Jihyun Yun’s ‘Some Are Always Hungry’ Cooks Multiple Paradoxical Flavours of Identity, Existence, and Civilization Through Poetry

As the title of Jihyun Yun’s poetry volume, Some Are Always Hungry suggests, the poems feature food and hunger in all its forms: the decadent, the delicious, the heartwarming, the sparse and the ravaged. Food is at the center of existence in this collection. Its role in shaping one’s identity, memories and family ties are subtly depicted through the majority of her poems.

Jihyun Yun being a second generation Korean American, the other themes of Some Are Always Hungry revolve around ideas of immigration, feminism, Korean history and her family’s own stories. However, all these themes, like planets, revolve around the sun, food.

The descriptions of food in the poems are always indulgent, even when she speaks of the unimaginable hunger the poems’ persona faced during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Yun brings out both the visceral as well as the subtleties of making and enjoying any meal. She minces no words when it comes to vividly describing the preparation of the meat for the meals. Yet, she can easily and gently introduce the delicateness of enjoying all the ingredients of any dish. For Yun, food was the one crucial link to her past and to her present immigrant identity. This is brought out right at the beginning of the second poem, My Grandmother Thinks of Love While Steeping Tea.

“Drink it all,
dredge the bottom for sunk honey
pull the thumb of ginger in to your mouth
and suck. I mean for you to taste
your inheritance. The gunpowder,
our soil.”

Food is political and not new to the idea of ‘othering.’ This is seen in India as well where food of certain states is considered strange or barbaric. Worldwide as well, the distaste for food consumed by East Asian people, especially China in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, has increased. Although it is alright not to be used to a particular food or having only a set food as one’s comfort food, it is rather narrow-minded to mock cuisines of other countries or cultures merely because they are different from one’s own.

Perhaps as a result of such a constant othering of her own Korean cuisine, in the poem, Benediction as Disdained Cuisine, Yun reclaims all the food items the persona or the poet has forgone. What is powerful about the poem is how it reiterates the phrase, ‘give me’ before listing out the food item the poet has avoided for far too long. Two words repeated are all it takes in a way to make a culinary heritage worthy again. It shows an assertive persona, one who is unwilling to erase her identity.

Food is one sure way to remain true to one’s own culture and identity. This is even truer in Diaspora literature. For Jihyun and her family, food was a way to show affection to each other. This perhaps explains why food is central in her poems. Jihyun Yun explores all facets of food and how it can speak volumes about a person.

Jihyun Yun’s family history and memories are irreversibly linked with the home country, Korea. Her poems throw light on these three aspects through an interplay with food. The poems pull you in with all their tempting aromas, and then throw in the most painful remnants of her family’s history.

For example, the poem, Recipe, reads like a recipe. But Yun also narrates the disquieting experience of the Japanese occupation of Korea. Her grandmother prepares the dish and still confuses the Japanese and Korean words for the food items. Under the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans were not allowed to speak their language and were often forced to adopt Japanese names. The fact that the poet’s grandmother still confuses the words and “cannot discard Japanese” shows “a slim silhouette of occupation tethered to our language like a haunting.” Yun smoothly merges the act of cleaving the ingredients to the idea of a cleaved mother tongue or language.

Since preparation of the food is considered largely a womanly task, Yun also explores the notion of female labour and sacrifice. In the opening poem of Some Are Always Hungry, All Female, Yun describes the act of buying food from the market and her grandmother or halmeoni dismantling a crab for a meal. Through the metaphor of women being confined to cook even meat that is female, Yun hopes for freedom. It is a decidedly intrepid poem but one whose boldness and power sneak up on the reader slowly but surely.

Since this is the opening poem, the unexpected juxtaposition of the gendered food and gendered tasks immediately pulls you in and you know at once this book is going to be a remarkable read.

And oh what a treat it is to perceive and absorb all the paradoxical flavours of Yun’s poems in Some Are Always Hungry! From being no holds barred in their directness one moment to scaling back and bringing forth the most insidious of all metaphors in the very next, the poems in Some Are Always Hungry pack a powerful punch. They explore elements of hidden Korean history as well as the current realities of immigrants and assimilation. Yun also audaciously explores feminist topics such as in Menstruation Triptych, she speaks about three different perspectives to the monthly cycle. In Caught, Yun portrays the point of view of a rape victim questioning herself after the crime. It lays bare the constant victim shaming girls are subjected to. The Tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon is a retelling of the eponymous Korean folktale. It is a painful reminder of the many taboos that society still imposes on women.

All in all, Some Are Always Hungry includes a strikingly diverse collection of poems that captivate with both the personal and the historical.

*Disclaimer: A free PDF copy of the book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Home & Humanity in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

Published in 2017, Exit West contains themes of emigration and political refugees. This book was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in 2018 among the many other accolades that it has received.  

Saeed and Nadia are a young couple in a city bordering on conservativeness and modernity. They nurture a relationship on texting and largely avoid talking about their futures together. In their unnamed city, militants take over and residents are forced into curfew and locked down houses where death lurks at every corner.

Looking for a way out, the two tragedy-stricken individuals hear about (magical) doors that prove to be escape routes. With the foreseeable future being both uncertain and dangerous, Saeed and Nadia leave their city behind with a heavy heart that is felt to the reader as well in order to save their lives.

In this manner, they leave their homes, Saeed leaves his father and the city that will house his mother’s grave, Nadia leaves to dust her hard-earned freedom. Two people who never bargained for this destiny leave a territory that with its given unrest was once their safe abode.

We only realize the sweetness of safety when we are miles away from it. Safety shouldn’t be earned but should be everyone’s right. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, such is not the case. Through Exit West, Hamid with his eloquent words and the ability to weave unrelated stories together tells the reader that the human spirit may move through various territories in a given lifetime but the experience of being uprooted is destabilizing.

We don’t just read about Saeed and Nadia, we comes across many other parallel stories where we see stories of both forced and willed migration and a lifelong search for home. These stories lack closure and I was left wanting for more, which isn’t a bad thing. The book raises more questions about human survival in a state of refuge than it provides answers for. 

For Saeed and Nadia, there’s no such thing as finding a base or finding a cozy spot to create a home in. Their only motive is to move through various cities to survive better. Just as I felt that maybe the city they have now arrived in will serve them better, they find another door and don’t think twice before making the move.

Hamid’s decision to build up doors in various junctures of his story, these doors that appear overnight in people’s hallways and elsewhere make the story border on magical realism. These passages can be the cause of great discomfort or delight for the reader. I mean, who doesn’t like secret doorways that can transport you to new destinations within minutes?

Hamid’s decision to do away with a refugee’s actual journey from a volatile city to a relatively safe one by propping up these doors is rather questionable. I was left to wonder whether this decision was made solely to shorten the length of the story or to not let the plot slip away from exploring the experience of finding oneself in strange and often hostile geography.

Gender politics in the book is skillfully explored by Hamid who has reversed normative qualities in our main characters. Saeed is grounded by his morals, attached to his parents, devoted to their care and Nadia is more restrained in emotional expression and denies being shackled by domestic dullness. Despite his brilliant decision of characterizing Saeed and Nadia in this way, these two who hold the pillar of the story fell emotionally flat for me.

In certain points of the story, they become mere bodies moving through doors and I wouldn’t hold it as a hindrance as one understands that living for mere survival can do that to people. Saeed and Nadia go through an unimaginable set of difficulties throughout the book and the picture of their character development is blurry at best. They are not hard to empathise with yet much is left to read between the lines of the characters suffering.

A silence grows between Saeed and Nadia because of the broken world they find themselves in. We see them drifting apart even when we see them trying their best yet deciding that their happiness lies away from one another. It was heartbreaking to encounter this disconnect. I was then led to think that maybe for once, both Saeed and Nadia got to choose their paths and they didn’t even need a door for this.

Exit West is a short 130-page read that showcases Hamid’s skill as a storyteller and the universal experience of displacement. The politics of power that destroy homes creates situations where the common humanity of people is truly put to test. Driving one to ask that unsettling question – Is there even such a thing as common humanity when it comes to survival? Even though the book left me with a feeling equivalent to that of being parched, Hamid’s use of language requires as much appreciation as it can get.

This book is best suited for people who crave heavy reads and find it easy to navigate through the genre of literary fiction challenging the reader’s imagination.

Janice Pariat’s Seahorse Is a Literary Love Affair in Its Entirety

Seahorse by Janice Pariat is about the relationship and love that the alliterative protagonists, Nem and Nicholas shared. Rather the novel is about Nem’s memory of Nicholas and the void that Nicholas’ leaving created.

Nem’s aching for Nicholas is not one of bitterness or surfeit weeping but one of a thoughtful and sharp reverie.

Nem was a student of English Literature in Delhi University when he met Nicholas, who taught art history. He happened to drift into one of Nicholas’ classes and was immediately taken in by his suave mannerisms. What follows in the wake of this serendipitous meeting is a warm romance and a blossoming of a relationship; one in which not only love but also ideas about art, poetry and literature are mutually exchanged. That is, until Nicholas disappears, taking with him every trace of his existence.

The novel is suffused with an immeasurable ache and an indolent melancholy. This is brought out clearly through Nem, who carries his pain around. Yet, he still holds on to his love, a love that takes him all the way to London. He does not do it intentionally but only because subconsciously his search to fill this inexplicable absence becomes slowly a part of him, a part of whom he is.

Seahorse takes you, through Nim’s memories, to the physical spaces that the pair inhabited, shared and loved particularly the corridors of Delhi University and its surrounding areas. The leisurely walks and moments intermingled with the overpowering stench of decay in the neighbouring Hudson Lines described in the first part of the novel will evoke your own college days; especially for those who studied in Delhi University.

Reminiscent of the Greek myth of the love between Poseidon and Pelops, the narrative of Seahorse is abundantly dripping with the motif of water: the marine creature seahorse lends itself to endless interpretation and the existence of a curious aquarium heralds an infinite stock of memories and connections within Nem.

Seahorse brings out both the fragility and fluidity of love; of sexualities that stop, surrender, absorb and move on as well. The tenderness of Pariat’s writing is palpable: you feel and hear the protagonist so intensely as if nothing other than that exists. The literary references are etched out so beautifully that they linger on in your thoughts for long. They do not feel erudite or cumbersome. The novel is thus not only about the love affair of Nem and Nicholas but a literary love affair in its entirety.

You will fall in love with the writing, the atmosphere, and the pace of the story; slowly and surely.

It is as if the entire novel is one surreal and beautiful water colour, where lives, destinies, love, thoughts and literary metaphors fuse so seamlessly and smoothly into one another.

Themes of Love, Property, Identity and Class in Khadija Mastur’s Novel ‘A Promised Land’

A Promised Land by Khadija Mastur is translated from Urdu to English by Daisy Rockwell.

Srilal Shukla in his Hindi novel, Raag Darbari, satirically took on the might of the post-Independence Indian bureaucracy and its circular, never-ending red tape.  A Promised Land is not satirical but an incisive, feminist critique of Pakistan after Partition. The novel proffers a critical look at Pakistan post-Independence and how the hopeful visions for the country’s future and betterment crumbled. They were overshadowed by a corrupt bureaucracy.

It begins with the Partition’s aftermath, in the Walton Refugee Camp. This is where the novel, Aangan or The Women’s Courtyard ended with the protagonist Aliya working in the very same refugee camp. But this story is not about Aliya. It is about Sajidah. She lives in that camp with her father.

Like Aliya, Sajidah also believes in drawing her fate. In the earlier part of the novel, Sajidah remembers a folktale her mother used to narrate to her in which the youngest daughter of a king refuses to admit that the King decides her fate. She asserts that she is capable of making her fate. Sajidah identifies with this youngest daughter.

Although she wants to do just that, she is aware of the fate of single women in her society. Sajidah wants to break free from those constraints but she knows that for her survival, she needs to belong to a family; to a husband.

While at the refugee camp, Sajidah is tormented with the matter of abduction as an instrument of revenge. An old man in the camp wails out for his lost daughter whose fate was sealed the moment violence was unleashed upon the two nations. This is the only reference to inter-religious rape used by Khadija Mastur. The rest of the novel deals with intra-religious abduction and assault, which is not often touched upon in Partition novels.

When Sajidah is provided shelter by a family, it is done dishonestly, based on Nazim’s fancy. Nazim is a government worker with the Department of Rehabilitation. He met Sajidah and her father at the camp.

The novel portrays themes of love, property, identity and class in its story. Since a new country has been born, people erase their older identities and create an entirely false one to get grander compensations. People loot and break into abandoned homes and claim it their own. Despite the invigorating hopes that a new nation carries in its wake, the old ideas of class and privilege do not disappear. Sajidah’s adopted family treats Taji, their other ‘adopted’ refugee-like a slave, believing that she is not a refugee because she is poor. They believe that poor people will always move or migrate wherever they wish to and have no connection with the land.

Associating identity with the land is the predominant theme explored in the novel through the corollary of the formation of a new country. All the male characters in the story are driven by the idea of having land, of claiming a space of their own by hook or crook. They make false claims of having had abundant wealth on the other side of the border and thus need to be compensated on an equal footing. Fruit orchards are the most desirable for the cash the orchard’s cash crops can bring in. Mastur portrays how the men can assert their identity through the land; they can give up their previous selves easily. Yet, it is the women who struggle to shed the constraints and have no claims as such on land or rights even when a new utopian country is created.

Sajidah balances her desire to create her fate with her ideas about love and longing. She holds on to her dream of reuniting with her first love which enables her to go through the motions of everyday life. Sajidah trusts that the love between a man and the woman will carry an individual through any trials and tribulations. This is unlike Aliya, in The Women’s Courtyard, who wholly believed in education and a job as a means of freedom. Sajidah believes in all those things as well, but she also believes in love to sustain her.

Saleema, the daughter in Sajidah’s adopted family, is similar to Aliya in the way in which she completely rejects love and establishes her identity through her education and career. Her privilege and class also play a major role in allowing her to shun love, relationships or anything that ties her identity to a man.

By creating two divergent yet similar female characters in A Promised Land, Mastur comments on the various paths that women can take to forge ahead in a patriarchal society. Through this narrative strand, she also critiques the futility of the lofty ideals of nationality and ownership for women when they are denied a space in the society as individuals.  

Like Aliya, Sajidah also believes in drawing her fate. In the earlier part of the novel, Sajidah remembers a folktale her mother used to narrate to her in which the youngest daughter of a king refuses to admit that the King decides her fate. She asserts that she is capable of making her fate. Sajidah identifies with this youngest daughter.

Although she wants to do just that, she is aware of the fate of single women in her society. Sajidah wants to break free from those constraints but she knows that for her survival, she needs to belong to a family; to a husband.

While at the refugee camp, Sajidah is tormented with the matter of abduction as an instrument of revenge. An old man in the camp wails out for his lost daughter whose fate was sealed the moment violence was unleashed upon the two nations. This is the only reference to inter-religious rape used by Khadija Mastur. The rest of the novel deals with intra-religious abduction and assault, which is not often touched upon in Partition novels.

When Sajidah is provided shelter by a family, it is done dishonestly, based on Nazim’s fancy. Nazim is a government worker with the Department of Rehabilitation. He met Sajidah and her father at the camp.

The novel portrays themes of love, property, identity and class in its story. Since a new country has been born, people erase their older identities and create an entirely false one to get grander compensations. People loot and break into abandoned homes and claim it their own. Despite the invigorating hopes that a new nation carries in its wake, the old ideas of class and privilege do not disappear.  Sajidah’s adopted family treats Taji, their other ‘adopted’ refugee-like a slave, believing that she is not a refugee because she is poor. They believe that poor people will always move or migrate wherever they wish to and have no connection with the land.

Associating identity with the land is the predominant theme explored in the novel through the corollary of the formation of a new country.  All the male characters in the story are driven by the idea of having land, of claiming a space of their own by hook or crook. They make false claims of having had abundant wealth on the other side of the border and thus need to be compensated on an equal footing. Fruit orchards are the most desirable for the cash the orchard’s cash crops can bring in. Mastur portrays how the men can assert their identity through the land; they can give up their previous selves easily. Yet, it is the women who struggle to shed the constraints and have no claims as such on land or rights even when a new utopian country is created.

Sajidah balances her desire to create her fate with her ideas about love and longing. She holds on to her dream of reuniting with her first love which enables her to go through the motions of everyday life. Sajidah trusts that the love between a man and the woman will carry an individual through any trials and tribulations.  This is unlike Aliya, in The Women’s Courtyard, who wholly believed in education and a job as a means of freedom. Sajidah believes in all those things as well, but she also believes in love to sustain her.

Saleema, the daughter in Sajidah’s adopted family, is similar to Aliya in the way in which she completely rejects love and establishes her identity through her education and career. Her privilege and class also play a major role in allowing her to shun love, relationships or anything that ties her identity to a man.

By creating two divergent yet similar female characters in A Promised Land, Mastur comments on the various paths that women can take to forge ahead in a patriarchal society. Through this narrative strand, she also critiques the futility of the lofty ideals of nationality and ownership for women when they are denied a space in the society as individuals.

You can buy the book here.

‘Where the Wild Ladies Are’ by Matsudo Aoko Appropriates the Idea of ‘Wild’ on Its Own Feminist Terms| National Translation Month Special

September is National Translation Month! It is a great follow up to August which is celebrated as Women In Translation Month. So why not just continue August’s theme into September?

A great book to pick for this month is Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsudo Aoko. It is translated from Japanese to English by Polly Barton.

The book has a collection of 17 stories that reimagine famous Japanese ghost or yokai stories with a modern and feminist twist. Owing to that, all the stories possess a touch of the mystical and whimsical. Strange and surreal things are bound to happen. However, Matsudo recreates the ghosts, spirits and characters as modern-day Japanese individuals who are plagued by disillusion and sadness. However, unlike the female characters of the original stories, Matsudo’s versions do not wallow or weep endlessly. They display subtle courage that allows them to live by their own rules and challenge every form of sexism from the casual to the upfront.

For example, in the second story in this collection, Smartening Up, the protagonist repeats self-loving affirmations to herself like a mantra to heal after a bad breakup. She tries to up her ‘romantic potential’ by embracing movie and advert lifestyles. In doing so, she decides to dye her hair blond because as we know, all blondes in American movies meet their soul mates. Interestingly, her dead aunt visits as a ghost and gives her sane advice about letting the wildness of her hair remain intact. The story presents an unabashed glimpse into the perceptions around body hair and how women are shamed for it across the world. But thanks to her dead aunt’s ghost, the protagonist sheds her inhibitions and thankfully not her hair.

In Smartening Up, the ghost showcases will power and challenges romantic ideals women are expected to live by. In the other retellings, the ghosts from the original story are reincarnated in a modern avatar where they are freer and are not tied down by rigid patriarchal rules. One such beautiful story, The Missing One retells the tale of Okiku. She was a samurai’s servant, who was wrongly accused of losing one of the 10 precious plates in the samurai’s household. No matter how many times Okiku counted, she never found the 10th plate. The samurai decided to forgive her only if she became his mistress. Okiku refused and was consequently put to death. It is believed that Okiku’s ghost is never able to count to 10. A similar incident happens to Kikue, the protagonist in The Missing One. However, Kikue is not in a subservient position but a single woman and an owner of a shop: an unusual combination according to Japan’s standards. It is a heartwarming tale of Kikue navigating the mystery of the missing plate through her intelligence, despite the usual casual misogyny thrown at her for being a single woman running a shop.

No Japanese ghost stories or its retellings are complete without featuring the most famous of yokai: kitsune, or the fox spirit. In the story, A Fox’s Life, Kuzuha leads a free and emboldened life as a fox spirit which compared to her human life is far more empowering. As a human, she goes through the motions and does not even realise how she internalises all the prejudice about women and their capabilities.

That is one forte of Matsudo. She slips in the everyday discrimination in her prose be it Kikue’s internalized assumption that she will face flak for voicing her opinion or Kuzuha earning less than her male counterparts. Matsudo puts in these ideas so ironically and casually that they are best suited to reflect society’s equally casual attitude and acceptance of these discriminations. Through the premise of retelling folklore, Matsudo also portrays and questions the complicated layers of societal norms laid out for its inhabitants. 

The stories are connected by a thread that weaves its way through other mysterious characters and ghostly reincarnations as well as a dreamlike incense factory! The stories also depict the pressures and assumptions that men face in the modern Japanese capitalistic society particularly through the characters of the ghost aunt’s son and the incense factory owner. 

All the stories dabble in various narrative techniques and different points of view. This further shakes us out of our complacence, making us sit up and notice how abnormal the things we consider normal actually sound. It is interesting to note that it is ghosts and supernatural creatures, the ones considered abnormal, that lay bare this reality to the reader. 

All the stories contain a preface that informs the reader about which classic ghost story the author has retold. It helps give context, especially to those who are unfamiliar with Japanese myths and ghosts. A list of the inspiration behind each story is also given at the end of the book. 

Thus, Where the Wild Ladies Are appropriates the idea of wild’ on its own feminist terms and not on narrow-minded ideas that limit women’s existence and individuality. For those looking for a simple as well as engaging read to step into the world of Japanese literature, this is a brilliant collection of stories to start with! Murakami is great, but let’s go beyond one author as well! It is always fun to explore more writers. Where the Wild Ladies Are presents the perfect start to that exploration of Japanese writing. With that, the reader can also delve into the world of Japanese beliefs and perhaps get inspired to read the original stories too.

You can buy the book here.

Reading Divya Prakash Dubey and His Stories That Live Next-Door

Having studied in an English medium school and brought up in a household with Hindi as the native language, I have always been confused when to use one particular language, like I am right now, as I am writing this. Though I would be talking about a very well-known Hindi author who rekindled the Hindi fiction reading among the youth (yours truly falls in the same bracket), I am more comfortable in expressing my thoughts in English when it comes to a formal delivery like writing an article or a speech or even a facebook post. Why so?

Cut to eight years back, I was attending a Hindi lecture in my initial days of college. It was my first class in language for that semester. The teacher entered and said, “All this while you must be talking to each other in English- the introductions, the orientations, and even a friendly chit chat. What if your school friend who you have been knowing for so many years was a part of your batch in college? What language would you use?” The class unanimously answered their own native language which in my case was Hindi.

Talking in your mother tongue generates a sense of bonding while every other language remains a formal language – a language for work and career. Still when I ask a lot of my friends that while you would watch movies in Hindi and go crazy on the songs and slangs used, why don’t you read Hindi fiction then? Most of them answer, “Hindi upar se jaati hai!” (It’s a bit difficult to read Hindi!) The major reason behind their hesitation to pick up a Hindi novel is the stark difference between the Hindi they use to communicate in everyday life and the one used in literature.

Breaking this tradition, Divya Prakash Dubey ventured into the world of storytelling in the language of youth, a colloquial language that anybody could relate to; which he fondly calls ‘Nayi wali Hindi’.

His first two books namely Terms and conditions Apply and Masala Chai, a collection of short stories became instant hit and were bestsellers and still continue to be read widely. As he himself asserts in the introduction of the book Masala Chai, these stories are like talks on the tea table, easy to say and lovely to hear. The stories are from our own world, our next door. These tales range from college life to job scenarios, from small town to the hustle of metro cities, vividly bringing out the emotions of the characters.

Next was the most loved Musafir Cafe, his first novel catching up on modern day love and its conundrum. The main characters Sudha and Chandar find each other in the fast paced life of Mumbai and fall in love but there is more to add for a perfect life – their own wish list which will come at the cost of their love. Some of the lines will stay with you to keep reminding you to seek answers to the dilemma of your own life. DP has brought a fresh wave of Hindi fiction with contemporary stories having profound and palatable prose.

His second novel, October Junction is again about a young ambitious couple, a millionaire boy and a successful writer who in a race of fame and money find it difficult to converge their path of love but meet on 10th of October every year for 10 years in a hope to live a life they had planned when they were young.

DP is not just an author but also an on-stage storyteller with a knack for catching the audience’s attention with his presentation of plot. Recently, Audible has posted his story series Piya Milan Chowk where one can listen to the narration of the stories by the author himself.

“Hindi is cool, yaar!” is his style statement and he has delivered TEDx Talks in Hindi, paving way for many who wanted to talk in Hindi. He has been an eminent face at literature festivals reaching out to readers in person and inspiring many to read and write in Hindi. He has been generously sharing his journey about writing and publishing on his blog http://divyaprakash.in/ giving out useful insights into the writing world. Sunday Wali Chitthi is one of my favorite sections where he talks about life and living in general.

Ibnebatuti, fifth in the row is his latest book. It’s a story about a single mother hopping in her past to reinvent her future. A difficult to digest truth is presented with a fast moving flavored plot. It is a necessary story to be told where his readership is not just the city dwelling people but the youngsters residing in the hinterland trying to bring about a change around the perceived notion about a middle-aged single lady. This book starts a conversation around a much hushed topic through a lighter take. With a badge of ‘Lakhprati Lekhak‘ (sold over a lakh copies), DP has certainly been successful in bringing up a change in the readership for Hindi fiction.

Pankaj Dubey’s Debut Novel ‘What a Loser!’ is the Story of Every Stereotyped Human Soul Around Us

The world around us is so full of stereotypes. Some claim to be good whereas most of them turn out to be disastrous. There is also an army of well-intentioned people who work to break these stereotypes. Yet it seems almost impossible to wipe out these stereotypes. The world likes to thrive in these patterns irrespective of whether you like it or not. So, what happens when one chooses to tell the stories of these stereotyped human souls around us? It turns out to be a laugh riot and that is what Pankaj Dubey’s debut novel What a Loser! is. The book is published by Penguin Random House India.

 

Being faithful to his roots, Pankaj picked a protagonist close to home. The interesting aspect of his protagonist is that he is strangely familiar and popular among the rest of the countrymen. But only Pankaj could bring out the finer aspects of this innocent yet dreamy PAKS. PAKS arrives in Mukherjee Nagar carrying some seemingly lofty goals and loads of Sattu and achaar from Begusarai. From the significance of the colour red, be it in the gamchha, the name embroidered in the pillow covers to the terracotta-coloured shirt pieces and the information on the ‘penties’, our author’s attention to details is just spot on. Even if you are not from Begusarai or the cow-belt, you still might relate to PAKS especially if you were raised in a village or small town and migrated to the cities to pursue some sort of a career. Feel free to blame the author if you become all nostalgic and secretly wish for PAKS to succeed in his journey. But he is not even my favourite character.

 

While the author was cheering for his protagonist, I was rooting for the self-proclaimed Badshah of 440, Mukherjee Nagar, New Delhi. Haven’t we all had such wonderful characters in our lives, who are so full of their insecurities, vulnerabilities, false pride and fear of failures? Putting up a brave, proud face even during unfortunate times while making life miserable for others the rest of the time, Subodh Singh only makes this comedy ride of the story more entertaining. His character touches the epitome when PAKS’s Babuji arrives in 440.

 

None of the characters seems fictional even if the author claims so. From the north-easterners Ronnie and Amilie to the Jats who form the opposite gang, each one looks handpicked from one or other’s real life. So are the events in the plot. The secrets of evening colleges, the university politics, the obsession with ‘cool’ English and British Council, the fascination for ‘milky white’ skin and the Punjaban girls are all inimitable truths of a small-town guy in Delhi. The book knits together these urban legends and takes you through a hilarious ‘Dilli Darshan’.

 

I find it hard to ignore that the author doesn’t have much kindness left for his female characters. They are either cold and vicious or come across as eye-candies. I wonder what grudge does the author have against the beautiful girls of Delhi.

 

Even as the book gives a comic touch to the many miseries of these super commoners, the author also manages to poke your eye occasionally while you are busy laughing. Some of us might not even notice the poke, for instance when Subodh Singh asserts his ‘caste superiority’, or when a shootout happens in a University classroom. You realize these are matters of greater concern, in retrospection. But to brood is against the spirit of the book. So pick this book, when you want to leave out your cares for a while and have a peal of hearty laughter.

You can buy the book here.

Tracing India’s Environmental Footprints with EIA 2020

EIA 2020 will have to re-assess its impact on India’s ecological balance even as the country’s aspires for its dream of a 5 trillion dollar economy.

A drop in seismic noise—the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust” due to Covid 19 restrictions is just another discernible marker of the environmental impact of global industrialisation amidst a population exceeding 7 billion people. Even as carbon credits (Fig. 1) are traded worldwide, attempts were afoot to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius as ratified by 189 countries in the 2016 Paris Agreement. In India, the draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification (EIA) 2020 has recently concluded its public discourse after agitated and contentious feedback from a majority of 17 lakh respondents against the dilution of the EIA process, particularly the exclusion of public consultation for many projects which could adversely impact the environment.

United Nations Carbon Offsets
United Nations Carbon Offsets | Source: United Nations Environment Programme

The inaugural EIA Notification in 1994 required public consultation for ‘all projects requiring environmental clearance from the Central Government’ as listed under 30 categories of its Schedule I. However, the due diligence involved in assessing environmental impact was skewed for “site specific projects such as mining, hydro-power, major irrigation projects, ports and harbours, prospecting and exploration of major minerals in areas above 500 hectares.” According to EIA (1994), the “decision regarding suitability or otherwise of the proposed site” had to be conveyed “within a maximum period of thirty days by the Central Government in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.” This was probably to quash the misgivings of people like Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan which caused the withdrawal of World Bank funding for the Sardar Sarovar Dam in 1993

As governments in independent India have forged ahead to improve the country’s economy after centuries of British plunder, a commitment to environmental impact assessment has largely been influenced by external factors such as the enactment of Environmental Protection Act (1986) after the Bhopal Gas tragedy; or even Indira Gandhi’s establishment of the National Committee for Environmental Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) in April 1972 in preparation of the first environmental conference held in Stockholm in June 1972. But the skewed balance of economic growth and environmental conservation/protection is just as evident in the EIA Notification (2020). 

With the Modi government’s push to support economic growth at the grassroots level, the focus has been India’s micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), growing from 6.33 crore MSMEs reported in the “MSME Ministry’s FY19 annual report.” According to the recent notification by the Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises, MSMEs are categorized by investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment and turnover; ranging from INR 1 crore and INR 5 crore for a micro enterprise, to INR 10 crores and INR 50 crores for a small enterprise, extending to “investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment not exceeding INR 50 crores and turnover less than/equal to INR 250 crores.” Even as the debate about public consultation continues, what is particularly disconcerting is that the government in its attempt to bolster Indian MSMEs has exempted many projects from prior-Environmental Clearance (pEC) or prior-Environmental Permission (pEP) such as  – 

Manufacturing of Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulphonic Acid (LABSA) from LAB; Chemical processing of ores/ concentrate; Manufacturing of Acids; Petroleum products and petrochemical based processing; and Manufacturing of paints, varnishes, pigments, intermediates (excluding blending / mixing).

Waste Management & Soil Contamination Image
Waste Management & Soil Contamination | Source: Memuco

The decentralization effected by EIA 2006 included a segregation of projects not requiring an “Environment Impact Assessment report” (Category ‘B2’). In EIA 2006, projects categorised as B2 did not require public consultation, similar to EIA 2020. However, the lack of accountability afforded to MSMEs in EIA 2020 is astounding considering the environmental impact of exempted projects. The unfettered manufacturing of products like LABSA, acids, paints, and petroleum/ petrochemical derivatives is especially alarming considering many of these processes are listed as generating hazardous waste in Schedule I of the Hazardous Waste Rules 2016. This undetected contamination by environmental pollutants is exacerbated by the fact that violation reporting is no longer the purview of Indian citizenry. 

According to Traverso-Soto, González-Mazo, and Lara-Martín, “the major fraction of synthetic surfactants are disposed down the drain to sewers… and sludges are also a potential source of contamination for soils, groundwater and adjacent rivers as they tend to contain high concentrations of organic contaminants and are often used in agriculture after anaerobic digestion.” Combined with an increase in EIA validity periods and reduced frequency of compliance reporting, the ambiguous jurisprudence of EIA 2020 is debatably unequitable in its attempt at environmental conservation and preservation. Although the shift to renewable energy is evident in the exemption from pEC or pEP for projects like “Solar Photo Voltaic (PV) Power projects, Solar Thermal Power Plants and development of Solar Parks,” the EIA 2020 will have to re-assess its impact on India’s ecological balance even as the country’s aspires for its dream of a 5 trillion dollar economy.

Cover Image: Supriti Malhotra

 

Ismat Chughtai Birth Anniversary: Remembering Her Through Her Stories

Ismat Chughtai’s stories and characters cut through time and remain relevant even in the 21st century. She wrote in Urdu and was part of the Progressive Writer’s Movement. The movement focused on how art can contribute to the betterment of society by commenting on its evils and hypocrisy.

Ismat Chughtai is well known for etching out female characters that did not fit any mould society cast for them. The characters are rebellious by their very nature or paradoxically through subverting the restrictions imposed on them. They dare to question. They dare to be themselves. Through such bold characters, Chughtai also sheds light on the barriers of gender, class, and caste prevalent in society during her lifetime, which unfortunately clog minds in India till today.  

One of Chughtai’s most well known stories is Lihaaf or The Quilt as translated in English. She had to go to Lahore to face obscenity charges for this short story. Lihaaf is a curious mix of understatement and being out there. It does not explicitly mention sexual acts except obliquely. Yet what was unsettling for readers then and perhaps even now is the portrayal of same-sex love. It showed women not only in control of their sexuality but also boldly expressing it. Chughtai’s manner of unsettling the reader gives her stories an unparalleled power that still holds sway.  Her stories prick at the norms and restrictions accepted as a status quo. It lays bare the faults in many of our beliefs, thus shocking the reader.

For example, in her short story, Mole or Til, she depicts a village woman, Rani, who poses as a model for the painter, Ganeshchand Choudhry. Rani is fully aware of her beauty and knows how to sway the people to do her bidding. Choudhry expects her to be grateful for letting her stay at his home. But Rani is not one to submit to feelings of pitiful charity. She is vocal about her desires and never lets Choudhry dictate her whether it is in posing as a model or otherwise.

Similarly and perhaps even bolder is her story, The Homemaker or Gharwali. The story portrays Mirza, a shop owner who lets Lajo be a maid in his house. Lajo is another carefree personality that Chughtai has created. She does not want to be shackled by marriage to one man. She is perfectly happy to love Mirza and take care of his house. But she would prefer giving her love to a lot of people rather than being tied to one man. The Homemaker shows how passion and love are supposed to be regulated and kept under control for the sake of decency. To escape this garb of decency, men court courtesans while women are expected to be pure. Lajo cannot succumb to these restrictions of being ‘good woman or wife.’ Chughtai thus portrays a society’s hypocrisy about marriage and its gendered double standards over a person’s desires.

The short story, All Alone, briefly traces Shahzad’s growth from college to adulthood. She finished her BA and ‘was inundated with marriage proposals.’ She loved someone else, Dilshad Mirza, and not the proposals that came pouring in. Instead, she enrolled in a course for painting and becomes absolutely immersed in it. So much so that she does not realise the passage of time. Many things happened in between, notably India’s Independence and Partition. The story shows Shahzad choosing her own path and rejecting marriage. In today’s modern times as well, women are pressured into believing that marriage is the ultimate goal in their life. In Chughtai’s story, Shahzad showed how opting for a profession does not mean she was incomplete or discontented with her life; or that she longed for a soul mate. She chose to embrace her art and puts to rest any rumours about her being a lonely sad woman. She refuses to be an object of self-pity because the society believes that a woman cannot be happy alone.  This story was way ahead of its time and is a brilliant portrayal of women as artists and their connection with their creation.

Chughtai’s short stories expressed different facets of female thought and desire in a witty yet detailed manner. The stories feel relatable hundred years later as they continue to call out hollow societal ideas and practices prevalent today.

Creator's-Image-ShwethaHS

Creator’s Image by Shwetha H S Looks for the Interesting in the Mundanities of Life

The difference between a full-blown novel and a short story is perhaps similar to that of a long term relationship and a one-night stand. A reader reads a short story without the expectation of a long term commitment but this very aspect of a short story compounds the pressure on the writer. The margin for error is nil. The author cannot make mistakes in the first page to compensate for them in the subsequent pages. What comes about in those few thousand words lasts as the first and the final impression of the encounter on the reader’s mind.

Shwetha H S begins her short stories collection with the title-story Creator’s Image which is a deeply reflective metaphorical tale about the human civilization. With multi-layers of deliberation presented with intelligent twists and turns, this story holds the book together. There are ten other stories which tell us the tales of extraordinary moments of our ordinary lives. In fact, the selection of subjects and plot betray Shwetha’s love for the fleeting moments of life, her attempts to hold them for a little longer in her gaze and pluck a story out from those moments.

Most of the stories are relatable and you will find parts of yourself in one or the other tale. The stage is most often a snapshot of the routine life. Through the course of the story, her pen closes in on one character who can be considered the protagonist. She deals with the character in greater details and the suspense hangs around this character’s action or inaction. While this method works for a few of the stories, it also makes a few of them predictable. As a result, they end up short of making a lasting impact. The stories that hit the mark linger with you for sometime and keep you invested in the plot even after they have ended.

The book also deals with moments of dilemma humans face while making decisions in life, no matter how significant or insignificant. This pits the reader’s choices against those of the characters time and again and makes for a very fluid vantage point which does not distance itself too much away from the characters and the stories. You will find yourself in situations where your vantage point gets flooded away with helplessness and there remains hardly any difference between you as a reader and the characters sketched in the stories.

The language is lucid and mature. The author has constructed her stories with not a word extra or unnecessary. There is no needless rhetoric or the microscopic background details. She balances the ‘told’ and the ‘untold’ deftly in all her stories and the reader is neither dumbed down nor is left to stray too far in the dark at any point.

My favourite stories in the book are Tears of the Goddess, To Each His Own, and Creator’s Image. The book is available on Amazon Kindle and if you are looking for a quick-read without having to commit to the rigours of reading a big fat novel in the already ominous season of lockdowns and unlocks, Creator’s Image is the one night stand you are looking for.

You can buy the book here.

Old-Possums-Book-of-Practical-Cats

Reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ On International Cat Day

A reputation of being indifferent, queenly, and uncaring has been built around cats. Most view cats through this stereotype. However, far from being indifferent, I think of cats as being creatures that value their space and show affection in their own unique ways. Each is endowed with a personality and style.

T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats celebrates this uniqueness. T.S. Eliot is known for epitomizing the 20th century post World War I disillusion with systems and civilizations. However, in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, he penned light, humorous verses that create some of the most memorable cat characters in English literature. It was these verses that inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cats. While the musical attempts to create a plot out of the poems, the original poems in the collection are largely stand alone poems that weave whimsical stories about different cats. The poems in a way anoint cats with a glory that the species deserve!

This is seen right at the beginning in the first poem, The Naming of Cats. Naming a cat is a solemn occasion. One must choose the name wisely. No silly riff raff of a name should be given. Instead,

“...a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified.”

Right here, we come across the idea that cats are unique and their names should carry substance. True to this idea, all the cats in the rest of the poems have unique and quite British sounding names. They have strange and peculiar qualities including the stereotypical ones such as being curious or having many lives.

The Old Gumbie Cat is about a house cat Jennyanydots, who takes her work seriously and maintains peace in the house by training all the mice! Deuteronomy in Old Deuteronomy is a well respected and loved neighbourhood cat. He has lived a long life and is accorded the requisite respect by the humans by allowing him to sleep undisturbed anywhere he pleases.

Some of the cat characters even have professions which have made them famous. Gus in Gus: The Theatre Cat has enacted every role there is to play and is particularly proud of playing the part of Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell. Macavity: The Mystery Cat portrays Macavity who is called the “Napoleon of Crime!” He is a master criminal who is always ready with alibis and is never to be found on the scene of the crime, much to the bafflement of the Scotland Yard!

Can you imagine cats as pirates? Growltiger was a terrifying one throughout the Thames until he met his match and “was forced to walk the plank” in Growltiger’s Last Stand.

And what if trains ran under the scrutiny of meticulous cats? Would they run better? Absolutely! Midnight Mail needs the services of these nocturnal creatures in Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat. Skimble’s “glass-green eyes” are enough to give a green signal for the train to depart. Skimbleshanks offers many benefits aboard the train from keeping it mice-free to being awake for keeping watch and supervising humans who could sleep on the job! He is the true “Cat of the Railway Train.”

The last poem in the collection, The Ad-dressing of Cats, addresses the human and cat relationship. T.S. Eliot humorously lists down rules of addressing a cat. The first and foremost rule is that of respecting the cat and allowing it to trust you through first. Only then will the cat deign to consider you your friend so that you may name and keep it. It is precisely this behavior that drives the notion of cats having airs. But, I guess, cats are just like humans. We wouldn’t want to be unnecessarily and without consent be cuddled, right? Unsolicited affection is uncomfortable. So, what is the harm in asking for consent? Think!

You can buy the book here. We have also made a collection of books from Japan about cats. Read more about them here.

The Circle of Karma Is a Moving Depiction of Individuality and Self Reflection From Bhutan

Kunzang Choden’s The Circle of Karma was the first English novel to be published in Bhutan by a woman.

Set in approximately, 1950s and 1960s Bhutan, the novel is written in a chronological order and narrated from a third person point of view. The protagonist in The Circle of Karma is Tsomo. The novel portrays the various events and experiences that Tsomo goes through in her life right from being a child in Tang Valley in Bumthang District in Bhutan to her old age in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. The central theme of Tsomo’s journey and her self-development shows the importance of individuality and self-reflection as a way to always improve oneself.

The novel moves from giving a general glimpse of Bhutan’s cultural and social aspects from a child’s (Tsomo’s) perspective at the beginning to the more specific events of Tsomo’s life and journey.

Through her family, Tsomo learns several gender roles (doing household chores, gardening, and weaving, to name a few) and gender myths namely that of female suffering and endurance. From her father, she learns the cruel truth that girls, because of their gender, are not supposed to get educated and learn to read and write.

Tsomo suffers a terrible loss during her childhood and consequently, she runs away from her home to free herself from the restrictions of belonging and relationships. Her bold decision is a major turning point of the novel. It puts her on a bumpy path of severe trials and tribulations. However, those very trials also give her the independence to grow and stand on her own two feet. To sustain herself during her days of struggle, Tsomo becomes a road construction worker. The reconstruction of the Thimphu Dzong and the construction of the roads provide a sense of the setting, which is around the time when Bhutan had chosen to modernize and open up to the world, slowly but surely.

Tsomo meets many women sharing the same dreams and struggles. She finds a new sister in another fellow worker, Dechen Choki. She also embarks on many pilgrimages which broaden her way of thinking by giving her exposure to several other cultures and peoples. At the same time, these travels also force her to face a pressing conflict that has consumed her since she ran away: whether to have a ‘normal’ life (with a husband and children) and be a good wife and a good woman as her parents had taught her or to pursue a life of religion.

The next set of events takes her away from her religious desires at the end of which she learns how the patriarchal society has taught women to always have hatred and suspicion towards each other and not to hold the men accountable. She realizes that she must relearn everything that society has taught her about gender roles. This is the other major turning point that portrays an epiphany and self-realization on Tsomo’s part.

By tracing Tsomo’s growth from childhood to adulthood and finally old age, The Circle of Karma, can be called a female bildungsroman as it depicts both Tsomo’s physical and psychological journey. The story highlights girls’ experiences of the world and how from an early age itself, both boys and girls internalize gender roles and expectations. In making Tsomo, someone who has chosen to not be defined by relationships that burden a women’s identity, the author has deftly questioned those gender roles. She has depicted the conflict that Tsomo faces in wanting to fit in to society’s expectations from a woman, yet at the same time trying to carve her own identity.

The novel showcases female friendships and solidarity and how women can support each other in times of need and deed which is the exact opposite of the internalization of the predominant idea about women being enemies to each other.  

The other important themes are religion and the idea of karma. The latter permeates the story and is reflected in the title of the novel. The idea of karma is present in everyone’s thoughts. This religious concept is used to rationalize one’s fortunes or misfortunes, but karma as a journey is what stands out as Tsomo’s life comes to full circle at the end of the novel.

The Circle of Karma employs several nuanced interpretations of travel as a motif – be it in Tsomo’s actual physical journey, or her spiritual and mental growth, or in the abstract concept of karma itself which travels and walks together with you in the present and in the afterlife.

You can buy the book here.