My Padri Avram used to say that Heaven is a revolving wheel, Pinto said. Even if you never move from your place, everything around you will change, and the world and all that it holds will be the same and not the same. We could stay right here and just watch the wheel turn. But if we move, if we keep moving, everything will always be only different, and we will never be the same. There had to have been a world where no one was ever at home, where everyone was always going from one place to another. The Lord must’ve destroyed such a world and with relish too — for what kind of a place would’ve been a world consisting only of strangers? There would’ve been no righteous ones there, nonthing and nobody older than a day. The people in that world could never be still long enough to see anything. Everything in such a world would’ve been dimmed by incomprehension. I have no idea what you’re talking about, Isak Abramovich said, his gaze still stuck to the firmament. See what I have to live with? Osman chuckled and kissed Pinto’s forehead. Just love each other whatever the world you think you might be in, Isak Abramovich said. There is nothing else you can do. And who knows, maybe all this insanity will produce a better world, where everyone could love whoever they want. Stranger things have happened. p.103
Aleksander Hemon’s The World and All That It Holds ( Picador) is the classic family novel formula with a difference. The norm in literary fiction is to have a family novel spanning three to four generations, ideally set at the beginning of the twentieth century or in the world wars. The author employs various literary techniques to make it accessible to a modern reader. Usually family novels are easily read for they have a straightforward chronology and a single language is used for the storytelling. In exceptional cases, phrases and words may be borrowed from other languages, if the circumstances of the plot demand it. The World and All that it Holds upturns such preconceived notions of this form of literary fiction.
Hemon’s new novel is about Osman, a Muslim, and Pinto, a Jew, who grew up in multilingual Sarajevo. They are young, when conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army to fight in the Great War. After becoming POWs, they move to the Great Steppes and get caught in the Russian Revolution. They somehow manage to join a refugee caravan, relying upon the kindness of strangers whose language they could not speak, till it reached Shanghai. Along the way, they acquire a daughter, Rahela, and a ghost. Osman gets left behind. Pinto is responsible for the infant and brings her up as his own. There are innumerable conversations about a God.
Historical fiction serves many purposes. Most often, it enables the writer to discuss contemporary events without going into the specifics; but tackling issues sufficiently that they resonate with the reader effectively. In this case, it is the migrants or mercenaries or refugees — use any terminology that you will. Through the lives of Osman and Pinto, a young couple, crossing boundaries at so many multiple levels — love, physical migration, religious laws, etc. There are many conversations that are recorded, whether between the Osman and Pinto or with the people whom they meet that make one pause and think. One of the most powerful moments was when Pinto yearns for the simple things in life such as a stable existence and a room with a bed and a light.
The novel prompts questions regarding borders, identities ( is it official as designated by a passport or humaneness), gender, notion of a family, idea of language and the very act of a journey. How does time affect an individual or a community? What are the external factors such as war, politics, socio-economic considerations that determine the space and respect accorded to an individual? Who determines these?
The elegantly sophisticated craftsmanship of Hemon is on display when he plays with language (s) in the text. He uses languages in a way that the characters would, without any explanation. There are no words in brackets or a glossary at the end to explain. It is almost as if as the reader has to be prepared for this deep immersion and like the ghost, to walk along side the characters. Taking a deep dive into multiple languages is more than just a noisy experience, it is shattering. It makes the head spin. Yet, to remain focussed and moving on, hopefully achieving a goal, is a struggle. Intially, the first few pages of the story are very difficult to read and need to be read over and over again to get into the rhythm, but then slowly it develops a familiar pattern. Try reading it out aloud and parts of the story would seem nonsensical but within the story, it makes perfect sense. This is precisely what happens to Rahela. As she grows, she picks up bits and pieces of languages from the refugees in their caravan or from the locals in whose houses they stay. Later, as an adult, she realises that the language she speaks and thought was understood by everyone is only spoken by her “father” Pinto and her. Once she is separated from him, she is very lonely.
Languages form a culture. They create an identity for the speaker. There are cultural references embedded in the language that get conveyed from generation to generation. What happens to people such as Pinto and his daughter, who have travelled for years and years. Do they have an identity? A tradition? A place to call their own?
Later, the older and pregnant Rahela returns to China to collect her father and take him back to Serbia. Unfortunately, he does not survive. Only Rahela arrives. She is lost and has not a clue how to begin her life. Fortunately, a good samaritan ( if you will) recognises her surname and realises she is a descendant of the apothecary Pinto they all knew once upon a time and to whom they sold medicinal herbs. This tiny piece of her genealogical history preserved in social memory enables her to be awarded a Serbian passport and using it, she is able to travel to Israel, the new land for the Jews.
This is where the novel and its conclusion becomes modernist. Hemon uses the popular autofictional style of storytelling to recount his visit as a new author to a literary festival in Jerusalem. While waiting at the signing desk for people to bring copies of the book, he was approached by a frail lady and her son. She did not introduce herself but sang an old Bosnian song. She is Rahela. She tells him the story of her two fathers and her incredible childhood. And thus sparked the idea of this story.
The World and All That It Holds is an extraordinarily magnificent novel. Read it. It is going to be on many prize lists in 2023 and beyond.
No big colonial sword needs to come down and slash the fabric of the nation,” …. “Muscle by muscle, atom by atom, we are being torn from within. We are our own bomb.”
Forces of history are at work, he says. Forces too big to fight. He reels off dates. 1947, 1857, 1799. I slapped my head. Spare me. I don’t understand kings and queens. I am a simple man.
Slathered on the walls, wrapping all the way around the street. Every shutter, all the way up to the white mosque. It is true. That puffed-up face, like mouldy pastry. The fellow has called us aliens in our own land. He lost the election and we thought, that would teach him. Now here was, his face pasted on my wall.
Award-winning novelist and playwright Annie Zaidi’s novella No Prelude to a Riot is a disturbing, hard-hitting story set in a nameless city. It is about the rising communal tensions and the anxiety of living under constant siege. What comes across equally poignantly is the writer’s own attempts at writing a story that is extremely close to the reality of today. To be writing under a sense of constant siege, where the lines between the fictional characters and plot are blurred, is not an easy task. Sometimes it seems as if the voices of the characters are not strong enough, probably due to the circumstances they live in, yet they do manage to slip in what they have to say, jolting the reader with their pronouncements. It leaves a sinking feeling in the stomach.
Earlier this year Annie Zaidi won the $100,000 Nine Dots Prize for her essay Bread, Cement, Cactus. It will be expanded and published as a short book by Cambridge University Press in 2020. The Nine Dots Prize is a book prize for creative thinking that tackles contemporary societal issues. Entrants for the prize are asked to respond to a question in 3,000 words and the winner receives $100,000 (Rs 69.83 lakh) to write a short book expanding on the essay’s idea. The question this year was “Is there still no place like home?” “Zaidi’s entry, ‘Bread, Cement, Cactus’, combines memoir and reportage to explore concepts of home and belonging rooted in her experience of contemporary life in India, where migration – within the country, especially from villages to cities – is high,” the Nine Dots Prize said in a statement.
Prelude to a Riot is a novella that explores similar concepts of home and belonging while rooted in the very real and disturbing issues of communal violence, a growing intolerance of the other and crumbling of democracy. It is shattering to realise that Prelude to a Riot, Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Fate of Butterflies and Ravish Kumar’s The Free Voice are critical contributions to contemporary literature, offering perspectives while bearing witness to the current socio-political events.
On 24/25 August 2019, Sandeep Raina’s “Where No Daffodils Grow” was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement. Here is the link. Given the space restrictions in print, the article had to be edited. Reproduced below with the kind permission of the author is the unedited version.
Sandeep Raina was born and brought up in Baramulla, Kashmir. He studied engineering in Srinagar, and when in 1990 militancy gripped the Kashmir valley, he finished his education and left for Delhi. He lived in Delhi for 10 years and then in Istanbul for 3 years before moving to Surrey, England where he has been living for the past 15+ years with his wife and 3 children. Sandeep’s wife is a doctor in Surrey, their daughter studies medicine at the University of London, and their twin sons are studying engineering at the Cambridge University.
Sandeep has worked as a senior engineering executive in mobile telecoms for the past 28 years and travels globally for his work. As a mobile telecoms evangelist, he has been invited to speak at many conferences across Europe and the USA, and has published numerous professional articles. Currently, he works for a French-American telecommunications software company in London.
Sandeep has written a novel based on Kashmir, which took him over 11 years to write. The reason to write a novel was that it worked as a slow cathartic process to counter the traumatic and violent experiences of the early-90s Kashmir, and the harsh life of being a migrant/refugee in Delhi. As part of his life and travels outside Kashmir, he has acquired different perspectives of the Kashmir conflict. Through his writing about the Kashmiri people, of all communities, caught in the long-drawn, brutal conflict, he aims to present a better understanding of their predicament.
Sandeep has also published short stories about Kashmir, which reflect the exchanges with people caught in conflicts like Kashmir. They not only highlight the broken relationships, the loss of trust, the rising communal politics of Kashmir and India, but also offer introspection and a hope for the communities that have been disadvantaged because of the strife.
His stories have been published in several magazines and papers, including, The Hindu, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times of India/The Economic Times.
Men in tall black hats and flowing black
robes strode briskly down an empty street. Some of them had long side burns and
some had long beards. It was a summer
afternoon, hot, and they were quite overdressed. I was visiting a friend in
Golders Green in London and asked him what was going on, who were those people,
why the costumes?
“Nothing, they are our Jewish neighbours back
from a synagogue,” said the Kashmiri Pandit friend. “Many Jews live here since
Why were they dressed in such a pronounced
manner? I wondered. Here was I, trying my best to assimilate, just landed in
London. It didn’t make sense.
We had lunch at our friend’s home, typical
Pandit cuisine, mostly lamb dishes: rogan
josh, yakhni and matsch. I had
met him and his wife after many years. We chatted for long on the table,
reminiscing. The flat was sparsely furnished but had a few Kashmiri rugs. I noticed
a small ornate candle stand in the window and asked what it was.
“It is a menorah,” said my friend’s wife. “To light candles in the Jewish
festival of lights, Hanukkah.”
Until then I had thought Diwali was the
only festival of lights.
in this apartment building is a Jew, most of them old,” said my friend. “And
they are very nice people.”
The next day, I told Mike, my colleague in
office, about the Jews in costume. Mike was a small young man, who once had
said that being Jewish, Catholic and French was the worst one could be in
England, and he was all of them. One of his parents was French and Catholic,
the other English and Jewish.
“There are other interesting things that we
do, such as not doing anything on Sabbath,” he laughed. “Not even switching on a
“Why?” I said.
He didn’t want to explain or didn’t know.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In
Kashmir, on days of fasts, women in our Kashmiri Pandit family cooked strict vegetarian
meals, cleaning and praying, and not doing much else. And the fasts followed
the moon’s wax and wane. Punim, aetham, mavas. On full moon, mid
moon, and no moon. There seemed to be much in common with the Jews.
are also really good with money,” laughed Mike.
My grandfather’s father had been a zamindar,
a landowner, in Kashmir. My mother said that he was so rich that he didn’t
count coins, he weighed them out of hand balances. But, my grandfather was not
rich, nor us. My mental comparisons with the Jews ended at this thought.
Years went by. In which my grandfather
died. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but his memories kept on coming back
to me in many different ways. By now we had moved into a new house, and I worked
for a different company, in a different town in England, where I became
friendly with an older Iranian colleague, Paymon.
It was the Persian new year, on spring
equinox, when the day equals night, and the opposites balance out, when I told
Paymon about Navreh, the Kashmiri Pandit new year. How on the eve, we filled a thaal, a deep plate with rice, milk, yogurt,
a pen, a coin, some lentils, a daffodil. Bits that made life.
“We do something similar on Navroz, and we
call it haft seen,” he said, surprised.
I felt a sudden connection build. We discussed
Navroz and Navreh in snatches between meetings, across our office desks, on the
coffee machine. Iran is so far from Kashmir, but it suddenly felt close. I told
Paymon about the chinars, the papier-mâché, and the floral woollen carpets that had travelled from Iran, and
the origins of rogan josh. Things began to tumble out. I even snatched a paper
napkin and wrote my name in Nastaliq, the script that had travelled from Iran to Kashmir.
“I didn’t know this,” he laughed.
I didn’t know either, when growing up in
Kashmir. If it’s a part of you, you don’t think much of it. I remembered my grandfather.
I remembered his bold loud voice, his very sociable manner, his rambling
conversations, his strong physical presence, his eloquent Farsi.
Grandfather used to recite Farsi couplets
when he was in a good mood, when he had an audience, which could be my reluctant
father or a hapless neighbour who had chanced to step by. Grandfather rolled
off the Farsi couplets with the same verve as chanting mantras in Sanskrit,
when he did his puja every morning, with
lots of flower petals and incense sticks, in front of an array of gods. I was
small, the Farsi and the Sanskrit both sounded magical to me, inspiring awe.
I told Paymon all this in the office
canteen, and he listened to me with an older man’s patience.
My euphoria was unabated. For a Foodie
Friday in the office, I woke up early and cooked rogan josh in the morning over
low flame for three hours. My wife
wasn’t happy that I hadn’t let her cook. I packed the rogan josh carefully in a
large plastic box, with a sticker on top and wrote- Kashmiri Rogan Josh in my wobbly Nastaliq, and sped to office, just
in time for lunch. My colleagues had already begun eating, and there were foods
of all kinds on the large canteen table. Italian, Greek, English, Brazilian,
Welsh, Indian, Iranian. The rogan josh was late. Then Paymon saw me.
“So, you can read and write Farsi?” said Paymon,
looking at the sticker, asking me to put some rogan josh on his plate.
“I can’t,” I said. I couldn’t even read and
Rogan josh disappeared fast, everyone ate
it. It was declared the best cooked food on that Friday. I brimmed with pride.
When I left that job, on my last day, Paymon
wrote four lines in Farsi on my farewell card. Under those he wrote in English:
Thank you for enlightening me about
Persian Kashmir. It has been great talking with you. It is sad to see you go
but I wish you all the best.”
I think Paymon said something about those
Farsi words in the card, but in my farewell hurry, I didn’t hear too well.
The card remained unread for years. Later,
I wished I had learnt some Farsi, some Nastaliq from my grandfather. I
wonder why I didn’t. My question took me back to a faint conversation from my
childhood. I was reading out two Kashmiri words written in Nastaliq on a
ten rupee note. In those days, currency notes in India had the value written in
15 official languages, each in its own script.
ropiye,” I read out, trying to decipher the curls,
whirls, and dots.
“It’s not dah ropiye, its duh ropiye,”
said my mother.
“What’s the difference?”
“Muslims say dah, but Pandits say duh,
because dah in Sanskrit means cremation. And
Muslims bury their dead.”
My mother also told me that the ancient script
for Kashmiri was Sharada, now dead, and nobody knew what it had looked like.
Pandits and Muslims had other differences
too. I was aware of some. My pheran, the
long woollen garment that I wore in winters, had an extra fold, ladh, near its hem, while Bitta, my Muslim
friend’s pheran fell straight. My grandfather wore a pajama, not a shalwar. My
great grandmother’s pheran was ankle-length, with long sleeves, while old Muslim
women wore knee length pherans, and shorter sleeves.
Many differences, all small. Until someone
powerful outside Kashmir, heard about the tiny twists of tongue, the lengths
and folds of pherans. And questioned if Kashmiri had more Farsi or more Sanskrit?
Whether its script was Nastaliq or Sharada? When the powerful became more powerful with this
knowledge, a powerless man in a tempo bus, after a squabble over a seat, called
my grandfather a kafir, godless. Hurled
the word like a weapon. I was with my grandfather in that bus. I had seen him
pray to God every morning, in fact, many gods. My proud grandfather’s face was livid,
his complaint to the bus driver a mere mumble. I remember my own inertness, the
tremble in my fingers.
Not much later, a powerless young boy, just
out of teens, gunned down my grandfather’s nephew and niece, my mother’s
cousins, with their partners, inside their home. We fled Kashmir.
It’s been 29 springs since that happened. This
year, in London, I forgot to fill up the Navreh thaal. Or look up the new panchang, the Hindu calendar book, which
my mother posts from India every spring. On Navreh eve, when I was small in
Kashmir, I would run out to pluck a handful of nargis, white daffodils, that grew in our garden. They had the
sweetest of scents, but I wasn’t allowed to sniff; they were meant for God. And
on Navreh morning, when the April air pinched my winter-chapped cheeks, I would
wear a new kurta-pajama. Forgetting the thaal has brought sweet nostalgia and tremendous
Pictures of Navreh thaals flooded Facebook,
on cue. Rice, milk, yogurt, coin, pen. No daffodils. Where most Kashmiri Pandits
now live, daffodils don’t grow. A panchang said the year is 5094 by the Saptrishi
calendar, 2075 by the Vikrami calendar.
“29 by the Pandit exile calendar,” a friend
messaged. My heart stopped for a long moment.
On the cover of a panchang, I saw a script
that I had never seen before. Sharada. It had fonts like thick brush strokes or
like engravings on stone. Blurry, awoken from a deep sleep.
I had read a book long ago about the
revival of Hebrew after the Jews had fled from European towns. How Hebrew was
invoked to string the scattered Jews. How they would all go home, with a common
language and a new script to a land they could call their own. In a desert.
I think of Thar or Kharan, when I think of
deserts. One on the India-Pakistan border and the other on the Pakistan-Iran
border. I grew up with snow and mountains, I grew up with lush fields, streams
and lakes. What would I do in a desert? What if someone powerful traced my
roots to the Aryan Iranians? And sent me to Kharan in Balochistan. Would I go?
Would my children go? Would my children’s children go?
I am sure the Jews had said this too.
I thought about Iran. I remembered my
conversations about Navroz and Navreh with Paymon. I hunted for the farewell card
from my last job and found it in a stack of birthday cards that our children
had given me over the years. Among dozens of messages written in English was
the quatrain written by Paymon in Farsi, in flowing Nastaliq. Asking to be
I messaged a photo of the lines to Paymon,
asking him if he could translate it for me. Paymon did not reply, I don’t know
why. I had thought Paymon would be a friend for life. Friendship’s a promise. I
thought of who else could help me: Grandfather. But he was not around anymore to
fill me with the awe and magic of his Farsi. Not hearing back from Paymon, not able
to read his message brought a deep sense of loss. Like a forgotten Navreh. Like
a broken promise.
I asked an English friend to help me. He
sent a photo of the Farsi message, all the way to Tehran to his sister-in-law.
A week later, I received the transliteration and the translation in my inbox.
Grandfather appeared before me. And read out in a bold, loud voice:
keh beh nazd e oo gol o khar yekist
maz hab e oo mos haf o zonnar yekist
gham e on yar che bayad khordan
ra khar e lang o asb e rahvar yekist
“A friend who sees no difference between a flower
and a thorn,
In whose religion, the Quran and Zonnar are
Why should we worry about him?
As for him, a lame donkey and a swift horse
are the same.”
Zonnar used to be a girdle which Jews wore to
distinguish them from Muslims, long back in time.
Paymon had not forgotten, he had kept his
promise, he had written me a message to remember for life. Like a true friend,
he knew me more than I knew myself.
A few days later, I pulled out a pheran from
my clothes cupboard, which my wife had bought from a Kashmiri trader many years
ago. It is dull brown and woollen, a bit scratchy at the neck, and it does not have
a Pandit fold near the hem. I had never worn it.
That summer day, I wore it. It warmed me up.
I looked at myself in the mirror, and the image of the Golders Green Jews
walking briskly down a street flashed in front of my eyes. Now I knew why they were
dressed like that.
What they were holding on to.
Next spring, I won’t forget Navreh. I will fill
up a thaal with rice, pluck a yellow daffodil from our English garden, place a
pound coin, a pen and an idol of a god in the thaal. Some milk and yogurt too. And
pray. That I’m not sent to a desert.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. Today’s Book Post 24 is after a gap of two weeks as January is an exceedingly busy month with the New Delhi World Book Fair and literary festivals such as the Jaipur Literature Festival.
In today’s Book Post 24 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought at the book fair and are worth mentioning.
Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowherehas been justifiably longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie 2018. It is about twelve-year-old Omar who has to flee Syria soon after the war breaks out. Born and brought up in Dosra, Omar has four siblings including an older brother, Musa, who despite having cerebral palsy is very sharp. At times when he gets agitated no one can understand what he says except for Omar. The youngest sibling is a two-year-old girl Nadia. Their father works for the Syrian government and is most distressed when civil strife breaks out. He insists on referring to the citizens fighting against the government as “terrorists”. As the war intensifies the family has to cross the international border with Jordan and enter a refugee camp. It is a horrific experience for the family who have to make do in a makeshift shelter, live on the kits distributed by the United Nations and the food is rationed, unless one can afford to buy what is offered in the black market. To realise it is survival of the fittest at the camp, Omar takes the lead to do his best by the family, particularly after his father decides to return to Dosra.
There are descriptions in the book that seem authentic. They ring true. Apparently Elizabeth Laird researched this book thoroughly before writing it. Years ago she had lived in Lebanon during their shattering civil war. She says in the letter by the author that “I saw at first hand how lives were disrupted and families lived in fear”. Later she was invited to Jordan to run writing workshops with teachers and youth trainers in two Syrian refugee camps, Zaatari and Azraq. It was while talking to the refugees that Omar’s story crystallised in her mind.
Welcome to Nowhere is a book that will remain relevant as long as conflict zones exist not just in Syria. This story is meant to be read by young adults and adults alike.
Elizabeth Laird Welcome to Nowhere Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp.
Neil Gaiman is the superstar of storytellers and one of the leading influencers on social media with his strongly voiced opinons. He is incredibly generous while sharing his knowledge, he has bundles of energy, oozes with charisma and can pack quite a powerful punch while speaking his mind. He comes across as straightforward and can be blunt when he wants as in the essays — “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013” or “The PEN Awards and Charlie Hebdo ” ( 2015). He is charming in his hero-worship when he writes about meeting legends such as Fritz Leiber and magnanimous with his compliments such as on illustrator Charles Vess with whom he often collaborates. Gaiman is passionate about his love for reading, letting the imagination roar and creativity blossom as evident in the innumerable speeches he has delivered. One of them being “Good Comics and Tulips: A Speech”or after his visit to a Syrian refugee camp, Azraq refugee camp, Jordan — “So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now: May 2014”. Here is a typical Gaiman straight-from-the-heart observation:
I realise I have stopped thinking about political divides, about freedom fighters or terrorists, about dictators and armies. I am thinking only of the fragility of civilisation. The lives the refugees had were our lives: they owned corner shops and sold cars, they farmed or worked in factories or owned factories or sold insurance. None of them expected to be running for their lives, leaving everything they had because they had nothing to come back to, making smuggled border crossings, walking past the dismembered corpses of other people who had tried to make the crossing but had been caught or been betrayed. ( p.506)
Most of the essays and speeches collected in this volume have gone viral on the Internet recently. They have developed a life of their own for the ideas they spawned. As Gaiman says in “Credo”, “I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast. He also firmly believes that “Literature does not occur in a vaccuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.” The title essay refers to his appearance at the Oscar ceremony when the film adaptation of his book Coraline had been nominated and he walked the red carpet but was given a seat in one of the top balconies.
The articles included in this collection may over a period of time vanish from their original place of publication in cyberspace or disappear behind pay walls as business models of media websites evolve. This is an anthology that is must have that will constantly be read and re-read for its thought-provoking ideas, its analysis of the changing game of publishing, the relationship between writer and readers but most importantly it will be remembered for Gaiman’s fervour in infecting others with his passion for reading and allowing the imagination to run wild.
Buy it. Treasure it. Preserve it. Share it widely. Pass it on to the next generation.
Neil Gaiman The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction Headline Publishing Group, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 532 . Rs 599
Hachette India distributes it in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.