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.

பாகிஸ்தான் சிறுகதைகள் (Short Stories from Pakistan) – நூல் அறிமுகம்

இந்த உலகின் மிக விசித்திரமான, அதி சூட்சமமான படைப்பு மனம். ஹரப்பா நாகரீகத்தின் பழமையில் லயித்தவண்ணம் யமுனை நதிக்கரையில் நடைபோடும். மறுகணமே பாண்டிபஜாரின் கரும்புசாறு விற்பனையாளனோடு கலந்துரையாடும். அடுத்தகணம் நாளைய ப்ரொஜக்ட் டெட்லைன் சிந்தனைக்குள் மூழ்கிவிடும். சூடுபடும்போதெல்லாம் சுருண்டு கொள்ள, பழகிய வாசனை கொண்ட போர்வை தேடும். பரிதவிக்கும்போதெல்லாம் ஓளிந்து கொள்ள மனம் தேடும். அகங்காரத்தின் உற்சவத்தில், வெறுமையின் வெயிலில், நோய்மையின் பெரும்சுமையில், பயத்தின் கொடுங்கோல் ஆட்சியில் இந்த மனம் எப்படியெல்லாம் சிந்திக்கும், தன்னை சுத்தியிருக்கும் மனிதர்களிடம் எதை தேடும், நிகழ்வுகளுக்கு பின்னிக்கிடக்கும் உணர்வுகளை எப்படி  கையாளும் என்பதை வெவ்வேறு சூழலில் வாழும் வெவ்வேறு மனிதர்களைக் கொண்டு 32 கதைகளாக இங்கே கொடுத்திருக்கிறார்கள். இந்த புத்தகத்தை வாசித்துமுடித்தபின் நீங்களும் பால்வெளியின் கடைசி நட்சத்திரத்திலோ அல்லது பாலைவனத்தின் ஈச்சமர நிழலில் நிற்கக்கூடும்.

இந்த 32  கதைகளும் வெவ்வேறு சூழலில், வெவ்வேறு காலத்தில் வாழும் மனிதர்களின் மனப்போராட்டங்களை, சக மனிதர்களோடும் சமுதாய மரபுகளோடும் அவர்களுக்கு ஏற்படும் உணர்வுசிக்கல்களை அதன் இயல்பு மாறாமல் பேசுகிறது. குறிப்பாக தால் பாலைவனம் ,  அறியா பருவம், கழுவாய், பூனைக்குட்டி, ஓர் அன்மாவின் அவலம், சைபீரியா, நெற்றிக்கண், அரிப்பு, கெளவரம், அப்பா ஆகிய கதைகள் என்றும் நம் மனதோடு நிற்கும்.

தால் பாலைவனம்

தால் பாலைவனத்தில், ரயில் பாதை அமைக்கப்பட்டபோது ஏற்பட்ட இடையூறுகளும் அதன் பின்னே இருக்கும் கதைகளும் நிச்சயம் சுவாரஸ்மானவை. இது நம் நீலி கதை போல் தலை தலைமுறையாக முன்னோர்களால் சொல்லப்பட்ட ஒன்றாகவும், திரிக்கப்பட்ட ஆயினும் அவசியப்பட்ட ஒன்றாகவும் இருந்திருக்கும் என்றே தோன்றுகிறது.

ரயில் பாதை அமைக்கப்பட்ட‌ போது  ஏற்பட்ட சிக்கலுகளுக்கும், ரயில் பாதை தொடங்கிய பின் நடந்த உயிரிழப்புகளுக்கும் ஹஜரத் பீர் அவர்களின் கோபம் தான் காரணம் என்றெண்ணிய மக்கள். ரயிலில் செல்லும் போதெல்லாம் தாயத்துடனே சென்றிருக்கிறார்கள். அந்த கதைகளையும் அந்த இழப்புகளையும் சிறு வயதிலிருந்த பார்த்து வந்த மிஸ்ரிக்கு ரயிலே ஒரு பிசாசு தான். வாழ்க்கை முழுவதும் அந்த பிசாசை அவர் எப்படி தவிர்த்தார்.  பயம் கடந்து அவர் தேடிப்போனபோது அந்த பிசாசு அவரை எப்படி துரத்தியது என்பதே இந்த கதையின் சுவாரஸ்யம். ரயில் பாதை அமைப்பதில் ஏற்படும் சிக்கல்களை வாசிக்கும்போது, நாமே அங்கு இருப்பது போல் ஒரு பிரமை இராமலிங்கம் ஏற்படுத்திவிடுகிறார். இந்த கதையை படித்தபின் அந்த ரயிலில் ஒரு முறையாவது பயணித்துவிட வேண்டும் என்ற எண்ணம் எனக்குள் மேலோங்கிவிட்டது (நிச்சயமாக தாயத்துடன் தான்).

அறியா பருவம்

ஒரு இளம் பெண் மருத்துவர், தற்காலிக பணத் தேவைகாக தூர கிராமத்தில் வசிக்கும் நிலச்சுவான்தாரின் மனைவிக்கு பிரசவம் பார்க்க செல்கிறாள். குடும்ப கலாச்சாரம் என்ற பெயரில் பிற்போக்குதனத்தில் மூழ்கியிருக்கும் மக்களின் அறியாமை தாளமுடியாமல் திணறிப்போகிறாள்.. பிரசவத்தின் வலி புரியாமல் சிக்கல்கள் உணராமல் அவர்கள் நடத்தும் சடங்குகளும் கொண்டாட்டங்களும் அவளை திக்குமுக்காட செய்கிறது. பிரசவம் என்பது மறுபிறவி எனில் அது மரணம் வரை அந்த பெண்ணை இழுத்துசென்று விடுவித்திருக்கிறது என்று தானே அர்த்தம். அவள் வலியை அவள் அந்தரங்க நேரத்தை எப்படி இவர்களால் இப்படி அலெட்சியபடுத்தமுடிகிறது. கொண்டாட்டம் என்பது ஏன் எப்பவும் அநீதிகளுக்கான ஆரம்பமாக அமைந்துவிடுகிறது. இப்படியெல்லாம் ஒரு கொண்டாட்டம் தேவைதானா? எண்ணற்ற கேள்விகளையும் எனக்குள் விதைத்து சென்றது இக்கதை.

பூனைக்குட்டி

கய்யூம் என்னும் ஏழை சிறுவனுக்கு பூனை வளர்க்க வேண்டும் என்று கொள்ளை ஆசை. பற்பல போராட்டத்திற்குப்பின்னர், அவனை வந்தடையும் பூனைக்குட்டியும் அவன் உயிரும் எப்படி அதிகாரவர்க்கத்தால் சூரையாடப்படுகிறது என்பதே இக்கதை. கய்யூமின் பூனையாகவோ அல்லது அந்த பூனையை அவனுக்கு மீட்டுக்கொடுக்கும் போராளியாகவோ என்னை மாற்றிவிட்டது இக்கதை.

ஓர் ஆன்மாவின் அவலம்

பிழைக்கத்தெரியாத அல்லது கையாலாகாத அல்லது தன்னை தொலைத்த அப்பாக்களின் ஒரே ஆயுதம் மெளனம். அப்படிப்பட்ட அப்பாக்களுடன்  காதல், சிநேகம், கோபம், வெறுப்பு, விரக்தி, இயலாமை, காழ்புணர்ச்சி என தன் அத்தனை உணர்வுகளாலும் போராடி பின் புலம்பலும் கண்ணீருமே வாழ்கையாய் மாறிப்போகும் அம்மாக்களை நாம் நிறைய பார்த்திருக்கிறோம், வாசித்திருக்கிறோம். ஆனால் இது அப்படிப்பட்ட அம்மா அப்பாக்களின் கதையல்ல அவர்கள் மகளின் கதை. அம்மாவின் புலம்பலும் அப்பாவின் மெளனமும் அவளை வெறுப்படையச் செய்கிறது. சுவாரஸ்யமற்று, உரையாடலற்று  வெறுமை மட்டுமே குடியிருக்கும் வாழ்ககையில் அவள்  எதையோ தேட தொடங்குகிறாள். அவளின் தேடலை, தனிமையை, வெறுமையை அவள் உடலை இவ்வுலகம் பயன்படுத்திக்கொள்கிறது. அதை எவ்விதமறுப்பின்றி அவள் அனுமதிக்கிறாள். தீராத வலியை உண்டு செரிக்க அவளுக்கு அது தேவைப்படுகிறது.  வாழ்க்கை முழுவதும், வெவ்வேறு வகையில் அவள் பிறரால் பயன்படுத்திக்கொள்ளப்படுகிறாள். அவளை பிரிந்து சென்ற, அவளை துரத்தியடித்த, அவளுக்காக வரிந்துக் கட்டிக்கொண்டு வக்காலத்து வாங்காத யார் மீதும் அவளுக்கு கோபமோ வருத்தமோ இல்லை. அவளுக்கு யார் மீதும் நம்பிக்கையோ காதலோ இருந்ததேயில்லை. அவள் யாரையும் காட்டிக்கொடுத்ததுமில்லை. புருவம் உயர்த்தி நாம் முகம்சுழித்த எத்தனை மனிதர்களுக்குபின் இப்படி ஒரு கதை இருக்ககூடும். எத்தனை மனிதர்கள் இப்படி வெறுமைக்கும் வலிக்கும் பலியாகிக் கிடப்பார்கள்.  அந்த வெறுமைப்பெருங்காட்டில் வாழ்வதே பெரிதல்லவா? அவர்களை நாம் ஏன் ஆராய்ந்து பார்க்க வேண்டும்? சலனமற்ற முகங்களுக்குள் இன்னும் எத்தனை எத்தனை வலியோ?

பாகிஸ்தான் மக்கள் இடையே ஒரு வழக்கம் இருந்திருக்கிறது (இப்போது இல்லாமல் போயிருக்கலாம்). “ஒரு உயிர்பலிக்கு அல்லது இழப்புக்கு பதிலாக, தங்கள் மகளை அந்த வீட்டு ஆண்களுக்கு (வயது வித்தியாசமில்லாமல்) திருமணம் செய்துக்கொடுக்க வேண்டும்.” இது ஒரு தீர்ப்பு ஆக சொல்லப்பட்டுவந்திருக்கிறது. நம் ஊரில் வன்புணர்வு செய்தவனுக்கே பெண்ணை கல்யாணம் செய்து வைப்பது போல். பெரும்பாலும் இப்படி திருமணம் செய்துக்கொண்டு எதிரி வீட்டுக்கு செல்லும் பெண்கள் தீராத பாலியல் துன்புறுத்தலுக்கும் வன்முறைக்கும் உள்ளாகி மரணித்துவிடுகிறார்கள் அல்லது சுயபிரக்ஞையற்றவர்களாக மாறிவிடுகிறார்கள். அப்பா, பகவான்தாஸ் மேஸ்திரி மற்றும் கெளரவம் போன்ற கதைகள்  இந்த வழக்கத்தால் பாதிக்கப்பட்ட பெண்களை மையமாக கொண்டு நகர்கிறது.

இதுவரையில் நான் தமிழ் இலக்கியத்தில் வாசித்திராத ஒரு தளம் உளவியல் ரீதியான கதைகள். ஒருவரின் மனப்போக்கை இப்படி வார்ததைகளாக கொண்டு வந்துவிட முடியும் என்று நான் நினைத்துக்கூட பார்த்ததில்லை. சைபீரியா, மரவட்டை, கழுவாய், அரிப்பு – இந்த கதைகள் அனைத்தும் ஒருவரின் மனப்போக்கை அப்படியே பதிவு செய்கிறது.. உதாரணத்திற்கு அரிப்பு என்னும் கதையில் ஒரு அரிப்பு நோயின் ஆரம்பக்கட்டத்தில் இருக்கும் ஒருவன், ஊனமானவர்களைத் தேடித்தேடி பார்க்கிறான். அவர்களுக்கு ஓடி ஓடி உதவிசெய்கிறான் தன் நோயோடு அவர்களை ஒப்பீட்டு பார்க்கிறான். எங்கு சென்றாலும் அவன் ஊனமானவர்களையே தேடுகிறான்.  எல்லோரிடமும் ஏதோ ஒரு ஊனம் இருக்கிறது அது அவன் கண்ணுக்கு சுலபமாக புலப்படுகிறது. இப்படியாக‌ நகர்க்கிறது அந்த கதை.

இந்த புத்தகத்தில் நான் தேடிய எல்லாம் இருந்தது. என்னால் தேடப்பட வேண்டியவையும் இருந்தது. ஆயினும் காதல் மட்டும் இல்லை. ஒரு அழகான காதல் கதை இருந்திருக்கலாம். மனதின் சூட்சமங்களை, மனிதர்களின் உணர்வுகளோடு அது நடத்தும் கண்ணாமூச்சி ஆட்டத்தை அதன் இயல்பு மாறாமல் சுகிக்கவிரும்புவருக்கும், பிற மரபுகளை அறிய விரும்பவர்க்கும் இந்த புத்தகம் நிச்சயம் பிடிக்கும்.

நூல் பற்றிய குறிப்பு:

இந்திஜார் ஹுசேன் & ஆஸிப் ஃபரூக்கி ஆகிய இருவரால் உருதுவில் தொகுக்கப்பட்டு எம். அஸதுத்தீன் அவர்களால் ஆங்கிலத்தில் மொழிபெயர்க்க பெற்ற இந்நூலை மா. இராமலிங்கம் எழில்முதல்வன் அவர்கள் ஆங்கிலத்தில் இருந்து தமிழில் மொழியாக்கம் செய்திருக்கிறார். சாஹித்திய அகாடமி வெளியீடான இப்புத்தகம் பின்வரும் தளங்களில் கிடைக்கப்பெறுகின்றது.

https://www.exoticindiaart.com/book/details/pakistan-chirukathaigal-in-tamil-short-stories-MZG405/

http://www.indiaclub.com/Pakistan-Chirukathaigal-TAMIL_p_391294.html

https://amzn.to/2WFmAlW

 

நூல் மதிப்பீட்டாளர் பற்றிய குறிப்பு:

சத்யா, வார்த்தைகளினால் வலிகளை வழியனுப்பி வைக்கும் கூட்டுப் பறவை. எந்த உதடுகளாலும் மொழியப்படாத மனித உணர்வுகளை புத்தகங்களில் தேடுபவள். சங்கீத பிரியை. இயற்கையின் சங்கேத மொழி அறிய முயற்சிபவள்

Love Curry Cover Image

Love Curry is the Perfect Antidote to Pain in this Perky Love Story by Pankaj Dubey

There are not many books that talk about the stories of Indians who leave motherland for various reasons and settle down in foreign countries. The stories of these individuals and their families are each potential best-sellers. There are so many suppressed emotions and buried plots waiting to be unearthed and unleashed to the world. That way, Pankaj Dubey’s ‘Love Curry‘ published by Penguin Random House India is a very interesting addition to this not so long list. It isn’t merely the story of an Indian, we also have a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi who bring in additional flavours to this book.

Away from homelands and out of their protective nets, you will always find the subcontinental borders melting away and a natural brotherhood flourishing amidst citizens of these sister nations. That is precisely the premise of this book, but then there is more. Loaded with their versions of pain, misery, aspiration, and compulsion, Rishi from India, Shehzad from Bangladesh and Ali from Pakistan land in London and end up being flatmates. But a new storm awaits them there in the form of Zeenat, who is very much the human version of Bollywood.

The book opens with a very passionate chapter that can slap you awake and drag you into the story. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself smiling or grinning or laughing out loud in the middle of a seemingly romantic chapter. That is thanks to Pankaj’s wit and humour that is strewn all over. And I assure you, that you will experience the same phenomenon throughout the book, even as the plot thickens and that makes the read quite enjoyable. Then comes the personal cross that each of our characters carries with them.

Not just the trio, but also the story of Zeenat and her father Mullah, are a short yet intriguing peek into the disturbing lives of the men and women who are constantly at war while trying to make a fresh start in a faraway land. It is very interesting to see the author use a thread from their pasts to establish their present-day existence. I especially loved the part where he explains how it was a natural evolution for Shehzad to become a tattoo artist and Mullah naming his daughter Zeenat. I couldn’t help but smile when I realized why the book was titled ‘Love Curry’ and how that is a thread that moves the second part of this tale.

An unfortunate catastrophe brings about a series of events some of which eventually take our characters to the home they dearly want and deserve. Before they get there, they must endure a few more seismic attacks including racial discrimination and wrongful detention. However, as always the sense of brotherhood prevails and help arrives just in time.

While the book is essentially a story of love and friendship, it is knit into an engaging tale by putting together the many elements that define the connections between the three countries that our Romeos hail from. I am no longer surprised how cricket is an indispensable character in all stories that involve these countries. So, I did manage to keep a straight face when Ali and Rishi fought over an Indo-Pakistan cricket match, however, the discussions that happened around the could-bes and would-bes if only our countries decide to tear down the differences and redraw the borderlines once and for all were quite exciting. As wishful as they might sound, the ray of hope that was glistening through those discussions is too hard to miss.

Finally comes the most important of our connections and the one that warms our heart to the greatest extent- our Curries. The mutual love that we share for the biryanis, kebabs, and the endless list of flavourful curries is that one weapon which can probably destroy the elements of hate and bring about harmony. Need I mention how it is only right that it be honoured with the place in the title of the book?

The perky narration and the lively dialogues, makes the book sound like a half-done Bollywood screenplay. Don’t tell us that we didn’t warn you, when Love Curry hits the big screen, especially because Pankaj is also a filmmaker. I have only one suggestion for whoever makes a movie out of this – please skip the political conversations that happen among the trio in the second part. It is a little too stretched and unbelievable that these misfits would discuss subcontinental politics with their head in the guillotine. Otherwise, I would say go for it. It is an easy and engaging read and just the right kind of book you need to calm those nerves during these times of uncertainty.

AazadiMeraBrand Book Cover

For Indian Women, ‘to be allowed to be, or not allowed to be’ is the Question

The history of travel-writing in Hindi is short. Rahul Sankrityayan being the most prominent name in this genre followed by a very few. However, what is both surprising and disappointing is that one cannot spot even a single woman writer marking such journeys. Anuradha Beniwal breaks this unimposed pattern and writes about her journey of solo travelling in Europe in her first book Azaadi Mera Brand.

Inspired by an Italian friend from her college days, she sheds all the stereotypical brands attached to an Indian girl and discovers Azaadi – Freedom to be her favorite brand. She starts her journey not from any city but from her home by questioning what stops a girl, a woman in travelling solo- is it a self inhibition or the judgments of being a good or bad girl by the society? She quotes Shakespeare- “to be, or not to be: that is the question” and is quick to answer herself that the question changes in reference to India. In India, the question (especially for girls) is “to be allowed to be, or not allowed to be.” She also mentions that a huge amount of savings is not a precondition for being a vagabond and shares hilarious instances of how she raised the money all by herself for the trip. Answering many such questions, this free spirit sets on a solo journey for Europe starting from London (where she currently resides) travelling to the cities of Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague among other which I leave unnamed here as the way she discovers them without following a strict itinerary because the thrill of travelling without knowing what is next is unmatchable.

She begins with Paris. Roaming around the lanes learning a few French words to interact with the people, she says – “the best way to explore a city is by walking, you not only interact with people but the art and architecture of the place too.” She vividly paints the pictures of her adventures of meeting new people, going through various museums, trying quirky cuisines and partying with random people. She also shares interesting anecdotes of Indians she came across living in those cities.

She hitchhikes from one city to another sharing cabs and wonders would it be ever so safe and possible in her own country? While she holds your hands and takes you along to Europe with her words, she is candid about the cultural contrasts with respect to the Indian mindset. On her entire journey, Anuradha does not book a hotel but lodges in the home-stays. All the stays have peculiar stories from staying alone in a room without lock to staying with two young boys who have a little message for the guest “Come the way as you are”- hung upside down on the door. Though, not all the stays were as welcoming. Well, there comes no travelling without hurdles. You lose your camera, your mobile discharges when you need it the most, taking the wrong lane and the horrific out of all, you miss the scheduled bus by a few seconds.

Anuradha, a former National Indian chess player, now settled in London is outspoken of all that is going in her mind throughout the journey which makes the book even more authentic. It is not just a diary of wanderlust but of courage of letting oneself free and vulnerable. Coming from a small village of Haryana, Anuradha describes her book as the travel memoir of a wanderer ‘Haryanvi Chori’. In the last chapter of the book, she addresses to all the girls of her country to shed all the inhibitions and shackles they think they are bound by and set out on the journey they want to take.

Published in 2016 by Rajkamal Prakashan, the book is first in the series of ‘Yayavari-Aawargi’ (Vagabondage). The book attracted a lot of appreciation and earned author the ‘Srijnatmak Gadya Samman’. Anuradha is the youngest writer to win the award. Available on Amazon Kindle, this travelogue is the perfect read for all the Hindi lovers to shoo away the monotonicity in the time of lockdown and wander freely in the lanes of Europe.

About the Author: Bhumika Soni is a literature enthusiast working in the field of data analytics, she has always found words more charming and powerful than numbers. Still searching for The Enchanted Tree created by Enid Blyton to travel to various magical worlds. She loves spy thrillers and Ruskin Bond stories.

 

Thirty Dates in Thirty Days

Wake up. Wash hands. Cook food. Wash hands. Finish editing the article. Wash hands. Eat. Wash hands. Webstream and chill. Wash hands. Eat. Wash hands. Scroll down the news feed. Read. Wash hands. Off to bed. Wake up. Repeat. One day was rolling into another, an endless loop with nothing except sundown and sunrise to mark the fact that the date had changed. The day I picked up my phone to check whether the day was Sunday or Monday, I realized something had to give. I had to break this infinite loop before it started feeling like a noose tightening around me.

I needed help, and so I turned to my oldest and most trusted friends – stories. Stories have always been my portal to different times, different spaces. They’ve been the most stress-free way to make new acquaintances, some who became lifelong friends with permanent spots on my bookshelves and some from whom I grew apart, and they moved on. Continuing with the next one on my 2020 reading list did not feel right. Nothing in 2020 was going as per plan, so why should my reading plan be spared!

 

The thing with the lockdown and this pandemic is that there is no missing endpoint. No one, not scientists, doctors, experts… no one can do anything more than shrug when asked – when will this end? What we are hoping for is a single word answer, what we get is a thesis filled with data, ifs and buts, and before they get into the appendices, we have tuned off. This lack of an end in sight is unnerving. That’s what my loopy routine needed – a way to mark the end of the day and something new to look forward to the next day. Stories in long-form would not fall in line with this plan. Maybe, short stories? Novellas? And then it struck me – a new acquaintance every day and perhaps to reacquaint with a few who have been sitting around gaining wrinkles.

 

I start at a happy place – a childhood favourite, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. Rereading it after almost three decades, I realize that this time around I catch the parable that the writer has whispered between the lines. I sleep happy that night. Next on the cards are short stories by Philip Roth who had left quite an impression on me last year with his Goodbye, Columbus. The short stories I pick focus on the theme of religion and tolerance without being overbearing. Another childhood favourite Astrid Lindgreen’s Pippi Longstocking sweeps me up in nostalgia. Next, I mix things up with reading a play script, something which I usually do with a group of friends. But, hey friends have dehydrated into pings on the phone and boxes on the computer screen! I pick a long overdue read Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, a play layered with social and individual tension.

 

Ibsen’s comment on society nudges me in the direction of Saadat Manto’s short stories. Manto once defended the theme in his writing with these words – “If you cannot bear these stories, then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society which itself is naked.” After a quick hey-ho to Herman Melville in the 19th century, a ping on the phone pulls me back to the present. It is India’s favourite cartoonist R K Laxman’s The Best of Laxman, one of the many freebies that are appearing in our realms to help make the lock-in bearable. Another play, this time British dramatist Willy Russell’s One For the Road drives home the point that tragedy when cloaked with comedy hits hard. As I ponder over my next day’s read, a thin spine catches my eye. The cover is a sage green that time has muted down – Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. A gift, it has sat in the shadows of the tomes around it for half a decade. Yeats, in his introduction, says Tagore’s ‘songs brought out a world that he had always dreamed of.‘ As I read on, I echo this feeling. My tenth date on the tenth day is with British-Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing. The author’s ability to spot stories in the ordinary through her observation of the vagaries of human behaviour strikes a chord. It’s the kind of writer I hope to become. Ten days of reading a different author each day has added a beat to the hum and drum.

 

 

Next, I pick a modern romance Edan Lepucki’s If You’re Not Yet Like Me. A far cry from the teeth-decaying sweet romances I grew up, the writer’s choice of backing a flawed protagonist makes it relatable. I follow it up with Punch Goes Abroad, a compilation of travel articles that initially featured in Punch Magazine. It is speed dating at its best as Miles Kington, Julian Barnes, and a few others do their best to woo me. Day 13 introduces me to a new name, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose stories lead me to a world I know nothing of and hold me trapped there much after the stories end. From new introductions to the always-and-forever, Ernest Hemingway with A Big two Hearted River and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The next day brings home The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitsgerald, which carries some shades of Gatsby.

 

 

A tweet alerts me to a new author, Norwegian Joe Fosse. His novella And Then My Dog Will Come Back To Me starts with an innocuous event but soon takes hairpin bend twists and turns. Or does it? The doubts persist though the tale ends. The next few days are what become, by chance not decision, my classic phase. I read Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain,  William Faulkner and Jack London. The only interruption is Bernard Pomerance’s brilliantly conceived play The Elephant Man, which is read out loud over a Zoom call with a group of fellow readers and followed by a spirited discussion.  The classic phase is followed by some contemporary geniuses Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes and another eternal love Haruki Murakami’s The Folklore of Our Times.

 

 

A week away from a month of reading a different author every day, and it occurs to me that I have neglected contemporary Indian writers. V S Naipaul‘s Indian origin gets him a foot through the door and his short stories in A Flag on the Island paint a vivid picture of life on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. From the Caribbean, it is a quick flight back home to Mumbai. Rohinton Mistry’s Firozsha Baug acquaints the reader with life in the Parsi colonies that dot the city. Another Indian writer on my list is Satyajit Ray with his short story Bonku Babu’s Friend. True to his style, the writer uses a straightforward narrative to hold a mirror before us that compels us to examine ourselves, uncomfortable as it may be. Another neglected group on my list is women writers, and with month-end looming close, I turn to two celebrated women. Virginia Woolf’s short stories The Mark on the Wall and Kew Gardens are in her characteristic stream of consciousness style. Her ability to stretch and collapse moments is astounding. She is followed by Alice Munro with The Bear That Came Over The Mountain which redefines love when seen through a more pragmatic lens. It’s day 30, and the recommendation has come from the great Murakami, a name that made an appearance in his short story Kenzaburo Oe. His Aghwee, the Sky Monster delves into the theme of mental disorder with a subtlety that is befitting of the point of view character. I am enamoured, and I see the merit in exploring a longer relationship with Oe.

 

 

What next? Perhaps, a new reading goal. For now though I am revelling in the many moments that these stories created in the last thirty days. If it weren’t for them, the days would have connected together in a flatline, and that is no way to live.

Illustrations Himali Kothari


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With Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness, the British Empire’s Indictment Continues

Combined with the meanness of a pedlar with the profligacy of a pirate… Thus it was (that) they united the mock majesty of a bloody scepter with the little traffic of a merchant’s counting house, wielding a truncheon with one hand and picking a pocket with the other 

    – Richard Sheridan

 

Book Cover -An Era of DarknessWhen a 23-year United Nations’ veteran with experience at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UN for Peacekeeping writes about the colonial hegemony of England, how could you refuse? After his famous Oxford Union debate questioning Britain’s reparative responsibility towards ‘her former colonies’ went viral, Shashi Tharoor had publishers clamoring for a more comprehensive exposition. An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India addresses Britain’s ‘colonial amnesia’ with a perspective-laden history lesson for those unfamiliar with British colonialism and India’s struggle for independence. For those who are familiar with Indian history, the narrative is a trudge through known facts while waiting for Tharoor’s eloquent gems.

 

Thomas Roe
Thomas Roe

Writing as an “Indian of 2016 about the India of two centuries ago and less, animated by a sense of belonging morally and geographically to the land that was once so tragically oppressed by the Raj”, Tharoor meticulously breaks down the British Empire’s arrival and conquest of India, including its barbaric practices against ‘uncivilized’ Indians which were frequently rationalized with the stereotypical stiff upper lip, and the ‘consequences of the Empire’ in post-colonial India. Beginning in 1615 with the arrival of the first British ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, appearing in Jehangir’s royal court, the author traces the British Empire which had its precursor in the East India Company’s (EIC) trade expansion and the decidedly deliberate ‘looting of India.’ EIC’s expansion was ably supported by British soldiers who destroyed Indian looms and have even been alleged to “break the thumbs of some Bengali weavers, so they could not ply their craft.” While the 1857 Indian mutiny ensured the formal control of the British Crown, imperialist policies began as early as the late 18th century when the East India Company established ‘Mayor’s Courts’ in 1726. However, the supposed ‘rule of law’ established during colonial India refused to accommodate Lord Ripon’s attempt to “allow Indian judges to try British defendants,”

 

Tharoor systematically argues against British claims of providing India with civilizational tools of education and democracy even as ‘the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries’ laid the foundations of the United Kingdom’s thriving industrial development (Fig. 1). Economist Utsa Patnaik asserts that “between 1765 and 1938, the drain amounted to 9.2 trillion pounds ($45 trillion).” Tharoor also examines Empiric claims of enabling India’s political unity in detail including British expropriation of Indian royal authority and Lord Cornwallis’ ‘Permanent Settlement’ (1793) for 90% revenue from land taxation which exploited village communities in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa similar to the haciendas in Latin America. Neither is he convinced that British parliamentary democracy is suited for contemporary India which he feels “has created a unique breed of legislator largely unqualified to legislate.” 

Share of World GDP (0 - 1998 A.D.)
Fig. 1: Share of World GDP – United Kingdom vs India
Source: Angus Maddison – The World Economy

 

Of course, the fairly exhaustive examination of British colonialism does not fail to ponder over the ‘British Colonial Holocaust’ claimed by researchers to be a direct result of the institutional failure of Winston Churchill’s policies during the devastation of the 1943 Bengal famine causing the death of nearly 3 million people. Even Leo Amery, appointed Churchill’s Secretary of State for India in 1940, recorded Churchill’s famous ‘breeding like rabbits‘ quote when he pushed the British Prime Minister to send food supplies to Bengal.

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According to Tharoor, while the British Empire had forgotten India’s centuries-old historical legacy of cultural assimilation and the consequential embracing of English during its freedom struggle, Britain’s culpability in India’s intellectual subordination is evident in the nation’s 16% literacy at independence. Tharoor asserts that “it is striking that a civilization that had invented the zero, that spawned Aryabhata (who anticipated Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler by several centuries, and with greater precision), and Susruta (the father of modern surgery had so little to show by way of Indian scientific and technological innovation even under the supposedly benign and stable conditions of Pax Britannica.” 

 

Even as Britain continues its frequent ‘self-exculpation’, barbaric colonial practices have been par for the course in enlightened despotism’ around the world. But the British Empire’s indictment came as early as 1839 when writer and spiritualist William Howitt said, “The scene of exaction, rapacity, and plunder that India became in our hands, and that upon the whole body of the population, forms one of the most disgraceful portions of human history.’ And as Horace Walpole sneered in 1790, “What is England now? A sink of Indian wealth”. Of course, the Kohinoor remains a British Crown Jewel to this day. Whether or not the historical territory of British colonialism in India is familiar to you, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India is a shining example of an Indian’s perspective of colonialism.

 

Agni Sreedhar’s The Gangster’s Gita Evokes a Whirlwind of Emotions


The first time I heard the name Agni Sreedhar I was sitting in one of the conference rooms of the Hotel Lalit Ashok, Bengaluru, editing a blog for the Bangalore Literature Festival. Mr. Sreedhar was one of the guest speakers for the festival and was in conversation with renowned Kannada writer Prathibha Nandakumar about his new book The Gangster’s Gita (published by Eka). Like many others before me, I too was intrigued reading about his life and one of our team members filled me in with more details about this so-called gangster turned writer, which only piqued me further. His story has been so unlike the usual that it wasn’t too difficult for me to register his name in the memory amidst the long list of speakers who came to the festival. From then till today, there had been many occasions when I had serendipitously crossed paths with Gangster’s Gita. As lame as it may sound, I have always believed that a good book will always find you when the time is just right.

 

Last night I was window shopping on Kindle and once again found The Gangster’s Gita sitting there asking to be read. I instinctively downloaded it but it was almost midnight. I told myself I will have a look at the ‘Translator’s Note’ and read the rest of the book the next morning. The translation is done by Prathibha Nandakumar and the original title in Kannada is Edegarike. In her note, she talks about the author and his love of literature. She also talks about how translating his book hasn’t been an easier task given Sreedhar’s distinct style of writing along with the need to retain the nuances of the original narration in Kannada. However, all the hard work and the multiple drafts of translation seems to have paid off, because I couldn’t just stop with the translator’s note. Before I knew it, I was already reading the last lines of the book and I must credit the translator as much as the author for the scintillating read. Personally for me, one of the best things that happened to the book is Prathibha’s translation along with her note.

 

The publisher’s note claims that this is a work of fiction and the usual that follows. However, the book begins with words of Erik Erikson – ‘A novel is not necessarily a work of fiction’. The narrator is our very Sreedhar Anna who entered the criminal world under the strangest of circumstances. However, the real protagonist of this stirring story seems to be Sona. Sona belonged with the mafia of the Mumbai underworld and was sent to Bangalore on an assignment that involved Sreedhar Anna and his boss. The sudden turn of events leads to Sreedhar Anna meeting Sona. The duo is then compelled by circumstances to leave Bangalore to Sakleshpur along with Sreedhar Anna’s boss and some of their boys. During their adventurous trip and their stay in Sakleshpur, Sreedhar Anna and Sona get acquainted with each other.

 

The book follows the life of Sona through conversations with Sreedhar Anna. Sona, who is barely thirty years old, intrigues Sreedhar Anna with his calm and poise. Their conversations and Sona’s demeanour unleash a storm within Sreedhar Anna and stirs up the readers too without fail. In her note earlier, Prathibha talked about how they arrived at the title of the book and it can’t be any more apt than this. The book stands on the shoulders of two men who have killed and questions the concepts of strength and weakness, heroism and cowardice. It wretches open the seemingly cold-hearts of these men and drench you in the blood of warmth that flows inside them. The choices that they made, the choices that are made for them, their regrets, their gracefulness demolishes all pre-established ideas of good- bad and right-wrong.

 

Orwell says “Good prose should be transparent, like a windowpane.”, and that is exactly how our author writes. He forgoes the decorative language and sticks with straight yet evocative narration. It is a thin book with only 103 pages yet with its powerful, thought-provoking narration it invoked a whirlwind of emotions within me that I could barely fall asleep. It has been one of the very fulfilling reads for this year and I am grateful for all the happenstances that led me to the discovery of this book.

 

COVID-19 illustration on World Map

Socio-Economic Distancing and Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of Red Death

As the Wadhawans raced across empty highways to their Mahabaleshwar retreat, media professionals across the country were furious at the flagrant disregard for the national lockdown. Accusations of crony favouritism pointed at elite privilege even as migrant workers trudged across state borders facing the uncertainty of life and livelihood. The socioeconomic distancing caused by the infectious Covid-19 has been evident not just in India but around the world. As Lorena Tacco, an Italian factory worker is quoted in Max Fisher and Emma Bubola report, “Who cares about the workers’ health, while the rich run away”, the rich sit in their high towers, mostly unaffected it seeme, similar to the protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death

 

As was true nearly two centuries ago, socioeconomic status has afforded barriers to Covid 19’s indiscriminate spread around the world. According to Irma T. Elo’s analysis of ‘Social Class Differentials in Health and Mortality’, while “educational attainment influences occupational trajectories and earnings…many researchers in public health and sociology interpret the income-health gradient to be causal from income to health,” since a decent income often “facilitates access to health-generating resources.” But Poe, the quintessential twister of tales, had other plans for Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death. Among Poe’s most allegorical works, the mid-19th century tale of social distancing delves into Prospero’s quarantine in a fortified abbey with more than a thousand royal compatriots and the celebratory mood-lifting party after months of isolation against the infection.

 

The Masque of the Red Death.jpegSet against the backdrop of the Red Death, a fictitious plague-like disease ravaging the populace in the kingdoms of Prince Prospero, The Masque of the Red Death explores the ubiquity of disease in the luxurious halls of Prospero’s royal hideout while his dominion outside, battles the burdens of widespread sickness. Describing the opulence of Prospero’s masked ball with its extravagant costumes and eclectic entertainment, Poe details the septuple imperial suite which served as the masquerade’s polychromatic venue. Furnished according to a particular colour theme, each of the seven chambers was lit by the stained glass in the Gothic window adjacent to each room, filtering light from torchfire blazing across the corridor. While the first six rooms corresponded to the colour of the stained glass in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, the seventh apartment… closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries, and scarlet panes… was ghastly in the extreme. Brett Zimmerman considers the polychromatic symbolism as alluding to the journey of life, from “blue representing Neo-Platonic notion of pre-birth and birth,” to “black as gloom, woe, death, mental degradation, criminality, and red as disease or plague, along with a red-black combination representing infernal love, egotism, and possibly even damnation.”

 

 

Perhaps the seventh room’s ebony clock itself was the allegorical representation, its dreadful hourly chime interrupting the merrymaking as the orchestra paused, the masked dancers squirmed, and it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. Coincidently, Poe’s ironic clock resonates in the apocalyptic Doomsday Clock as it presently contemplates the end of the world at “100 seconds to midnight.” The seemingly prescient Edgar Allan Poe describes the final moments of Prospero’s masquerade when the clock strikes midnight announcing the arrival “of a masked figure (who) had out-Heroded Herod” with accoutrements resembling the countenance of a stiffened corpse… besprinkled with the scarlet horror of the Red Death.” The sight of Red Death personified filled Prospero with rage, and he shouted, “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” Of course, that is not the end of Poe’s twisted tale! 

 

 

World Health Organisation - Coronavirus Tweet
World Health Organisation – Coronavirus Tweet

While the world grapples with Covid-19, it has already realised that although socioeconomic disparities can exacerbate the infectious spread, the virus is indiscriminate in its gong of mortality, as Poe stated a couple of centuries ago, “and now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night”, not unlike the coronavirus infection which had even the World Health Organisation fooled until January this year. There is still hope that the impact of Covid-19 can be curtailed, before reaching the pandemic devastation of the deadly Spanish flu in 1918, which killed more people than World War I at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. As millions cope with the havoc caused by the latest coronavirus, it must be said again– STAY SAFE! 

Pankaj Dubey’s Trending in Love Picks Unconventional Protagonists


Of all forms of magic that exist on earth, I believe love is one magic that stands out. The power of love is so immense that it can bring together beings from worlds apart and bind them together in an unbelievable way. Almost every day you find stories that bear witness to this miraculous power of love. One such unsaid story of love that brings two people from seemingly different human worlds is Pankaj Dubey’s, Trending in Love (published by Penguin Metro Reads). With a plethora of love stories available in the world of books, Pankaj’s choice of IAS aspirants as his protagonists is quite unconventional yet clever.

 

Sanam hails from a privileged and protective household whereas Aamir grows up in an environment where life is challenging almost every day. The happenstances in their lives lead them towards a dream pursuit called IAS. Neither of them realize that this pursuit is going to open many pleasant and unpleasant pathways in their lives.

 

The first part of the book tells you about the individual struggle they encountered before emerging as rank holders. Their struggles are not the same. Despite the privileges that she enjoys, Sanam comes to face her share of battles against patriarchy and then she decides to conquer the dream single-handedly. Aamir, on the other hand, has an endless list of battles to fight, most important of them the battles that he fights within himself before his mentor-boss Major Kalra nudges him to the right path. Their struggles are indeed tales of inspiration as much the story of an IAS topper is. The second part of the book is about these two kindred souls finding their way towards each other amidst the hilly terrains of Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie.

 

While the book is primarily a story of love, the author does touch upon a variety of socio-political issues. The first chapter itself sets off a discussion on if a financially well endowed, privileged Dalit candidate must opt for her reservation or should she let it go for the sake of more deserving candidates. Then there is this long list of sensitive subjects of concerns when your other protagonist is a Kashmiri. So yes, we sit through discussions on excessive militancy, police abuses, internet outages and whatnot. Pankaj isn’t finished yet. He also talks through his characters about the good and bad of social media, homophobia and more.

 

On the other hand, he also drowns you in sweet pools of poetry, now and then. The beauty of Mussoorie and Kashmir come alive in his words and haunts you for not being there right now. The maggi outings, blueberry cheesecakes and the lovers’ sweet nothings keep you smiling.

 

My only disappointment was that the book had so much potential to be more than just the love of Sanam and Aamir. The stories of Aamir’s cousins Moeen and Sabah, Aamir’s Abbu, Ramya and the characters of Major Kalra and even Aamir’s roommate Badal had a very intense narrative in themselves. If knitted together, they could have given way to a more powerful tale while Sanam and Aamir could still have ended up in each other’s arms. But then, I am merely a reader and readers always want more. A little more drama and gentle heartbreak are all I ask for before the happy ending. Sigh! Pankaj seemed to have thought otherwise and just saved the readers from more tears. So, there it ends with a lot of love and hope.

I recommend this book for two reasons, one it is an absolute page-turner that makes your heart flutter. Second, it gives you a peek into the lives of UPSC aspirants, their unique life (that involves barely any living) and also what it takes to graduate from an Officer Trainee to a successful bureaucrat.

 

John Zubrzycki’s Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns


It is sometimes easy to forget, amid the ramblings on politics and culture, and religion, even cricket, that India is a magical place both literally and figuratively. Magic has always played an important part of the cultural makeup of this country. Much like the storytellers who go from village to village, narrating myths and legends, or the community of ropewalkers and acrobats who entertain in the middle of a busy street with feats of daring, there is also a community of artists whose profession is to shock and awe with the help of the supernatural, and the impossible. They are street magicians.

This then, is the subject of John Zubrzycki’s thoroughly researched epic – Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India. It is an exhaustively entertaining book that takes the reader on a journey from the court of Mughal Emperor Jehangir to the streets of Delhi in modern India.

Zubrzycki drew upon a wealth of narratives and anecdotes for his research. From traditional Greek travel accounts to eyewitness accounts of merchants, traders, courtiers, chroniclers, and even kings, to libraries, newspaper clippings, magic journals, and personal interviews, Zubrzycki used all to write this account. So exhaustively large is the story that the author has chosen to tell, that it will feel largely incomplete despite the depth and extent of the narrative before the reader.

Indian magic has existed for a really long time. According to Zubrzycki’s own reckoning, there seems to be hints, even actual verses, in ancient texts as old as the Atharva Veda. Clearly, Zubrzycki has found a very extensive goldmine to write about. It is probably one of the most fascinating stories to come out of the Indian Subcontinent, and Zubrzycki has taken great pains to ensure that the narrative is flowing, succinct and enjoyable, and has succeeded in his endeavour – something that is will be made aptly clear to anyone who decides to give this book a try.

 

“India’s pantheon of magicians – jadoowallahs, tamashawallahs, jadugars, madaris, mayakaris, maslets, qalandars, sanpwallahs, sanperas, katputliwallahs, bahurupis, peepshow-wallahs, the list goes on – ranges across creed and caste. Stronger than religious ties, is their association with the barah pal, the brotherhood of twelve, an ancient collective of strolling players that includes jugglers, snake charmers, animal handlers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, storytellers, impersonators and acrobats. Regardless of their backgrounds, members of this peripatetic brotherhood can share a cooking hearth made out of three stones whenever their wanderings bring them together. Economic changes are breaking down what were once strong bonds between these communities. But their arts of legerdemain live on as an integral part of the social, cultural and religious fabric of India as they have for millennia.” (pg. 10-11)

 

Surprisingly, according to Zubrzycki, there is hardly any scholarship on the subject of Indian Magic. That is how Zubrzycki’s book was conceived. During the course of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, the mysticism and grandeur of Indian magic was strange enough that there were many anecdotal accounts written about it by English men and women who witnessed the tricks first hand. “Even Harry Houdini started his career posing as a ‘Hindu Fakir’.” (pg. 19)

These legends and tales of magic from the Land of India had existed since ancient times. The Greek physician Ctesias listed the races of fantastical people living in India as early as 400BCE. There were several such instances. The Greeks wrote extensively about the marvels of India. And they weren’t the only ones. Over time, the feats of magic witnessed by Kings and Queens of India were recorded by courtly scribes and later translated and read by Westerners, increasing the mystery of India. In fact, so unreal and supernatural did these recorded feats of magic feel, that the mystical magical lands of India were living up to their reputation. Afterwards, when they witnessed it first-hand themselves, the western audience was even more enamoured of India and the marvels it had to offer.

 

A chapter that is surely going to take the reader by surprise is the one that Zubrzycki has dedicated to Motilal Nehru, the barrister and father of Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime Minister of India. Zubrzycki found a letter during his research written by Nehru to the Protector of Emigrants in Bombay. “I have just learnt that in order to send a party of Indians consisting of performers, musicians, acrobats and artisans to the ensuing Paris Exhibition it is necessary to obtain a permit from the Protector of Emigrants. As I am about to send such a party, I beg to state the necessary particulars for your information.” (pg. 241) The chapter takes a heavy-handed look at the state of immigration laws imposed on Indians by the British.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the exploration of the most famous of all Indian magic tricks: The Great Indian Rope Trick. The trick was written about in many histories, even in the Jahangirnama, as a feat that was both strange and surprising. It was the subject of much speculation and debate between Indian and Western magicians, with neither being able to successfully accomplish the trick without the use of props. It was a trick that “that was the most marvelous of all and would become the benchmark against which all feats of Indian magic would be measured.” Zubrzycki dedicates an entire chapter (13) to the trick and details its further history in the next chapter. Zubrzycki also tells the history of P.C. Sorcar, arguably the greatest Indian magician, in the final chapter of the book.

 

As a self-proclaimed skeptic, Zubrzycki states at the onset that his intention is, quite literally, only to present a history of Indian Magic. in order to do so, he refrains from giving away the secrets of any of the magic tricks he has witnessed. Filled with lavish portraits and full colour photographs, this is the book that will certainly have people talking about the beauty of Indian magic again.

 

Sources:

 

 

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 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.