Category Archives: Reviews

MINIMALIST POETRY: CITY TIMES AND OTHER POEMS 

Ananya S Guha

vihangVihang A Naik’s City Times and Other Poems uses a minimalist style of poetry, with imagistic uses crystallising into direct turn of phrases. The interesting aspect of Indian Poetry in English today is the fusion of styles ranging from the narrative descriptive, the lyric, epic to minimalist use of language and imagery. Naik’s collection under review uses stark images which capture moments in a familiar city, the scapes which the poet captures in moments of poetic revelation.

The urban landscape and its usage are not new in poetry; nor are they new in poetry in English written in India. Naik forges ahead with a new vocabulary, the idiom of living in a city, the idiom of ennui and a modernist angst if one may call it. The significant thing here is a kind of monotony and boredom repeated throughout – no moral castigation, no irony or satire. Naik pounds image after image to give continuity to flux, to give thematic unity through the cleverly wrought sections of the book: a city unknown, unnamed. Which is this city?

Vihang Naik is a known voice in English poetry in India. But his sense of detachment from his subject matter is a striking feature of his poetry. He is the poet of emptiness not of celebration; he does not voice anguish, but voices a kind of listless acceptance. Such acceptance is the acceptance of a kind of ‘death’ in living.

If you look for lyricism in such poetry you may not get it. If you look for the narrative experience you may not get it. But if you look for a vast expanse of light, colour and shades you may get it. Through minimalist use of language and words, Naik suspends belief or disbelief and keeps reader’s guessing about an innermost world seen through the eyes of a city, at once luminous and dark.It is the poetry of self expression, the poetry of modernist blunders, modernist living: the poetry of urban landscapes seen through an unpretentious un-pontificating mindscape.

***

 

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BEAUTY IN DEATH AND BETRAYAL: THE FIREBIRD

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

[Spoilers ahead]

 

FIREBIRD HB 1Saikat Majumdar’s second novel, The Firebird, is set in the 1980’s, in the world of commercial theatre in the city of Calcutta. These theatres staged plays in Bengali—both original, as well as Bengali-language adaptations of plays written in other languages. In the closing chapters of The Firebird, we see the lead female character of the novel, Garima Basu, a stage actor, playing the role of Teesta, the Calcutta stage version of Blanche DuBois, in a Bengali play called The Wishcar, “[I]nspired by A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams”. On “[The] giant billboard” displaying the name, cast and crew of the play, “the source of inspiration was near invisible”.

Outraging the sensibilities of the society, and battling accusations of obscenity as well as challenges posed by that ruthless medium of entertainment, the cinema – “The seenema posters were all over the place” – the commercial theatre in Calcutta underwent such a transformation that it did not remain theatre anymore. It became the “cabaret”—offering the society the same obscene kind of entertainment that it loved to both watch and shun, so much that there came a time – the 1980’s and the 1990’s – when commercial theatres were wiped clean from Calcutta.

What drew me to The Firebird?

As a child growing up in neighbouring Jharkhand – then Bihar – in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I remember seeing small advertisement boxes – measuring not more than 2”x2” – in the Anandabazar Patrika and The Statesman. They were serious papers, I felt, for they did not even have TV listings for the day and the list of films showing in cinema halls in Calcutta. I cannot say that confidently about Anandabazar Patrika, for I was yet to master reading Bengali, but I remember quite clearly that The Statesman did not carry TV and film listings at all. However, there were those 2”x2” advertisement boxes that appeared in a corner in page 2 of both these papers. In The Statesman, those boxes were placed in a column that said Theatre and showed two corpulent, turbaned men fencing against one another. In those boxes were names of plays that played at theatres in Calcutta at that time. Some of those plays, I remember, had suggestive names. I cannot really recall the names of the theatres, but I think I read the name Minerva at one place.

Those advertisements left me intrigued. I wondered what was shown in those plays. One day, when I saw an article in a newspaper published from Calcutta – The Statesman? The Telegraph? I am not being able to recall that clearly – about those theatres in Calcutta, I just kept on staring at that article, because accompanying that article was a photograph showing a buxom woman, face white with make-up, wearing a shiny bodice and a shiny skirt, in a dancing pose, her mouth open, as if singing a song or lip-syncing to a recorded song, lips dark with lipstick. Along with that woman was a man, in black pants and a black sleeveless shirt, dancing. I was, in fact, staring at that photograph. I do not remember what had been written in that article—it is only that photograph that I remember. That woman was, perhaps, one of those women who a self-appointed guardian of morality in The Firebird calls: “[W]hores jiggling their bellies on the stage while cabbies and truckers whistle from the audience.”

I had read blurbs about Saikat Majumdar’s The Firebird. I also read his essay on Calcutta’s commercial theatres published in LiveMint, the one he wrote while researching on The Firebird. Curiosity, coupled with the memory of that photograph of a woman jiggling her belly, drew me to this novel. What I had not been able to read in that newspaper some thirty years ago – for, perhaps, I was too young to understand what was written in that report – I expected to read in The Firebird.

Death and Betrayal

Death isn’t enjoyable, nor is betrayal. But such is the quality of death and betrayal in The Firebird, that I shall remember this novel for the portrayal of these two alone.

The novel starts with a scene of a death. Ori – short for Oritri – the small boy through whose eyes we see a family and the world of theatres both crumbling down – sees his mother, Garima, die right in the first line of the novel. Garima, like I have mentioned earlier, is an actor. In one of her plays, her character is shown to be dying. That scene shakes him up—and, along with Ori, I, too, felt something move inside me, realising it only after three paragraphs that Garima had not really died. “Dhur boka!” Ori’s father hugs and chides him, for he had begun crying—and such is the familiarity in this chide – “Dhur boka!” – so common are these words in the place where I live that I couldn’t help thinking that these words were spoken to me. Ori did not smile on realising that his mother was not really dead, but I did, feeling like a fool for thinking a staged death to be a real death.

I would have wanted another death to be a staged death. The location for this death was just right: just below the unique, revolving stage of a theatre called The Pantheon, where a large part of the novel’s action is set. And the person to die was Shruti, Ori’s older cousin – the daughter of his father’s elder brother – and a thoroughly lovable character. Shruti is, perhaps, the only character who can be called positive and vivacious in the otherwise sad and depressing world of The Firebird.

When we first meet Shruti, she is a student of Class 6—eleven-year-old, perhaps. She wishes to go to see the Bijoya Dashami procession with her friends. However, their grandmother – who Ori calls Mummum – asks her to take Ori along. We see Mummum disapproving of Shruti—perhaps, because Shruti is a girl, or maybe because Shruti is too independent for a girl of those times. We see Mummum’s disapproval and Shruti’s desire to be left free through Ori’s eyes: “Why did Mummum shout at Shruti all the time? She was Mummum’s grandchild too…a girl without her father. And why did Shruti always speak to Mummum in the mean, biting way?” Shruti takes Ori along to see the Bijoya Dashami procession. Little Ori wants “to go soo-soo.” Shruti, busy with her friends, does not pay attention, and Ori pees in his pants. Rupa, Shruti’s mother and Ori’s guardian in Garima’s absence, laughs, but Mummum is not pleased.

When we next see Shruti, she is grown up, a college-going girl. She is extremely protective of Garima and Ori, and she is, perhaps, the only person in their family who approves of Garima’s profession as an actor. When Abir, Shruti’s boyfriend, calls Garima a “business class” prostitute, Shruti snaps at him: “You bastard! You mention my aunt just one more time and I’ll rip your tongue out.” At the same time, Shruti is also angry that Ori went to Sonagachhi area to look for his mother: “She glared at Ori. ‘So that’s where you went wandering off after school on Thursday?’” When the news of an alleged affair and an accidental fire at the venue of one of Garima’s plays – both incidents concluding that Garima was an irresponsible mother – makes Garima live away from the family house of her in-laws, in a small flat with Ori, it is only Shruti who makes an empathetic visit to her. One of these discreet visits, finally, leads Shruti to her death.

One day, looking for Garima, Shruti goes to The Pantheon, where an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was being staged and in which Garima was playing the role of Titania. At The Pantheon, Shruti is misled by Ahin Mullick, owner of The Pantheon and the producer of plays starring Garima, into believing that he would take her to meet Garima. Ahin was also a failed playwright, struggling to find actors for his play that he had titled Dusk. The lead character of Dusk was Meera, a prostitute who had quit her profession and had married and settled down with her husband and son. Sick to the core, Ahin saw Meera in practically every woman he met. He sought to realise his sexual fantasies with those women. Some spurned him forthright; but Shruti, unaware of Ahin’s obsession, falls in her trap. Seeing his Meera in Shruti, Ahin undresses her and leaves her dead, right under the stage of The Pantheon, “[S]trangled with her own plaits”.

If Shruti’s death, and the manner in which she died, disgraced both before and after her death, made me sad, it also brought into focus the element of betrayal in The Firebird.

Ahin was known to Garima—he was her producer, after all. Yet, he doesn’t just harm her niece, he also had eyes on the young Ori. As a small boy, when Ori was looking for his mother in The Pantheon, Ahin Mullick almost abused him sexually on the pretext of casting him in his play. “Tremors shot through [Ori’s] body as [Ahin] caressed his chest. The palm paused. [Ahin] breathed slowly, and Ori felt soft fingers touch his left nipple.” Luckily, Garima arrives on time, and tells Ahin in a “firm” voice: “[Ori] has no time to act.”

Another act of betrayal was by the Party—a fine exploration of the effect of politics on people’s lives and their freedom – or the lack of it – to make a choice. The Party was, apparently, chosen to power to serve the people, not to keep a check on what kind of entertainment the people chose to have. “What would Marxism be without the theatre?”—one of Shruti’s friend’s wonders wistfully, soon after he had wondered “Who would have thought the Party goondas would want to sweep clean playhouses?” The musclemen “[F]rom the Party…[who] head the local citizen’s council” invite young Ori for a meal at a Chinese restaurant and spike his Coca-Cola with rum so that they could gather information from him about his mother’s affairs with other men. It was the Party’s way of showing that they cared for the families in their “para”, and “sometimes [they needed] to twist the knife a bit”. In the absence of the mother, the wives of the Party musclemen assert themselves as mothers to motherless children, interfering with everyone’s lives—that was how much the Party cared for its people!

Despite the several instances of betrayal in The Firebird, no betrayal is as strong as Ori betraying his mother, Garima—an act that set the mechanism of collapse in motion, that led to the fall of Garima’s family and acting career and, also, to her death, this time in real. Ori reveals to Mummum, “Ma and Samiran Uncle were in bed. And they were kissing.” Samiran was a co-actor, and Ori had seen him in bed with Garima in one of her plays, in a scene in which “they had ended their evening in bed”. However, he mentions his mother being in bed with some other man as a secret he had guarded within himself, as if it were a fact. This single revelation – a plain lie – puts the focus on Garima’s private life. The secret moves on from Mummum to the Party, and the Party would stop at nothing to show Garima her place and rid the city of the theatres that had, apparently, become dens of vice.

Oritro: Love him or hate him?

We see The Firebird through Ori’s eyes. Though the novel is in the third person, the narration, somehow, is Ori’s. He guides us through his house as he enters through the door for the sweeper at the rear. He guides us through a temple site in Hoogly where two young girls swindle tourists of their money. He guides us as he leaves school and boards a local train and a rickshaw to his mother’s flat. It is impossible to not feel for Ori. Here is a child whose family is falling apart, and who would want such a thing to happen to a child? Yet, as I read on, I couldn’t understand if I should love Ori or hate him. He had betrayed his mother on more than one occasion. He betrays his mother towards the end of the novel when, despite the warning that young children are not to be brought to plays, he brings the young son of the actress playing Stella in the adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire along with him to see the play. When the child sees his mother on stage, he begins screaming. Quite understandably, the entire play is spoilt.

What was Oritro’s motive in spoiling his mother’s acting career? What was his motive behind betraying Garima? What made Ori hate the theatre? The Firebird does not answer these questions. None. It also does not try to establish Oritro as a character who we should love or hate. It does not judge anyone, not even the Party. There are several strands The Firebird leaves untied, open. It is just a journey through the world of commercial theatre in Calcutta, and through a family that is tied to the theatre. In this journey lies the beauty of The Firebird.

The Firebird is a sad novel. But there is such beauty in its sadness, and such a satisfying read it is!

***

hansdaHansda Sowvendra Shekhar was born, raised, works, and lives in Jharkhand. His first book, a novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2015 in the English language, and was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014, and a 2014 Crossword Book Award in the category Indian Fiction. His stories and articles have been published in Indian Literature, The Statesman, The Asian Age, Good Housekeeping, Northeast Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, Earthen Lamp Journal, The Dhauli Review, La.Lit, AntiSerious, Alchemy, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II and The Times of India. His next book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of 10 short stories, is forthcoming in September 2015.

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DARKNESS AND LIGHT PLAITED TOGETHER IN A FISTFUL OF EARTH…

Saon Bhattacharya

A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories Siddhartha Gigoo Rupa Publications 2015 English Fiction/Paperback 234 pages/INR 195

A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories
Siddhartha Gigoo
Rupa Publications 2015
English Fiction/Paperback
234 pages/INR 195

 

“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

—William Faulkner (Requiem for a Nun)

El olvido es una de las formas de la memoria.”

—Jorge Luis Borges

 

History has habitually been a site for imagining a nation; and in this case the history of a people with a violent past—a pre- and post-1990s Kashmir for the Pandits of the Valley. Preoccupied as the narrative is with a post-exodus memory crisis and a tenuous bond between remembrance and forgetting—as if “… [d]arkness and light were plaited together,” (“The Debt”)—this collection of short stories endeavours to construct a collective memory for “The Banished People of the Nowhere Kingdom”. But just as a plait has a hidden third strand, unseen to the uninformed eye, this book too is held together by shorter narratives, strands of stories, local histories joined at the hip with personal tragedy and larger catastrophes—a fistful of earth as remembrance for a forgetful mind, and oblivion for the tortured soul.

This unseen third strand is perhaps best exemplified by the coils of thread and needles that hold Lalit’s mother together in the short story “Poison, Nectar”—Gigoo’s short film, The Last Day, is also, in fact, based on this short story. “… Lalit’s mother took to stitching the torn fabric of her tented home with an old needle which had become her prized possession…”. It is as if her needle and thread are at work throughout the book, holding together the torn fabric of history that her people share: of condemned lives, broken aspirations and forgotten dreams.

Dreams and nightmares are other running themes, as contrasts to the leitmotif of memory and amnesia. The author successfully uses a dream-like narrative style as a tool for archiving the history of a lost people, his people, which is very aptly showcased in the opening story, “The Search”. If the first tale sets the tone of this collection of short stories, then “Poison, Nectarforms its essence, while the “The Debt” stands as its conscience, and the “Umbrella Man” (1) shines as a beacon of hope in an otherwise wasted landscape.

What sets this author’s narrative apart from other similar identity narratives is his deconstructed strategy of blending allegory and dream-like lyricism to confront a violent past, without allowing any overtly political thought to tinge his creation. The State, which he assiduously tries to shut out with locked gates and high walls, nevertheless, is often present as spectre. Sometimes through figures of authority and sometimes simply through marked absences and phantom forms.

Gigoo ventures into uncharted territory yet again, with his second book on the subject of the mass exodus of a marginalised people. Being a pioneer, he often lacks the navigating tools (except for those he has fashioned for himself) to help him get his bearings right; but what he has gained in the process is a level playing field and a first mover’s advantage that he has utilized to the fullest potential.

Siddhartha Gigoo artfully manages a tightrope act by adhering to good old fashioned storytelling and enduring imagery, without plunging into political propaganda. I would recommend reading his remarkable collection of short stories for its subtle art and gracious craftsmanship. And for the kind of classic literary imagery that, in time, often quietly transitions into becoming part of a collective consciousness.

I leave you with these immortal lines from Faiz:

…Jinkii aakhoñ ko ruKH-e-sub.h kaa yaaraa bhii nahiiñ

Unkii raatoñ meñ ko.ii shama munavvar kar de

Jinke qadamonñ ko kisii raah kaa sahaaraa bhii nahiiñ

Unki nazroñ pe ko.ii raah ujaagar kar de

 

Ishq ka sirr-e-nihaañ jaan-e-tapaañ hai jis se

Aaj iqraar kareñ aur tapish miT jaa.e

Harf-e-haq dolmen khaTaktaa hai jo kaañTe kii tarah

Aaj izhaar kareñ aur KHalish miT jaa.e…”

 

—Faiz Ahmad Faiz (Dua)

***

Notes:

(1) It is worth noting that the short story, ‘The Umbrella Man’, has recently won the Asia Regional award for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

***

Saon BhattacharyaSaon Bhattacharya is a poet at heart, and a business editor by profession. Based out of Gurgaon, she has been writing poetry for over a decade. Some of her verse and prose pieces have been published in online journals and blogs. Saon is currently experimenting with short fiction.

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The Hypothetical Dimension: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage Random House, 2014 304 pp, INR 487 Hardcover Fiction/English

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Random House, 2014
304 pp, INR 487
Hardcover Fiction/English

Sayantan Ghosh

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is Haruki Murakami’s most autobiographical novel since Norwegian Wood. Much like Tsukuru, who belongs to this rare group of friends who fit together like missing pieces of a puzzle, and one day is ousted from the group without any real explanation, Murakami too has belonged to the literary world like an outcast. All of Tsukuru’s friends but him have a family name corresponding to a color; Akamatsu (red pine), Oumi (blue sea), Shirane (white root) and Kurono (black field). In physics, the fifth dimension is a hypothetical extra, beyond the usual three spatial dimensions and one time dimension of Relativity. Tsukuru forever remains like that hypothetical dimension that has no permanence.

He constantly pictures himself as a colorless being floating in the universe, fails to bring himself to even take his own life and eventually decides to move on carrying his irreparable heart and invisible scars. He leaves his small town and moves to Tokyo, where he completes his education and takes a job as an engineer designing railroad stations. In his state of forced isolation, he sits alone at railway stations and watches trains pass, observes people go by during rush hours and during laze, almost like an orchestral interlude. Disturbingly amid this, he experiences graphic sexual dreams involving his childhood friends. Tsukuru’s suppressed fantasies often take a dark turn, perhaps due to his undeserved accusation and eventual angst against the very people he had connected with at the deepest level.

Like all his other novels, music plays a significant part in this book too. Haida, another important character Tsukuru meets during his journey who eventually becomes his closest friend and guide, draws him into the realm of classical music, especially affecting his life with a particular piece by Franz Liszt called “Le mal du pays”. This piece keeps reappearing through the book in Tskuru’s stream of consciousness, often taking him back to the days he had left long behind, stirring him emotionally. There are enough indulgences for Haruki loyalists too, coffee shops and lonesome hearts, stark contrasts of the bombilating metropolitan and the tranquil arms of nature. Surprisingly however, there are no cats this time.

It’s a minimalist novel to say the least, but strangely it finds a unique place between the more mainstream Norwegian Wood and his other subliminal works such as Sputnik Sweetheart. There is a sense of abruptness that lingers throughout the book, Tsukuru’s deep friendship with the youngsters, his removal from the group, his experiencing love with Sara who he meets later in life, and who eventually convinces him to make that journey backwards. The genius of Murakami lies in the fact that he keeps the secret holding the plot together under wraps for a long time, yet Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki never really becomes a suspense story.

In an interview given by a popular Indian filmmaker, I had read about how he had shot a particular lovemaking scene in the early 90s so as to not make it look sleazy. He knew he was battling against an age-old mindset where a man undressing a woman on screen was meant for cheering and whistling in collective. But the filmmaker in question knew that it would take away the poignancy from the scene that he wanted to create. Finally he filmed the scene by lighting it in such a way that their silhouettes were sufficient to depict their love for each other, thus retaining the tenderness. Murakami manages just that, by introducing a dilemma very early on and then making the protagonist go through a ‘pilgrimage’ in search of unanswered questions and subsequent closure, but never gives in to clichés.

Yet one cannot help but notice the preferential treatment that he offers to his lead, who describes himself as “I have no sense of self, I have no personality, no brilliant color. I have nothing to offer. That’s always been my problem. I feel like an empty vessel. I have a shape … but there’s nothing inside”. His sympathies always lie with Tsukuru, and this is where even a writer of his caliber cannot separate himself from his creation. This novel is replete with moments that are vulnerable and honest yet transient and open-ended at the same time. Murakami’s world is allegorical, constructed with symbolism and sensitivity. Especially in contrast to his earlier works like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Dance Dance Dance, and even his last monumental trilogy 1Q84, which were shrouded in mysticism and nebulousness, and had left many readers sullen and dissatisfied.

This novel is his most approachable book since Norwegian Wood, and that intention is pretty clear from the simplistic manner and pace with which the story moves forward. There is no real time–space interplay, it is self-reflexive and imitative yet never crossing that thin line between the subconscious and the surreal. His deep connect with his childhood is as evident here as is the influence that American literature had on him and his constant urge to escape from his hometown and roots. Murakami himself grew up in a Japan that was torn apart by war, political disorder and economic imbalance. Yet his characters typically belong to the upper-middle class surroundings, often bored and distant, spending their days in ambiguity. This perhaps is also a tool of wish-fulfilment for Murakami, to compensate for the fact that he can no longer evade his fame and succumb to the charms of anonymity.

There is a popular story about how he wrote Norwegian Wood, his first global blockbuster, during his stay in the UK. And by the time he came back to Japan, it had already outsold everything Murakami had written previously, earning a cult status. On his return he was greeted with a celebrity-like treatment that he couldn’t handle. Millions of people still pre-order and wait in queues every time a new novel by him is ready for release, and Colorless Tsukuru is no exception. In fact, a film adaptation could well be on the cards, given the universal theme and sentiments that are dealt with in this book. Yet like Sara says, what also is my favorite line in the book, “You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them”, ghosts from some of his far-less celebrated works will never cease to haunt the soul of Tsukuru, just like reminiscences from his own past does in the book.

***

Sayantan             Sayantan Ghosh was born in Calcutta, India in 1986. He is a compulsive traveler, writer, procrastinator,and has a postgraduate diploma in anxiety and occasional panic-attacks. He currently lives in a 11×11 room in New Delhi and works as an editor for a publishing house. His work has been published in Northeast Review, The Bangalore Review, Running Out of Ink, eFiction India, EastlitClockwise Cat, and Strip Tease- The Magazine.
               His chaotic blog can be read at http://sayantansunnyghosh.blogspot.in/

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A Dream in Cursive: Seahorse

Gaurav Deka

 

 

Seahorse Random House India 2014 304 pp; INR 499 Harcover Fiction/English

Seahorse
Random House India, 2014
304 pp; INR 499
Harcover Fiction/English

Few novels come with the promise of the perfect prose, the art of movement, and the secret to elude time. Janice Pariat’s debut novel Seahorse is like a dream written in cursive, lush and delicate, promising all of the above. The book is like one long, complete oeuvre that develops on itself: starting on a single note that appears in-the-middle-of-things and tells the story, picks up rhythm, swells and thins, and finally, turns into a brilliant symphony. Everything opens in medias res, [page 3] the first line itself is a dramatic declaration of a story that promises to defy time, linearity, laws of space and motion and refutes the idea of positionalities, referring to any arbitrary point along the narrative of life as a potential critical-point where the story may unfold. For beginnings may come in the middle of someone’s life, at its end, or somewhere in-between [page 3].

In this book, time folds, bends, and lingers: one moment rolls out and becomes eternity and at other times the universe merges into itself and becomes a dot. Events preceding the ‘opening’ run in tandem with events that follow in an intricately designed narrative, brought out alive by the first person voice of Nehemiah, aka Nem. It is through his memory that we traverse back and forth and learn about his shared history with Doctor Nicholas Petrou (referred mostly as Nicholas in the book) and the broken chronology of his past. Nem, a student of English Literature at Delhi University finds his world slipping out of reality when he falls in love with the olive skinned, dark haired, enigmatic art historian, Nicholas. As the book begins, Nem chooses to start with an abrupt disclosure: the disappearance of Nicholas from his life. He recollects his passionate affair and his love for Nicholas and how that love defined the absolute control of his world, formed the crux of his being, until Nicholas’ disappearance. The book is then about the trials and aspirations at finding, rather re-discovering Nicholas through a series of clues and codes. While this trail forms the spine of the story, other events break out in patches of remembrances. Throughout the book, Nem is constantly haunted by the memory of Lenny who is shown to have a rather ambiguously amorous but strong relationship with him. Lenny, who is now dead, keeps coming back at every point, rising up to the surface of his memory and reminding the reader of Nem’s life back in the hills, their unsolved camaraderie, his grief and the disturbing ghosts of his past. Pariat establishes absolute control over the process of unfolding, the right amount just at the right moment and tenderly steers between Nem’s life in Delhi as well as his hometown. Most times while speaking of his life in the university, in the summers, about the hostels and the cafes, Pariat gently shifts to the timelessness felt in a forest, a line of mountains, slow murmuring streams, jays and sparrows, of the smell of pine, mist and rain. The story in its telling-style is a chiaroscuro of random colours, slowly merging and separating, taking shape. Each point radiates into a spot revealing one aspect of the plot and returns like a camera to focus into another direction, another aspect. This gives a water-like quality (also clarity) to the chronology of events, making everything so fluid yet tangible. The effect is further accentuated by the addition of various vintage compositions in the background, starting from Liszt’s Etudes to Haydn’s symphonies to Ravel’s Boléro to Schumann’s songs. Lines and passages are carefully inserted to buffer it up further:

When I was with him, though, time dissolved into insignificance.
It lost its grasp, and loosened, unfurling endlessly as the sea
[page 15].

I was searching for water, holding in my hand a blue and silver fish,
running through a building that could only appear in dreams – stitched
together from many others, familiar but difficult to place. In my dreams,
I was looking for a room with an aquarium
[page 93].

It was someone smaller, lighter, with longer hair,
and a softer mouth. A silky gown that slipped off easily.
Someone with skin smooth as a seashore pebble,
a neck that arched, a pool of deep, endless wetness
[page 246].

Janice Pariat

Janice Pariat

The second half of the book is about Nem’s journey through events and geographies. After qualifying for a fellowship in London, he finds himself close to hope through a coded note sent to him by Nicholas. He follows the trail and finds Myra, who in the first half of the book is introduced by Nicholas as his step-sister. Later, when he visits Myra at her faraway countryside house, where she lives with her father, Philip, he gets to know a different version of the whole truth. He is pulled into another passionate affair with her but Nicholas’ memory doesn’t let him live in peace with anyone. Nicholas is intricately woven to both of their lives and Nem fails to free himself of the web of remembrances. Midway along the course of his life in London, he meets other characters like Santanu, Eva and Yara, all of who rise up as fleetingly as they disappear along the progression of the story. But throughout and till the end, his obsession over Nicholas doesn’t cease to control his existence and choices.

As Pariat mentions in her acknowledgements how Seahorse arose from an interest in Greek Myth, the reader is later able to decipher how the book is a modern re-telling of the myth of Poseidon, the Greek Sea God and his young, male lover, Pelops.  Once in the knowledge of it, everything seems to fall in place and one realizes the timelessness of events and the aquatic appeal of the whole book, which, Pariat at every moment brings out with absolute clarity. At places, some of the passages are so lyrical and vivid, that it leaves you wanting for more.

Back on a carriage the world rapidly fell behind. Time, I’ve often thought,
could easily be captured inside a moving train. When the natural light
outside has faded until it is even with the artificial light inside.
And a passenger, looking at the window, sees two images at once.
The dim landscape rushing past and the interior of the carriage,
reflected with its motionless occupants. Moving and still. All at once.
Moving and still
[page 201].

The ending, which may seem muddled to the careless reader, is like a dream sequence in an unknown, snowy town by the sea Nem travels to. Walking down a seashore, surrounded by ruins and seagulls, and wondering about the incompleteness of his past, Nem at last discovers the ultimate meaning of his longing. Pariat, since Boats on Land, has maintained the signature style of her rich prose even in this book and preserved the technique of opening up the plot layer by layer like almost all of her earlier short stories. Seahorse is overall, in its essence, an elegant piece of music, a cinematic play of words and scenes and a tour-de-force – for a debut novel – achieved with the skills of a remarkable story-teller.

***

Gaurav Deka

Gaurav Deka

 Gaurav Deka is a writer from Guwahati, Assam. His fictions, poetry and essays have been published in The Open Road Review,
The Tenement Block Review,DNA-Out of Print, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Four Quarters Magazine,
among others.
He lives in Delhi and can be reached at gauravdeka.89@gmail.com

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COMMITMENT TO POETRY: SELECTED POEMS: JOY GOSWAMI

The collection is a testimony of the tremendous commitment to poetry by both the poet and the translator, says Sanjukta Poddar

Joy Goswami

Joy Goswami is quite certainly a familiar name even for those lovers of poetry who do not read Bengali. In Bengal, he is more than a household name, a cult figure who has enviably won both popular and critical acclaim. For instance, on the one hand he is a Sahitya Akademi and Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad awardee and on the other, his poems featured in Shob Choritro Kalponik, a Bengali film directed by the late Rituparno Ghosh in 2009. It comes as a surprise then that there are very few English translations of his poetry and almost none which engage extensively with his considerable body of works. Sampurna Chattarji’s translation of three collections of Goswami’s poems—Surjo Pora Chhai 1999 (Ashes, Burnt by the Sun), Moutat Moheswar 2005 (Shiva, My High) and Du Dondo Phowara Matro 2011 (No More Than A Spurt of Time), two other short poems and a short essay, therefore, fills a considerable lacunae. She is a well-known poet, writer and translator who has engaged with Goswami’s oeuvre for long now.

Often reviews of translated works read like a discussion of the source language text eliding over almost completely the creative and painstaking process of translation; this is a grave injustice to what is ultimately an act of great love and generosity. As an artist, the translator has to fulfil the challenging task of internalising the words of another artist and re-creating them in another tongue—faithful yet fresh; retaining the spirit of the ‘original’ and simultaneously birthing a new idiom. In addition, translation also facilitates transcendence for the readers, a leap into the realm of richness and beauty of expressions in a language they may not be familiar with and for this to succeed, they must be led by a talented artist. Sampurna Chattarji’s English translation of Bengali poet Joy Goswami’s poetry is indeed such a labour of love and kindness towards poetry, the poet’s works and the readers.

As Chattarji mentions in the comprehensive introduction, the translation was undertaken after arriving at the original as an ardent admirer, an experience which deeply touched and transformed her much like Jibanananda Das’s iconic ‘Bonolata Sen’ affected Goswami. With this began her long association with the poet, the many conversations and discussions held over eight years (2005-2013), some of which are reproduced at the end of the book. Thus, the introduction and conversation aptly frame and contextualise the intimate and sensitive translations by Chattarji.

Goswami’s contribution to literature lies, among other achievements, in his continuation of theadhunik Bangla kobita (modern Bangla poetry) tradition, of which Jibananda Das was a pioneer. Goswami’s contribution lies in the jibonmukhi (literally, ‘life-oriented’) turn, epitomised particularly by the singer-composer Kabir Suman. In fact, the two have collaborated for performances and their compositions certainly share a common idiom and similar concerns. From depictions of the romanticised and idealised landscapes of rural Bengal popularised by other modern Bengali poets, Goswami and others turn poetry towards the noise, sweat and smoke of everyday life in the cities and mofussils of today. They revel in the conversational, the everyday, the mundane but view these to be of universal relevance. The images often slide into the surreal and abstract, taking brilliant leaps to transcend the present and the future, the particular and the cosmic; an incessant metamorphosis of words, images, ideas which punctures the apparent banality of the quotidian.

Joy Goswami

Jibanananda Das is one of the pioneers of this imagistic genre and Shakti Chattopadhyay is another well-know exponent. It is apt then that Chattarji opens the book by mentioning the former’s influence on Goswami and concludes the translations with a translation of ‘Joyer Shakti’, Goswami’s tribute in memoriam of Chattopadhyay who passed away in 2008.

I can see hundreds of dead poets, known unknown, from the word ‘anonymous’ written below ancient texts they have embodied themselves and risen into this procession, the procession moves, water moves, night, where are you floating off to, old man? (’Notes on a Funeral Procession’, 180).

Thus, the conversation with the deceased friend and a fellow-poet continues beyond life, powerful, celebratory and conscious of the fact that they are both poets who write in a long tradition which they are not afraid to overturn either.

Goswami’s distinct voice is ably reproduced by Chattarji in each of the three above-mentioned collections she has chosen to translate. In the English text too, the everyday and the cosmic coalesce, objects metamorphose into powerful images that draw in the universe into the pages and into the imagination of the readers.

In Ashes, Burnt by the Sun, Chattarji has skilfully managed to retain the narrative embedded within the seemingly scattered poems. As she mentions in the introduction, she deliberately maintains the ‘askew-ness’ (xx) of the lines and the ‘undoing’ (xxi) of language to reflect the startling effect of Goswami’s idiom which constructs a non-linear, random continuity through the ‘ashes’ and remnants left behind in the aftermath of meteoric explosions and galactic cataclysms— ‘a blood-smeared god’, ‘Book of Lightning’, a ‘head that catches fire’—all that celebrates life in a burnt landscape. It is tempting to read some biography and social history in Goswami’s poetry. Orphaned in his teens, he gave up formal education post-high school and made his own way in the world as a poet. That bravado and confidence is reflected in lines such as these, the voice of the rebel, the anarchist and a witness to Bengal’s turbulent political and cultural life.

The tortoise is moving. From his back the planet suddenly

Rolls off, plummets

In space the rabbit wakes—leaps to catch the sphere

The sky glistens up in the white incandescence

Of a meteor. (47)

The second collection resonates with Indic myths, the many names and forms of Shiva woven into 55 distinct poems. As Goswami says in the ‘Afterword’, these poems are ultimately contemplations on different experiences of beauty, the several aspects of Shiva—of the sky, the sea, of music or of a mathematical theorem. In the last poem of the series, Chattarji puns on the English word ‘high’ to make the collection resonate with different sensations of achieving such ecstasy and the near-impossibility of articulation. Beginning with the hedonistic, ‘What divine weed/And what a trip—pure Shiva’, the poem ends with an aesthetic conundrum, ‘And you—my Shiva, my high—stay unknowable’.

Du Dondo Phowara Matro is the most explicitly autobiographical collection of the book. Family members—Ma, Baba, Kaberi, Bukun, Olu the cook, Hamida the errand-girl and Adu the cat, feature regularly as do ‘Close Window’ and ‘Empty Rooms’ echoing of secret trysts, chance loves, the Calcutta cityscape and more of the fantastical quotidian which makes up the poet’s consciousness. Here too, passing people and memories change form, break boundaries and transcend. The poet observes the teenage girl who runs the corner ‘Roll-shop’ all by herself, pumping the stove to light the fire,

The fire blazes up. I say, Girl, you run the world!

As soon as I say that the griddle flies off from the stove, Flies

up into the sky.

In the fire lit by the young girl’s hand, I see griddle after

griddle,

Each one a flaming disk, roaming the empty spaces of this

universe! (Roll-shop, 172)

Similarly, the rag-picker, ‘rummages in the dustbin’ and picks up a child ‘who/Had been thrown into this city’s dustbin one day’ and now they,

Walked into the Bay of Bengal, there he goes, splashing

Through the middle of the sea… (‘From the dustbin’, 173)

This book is a testimony of the tremendous commitment to poetry by both the poet and the translator. For both, it is an all-encompassing, all-consuming passion and it seems that there is nothing outside of poetry or the poetic text. While contemporising the idiom of poetry, both also show an affinity for freedom in expression and empathy for their myriad subjects. As such, poetry-writing and translation emerge as a continuous conversation which opens up a world of enormous suffering and pain but also of infinite possibilities, triumph and joie de vivre.

***

Sanjukta Poddar has taught English Literature at various colleges of University of Delhi and elsewhere, and is an occasional poet and research scholar.

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NEW NARRATIVES: FOUNDING AN EMPIRE ON INDIA’S NORTH-EASTERN FRONTIERS

Suryasikha Pathak

Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers, 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity Gunnel Cederlöf Oxford University Press/2013 English Non-fiction/Hardcover INR 895/296pp

Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers, 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity
Gunnel Cederlöf
Oxford University Press/2013
English Non-fiction/Hardcover
INR 895/296pp

The story of the arrival of the East India Company (EIC) to India and Assam has been retold many times. One of the often told stories is about the arrival of the EIC to Assam after the treaty of Yandaboo. Well, that is what we learn often in school textbooks and sometimes at the graduate level too. Gunnel Cederlöf’s book Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840 retells the story from a different entry point of time and territory. Cederlöf combines a great tale of environmental forces and weaves it into narratives of expansion, of commerce and establishment of an empire.

The book discusses the conquest of Bengal by the EIC and its gradual extension of territory and administration leading it inexorably towards the northeastern frontier of Bengal. It engages with the complexity that the EIC encounters in this march for resources and taxes through EIC’s officials experiences of making sense of this frontier with cartographic exercises and administrative discourses. Gunnel Cederlöf explores these stories from various vantage points – of surveyors, map makers, district administrators and links it up with the larger narrative of power and polity making in colonial India and the Northeast in particular. She culls out details from district record rooms, shifts through the connections in the state and other archives to create a rich tapestry of history of the region and of a period which often does not get mentioned much in our regular dealings with the history of Northeast India.

The book begins with the EIC’s tentative but not at all ambiguous steps towards the northeastern frontier before it became a confident administrative and bureaucratic force to reckon with. What drew EIC towards Northeast Bengal was what drew other mercantile interests to the region. The mineral resources of the Khasi Hills were already being explored and they were also seeking to expand overland trade with Burma and China and use the routes and markets. But over a period of time, they realized the hazards accompanying that journey and the difficulties of undertaking trading ventures in the further east. Difficulties of the EIC to fill in the shoes of the erstwhile Mughal empire by seeking to legitimise with the symbols and structures maintaining continuity were further confounded by the weather and the problem of revenue settlements.

This history of the late 18th century also brings into focus the close connectivity of the region with South and Southeast Asia. Gunnel Cederlöf writes that it was only in the post-1857 period that the “isolation” of the region begins in earnest and “it would be a mistake to apply a notion of an isolated enclave to earlier period of EIC rule.” (p. 6)

The book continuously engages with the idea of cartography and how the region has been viewed. Cederlöf’s mapping of cartographic exercises since the earliest of EIC days brings maps alive with conflicting interests of terrain and commercial interests. Chapter 2 follows up with the idea and discusses the impact of natural forces – like climate, rivers, topography etc – in shaping the history of the region. Recent forays into environmental history discuss the 1762 earthquake which also caused a tsunami. Cederlöf brings into focus another set of concerns which ignore this ‘environmental’ disaster. These tended to focus on the copious notes of the revenue administrators. So while the reality of the land was turned topsy-turvy with the tsunami and its consequences, district administrators functioned “blinkered” with revenue concerns and their “cartographic surveys were in search of a regular stable and ordered landscape.” (p. 19)

There emerged two ways of viewing nature: nature as an unpredictable threat, destructive and nature as viewed by the surveys: areas for possible “entrepreneurship and commerce”. (p.19 ) Different officers viewed nature and landscape differently and diverse perceptions often vested landscapes with contested meaning. This study reiterates the necessity to establish the connection between forest and agrarian histories. Here again cartography and survey guided the EIC. She writes, “Mapping the land was thus part of an active effort to consolidate the image of ‘British India’ under EIC rule.” (p.22)

As the EIC officers marched from the Bengal plains towards the Northeast, they were dealing with a semi-submerged landscape and this is where Jenkins arrived to take charge of the EIC possession. But the complexity of the landscape was matched by the complicated web of networks and hierarchies that managed it. The company acquired along with new territories old conflicts over rivers, foothills and market places. To resolve such conflicts the company attempted to create clearer territorial markers for themselves and engaged with other powers like the rulers of Manipur and Tripura.

Chapter 3 discusses boundary making and how the EIC simplified boundaries avoiding the complex ground realities which they had to grapple with. The company, when settling territorial disputes, tended to choose natural markers as boundaries. This is how they dealt with the contest between Cachar and Tripura over Hailakandi on the banks of Dhalesuri. The EIC argued for an east-west division along the river. Though the river was the centre of people’s lives and livelihood, but for the British “a river constituted an easily defended outer border, separating people by a line cutting through the landscape by which order could be upheld.” (p. 37)

The company also increasingly wanted to make authority clear between the easily administrable plain areas and the difficult terrain of the hills. Hence military force was used to push the Jaintias, the Dimasas, the Tripura king and the Khasis up the hills removing their control over the Bengal plains. They attempted to confine them to the hills. As the company moved in the frontier territories, disputes over boundaries and land rights became extremely common. For example, the Khasis and the EIC came into conflict over the control of Pandua. By the 1790s, the Khasis were pushed back into the hills and the EIC used military force to retain control of the precious limestone quarries, mining and trade.

The company also attempted to control the trade networks. Hence, the first focus was to control the rivers because the EIC was really thinking in terms of a commercially defined polity. The plains of Northeastern Bengal soon became company territory.

It is a story of trade routes which led the EIC into terrains unmapped. The perpetual quest for goods, markets and routes of the EIC changed the history of the whole region. It is the story of a region ravaged by war and depopulated. However, stories of the wealth of times past propelled the EIC to explore the earlier silk route – the south west silk route – that was.

Despite these expansions or quests for expansion, the company’s rule/presence remained nominal/fractured in the region and centered only around a few success in commercial centres and river ports. As is evident in the case of the strategic absence of the Dufla Gam over the Burmese border settlement, the company’s presence and expanse were challenged continuously also in Khasi Hills by U Tirot Singh and in North Cachar by the Dimasas and various Naga tribes.

The book thus reiterates the importance of regional histories, specificities which often disappear in the larger grand narratives of colonialism in India.

Chapter 5 has an excellent discussion on the historiography of the British land revenue assessments. Here the author moves towards a later period of her study and explores the linkages the EIC surveyed in the erstwhile Mughal territories between land rights and consequent revenues. She discusses how a land revenue policy evolved in the region after much experimentation. These efforts also drew out extensive litigations about land and land rights in the Sylhet region. The company’s endeavour to comprehend, settle and establish a modicum of revenue administration in the same are outlined here.

The vagaries and uncertainty of nature played an important role in shaping the district level agrarian and revenue policies. We get entry to an agrarian history which was not merely about land revenue but also about people’s livelihood and the close relationship that rural areas had with their natural setting for livelihood.

This was also the time the company was grappling with various zamindars and zamindari rights in the district without instigating rebellion. By the 1830s, the company ended the privileges allowed to landowners since the Mughal period and in the process, attempted to create a fiscal subject.

The chapters that follow give a very intricate picture of the British annexation of the hills and the wars of commerce that eventually materialised in territorial gains and reinforced the company’s presence in the region. Through consolidation of power in the Bengal plains, the EIC’s territorial margins were drawn along the lines of the Mughal however vague notions of boundaries may have been. But apart from the authority of the diwani grant, the EIC could not exercise its control elsewhere or in the resource rich but small autonomous polities located in the hills or foothills. Jaintia, Cachar, and Manipur and the territories of many Khasi chiefs resisted but were eventually annexed to the growing EIC map. The strategies of annexation were guided by commercial interests and often through treaties which were signed with various rulers and chiefs. Post Burmese war, the treaties followed the spirit of the subsidiary alliance completely where the internal affairs were left with the princes and foreign relations were the EIC’s prerogative. These treaty tales narrate the loss of control by the Khasi chiefs over the limestone quarries in places like Laour in the south-west Khasi Hills. It was for mining these quarries and the transportation of the goods from the hills to the plains that the need to build roads in the hills attained great importance. Similarly controlling river traffic and haats (markets) on the banks also gave rise to conflict over authority where the native chiefs gradually lost out to the EIC’s officers and to merchants like Inglis. Cachar, situated between resource rich regions, became important for the EIC for reasons of stability and strategy.

The company’s transition and transformation from a mercantile corporation to a government marks another change of interest and also conflict. It is during the period under study (1790–1840) that this became apparent. The chaos of the time arose also because of the difficulties faced by merchant/administrators who ran businesses with private interest but at the same time, had to grapple with creating an “administrative practice” making people living in EIC territories “visible as subjects”(p. 219). The EIC did not arrive to make maps where none existed, or install authority where there was none. They moved through fiercely contested social, political, fiscal arenas to establish a precedent which led to a long history of colonisation in Northeast India.

The book is also an exercise on using various district records to construct history and an appeal and effort to re-read the earliest records of the EIC about the Northeast frontier. But it demands a certain familiarity with the histories of Northeast India and sometimes overwhelming in its details of micro-histories which creates digressions from the main narrative. Coming to the main story of the book, though the EIC looks like a struggling corporation, it would be good to remember time and again that it was already an edifice of political and economic power in India which had initiated irreversible transformations in rural India leading to series of protests against its policies, especially land revenue policies in the 19th century.

***

sikhaSuryasikha Pathak used to teach History in Assam University Silchar. She is now a part of the Centre for Tribal Studies, Assam University, Diphu Campus. Her interests are Identity Politics and Women in Missions.

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HOW TO WRITE A POLITICAL MELODRAMA: THE LIVES OF OTHERS

Akhil Katyal

the lives of others 140*224_RHI.inddIn the late 60s in West Bengal, a Calcutta business family finds itself in tatters. A promising grandson has run away and become a Naxal. The patriarch sits nursing his two heart attacks and finds his influence fast receding. The family-owned Paper Mills are held hostage to aggressive labour politics and bad decision-making, some of them closing down. The daughters-in-law find themselves sharing and hence fighting over the depleting collective resources of the family. One daughter – dark, cross-eyed – is close to middle-age and is staring at spinsterhood. The matriarch finds the world seeping from the middle of her fingers. A grandson lives in the abstract world of numbers promising mathematical genius in the middle of this misery. For each of these strands in Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, the late 60’s is only the present, the author nails an entire century to this decade, as the novel moves through its five-hundred pages, by way of the past accruing in each chapter, exploding within it, layering the threads of the vast, composite story.

By this account so far, you would imagine this to be an epic tale of a rich, joint business family come on hard times, told as if the triumphs and losses of this huge family tree of the Ghoshes, were a world in itself which we are invited to enter, to identify with and bemoan its fissures. It would seem that if the novel’s world is mapped through this specific family, through this specific class of people, then this world itself would reflect their interests, their motives, their ideas of what social success and loss is. It would seem that to write of the bourgeoisie is to make the world a little more palatable to it, to reflect the whole world in its partial glass, something the form of the novel has often done in its three century history. Mukherjee, however, has something else up his sleeve.

The author takes the idea of the bourgeois family – an idea painfully familiar to the genre of the novel from its very inception – and explodes it from within. The novel tells the truth of the Ghoshes but it tells it awry. The Ghoshes make up most of the world of the novel but the world-view of the novel is not of the Ghoshes. Most of the characters belong to the bourgeoisie – factory owners in mid-twentieth century east India – but the novel is able to mount a vision which slowly, painstakingly pulls the grounds from beneath the feet of this class. While seemingly compassionate in recording their dailiness, the novel also subjects its characters to a brutal whetting stone. How does Neel Mukherjee do it? Precisely by mining the very form of the novel in two significant ways – first by using an old technique within it,  the epistolary novel, and secondly, by heightening a particular form of literariness, not unfamiliar to the genre of the novel – melodrama – and taking it to its extremity.

The story of the Ghoshes is offset by the letters of Supratik, the Naxal grandson, to his revealed-at-the-end beloved. A little after the third-person grand narrative of the Ghosh family in north Calcutta takes off, this narrative voice starts getting interrupted by Supratik’s letters, and another world rushes in to the novel. The disenchantment of the young man with his own business family and what they stand for interrupts the cosiness of the narrative of domestic intrigue among the Ghoshes set within the four-storeyed Basanta Bose Road house. The Naxal disillusionment crosses into the middle-class household and holds it by its neck. Rural Medinipur enters the urban terrain of mid-century Calcutta stretching its promise to the seams. Since its early days, the epistolary form has been doing precisely this – providing the counter-point. From this basic technique, Mukherjee erects an entire literary structure, which pulls apart any claims of the post-independence nation to have outlived its feudal past. The difficult harvest cycles of the landless wage-labourer Kanu – with whom the guerrilla Supratik, following Mao, tries not without failure to live like fish among water – provides the counterpoint which demystifies the ‘big’ problems of the ailing business of the Ghoshes’ Paper Mills. The Ghoshes’ world is seen for what it is precisely by making us see another world through Supratik’s ‘epistles’. The Ghoshes’ lives are placed in perspective, are ‘illumined’, by ‘the lives of others’.

Neel Mukherjee  by Nick+Tucker

Neel Mukherjee Photo by Nick Tucker

The epistolary form does another thing. It enlivens the character who writes these letters, fleshing him out, giving him a substantial diagetic space and emotional locus. It establishes him as the pivot of the narrative, someone who helps us make sense of the world that he pours into his letters. This is a political device in Mukherjee’s hands. To a reader in the early twenty-first century, the Naxal is a staple figure from the television and newspaper reportage. Inheritor of the Naxallite movements of the late 60s in east India, this figure, among the ‘new kind of children’ of ‘the trees,’ lives on but hardly finds itself accurately portrayed in mainstream press and policy-oriented non-fiction (500). Where you see only pithy reports of assaults on CRPF jawans, of train-bombings, of police encounters, of ‘left-wing extremism’ or the ‘red menace’, or of the latest Narendra Modi government’s new policy of ‘first clear and then develop’ (read as kill and extract) with hardly an effort to enter and understand the world which this Naxallite inhabits, Mukherjee’s novel writes the Naxal story against the feudal backdrop of rural India, writes the story of resistance in the middle of bourgeois-friendly State planning, writes the story of land and vegetation against the grain of the worldview which is hell-bent on converting them into extractable resources. Because the ‘Maoist’ is not a margin doodle but the backbone of the novel, its soft, struggling, complex voice in those letters, the reader enters the world which made Naxalbari in India possible and is able to counterbalance it with the relatively more familiar world of the Ghoshes. That it exposes savagery in the middle of this familiar civility, violence in the middle of the familiar dream of modernity is the difficult truth that the novel carries home.

Apart from its epistles, the second major device of the book is melodrama. Combining the Greek melos (music) and dran (drama, to do), the genre of melodrama can be traced from the very inception of the genre of which Mukherjee is an inheritor – the novel as a family romance. The novel – no longer the Epic or Tragedy suitable for the nobility – is preeminently a form that takes birth in and reflects the rise of the bourgeois family, both in the subcontinent and in Europe. The insecurities of paternity, the tussle over private property, the concern with lineage and inheritance, the jealousies among the women, the differential dependence among the genders, the focus on dress and ornaments, and on maintaining boundaries of class and decorum are all the primary features of the family romance and The Lives of Others is self-consciously, mischievously, even devastatingly true to its genre’s traits.

Supratik’s letters – sober, struggling, unornamented reportage from the countryside – emerge in a colossal contrast to this decadent array of campy gestures, emotional excesses, stereotypical jealousies that are the overwrought domestic drama of the Ghoshes’ home. ‘That coarse, vulgar, low-born woman,’ Ghosh’s unmarried daughter thinks, for instance, hearing her sister-in-law Purnima, ‘braying all the time, not a whit of class about her, typical of her south Calcutta origins. Her voice is like a split bamboo’ (11). When set in the genre and language of melodrama, the Ghoshes appear both compassionately represented and terribly ridiculed. Often Mukherjee runs the risk of including his own voice within his target-field, within the parameters of what he calls the melodramatic ‘Bengali life’, a phrase that has a grating regularity in the book, grating because it makes his literary project too explicit, the idiosyncrasies of middle-class Bengalis too fetishized. But his technique stands. The sparseness of resources and gestures of Kanu and his wife Bijli, set in the plainness of Supratik’s passages, is consciously inverted in the ‘melodramatic’ excess of the Ghosh household. Melodrama becomes at once a reaching out and a satirical tool in the hands of the novelist. Whereas he takes evident delight in writing the melodramatic passages, his political technique lies in the puncturing of this melodrama, first embroidering a delicate pattern of the Ghosh family line, then tearing it through with a single letter of runaway Naxal grandson.

Mukherjee’s novel starts with the story of Nitai Das, a debt-sunk Bengali landless labourer killing his starving wife and children, and then committing suicide by drinking insecticide. This preface – this concrete, brutal account of man-made torment – casts a shadow throughout the five hundred pages of the novel. After this passage, you can only hurtle forth searching for ways in which one can make sense of the world in which Nitai Das had to kill himself and his own. The only courier Mukherjee allows is that you hurtle forth among those who once dreamt and still dream to change the world capable of this cruelty.

***

AkhilAkhil Katyal is a writer and translator based in Delhi.

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LIVEABLE AND REAL: A HAPPY PLACE AND OTHER STORIES

Gaurav  Deka

A Happy Place and Other Stories Vineetha Mokkil Chatto & Windus 2014 English Fiction/Paperback oo 208/INR 275

A Happy Place and Other Stories

Vineetha Mokkil

Chatto & Windus 2014

English Fiction/Paperback

oo 208/INR 275

There is more to what happiness can mean as a ‘collective expression’ to define a state of goodness: that which soothes the heart with a desired finality. Vineetha Mokkil’s collection of short stories, A Happy Place and Other Stories is a perfect extension to what F. Scott Fitzgerald had once said – Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story. She does it well and without the coercing need of differentiating them, or specifying which emotion is being played at in a particular story, leaving the reader in a state of open conjectures: where exactly it hit the nerve, what did it take to demarcate happiness from despair, and when did one cross the other? To the many curious minds who may have a look at the title and quite instantly may think of it as another commodification of happiness in the form of a cosy-warm read, a la vie en rose – that which crescendoes on a romantic tilt and hits the finale with an ever-happy ending, Mokkil’s collection stands out as a stark disapproval to such stereotypical assumptions.

From desperate fathers to harassing sexual-exploiters, infidel partners, men struggling through the hierarchical war, some drunk in their hubris to bored housewives seeking identity, widows seeking revenge, women pining for love, mothers for their daughters and daughters writing nostalgic letters to their mothers; Mokkil, through her characters, brings out the absolute disparity in the gender-voices across cultures and norms. The writer is well versed with the idea of the perfect balance between hope and misery that one must constantly strive for even through the quotidian, everyday life. With characters as real as her stories she brings out their experiences in the form of small but significant snapshots of their lives.

Vineetha Mokkil

Vineetha Mokkil

In most of the stories, Delhi remains the backdrop both as a cultural as well as a geo-psychological entity. Sometimes, the city itself merges with the characters – with its nagging monsoons, dry scorching summers, the flooded streets, the cosmopolitan-chaos, wild night-parties, upper-class mansions, and everything that adds to its urbane grime and glamour, at the same time. However there are a few stories which do find variation to time and space and act as pleasing interludes with an equally strong sense of place. ‘A Quiet Day’, for instance is a story set in Kashmir. On what Ameena decides to be her last day, she reflects upon her once happy life, with her husband and her child, who are now dead. The winter and the snow act as metaphors to her melancholia. She is shown to be indifferent to the very day as she treats it like any other day and goes about the daily household chores, till she stops at the door of her bathroom and contemplates on taking a shower, before embarking on her final task.

“Her success does not hinge on personal cleanliness. Or the lack of it. If she were a believer, she would have comforted herself with the thought that the blood on her hands would be cleansed by Allah, and that her actions would transport her closer to him, ensconce her in heaven for eternity. But she has no such illusions. She had lost faith the day the bullet pierced Bilal’s heart.”

She then walks out into the falling snow, without bidding a final goodbye to her sleeping mother. The end is ofcourse left to interpretations. The story comes out as an exceptionally bold shot as it questions faith and justice, both metaphysically as well as politically.

In ‘Other Lives’ the writer delves into the many lives of  women strapped to their upper-class responsibilities, their voiceless self and boredom. Priya, in a private conversation with a lady police officer reveals of her rich yet mundane life, her husband and of her past when she worked and had a normal life. In the end she is faced with a challenge to find out who she is and what she wants out of life, and ends up choosing her identity over everything else that her life had already offered.

“I stand and stare at the tree-lines avenue like a tourist. It takes me just a minute to turn around and take a different route. I’m not sure where I’m headed or how far I’ll go. But I know I have to keep walking till I find my own road.”

In each of the stories the need for a finite conclusion is subtly replaced with expansive and differential inferences. The characters do not seek resolution but a moment of epiphany towards the end. For instance, in ‘Red’ commitment phobic Vikram Mehra overcomes his fears only when he alone faces an adversity after being stranded in the middle of the sea. In ‘The Perfect Poem’ the narrator comes to realise the conflicting emotions of her poet friend, Pablo and fails to decipher it as the story finds a startling twist in its last pages. In ‘A Song for the President’ a young girl, living in near poverty with her widowed mother thinks of her meeting with the President and is extremely sure of what she would answer to his question: ‘Who do you want to be when you grow up?’ But changes her answer at the last moment.

Mokkil’s prose is delicate, taut and lyrical. Though she does not experiment much with her plots, yet her narrative is clearly nuanced. The voice emerging out of every story is deeply personal. In the last story of the collection, ‘Nirvana’, the prose is crafty and poetic. It is a re-telling of Gautam Buddha’s renunciation of his princely life through the eyes of his wife, Yashodhara. It bespeaks of her longing for him and her sorrow of having left behind. The starting paragraph itself emerges out as the clincher even before the story begins:

“She was the sinner, he was the saint. She was ignorant, he had risen beyond desire’s demands. Her life, a litany of petty concerns: Her body’s clamorous wants, her heart’s song. The future of the human race hung on his princely shoulders. What reprieve for a burdened saint?”

While going back in time, Mokkil doesn’t forget the present, changing social scenario and the liberalisation of sexuality and gender. Two of the stories, through their narrators (both female), do subtly indicate towards the acceptance of homosexuality atleast in the minds of the people who are sensible. In ‘The Girl Next Door’ Sonia spends her time with a gay couple who happen to be her closest friends and later discovers her door to freedom from a controlling relationship. Similarly, in ‘USP’ an editor goes against her senior in disapproving a novel written by a gay writer. She visits him to tell that the book is good regardless of any rejection. In the process she befriends both the writer and his partner and the three make a getaway-trip to Kufri.

All the sixteen stories have their own pace and rhythm. Tinged with an acute sense of sorrow each story is liveable and real. They traverse through the uncertainties of life, hurtle into the sea of everyday and internal strife, and row back to the world of wisdom through infinite possibilities of an ending. Happiness – as Mokkil finely draws up to the surface – after all is all about living those tales, never knowing where it ends.

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Gaurav DekaGaurav Deka is a writer from Guwahati, Assam. His fictions, poetry and essays have been published in The Open Road Review, The Tenement Block Review, Café Dissensus, The Four Quarter Magazine, The Thumb Print Magazine, and The Solstice Initiative, among others.

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LAND PROMISED, NOT QUITE DELIVERED: LAND WHERE I FLEE

Khem K Aryal

Land Where I Flee Prajwal Parajuly Quercus 2013 English Fiction/Hardcover Pp265/INR 499

Land Where I Flee
Prajwal Parajuly
Quercus 2013
English Fiction/Hardcover
Pp265/INR 499

Prajwal Parajuly’s debut novel Land Where I Flee is an enjoyable read for a few reasons. A fascinating cast of characters, a provincial small town setting, drama and twists in the story, easy flow of Parajuly’s prose, and a simple story line make the novel a pleasant read. The book has received quite an endorsement from reviewers, and this attests to the novel’s merit to an extent. It has also raised expectations from the Indian-Nepalese author of Northeast India who’s been promoted by his publishers as ‘the next big thing’ in South Asian fiction. This is certainly something to celebrate. However, although the novel establishes the author as one of the most promising English writers from South Asia, it falls short of delivering on the promise it shows.

Set in Gangtok, Sikkim, Land Where I Flee tells of an octogenarian matriarch and her orphaned grandchildren who, now living in various parts of the world, visit her to celebrate her Chaurasi, the eighty-fourth birthday. We, the readers, are told that the occasion was supposed to be a family reunion—all four grandchildren have their own problems and the grandmother, Chitralekha, has a strained relationship with them—but each of them fails to mend his or her relationship either with the grandmother or with other siblings, and they leave Gangtok as they’d come, except one, Manasa, who decides to stay and nurse sick Chitralekha.

The greatest strength of the novel is the rich portrayal of its characters. Chitralekha is a beedi-smoking matriarch who conspires to profit from a political party’s mission to create a separate state for mostly Nepali-speaking people, Gorkhaland; Prasanti, a eunuch, runs the show at home for the matriarch; Agastaya, an oncologist, lives a clandestine life as a gay man in New York; Bhagwati, married to an ‘untouchable’ damaai, lives in Boulder as a resettled Bhutanese refugee; Manasa, an Oxford-educated ‘achiever,’ lives in London but just to nurse her bed-ridden father-in-law at the cost of her job; and the fourth grandchild, Ruthwa, lives in various parts of the world and has bought disgrace to the family by writing about his grandmother’s rape. Each of these characters has a set of features that make him or her easily distinguishable from the rest. Just a rich portrayal of characters may not be sufficient for them to earn the reader’s sympathy, but Parajuly has successfully painted their lively pictures.

However, one of the biggest issues in the novel relates with the characters themselves. Although they are well developed and ‘interesting’ in their own ways, there’s no forward movement in character development; the characters experience no change—no new revelation, no epiphany. As a result, the story falls flat. The story builds on a formula—everything goes wrong with everybody and every relationship. It can be a good formula for stories, but there must be a motif in those ‘mishaps’. In this novel nothing is at stake for anybody; the novel lacks a propelling force to give readers a sense of exigency.

Readers are supposed to assume that the grandchildren want to mend their relationships with each other and with the grandmother. But why would they? None of the grandchildren is going to lose anything even if the grandmother doesn’t approve of anyone of them; they are going to return to their own worlds—New York or Boulder or London—after a few days. And the grandmother herself is not expecting anything from them, except asking one, Agastaya to get married, and even in this case we don’t actually know what she wants after this. Her home will be there as usual. She will live at home as she did before, with her servant. Bhagwati will go back as she’d come, and so will Agastaya and Ruthwa. Manasa’s last minute decision to stay with the grandmother to nurse her hardly adds anything to the story; after all, her struggle is not about her choice between her grandmother and her father-in-law (though it could be). As a result, the novel’s plot remains weak—hardly anything happens in the story; it doesn’t contain an aha! moment. Readers are left to be content with a set of ‘interesting’ characters.

The flow of Parajuly’s prose proves one more time that he is a natural storyteller. Surely, we can find the flavor of what one could call Indian/ South Asian English (‘…but she was enjoying the exchange too much.’), but once we are used to the kind of language he uses, his prose turns out to be pretty enjoyable (sometimes reminding us of Junot Diaz). However, as some reviewers have pointed out, this author has the tendency to exhibit the repertoire of his vocabulary, like some other South Asian writers who write in English as a second language. This, I believe, is the result of the burden a writer carries as somebody using English a second language. The first test such writers face is to prove that they can write in the language; then only comes the issue of real writing—outside the precincts of language. (To write in Nepali, for instance, a Nepali-speaking author wouldn’t need to prove that he can write in Nepali). This burden to prove oneself as an expert in the language creates an anxiety. As a result, beginning writers of a second language are bound to be too conscious of their use of the language, and that may lead to the kind of prose that calls attention to itself (read, for instance, Ravi Thapa’s Nothing to Declare). To an extent, this applies to Parajuly too. I’d argue, though, Parajuly manages to get the story going more or less unobstructed. But at the same time I wish Parajuly had resisted the pressure to prove that he knows the English language by exhibiting the size of his lexicon.

The novelist one more time, like in his short story collection The Gurkha’s Daughter, presents himself as a bold storyteller. His risk taking often reminds us of VS Naipaul. In fact, the writer character, Ruthwa—sometimes described as ‘Prajwal Parajuly gone mad’—is charged of plagiarizing Naipaul’s Half A Life, and Parajuly’s craft shows the influence. He takes risks and creates a lot of drama (sometimes at the cost of being melodramatic), and this is one of the things that keep readers turning the pages. If not executed well, this technique comes close to scripting soap operas, but if done well it can add life to a story. In Parajuly’s case, it sometimes leaves the reader wondering whether the author is trying to create a fable, instead of telling a realistic story. But once we accept his mode of storytelling, it doesn’t feel very problematic.

What I find more problematic in the novel, though, is the way the author cashes in on stereotypes, without justifying why things are the way they are. No Oxford-educated Nepali daughter-in-law would waste her life in the service of her father-in-law in the twenty-first century. This father-in-law, said to be a former home minister of Nepal (sounds pretty exotic, reminding readers of The Mimic Men’s Ralph Singh), is made to be completely fine with exploiting his daughter-in-law as his nurse, and one can’t help wondering about the Nepalese society’s backwardness. It must sound interesting to readers who don’t know about the place, but it’s all bogus.

Bhagwati is a dishwasher in Boulder. Even though it is a stereotypical representation, readers can accept that. But her coworkers call her ‘refugee’ repeatedly, which is next to impossible in the American society. Also, she’s been said to have been sexually abused time and again at the workplace, and that’s another impossibility. Were she an illegal, it could be possible because in that case she wouldn’t be able to report on the abuses. But as a refugee, she has certain channels and support systems. Also, her poverty is unnaturally highlighted. Bhagawati is by far the most sensible and likable character in the novel, at least until toward the end. But before leaving her grandmother’s house, she steals the servant’s jewelry, and we are supposed to believe that she does it because of her poverty in America (an unusual and an unnecessary occurrence in the story). No doubt, her family can be really poor but that has to be justified. Maybe the author wants to create yet another twist in the story, like he does so often in the novel, but it’s very unconvincing.

Likewise, Bhagwati’s ‘untouchable’ husband is made to be an unnaturally devout man. It’s too formulaic a technique. Why would the man be like that? The author doesn’t feel the need to justify it, and it ends up being a cheap soap opera technique. In the novel of the realistic mode readers expect probable actions; simply because it’s a work of fiction, a writer cannot make up just anything. A writer can create any world he or she wishes but he or she has to erect the kind of pillars required to build that world. Here the novelist fully depends on a ‘realistic’ portrayal of people and events without realizing the need to justify the premises within which the story is told.

Agastaya’s portrayal as a gay man, intent in keeping his secret covered, is good. It’s a hard job for him to keep it secret because the family members are bound to pressure him to get married (But, how much? It can be a question because he’s a doctor in the US; and the way he is presented—with very little agency—is unrealistic). But his last-minute action is bound to raise a lot of questions. After dating a girl, upon a family arrangement, he returns home with a magazine that had introduced him to ‘breasts’ as a teenager, and vodka, and now he truly finds sensation as he fantasizes about women, unlike when he was a teenager (when even the thought of naked classmates would not arouse him). And he masturbates fantasizing about women. What has happened to him now? Has he ceased to be gay anymore? The author seems to negate the fact that being gay is a biological fact. After his break-up with his boyfriend, after the family pressure, and after his meeting with a woman, Agastaya completely changes his position. What worldview of the author does it speak of?

Although the author doesn’t deal with the issue of caste system and that of gayness very convincingly, he does really well with the issue of eunuchs. Prashanti, though a stock character, is truly a great depiction. The sense of bitterness and resentment that she harbors, but at the same time the acceptance of her helplessness, her ‘genderlessness’ as she perceives it, and its implications for her, are presented with brilliance. The section that Ruthwa writes as a nonfiction piece on the eunuchs of India, with Prasanti at its center, is perhaps the best section of the book. It’s a well-explored and brilliantly written story of the people who’ve been forced to live the lives of hijra. I only wish the author had further explored the relationship between Prasanti and Agastaya.

To conclude, the novel reads like a well-choreographed piece of work. It includes well thought-out characters; it touches upon issues that are such a taboo in the Indian society—gay marriage, untouchability and the issue of hijra, and also the Gorkhaland movement in the background. But the novel falls short of delivering on the promise it shows. It’s an average novel written by a talented writer, a novel written in haste and written without the level of seriousness it required. As a light reading, the novel will not perhaps frustrate the reader. But to become an ‘outstanding achievement’—as some critics seem to claim that it has done—the novel needed to deliver more. In the novel, the reader can see the land that’s been promised but can’t quite live there.

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KhemKhem K Aryal is the author of Epic Teashop (Vajra Books, 2009) and Kathmandu Saga And Other Poems (NWEN, 2004). His fiction has appeared in Poydras ReviewQwerty Magazine, Of Nepalese ClayThe Kathmandu PostMadhupark etc. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.

 

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