In Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal’s Circus Folk and Village Freaks, Imperfection is the New Perfection

The idea of perfection or of being perfect engulfs us all in its suffocating grip. Our bodies, our work, our dress, our hair, and our everything must be somehow perfect in this deeply flawed society. Such are the contradictory expectations that society foists on us all, egged on particularly by the mass media and mass popular culture. Protagonists in movies, pop culture idols, and even politicians are projected as embodying the perfect. The ideal to achieve, then, is only perfection in all spheres of life.

Ancient Greek playwrights were perhaps one of the first to talk about characters with a deep flaw through the concept of hamartia which means ‘to err.’ Shakespeare’s tragic plays feature protagonists that are wholly defined by flaws such as Hamlet and his indecisiveness, Othello with his jealousy, or Macbeth and his greed. Even popular culture has slowly embraced imperfection, often treating its characters through a more nuanced lens rather than just the dichotomous notion of perfect versus imperfect.

Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal in her prose poetry novel, Circus Folk and Village Freaks, wholly rejects these superficial notions of the perfect ideal and instead portrays 18 different tales of characters who are misunderstood and rejected by society as being out of the ordinary, who we would also label ignorantly as ‘freaks.’

When society rejects these freaks in the novel, they all find solace and space in a village circus, whose circus master is more than happy to accommodate and make a spectacle out of them.

From Siva, the Snake Man who finds an affinity to reptiles rather than humans, to Miss Rita with her chin full of hair because of hirsutism, from the Siamese twins, Sita and Gita to Miss Luxmi whose passion was throwing darts; all kinds of people could make it big and feel accepted among the peculiar circus folk.

These are the two threads that bind the story together. All of the characters are portrayed as being different from the so called normal. All face some kind of rejection from family and then society until they stumble upon the all embracing arms of the circus shows where their talents are showcased and appreciated.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his short story, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, depicted a man with wings who mysteriously dropped from the sky into the house of a couple. The couple uses this man to make more money by displaying him for the townsfolk to gleefully stare and poke at. Much like how we would behave unethically in a zoo. While Marquez clearly makes a comment on the spectators’ rude behavior, that is not the case in Sanyal’s tales. The spectator is missing. Only the spectacle is there. So we as readers are left to speculate on the former.

Do the characters become a mere curiosity when they perform in front of the spectators? Undoubtedly, the circus crowds cheer them, are thrilled by their acts but do they understand what the characters go through? Or is it merely something novel and delightful to their eyes for one night, only to be forgotten the next morning? How much agency does the circus actually give to these so called freaks?

Apart from these questions, Sanyal’s 18 tales also mirror the ills of our own society whether it is the complete hatred toward same sex love in our society as depicted in ‘The Sad Tale of Vishu, The Village Exterminatory,’ or the deep rooted patriarchal scorn for the girl child as shown in ‘The Tale of the Organ Sisters.’

Yet, ironically, it is this very flawed society that fails to accept people who are different and will leave no stone unturned to see that such ‘specials’ are objectified for entertainment. This contrast comes through in Sanyal’s verses as well which are written in a unique style of the rhyming couplet.

“In a country where a trunk is revered with a smile,
Lived a man with a trunk, universally reviled.”

Thus begins the tale of Jeeva, The Elephant Man who is born with an elephant’s head. Using the idea of how the majority worships the elephant, Sanyal juxtaposes the irony in Jeeva’s life. Despite the odds though, Jeeva manages to triumph and love himself in the face of society’s revulsion. His character shows the meaning of self-love.

All in all, Circus Folk and Village Freaks is an engaging, quick, and thoughtful read. It will make any reader retrospect on ideas of how we view difference and otherness in people through prejudiced eyes. All the tales also have a folksy quality to them which is heightened by the skillful use of rhymes. Reading each of the 18 tales feels like sitting for a story telling session, where a lively tale of human dreams and depravity is being animatedly narrated and sung.

You can buy the book here.

Ruskin Bond Photo

On Ruskin Bond’s Birthday, Revisiting His Writings and Their Impact

Ruskin Bond’s writing has always been a constant in my life since reading his stories in my English school textbooks. While the world only recently is going gaga over cherry blossoms, I still vividly remember reading in school about the quiet innocence and perseverance of Rakesh from the short story, The Cherry Tree, and how he planted the seed and despite all odds, was rewarded with the pink blossoms.

The depiction of the utmost simplicity in the characters’ actions and the vastness and joy that nature provides them has made Ruskin Bond’s writing endearing and lovable.

Most of his novels are set in the hills. The stories profess the writer’s close bond with the mountains and its people. His stories will always have characters that also, like the author, share a close bond with the nature that surrounds them. The closer they are to nature, the fuller and better their lives are. These characters will cherish the tiniest of miracles that nature offers to them like Rakesh’s delight at seeing the cherry tree blossom. These innocent delights, bereft of any greed, make Bond’s characters memorable. They enable the reader to take a break from the rat race and appreciate the simple pleasures of nature.

Ruskin Bond was born on this day in Kasauli in 1934 and after living in different cities in India and outside, he decided to make Mussoorie his home. He continues to live there in the Ivy cottage and regularly haunts the bookshops of the famous hill station.

Bond blithely intertwines his own experiences in his stories too so that on reading them, one  might feel one knows the author better and along the way, can also take a trip down memory lane of how things used to be before in the towns and hills. Several of his stories therefore are coloured with an autobiographical tint, revealing the tidbits of the author’s many journeys in life.

The other literal journey that Bond often depicts in his stories is the railway journey. Trains are an indispensable mode of transport even today, despite the boom in the airline industry. Back then, when Bond was younger, trains were perhaps the only affordable means of travelling across the country. Railway journeys with all its delights and discomforts are another portrayal of India in his stories. These portrayals will make one feel nostalgic about one’s own past journeys on the train.  The Night Train At Deoli and Time Stops at Shamli are two such short stories that feature a rail journey and the autobiographical element. Both are stories that I fondly remember. Who can forget the little girl selling baskets at the station at Deoli that mesmerized the author protagonist in the former story? The latter story is about the adventures that lay for the author when he got off at Shamli station on an impulse, instead of going to his destination, Dehradun.

Delhi Is Not Far is one of Bond’s rare novels that are not set in the mountains. Instead, it takes place in the fictional small town, Pipalnagar, in the plains. All the characters have small jobs and dream of moving to the big city, Delhi. It is only the narrator, Arun, an aspiring Urdu writer of detective novels, who takes the leap and boards a train for Delhi. What makes the novel special is the portrayal of the idea of Delhi or the big city as well as the lucidity of each character’s aspirations and the empathy the writing evokes in the reader for them. At a time when migrants have become homeless in their own country, this novel remains relevant for its moving portrait of the common man.

The Kitemaker is another short story set in a city, possibly Delhi again but that is not mentioned outright. What the story projects clearly instead is the inevitability of change and how the relentless march of time has transformed the city and the profession of the kite maker, Mehmood. He reminisces fondly the days when he was well-known for his majestic kites throughout the city, when children and men alike had time enough to fly them and how his masterpiece, Dragon Kite, had created a stir and attracted crowds. The story not only describes briefly the kite maker’s life but also allows the reader to pause and understand the ephemeral nature of time and the disappearance of the joys in the simple things, ‘like kites and daydreams.’

Thus, in an increasingly busy world, where we are caught up with our own races and demons, we must reread and revisit Ruskin Bond’s writing. His writing is an indulgence that allows us to stop, reminisce, and remember the simpler and older ways of life that gave everyone moments to rest, reflect, and appreciate the little things and people around us.

Cover Image by Jim Ankan Deka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Literature World is Already Adapting to the New Normal

Nothing else seems on everyone’s minds other than the coronavirus pandemic. It has brought entire countries to a standstill. It has brought individual lives to a stop. It has completely changed the way we live, for now. As a result, things have suddenly become more online than physical, from education to office work. The pertinent need for social distancing has brought about this social change.

The world in the pre-corona era saw a resurgence of independent bookstores, but now once again literature has to carve a space in the online sphere and so far, it has embraced this online transformation quite well. Following the lock down rules in India, bookstores and publication houses have been shut down. With that, literary readings, book launches, author sign ups, engaging discussions, and talks have also ceased for the time being.

So where do we go from here?

If one has stable internet and a computer system or a smartphone, for now, a home will suffice. This is because several publication houses, authors, collectives and organisations have turned to the digital medium so that there is not a complete cut off for literature lovers. We can get our dose of literary fun in these trying times too.

 

 

Reading with Kids

Schools and colleges were the first to be shut in March when the coronavirus reared its ugly head in the country. This led to this unexpected scenario where the kids are suddenly home and it is not even summer vacation. The parents were unprepared and so were the schools for this vacuum. The parents had the double task now of working from home themselves as well as keeping the kids engaged.

Some of the initial online literary ventures, thus, focused on kids and getting them to use this spare time to read more since they were forced to be indoors.

An online Facebook Group, Reading Racoons, started #ThodaReadingCorona where till 31st of March everyday at 11am, a video was posted of different children books’ authors reading excerpts from their respective books.

Penguin too launched its series #OnceUponATimeWithPenguin, which lasted till the 1st part of the lockdown.

 

 

Diverse Literary Initiatives

Slowly, as the lockdown got enforced throughout the country, similar events were organised by more publishing houses and literary collectives too. Juggernaut Books in association with the scroll.in perhaps started the first online literary fest, ReadInstead, where celebrities and authors from diverse backgrounds either read book excerpts or discussed them. They post their weekly schedule every Thursday and the videos go live at 1pm. Check out their latest schedule for this week here.

Roli Books has also transformed into Roli Pulse where they conduct panel discussions rather than only having author readings. Zubaan Books joined the bandwagon this week when it began a webinar series discussing myriad perspectives and issues the country faces while battling COVID 19.

 

 

Is It Worth It?

All this begs the question how important and effective are these online ventures? For one, they provide succor to all literature lovers and getting kids to read more is always appreciated. For another, they help literature lovers remain rooted, sane, and well informed even when they cannot physically attend such programmes.

In the age of petty social media distractions and mindless scrolling, such events are a far better alternative. If after three weeks of lockdown, one is thoroughly exasperated by Netflix shows and TV channels, these events are there for you to learn and enjoy.

So, even when and if the lockdown gets eased, these events should continue because of the knowledge they help to disseminate. They do away with physical hurdles of space and are more accessible, albeit with certain technological requirements. You do not have to be in that location or venue to attend the event. You can enjoy all the literary gems from the comfort of your home, sitting on your favourite couch with a pair of headphones. In a way, they could make for the perfect literature festival!

Not to mention they are free of cost and do not carry with them the hustle and bustle of usual literary events or literary festivals. So, if you want to hear your favourite author, you do not have to go through their itinerary or push through hordes of other fans, just sit back and enjoy!

Social distancing might become a norm in the foreseeable future, at least till the pandemic does not recede. Hence, having online literary events and festivals seem an excellent way to keep oneself engaged. They are also innovative models conceptualized by publishing houses or bookstores to remain in business while continuing engagement between readers and writers.

However, in this new world of incessant online communication, the only drawback of the online literary festivals is the online aspect itself. For how many hours can one be attached to a computer? It is one thing to log in and enjoy an insightful online discussion once in a while. But after being constantly logged in, there is a danger of being saturated with it. One would then long for the closeness and human touch of an actual physical event!

Though one possible solution for this is to subscribe to podcasts rather than visual literary festivals, for now, we have in our grasp, well curated talks and readings! Literature now has moved on to greener pastures: the online pastures!

Online Literary Festivals You Should Check Out:

1. The pioneer of literary festivals in India, Jaipur literature Festival, started its digital version which is aptly called, Brave New World.

2. Women’s Web’s #SheReads invites female authors to read and discuss their works. One excellent talk is by Anukrti Upadhyay, author of Daura.

3. Bound India is a great platform to know more about books and budding writers. With the lockdown, they also began a plethora of useful writing workshops and online classes. Their podcasts are a great option for those who are tired of their screens!

4. Harper Collins in collaboration with Algebra: the Arts and Ideas Club initiated RESET that hosts conversations with Harper authors. We recommend checking out their #Lockdown Poetry section where authors read their favourite poems!

5. The Curious Reader’s has two interesting series on its Instagram page: One where authors talk about their work and the other related to staying sane during the lockdown, #StaySafeStaySane

So, spend some quality time brushing up your literary knowledge and exploring its many areas through these and many more such online literary initiatives!

 

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome.

Finding Meaning in Absurd Times with Camus’ The Plague


Dr. Rieux finds a dead rat at his doorstep in the tiny port city of Oran in Algeria. Soon, more dead rats turn up. Even sooner, people are dying of the plague. Authorities order the people to stay indoors. This, in a nutshell is what The Plague by Albert Camus is about. Talking about a plague when we are already going through a pandemic of our own seems counterintuitive.

However, since Coronavirus has taken a firm grip on our minds and our TV news channels since the month of March, Camus’ The Plague has shot to stardom status once again. Many critics would term the book prophetic or call Camus a seer who predicted this virus outbreak. But this is far from the truth. The Plague must be contextualized in terms of his absurdist philosophy that emphasised on an essential meaning that all human lives possess despite the seeming meaninglessness of our lives and condition. He uses the metaphor of the plague to talk about the human condition extensively.

 

Others have also called the novel as a commentary on Nazism (the book was published in 1947, two years after WWII ended) and how Camus has equated the plague to fascism. I believe, however, that the book stays away from any ideological leanings and rather comments on the fragility of the human way of life.

The actions and reactions of the people and the authorities in the novel resonate with how the world is handling the COVID-19 outbreak as well. The novel focuses on four main characters that show us how people are dealing with the outbreak of the plague in the novel both individually and collectively.

A plague or an epidemic forces us to suspend our lives for certain duration and to confront our present, to question and rethink much like one of the characters in the novel, Jean Tarrou. He is a visitor to the city of Oran and records all the events happening in the city during the plague. He is much like a philosopher who thinks, thinks, and over thinks but is unable to find a reasonable moral solution or cause of the plague.

Through this character, Camus tells the readers about both the naturalness and unnaturalness of the plague. It feels unnatural and strange for the people of Oran to have the plague affecting so many of them. This is also similar to how we today feel about coronavirus and its powerful spread. However, throughout the novel, Camus also emphasises that it is natural for diseases to spread, natural to be part of human suffering, and that in fact the disease is what is the normal in this and not the other way round. It is as he says at the end of the novel, “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves.”

 

This is not to say that Camus was a nihilist and that he believed that there is no meaning other than humans suffering. Rather, he asserts that because this is a constant in our lives and that such diseases and other problems are bound to ravage us, we must respond to them through kindness and decency and not through fear mongering or hatred. This is why Tarrou’s search for a moral causation to this plague is futile. One must not look for causes to find meaning but rather look at our own behavior to find meaning amidst this new normal.

Dr. Rieux counterbalances Tarrou as the former believes that there is no such moral voice/cause or meaning to the epidemic. Rieux does at the beginning also think of the plague as unnatural but then once it progresses, he believes in taking immediate action. He does not think in abstract terms. He does not glorify human suffering or his own tireless efforts. He continues to do his duty as a doctor. He is at the forefront of the efforts of curing the increasing number of plague patients. But he sees his efforts as part of a common decency one must have in such situations: “However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.”

 

I think we must learn from Dr. Rieux a vital lesson. While we are in lockdown, we must ruminate over our own actions as individuals and as a nation as well. Are we being decent to others? Are we actually lending out any helping hands to others or are we busy hoarding and cribbing over a privileged bored Netflix binge holiday? We must ask ourselves why we continue to hold racist ideas and prejudices toward people of our own country. And as more and more cases come up, especially in certain areas of Delhi, we must question why our religious prejudices are being pandered to even during such a crisis when we must be fighting the pandemic together, without any divisions or fault lines.

 

Cover Image: The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. [wikimedia]

 

Dasuram’s Script: New Writing from Odisha

This is a collection of 16 short stories written in Odia and translated into English by Mona Lisa Jena. All of the stories vividly bring out varied aspects of society. They merge the modern with traditional, the mystical with scientific, folklore with technology. The titular story is about a Kui folk singer, Dasuram, who sings of freedom from the shackles of poverty and oppression. He gets arrested on charges of being a Naxal and while in prison, invents a script for the Kui language.

 

The Goddess of Kara Dongri is about how Sudhansu is caught up in the fight about naming a temple in a village that he visited as a child during his vacation. He remembers a mountain made of white flint but cannot find it when he returns. He sees that the village has transformed from an idyllic haven into a busy one. Yet the folklore remains intact. The mountain of white flint may have been sacrificed to modernization but the stories of a deity residing there still float around, and to appease that goddess, a temple was built by the villagers themselves. The story succinctly captures the tenuous flux many places in India are caught between because of relentlessly moving towards modernization at the cost of environment and culture.

 

That House is a simple, almost fable like story about the follies of coveting perfection. Aruna and her husband scrape through and struggle to build a modest house in Brundabanur colony. Close by was a house that was never completed because the owner was a mistress who wanted to create a dream house which was not fulfilled because the house was empty and not occupied by a husband and a child. The story reiterates quite a lot of stereotypes associated with motherhood and role of a woman in a society especially the idea that a woman can attain happiness only when she marries and has a legitimate family. In the story, the woman is a mistress and hence is devoid of any true love which is the reason given to explain her imperfect house which though grand and complex, can never give her true happiness.

 

This Story Should not be Remembered by Manoj Kumar Panda pays homage to the timelessness of time itself through the character of Kandha Budha, who has become a living legend of his village. He has worked for two kings, Dalaganjana and Pruthwiraj; he has killed tigers with his bare hands, and had even caught the dacoit Bakharia Binjhal for the British government. The story remarks upon the continuity of time and of stories and the ironic existence of anything through these very stories.

 

This collection of stories often relies on motifs from folklore to create rich thematic narratives. For example, A Pitcher Full of Fish blurs the real and surreal when Sunei contemplates suicide out of frustration with her daily struggles and an abusive husband. But instead she finds in the mud pond so many varieties of fish that she catches them and dreams of making a delicious feast for her daughter. Sunei jumps in, catches as many fishes as she can. Her family comes looking for her but a pall of sorrow greets them. Was Sunei in the throes of happiness when catching the fish? Was she only day dreaming about them? Or was she so devoured by hunger that she was hallucinating and eventually fell into the mud?

Death by drowning is also reflected in two other stories, The Genius and The Shy Bride.

 

Sephania’s Ghastly Makar by Dipti Ranjan Pattnaik is a well nuanced story portraying the many confusions faced by Sephania due to his conversion to a new religion and the ensuing breakage of family ties.

 

The Adventure of a Little Kau Fish is a beautiful fable that portrays a brave kau fish who desires to see the world and so climbs up a tree determinedly, only to be defeated by pain and exhaustion and be horrifically devoured by the very fish in the pond that were, a minute ago, applauding his audacity. It is a grim comment on a dog-eat-dog world of ours.

Quite a few of the stories also speak of problems faced by women. Because the stories included in this collection traverse a large span of time, starting from mid 20th century to the current one, the reader can see the development in the representation of the female character. A few of the stories portray women as being victims of rigid social practices such as in Shiora Tree, but the modern stories depict them as independent thinkers who boldly take their own decisions when it comes to love such as presented in The Chemistry by Paramita Satapathy.

 

This collection gives a glimpse into the various complex facets of Odia society, delving into its rich tribal history and folklore and how that is precariously balanced against a mode modern background. The translator’s own essay at the end – The Odia Short Story, enables the reader to understand these representations even further, providing the reader deeper insights into the stories and their subject matter as well the growth and development of the Odia short story.

 

Reading in the Time of Corona


We had a Janta Curfew this Sunday. We are going to be facing more stringent lockdowns soon. Working professionals are learning work from home techniques while a large section of the population in the unorganised sector also faces job insecurity. The rest of India and the world grapple with the prospect of having too much free time on their hands and dealing with ultimate boredom.

This could be a great time to inculcate or reignite/restart the reading habit.

The world over, organisations, libraries, and universities are providing free access to their courses or book catalogues. For example, Scribd is offering all its resources free for a 20 day period due to the Covid Pandemic. Similarly in a surprise move, JSTOR opened up its Open Access to the public without registering with an account. Audible launched Audible Stories, a free service that provides educational and reading material for kids.

Closer home, Amar Chitra Katha has offered free access to its Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha books for a month. For kids stuck at home or even adults who want to enjoy some light reading, this is an exciting deal.

These are excellent options especially for the tech savvy readers! But what books should we read? What books to choose? Since the country is facing partial lockdown as part of the measures taken to stop the spread of coronavirus, we at The Seer have brought together a list of titles that you could enjoy reading in these uncertain and strange times.

 

 

Books to Help You Travel Vicariously

The coronavirus spread because of our globalised world and our interconnected travels. Consequently, our travel plans have now gone haywire with most countries suspending their overseas flights and sealing their borders. This is where books come to your rescue! Don’t fret over cancelled plans or that your travel goals may not be coming true just yet. Perhaps reading the right book is all you need that helps you travel to distant lands.

 

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

From Heaven Lake is a travelogue with a twist. Vikram Seth was 29 when he was studying at Nanjing University. He undertook a madcap journey overland on foot from China, into Tibet to reach Delhi, his home town. Through his journey, we get to view the socio-economic conditions of the country and especially see the ways in which Tibet was controlled and cut off.

You not only get a chance to be part of this crazy travel but also learn more about the country rather than forming half baked ideas based on some ridiculous Whatsapp forwards.

 

Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk

This memoir pays homage to Pamuk’s home, Istanbul. He has always lived in Istanbul and in this memoir, he pens down his love for the city by evocatively describing the city’s soul. Pamuk also speaks of his own struggles with choosing this profession of being a writer. The novel does dip into nostalgic reminisces recalling the city’s erstwhile architecture, its changing demography along with politics and diplomatic ties. But the tone is nostalgic, rather than wallowing in it.

Reading Istanbul: Memories of a City is bound to feel as if you were walking through the lanes of the city itself and exploring its colourful past and present.

You can download the PDF of the novel here.

 

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

Most public spaces in India are shut including public parks and gardens. This is quite hard for those used to morning walks. Solnit’s wonderful portrait of the evolution around the ideas of walking for meditation and exercise provides a refreshing insight. It is a stimulating read which makes us relook at the reasons and joys behind our walks. Buy the book here.

 

Reading Feel Good Books

Ideas of quarantine, lockdown, curfew, and social distancing are alien and scary. They bring in a host of problems such as loneliness and anxiety.

It is best to choose to curl up with books that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling because as Szymborska puts it in her poem, Consolation, that Darwin read books to relax, with a happy ending because he had seen enough of survival of the fittest and dying species. Hence, let us look for “the indispensable silver lining/the lovers reunited, the families reconciled/the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded/fortunes regained….. hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation/general merriment and celebration.”

 

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Reading this book might feel a bit of a meta-narrative in this article. But Matilda never fails to warm my heart. A young girl, shunned by her own family for her so-called strange habits, finds solace in her school teacher and devouring books. In these trying times, we could all learn a lesson from Matilda and perhaps read up as many books as we can while we have the time. Buy the book here.

 

The Rapture by Liz Jensen

Many people on social media warn us that the coronavirus pandemic is only a trailer to the actual crisis that will ensue once ice melts and global warming unleashes its wrath. While any apocalyptic novel cannot actually be a feel good book, The Rapture by Liz Jensen is a psychological thriller with a differently abled protagonist, Gabrielle, who is intrigued by a teenager, Bethany because she can foretell natural disasters. This book’s central theme of the resoluteness of human faith and determination is meaningful.

 

A Mango Shaped Mass by Wendy Mass

This is a beautiful coming of age story of Mia Wenchell and her acceptance of her unique way of experiencing life around her because of synaesthesia wherein sees numbers, hears sounds and says words in colours!

 

 

Books on Migration

Coronavirus’ deadly power and spread was a shocking reality that dawned slowly on everyone and it brought out the worse in many of us such as fighting for toilet paper or panic buying. Hoarding on sanitisers will not necessarily save the world since fighting the virus is dependent on the well being of the next person we meet as well. Next time we blame immigrants for our own problems, we should also think back on how we fought over groceries even when there was no scarcity.

It puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

In this time when we all feel threatened by an unknown, it is perhaps best to be kind and humane and also sharpen our sensitivity to problems that others’ face.

 

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

This heart wrenching novel speaks of the constant conflict and displacement that three generations of the Yacoub family face because of the Palestinian Israel war. All the members have seen some form of war and are refugees living in different parts of the world.

 

The Brink of Freedom by Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

People migrating on rickety, unsafe, overcrowded boats was a disturbing narrative shown through media channels and photographs. The title, The Brink of Freedom, itself captures the ephemerality of stability that haunts these refugees, whether they are on boats or shored safely to the country they were migrating to. The novel describes the trials of one such refugee boy. Read an excerpt of the novel here.

 

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This is one of my favourite novels because of its use of a unique innocence, point of view and the style to tell a story of a refugee family. It is told from the point of view of a 10 year old Vietnamese girl, Kim Ha living in Saigon. Due to Vietnam War, she is forced to flee, leaving her beloved land and friends. The novel is narrated entirely through poems. You can download the PDF of the novel here.

 

 

Read that Classic that’s been on to-do list forever

We all have at some point or the other been guilty of not finishing a classic novel and worse, pretending to have read them. Now that we are all laying low and taking a break from other social activities, it is perhaps time to pick up that dusty novel you postponed reading or kept down, daunted by its sheer size.

 

War and Peace by Tolstoy

Ah Leo Tolstoy! The doyen of Russian literature but also one whose books shine bright as beacons on the lists of books we have pretended to have read. It is definitely one that is tedious to read and quite a handful to keep track of five family stories at once. Yet, no other novel has captured the Russian landscape as realistically as this one.

 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is not as lengthy as War and Peace. It is still quite a task especially if you have lost the habit of reading Victorian English. Yet, it is an intricately written novel about Pip and his coming of age experiences, particularly his time with Miss Havisham and his love for Estella.

 

Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

This panoramic novel shows us Istanbul’s progress as a city through the eyes of the quaint yoghurt and boza seller, Mevlut. Spanning more than 50 years and about 500 pages, Strangeness in My Mind takes you through the underbelly of Istanbul and gives you a glimpse of the subalterns who create and expand the city.

Other daunting lengthy classics include Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

The heavyweights in modern literature that you could give a shot during lockdown are 1Q84 trilogy by Murakami or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea or even A.S Byatt’s Possession and last but not the least, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

So, I hope this list helps in the tough days ahead! May you stay safe, wash your hands, and may you not fall prey to any false rumours or fake news!

 

Cover Image: By Jan Steiner from Pixabay

Reading Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column

Titles of novels fascinate me. I always try to find out in the course of reading the book, what the title relates to or why the novel is named so. 

Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain held the same fascination for me. I have now read it thrice: first in undergraduate, then as part of the syllabus during post-graduation and recently last year to compare and contrast it to other similar novels that chronicle female growing up experiences such as The Women’s Courtyard by Khadija Mastur and The Hussaini Alam House by Huma R. Kidwai. 

 

The novel is set in Lucknow in pre Independence era and is told from the point of view of Laila, the 15-year-old protagonist born in a wealthy landed taluqdar family which is headed by the patriarch, Baba Jan. Laila is an orphan who lives with her grandfather, Baba Jan, and her aunts, Majida and Abida. The novel begins with the failing health of Baba Jan. It immediately beckons the reader into a realm of sadness and alerts them to a significant change in the making: that of the past and all that is old slowly disappearing.  

While living with Baba Jan and her aunts, Laila’s education is given more importance according to the wishes of her late father, who believed in the cause of women’s education. She grows up in a liberal environment where she is allowed to study yet is also confined to certain spaces and knows that the older female relatives follow a different code of honour and ethics especially purdah

Laila’s life thus straddles a tradition bound world as well as one that is slowly opening up avenues for women. She develops a habit of reading, and later gets involved ideologically with the Independence Movement. She is juxtaposed with Zahra, her cousin and Majida’s daughter. Zahra is brought up to be a ‘good’ woman, to be married and be an ideal wife. Laila struggles with these ideas and is unable to reconcile or compromise with a few traditional expectations especially gendered ones.  

 

Despite being bestowed with an education, Laila is expected to live by certain religious codes of conduct.  Certain codes are not imposed on her very strictly; yet certain other expectations are upheld. The latter is true when it comes to her decision to marry Ameer who is considered as a good match by her family because of his unemployment and lower class status. Her Aunt Abida ostracised Laila after this marriage, despite their strong and loving bond based on mutual respect.  

Marriage and education are crucial themes and debates that shape Laila’s understanding of the world. While some of the debates are dated, many are sadly relevant to any girl’s experiences today as well, particularly the family’s role in choosing a groom for her. 

These debates also show us how education for girls was perceived then and promoted: not a means in itself but an end to developing a sophisticated wife who could match the intelligence of her husband. Education for a girl was dependent on how it would help the spouse too. It had its own terms and conditions and was not seen as fundamental right by itself. 

 

The influence of culture, its fading, and the idea of the now popularised stereotype of tehzeeb of Lucknow is suffused in the narrative. The rich and accurate portrait of a life and culture that Hosain herself was part of is the highlight of Sunlight on a Broken Column. 

So, what does the title mean? 

The title cites the T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men. These are the lines that form part of the epigraph of the novel: 

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

 

The title could suggest therefore that the novel itself casts a glow, a ray of sunlight on this fading way of life be it the joint family, the sense of respect for family members, or even the language and the landed ownership. The broken column represents the fading culture. 

The novel is essentially a tribute to that high class culture that no longer exists. It is steeped in nostalgia. It would not be a farfetched guess to state that the writer herself was engaging in remembrance of her own experiences and past life while writing Sunlight on a Broken Column, which is also the only novel that Hosain ever wrote in her lifetime. 

 

Altman_painting_Akhmatova_by_N.Altman | Aleksandr Evgenievich Bravo / CC BY-SA

Remembering Anna Akhmatova and Her Poetry

Born in 1889 in present day Ukraine, Anna Akhmatova was a prolific poet of her times and became a symbol of resistance during Stalin’s iron rule. Eventually however, she was forgotten, becoming a poet overshadowed by fellow male Russian writers instead. There has been a slow revival of interest in her poetry since the 1990s. Her works have been translated in English several times now and this review will look at the Vintage publication, Selected Poems by Anna Akhmatova, translated by D.M. Thomas. 

 

Anna Akhmatova published her first collection, Evening, in 1912. Many of her earlier poems were well received and had quite a large female readership. They depicted the torturous realities of love from the excitement of clandestine visits to the heartbreak of a parting. One of her poems from Evening, shows her wit and is reminiscent of Wendy Cope’s light hearted love lyrics

 

He loved three things alone:
White peacocks, evensong,
Old maps of America.
He hated children crying,
And raspberry jam with his tea,
And womanish hysteria.
…….and he had married me. 

 

Feminist Retellings

Akhmatova by Nathan Altman / Public domain
Akhmatova by Nathan Altman / Public domain

It is not only a humorous poem but also shows her concerns about wifely duties and even makes a jibe at the misconception of hysteria as uniquely female. Many of her poems express her anguish about fitting into roles of a mother and wife. 

One way in which Akhmatova portrays the female point of view is through retellings of folklore, Biblical stories and literary anecdotes. She humanises Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Ophelia in her poems, Cleopatra and Reading Hamlet respectively. She also gives a humorous spin to the Cinderella tale when she ends a poem from her collection Rosary (1914) with Cinderella more worried about her shoe rather than the Prince’s love for her: 

Where can I hide you?
And it’s a bitter thought
That my little white shoe
will be tried by everyone.

 

The two poems that are Biblical retellings are from her collection, Anno Domini (1922). Rachel gives voice to the Biblical character, Rachel, who was betrayed by both her father, Laban, and her suitor, Jacob. Her father denied her to be married to Jacob because the laws stated that the eldest should be married first. Thus, Jacob was married to Leah instead of Rachel. But, the ending shows how both Jacob and Rachel yearn for each other. It is telling that it ends with lines about Rachel’s regrets:

Jacob, was it you who kissed me, loved
Me, and called me your black dove? 

 

Lot’s Wife is also from the same collection and highlights the titular character’s point of view. Lot is a character mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Lot, his wife and daughter were fleeing the destruction of the sinful city, Sodom. They were not supposed to look back but Lot’s wife dared to do it. She was punished for her disobedience and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s wife is used as an example to teach a lesson about the consequences of disobeying God’s word. She has been usually portrayed in poems and literary works on similar lines. However, in her poem, Akhmatova hails the character instead of turning her into a trope or a moral lesson. She believes that Lot’s wife was brave to steal a glance of her home:

Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
Surely her death has no significance?
Yet in my heart she will never be lost
She who gave up her life to steal one glance.

 

This subtle rebellion would indeed be relatable to Akhmatova as she experienced her country transforming into an authoritarian society and her home being ideologically destroyed. If it was Akhmatova who was forced to flee her home, she would indeed mimic Lot’s wife, wishing to glance back, see her beloved home one last time and preserve that image in her memory. In the subversive poem, Akhmatova succeeded in portraying Lot’s wife’s emotions when she glanced back rather than only reducing her to an idea of a disobedient wife. She showed the ‘why’ of her actions. 

This is exactly why feminist retellings are important because they reveal an alternate viewpoint that challenges normative perspectives. 

 

The Importance of Art 

Anna Akhmatova-1912 (Anonymous photographer from Russian Empire (before 1917)Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) / Public domain)
Anna Akhmatova-1912 (Anonymous photographer from Russian Empire (before 1917)Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) / Public domain)

 

Another theme that runs through her poems is manifesting the importance of art and poetry as well as voicing the struggles of being an artist. 

In Loneliness from her collection White Flock (1914), she writes about a persona (probably herself) sequestered in a high tower with commanding views of the scenes around her which helps her to be inspired to complete her poems. 

Among high towers a high towers….
Here I can see the sun rise earlier
And see the glory of the day’s end….
And the Muse’s sunburnt hand
Divinely light and calm
Finished the unfinished page. 

 

The poem questions how writers attain inspiration. In the poem above, Akhmatova affirms that staying cut off from the world and being lonely is a prerequisite for the Muse to appear. Paying a tribute to the Muse is another of her hallmarks. It is unique to see a female poet invoking a Muse, as in canonical British literature the standard has always been a male writer calling on a female, a Muse for inspiration. The dynamics change when Akhmatova indulges in it. 

 

Poetry’s Power

The power of her words is not lost on her as Anna often mentions the power of poetry to record the horrific and to remember. In an untitled poem from her collection, The Seventh Book, she says that she has been spared death to write about those gone by: 

I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,
Not as a frozen willow over your memory,
But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep.
What names are those!

 

Her most famous work, The Requiem, is prefaced by an incident of why she wrote the poem in the first place. The poem is about the hardship she and others like her faced standing for hours every day outside prison walls in Leningrad for news about their family members. Akhmatova spent about 17 months lining up every day to know about the fate of her son, Lev. One day, a lady recognised her and asked if she could describe all that was around her. And she did. She captured the state of her own torment as well as the country’s in this poem. The Requiem is a brave reminder about poetry’s power in calling out the wrongs of a nation, how poems can help a nation remember its fractured past and never forget; lest people repeat the same mistakes. 

This is an important lesson from her poems that later on lashed out at Stalin’s rule. Her poems grieved for her nation and its people. 

On her death anniversary (5th March), let us once again remember the powerful purpose of poetry. 

Lest we forget.

 

Between Change and Stillness of Time, Mamang Dai Tells the Legends of Pensam

Stories are an intrinsic part of who we are. They define us; they have been with us since times immemorial. The book, Legends of Pensam by Mamang Dai tries to recreate something similar through its story- a timeless, universal tale of human togetherness and struggle. Contrary to the title, the novel is not just a collection of folktales or legends. Rather the legends about common people and their deeds that have been passed down from one generation to the next and therefore have become folklore/legends in themselves. The stories of common people are portrayed and interwoven with folktales which make it seem as if the folktales are living and breathing through the lives of the people. 

 

The unnamed female narrator has gone back to her hometown in Arunachal Pradesh and is a participant in these stories rather than the storyteller. She also invites her friend, Mona and Jules to visit her village and to meet the people there. 

 

The Legends of Pensam is divided into four parts: Diary of the World, Songs of the Rhapsodist, Daughters of the Village, and Matter of Time

 

The first part presents an introduction to this world of forests, folklore, and its people. It sets the stage for the characters: the narrator visiting her village and staying there, her inviting Mona, Hoxo and his family. 

The second part invites the reader to be part of a dance drama that tells the tale of the white man colonizing these forests and about a violent turn of events. The dance drama is staged for a festival, but also for Mona and Jules. As a reader, you too gaze at one aspect of the culture and are one with the story. The rhapsodist also regales the reader and perhaps even Mona and Jules with other such stories – one where the wind howls and dust swirling confused the rhapsodist; one where he narrates how the Migu and Sirum clans were united by bonds of blood and kinship. 

 

The third part is my favourite as it shifts the perspective from a storyteller/rhapsodist to women and their lives; how their stories percolate generations as well. For example, Hoxo’s wife is Losi. Losi’s mother, Nenem, was rumoured to have had an affair with a British Officer, David, who was posted in her village, Pigo town. All that Losi knows about that relationship comes from stories and from a photograph she has of David and Nenem. This incident shows us family history as being a part of their collective history/understanding of place and time. The narrator also speaks in this part of her own relationship with the village, of her mother’s death, and how the village called out to her to visit and settle there once again.

 

The final part mixes a tenuous sense of timeless with the ever increasing modern sensibilities that are now inseparable to life in the towns and villages of Arunachal. One example the book uses is film-making and music and how both are used for preserving one’s culture. It captures the notions of inevitable change yet also how things remain unchanged. 

That is the hallmark of this novel: it conveys both these paradoxical elements – of relentless change and of the immutable lingering on. The novel does not lament change but marvels at it. It marvels at the persistence of human dreams and desires of joy and happiness, that co-exist under the vastness of the limitless blue sky. 

Perhaps, this is why we are always living in “Pensam” which among the Adi tribe of Arunachal means “in-between.” We are always in between a world that is fast changing and a world that is frozen in time. 

 

Book Review – Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses

Salma Yacoub looked at the coffee cup and knew that something is amiss about the fate of her youngest daughter, Alia. She never read the coffee dregs of her own kin but made an exception here because it was Alia’s wedding day. So what did she do? She decided to tell a lie, to give away only the positive foretelling. 

This paraphrasing is how the novel, Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, begins. With a lie.

It is also her decision to tell this lie that captivates the reader immediately. As Salma waited for her daughter, she reminisced about her life, about how she ended up in Nablus, fleeing from Jaffa; about her husband’s death and about her three children, Widad, Mustafa, and Alia. Widad was already married and settled in Kuwait and now the youngest was getting married to Atef. Salma spared no expenses. Interestingly, the wedding itself is not described in the story but only the events leading up to it.

The entire novel is narrated through the perspectives of Salma’s family. Initially, it is her children’s viewpoints that are portrayed and later on her grandchildren and great grandchildren as well.

The novel begins in the 1960s and ends in around 2014. It narrates the history and growth of Salma’s family over 60 years. The one constant in all their perspectives is war, the act of fleeing and resettling. Movement is constant. Each generation has seen war. Salma was the first. Her children were victims of The Six Day War in 1967 which forced Atef and Alia to settle in Kuwait along with her sister, Widad. They had to flee again from Kuwait, when it was invaded by Iraq in August 1990.

The characters are perpetually settling and resettling; be it in Kuwait, Ammam in Jordan or Beirut in Lebanon. A few characters such as two of Alia’s children, Souad and Karam, also move to Boston and Paris for some time. However, Palestine is never called home again.

In portraying one family’s dispersal across the world, Salt Houses lays bare the human cost of conflict: the trauma of war and displacement that generations carry. 

The novel makes that pain ever so palpable through the characters’ memories and lived experiences. Yet, despite the sadness, their stories uphold the value of relationships and of family. There is deep warmth in the family’s get togethers. The young ones move in and out, they go looking for greener pastures but still maintain a sense of attachment with their family despite the fraught situations and tenuous nature of their relationships.

This is not to say that Hala Alyan has romanticised Palestine or the idea of the homeland and family. Yes, the past is a prominent aspect of certain characters’ lives; it is where one longs to go back to. But such narratives are set against very realistic goals of survival and staying safe, and having stability. When one of Alia’s granddaughters, Manar, visits Palestine (particularly Nablus and the home Alia grew up in), she attains no jubilation because the place has transformed. It is no longer the lust green land of orange trees that her grandmother remembers. Manar’s visit acknowledges that change has occurred. In such ways, the story steers clear of surfeit nostalgic sentimentality. The memories of older generation of Palestine are different than the realities in 2014. “Nostalgia is an affliction”, Alia remarks. Certainly, characters such as Alia live off nostalgia but that is not the only narrative employed in the novel. It does not suffer from overindulging in the oft-used connections of nostalgia and memory.

Even the fragmented identities that they have, especially Alia’s grandchildren, highlight the unrealistic idea of nationality based on borders. Alia and Atef are Palestinian and have lived in Palestine till they fled to Kuwait but none of their children or grandchildren have lived there or were even born there. They are Palestinian by nationality but also partly Kuwaiti and Lebanese. They have seen Jordan and the U.S. Alia’s grandchildren have grown up in the U.S. and are ‘ajnabi’ or strangers because of their Americanised ways. How does one explain such criss-crossings of identity to any person? The characters are constantly marked by their difference and even their friend circle includes people who are similarly anomalies from what is considered ‘normal’ identity.

While the Yacoub family is definitely a privileged one as they are moneyed and were probably landowners in Palestine, they are still refugees. They live drifting lives; lives that are unsettled by the whims and fancies of dictators and so called democratic regimes.

This privilege is acknowledged right at the beginning in Salma’s narrative when she feels grateful for having a house in Nablus and not having to languish in refugee camps, grateful that she can protect her children at least in that way from war. Alia has similar thoughts about her own children and her privilege is also set in stark contrast when she randomly meets a Kurdish refugee woman in Kuwait who tells her about what hunger really means. Yet, in no way does Alyan diminish any kind of suffering. Instead, she juxtaposes this disparity often and keeps the characters’ privilege in check.

The narrative is intimate and will tear you apart with its mixture of joy, longing, nostalgia, death and birth. The reader glimpses their lives, thoughts, and gets involved in their interweaving strands of family stories. It feels melancholic to read this novel, especially when reading about the constant political turmoil the characters are confronted with. How does one settle in life when war is always at one’s doorstep? But the multiple voices in the novel do exactly that –take brave steps, even risky ones, to carry on with their lives even though they are often ruptured by bombs and battles.

Salt Houses is a must read as it reveals layers of intertwining history and displacement through a portrait of this one family. It triumphs as a literary work as it does what literature does best: show the humane behind the cold statistical headlines. The writing is tender, delicately depicting the characters’ lives through such heart wrenching metaphors of beauty that are jarring to the reader.

“Within days the groves were mangled, soil impaled with wooden stakes, oranges scattered, pulp leaking from battered flesh.” This vivid image is as haunting as describing a morgue; it tells a different tale of the destruction yet it is still talking about war. Her writing often portrays the beauty vis a vis destruction. This is exactly what hurts the reader when reading this novel.

The novel’s take on extremist tendencies remarks bravely on its flaws. When Alia’s grandchild, Abdullah, is influenced by these Fascist thoughts, Alia speaks up against them and calls out the inherent evil in such ideologies. Alia had seen how her own brother Mustafa was lost because of this. Abdullah is Riham’s son; Riham is Alia’s eldest child. Riham transformed into a devout person after her adolescent years and in a scene, after Alia confronted Abdullah, Riham is also shown reflecting on how the religion peddled by these extremists is suffused not with faith but with anger and misinformed ideas of lost identity. It was heartening to read about characters who themselves disowned these ideas. This is very different from mainstream depiction of Muslim characters which relishes on showing them as fanatics. Here is Riham who loves her faith because of how it is, and not because someone is shouting at her to assert her religion. She truly believes in it rather than only using her religious identity as a way to channelize her anger and injustice, which is what she thinks the fascists indulge in.  This rational dissection of extremism is important in the face of constant stereotyping against an entire religion.

Salt Houses is a gut wrenching novel that leaves you hollow and sorrowful because of the sweeping history and trauma that pervades the story. Yet, it hails the sheer strength of hope amidst the barrenness of war.

Cover Image: Beowulf Sheehan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Nilgiri Mountain Railway train waits to depart from Ketti Station. The locomotive is No.37384. 26th February 2005 Photographer - A.M.Hurrell Camera - Minolta X700 (35mm film)

The Toy Train That Runs From Ooty to Coonoor

Ever since Shahrukh Khan danced atop a train for the famous song, Chhaiya Chhaiya from the movie Dil Se, toy trains have created a romantic idea of a train journey through the hills for me. When I recently got a chance to travel in the Nilgiri Mountain Railway that runs from Ooty or Udhagamandalam to Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu, I felt like that childish romantic ideal was coming true.

 

I have travelled on the Neral Matheran toy train before as a child. Matheran is a cosy hill station close to Mumbai. That delight experienced was altogether different back then as I was only a kid who was simply excited by any prospect of travel, any prospect of being away from home and homework! Now, all grown up and supposedly an adult, travelling in a toy train is like bringing out, to be very clichéd, the inner child in you, to have the luxury of marveling at the train and its compartments itself, at the lush views and the fragrant eucalyptus forests; to stick your head your head out like a fearless child for a quintessential toy train photo while feeling the cool breeze graze your cheek.

Perhaps simply the word, toy train, is supposed to help us channelize our hidden childlike wonder!

 

1024px-Udhagamandalam_or_Ooty_railway_station_14.jpg
Ooty railway station in Nilgiri Mountain Railway, Tamil Nadu | Credit – Pinakpani

 

While I remember being utterly awestruck when travelling in the Matheran toy train because it was so different from the trains we are used to traveling in, part of my reaction to travelling in the Nilgiri Mountain Railway also included absorbing the historical tidbits of the train and the colonial stations it winds its way through.
As a child, I do not think I would have been impressed or even fathomed the age of the Matheran toy train but years later, knowing that the NMR has been running for over 100 years did transport me to a time when Coonoor and Ooty would have been just tiny specks of hill towns, with British people milling about amidst verdant forests to escape the heat, while the locals went about their daily lives.

 

Everything about this toy train ride was filled with excitement: from seeing it chugging into the station, to gaping at the antique engine, from boarding the train to hearing the final whistle blow! I caught the train from Ooty and was going to get off at Coonoor. The train’s ultimate destination was Mettupalayam near Coimbatore. In the seat opposite mine, was a family of three: parents and a daughter. I think I saw myself in that little girl, since I was as excited to be on the blue train of these blue mountains. As it slowly left the Ooty Station, I could hardly contain the thrill!

 

It snaked its way through the forests and the heady smell of the eucalyptus trees was overpowering. The most childlike happiness came from the girl sitting opposite me when she pulled out like a magic wand a bubble toy and blew bubbles in the air! Her father also joined her! At least it wasn’t only me whose inner child was roused in this ride! So ephemerally beautiful the bubbles were; floating away oblivious to the vistas below.

 

Passing under tunnels and navigating the bendy loops were the other highlights. Tunnels had all the passengers screaming in delight while the sharp bends in the route made us look at the train’s snaking figure and its contrasting beauty of blue against all the green.

 

The signage at Mettupalayam Railway Station, the start point of NMR. With an elevation of 325.2 meters above MSL from here, the train climbs for 5 hours a total of 42 kms to Ooty with 2203 meters elevation. |
The signage at Mettupalayam Railway Station, the start point of NMR. With an elevation of 325.2 meters above MSL from here, the train climbs for 5 hours a total of 42 kms to Ooty with 2203 meters elevation. | Credit – Gcheruvath

 

The entire train ride was steeped in the whimsical. Even the names of the train stations on the way brought out an old world charm. The first stop after Ooty was Lovedale. As expected, the station was miniscule, quaint, one of those that are stuck in time with their beautiful bright blue buildings and benches and the typical germanium flowers. All the stations (Ketti, Aravankadu, and Wellington) after that possessed a similar aura; they felt like they came straight out of a Ruskin Bond novel. They were frozen in time. Each time the train came to a halt at a station, the engine doors would open with the red flags waving and people would joyfully peer out to take in the views. As the train would depart, dozens of green flags were waved and you could hear the train whistle. All these were signals for the train’s departure. When was the last time you actually witnessed trains arriving and departing to the signal of flags? I couldn’t recall. I think I must have read about it in Malgudi Days! And so, it was amazing to actually witness it.

 

This is why travelling in the toy train feels like you are going back in time, not just to your childhood but also to a world where times were easier and simpler. The toy train gave me the space to be like a child again and to dip in a bit of nostalgia. Getting off at Coonoor, I felt absolutely satisfied. I took in the narrow criss-crossing railway tracks, the blue doors of the train all open, the vast blue skies and the teeming exciting crowds on the platform.

 

 

Cover Image: Nilgiri Mountain Railway train waits to depart from Ketti Station. The locomotive is No.37384. 26th February 2005 Photographer – A.M.Hurrell Camera – Minolta X700 (35mm film)

 

Book Review – Anukrti Upadhyay’s Daura

An enigmatic sarangiya player sweeps a district collector/officer off his feet with his magical tunes in a distant desert region of Rajasthan state in India. 

 

Sarangiyathe person who plays the sarangi (a rectangular string instrument).

 

No, Daura by Anukrti Upadhyay isn’t a romantic tale set in the twilight of the dusky dunes but the novel is steeped in different ideas of romance – romancing nature, the romance present in the state’s folktales and folksongs, romance of the music, and the most prevalent of all: the romance of the mysterious and the magical. 

 

Daura is Anukrti Upadhyay’s one of the first books in English. She also writes in Hindi. A District Collector or DC (a government officer who governs a division of the state called a district). He is unnamed and very enthusiastic about exploring the culture and tradition of the desert folks which is why he is often touring the district he governs (much to the dismay of his orderly, who is happy to be ensconced in his town life and engaging in urban activities rather than rural pastimes). The collector, on the other hand, shows kindness to their way of life, is happy to partake in it, and happier even to be regaled by their music and dance at the dak bangla (a bungalow) in the remote desert of the district. 

 

He is just and not a slave to his power. He does away with all forms of red tape to give back to the tribes people the land that is rightfully theirs. He is mesmerized by a sarangiya’s skill at playing his sarangi. But the sarangiya is a nomad, not one to be at the beck and call of superior government officials. Though, when he can, he does fascinate the DC with folk tales particularly one about a princess who turned into a tree to be freed from her ungracious suitors. The tree that has trapped the princess bears an eerie similarity to the one and only lush tree close to the bungalow. This tree’s origins itself are unknown, and no one can explain this green anomaly in the middle of barrenness. Except the sarangiya who not only is skilled at playing his sarangi but is also knowledgeable in the folklore of the desert. The sarangiya reveals how he had a vision of the princess through his music. The DC also got a glimpse, not once, but twice and the sarangiya attributed these visions to the DC’s strong faith. The DC then descends into a state suffused with these visions. He cuts himself off from the real world, from his work and inhabits the mythic to eventually become a myth himself. 

 

While the central character is the DC, his voice and thoughts come much later in the novel. Daura is told through the perspectives of several other characters on the margins. Their narratives are in the form of an interview. The interviews are part of the larger investigation being carried out by the state government to find out what happened to the DC. Thus, the voices of his orderly, of the tehsildar (the district is divided further into many talukas, which are further divided into tehsils and the officer responsible for a tehsil is the tehsildar), of the Nat girls (who belong to the local tribes who used to perform folk songs and dances close to the DC’s bungalow), the security guard, the camel herder come before the DC’s point of view. Their stories have a conversational tone because they are part of an investigation where the individuals are answering questions. 

 

The DC’s voice is seen through his journal entries.  After the journal entries, the novel depicts various persons conducting this investigation and presenting a plethora of reports. These include the medical officer, the Chief Secretary and the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP). It is the SSP’s report that finally concludes the novel and sheds a bureaucratic light on a very mythic occurrence in the dak bangla: the merging of the DC into the tree and his transformation into a folk God of sorts. The people thereafter call him, Dev, meaning a male God. 

 

Anukrti Upadhyay has thus merged two disparate worlds of the rural people and their world of myths and beliefs with the rational, cold and calculating world of the government. This merger is possible by the unique form of this novel: a government report, but one which still retains its fable like tone (at least in the first half) because of its interview format that is able to bring out the features and views of each character. For example, the orderly is condescending toward the tribes and their way of life. He does not appreciate their friendly attitude with his sahib. He also detests the distant desert and its vast empty space he does not know how to fill. He supports the idea of status and believes that propriety befitting a person’s position must be followed strictly. The tehsildar is obsequious, yet hard working. However, like the orderly, he also believes that things should go according to a certain process and not in haphazard or arbitrary manner that the DC employed by bypassing the bureaucracy in doing his official work.  The security guard has a completely opposite outlook. He seems averse to facts and to rigid ideas of wrong and right. His unwillingness to admit anything as true or false perturbs the logical mindset of the investigator. He speaks in riddles and in a roundabout manner. His understanding of the world is subjective and not based on hard facts. 

 

The camel herder’s interview holds more concrete information about the sarangiya and talks of his own relation with the musician. Interestingly, the novel does not have a section dedicated to the sarangiya himself. He speaks in no interviews and writes no journals from which his own views can be gleaned. He is constructed out of the others’ voices and opinions and not his own thoughts. This element is also what heightens his aura of mystery which makes him illusory and imaginary akin to the many folktales he spins and weaves with his music. 

 

The narratives of the latter part of the novel are very matter of fact in tone as they stick to the point and do not reveal anything about the person other than the facts of their position or findings. The exception is the SSP’s report that includes verbatim (as possibly close to the original as it can be) conversations that he had with different characters in the book about events that led to the DC’s disappearance. The narratives also depict how the two worlds are as separate as can be. One is old worldly, superstitious yet vivacious and passionate and the other, though run by a modern democratic government, is more impersonal and factual. Yet they meet together and clash in this tale of two worlds.   

 

The ending of the novel is also an ending of the SSP’s report. He categorically states that all protocols have been followed in dealing with this strange matter and have been accordingly dealt with in keeping with prior permission and approvals granted by the officers involved. And with that one dull thud, the magical journey comes to an end. We see the crux of the story unfolding through myriad colourful characters which is then taken over by the soulless state machinery. The form of the novel also satirises the red tape and its lack of imagination and empathy in dealing with the public and the marginalised. It brings to focus the idea that the government may be replete with status, positions, and protocols but is bereft of any humanity.