Jaya Posts

“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

“The Last Queen” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Chitra Banerjee Divakarurni’s latest novel The Last Queen is a wonderfully mesmerising account of the last queen of Punjab, Rani Jindan. She was Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s youngest wife and mother of Maharajah Dalip Singh, who was later close to Queen Victoria. She was also grandmother to Sophia Dalip Singh, a prominent suffragette. Given who she was and the power that she held, surprisingly little is known about the queen, except in stray references and of course the magnificently regal portrait of hers by George Richmond (1863). In fact, Chitra Divakaruni loved the painting so much that it has been used as the cover image to her novel. So, it is remarkable how much research and effort she had to put in to create this literary portrait of Rani Jindan and make her come alive. In terms of her oeuvre, I find that the author gets better and better with every passing book especially in creating women’s conversations. It could range from the conversations between the maids, hurling of insults, jealousies, love and affection etc. Chitra Divakaruni is astonishingly skilled at rescuing women from history and creating their point of view.

While reading this novel, my head kept buzzing with umpteen questions. So, I zipped off an email to her. She replied, “I value your opinions greatly, so I am truly pleased that you enjoyed it. These are great questions. Thank you!”

“Thank you, Chitra!”

Here is a slightly edited version of the interview:

  1. Why did you choose to write this story? Isn’t this your first novel that is truly historical fiction as it is based in well-documented facts?

I had ventured into the historical novel field earlier with a short children’s novel set around the Independence Movement, titled Freedom Song, but The Last Queen is my first historical novel for adults.  I was drawn to Rani Jindan’s story when I came across her famous painting, commissioned by her son Maharaja Dalip Singh, while she was in London, during her last years. (It is this painting that is on the cover of the novel.) I was immediately drawn to it. She has such a strong personality. I could feel her power and stoicism as well as her tragic life. I could feel her indomitable will. Searching, I discovered that she had been almost forgotten by history, although her husband and her son are well known – a not uncommon problem with women. I felt a deep desire to bring her story to present-day readers as there is much for us to learn from it, on both the personal and the political arenas. 

2. How much research did it entail? And how did you manage to do it during the lockdown? 

The novel required a lot of research, and lockdown made researching very difficult. Fortunately, I had already gathered all the books I was going to use. But I was unable to visit the places that were significant to Rani Jindan’s life, especially Chunar Fort where she was so cruelly imprisoned by the British, and Spence’s Hotel in Kolkata, where she was finally reunited with her son, whom the British had wrested away from her many years ago. I was unable to visit her residence in London, or her samadhi in India.Lahore Qila, in Pakistan, where she had spent the most formative years of for life, was obviously out of my reach. So, I had to rely on photographs, both modern and historical, paintings and maps. this turned out to be a great boon, actually, as it gave me great visual cues to create my scenes. I was also fortunate that many of my primary sources were available online, such as the diaries of Lady Login where she writes in detail about the British opinion of Rani Jindan as a troublemaker, as well as her years in England, including a visit that Rani Jindan made to the Login home.

3. How did you manage to keep track of the timelines — the wars and the plots? Or for that matter the details about the warring factions? 

I have several notebooks filled with detailed notes! At a certain point I started using notebooks for each year in Rani Jindan’s life. I also had to create many diagrams of family trees, etc. to keep all the characters and their dates straight in my mind. What made it particularly challenging was that almost every male character in the Lahore court had the last name Singh, even if they were not Sikh!

4. How did you figure out the Punjabi words in the text? 

I bothered all my Punjabi friends with incessant questions! They were most patient with me. Also, my editor, Diya Kar at HarperCollins India, was very helpful. She got me a qualified Punjabi reader for the manuscript, who helped me correct any vocabulary or cultural details that I had got wrong.  For instance, she made sure that the Sikh names that I had come up with for the minor characters were historically appropriate, because many of the Sikh names that we come across today were not there in Jindan’s time. 

5. Post-9/11, a lot of things changed for you. I remember your telling me that the sudden realisation in how Asians were looked upon in the USA was disturbing especially in how Sikhs were targeted. The Ranjit Singh-Kohinoor diamond story is very much an integral part of Sikh history/British India. Did you subconsciously make the connections between present day 9/11 events and a fascinating slice of history? Or am I reading too much into your intentions? 

The common theme of prejudice and targeted violence that appear in my post 9/11 novels, such as Vine of Desire and One Amazing Thing, are central to Rani Jindan’s story, too. Prejudice and the resultant violence occur when one group sees another one as “less human” than themselves. This was the case after 9/11, and it was the case in British-occupied India. Over and over, I was struck, by reading British correspondence of the times, as to what a low opinion they had of Indians. Even the amazing warrior, statesman and king, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was referred to, in British letters, as a one-eyed grey mouse! The violence and hatred with which the British dealt with the vanquished Indian soldiers of the 1857 independence war was shocking – they fired them, alive, from cannons. It was as though they did not consider Indians to have any rights at all. I wanted readers to understand this. 

6. Your stories written after 9/11 are getting more and more sharper in your explorations of masculinity and femininity. In this book, there is equal weightage between the genders. In fact, there is less of the inner mind exploration of women that you are famous for as you did in your trademark story, Palace of Illusions. Is this a conscious decision?

There were many men that were important and influential in Rani Jindan’s life. I needed to develop them so that readers could understand her life, her world and her feelings, which often impelled her into action at once dramatic and perhaps unwise. That is why characters such as her husband Maharaja Ranjit Singh who at once her hero and her teacher; her brother Jawahar who is her saviour throughout her childhood; her lover the handsome and charismatic Raja Lal Singh; and of course, her son, Maharaja Dalip Singh, to whom she dedicated her life, play an important part in the novel. I hope I have managed to bring out Rani Jindan’s feelings and dilemmas, her passion and her pain, in spite of this new balance between men and women in The Last Queen. For me, Jindan-the-lioness (as her son calls her) is still the heart of the novel!

7. I admit though that I am a little surprised at your handling of the sati episodes. I expected more from your story. So far, you have had the uncanny ability of going into a woman’s mind, thereby offering a modern perspective. In the sati episode, although well-documented that some of Ranjit Singh’s wives and concubines burnt themselves on his funeral pyre, I was intrigued as to why did you not offer an alternative opinion. Instead, it came across surprisingly as if you were in total acceptance of the incident. Why? To my mind it was so unlike you as you come across as someone who likes to gently, quietly and with grace like to question certain practices. It is what makes your stories endearing to so many people.

The sati episodes were difficult to handle, and I gave them much thought. I had to make sure that I presented them in the context of the times, and not how I see them right now–because that is how Rani Jindan would have seen them and judged them, especially the first time she is faced with them, with the death of her best friend, Rani Guddan. It would not have been historically accurate or appropriate to give her the sentiment of a 21st-century woman as regards this matter. I wanted people to feel the amount of pressure there was on Rani Jindan, too, to become a sati. The fact that she is even able to stand strong against all this pressure says something about the firmness of her character. Later, she is horrified when another dear friend, Rani Pathani, decides to become a sati — but she understands why, although she does not agree with her. The reality, as Rani Guddan points out to Jindan, is that life was very difficult for a widow, and often royal widows met a violent end after their powerful husbands (their protectors) passed away – as we see in the tragedy of Maharani Chand Kaur and her daughter-in-law Bibi. 

8. How many pages a day did you write of this novel? At times there is almost a feverish pace to this novel. 

The pages really depended on how the words flowed. Sometimes I was stuck for several days (which put me in a very bad mood and was difficult for my husband Murthy because he was in lockdown with me and couldn’t escape!) Overall, I tried to pace the novel the way the times would feel, psychologically, to Rani Jindan. For instance, when she is in hiding in Jammu with her baby son, after her husband dies, time passes excruciatingly slowly for her because she is impatient to get back to Lahore. When she falls in love with Lal Singh, there is a dreamy stillness to the prose, because that’s how she feels. When the battle against the British is going on (the First Anglo Sikh War), the pace grows feverish as Jindan, waiting in Lahore, gets one piece of bad news after another from the battlefield as her generals betray her and cause the massacre of the Khalsa Army.  I hope I managed to vary the pace of the novel accurately to bring out Rani Jindan’s many situations and states of mind.

22 April 2021

“Bene Appetit” by Esther David

Award-winning Indian Jewish author and illustrator Esther David was awarded the Hadassah Brandeis Reserach Award (USA) for studying Indian Jewish cuisine. In India, Jews first settled in Kerala before the Christian Era began. These are the Cochin Jews. In the late eighteenth century, the Bene Israel Jews arrived in western India, settling along the coast in areas like Alibaug and Mumbai. The Baghdadi Jews first settled in coastal Surat, then moved towards Mumbai and Kolkata. The Bene Ephraim Jews chose the seashores of Andhra Pradesh, while the Bnei Menashe Jews of Mizoram and Manipur.

Esther David’s Bene Appetit is part-travelogue and a detailed recipe book, collating recipes from different parts of the country. She discovers that despite having set their roots in India, many centuries ago, Indian Jews abide by the strict dietary rules that govern Judaism. The Jews have adopted locally available produce in their recipes and to some degree adapted the dishes to their tastes. Jews insist upon kosher meat, a strict demarcation between meats and milk, eating fruits after their meals, making unleavened bread, consuming only certain kinds of fishes, avoiding shellfish etc. Esther David has meticulously documented her search for recipes, meeting people, being introduced to strangers who spontaneously welcomed her warmly into their homes and serving strict Jewish fare.

David discovers the immense variety that exists in Jewish cuisine. Indian Jews have readily substituted milk with coconut milk. They also use plenty of rice-based dishes, jaggery, some of the local herbs and spices such as gongura leaves in Andhra Pradesh and panch phoran in West Bengal. Fruits of all kinds are used after meals or even to make the sherbet to offer at religious occasions.

This is a seminal book for its documentation of a dying culture in India. The Jewish population is dwindling. At the time of Indepence (1947) there were approximately 50,000. Today, there are few left as many have emigrated to Israel. So much so that at times it gets difficult to have a quorum of ten Jewish men or a miniyan to fulfil certain religious obligations. There are other signs of the community disappearing. For instance, local bakeries that made unleavened bread for Shabbath, no longer do so. Cloths used for religious ceremonies are not easily available locally any more. So are brought from Israel by relatives or visitors. Time-consuming dishes like malida are made on exceptional occasions. The Jews now simply use chapatis or a similar bread as it is technically unleavened too. Hence, “Bene Appetit” is a critical repository of socio-cultural practices. Future generations will appreciate this book.

Apart from Jews, anyone interested in experimenting with new recipes, reading cookery books and seeking healthy alternatives, may find this book useful. Even Hindus who are looking for satvik recipes, will find Bene Appetit very useful to consult. Most often the recipes provided are fairly easy to comprehend but there are some recipes that required careful editing. Even experienced cooks may get mildly confused by the manner in which instructions have been given. For example, the recipes for Pastel and Pastillas seem to have repeated their instructions. It is a bit of a fog. There is another unexpected editorial glitch when David visits the synagogue in Mizoram, she observes that the prayer book was in Mizo but the “words were spelled out in English”. It is well-known that the languages of northeast India did not have a script till recently. This is an oral tradition and it is after 1947 that the languages began to require a script and the Roman script was quickly utilised. It is the same script used for the English language. Save for these minor hiccups, “Bene Appetit” is a stupendous addition to any cookery shelf. I would put it in the same league as the late fashion designer Wendell Rodericks “Poskem”, where he shared recipes from Goan Catholics and those that he recalled from his childhood. These books bring out the beautiful diversity in India that has thrived over centuries.

Note: The photograph of the book has been taken against a wooden Star of David that used to hang in my husband’s childhood home. Jacob’s maternal grandfather was an Afghan Jew who used to often travel to India with his brothers. They use to trade in jewels. But little is known about them. Jacob’s grandfather married a local Christian girl and settled in central India. The only signs of influence his faith left upon his descendants are in these symbols, occasional visits to the local synagogue to meet the rabbi and observing a few Jewish dietary laws. No more. The descendants are practising Christians. Yet, it is fascinating to watch at close quarters the assimilation of Judaism into Jacob’s family. BTW, the Afghan Jews are not mentioned in “Bene Appetit”.

17 April 2021

Digonta Bordoloi’s “Second World War Sandwich”

Elsewhere, the blacksmith of the village busied himself with a small glob of brass, shaping it into the form of a head. Each head a warrior claimed was rewarded with a small brass replica, worn as a pendent on a red beaded necklace.

Digonta Bordoloi’s second novel, Second World War Sandwich is set against the backdrop of the Kohima War. It took place in stages from 4 April to 22 June 1944 in and around Kohima in northeast India. Later, in independent India, Kohima became the capital city of Nagaland. The battle was fought between the British forces and the advancing Japanese troops. It was a fierce battle fought over the hilly terrain for Kohima’s strategic importance in the wider 1944 Japanese Chindwin offensive lay in that it was the summit of a pass that offered the Japanese the best route from Burma into India. During the Battle of Kohima, the British and Indian forces had lost 4,064 men, dead, missing and wounded. Against this the Japanese had lost 5,764 battle casualties in the Kohima area, and many of the 31st Division subsequently died of disease or starvation, or took their own lives. ( Source: Wikipedia)

Second World War Sandwich revolves around Captain Timothy Hastings, a former tea-estate manager; his wife, Sandra, a nurse, who too had grown up on a tea-estate in India; Raan, who is far happier being a cook, carrying pots and pans, rather than wielding a gun; Chetri, a Gorkha, brave as any legend about the Gorkhas is; and Mongseng, a Konyak, a prince, heir to his father’s throne, the ang of his village, Poilung. They are thrown headlong into battle with the Japanese and are a motley troop. Everyone is wary of Mongseng at first but after a certain turn of events, they discover that this naked, tattooed, “savage”, whose only weapon is an extremely lethal dao/machette, does not intend them any harm. Also, lo and behold, Mongseng speaks a smattering of English, taught to him by the Padre in their village.

Now therein lies the extremely fascinating history of the Christian missionaries who visited north east India from the nineteenth century onwards. In Nagaland, they were mostly American Baptists who would roam around, although in the novel, the Padre is an Italian. His denomination is never made clear even when constructing the church in the village. The description exists but no more. Mongseng is a Konyak — one of the many Naga tribes but they are unique as in they used to be headhunters. This was the only way of life that they knew. Their village was constructed and still exists like this — with wooden huts, thatched roofs, intricate carvings on their door posts, carcasses of kill drying in their “verandahs”, with the kitchen being the centre of their homes. The hearth or the embers upon which the food is cooked is in the centre of the room. Above it hangs these large metal plates upon which the meats are slow cooked. And tea remains a constant offering. Something that Mongseng compares too when offered a rather watered down version of tea by Raan. He yearns for his freshly roasted tea leaves, bitter morning brew. The ang, or tribal elder/king, presides over the village and rules in a just and fair manner. At the centre of the village is the morung, or the male dormitory, where the unmarried men congregate and spend their time. It is also the place in the novel where the village elders gather for a chit-chat and more often than not to drink the addictively bittersweet brew that the Padre plies them with. It turns out to be rum. In fact, if you visit any of the Konyak village cemetries as I did with my father ( Romesh Bhattacharji) in the late 1990s, the headstones very proudly bear the inscription that the recently deceased scalped so many individuals but also was a Christian. A dichotomy if there was ever one! In fact, the brass necklace in the picture was gifted to me by a minister in the state government when he discovered I had completed my post-graduation. He was so impressed that I had achieved so many degrees whereas he had only cleared his eighth grade that the following morning as we were departing he put a parcel wrapped in newspaper in my hands saying this is for you. In it were a bunch of necklaces that I treasure decades later. We were all staying in the same guest house as dad was an Election observer and the minister was on the campaign trail. The villages we covered on this tour were those of the Konyaks — Chenmoho, Chenwenyu and Chenwengtu. So when I came across the description of these brass heads being fashioned in the village when Mongseng made his first kill, I realised the signficance of this brass necklace that I have had for many years.

Second World War Sandwich begins incredibly grippingly with a fine description of the landscape and an introduction to Timothy and his team. Mongseng drops into their lives. The establishment of the relationship between the four men, the varying degrees of masculinity that shines through the text is absolutely fascinating to read. It is as if the author has spent hours working upon the details and trying to get the tenor right. The battle outside makes it presence felt often enough in the narrative with falling mortar, wounded crowding the makeshift hospitals, the dead piling up, the horrific mix of the raw and trained soldiers who are battling against a very sophisticated enemy etc. The immense knowledge and experience that Mongseng brings is dealt with respectfully and at par with the white man. It is interesting to see this equilibrium being set by Digonta Bordoloi even if it is a tad hard to believe that there would be so much trust between a white man and a native in British India. Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting read.

After a rollicking good start, the plot begins to drag. The extremely long backstories about every main character while interesting by themselves are so unnecessary beyond a point as they are distracting about the battle itself. The inter-personal relationships can easily flourish under the brutal conditions of warfare. These long-winded descriptions needed to be worked out elsewhere and then only significant portions used in the main narrative. Having said that if the backstories are read as short stories, they are lovely digressions. The particularly sensitively drawn one is that for Mongseng. It makes sense when the author acknowledges the wangra ( village chief) of Hamphui and his fellow village elder-men — Nagaland’s last surviving headhunters. The fine descriptions of the Konyak lifestyle are worth reading. But then the second half of the book dissolves into a chaotic mess where the frenzy of battle overtakes the characters but it also makes the author lose his grip on storytelling. It is as if he is getting pulled into the personalities of each character more and more while at the same time very eager to get his facts right about battle strategies. There are neat illustrations accompanying the story marking out the terrain and the peaks that were crucial in the real battle. But sadly, they do not help retrieve a potentially good novel. Maybe if the possibility of narrating the past by a dying Mongseng to his grandson, Angsen, had been pursued a little more aggressively, the structure of the plot would have fallen into place, much as it did for Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It allowed for the possibility of there being lapses into modern day and thereby offered a perspective on historical events.

Perhaps those with a greater in-depth understanding of the battle may appreciate the book. But for now, there is confusion between “Second World War Sandwich” being a literary fiction, commercial fiction, historical fiction, war novel or rescuing the history of the Konyaks. Having said that this is a book worth recommending as it puts the spotlight on a part of India’s history that is little known about. The last time a stupendous novel on this very same subject was written was by Siddhartha Sharma, “The Grasshopper’s Run”. It won the Crossword Prize 2009 and in 2011 was shortlisted for the Sahitya Bal Puraskar. Hopefully, Digonta Bordoloi will be recognised to a certain degree for his strong writing and he will be on some literary prize lists. This book deserves to have a long life. Meanwhile, it is crying to be optioned for a limited television series.

Read it.

19 April 2021

Celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Baudelaire

On 9 April 2021, I was invited by the French Institute in India to moderate a panel discussion on Charles Baudelaire. It was to celebrate the French poet, essayist and translator’s bicentenary. His dates are 1821 – 1867. It was a daunting task as the panelists included poets/writers such as Jeet Thayil, Amrita Narayanan, Ranjit Hoskote and Anupama Raju. Nevertheless the conversation went off beautifully. It was almost magical. Here is the link to the recording. It is available on the French Institute of India’s Facebook page. Take a look:

https://www.facebook.com/IFInde/videos/762611194439425

In anticipation of the event, I had prepared a bunch of questions to pose to the panellists. Fortunately, the need never arose since many of the points were addressed in the individual speeches everyone gave. Anyhow, I am posting the list of questions here as well:

  1. Love is a significant portion of Baudelaire’s poetry. Would you say that it is a crucial element in your own writings? If yes, what is the ideal form of treating love as a subject in poetry, assuming that there is an “ideal” notion to be achieved.

2. There is a very modern quality to Baudelaire’s essays and poems especially in his emphasis on the present. It permeates the style of his writing and the vocabulary he chooses. It is not what you expect in nineteenth century literature, especially French literature, with its emphasis on the formal. Would you say that this “modern” tenor is to be emulated and if yes, is it harder to do so than it seems? (Of course, I can only access his works in translation.)

3. In his essay on “The Universal Exhibition of 1835”, he asks, “What are the laws that determine this shifting of artistic vitality?” It seems to be a question that he ponders over even in his poetry. What do you think? Are there any such laws governing “artistic vitality”?

4. For a poet, how important is the imagination and how important is it to remain alive to events, stories, people etc? These could be contemporary or historical.

5. Role of a poet/critic as a social commentator? Is it essential to communicate with readers in the language that they will understand and appreciate or deign to create flowery poetry? 

6. What is the function of a critic? What should be the nature of his/her criticism? Is this reflected in your poetry and prose?

7. Playing with form comes naturally to Baudelaire, as it seems to all of you. Is it a natural progression for a poet to prose or are there a different set of rules governing each form? Are rules meant to be broken as exhibited by Baudelaire?

8. Does art have to be useful or can it focus upon being aesthetically pleasing?

9. What is the responsibility of the poet/writer in defining the cultural landscape? Or do they only create for themselves solely?

10. What is the purpose of art? Is to create beauty, pursue truths? Be concerned with the ethics of goodness and morality?

11. For Baudelaire, a work of art was measured by the impact it had upon its subject rather than how it conformed to objective standards of proportion. Do you agree with this statement vis-à-vis your own works and its impact upon readers?

12. Baudelaire believed that the poet and critic within him are inseparable. Would you agree with the statement while analysing your own body of work?

13. Do you think technology has in anyway impacted the speed of movement and execution it imposes upon the artist? It is a conundrum that Baudelaire addresses in his essay, “The Painter of Modern Life” where he advocates time is spent fruitfully in creating something of beauty as it will make it more valuable. Yet, external factors do not necessarily permit this to happen. This was in the nineteenth century when technological advancements such as the printing presses and mass production were happening at a very rapid pace. It is much like what we are witnessing today as well. Almost like a second Industrial Revolution, if you will. So has the speed of the Internet dissemination, affected your creativity?

14. Always Be A Poet, Even In Prose!

9 April 2021

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