fascination for a country that had unscrupulous expansionist ambitions in the 1940’s Japan.  The story is told through the pages of a young girl’s diary and makes an interesting and effective use of the device.

Melissa’s Choices is about a young man’s discovery of the fickleness of a young girl’s choices. School Bag, Revelation and Rehearsal are stories about teenagers’ journeys of discoveries in a multicultural society. Seventy Rupees, set in the midst of an auto-rickshaw strike in India, is a glimpse of the apathy of middle class towards the plight of the poor.

The stories often circle around the tedium of modern day existence and focus on the darker aspects of life. The issues faced by workers ‘imported’ from small villages of Tamil Nadu are dealt with in a couple of stories. While Cycle focuses on a flesh trader located in Singapore preying on an innocent Tamil migrant woman, Migration deals with an Indian domestic helper’s inability to adjust in Singapore. There are stories about unwed mothers, a girl who rebels to adopt a trans-sexual lifestyle, university life, school life and marriages arranged within the Tamil community in Singapore.

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Book Review: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows by Siddharth Dasgupta

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Secret Sorrow of Sparrows

Title: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows — A Collection of Lives
Author: Siddhartha Dasgupta
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017
Pages: 316
ISBN: 978-981-11- 4966-5

The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows is a collection of ten short stories by Siddhartha Dasgupta that seem to be created out of a gossamer web of words flung accidentally into the right place. The writer’s artistry and skill lies perhaps in recreating an aura of ephemerality and serendipity, the two elements that are part of the wonder of everyday existence.

The book is structured into a prelude and ten stories. In the prelude, the author explains, ‘…these aren’t particularly sad stories. At least they weren’t mean to be.’ Yet, there is often a lingering sadness – though not despondency – that strings together the stories in this collection. The sadness is tinged with hope and the stories build up to a crescendo leading to the exposition of the author’s worldview in the concluding story. The stories are best experienced if read in order though they can stand as independent vignettes of poetic prose.

The book starts with “The Baker from Kabul” and his reactions to his family, from whom he has been sundered by the Afghani unrest. Located in Dubai, the story gives an insight into the life and thoughts of a common baker who found refuge in this affluent city. “The Train Rolled through the Night” is a recap of two brothers who return home, where they had slept as children ‘to the sound of Indian local trains’, to uncover a murder mystery in their past and reach a surprise conclusion that scars them forever with a tinge of sorrow.

“Gulmohar Drive” delves into the grief of Shenaz Wadia. Shenaz returns to Pune to visit the home of her beloved dead grandmother. As she tries to come to terms with her loss, a brief, intense, incomplete romance evokes a sense of longing in the reader… a longing like Shenaz feels for the wet Gulmohur flowers. “Dawn’s Fatal Betrayal”, while glancing at life in traditional Lucknow, imparts a deeper sense of loss, except the mystery of death is left untouched. The reader is left wondering if this is done intentionally to emphasise the uncertainty and whimsicality of existence.

“Once Upon a Mystic Sky” is the story of the poignant reunion of a qawal, his childhood sweetheart and their child… a story par excellence, one of the best in the collection. It has pathos, love, tolerance and what could be seen as a satisfying ending, with mystic music and qawali ably highlighting the values within the narrative arc. “The Thousandth Bridge”, set in Isfahan, Iran, explores creativity beyond destruction. At the end of the story, though the bridges that are painted by the protagonist are destroyed in an earthquake, will the artist draw from the ‘light’ that glows within her to recreate what was? The ‘light’ within her in Isfahan is touched upon in the last story by the narrative of a Sufi dervish who whirls through the world  peopled also by the characters from the book.

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How writing a short story collection is like starting a zoo

(From Lit Hub. Link to the complete article given below)

People are always saying, “I have an idea for a story.” But if a story starts in an idea it might as well give up and be a novel. I think ransacking your mind for story ideas builds up an immunity to the mysterious form itself. At some point you have to bow to the story’s elusiveness and refusal of paraphrase, that is, of expression as an idea. As Lucia Berlin said, “Thank God I don’t write with my brain.”

You saw something—even a word in somebody else’s story misread at first. You heard something. For a moment an awareness was yours, and you want it again, you want the words for it. It’s a kind of apparition.

Walter Benjamin says, “It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story from explanation as one reproduces it.” Reproduces!  Perfect word. Somewhere, the story already exists. You glimpsed it, you have to find it.

And then—it’s in the door like a stray cat. Then, for me, comes an occasional deceiving fondness, followed by the wish, in the middle of cooking or talking to somebody, to go get the story and grab it by the neck and be rid of it. This is after weeks, months. It’s my cat by then.

The very short ones are what I’m most interested in now—or most pressed to do. My stories have always been long, and now I want compression. The short shorts in my new book Terrarium (Counterpoint, August 2018) aren’t what I’d call flash fiction, maybe because the word “flash” is too—bright. Also, in our moment, it seems to be at the fingertips of anyone who write stories or wants to. I think readers believe it’s easy. Instead, like any short story, it requires concentration from the reader. And it’s not an invention of our period. I consider what’s now called flash fiction to be one manifestation of an art that goes back as far as we can see. Always, stories have been short and they’ve been long, depending on what overtook the storyteller and/or what the audience cried out for.

Read more at the Lit Hub link here


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Book Review: The Circle of Life and Other Stories by Haimanti Dutta Ray

Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal

The Circle of Life and Other Tales

Title: The Circle of Life and Other Tales
Author: Haimanti Dutta Ray
Publisher: Locksley Hall Publishing (LLP), 2018
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Considering it is her debut book, the author writes The Circle of Life and Other Stories with a wild abandon and an almost childlike glee, which becomes both the boon and a bane for this collection. What you first notice in these stories are their characters; most of the characters are well fleshed-out, relatable and carry the general essence of being a Bengali in their subtle habits and mannerisms. The author uses her understanding of the Bengali culture to its fullest while drawing out her characters, giving them voices which are at times unique, at times a reverberation of how the community functions.

‘The Final Curtain’ talks about the famed theatre circuit of Kolkata and one man’s journey through life and later, death on the stage. Another story, ‘Mimesis’, features a man and woman who love each other but never really learn how to understand and navigate through the subtleties of their relationship, leading to a tragic, if not unpredictable, conclusion. The characters in both stories, although entirely different from each other in behaviour, hold the same pattern of being souls who live in the present but have their roots stuck somewhere firmly in the past, quite like the city in which these stories are set. Not only are the characters relatable but also the struggles they go through. Whether it’s the marital problems that the characters in ‘Mimesis’ try to deal with or the themes of mortality and loss in ‘The Final Curtain’, the grief and guilt that the characters struggle with remind readers of their own lives. In doing so, the stories become less of fiction and more of a slice from our everyday existence, fragile to a fault and fraught with problems, but with hope and empathy as their saving grace at the end of each day. Her description of the pousmela, the Bengali fair celebrating spring, or the artworks of Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, evoke a sense of deep nostalgia in every Bengali reader, at the same time bringing to the non-Bengali reader a taste of the culture.

However, the characters are only part of the larger stories, which unfortunately suffer repeatedly from other factors. These are largely bad pacing and the conclusions that neither befit the beginnings nor do justice to the erratic assembly of characters. ‘Wait Until Dark’, for example, starts off as a whodunit but eventually devolves to something that can hardly be taken seriously by the end. The endings of most stories are disappointing, building the narrative to a point where it can’t carry through its own momentum. The characters have similar voices, a problem that becomes all the more evident because the stories showcase a wide variety of people from various facets of life, and who are therefore, expected to speak differently.

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Book Review: Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb

Short and Sweet Stories Tinged with Melancholy

Reviewed by Namira Hossain

Truth or Dare

Title: Truth or Dare
Author: Nadia Kabir Barb
Publisher: Bengal Light Books
Pages: 120 

There are some books you read that you could probably start reading with your mid-afternoon tea and finish by the time it is sunset and only the last dregs are left in the cup. Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb is a bit like that. Barb is a British-Bangladeshi writer who lives in London. The cover is stark, a black and white negative of a construction site, giving you an insight into the nature of the book. But at a mere 120 pages, it does not feel like a daunting prospect. Her stories represent her multifaceted personality very well, showcasing little quirks of being part and parcel of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom.

Each of the twelve stories packs a punch. In the first one, “Can You See Me?” a suicidal pseudo celebrity meets a roadside bum and they commiserate over the losses in their lives before a cliff-hanger ending. The next story dives into a domestic scene where a housewife is cutting onions in the kitchen while guarding a tragic secret from her abusive in-laws. Despite the dramatic nature of the stories, Barb spins realistic and believable characters, whose lives and losses evoke emotion in her readers. Short stories do not have the liberty to build great characters through their development; instead, it is the minute plot details, ’moments’ that make a character in a short story somebody that the reader cares about.

I think the book really picks up towards the middle, starting with the title story “Truth or Dare”, about two young boys who decide to play truth or dare. Starting from its very relatable experience of being in a boring classroom with an unenthusiastic math teacher, the story takes the reader through different highs as it follows its protagonist Raju’s day of playing with his friend Tareq, who hides the darkness within.

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Book Review: A Faceless Evening and Other Stories by Gangadhar Gadgil (Trans. Keerti Ramachandra)

Reviewed by Sheila Kumar

A Faceless Evening

Title: A Faceless evening and other stories
Author: Gangadhar Gadgil
Translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra
Publisher: Ratna Books
Pages: 201
Price: Rs 299

 

Of the human condition…

Fourteen evocative short stories by the Marathi master

Gangadhar Gadgil carved a niche for himself in Marathi literature decades ago and is a known name to those who read translations but is yet unknown to scores of other readers. Ratna Books and translator Keerti Ramachandra have rectified that omission with this book – A Faceless Evening and Other Stories.

In this book, Gadgil runs the gamut of human emotions and the human condition. Life plays out in full intensity on these pages, each story a microcosm of people like us, people unlike us. A couple travelling in a train are locked in a bittersweet battle for emotional control. Ten years ago, she was a toy to him, now a shackle. On her part, hatred raises its hood, poised to strike, before pragmatism overcomes both of them. And so the journey continues, just as the deadlock between the two continues.

There is Bandu (a favourite character of the writer) is desirous of getting himself a new umbrella, but his luck with brollies has never been good. Plastic handles come off in his hand; old umbrellas shower rat droppings, dead roaches and such detritus on his unsuspecting head; umbrellas with wooden shafts just refuse to open, leading to unseemly struggles. Then he buys a stainless steel one that he can ill afford, but soon, one cloud tells another of his new acquisition and Bandu is given no opportunity to use the dratted umbrella.

There is a take that lays bare the politics of a joint family with all its attendant drama: the shrewish mother-in-law, the faintly sinister father-in-law, the victimised elder sister-in-law, the conniving younger sister-in-law and the narrator, a cheerful bahu of the house. Things reach a flashpoint but like all domestic crises, this one too blows over and the members of the family prepare to face another day and take things as they come.

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Is Indonesian literature written in English still Indonesian literature

In 2015, a short story collection “Monsoon Tiger and Other Stories” by Indonesian author Rain Chudori was published by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia (KPG), one of the biggest publishers of serious literature in Indonesia. The entire book was written originally in English.

Rain published another book in English last year, a novel called “Imaginary City,” under KPG’s new imprint Comma Books, where Rain also works as a curator.

Rain said she chooses to write in English because of all the languages she uses everyday – from Minang to French – it’s the one she finds most comfortable writing in.

“English was the predominant language when I grew up, at home, at school – I attended international schools my entire life – and then later on, when I lived abroad,” she told the Jakarta Globe.

Rain was not the first Indonesian to publish a book in English. Laksmi Pamuntjak and Maggie Tiojakin had already gone down the same path.

Laksmi, also famous for her Jakarta Good Food Guide series, writes in both English and Indonesian.

Some of her books in English include the poetry collections “Ellipsis” and “The Anagram,” and a short story collection, “The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art.”

Nevertheless, English works by local authors are still largely ignored – or if paid attention to, denounced as not fit to be part of Indonesian literature.

According to poet Gratiagusti Chananya “Anya” Rompas, who had also just published a book of personal essays in English titled “Familiar Messes,” there are literary discussions almost every week in the country, but few critics would bat an eyelid when Indonesian authors publish works in English.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were already a bunch of people who wrote in English on the internet, but senior authors back then said online stuff was all rubbish,” she said.

But that has not stopped younger writers to keep writing in English.

Novelist Alanda Kariza, whose previous books were all in Indonesian, released her romance novel “Beats Apart” in 2015.

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Book review: Vegetarians Only by Skybaaba

By Mitali Chakravarty

Vegetarians Only

Title: Vegetarians Only: Stories of Telugu Muslims
Author: Skybaaba (Editors: A. Suneetha and Uma Bhrugubandha
Publisher: Orient Black swan
Pages: 140
Price: ₹ 325/-
ISBN: 9788125060741

Vegetarians Only is a collection of short stories by Skybaaba, the pen name of Shaik Yousuf Baba, translated by a team of translators, edited by A. Suneetha and Uma Maheshwari Bhrugubandha.

The narratives reflect the lives of Telugu Muslims, their joys, their sorrows, their poverty, lack of education and the dreams that they have dared to dream despite their bleak socio-economic circumstances.

What is striking about the stories is the love and compassion with which the characters and their concerns are portrayed. Perhaps, having grown up in the midst of these people, Skybaaba’s empathy paints the stories with a vividness that transports us into a world peopled by his creations.

In his foreword, the author states that his creations are drawn from real life.One wonders if his title story, Vegetarians Only, is part autobiographical as the author is also a socially conscious journalist like the character he creates. The story is about a young couple looking for rented accommodation in a city where they have just arrived. The protagonist is a journalist and his wife, a student. The issues and marginalization faced by the twosome in the story would be reality for any young couple starting out with limited funds anywhere in the world. However, in the course of the story, the protagonist views his circumstances from the perspective of a social reformer. His experiences make him conclude that ‘With the exception of the dalits, and the madigas in particular, all other castes are in fact untouchable.’ According to the book’s glossary, Madigas are listed as a ‘formerly untouchable caste’ in Telugu.

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