Read Kyung Sook Shin’s ‘Please Look After Mom’ Before You Celebrate the Next Mother’s Day

We celebrated another Mother’s Day earlier this month. Mothers are celebrated grandly across the world on this day.  Motherhood is idealized as something pure and blissful.  It might be that, but hardly does one get to see a different side of this ideal. This is the case in almost all societies. 

Patriarchy’s continuing firm grip on our lives is manifested when we only acknowledge her existence to celebrate; never acknowledge her existence to help or understand the role of a mother thrust upon many women. There lies the danger in hollow celebrations: it does not bring about any change in the rut or routine and daily hardships of countless mothers.  

To help you understand this analogy, think about the recent hailing of doctors and nurses as heroes in the COVID 19 pandemic.  No doubt, it is important to boost their morale and confidence and to show moral support. However, if this celebration of our heroes does not extend to anything concrete such as better protective gear for them or increase in their remunerations, it becomes empty and superficial. 

Similar is the praise heaped on mothers. If one praises her but does nothing to help out, she continues to be a sacrificial goat for the entire family. Unfortunately, then, the celebration comes to naught. The 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize winner, Please Look After Mon, by Kyung-Sook Shin looks at this dichotomy in the importance and negligence of our mothers. 

The novel begins with the most straightforward sentence: 

“It’s been one week since Mom went missing.”

It is a factual statement that hits you hard. Slowly the story unravels the emotional ramifications of this one incident through the different perspectives of a daughter, son and husband. 

Sixty-nine-year old Park So-nyo goes missing in the crowds of the Seoul Subway Station. Only when she goes missing, do the various family members of the house begin to search both their recent and deepest memories of her to feel her presence once again. 

So-nyo’s youngest daughter, Chihon, reconstructs her memories of her mother, piecing her life for the reader. Chihon revisits the memories of that fateful day as well when So-nyo went missing- assailed by the usual idea that ‘what if I had not done this, this would not have happened.’

Through Chihon’s perspective we see her Mom’s various interconnections with her and her family and how she spent her whole life making amends and being resourceful to earn enough money for the family’s well being. Chihon’s conversations with her sister also reveal how her sister has now become a mother but still cannot resign to a life where she is always giving up herself for others like her own mother, So-nyo had done. 

From relearning her mother’s actual year of birth, to realizing how her mom could not read or how she needed to take a secluded walk just to take a break from the drudgery, Chihon comprehends the various facets of her mother’s being rather than only viewing her as a role. 

Similarly, So-nyo’s husband’s relationship with his wife also throws up facets of her life and her thoughts that he never bothered trying to understand or gauge. The use of the second person point of view makes the husband’s position even more damning, as if listing out things that the husband failed to do – paying attention to her increasing headaches or her recent tendency to forget things. Despite So-nyo’s age and failing health, it was she who was there for him and not the other way around. Now that she has gone missing, her husband feels the ache of the empty house. 

So-nyo’s eldest son, Hyong chul also reminisces about his mother and contemplates how he could have become an even better son for his mother. Closer to the end, we hear So-nyo’s voice and her true emotions and thoughts about herself and her children. Finding their missing mother is the task that brings back all these emotions and memories among the family members. In their search they keep hearing about her being sighted. But these are only whiffs of her presence, never her in complete actuality, as if she has now become a ghost. 

But in a way, she was always a ghost. She took the weight of the entire family, of her world, on her shoulders, like Atlas had, without the family even seeing that burden. Reading Please Look After Mom is deeply emotional and it will make anyone introspect their own relationship dynamics with their mothers. 

The invisibility of So-nyo is glaring and through the novel, is ironically there for all to see. Though the narrative is set in contemporary South Korea, it is relevant even in India. Here too, we similarly place our entire worlds on one person, without acknowledging that burden. Women themselves are conditioned to sacrifice for their children, for their family as they are told that only motherhood can give them complete happiness. This is seen even in So-nyo’s plain acceptance of her responsibilities without ever questioning them. 

Yet for all mothers, like for So-nyo as well, this idea of complete happiness can itself be a strain, where to break out of it seems impossible with little or no options. The mental agony and disconnect between the reality and the ideal that it creates goes largely unseen in India till today. 

We need to as societies, not just clap our hands for our mothers or make her a breakfast for Mother’s Day but really help out and understand the various intersectional forces at play that restrict her to a role of never ending responsible emotional and physical labour that is infinitely tiresome. 

Inside the Mughal Zenana With Ira Mukhoty

In the art of storytelling, be it the bedtime stories for children or the written records of history, women have existed but behind the veils, as the shadows of their male counterparts. Often it’s the king who comes before the queen; there have been superheroes and not superheroines. In the Indian context, of both the Hindu and the Muslim rulers, it was not considered dignified and at times even rude, to write or talk about the royal women who kept a decorous distance from the outer world, thus leaving us with the obscure account of their identities.

 

However, the book ‘Daughters of the Sun’ by Ira Mukhoty takes an exceptional path to look beyond the fine Muslin pardahs of the great Mughal Empire and rediscover its women – ‘Haramam’ or ‘Zenana’. The book takes us through a 200 years long journey dating back to the times of Babur in 1500 till the reign of Aurangzeb, uniquely focusing on the lives of the mothers, wives and daughters of the dynasty and their influence.

 

We are more familiar with the valor, ferocity and prudence of the Mughal kings but the book introduces us to the immense respect they had for their women not just for the sake of it but they were indeed worthy enough to be treated at par. They were as empowered as the kings themselves.

 

All the emperors looked up to them and sought their advices in the matters of diplomacy and administration. Khanzada Begum, Babar’s elder sister readily sacrificed herself to marry their rival to pacify the wrath befallen on the kingdom. Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s daughter was designated as the Padshah Begum of Hindostan (the highest position for a woman at that time) at the age of 17 after the death of her mother. She dedicated her entire life to build the empire like never before. Not only did she assist her father in the administration but built a new capital known as Shahjahanabad, now part of the present day capital of India. Though the city bears the name of the king, but it was the princess or Sahiba as she was fondly called who took initiative to build the famous Red Fort, Chandni Chowk and many more monuments under her supervision.

 

When we think of monuments, many in the present day India can be credited to their diligent effort to leave the mark of their opulence, authority and love. Humayun’s first wife Bega Begum built a magnificent mausoleum in his remembrance, known as the Humayun’s Tomb to all of us. Noor Jahan regarded as the most wealthy woman in her times, built I’timād-ud-Daulah tomb in honour of her father who was a respectable courtier in Jahangir’s court. This piece of art turned out to be the inspiration for Shah Jahan to build the world renowned, Taj Mahal. The women were not just spending to build these extraordinary architecture but were also very active in trade. Most of them had ships in their names and the English and the Portuguese had to take permission from these powerful women to trade in India. Noor Jahan even had a seal of her name on the coins. Involvement of women in trade and decision portrays their ability to share power equally to run a huge kingdom.

 

The Mughal daughters since their childhood were well schooled and taught in different languages like Persian, Turki and later on Hindostani; thus producing erudite daughters like Gulbadan, Jahanara who grew up to write the memoirs of their empire. Not just the blood relations, but the milk mothers nurturing the royal kids were given special importance in the Zenana, sometimes even treated above the mothers themselves.

 

The Mughals since their inception have always been peripatetic. It was the women of the clan who always kept the Timurid culture alive in the foreign lands. They were home to these warriors. The women have also travelled alone without their husbands crossing oceans and taking the arduous journey to Mecca, hence creating an undeterred identity for themselves. They were beyond the boundaries separating men and women.

 

The book filled with such remarkable stories also elegantly takes care of the preceding circumstances, so the reader gets acquainted of the environment that the women were living and thus, is able to better understand their decision making. In other words, reading it would be no less than sitting in a Mughal tent full of timurid shahzadis and listening to the stories of their opulent and peripatetic lives – their role in shaping the Mughal era-of what they won, lost and brought to this land to make it the great Hindostan.

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy the book here.

Love Curry Cover Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    – Richard Sheridan

 

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

 

Thomas Roe
Thomas Roe

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Pankaj Dubey’s Trending in Love Picks Unconventional Protagonists


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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 – 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.

 

A-Country-Without-a-Post-Office Book Cover

Book Review – Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country without a Post Office

Mere words are not enough to capture the sheer brilliance of Agha Shahid Ali’s poems and their plaintive cry for his beloved homeland. 

The poems of The Country Without a Post Office (published in 1997) are complex and allusive, recalling the culturally rich past of Kashmir, linking that to the carnage in the 1990s. This creates a haunting continuum to the idea of Kashmir- of how it used to be a land where religion, culture, folktales merged effortlessly and how now it has turned into a land where, “death flies in.”

Needless to say, the poems in this collection are nostalgic, bemoaning the state of Kashmir of the 90s. Nostalgia comes naturally in Ali’s poetry which the blurb describes as “Agha Shahid Ali’s finest mode, that of longing.”

 

Kashmir Vale
Michael Petersen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]
 

This longing though is immersed not only in the melancholic but also the political, historic and the literal. Each poem mingles intense pain of various kinds, be it the pain of losing a son or a relative; the distance between families; of the silence in the wake of the aftermath, with the history, culture, and the politics of the decade that pillaged an entire state. All of this pierce the reader’s heart and soul and engulf them in a profound sadness the poet holds for his home.

 

Some remarkable poems that portray this continuum and make the reader engage with Kashmir rather than dismissing it as a mere site of never ending conflict include the beautiful, A History of Paisley that uses the motif of the ubiquitous paisley (often seen embroidered or printed on various fabrics), A Footnote to History, At the Museum that takes a hard factual look at the emblem of our civilization, The Dancing Girl bronze statue from Harappa or the sweeping, I Dream I am the Only Passenger on Flight 42 to Srinagar which in careful couplets and tercets marks the violent culmination of a 1000 year old civilisation. The opening prose poem, The Blessed Word: A Prologue, itself establishes this continuum and the mode of longing by evoking powerful imagery of Srinagar under siege and by invoking the different names the state has had in its past. In doing so, the poet seems to be crying out for the ravaged state and its people. 

 

Kashmiri_people_in_Dale_Lake_kashmir
Dashrathgoyal85 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
 

Rich and decadent metaphors that suffuse his poems such as the Kashmir rose, the famed saffron spice , the paradise like Mughal gardens, the majestic mountain peaks, the stately chinar tree or the floating gardens of the Dal Lake lie uneasily in stark contrast to the conflicted reality of the state. 

A case in point is the pertinent poem, The Floating Post Office. It portrays, in Ali’s typical style of invoking quaintness, a post boat delivering letters on the sly through a network of waterways when the roads are shut.

 

This poem brings to attention the title of the collection itself and how this poem and the title highlight that communication is a lifeline for “the city from where no news can come.” The titular poem also depicts letters unanswered, letters unsent en masse because communication has been blocked. 

Now, think long and deeply about the ramifications of all forms of communication being cut off in today’s highly connected, globalised world. Think then about what happens in Kashmir, where when the rest of the world enjoys high speed internet and India basks in its Jio revolution, an entire state becomes metaphorically a country without a post office. 

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Book Review – Paulo Coelho’s The Spy

Fans of Paulo Coelho will find The Spy unlike his more prosaic narratives such as The Alchemist. Woven around the events of the First World War, The Spy promises to be Mata Hari’s last confessional without as much soul-searching as you might expect of an “innocent” prisoner awaiting the French firing squad. Famous as the seductive dancer who brought the “religiousness” and “disinhibition” from faraway lands to France, The Spy traces Mata Hari’s journey from being Margaretha Zelle of Leeuwarden, Netherlands to her eventual conviction as a spy for the Germans.

Beginning with her departure for Leiden to train as a kindergarten teacher, the dichotomy of Margaretha’s familiar surroundings and the impending turbulence is most represented by her mother’s gift of tulip seeds. “A symbol of the country” and her destiny or perhaps just Calvinist ideals, the sexual assault by her Leiden school’s principal ensures Margaretha’s restlessness in “Calvinist Holland” and propels her to respond to military officer’s Rudolf MacLeod offer for marriage.

While the journey to Indonesia with her husband promises a romantic sojourn in exotic lands, reality only brings her the conventional life of the military wife. Even as she suffers through an occasionally abusive marriage, fate brings her to an event featuring Java dancers and a bloody suicide that causes her to bolt back home. Adopting her nom de scène as she leaves her former life behind for her dreams to shine in the City of Light, she arrives in Paris during the 1900 World Fair.

As Coelho sketches her journey as “a classical dancer to oriental music”, The Spy is peppered with political and cultural references of early 19th century Europe including Freud, Pablo Picasso, and the Émile Zola’s infamous letter J’Accuse. However, despite the occasional emotional insight, Coelho misses the mark in engaging the reader in the life of one of the most famous entertainers in the world.

Even if the matter-of-fact narrative is considered to portray Mata Hari’s general appearance of divaesque nonchalance, The Spy seems dry given she writes her final letter within the confines of Saint-Lazare prison infested with rats and “used only to break the spirits of those who thought they were strong – women like” Mata Hari. And while liberal France may have allowed her nudist seductions on the stage, the narrative suggests her “high-society” exaggerations resulted in the accusation by Captain Georges Ladoux and arrest on February 13, 1917. Her subsequent confessions elicited by prosecutor of the Third War Council, Captain Pierre Bouchardon ensure her death sentence which was executed on October 15, 1917 – Mata Hari was neither bound nor blindfolded; she stood, gazing steadfastly at her executioners, as the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away.

Considering the Parisian entertainment scene in the early 19th century and the book’s flamboyant protagonist, the glamour seems insipid, and the narrative is uninspiring with Coelho’s literary sparkle experienced only infrequently – “I was an exotic bird traversing an earth ravaged by humanity’s poverty of spirit.” Perhaps the author was so enamored by the mystery that is Mata Hari as to fall short of infusing The Spy with her glittering persona.

Amrita Sher-Gil's Village-Scene-1938

Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard 

The Women’s Courtyard, by Khadija Mastur, translated into English from Urdu, by Daisy Rockwell, begins with the protagonist, Aliya, having a sleepless night at her Uncle’s place, recalling and pondering on how her life will be from now onwards. In the next few chapters, she recalls how she as a child, had shifted to a newer place that was bereft of any life, community or togetherness and how her previous home was filled with love, friends, and endless entertaining stories that her Khansaman Bua used to regale her with.

The book then jumps into the present and narrative speaks of the events that lead up to that point where Aliya is now restless and pondering over an uncertain future in her Uncle’s house.


Titled,
Aangan, in the original Urdu, the novel is set in pre-Independence India (somewhere in North India) and narrates how the Independence movement affects the men and women of the house. It is the women who are the main characters and the house or the courtyard (angan in Hindi/Urdu) is their stage.

The story is told from the perspective of Aliya, focusing also on other female members of the house such as Aliya’s mother, her elder sister, Tehmina, her friend Chammi and Kusum. The Independence movement takes place in the background for the women yet the male members’ intense involvement and particularly the rivalry of Jameel (Aliya’s cousin) and her Uncle rip the household. Jameel supports the Muslim League whereas his own father is a staunch Congress supporter. Their bitter rivalry tears them apart so much so that they do not speak to each other. Aliya’s own father’s involvement in the movement is what forces her and her mother to shift into her Uncle’s house which is where the novel begins.  (caution: one cannot simply base their assumptions about the Independence movement through a reading of this novel and dismiss the contribution of women to the movement).

The Women’s Courtyard does proffer a varying perspective on how deeply it affected women of the time and how it makes them adjust and compromise on every level as well. The novel is not a critique of the movement but rather of the patriarchy that is embedded in society and even in the movement. While it is important to fight for one’s country which the men in the Aliya’s family do, they themselves are caught between their roles of being breadwinners and freedom fighters which shows the pressures that they themselves faced from their family and society. On the other hand, the stage of the house in the novel and the Aangan makes the reader view a traditionally female occupied space and how their world is confined to that. While the men are out there fighting for freedom and having discussions about that in the drawing rooms, the women are never privy to that world. The female gaze does not trespass that territory even though it affects them in various other ways such as emotional and financial. Aliya is the only one who is shown reading and learning about the movement from her Uncle and his encouragement to read his books. The novel portrays several gender expectations imposed at that time which are applicable even today where women are not allowed to be part of certain decision making processes in several areas and cultures of the subcontinent.

 

Through her college, her reading and her exposure to her immediate world, Aliya, is the diplomatic yet empathetic voice in the story who is able to recognize the unfairness in the way in which society treats people, especially women. Her understanding and ability to interpret and reason make her absolutely logical with a touch of empathy for everyone around her. For example, her notions around love and marriage is shaped by how her friend, Kusum, was treated unfairly by gossip mongers for eloping and how Tehmina lost her senses because of falling in love. She is cautious herself about falling in love and stays away from something that she considers quite irrational. It is not merely the idea of love she detests but the manner in which it is ingrained into women. Thus she severely critiques this wrong notion of how women are expected to behave when in love which is quite relevant even today.

The Women’s Courtyard, is a thoroughly engaging read that unsparingly critiques all facets of patriarchy from Aliya’s mother’s entrenched beliefs regarding women and need for punishment for transgressive women or her aunt’s own pride in her Master’s degree and her condescending attitude toward one and all. It is a beautifully translated novel that captures the tense atmosphere both at Aliya’s home and outside. The one aspect that would have added to the novel’s charm would have been to include certain phrases and lines in the original Urdu, even if romanized.

Doris Lessing’s Fifth Child

Doris Lessing’s Fifth Child has been under the knife enough to not need any more dissections but speculations sometimes seem to make sense or worse no sense of the book. Fifth Child is the story of a young couple, Harriet and David who found another, just like them. They knew they meant it, and that they had to have a big family. A big family with a mansion outside town, full of guests who stayed even after the holidays and children through its halls filling everyone’s hearts with joy. The fifth child changed everything for the couple, their family cracked, the house was empty and deserted.

“It’s either him or us,” David said. Harriet had her life going the way she’d hoped even when they found it difficult to make ends meet. Harriet got pregnant too quickly and after the fourth, the doctor had advised her to rest before she planned on having another child. And then she was pregnant again with their fifth child, Ben. Harriet grew suspicious about the foetus and was sure something was wrong with it, “She imagined pathetic botched creatures, horribly real to her, the products of a Great Dane or a borzoi with a little spaniel; a lion and a dog; a great cart house and a little donkey; a tiger and a goat”.

“I don’t want to kill the nasty little brute,” Harriet said to Dr Brett after telling how Ben was suffering from a milk infection and needed something for the diarrhoea. It surprised Dr Brett that Harriet was not breastfeeding her child. She showed him her bruised nipples, and he went silent only to say, “Naughty baby” that made Harriot laugh in astonishment. Lessing offers us an alternative perspective of what if Harriot is imagining her struggles? What if Ben isn’t a troll or a goblin but just an ugly baby? Dr Brett tells her it’s not abnormal to dislike the child, and he says that he sees it too often. In the binary of a good and bad mother, Lessing lets the reader decide if Harriet is a good or bad mother. Her four children were perfect, and the house was bustling with joy and happiness till Ben was born and she gave it all up to be Ben’s mother.

David and Harriet had given Ben up to an institute where he would have been cared for and they wouldn’t have to worry. Harriet found Ben in a straitjacket locked in a room, wearing soiled clothes and any longer there, he would have died. Harriet had the choice of saving Ben or letting him die and giving her family back the normalcy they’d lost. Harriet brought Ben back and dealt with his antics and ways, trained him to get by in the real world and successfully arrive into adulthood. Harriet’s struggle with Ben took most of her time and she slowly disappeared from the lives of all her other children. All the children ended up leaving home to stay with other relatives to get some distance from Ben. David had moved out of their room the night she brought him back. Something broke in their relationship that day.

We could classify fifth Child as horror fiction, a gothic novella and a newer classification, more popular among films “Gynaecological Gothic”. An experiential account of gestation, the horror of carrying an alien or goblin or monster as a child. A dark and grim experience of violence experienced by the mother, a victim and the world’s denial to see Ben for what he truly is in Harriet’s eyes, an ugly troll that she couldn’t have birthed. The popular short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman can arguably be a Gynaecological gothic.

Lessing is the oldest recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature and Margaret Atwood in her tribute writes “If there were a Mount Rushmore of 20th-century authors, Doris Lessing would most certainly be carved upon it.” Lessing left two children behind in the care of their father, her husband in Zimbabwe and moved to London to chase her literary prospects. Harriet’s experience with Ben and bringing him back from the institute seems to lie deeper in Lessing abandoning her children but these speculations have no footing. “It was an upsetting thing to write, it goes very deep into me somewhere,” said Lessing when talking about writing the Fifth Child.

 

About the Author: Vinay Kumar is a a freelance photographer & writer who drinks too much coffee.