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. 

 

Thank You for the Paper Moon, Rehana

Dear Rehana

I must confess I have never done this earlier. I have been in love with many books and have let them wreak havoc within my little heart. I have written about those books or spoken about them endlessly with friends. I have even wished to hold those authors in a warm, grateful embrace. But, whatever I am about to do is something I have never done before.

Ever since Aakansha wrote about this dramatic reading of your book, Abhishek has been wanting us to meet with you and talk to you. But of course, we wanted to read the book before we could do that. Yet, somehow we kept delaying it, thanks to mundane life. This Sunday morning, I was still waking up, when Abhishek said he wanted to read out something to me. Usually, these requests to read out end up being the latest political controversies from the morning news or half-satirical half-witty statements from a hopeless twitter banter. I mumbled a half-hearted yes and to my surprise, he was reading something about a July afternoon, train, lending library, Kipling, Marlowe, missing a heartbeat and some more. That did wake me up and I was asked to guess the name of the book. Somehow, I knew it was Paper Moon. But everything he read out was just too dreamy and it felt right to listen to it with eyes closed. I guess I was getting myself ported to that monsoon day in Bombay but in reality, I had dozed off. When I woke up, my weekend chores were hanging above my head and Paper Moon had to wait for another day.

 

I didn’t let it wait for too long though. It sounded too good to be left alone. So, I picked it up on Monday after office and began once again from the same July afternoon. That’s when I realized you are this wicked magician who works marvellously with words. Sigh! Trust me when I say, the rest of my Monday evening in an already summer-like Bangalore was feeling like a monsoon night. I couldn’t tell if the breeze under my neck was for real or because of Paper Moon.

During the initial chapters, every time you mentioned an author or a book, or a bookish reference, I tried to keep a note. I tried to keep up with you completely unaware of what a laborious task that was going to be. I remember counting until fifteen such references just in the first chapter. While I was still trying to wrap my head around how you managed to do it, the next realization hit me. Not only did you do this with books, but you also did the same with art, music, food, drinks, eateries and even hangout spots. I could have forgiven you if you did this just with Bombay, but no, you had to talk about Goa, London and even Edinburgh.

 

The next time someone looks for a recommendation for a book, art, music, food, or drink, I’ll give them a copy of Paper Moon.

 

And what’s with the Khan obsession? Generally, I would have complained if the writer didn’t take enough effort to veil the real-life public figures because many times they disrupt the flow of the story. But, you made him blend so well into the narration that I was smiling every time he appeared. I loved almost all the characters you created for this story, even the Australian family and the fact that your characters, their relationships, their emotions- all of it felt very real. Nowhere did I sense a pretence irrespective of how dreamy the whole book was. My only problem with the book was that even though Fiza had her own set of troubles, somewhere it felt like the bookstore just happened too easily for her or even the launch of the new store for that matter. Nevertheless, take it with a pinch of salt, because I guess I might actually be jealous of Fiza Khalid.

After finishing the book, I logged into Goodreads to rate it. I just wanted to be sure if I was the only one who was swept off my feet or if there were others. So, I skimmed through the reviews and I was having a moment of truth. The reviews reminded me of the Tamil movie Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya (or in Telugu, Em Maaya Chesavae). For a long time, I hated the movie solely because every other person (be it a friend, family, or stranger) I met during the time, told me how it was exactly their own story. The reviews for Paper Moon looked the same and finally, I am making my peace with Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaya fanatics because I now know how it feels. I know it sounds silly, but I couldn’t hold my joy when I found out Fiza’s paper moon and I share the same birthday. It felt so personal. Also what bibliophile hasn’t dreamt of owning a bookstore/cafe someday or even experiencing a drool-worthy geeky-romance as Fiza? I so wanted the book to go on, but even when it ended, the excitement stayed. I hope someday you write a second part to Paper Moon. I am aching to know what happens to Fiza, Iqbal, and even Noor.

 

Thank you for the Paper Moon, Rehana. That was a brilliant brilliant debut. I can’t wait to read your next, but until then, I am going to reread Paper Moon, every time I need a refill of refreshment.

 

Love
Jeeva

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

What If Ram Were a Startup Founder? Prachi Garg’s Book Answers

Reinterpretation of mythology or mythological fiction isn’t my favourite genre. In my opinion, many of these are an attempt at fan fiction and most of them do fail terribly. I talked about it here. So, when I picked up Prachi Garg’s Startup Secrets from the Ramayana, I was reluctant. Nevertheless, I was intrigued because the blurb said it is the story of Ram’s struggle of setting up his business empire from scratch in fourteen years. Prachi, who is also the founder of ghoomophiro.com has authored a few books in the genre of business fiction including the ‘Super’ series. So obviously she seems to know her trade well enough to put my anxiety to ease from the beginning.

The tale opens with a scene of Ram standing at the brink of victory against Ravan and flashes back into his struggle of fourteen years. Prachi’s Ram doesn’t carry a quiver full of arrows but business strategies and solutions for any business-related problem. Yet, he loses his business empire and is forced to move out of Ayodhya to start fresh along with his closest aide Sita and loving brother Lakshman. So, the lessons start from there. As the tale progresses, you will also meet many characters from Ramayana, when the trio work hard to establish a collaborative business Platform, called Kutumb, In Chitrakoot, that functions as a co-working space for small and large scale entrepreneurs. Then arrives Shurpanakha, followed by Ravan and his company HeadHunters from Lanka who pursues an aggressive business strategy to establish a monopoly over the Indian market. So the tale goes.

For those readers, who are familiar with the tale of Ramayana, it will be interesting to note how Prachi has picked a handful of characters and events from this epic and has successfully woven into a business fiction. I understand it isn’t as simple as a mythological fiction, to tell a tale with the same sequence of events but in a business language. I for one was constantly curious to know how each character has been recreated and how Prachi fit them into a modern-day business world. I liked Prachi’s diligence on how she tried to bring some of the finest details of the epic like the golden deer that lures Sita, the Nine-Sister’s alliance, Hanuman bringing the entire tech-hub because he couldn’t find the correct router. While some of these reinterpretations might come-across like force-fit, a lot of them do bring a smile.

There are occasional slip-ups in the plot which is barely noticeable, thanks to Prachi’s skillful narration. The best part of the book for me is the end of every chapter, where Prachi summarizes the learning from those episodes. In only 126 pages, Prachi covers a lot of ground from ‘The Value of Disruption’ to ‘Financial Stability’. The choice of language is simple and spiced up in moderation with business jargon, which makes it an easy read even for beginners.

 

I must also warn the readers to not expect a thorough reinterpretation of Ramayana in Prachi’s book, especially those readers who have studied Ramayana extensively. I would say read this because it is a fun read with some insightful secrets for the startup-enthusiasts.

Book Review – Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Image: Beowulf Sheehan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Book Review – Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire

It would be an understatement to say that the British Empire in its heyday was an engine of gluttony. But that is the story that Lizzie Collingham wants to tell in her book, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. The Empire changed the world. There are arguments to both sides of the Empire’s deeds, that it did good is commendable, but the bad it did against the good is even more reproachable. 

Trade was the first area through which the Empire propelled its power. A small trading company that went on to rule more than half the world and engineered the largest empire in history. From the 16th and 18th centuries, trading became the driving force behind innovation, both political and economic. This trade disrupted the life-cycles of many cultures and countries that eventually became part of the Empire. 

This is what Collingham depicts in her enchanting history. The subject of this history is food. Food that drove trade and “helped to turn the wheels of commerce” (pg. xvi). Food that bolstered progress. However, with such progress, destruction went hand in hand. British traders settled in far off corners of the world for food, disrupting local cultures, and the people, even going so far as to annihilate entire native populations.

 

The food web that was woven by … [these developments] … created a truly global system that connected all five inhabited continents, drawing in even the most isolated and far-flung corners of the planet.

 

In this way, Britain changed the way the world tasted food. And yet, it should be noted that food was still just one aspect of commerce that British merchants were concentrating on. Indeed, with most histories “focus is usually on the story of maritime exploration and the quest for spices” (pg. 5). Among other things, Britain also traded in textiles, spices, tin, rubber, wood, dyes, etc. But food was important simply because it was a basic necessity that superseded all others; and trade thrived around food. 

The book starts with “fish day on the Mary Rose.” Salt cod was never popular in English cuisine, but it lasted long and could be used for long sea journeys. It laid the foundation of English expansion. The ship Mary Rose itself became a shipwreck that, upon its rediscovery, became one of the best artefacts for historians. There was evidence in the shipwreck of the presence of beef, pork, and salt cod, and other things that could last for long without spoiling and becoming inedible.

“Tea was the last of the new colonial groceries to arrive on the English market (pg. 79).” It was rare and expensive, and came to London through the Dutch East India Company. As Collingham writes, sugar was popular with the English and led to the sweetening of tea overtime. 

 

Collingham writes fluidly, without breaking her tone. Her main prerogative is getting the facts straight and putting them down in front of the reader. The pieces fall into place themselves. It is a fairly straightforward narrative that she has established. The author also supplies actual illustrations and colour plates depicting the history of food-making in the world. These illustrations complement the narrative easily.

Another thing of note is the recipes peppered throughout the book. These range from archaic recipes taken from old books that are still used in the kitchen today to authentic recipes passed down through families and friends across generations. 

 

Even from the start, despite all the history provided in abundance, there really ever was only one topic of focus under discussion in this book: food. There are nuggets of information, both fascinating and unheard of at the same time. For example, the medieval cosmic view was that black was the colour of melancholy so it was not used in food. A combination of ginger and saffron was used because it was yellowish in colour and that meant the nourishing energy of the sun. But, this world view changed with the arrival of black pepper. Collingham helps the reader wade through this sea of history without any problems whatsoever. 

Collingham is clearly fascinated by the effect the British Empire has had on the culinary arts and trade across the world. Sometimes, this fascination seems a bit laudatory, as if she can’t help admiring it. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that the Empire encouraged slavery or colonized countries like India, or that it appropriated cultures, even destroyed them. But she doesn’t openly criticize the actions of the Empire to a large extent. Since the topic is food, Collingham concentrates on that; sometimes to the detriment of any timely criticism.

The book is highly readable as an introduction to the past based on what is on your dinner plate.

 

 

Cover Image: AshPrad

Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life are Not Meant to be Broken!

If you have followed Dr. Jordan Peterson’s trajectory closely, you would agree that if nothing, he has at the least gotten under the skin of the shallow, lazy intellectuals who have been enjoying an extended honeymoon in the marketplace of intellectuals. Right from their stranglehold on the academia to their presumption of privilege to be heard first on all matters significant or otherwise, the foundations have been shaken. Now, some of them have gone to their study to revise the fundamentals of their worldview and the ones who were there only by the virtue of intellectual nepotism have unwittingly come out in open with their lack of depth and understanding about matters Dr. Peterson speaks of. Faced with such a situation, I have seen them doing, one of these two things – either they keep talking to the straw-man their professors had created for them back in their schools or they keep throwing off meaningless personal allegations against the man. This is such a common streak in Dr. Peterson’s interviews (mostly, the ones that have been taken by the flag-bearers of lazy intellectualism) that most of the time, he is not being heard. What we see instead is some sort of passive listening while their active brain is busy stitching its next net to trap him. On the other hand, Dr. Peterson doesn’t shy away from taking his own sweet time to listen so as to draft better responses and throw in an honest question at the end of it which even though seemingly honest, pops up only by design . In a few minutes, aware or unaware, the interviewer is choked for space and starts following Dr. Peterson’s streak. So, while the interviewer is already zoned out, Dr. Peterson is still in the ring, ready to land his knockout punch.

 

 

I heard of the book 12 Rules for Life in one of his talks on YouTube. Since, the subjects and delivery of his YouTube lectures had me hooked on to them already, I didn’t have much questions about going ahead and buying his book. Typically, you would place this book on the self-help shelf in a bookstore but even if the book is kept in the autobiographies section, it would make equal sense, if not more. This is because Jordan Peterson is not into empty lecturing and tall tales. He draws heavily from his own life, his struggles, and his attempts to understand the ever-elusive meaning of life to explain his rules. This works in favour of the book because a book that is meant to help you should have at least helped the author before taking birth as a book.

 

 

One must increase one’s strength by sadhana; otherwise one cannot preach. As the proverb goes: ‘You have no room to sleep yourself and you invite a friend to sleep with you.’ There is no place for you to lie down and you say: ‘Come, friend! Come and lie down with me.’  – Sri Ramakrishna (Gospel/Vol2/34.html)

 

 

Jordan presents the book as an antidote to chaos. What chaos is he actually talking about? Before he starts explaining the rules, while telling us about the title, he says, “Perhaps if we lived properly, we would be able to tolerate the weight of our own self-consciousness. Perhaps, if we lived properly, we could withstand the knowledge of our own fragility and mortality, without the sense of aggrieved victimhood that produces, first, resentment, then envy, and then the desire for vengeance and destruction. Perhaps, if we lived properly, we wouldn’t have to turn to totalitarian certainty to shield ourselves from the knowledge of our insufficiency and ignorance. Perhaps we could come to avoid those pathways to Hell-and we have seen in the terrible twentieth century just how real Hell can be.”

 

Now, if I had to count the attributes of today’s individual that contribute to the chaos Mr. Peterson is talking about, they would be the following –

 

  • Loss of Self-Esteem

    Too many in this world are being brought up with a sense of criminality about the human race. While a bunch of people keep working to make this world a better place, there are so many individuals who really believe that humans are not good enough for this planet. Add to this, the deliberate divorce from one’s own history, culture, and heritage being effected by the academia and popular media, our youngsters grow up without any self-esteem. They only know to loathe themselves and others with increasing intensity every day.

 

  • Playing the Victim Card

    We have become too touchy, we like flashing the victim card all the time to outshout others and make ourselves heard. We play the victim card when we are on the wrong, we play it when we have wronged someone else. This has far reaching consequences. One, nobody is ready to take responsibility for their actions. Two, the real victims are almost never heard or ignored and they keep suffering. Three, we end up living a life based on lies and deceit. We reduce ourselves to mere actors and manipulate our own worldview to see the world as a stage and everyone else as fellow actors.

 

  • Loss of Purpose

    This point in part is connected to the first point. Our world is more connected than it has ever been. With 24/7 internet life, online profiles, avatars, the need to flaunt or fake your happiness and success has migrated from our neighbourhoods to the World Wide Web. That world is naturally more fierce, less forgiving, and changing at a breakneck speed. So, individuals end up making stories and exaggerating their experiences instead of living a truly meaningful life with any sense of purpose.

 

  • Envy

    This is one aspect of our chaos that is not always addressed openly. This feeling is not unnatural but what we let it do to us is very much our own choice. While some people let it drive them to lead a meaningful life, most of the people let it destroy them one sad day at a time.

 

  • No Respect for the Other Person

    This other person can be your friend, family, parents, sibling, teacher, colleague, or somebody you don’t agree with on political issues. The lack of respect has made all our exchanges a zero sum game where either you are with me or against me. If you are with me, good. If you are against me, you are a fascist. The middle ground of mutual respect has perished. What am I talking about? Check this piece by Dr. Shashi Tharoor – am-i-a-closet-sanghi-for-mourning-demise-of-an-rss-man-somethings-terribly-wrong-tharoor

 

  • Handling Grief

    For all the interconnectedness chatter in the world, we are not really doing ourselves proud when it comes to making real connections. More families are going nuclear, people have fewer friends, we seldom know who our neighbour is, and trusting colleagues has become an impossible thing at work. While solitude can be empowering when exercised by choice of time and place, compelled loneliness leaves us terribly vulnerable in times of grief. When something happens to somebody close to us, we are caught helpless while trying to deal with our grief.

 

Now, this is of course not an exhaustive list, so you may add to it whatever you feel brings chaos to our life. Just one word of caution, when you start adding to the list, do not begin by thinking of the society at large. Instead, begin by thinking about yourself and your own life. Start by including the chaotic aspects of your own life. Human beings are not too different from each other. What you find in 1, you fill find in n. It is for this reason Dr. Peterson highlights the importance of changing the world by changing the self. In his Rule No. 6, Mr. Peterson says, “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your own enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your own household, how dare you try to rule a city? Let your own soul guide you…”

 

 Be the change you want to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi

 

Mr. Peterson has addressed all the points mentioned here and more through his 12 rules. Every rule picks on one thing that he wants you to start doing. For each of his rule, starting from ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’ to the last one – ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street’, Mr. Peterson explains the fundamentals, his reason for framing such a rule, the positioning of the rule in his own life, and the biological, psychological, and historical context to the rule. All these rules are an attempt to help an individual live a meaningful life. It’s not that all of these rules will sound new to you. On the contrary, you must have heard most of them at different points in your life. Many of the points Mr. Peterson identifies are in fact ancient wisdom of our sages. However, Mr. Peterson with this book lends a new seriousness to these rules that they deserve in modern times. A new teacher is good only if he helps you understand things that the previous teacher could not. So, if you have heard about these rules before and could not understand their import or function in your life, Mr. Jordan Peterson makes an excellent new teacher.

 

 

The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong. – Swami Vivekananda

 

 

The book doesn’t end where the 12 rules end. The author adds a beautiful chapter titled ‘CODA’ to conclude the book. The chapter features a ‘Pen of Light’. Mr. Peterson received it as a gift from his friend. I would leave out the details of this pen for you to read in the book. However, I must tell you that this book seems to have been written with the help of this pen of light, metaphorically if not literally. This book is an attempt of the most sincere kind to help individuals become stronger. Our popular culture values victimhood more than strength but it is your strength that helps you escape victimhood. By strength, one doesn’t refer only to the kind you use to thrash your enemies. Strength means something far deeper than that. Strength of character, of conviction, of intellect, of emotions, and of spirit is what today’s individuals need and the book, through stories of our author’s own struggles in his life, is an attempt at leaving you stronger that way.

 

My Maa passed away on 31st January, 2019 after hoping for about 14 months that she would be able to defeat pancreatic cancer. I have not been able to come to terms with her absence in my life. Perhaps, that will never happen. However, I wanted to look at other people and their grief in order to understand mine better. I began to read a lot of personal blogs of people to understand how other people have handled grief and how do they see the helplessness that comes along with it. Thereafter, I stumbled upon C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Jordan’s 12 Rules for Life reached me after that.

 

In the last chapter, Jordan narrates the story of his daughter Mikhaila who was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) when she was about 6 years of age. He writes, “…it begins with a question, structured like a Zen koan. Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does such a Being lack? The answer? Limitation… If you are already everything, everywhere, always there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen has already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being. That idea has helped me deal with the terrible fragility of Being. It helped my client, too. I don’t want to overstate the significance of this. I don’t want to claim that somehow this makes it all OK. She (talking about his client) still faced the cancer afflicting her husband, just as I still faced my daughter’s terrible illness. But there’s something to be said for recognizing that existence and limitation are inextricably linked….”

 

Something supersedes thinking, despite its truly awesome power. When existence reveals itself as existentially intolerable, thinking collapses in on itself. In such situations-in the depths-it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticing this: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations.  – Jordan Peterson

 

The healing perhaps never happens, or maybe it does. I’m not so sure about it at this point of my life. However, to ‘notice’ that there are many others trying to understand life and its ways just like I am, gives a meaning to my own struggle. Mr. Jordan Peterson, like many other teachers of the past, reassures my belief that my struggle is not irrelevant, it is not insignificant. That belief according to me is ‘strength’ and that’s what 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos is about.

 

Book Review – Anukrti Upadhyay’s Daura

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Book Review – Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey

This happened in 2015. I had a bad day and I wanted to take my mind off things. So, I walked into a movie hall, looked at the list of movies displayed on the ticket counter, and picked the next show which was just about to begin. I had no clue about whose movie it was or how good the reviews were. I had only learned the name of the movie a few minutes back while paying for the ticket. When the lights went off and the first dialogue played, I was super joyed because the voice from the movie told me that my day was going to get better from there. It was Tom Hanks’ voice and the movie was Bridge of Spies. Such happenstances are a rarity but when they happen they wash off all the blues and fill your days with a refreshing air of goodness. Imagine chancing upon a book the same way.

 

I had no idea that The Mysterious ailment of Rupi Baskey was the debut novel of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar who also authored the famous The Adivasi will not dance. I also did not know that Hansda won the Yuva Puraskar for the book. Strangely enough, I didn’t even remember adding the book to my library. I was travelling and I badly needed some sleep. As horrendous as it might sound, I had picked the book so I could fall asleep quickly. I know how unforgivable it is, but I have been using books as sleeping pills lately, except this book wouldn’t let me sleep. I was tired and my eyes were begging to be shut. Yet, I kept peeping through half-shut eyes and still read. When I dozed off due to exhaustion, I woke up and tried to stay alert to continue reading. That riveting was the tale of Rupi Baskey or should I say Kadamdihi.

 

The book possesses you right from the first line because Hansda didn’t bother to take his readers through a long winding road to introduce his protagonist. She is right there on the opening sentence, squatting in the middle of a rice field to deliver her first child. Rupi arrives in Kadamdihi, a Santhali Village as a new bride and her husband Sido is one of those educated Santhali men working as a teacher in Nitra. The book follows the life of Rupi Baskey from the time she arrives in Kadamdihi and also some of the others whose lives are intertwined with hers.

 

Hansda calls his protagonist the strongest woman in Kadamdihi but you will realize that all of Kadamdihi or at least the women whom Hansda speak of in the book are no less stronger. The characters of Putki, Della, Younger Somai-Budhi are representations of women who are indeed strong of their own accord. Even the ones who crossed over to the dark side, like Gurbari, Dulari, and Naikay’s wife, display indomitable strength and conviction. As for the men in Kadamdihi, while Somai and Khorda are likeable, most men in Kadamdihi seem powerless as a puppet, in front of the dahnis. That way the dahnis rule, both in Kadamdihi and in the book.

 

It’s interesting to note that Hansda is a medical officer by profession and his debut novel is woven over the fabric of dahni-bidya or black magic. The world that he paints through his descriptions of dahni-bidya, is scary and exciting at the same time. I wonder if he drew his inspiration from the many patients with mysterious ailments he might have met during his career as a medical doctor. But, on the other hand, he introduces you to a faith that is more intense, unpolished, and very real nevertheless. The rolling eyes, women bathing naked under the moonlight, the food enchantment etc. might remind you of similar faiths across India and will only add on to your curiosity. At one point in the story, Hansda through Dulari almost justifies black magic as a weapon that women use to protect themselves. She explains how she did not have a choice and how she had to do what she did to reclaim what was rightfully hers.

 

When Hansda is not enchanting with the story of the dahinis, he is busy enlightening his readers with tidbits of information about this wildly beautiful state of Jharkhand. He sings to you, songs about the kadam trees and stories of how various gushtis came into existence. He explains how the villages are named after trees that are found in abundance, how each paaris have their own story of how they came into being, how marriage within one’s village is looked down upon and more. He also talks about Sarna religion that the Santhals follow and the caste discrimination in these villages. Above all, he introduces his readers to the political affairs of Jharkhand from the time Jaipal Singh founded the Adivasi Mahasabha in 1938 which demanded a separate state for Adivasis in Chota Nagpur area to the times of All Jharkhand Student Union under Besra. Hansda like most of us sounds disappointed with the political leaders of the state and tell us how these political leaders rode on the sacrifices of many young Adivasis who were hoping for a homeland for themselves.

 

For a book with such a compelling story with a lot of intriguing information, there is one challenge in reading it. Although the book is written in English, Hansda didn’t shy away from using a lot of native tongue during his storytelling. He doesn’t use the English equivalents even when they are available and many a time doesn’t even bother to explain what the word means. He instead expects the reader to understand from the context which we do most of the time. I learnt dahni-bidya means dark magic, dhai-budhi means midwife and more. Having to assume the meanings of these words has its own shortcomings apart from the fact that it slows down the reader, but I wouldn’t hold it against him. If English can find its way into the conversations made in the native tongue and that too in a very generous proportion, why can’t we make do with native words in an English narration? I would say I am rather grateful to Hansda for having introduced me to this new language which only makes me more curious about it.  

 

So, if you are looking for an engaging read or wanting to get off a reading block, go find Rupi and read all about her mysterious ailment.

 

Haroun and The Sea of Stories

Book Review – Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and The Sea of Stories

Salman Rushdie’s reputation as a writer is popularly defined by two books – The Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. The Midnight’s Children fetched him the Booker Prize in the year of its release and later, the Booker of Bookers and the Best of the Booker. The Satanic Verses, apart from accolades and awards, fetched him a fatwa calling for his assassination. This brought him fame that extended far beyond the literary circles. For an evolved reader, a Rushdie novel features as a must-read. The fainthearted reader is likely to be overwhelmed by his literary reputation and move on to a less daunting author on the bookshelf. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the bait to reel in that hesitant reader.

 

Twelve-year old Haroun is leading a pretty nondescript existence in his hometown with his mother and his storyteller father Rashid. When his mother is seduced by the neighbour and leaves them, his father loses his gift of the gab. A storyteller who can say nothing more than ark, ark, ark is a storyteller without a job. An unexpected turn of events leads father and son to the Sea of Stories. Khattam-Shud, the evil ruler of the Kingdom of Chup is planning to plug the Story Source at the bottom of the Sea of Stories. If he succeeds, the sea will be silenced forever. Haroun and his new friends Iff, Mali – the gardener of stories, Butt the Hoopoe, and others must find a way to foil his evil plot. On the other hand, the neighbouring Kingdom of Gup is preparing to declare war against Chup to recapture Princess Batcheat, the betrothed of Prince Bolo of Gup. Haroun and his friends join forces with the Gup army led by General Kitab and storm the fortress of Chup. Will Haroun be able to help his friends in this mystical land? And what about his own life? Will he return home and have a happy end to his story?

 

While the story has a dark undertone the author uses a comic vibe to make his point. Rushdie is at his witty best with the dialogue. He liberally layers the said with the unsaid forcing the reader to stop, wonder, discover, and chuckle at the discovery. It is evident that the writer spent considerate amount of time and thought on selecting the names of all his characters. They are not merely names, they are loaded with the intent they carry to the writer. Also, they are a clever play on words. Set under the theme of good vs. evil, the names of the ‘good’ characters are all things speech (Chattergy, Gup, Bolo, Kitab) whereas their nemesis represent oppressed silence (Khattam-shud, Chup).

The premise of good vs. evil and a seemingly simplistic plot may fool a Rushdie fan into relegating Haroun… to the bottom of his reading list. It would be a grave mistake. Like all of Rushdie’s works, it is replete with symbols that draw attention to societal issues. The philosophical commentary and puns are subtle and demand a pause if they are to be truly savoured. With Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the author manages to present a story that works on two levels. One, a simple adventurous tale of a young boy in a fantastical land and two, an allegory on the power of stories. It is upon the reader to determine which one to read.

 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories was published in 1990, two years after Satanic Verses, a book which forced him to retreat into silence for a short while. This book appears to have been born out of that forced silence. In the story, when Haroun finally confronts Khattam-shud, he asks, “But why do you hate stories so much? Stories are fun.” A question which must have surely plagued the author himself when he was threatened with death. Perhaps, the book is a ploy by the author to convey his angst over the extreme reactions for the story he wrote. If so, it was a clever ploy for the author to write it in an accessible form, a form which would appeal to a far larger audience than his previous books. And, his appeal to the reader – don’t hate stories – gets through to the reader in this whimsical garb.

 

 

Book Review – Abraham Eraly’s Gem in the Lotus

Abraham Eraly, noted author and historian, first began his history of the Indian subcontinent in 2000. The first book, Gem in the Lotus, begins in pre-Vedic India and ends with the Mauryan Empire. By all accounts, Gem in the Lotus is your typical history book. A plethora of information bundled together from fragments of Proto-Indo-History and a mix of reliable sources from later time; the book is a hefty tome, to say the least.

An Unusual Poetic History of Ancient India

The history of the Indian subcontinent is a puzzling, muddled affair. A quagmire of half-understood facts largely interpreted through the eyes of the many foreigners who have visited it through millennia. Even now, the country’s history is pursued further and further into the past with conclusive evidence stretching back at least six thousand years. But despite being contemporaneous with the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, even the Greeks, knowledge of Indian history is only partially complete. Since written history is largely missing from Ancient India, the works of foreigners who visited Ancient India like Megasthenes, Scylax, and Fa Hsien (Faxian) are important to our understanding of our past.

Efforts to map and catalogue the history of India has been a constant endeavour. Partly successful, largely unsuccessful, this effort has nevertheless created a somewhat loose picture of our past. It is fragmented in many places, but quite focused in others. This fragmentation is a huge problem when it comes to history. People lose interest in such a history. But efforts have been made over the last few decades to reconstruct a history of India that is coherent and can be understood.

Gem in the Lotus is one such reconstruction. Here, Abraham Eraly has taken the help of the various travelers who had visited and written about the country and compiled their stories into one veritable whole thus presenting a very respectable, and largely complete ancient history of the subcontinent. Where the book shines is in its accessibility. There are no footnotes. All the information (or history) that the reader will enjoy, or seek, is placed in the text itself. There is a substantial bibliography that will help academic folk or readers who want to inquire further.

Following its somewhat biblical opening line, Eraly plunges deep into India’s geological history, rushing hurriedly through the glacial movement of the tectonic plates, establishing India’s geography while also referring to the origins of the island of Mauritius. Eraly also talks about the imaginative cosmographies of Ancient Indians (where Mount Meru is shown to be the Earth’s Axis) and then moves on to use scientific data to present the modern depiction of India’s geography more accurately. Here, the narrative focuses on early man and his rise towards civilization. Methodical in his approach, Eraly sometimes deviates in such instances from a straightforward telling of history to a more speculative, almost lyrical, storytelling of history.

Now, that the narrative is firmly established in the book, and India has been fully formed, Eraly takes on each aspect of the subcontinent’s history that was available to him and depicts their story. He doesn’t shy away from criticizing those who did not show regard for history, even commenting on Indians who (even now) didn’t care enough about their own history to preserve it, or even attempt it.

Eraly uses the Rig-Veda as an important argumentative tool to talk about the Aryan colonization of North India. But even in the Rig-Veda, the past is a forgotten memory because not even the Aryans remember what happened. The rise of Jainism and Buddhism proves such a challenge that even the most powerful gods of the Aryans, like Indra and Agni, later become lower entities against more powerful successors like Shiva and Vishnu.

Without a doubt, the most interesting section for the reader will be about Emperor Ashoka. Aptly named “The Forgotten Emperor,” it covers brilliantly the career of one of India’s most renowned Kings. Although well-known, Ashoka’s reign isn’t as exciting to read about now, after so much of his life has been unearthed. But Eraly is largely unapologetic and dedicated in his depiction of the Emperor, never swaying or becoming emotional even when stating that Ashoka “killed ninety-nine of his brother, sparing only Vitasoka, who later retired to a religious life, perhaps as the best way to save his head,” though he does maintain that, in all fairness, this information may have been a fanciful exaggeration presented in Buddhist texts. Unlike mythical accounts of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism following the Kalinga War, Eraly presents a more relatable Ashoka who converted to another religion to find answers to the questions within. The Kalinga War did impact Ashoka, but he was already a Buddhist when the war happened; the War simply instilled in him the resolve to never wage any more wars.

On the subject of Greek Travelers who wrote about India, Eraly is largely appreciative of their efforts. Greek travelers like Megasthenes are revered for their contributions to our understanding of Indian history, but equally teased for their fanciful picturization of the land as seen through their eyes. Eraly doesn’t rely solely on the work of historians to create a picture of India. He even takes the help of varied literature from the hymns of Rig-Veda to the plays of Vishakhadatta. The book is littered with the poetry and songs of such works.

One of the highlights of the book is the Incidental Data. At the end of the book, there is a small section of “incidental” information that the author came across during research, and was not made part of the book due to its anecdotal nature. Among these incidental facts, the reader will find many tidbits of information like the fact that the word ‘Om!’ may have been originally nothing more than a spoken word that meant approval; or that the Buddha believed that birth does not make a brahmin, effort does, self-restraint does, and so does temperament.

The book does suffer occasionally due to Eraly’s extensive use of vocabulary. Leisurely readers will definitely find the 600-page tome daunting, even more so considering that it only covers Indian history till the Mauryan Empire. Eraly writes fluidly, never losing the reader’s attention, but some passages, where his fluidity is strained, require a second read. Thankfully, in the overall scheme of things, it is a minor inconvenience. Gem in the Lotus has stood the test of time so far. It is still an excellent book with which one can introduce oneself to the larger nuances of Indian history with ease.