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 and also slowly cultivates his love for botany and education. Simultaneously, he falls in love with Devi as well. But he aspires to become a doctor as well and 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 gaze across so many aspects of the many 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, 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/

Reading from all the states of India!

We have all heard of reading books from all over the world. (Sidenote: Check out this 13 year old girl’s Facebook page that will motivate you to read always: https://www.facebook.com/reading197countries/)

But how many of us have read books from all parts of India?

I have definitely not read from all the states. But plan to.

So here is the challenge, before taking the big leap of reading novels from all the countries in the world, lets read books from all 29 states and 7 union territories of India!

Please share recommendations of the different books from different states that you read. They could be in any language; they could be of any genre be it children’s novel or romance or horror or political or plays or poems; they could be translations as well.

The criteria is that the authors are from a particular place or the book is set in that place.

So here is a list of the books of the different states that I have read:

Arunachal Pradesh:

  • The Black Hill by Mamang Dai.

Assam:

  • Swarnlata by Tilottoma Misra. Read my review here.

Delhi:

  • Delhi is Not Far by Ruskin Bond (It is not exactly set in Delhi but the idea of Delhi pervades the whole book!)
  • A Girl Like Me by Swati Kaushal (Set in Gurgaon. It is up to the reader to decide the question of what qualifies as a Delhi novel!)
  • Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup. Read the review here!
  • Music in Solitude by Krishna Sobti. Read my review here.

Goa:

  • Reflected in Water: Writings On Goa– edited by Jerry Pinto. download (4)

Gujarat:

  • 3 Mistakes of My Life by Chetan Bhagat.
  • First There was Woman: Folk Tales of Dungri Garasiya Bhils compiled by Marija Sres. Read my review here!

Jammu & Kashmir:

  • I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded.
  • The Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali.download (1)

Karnataka:

  • Samskara by U.R. Ananthamurthy (Set in Durvasapura!)
  • Bara by U.R. Ananthamurthy. Catch my review here.
  • Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna (Set in Coorg!) Read my review here!
  • Boiled Beans on Toast: A Play by Girish Karnad (Set in Bangalore!)
  • Half Pants, Full Pants by Anand Suspi (Set in Shimoga!)
    Check the FB page here: https://www.facebook.com/halfpantsfullpants/
  • Keep Off the Grass by Karan Bajaj (Set in Bangalore!)

Kerala:

  • Chemmeen by Thakazhi Pillai.
  • Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth by Aruna Nambiar.IMG_20190206_084926623_HDR.jpg
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Maharashtra:

Madhya Pradesh

  • The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Manipur:

  • The Maharajah’s Household by Binodini. Read my review here!wp-1546268596083.jpg

Meghalaya:

  • Lunatic in my Head by Anjum Hassan (Set in Shillong!). Read my review here.
  • Boats on Land by Janice Pariat (Set in Shillong!). Read my review here!IMG_20180930_141717676_HDR.jpg

Nagaland:

  • Bitter Wormwood by Easternine Kire.
  • Laburnum for my Head by Temsula Ao (Not sure I can specifically classify this here, but oh well, we are all slaves to constructed categories!)

Punjab:

Tamil Nadu:

  • A Handful of Rice by Kamala Markandaya (Set in Madras!)

Uttarakhand:

Uttar Pradesh:

West Bengal:

States that are missing: Odisha, Mizoram, Tripura, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Bihar, Sikkim, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and the union territories except Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir!
Have you read any books from the above places? Comment below!

I am going to leave you with these last books that resist any categorization! These are some books and reviews of those books set in fictional towns or move across different places in India:

More Links! Links Galore!

Concluding Remarks:

As you can see I have barely covered half of the states in India! Comment about more books if you have read them or recommend others from different parts and share the post! Hopefully, we will read more books from across India! I have in mind some Goa books that are on my to-read list!

If you want to do a guest post of books you have read from different parts of India, comment in the space below!

Bond is back!

Books can have many different functions. They can moralise, instruct, take you to places and enable you to engage in vicarious travelling. But there are some books and stories that can just put smile on your face and simply please you for a long long time. Ruskin Bond books are something like that. They aren’t great works of literature (not were they written to be) but just the ordinariness of it can be (to use a oft used cliche) extraordinary! Plus they help in vicarious travelling. That, friends, can be the best book ever no?

So it is time to go pick up a Bond book incase you missed out on your yearly dose of travel this year!

Need help to choose?

Here is one with 21 short stories called: Time Stops at Shamli. It is a quick read, the kind that you can read on a realllly long train journey or if you simply want to get away from the mundane life as you trudge your way back from office to home everyday.

All the stories are imbued with the everyday stories of everyday, ordinary people that could be you or me which is why anyone can connect with them easily. In their quotidian existence, several facets and truisms of life are revealed. But no, Bond does not moralise but merely shape the stories and it is for us, the readers, to take away from it, gems embedded in them.

For instance, stories like “The Room of Many Colours” or “Most Beautiful,” talk about celebrating difference in a subtle manner almost imperceptible and who hasn’t known the pain yet beauty and courage of going/being against the norm and experiencing the different worlds.

It is nigh impossible to write a summary of each short story here without making the review look like a grocery list. But suffice to say that each story has its own charm, ingenuity, shrewdness and the hallmark of Bond: an omnipresent simplicity. So there’s a spooky ghost story to scare the daylights out of you, a story told from the perspective of the crows, about the poisonous schemes of relatives, about the importance of trees (told indirectly), about the ordeal of the migrants and the sense of loss and belonging (but narrated in less sentimentally than I have put it), a mystical transfiguration story with the perfect setting of the moon and the mountains and several more. The eponymous story again highlights the urge, temptation to do something against the grain, to go somewhere not known, to take a path less traveled (literally; you will see what I mean when you read it!).

So dig in into the many worlds of each story, relax and let a smile linger on.

For more Ruskin Bond reviews on this blog, click here.

The Space Between Us

Paradoxes and contradictions are a part and parcel of this ever-on-the-move,pseudo-dreamlike city called Bombay rechristened to Mumbai. And one of the large and growing paradoxes of the city is the way in which the woman of the middle class comes into close contact with the woman of the low class vis-a-vis the great necessity of the elite/middle class called the servant. This necessity though great is hardly ever really talked about except in slandering the people who fulfil that necessity or when they put forward their demands regularly which are dismissed on an equally regular basis.

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar explores this very paradox which is ubiquitous but never acknowledged. Quite a paradox within a paradox, eh? So what exactly is this paradox? To state it clearly, the rising middle class or those well established ones always hire a maid/servant (full time or part-time) to do the many chores while they are busy hurrying to offices or catching up on other important tasks like catching up on the latest conniving traps of the new saas (mother-in-law) on the block or going golfing/kitty parties and other some such silly stuff. So while the middle class will never otherwise really come in contact with the low class thanks to the rise of gated communities which makes sure that the ugly side of any place let alone a city is never revealed and is conveniently obliterated in the mind, they come in contact with them through the maids who become (usually of the women thanks to the never changing stereotypes of the roles of men and women!) great companions and friends sharing their lives and worlds which in any other situation would be unthinkable.

The novel elaborates quite evocatively on such a scenario with a touching prologue that captures so vividly the mental state of any city dweller at some point or the other: the need to just run away from all your problems, hoping that the city disappears and while you sit at the sea, hoping it will wash away your sorrows/frustrations etc. The story charts out the individual lives of two women who are world apart: Sera, a rich Parsi women who has had her own share of unhappiness in her married life and Bhima, the maid who works in her house and whose world is falling apart constantly even as she perpetually struggles hard to keep it all together. The story opens with Bhima’s granddaughter, Maya, getting pregnant- from a man whose identity is revealed at the end-which again though temporarily shatters Bhima’s world and all her hopes for Maya and her education which she thought of as her ticket out of the vicious hell of being a maid. Sera and Bhima share a fragile, precarious camaraderie which cuts across class and the usual stereotypes about how a relationship should be between a master and servant. Both have been there for each other in times of need-Bhima when Sera had to heal from her husband’s abuses and Sera when Bhima needed her while her husband was in hospital and other cases. Though they share a a good womanly friendship which is also seen in Sera’s daughter-Dinaz’s fondness for Bhima, the relationship is fraught with the several hesitations and doubts and stereotypes too.

The story weaves its way through Maya’s pregnancy while constantly going into flashbacks into Sera’s and Bhima’s life which work as good reminisces and a way to show how their lives merged and then into the present which stands like it always does with a lot of uncertainty while also being happy in its own small ways and then into the end which reveals the father quite un-dramatically like one of those mundane things you suddenly become aware of like how to chip vegetables or what exactly does a Bachelor’s degree mean or some such dross things that makes up what is called life. And then comes…oh wait…u need to find this on your own so go read it..

It is definitely worth a read as it is a poignant story because of its subject and the jarring clash of two worlds which brings fore jarringly the worlds we conveniently ignore-the struggles Bhima goes through just about everyday for basic necessities is something that would make us the people sitting cushioned in their AC rooms faint. The novel can be bogged down with over use of metaphors and similes but on the whole it is quite an engaging read.

The title, The Space Between Us, is quite appropriate as it questions the space that divide across class, shows how it can be reconciled or perhaps not. It challenges, questions, experiments with it, putting more questions forward but never answering any of them. That is for us to do.

The Quilt

Crisp, clear and courageous is one way to describe Ismat Chughtai’s writing. Penguin Evergreens have brought out a collection of short stories by her in a slim volume titled: The Quilt: Stories by Ismat Chughtai. A member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Ismat was a bold Urdu writer whose stories were often a frank examination of women’s issues along with many several other topics such as Partition and the fight for independence. This collection includes a good range of her stories showing her deft writing skills and her eye for emotional detail. Much can be lost in translation but that will not deprive the reader from enjoying these short stories. The title story very cleverly implies and hints at homo eroticism. Quit India is surprisingly not the run of the mill story about freedom struggle but quite a sensitive portrayal of an Englishman in India and how he finally quits India. Here she uses that very slogan quite wittily to show the English soldier in a different light. The Mole and The Homemaker explore female sexuality. Mother-in-law shows the much stereotypes saas with all her whims and fancies sans the evil tag. Roots deals with the sad ache of Partition and how it tore apart communities.

With a collection of 10 interesting stories, this book is quite a good way to get a quick introduction to Chughtai’s work and gauge the vast range of the topics she dealt with. Its a quick and thoughtful read; one that will take you on a ride from the nightmarish fright of a child under the quilt to the frustrated and deranged painterly efforts of Choudhry; from the bylanes of the then Bombay to all across the seas to England. While on that journey, you can if you pay enough attention, just get a subtle glimpse of the orthodoxies that run women’s lives, of the pain, struggle and love of ordinary people.

To explore further,click here to check this useful website dedicated to her works.

Sleuthing Around

A lot of kids have grown up on crime thrillers or mystery novels written for kids and teens like Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton’s popular series Famous Five and Secret Seven and scores of other books. Tons of Indian kids have also been hooked by these writers and their young detectives. There are many Indian writers also who write detective stories for children as well yet they don’t seem to be very popular as compared to the ones written by the foreign writers.  Not many know that one of India’s best film maker, Satyajit Ray, also penned a number of detective stories and created one of his own sleuths, the famous Feluda who would go around solving mysteries with his nephew Tapesh and later on Lalmohan Ganguli.

Satyajit Ray began writing these stories for the Bengali children’s magazine, Sandesh. The first story was titled Danger In Darjeeling and was published in 1965. Thereafter, there was no looking back. Feluda became very popular with its young Bengali readers and Ray wrote at least one story every year. In all, 35 Feluda stories were published from 1965-1996.

Enough about facts, now down to the review. The Penguin Publications came out in 2004 with a definitive two volume edition, The Complete Adventures of Feluda which contains all the stories. So whether you were hooked on to these stories as a kid and want to relive them now or simply love detective stories, these volumes are a must have. Translated from Bengali by Gopa Majumdar, they are chronologically arranged and show the progress of Feluda as a detective along with the marked progress in Ray’s writing too. The initial stories are simple and childish but later on the plots become more dangerous, complex and twisted. The characters become more fully etched and we come to learn more about this beloved detective’s personality-that he is a knowledgeable person, a voracious reader and a very talented man.

The detective’s real name is Pradosh C. Mitter and his nickname is Felu. His nephew’s name is Tapesh who Felu lovingly called Topshe. The suffix ‘da’ is used as a mark of respect when addressing an elder brother. The first volume has 16 stories which are very entertaining and exciting. It is a treat for any fan of crime fiction. Ray’s language is simple and lucid and keeping in mind the primary audience for his stories, he kept them clean and with minimal violence. Reading the Feluda stories doesn’t just proffer its readers dollops of thrill and fun but also a tour of India and an insight into the life the Indian people in those decades. In Volume 1 itself, the trio travelled from Jaisalmer to Lucknow, from big cities like Bombay to small places like Gosiapur, from Shimla to Gangtok and many more places. These stories do not just tell a tale of adventure and crime but take the reader on a journey across India.

Narrated by Feluda’s own Watson-Topshe, these stories connected easily with its teenage audience. Ray was a self professed lover of crime fiction and had read all the Sherlock Holmes story. It is therefore no wonder that those stories provided an inspiration to him and became a reference point for the format and style of his own detective stories. We see a little bit of Ray reflected in Feluda’s personality as well. Often his views are similar to those of the great film maker.

These stories are a great read and quite informative as well. They are a wholesome read for everyone.

Romping through chawls

Today, Mumbai is obsessed with skyscrapers. The illusion among officials running the city is that high rises (that like its name also have high prices) with kitschy colours or made of crystal clear glass will help the city achieve that elusive status of ‘world class.’ No matter that half the population still lives without access to basic amenities like clean drinking water, proper toilets etc; as long as the city has the veneer of being world class, the have nots be damned. Redevelopment is the norm nowadays and a redevelopment of Dharavi is also on the cards; now whether this move is truly to uplift the people and give them better homes or just a ruse to make available vast tracts of land for greedy land developers is for the experts to decide. What is being missed out in this race for constructing tall buildings in the hope of emulating the Western ‘world class’ cities (remember the program of transforming Mumbai into Shanghai?), is that Mumbai is also home to numerous clusters of chawls, bungalows, smaller buildings, heritage areas that are being slowly effaced from the face of the city.

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, when the fad of high rises was still a distant dream, it was the chawls that dominated the topography of the city with just a few multi storeys towering over them. Kiran Nagarkar’s novel,’Ravan and Eddie‘ capture that time of Bombay by chronicling the story of the two boys of the title who grow up in the Central Works Department (CWD) chawls in Byculla. Set in the 1950s, the novel is a tongue-in-cheek tale that traces the two boys’ growth as they try and overcome the hurdles of living in the chawls and their own set of familial troubles.

The No.17 CWD chawl in which the two boys reside are themselves neatly divided on the basis of religion: on one floor live the Hindus and the other the Roman Catholics. The novel starts with the dramatic birth of Eddie Coutinho with his mother, Violet, in the ambulance just minutes after she lost her husband, Victor, whose only claim to fame in the novel was being infatuated by Parvatibai, Ravan’s mother and dying while trying to save him. Thus Eddie is born fatherless but with Father Agnelo by his side at the time of his birth. The novel then meanders its way snidely and gradually as both the boys grow up hating each other;one accusing the other of killing his father, the other believing in the truth of the accusation and finally convincing himself to be a killer. From Eddie’s dabbling in Hinduism, to Ravan’s tiffs with her mother, from Eddie selling black tickets of ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ to Ravan receiving letters requesting him to kill some irascible person in their lives, from the unending work of Parvatibai to Violet’s mum acting matchmaker for her, from Father Agnelo’s constant reprimands to Eddie to Ravan’s dad, Shankar’s unemployment, from the saga of the nine Sarang girls to the saga of Ravan’s mysterious lecherous aunt, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is a hilarious, bawdy post-colonial novel that will transport the reader to the very corridors of the chawls that have been so vividly recreated in the story

As much as, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is about the two boys, it is also about the life in the chawls and moreover, a subtle critique of the condition of independent India’s urban areas. The numerous digressions that interrupt the imaginative narrative are telling comments on the tough life of the people there. Kiran Nagarkar captures both the joviality of their lives along with their hardships with the digressions such as, ‘The Great Water Wars’ and ‘A Harangue on Poverty’ breaking the illusion of a problem free, happy, independent India. There are several other digressions that talk about other quintessential aspects of Indian life and don’t necessarily try and burst the safe bubble of independent India. What they have in common is a sarcastic and snarky tone that succeeds in making a point.

The overall tone of the entire novel is cheeky and sarcastic. Nagarkar’s writing is concise, to the point and doesn’t wander away unnecessarily. Like the hustle and bustle of the city and its chawls, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is also a bustle of incidents that are crammed into 330 odd pages that leave you in a huff and puff as you try and take in all the delights, adventures and troubles of the variety of people populating the story.

Go grab a copy and immerse yourself in a world where high rises just don’t exist and where chawls were not an eyesore but a living, breathing microcosm of the city.

Manto’s stories

No other person in Indian English literature is as closely associated and identified with the Partition as Sadat Hasan Manto. He has to his credits a novel, radio plays, essays, film scripts but he is synonymous with the Partition short stories he penned.

Penguin Books has recently come out with a collection of cheaply priced books-Penguin Evergreens. The few books in this collection are mostly (not necessarily) short stories by numerous Indian authors.  It also includes stories by Manto . The collection is titled-‘Toba Tek Singh: Stories by Sadat Hasan Manto, Translation by Khalid Hasan.’ It is quite commendable that Penguin has come out with easily affordable collection of short stories by renowned authors. This will hopefully make the Indian readers take up short stories by Indian writers.

There is a good variety of stories in this collection and are not confined only to the Partition. They deal with many subjects-Partition being one of them, human nature being another subject etc. His most famous stories like Toba Tek Singh, Colder Then Ice, The Dog Of Titwal etc., are included in this collection. Others may not be well known but are equally well written and give a startling glimpse into tender human moments or into the twisted human mind. The great advantage of short stories is that it can capture the boldest, the most essential and deliver it with a bang in a few words which immediately hits the reader. This advantage Manto exploited thoroughly to make his point to the readers. Toba Tek Singh is a brilliant example of how Manto comments on the issues of nationality and the futility of constructing them arbitrarily. Odour captures Randhir’s wistful reminiscences of a girl he met on a rainy day and how the peculiar odour she exuded completely enchanted him and how he searches for that in his bride. The Gift borders on the comic as it narrates the story of Shankar and how he cleverly dupes two prostitutes by giving them gifts that belonged to each other. Bitter Harvest is a poignant story of the manner in which hatred and violence can consume the best of friends leaving only animals raging with vengeance. A Woman For All Seasons is about the vagaries of fame and fate from the point of view of an actress. There are in all fifteen stories that will surely give you a fleeting glimpse of a range of societal mores and characters. These stories depict how Manto wrote about all subjects, all sorts of people-whether the hight, middle, low class etc. There shines an honesty and an ache for humanity in his stories. His approach to writing his not selective as he wrote about everything under the sun be it taboo subjects like sex, prostitution or sensitive topics like the Partition.

This Penguin Evergreen is sure to delight everyone. What may not be delightful is the simplistic translation by Khalid Hasan. It is too banal and often fails to capture the mood and feel of the story with the same bitterness that Manto suffuses them with. The only stories that felt like a good translation were Odour and The Dog Of Titwal. Others had something or the other lacking in them. They didn’t make you sit up and feel shocked. They somehow lulled you into numbness which is not a reaction to be elicited when reading a Manto story. The latter always makes you think and imposes on you a new idea, a new viewpoint that you are compelled to ponder over. This translation fails to do that. The reader will only be able to take a momentary pleasure from them and not a sustained, lingering and fresh perspective. I don’t have any other recommendations to read other translations as I have forgotten the translators’ names of whatever few stories I have read in different collections.  Recently in 2012 a collection, ‘Manto: Selected Short Stories’ was released and it is translated by Aatish Taseer. How good it is is yet to be ascertained. But it is worth giving it a shot.

Despite the translation flaws in ‘Toba Tek Singh: Stories by Sadat Hasan Manto’, it is worth picking it up (and not just because it’s cheap) as it will acquaint any reader with some of Manto’s works and his style of writing. Hopefully, this book will generate more interest in Manto’s writings.