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

Advertisements

Who is Abani, at whose house, and why is he even there?

[In the words of Brajendranath Mandal]
Samir Sengupta
Translated from the Bangla by
Bhaswati Ghosh
Originally published in Parabaas

Half-dissolved, I slide into sleep
Amid the heart’s distant pain.
Suddenly, the night rattles my door,
“Abani, are you home?”

[‘Abani, are you home’ by Shakti Chattopadhyay]

I never got to know Shakti Chattopadhyay in person. Until the other day, I didn’t even know who he was. I’m a villager and make my living by growing potatoes and gourds. This year I planted tomatoes and chili peppers — the tomatoes did really well, I got about two and a half quintals per katha (720 square feet). Honestly, I didn’t expect such a good yield. Although it didn’t get me a good price in the end, I still recovered the cost and even made a bit of profit.

Kolkata is far from our village. You have to first walk nearly four kilometers through the fields. Despite many efforts, no roads have come to the village. Newly-wed brides have to enter the village on foot; the sick have to be carried to the hospital on cots like the dead to a crematorium. Even though our village is in the Hooghly district, it’s on its northern edge, bordering Bardhaman. As I was saying—see, this losing track of what I was talking about is a sign of my getting old—after walking the four kilometers, you’d better sit down at a teashop to catch your breath.

Next, you need to get onto a bus that’s usually so packed that even the roof is crammed with people and luggage. If you can somehow stay inside the bus by hanging onto an overhead rod for an hour and a half, you’ll reach Gudup station, and from there to Kolkata in another two hours.

DSC02644

But tell me, where do I find the time to visit Kolkata? A farmer’s life is a busy one. My day starts early. People like you who only eat chilies probably have no idea what it takes to cultivate them. Imagine harvesting all the peppers from the plants. This is a young man’s job. But if you hire someone like that, you need to pay him well. The price one gets for the chilies doesn’t cover the cost of labour. So we have to get young boys for the job. These days one hears a lot of hullabaloo against child labour; apparently, it amounts to exploiting children. But if I didn’t hire them, the boys would starve that day. On top of the wage, I also give them a basket of muri and lunch. Is that worse than them going a day without work and food? Can one get education on an empty stomach? I don’t know. The politicians in our village say a lot of big words like “literacy” and such.

I didn’t study much — didn’t get the opportunity. You see, I had to accompany my father to the fields since I was five years old. I know my soil well. By placing a mere fleck of soil on my tongue I can tell you what would grow on it. I’m familiar with hundreds of weeds and can tell at least 70 types of insects. Back in the day, when it would start raining at the end of Magh, I would go to the field in the middle of the night to get drenched. I can’t do that any longer — the womenfolk don’t allow me to. But I’m a farmer’s son. My father used to say that if the farmer doesn’t bathe in the season’s first rain, the field doesn’t absorb enough moisture to hold the plow. One doesn’t use the plow that much these days; power tillers rented by the hour do the job. Still it makes me sad to miss bathing in the season’s first showers.

My father didn’t know how to read or write. I was his eldest son and he enrolled me in a school. There was no school in the village at the time; I had to make my way to a school in Bishnubati eight kilometers away and couldn’t study beyond Class Four. I have only one son and three daughters. Against all odds, I made sure my son passed the matriculation examination. He didn’t leave me and go to the city to work, though. He lives with me and looks after the farm. I’m 78 and can’t work as hard anymore. I named him Sudeb. He too has made sure his eldest son got an education. My grandson studies in the college.

Our village doesn’t have any graduates yet; the neighbouring village of Sarelkhola has three. My grandson’s name is Ranajit Mandal; we call him Runu. I love him a lot. We won’t drag him into farming, I’ve decided. Let him go to the city and dab a new scent on his skin; let a new breeze blow in our house. School teachers earn well these days, maybe he can get a job like that? He’s into politics too, a smart youngster. I think he’ll do well.

Runu studies Bengali honours. Doesn’t just study, he also writes. Recently he gave me a magazine to read that he and his friends bring out. I’m not into reading that much, but I can manage to read a bit by joining the letters. My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, either. Runu sometimes brings home friends from his group. Since he started college, I got a room built for him to the north of mine. That’s where the boys get together — I can hear them from my room.

The buzz of their discussions and heated debates delight me. We didn’t get to experience any of this, you see. They even held a meeting in our house once. One of their professors came with them, and after lunch, they all gathered in the area around our banyan tree, which I had got cemented. A lot of people from our village came to listen to them. Folks attending a literature meet in a farmer’s house — now isn’t that special? More power to my grandson, I say. I had gotten the area around the tree cemented after Sudeb’s birth. At the time, I also secretly gave his mother a pair of silver bangles; a good yield of pawtol (pointed gourd) helped that year.

At the end of their club’s meeting, Runu’s teacher — a young man, new to his job — gestured a namaskar to me and said my grandson writes well. Maybe he does, how can I tell?

Winter is taking its time to show up this year. Usually at this time of the year we need to wrap the blanket tighter in the mornings and cover our necks and heads with comforters. Labourers from the west light fires to keep warm. This year, there’s no sign of any of that and no frost so far. I didn’t sow a late autumnal crop of paddy but wonder what it must be like for those who did. It’ll be a low yield for sure and the grain won’t be of good quality.

Every morning, I sit by the pond until the sun comes up. There aren’t any houses on the other side of the pond, only vast stretches of green fields; it’s a lovely sight. Runu comes to the pond around this time to take a dip. After his bath, as he wipes his body, he often recites poems. The other day I heard him say out loud for the first time, “অবনী বাড়ি আছো? / Abani, are you home?” I felt intoxicated; when he was finished, I asked him to repeat it. Runu smiled and recited it again. And again. Then he left.

He left, but not before getting me hooked onto something. As the sun broke out that morning, I saw farmers making their way to the fields from my seat by the pond. The poem clasped me. I kept hearing in my ear the knock on the door, the rain that falls here all year long, the clouds that graze the skies like cows, the grass that hugs the door — there, by our kitchen, overgrown young grass has indeed closed up on the doors — nobody even noticed. A pain pierces my heart; the day my bawro boudi (elder brother’s wife) died — she loved me so much…

Someone, something calls me — I wake up in the dead of the night and sit on the bed — someone calls me and says, “Are you home, Abani?” “Brajen, are you home?” “Keep awake, Mandal, the night is forbidding; be ready, you’ll have to come with me, Brajen…”

Following is the poem, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh:
অবনী বাড়ি আছো
দুয়ার এঁটে ঘুমিয়ে আছে পাড়া
কেবল শুনি রাতের কড়ানাড়া
‘অবনী, বাড়ি আছো?’

বৃষ্টি পড়ে এখানে বারোমাস
এখানে মেঘ গাভীর মতো চরে
পরান্মুখ সবুজ নালিঘাস
দুয়ার চেপে ধরে—
‘অবনী, বাড়ি আছো?’

আধেকলীন—হৃদয়ে দূরগামী
ব্যথার মাঝে ঘুমিয়ে পড়ি আমি
সহসা শুনি রাতের কড়ানাড়া
‘অবনী, বাড়ি আছো?’

Are you home, Abani
The neighbourhood is asleep behind closed doors,
I hear the night’s knock on my door
“Abani, are you home?”

It rains all year round here
Clouds graze the skies like cows
Young green grass, keen,
Clasps the door —
“Abani, are you home?”

Half-dissolved, I slide into sleep
Amid the heart’s distant pain.
Suddenly, the night rattles my door,
“Abani, are you home?”

The original article titled “Ke Abani, kaar baaRi, kenoi baa achhe” (কে অবনী, কার বাড়ি, কেনই বা আছে) was first published in the magazine Poetry Review, Shakti Chattopadhyay Special Issue, November 25 2000. It has been later collected in Amar Bondhu Shakti (আমার বন্ধু শক্তি) by Samir Sengupta; published by Parampara, Kolkata in 2011.

Retracing Dandakaranya

059-DSC_1860
First published in Indigo Lit
For Titti

I search for your footmarks
In the arid, rocky terrain. The
Agility of your feet eludes mine.

The jungle notes you left behind
Shriek with trauma. Of green groves
Uprooted from rivers, thrown amid
Stones and cacti. Yet I sleep restfully. The
Shrapnel that ripped apart your
Nights doesn’t touch me.

Half a century later, the cracking
Earth has smothered the laughter
Of the Adivasi girls you met. The
Mountain still burns the same. With their
Heaves. And the lava of their rage as mining
Corporations show them their two-penny index.

The desert retains some of
Your tears– corroded, insoluble.
Those refugee girls you taught? They
Must be doing well by now. So I tell myself.

But look, how like them, like you,
I’m still looking for home. The
Albatross refuses to take flight.

Togetherness and moist memories — two recent poems

Togetherness Formulae

(first published in Anti Serious)

Chatter until it’s banter
Shadow and
be shadowed.

Expect, so you can
accept. Sing at your
own risk.

Make play of work,
it helps keep scores.

Love, snore, engage, detach
Talk dreams and work woes.

Nibble together
on sunshine and serendipity,
aged wine and fish music.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Thirsty 

(first published in Open Road Review)

Birdcall will start soon. The room will gather
echoes of a backyard drifting across seas.

The moistness of memory blotches the seen, the felt,
making them apparitions of the once-seen, once-felt.

The neighbour plants bitter leaf to mix in her
tropical fish soup. The ocean surges in her dry throat.

Open the southern window. Hoard unending
afternoons before they get frost-bitten.

Let sleep hang in the air while a
spotted dove returns with stolen monsoon.

Immigrant’s Postcard: Walking with Memory Shards

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

So we’ve been living in a new city for the last ten days. Last week, on my way back home from the indoor market (housing local farmers, butchers, bakers and dairy owners), I got lost–for the second time in three visits. Severely direction-challenged that I am, this isn’t new to me. A lot of times, I actually enjoy losing my way, only to find myself in an interesting part of the city. When this happened to me in London about three years ago, I remember having walked  into the area of Soho, where the evening seemed eager to graduate to  the tantalizing night ahead. I was in London for the first time and might not have visited Soho alone in a planned manner. Getting lost thus pushed me into an experience, which though unexpected, turned out to be memorably charming.

Back to last week’s loss-of-direction episode in my current city. When I finally realized my mental mapping skills were not taking me any closer to home, I sought a fellow-walker lady’s help. Thanks to her accurate directions, my feet quickly found solid ground and marched toward our apartment complex.

A couple of hundred meters from the apartment complex is a casual eatery with patio seating outside. As I passed the cafe, I heard an elderly gentleman asking a couple sitting in the patio for some help. I couldn’t hear well, but I heard him say, “My Alzheimer’s…” to which the gentleman sitting at the table on the patio said, “Well, you are still very much in London, sir.” By then I had moved farther. When I turned back, the lone, walking gentleman no longer stood next to the patio.

Even as I tried to make sense of the streets and intersections to reorient my geography, here was a man wandering with fractals of memory and no compass to rely on, wondering if he was still in the city where he started his walk.

It struck me then that we were in a city of the aging, with more visible services for the elderly than possibly any  other demographic group.

London, Ontario that is.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE