Today’s “Tuesday Reads” consists of three books published by indie publishers. The selection by indie publishers is a pure coincidence! The first is a translation of a novel from Hindi into English by Permanent Black; the second is speculative fiction by Blaft Publications and the third is a novel set in a refugee camp by The Indigo Press.
The Girl with Questioning Eyes: A Novel by Neelesh Raghuwanshi is in Hindi ( Ek Kasbe ke Notes) and has been translated by Deepa Jain Singh. It is set in a small town of central India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Babli, the narrator, is sixth in a line of nine siblings. The last sibling is the only son. Her father runs a wayside dhaba, a kiosk, selling tea and meals. Her mother stays at home looking after the children. One day while delivering dried cow pats to be used as fuel by her father Babli is waylaid by a well-dressed college teacher to enquire whether the bindi on her forehead is centred correctly or not. This brief encounter on the street leaves a big impact on Babli who is determined to be educated. If she has to dream it is against all odds as given the limited resources of her father as well the virtually nil expectations of a girl child except to get married and have a family of her own, Babli has to be quietly persuasive especially with her father to get permission to study further. Simple luxuries that many children in the urban areas take for granted is really a privilege for girls like Babli in small town India. Meanwhile the position of her father’s dhaba by the main street enables him and thus the reader to witness the hustle-bustle of the town. The local economy is closely interlinked to that of the agricultural cycle. So there are about three months in the year where the town is super busy with the agricultural fair and farmers coming into buy and sell grains, cattle and agricultural equipment.
The Girl with Questioning Eyes: A Novel is about Babli’s family, a microcosm of small-town India — it is a beautiful portrait. The story begins slowly but is soon addictive — it is like watching a soap opera, you want to know what happens next and next although it is about the mundane routine of daily life in a small town in Madhya Pradesh. If you travel in this part of India most people’s lives are closely linked to the agrarian cycle. Also they are not exactly receptive to new ideas. So when Babli after watching her older sisters married off in quick succession, she is determined to improve her prospects by education and not be married of as the only solution to her existence. What emerges is the remarkable Babli who gets a job in the city and thus her financial independence. Admirably she does not distance herself from her simple parents living in the small town as she grows successful in the city. The Girl with Questioning Eyes: A Novel is an absorbing novel.
Portalpettai is an illustrated mini-book about an interdimensional portal which opens at a women’s college in Uthiramerur, Tamil Nadu. It’s narrated by a former lecturer at the college who has been transformed into a floating jellyfish-like creature with a see-through head.
Portalpettai is a portrait of a diverse South Indian community and its resilience in the face of an alien life force intrusion. It also touches on the subjects of non-baryonic matter, old Tamil film music, and the arcane secrets of mushrooms.
Here is a page from this delightful minibook.
Sulaiman Addonia’s second novel Silence is My Mother Tongue is an extremely moving story set in a refugee camp. It is about Saba and her mute brother Hagos, new arrivals in the camp. They learn to negotiate daily life in the camp despite the constant surveillance from the other refugees, the violence of the British intervention and UN Aid programmes. It is also about the manner in which the siblings negotiate sexuality, sexual violence / predators, rape and homosexuality. More so when their culture denies women their sexuality and rejects homosexuality. Refugee camps are fragile and tenuous reconstructions of society as was known to exist on the “outside” the walls of the camp. But the structure of the novel belies the very structure of this finely crafted society by the refugees that rapidly crumbles with new rules of engagement being established.
Sulaiman Addonia fled Eritrea as a refugee in childhood. He spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976, and in his early teens he lived and studied in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He arrived in London as an underage unaccompanied refugee without a word of English and went on to earn an MA in Development Studies from SOAS and a BSc in Economics from UCL. His first novel The Consequences of Love was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and translated into more than twenty languages. Silence is My Mother Tongue has been longlisted for the 2019 Political Fiction Orwell Prize. Sulaiman Addonia currently lives in Brussels where he has launched a creative writing academy for refugees and asylum seekers. There is a moving profile of his in the Guardian which says:
Addonia has not been back to Eritrea, where his mother now lives, since 2005; the country enforces indefinite and compulsory national service, regardless of British citizenship. But this distance may have benefited them both. When The Consequences of Love was published, family friends called his mother and accused him of attacking Islam; she would call him to cry and beg: “Why do you write this? Don’t you want to see me?”
This, he says, is why there has been a decade between his books. “Looking back, I could only call myself a writer when I was ready to lose myself, my family and my friends,” he says. “My mother became a source of censorship and I needed to free myself from her. I wrote this book, but I was also rewritten by it,” he smiles. “And I am completely free.”
Read one or read them all. Time well spent!
18 June 2019