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.

Joe Sacco's Palestine Cover Image

Palestine by Joe Sacco

For years cartoonist Joe Sacco had been watching and reading the news of the Palestinian uprising. Are all Palestinians terrorists or victims? He would ask himself as he saw the news flashing across his TV screen. What about the average guy with routine concerns like food on the table for his family and getting to work on time. Where was that guy? Dissatisfied with the media’s portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Joe decided that he needed to see it for himself, from ground zero.
In the winter of 1991-1992, he made his way to the region and parked himself in Jerusalem. For two months, he crisscrossed across the borders between West Bank, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. He met labourers, refugees, ex-prisoners, soldiers, volunteers…all the different people who were a part of the fabric of this troubled region. He met children who had not seen any other way of life and geriatrics who had lived in peaceful times much before the 1948 Palestine War. His companion on this travel was his trusty notebook for his doodles, cartoons, and observations.
This notebook would later take the shape of Joe Sacco’s graphic memoir – Palestine.
The novel, both written and illustrated by Sacco, is divided into nine issues, each one divided into multiple chapters. The story is built through anecdotes that he gathers as he travels across the region. In towns like Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron in the West Bank, he visits market places, hospitals, schools and local homes. He meets Palestinians who have spent multiple terms in Ansar III, the largest detention centre in the world. He travels to the extreme west to the Gaza Strip where he spends a week in the Jabalia refugee camp and witnesses first-hand the living conditions.
While his witty remarks often elicit laughter, the underlying tone of empathy for the helpless situation is starkly evident. For instance, his visit to Nablus, where a milkman he encounters in the market insists on playing tour guide. He drags Joe to the local hospital and tows him from bed-to-bed, introducing him to the casualties and listing the details of their injuries. The patients are not all rebels. Many, including children, are wounded by army bullets that zipped into their homes or school compounds. The situation is grim, but the writer’s presentation of the hospital as a tourist spot and himself as a tourist makes one laugh out loud.
The author’s intent is not to trivialize the Palestinian situation. Sacco’s use of humour manages to evoke discomfort in the reader, engrossed in the story from the warmth and safety of her home.
A chapter on Sacco’s interaction with the detainees from Ansar III highlights the fact that incarceration was an accepted fate by Palestinian men at the time. The story of the prisoners brings out nuances of life inside a detention camp, many of which are astonishing. For instance, the formation of committees among the prisoners to oversee seemingly mundane tasks like the equitable distribution of tea. And, the organization of lectures by the prisoners on topics like Einstein, philosophy and split-up of the Soviet Union. As also, their strategies based on the careful study of the soldiers’ routines, such as planning contentious activities just before the weekend, when the officers are looking forward to heading home.
At the end of the two months, Sacco visits Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel, on the insistence of two tourists he meets in Jerusalem. They want him to see ‘their side of things’. During those few hours in Tel Aviv, the writer sees a different side of the region, meets people who remind him of people he meets in America and Europe. He concedes that yes there is an Israeli side of the story which he has neglected in this novel, but that calls for another trip. This trip was an exercise to uncover the Palestinian perspective, largely disregarded by popular media.
Sacco alternates between playing narrator and protagonist. As the narrator, he shares with the reader his reflections on the people, their situation and the policies that govern this region. He also includes nuggets from history to help understand how events have evolved to reach the current status quo. With regards to the other characters, he is matter-of-fact, presenting them without over-dramatization and allowing the reader to draw conclusions.
The illustrations are monochromatic, and Sacco strikes a balance between vacuity and busyness in every box. Some bits are filled with fine lines, squiggles and other patterns, which enhance the starkness to the blank bits in the box. His drawings acquaint the reader with a close-up view of a land that has primarily been seen only through the long-focus lenses of reporters.
‘Palestine’ drives home the power of stories – they engage and thus, affect. And they stay with the reader, much after the news has been relegated to the archives.
Image – Joe Sacco’s Palestine

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

Good books often give wings to the imagination of young writers, thus helping them to transport their readers to a world very different from the real, brutal world we live in. But sometimes, some stories, some real stories are pushed beneath the facts and informative pages of a history book—lost and hidden from the generations to come. Though we learn about these events and score good marks in a history paper, we fail to delve into the depths of the pages and dig out the dust-ridden, true stories still haunting the past of many such families who fell victim to those massacres.

 

Khushwant Singh was one such survivor of the horrendous Partition of India, 1947, born in Hadali, now in Pakistan. Not only an author, he was a lawyer, a diplomat, a journalist as well as a member of Parliament from 1980 to 1986. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974, which he returned as a sign of protest against the siege of Golden Temple by the Indian Army. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2007. Singh died in 2014 at the age of ninety-nine years.

 

In his book “Train to Pakistan”, he weaves his own experience beautifully, into a story set in Mano Majra, a fictional village on the border of India and Pakistan, harbouring both Sikhs & Muslims peacefully for hundreds of generations. Then, with the murder of the local Hindu moneylender and the arrival of a train from Pakistan carrying the dead bodies of Sikhs, years and years of brotherhood falls apart and hostility brews between the Hindus and Muslims; forcing the latter to leave their lands, homes, cattle, and everything else behind and board a train to Pakistan.

 

Singh builds up all his characters with finesse and perfect detailing, sometimes using ordinary events of day-to-day lives to reflect the inner conflicts of his characters’ minds. For example, when the District Magistrate Hukum Chand notices two geckos fighting each other and falling on the bed, metaphorically representing the Hindus and Muslims at loggerheads, he jumps out of bed in fear and disgust; thus reflecting his guilt and moral conflict of not taking a stand for the good of the people even with so much power in hand. On the other hand, while the well-educated, social worker Iqbal Singh keeps on pondering whether to lay down his life for the greater good, the uneducated, rogue, gangster Juggut Singh, who has fallen in love with Nooran, a local Muslim girl, tries to redeem himself for all his past actions by sacrificing his own life and saving his fellow Muslim villagers from dreadful deaths; thus exposing another moral paradox of our society— Are learned men truly educated or do they always fall short of action in times of need?
Singh refuses to take any political side and instead, presents us the stark reality of the horrors of partition from a humane point of view. As we flip page after page, we realise that neither Sikhs nor Muslims were innocent! Men were killed on both sides, women were raped on both sides and children were orphaned on both sides. From the many gruesome & explicit accounts of murder, death, rape and torture, we, as readers realise with a heavy heart that it has always been the common people who have suffered and paid the price for the actions and decisions of those in power.

 

Train to Pakistan is a historical book which does not fail to impress the readers with its detailed and beautiful illustration of a dark age in our Indian History, while at the same time questions our religious bigotry, our society as well as the principles and morals of the decision-makers of our country.

 

‘Reviewing’ Poetry with Siamese Compassion

Is it possible to ‘review’ poetry? Every time I sit to write about poems or stand to speak about poetry, this question confounds me. A friend sent a poem of his about 4-5 years ago and asked for my opinions. I read it, a critic would have perhaps trashed it owing to its form. I asked my poet friend if he had written what he thought of and what he thought like. He said yes. I told him it was good. With poems as with any other form of writing, I try to see through the feelings and the honesty in expressing them. If there is a match, I am up for more from you. However, if I find a mismatch or if I feel that the work has become a matter of form over emotions, I am turned off. Continue reading “‘Reviewing’ Poetry with Siamese Compassion”