Jaya Posts

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s “Lahore”, part of the Partition Trilogy

…If religion was the basis of nationality, why there would be multiple nations in India. These nations exist in most villages, in varying proportions, with no boundaries. A Bengali Hindu and a Bengali Muslim live together, speak the same language, share the same customs. In Panjab, it is not uncommon in Hindu homes for the eldest son to be brought up a Sikh. Would that therefore mean two nations in one home? p.159

The first volume of “The Partition Trilogy” by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar , entitled Lahore is to be released very soon. When it is available in the market, buy it. Read it. It is excellent.

The publicity blurb states the following:

Set in the months leading up to and following India obtaining freedom in 1947, this trilogy is an exploration of events, exigencies and decisions that led to the independence of India, its concomitant partition, and the accession of princely states alongside. A literary political thriller that captures the frenzy of the time, the series is set in Delhi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Covering a vast canvas, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Lord Mountbatten [ the text rather disparagingly refers to him as “Dickie” instead of “Lord”] share space in the trilogy with the ordinary people from the cities that were affected by the partition and the reorganization of the states.

Lahore is a very well-told story, delineating step-by-step the events that led to the subcontinent’s independence from its British colonial rulers and the heavy cost in terms of human lives. The story also focusses on the irrational hatred that consumed people. The author attempts a fine balance between the political events that were taking place at a rapid pace, sometimes leaving the politicians and administrators bewildered at the speed at which it was all happening, with that of the events engulfing common people. She offers insights into the macro- and micro- levels of decisions that needed to be taken by the British, and incoming Indian and Pakistani governments. The story moves extremely fast, aping the historical events. Lahore seems to based on extensive research involving historical documents, accounts, testimonies, more contemporary analysis that has been unearthed of the events that took place nearly seventy-five years ago. It is perceptible in the tenor of writing. It seeps through in the descriptions of the real and imagined characters — the state-level decisions that were being taken to manage the handing over of governance by the British to the Indians/Pakistanis, albeit the narrative focusses more on the Indian side; the brutal hacking of people on the streets simply because they were of the opposite community (“Communal rioting was spreading,as if by chain reaction”); the unreasonable acts of violence in neighbourhoods towards the “other” such as the fictionalised account of the Muslim fruit seller being shunted out of a predominantly Hindu colony ( eerily echoing present day India where a few days ago a similar act occurred towards a Muslim bangle seller in Indore); or the vicious assault, kidnapping and raping of women where often they were left to their fate ( “Nobody moved in pursuit, nobody seemed to have noticed her disappearance— or nobody had the energy left to care.”).

There is much, much more to absorb. It requires a keen historian’s eye to verify if the facts portrayed in this novel are as close to the truth as possible. In terms of the broader arc, the depiction of the events is close to what is evident in history books and the many oral testimonies that came tumbling out in the older generations as they recalled 1947 while witnessing the communal riots that had broken out in Delhi in 1984. The chilling parallels between the two were unmistakable. For instance, my grandfather, who was the last ICS officer, suddenly began to remember the 1947 horrors that he saw as a young officer. So much of what Manreet Sodhi Someshwar documents of the officers making lists of divvying up office furniture, watching people being slaughtered in the streets, or houses being burnt to the ground with families inside it are much of what my grandfather has recorded in his oral testimony at the Teen Murti Library. Apparently it is the longest oral testimony (4vols) ever recorded. It is also very familiar to those of us who have seen these riots. It is as if we as a nation cannot get rid of these violent memories and have made violence part and parcel of our lives. Today, with social media, recordings of such incidents spread like wildfire, igniting even more in other regions. It is incumbent upon us as responsible citizens of a democracy to remember the horrendous events of the past and learn to move on, rather than nurse communal hatred and replicate pogroms.

More than forty percent of the 1.4 billion Indian population was born after 1991, many of whom are unfamiliar with modern Indian history. But it can be accessed through various ways. By reading historical fiction such as Lahore in conjunction with history books such as Bipan Chandra’s History of Modern India and of course watching the classic film by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, available in English and Hindi.

Lahore is truly magnificent. Although it is inexplicable why the book title is Lahore when the chapters spell it as “Laur”. It should be submitted for historical fiction literary prizes such as “Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize” that is open to books published in the previous year in the Commonwealth. It would also be interesting to see a conversation between British writer Jamila Gavin who wrote the “Surya Trilogy” and Manreet Sodhi Someshwar as they both grapple with the events of 1947. Ideally Salman Rushdie should be invited to participate too given how his recent collection of essays dwells upon many of the themes that the other two writers tackle. Having said that there are many more writers who can be invited but this trio in conversation would make for a phenomenal conversation.

Buy it once it is available.

28 August 2021

PS I had posted this review on Facebook. Later Manreet Sodhi Someshwar shared it as her Facebook story. Here is a screenshot of it.

“A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir” by Rodrigo Garcia

In March 2014, Gabriel Garcia Marquez came down with a cold. He was eighty-seven-years-old. His wife was not hopeful about him surviving and phoned her sons, based in Los Angeles and Paris, respectively, to tell them. Rodrigo Garcia reached Mexico City before his brother and realised that his father needed hospitalisation. It was then that he also discovered their mother’s resistance to admitting her husband to hospital as she did not think he would make it. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was diagnosed with pneumonia and in the course of medical investigations, cancerous patches on his lung and liver were also detected. The chances of recovery were bleak given his frailty and his ill-health. It was decided that the Nobel Prize winning author would be taken home and made comfortable. The doctors were not sure about how much time he had. It could range from a few weeks to a few months. 

A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir is by Rodrigo Garcia ( HarperVia). His son realised that this was the end game for his illustrious father and he should write about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s final moments on earth.

Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots. I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes. What makes matters emotionally turbulent is the fact that my father is a famous person. Beneath the need to write may lurk the temptation to advance one’s own fame in the age of vulgarity. Perhaps it might be better to resist the call and to stay humble. Humility is, after all, my favorite form of vanity. But as with most writing, the subject matter chooses you, and so resistance could be futile.

Paris Review, “A Great Storyteller Loses His Memory”, 2 August 2021

Rodrigo Garcia chose to publish it after both his parents had passed away. “I know I will not publish this memoir until she is unable to read it.” His mother passed away in August 2020. Hence, the memoir has been published in 2021. Rodrigo Garcia is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He is a screenwriter and director. His theatrical films include Nine Lives, Albert Nobbs, and Last Days in the Desert, and he has directed episodes of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and the pilot of Big Love, for which he received an Emmy nomination. Obviously, his career has helped him hone his skills as a storyteller. Although nothing can prepare you to tell the story of your parent’s declining health and eventual death. To maintain a clear-eyed perspective on the events that occurred in quick succession from the time Gabriel Garcia Marquez fell seriously ill requires immense amounts of self-will and training as a skilled and sensitive narrator.

Standing near the foot of the bed, I look at him, diminished as he is, and I feel like both his son (his little son) and his father. I am acutely aware that I have a unique overview of his eighty-seven years. The beginning, the middle, and the end are all there in front of me, unfolding like an accordion book.

I fly to Los Angeles again to spend a few more days in the cutting room. My second night at home, I go to bed early, but after I turn out the lights I’m worried that the phone will ring in the middle of the night and scare the wits out of me. It does both. I hear my brother’s voice on the other end, sounding deliberately calm.

“Hey. He has a high fever. The doctor says you better come back.”

After I hang up, I book an early flight on my phone . . . 

****

Later a gerontologist of about forty stops by to advise on end-stage care. (He is himself is in remission from lymphoma. He has advice for us on the last stages, vis-à-vis hydration and sedation.) …We listen in silence, like we’re watching a strange monologue in an experimental play. The ideas are intriguing and absurd. Practical, compassionate, murderous.

****

Yet, while preoccupied with his father and the arrangements it would take to organise home care, the author is able to spare a thought on the nurse:

The beauty of witnessing someone who is outstanding at what she does, in conjunction with the comfort brought about by the support of an empathetic health worker, makes her a compelling presence.

There are many instances in the memoir when he comments upon the staff busying themselves with their chores but it is never written as if there is a divide between “us” and “them”. He does it with great poise. There is an exquisite moment in the book when the staff come to pay their last respects Gabriel Garcia Marquez as he is laid out on his bed.

Rodrigo Garcia then goes on to describe the funeral arrangements followed by the memorial service. His mother had insisted that the cremation take place on the same day itself. There were chaotic scenes outside their home but they managed to conduct the funeral on time. It was a very private affair. Four days later the Mexican and Colombian presidents held a joint memorial service at Mexico City. Marquez had been born in Colombia but chose to spend more than fifty years of his life in Mexico City. It was a grand affair.

This beautiful memoir is peppered with references to his father’s craftsmanship as a writer. Memories come flooding back. One of these is a poignant episode the son recalls of his father appreciating songwriters and singers for their techniques.

My dad greatly admired and envied songwriters for their ability to say so much and so eloquently with so few words. While writing Love in the Time of Cholera, he submitted himself to a steady diet of Latin pop songs of love lost or unrequited. He said to me that the novel would be nowhere so melodramatic as many of those songs, but that he could learn much from them about the techniques with which they evoked feelings. He was never a snob about art forms and enjoyed the work of people as diverse as Béla Bartók and Richard Clayderman. He once walked by as I was watching Elton John playing his best songs on television, alone at the piano. My dad was only vaguely aware of him, but the music stopped him in his tracks, and he eventually sat down and watched all of it, enthralled. “Carajo, this guy is an incredible bolerista,” he said. A singer of boleros. It was very much like him to refer something back to his own culture. He was never intimidated by Eurocentric references that were common everywhere. He knew that great art could blossom in an apartment building in Kyoto or in a rural country in Mississippi, and he had the unwavering conviction that any remote and rickety corner of Latin America or the Caribbean could stand in powerfully for the human experience.

He was an omnivorous reader . . .

A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir is a very touching tribute to a larger-than-life father who was venerated by millions around the world. But it is also an equally moving account of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wife, Mercedes. They had met when they were little children as ten and fourteen-year-olds. From the moment he met her, Marquez knew he would marry Mercedes. But she had her own space and identity and was respected for it. So, when the Mexican president referred to her at the memorial service as “the widow”, she was infuriated, saying rightly so, “I have an identity. I am not just the widow.”


Read the book. Weep, but also celebrate life as Rodrigo Garcia does.

18 August 2021

Essay on Independence Day literature, 15 Aug 2021

15 Aug 2021 is the 74th Independence Day of India. In 1947, the subcontinent gained its independence from the British. On that day, two nations were created — India and Pakistan. So, while there is every reason to celebrate this joyous occasion, it is also remembered for the partitioning of British India and the terrible communal riots and mass migration of people that ensued.

The historic events of 1947 have never been forgotten by those living in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (in 1947, it was East Pakistan). Within two years of Independence, India got its constitution — the longest written constitution in the world. It is a magnificent document that gave the Indian citizens many rights. India was a fledgling democracy and yet there was much to celebrate this “new India” and the mantra of “self-reliance”. But as Suchitra Vijayan points out in her absolutely stunning book, Midnight’s Borders, that with the three significant pogroms of 1984, 1992 and 2002, much of India’s character changed. In Midnight’s Borders, she spent seven years travelling along India’s borders that had been hastily drawn in the 1940s by Radcliffe. The more she travelled, the clearer it became to her that local history and memory bear no resemblance to the political history of the nation that claims these lands and peoples. A barrister by training, she previously worked for the United Nations war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda before co-founding the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, which gives legal aid to Iraqi refugees. Yet, as her travels along India’s borders proved, that nothing really prepared her for what she encountered. Some of these stories are documented.

The collection of books showcased in the images are a tiny representation of the literature (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) that is about India’s Independence or as many now like to refer to it as Partition. Lesser and lesser people remember it as “independence” from colonial rule but prefer to commemorate the horrors of partition. While both narratives are true, the increasing emphasis on the division of the subcontinent along communal lines has resulted in many generations perpetuating the hatred and anger for the other. It is now playing out in our daily lives as many of these books bear testimony. It also wades into the exceedingly complicated terrain of the importance of memory, oral histories, subjective/objective perspectives, violence and preservation of stories for future generations — is it meant to be a reminder to not repeat these unforgettable mistakes of the past or do they serve the purpose of stoking more communal flames? No one will ever know the truth but three of the recently published novels — Savie Karnel’s The Nameless God, Chandan Pandey’s Legal Fiction (translated from Hindi into English by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari), and Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Time of the Peacock are sobering reminders of the fallout of our violent history.

Partition has become such an important narrative in Indian / South Asian/ desi literature, especially after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 which for many recalled the events of 1947, that many new stories are continue to be published on the subject. Take for instance, the young adult novels of Swapna Haddow’s exquisite Torn Apart: The Partition of India and Veera Hirandani’s riveting The Night Diary. Torn Apart is a slim novel. It is focused upon the two young boys, Ibrahim and Amar. It is October 1947. The two young boys are thrown together, in the aftermath of India gaining Independence from the British. It resulted in the partition of the subcontinent into two nations – India and Pakistan. This resulted in terrible bloodshed and what has been considered to be one of the largest migrations of humans in living memory. Ibrahim, a wealthy young Muslim, has been separated from his family after an attack. Lost and alone in Delhi, Ibrahim meets Amar, a street child and a Hindu, and asks for his help to reach Pakistan safely. Swapna Haddow does not spend too much time fretting about families torn apart or relationships being fragile. She shows the violence and ways out of the violence. She does not in any way lighten any blows. The abrupt manner in which the friendship draws to a close at the refugee camp is so realistic. Astonishingly there is no sense of hope offered to the young readers. It is what it is. Even Michael Morpurgo who dishes out very sad books, with there always being one painful twist in the plot, ends his books on positivity. Always hope. But not Swapna. Yet, the lean writing, with not a word out of place is utterly stupendous. And here is my 2018 interview with Veera Hiranandani.  Supriya Kelkar’s second novel, Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame is not about 1947 but of 1857. The fact that it is listed here is because the novel is set at the time of the Uprising of 1857 when the colonial ruler’s policy of Divide and Rule was evident. Hindu and Muslim soldiers united to revolt against the British rulers. There were strong rumours circulating that the bullets that the soldiers had to bite with their mouths were wrapped in paper greased with cow and pig grease that affected the religious sensibilities of the Hindu and Muslim soldiers, respectively. It caused a massive furore and rapidly spreads from the epicentre in Meerut to towns and villages across India. Supriya Kelkar’s second novel is remarkable too for her insights into British India and creating historical fiction for middle grade readers. Her first novel Ahimsa was fabulous. Her strength is creating these strong adolescent girls as the protagonists and using them as the point of entry into the past. The heroine of this novel is thirteen-year-old Meera. The story opens with her being readied for her departure to her marital home. It was a fairly common practice at the time to encourage child marriage. Her husband Krishna lived in the same village. On the eve of her departure, riots break out and in the violence that ensued Krishna was killed. Meera is terrified that she will be made to commit Sati, the practice of widows burning on their husband’s funeral pyre. Terrified at the prospect, Meera runs away from home. By doing so, she gets involved in a series of events that are linked to the soldiers’ uprising against the colonial rulers.

Some of the stupendous literature published recently that either directly or indirectly focusses upon independence/communal repercussions on modern India include translations of poetry and short stories such as that of Kunwar Narain ( translated by his son, Apurva Narain in No Other World 2008, The Play of Dolls: Stories 2020 & Witnesses of Remembrance: Selected Newer Poems 2021); the anguish about contemporary events movingly expressed by poet  Tishani Doshi in her collection of poems A God at the Door; Farah Bashir‘s memoir about growing up in 1990s Kashmir in Rumours of Spring; and debut writer Sonal Kohli’s disquieting inter-linked short stories House Next to the Factory which are about the post-Partition immigrant experience between 1980-2020 in Delhi. The forthcoming Partition trilogy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is definitely something to look out for. The first volume, Lahore is to be released soon but it is a book that will be talked about for years to come. In all likelihood it will be turned into a TV series or a film. It is a triumphant example of historical fiction with a balanced account of historical events and fictional characters that provides insights into the events of 1947. The other two volumes in the trilogy are called Hyderabad and Kashmir. These books have been written after intensive research and it shows. Fortunately, the author wears her knowledge lightly and it is a gripping tale she has to tell. Debut novelist Melody Razak attempted to do something similar with Moth and has been recognised by The Observer as one of the promising novelists of 2021. It too is historical fiction set in and around August 1947.

Journalist M. Rajshekhar’s Despite the State has been included in this list of books as it is a brilliant example of reportage. Rajshekhar spent thirty-three months travelling through six states of India, investigating the deep crisis that affects Indian democracy. He records the distressing account of democratic failure. It is a sobering read given the enthusiasm with which the first government after Independence laid out the blueprint for a planned economy, construction of temples of modern India such as hydropower dams and setting up many schemes for the welfare of its citizens. Rajshekhar shows how much of those dreams have crumbled, the state in many instances has abdicated responsibility, leaving the citizens to fend for themselves. It is a cruel reality. It is precisely why a selection of Aleph Book Company titles have also been displayed. The publishing firm is doing a sterling job of creating relevant literature, looking at history, facts, evidence and preventing the corruption of historical narratives by a single discourse. The titles on display are a minute selection of what has been published in recent years by eminent academics, writers, and social activists.

Unfortunately, is a sad truth that much of the literature that is being published nowadays focusses more and more on the “partition” rather than the euphoria of becoming an independent nation. Literature at the best of times, especially for the young, when based upon historical events should be based on facts with of course the liberty to be creative rather than being biased in their perspective. The communal clashes that erupted after Independence were despicable and their ramifications are being felt more than seven decades later with the resurgence of hate politics and fundamentalism. It is the truth. But we should never forget and certainly not let the younger generations forget, as we move further in time away from 15 August 1947, that the euphoria of winning our Independence from the British was tremendous. We were free. Finally. Stories can be and should be created against the backdrop of Independence and of course the violence that followed thereafter. But the growing emphasis on remembering the violent past, erecting memorials to the victims, setting up Partition museums and war memorials, is one way of forever remembering the injustices of the past. Yet, it is also a clever way of ensuring that the wounds remain raw. Remember but with facts and not with selective memory – that is plain dangerous and perpetuates violence and hatred.

At such a time it is perhaps worth reading humanist and experimental poet and writer the late Kunwar Narain’s “Poetry of Dark Times”.

****

“Poetry of Dark Times”

Remembering Brecht

How should be
the poetry of dark times
like this?

Poets change, poems change,
but dark times
just don’t seem to change.

So much misery
keeps looking for words in artless languages,
keeps wishing that they arise
drop by drop
like vapour from abyssal oceans
collide with mountains
like nimbus clouds
girdle the earth and rain down on it
like tempest thunder lightning . . .

             

and so let the poetry of dark times inundate
and wash away the dark times.

              and wash away the dark times.

How can the poetry
of dark times
be . . .

Kunwar Narain (1927-2017), translated by Apurva Narain

Note: These are only a sample of books published on Independence/Partition. There are many, many more equally good books being published that have not been included in this post.

Craig Storti’s “The Hunt for Mount Everest”

2021 marks the centenary year of the first Everest expedition. The height of the mountain had been first measured in 1850. It took another seventy-one years for an expedition to be arranged. The members were Bullock, Morshead, Wheeler, Mallory, Heron, Wollaston, Howard-Bury, Raeburn. But in June 1921, the two English men, George Mallory and Guy Bullock, became the first people ever to stand at the foot of Mount Everest.

Craig Storti in The Hunt for Mount Everest ( John Murray, Hachette India), commemorates this remarkable expedition. His book begins with the arrival of George Everest as Surveyor General in the early 1800s and concludes with the 1921 event. To quote Storti:

It is a tale of high drama, of larger-than-life characters — George Everest, Francis Young husband, Lords Curzon and Kitchener, George Mallory — and a few quiet heroes: Radanath Sikdhar, Alexander Kellas, the 13th Dalai Lama, Sir Charles Bell. It is a tale of spies, intrigue and beheadings; of war ( two wars, in fact) and massacre; of breath-taking political, diplomatic and military bungling; of derring-do, hair-raising escapes and genuine bravery. The wind is a powerful presence, as are the rains and mud, along with rhododendrons and orchids, leeches and butterflies, mosquitoes, gnats and sandflies. Hundreds of bullocks, yaks and mules are featured, as are thousands of camels, numerous elephants and at least two zebrules ( they were not a success). And it’s setting is some of the most spectacular geography on earth.

Images from some of the pages from the book attest to the magnificent accounts of rhododendrons, orchids and even butterflies. The descriptions are stunning and are fine examples of nature writing.

The book itself in many instances is an absorbing account of how the mountain was first mapped. There are detailed descriptions of George Everest’s survey tours. Also, an insight into his cantankerous personality which enabled him to overrule any conflict with his authority, including a mutiny of the armed guards. He was a rude man but also very focused on his task. Once the mountain had been identified and named, the goal post shifted to attempting a climb.

Craig Storti first fell in love with this mountain in the late 1970s when he moved to Nepal. It took him nearly four decades to put this book together but he was determined to write an account of the mountain that ended with the 1921 expedition. For a person reading about the survey of India in the nineteenth century, the excitement and thrill of considering mountain climbing as a sport, negotiations with Tibet, the Great Game etc., then from their point of view The Hunt for Mount Everest is a decent book, packed with information.

8 August 2021

Tishani Doshi’s “A God at the Door”

Today, my eleven-year-old daughter woke up much earlier than her usual time. She had had a nightmare. She dreamt that she was in 1939 Nazi Germany. She was in a classroom and then opened a door to go elsewhere. Then, to her horror, she was packing her precious belongings and needed to run. She did not know where she was running but she was and she was terrified. While narrating the incident, she looked alarmed and began wringing her hands in nervous fear. She kept using the collective pronoun “we”, but when asked over and over again, who else was with you, she finally admitted to the singular “I”.

The trigger for this dream in all likelihood have been the books and documentaries about World War Two that she has immersed herself in. She recently read a YA novel, based on a true story, of a Catholic girl who saved a family of thirteen Polish Jews. And much else. Much of it is driven by interest and partially by her school curriculum.

The point of this anecdote is that Art is powerful. It serves multiple purposes. If employed correctly, it operates more than Art for Art’s Sake. Most importantly, it allows the artist to use their creative sensibilities to observe, record, comment and preserve events in collective memory, lest we as a race forget the horrors that have been perpetrated.

Poet Tishani Doshi’s latest collection A God at the Door ( HarperCollins India) serves this purpose admirably. The seething rage and at times, a sense of helplessness, that she feels as an individual witnessing the systematic violence, communalism and the boxing in of women into their homes, are noted in her poems. “The Stormtroopers of My Country” that is an ode to the decimation of a beautiful country is extremely powerful. It is a country that will vanish rapidly if we allow it to happen. The poem ends with a firm belief in our abilities to survive the most violent of assaults.

with the pogrom atrocity death march love
march no such thing as a clean termite to burn
is to purify oh our culture so ancient so good
we’re in the thick of the swastika now no brow
beating will divide us together we must stick

The importance of the artists and writers in turbulent times can never be under estimated. They have the immense ability to imprint searing words upon the reader’s mind that are hard to shirk. Such as:

History too has a hard time remembering
the black waters they crossed, …
…History tries not to be sentimental,
although letters give things away.

( “Many Good and Wonderful Things”)

Or

There comes a point in the battle
when the last international watchdog
is forced to leave the country. Reader,
I know you’re prone to anxiety. This
is when it happens. The lagoon, the ambush,
Bullets raining down in a no-fire zone.
Quick, into my echo chamber.

( “Instructions on Surviving a Genocide”)

Or

… I found a village, a republic,
the size of a small island country with a history

of autogenic massacre. In it were all our missing women.
They’d been sending proof of their existence —

copies of birth and not-quite-dead certificates
to offices of the registrar.

What they received in response was a rake
and a cobweb in a box.

(“I Found a Village and In It Were All Our Missing Women”)

Or

Forget where you came from, forget history.
It never happened, okay? We need soldiers on the front line.
Of course we can coexist. We say potato, they say potato.
We give them their own ghetto.

(“Nation’)

Or

Say the words ‘Bay of Bengal’
and ‘Buchenwald’ one after
the other, and they sound
beautiful, just as ‘landfills
does. And then imagine it:

(“Do Not Go Out in the Storm”)

The poems in this collection are crying to be performed by multitudes of people. There is no other way to describe this but there seems to be a strong force at the core of these poems that is urging the reader to read these out aloud and share them with more and more people. It is as if when read out aloud, the truth these words enshrine will hit home hard and perhaps embolden us to push back. It is an incredible experience to read poetry that much of the time is a wail of pain and anger intermingled and yet gets transferred seamlessly to the reader and co-opt them into this collective grief. The desire to act can only happen if the personal will is strong enough to turn it into a political act. Perhaps by immemorialising contemporary events, the poet urges a mass awakening to fight against the ills.

My head hurts. And yet I find myself going over and over and over these poems. Soon, my daughter will be able to read and understand these poems. I hope she does. I hope she will convey them to her peers and in time, future generations. These poems/stories/ moments-in-history should not be forgotten.

Read A God at the Door.

I urge you.

8 August 2021

Vibha Batra’s “Pinkoo Shergill”

This book is utterly perfect! In terms of story, plot, pacing and literary craftsmanship. It makes one chuckle with delight as the antics are so believable. The manner in which Vibha Batra has inhabited a child’s world is very well done.

Ten-year-old Prabhjot Shergill aka Pinkoo adores baking. He dreams of making Olympic history by winning the gold medal at the Bake-a-Thon event. Instead he has to settle for sneaking into the kitchen to bake exquisite creations while the adults are preoccupied with other stuff. Sometimes it is at the cost of skipping his shooting classes that his father insists upon. Pinkoo is not interested in living out the dreams of his late grandfather or father as a shooter, instead he prefers to be a world class baker.

Aided and abetted by his best friend Manu and his pestilential little cousin, Tutu, the kids hatch a plan of getting Pinkoo to participate in the international programme, “The Great Junior Bake-a-Thon”. The competition is slated for an Indian edition, to be recorded in Chandigarh and finals in Mumbai. They are assisted by their classmate Nimrat, who they don’t particularly like, but her father runs the best coffee shop in Patiala, offering the best confectionary for many miles around. Nimrat persuades an ex-baker of her father’s, Chef Khanna, to train Pinkoo. The only reason that Nimrat assists Pinkoo is that she overheard him being taunted in the school canteen by the school bullies for wanting to become a pastry chef. “He’s such a girl!” Nimrat is so irritated by this remark that she grimly determines that “these idiots need to learn a lesson” and marches Pinkoo off to a tete-a-tete with a professional baker.

Pinkoo Shergil: Pastry Chef by Vibha Batra ( Scholastic India) is about Pinkoo’s training, the competition and persuading his very stern father to attend a baking competition. Papaji was of the opinion that “the kitchen is no place for a boy”. It is a fun, fun, fun book that upends a lot of stereotypes with a delightfully light touch. It is a book that generates a happy spot in one’s mind and at the same time gets various “messages” across without being didactic. The best one is saved for the last — whatever you do, give it your best shot and “don’t give up”, irrespective of ups and downs. The story is beautifully complemented by the zany black-and-white illustrations by Shamika Chaves. The buzz and excitement of the youngsters, who at the best of times are like little drops of mercury, is enhanced by the exuberant page design enabling certain words to pop out of the page. It emphasizes the rhythm of the text too. All in all, a gorgeous book!

Buy it. Share it. Read it. Donate it to school and community libraries. Pass on some of the love and joy. All of us could do with some.

4 August 2021

“Seva: Sikh secrets on how to be good in the real world” by Jasreen Mayal Khanna

Seva: Sikh secrets on how to be good in the real world by Jasreen Mayal Khanna is a tiny book ( Juggernaut Books). Packs quite a punch. It delves into the heart of what it means to be a Sikh or observe “Sikhi”. The author, Jasreen Mayal Khanna, is a journalist who bore witness to the incredible work her community did during the pandemic. From the free oxygen langars to the free dialysis camps to setting up dispensaries giving free medical advice and medication to patients to distributing free food to the migrants walking home, the Sikhs have been admirable at the constructive support they have offered to the afflicted. It is a selfless service, seva, that many in the community believe in. Khanna is very aware that not everyone in their community has a tendency to do good, they too have their fair share of nasty folks. Having said that, it is obvious that they are driven by their faith to do the good that they do. It is these principles that Khanna decides to investigate. What propels Sikhs in this daily ritual? She identifies them as:

Rule #1: Help Someone Every Day
Rule #2: Embrace Joy
Rule #3: Be Brave
Rule #4: Say Thank You Daily
Rule #5: Learn to Laugh at Yourself
Rule #6: Practise Equality at Home
Rule #7:Work Harder Than You Pray*
Rule #8: Live in Chardi Kala ( “Eternal Positivity”)

Each chapter is a mix of analysis and personal anecdotes with a few interviews with prominent Sikhs. To understand how everyone balances their life and work and finds peace.

During the pandemic, hanging on to messages of hope and being offered positive ways of thinking and changing one’s life, is very welcome. It is a far cry from the positive toxicity that continues to abound on social media platforms. Self-help books like “Seva” are meant to be read, imbibed and shared. It is a philosophy of living that cuts across religious boundaries and affects every individual. To use a cliche, but it works well here, it is an uplifting book.

Read it.

*This is very similar to the Protestant Work Ethic.

1 August 2021

“The Kathasaritsagara of Somadeva” A retelling by Meena Arora Nayak

I have lost track of the number of times I have tried reading various transactions of Kathasaritsagara. It becomes exhausting to read after a while with the vast array of characters, stories within stories, battles, talking  birds, swindlers, yakshas and yoginis, conjurers, walking corpses and sleeping giants. But that is not the case with this particular version which is a retelling of Somadeva Bhatt’s, The Kathasaritsagara. It is by Meena Arora Nayak who had also put together another magnificent volume The Blue Lotus: Myths and Folktales of India. Both publications are by Aleph Books. In this particular version of Kathasaritsagara, Nayak is able to break up the stories into an easily understood structure, easily read in print. She says it is a katha kavya,  “a highly stylized” work in which the author presents “a well-known subject in a refined and sophisticated form”.

She adds:

The classical katha is an invented story, most often about love, told by a narrator (or multiple narrators) in a continuous narrative, sometimes with sections or lambakas. It often contains a preamble or an introduction that sets up the story, and it is written in either Sanskrit or Apabhramsha. The narrative of the Kathasaritsagara is certainly stylized: it has refined wordplay and shlokas that are replete with imaginative alamkaras, or figures of speech, which is an element of kavya. It is also a continuous story, although it lacks cohesion. ( The Ur text may have been more cohesive.) In the interest of embellishing the narrative with numerous takes, Somadeva seems to have forfeited its unity. The key frame story about Naravahanadatta is fragmented and thinly laid out, it’s progression luxated by not just the profusion of stories but also by s muddled chronology of sections.

However, despite its structural issues, this ocean of 350 tales is stupendous in its sheer multitude of themes, characters, locales, and subjects. …Some of these tales are from other famed literary works, such as the Panchatantra, Vetala Pachisi, and Jataka; some are from the Mahabharata and Ramayana; others recreate characters from classical works such as Kadambari, Mudrarakshasa, and Swapnavasavadatta; and still others are from folklore, both local and faraway lands. These takes explore human emotions about love and longing, separations separations reunions, and also subjects like witchcraft and conjuring, journeys, shipwrecks, and destinations, using locales ranging from golden palaxes to magical islands, from teeming forests to macabre cremation grounds. And these stories converge like rivers meeting the ocean, creating buoyant waves of story cycles.

Most of these stories occur in cycles that are loosely linked through sporadic framing devices. A few of the takes follow a mise-en-abyme structure that nirror the frame story in which they occur; whereas, others, in boxed frames, appear seemingly unrelated. But the majority of the tales are organic to particular situations; they are added in tbe way that one would conversationally state to emphasise a point: “Let me tell you a story to explain what I mean.” This rhetorical technique of including side stories in a frame to drive hoke a point is a common narrative device that was used extensively in ancient literatures, especially the epics. 

The Kathasaritsagara is thought to have been compiled around 1070 CE by Somadeva Bhatt, during the reign of Raja Ananta of the Lohara dynasty of Kashmir. It is one of the longest creations in Indian and world literature and yet it is considered to be only a small part of an even longer work called Brihatkatha, composed by Gunadhya in a lost language known as Paisachi. Somadeva collected and retold the stories of The Kathasaritsagara in Sanskrit to entertain Raja Ananta’s wife, Suryavati. This masterpiece has influenced many of the world’s best-known classics, including One Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales. The central story of this epic revolves around the son of the famed Raja Udayana, Naravahanadatta, and his marital quests, in the course of ehichbhe acquires numerous wives, encounters a host of memorable characters, and wins supremacy over the mystical vidyadharas.

After reading the detailed introduction explaining the epic by Meena Arora Nayak, the epic finally begins to make sense. Hence, it is no surprise that the retelling is relatively easy to comprehend as well. Although it does not bear reading cover-to-cover, it has to be read in small chunks. But so far this is one of the superior versions of the epic that I have read in English.

1 August 2021

“Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men” by Katrine Marcal, translated from the Swedish by Alex Fleming

Bestselling author Katrine Marcal’s latest offering, Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men ( William Collins, HarperCollins India) is very clearly about the importance of women in contributing to specific economic systems that have gone on to transform social behaviour/history. It has been a sexist understanding, recording and reading of histories that have credited men with the success of certain innovations, whereas Katrine proves with her detailed readings of some of the historic global events has been that the contribution of women was undeniable. Unfortunately, it was not understood sufficiently, recorded or interpreted by men who designed, controlled and managed systems. Take for instance, the absurd case of the seamstresses and Nasa’s inability to approve the space suit, even though they could see that it was far superior to the rest. Their internal assessment recorded that no other suit even came a close second. Yet, because there were no engineers on the job, recording the designs that the women were creating using 4,000 pieces of cloth and using a single-hole sewing machine to ensure precision of their lines, NASA rejected the space suit. It was only after the manufacturing company chose to hire a team of engineers to “translate” a perfectly understable sewing job into gobbledygook, that the NASA top brass was satisfied and gave their approval to the space suit which was eventually worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they walked on the moon! Meanwhile the seamstresses themselves scoffed at the pages and pages of material and said they did not have the time to wade through it. The point the author makes is that because sewing was considered a “soft” skill, irrespective of the fact that it had existed for as long as civilization, but was mostly perceived as a woman’s expertise, it was dismissed. It did not have the masculine touch of being presented in technical jargon and thereby making it seem worthwhile. I was reading about Benz and his invention of a horseless carriage and how he was stupid about exploiting it commercially. It required the brilliance of his wife, who sneaked out the car from their garage with her teenage sons, and then drove it to visit her mother, 90 miles away. They drove at the top speed of 16 miles/hour, with many breakdowns along the way. One of them requiring her hat pin to fix. In another when the brakes were heating up, she stopped at a cobbler and asked for a leather strap to be put around the brakes. She reached her mother’s home triumphantly 15 hours later. Many of her innovations of that day are still used in cars. And also thanks to her proving that the horseless carriage could be driven and was safe, the machine became a commercial success. But no one remembers her name, they only remember her husband, who soon became the second half of “Mercedes Benz”.

Her name? Bertha.

How is that for a gendered perspective on an age-old story?!

There are many more such stories in the book. Also a fascinating overview of recent theories about economies from a gendered and a non-gendered perspective. Katrine Marcal dissects these popular statements/books by male “thought leaders” such as Yuval Noah Harari, Jordan Peterson, Nassim Taleb et al. She concludes that it is imperative to include women in narratives because the moment it is done, the ground beneath us shifts and a new and a truer history emerges.

Katrine has a nuanced reading of the importance of women in history. She has really done a fine job of rescuing women and done them a massive service. She has balanced the accounts as it were to show how integral they are part of any economy. They are equal contributors in making society successful and businesses successful, thereby being essential contributors to the economy. There is a wonderful account in this book on the history of venture capitalism and whalers of the nineteenth century and how many of those concepts have been transplanted decades later to modern businesses. Sadly though, in more cases than one would like, these venture capitalists continue to igmore the contribution made by women to various economies. This is a gender balanced reading of economic history. By this narrative, Katrine is trying to upend the sexist narrative of economy that has been passed through generations and conveyed as the absolute truth.

It is a good book. Much along the lines of what Angela Saini has done for science, Katrine Marcal has done for women and innovation.

1 August 2021

“India: A Story Through 100 Objects” by Vidya Dehejia

India: A Story Through 100 Objects by Vidya Dehejia ( Roli Books ) is as the title describes it. A subjective curation of select objects through the ages that define the concept of India. Geographically, it is the only “subcontinent” in the world. It is perhaps for the first time since 1947, when India gained its Independence from the British, that the country has “well-defined” international borders and three distinct countries constitute the subcontinent— India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ( 1971). It is a complicated and an extraordinarily beautiful nation that has over centuries survived attempts to control it one manner or form but the heterogeneous composition of its peoples has enabled India ( and now its neighbours) to develop a phenomenally rich cultural history. Lest we forget, the bedrock of Indian culture lies in syncreticism. It cannot be ignored.

The first time an attempt to create a “world history in 100 objects” was by the then British Museum director, Neil MacGregor. It was done in collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to coincide with a 100-part radio series. Since then, at least in modern times, it has become very fashionable to make these presentations of bundles of beautiful objects to define a narrative. It is also a comment on the times when digital technology and the Internet are constantly seeking small morsels of information that balance an image and text. It is easily consumed and shared. But it has its challenges as evident in the first assumption made by such a title to tell a story by identifying a handful of iconic objects is ambitious. A lot depends on the subjectivity ( and objectivity) of the curator. Wading through a lot of information, much of which is not necessarily easily available to the public, is a fine balancing act for the curator as they attempt to create a narrative between that which is known and familiar in collective memories and that which is not. It is essential to have examples of both. But it becomes tricky when upon close analysis of these narratives, it becomes evident that there is less objectivity by the curator than promoting that which they hold dear in terms of their thought processes. Be that as it may, a firm ( and potentially contentious) curation offers a point of view that the reader may or may not agree with, but will never forget. It is critical to have these conversations about what constitutes or defines a historical narrative through objects.

Stunningly illustrated books such as Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects or the recently published Vidya Dehejia’s India: A Story Through 100 Objects are exceptional examples of coffee table books. They are a pure delight to behold. Vidya Dehejia’s book is of a wonderful dimension that is easy to hold despite its heaviness. It has a scrumptious prussian blue background that enhances the gold and ruby falcon printed on it. Its gorgeousness is enhanced by the fact that no expense has been spared in replicating the dust jacket design upon the hardback cover too. It is truly a joy to behold.

Vidya Dehejia is the Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University in New York, and the recipient of a Padma Bhushan conferred on her by the President of India in 2012 for achievement in Art and Education. She has to the best of her abilities attempted to curate a concept of India in 100 objects. It has some lovely examples as the photographs with this post illustrate. These include Maratha helmet, Kettubah or Jewish Marriage Contract, bust portraits of Jahangir and Jesus, Chola temple walls as a public records office, the Chowri-bearer, image from an illustrated Quran, the red mottled sandstone sculpture of Kanishka from the Kushan period etc. Yet, at the same time it feels mildly oppressive to read a book that attempts to imagine the history of India from the perspective of an outsider and capitulates to the present dominant discourse. Most of the examples used in this book are from private collections or museums found abroad. Rarely are the Indian museums that have a fine, albeit scattily arranged collections, ever used. It is inexplicable. Why is there the need to browse through foreign collections to define India? It makes sense to have some good examples but if the purpose of this book is to also encourage and define what is India, and instil pride in our nation, then acknowledging our collections would have been appreciated. Instead, the reader is left wondering if there is any good left in our country, if our treasures have been plundered over the centuries and taken overseas? Also, by constantly underlining explicitly or implicitly that the concept of India elides with the idea of Hinduism is jarring. It begins with the introduction where the author lays put her rationale for using BCE and CE ( Before Current Era and Current Era) instead of the oft-used BC and AD ( Before Christ and Anno Domini) as it is “inappropriate for India”. This statement is unnecessary. Many scholars abroad too use BCE and CE without offering any explanation. It is fine. It is the accepted norm in a secular framework. But by specifically mentioning that this terminology is not appropriate for India, at a time when everyone in the country is sensitive about their faith and violent communal clashes are on the rise, perhaps a little sensitivity could have been exhibited by such an eminent scholar like Vidya Dehejia? This slip becomes a red flag for other details on the book such as not acknowledging the printing presses that came to India with the Jesuit priests in the sixteenth century, even though there are plenty of sections in the book on the written word and illustrated manuscripts. It is challenging to include a broad scope in 100 objects but surely a keener eye could have been employed to acknowledge the vast diversity and inclusivity that is India?

India: A Story Through 100 Objects by Vidya Dehejia is a fine book that is beautiful to behold, and ideal to gift. It is worth considering as a wedding gift and of course as corporate/individual gifts to be distributed during festivals such as Raksha Bandhan and Diwali. Given the ongoing pandemic, it can easily be procured from bookstores and online marketplaces and shipped to various destinations. It is really worth possessing and sharing some of this love with others too. It makes for an excellent conversation piece too.

Buy it. Read it. Share it.

1 August 2021

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