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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.

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.

Mumbai-a city you can have a love-hate relationship with, a city in which people think dreams are built (do they ever think that they are shattered there too?), a city fast moving, on the go, a whirling vortex that will push you into anonymity at times. Yet still we all live, die, dream and enjoy and curse in this bunch of islands reclaimed together to assume the shape of a city. ‘Sacred Games‘ by Vikram Chandra  is wholly enmeshed with this whirling vortex of a city whose one claim to fame is being the commercial capital of India. The story focuses on Sartaj Singh, a lone Sikh inspector in Mumbai police and in his forties, who gets an anonymous tip off on Ganesh Gaitonde, a dreaded Hindu don of Mumbai who any respectful inspector would kill to catch and get a promotion. Similarly Singh sees a window of opportunity in this tip off and soon gets to Gaitonde’s shelter from where he chats with Singh through the intercom telling him a winded tale of the start of his criminal life. Sartaj is unable to convince him to surrender and so eventually bulldozes the place and much to his chagrin finds Gaitonde and an unknown women dead already. Thereafter, the book weaves its way in a parallel of Sartaj’s investigation into Gaitonde (after Gaitonde’s death, the Indian intelligence comes to investigate this mysterious presence of the gangster in Mumbai and how he might have posed a threat to national security. Sartaj is recruited to help in the investigation) and Gaitonde’s narration of his life to Sartaj. The latter is rather eerie as it feels like the dead is speaking directly to Sartaj. Within these parallel stories lie countless number of subplots-Katekar’s (Sartaj’s partner) life and death, Katekar’s wife and his two sons, Sartaj’s other numerous investigations such as the case of blackmailing of Kamala Pandey, Sartaj’s mother’s ponderous moods, the Partition and how it affected Sartaj’s mother’s family, Senior inspector-Parulkar’s tactics to stay on the job, Jojo’s dreams of becoming an actress and several more. There are chapters in the novel called insets which can become novellas and short stories in themselves. These insets are related most often to the subplots like Sartaj’s mother’s sister, Navneet, being lost in Partition. Gaitonde’s life story reveals the grim underbelly of Mumbai’s mafia and how much of the city functions only because of them and the fighting between Gaitonde’s Hindu gangster company with the Muslim Suleiman Isa’s company seems faintly reminiscent of real life fighting between Dawood Ibrahim and Arun Gawli in Mumbai. Vikram Chandra has himself said that he did meet up real life ‘bhais’ in Mumbai and perhaps a lot of it is inspired by real life itself. We can only speculate and guess. What we can be sure of is that from this epic novel you can definitely get a lot of excitement and entertainment and thoughts to ponder over.

Sacred Games‘ is a massive book-900 pages long-quite daunting to look at and even more difficult to hold for long and if you are one of those who bought a hardback copy (like me) my utmost sympathies. But the size shouldn’t mislead you. The book is very engaging, eloquent and epic in every sense. It is difficult to categorize this novel-it is a mesh of a Bollywood film (and can be adapted into one as well given Bollywood’s penchant for action), thriller, detective novel, city novel etc. Pinpointing to one exact genre is next to impossible because of the sprawling nature of the book’s story which covers such a wide range of subjects and is written in multifarious styles that could be from any genre. ‘Sacred Games‘ is a wholly Indian book, a completely Bombay/Mumbai book reflecting Indian moods, issues, problems, daily existence, language. There is a generous sprinkling of Hindi terms, Bombay Hindi, Hinglish and Marathi too which could be hard for a foreigner or even an Indian unfamiliar with the special mix of Bombay languages to understand. On the author’s website, you can find a glossary for the novel which may or may not be useful. Click here to get it.   A little background knowledge about the 80s’ and the 90s’ scenario in India would also help in better understanding as Chandra routinely refers to actual events though he never names them explicitly such as the Partition, the Indo-China war of the 60s’, the Bombay riots of 1993 etc. The book is definitely for a true Mumbai inhabitant, one who will immediately recognize these events, feel a connection with the persistent smoke, traffic, noise and the islands of peace of the city, one who will know about the criminal underbelly of the glitzy city.

The detailing of ‘Sacred Games‘ is splendid. Chandra has done a fabulous job to string together vastly different lives/characters and put them together in the story thus creating a rich, multifaceted tapestry of Mumbai and its many quirks. Sartaj Singh is one of his best creations. He gives the inspector a humane personality which most mainstream portrayals of policemen lack. They tend to demonize them and constantly depict them as cruel,lecherous and sadistic in their behavior (which may be true of some but generalisation is always a dangerous thing to do). Gaitonde is suffused with a very Godfatheresque aura having the same paternalistic outlook towards his people and business as Don Corleone did.

The plot, the writing, the variety are all very fine and good but what eludes the book is any challenges on the author’s part. Vikram Chandra simply spins a yarn and puts it down in a 900 page book which is thrilling nonetheless but there is none of Chandra’s own opinions reflecting through in the novel. ‘Sacred Games‘ is too realist, doesn’t challenge anything. It only states that yes-the city is and will always be ruled by mafia-police-ministers nexus, women will forever be seen as sex objects, Bollywood will always be a dreamland etc. Catherine Belsey, a famous British Marxist feminist critic once asserted that realism only legitimised the actual society and their authors never challenged the several practices of the society: they only depicted it as it was. This is true of ‘Sacred Games‘ as well and the most damning of the ‘realist’ depictions are the inferior status of women in Indian society. The novel is very male centric and women are either only whores or depicted as dispensable dependable objects. There is a tacit subtext of the novel that women only exist to please men’s needs, to do their duty (Sartaj’s mother’s assertion that it is her right to feel happy in being alone after her husband’s death because she has done her duty is rather badly misogynistic. It implies that happiness only comes for women after they have been dutiful all their lives) for society i.e. to get married and procreate and take dowry with them. There are hardly any major, strong women characters barring Anjali Mathur, Mary and Jojo Mascarenhas and Iffat Bibi. This stereotyping fails to do anything except assert the ‘real’ world and does not challenge it. Moreover, there is a sense that Chandra seems biased against the Muslim community. It is a delicate thing to write about Muslim-Hindu mafia or the Partition but it shouldn’t have to hold fingers against a particular religious group. Manto wrote on the most sensitive topics around the Partition but he showed the inhumanity of it all rather than blaming either Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus.

Taken together, ‘Sacred Games‘ can be quite a task to read, but take the book one chapter at a time then there won’t be any problems in finishing this epic novel at all.

This is a cliche but it is quite true that India is a country of rich diversity despite mainstream media and culture’s fervor to paint India as a monotonous abode of one particular religion, caste, class and gender. While we as Indians may live among a variety of people from different cultural backgrounds, how many of us really know each other well-their backgrounds, their religions, beliefs etc.? Lets leave you to ponder at that while we take a peek into one book that brilliantly etches out details of a community in India that has often been relegated to obscurity yet has made an unparalleled contribution to India’s growth and progress. Well, if you think that you have guessed correctly that I am going to ramble a para or two about the Parsis (who have undoubtedly contributed a lot for India’s progress), then you are absolutely wrong. Its not the Parsis I refer to but the Jewish community of India. And no, Jews don’t just exist in Israel and America, but India as well although their numbers have severely dwindled.

The book, ‘India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life Cycle‘ edited by Shalva Weil and published by Marg Publications provides any curious reader a wonderful insight into Jewish community and their lifestyle as a whole. It is an informative book replete with illustrations and written in simple, lucid language. The book helps to enlighten us about the community we always thought never existed in this country.

India’s Jewish Heritage…’ begins by informing us about the long contact between the Indians and the Jews and how they came on Indian shores. Throughout the 10 chapters the book traces their history citing valid sources, talks of how they assimilated with the Indian culture and adopted some existent customs while still retaining their own this forming a unique Jewish Indian cultural group. The book informs us right at the beginning that there are 3 Jewish communities in India-Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi Jews. Each chapter pours out details about the history, tradition and customs of each of the 3 communities. The last chapter dwells on the important contribution of the Jews in India and names certain eminent personalities describing their contributions. Mumbaikars may be familiar with the name Sassoon as in David Sassoon Library, Sassoon Docks etc.. The Sassoon family was a Baghdadi Jew dynasty that played a major role in the then Bombay’s development. Nissim Ezekiel is another well known Jewish personality (if not for everyone but at least known to literature students) who was a famous poet and professor. There are several others such as Leela Samson, Isaac Kehimkar, Flora Samuel etc who left a indelible mark on this diverse country.

India’s Jewish Heritage…‘ is undoubtedly a hallmark in Indo-Jewish studies. You may not like non-fiction works but stepping into the world that this book portrays is like stepping into an encyclopedia and reliving that feeling of childhood when you would be boggled by your own thirst for knowledge and the facts before you. The book is concise and clear. It acquaints us with a much less talked about community and helps us to know one minuscule patch on a large and varied Indian quilt.

Simplicity personified is one way of describing stories and books penned by Ruskin Bond. ‘The Blue Umbrella‘ is true to this very description. It may be dismissed a little too easily as a simple children’s story but it works at many levels.  The story revolves around a young girl-Binya who lives with her mother and brother-Bijju- in the hills in India. One day she comes across a group of picnickers while she was searching for her grazing cows in the evening. Binya immediately falls in love with a blue umbrella which one of the ladies has and hesitantly exchanges her lucky charm of a leopard’s claw for the pretty blue umbrella. It soon becomes her prized possession and also the envy of the entire village particularly of Ram Bharose who owns a tea stall. He badly wants to own that object for its beauty but fails in all his attempts to acquire it. One of those attempts almost brings him to ruin. Eventually Binya herself gives him the umbrella and Ram Bharose gives her a bear’s claw in return.

The Blue Umbrella‘ has a Blakean feel about it as the story flourishes on innocence, simplicity, childlike wonder and awe and imagination. The story proffers a simple juxtaposition of the ways of the people of the plains and the mountains as well a juxtaposition of children and adults. The people of the plains are greedy and materialistic while the people of the mountains are inherently joined to the nature and appreciate its value and beauty to the fullest. The adults can be fixated only with meaningless objects while children also do feel awe for objects but they realize that other aspects are of more importance and value which is why Binya willingly gives the umbrella away as she believes that people are more important than objects. She is easily able to forfeit the umbrella as if she wasn’t attached to it at all. This may seem to be a very binary and simplistic analysis but this is what Bond does best-takes the simple things and blows on them the kiss of the extraordinary which will perhaps be able to teach us a thing or two about life and its mystery.

The landscape, as always, is an integral part of Ruskin Bond’s stories and is given quite a lot of spotlight even in ‘The Blue Umbrella‘. The beauty, whims and vagaries of nature are all spread out for the reader to enjoy. The purity of the hills is reflected in the purity of Binya and Bijju’s behavior.

The Blue Umbrella‘ may seem very childish to some ‘old’ and ‘erudite’ readers. However Bond’s genius lies in revealing many profound truths in that very simplicity. These profound truths are as useful to children as to adults.  The story is even relevant in today’s overtly materialist  and consumerist society. We can all depend on our gadgets and designer coffees but at the end of it all that is not what makes life. Its the people, the family, nature, our emotions, feelings,our actions and more importantly-our ability to let go- that matters.

Go ahead, pick up ‘The Blue Umbrella‘ and see if you fail to find some meaning within this’ mere simple tale for kids.’ Be adventurous and accept this challenge.

Feel free to comment about your experience of reading the story and if you have watched the 2005 film adaptation of the same story, do let us know how it turned out to be.

Despite the US and UK tightening their grip on immigration, the ‘foreign’ dream will perhaps never go out of fashion for the Indians. Immigration-whether forced or voluntary- explains the history of the Indian diaspora to a large extent. There is a reason embedded in history which explains why Indians are found in such a large number in South Africa or Fiji, where there has often been a lot of violence between the native Fijians and the Indians, and other places.

Literature, whether Indian or otherwise, has brilliantly captured (as it always does) the emotional, nostalgic and human elements involved in the process of immigration that goes beyond the numbers and figures that ministries and studies on this subject routinely throw at us.

Let’s take a quick look at two Indian authored books which provide varying perspectives about the idea of immigration and its implication on the people who embark on that journey:

1)  Title: Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages To Five Continents

Author: Minal Hajratwala

Thoughts: Though it a non-fiction book which chronicles precisely what the title says, Hajratwala has wonderfully spun this tale of her own family’s (both maternal and paternal) forays into the different countries such that the book appears like history book narrating not the stories of great kings and queens, but rather a fateful story of an ordinary Indian family whose destinies were shaped by forces beyond them (such as the emergence of the indentured labour system, the failing art and crafts market in British India, etc). Let not the ‘non-fiction’ tag deter you from immersing yourself into this mesmerizing story because it is skillfully written with a charm and passion that is hard to find in other non fiction books as they tend to be drab and factual. Along the way, you might learn just a little something about the Indian history such as the connections Gandhiji had with South Africa(apart from the fact that he was thrown out of the train) and some such other tidbits which never make into our history textbooks. Minal Hajratwala traces her family history by juxtaposing facts with anecdotes and the former always explain the reasons for her family’s movements and successes across the globe.This helps a lot in understanding as to why Indians in general and her family members in particular migrated when they did.

Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages To Five Continents‘ is truly an engrossing read that will take you on an enchanting journey across half the world while still keeping you grounded in your Indian roots.

2)   Title: The Namesake

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Thoughts: Jhumpa Lahiri hardly ever gets the fanfare she deserves. Actually, most deserving Indian authors are often lost behind the haze of cliched bestsellers. While we can argue this for an eternity, one thing is clear: that her second book, ‘The Namesake‘ is beauty personified. It is centered around the Gangulis, a Bengali family who move to the US for greener pastures. Ashoke Ganguli, the breadwinner, a student and later a professor and Ashima,(a very apt name for an immigrant as it means one without borders) his wife, have their first son whom they curiously name Gogol, after the not so famous celebrated Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, which thus further adds to the child’s identity issues: he is caught between his Indian and American identities but his name reflect none of these two as it is of Russian origin. The story gradually progresses with Gogol’s growing up, dealing with identity issues and how his family members, particularly Ashima, deal with being away from home with hardly any relatives surrounding them. The story illuminates the life of the Gangulis as they make their way in an unknown country and gradually come to accept and even love.

The Namesake‘ is a poignant story that tackles issues of homelessness, assimilation, cultural and emotional identities, forging one’s own unique identity in a unique culture, displacement, diaspora, cultural and ideological conflicts, adjustments, generation gaps etc. But Jhumpa Lahiri explores all this with a quite emotional power that will hit you sensitively. There is a delicacy in her writing style that asserts the fragility of human relationships, asserts that they are precarious and can shatter anytime.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is a collection of short stories that also deals with similar issues in the same characteristic style which is sensitive and beautiful. Click here to check out my review for this book.

Do you know of any more books that deal with this issue of immigration? Please feel free to share!

This summer vacation visit your childhood days again. Simply delve into the worlds of Rusty and his gang of friends in the famous Rusty series penned by our very own, lovable-Ruskin Bond. The first in this series is ‘The Room On The Roof‘ which Bond himself wrote when he was only 17 years old. It was the story that got him fame and won him the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. While the entire series is promoted as predominantly children fiction, anyone can read the books as they are simple and refreshing and not merely childish. They can take you back to your fun filled adolescence and leave you touched by its thoughtfulness.

The Room On The Roof‘ revolves around Rusty who at the start is a lonely boy of 16 who loves to take aimless walks in the forests of Dehradun. He is under the guardianship of Mr. John Harrison, a strict, intimidating British fellow who has only contempt for everything around him-Rusty, the Indian side of the town, nature, his wife even etc.. By coincidence he meets two very friendly and warm Indian kids -Somi and Ranbir- on one of his many walks. They quickly become friends and indulge in the ‘masti’ of childhood-from riding their cycles, to their daily visits to the popular chaat shops etc, to playing Holi etc. Tired of the restrictive atmosphere of his guardian’s home and the European side of the town, Rusty runs away in a moment of madness and fury to be with his Indian friends. He only later realises the gravity of his decision and what it means to be living on one’s own. The story then takes a turn from its playfulness to a more serious tone as Rusty grapples with his new situation with the help of Somi and Ranbir.

The best part of ‘The Room On The Roof‘ is that Bond very lovingly sketches the development of Rusty’s personality. Bond thus makes the story not simply about the unbridled, pure and innocent joys of adolescence but also about the certain issues that rack one’s mind at that age for eg, Rusty’s loneliness, his adolescent love, his insecurity etc.. The story is also meditative as Rusty ponders over his ‘insignificance’ and purpose of life. So dismissing the novel as simply a childish one would be wrong. It may not proffer profound truths about the world but it does provide an adolescence’s point of view of such abstract aspects which also attests to the fact that the adolescent stage is not only one of frivolous frolic and time pass. It is quite commendable that Bond wrote this when he himself was only 17. Such sort of maturity in writing is not seen today from teenage authors anymore. Many aspects of the novel are also Bond’s own and perhaps the reflective tone of the story stems from his know meditations at that time.

Another feature that stands out is the true, minute depictions of Indian life whether it is the European part of Dehra, the buzzing bazaar, the simple toys, the smoky chaat shop and its delicacies,the intoxicated playing of Holi, the myriad Indian railway, Dehra’s natural beauty and the characters connections with it, Rusty’s room on the roof etc. While many of them may seem cliched like the cows on the streets and the beggars, they are life like nonetheless and attest to a way of life that is fast disappearing. Even the characters whether it is Rusty’ friends, Mr. Harrison’s wife’s brief appearances, Meena Kapoor-Rusty’s employer, her husband-Mr. Kapoor etc are all complex and have a story to their lives that make them full, rounded people with personalities and not just one sided characters.

A story of growing up, friendship, love and responsibilities,’The Room On The Roof‘ is a charming little novel that will regale all children and even adults. It will make you slow down, think and appreciate the small things of life.

Wistful, melancholic, historical and isolated stories that cherish hope at times or relinquish  it completely is what characterizes the 20 selected short stories of Keki Daruwalla’s magnificent new book titled, ‘Love Across The Salt Desert.’ These 20 short stories have no thematic similarities as they portray a wide range of characters and surroundings from a disconcerted British officer during Quit India movement to the religious, intellectual and insightful Parsee father, from a sensationalist journalist to a deceitful doctor, from a loving granddaughter to a jilted yet content wife etc and from Rann of Kutch to the lofty, ethereal mountains of Niti valley, from the cultured pre-independence to the sleepy Gorakhpur, from the ancient India of Porous to the ancient Aegean regions etc.

Yet despite this disparity, each story has a perfect Aristotelian beginning, middle and end. Each story has ordinary humans (and even animals at times) at its core, dealing with their worries, hopes and problems, which may seem purely mundane but Daruwalla imbues than with a soft magnitude that touches the chord of every reader’s heart. This makes the insignificant details of daily life come alive and when told while focusing on only one issue, one hope, one worry, they achieve an importance that everyone can identify with. Thus we see in ‘the jahangir syndrome’, Kunwar Tejbhan Singh moving out of Lucknow and reflecting on the feudal system, the irony of a granddaughter not being there when her grandmother passes away in the story, ‘going’, the tender relationship between a mute and a cook who finds the former’s mimes fascinating in the ‘retired panther’, the warm, delicate, young love of Fatima and Najab across the bristling desert of the Kutch in the title story and many such more stories that delight the readers with its lucidity and clarity of places, insights, people and emotions.

From one story to another, the reader is treated to new images of India whether of the present, the recent past or its ancient past. The stories’ charm lies in the characterization of Indians( although there are exceptions) across all age groups, historical times, class and gender that underline their idiosyncrasies that proffer more information on Indian people than any erudite book could ever do.

‘Love Across The Salt Desert’ is a captivating and engaging collection of short stories that asserts Daruwalla’s status as a compelling short story writer. It is a book highly recommended that won’t be a waste of time or money but rather a journey all across India and its many moods and the world.

Deeti had never been anywhere near the sea. She lived all her live in Bihar, near to the holy river, Ganga. Yet not once did she doubt the cause of her strange vision of a ship-that it heralded a new, lucky destiny for her.

Zachary Reid had worked in a shipyard in Baltimore but had never thought that he would one day be voyaging to different parts of the world in ironically a slave ship, Ibis, that was to be refitted in Calcutta, India.

Raja Neel Rattan, zemindar of Raskhali, knew he was deep in debt but could have never dreamed it would result in his most humiliating downfall.

Paulette had not known any other religion apart from the natural world she was surrounded by.

Kalua, a Chamar, in Deeti’s village could not have foreseen how his life would forever change in one single, impetuous moment and get permanently entwined with Deeti’s.

Babu Nobokrishna Panda was a gomusta, someone who was in charge of transporting indentured migrants. No one could have guessed that he had a deep spiritual side to him as well and that he dreamed of building a temple for Ma Taramony, his spritual guide. He hoped one day she would manifest herself to him and in cherishing these two hopes he managed to secure a seat on the Ibis.

And Benjamin Burham, a self made man, owned the schooner, Ibis.

So what do the above and other many different characters from such a wide range of spectrum have in common? It is the rampant trade in opium during the British rule in India that ties the fates of so many characters together in the widely acclaimed book, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ by Amitav Ghosh.

Ibis, the schooner mentioned earlier is to be refit for that exclusive purpose-to be able to transport opium from India to China-particularly Canton. It is this very ship whose vision erupted in Deeti’s head. It is this very ship through which all the characters in the novel are fated to meet, mingle and be irrevocably connected to each other.The ship, thus, too becomes a character in the book as important in its role as the opium which it has to carry.

The novel is divided into three parts: Land, River and Sea. In the first part, Ghosh establishes most of the characters’ lives and situations prior to their voyage on the Ibis, with the exception of Zachary who is from the start tied to the Ibis.  Thus we come to know of Deeti having the vision of the Ibis(she doesn’t know then that it is that particular ship) while bathing in the River Ganga. Deeti herself has a farm in which she is forcibly made to cultivate opium by the British. She has a daughter, Kabutri and a husband who is an opium addict and cannot do much work in the farm because of an injury he sustained as a solider. Similarly all the other characters’ backgrounds are quickly summarized along with the action of the plot. The second part follows Ibis’ journey from Ganga to the Black Water. While in the third part, Ibis is on the Black Water smoothly making its voyage across the ocean. There are not many hitches except for occasional rifts between Zachary and the first mate, the discomfort of the indentured labourers and not to mention the fierce storm that lashes the ship in the end.  While on the ship, several more characters are introduced particularly the indentured labourers and the numerous sailors and captains as well as a curiously monosyllabic prisoner addict. This division of the plot clearly shows the importance of the Ibis and fits in with the idea of it being a character in itself.

Going into detail about each and every character will be exhausting and tedious and will suck out the fun of exploring each character while reading the novel. It is suffice to say that ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ delves into the massive reach of the opium trade and how it brought together people that otherwise would have shunned each other because of caste, class, gender, religion and race. This opium is an indelible part of India’s history that ruined many farmers(just like indigo), trapped individuals in its addiction and obviously showered riches on all those who traded and invested in it. It is not different from today’s widespread trickling of drugs to all parts of society that creates drug lords. However, this aspect of our history is ignored and Ghosh does a good job of bringing it back from oblivion by weaving a story around it.

Like ‘Glass Palace,’ ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ too is a pretty much straightforward story with plenty of vibrant, quirky characters from all over the world. It is a compelling story,rich in detail and history, sequential in narration, building up various different situations that culminate on the Ibis. Ghosh’s research shines through in the novel. He enlightens the reader of the lifestyle of 19th century people. However, his tendency to deviate into lengthy unnecessary descriptions plagues this novel too. Apart from that, there are no cons to the story. He does a brilliant job of creating a colonial world obsessed with opium. One critic has even praised Ghosh for his sea/ship descriptions that according to the critic are on par with Melville’s. The profusion of characters does not mar the pace of the book but adds to its vibrancy.

Altogether, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is an awe-inspiring novel that throws light on how opium affected a large number of people either positively or negatively. It is massive in size and more so in its stellar story that is bound to enthrall all readers.

Note-‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is the first in the ‘Ibis Trilogy.’ The second book, ‘River Of Smoke’ was released in 2011. Its review is coming up next.

 

Try and remember the feeling you get when you touch or see a family heirloom,smile at at old,mildewed photos of one’s ancestors,open an antique cupboard stocked with old, hardbound books or turn the fragile yellowing pages of those books. These actions unleash a sense of a bygone era,preserved so remarkably that you can feel it coursing through your very veins by the most mundane of actions like brushing your fingers through your great grandmother’s necklace or running your fingers on the spine of an old book of poetry. For many people, the past is living with them through people or through certain artifacts. For others, it is completely dead and thus doesn’t matter. It represents different things for different people:pleasure, nostalgia,joy, passion,charm,love,heartache,anger,resentment,hatred…the list is exhaustive.

For Attia Hosain,it was meant to be remembered and written about. Her only novel, ‘Sunlight On A Broken Column‘ celebrates the past-a harmonious life in an undivided India. The novel elaborately describes a past which Attia has lived in and talks about the changes that her particular lifestyle experienced. The story reveals the ways of a bygone world which she lived in and through the written word, Attia has managed to preserve it and let the future generation know about it.

The story of ‘Sunlight On A broken Column‘ is set in Lucknow of the pre-independence era. Laila is the protagonist and the reader sees everything through her eyes. Laila belongs to a taluqdar family which is steeped in tradition,customs and religion. Since they belong to the feudal system, her family is undoubtedly rich and is rooted in Indian culture and strives to preserve it. The story begins with Laila’s grandfather, Baba Jan’s death and how it brings about certain changes in their family.

There is a prominent clash among the older and younger generation. The former gives utmost priority to duty to family,respect for elders, honour etc.. Whereas the latter, influenced by the independence movement as well as liberal education always question it. This clash is at its height when close to the independence, their feudal system, the very tradition and culture they rigidly followed for generations and for centuries was threatened.

There is not much of a plot but simply a chronicle of the lifestyle of the feudal system and the general atmosphere of those times. This chronicle is refelcted through Laila’s perception. The reader sees the world then as she saw it-when she was a pre-teen, a teenager, and later on as a wife and a mother.

Hence the mood of the novel is very nostalgic. It tries to resurrect the charm of those good old, undivided days when everything was in its proper place. It can even be called an intricate study in nostalgia. Attia Hossain’s writing is also marvelous. It is utterly delicate,sensitive and very descriptive. The reader also meets myriad,interesting characters from all walks of life.

Since, ‘Sunlight On A Broken Column‘ is very much descriptive, the pace is very slow and the story seems to be going nowhere. Attia Hossain tries to condense all aspects of those times in 300 odd pages which raises the question whether the story or the rambling descriptions take the plot forward.

Despite this, it is quite fascinating to read about life when feudalism existed,when respect and honour were obeyed to death, when Hindus and Muslims lived united  and peacefully, when society depended upon a master/taluqdar and laborer/peasant relationship to survive, when women lived in one part of the house and when traditions and rituals were religiously followed.

Attia Hossain brings to life all these and several more aspects of feudalism. This is perhaps the reason why her novel is titled so. She is trying to put light on a section or column of history that is not only forgotten but also broken.

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