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.  

Falling in Love With a Young Adult Novel – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Eleanor & Park was originally published in 2012 and has won over 20 literary awards including the Goodreads Choice Awards: Best Young Adult Fiction in 2013.

What you’re about to read is less of a review and more of a fangirl gush about falling in love with a book in all its entirety and feeling the emptiness of parting away when it’s all over.

Eleanor & Park is well, about Eleanor and Park- two intense and naive 16 year olds who end up falling for one another even though the association seems unlikely to both of them. Eleanor is the aloof new kid in the town of Omaha and Park is an existing resident. While facing all the strangeness that a new kid does, we are also taken through Eleanor’s unstable household situation, one she dreams of escaping. Park comes across as a reserved loner kid who belongs to a close knit half Korean-half white family. It seems completely justified that Eleanor and Park end up together as they are presented as misfits of sorts in the book, separated from the rest of the kids and their coming together seems organic.

For both these kids going through transformative periods in their lives, it all starts with exchanging comic books and playlists. It all leads to secret meetups and finding a home in one another in a world that might not always be kind to them. Rowell has a brilliant skill to use the simplest of language and yet keep the reader engaged thoroughly. In showing both Eleanor and Park as intense characters, it’s remarkable that the author didn’t forget that they are after all teenagers. She has also portrayed them as sexual creatures who are confused by all the newfound feelings of self discovery. If I am being very honest, I thought myself to be over and above the teenage puppy love that populates stupid Netflix movies and monotone romcoms but this one is completely different. Both Eleanor and Park are their own people as well. They have their insecurities and showcase fragility for falling in love for the first time which is bound to remind the reader of an age gone by. 

The romance genre definitely caters to a certain readership and I do not consider myself to be one of them. I am also aware that the heady nostalgia that romance novels usually provide to its reader isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, Eleanor and Park isn’t just a romance novel, categorizing it as such would be a disservice to its characters who come alive through Rowell. This book showcases a love story of two young adults with a lot of nuance and sensitivity, cutting through all that would normally overshadow each character’s journey when they are in love. Eleanor and Park stands as a testament to the true potential that the young adult genre possesses for readers of all kinds. There is a certain raw emotion to the delicate characters that gripped me through the novel, I kid you not, I finished it in 3 hours. This was a first for me. 

The climax of the book took me by heartbreaking surprise. It even drove me a tiny bit mad for how Rowell decided to end things for both the characters. The conclusion of the book is not completely unforeseen as the reader senses the perilous situation in which Eleanor finds herself.

Apart from the end that might stand as an impediment, there is some racial tension in the book that seems out of place. Park is a mixed race kid whose race seems to have been characterised deliberately yet not treated nearly enough by the author. In the current context, it becomes difficult to not investigate race if it’s a part of anything related to pop culture. I would warn the readers to take this angle of the story with a pinch of salt. 

Eleanor and Park is your regular boy meets girl, meet-cute love story, but it will steal your heart and jolt it. If you’re not in full blown tears at the end of the book, I’d consider myself a pathetic softy. This book is a brilliant gateway into the young adult genre for anyone looking to explore. It is neither a long nor a very heavy read and can be your new relaxing weekend companion.

The Romance Novel in India and Those Pricey Thakur Girls

“That’s so filmi,” I’ve often remarked on being told about an especially thrilling romantic experience. In India, romance can feel synonymous with film. Much of our imagination and enactment of love comes from the movies. Mainstream Hindi cinema, in particular, strongly influences how we express love, construct fantasies, and our expectations from romantic trysts. This comes from no little effort on its part. A romantic plot feels requisite for most Hindi cinema: songs and subplots are shoehorned into all kinds of movies. And so a hero with outstretched arms, a woman bumping into a love interest and dropping a sheaf of papers that fly everywhere, or yearning eyes meeting across a crowded room, become visual shorthands for love itself.

This is why, when it comes to cultural depictions of romance in India, we rarely think of literature, specifically Indian writing in English. After all, no romantic story I’ve ever heard has elicited the response, “that’s so contemporary Indian novel in English!” Contradictory to global literary trends–Mills and Boons, Harlequin romances, Fifty Shades of Grey–romance novels in India are relatively unestablished, especially those written by women. This is a genre that tends to draw criticisms that are both gendered and elitist, perhaps dissuading female authors from pursuing it: postcolonial literary studies, for instance, has never quite known what to do with popular literature.

In this context, reading Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls was a strong reminder of what the novel part of a romance novel can give us, especially when written by a woman. The novel has been a wildly successful genre for romance because of the interiority it affords its characters. Knowing what the characters are thinking and being told precisely what they are feeling is a powerful addition to a genre that thrives on appealing to imaginations. So when Dylan Singh Shekawat meets Debjani Thakur for the first time, the author is able to give us a sense of exactly how he is affected: “the last rays of the setting sun hit her face and he discovers that her thickly lashed eyes are the exact colour and shape as Pears soap.”  These glimpses into Dylan’s thoughts are powerful because they articulate how desire feels for him, and conversely, what it is to be desired by him.

As Emily Davis points out in Rethinking the Romance Genre, for critics, the genres of romance and political writing, the private and the public, have often been seen as mutually exclusive. This, of course, amounts to both a denial of female perspectives, and the tensions and structural fissures the process of love demonstrates. Also, yet romance is deeply contextual, both in terms of function and effect. Like many Indian women, I grew up on a diet of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. These books continue to resonate emotionally, but romance provides a space–especially for women–to reimagine and consider dynamics of gender and sexuality, and there is something to be said for love rooted in our specific context, that Pemberley and Lockwood cannot provide.

Though romance is perceived as primarily character-driven, much of its strength comes from its focus on the atmosphere and setting. An Indian romance novel, therefore, doesn’t necessarily entail only a romance featuring Indian characters, and Those Pricey Thakur Girls delights in its own setting. One of the jokes running through the book is Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur’s obsession with what alphabets portend. So when D-for-Debjani meets D-for-Dylan, readers know what to expect. However, this is a story in which the city is the protagonist, its people, trees, dogs, and localities meticulously sketched out. It’s hard to miss: D for Delhi.

Moreover, Delhi offers a lot. The Emergency looms over the story, set a year after the Anti-Sikh pogrom incited and enabled by a politician Dylan, a journalist, sets out to expose. The central ideological tension between Dylan and Debjani is their respective attitudes towards the role of media during times of political conflict. The resolution of the romantic plot entails a realisation on Debjani’s part about her own complicity in furthering proto-fake news as the anchor of a channel modelled on Doordarshan. Though the book features characters who are upper-caste and upper-class, Chauhan’s engagement with this context and its centrality to her plot shows that the romance–mostly associated with escapist pleasure and accused of enabling political apathy–can be a narrative vehicle for political expression.

Chauhan also mines hilarity from the lives of her characters, using an idiom of writing that is imbued in local contexts, drawing on movies, Hinglish, and popular culture. Dylan’s wooing is rudely interrupted by Debjani’s brother Gulgul, upset about being cheated of a belly-button viewing in a song and Debjani, “by the grace of god”, has a meeting with a self-obsessed prospective suitor. In one of my favourite lines, Debjani accuses Dylan of dipping his proboscis into multiple flowers: the characters Chauhan creates are clearly catering to a female perspective. While much has been made of Dylan Singh Shekhawat, now the gold standard for romantic heroes, Chauhan’s characterisation of Debjani is equally interesting. Her narrative arc depicts her struggles to differentiate herself from her sisters, build her own life, find a career that appeals to her, and come into her own, makes. Everything that makes Debjani attractive–her commitment to bravery and kindness, her affinity for those in hard luck, and her signature way of dressing–ignores the conventional male gaze.

In Those Pricey Thakur Girls, Chuhan creates a template for romantic imagination. The chaotic denouement, featuring the reunion of Dylan and Debjani, a family gathering, and a chachi possessed by the ghost of her mother-in-law, shows that love and reason might keep little company together nowadays, but love and community-building do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home & Humanity in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy the book here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy the book here.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

You can buy the book here.

Creator's-Image-ShwethaHS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy the book here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy the book here.

Urvashi Bahuguna’s Terrarium Touches Upon the Momentary Motions of Everyday Life

Terrarium by Urvashi Bahuguna is her debut poetry collection published by The Great Indian Poetry Collective. Her verses possess a singular and almost unnerving style of unraveling the magical from within the everyday. Terrarium’s poems touch upon the momentary motions of everyday life. Those motions may seem ephemeral but leave an immeasurable mark on all of us. For instance, the first part of the collection portrays how Bahuguna’s childhood experiences especially of moving to and living in Goa, shaped her perspectives.

In doing so, Bahuguna, vividly depicts her surroundings such that they come alive and remain etched in our minds. In The Heart of a Mango, she conjures up a much followed and cherished summer tradition in many parts of India: of devouring mangoes of all kinds. She evokes the feeling of richness a mango brought to her family particularly to her father.

In Last Ride before the Monsoon, she forges a primordial connection with water and how a part of us is lost to its infiniteness:

Listening to the weeping on the water,
some piece of us is lost too.
And for being unknown it slips
silvertailed below the still boat.

The complete primitive and hence pristine aura of the poems is possible because she weaves in imagery of nature as we never imagined it before. She has an eye for the minutest detail and recreates it in extraordinarily surreal metaphors. This is best exemplified in the poem Waiting for Movement. It begins with a strikingly colourful description:

The laburnum is late
with its lightening yolk.
An abundance of mulberries
stains bowls.

Thereafter, the tiniest movements that paradoxically encapsulate stillness, are described. Through this, she creates an apprehension that something is about to happen, only to end it with an anti climactic shattering of that tense stillness with a much-needed breeze.

Bahuguna’s attention to the physical uniqueness and elements of the environment around her possibly comes from Miss Fatima’s Geography class where, as she says in her poem, Ms. Fatima she learnt, “to love this bruised and bumpy earth.” It was there in class she traced the country’s physical features and “know the map of India like people supposed we knew the cuts and flat moles on our hands.”

The second part of the collection talks of love, growing apart, and trying to come to terms with the end of a relationship.  Here too, metaphors of geography seep in along with her beautiful skill of turning anything mundane into magic. For example, sleeping next to her lover like a child drooling is described as:

My mouth leaves a trail of moon drool,
tooth whisked, quiet as sugar melting off the tongue.

Such ordinariness and profundity of her verses create an intimacy between the reader and the writer. The rest of the book also captures the author’s various viewpoints and experiences. Terrarium can be called a slant autobiography. However, it is also one that speaks as much about the author as about the world around us from the societal fears a girl is taught to the greater environmental problems haunting the world that are blithely ignored.

It absorbs so much of the invisible things we miss out because of how we dismiss it as ordinary. Yet, they are a pulsating world of their own. Perhaps this is why the collection is titled Terrarium. A terrarium is a miniature garden enclosed in a glass container. It is minuscule but nurtures so much. Similarly, it is the quotidian living of our lives and experiencing the beating of our emotions that nurtures us and leaves such a deep impact on who we are. The theme of Identity is explored, not overtly, but subtly in the poems by mingling the little invisible influences of people, places, news and societal mores.

Terrarium is the perfect cosy read on a rainy day. It allows you to lose yourself to the leafy monsoon foliage of the verses. The lines leave you contemplating your role, connection, and identity with yourself and the world around you.

You can buy the book here.