Blue Skinned Gods by S J Sindhu is the memoir of a childgod, Kalki, who is blueskinned and thus perceived as an avatar of Vishnu. It is a coming-of-age novel that calls out the hypocrisy of religion, castesim and the shocking attitudes towards women that persist; while dissecting sharply other aspects of society, especially patriarchy and the manner in which it controls, constructs, imbues, destroys society and relationships. It is heartbreaking to see how the young Kalki is constantly looking at his Ayya for approval but it is not easily forthcoming. Ultimately, religion is the opiate of the masses and this book delves deep into it. It is definitely a bildungsroman too as Kalki grows, develops and goes into adulthood. Sexuality too is like an electric undercurrent in the novel as Kalki experiments. There are moments when the much older Kalki reflects back upon his life, and much has happened. He has learned to break shackles and move ahead. He lives. He experiments. He travels — metaphorically and literally. It is a pretty sharply told story.
It is a novel that exoticises India in the same manner as Raghubir Singh did with his photographs many years ago. It presents an India to the world that they associate with India. It is a book that will appeal to foreigners as it checks many boxes regarding India especially wrt Hinduism, spirituality, a way of life etc. It is saleable.A vast number of these novels are emerging from overseas markets that offer a perspective on India. In many ways they sound dated as the writers are distanced — physically and in time — from India. Whereas the country is changing so rapidly that it is unkind to present India in a specific light. Even the protagonist, Kalki, who promises to be an interesting person as he learns to defy authority, ultimately feels very wooden. While it is essential for desi literature to expand its horizons and have more and more writers contributing to this space, perhaps it is equally prudent to have more engagements, like cross-pollination of experiences, between writers based in and writing out of India with those of the diaspora.
Ideally speaking, a panel discussion between S J Sindhu and Saikat Majumdar would be fascinating. Perhaps, it can be organised?
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.
The Sickleby Anita Agnihotri, translated by Arunava Sinha is a very powerful story. It is hard to believe that it is pure fiction. There are far too many instances in the book that seem like a thinly veiled account of reality. For instance:
The sugar mill owners had in fact opened up a toddy shop right here inside the toli. There may not have been taps or toilets, water for bathing, or a dependable roof over one’s head, but the men still dropped in to drink on their way back to their shanties. It was the only way to get rid of their aches and pains. …The men weren’t concerned about how the women managed to keep their households running in the toli. No matter how hard they worked, they would never have hard cash since they had taken their payment in advance. And yet they needed flour and rice, vegetables and kerosene. And it was the women who would have to do the cooking. What they did was save the tips of the sugarcane stalks, which had no juice but only leaves, from the acquisitive hands of the farmers and sell them for a little money. The inhabitants of the districts on the West turned up here to buy cattle fodder and kindling. From sugarcane leaves to slices sugarcane bristles, all of it could be sold. …
The kitchens in the banjari households are under the control of women. It is the men who say this proudly. Of course, they’re the ones who continue to keep the women behind the veil. From leaving the house to going to high or college, it all depends on the whims of the menfolk. But their writ doesn’t run in the kitchen. Many banjari kitchens don’t allow meat or fish. The men are not permitted to bring any home, though they can eat it elsewhere. But they cannot enter the house immediately after eating meat — summer or winter, a man’s wife must upend a bucket of water over his head first to purify him.
The kitchen’s in your hands — this is how the banjari men boast. In behaviour, rituals and modes of worship, they have fashioned themselves after the Maratha community. Which is hardly a tall order. Running the kitchen means that everything from fetching the water to getting hold of kerosene, vegetables, flour and rice is the headache of the women. They are shackled for life in exchange for the privilege of being able to pour a bucket of water over their huabands’ heads now and then. The implication? Whether at home or in the toli, the husband will never check on whether there are enough provisions, or where the kindling is coming from. The woman calls the man malak, for malik, her lord and master.
Somethings never change. Anita Agnihotri, an ex-bureacrat, is known for depicting social realism in her novels. One of the responsibilities she held was member secretary of the National Commission for Women. She retired in 2016 as Secretary, Social Justice Department, Government of India.
The Sickle is set in the Marathwada region of India. This novel about migrant sugarcane cutters emerged after extensive conversations with farmers, activists, women leaders, students, researchers and young girls from Marathwada, Vidarbha and Nashik. She also consulted Kota Neelima for her research on farmers suicides. The details that are in the novel range from the horrors of sexual violence where women are preyed upon by the men as the shanties that they live in are flimsy structures and do not provide any security. Another form of sexual violence is that the women are actively encouraged to have hysterectomies, so that they do not impede the work flow by absences due to menstrual pain or more pregnancies than are necessary. The drought afflicting the region, the corruption that runs so deep that economic exploitation has become a way of life, even if it is unjust, are narrated in all their brutal honesty. As Anita Agnihotri said in a recent interview to The Mint:
In our profession, we were told, ‘If you see something, don’t carry it back’,” …. “But I followed precisely the opposite advice as a writer.” Just as there can never be a “non-committal bureaucracy,” she adds, “there is no non-political writing.
The Sickle can only be read in small doses as it is extremely disturbing in the truth it portrays. This is not going away in a hurry. Hence, it is unsurprising that the anger welling up in the ongoing farmers protests in Delhi ( on other farming related issues) is summed up by the image of women farmers on the cover of TIME magazine. It was published to commemorate Women’s Day. But the equal rights and liberties that women seek is a long time coming as Anita Agnihotri shows — the patriarchal attitudes towards women are deeply embedded in society. Such systemic violence can be combated but for it to be completely done away with is still a distant dream. It is a long and at times a debilitating struggle, but it is worth fighting for.
Read The Sickle. It has been translated brilliantly by Arunava Sinha .
Krishna in Rhymeis a fabulous retelling of the story of Krishna by Kairavi Bharat Ram and Ananya Mittal, published by Scholastic India. It is in couplets. Ishan Trivedi’s sumptuous illustrations fit so beautifully with the text, making the reading experience magical. Gift it now. Gift it in Diwali hampers. It is a book for children and adults to read, whether already familiar with the stories or not, is immaterial.
He is always remembered for the fun he had, For being a playful god, beyond the good and the bad.
He represents the child in us, who enjoys life and is free, He’s the balance between fun and responsibility.
He taught us that to your fate you are bound, This idea’s called karma, what goes ’round comes around.
The Gita is perhaps his most famous speech, In this all about duty and dharma he does teach.
When you do what you must, things will always be okay, Following your heart will never lead you astray.
We hope this epic story you all have understood, Remember this forever: evil never beats good.
Ashok Kumar Banker began writing stories at the age of nine. He is the author of over seventy books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series and the recent Burnt Empire Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in USA and in the sub-continent by Simon and Schuster India. Ashok Banker’s works have all been bestsellers in India, and have been published around the world. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai. He has returned to the genre with which he first made his publishing debut – children’s fiction – with his first chapter book series released by Scholastic India. It is called the Secret School Mysteries. The first story called The Invisible Spy was released in July 2019. The second story in the series arc is called Aliens Ate My Homework! It is slated for release in early 2020.
The Invisible Spyis a far cry from your mythological stories that you are better known for. So why venture into children’s publishing? Also why did you choose to tell a school story and not retellings of mythology?
actually the other way around. I started my career as a children’s book author
and only ventured into mythology much later. As the headnote above says, I
began writing at the age of 9. Now, that may seem like childish scribbles, but
that’s when I became serious about writing as a vocation. I started my first
novel at that age. It would be considered a children’s book today and was
several times the length of The Invisible
Spy. I never completed it because it was too ambitious and I had bitten off
more than I could chew. It was titled Childworld
and was about a plane full of children that crash on an island and learn that
all the adults in the world have mysteriously died of an unknown virus, and
only the children are left alive. I was reading my way through the classics at
the time and William Golding’s Lord of
the Flies was a powerful influence. Today, looking back across the distance
of five decades I would describe it as Lord
of the Flies meets Lost meets The Stand.
finished Childworld but I continued
writing stories (and poems and essays and novels) at feverish speed, filling
dozens of ledger books with small cramped handwriting. (Ledger books were the
biggest blank notebooks I could find, and I wrote small to make maximum use of
the space.) I was recently contacted by an old neighbour from that time,
Bianca, who now lives in Canada, and she told me that she remembered me sitting
at the dining table in my grandmother’s house filling page after page,
completely intent on the task. That was when I was ten. Almost five decades
later, I’m still writing.
I wrote at
least one book-length work every single year from the age of nine, several
books – and stories, poems, songs, essays, scripts – and the vast majority of
them were what would be classified as children’s books. I didn’t work up the
confidence to actually start sending them out to publishers till I was 15, at
which point, I would carry the manuscript of my science fiction YA trilogy (The Man Machine, The Ultimatum, The Last of
the Robots) to publisher’s offices in Mumbai, in the hope of getting
someone to read my work.
I was a
published poet by that time – I published a lot of poetry in my teen years, in
journals ranging from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Chandrabhaga
in Bhubhaneswarto Menke Katz’s Bitterroot in New York, was interviewed on AIR and other
outlets. When I was around 19, Doordarshan Mumbai even did a half hour
interview-based feature showcasing my work as one of the youngest emerging
poets in the country. I was published at the age of 14 and was a regular
contributor to the children’s section of almost every newspaper and magazine
that would take my work, from Illustrated Weekly to Evening News, The
Afternoon, Free Press Journal, JS, and I don’t even remember all the other
names now. I also self-published my first book of poems Ashes in the Dust of Time and it was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in
Paris, France, that year. There’s probably copies of it in the National
Archive, Asiatic Society, and elsewhere. I had some wonderfully encouraging
rejection letters from TLS, The Atlantic Review, and New Yorker. (I also never
stopped writing poetry, by the way, and am planning to start sending out some
of my more recent works to literary journals here in the US soon.)
coming back to my children’s books. I found the addresses of Indian publishers
and wrote to them. The first and only one to reply was Zamir Ansari of Penguin
Books India. It was basically just a distribution office back then and I think
he was the only employee. He was kind enough to meet me on a trip to Mumbai and
was the first, and one of the kindest, people I ever met in Indian publishing.
You can imagine a teenager in school uniform (I would take off my school tie
and my Headboy badges in the hope that I would look older than my age, which I
did – I looked mature enough to be allowed into The Exorcist when I was 13), sitting in the coffee shop of The
Oberoi with this elderly gentleman, discussing publishing. I had done my
homework, spending hours in the USIS and British Council Library, reading every
book on publishing, every copy of Bookseller
and he must have been impressed by me. He didn’t read my manuscript but he
gave me some insights into Indian publishing.
persevered, still writing at least one children’s book and one novel every
year, and eventually in my 20s, I finally got accepted by a small imprint
called Better Yourself Books. It was the children’s imprint of the Daughters of
St. Paul, also known as the Pauline Sisters, and my editor was a wonderful nun
named Sister Nivedita. She offered me a small advance and they published what
was my first fiction book, Amazing
Adventure at Chotta Sheher. It sold over 10,000 copies, which in the 1990s
was a huge number, and went in for reprints. I received royalties from it which
was more than I ever expected.
adapted it to a feature film and it won a prize for the Best Children’s Film
Script from the CFSI (Children’s Film Society of India). I was invited to a meeting
with the jury, headed by chairperson Shabana Azmi, and I earned even more money
for the adaptation rights. (I was already working in advertising as a
copywriter, quite successfully, and writing scripts for some of the earliest TV
shows such as Saanp Seedi and
docudramas, winning a number of awards in both advertising and scriptwriting
and making a decent living.) The film never did get made but it was such a
zany, fun book that I wish I had a copy to see if it holds up even today.
(One of my
quirks is that I never keep copies of my own books, I give them all away. I
always believe that I can write much better and keeping my work around seems
like an exercise in vanity. I also give away the books I buy to read, since I
believe books should be passed on, not hoarded.)
time, Penguin had started local publishing headed by David Davidar, and he
published another children’s book by me under the Puffin India imprint. It was
titled The Missing Parents Mystery and
while it was just as much fun as my earlier book, they simply couldn’t sell any
of their titles in the market. I began my career as a children’s book author,
and the mythological books, while great fun to write, comprise only about a
small part of my total output as a writer. So, in a sense, I never really
stopped writing children’s books.
Then I met
my editor at Pan Macmillan India, Sushmita Chatterjee. Later Sushmita joined
Scholastic who then commissioned a chapter book series — the Secret School Mysteries. The first three
titles are The Invisible Spy, Aliens Ate
My Homework, and The Haunted Centre.
some unknown reason, the dam seems to have broken.
picture books coming out from Lantana Publishing (I Am Brown, illustrated by the amazing Sandhya Prabhat) coming in
March 2020, Tiny Tiger to be
illustrated by Sandhya’s sister Chhaya Prabhat coming in late 2020, a baby book
series called Superzeroes illustrated
by Abhijeet Kini coming in late 2020/early 2021, graphic novel adaptations of
my Ramayana Series from Campfire Graphic Novels starting with Prince of Ayodhya coming in September
2019, a graphic novel YA series on Shiva starting with The Legend of Rudra coming in October 2019, a YA graphic novel on
the Gita in early 2020, an adventure series featuring an SC/ST protagonist
called Bhumia Adventures from Tulika,
a YA version of the Ramayana from Speaking Tiger, an original middle grade
fantasy adventure series starting with Pax
Gandhi, Sorceror Supreme, also from Speaking Tiger, and much much more. And
those are only my children’s books, of course.
And I’m only
getting started. As you can see, I have a lot of lost years to make up for!
Besides, I LOVE writing and few books
give me as much pleasure as a zany, fun children’s story. So expect many more.
2. What is your writing routine? How many words can you get done in a day?
Oh, I don’t
write every day. In fact, I don’t write most days. I never have a word target. You
see, I have a problem of too much focus. I’m the kind of person who could write
in a war zone. (I speak from experience, having written an entire book while
reporting from Kargil in 1999 for Sunday Mid-Day and Rediff.com.) I have to be
careful not to let myself get sucked into writing otherwise you would find me
someday, with a miles long beard, filling my 100th Terabyte sized
hard disk! I spend most of my reading, day dreaming, exercising, with my
family. My wife and I take care of our grand-daughter Leia most days of the
week, and she loves to read too. I take a very long time to live with a book
and story before setting fingers to keypad, so when I do sit to write, it comes
out fully formed. When you read a book or story by me, you are reading the
result of several decades of gestation and several hours of actual writing.
I’ll talk more about this when answering your other questions below.
3. You are a phenomenally well-read and an eclectic reader. So do you have a reading routine? What format do you prefer reading — print or digital (eBooks/audio)? In fact, any tips on what makes an individual a reader?
It’s kind of
you to say so. I read for pleasure, and am lucky (as well as unlucky) that I
have such variegated reading interests. I think I actually read about 50 books
a month, but that doesn’t include old favourites I dip into now and then, books
I reference for my work, and books I start but don’t care to finish. It
includes children’s books, which I love because they’re pure story vehicles. I
prefer to read in print, hardcover ideally. (Thanks to the incredible library
system here in the US, I’m able to indulge my love for reading like never
before, ordering as many new hardcovers as I wish, all free. It’s a miracle!)
But I also love to listen to audiobooks – also available here free through the
library apps. I listen to audiobooks in the morning, while checking my email,
cooking my breakfast, eating, and before I sit down to work. Later in the day,
I’ll read a print book. And that doesn’t include the picture books I read with
Speaking for myself, I think growing up in a house full of books (my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all avid readers) makes a huge difference. Books and reading are like blood and oxygen. You can’t get one without the other. Even as a parent, I was the first one in the house to get hooked on Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, you name it. I would buy those books, read them and leave them for my children to discover. They would ignore them or pass them off as “Dad’s latest obsession” until suddenly one day, years later, all their friends were talking about the book and they would come to me and say “Dad, where’s that Harry Potter book?” I was one of the first people in India to register for an internet account and I spent almost all my time (and still do) browsing for books! I think it’s something in your blood.
Leia, as you can see, is fascinated by all my bookshelves and by seeing me reading all the time. But she loves looking at books and being read to, and I have no doubt that she will grow up with books as part of her eco-system. It also helps that almost all my children’s books are dedicated to her!
4. This year is a first for you in many ways — many new book releases, spanning age groups and spanning continents. If the publications originate on different continents, does it inform your writing style, bearing in mind that you may be writing for slightly different sets of readers who perhaps different expectations?
Oh yes, it
changes completely. American editors have a completely different attitude. In
India, editors still consider a book to be the author’s work. Children’s book
authors here, by and large with a few famous exceptions, are essentially
delivering what’s acceptable to their editors.
instance, we have a wonderful boom in Indian’s children publishing right now,
with such amazing books such as the h0le series from Duckbill, books like A Firefly in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima
Haider, Calling Muskaan by Himanjali Sarkar,
Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire by
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Amra and the
Witch by Arefa Tehsin, The Hidden
Children by Reshma Barshikar, to name just a few.
all incredible, amazing books. In the US. I’m incredibly lucky to have found a
great editor in John Joseph Adams, and publisher in Bruce Nichols. Having said
that, as I said, I’ve had a little luck and somehow managed to slip one through
the cracks. The critical and reader response is wonderful and universally
laudatory. The book is doing well and I’m very happy with my editor and
5. How do you work upon a series arc? Does the plot take shape as you write it or do you create an outline beforehand?
daydream about it. Over time, it all coalesces in my head. It just comes
together somehow. I accumulate details, characters, writing styles, structure,
all in my mind, and one day, I feel the urge to sit down and “write a little”,
and it all comes out in a torrent, pretty much fully formed. It’s a gift from
an unknown place and I don’t question or analyse it. I simply accept it with
grace and piety.
6. Writing three different kinds of series arcs — chapter books, retelling of the Mahabharata and a yalit trilogy based on Indian mythology — must require a fair amount of mental agility. How do you keep track of all the story plots? Do you make extensive notes?
I read. At
some point, a story comes along. It’s all somewhere in my head. I generally
have several dozen going at the same time, and I have no idea how I keep track
of them all. I just do. No notebooks, no computer files full of notes, no
assistants, secretaries, nothing. Just me and my laptop. Sometimes I write.
Mostly, I read. Always, I dream.
7. Has dividing your time living in Mumbai and Los Angeles changed your perspective on writing or is context immaterial to your writing?
America makes it easier to see India in a different perspective. I’m finally
approaching the completion of a literary novel set in Mumbai which I first
started almost 40 years ago. It’s called The
Pasha of Pedder Road and is one of those mammoth realistic literary novels
that I aspired to write as a young author, but never had the life-experience to
attempt. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, I had to leave Mumbai (where I was
born, grew up and lived for 51 years) before I could write about Mumbai again.
On the other hand, I no longer feel the slightest bit interested in writing
about the US.
8. How/ where do you find ideas for your stories?
Oh, I could
never find them. They always find me. I believe there’s a Human Directory
that’s secretly handed around by the Story community. My name must feature
right at the top, since my first and last names are A and B. So they constantly
come calling, at all hours of the day. I often have to pretend I’m not home,
otherwise I’d never get any sleep or rest!
9. How did you come up with these five delightful characters — Google baba Peter, gamer Sania, identical twins Usha & Asha, and aspiring scientist Arun? When creating characters, do you work on their backstory or is it sufficient to see them develop as the story moves ahead? (I am always curious whether the character comes first or the plot or is it a bit of both and then it evolves.)
question. I wish I had the answer. As I said, I simply write the whole thing.
All fully formed. More or less the way you read it. When I hold a copy of one
of my books in my hand, I read it and it’s all just as new to me as it is to
you. I remember these words passing from my mind to the screen, but have no
clue how they came to be there. As Erica Jong once wrote: “We write as leaves
breathe: to live.” I simply breathe, and the air comes out as perfectly shaped
stories, characters and all.
10. It is early days as yet but do you have any idea what is the response, particularly amongst children, to Invisible Spy?
first book ever to receive five star reviews, and to be loved by everyone who
reads it. The response is overwhelming. I think for the first time in my 72-book
career I have a book that’s universally loved. It is a wonderful feeling!
11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced your writing as well?
every few days. I read so much, it’s like pointing to one fish in the ocean and
say, that one. It’s gone almost instantly, and then there’s another, and
another. Hundreds. Thousands even. More than writers, it’s individual books.
Often, I pick up a book at random in a library and if I like the first page, I
keep reading. I may not even look at the title or author name until much later.
I’ve often thought I would prefer that my books be published without my name
mentioned anywhere. After all, all art is ultimately a collective creative
experience. It takes a village to create a story. A writer merely jots it down.
12. Do you have any all-time favourite stories? Does this list change over time?
Too many to
count or name. Ever changing, ever expanding list. A monster with a bottomless
appetite, that’s me as a reader! As a young kid, I used to read my way through
entire circulating libraries. I can devour whole series like guzzling water. Books
are life to me.
Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and historian. He has covered insurgency, crime and law in the Northeast and other parts of the country and written for newspapers and magazines as an investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, 2009), received the Sahitya Akademi Award for children’s literature in English in 2011 and the Crossword Book Award in 2010. His second novel, Year of the Weeds (Duckbill, 2018) is based on the land rights agitation in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha. His latest published work, Carpenters and Kings (Penguin Random House India, 2019) is a history of Western Christianity in India.
Why and how did you get into writing? Where do you find your stories? How long does it take from inception to completion?
A.: When I was seven, my school
was bringing out a commemorative magazine to celebrate an anniversary. I was
told anybody could contribute anything they liked for it, so I wrote an
approximately 400-word story based on real events. A bit of a tragedy. They
printed the story with no edits on the first page, with my name on it. But what
I remember now and in the intervening years is not the feeling of seeing my
name in print, or of reading my story in printed form, but the joy of writing
it, the process of slowly putting things together in my head and of banging it
out, over several hours, on my father’s old typewriter, literally sitting on
his desk because I was too short to type from the chair. The fear of making a
typo (which is such a frustrating experience on a typewriter, unlike on a
computer where a typing error is merely an inconvenience). I have found no
greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story, of entering or
discovering a world, and of narrating it for myself and for any reader I might
find. That is how I began writing, and what I still try to do.
I began my career in journalism as a
reporter. It is a much-repeated saying in the newsroom that a good reporter
never runs out of story ideas. I have never had a problem thinking up story
ideas. The problem is deciding which are worth taking up. One does not have
this luxury of choice as a reporter, but a writer has to be very selective
about which idea she will devote her time and energies to. If my time as a
journalist has helped me as a writer in any manner, it is in two: I can be
objective in deciding which stories to write and which to shelve, temporarily
or permanently. And second: I can be objective in editing my own work. One of
the criteria I have for deciding on a story is whether I have the competence to
write it. There are many genres that I have a bit of an interest in, but I know
I might not be able to execute a story in them very well. Such as fantasy or
The complete arc from story idea to research to writing and editing and the final draft depends on the length of the work, its complexity, scope of research and treatment. My first novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, took me a year and half to research and seven months to write. My newest non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India took up nine years of research and eight months of writing. So it varies. But I do seem to spend more time thinking about a story than in actually writing it.
2. Is it only the long form of a novel that appeals to you? Would you ever consider other structures such as short stories or a series arc?
A.: My first work published in a book was a short story, in a humour anthology by Scholastic. Some other commissioned short stories have also been published. But, yes, I find the novel’s longer form more suitable for the kind of stories I have to tell. I have not yet thought of a series of books, although I can’t rule it out in the future. A standalone novel, however, suits the way I want to tell a story for one major reason. While working on a story, I spend a lot of time building the narrative arcs of individual characters. I go back in time, and also forward, into their futures. I create their backgrounds and populate it with other characters and circumstances. Most of these never get written in the final novel, but they do exist. So for me writing a novel is like baking a whole cake and cutting out just a slice of it for publishing. Or creating a tapestry and (again) cutting a slice of it. A short story might give me a much smaller, possibly unsatisfactory slice, while a series might need tough decisions about how many slices to make, or from which part of the cake or tapestry. So far, novels have worked for me.
3. How much research do you delve into before you begin writing a book? How do you organise your notes? What is your writing routine?
A.: Researching for a book is among the
most interesting parts of the writing process for me. Over time, I think I have
become a bit more organized in my methodology. The Grasshopper’s Run caused me a lot of anxiety during the
research process because I was not accounting for the volume of material I
would end up having. For instance, I asked my sources for visual material to
base my description of events and topography on, from the China-Burma-India
theatre of World War II. I asked for un-curated photographs. I received some
1,800 photos, and most were directly relevant to my research. I had to sift
through about 6,000 pages of correspondence and records from that theatre. For Carpenters and Kings, I examined 46
medieval and ancient manuscripts and translated seven of them from Latin
because the previous translations were themselves dated. So gathering material
is not a problem, particularly in these times. The more difficult part is
knowing when to stop researching, or learning to leave out the peripheral or
marginally relevant. Otherwise every book becomes a doctoral thesis.
I begin with a basic idea about the
plot, in case of non-fiction the general outline of my argument. The notes I
take from my research are based on their direct relation to this bare plot or
argument. The most directly connected bits of evidence or material gets the
highest weightage. Additionally, for fiction, any bit of non-fictional material
which can help flesh out a character’s story arc or background (that part of
the background which will get written rather than get left on the cutting room
floor) also gets priority.
I have no particular routine. My best time is late in the night, but the slow cooking that happens before the physical act of writing can happen at any other time during the day.
4. How did you decide to write historical fiction set in Nagaland during the Japanese invasion in WWII? And why write it for young adults?
A.: I wanted to base my first novel in the Northeast, as a mark of respect for my homeland. I thought a coming-of-age story during a conflict might work, because I had been asked to write a young adult novel by Sayoni Basu, then editor of Scholastic India. I did not want to base the story during any of the region’s numerous insurgencies, although I have covered them, because the political aspects of those insurgencies were too complex for a novel of the size I had in mind. That left the 1962 war and WWII. The actual fighting in 1962 took place in rather remote places where the human interest aspect did not play out much. WWII was, for my purposes, more suitable.
5. Did winning the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book for your debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run apart from pleasantly surprising you also put undue pressure on you to excel with your next book?
A.: ‘Pleasant surprise’ is very
appropriate. I was surprised and gratified that readers and people who know a
lot about children’s and YA literature liked the novel. It was very
encouraging, and I met some noted writers afterwards and received valuable
advice on writing from them. It was a very pleasant experience.
There has been no pressure. I have always been fortunate in the publishers and editors I have worked with. I just try to work on each story on its own merits, and don’t think much about expectations. The only expectation I have from myself is to write, at each stage, a better story than I have written before. If that happens, I am content. Ultimately, I have to write stories that I would like to read, and re-read.
6. Your second young adult novel, Year of the Weeds, is written nearly a decade later. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. How do you achieve this fine balance between journalistic writing and creating fiction for young adult readers?
of the Weeds is indeed based on the Niyamgiri movement and was inspired by
it, although the novel ended up containing elements from other similar peoples’
movements, while the workings of the government and companies is based on what
I have seen across the country as a reporter. I follow peoples’ movements and
Niyamgiri was inspirational and unexpected, so I wanted to commemorate it, even
though I suspect it was just a provisional victory. While writing it, I was
conscious that my treatment had to be that of a YA novel. However, I have also
tried to include in it ideas and insights I have had as a journalist covering
different aspects of India, such as how most Indians in the hinterland live,
how the government interacts and often exploits or victimizes them, and what
the true face of development is in these parts of the country. So, while it
remained a YA novel throughout, with the frame of reference being mostly that
of the two YA protagonists Korok and Anchita, I also tried to make sure these
insights and ideas were properly written into the plot.
Around the time that I began researching for The Grasshopper’s Run, I realised I could not continue as a reporter and simultaneously as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I was increasingly not content with the limitations (as I saw it) of a reporter, at least in terms of autonomy. I wanted to tell stories which could not be accommodated within my work as a reporter. So I shifted to the desk and have worked as an editor ever since, while writing books. I chose writing at the expense of reporting. I have not regretted it.
7. You have an enthusiastic passion for the Crusades and yet your first narrative nonfiction was Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India. Why?
A.: I have studied the Crusades, and my
thesis for an M Litt degree was on strategy during the Later Crusades. I find
the Crusades very significant in understanding world history in general and
European history in particular, because those conflicts sit at the centre of a
wide range of connected events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation and
the Age of Exploration.
There is a number of good, accessible and recent works on the Crusades by scholars from the West, so I did not intend to write a work of my own, which would not have made any significant contribution to the subject. However, something interesting happened during my research for the thesis, which was a study of three proposals for crusades by scholars in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. One of these scholars, a Dominican monk, wanted to launch a crusade from India. My supervisor suggested that I could refer to a secondary source on what these Europeans were doing in India in the period before the Age of Exploration. We discovered that there was no work which explained the political history of Western Christianity in India in the pre-colonial period. In December 2017, I realized I had enough material for a book which dealt with this subject, so I wrote Carpenters and Kings. And yes, I did include a brief history of the Crusades in it, and one of the chapters is about the Dominican who wanted a crusade from India, because all these are connected events. What was the Dominican doing in India? Also, much later, what was Vasco da Gama doing here? The answer to both questions is the Crusades.
8. You write young adult literature, travelogues and non-fiction. This is a diverse range of genres. How did this happen?
A.: Each book happened in a specific context and for unique reasons. The Grasshopper’s Run was meant to be a YA novel. While researching it, I travelled in the Northeast and Myanmar, and afterwards wrote a series of emails describing my travels, which I sent to friends. These were read by a publisher, who asked me to expand them into a travelogue, from which East of the Sun (Tranquebar, 2010) happened. Meanwhile, I wrote two books for the popular 103 series by Scholastic, one on great travellers I admire and the other on historical mysteries. And then I wrote Year of the Weeds followed by Carpenters and Kings. I guess one reason why this is an eclectic mix is I follow a story to its natural place and write it accordingly. So we have a situation where, although history is what I am academically suited to writing about, Year of the Weeds is contemporary political fiction. I am comfortable with chasing a story wherever and to whichever genre it leads. I think the only concern for a writer should be whether the story is told well or not. Having said that, I am still learning, so if I discover that I should stick to specific genres, I shall do that.
9. Do the methodologies of research and writing for young adult literature and narrative nonfiction vary?
A.: It is possible that some researchers
might have different research methodologies depending on what genre they are
planning to write in. I do not have different methodologies. I choose a
subject, start reading about it, examine primary and secondary sources, select
those sources which are suitable for the story I have in mind, and then sift
through the material I obtain.
There are certainly differences in writing YA fiction and narrative nonfiction for general readers, including tone, scope, complexity of ideas, presentation of this complexity. In some ways, like channelling all the research into suitable concepts, narrative nonfiction is more challenging. In several other ways, like writing in a manner which holds the reader’s attention, and creating believable characters and plots, YA literature has its own set of challenges. Both are very rewarding genres to write in.
10. What are the kinds of books you like to read? Any favourites?
A.: I have followed several genres over the years, although now because of demands on my time I have to limit myself to those genres which I have consistently read. Of these, apart from literary fiction, I seem to have read crime and espionage fiction fairly consistently. Fantasy, which I was reading a lot of till some years ago, seems to have dropped off. I do not know if this is a temporary phase.
11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced you?
A.: These are among the writers I have liked almost consistently. In literary fiction: Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Nelson Algren, John Steinbeck. In crime: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, PD James, Janwillem van de Wetering. In espionage: John le Carre, John Buchan, Len Deighton.
12. What next?
A.: Perhaps a dark story. One of the problems with India after 2014 has been we have been affected by the doings of the ideology and the people in power on a daily, personal level. On a daily, personal level, one finds it increasingly difficult to feel joy in most things, or to happily coast along choosing stories to read or tell at a leisurely, whimsical pace. I would have liked to write a story I was working on in 2013, but that will have to wait for some time. At the moment, we need stories that deal with or are related to the situation we have in India, or which go some way towards explaining things. We can’t ignore that. So, perhaps something dark, something angry.
This is a double issue as time whizzed by before I knew it, the week was over!
As the book fairs, literature festivals and literary awards season draws near, the number of titles being released into the market increase exponentially. Some of them being the “big titles” that the publishing firms are relying upon. Two of them featured here are two such titles. These are the thrillers — The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts and The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.
Alice Clark-Platts, founder of Singapore writers group and a former human rights lawyer, has published her third thriller. The Flower Girls is about the killing of two-year-old girl by two sisters, who are six and ten, respectively. It is a case that had caught the imagination of the media. The older sister had been incarcerated but the younger one had been let off as she was too young to be tried. Instead the police force helped the parents and remaining daughter to assume new identities and start a new life in a different city. Two decades later the case is recalled as another five-year-old girl goes missing. It is an absorbing tale for its details of the murder and trial that seem to defy human imagination. It is as if there is an underlying truth to the horrors a human being is capable of, almost as if it is the transferance to some extent of a lived experience by the author to the page, but not necessarily a replication of any case she has dealt/read. Apart from the horror of the actual crime itself, there are many pertinent issues raised in this novel about the troublesome aspect of incarcerating one so young, arguments for parole, the course of justice and the prejudices people may have that may colour their judgement. The best discovery in this novel is the creation of DC Hillier, almost as if she is the female response to Jack Reacher or a modern reincarnation of Miss Marple. The potent combination of a fine instinct for sniffing out criminals built over many years as a Detective Constable, phenomenal memory, dogged persistence to pursue clues, and a fascination for being first on the crime scene, make DC Hillier a character worth following in the coming years. Her beat will remain unchanged. It will be the small town but there will be plenty of opportunities for stories to occur as tourists visit the seaside. Since The Flower Girls is her first appearance on the literary landscape, DC Hillier will take at least another 2-3 novels before she settles down, but once she does, she will soar!
Rating: 4.5 / 5⭐
Debut novelist Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient is already an NYT bestseller. It’s first print run was 200,000. It is a psychothriller that is gripping. It moves swiftly. There are short sentences, crisp dialogue and the length of the chapters match the smart pace of the storytelling. It helps that the author studied English literature at Cambridge University and earned his MA in screenwriting at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. This professional training has helped create an undeniable page turner. All those who have endorsed the book, such as Lee Child, David Baldacci, Joanne Harris, Stephen Fry, and C. J. Tudor, are absolutely correct in their assessment of it being an excellent, slow-burning psychological thriller. It is about Alicia Berenson who is accused of killing her fashion photographer husband Gabriel. No one knows why she did it since after shooting him in the face she stops talking. After trying to attempt suicide, she is taken into custody and then sent off to asylum called The Grove. The story is narrated by forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber whose opening introduction about himself is that he “was fucked up”. He is offered an appointment at The Grove and becomes Alicia’s therapist. It is a gripping tale undoubtedly and no wonder it has already been sold into 39 territories and is being developed into a major motion picture. Be that as it may, there are details in the story that give it away as amateur work that will go largely unnoticed with most readers. For instance, when Alicia hands over her diary to Theo Faber to read, he says that judging by the handwriting, it was written in a chaotic state of mind, where the writing was barely legible and doodles and drawings taking over some of the pages. Yet, the diary extracts reproduced in the story are beautifully composed with complete sentences, perfect dialogue, smooth narration and build the plot seamlessly. A bit puzzling given how Alicia is known to be of troubled mind. Later too as the plot hurtles to the end, the inexplicable switch in the timelines while acceptable when the reader is in a reading haze, are bothersome details when reflecting upon the story later. It is unfair to the reader for the author to switch timelines as if for convenience to tie up the loose ends in the plot. This is a novel that has possibly been written with a view to adapt it to the screen and the magic has worked. It is to be seen if the subsequent novels of Alex Michaelides will inhabit this dark and depressing world. Whatever the case, Alex Michaelides’s brand of psychothriller, is here to stay and will spawn many versions of it too.
Rating: 3.5/5 ⭐
The third book is a collection of short stories by Indian women writers called Magical Women, edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. It is a pleasant enough read if read with zero expectations about reading fantasy stories that take strong imaginative leaps into a magical realm. Most of the stories are pleasant to read. The stories are preoccupied with worries of the real world such as of sexuality, child molestation, infidelity, etc. Two stories that stand out are “Gul” by Shreya Ila Anasuya and “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. “Gul” is about a nautch girl during the uprising of 1857 and “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” is about child molesters. While most of the stories in the collection have immense potential, they tend to fall flat on their face for the inability of the writers to lift it off the ground with elan. Instead most rely on done-to-death details as pods and strange creatures. When the story is to take an imaginative leap it lands straight into a world that is a mere transplantation of existing reality or the world of mythology. So there is a rave party, a mysterious laboratory, lesbians, etc. There is nothing truly breakaway in Magical Women except for the fact that it is a breakaway collection of talented storytellers who may one day astound the world with their true potential. For now, most of them, are holding back. I wonder why?
Rating: 3.5/5 ⭐
And then there is The Man with the Compound Eyes by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi, translated by Darryl Sterk. An eco-fiction that Tash Aw in his 2013 review in the Guardian referred to it as hard-edged realism meets extravagant fantasy.
It is easy to see why Wu’s English-language publishers compare his latest novel to the work of Murakami and David Mitchell. His writing occupies the space between hard-edged realism and extravagantly detailed fantasy, hovering over the precipice of wild imagination before retreating to minutiae about Taiwanese fauna or whale-hunting. Semi-magical events occur throughout the novel: people and animals behave in mysterious ways without quite knowing why they are doing so; and, in a Murakami-esque touch, there’s even a prominent cat. But beyond these superficial similarities lies an earnest, politically conscious novel, anchored in ecological concerns and Taiwanese identity.
Encapsulating such a rich novel is not easy but suffice to say it that the author’s environmental activism, trash in the sea, concerns about climate change, a deep understanding of environmental disasters, has helped him create an extraordinarily fantastic novel. From the first sentence it immediately transports the reader into this magical world of the imaginary island of Wayo Wayo, created with its own myths and folk legends. Fantastic novel that years after the English translation was made available, it continues to find new readers, with new translations.
Rating: 4/5 ⭐
The final book is Leaving the Witness: Existing a Religion and Finding a Life, a memoir by a former Jehovah Witness, Amber Scorah. It is an account of Amber’s life as a Jehovah Witness, finding a husband from the same community and then travelling across the world to become missionaries in China. Amber knew Mandarin so could speak to the locals. Her grasp of the language improved as she began to communicate more frequently with others. She managed to get a job working on podcasts, at a time when podcasts were barely heard of, and yet her shows became so popular that Apple ranked it amongst the top 10 podcasts of the year. While in China, she befriended many outside the community, even made friends like Jonathan online, but kept it a secret from her husband and their circle as this was considered taboo. Soon she begins to question her proselytising as questions are raised of her regarding her beliefs. She is forced to question her blind faith in the cult. Slowly her marriage disintegrates too. Leaving the Witness reads like her testimony, a reaffirmation of her belief, except not entirely in the manner that her church would have approved. Amber Scorah chooses to leave the community and build a life of her own. It is tough for she has to learn how to make friends, she has to learn simple things like understanding popular culture references in casual conversation, being able to enter and enjoy a social engagement without feeling horribly guilty etc. It ends sadly with the death of her infant son at the daycare centre but it also is a strong testament to others wishing to leave suffocating environments that it is possible to do so and build new lives. It is not easy but it is possible. In fact the book has been placed on O, The Oprah Magazine Summer 2019 Reading List and Trevor Noah invited Amber Scorah to his talk show. It is a good book and deserves all the publicity it can garner.
…on each trip home, I found my father working unrelentingly in his garden. And under his loving care, it flourished more than ever. A hibiscus tree, which had been falling over on one visit, would be propped up with bamboo staves on the next, covered with pale orange blossoms. The lime and lemon bushes woudl hang heavy with fruit in season. As would the mangoes, guavas, bananas and jackfruits. Before we left our quarters, my father had carefully plucked a litchi sapling from the premises as a memento. That, too, was flourishing. And just behind our kitchen, my mother and aunt cultivated their own little patch of earth. Thick, deep green vines of pui leaves climbed the iron grille of the verandah outside our kitchen. Tusli, dhania and pudina grew lush in the cool space near the tubewell where the water keeps the earth always moist. Birds made their home in our garden. The caws-caws and the chee-chees would start at dawn and wake us up. At dusk, their raucous homecoming would tell us that the day was at an end.
I once read somewhere that the single-minded pursuit of one course over a lifetime can only be justified if one engages in two enterprises — building a garden, or raising a child. I now understand that my father’s garden is truly his child. And this child gives him the happiness and peace of mind that nothing else could ever give him.
Award-winning writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden is narrated in first person by an unnamed medical student (later doctor) and is set in Jharkhand. It is divided into three sections of unequal lengths — Lover, Friend and Father.
“Lover”, set in Jamshedpur, is a self-obsessed, narcissistic, self-centred portrayal of a young medical student for whom sex is liberating, needy and satisfying but it is also self-consuming when he is rejected by all his lovers for heterosexual relationships that are socially acceptable. It pushes the narrator to depression and a suicide attempt when he slashes his wrists only to wake up the next morning to discover the blob of blood congealing near his bed. He returns home to his parents.
“Friend”, set in Pakur, while ostensibly about a colleague Bada Babu — a successful man if measured by his genial generosity, his popularity and his ever welcoming home with a lavish party organised at every festival or birthday. The unnamed narrator becomes a permanent fixture at these parties. Yet “Friend” is also about the socio-economic horrors that plague society, particularly one where most of the locals are gullible, innocent and absolutely ignorant of their rights. There are also easy prey to be economically exploited by the very same person, in this case Bade Babu, who while being politically shrewd turns out to be the the victims’ benevolent benefactor as well. It is illustrated by the horrendous episode of evicting the people from the land where Bade Babu also has built a house, although his did not have a permanent roof. The poor people had invested their savings into buying the land not realising that they had been conned and were actually illegally squatting on government property. Bade Babu’s house is also demolished on the day everyone else’s is but to the narrator’s chagrin he discovers that Bade Babu has secretly managed to build himself quite a magnificent mansion, many times bigger than his present home, and the new place has a permanent roof. Many of those evicted had no one to turn to except Bade Babu for help which he magnanimously promised to provide. It is an age-old vicious cycle that can also be perceived as the Survival of the Fittest.
“Father”, set in Ghatsila, is about the narrator’s return home and witnessing his father’s entry into politics. It is an eye-opening journey of self-discovery not just for the father but for his family too. They watch the father become a trustworthy footsoldier in the Hindu India Party. With this is a brief encapsulation of the political history, the rifts created for political gains between the Adivasis, Santhals etc. The narrator’s grandfather was a prominent Santhal leader and an associate of Jaipal Singh. The father’s political spark probably stems from this inheritance. So he continues to give it his best including running successful campaigns at the ground level allowing unknown candidates to make critical inroads into the voter base and slowly transforming local politics. All the political ambitions that the father may have nursed come to a griding halt the day the father discovers he has been outsmarted by the very same leaders he trusted and hoped would one day support his candidature too. He gives up his political existence. After a period of self-reflection he takes to gardening with enthusiasm. With his nurturing it is vibrant, alive and bursting with health.
The garden as a metaphor is a classic literary trope. Whether it is used knowingly in this manner by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is uncertain but it certainly works very well in this story. The garden becomes the paradise everyone yearns for, and it is no less hard work than any other activity one engages on a daily basis. It is equally hard work for it is nurturing life.
And here I have to digress with a personal anecdote to emphasise the significance of a conversation about gardens and political commentary. My grandfather, N. K. Mukarji, was Union Cabinet Secretary when Mrs Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister of India for the first time after Emergency. At the first Union Cabinet meeting held after the new government had been sworn in my grandfather took his place in the room. According to the story he would tell recount all eyes were upon him and Mrs Gandhi rather than the agenda to be discussed. Everyone was watching expectantly to see how Mrs Gandhi would engage with Mr Mukarji given their past. When Mrs Gandhi had wanted to impose the Emergency she knew it could not be done while N. K. Mukarji was the Union Home Secretary. He would never have agreed to sign such an unconstitutional move. In a swift move she moved him to the Civil Aviation Ministry and did exactly what she wanted to. Rest is history. So when they met again a few years later in the cabinet meeting everyone present was naturally curious. Before beginning the meeting Mrs Gandhi had a quiet word with my grandfather which to all those watching seemed as if she had made her peace with Mr Mukarji and thus she very smartly and with all her politcal savviness set the tenor for a new working relationship with her Cabinet Secretary. And what did she discuss? Gardening matters!
My Father’s Garden is in all likelihood part-memoir for there are similarities between the life of the author and the narrator especially that of being a doctor in Jharkhand. But unless otherwise confirmed it is perhaps not wise to attribute too much into the fiction. Nevertheless as with his previous books Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes powerfully, borrowing heavily from real experiences, combining it with his remarkable ability of transforming these episodes into fine literary fiction. A fantastic mix of the personal, political and literary always makes for a great story. It also allows for precise detail about the local landscape. The eye for precision makes its presence felt even in the unapologetic use of borrowing phrases from other Indian regional languages such as Bengali and Hindi and letting them flow naturally in the conversations — without italicising them!
My Father’s Garden is a tremendously confident piece of writing and an absolute pleasure to read.