Book Review: Rashida Murphy’s ‘The Historian’s Daughter’

First published in Cafe Dissensus

Title: The Historian’s Daughter
Author: Rashida Murphy
Publisher: UWA Publishing, 2016

The Historian’s Daughter could well have been titled The House of Secrets. Isn’t that what a “house with too many windows and women” is likely to be? The historian in question is the father of Hannah, the novel’s secret-digging young protagonist. Throughout the first-person narrative, she refers to her father as the Historian because of his real-life profession and her mother as the Magician due to her spell-inducing sweetness. Why then isn’t the book called The Magician’s Daughter? That’s a secret Hannah must accidentally come upon, and one that her creator Rashida Murphy guards with skilled control as she takes the reader on a voyage spanning familial and political upheavals and migrations across continents and personal mind maps.

Hannah’s fetish for secret busting is a natural function of her environment. History is the kernel wrapped in its homonym cousin – mystery. Both mystery and history flow freely in Hannah’s house in the hills, which she shares with her parents, older sister Gloria, brothers, Warren and Clive and her numerous aunts who come visiting and stay put for extended periods of time. Her historian father’s library – one he has inherited from his “despicable” British father – is the first depository that would trigger, and in time train, her sleuthing skills. A series of books on the English “conquistadors” of India sets her off on her quest to understating and even confronting the past, however unsettling.

The dramas and dark corners of family life dominate the early part of Hannah’s – and the book’s – world. While she’s happy to be under Gloria’s elder-sisterly wings and bask in the Magician’s affection, what makes her recoil at the sight of her father is a muddied phantasm the reader must, like Hannah, uncover in layers. This is also the part of the novel that brims with Persian fragrances – black tea with mint and carrot halwa; and with fables – of heroes Rustom and Sohrab, which the Magician reads to her daughters and of Rani, a less-than-heroic aunt dubbed crazy and living practically under house arrest.

The dynamics of this universe of chaotic delight changes forever when Sohrab, an Iranian young man – enters the scene. An acquaintance of Farah, the Magician, Sohrab bears about him an uneasy wind – that of the turmoil sweeping through Iran during the period of the country’s revolution in the late 1970s.

As with seeds that winds disperse all over the place, the lives of Hannah and her family get scattered, and Hannah finds herself in Australia as an immigrant. Transplanted without the nourishing support of her mother or sister, it is in Perth that Hannah has to find her own bearings. This is also where she finds love as well as a reason to return to the continent she came from – first in Iran in search of her sister, then in India to look for the Magician. Through it all, she must not only witness but also endure – hardship and the excesses of revolutions; cruel family secrets and the maturing of love, loveless hearts and an infant’s unbridled affection. The story in this part oscillates between physical and mental spaces as Hannah negotiates the distance between her present and her memories. The narrative feels somewhat jerky at times, perhaps not too different from the rugged emotional terrain Hannah herself treads through.

Through it all, Hannah also finds her own voice as a woman – one that’s not shaped or seasoned by the stronger women of her childhood. She’s funny and sharp, confident, and vulnerable – a mass of real flesh and blood. She is bold but her courage isn’t about an absence of fear. It is about running with – not away from – fear. She’s impulsive and a passionate lover, but most of all, she’s a baton-bearer of the two women who she first learned to love from – her mother and sister. This is what makes The Historian’s Daughter a remarkably feminist novel in the garb of a family saga. Rashida Murphy is clear about fashioning it so, whether it is by making Gloria prevent Hannah’s genital mutilation by their aunt; the girls’ mother staging her own silent rebellion; or Hannah’s firmness in chasing her convictions, regardless of self-doubt and social pressure. These are strong women who aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses. 

The Historian’s Daughter engages as much with its plot twists as with its honesty and narrative sweep. The language is crisp, the imagery vibrant, and the plotlines like stable trellises for the vines they support. This is Murphy’s first book and, for me, a wellspring of promise and anticipation. The malleability with which her love of history, research, politics, and storytelling meld into a whole makes her a writer to look forward to.

‘The Historian’s Daughter’ is available on: Amazon.com

Book review: How I Became a Tree

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

Title: How I Became a Tree
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Co.

PrintI was in primary school when I first heard trees talk. On my way to school every day as I sat by the window of our school bus, leaf-laden branches of trees sashayed as the bus zipped past them. I was convinced this was the trees’ way of sending me off to school with a bunch of good wishes. On still, humid days, when my green friends didn’t seem as enthusiastic, I feared about the mood of the day facing me. Though brief, this moment of intimacy with the trees lining the one-way separators on South Delhi roads, was crucial for the emotional subsistence of a lonely child like me. For Sumana Roy, the necessity of this bonding – with plant life, with trees, swaying or still – is so acute that she wishes to morph into one. And sort of does. How I Became a Tree is the story of that astonishing transformation.

But why this overwhelming desire to become a tree? Roy’s discontent with her human form is not so much biological as it is psychogenic. The two corollaries of modern life that disturb her most – excessive noise and speed – are the very things trees counterpoise with defiant ease. Early on in her intuitive journey, the author discovers tree time – a moment distilled in past- and future-less clarity. Trees teach her to let go of her slavish relationship with conceptual (man-made) time and relax in the moment. She notices the impartial kindness of the tree – equal in its dissemination of oxygen, shade, flower, and fruits to the gardener as well as the woodcutter.

The need for association with nature isn’t new. For long, it has been the favoured route for those on a spiritual quest. There are extensive records of sages and philosophers renouncing the material trip to go inside forests and sit by lakes, in search of answers only solitude can retrieve. What makes Roy’s quest deliciously different is her part-lover, part-parent, and part-playmate relationship with trees. She even becomes a tree sleuth – recording their “vocalizations” – “I had, in frustration with industrial noise and human verbosity, mistaken trees as silent creatures. My experiments with the sound recorder had brought about a new realization – that trees shared a natural sound with people.” She engages with trees in other interesting ways – by getting X-rays of tree trunks and by turning dead trees into sculptures. All these experiments grow deeper the roots of Roy’s conviction about the interchangeability of trees and human figures. She begins listening to human voices in relation to their tonal proximity to the sound of leaves in the wind. Her own skin becomes the bark of a tree and she imagines her bones getting rearranged for her to acquire a tree form.

In loving trees, Roy doesn’t forget the shadow world. In fact, by her own admission, her relationship with trees is shaped largely by their shadows. In a chapter curiously titled A Brief History of Shadows, she rues how shadows are unceremoniously left out of history books and archives and, through personal reminiscences and her reading of Roy Sorensen’s Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, she eloquently makes the case for studying shadows for the things they can reveal. For me, though, her observation of what tree shadows withhold, or rather, erase, is of even more stunning import. “…The shadows of trees obliterate specificity, the colour of bark and leaves and flower and fruit. Just like the shadows of humans do not reflect race, class, or religion.”

As her disenchantment with modern industrial routine grows, the author is compelled to examine the stitches of mythology and scriptures, literature, philosophy, and art – to find threads of the human-tree convertibility phenomenon. Greek and Roman mythology tell her how women turned into trees to escape violence, human violence. Reading these episodes chillingly remind one, as they do Roy, of young Dalit women being raped and then hung from trees in present-day India. But she also finds “sahrydayas” (Sanskrit for soulmate or sharer of the soul) – humans who have shared her own kinship with trees. One of them is the artist Nandalal Bose who, while articulating his thoughts on drawing trees, remarkably compared their features and even personalities to those of humans.

Then there is Rabindranath Tagore – with both his extensive work with trees in Santiniketan and his personal anaclisis to plants. Like most plant lovers, he misses his plant relatives when he’s away on a trip and writes letters to human caretakers to look after them. It is only natural then for the universe of his writing to be populated by plant metaphors. Roy sees in his works illustrations of trees becoming doubles of humans and gardens turning into both accomplices in aiding stolen love and partners in avenging lost love. The chapter, “Studying Nature”, brings to the reader Tagore’s organic vision for spreading the joy of nature among the students of his school-cum-university, Visva-Bharati. The focus of the nature study module isn’t so much on the science of ecology, as Roy discovers, but on fostering an easy kinship with nature from which the industrial machinery threatens to pull the children away. “What his students inherited through his course was a sense of trees as participant, friend, and neighbour, in the ongoing drama of life…,” concludes Roy with endearing empathy.

For a tree lover in the pursuance of her treehood, the journey cannot be complete without entering a forest. Part VII of How I Became a Tree, titled “Lost in the Forest” was a personal delight for me. I have experienced several lost-in-the-forest moments myself, richer in the losing every time. Roy’s own love affair with the forest bears this out with succulent relish. She argues how the very act of walking inside the forest has to be an act of total surrender – one must intentionally lose oneself when surrounded by the “paralyzing restfulness” of a forest. She returns to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s forest-centred novel Aranyak to unearth the mystery of man’s tense relationship with the forest. It is at once a place for finding repose as it is a resource to be exploited. Staying inside a forest all by herself enables Roy to experience the commune of trees, their shunning of individual prominence. In this, she recognizes her own treeness, given her indifference to fame and its exhibitionism.

Roy finds more soul sharers – as a plant parent in the polymath scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose – who conducted numerous experiments to prove plants can feel and communicate; in the Buddha whose persona is essentially inseparable from the Bodhi tree under which he’s believed to have found enlightenment; and in poets, philosophers, and photographers who saw embedded in the barks and branches of trees reflections of their own self. And that is how Roy eventually turns into a tree. She imagines herself to be the Ashoka tree – A-shoka, sorrowless, as she segments the tree name.

On a personal note, Roy has taught me to love plant life in a deeper, more joyous way. Shortly before I wrote this, my partner took out a leafy indoor plant to the patio to feed it sunlight (as Roy would put it). The delicate plant died from the sudden shock. I have mourned the loss of plants before, but this was post How I Became a Tree, and I bawled my lungs out. Then, once the tears let up, I remembered I had once snipped a part of the plant and placed it in a jar of water, where it grew roots. I brought that part out of the jar and planted it in the pot that now carried the dead roots. It was almost as if someone had nudged me to do this – to bring the plant back to life.

That’s when I realized Sumana Roy isn’t merely a tree; she’s a plant whisperer.

How I Became a Tree is available on Amazon India.

 

Dead Man Talking — Hassan Blasim’s short stories

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Hassan Blasim
Penguin
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

 

What is left when a place dies a thousand violent deaths?

A million stories sprout over the graveyard. Each narrator is a Scheherazade (of One Thousand and One Nights), except none of them is compelled to tell a tale for fear of being killed. Some of them have already crossed over to the other shore and even the 18114111-_uy475_ss475_ones living know death to be staring them in the face. Yet the emotive force — mind-bending and magnetic — of the voices echoing through Hassan Blasim’s short stories forces the listener/reader to be pulled into their universes — macabre and enigmatic as they are.

I felt the sharp stab of Blasim’s storytelling knife in The Corpse Exhibition — the very first story in the collection. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the boss of an organization curating the corpse exhibitions speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of displays — one of the top pieces the boss cites is that of the corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child both naked placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

Read the rest of the review here.

The Starling’s Song

ss_frontcover1The Starling’s Song

B.L. Bruce

Black Swift Press

Available on: Amazon.com

Review by Bhaswati Ghosh

For those of us who live it every day, urban life can be unforgiving in its demands. Yet, there are release buttons that can help us slow down and turn towards the natural world and its rhythms. This movement isn’t as much a result of curiosity as it is of a desperate seeking — whether to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw of modern living or to simply let go of the puzzle altogether. The Starling’s Song, a recent poetry collection,  constructs a fine floating bridge to negotiate that distance — between nature’s tranquility and human restiveness. B.L. Bruce makes us walk on that now-steady, now-wobbly bridge with Feel, her very first of the three dozen or so poems in this chapbook.

Were you here I’d point out/the coyote’s tracks through the sand,/the distance between where/each paw fell,/tell you he was running. I’d reveal the place/where, beneath the dune grass, the gull’s/body lay torn open and hollowed, say/to you, This, this is how I feel.

Bruce’s piercing vision captures and reflects images from the non-human, organic realm with a rare crystal sheen. But this eye isn’t limited to being a camera; by juxtaposing nuances from the world of plants and animals, the poet is able to find clues to anxieties peculiar to the human condition.

I’ve not yet discovered my gift/of bearing, not yet realized/a power to propagate, to nurture.//I cannot understand myself,/but know the fawn abandoned/when the doe is hit on the highway,/the keening of quail, the scream/of the cottontail’s young/as they are taken by the red fox. (Mothering)

This undercurrent of disquiet is what takes The Starling’s Song to a different level, beyond the genre of mere nature poetry. While Bruce’s brushstrokes of imagery are luscious enough to hold the reader in a spell,  it is her layering of emotions and memories, especially uncomfortable ones, to those images that makes them quaver with loneliness and heartache in strangely soothing ways. In Waiting, she says,

Mist moves/to the edge of the forest,/catches the last, dusted light, keeps/joining the woodsmoke./ I am waiting/for you, for the sound of you/on the road, on the doorstep.

In her poems in this collection, clearly written from the vantage point of delicious proximity to nature, Bruce doesn’t stop at exploring the self and its relationship to others through an intimate association with the world outside concrete walls and human organization. Nature isn’t always a peaceable therapy to help reconstitute memories and make sense of them; it can be equally pain-inducing and cruel, based on what the mind reads of it in a given moment. Bruce’s Picker is chillingly reminiscent of Seamus Heany’s Blackberry Picking in its desolation and disturbed unraveling of the seemingly innocuous and even joyful act of berry picking, as

I am bending low/over row after neat row/of red, ripe strawberries.

Turns to…

…I remember/the mushroom picker’s daughter./She watched a man get sucked/into the maw of a machine that/sorted and weighed the day’s pick.//From a window above,/she looked on as the machine/spat out the man’s blood…

Now, overripe berries/ooze in the August sun./I weigh them, put them/in baskets, and drive home/where I’ll wash them,/boil them, add sugar,/and make jam.

None of the poems in The Starling’s Song is too long and brevity certainly seems one of Bruce’s key strengths. The shorter the poem, the more punch it packs. Blood and Seed are two such examples that are able to carry enormous weights on their slender shoulders. Ripe with muscular strength, these poems eschew the need for strong-boned superstructures.

I eat a pomegranate/and think of you,/delicately, patiently/separating peel/from seed. With my tongue, suck/the tart juices/from the kernel,/spit out what’s left. (Seed)

What strikes the most about the poems in The Starling’s Song is the rawness of the word imagery. There isn’t a lot of coating going on, nor is there any attempt to ensnare the reader with mysterious metaphors or complex philosophizing. Instead, there’s a refreshing starkness — of both scenes and the longings and aches they echo within the human mind.

And yet, even the pain — with all its stabbings– has the ability to redeem a certain kind of peace, as Bruce discovers and relays in Chorus, the penultimate poem in the collection.

Even now the arresting silence/in your absence has a music to it.

Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? Book Review

Could You Please, Please Stop Singing?
Sabyasachi Nag
Mosaic Press
Available at: http://www.mosaic-press.com/product/could-you-please-please-stop-singing/

Review by: Bhaswati Ghosh

First published at http://www.citrusmag.com/#!bookwarm/ddvnt

It’s a sobering morning as I write this. My Facebook feed is flushed with faces wearing the French flag, quotes denouncing horrific events that shook the world, and raging debates on selective outrage. The world is reacting to the violence that has Beirut and Paris mourning hundreds of people — denizens and tourists — who lost their lives in serial bomb blasts.

Tired and benumbed, I turn to a different window on my computer screen — to read Sabyasachi Nag’s poems from his latest collection, Could You Please, Please Stop Singing?

When words — even prayers — do little to palliate the mind, “Mamuda’s Fries,” Nag’s first poem in the collection, brings me warmth with its textual imagery. It’s a simple poem on the face of it — about a father returning home with fries for his family at the end of a draining work day. The batter singes like the rest/of his walk. Yet, as he closes it off, Nag manages to frame in the poem an everyday family portrait that transports you to a comforting spot.

When the fries come,/they let them sit a while, radiant/on the puffed rice, then the stories/roll, greased, like the wheels/of a worn ritual.

What it is that we really mourn when mass attacks happen? The loss of life and innocence, for sure, but do we not also feel aggrieved for all the possibilities of “worn rituals” that are thwarted by the untimely ceasing of the rolling of stories Nag talks about? In trying to grapple with brutalities, somewhere we probably also feel the loss of the mundane sinews that bind the core of our daily lives – the smile that brings us home, the bric-a-bracs that feed our memory as comfort food does our palate.

https://i0.wp.com/www.mosaic-press.com/newwp/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Could-You-Please-Stop-Singing-Cover-final.jpg

This soft pulse of relationships throbs throughout Nag’s poetry. The book is dedicated to his father, and it isn’t difficult to see why. The bond between a father and his son echo in many a poem. In “Sweat”, a father’s homecoming is celebrated by his son with games even as his departure is etched in sensory notifications – duffle bags, polished shoes, but also “Chewed betel from his breath.” And, of course, there’s his sweat.

The air will be naked soon./For one more day, his sweat/will linger in the wardrobe /and the laundry room.

In “Wheels”, a prose poem that reads like a journal signposting a father’s life cycle through five decades, from a hardworking man whose square shoulders evenly stretched under the weight of fish and produce he routinely brought home to compensate for long absences … to someone pulled down by gravity, stooped over the curved, steel handle bars of the red rollator, leaving nothing to chance, as always, trying his hardest to make the wheels turn, turn… Here, Nag at once encapsulates the mechanics of middle class life with a child’s exhilaration of having

him (the father) back from the trains and morbid news as well as the works of physiological aging, which, despite all denial or resistance, pulls one into its inevitability.

The wheel of bonding between the poet and his father keeps turning as Nag chronicles the growing up of his own son. The same wisp of endearment marks these poems, as also perhaps, the same yearnings and the gaps that separate them. Nine and he keeps his laces flailing./Is that an attitude thing? Nag asks in “Absent”, then answers, He thinks them– laces, have needs/to write on puddles, tangle with weeds/drag the dirt, sometimes swallow/pollen, ragweed, dander – be out of sorts. The father’s wonder and happiness on his son entering his teen years is poised by steady genealogical conviction. he leapt like a lemming almost into his own/

and all that hair on his legs and underarms/cannot convince me yet,/he will grow up to be much taller than me.

Like relationships, a number of motivations inform and bear upon Nag’s thematic range and expression. Food is a prominent trigger, and while reading some of the poems in this collection, I couldn’t help but admire the poet’s facility with cooking and the secrets the kitchen can reveal about life in general. How else could he know this about the “Fine Art of Chapattis”? Roll them to the shape of moon,/Mars, continents, faces of gods,/feelings, fear... and Serve hot and buttered, just when hunger/is in the same room as lust. In “Reasoning”, which sounds curiously similar to “seasoning,” Nag blurs the line between gods and devils, even to the extent of provoking one to examine whether there’s a line that distinguishes the two entities at all. Asafoetida is at once god’s flavour/and devil’s shit – attractive to moths/wolves, believers//There must be a reason –//why dharma and pot mix without particle blenders/temples polish stairwells with milk/and silver is smoked in myrrh.

Coming from Calcutta, where the urban poor share the cityscape with the richest of the rich, Nag writes about the subaltern often in Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? Even as he contextualizes the lives of the underdog, he remains sensitive not to smudge the dignity that is mostly denied to them. A poem I haven’t been able to shake out of me is “A City House Help Returns Home”. Self-explanatory as the title is, the poem reminds one of the many young house helps in India and the blank, tear-wiped look one sees on their faces. Nag doesn’t stop with mere observation, though. He seems to penetrate that vacuous look as he talks about a young boy returning home on a break from his city job. Between servings of gruel and green/chili, salt and a splash of mustard oil –/he’s scared someone will ask:/what brings ya back? Having posed the little boy’s dilemma — sad as it is — Nag answers it with words that strike like a whiplash: His little brother who/ works in the pickle farm,/his cousin who climbs coconut trees,/his friends who smoke the berry hives –/they know.

Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? is a very urban collection. The stress, grime and anxieties of city life are palpable, even viscerally felt in a number of poems. In “Through Uneven Slats — a Riot” Nag says, Rush for news, rush for bread,/rush around clots, rush past mangled hair,/rush through smoke, and smoke. “The New Enemy” speaks about the contempt for the urban poor in a language so raw, it hurts you with its force. Nag plays on Robert Pinksy’s line “A country is the things it wants to see” when he says A country is the things it wants you to not see./So a finger snaps crying out for a sledge hammer/itching to drive a nail into her bulbous head, smash her chiseled rib cage,/Whac–a–mole her deep into the shit hole/so she doesn’t slime back out again –

The spectre of violence – riots, terror attacks, even break-ins – punctuates the collection with uneasy periodicity, compelling one to acknowledge the political thrust that drives the poet. He draws this thrust from diverse sources – Badal Sarkar’s play “Ebong Indrajit,” the Indian mythology, world literature and more. The violence he talks about isn’t just external. In the poem that bears the book’s title, which, in turn is inspired by a line in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, Nag denudes the violence that often rages inside the human mind. The poem, reflecting on the impact of the singing of a busker woman in a train has on the narrator, verbalizes the voices that speak within us – in turmoil and clamouring disquiet. In a train you are alone with a young busker./She sings of loveless nights, an endless moon–washed/river on the other side of the planet./ On hunches, supine/she touches her scummy finger nails to your knees,/shocks you with static.

Nag ends the poem with words that reverberate like the plunk of a train rolling on a track. Why does the train abruptly stop?/Why is the revolutionary walking out the door? The honesty of Nag’s poem lies in his not offering an answer. In its vulnerability.

And although it might sound sweeping, those very attributes – honesty and vulnerability – define the collection as a whole and make Nag’s a voice worth returning to.

Everyday shadows — Book review

61AAigRVfILEveryday and Some Other Days
Pooja Garg Singh
Authors Press
Available:
India: http://www.amazon.in/dp/8172739605
Worldwide: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/8172739605

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were out and about to take in the last of fall’s sunshine and carmine-toned leaves. We posed with and photographed coloured trees, nestled our feet in dry leaves, tired those feet by walking miles in the autumn sunshine, and then relaxed them at a cafe that offered lazy views of the weekend downtown besides coffee and Bailey’s cheesecake. Two weeks hence, tree branches wear nothing or dead leaves, snow has replaced leaves on the ground and coffee will be no more than a homemade indulgence. That’s simply how the character of everydayness changes–across seasons and terrains, external and internal. In Everyday and Some Other Days, Pooja Garg Singh mediates the fluid space between every day and red-letter–or some other–days with unruffled ease. This is how she does it:

The year buzzards came to the fields,
She was out tilling a book in her hands

….

Next morning, when the dawn came
She was out in the charred fields

Sowing poems and reaping them — [ The Song of Everyday and Some Other Days]

Moments, slippery as foam escaping a kitchen sink, are arrested by Singh with a marked sincerity of tone and fluidity of expression. The mundane is her best, most trusted ally–in poem after poem, Singh demonstrates how the mundane of yesterday is never quite the same as that of today; how different sameness can feel in another hour, zone or mood.

For what seemed like ages, we held hands on the telephone
You fed me crumbs from morning mist, watercress at lunch
Poetry you read on the underground [London – New York]

And this–distances and their interplay with human relationships–keeps returning to the songs of love and longing Singh pens. This appreciation is visible in “Approaching Winter,” in which a trace of the unknown and fearful joins the love and longing. “Yesterday, Tomorrow” blurs the spaces between time–Nothing stirred behind the trees/But I thought I heard your shadow fall/It was this evening/Or so I think/But it could have been yesterday/Or tomorrow or ten years later/Or before. Curiously, the loss of physical nearness evokes a new kind of bonding, one that spreads itself over and also absorbs the larger universe.

If rains were our promise
I hear this distant gray rumble above
and a sticky mustiness overcomes my limbs
Does it mean you are coming home? [Homecoming in My Mind]

Singh is able to bring about this sense of memory-induced proximity even through the most everyday of images. In “Umbrella,” the protagonist looks frantically for a lost umbrella so she could pick her child up from the bus stop on a rainy day. Unable to find it, she runs out …soaking/-and terribly late. She chides herself for losing precious time/looking for that umbrella your father took with him/when he moved away with his things last week.

Singh’s canvas–personal on the surface–is at once universal in a way that offers an experience of the poet’s sensibilities that could possibly get refracted on the reader’s life lens in some other way. “Alzeihmer’s Fugue”, written from the perspectives of a father whose memory has betrayed him and his child, ends with these heart wrenching lines–I take more pictures now and I write more often/Hoping my son will find a way to me when he feels like an orphan.

Reading through the poems in Everyday and Some Other Days, I felt a tinge of wistfulness–a sense that in all of life’s ordinary stories, there’s something that still remains to be found. Yet, this yearning is not a despondent one, but the journey of a questing, curious spirit. I finished reading the book–cover to cover–at one go. But this isn’t a book that’s likely to sit on my bookshelf. It’s one that will hop into the car on my way to work, keep me company in the kitchen as I go through my chores and let me get through a dreary winter evening. It’s a book that fills me with a sweet yen–of seeing another book by the same poet.

Of Martyrs, Marigolds and Mayhem (Book Review)

Of Martyrs and Marigolds

Aquila Ismail

Create Space

Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Martyrs-And-Marigolds-Aquila-Ismail/dp/1463694822

Sixty-five years ago, India was freed of two centuries of British rule. The freedom, however, came with massive human tragedy. The country was divided into what is present-day India and Pakistan, on the basis of religion. The Partition of India resulted in some of the heaviest bloodshed witnessed in the history of the subcontinent. More than 12 million people were displaced as a result of the division. Sadly, the bloodletting that started at the time of Partition did not die down with the passage of time. In the years and decades to follow, the monster of communal tension assumed numerous sinister faces across the subcontinent and continues to rear its head to this day.

One manifestation of this simmering tension was the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, triggered by the Liberation War–a conflict between the Pakistani army and East Pakistanis. The actual war lasted only 13 days, making it one of the shortest wars in history. But the events leading up to it had started long before, culminating in the formation of a new country called Bangladesh. These events and their consequences–tragic and irreversible–are at the core of Aquila Ismail’s debut novel, “Of Martyrs and Marigolds.”

The novel narrates the story of a young girl, Suri, and her family–Urdu-speaking Muslims who had moved to East Pakistan from India at the time of Partition. It is estimated that between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 civilians were killed in Bangladesh, and as many as 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistani armed forces. The conflict led a further eight to ten million people from the erstwhile East Pakistan seek refuge in neighbouring India.

The story of Bangladesh is mired in geographical, ethnic and linguistic complexities. In the division of India and Pakistan, the latter got parts of Punjab and Bengal, separated from each other by more than a thousand miles. Language emerged as a major bone of contention, with the majority East Pakistani population demanding Bengali to be made an official language. The language resistance that saw students becoming martyrs forms the backdrop of “Of Martyrs and Marigolds” as the story of Suri’s love affair with Rumi, a Bengali Muslim boy, unfolds.

The narrative, through rich detailing, reveals the liberal outlook of Suri’s father, a civil servant in the Pakistani administration. All through, Suri’s family remains supportive of the legitimate democratic movements in East Pakistan and critical of the high-handed and arbitrary ways of the West Pakistan leadership, which eventually unleashes military action upon its own people in East Pakistan. Numerous novels and short stories have brought to light the horrors of the atrocities committed by the Pak army on Bengalis.

In March of 1971, the tables turned with the same army conceding defeat to the Indian army. Along with freedom to Bengalis in the form of the new country of Bangladesh, this also brought reprisals against non-Bengalis, many of whom were believed to have colluded with the Pakistani military. However, as is the sad fallout in any conflict involving two communities, a lot of innocent civilians bore the brunt of the backlash too. Suri’s family represents one of many such Urdu-speaking units that got caught in the crossfire and were rendered helpless and homeless overnight.

“Of Martyrs and Marigold” impresses with its flourish of imagery–the verdant landscape of East Bengal, its folk songs, and cuisines happily share the pages with the Western influences–English literature, baseball, the Beatles to name a few–in Suri’s life. Remarkable too is the sensitivity with which a delicate subject that continues to generate strong reactions among people within the Indian subcontinent and outside it has been handled. The author’s sincere narrative stays away from vitriol or any suggestion of hate mongering, relying instead on a helpless victim’s heartfelt questioning of her fate.

The descriptions of reprisals against Urdu-speaking East Pakistanis are vivid to almost a disturbing effect. As in most conflicts, women are the worst sufferers, as they face both ends of the sword–the wrath inflicted upon those being targeted and a further sexual violence in the form of rape and physical torture. Ismail depicts instances of such violence with chilling workmanship. A few chapters towards the end present these horrors with excruciating details that continue to haunt the reader long after the book has been put down.

Some of the dialogues in the novel sound stilted and the pace of action slows down in the middle. The multiplicity of characters sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to follow the storyline, but this gets easily overlooked by the overall force of the story. “Of Martyrs and Marigolds” definitely instills hope in the reader for more such moving tales from Aquila Ismail’s pen.

Book Review: One Step Towards the Sun

Note: This review was first published in The Asia Writes Project.

In recent publishing history, the universe of Indian Writing in English (IWE) has been continually expanding, with a deluge of new titles spilling off the market shelves. While that is sweet news for the authors of these books, their counterparts writing in India’s various regional languages often don’t receive similar attention. The obvious reason for this is that regional languages have limited readerships, mostly restricted to readers from the respective regions. One way to get around this is to make these writings available in English. According to Valerie Henitiuk, “…The past couple of decades have seen a rapid rise in the distinct phenomenon of Indian Literature in English Translation (ILET).” One Step Towards the Sun is an important new addition to this phenomenon.

Edited by Henitiuk along with Supriya Kar, both of them academicians in the field of literary translation, the book is a collection of twenty-five short stories written by women from the eastern Indian state of Orissa. The very fact that women writers from this state could make their voices heard only as recently as the 1970s makes this anthology critically significant. What makes it interesting and a great read is the amazing diversity on offer–in terms of the periods of writing covered, themes, and writing styles.

Traversing through the milieus these stories present, one discovers that the women writing these stories are every bit as sensitive to issues concerning their own gender as they are about the wider humanity. As is to be expected, women’s issues form the core of many of the stories–exposing the many levels of exploitation the woman is subjected to–sexual, domestic, social, and psychological. In Basanta Kumari Pattnaik’s “In Bondage”, the nameless protagonist is brought to a big city by her brother and sister-in-law so they can use her as an unpaid maidservant. In “The Worn-Out Bird”, Aratibala Prusty narrates the tragedy of a mother who is imprisoned for killing her daughter’s rapist. However, her act of revenge goes in vain, as upon her release she learns of her daughter’s suicide, after suffering even more sexual violence.

The reader need not lose all hope though. For sharing the pages with such grim tales are characters that refuse to bow down to social prejudices, despite undergoing extreme torment. One such woman is Pata Dei, the protagonist bearing the story title by Binapani Mohanty. As she returns to her father’s village home with a child, slanderous accusations are hurled her way and the villagers question who the child’s father is. Defiant and fearless, Pata Dei narrates to the villagers the trauma of the night when a group of her own village men had raped her. Turning to her infant son, she says, “Why should you cry, dear? Don’t be afraid of these people. None of them is man enough to stand up and admit to being your father. But your mother is always there for you…”

Besides highlighting different kinds of trials faced by women, the anthology presents a gamut of themes, from Partition riots, old age, poverty, marital issues, to the impact of natural calamity on humans. Deprivation and hunger present themselves as stark contrasts to the riches of Orissa–splendid art and architecture. In Gayatri Basu Mallik’s “Ruins”, the narrator, while on a trip to Konark, the sun temple that is Orissa’s architectural pride, is bemused to experience “the ruins of real flesh and blood” as he encounters an old woman whose entire life had been a series of misfortunes. Banaja Devi echoes a similar idea in her story, “A Classic”. Here, the narrator comes across what appears to be a sculpture in a railway station, but, on closer inspection is revealed to be a beggar family–emaciated and driven to the edge by hunger.

One story that deftly tackles two themes–hunger and marital infidelity is “A Mother From Kalahandi” by Gayatri Sharaf. A seemingly blissful marriage starts falling apart for the heroine, Amrita, as she accidentally discovers her husband Swapnesh’s secrets. On probing, Amrita learns that Swapnesh has bought a young girl from the famine-struck district of Kalahandi for a paltry amount, only to bring her to the city for his sexual gratification. A social worker herself, Amrita decides to become a foster mother to the child born of her husband’s extra-marital relationship. At the same time, she convinces the biological mother to return to her village and liberate herself from the clutches of Swapnesh’s exploitation.

One Step Towards the Sun also impresses because of its stylistic variety. From elements of fantasy to disjointed soliloquy, plot twists and lyricism, the stories arrest the reader as much with the unfolding story as with the words that unveil it.

It is to Henitiuk and Kar’s credit that they have produced a book of writing translated from a regional Indian language without tedious footnotes or a painstaking glossary. The translations have standardized almost all of the original text, including some of the very localized expressions. Although the end result makes for easy readability, it can be a bit of a disappointment for someone seeking to derive a taste of local flavours offered by phrases and idioms unique to the region. One wonders if certain regional expressions couldn’t have been incorporated into the translated narratives without hindering the readability. However, this is a small omission in an otherwise excellently produced anthology. Even as IWE basks in the warm light of international awards, this book has taken but a solid step towards the sun as far as furthering ILET is concerned.

ONE STEP TOWARDS THE SUN:
Short Stories by Women from Orissa
Edited by Valerie Henitiuk and Supriya Kar
Publisher: Rupantar
Price: Rs. 295.00
ISBN 978-81-906729-1-7

ORDER AT: http://swb.co.in/store/book/one-step-towards-sun

Of the Sickness of Love

Last night, I decided to close the book I had been reading for months now, with a determination as unyielding as the pace with which I advanced with this book. Gabriel García Márquez “Love in the Time of Cholera” is a chronicle of love–wherein, possibly the most powerful of human emotions is in a constant tussle against a range of obstacles.

Narrating a tale that is set for a considerable part around ships, the book starts by taking the reader on an interesting voyage–with the introduction of the key characters, their strange life stories and stranger personal quirks. It is the story of the romance between two people, as dissimilar to each other as can be.  A promising story of young love, unbridled passion and an almost illogical fable of romance, marked by long letters and little more.
Fermina Daza, the female protagonist, continues this amorous association despite her father’s ruthless opposition to the same. And just as the passionate affair reaches an exciting bend, the author brings in a clever twist in the story. All of a sudden, without any provocation or apparent logic, Fermina spurns the advances of her lover, Florentino Ariza. The stage is set for an interesting drama to unfold, and I was ready for the voyage.

Except that I had boarded a ship that seemed to be without a compass. This isn’t because the author bypassed the convention of a linear narrative; it’s more than that. My problem with the novel’s middle was that it seemed direction-less and loaded with extraneous information. For page after page, equaling nearly half a century in terms of the story’s timeline, the reader is subjected to the endless affairs Florentino Ariza has with about as many different women. Yet, he doesn’t really love them, but only “uses” them to bide his time, until he can return to the love of his life. In this time, Fermina Daza has  married a wealthy doctor and is a leading lady of the elite society. We learn about the ebbs and flows of her married life, complete with certain insights on what marriage entails, which seemed to me, to be the author’s own suppositions on the institution of marriage. Basically, the story doesn’t move in this phase. One learns a lot about human quirks and their implications in varied dimensions of life–marriage, family, society, professional career, but there is so little action that bears any significance to the main plot that one wonders the purpose of it all. I struggled to remain motivated to read the book through end; the  enervated narrative  fell short of providing enough encouragement. This could have been the author’s way of reinforcing the long, almost hopeless wait that Florentino Ariza endures to reclaim his love.

I am glad my persistence paid off as the story neared its end. In the twilight of their lives, the two lovers whose paths had crossed in youth only to diverge, meet again. They are brought together by the strange dynamics of fate, as Fermina’s husband dies of a most bizarre accident. Here on, the ship that had seemed aimless for so long, suddenly cruises with a frenetic speed, along with our lovers–old in their bodies, but not in their passion. As they defy social conventions, physical constraints and even the doubts of their own minds, we celebrate their journey through the river–breezy, uncertain, excitable–not too different than their romance itself.

Cholera has been used as a motif in various places throughout the story, and in the end it becomes a device to checkmate possible hazards that come in the way of love. I tend to think cholera is also symptomatic of the fact that love is a kind of sickness. The kind in which the disease is its own cure.

Framed Notes from Beyond

Postcards from Ladakh

By: Ajay Jain
Kunzum
Non-fic (Travel)
Price: INR 395, US $19.95, UK £11.95
Available at: Ajay Jain’s Blog

Among the souvenirs I collect during my travels, picture postcards are recurring visitors. Besides being light in weight–both in terms of mass and price, these cards open mini windows to new worlds. Easy to carry, easy to share, easy to keep or frame–picture postcards have almost everything going for them. Well, almost. My one pet peeve with these cards has been the limited information one usually gets about the picture in question–mostly just a line or two and at the most, about a paragraph. Ajay Jain’s new book, Postcards from Ladakh, redresses this issue with commendable facility.

With this book, Jain takes us inside the astonishingly beautiful yet often difficult terrain of Ladakh–among the remotest and most sparsely populated regions of India. Every page you turn is a new postcard–the picture on the left and Jain’s notes on the right. As he notes in one of the opening chapters titled Ladakh, Circa 2009, “Start reading from any page,” for you won’t miss anything if you didn’t follow the exact order of the postcards.

The pictures grab the reader’s attention right away, and once I had seen/read a few cards, I started imagining my own reading of the images before my eyes floated over to Jain’s text. Since this world was as alien to me as that of tribes living in the Congo basin, my imagination couldn’t stretch too far. That’s where this book succeeded in style. It presented me with just enough information on each accompanying picture without overwhelming me with a flood of it or depriving me by sharing too little. Jain writes the notes in affable first and second person voices, generously interspersing them with wit, practical advice and most of all, his passion for the place.

A big chunk of the postcards reflect Ladakh’s Buddhist tradition, its intricacies, distinguishing features and sovereign influence on the local populace. Others highlight the region’s flora, fauna, economy, history, and geology. The last few chapters are extremely useful for anyone planning a trip to Ladakh. In these, Jain provides an experienced traveller’s tips on how to pack, how to move about and how to keep the environment clean. There’s also an engaging interview with Ladakh’s spiritual supremo, the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa. I found this a nice touch to this collection of postcards.

I leave you now with an invitation to read this book and with some of my favourite postcards:

This image, depicting an old apricot collector, arrested my attention for quite a while. Do you also find the wrinkles on his face speaking of an unknown, unknowable pain?

Rock art dating to the 6th century AD. On a single rock in the entire region. Intrigued to know more? Visit Ladakh to find out. Or just read Postcards from Ladakh.


Stories like the one this postcard tells warmed my heart the most. It shows a bunch of happy little children who shared their bounty of sweet peas with the author, expecting nothing in return. Although he did reward them with chocolates, I suspect, he was the bigger winner.


This all-religion shrine, situated in the harsh Siachen glacier is believed to bless its devotees, mostly military soldiers, with special “visions.”


And lastly, this multi-image postcard about Himalayan marmots is just too good to be denied a mention. The author was lucky himself and shares his most entertaining encounter with these “adorable creatures,” who are often a little shy of human presence.


The only additional feature I wished the book included is a glossary of terms. Some of the Ladakhi Buddhist references can get confusing, even with repeated reading. All the same, whether you are in a hurry or at leisure, Postcards from Ladakh is a perfect reading companion. It’s also a smart travel guide without posing as one.