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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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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Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology

I am pretty sure that I have read Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology, edited by Eunice De Souza, in my undergraduate days but I stumbled upon it once again in the library and the faint familiarity of the poems within the book wafted in my mind.

As the title suggests, Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology, contains a selection of poems written in English by nine Indian female poets. The poets included in this anthology are Mamta Kalia, Kamala Das, Melanie Silgardo, Eunice De Souza herself, Imtiaz Dharker, Smita Agarwal, Sujata Bhatt, Charmayne D’Souza and Tara Patel.

The most familiar poets for me were Mamta Kalia, Kamala Das, Eunice De Souza, Imtiaz Dharker and Sujata Bhatt.

My favourite has to definitely be Mamta Kalia’s cheeky and wry poetic style.

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Most of the nine poets have a common theme through them of addressing ideas and issues that affect them such as identity and language, marital relations, family matters or even ex lovers. However, saying that this is all that their poems express would be a gross generalisation which I will not be a party to. Each of the nine poets have specific issues that they deftly express. Each is versatile and each has her own unique style.

For instance, one of the central ideas in Kamala Das’ poems included in his collection is navigating the dynamic of male and female gender roles. On the other hand, Mamta Kalia’s poems artfully use wit to portray women and their routines and challenge those very routines, be it in the automatic love expected out of a daughter to her father or the routines of married life. Whereas Sujata Bhatt’s poems are on the other end of the spectrum where she tries to make sense of the various identities that she carries within. Eunice De Souza’s poems however often take into consideration very Goan Catholic themes as do Melanie Silgardo’s poems.

One of my favourite poems is by Melanie Silgardo titled, Cat, simply because of its words’  visual power that being a cat lover, I can immediately recognise as being typically belonging to any cat’s idiosyncrasies.

Mamta Kalia’s poem, Tribute to Papa, is another of my favourites as it boldly challenges a typical Indian privilege we proffer on to our fathers. The poem stands out because of its sheer defiance.

All in all, Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology is a visual and aural delight as one gets to read the best of 20th century female Indian poets.

Be sure to read them out loud and immerse yourself in their lilting rhythms!

Getting the blues!

We all have read stories of abusive families, violent relationships and we are bombarded with it even by the television media. We are exposed to it to such an extent that it gets morbid. Now suppose there was a book that looked at these aspects from a different view, a subtle view;wouldn’t that make the novel with a used storyline, well, quite, ‘novel’? But well, you’ll ask, is there such a book?? But of course there is…there are always all kinds of books to be read!

And this one is called, The Blue Bedspread, a debut novel of Raj Kamal Jha which chronicles a tale of a abusive family history and incestuous relationships. And it is quite a quick, interesting read that still manages to evoke a spectrum of touching, depressing, momentous, happy emotions!

The story starts with an unnamed narrator who hears of his sister’s death during childbirth. His sister gave birth to a baby girl who he takes home for the night. Fearing that some other people might want to adopt the girl, he begins writing his family’s story so that the baby knows of its background, knows more about her mother and the family she came from. As he begins to write, the stories initially revolve around innocuous, childlike tales but gradually they begin to reveal the rot that festered in his family. The narrator opens a can of worms and the reader finds out about certain dark secrets of the abusive father, of the bold, defiant sister, of his mother and of the narrator himself. He talks of a blue bedspread that symbolizes the intimate relationship between his sister and him. That blue bedspread comes to symbolize a different world, away from the trauma of a dysfunctional family. In the end, the reader sees the shocking, exact nature of that relationship.

Raj Kamal Jha in The Blue Bedspread has skillfully written vignettes about the narrator’s family. It comes across as a jigsaw puzzle that the reader has to solve to view the complete picture. Each vignette has its own mood, emotion, feel and yet each is interconnected with a thin strand of the narrator’s memory and facts. The novel could have worked well as a collection of short stories as well because of this aspect. The writing style is sparse, straightforward, precise and to the point. It does not mimic other more famed Indian writers like perhaps Salman Rushdie or Siddharth Dhanwant Shanghvi who use either countless descriptions or a flowery prose. Yet, the book seems, at least to me, very similar in terms of structure to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It might be written by an Indian author but the subject of the book is universal and though it is set in Kolkata, the narrator’s abusive family could be from any part of the world-be it Delhi, Mumbai, Shanghai, Nairobi, Milan, or any other corner. The Blue Bedspread has a non linear narration, no fixed time line as it moves from one time span to another.

Unfortunately, this jumbled up narration can get confusing, jarring and even nonsensical. Certain vignettes also seem very inappropriate as they do not help the story to move forward nor are they very cohesive. The lack of a cohesive narration and structure of vignettes mars the effect of the story.

Its a great book to read, with Jha giving soft touches to a melancholic scenario, giving it a fresh look, yet gently showcasing the immense, long lasting impact of such family violence. But be wary of its narration and structure.

‘Untouchable’ left me touched

‘Untouchable’ is a marvel of Indian fiction. Written by Mulk Raj Anand, it is not the regular kind of a book but rather a classic with deals with one of the worst evils of Hindu caste system-untouchability. Its written so sensitively that the book captures the reader immediately into its raw depictions and narration.

Taken from longitudebooks.com

The timeline of the story is only one single day. In that one single day, the novel follows the life of Bakha, a sweeper by birth and therefore an outcaste, an untouchable, who lives in an outcastes’ colony on the outskirts of the Bulandshahr. The discrimination he faces since the morning, the manner in which he deals with them and his reflections on many ordinary things are touchingly brought out by Mulk Raj Anand. In the morning, Bakha is abused by a priest who accuses Bakha of having touched him, later on Bakha is cast out of the temple, then he faces the wrath of a housewife because he sat on her porch. Later, a mother of an injured upper caste boy scolds Bakha for touching him and in the end, his own father’s reaction disgusts him. All these numerous forms of discrimination happen in only one day and are so intensely described that one thinks that 2 or 3 days have passed. I think that by using this technique, Anand wants to show the readers that just in one day Bakha has to bear so much injustice; so it is unthinkable how much endless discrimination he faces his whole life!

‘Untouchable’ doesn’t just simply question this problem of untouchability but also provides three solutions(which are mentioned in the preface) of which the last one is the most practical. This aspect is what makes the book stand out because it doesn’t merely represent a problem but aims to resolve it also.

The book definitely proffers an excellent look of an Indian society of pre-Independence era, how life functioned then. Its something we can’t imagine because our lives and our society is so vastly different from that. Its slightly slow paced as it gradually follows the events, thoughts meandering in Bakha through one single day.

Nevertheless, ‘Untouchable’ is hailed as a masterpiece and so it is. Its a great book and a must read for any one interested in Indian English Fiction or Literature.

Pardesi: Unaccustomed Earth

For me, Indian fiction is irresistible and Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing draws me within her fictional worlds. I had read Namesake which was an excellent book with a rare story of Indian immigrants in America. Unaccustomed Earth is pretty much written on the same lines with the only exception that it is not a novel but a collection of short stories. Its worth spending your time and money over and its a really wonderful read.

Taken from amazon.com

The book is divided into 2 parts with Part One having 5 short stories about Indian immigrants of different ages, genders,  and spanning across generations. The stories are set all over the U.S. While Part Two is a short immigrant love story of Hema and Kaushik.

In Part One, the first story Unaccustomed Earth is about a husband and his daughter coping with the wife/mother’s death and how her death allows him to travel while the daughter worries about taking care of her father.

In the second story, Hell-Heaven, a married woman falls in love with a younger man who does not reciprocate this love and instead marries an American.

A Choice Of  Accommodation, the third story narrates the loss of love between a married Indian-American couple and how they regain that love. The fourth one, Only Goodness is a story of a sister trying to protect her brother from alcoholism yet shunning him at the same time because of his addiction. It gives a unique look at a brother-sister relationship.

The last story, Nobody’s Business  is a singular story of an Indian woman living as a roommate  with Americans and who is in love with an Egyptian.

Part Two has three chapters which tell a love story that develops between Hema and Kaushik over the years, yet one that ends in tragedy.

The first thing that hits the reader in the face is that these stories do not have a rosy picture. There is a fragmented despair and utter sadness, even isolation and depression that pervades each story. They do not have a single aspect of the American Dream. There is conflict in each story, a loss of identity, a strong sense of disillusionment or even anger. Unaccustomed Earth provides harsh glimpses into the immigrants’ world which is unexpected as the majority of readers would expect a happy, better life in America than in India. Materially, the families are well off in each story but never emotionally or spiritually.

Although Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of short stories, the characters really come alive in each of them. Jhumpa Lahiri’s fine writing brings out nuances, peculiar qualities, different characteristics that makes the reader easily form a clear picture of the characters in their mind (just like in Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry). Her writing is undoubtedly superb and elegant. It effortlessly captures the essence of Indian immigrant life in America (just like it did in the Namesake) It is a definite must read for all lovers of Indian fiction writing and for all those who love literature.

One warning for all who want to pick up the book to read: Unaccustomed Earth requires a great deal of concentration and it is not our typical kind of ‘happy’ book, so for those who are looking for a happy, rosy read, please don’t bother to read this collection of short stories.

For others who would love to venture beyond the usual and read something thought provoking, might find this book just right!

Happy Reading!


This post is part of the Pardesi series that highlights immigrant experiences.

You can contribute as well! Click here for more information.