MAHE & MANO- An Extraordinary Tale of Hope, Courage, and Love

The first time I heard of Manohar Devadoss was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in 2017. I listened to him speak about his adventure with books in his life. His childlike candour and wit made him an instant hit with his audience. I was looking forward to interacting personally with him later that day. However, that didn’t materialize and that’s a regret I continue to carry. I was thrilled when he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2020 for his contribution to art. However, Manohar did more than just art. He is also a scientist and an author. His achievements in various fields are not merely his own but they are also his wife Mahema’s. Mahema is omnipresent not just in Manohar’s life but also in his art, his books, and all his conversations. So, when I picked his latest book – ‘Mahe and Mano’, published by Aleph Book company, I was excited at the idea of getting to know more about the duo.

A simple search on the internet titled ‘Manohar Devadoss’ will tell you about Mahema’s quadriplegia and Manohar’s retinitis pigmentosa. However, it is almost impossible to comprehend how challenging every day can be to live with these adversities. In the book, Manohar talks about their extraordinary journey together and how they won over these extreme inconveniences that came bundled together with their physical conditions.

A young foreign return Manohar was smitten by the bold, beautiful, and jubilant Mahema in their first meeting. Their courtship, marriage, and romance is quite dreamy and makes me envy them. It is also heartbreaking to read about how life turned upside down for this couple in only a matter of a few minutes. Manohar talks about the moments before the accident, their days in JIPMER and CMC, the kindness of doctors, friends, family, and strangers and the desperation he felt during those ten months in hospital. The efforts that Manohar took to entertain his wife who was clamped to the bed, his slide shows for other patients in the hospital, his outburst at the insensitivity of a doctor welled my eyes up. However, that was just the beginning of an arduous uphill journey for them.

Few years after Mahe returned home in a wheelchair and became completely dependent on Mano and the helpers for everything, Mano started losing his eyesight due to degenerative retinal disorder. Even with all the help from renowned ophthalmologists, this only kept getting worse. It was now Mahema’s turn to be Mano’s knight and keep him going. It was Mahema who pushed Manohar to write a book and find a way to continue with his paintings. They carried each other’s dreams, in their own hearts. And this they did for more than three decades.

Manohar’s father was a doctor. So, he was aware that the life of a quadriplegic is short-lived and tumultuous. However, he promised himself that he would never ever let his wife get a bedsore. It is unbelievable that not only did Mahema thrive for 35 years but also never had a bedsore despite being bound to a wheelchair. That speaks of the kind of devotion that Mano had for Mahe. Mano and Mahe were brave, strong, kind, and resilient as individuals. They were both warm, bright, intelligent, charming, and creative. These individual traits and their timeless devotion towards each other turned them into an extraordinary couple. Together, they were a force to reckon with and touched many lives in unbelievable ways.

Most of their best creations happened during their three decades of endless battles against these adversities. Even today, Manohar remains extremely busy and keeps up with another promise he made to his wife. While their courage as individuals is inspiring enough, I must agree with Nagalakshmi Kumaraswamy that  Mahe and Mano will serve as inspiration for any couple and will provide a fascinating story for marriage counsellors to tell.

The book does hold a couple of their pictures and one illustration of Mano, I would have loved to see more of them. The poems, the love letters, the scribblings, the songs, the books, the flowers, the butterflies, and their love makes this book a light and engaging read. Every page of this story is inspiring and that is reason enough to pick this book.

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If You Love Literature, Travel, and History Alike, Read Juliet’s Answer

We desire love. A love that seeps through our bones and lights up our very being.Some of us get lucky and find it right outside our doors. But for the rest of us, it is an achingly longer journey. It makes us wander across oceans and do crazier things before we find our true home. Glenn Dixon too went down the same road except Shakespeare kept him company guiding him all the way to “Fair” Verona, in Italy. His book, ‘Juliet’s Answer’ is a memoir of that journey towards love.

Glenn was a teacher for more than twenty years before he became a full time writer. During his time as a teacher, he taught Romeo and Juliet to high schoolers. So, when his love story turned tragic, he held on to this epic tale for comfort. His heartache and longing for answers brought him to the doors of Juliet’s house in Verona. Once in Verona, he volunteered to be one of the “secretaries of Juliet”, answering thousands of letters that are addressed to Juliet.

Love is a madness beyond measure. It can make you do unbelievably irrational things. So, it is not surprising that Juliet serves as a symbol of love for some of these heartbroken souls . However, the sheer volume of letters written to Juliet year after year and in so many languages, can take your breath away. As if that is not enough, someone thought that these letters needed to be replied to. What an amazing and equally outrageous idea! But such wild ideas keep the world going and bring comfort to many that are lost.

The book talks about the author’s life as a teacher, the events that led to his arrival in Verona and his experiences being Juliet’s secretary. So, one moment you are in Glenn’s classroom waiting for your turn to play a Shakespearean character and next, you are sitting in an office full of letters waiting to be replied to. While Glenn’s own story is heartbreaking enough, the excerpts from the letters he replied to makes you sob silently.

One might think that the subject of the book is quite the cliche. A heartbreak, followed by a trip to a foreign land sounds like a day in the life of a millennial but Glenn’s writing makes all the difference. The narration is so intimate and sincere that it becomes impossible to deny the instant connection. His interesting findings from his research on love keeps you hooked for more. However, what enthused me more as a reader was his passionate pursuit for everything that’s Shakespeare.

I was as overwhelmed as Glenn was when he eventually got to touch and feel the very old manuscript (printed in 1599) of Romeo and Juliet, in the British Library, London. I jumped in joy every time Glenn discovered something in Verona that indicated that Juliet and Romeo were probably real people. It reminded me of my days in Europe walking from churches to graveyards to museums to bookstores, because those places were once walked upon by some people who inspired me greatly. Although I regret missing Verona during my visit to Italy, I am grateful for the insights this book has given me.If you are looking for a heart-warming story to keep you hopeful during these stressful times, I recommend Glenn Dixon’s Juliet’s Answer. The book also serves as a guide to the city of Verona. So, if you love literature, travel, and history alike, pick this up. You might even end up adding Verona to your travel bucket list.

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It’s a Wonderful Life: Reading Ruskin Bond’s Collection of Vignettes, Essays and Lockdown Journals

Almost a year ago, I wrote “I can finally “stand and stare” and for that I am grateful.” Looking back at the days that went by, I am still grateful to be alive and sound of mind. Just like every year, a fair share of heartbreaks, griefs and sorrows were duly delivered at my doorsteps. There were a handful of blessings too. One such blessing came titled ‘It’s a wonderful life’. “How ironic !”, I thought, especially since the book was written during the pandemic lockdowns. But how can you disagree when it comes from an 86 year old young man who has seen quite a few disasters during his lifetime. So, I moved on from the title and landed at Landour for a ‘Breakfast with Ruskin’.

Every time I read Ruskin Bond, the first emotion that comes to me is envy. How can you not envy the man who has managed to live most of his adulthood with all the pleasures of childhood? He still chases around the bees, collects chestnuts for luck and negotiates food and pyjamas with the monkeys. His world looks so beautiful that sometimes I want to exchange places with the ladybird that walked across the papers on his desk.

The book is a memoir of sorts with a collection of vignettes, essays and lockdown journals. Some of them take you to the days before you while others will remind you of a parent/grandparent trying to cope up with the technoclad era. As always, there is no dearth of nature inside the book. From the blossoming mango trees to the missing flowers, parrots to the smiling crocodiles, Ruskin brings the jungle into your room. But the naughty little man child who sounds excited learning about the sexuality of earthworms, and cheek to cheek selfies make me grin.

The book is only 138 pages but it carries so much joy and warmth bundled carefully between the words. You are also taught to paddle your own canoe, make your own bed and read a poem before bedtime. But what stands out for me is the wit. There is never a dull moment in the book. Be it Gurbachan’s horn, or the monkey’s fashion show or sharpening his friend’s false incisors for a vampire role, every page was a laugh riot. I kept reading out snippets to my husband because it felt so wrong to not share something that could give one a hearty laugh.

In the introduction to the book, Ruskin writes – “Have it with your breakfast or use it as a bedside book. If nothing else, it will put you to sleep and banish all thoughts of dwindling bank balances, taxes falling due, COVID-19 concerns, and a polluted planet”. I used it as my bedside book. Not only did it put my worries to bed, but also brightened up my days. Sometimes amid chores, I would recollect the incidents from the book and laugh out loud. So if you are looking for something cheerful to get you through the rough times, do read ‘It’s is a wonderful life’.

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Written on the Wind Is a Breezy but Touching Tale of Women Defining Their Lives during Indian Independence and Partition

I was angry when I finished reading Anuradha Kumar-Jain’s Written on the Wind. I wanted to know more about what happened to the protagonists. I had so many questions to ask. But the book was over and I knew I must live with this reader’s curse unless Anuradha plans to write a sequel. So, I couldn’t help but be angry. A part of me suggested that my anger probably is triggered by the ‘series-watching symptom’ of this generation. Except there was more to my anger.

Anuradha Kumar-Jain is a writer and an astrologer. Written on the wind is her debut novel. Set in the pre-independence era, this is the story of two women whose fates are entwined to each other and with the partition of India. Born and raised elsewhere, life brings Harjeet and Amiya to  Lahore, setting in motion a steady string of complicated events. With the freedom struggle and partition in the backdrop, we get to watch these two women fight the hardships of being a woman.

The characters of these protagonists are so intricately set that you almost want to complain about not making it easier for you to decide the right and the wrong. Both having suffered a difficult childhood, deserved all the love in the world. Yet, life picks the toughest of ordeals for them and that makes me angry. Even if there are a handful of conveniently-progressive men around, their reluctant efforts to empower these women, get nullified thanks to the sea of women who act as flag-bearers of patriarchy. Every time these women break a wall, there comes a new form of internalized misogyny imprisoning them once again. How can I not be angry?

I am also grateful that these women are strong. Despite all the pain, they do not crumble and wither away. Instead, they thrive and find love in the most unexpected of places. Even if their happiness wasn’t as long-lasting as I would have asked for, I loved watching them fall in love and burn in their desires. Although it is difficult to believe that someone could keep up an affair for so many years without being found out, I might have secretly rooted for them to stay in love. After all, they deserved to be loved and respected for the individual that they are.

The book is also full of ironies, thanks to the complexity of the characters. You have a man who was progressive enough to marry a widow and raise her son as his own. Yet he would betray another innocent woman for his selfish reasons. There is the other man who tells his female friend her husband was foolish to leave her and yet he denies his wife the attention that she rightfully deserves. And then there is this betrayed woman who comes dangerously close to infidelity for a second time.

The book serves as a refresher to some of the historical events of the freedom struggle. The author aptly captures the political mood of individuals and various communities as the movement progresses. The book touches upon the many sacrifices and the turmoil that followed the partition.  We also get a little peek into the culture of the various faiths and households in Lahore that shaped the social constructs of the country.

It is a breezy read thanks to the lucid and gripping narrative. The biggest surprise for me though was Lahore itself. The Lahore, in Anuradha’s Written on the wind, is incredibly beautiful and lively. She surely did make me fall in love with Lahore and I am almost aching to visit Pakistan for the first time in life. I am also secretly hoping for a literary happenstance to meet Anuradha so I can cajole her into telling me more about Harjeet and Amiya. So dear readers, I say go for it if you are up for an engaging tale of love and longing.

Sunita Dwivedi’s Buddha in Gandhara Is a Relentless Pursuit of the Story and Spread of Buddhism

I spent most of my last two weeks cuddled with a notebook, a pen, and Sunita Dwidevi’s Buddha in Gandhara. I gave up on my favourite reading corner at home and sat at the study desk. It was almost as if it was exam mode on, except I was reading and making notes from Buddha in Gandhara. Even though I wasn’t giving an exam, the book was nothing less than a refresher in history, geography, art, culture and whatnot.

Sunita Dwivedi is a silk road traveller, author, and independent researcher. She has been passionately following the trails of Buddha and has published four books based on her travel and research. Buddha in Gandhara is her fourth and recent book in which she takes the Uttarapath or the Northern Highroad of Buddhaland and ventures into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Sunita calls this book of hers ‘a humble effort towards recreating a journey on the Buddha’s trail along the Lahore – Peshawar and Kabul – Samangan routes to the once-thriving cities of Gandhara’. Having spent more than fifteen days poring over the pages of this book, I can assure it isn’t humble, but it is humongous. Starting with her Pakistani visa to the multiple footnotes that adorn almost every page of this book, this is a work of relentless passion and meticulous dedication. Even though it is called a travelogue, it reads more academic to me. The chapters are so laden with information that those instances where Sunita talks of her experiences as a traveller become a breath of fresh air for lesser readers like me. Nevertheless, the amount of information is awe-inspiring.

I must thank whoever came up with the idea of attaching a map to the book. It came in handy as I tried hard to keep up with Sunita while she kept travelling from monasteries to dheris to heritage sites. She introduces to you the glorious past of these seemingly less significant places and the various historical and cultural treasures unearthed from these places. Not only does she travel to these sites on the Uttarapath, documenting the remnants at these sites in the current times, she also sheds light on the observations made by pilgrims like Xuanzang, Faxian and Hye Ch’o during their travel along the same corridor.

The book talks about the various patrons of Buddhism from Pataliputra to Gandhara, their historical connections to one another as well as these heritage sites and more. Through the stupas, their inscriptions, and the scripts used in these inscriptions, we try and comprehend the politics of the Buddhist era. The nature of the various artworks excavated from these sites and the depictions on these artworks helps you understand the cultural and religious amalgamation that had happened over time in these places.

The book captures some anecdotes from the life of Buddha, his ancestors and some of the bodhisattvas. I loved that Sunita indulged her readers in some Jataka tales too. I for one enjoyed learning about the’ Miracle of Sravasti’, the Festival of Buddha, the relics trade, the culture of story-telling over tea in the caravanserais of Peshawar and more. The book has a handful of beautiful pictures from both Pakistan and Afghanistan tempting you to set out on a journey to witness them all in person.

I found some information repeated across different chapters more than a couple of times. These repetitions can tend to tire readers. In retrospection, those are parts I remember better. Yet, I am convinced that those repetitions could have been avoided. I am also convinced that this is a treasured addition to my home library.

Facts apart, I relate to Sunita’s undamped spirit as she climbed the stepped hilly path of Jaulian in the rain, her childlike excitement about the balakhanas, her pensiveness at the holy site of the great Kanishka Stupa and her disappointments over illegal mining, encroachment and trafficking of precious antiquities. She reminds me of my year in Europe and how overwhelming it was to stand on the same ground that once bore many people who changed the face of history. Time, that way is a great equaliser.

Si. Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal Takes You on a Guided Tour of Jallikattu

One night, during January 2017, I woke up with a nightmare and wrote this- The Rights & Wrongs around Jallikattu. The endless debates on social media and all the restlessness in the whole of Marina and TamilNadu wouldn’t let me sleep until I wrote about all that I had to say. One of the oft-repeated suggestions during those times was to pick up and read Si.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal. Strangely these recommendations came from both the pro and anti-Jallikattu activists. After four years, I have finally heeded their advice and I am beginning to wonder if they ever read it before recommending.

I, for one, have never witnessed a Jallikattu in person. However, I have seen and known the pampering the bulls receive as they prepare for their big day. I always looked forward to the newspapers, the mornings after Jallikattu. Even as the stories carried the details of the number of people dead or injured, I loved looking at the pictures of these beautiful bulls in the middle of the arena. It was all magnificent and fascinating until I graduated to live telecast in later years. On live television, all I saw was madness.

Imagine being picked from the comforts of your home and dropped in the middle of one such maddening crowd on a sultry afternoon. That was what was done to me when I began reading Si.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal. The book was a short read. Yet, the whole hour I spent with the book was the most adventurous I have ever felt while reading a book. You are convinced not to move a limb, bat an eye, or even take a breath because anything could happen in the arena in a flash of a second.

Picchi and Maruthan arrive at Chellayi Jallikattu hoping to avenge the death of Picchi’s father, Ambuli. Ambuli is killed in the arena by one ‘Kaari’ and Picchi believes only the defeat of Kaari in the arena would comfort his father’s brave soul. As he awaits his moment of truth, the duo finds themselves in the entertaining company of ‘Pattaya‘, the grand old man. Just like Picchi and Maruthan, I too have my Pattaya – Si. Su. Chellappa, who takes me on a detour while we wait for the contest to begin.

He shows me around the village, the long train of men walking towards the arena, the sheds brimming with the best of the bulls from all over and the festive spirit that fills the air. He introduces me to the various kinds of bulls and educates me in the nuances of Jallikattu. And together we eavesdrop into the conversations in the crowd.

My heart brimmed with emotions as Picchi’s Pattaya talked about the bravery of Ambuli. I felt it all over again when Picchi and Maruthan came face to face with Kaari. The familiarity of the language, the merriment all around, and the nostalgia in the whole set-up gave me a moment of respite. I then watched the whole village follow Kaari to the river and my heart sank. Once again I felt torn between the rights and wrongs of Jallikattu. I felt like that shepherd who voluntarily sacrificed his dearest goat to honour his traditions and then wailed in grief holding its lifeless body.

There at the arena, all conflicts converge into a strange sense of equality. It did not matter where you came from or who your ancestors were. It did not matter if you are rich or poor. It did not even matter if you were a man or an animal. All that mattered was if you had it in you to face the ordeal and survive it. It is also a field of transformation. You see a man become the beast that he was trying to tame and the beast display a human-like intelligence. And whoever emerges victorious shall have the privilege of being the Zamindar’s decorated plaything.

As I looked around, I painfully realized that except for me and the all-powerful Chellayi, who protects the village and its people, there is not a single female in and around the ‘Vaadivaasal’. So much for what began as a sport to impress one’s lady love.  I am not going to hold Si. Su. Chellappa responsible for this. He only mirrored the society of his times which isn’t much different even today. I must also tell you this. If you ever want to know about Vaadivaasal and Jallikattu, there is no one better than him to tell you all about it. And if you don’t read Tamil, you can pick N. Kalyan Raman’s translation of it. Even after the Jallikattu was over, here is one thought from the book that stayed with me and I want to leave it with you too. “The men in the Vaadivaasal might think of this as a sport. However, that’s not true for the bulls.

Walking the Thin Wall Between Death and Freedom in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

Many mornings we find ourselves waking up to thoughts that question the purpose of our existence. The endless monotony of our lives makes us wonder why we do the things we do. I am no different. I have spent years questioning the sufferings of life. I have always wished for someone, anyone who can answer these questions for me and put an end to this agony. I realised I have been looking in the wrong direction, until I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

This classic book comprises two parts. In the first part Viktor Frankl chronicles his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The second part introduces you to the concept of Logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy founded by Viktor Frankl. Although I have read about Holocaust through internet and various articles, this was the first time I was reading a full blown book based on it.

Being aware of the horrors of these camps, I was prepared to drown myself in tears of despair. However, my experience with the book turned out to be quite the opposite. It was empowering to my surprise and I can’t begin to explain the strange strength  that it instilled within me. It could probably be because of the detached, ‘academic’ narrative style of the author. It could also be because of the realization that none of my sufferings are nowhere near to that of Viktor’s.

The book  doesn’t merely chronicle the everyday experiences of a concentration camp. Instead, it examines the human behaviour through each of these events and thereby encourages you to introspect the events in your own life and your reactions to them. That the ‘existential vacuum’, ‘the state of boredom’, and ‘sunday neurosis’ of which Viktor spoke of as early as 1945 is still relatable in 2021 is rather preposterous and yet comforting. When he speaks of   ‘the thought of suicide’ as something that “was entertained by nearly everyone if only for a brief time”, I begin to understand a little of the many suicidal deaths that left me rattled in 2020. He says, “It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others”.

The part where Viktor talks of his wife and how “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved”, is achingly beautiful. Despite the knowledge that he survived the camp, your heart skips a beat when you learn of those days when he was walking a thin wall between death and freedom. From the young woman who talks to the tree to those men who walk through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread, the book brings to you many inspiring tales. As Frankl puts it, “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The greatest comfort that the book gave me, however, was the opportunity to realign my attitude to the circumstances of life. I remember writing in the beginning of 2020, that I would ditch ‘forced positivity’. However, Frankl’s inspiring inferences have got me thinking again. According to him, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Not the answer I was expecting, but this changes the way I look at life and its purposefulness. I am only grateful that this is one of the books I started the year with because it fills me with such hope and vigor.

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Tales from the Himalayas by Priyanka Pradhan Takes You on a Nostalgia Date With Your Childhood

Someone pushed gently at our gate and my husband rushed to check. I saw his face light up with a smile and he was wishing our visitor a happy new year. Our visitor was hardly bothered and babbled away in her merriment. She and my husband have been trying to befriend each other for a while now. I played the observer. The only part of the conversation that I understood was when she said ‘Oh My God’, although I have no idea what made her say that. “Children – theirs is a world of bliss. Won’t it be wonderful to be a child all again?”, I thought to myself. So, the universe conspired later in the day to grant me the wish. Except there was a twist. The wish came true in the form of Priyanka Pradhan’s ‘Tales from the Himalayas’.

As an adult, we tend to oversee the various emotions that fill the world of a child and paint them all in the colours of carefree joy and playful innocence. The book reminded me of how wrong I was. While their world is a lot simpler than ours, they too experience a whirlwind of emotions. Priyanka Pradhan makes us relive at least some of those different emotions, joy included, in her book ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. 

The book, published by Rupa Publications, is a collection of 17 short stories based mostly out of Kumaon, Uttarakhand. Some stories like ‘Kafal’ are inspired from age-old folklore. However, some of them do sound contemporary, especially the ones that touch upon social issues. The story ‘The Villain’ for instance reassures the dark-skinned Kisna to be comfortable in her own skin. In ‘The Bagpiper’ Priyanka encourages little Paru to defy the tradition that doesn’t allow girls to play the masak-been from the bottom of her heart.

Stories like the ‘Daak Ghar’ and ‘The Village Monster’ remind me of those days when I would be terrified to go alone into the kitchen at night for the fear of ghosts. 

Priyanka introduces her readers to the hills, the birds, the berries, the songs, the food and the very culture of this Himalayan state. While ‘Haria’s Kitchen’ made me hungry for all the delicacies of Kumaon, I liked how cleverly she employed the narration to acquaint us with the Choliya dancers with their swords in ‘Holi’ and the famous song of Kumaon in ‘The Spring Song’. She also draws inspiration from history and brings to us the stories of Indian explorer and surveyor, Nain Singh Rawat and Gaura Devi of the famous Chipko movement.

The memories of  our childhood are never complete without our grandparents. So it is only natural that grandmothers and grandfathers make their presence felt in ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. The award-winning ‘Postcard’ especially is quite heartwarming. My favourite, though, is ‘The Long Lost Friends’. It reminds me of how everyone’s childhood is not the same yet most of us have been happiest as a child.

All the stories leave a moral for children and adults alike. Mohit Suneja’s illustrations add colour to this beautiful ride through the mountains. I couldn’t have asked for a better book to start the new year with. Go for it, for the nostalgia that it promises. More so if you are a parent because here is a book to bond over with your child.  

Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ Is a Commentary on the Wild Side of Human Behaviour

Animal fiction is an intriguing genre in literature especially the ones that are written for adults. Be it Orwell’s Animal Farm or Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi, these works do not merely stay as works of fiction. They, instead, go on to serve as a commentary on society and its ironies. Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ is one such commentary on human behaviour. Written originally in Urdu, the book is a collection of short stories and a novella translated by M.Asaduddin and Musharaff Ali Farooqi.  

Syed is one of the most prolific contemporary Urdu writers and also a Sahitya Akademi award winner. His works are known to be a poignant portrayal of the marginalized. ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ is no different and bears testimony to the pathos and deep sensitivity that his works carry. Interestingly all the animals in these stories are ‘wild’ and therefore, a sense of impending danger prevails over most of the stories. For instance, in the story title ‘Rogue’, where three men go out to hunt a rogue elephant on a winter night, you can almost feel a chill in your spine.

Happening at the edge of a forest, these stories, on one hand, depicts a day in the lives of people and their encounter with the wild beings. However, the symbolism in most of the stories is too hard to miss, especially the ones with the Hyena. Real horror begins when the difference between man and animal blurs and you can’t say who is who. In the story, ‘ And then laughed The Hyena’ when everyone in the family walks with a ‘chat-chat’ just like the hyenas, you are thrown into a world of eerie surprise and you end up reading it again to ensure you are not delusional.

‘Death of an Antelope’ and ‘The Vulture’ sound more like fables. While the plots of these stories are quite obvious and they lack the usual layers that exist in all the other ones, they are still enjoyable. They give you a break from all allegories and metaphors. Nevertheless, these too keep you brooding. The stories, ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ and ‘The Last Turn’ are intricately layered in their narration and divulge the hypocrisies in human behaviour. However, my favourite one among the short stories is ‘Separated from the Flock’. A heart-wrenching tale based on the Indo-Pakistan partition in 1947, it talks about the trauma of separation, the grief of the migrated, their broken wings and homelessness.

The last part of the book is the Novella ‘Beast’ – the story of village administrator Thakur Udal Singh and his wild bull Neela. A critique of the oppression of the marginalized and organized crime, this feels a little too stretched in places. The similarities between Thakur and Neela are anything but uncanny and their end seems befitting. But too much is lost before the end arrives, thanks to the terrorizing duo.

While the animals and more so the humans from the stories instil fear in you, Syed offers you some respite in the form of nature. Since all the stories are based on a rural setup, Syed makes sure you walk through the sugarcane fields, watch the sunset, and wake up to a frozen lake.  While I will never know how the original work in Urdu sounds, the translated prose certainly reads beautifully. If you are ready for some pondering and re-reading until you find all the answers, this is the book for you. And did I mention that I loved the cover of the book too?

BLF2020 | When the Headline Is the Story – Amandeep Sandhu, Neena Gopal and Nirmala Govindrajan With Aruna Nambiar

Writer and editor, Aruna Nambiar was in conversation with Neena Gopal, Amandeep Sahu and Nirmala Govindraj. A journalist for thirty-seven years, Neena Gopal is also the author of ‘The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’. Amandeep Sahu has authored two novels, of which ‘Roll of Honour’ was nominated for The Hindu Prize 2013. Journalist and social sector documentarian Nirmala Govindarajan’s new novel ‘Taboo’ has been shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize, 2020. As Aruna pointed out, the one common thing among these three authors was that their books were all inspired from their real life experiences and the subject of their books have been burning the headlines for months together. 

The three authors then spoke of their experiences that shaped their lives and writing.

Neena Gopal went on to talk about the persona of Rajiv Gandhi, his last interview with her and the happenings of the day when he was assassinated. She also briefed on consequences that followed. Aruna also asked her of the various conspiracy theories around Rajiv’s assassination. Neena thought that although the blame was pinned on the LTTE there was more to it than what met the eye. She spoke of how Rajiv overturned every decision that was made by Indira Gandhi and how it was a grave mistake to send Indian troops to Sri Lanka. She also opined that Rajiv was probably tricked by Jayewardene who used Indian forces for his own political ambitions. She mentioned how all information about LTTE’s role in the assassination of Rajiv came from Ranasinghe Premadasa and SITs mess up with Sivanesan’s arrest in Bangalore. She also spoke of Rajiv’s meeting with General Zia, the back-channeled peace talk with Pakistan and that Mossad and CIA did not see India as a friendly nation. Speaking of Rahul Gandhi, she said he has a long way to go and agrees with Aruna that he shouldn’t be referred to as a ‘young’ leader anymore. 

Amandeep Sahu spoke of Punjab, his family, his personal experiences as a boy in the midst of a political hellfire.When asked about how some paint him as a supporter of the Khalistani movement, Amandeep explained that it’s the work of trolls. Amandeep has been very vocal in his support for the ongoing farmers protest and that has irked some right wing supporters who call him pro-Khalistani. However, the translation of his novel ‘Roll of Honour’ in Punjabi titled ‘Gwah De Fanah Hon Ton Pehlan’ has been received well by all factions of Punjab. This is despite the fact that  the book is critical of the political machinery and various religious institutions of that state. Speaking of the farmers’ protest, Amandeep says that it has brought Haryana and Punjab along with the various ideologies within Punjab. He also went on to explain how the centre cannot arbitrate on a state subject. Amandeep insisted how with his writings he wanted to change the current political narrative that demonizes Punjab.

Nirmala then spoke of how she first came across child labour, sex trafficking in Odisha and rural Jharkhand and how that changed her life for ever. She also spoke of her experience with young women in Ooty and Kolkata who were rescued from sex trade, the developmental work being done by various NGOs in these region and how the individuals she met in these places inspired  her work. According to her no political party stepped into these areas and the plight of the tribal people she worked with had changed her opinion about reservation.

Aruna who had recently read Nirmala’s Taboo said she expected the book to be sombre and bleak given the seriousness of the subject. She was surprised to find it rather whimsical and that it made her smile. Nirmala in response said that the idea of writing fiction is to move away from reality to create the alternate reality. Also in her opinion, these girls and women, despite being survivors exude so much positivity that one can write nothing but a whimsical tale of them. When asked about how some of her characters seemed to have been inspired from the current political landscape, Nirmala said that her writings and creations are reflections of what she sees across the country. So her work is a satire on the political state of the country and not merely on sex trafficking. Nirmala also mentioned that her next  book is also a women-centric subject.Her advice for anyone who aspires to write such sensitive subjects is that they must feel strongly about it to be able to talk about it.

Rumble in a Village Underlines Several Unsolved Problems of Indian Villages Through a Murder Mystery

Indian villages are treasure troves of tales. There are a million stories buried within them, that are waiting to be unearthed. But, it is unbelievable that two foreign research scholars who spent only a year in one of those unrecognizable villages of India could spin such a brilliant tale about it. Palanpur, in the words of Jean Dreze, is a “nondescript village” in Moradabad district in Uttar Pradesh. Jean is one of the two authors of the book, ‘Rumble in a Village’, published recently by Aleph Book Company. He along with Luc Leruth documents life as it was in the 1900s in the village of Palanpur where Jean stayed as a part of his research work. Both Jean and Luc are former scholars from the Indian Statistical Institute (New Delhi) and continue to be associated with India in many ways.

The story begins as a murder mystery which compels Anil Singh, a banker in London to return to his father’s village – Palanpur. The murder is only a premise to take the readers to Palanpur. The main plot unravels after you arrive in the village. The story jumps across different timelines as it traces the history of four families over three generations and the dynamics of three castes – the Thakurs, the Muraos, and the Dalits. What is more interesting is most of the characters lived and some still continue to live in Palanpur. The book retained the original name for some of the characters and even has a photograph featuring a few. 

I must credit the authors for their keen eyes which makes the book a very entertaining read starting from Anil’s train journey to Palanpur. Anil’s experience with the Indian railways will stir quite a bit of nostalgia in the readers. The unusual camaraderie, the unnerving questions from fellow travellers, the droplets of spit that hit your face from the window next are just too familiar. I was amused to learn how the railway station in Palanpur came to be named as Jargaon. The book brilliantly chronicles the arrival of the railways and how it changed the lives of the Palanpuris in some unfathomable ways.

The caste politics and the poverty that the book brings out will not surprise you if you are one of those who were raised in an Indian village. But you will be intrigued to learn what changed and what remained unaltered in this ugly game. While the Palanpuris evolved a little when it came to agriculture, they still preferred to have a temple built before fixing the dilapidated school. I can assure you, this mindset hasn’t changed even in 2020 in many of our villages. The worst part, however, was that the Palanpuris seemed to have remained immovable about educating and empowering their women. Like the authors’ rightly point out through Pat’s research, financial independence for women meant a degradation of their stature.

The book effortlessly documents the many little things that truly captures the spirit of Palanpur. The Thakurs and their love for guns, the obsession and the pride that came with becoming a soldier, their marriages and illicit affairs, the village council meetings and corruption that happens at various levels, child mortality and more. The story doesn’t do much about solving a murder mystery but it does in educating you about Indian bureaucracy. While the truth is rather disturbing, Jean and Luc get us through with a little humour. The whole episode of ADO, BDO, CDO, DDO, EDO and more is absolutely hilarious. And then there is Babu and his goat. The innocence and ignorance of these villagers offer you a hearty laugh, but you know that they aren’t as meek as you imagine them to be. Given the opportunity, they are quite capable of crime and treachery.

After a few chapters, I was confused with who is who thanks to the non-linear narration and characters from three different generations. I also did not see any value in the character of the Captain who is shrouded with mystery. But I didn’t need to bother too much about these difficulties because they didn’t matter. What mattered was Luc and Jean transported you to Palanpur and let you live among the Palanpuris and witness it all for real. I didn’t feel the urge to rush through the pages as one would do with murder stories. Instead, I soaked myself in every page, with every detail and the experience that the book had to offer. To me, it felt and read like a bright morning in a beautiful village.

Did Nehru Reject Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council? Rajiv Dogra’s India’s World Answers Many Such Questions

I had never read any of Rajiv Dogra’s works until last week, not even his critically acclaimed Durand’s Curse. However, a few days ago, when I began reading his latest book, India’s World, published by Rupa Publications. I only regret having not read him until then. My reasons are many. I will start with the thing that struck me first – the language. Even for non-fiction, the words are mellifluous. One might as well call the book a ‘poetic’ account of the foreign policy choices of India’s prime ministers. How can one ever put down something that is written so beautifully? I cannot wait to read his other books.

Coming back to ‘India’s World’, Rajiv Dogra talks about how eight out of the fourteen Indian Prime Ministers shaped the foreign policy of India. In the prologue of the book, Rajiv states that his book doesn’t intend “to airbrush the warts of these eight leaders or to exaggerate their abilities. It is to present the leaders as they were and to reflect on their policies as they affected the country.” That is precisely what he does in the chapters that follow. Starting from India’s first prime minister Nehru to the current Prime Minister Modi, he discusses the successes and failures of each of these leaders and their policies with much candour. He credits Nehru for his statesmanship that guided India towards a secular democratic set up, unlike Pakistan. However, he doesn’t mince his words when he explains how Nehru ignored the advice of Vallabhbhai Patel and Ambedkar to only complicate the Kashmir issue for decades to come.

Rajiv acknowledges that all these leaders were handed over a country that had a plethora of socio-economic problems. Add to it the unstable power dynamics across the various groups of countries and the mistakes of their predecessors. While some learnt from the mistakes of their predecessor and tried to fix it, they then made mistakes of their own. Each one had their distinguished style when it came to foreign policy. While Nehru was a man of ideals, Shashtri was a more practical leader. Indira was the Goddess and Modi, the Rule Maker. This also meant that India lacked a “well-drafted long term approach” towards foreign policy which leads to the next question. Did our leaders ever have a shared vision of India’s role in the world’s affairs?

Rajiv picks some of the most commonly debated decisions of these leaders and critiques them. This is not merely based on his rich experience and expert opinion, but is also supported with archival documents, quotes from direct sources, books, articles and more.

The book traces the foreign policy decisions of India from the time of Independence to date. That way the book is a good starter to anyone who wants to understand the history and evolution of some of the most significant topics like the Kashmir Issue, India’s relationship with the USA, China and Russia, Non-alignment movement, Bangladesh war, India’s relationship with South-East Asia and more.

The book ends with an unusual epilogue featuring Narendra Modi as its protagonist. The title of the epilogue says it all – The More it changes the more it remains the same. Rajiv warns us of the grim realities like the never-ending Pakistan troubles and the increasing Chinese aggression in our neighbourhood. He adds that India must set its internal affairs in order if it aspires to be a stabilising power in world affairs.

While the earlier chapters of the books are very exhaustive, I find the latter ones rushed and lacking specifics in comparison. Yet, the book answers many questions and busts many myths with factual evidence. The books also feature several interesting tidbits like how P.V. Narasimha Rao was packing for a life of retirement when he was called on to become the Prime Minister and why Atal Bihari Vajpayee called him the true father of Shakti Nuclear Test. So if you are wondering if India rejected a permanent seat in the UNSC, or why Indira did not attack West Pakistan while our troops were already winning, or if the many international trips that our current Prime Minister undertook strengthened India’s place in the world, pick this book up.