The Hussani Alam House

The Hussain Alam House is about the changing life of Ayman’s (the narrator) house in the Hussaini Alam area of Hyderabad in Telangana.

Ayman speaks of each of the female relatives in her house who were dear to her and played a significant role in her life and her upbringing. These included her great grandmother, Qamar un Nissan or her Nanima; her grandmother, Meher un Nissan; her own mother, Naghma Soz; her sister, Mariam and her foster bua (which means a father’s sister, though in this case it was her grandfather’s adopted foster sister), Khudsia or Khalajaan.

The Good

A chapter is devoted to each of these members. By outlining their importance or her bond with them, Ayman also throws light on the house and the Nawabi culture they followed and on the festivals they celebrated. This also gives a small peek into Hyderabad’s old city and its lanes, buildings and bazaars.

The chapters speak of declining culture and fortune (and the decline in one is related to the decline in the other), of cheerful evenings of storytelling in the courtyard, of a mournful series of deaths, of arguments, secrets and the family drama within. The novel recreates a bygone era.

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Poesie: The Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali

Mere words are not enough to capture the sheer brilliance of Agha Shahid Ali’s poems and their plaintive cry for his beloved homeland.

The poems of The Country Without a Post Office (published in 1997) are complex and allusive, recalling the culturally rich past of Kashmir, and linking that to the carnage in the 1990s. This creates a haunting continuum to the idea of Kashmir- of how it used to be a land where religion, culture, folktales merged effortlessly and how now it has turned into a land where, “death flies in.”

The Country without a post office

Needless to say, the poems in this collection are nostalgic, bemoaning the state of Kashmir of the 90s’. Nostalgia comes naturally in Ali’s poetry which the blurb describes as “Agha Shahid Ali’s finest mode, that of longing.”

This longing though is immersed not only in the melancholic but also the political, historic and the literal. Each poem mingles intense pain of various kinds, be it the pain of losing a son or a relative; of the distance between families; of the silence in the wake of the aftermath, with the history, culture and politics of the decade that pillaged an entire state. All of this pierce the reader’s heart and soul and engulf them in a profound sadness the poet holds for his home. Continue reading

Short Story of the Month: Girl by Jamaica Kincaid

Welcome to the first Short Story of the Month!

This month we will look at the short story, Girl by Jamaica Kincaid!

What is the short story about?

Girl by Jamaica Kincaid is so many things rolled in one, actually two pages. In essence, it is a bunch of instructions unloaded by a mother onto her daughter. The story begins with instructions on how to wash white clothes. They then talk about how the mother is teaching her skills such as sewing a button or growing okra. The instructions also cover a set of behaviours that a girl would be expected to follow such as how to eat and walk like a lady or even how to smile. We hear the daughter’s voice only twice. Once she is meekly contradicting her mothers assumption that she sings benna on Sunday and the second time, at the end, when she is posing a question to her mother.

Analysis:

Girl takes a good hard look at a mother and daughter relationship. There are a several specific references to Antiguan culture and as with Kincaid’s other work, critics have pointed out the autobiographical elements in this story too, yet the story does resonate with the idea of how mothers impose on their daughters the patriarchal expectations of society. Daughters thus grow up to be passive and unquestioning just as patriarchy would like them too!

It is also an indictment of mothers who perpetuate this cycle (in the story we do see how the mother carries assumptions that her daughter will surely become a slut). Yet at the same time, it also goes to show how the society traps mothers in this role of brainwashing their own daughters and by extension playing a major part in their dis-empowerment. Mothers know what society holds for their daughters when they grow up and they believe that the easiest way to fit in and be accepted into society is to follow their discriminatory norms. Thus, though the mother comes across as an overbearing figure in this story, one can also interpret the mother herself as a victim trapped in the vicious cycle of gender expectations. She does not know any other world and so passes on her own knowledge of how to be a woman to her own daughter.

Where to read it?

Find the short story here or here. Read and enjoy! I promise it will not take more than 15 minutes to read and process this short story.

Let us know in the comments below what you thought about the short story!

Happy Reading!


This is part of the series called, Short Story of the Month. Click here to find out more!

The Reading Spree: Indian Women Writing in English

November is done. Unseasonal rains are behind us. Hopefully some coolness and not smog will descend over the city.

As mentioned last month in my October Yellow Book Cover Month Reading Spree post, I had decided to read Indian Women Writers in English.

It was absolute fun to be vicariously traveling from one place to the other through these books, to exploring thoughts and mindsets of varying female protagonists as they face their everyday battles.

So here are the books that made it to my list:

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Short Story of the Month

Let’s face it, we have huge TBR piles and we are never able to resist buying more books!

“What! It is a sale, how can I miss it?”

“I can always make room for more books.”

“There is always space for books!”

“I can donate my older books!”

These are just some of the excuses we often make and justify our not putting a stop to buying books!

And let’s face the reality and admit that reading and buying books are completely different hobbies!

So one possible solution to reduce our constant buying of books is to READ ONLINE!

The best thing to read online are short stories.

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Let’s not add more to our TBR piles!

I personally do not prefer reading novels online (unless I absolutely must!) as I spend way too much time on the computer (or rather this godforsaken addictive smartphone) anyway! Reading my old fashioned paperback is one way I can detach from technology!

Short stories however are fun and short to read and give less strain to the eyes!

So we at The Book Cafe have decided to introduce you to a short story available online. It will be posted on the first of every month so that you get a whole month to read the short story!

The logic behind Short Story of the Month is three fold:

  1. To introduce you to newer writers.
  2. To make sure people do not think any less about short stories
  3. To help you read, even without shelling out tons of money and then stacking on your long TBR piles!

What say? Is it a deal?

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So come join us to read one short story per month online!

 

Stay tuned tomorrow for the short story reveal!


Subscribe to the blog to get the short story delivered straight to your inbox!

Pick It Up: The Tiger’s Wife

Pick It Up is a monthly series of book recommendations to help you with what to read next!

This month The Book Cafe recommends The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

Although Tea Obreht sets The Tiger’s Wife in a fictional place, it is reminiscent of former Yugoslavia. She weaves in magic realism, folklore with the everyday human task of survival.

The protagonist, Natalia and her childhood friend, Zora are headed to execute a good will mission to inoculate children at the Brejevina Orphanage.

On the way there, she receives a pager from her grandmother. On calling her, Natalia finds out that her grandpa had died in a clinic in a town called Zdrevkov.

While she cannot cancel her goodwill mission, she cannot help wonder what her grandpa was doing far away from home in a remote town. She begins to dwell on the past, recollecting her grandpa’s stories about the tiger’s wife and the deathless man.

The narrative then winds its way around two timelines: one where her grandfather is growing up in his home village of Galina and speaks of his encounters with a strange female who is rumoured to be the tiger’s wife and his stranger encounters with the deathless man; the other in the present where Natalia is straddling between her past and her present while inoculating children and also trying to convince the labourers in the farms to send their sick children to the hospital.

The novel explores pasts within pasts and explores changing boundaries and nations, notions of folklore and how old wives tales develop among communities.

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The Top 5: Indian Stories that Merge Folklore and Fiction!

Folklore are the world’s oldest stories. India is replete with them. All corners of the country can boast of their own set of different oral stories that have been passed down from one generation to another.

Yet the 20th and 21st century (and perhaps earlier too?) there have been authors who have created exceptional fictional worlds, after being inspired by folklore and legends. They rewrite them. They create their own. They interweave fiction and folklore creating a rich tapestry of story telling, adding to our country’s own storytelling traditions.

Here’s our Top 5:

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Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko

Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko by Patrick Neate centres on the events of a fictional country, Zambawi, ruled by President Adini. He had declared himself as the President, after his own successful coup launched with his Commander, Indigo Bulimi.

Now another revolution is brewing and at its helm is the rebel Black Boot Gang, headed by Adini’s own bodyguard, Isaiah. Caught between all of the politics of the country are a great many characters from Musa, the witch doctor to Adini’s own son, Enoch; to Rujeko Tula, daughter of the exiled Presiden Tula of Zambawi’s neigbouring country, Mozola; and the titular Mr. Jim Tulloh who comes to teach in a school in Zambawi.

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The Good:

Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko‘s strongest point is its tongue in cheek and straightforward humour that clinically satirises the wrongs of the imaginary country. All is met with a questioning and humourous eye: be it Adini’s success and his continued President ship or the entitlement of the white people residing in Zambawi or worse, the blatant and biased involvement of the British forces in the country’s politics.

The imagination put into creating Zambawi’s history, language, flag, its culture (such as the flatulence inducing drug, gar!) and folklore is commendable.

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Top 10: Mumbai Reads

So you think that Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts defines Mumbai? Got what you need to know about Mumbai from the novel?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but that novel is only one adventurous aspect of Mumbai.

Mumbai has many layers. It is definitely more than Marine Drive or famed iconic restaurants. Mumbai may have been all about the town till about the 1980s but believe me it has mushroomed and mushroomed since then.

Yet, mostly Mumbai novels are centred around the town and do not speak of suburbs. While, recently, there have been newer novels that go beyond South Mumbai and explore other neighbourhoods, there is still a dearth of novels about the city from a suburban point of view.

There should be stories written about the constant monsoon flooding, about Aarey Colony, about SGNP trips, about picnics to Elephanta Island, about architecture other than the Art Deco, about leopard attacks, about the migrants, the dabbawallas, the overflowing markets, about the fishermen, about the Worli Sea Link, about the new metro travels, about communities other than Parsis and so much more.

Why limit your idea of Mumbai to only one single stretch of sea facing pavement? (Don’t get me wrong, I love Marine Drive and have spent good fun and thoughtful times there! But still there is more to Mumbai than that!)

Nonetheless, let us wait till such a novel is written, found and published.

For now let us look at books that go beyond the Taj Hotel, Gateway of India and other such symbols that stereotype the city!

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Poem of the Month: Anna Akhmatova

Welcome to the first Poem of the Month!

This month, November 2019,  we look at Anna Akhmatova.

Russian literature is known for being dour and gloomy. However, like literature from many countries, it is known more by its male writers than female writers.

I think my interest in learning more about female writers from Russia was piqued when a friend of mine randomly asked about it and I realised I knew about none!

Thus, coming across Anna Akhmatova’s work by chance in a bookstore helped me to dispel my ignorance when it came to female writers from Russia.

Muse
(Translated by D.M. Thomas)
When at night I wait for her to come,
Life, it seems, hangs by a single strand.
What are glory, youth, freedom, in comparison
With the dear welcome gust, a flute in hand?
She enters now. Pushing her veil aside,
She stares through me with her attentiveness.
I question her: ‘And were you Dante’s guide,
Dictating the Inferno?’ She answers: ‘Yes.’

This poem is from her work, Reed. Though it is extremely difficult to pick only one single poem from such a gifted writer, I chose Muse, because the poem conveys an intimate conversation between the persona of the poem and a Muse.

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Poem of the Month

It’s been a while since The Book Cafe presented a new series! It felt empty. So to fill that strange void, we present a new series on poems!

Once a month, on the 15th, The Book Cafe will present one specific poem, for you, my dear readers, to soak in and enjoy!

This space will be devoted to love for poetry. It will be a space to share our favourite poems and discuss why it is a favourite!

Why poems though? In a blog meant for book reviews? Because poetry reaches out to the soul in such succinct styles and manners that are bound to take your breath away!

This is also to allow for greater appreciation of poems when very few people are attracted to the idea of reading!

If you are a poetry connoisseur like me, come blog about it here!
Share your favourite poems with me at akisabookworm@gmail.com


Stay tuned on the 15th of each month for your monthly poetry updates!

Quick Reviews: Bara

Bara by U.R. Anantmurthy can be read in one sitting. It is a short book with an intense depth.

What is the book about?

Bara is modeled on the author’s own experience of meeting a civil servant who was trying to resolve the drought prevalent in his district.

The novel is translated from Kannada by Chandan Gowda, who teaches at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru.

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The Artist of Disappearance

The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai thrives on the motif of disappearance. The epigraph (by Jorge Luis Borges) of the book,

“One thing alone does not exist – oblivion,”

similarly brings in an oft debated idea of what stays on eternally and what disappears from this world. I would think, contrary to what Borge points out, oblivion is the ONE thing that is absolutely constant. A person cannot protect or fight against oblivion. It is inevitable.

Yet the three short stories of The Artist of Disappearance, question whether oblivion is in fact inevitable and if it is possible to fight it.

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The first story, The Museum of Final Journeys, is about a Civil Servant Officer, who recently finished his training and is now traveling to a remote place: his first posting. Soon the banality of his office and work overtakes his life and is only broken when an old faithful caretaker of the erstwhile Mukherjee estate nearby requests the officer to take over a now crumbling museum that is replete with bric-a-brac collected from all over the world. The caretaker even takes the officer to the equally dilapidated estate and shows him the various rooms filled with these curious objects – carpets and rugs from across the world, stuffed birds and animals, miniature paintings from bygone Indian empires, fans and kimonos, myriad masks, weapons of war and much more.

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The Reading Spree: October Yellow Cover Month!

I decided to pick a strange, albeit colour coordinated, theme for this month!

It was an impulse decision that came out of random coincidences converging to make my desk very yellow this month!

Thus, I embarked on reading books that had a yellow cover!

These are the books I managed to read in this very yellow month!

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  1. Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko by Patrick Neale: This humorous and satirical novel is based on a a fictional African country, Zambawi, that is riddled with dictatorship, revolutionaries and one lost musungu or white man, Jim, who has come there to teach. Check out my review!
  2. Bara by U.R. Ananthamurthy: This short novella reads almost like a short story. Set possibly in Bidar in Karnataka, it unravels the problems of that district which is facing severe drought and how one civil servant is trying to help but is caught between various conflicts. Read my review here.
  3. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: This was my favourite novel from the list. Again this novel is set in a fictional place but one that closely resembles Eastern Europe or even possibly Yugoslavia. It narrates how parallel stories of a woman’s relationship with her grandfather and his stories particular the one about the titular tiger’s wife.
  4. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl: This novel is quintessentially a Dahl story with it’s signature child hero, James, who has had a bad childhood and who, because of a strange turn of events, is able to meet the strangest of friends and go on a peculiar ride on the titular giant peach. Read my detailed review here.
  5. Children of the Revolution by Dinaw Mengestu: Told from the point of view of an Ethiopian immigrant, Seppha Stephanos, the novel traverses his present in which he is an owner of a crumbling grocery store, and his past in which he still owned his store but also had the company of Judith and her daughter, Naomi and they had fun reading sessions. Read the Guest Post review here!
  6. The Best of Laxman: The Common Man Watches Cricket: This is a fun, breezy delight through R.K. Laxman’s iconic cartoon series featuring his ubiquitous common man. Despite what the title says, it is not only about cricket but his satirical cartoons broach all kinds of subjects particularly politics. They leave no stone unturned to lay bare the hypocrisy and idiosyncrasies of our country and politicians. What is surprising is that several of the cartoons included in this collection are relevant even today which simply goes to show the vicious circle politics traps citizens in.

Stay tuned next month for the next Reading Spree List! In November, we will focus on Women Writing in India in English. Don’t forget to check out what titles we pick for next month!

Happy browsing!

James and the Giant Peach

I picked up a Roald Dahl book, James and the Giant Peach, after what seems like an eternity. And I only did it because it seamlessly became part of the October Yellow Book Cover Month. And what an absolute delight the book was! Not since reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have I read a Dahl book and this one was equally quirky and fun. It felt like going back to my childhood. What a fun, childlike and nostalgic read it was!

So what is James and the Giant Peach about?

It is about the eponymous James who had an absolutely terrific life living by the sea with his parents but in an unfortunate yet bizarre incident, (getting eaten by a pair of rhinoceros, no less) his parents die and now James has to live with his terrible aunts, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. They treat him poorly, making him constantly do chores, starving, abusing and punishing him. Worse still, they live on top of a hill, far away from his beloved sea and his dastardly aunts do not allow him to go down this isolated hill and meet or play with other children. And that is the worst kind of treatment any child can be given – to cut a child off from other kids his age is nothing short of abuse and exploitation.

One fine day, James comes across a rather strange man in the garden. The man hands him tiny yet colourful beans and gives precise instructions on how to use them. But as luck would have it, James slips and the beans scatter about and he is too slow in retrieving them.

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Blurb Appreciation Reviews: When the Doves Disappeared

The Blurb Appreciation Reviews presents its fifth review!

When the Doves Disappeared written originally in Finnish by Sofi Oksanen. The novel is set in Estonia during WWII and later on when it became part of the Soviet Union.

This was my first novel I read that was set in Estonia. I read it as part of the Women in Translation month in August. Take a look at the other books that I read in that month!

The novel is translated into English by Lola M. Rogers.

The Blurb:

As the blurb points out, When the Doves Disappeared takes place through two timelines. This parallel style is quite effective in making the reader think and figure out the pieces of what is happening or has happened to the story’s main characters, Edgar and Roland.

The novel explores a different, lesser known side of history namely Estonia’s struggle in World War 2 especially against the Nazi rule and its eventual capture by Soviet forces. The Soviet side had initially come to Estonia as saviours but later they also turned into captors of all Estonians, denying them freedom.

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Swarnlata

Translated from Assamese by Udayon Misra, Swarnlata is a historical fiction about three girls growing up in Nagaon in Assam during the 1800s’ in the Pre-Independence era. It is written by Tilottoma Misra.

The eponymous character is the daughter of Nagaon’s Assistant Commissioner, Gunabhiram Barua, who has accepted the Brahmo faith and married a widow, Bishnupriya, which at that time was a revolutionary and scandalous step to take.

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Lakhi is widowed at a very tender age, even before her marriage takes place. With Gunabhiram and her father’s support, she decides to continue with her education, which she had started with Swarnalata and her private tutor.

Tora’s mother, Golapi, converted to Christianity when the Baptist Missionary, Miles Bronson, provided her with a job at the mission school at Nagaon as a chowkidarni after her husband’s death. She saw faith in this religion and Tora followed her mother’s footsteps by studying in that school and eventually becoming a teacher there as well. However, Tora does suffer from self doubt about the faith’s complicity with the British rule and its ever increasing cruelty. This facet of Tora’s personality brings out a significant idea of how and why people converted and even if natives did become Christians, they were still considered savage subjects.

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Musically Yours: Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head

 

Lunatic in My Head is one of a kind story written by Anjum Hasan. It is set in Shillong of the 1990s. The novel is an interwoven story of three main characters: an English college lecturer, Firdaus Ansari; an IAS aspirant Aman Moondy, and eight year old, Sophie Das.

Firdaus is caught between her teaching and her wish to pursue an MPhil to safeguard her teaching post at the convent she teaches in. She is also caught between her colleagues’ personal affair dramas and her very unhelpful, lecherous potential supervisor, Thakur.

The novel begins with Firdaus on an April afternoon when “pine trees dripped slow tears,’ (a line that hooked me to the book immediately for its visuality) and as she walks down a street, the opening page itself gives a sweeping view of the multicultural composition of the city, from the Khasis, to Bengalis, to Goans, and to Firdaus herself, who is from Bihar but born and brought up in Shillong. Her sense of being rooted there in Shillong yet being seen as a dkhar, which is the Khasi word for non tribal or foreigner, is another of the conflicts she is entangled in.

Aman Moondy is studying for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exams for the second time, having failed on his first attempt. His first love, however, is Pink Floyd. He and his friends, Ibomcha and Ribor, even formed a band, ProtoDreamers and played Pink Floyd’s covers for several small occasions. Aman lives and breathes music. He compares everything around him to music, including his infatuation for Concordella. He is also on the other hand, someone who dislikes the smallness of Shillong and wants to leave. This is also why he decided to give the IAS exam a shot or two. For him, it meant a window to the outside world.

When we first read about Sophie, she is sitting in class and wondering how the baby in her mother’s belly will come out. Sophie herself is a product of an intercultural marriage, her father, Mr. Das, being a Bengali whereas her mother a northerner. Sophie loves to read and is fascinated by her neighbour, Elsa Lyngdoh, and her house, which was the only place she was allowed to go by herself. She has strange conversations with Elsa and even stranger ones (and perhaps a touch too creepy) with her son, Jason. Elsa, an old Khasi woman, and an eight year old, Sophie, made for an odd couple whenever they went together for an excursion outside the house.

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A Strangeness in my Mind

Reminiscent of other novels by Orhan Pamuk and their lovely rendering of Istanbul, A Strangeness in my Mind, also pays homage to the city.

Seen mainly through the eyes of the character, Mevlut, comes to Istanbul in 1969 at the age of 12, to live with his father, who sells yoghurt during the day and boza (a fermented drink) at night. He and his father are among the hundreds of villagers who migrated from remote villages to Istanbul in search of a better income and life.

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Mevlut thoroughly enjoys it as a child there, looking wondrously at the city’s intricate streets and its inhabitants while accompanying his father on his rounds; picking up the nitty gritties of the job: the way to behave, the way to entice a customer to buy, the manner in which to extol your yoghurt or boza. Being in school presents a completely different set of challenges especially due to the class divide and him having to work after his school. Nonetheless, his time with his cousins and their mother, is something he looks forward to, particularly with cousin Suleyman, who is always ready to give Mevlut the benefit of the doubt.

The novel weaves its way through the various main events that occur in Mevlut’s life such as him dropping out of school, or his marriage to Rayiha which has its own twist, or his time selling ice cream or being a waiter or being robbed during one of his rounds selling boza among many others .

A Strangeness in my Mind is a peculiar bildungsroman or a coming of age novel that traces Mevlut’s growth. Yet Pamuk plays with the narrative’s style deftly such that the novel is not a mere chronicler of life from birth to death.

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A Rag Doll after my Heart

A Rag Doll after my Heart, is written by Anuradha Vaidya and translated into English from the original Marathi by Shruti Nargundkar.

The story is told in verses and hence the description as a ‘poetic novel.’ It is a straightforward story of a mother’s relationship with her daughter, who is fashioned out of rag clothes, since her mother was not bestowed with a child like the others. The nosy Indian society of course maliciously points fingers at this anomaly of a daughter, even accusing the mother of trying to act like God by creating a daughter/doll from rags. Only God can create, so why have you as well?

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With this Frankensteinesque beginning, also begins their odd journey embedded within a larger metaphor of life as a game, with its set rules, that doles out the fates/destinies to all the people. The writer has used this overarching metaphor and within it several others to refer to their bond or the daughter’s journey such as the most important one that of the doll and daughter, or a bird or a fish or even horticultural metaphors. These metaphors within metaphors beautifully encapsulates the emotions of mother and daughter but the larger metaphor is a tad bit overused and can wear out the reader.

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