Buku Sarkar‘s Not Quite a Disaster After All ( HarperCollins India) is a collection of six interlinked stories or six vignettes, if you will. The stories revolve around two women — Anjali and Anita. Anjali is the daughter of a very wealthy family from Calcutta. Anything that she asks for or desires is easily fulfilled; an option that she does not necessarily exercise when testing her wings in New York as a student. She is ultimately successful in her career as a designer and also becomes an author. Her fastidiousness for detail in everything that she does permeates through every story in the collection. Surprisingly, she is far more generous and forgiving of her friend Anita who lives in Ohio and is a mother trying to juggle a career too. In some senses, the friends work like counterpoints to each other in the story, almost as if the distance between them due to their difference lifestyles and behaviour creates an amplitude that indicates what women are capable of. They represent the extreme points of women in society. These two are the central women, but there are other women characters like Anjali’s mother, a devoted wife, Anjali’s editor and the young book publicist. They can be considered as stereotypical examples of women homemakers, wives and publishing professionals or they can be seen as alternative role models to the lives that Anjali and Anita have chosen.
The stories are seemingly arranged chronolgically to depict the life of Anjali from childhood to a successful designer based in the UK and who has a book launch in New York. She is living the middle class dream. But as the stories show, there is a dissatisfaction and a simmering discontent. It is a feeling that begins in childhood when even Anjali has not a clue what it implies. It is in the title story that Anjali seems to be at peace and when that occurs, the reader heaves a sigh of relief.
Buku Sarkar is a much published writer in many magazine publications but this is her first book. It is remarkably composed and poised writing. At first, it does not feel as if there is anything complicated in the writing style. Simple. She evokes childhood memories. She writes about the past in India and the USA. It is done almost in a bored, languid, matter-of-fact style. Yet, by the time the book concludes, the characters have neatly nestled inside one and are part of one’s life. The title “Not Quite a Disaster After All” grows on one from being at first a seemingly wishy-washy title to a strong, assertive remark. You can almost hear the women chant it to themselves to reaffirm their existence and purpose. It is very well done.
My Pen Is The Wing Of A Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women — a fabulous anthology of short stories translated from Dari and Pashto. It is the culmination of a two-year project initiated by Lucy Hannah, funded by the Jan Michalski Foundation and managed by an editorial team led by Will Forrester. Bios of the authors cannot be printed in the book for their safety especially after the takeover of #Afghanistan by the #Taliban in August 2021. ( Hachette India)
Akwaeke Ezmi’s (They/them) You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty is an incredibly old-fashioned love story in modern trappings. They explore love after experiencing intense grief in this novel. It is unexpected as Ezmi is known for writing about the gender fluid spaces within an African social context, sometimes even with autobiographical elements. But this novel is freer, it is about Ezmi growing as a writer and not being confined to a single narrative, based on firsthand experience. ( Faber Books )
Acclaimed poet Ngyuen Phan Que Mai’s debut novel The Mountains Sing is an astonishing account of the Vietnam war. Is it fact? Is it fiction? Is it faction? Just read it even though it is not always easy given that it is based on meticulous research and oral histories too. I began it months ago, finished it this weekend. It needs long pauses between reading spurts. ( HarperCollins India)
The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan is the account of a cold case. Who betrayed Anne Frank to the Nazis? How did her family get on to the last train to Auschwitz? Why do people betray their own? Decades later, with the rise of fascism in many nations, this book is deeply disturbing to read but also essential. I think you should read it now. It is imperative that you do. Learn about operations that have not gone out of fashion. They still exist. The betrayal by one’s community is the most devastating betrayal ever. Judases exist. Even now. And that is what is extremely disturbing. (HarperCollins India)
…If religion was the basis of nationality, why there would be multiple nations in India. These nations exist in most villages, in varying proportions, with no boundaries. A Bengali Hindu and a Bengali Muslim live together, speak the same language, share the same customs. In Panjab, it is not uncommon in Hindu homes for the eldest son to be brought up a Sikh. Would that therefore mean two nations in one home? p.159
The first volume of “The Partition Trilogy” by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar , entitled Lahore is to be released very soon. When it is available in the market, buy it. Read it. It is excellent.
The publicity blurb states the following:
Set in the months leading up to and following India obtaining freedom in 1947, this trilogy is an exploration of events, exigencies and decisions that led to the independence of India, its concomitant partition, and the accession of princely states alongside. A literary political thriller that captures the frenzy of the time, the series is set in Delhi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Covering a vast canvas, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Lord Mountbatten [ the text rather disparagingly refers to him as “Dickie” instead of “Lord”] share space in the trilogy with the ordinary people from the cities that were affected by the partition and the reorganization of the states.
Lahore is a very well-told story, delineating step-by-step the events that led to the subcontinent’s independence from its British colonial rulers and the heavy cost in terms of human lives. The story also focusses on the irrational hatred that consumed people. The author attempts a fine balance between the political events that were taking place at a rapid pace, sometimes leaving the politicians and administrators bewildered at the speed at which it was all happening, with that of the events engulfing common people. She offers insights into the macro- and micro- levels of decisions that needed to be taken by the British, and incoming Indian and Pakistani governments. The story moves extremely fast, aping the historical events. Lahore seems to based on extensive research involving historical documents, accounts, testimonies, more contemporary analysis that has been unearthed of the events that took place nearly seventy-five years ago. It is perceptible in the tenor of writing. It seeps through in the descriptions of the real and imagined characters — the state-level decisions that were being taken to manage the handing over of governance by the British to the Indians/Pakistanis, albeit the narrative focusses more on the Indian side; the brutal hacking of people on the streets simply because they were of the opposite community (“Communal rioting was spreading,as if by chain reaction”); the unreasonable acts of violence in neighbourhoods towards the “other” such as the fictionalised account of the Muslim fruit seller being shunted out of a predominantly Hindu colony ( eerily echoing present day India where a few days ago a similar act occurred towards a Muslim bangle seller in Indore); or the vicious assault, kidnapping and raping of women where often they were left to their fate ( “Nobody moved in pursuit, nobody seemed to have noticed her disappearance— or nobody had the energy left to care.”).
There is much, much more to absorb. It requires a keen historian’s eye to verify if the facts portrayed in this novel are as close to the truth as possible. In terms of the broader arc, the depiction of the events is close to what is evident in history books and the many oral testimonies that came tumbling out in the older generations as they recalled 1947 while witnessing the communal riots that had broken out in Delhi in 1984. The chilling parallels between the two were unmistakable. For instance, my grandfather, who was the last ICS officer, suddenly began to remember the 1947 horrors that he saw as a young officer. So much of what Manreet Sodhi Someshwar documents of the officers making lists of divvying up office furniture, watching people being slaughtered in the streets, or houses being burnt to the ground with families inside it are much of what my grandfather has recorded in his oral testimony at the Teen Murti Library. Apparently it is the longest oral testimony (4vols) ever recorded. It is also very familiar to those of us who have seen these riots. It is as if we as a nation cannot get rid of these violent memories and have made violence part and parcel of our lives. Today, with social media, recordings of such incidents spread like wildfire, igniting even more in other regions. It is incumbent upon us as responsible citizens of a democracy to remember the horrendous events of the past and learn to move on, rather than nurse communal hatred and replicate pogroms.
More than forty percent of the 1.4 billion Indian population was born after 1991, many of whom are unfamiliar with modern Indian history. But it can be accessed through various ways. By reading historical fiction such as Lahore in conjunction with history books such as Bipan Chandra’s History of Modern India and of course watching the classic film by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, available in English and Hindi.
Lahore is truly magnificent. Although it is inexplicable why the book title is Lahore when the chapters spell it as “Laur”. It should be submitted for historical fiction literary prizes such as “Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize” that is open to books published in the previous year in the Commonwealth. It would also be interesting to see a conversation between British writer Jamila Gavin who wrote the “Surya Trilogy” and Manreet Sodhi Someshwar as they both grapple with the events of 1947. Ideally Salman Rushdie should be invited to participate too given how his recent collection of essays dwells upon many of the themes that the other two writers tackle. Having said that there are many more writers who can be invited but this trio in conversation would make for a phenomenal conversation.
Buy it once it is available.
28 August 2021
PS I had posted this review on Facebook. Later Manreet Sodhi Someshwar shared it as her Facebook story. Here is a screenshot of it.
In March 2014, Gabriel Garcia Marquez came down with a cold. He was eighty-seven-years-old. His wife was not hopeful about him surviving and phoned her sons, based in Los Angeles and Paris, respectively, to tell them. Rodrigo Garcia reached Mexico City before his brother and realised that his father needed hospitalisation. It was then that he also discovered their mother’s resistance to admitting her husband to hospital as she did not think he would make it. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was diagnosed with pneumonia and in the course of medical investigations, cancerous patches on his lung and liver were also detected. The chances of recovery were bleak given his frailty and his ill-health. It was decided that the Nobel Prize winning author would be taken home and made comfortable. The doctors were not sure about how much time he had. It could range from a few weeks to a few months.
Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots. I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes. What makes matters emotionally turbulent is the fact that my father is a famous person. Beneath the need to write may lurk the temptation to advance one’s own fame in the age of vulgarity. Perhaps it might be better to resist the call and to stay humble. Humility is, after all, my favorite form of vanity. But as with most writing, the subject matter chooses you, and so resistance could be futile.
Rodrigo Garcia chose to publish it after both his parents had passed away. “I know I will not publish this memoir until she is unable to read it.” His mother passed away in August 2020. Hence, the memoir has been published in 2021. Rodrigo Garcia is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He is a screenwriter and director. His theatrical films include Nine Lives, Albert Nobbs, and Last Days in the Desert, and he has directed episodes of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and the pilot of Big Love, for which he received an Emmy nomination. Obviously, his career has helped him hone his skills as a storyteller. Although nothing can prepare you to tell the story of your parent’s declining health and eventual death. To maintain a clear-eyed perspective on the events that occurred in quick succession from the time Gabriel Garcia Marquez fell seriously ill requires immense amounts of self-will and training as a skilled and sensitive narrator.
Standing near the foot of the bed, I look at him, diminished as he is, and I feel like both his son (his little son) and his father. I am acutely aware that I have a unique overview of his eighty-seven years. The beginning, the middle, and the end are all there in front of me, unfolding like an accordion book.
I fly to Los Angeles again to spend a few more days in the cutting room. My second night at home, I go to bed early, but after I turn out the lights I’m worried that the phone will ring in the middle of the night and scare the wits out of me. It does both. I hear my brother’s voice on the other end, sounding deliberately calm.
“Hey. He has a high fever. The doctor says you better come back.”
After I hang up, I book an early flight on my phone . . .
Later a gerontologist of about forty stops by to advise on end-stage care. (He is himself is in remission from lymphoma. He has advice for us on the last stages, vis-à-vis hydration and sedation.) …We listen in silence, like we’re watching a strange monologue in an experimental play. The ideas are intriguing and absurd. Practical, compassionate, murderous.
Yet, while preoccupied with his father and the arrangements it would take to organise home care, the author is able to spare a thought on the nurse:
The beauty of witnessing someone who is outstanding at what she does, in conjunction with the comfort brought about by the support of an empathetic health worker, makes her a compelling presence.
There are many instances in the memoir when he comments upon the staff busying themselves with their chores but it is never written as if there is a divide between “us” and “them”. He does it with great poise. There is an exquisite moment in the book when the staff come to pay their last respects Gabriel Garcia Marquez as he is laid out on his bed.
Rodrigo Garcia then goes on to describe the funeral arrangements followed by the memorial service. His mother had insisted that the cremation take place on the same day itself. There were chaotic scenes outside their home but they managed to conduct the funeral on time. It was a very private affair. Four days later the Mexican and Colombian presidents held a joint memorial service at Mexico City. Marquez had been born in Colombia but chose to spend more than fifty years of his life in Mexico City. It was a grand affair.
This beautiful memoir is peppered with references to his father’s craftsmanship as a writer. Memories come flooding back. One of these is a poignant episode the son recalls of his father appreciating songwriters and singers for their techniques.
My dad greatly admired and envied songwriters for their ability to say so much and so eloquently with so few words. While writing Love in the Time of Cholera, he submitted himself to a steady diet of Latin pop songs of love lost or unrequited. He said to me that the novel would be nowhere so melodramatic as many of those songs, but that he could learn much from them about the techniques with which they evoked feelings. He was never a snob about art forms and enjoyed the work of people as diverse as Béla Bartók and Richard Clayderman. He once walked by as I was watching Elton John playing his best songs on television, alone at the piano. My dad was only vaguely aware of him, but the music stopped him in his tracks, and he eventually sat down and watched all of it, enthralled. “Carajo, this guy is an incredible bolerista,” he said. A singer of boleros. It was very much like him to refer something back to his own culture. He was never intimidated by Eurocentric references that were common everywhere. He knew that great art could blossom in an apartment building in Kyoto or in a rural country in Mississippi, and he had the unwavering conviction that any remote and rickety corner of Latin America or the Caribbean could stand in powerfully for the human experience.
He was an omnivorous reader . . .
A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir is a very touching tribute to a larger-than-life father who was venerated by millions around the world. But it is also an equally moving account of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wife, Mercedes. They had met when they were little children as ten and fourteen-year-olds. From the moment he met her, Marquez knew he would marry Mercedes. But she had her own space and identity and was respected for it. So, when the Mexican president referred to her at the memorial service as “the widow”, she was infuriated, saying rightly so, “I have an identity. I am not just the widow.”
Read the book. Weep, but also celebrate life as Rodrigo Garcia does.
Sarah Winman’s Still Life begins during the Second World War and then the story develops over the next few decades. The cast of characters, more or less, remain the same. It includes a parrot that went dumb during the bombing of London.
Still Life is a large, expansive, slow moving historical fiction. It has the languid pace that one associates with all things Italian. And rightly so as a substantial portion of the novel is set in Italy. Even the sections that are set in England have a very slow pace that is mostly written in the third person. It is an odd literary technique to employ in a novel that could quite easily move crisply if the protagonist Ulysses Temper had had more of a voice. Instead, it’s almost as if he has a very dispassionate connect with the locals. This despite his wife, Peg, and her child, Alys, being part of the community. He is far too accommodating of everyone’s wishes and always does his best to please them. Until, he learns of his Italian inheritance. He has been bequeathed a property by “Arturo” whom he met briefly while stationed as a Private during the war. It is a life changing moment and he moves countries, taking Alys, whom he loves very much.
But Still Life is also about women, women painters, painting, and aspiring to be artists. Their impact upon others lives as Evelyn Skinner, a sexagenerian art historian, has upon Ulysses and later, Alys. Evelyn’s fine talk about aesthetics, artists, beauty ultimately impacts Ulysses life in many ways. This book is about their extraordinary relationship, being kindred spirits who discovered each other during the war and a spark was lit that transcended many social barriers.
Still Life also works as a metaphor in this novel. For its ability to capture a vignette of life as paintings with a “Still Life” theme attempt. Usually still life painting compositions are of the very ordinary elements found in daily life. The intense focus upon these objects by the artist transforms them from the mundane to something exquisite, a precious piece of artwork. This novel is much like this. It is to Sarah Winman’s credit that she takes the very ordinary lives of very common, nondescript folks and through her way with words, turns the novel into a piece of art.
To appreciate this story, the reader needs to zone into that mindset and engage with it; much in the way a painting is appreciated– you stand and gaze upon it, to discover more than the veneer.
At nearly 500 pages, this novel is meant for diehard fans of Sarah Winman. But those who like historical fiction may like it too. Winman has a way of getting the reader hooked from the first page. It works as long as the novel can be read without too many interruptions. Otherwise the large cast of characters can get quite tough to recall.
Samrat Choudhary’s latest book, The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra ( HarperCollins India) is a travelogue in the North East of India tracking the magnificent river. It is so stunning in its beauty. It looks like an inland sea but its a river. There are points that the opposite bank is not visible. Samrat Choudhary and his friend Akshay Mahajan decide to embark on this exciting epic journey of 2000 kms in East India. The North East of India comprises of seven states. The topography of these states vary from the flat plains of Assam to the hill states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal, Tripura and Mizoram. Manipur is a mix of plain and hills. Each state has its distinctive culture. It is truly fascinating travelling in this part of India.
The Brahmaputra is very critical to the settlements in this region and has played a pivotal role for centuries. It is revered and feared. It sustains life. It is also part of the local myths and legends.
The North East of India is defined as a region but it has incredible diversity and character. It is meant to be experienced. Samrat X ‘s writing in The Braided River meanders gently recounting the places he visits, topography, meeting people, sharing their histories — the old and the more recent ones of insurgency, the CAA and NRC agitation etc. It is not easy to tell the story of this vast region in an old-fashioned linear fashion. It has to be the way Samrat tells it. He takes you along on the journey while filling in the blanks in one’s knowledge with local gupshup combined with historical details. At times, he quotes from other sources to contextualise a story or a place. It is not an easy task as trying to tell the socio-politcal-history of this region is akin to walking through a minefield. Samrat seems to pull it off.
Much of his narrative does share details in his inimitable chatty style that I can almost hear him reading it out aloud in my head. It is so clear. His descriptions of the place are vivid. Fortunately modern readers have the Internet to immediately look up references. But for me, reading this book brought back a flood of memories. My father/ Romesh Bhattacharji had been posted by the Central government in Shillong ( the capital of Meghalaya) for nearly five and a half years. As a result, we have travelled extensively in the region. So Samrat’s journey on the Ledo Road/Stillwell Road, meeting the Kachins, Digboi, seeing the Lake of No Return in the far distance, visiting Dibrugarh, the tea estates, the opium cultivation, visiting Wild Grass in Kaziranga, Jorhat, and Tezpur are all very familiar. And if we did not accompany dad, then he ensured that he told us so many stories or shared pictures of his travels while touring the seven states that we became acquainted with them so well. Almost as if we had been there ourselves. Hence many of the places Samrat mention come alive for me as well.
For readers unfamiliar with the region, a better map could have been used instead of the tiny one at present. It plots the main cities Samrat refers to but it is not easy to read. Travelogues like “The Braided River” belong to a rich literary tradition of documenting a region. Words are critical. But in modern tellings such as this, perhaps more maps and line sketches could have been considered as tip-ins in most of the chapters. It would have added to the production cost but it would have been a good investment. The two sets of coloured photographs used at present are fine but the production is of such poor quality that they don’t do justice either to the photographer’s composition or to the region. Pity. Perhaps a standalone website dedicated to this book where extracts of each chapter are illustrated by more photographs could be considered. It has the potential of becoming excellent reference material if curated well.
The Braided River is a book that will standout for years to come as a seminal piece of writing about the history of the North East of India where one common factor is the Brahmaputra. There have been so many twists and turns in the socio-poltical landscape in recent decades that an updated, single volume, reportage from the region was sorely needed. Many travelogues, documentaries and films have been made on the river. It is time Samrat Choudhary wrote a new script.
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.”
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:
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.
I lost a great-grandmother to the influenza epidemic of 1917-18. She died in Meerut. My grandfather was three years old at the time. He always told us that his mother died when he was very young in this epidemic. It was swift. He regretted her death since he got the archetypal stepmother who did everything to stop him including trying to smother him with a pillow or was it a pile of clothes (?). I forget now. Dada always maintained that if his mother had lived, she would have supported his dream to become a doctor. His stepmother thwarted his chances. He set up a factory making blankets for soldiers during WW2 but wound it up fast as he was allergic to the wool. Then he set up a workshop to fix agricultural machinery and automobiles in Meerut and its hinterland. He died aged 101, in 2016. Just a little before the Covid19 pandemic alert. If Dada had lived he would have probably had some hazy recollection of 1918 or even how the elders had reacted. Crucial stories to learn from.
Chinmay Tumbe’s The Age of Pandemics (1817-1920): How they shaped India and the World ( HarperCollins India) is an excellent account of the cholera, plague and influenza pandemics. He details the probable cause and effect, the eerie parallels in (mis) management of political powers in the name of governance and wild human behaviour in response to a pandemic alert, especially that of migrants and the inevitable disastrous economic consequences. His reliance on historical records and oral histories makes for fascinating storytelling especially for his insights on how economic recovery strategies may be considered. It is more than just statistical analysis, it is about being prepared and managing human expectations. Even his excessive use of data is not a hindrance. It is useful. His parting words of bearing this present pandemic with humility and patience must be taken to heart.
And yes, Meerut was one of the cities severely affected by the Influenza pandemic.
The story’s premise of a sixteen-year-old navigating her teen years as well as coming to terms with her mother’s marriage is hard enough but it gets tougher when she has to live two lives, almost as if in parallel dimensions— online and reality. The Secret Life of Debbie G ( HarperCollins India) is Vibha Batra’s first graphic novel. It has been illustrated by Kalayani Ganapathy. It is an interesting concept where the teenage conversations are portrayed well. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired. On the cover of the book is the hashtag— #agraphicnovel. It is jarring since no graphic novel should ever have to announce it’s format to readers. Pity this one had to. Then the story itself is spread out in image frames, long text and speech bubbles laid out across pages. It is a hybrid version of young adult literature, caught between conversation-propelled plot and that of graphics. Instead it comes across as a heavily illustrated storybook that is hard to sink into. The confusion about the format plays havoc with the dialogue too. It allows for an expansiveness that a tightly knit graphic novel would not have the luxury to even consider as each frame, its text, its framing, its colouring would have to be considered umpteen times before finalising the layout. The text and illustrations complement each other in a traditional graphic novel to create a cohesive narrative. This is sadly lacking in The Secret Life of Debbie G.. I sincerely hope that the next graphic novel Vibha Batra creates — and in my heart I know she will— it will be a tauter story; and I certainly look forward to it. This particular story can be considered as a bridging text in Vibha Batra’s repertoire or a fine example of the evolution of a writer with immense potential!