Jaya Posts

“The Others” by Sarah Blau

The Others by Sarah Blau is a really bizarre and very well-written thriller except that Sarah, my daughter, will not let me read it. She knocks it out of my hand!!! It upturns the mushiness about motherhood that seems to have erupted in world literature and created a really sinister story.

Since my child won’t let me read it, here is what the blurb says:

A serial killer is on the loose in Tel Aviv. Each victim is found tier to a chair with a baby doll glued to their hands, the word ‘mother’s carved into their foreheads like a mark of Cain. Stowed away between the wax figurines of the Bible museum where she works, Sheila Heller suspects that she alone knows the connection between the victims. The killings seem to be linked by a pact their group all made at university– to never have children. What Sheila doesn’t know is who is committing these gruesome acts of ritualistic violence, and whether she herself might be the next target.

#PushkinVertigo is the new thriller imprint launched by #PushkinPress. It is an incredible list. The few texts that I have read on this list show it to be very sharply written, there is a crispness with not a word out of place and the action moves very fast. It has that Cold War-spy novel-like detailing in introducing the reader to varied landscapes but it is never overdone. In that it is sufficiently modern in its storytelling. The imprint is a mix of #crimebooks written originally in English and in translation with the focus being on outstanding thrillers. The editors are not averse at publishing debut writers or bestsellers or even reissuing out-of-print titles. It is a fine balance between the old and the new curated by editors who obviously love this genre. Some of the prominent titles on this list include, “#TheHonjinMurders” by #SeishiYokomizo and “Three-Fifths” by #JohnVerger. ( https://pushkinpress.com/all-books/pushkin-vertigo/ )

The Others was a bestseller in Hebrew. It is Sarah Blau’s fourth novel but her first to be translated into English. It has been brilliantly translated into English by Daniella Zamir, who also translated #DovAlfon‘s fabulous A Long Night in Paris.

For those who enjoy reading crime fiction, Pushkin Vertigo is an imprint that they must regularly check out.

31 May 2021

“The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra”by Samrat Choudhury

Samrat Choudhary’s latest book, The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra ( HarperCollins India) is a travelogue in the North East of India tracking the magnificent river. It is so stunning in its beauty. It looks like an inland sea but its a river. There are points that the opposite bank is not visible. Samrat Choudhary and his friend Akshay Mahajan decide to embark on this exciting epic journey of 2000 kms in East India. The North East of India comprises of seven states. The topography of these states vary from the flat plains of Assam to the hill states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal, Tripura and Mizoram. Manipur is a mix of plain and hills. Each state has its distinctive culture. It is truly fascinating travelling in this part of India.

The Brahmaputra is very critical to the settlements in this region and has played a pivotal role for centuries. It is revered and feared. It sustains life. It is also part of the local myths and legends.

The North East of India is defined as a region but it has incredible diversity and character. It is meant to be experienced. Samrat X ‘s writing in The Braided River meanders gently recounting the places he visits, topography, meeting people, sharing their histories — the old and the more recent ones of insurgency, the CAA and NRC agitation etc. It is not easy to tell the story of this vast region in an old-fashioned linear fashion. It has to be the way Samrat tells it. He takes you along on the journey while filling in the blanks in one’s knowledge with local gupshup combined with historical details. At times, he quotes from other sources to contextualise a story or a place. It is not an easy task as trying to tell the socio-politcal-history of this region is akin to walking through a minefield. Samrat seems to pull it off.

Much of his narrative does share details in his inimitable chatty style that I can almost hear him reading it out aloud in my head. It is so clear. His descriptions of the place are vivid. Fortunately modern readers have the Internet to immediately look up references. But for me, reading this book brought back a flood of memories. My father/ Romesh Bhattacharji had been posted by the Central government in Shillong ( the capital of Meghalaya) for nearly five and a half years. As a result, we have travelled extensively in the region. So Samrat’s journey on the Ledo Road/Stillwell Road, meeting the Kachins, Digboi, seeing the Lake of No Return in the far distance, visiting Dibrugarh, the tea estates, the opium cultivation, visiting Wild Grass in Kaziranga, Jorhat, and Tezpur are all very familiar. And if we did not accompany dad, then he ensured that he told us so many stories or shared pictures of his travels while touring the seven states that we became acquainted with them so well. Almost as if we had been there ourselves. Hence many of the places Samrat mention come alive for me as well.

For readers unfamiliar with the region, a better map could have been used instead of the tiny one at present. It plots the main cities Samrat refers to but it is not easy to read. Travelogues like “The Braided River” belong to a rich literary tradition of documenting a region. Words are critical. But in modern tellings such as this, perhaps more maps and line sketches could have been considered as tip-ins in most of the chapters. It would have added to the production cost but it would have been a good investment. The two sets of coloured photographs used at present are fine but the production is of such poor quality that they don’t do justice either to the photographer’s composition or to the region. Pity. Perhaps a standalone website dedicated to this book where extracts of each chapter are illustrated by more photographs could be considered. It has the potential of becoming excellent reference material if curated well.

The Braided River is a book that will standout for years to come as a seminal piece of writing about the history of the North East of India where one common factor is the Brahmaputra. There have been so many twists and turns in the socio-poltical landscape in recent decades that an updated, single volume, reportage from the region was sorely needed. Many travelogues, documentaries and films have been made on the river. It is time Samrat Choudhary wrote a new script.

31 May 2021

“Bessie Smith” by Jackie Kay

Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s National poet is a biography of a legendary blues singer. It is also a fascinating account of the history of blues, jazz, and what is today the popular form, Chicago Blues when the male musicians hijacked the scene with their acoustic guitars. Jackie Kay develops the scene brilliantly by pointing out that the blueswomen sang whatever they wanted to. They were ruthless while talking about men. These women were like a band of travelling musicians.  They belonged to troupes. The most famous being Ma Rainey.  All the women had “Smith” as a surname to give them some legitimacy as well as anonymity. These women were like a sisterhood that was powerful and knew they were good at what they did — singing. They also had no qualms being open about their sexuality even if they had male partners. They made lots of money and shared it generously. Their songs were the equivalent of modern poetry. They were also the first to adopt new technology like gramophones and made recordings.

Bessie Smith signed a lucrative eight-year contract with Columbia Records between 1923-1931. She recorded 160 songs, twenty a year! On 15 February 1923, the Queen of Blues, recorded ‘Downhearted Blues’ and ‘Gulf Coast Blues’. She arrived at the studio ‘tall, fat and scared to death’. It took her many attempts to make the wax recordings. She was probably nervous or stone cold sober. As Jackie Kay speculates, “She possibly mistrusted the whole technological thing, such as it was then. She might have felt that she was being had. But she soon got the hang of it. Humphrey Lyttelton says, ‘The singing that was transmitted to wax was, from the outset, mature, steeped in harsh experience and formidable commanding.'”

The sales of ‘Downhearted Blues’ — three quarters of million copies in six months — far exceeded the sales of any other blues record. The black public were eager to purchase records through mail-order catalogues, record stores in black neighbourhoods or even through the Pullman porters. The blues sold both in the North and in the South and became part of the record companies’ ‘race records’ series. These were issues directed solely to the black purchaser. By the end of 1922 Race records were being distributed in many Northern cities and as far south as Alabama.

In the South the blues sold to black and white people; in the more ‘liberal’ North, they just sold to black people. It was possible to have been white in the North in the 1920s and never have known that blues records even existed. This is because in the North, advertising of so-called ‘Race records’ was restricted to the black press, and the distribution of the records took place only in black areas. Southerners, though, became part of the ‘race market’. White and black people, though segregated, crowded into those tents to hear the blues.

During the Columbia period, Bessie Smith worked alongside some of the best musicians of her day: Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Fred Longshaw, Jack Teagarden, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, and Joe Smith. But the most exciting combination musically was Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, in those sessions they recorded on 14 January 1925. ‘Reckless Blues’, “Cold in Hand Blues’, ‘Sobbin Hearted Blues’, and ‘You’ve Been A Good Ole Wagon’ were all recorded that day.  It has turned out to be the most memorable dates in the history of blues.

Singers at that time were never paid a royalty but paid as usable side. These amounts varied depending on the musician’s popularity but Bessie Smith could earn as much as $250.  She was the best paid of all the classic blueswomen. The women singers who came after her like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were known as Jazzwomen who sang a different kind of music. Five of Bessie Smith’s records were on the market, and her reputation had grown beyond all expectations. But success would not last. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Depression, a new combo style of blues became fashionable. ‘Urban Blues’ or ‘Chicago Blues’ then dominated the scene from the mid-1930s through the 1940s. The likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf took off; the classic blues singers were replaced by men with acoustic guitars.

In the 1920s she who loved to party, participated in many ‘rent parties’ or parlor socials. This was home entertainment. You could get into any of them from 10 cents to a dollar. The other guests were ordinary, working-class people: tradesmen, housemaid, laundry workers, seamstresses, porter, elevator ‘boys’. But writers and artists and singers loved to go along too. On a Saturday night in Harlem, the music pounder out of the open windows. There was always an upright piano, a guitar, a trumpet and sometimes a snare drum. Rent parties originated in the South, where rents were so high that people had to organise such socials to pay their landlords. You needed no social standing to throw a rent party. All you needed was a piano player and a few dancing girls. Drinks were bathtub gin and whiskey. Food was fried fish, chicken, corn bread etc. Music was played by some of the masters and students of Harlem stride piano. Dancing — the Charleston, the black bottom, the monkey hunch, the mess around, the shimmy, the bo-hog, the camel, the skate and the buzzard — went on till the break of day. You were not regarded as much of a jazz pianist unless, wherever else you appeared, you played the rent-party circuit. You earned your spurs not only by sending the dancers into flights of ecstasy but also by ‘cutting’, or outperforming, rival piano players. Duke Ellington, Bill Basie — not yet Count— a young Fats Waller and Bessie Smith enjoyed these rent parties. One of Bessie’s best-known songs, ‘Gimme a Pigfoot’, written by Leola ‘Coot’ Grant and Wesley Wilson and performed with Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman in 1933 is about rent parties.

Bessie Smith wrote blues for herself to reflect the experience of ordinary working-class people. The blues she sang and the blues she wrote often contained elements of burlesque, music hall and vaudeville which reflected her background as a young girl who had first joined a travelling troupe in 1912. A lot of her blues were raunchy, bawdy, double-entendre-filled, sexy sings, as well as tragic, painful and depressing. Bessie’s blues moved people.

According to Jackie Kay, “Her voice just got to them. Perhaps she reminded them of the past, of losses, of longing. Something in her voice went way back into a deeper past. Her voice seemed to contain history, tragedy, slavery, without self-pity. It had the ability to stretch beyond even the lyrics of her blues into something more complex. Her blues were universal, but also deeply personal.  They allowed her to express the whole range of her complex personality– the wild promiscuous drunken side and the depressed, insecure, lonely side.”

Bessie Smith became poorer when the blues that she knew began to die. Columbia Records dropped her on 20 Nov 1931. Jackie Kay uses terms like hedonistic and self-destructive for Bessie Smith which are probably apt descriptors given her alcoholism, temper and impetuous nature. Nothing fazed her. She did exactly as she pleased. Once she confronted the Ku Klux Klan single-handedly. In July 1927, Concord, North Carolina, she was performing in a tent when her musicians discovered that the Ku Klux Klan had removed most of the tent stakes. Her prop boys ran away seeing the white-sheeted men, but Bessie Smith blasted the Ku Klux men:

“I’ll get the whole damn tent out of here if I have to. You just pick up those sheets and run.” The Klansmen, shocked, stand and gawp whilst the Empress shouts obscenities at them until finally they disappear into the darkness. “I ain’t never heard of such shit,” says the Empress, walking over to the prop boys. “And as for you, you ain’t nothing but a bunch of sissies.” Then she goes right back into that same tent for her encore.

Sorted.

Bessie Smith died as a result of the injuries she got in a horrific road accident. She had thousands of mourners at her funeral. Yet her pallbearers were hired. None of the people she had helped over the years came forward. Her ex-husband, Jack Gee, siphoned away her money and despite there being two fund raisers for the specific purpose in 1948 and in the early 1950s he let her remain in an unmarked grave for 33 years. Then in 1970, Columbia Records reissued her five albums. They won two Grammy awards. At this time, it was asked by the public if Bessie Smith could have a headstone now. So, another fund raiser was organised. But it took only two phone calls to get the money. One donor was Bessie Smith’s former cleaning girl, now a rich woman, Juanita Green, who owned two nursing homes and the singer Janis Joplin. Coincidentally, Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose on 4 Oct 1970, the date of Bessie Smith’s funeral.

Bessie Smith is utterly fabulous. It is an excellent example of a biography. Jackie Kay hero worships Bessie Smith but as a professional poet herself recognises the challenges and joys of being an artist. Jackie Kay describes Bessie Smith as a strong woman associated with style, glamour, freedom, strong woman, a real queen, she drank, she cussed, she spent money, she partied, she fought, she was beaten up regularly by her second husband, and was a bisexual. She lived life on her own terms. Money just became another expression of her impulsive, party-loving, binge-drinking generosity. She spent money liberally on her friends and family but was not known to treat her musicians kindly.

There are so many ways in which the author’s and the subject’s professional and personal interests intertwine. Bessie Smith is written brilliantly. At the same time, it is an excellent historical account of blues. Faber Books imprint that focuses on music publishes excellent stuff. No wonder they once had hired Pete Townshend of The Who as Commissioning Editor. This is book is a fine example of this excellent list.

Worth reading.

23 may 2021

“How to Raise a Feminist Son” by Sonora Jha

Sonora Jha’s How to Raise a Feminist Son: A Memoir and Manifesto is what it sets out to be — to raise a feminist son ( Penguin Randhom House India). She recounts those essential parts of her life that can be justifiably linked to her being a feminist / feminist awakening. From the incident of bathing on the railway platform in a tiny bathing area constructed for male pilgrims to analysing the violence she witnessed or experienced first-hand at home. The desire to nurture a child with her refreshing outlook on life but always encountering patriarchal structures. Whether it was in her then-husband’s wish to relocate to Singapore for better career prospects without any thought to Sonora’s flourishing career as a journalist in Bangalore. She quit it. Became a full-time mother who loved her son dearly but was surrounded by baby babble 24×7, unlike her husband who worked in an office or later in the evening attended social events whose invitations were not necessarily extended to Sonora. Soon, with her husband’s encouragement she applied for a doctorate programme in the United States, assuming that this would be the first step in their move to the country. Instead, after a horrific car accident that left her incapacitated for months, confined to a wheelchair with a little boy, her husband paid her a visit but declared that he preferred living on in Singapore. Through it all, Sonora redefined her life and understanding of what it takes to bring up a son who would not be like the men in her life — violent men, sexual predators, hostile men, racist men, misogynist men etc. It seemed like minefield as systemic patriarchy reared its ugly head everywhere.

She spells out the hideous ways in which men perpetrate trouble upon women. Whether it is the nonchalant manner in which her ex-husband chose not to move to USA with her, the violence of all the other men she encountered. Much of this is never discussed in decent middle-class houses as if it is an internal matter and no one should be privy to it. What is truly maddening is how much middle-class women suffer because of the socio-economic space they occupy; it is presumed that all is well with them and their lives. Many times, it is not. It is worse than a golden cage. It is precisely why books like this are essential and add to the existing body of women’s literature. It is in the documentation of these tiny details and sharing of experiences that hopefully more and more women will be empowered. Perhaps even men who witness women in their lives being abused are equally emboldened to take action. Who knows? More and more it is imperative that stories need to be shared and not doctored. It is critical to share.

Slowly, her recovery period from the car accident that left her with a crushed ankle and many other injuries, coincided with her discovery that it is not demeaning in any manner for a strong, independent woman like herself to seek assistance from others. Steadily she created a sisterhood, a well spring, a nurturing ring, that enabled her to heal and grow. It was also a web of strength and power that stepped in to look after her son, even if it meant admonishing him without hurting his feelings. These tiny, tiny events added up to make Sonora what she is today — a confident, well-loved, highly respected academic and mother. She never hides the importance of balancing her professional and personal lives.

She brought up her son in this positive environment even though at times it was challenging financially and emotionally. She made mistakes that she is quick to admit such as her bad second marriage with a white, racist man. In her inimitable style of being generous and seeing positive in others, despite being at the receiving end of much brutality, Sonora chose to date and ultimately, marry this man. But his inability to understand or even comprehend the need to be sensitive to others, especially to people of colour, confirmed his outlook as a supremely privileged white man. When he is unable to understand her misery at racist incidents, and she quits the marriage, even though it was not yet a year. This happened close on the heels of her son trying to enter their home and having the police called upon him by the neighbours who could not understand why an Asian boy was trying to enter the home through a window. (He had forgotten the front door keys.) To the police who came and the neighbour, they could only see a burglar and not a resident as this was a white man’s house. The prejudice that exists inherently in society is terrifying. Something that Sonora and her son could perceive but not her white husband. This was another event in her life that made her resolve stronger to have a son who is sensitive and understanding towards others, rather than entitled. The book ends with an adorable account of an exchange between Gibran and his maternal grandmother, Nani. Sonora’s mother is in denial regarding stories about her daughter having been molested while she was growing up in India. Her mother is convinced that Sonora is lying and trots these stories out as attention-seeking tactics. Listening to the heated conversation, Gibran asks his Nani gently to believe Sonora. When his Nani refuses, Gibran points out wisely that she may consider why Sonora never told her mother, perhaps the fact that social structures are give precedence to boys as opposed to girls. A fact that even Gibran has had first-hand experience of as he is “treated like a god”. He reasons with his Nani that perhaps his mother, Sonora, found it hard to share the truth with her own mother for precisely this reason – she would not be believed. He pleads with his Nani to believe Sonora at least once.

She outlines her definition of feminism. It consists of compassion, empathy and kind people. It is labelled as feminism as it focuses upon half of humanity – the female condition, It is also alert to misogyny. Feminism is about love. She advocates strongly that boys are taught this way of loving too. It will grow and take new forms. This is a pertinent point that she raises as it also addresses the challenges women feel about being labelled as a feminist or not, even though everything in their action points to being a feminist.

Sonora has written about a hard subject. The manner in which she has negotiated the personal spaces and extrapolated learnings to share with the world is truly admirable. The pain she went through while writing this book is unimaginable. It is hard to define How to Raise a Feminist Son. No wonder the subtitle of the book is “a memoir and manifesto”. It has a box of instructions/ exercises at the end of every chapter and a list of resources in the appendix. 

It will become classic reference material in gender studies and other disciplines. It helps answer many questions as well as encourages readers to introspect. The manual-like element in the book may not appeal to gender specialists but it will prove to be a handy guide to many who are keen to explore these areas but too shy to ask. This book is written with such an assured confidence despite the violence and abuse Sonora has faced from men within her inner circle. There is almost a motivational quality to the book. She includes a lot of PoC narratives and other intersectionalities. It will encourage others to speak up for themselves and focus upon raising the next generation of more empathetic and sensitive boys. This is irrespective of whatever intersectionality they may inhabit. It cuts across cultures and races and formulates a brand of feminism that borrows heavily from the feminist literary canons in India and America. She focuses upon creating her own feminist village, a sisterhood, a collective, that saw her through some tough years. It is interesting that Sonora focuses on this aspect as many strong women are encouraged to be a part of a sisterhood but at the same time fend for themselves. Rarely do women ask help of each other. It is their one weakness. It is not pride but a form of self-sufficiency and self-preservation to prove to society that as single mothers or independent women, they can survive. It is extremely brave of Sonora to document the physical and sexual abuse that she has faced.

I have truly liked this book. Read it. It speaks to everyone.

9 May 2021

“Legal Fiction” by Chandan Pandey

Chandan Pandey’s Legal Fiction, translated from the Hindi by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari, published by HarperCollins India is a devastating novella. The original novella, Vaidhanik Galp, was published by Rajkamal Prakashan in 2020. It is ostensibly about the narrator/protagonist Arjun Kumar helping his ex-girlfriend. Anasuya. He receives an unexpected phone call from her, after many years of silence, as she is worried about her husband Rafique Neel who has disappeared. Rafique is a college professor and theatre director in the mofussil town of Noma on the UP-Bihar border. It is a fictitious town created by the writer but he is very clear that it is a town much like those found in Eastern UP. Arjun leaves as soon as he can for Noma. Once he arrives in the town, he discovers that Anasuya is seven months pregnant and living in a one room apartment. Also, that the town is full of hoardings, mostly advertising pilgrimages inviting Hindus to Mount Kailash, Amarnath, and Vaishno Devi. Or inviting people to a bhandara or a religious feast. Inevitably it is only a few who are in-charge of providing services or responsible for various establishments in the area. A name that exists on most of the hoardings are Amit Jain, Treasurer, Mangal Morcha and Amit Malviya. These hoardings are very similar in colour, layouts and messaging. They flank both sides of the main road as if closing in upon the passer by. The bombardment of only one kind of messaging is peculiar and Arjun notices it immediately. He reaches the police station to help Anasuya file an FIR for a missing person except it proves to be a very difficult task. Apart from the resistance that they face from the police but also the unnecessary violence directed at Anasuya such as poking her in pregnant belly. It is rattling for Arjun who is unable to comprehend it and would not have believed it if he had not witnessed it. Ultimately they get a signed document from the local police stating that their complaint has been registered. But it does not end there. They do not get the help required to locate Anasuya’s missing husband. While on his way to Noma, Arjun had also read a missing person’s report in the newspaper regarding a local college girl called Janaki Dubey. When he arrives in Noma, he hears unsavoury murmurs about there being a possible romantic entanglement between Rafique and Janaki, some attributing it to “Love Jihad”. Later, the truth is blurred further when a well-meaning police officer shows a WhatsApp video clip on his phone to Arjun as evidence of this budding romance between teacher and student. When Arjun mentions this to the other students of Rafique, they are dismissive saying that in all likelihood it was a recording of a play that they had staged. When truth is messed with in this manner, reality becomes unsettling and scary.

Arjun tries to piece together Rafique Neel’s past via his diary. Anasuya had hidden it from the raiding police team by placing it in the water tank of the pot. Despite being covered in plastic, the diary had become sopping wet. After laboriously separating the pages and hanging them up to dry on a makeshift line made of his shirts strung together, Arjun discovered that many of the diary entries are from 2015. A year that in the mind of many readers would immediatly recalling memories of the terrifying lynching episodes that have not seemed to abate. In the diary, Rafique mostly documents his theatre initiatives with the student. The last and longest entry that has been preserved is a record of Rafique and his students visit to the police constable, Amandeep’s home. He had rescued Niyaz from a lynch mob. It is a conversation that Rafique reports where the incident is discussed as well as if it were to be staged, who would play the various roles. By the time he is able to read these posts, Arjun is familiar with the people these characters are mentioned or modelled upon. He has also discovered that “they” are stalking him virutally when he is casually asked during the course of a conversation to remove his Facebook post. It is a post that he had uploaded before reaching Nom seeking any information regarding the whereabouts of Rafique Neel. Later he realises that they are also watching him 24×7 by having someone follow him. It is a small town where everyone knows everyone else and news travels very fast; yet, he is watched closely. Arjun wishes to register a human rights violation case but is unable to unless using the “good offices” of his brother-in-law, Ravi Bhayyia, who works in the Union Home Ministry. Arjun is a writer whom everyone wishes to fete and are enthusiastic about organising a public ceremony felicitating him. But while piecing together Rafique’s diary he discovers a dark truth about the township and its folks. The hatemongering that they encourage. The insidious manner in which everyone seems to be in cahoots. The reaction to reading this is story is almost physical. It is nauseating.

The translation by Bharatibhooshan Tiwari is superb. The lack of resolution in the novel is chilling. It ends like a play does, at a climax, leaving the audience questioning many of the motives. It is a literary technique not necessarily associated with prose. Yet, it works phenomenally well in this novella. Perhaps because it is so close to our reality.

In the Lallantop interview, Chandan Pandey makes it very clear that selecting the name of the son of the local goon in Nom as “Amit Malviya” was purely coincidental that it is also the name of the current BJP IT Cell leader. It was unintentional. Chandan Pandey is very worried about the hate mongering narrative that has overtaken our country. He will always bat for humanity and living together in peace. He believes that there has been a systematic change in the manner in which mobs are also constructed today. He refers to it as organised crime. It is in a similar fashion that he dwells for some time upon the hoardings in his fictional town, Nom. It is a form of gaslighting. He wished to highlight the manner in which a few people control the discourse. He also mentions that his father who was a Railway police officer impressed upon them that if it is not written down, it does not exist.

While Legal Fiction refers to Niyaz who was saved from being lynched by Amandeep, a police officer, the book is dedicated to Gagandeep Singh too who saved a Muslim youth from being lynched under similar circumstances in 2018. Here is the clip that went viral on social media.

Here is the fabulous interview by Rishabh with Chandan Pandey. It is on Kitabwala, Lalantop’s YouTube channel.

Legal Fiction is a novella that will leave the reader asking many questions. It is alarming. Disconcerting. Terrifying. The unsolved disappearance of Rafique, Janaki and a couple of other students is shocking but as in real life, we are left as helpless and mute spectators watching this drama unfold. It is the throttling of democracy, free speech, public theatre and free will that is mind numbing. Read it for the precise manner in which Chandan Pandey builds the story, making every part of the story seem plausible.

As the noted writer Amitava Kumar says, “This is like Kafka in Deoria. Or Camus in the cow belt. But more accurate to say that Legal Fiction is an urgent, literary report about how truth goes missing in our land. I read it with a racing heart.”

Precisely. So did I.

It will be released in June 2021.

6 May 2021

“Madman’s Library”

Madmans Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosties from History is an utterly magnificent book. It is a fabulous collection of odd manuscripts and books made over the centuries. It has a wide display of images gathered from private collections and libraries. Books that aren’t books, books made of flesh and blood, cryptic books, literary hoaxes, curious collections, works of the supernatural, religious oddities, curiosities of science, books of spectacular size, and strangely titled books. While it is excellent documentation, this book itself is worth reading for the chatty, informative style of Edward Brooke-Hitching. He is the son of an antiquarian book dealer. Now Edward is a rare book collector too. The kind of information gathered here is not just that gathered by bookish research but imbibed through storytelling as a child. He dies not say so but the stories shared are told in a manner that he had heard of these legends, before he embarked on a quest to garner sufficient details. This is an information-rich book that can get tedious to read but does not. It is easily dipped into and read from any point. For once, the text in a beautifully illustrated book is as much of a joy to behold as are the phenomenal images. There is sufficient care to ensure that all elements in the book come together splendidly, as harmoniously as the books catalogued in it.

Buy it.

3 May 2021

On Tarana Khan’s “The Begum and the Dastan”

Tarana Khan’s debut novel, The Begum and the Dastan, ( Tranquebar, Westland Books) is historical fiction set in the late nineteenth century. A fictional recreation based on broad facts known about a Nawab’s family, probably Rampur, although the story is set in a fictional township called Sherpur. ( Here is the backstory: https://www.shethepeople.tv/books/tarana-husain-khan-excerpt-raffat-begum/ “Raffat Begum: How a begum’s emergence from the harem changed the lives of Rampur’s women”, 4 March 2021 ) 

The novel begins in the twenty-first century, around 2016, when Ameera asks her grandmother to tell her tales about her grandmother, Feroza Begum. Then the story begins set in 1896. Most of the novel is about Ameera’s great-great-grandmother, Feroza Begum, although in the novel she is referred to inaccurately  as “great-grandmother”. ( Read an excerpt:  https://scroll.in/article/988872/womens-day-fiction-what-a-little-girl-learns-about-her-great-grandmothers-life-in-a-harem) It is about the abduction of a married and pregnant Feroza by the young nawab — Nawab Yunus Ali Khan. The nawab was known for his roving eye and Feroza was known for her beauty. But when the sawani festival organised by the Nawab, Feroza threw a hissy fit insisting she be allowed to join other women in the zenana. Her father gave in to her demands despite his misgivings about the Nawab. He insisted on Feroza being chaperoned by her stepmother and her maids but man proposes, God disposes. The nawab sighted a beautiful Feroza on his grounds and had her whisked away to his harem. 

The Begum and the Dastan is about Feroza, her husband giving her talak/ divorce under the impression that she wanted it when it was actually the manipulative Nawab who had set it all up. There are many, many more details. Feroza is initially set up as this headstrong, obstinate, demanding firstborn. A trait that she exhibits even in the Nawab’s harem except that after a while the forces of patriarchy take over. It is demeaning, humiliating and slowly breaks her, although the fire within her continues to smoulder. The novel extends itself by narrating a little more about the next generation and the crumbling of this dynasty. 

“The dastan” or the story is narrated by Mirza Ameeruddin Dastango, nicknamed ‘Kallam Mirza’. He is the storyteller whose job is to narrate stories, to the best of his abilities, despite being in an opiate stupor. His brother had been appointed the court dastango upon the demise of their father. But it was Kallam Mirza’s tales spun beautifully twice a week that had the audiences mesmerised. 

Kallan’s narrative style, drawing on the witticism and idioms of the Sherpur gullies, had endeared him to his audience who came from all classes, cared little for the Persianised Urdu couplets of his contemporaries, loved his passionate romancing, his tongue-in-cheek humour and somewhat oblique irony. His narrative was the tilism, the magic. While his famous brother, Mirza Aleemuddin, had succeeded his father as the court dastango, Kallan, unlettered was of the masses. Most listeners paid any amount depending on their station in life, keeping the annas and paisas at a predetermined place, generally in a taaq or alcove in the wall. The nobleman-host paid much more. 

The women folk, prohibited from attending the opium-riddled mehfils, were his invisible audience, peering from behind half-opened doors of darkened rooms, their eyes fixed on the expressions and gestures of the dastango, stifling giggles and sighs. 

The story he spun was of a despotic sorcerer, Tareek Jaan, and his grand illusory city, the Tilism-e-Azam,where women are confined in underground basements. Slowly Kallan Mirza’s tale intertwines with the one that the dadi narrates to her granddaughter. Lovely premise, to a potentially lovely story. In many parts of the story it is evocative of a particular style of living that is still elusive. Little is known about it. More so, because Tarana Khan attempts to tell the story from the zenana. It is the women’s quarters, a part of the household that is not easily accessed by men and certainly not by the public. It is a perspective that can be easily exploited to share much more than the court settings and the hustle-bustle outside. There is so much potential to enrich a story, particularly historical fiction, via the women’s conversations, the gossip, the manner of running a household, the internal mechanisms and of course the gupshup over cooking or while selecting fabric to make the prettiest of dresses.  

The literary device of having three narrative threads — Feroza Begum’s life, Kallan Mirza’s dastango and Ameera listening to her Dadi narrating Feroza Begum’s story — requires a dexterity that is not always evident in The Begum and the Dastan. As a plot it is an enticing thought but its execution needs to be crisp and sharp. A reader should be able to discern from the dialogue that this specific section belongs to the dastan or to Feroza Begum or Ameera. There has to be a shift in the tenor, in the details, in the mannerisms etc. Instead it all seems to blur into one monotonal narrative. There are no variations in the rhythm of storytelling. 

Tarana Khan has established her writerly credentials on food history. Her writing style is exquisite for its detailing. Her articles are fabulously absorbing to read for they are a sophisticated blend of the past, her insight, a generous dollop of storytelling, followed by an old recipe, redone for a modern audience. With this expectation in mind, The Begum and the Dastan, has been eagerly awaited for a very long time. It has been whispered about in Indian literary circles for a while now. Tarana’s regular writing shows her acute awareness of the modern sensibilities but it is missing in the patchwork of a novel. There are parts of the novel that are beautifully told but then there are others that are hastily written. The women could be a little more nuanced. The characters built well. The relationships. They are thin. They lack the oomph one associates with well-written historical fiction — richly told, detailed with multiple layers. As for food descriptions, they barely exist! (More on that later.) 

Historical fiction is a specialised literary art form. It is not the mere placement of a story in the past that makes it historical fiction. Salman Rushdie speaking to Paul Holdengraber in March 2021 about historical fiction. He said, “history is alway partially legendary, plenty of room for the fabulous imagination to work. What I have always believed about historical novels is that they end up being as much about our time as they are about their own time. We are looking at them with the interests and concerns of our time. and those interests and concerns find their expression in the past. We see them in the past. So to write about the past is also to write about the present.” To a degree this is echoed by Alexander Chee in his interview with Edward Carey where he says, “I think of historical fiction as being an argument with history, and with culture.”

With historical fiction, the author has the creative license to do whatever they please, but within the parameters of historical accuracy to important details. Within the framework, the author can then take leaps of imagination to do whatever they like. It is permissible. But I shake my head in disbelief when I begin to find a slip such as the use of an oxygen mask in 1911 whereas the mask as we know it today was not invented till 1919 and put into medical use till 1941. It is true that Haldane had by 1919 developed a prototype and by the late nineteenth century nasal catheters were being used to administer oxygen, but masks were certainly out of the question. One slip like this and I begin to doubt the entire edifice despite the innumerable footnotes ( a distraction) in the novel. Then there is the acute disappointment at not being entertained by descriptions of food especially when reading fiction by a food writer. Instead to make things worse, food served to Feroza is described as bland that is spiced up by her maid by adding powdered red or yellow chillies. I expected more. I expected richer, sensuous descriptions of food, that added a dimension to the myriad relationships depicted in the pages — British/Indian/Mughlai; Nawab and his wives /harem; the various levels of women who existed and were served food from the court kitchens; the food served to courtiers/ guests; the banquets at celebrations; food served at naming ceremonies of the babies etc. And of course juxtaposed with the food conversations of Ameera and her dadi in the present age. Or the food descriptions of the dastango. None of this exists. Food and food ceremonies are an essential part of our life. To ignore this aspect of life is an inexplicable oversight. Read Jahanara Habibullah’s memoir, Remembrance of Days Past: Glimpses of a Princely State during the Raj that is also set in Rampur and has terrific descriptions of food.

I continue to have mixed feelings about The Begum and the Dastan even though it has been more than two months since I read the book. The possibilities in this story are immense but fall short of one’s expectations knowing how talented Tarana Khan is as a writer. I look forward to her next novel. 

3 May 2021

On “Consent” and “My Dark Vanessa”

I read two books in quick succession — Consent and My Dark Vanessa ( HarperCollins). Both deal with the same subject. Grooming of a young school girl by a much older man, a writer / school teacher. The difference being that “Consent” is a true account by Vanessa Springora about her being groomed by French literary giant Gabriel Matzneff. It is a horrifying account of a 14-year-old girl groomed by a man who was at the time fifty years old. It is sickening. Springora, the head of the Julliard publishing house, met Matzneff at a dinner with her mother. ( https://www.theguardian.com/…/french-publishing-boss…) She was going through a troubled childhood as her parents were divorcing. Springora began a relationship with Matzneff but despite breaking it off two years later, she was not rid of the man for the next few decades. He pursued her. He stalked her. To the extent he wrote letters to her bosses in the publishing publishing she worked in. Ultimately, the Me Too movement happened, giving her the space to write her account of the events. Consent has been translated by Natasha Lehrer.

It is a memoir that flits between the perspective of the 14yo school girl and the 47yo Springora. It is disturbing. The school girl participates in the relationship with a much older man, but the adult Vanessa questions some of the acts/moments. She is able to see through the sexual exploitation and misogyny of the male writer and the protection he got from his social circle. It is incomprehensible to her. Consent is minimalistic. It does not delve into too many gory details but what the author chooses to share are emotionally shattering. It is inexplicable why this man was protected so well by the French establishment. If anyone had dared to look close enough, the evidence was apparent in the “illustrious” literary career where Matzneff published books that were thinly veiled accounts of his paedophilic acts, letters with his under-age mistresses and his regular visits to the Philippines to sexually exploit boys as young as eleven years old. Yet, Springora too only found the courage to reveal her dark secret after the Me Too movement became popular. She was relieved when she showed her mother this manuscript, who upon reading it said, “Don’t change a thing. This is your story.”

Towards the conclusion of the memoir, she writes:

I spent a long time thinking about the breach or confidentiality, particularly on a legal area that is otherwise strictly controlled, and I could only come up with one explanation. If it is illegal for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a minor who is under the age of fifteen, why is it tolerated when it is perpetrated by a representative of the artistic elite — a photographer, writer, filmmaker, or painter? It seems that an artist is of a separate caste, a being with superior virtues granted the ultimate authorization, in return for which he is required only to create an original and subversive piece of work. A sort of aristocrat in possession of exceptional privileges before whom we, in a state of blind stupefaction, suspend all judgement.

Were any other person to publish on social media a description of having sex with a child in the Philippines or brag about his collection of fourteen-year-old mistresses, he would find himself dealing with the police and be instantly considered a criminal.

Apart from artists, we have witnessed only Catholic priests being bestowed such a level of impunity.

Does literature really excuse everything?

It is a question that the reader is left asking with My Dark Vanessa. Nearly twenty years in the making and endorsed by Stephen King, it too explores the grooming of a young school girl by her English teacher. King calls it is a “hard story to read” and it is. Maybe because Kate Russell’s imagination is very detailed and sometimes gut-wrenching. It is torture to read this story. Initially I stopped reading it after a few pages but then managed to resume reading it after having finished reading Consent.

Somehow My Dark Vanessa comes across as a brilliantly crafted story but it is not as easy to read as Consent. Every despicable encounter/event in “Consent” is meticulously documented but it is shocking to read for the complicity of the French elite in permitting the writer to flourish. Not only did his books sell well, but he was lauded with honours, practically given an expense account by his publishers and the French state. It is astonishing. Whereas My Dark Vanessa reads like fiction although the events described in it are plausible. It is fiction but it sometimes seems to stem from an overactive imagination. The distinction is real. It is unsurprising that My Dark Vanessa has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2021.

Interestingly Vanessa Springora’s memoir Consent has been endorsed by Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa, as “A gut-punch of a memoir with prose that cuts like a knife.”

Currently the controversy about Blake Bailey, the biographer of Philip Roth, is raging in the world of Anglo-American publishing. Take for instance this article published in the Slate, called “Mr Bailey’s Class“. It eerily parallels the events described in My Dark Vanessa and Lisa Taddeo’s nonfiction Three Women, where the only girl who agreed to be identified by her real name was Maggie. She spoke about her grooming by her teacher and later taking him to court. It is hard at such moments to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction.

These kinds of stories are not going away in a hurry. There are many, many more. Predatory men and women exist. It is a fact. Children are vulnerable. These books may only focus upon young girls but there is no denying that boys too are victimised.There is no telling how much longer will these stories have to be constantly told for there to be some positive change in the attitude of individuals and society. But for now, read these stories.

2 May 2021

Eric Hobsbawm, “On Nationalism”

Essential reading. Eric Hobsbawm On Nationalism, edited by Donald Sassoon, published by Hachette India . It is a collection of the eminent Marxist historian’s articles, public lectures and book reviews. Well worth reading given the surreal times we live in. Read it along with the fascinating London Review of Books documentary, “Eric Hobsbawm: The Consolations of History”.

In this documentary, Anthony Wilks traces the connections between the events of Eric Hobsbawm’s life and the history he told, from his teenage years in Germany and his communist membership, to the jazz clubs of 1950s Soho and the makings of New Labour, taking in Italian bandits, Peruvian peasant movements and the development of nationalism in the modern world, with help from the assiduous observations of MI5.

The film features contributions from Frances Stonor Saunders, Richard J. Evans, John Foot, Stefan Collini, Marlene Hobsbawm and Donald Sassoon, as well as Hobsbawm himself in extensive archive footage.

Maurice Leblanc’s “Arsene Lupin: Gentleman-Burglar”

May I just say how much I am enjoying reading these short stories about Arsene Lupin, written by Maurce Leblanc! There is a gentle pace that is calming and restorative, given the hideous pandemic we are witnessing. I read a story a day. It is one of the pleasures to look forward to. BTW, this book inspires the blockbuster NETFLIX series. As always, the #booktofilm adaptation is very different. So while the TV series were fun to watch, the stories are even better.

French novelist Maurice Marie Emile Leblanc ( 1864 – 1941) created the fictional gentleman thief and detective Arsene Lupin, who is often described as the French counterpart of Sherlock Holmes. Lupin features in more than 60 of Leblanc’s crime novels and short stories. The stories in this collection were first published in French as a serial in the magazine “Je sais Tout” and then collected in book form as “Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Cambrioleur” in 1907 as a collection of 9 novellas. Translated into English by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos as “Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar”.

This Chancellor Yellowback edition has been published by Hachette India.

26 April 2021

Web Analytics Made Easy -
StatCounter