Pardesi: Salt Houses

Salma Yacoub looked at the coffee cup and knew that something is amiss about the fate of her youngest daughter, Alia. She never read the coffee dregs of her own kin but made an exception here because it was Alia’s wedding day. So what did she do? She decided to tell a lie, to give away only the positive foretelling. 

This paraphrasing is how the novel, Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, begins. With a lie.

It is also her decision to tell this lie that captivates the reader immediately. As Salma waited for her daughter, she reminisced about her life, about how she ended up in Nablus, fleeing from Jaffa; about her husband’s death and about her three children, Widad, Mustafa, and Alia. Widad was already married and settled in Kuwait and now the youngest was getting married to Atef. Salma spared no expenses. Interestingly, the wedding itself is not described in the story but only the events leading up to it.

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The entire novel is narrated through the perspectives of Salma’s family. Initially, it is her children’s viewpoints that are portrayed and later on her grandchildren and great grandchildren as well.

The novel begins in the 1960s and ends in around 2014. It narrates the history and growth of Salma’s family over 60 years. The one constant in all their perspectives is war, the act of fleeing and resettling. Movement is constant. Each generation has seen war. Salma was the first. Her children were victims of The Six Day War in 1967 which forced Atef and Alia to settle in Kuwait along with her sister, Widad. They had to flee again from Kuwait, when it was invaded by Iraq in August 1990.

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Poem of the Month: Agha Shahid Ali

Welcome to the fourth poem of the month!

This month we celebrate the birth anniversary of Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali. He was born on 4th February in 1949. He would have turned 71 this year.

In his poems, he gives voice to his sense of self exile and homelessness. Ali immigrated to the US for this studies and continued to stay there. His poetry also depicts his nostalgic view of his homeland, Kashmir. Later on his poems, particularly the one in his collection, The Country Without a Post Office, dealt with the growth of terrorism in the state and its effects on the communities of the region.

I picked the poem below because this was the first poem I had read written by him. I still vividly remember one of my English professors reciting the first stanza in class and how I was struck by the simplicity of the metaphor.

Postcard from Kashmir
Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.
I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.
This is home. And this the closest
I’ll ever be to home. When I return,
the colors won’t be so brilliant,
the Jhelum’s waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed.
And my memory will be a little
out of focus, in it
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped.

The opening couplet so succinctly and beautifully conveys different facets of nostalgia and memory. It portrays the idealistic image of Kashmir that a postcard would capture. The poem conveys Ali’s own distance from his homeland and how Kashmir’s depiction in a postcard mirrors his own nostalgic and rosy view of the valley.

Nostalgia is a cruel thing in a way. It forces you to ache for something that is not there anymore. A postcard captures exactly that: a place frozen in time, neatly ensconced within 4 x 6 inches.

Related Posts: 

Poesie: The Country Without A Post Office

Poem of the Month: Carol Ann Duffy

postcard from kashmir

 



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

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

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

The Country without a post office

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

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

A Strangeness in my Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The Forgotten India

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 and elite 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.

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Railway Stories

Indian Railways are an important part of our country’s landscape, a necessity that moves life, that helps travelling. Yet, we hardly have many stories on them or about them or them figuring prominently in a novel/story. Most kids know about the famous, ‘Railway Children,’ by Edith Nesbit but Indian railway stories are hard to come by.

Taken from penguinbooksindia.com

I recently came across, a wonderful collection of short stories about Indian railways titled, ‘The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories,’ edited by Ruskin Bond. I was delighted to read it as trains are an everyday part of my life.

The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories,’ is divided into two sections:

I) Stories Before Independence

II) Stories after Independence.

The book is fabulous from start to the end. Even the short poem,’ A Traveller’s Tale’ by A.G. Shirreff (1917) right at the beginning as well as the beautiful introduction written by Ruskin Bond helps to draw the reader into the right mood so she/he can plunge into the depths of each carefully chosen short story.

Through the 18 stories, we can sense the transition of the Indian railways from during the British period to after India’s independence. Some of the stories are extracts like R. K . Laxman’s ‘Railway Reverie’ or Khushwant Singh’s ‘Mano Majra Station.’ Some are stand alone stories. Nonetheless, all of them are equally mesmerising and enjoyable and some even have a slight mysterious element. Some brilliantly capture the railway’s ubiquitous presence and charm and its importance.

I will refrain from elaborating on all the 18 stories mostly because it will be too tedious and a pain to all reading the review. But I do want to mention that my favourites are ‘Cherry Choo-Choo’ by Victor Banerjee and ‘Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment’ by Satyajit Ray. The former is a nostalgic story of a defunct train called locally as ‘Cherry Choo Choo’ which was an admired and much loved train during its lifetime. The latter story is a brilliant story of a unique coincidence occurring in a train carriage. There are a few stories that are very technical and only those who are knowledgeable about railway jargon may understand  it better. There are few stories, because they are written in the pre-independence era, have certain racial aspects which are disconcerting yet if one overlooks that, then the story turns to a good one.

All in all, this collection is a must read. Even though it does not talk of local trains of Mumbai, it reminds us of how railways helped this mighty nation to develop and how trains have a special place in our hearts and the collection of the short stories helps to ignite that love in our heart’s special for trains. The book is a great read and for best results, it is best to read it while travelling in a train. It just helps to add to the atmosphere, to the setting and the mood of each story.

Happy journey and happy reading!

The Shadow Lines

One word that can best describe ‘The Shadow Lines‘ by Amitav Ghosh is-Nostalgia. The opening lines set the tone of the book. It seems less of a novel and more of an elaborate anecdote from a family’s history. Its narration is very lifelike. The reader feels as if the events in the book are being narrated right there orally by an actual person. The book has an old world charm to it and seems authentic.

The Shadow Lines‘ is set in Calcutta and takes one to places like Dhaka, Delhi, London etc. The narrator recalls the events of his life. He recalls Tridib, Ila, his parents, his grandparents. These recollections focus on 1 single event that possibly marred his life. These recollections seem random and purposeless but that is not so. The end of the book  is when these recollections start making sense and the reader understands why the narrator is talking about them. The nostalgia that the book evokes is incomparable to anything I have read. It has a curious sense of history, a tender love for the past and all things familiar in childhood and the good old days. The writing is simple, descriptive and beautiful.

The only con noticeable is the difficulty of establishing a chronology. The narrator jumps from one event happening in the present to another that happened 10 years ago to another that happened about 2 or 3 years ago. There are extracts from different time periods and about different people which can be difficult to piece together.

Other than that, ‘The Shadow Lines‘ is a good book suffused with nostalgia.