The House That Spoke by Zuni Chopra

Imagine living in a house as old as time, with a living and breathing library at your disposal, an ornate fireplace, and an armchair to sit back for hours and read. No, I am not talking about the library from Beauty and the Beast. But yes, this could easily be a dream for all book lovers, especially when cooped up indoors during the pandemic. Who would not want a beautiful house where you could while away hours on an end, as time passes slowly by?

Soon to turn 15, Zoon Razdan, luckily has exactly that in Zuni Chopra’s YA novel, The House That Spoke. She lives with her mother, Shanti, in Srinagar in their ancestral house. Her grandma lives close by, down the street. Zoon loves her home. Her favourite place in the house is the library where she loves spending her mornings and having some noon chai. Thus, when one day Zoon finds a realtor, Mr. Qureishi in her house, all hell breaks loose and strains her relationship with her mother. Zoon then embarks on an adventure to stop her mother from selling the house. To help out, she has a bunch of curious and unlikely friends along with her shy and newly found friend, Altaf. Altaf is Shanti’s friend, Lameeya’s son.

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The House That Spoke is suffused with a fairy tale atmosphere that is a cross between Beauty and the Beast and the Chronicles of Narnia because her own historic house is a portal to both adventure and danger. Despite this magical element, Zoon’s adventures and life are tangled with the dangers that anyone living in Srinagar might face from acts of terrorism to government and army excesses. Chopra portrays the ‘normal’ in Kashmir through Zoon’s eyes: from stray shooting to a bomb blast. The fact that even a 15 year old knows how to navigate through this terror and thinks of it every time she crosses the street to see her grandma, her tathi, manifests the way in which the state has been paralysed with violence and how successive governments have failed it. Hence, the magic evoked in The House That Spoke is fraught with the realities of everyday life, of the darkness that engulfs the state and how Zoon, in trying to save her house, must also save her home, her state from this inexplicable darkness.

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Circus Folks and Village Freaks

The idea of perfection or of being perfect engulfs us all in its suffocating grip. Our bodies, our work, our dress, our hair, and our everything must be somehow perfect in this deeply flawed society. Such are the contradictory expectations that society foists on us all, egged on particularly by the mass media and mass popular culture. Protagonists in movies, pop culture idols, and even politicians are projected as embodying the perfect. The ideal to achieve, then, is only perfection in all spheres of life.

Ancient Greek playwrights were perhaps one of the first to talk about characters with a deep flaw through the concept of hamartia which means ‘to err.’ Shakespeare’s tragic plays feature protagonists that are wholly defined by flaws such as Hamlet and his indecisiveness, Othello with his jealousy, or Macbeth and his greed. Even popular culture has slowly embraced imperfection, often treating its characters through a more nuanced lens rather than just the dichotomous notion of perfect versus imperfect.

Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal in her prose poetry novel, Circus Folk and Village Freaks, wholly rejects these superficial notions of the perfect ideal and instead portrays 18 different tales of characters who are misunderstood and rejected by society as being out of the ordinary, who we would also label ignorantly as ‘freaks.’

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When society rejects these freaks in the novel, they all find solace and space in a village circus, whose circus master is more than happy to accommodate and make a spectacle out of them.

From Siva, the Snake Man who finds an affinity to reptiles rather than humans, to Miss Rita with her chin full of hair because of hirsutism, from the Siamese twins, Sita and Gita to Miss Luxmi whose passion was throwing darts; all kinds of people could make it big and feel accepted among the peculiar circus folk.

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Short Story of the Month: Lavanya and Deepika

Welcome to the seventh short story of the month!

June is Global Pride Month. In 2020, owing to social distancing norms in place across the world, Pride month will be a little different. It will be less parade, and more virtual. Several initiatives have taken up this challenge and tried to create solidarity through various means. 

At The Book Cafe, the short story, Lavanya and Deepika, in focus also has a portrayal of queer characters along with many cool twists!

What is the story about? 

Lavanya and Deepika is written by Shveta Thakrar. It is about the two titular princesses living in a fairy tale kingdom, with their mother, Gulabi.

Their kingdom is attacked and the two princesses must fight to save it. They join forces and their strength: Deepika’s skills with archery and embroidery and Lavanya’s with her spears.

Analysis

The story, like many of Shveta’s other YA writing, has a fairy tale atmosphere. But it has an Indian touch rather than a Grimms’ fairy tale touch.

The story also rejects all kinds of fairy tale conventions such as the damsel in distress trope, beauty as being fair or women characters being witches. It shows sisterly love and bonding between the two protagonists unlike conventional fairy tales that depict the female characters as only scheming against each other. The story portrays that femininity and strength can go together like Deepika’s two skills of embroidery and archery. It also shows a Rani or queen, Gulabi, at the helm of her kingdom managing it with great skill and efficiency, with no need for a king whatsoever.
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The Reading Spree: Kashmir Highlighted

May was a slow and steady month in all aspects: work, the lock down, and even my reading pace. Perhaps it was the stifling heat that brought about this lethargy in all spheres of life.

But I am glad in a way. It is good to slow down. After a long time, I read a book slowly. It had its own magic. I have been reading at least 4 books a month consistently since last August. But this May, I only read two. It was beautiful to do that. I could read 10 pages in a day and still feel like I have learnt so much about the protagonists. I really felt I immersed in the words, stopped and paused to take in a beautiful phrase or to simply enjoy the vivid descriptions (of which were many in the second book I read).

This slow immersion in these two books is what made me glad that I did not be too unrealistic in my reading goals or the Goodreads Reading Challenge. Last year, my goal was to finish 50! Because I had the time and luxury to read endlessly especially in the second half of the year, I could actually complete the goal. But 2020 brought in busier times and so I kept my Goodreads Reading Challenge at first to 25 books and now increased it to 30 books.

These challenges are great to keep and help you to focus on your reading but if you become too ambitious then reading a book can become a chore rather than a pleasure because you become fixated with only numbers rather than the reading experience.

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The Lowland

Spoiler Alert!

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri revolves around love, relationships of loss and political deaths and like her previous novels, is also about cultural amalgamations.

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The novel begins in the 1970s in the flooded lowland of Tollygunge, Calcutta where two brothers, Udayan and Subhash grow up. Udayan is influenced by the Naxalite Movement in his college while Subhash goes on to pursue his studies at Rhode Island in the US.

Things take a drastic turn when the police gun down Udayan mercilessly for his involvement in Naxal activities. His parents then ostracise his wife, Gauri. Pitying Gauri, Subhash takes her back to Rhode Island. In the US, to distract herself from her grief and her pregnancy, Gauri immerses herself in university life, exercising her intelligence to the fullest.

Despite trying to bring a sense of normalcy in their lives by raising a family, and Gauri eventually even pursuing her doctorate with the encouragement of her professor; Udayan’s death is a spectre that still haunts the couple. Their relationship was always one of convenience rather than one of love. The truth of Bela’s (their daughter) parentage is a Damocles sword that particularly unnerves Subhash.

Its climactic revelation opens up a Pandora’s Box in all their lives, shattering any illusions of normalcy the couple might have harboured.

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Dasuram’s Script: New Writing from Odisha

This is a collection of 16 short stories written in Odia and translated into English by Mona Lisa Jena. All of the stories vividly bring out varied aspects of society. They merge the modern with traditional, the mystical with scientific, folklore with technology. The titular story is about a Kui folk singer, Dasuram, who sings of freedom from the shackles of poverty and oppression. He gets arrested on charges of being a Naxal and while in prison, invents a script for the Kui language.

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The Goddess of Kara Dongri is about how Sudhansu is caught up in the fight about naming a temple in a village that he visited as a child during his vacation. He remembers a mountain made of white flint but cannot find it when he returns. He sees that the village has transformed from an idyllic haven into a busy one. Yet the folklore remains intact. The mountain of white flint may have been sacrificed to modernization but the stories of a deity residing there still float around, and to appease that goddess, a temple was built by the villagers themselves. The story succinctly captures the tenuous flux many places in India are caught between because of relentlessly moving towards modernization at the cost of environment and culture.

That House is a simple, almost fable like story about the follies of coveting perfection. Aruna and her husband scrape through and struggle to build a modest house in Brundabanur colony. Close by was a house that was never completed because the owner was a mistress who wanted to create a dream house which was not fulfilled because the house was empty and not occupied by a husband and a child. The story reiterates quite a lot of stereotypes associated with motherhood and role of a woman in a society especially the idea that a woman can attain happiness only when she marries and has a legitimate family. In the story, the woman is a mistress and hence is devoid of any true love which is the reason given to explain her imperfect house which though grand and complex, can never give her true happiness.

This Story Should not be Remembered by Manoj Kumar Panda pays homage to the timelessness of time itself through the character of Kandha Budha, who has become a living legend of his village. He has worked for two kings, Dalaganjana and Pruthwiraj; he has killed tigers with his bare hands, and had even caught the dacoit Bakharia Binjhal for the British government. The story remarks upon the continuity of time and of stories and the ironic existence of anything through these very stories.

This collection of stories often relies on motifs from folklore to create rich thematic narratives.

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Daura by Anukriti Upadhay

An enigmatic sarangiya player sweeps a district collector/officer off his feet with his magical tunes in a distant desert region of Rajasthan state in India.

Sarangiya – the person who plays the sarangi (a rectangular string instrument).

No, Daura by Anukriti Upadhay isn’t a romantic tale set in the twilight of the dusky dunes but the novel is steeped in different ideas of romance – romancing nature, the romance present in the state’s folktales and folk songs, romance of the music, and the most prevalent of all: the romance of the mysterious and the magical.

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Daura is Anukriti Upadhay’s one of the first books in English. She also writes in Hindi. A District Collector or DC (a government officer who governs a division of the state called a district). He is unnamed and very enthusiastic about exploring the culture and tradition of the desert folks which is why he is often touring the district he governs (much to the dismay of his orderly, who is happy to be ensconced in his town life and engaging in urban activities rather than rural pastimes). The collector, on the other hand, shows kindness to their way of life, is happy to partake in it, and happier even to be regaled by their music and dance at the dak bangla (a bungalow) in the remote desert of the district.

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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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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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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 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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Musically Yours: Music in Solitude

Aranya is chaotic.

Ishan systematic.

Ishan is a family person.

Aranya questions the idea of family.

Ishan is spiritual.

Aranya a feminist.

Now I know what you are thinking: that this is just going to be some modern run-of-the-mill opposites attract love story.

Fortunately not!

Because Music in Solitude by Krishna Sobti, translated from Hindi by Vasudha Dalmia, is not a love story, but rather a loving tale of two elderly individuals, Ishan and Aranya, who are in the autumn of their lives and yes you guessed it, are complete opposites. Yet it is their age and the life that that brings along in it’s wake, which helps them come together. Not to mention that they stay in the same building in Delhi!

Originally titled as Samay Sargam, the novel stitches together episodes from the two protagonists’ lives. Especially the time spent together discussing myriad topics over tea, lunches or dinners!

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Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth

*********SPOILERS***********

Right at the beginning of Aruna Nambiar’s Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth, we know that the protagonist, 11 year old Geetha, is going to change. The third person narrator tells us that much.

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In a wave of childhood relish, Geetha, who lives in Mumbai (then Bombay), is looking forward to her annual summer vacation with her entire joint family in Amabalkunnu in Kerala where she gets to play and eat endlessly with her cousins. And this time, it is going to be even more promising since she is going to spend the entire vacation at her mother’s parents’ house (who are far more liberal and fun) rather than dividing the vacation between her mother’s and father’s parents (who are stricter and make the kids follow a rigorous schedule even in vacation!)

But something has changed this time around. Her sister and cousin, Minnie and Divya, refuse to play with her and indulge in their own secretive rendezvous considering Geetha too immature for whatever they are doing. As a result, Geetha is almost friendless this vacation and turns to the boys, her brother and cousin, Raju and Vicky, for company. But their endless devotion to cricket utterly bores her.

So what do you think Geetha will do now during her summer vacation?
Read on!

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Blurb Appreciation Reviews: The Patiala Quartet

Blurb Appreciation Reviews presents its third review!

The blurb at the back of Neel Kamal Puri’s novel, The Patiala Quartet urged me to buy the novel. Of course, it helped that the book was on sale. But nonetheless, it aided me in understanding what the book is about rather than irrelevant praises that do not allow one to know what the story is about!

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So lets see the blurb, shall we?

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Tiger Hills

So I began the new year, 2019 with Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna! This was a book I knew about a long time ago and only recently was I able to get my hands on it.

And what a perfectly divine choice! The novel whisks you back in time and takes you on a flavourful albeit bitter journey across Coorg in the Indian state of Karnataka!

Replete with rich symbolism such as herons, and once in a blue moon blooming bamboo flowers, Tiger Hills, begins in 1878, when Mutthava reminisces about the birth of her daughter, Devi, in Coorg.

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Devi is the only daughter of Mutthava and Nachimanda Thimmaya. She is pampered by all, including her parents and her grandmother, Tayi. She becomes bold and feisty and soon her life is intertwined with the orphaned son, Devanna. They become the best of childhood friends. The story then turns to how Devanna is lauded for his intelligence by Reverend Gundert, who was in charge of the mission there. He develops a fondness for the boy and wants to cultivate in him a deep well of learning. Devanna grows to love this attention. The Reverend also slowly cultivates Devanna’s love for botany and education. Simultaneously, Devanna falls in love with Devi. But he aspires to become a doctor and then confess his love for her when he completes his studies. Devi, however, gets smitten by the famous tiger killer, Machu and has eyes only for him.

And alas, like all love stories, tragedy befalls on Devanna and due to that on Devi as well.

The novel, however, does not simply capture the love that Devanna has for Devi because it is so much more. Sarita Mandanna’s writing is quick yet descriptive and gives a sweeping view of so many aspects of the various events that were occurring alongside the main story. She richly etches out the beauty of Coorg of those days, takes in the historical events that intertwined with the main plot as well such as the British Afghan War and the two World Wars etc.

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Blurb Appreciation Reviews: Boats on Land

The second Blurb Appreciation Reviews presents a review of Boats on Land by Janice Pariat.

The Blurb:

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About the blurb:

I agree with one thing in the blurb that Boats on Land is imbued with the supernatural and the folkloric. From the first page itself, Janice Pariat gives a glimpse of the Khasi (an ethnic group of the north eastern Indian state of Meghalaya) culture through the concept of ka ktien, which would roughly mean (if I am not mistaken) the power that words have.

Right in the first story itself, we see the power of the ka ktien and throughout the stories we see other rituals such as “the three night long watches kept by the ieng iap briew (household of the dead) when windows and doors stayed open for the spirits of the deceased.”

Pariat has infused elements of the Khasi oral culture, with its many customs, beliefs and superstitions, into the written word and she upholds the former’s power over the latter.

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Guest Post: Reading Indian Language Translations!

In July, The Book Cafe had stated an interesting idea about how one needs to read books from all the states in India-be it in the original language or translated. Click the link here to see the full list of books The Book Cafe has read from different Indian States!

Meera Baindur, a bookworm and philosophy faculty at Bengaluru Central University, shares her own thoughts about reading translations of different Indian languages. 

Read On!

Quick Reviews: Boiled Beans on a Toast: A Play

Being from Mumbai, it is easy to be exposed to stories about the stereotypical image about the maximum city being unstoppable and novels based on that idea abound.

But a story about the realities of Bangalore?
Never had heard about that one before except one Indian Institute of Management, (IIM) novel by Karan Bajaj, Keep Off the Grass! But in the case of Keep Off the Grass, the city was just flitting in the background.
Thus, it was a surprise to come across Boiled Beans On Toast: A Play by Girish Karnad where the city comes to the forefront almost as a character in its own right.

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Bitter Wormwood

Bitter Wormwood. How does the title sound to you? Bitter? Would you ever pick up a novel named so?

Don’t judge a book by its title!

This is because the novel, Bitter Wormwood by Easterine Kire, deftly deals with the issue of freedom of Nagaland and the movement to form an independent country. Beginning with a gripping prologue, and then winding down to a bildungsroman style, it then traces the beginnings of the movement through the character Mose’s development.

The writing is crisp, clear and action packed taking a panoramic view of the conflict and Mose’s life. They move simultaneously. It begins with his childhood which is as the cliche goes, quite innocent and blissful (there is a poignant scene where the only thing that concerns Mose is his school, teaching his mother and grandmother English and helping them or moments of listening to the radio together!). Mose’s only struggle is his school till India’s Independence comes closer and the idea of Nagaland being part of India becomes an problem. The growing dissent is marked by his growing years that disrupts him and his whole life be it family, school or his villagers.

Like his childhood, the conflict is also small but then grows its tentacles as the idea of remaining independent grows further without any proper discussion or response from the other side.

Soon violence and crime take over as the major response from the monolithic Indian government is deploying the armed forces and use of fear tactics.

Mose gets swept up by this tide as well and soon joins the rebels in his teenage angst (though I do not think that the conflict or his joining can be trivalised by that phrase!)

By the end, we see how the movement has become old, warped, lost some of its initial principles, and petered into a conflict among its own people rather than targeting the bigger picture. This is mirrored through Mose’s old age as well.

In the last part, we also see the conflict from the soldier’s perspective albeit briefly. We see how stereotypes can be broken about each side through Mose’s grandchildren and I feel that that is the best message which the book can give to its readers because both sides need to stop this kind of prejudice towards each other.

I would recommend this book to all, just for everyone to know a little bit more about India’s history that is routinely swept under the carpet because it is not appetising. It helps us to know a little bit more about Nagaland, a part of the north east, that is routinely stereotyped against! It is something you will never find in a history textbook, so might as well read it in the form of an engaging and quick to read novel!

And what about the title?

Read the novel and find the significance or its symbolism on your own! There, I have already given away a clue: that it has some significance!

Buy Bitter Wormwood here:

http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/bitter-wormwood/