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Book Review: Song of the Sun God by Shankari Chandran

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A young Tamil boy in Colombo watches a Buddhist monk immolate himself; it is 1932, fifty years before the world will come to know about Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis. The island is still known as Ceylon and is under British rule, but the monk’s act is not anti-colonial, but anti-Tamil. Even 11-year old Rajan, whose family has come from their village in the north to try to save their sick daughter at a hospital in the capital, knows this. Shankari Chandran’s debut novel, Song of the Sun God, opens on this dramatic incident and follows Rajan’s line through three continents over the eight decades that follow.

Rajan becomes a highly-respected doctor and marries the smart and charming Nala, who in later life proves herself to be even more modern and sensible than her offspring. They have two children, Priya and Nandan. Firmly ensconced in elite Colombo circles, Nala resists migration for decades, one of several dubious choices which impact everyone around her. Only under eventual duress does the couple join Priya’s family in Australia. By the end of the novel, they are great-grandparents.

Dhara, the character closest to and most vividly impacted by the civil war in every sense, is the only one who remains in the country. Nala’s niece, she comes into their lives permanently as an 8 year-old in 1956, when her father is murdered by a mob and her mother is too broken by rape to continue to parent her. Nala and Rajan raise her as theirs, but loyalty and treachery within families are deeply entwined, and with neither malice nor fairness they send Priya to London to study medicine instead of the more gifted Dhara. Dhara goes to Jaffna instead, where the war chews her up – but spits her right back out, shattered and strong. Among the most tender moments in the book is of her adult daughter helping her cross the railway tracks on the beach at Wellawatte, Colombo’s Tamil district. The most brutal moments of the book also belong to her.

Modern Sri Lankan history runs through, without contrivance, the vagaries of this family’s lives – and the fact that upon leaving a homeland, it is relatives and a bricolage known as “community” that become the entirety on which cultural identity or disconnection are hinged. This is the truth of being Sri Lankan Tamil in the last century: no one, no family, has gone unscathed. The episode of Nala being pulled from a car and doused in kerosene during a riot melds into the episode of Rajan insisting that his funeral be held in Tamil, instead of by the Sanskrit-chanting Indian priests of Sydney. Life’s cycles manifest in myriad ways: there’s death by mobs and death by disease. In the sum telling, all of it happens to the same people – “our people” as one character argues furiously in the aftermath of the 2009 massacre, the hierarchies that would have kept apart his kin from the impoverished who died in a strip of beach in Mullaitivu dismantled – even if only deceptively – by genocide and in this case its sibling, linguicide.

Chandran’s command over the sprawling storyline is remarkable, and there is a didactic quality to this novel that is intelligently obscured by the elegance of her lines. One does not feel the weight of the research undertaken, even while admiring peripherally that it had to have been conducted. The author moves as easily, and with great detail, between mid-20th century Kandy and Colombo high society as she does the atrocities and realities of more recent jungle warfare and the camps of the internally displaced. Also instructive are the numerous quotidian exchanges that reveal what privileged diasporic life is like. The author’s etching of emotional lives is keen; still, she adapts the form of the classic generational saga and replaces the usual sentimentality with something very different and insightful.

The novel’s triumph is that it foregrounds the middle-class diaspora’s practical, and in many cases perfectly normal (and even privileged) lives, without using either trauma or nostalgia as a manipulative crescendo. In its own non-confrontational way, light is thrown on some of the uncomfortable nuances of this diaspora – for instance in this gently rendered line: “During the war, Tamils thought they were funding orphanages and later found they were arming children instead”, and more broadly in the numerous conversations between characters that underline how tenuous that homeland connection is. In one memorable one, Smirithi and Prashanth discuss what it means to be Australian Tamils, to have no legitimate claim to oor (village), but to definitely have an almost perfect sense of belonging where they are.

For readers of diasporic writings, whether Sri Lankan or Indian, this will stand out as a highly unusual frankness, subverting the traditional emotive norms of the genre. Particularly among those whose middle-class (or affluent), upper-caste parents and grandparents fled or moved to the West, and who themselves were born or raised there, a complex amalgam of survivor’s guilt, stability and post-colonial malaise makes for a cocktail that can sometimes manifest in entitlement or overcompensation. The author treads here with a compassion that makes these tricky points more easy to discuss. Perhaps it helps that the Rajan-Nala family are relatively well-adjusted, but it is precisely this narrative of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora that is so refreshing to encounter – one that gracefully concedes comfort and even joy.

Song of the Sun God is a magnum opus, luminous with honesty: a book that is at once so familiar in what it describes yet brings a fresh approach to diasporic narratives. Chandran does not dwell on war in the guise of love; it is love itself that is the core of this story.

An edited version appeared in Scroll.

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward juxtaposes the America of today, where any Black boy can die from police brutality at any time, with the Jim Crow era, which still lingers in the memory of an aged generation. Among this generation are Mama and Pop – as Philomène, a magnificent traditional healer dying of cancer, and her husband, a gentle man actually named River, are known to their grandson Jojo.

The novel unfolds in three voices, opening on Jojo trying, painfully, to assist his grandfather in slaughtering a goat. It is his 13th birthday, and his mother will soon neglectfully buy him a baby shower cake, another reminder of how fortunate he is to live with his grandparents. At times, Jojo’s narrative can seem too sophisticated, especially as compared to his speaking voice. This settles once the reader recalls that Jojo is gifted with extrasensory perception: he can hear what cannot be expressed, the thoughts of animals and of his toddler sister, Kayla, whose vocabulary has been slow to develop. It’s a credit to the seamless way in which the supernatural and the mysterious are spoken of in this book that we sometimes forget this detail. Later, we learn that like others in his family, Jojo can also see and communicate with spirits.

Jojo’s mother Leonie, who had him as a teenager, is the second voice. She takes her children along for the long drive to the prison from which their father, Michael, is about to be released. Michael is a White man whose cousin killed Leonie’s beloved brother, Given, whom she still sees when high on meth. Much of the book’s action takes place on this journey, where the children are exposed to everything from thirst and nausea to a police encounter. The third voice enters the book later: Richie, a ghost of Jojo’s age, joins the family on the car journey back from Parchman, where Michael was serving time and where a horrifying incident from Pop’s own youth took place.

It’s difficult to think of this family as a broken one – despite the drugs, incarceration and disease – because the love in this book goes at least as deep as the decay. When Ward writes of love, every character is redeemed. Most profound among these loves is what exists between Jojo and his grandparents. It shimmers in countless quotidian acts, just as his vigilant care for his sister does. The love between Mama and Pop, too, is full of tenderness – palpable even while she ails, out of sight of the action. Then there’s the exhilarating selfishness of the romance between Leonie and Michael, a love that almost has room for no one else, not even the children it has brought into being, although Leonie’s own love for her mother is almost luminescent – “I thought about that Medusa I’d seen in an old movie when I was younger, monstrous and green-scaled, and I thought: That’s not it at all. She was as beautiful as Mama. That’s how she froze those men, with the shock of seeing something so perfect and fierce in the world.” Even one of the ghosts aches with love, plaintive with longing for the only man he knows as his father. Yet, again and again we are also shown: there is no real redemption.

This is a book that gets better with every page, so that by the time we are halfway through, all the earlier confusions – from the unevenness of language between Jojo’s articulations and observations to various small points lost in the non-linear, occasionally dense, lyrical style – fade. As its climatic final pages and the inevitable death they contain draw nearer, Sing, Unburied, Sing demands stepping away to recalibrate before returning. Devastation is unavoidable, both in and by this impressive novel. Ward saves her choicest moral ambiguities for near the end, so we find ourselves in medias res even then – haunted, as are all her characters.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

Book Review: Sauptik by Amruta Patil

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On a cremation ground somewhere in the present, the past or perhaps even the future, Ashwatthama of the wounds that never heal tells the story of all he saw in the great war to his companions, the crackers of skulls and bearers of corpses. As far as Mahabharata retellings go, Amruta Patil’s has a knack for choosing sutradhars, or narrators – in Adi Parva, the first volume in this graphic diptych, it was the river Ganga. In Sauptik, the concluding volume, the thread is passed to as different a raconteur as possible: unlike a fabled river, the mass-murdering immortal Ashwatthama is not as easy to redeem into elegance of any kind.

This befits the book perfectly, for the tale Patil spins is one of ignominy, betrayal and repeated falls from grace. Throughout, Ashwatthama attempts a preacher position, albeit sitting beside pyres, pus leaking from his forehead. He is immortal but this is ironically his fatal flaw: he is too central a cautionary tale to be able to teach the same. The effect is brilliant: Patil thus dips between pithy wisdoms (a simple clay lamp, sitting upon its own shadow, with the caption: “Directly beneath the lamp, darkness.”), strictly dangerous political instructions (“Small fires in a big forest keep flammable matter in check. A periodic purge may prevent a large-scale catastrophe. Useful, where civilization is concerned.”) and even artist’s notes (on the Sudarshan Chakra: “best shown as a jagged flying disc or as a mathematical sequence or as a moustached minor divinity armed to the teeth? Is Krishn best shown as a galactic nursery? Or a dirt-eating blue baby? Or a dark, bejeweled androgyne? Is devlok – antithesis of dense, low-frequency matter – best shown as purple-pink mountains or as a blank page? All these diagrams – crude as their executor – are only my attempts at making the Enormous accessible.”).

One of the most profound insights in the book, with its themes of jealousy and self-ignorance, comes from the supporting narrative of Ashwatthama as pyre-dweller. To contextualise his setting, the story of Sati’s feral husband Shiv and her hidebound father Daksha is recounted at the book’s beginning. Deep into the narrative, we are reminded of this auxillary story with a series of self-revealing questions: “To learn a queasy truth, ask yourself this: Who’s the Shiv to your Daksha? Of the worthiest of the worthies, whose name do you refuse to say aloud while a litany of others are mentioned? Who do you hesitate to leave room for in your crowded altar, though their credibility is immaculate? Of the worthiest of worthies who do you give thanks to?”

In fact, philosophy rather than story is Patil’s narrative style, and Sauptik requires some familiarity with the Mahabharata, and it is also recommended that its first volume, Adi Parva, be read beforehand. The epic’s sprawling storyline is illuminated in selected parts, with the text often taking on a sermon-like quality. In all retellings of any epic, elisions speak as much if not more than illuminations. In some cases, prior knowledge is necessary – the conveying of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, is rendered in simplest terms – “He knelt in the red dust before Krishn. They had a very quiet conversation.” Similarly, a basic familiarity with Vaishnavite cosmology – and indeed, the epic’s other convolutions too – is a prerequisite, otherwise brief interludes like Bheem’s encounter with his half-brother Hanuman are incomplete, and dangling storylines like how Yudhishthir rescued his siblings from the magic lake of the crane-yaksha are completely baffling.

In other cases, inference rather than expression speaks strongest. A diagram of a hand shows each Pandav as a finger, with Draupadi’s name within the palm – but is she what connects the fingers, or what the fist crowds upon?

The answer is unequivocal in Patil’s telling, in which Draupadi is very much the dark horse protagonist, the one rendered with the most pathos and the least equanimity. Some of the most vivid scenes belong to her. In the court of Hastinapur where the game of loaded dice has shown the polyandrous queen to be no more than property, the author eschews the standard narrative of disrobing and divine intervention for a chilling image: unfurled tongue and disheveled tresses, her eyes cold and not bloodshot, Draupadi is Ma Kali herself, pronouncing her curses and vows. Later, a striking scene is dedicated to the combing of her hair with the blood of not just those who humiliated her, but her father, her twin and her five sons too. Her face is extraordinarily beautiful, lit from within, as a handmaiden performs the sanguineous shampoo,

The story of how Draupadi came to have five husbands – often told as an act of obeisance to their mother who tells them to share everything – is spun neatly here as a tale of female desirousness and agency. The Pandav’s mother Pritha (her name restored to its original one from the popular Kunti) too offers counsel in just terms: “The only consent you must seek is hers. Your marriage needs no other approval.” This cannot protect Draupadi from becoming pillage in the war, or soothe her heart of longing and rejection. In a later sequence, she opines how Arjun takes advantage of a pretense of dignity to seek Subhadra out, and make her co-consort among his various dalliances.

The author’s language is evocative, always didactic, and with elegant turns of phrase – memorably, Bheem and Duryodhan wrestling as students in the akhada are “symmetrical as an inkblot folded in half”.

This is a graphic novel, as much painting as it is prose. It is Patil’s third and she retains mastery of the form. When Draupadi is staked in a game of dice in the court of the enemy, she is menstruating in a room painted blood red, its walls unmistakably vaginal in the frame in which she utters her first and only warning to Dusshasan. Elsewhere, despite the book’s themes of carnage and forest darkness, there is beauty, most notably in scenes of intimacy: Bheem and his true love, the rakshasa Hidimbi, amidst plantains and passionflowers; sleep-dancing gopikas in petal-skirted dervish delight, each with a Krishn of her own; the lushly sexual apsara Tilottama.

Patil’s visual genealogy is a rich one, but to her credit, her references never trip into too-obvious, easy-applause territory. So in a poignant double spread about Draupadi’s forest (one chapter elucidates how each protagonist had one of their own), the text explores her defenselessness, emotional abandonments and the way long-suffering patience lends itself to long-held vengeance – while a naked, aurically-dense figure of her calls to mind a stance seen somewhere in Diego Rivera’s oeuvre. Elsewhere, on the epic’s bloodiest night of carnage, we recognise that the Shiv that Ashwatthama has invoked is reminiscent of the Tibetan Buddhist Mahakala. We admire the tableau and the artist’s astute subtlety, balancing allusion with lyrical expression, and turn the page.

But the last page turns onto blank dismay. Sauptik opens on “[a] caution, a key: Don’t impose your preconceptions onto the story then claim objectivity.” Ashwatthama, survivor of aeons, offers this buffer against the limitations of time-bound mores, but Patil herself fails to take this guidance. In a spectacularly misguided endnote signed by the author, she writes of how “brahmin” and “rajanya” are “not genetically transmitted states” but purposes. And more risibly still, choices: “You determine your varna. The bucks stops with you. It is as easy and as excruciatingly hard as that.”

Ashwatthama speaking this on a battlefield or a burning ground out of time may have had resonance, but Patil writing this in a caste-ridden society where the best one can do with one’s privilege is to renounce the system, rather than find ways to whitewash it, is disingenuous to say the least.

Ironically, Ashwatthama – son of Dron, perpetrator of caste-based violence – himself says it better. After the Eklavya episode, he first attempts a justification – “Contrary to the current narrative, Eklavya wasn’t punished for being a poor forest boy with super skills. He was punished for a serious error: laying claim to a lineage he had done no ground-time to earn, from a teacher who had explicitly rejected him. Was Dron’s rejection unjust? Arguably.” – then moves into lip service towards radical subversion – “Karn and Eklavya should’ve just rejected elitist lineages, declared themselves to be what they were – swayambhus, self-actualised ones… Ultimate cocking-a-snook at a system that kept them out.” It’s a bizarre endnote to a book of philosophy on the folly of hubris, but almost – in an unpremeditated way – a befitting one.

An edited version appeared in Biblio.

Book Review: Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment by Vera Hildebrand

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The historical Rani of Jhansi, 19th century Maratha queen and Indian nationalist, is frequently portrayed on a rearing horse, brandishing a sword with an infant tied to her back. That last detail is pure fiction: the child in question, ostensibly her son, was 10 years old at the time of the battle memorialised, and no evidence exists of his having accompanied her in combat. The maharani’s role of mother – a pleasing one within the patriarchal realm – is merely reinforced by the symbol. Nearly a century later, it was her spirit (or at least, symbol) that Subhas Chandra Bose called upon to form the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the Indian National Army’s all-woman unit.

Largely considered a footnote of sorts in the anti-colonial struggle, the RJR was primarily given interest due to its charismatic Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan, who later became the illustrious Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal. Vera Hildebrand’s Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment does not simply stop at the cursory, but separates fact from myth, and fills in gaps in public knowledge. Swaminathan’s own memoirs were largely embellished with vivid scenes of combat – which the Regiment never actually participated in firsthand. The RJR propaganda project, and Bose’s order to destroy INA records, also created misperceptions. The book presents a compelling case that what actually happened is more interesting by far.

Bose organised the RJR in 1943 in what is now Singapore, and the total number of recruits is an estimated 450. These recruits were often teenage girls – even as young as 12 – although rules stipulated that they had to be over 18 years old. Dr Swaminathan and other Indian women like the teacher Protima Sen in Burma were tasked with convincing parents to sign the permission slip (curiously, married women were required to obtain this from their husbands, a point that undermines the stated premise of gender equality).

Hildebrand sets the context of the Indian independence struggle and charts Bose’s personal and political growth extensively. Numerous gender-related issues abound in the formation, and indeed legacy, of the RJR. Bose initially shared Gandhi’s prudish views on sexuality, and was even disappointed that his own firstborn was a girl, but later grew to become an advocate of birth control and women’s rights. Gandhi used women in sexist ways in the freedom struggle, and it is clear from this book that some of Bose’s initial motivations were also objectifying in nature. He eventually developed the view that complete gender equality also meant military action. That the RJR did not engage in combat disappointed all concerned. Hildebrand’s neutral, thorough research allows for a wide range of questions to emerge. For instance: did Bose select impoverished illiterate women for the task as their bodies, and lives, were considered more expendable? The historian H.N. Pandit suggests that the entire enterprise was to shock, and thereby destabilize, the British army with the sight of slain women on the frontlines.

The little known, and thoroughly fascinating, truth about the RJR is that most of its members had never been to India. 60% of them were young Tamil women from the Malayan plantations. 20% were Sikh (Hildebrand was unable to find any surviving Ranis from this category). Joining them were college-educated, Burma-raised women and others from various parts of the motherland. Hildebrand’s extraordinary research culminated in interviews with all the living Ranis that she could track down, the majority of whom are elderly Malaysian ladies. A centrefold of photographs attests to Hildebrand’s description of them as “sweet old women” – but more importantly, sweet old women who still remembered their bayonet exercises, which they gladly demonstrated to her, even when unable to rise out of their seats. “With a grimace and a grunt these octogenarians thrust the rifle hard forward, and made a swift upward movement with the fancied bayonet. The training mantra still etched in their brains, ‘[Maaro, kheencho, dekho] – kill, pull out, look.’ Then they usually smiled and said, ‘That’s how you kill the enemy.’”

For two years, the Ranis trained as soldiers, although it emerges that they were ill-prepared for the jungle. While they did not go to war, their time in Rangoon in particular contained many grueling demands, including long-distance night marches and jungle treks. The RJR was formally disbanded in 15 August 1945, just three days before Bose’s sudden death in a plane crash, although groups had been sent home at various points for some months. Hildebrand writes that most of the Ranis “found no audience” for their stories, instead quietly assimilating back into ordinary life, and sometimes concealing their military participation in order to do so.

This participation, lionised as being for race and motherland, was in fact more likely to have been about poverty or about escaping oppression. At 14 years old, Rani Muniammah, the daughter of a rubber tapper, was encouraged to join the RJR so as to have regular meals. Decades later, in a living room with a dominating portrait of Bose, she repeats army slogans to Hildebrand but admits it wasn’t until she enlisted that she had considered the Indian identity. Rani Janaki Bai, too, was encouraged by her father to enlist in order to avoid an arranged marriage. Hildebrand further contextualises the background from which most of the Ranis came: “Many of the women who joined the Regiment from the large rubber estates in Malaya lived and worked under conditions that approached slavery. Sexual abuse by the mainly white estate managers was a common occurrence. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment offered an environment where for the first time the young women found themselves respected and freed of the social stigma of ‘coolie’ status.” After their stint in the RJR, Ranis Rasammah Navarednam Bhupalan and Janaki Thevar Athinahappan turned their attention toward Malaysian independence (won in 1957) and various social justice causes thereafter. However, the book glosses over the problems of race in Malaysia.

The RJR belongs not only to Indian history, but to South East Asian history as well; Hildebrand notes the absence of material on them in Malaysian archives. They were willing to fight, and even to kill or to die, for India’s independence, but as Rani Janaki Bai tells her, “In India we would be foreigners.” The story of the RJR is shot through with far deeper colonial implications: born and raised in South East Asia, but belonging to disenfranchised communities in a region with sociopolitical problems that did not allow them to forget their roots, and with no sentimental attachments to India other than those roused by Bose, these women complicate facile narratives of patriotism.

This book is very much a historian’s tract, not a biographer’s. While the Ranis’ intricate personal stories are not explored in depth, Hildebrand clearly classifies apocrypha as such but uses it in an enlivening fashion. For instance, there is mention of a secret service within the Regiment, which involved a blood oath. Thirty or so Ranis were said to have cut their own fingers to paint a tilak on Bose’s forehead before signing a pledge; Bose was said to have wept with joy at this sacrament. Rani Mommata Gupta, meanwhile, insisted to Hildebrand that a hole had been drilled in one of her teeth, in which she was meant to smuggle microfilm to India.

This much is poignantly, powerfully made clear: what these unlikely soldiers experienced was not only an unusual adventure, but in a strange way a reprieve. As Hildebrand notes, many Ranis described those two years as the best ones of their lives. Their lives before they enlisted were chiefly as daughters; after, they continued in ways that largely recognised them only as wives, mothers, widows and grandmothers. Women At War is a fascinating testament to some women that history almost forgot, who like the apocryphal baby on the back of the original Rani herself have never been seen as anything other than figurative.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

Book Review: He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar by Kala Krishnan Ramesh

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In these troubled times, those of us with god-love in our veins but sense in our brains modulate devotion with analyses and apologies. How does one evade playing into a larger project that has nothing to do with the personal? How does one have faith when faith itself is weaponised? Bangalore-based Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s debut collection of poetry, He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar, staunchly refuses these quandaries altogether. The poet-protagonist of this book is situated in a time where kings govern and manuscripts are written with styluses on palm leaves, bound together by a peacock-blue thread obtained from hyacinth dye. She is mad enough that her neighbours watch her as she stands on cliff edges, gesturing at the sun in what appears to be a one-sided conversation. She is sound enough that classrooms are entrusted to her, and still she comes close to blurting out to her students the verses whispered in her ears, but finds herself “struck/ dumb as you / squat in my mouth / your feet / pressing / my tongue / down so you / can reach into / my heart.” This is how he comes to her, her god: as language.

Murugan, the god of Pazhani hill, near which the poet-protagonist lives and longs in plain sight of a half-bemused, half-understanding populace, is the subject and – as Ramesh iterates throughout the text – the progenitor of these verses. Among his many epithets, Guha – literally ‘cave’, abstracted poetically here as “heart-cave” – is the one she most often calls him by.

“This is He: He who longs for the sound of alphabets set to work praising him, his many hills, his two women, his love of battle, his dark-robed aloneing. This is He who crafts out signs for the tracker, doles out fervor for the oracles; the one who scatters questions, riddles and road blocks on the paths to Him. This is Guha, the One Who Hides in the Heart’s Cave.”

This is a book of metapoetry. From the first poem that invokes Ganesha as is tradition but casts him firmly in the role of publisher, the numerous allusions to Murugan as alphabet, syllable and potentate of the same (“god of words, word-tricks, word / debts”), and even a chastised (or is it chastisting?) piece on how a poet must not also be a critic – this is where poet and poet-protagonist blend knowingly. The self-consciousness is interesting, for emotively speaking the poems gush with pleasure and unabashed expression, seeking no audience but the deity.

With unadorned clarity, the author pledges permanent allegiance to the god: “Your name / companions my / journeys / your name / guards my life / your name / walks beside my words. / I write because you like / to inhabit the cities on my / page; / I sing because you like to / hear yourself being / praised in my voice. / I walk and stop and move / because you desire to / have me seek you.” She is often vexed, but rarely pained. A simple confidence runs through all her disputes and delights.

The poet-protagonist implores her lord for only one thing: a wellspring of words to please “Guha, who loves / a good poem more than / anything else in all the worlds”. She doesn’t seek protection or riches, she doesn’t supplicate for forgiveness for worldly deeds (only for the accusation that she has forgotten Him). Occasionally, we hear voices around her: the stylus maker from Madurai who speaks to her father, her mother who addresses their neighbours’ curiosity, Murugan’s wives Valli and Deivanai observing her in a fever delirium in which the deity comes to her and writes out poems she has promised for the following day’s assembly of scholars.

All of them indulge her, and this collection itself is one of deeply indulgent poems, but equally well-crafted. Some devotional writing lends itself to expansive interpretation; here, the subjectivity creates a capsule of experience. But the reader sometimes feels like an outsider, one of the many people who watch the poet-protagonist in her intoxication.

The book closes on a dream in which Murugan visits the poet on the night before she turns fifty – and so we know that she has crossed all manner of youthful exhilarations and societal imperatives happily, with the assurance of her lord: “Know this, my dear poet, when I / write you / I do not love you like a parent or / a patron, but like a poet loves his words, / and I do not carry you protected, safe / in pockets of my love, but send / you out into the world, / for I / write you fit to fight…”

This book is an anachronism in a gentle sense, stepping out of time and into an ageless emotional matrix. He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar is playful, perfectly devoid of cynicism, a welcome wandering away from the gravely mundane.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu BLink.

Book Review: Leila by Prayaag Akbar

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In a strictly-segregated metropolis of an India in a believably near future is a sector known as the East End, the last bastion of liberal sensibilities. Everywhere else, sectors are divided by caste and religion (and the way these dovetail neatly with class), and each one upholds its own standard of morality and customs – or in the lingo of apartheid, “culture” and “community”. Beyond the sectored zones are the slums, the only places that remain more or less precisely as they always were. In this almost-here India are looming walls, their partitions enforced by armed Repeaters, men who move like mobs, imposing law and order with their long bamboo staves. To a city plunged in drought, the excesses of the East End, with its swimming pools and its oblivious prosperity, its sexual mores and overall happiness, are less bearable than usual. On the night of a party at one such house – where the affluent, interfaith couple Shalini and Riz live with their toddler Leila – the Repeaters storm in. Riz is murdered. Shalini, arrested and sent to the Tower, spends bides her time for years, waiting for a transfer that will allow her to search for Leila, or at least the truth about what happened to her.

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila opens on a mother longing for her child, trapped in what we see through her eyes primarily as an era of misogyny. Shalini has waited years for a tribunal that will allow her to work where she will have access to bureaucratic records. If Leila is still alive, she would be nineteen years old. It was on the night of her third birthday that the family was shattered, and Shalini has honed the need to find her to become the pure purpose of her existence. Memories of her baby are interposed by the grimness of what has happened to them all, and how Leila is unlikely to still know her at all. “When I think about this, it’s like I’m burning on the inside. She wouldn’t know me if we crossed on the road. To her, I am an emptiness, an ache she cannot understand but yearns to fill. No. I have left more, a glimmer at least. The blurred outline of a face. A tracery of a scent. The weight of fingertips on her cheek. The warmth of her first cradle, my arms.”

The narrator, Shalini, is a brilliantly etched character, one of the finest portrayals of privileged Indian womanhood seen in recent fiction. The author has honed her so convincingly that she maintains our empathy even when the more unpleasant sides to her personality are seen. At a rally not long before her arrest, where she finds out for the first time that her domestic worker’s locality has been without water for three years, her discomfort is evident. This is what happens when she sees a woman scratching an old mosquito bite: “The wound, a small black ring with a flaky white centre, looked deeply ugly against her dark skin. A spot of scarlet appeared and bubbled into a small drop. This she wiped with the pulp of her grubby finger. I turned away, suddenly sick, desperate to move to the better section, where at least the men weren’t wearing all this stinking polyester.” Yet, we somehow forgive her, accepting her moments of remorse, such as when she is put to work at the Purity Camp where new inmates are indoctrinated, and introspects: “I learned to properly sweep the floor with a jhadoo, down on my haunches… For the first time, it occurred to me that no one – not Riz, not I, our friends, family – had through to buy long-handled mops and brooms for our homes. Did we enjoy keeping these women’s noses to the ground as they cleaned? We brought in televisions and cars and phones and everything else from abroad, why not these simple things?”

That rally that Shalini accidentally attends also serves to complicate the politics of the time and place she lives in. Gradually, the various sectors had rigidified not from pressure from the very top, but from hardline stances from within. Riz and Shalini left their respective sectors for the East End precisely to avoid religious fundamentalism in their original ones, and were able to carry on with their lives with the surety that theirs too was a sector that would protect its own ways. At the rally she encounters the political rhetoric behind the segregations and the insistence on “purity”. She can no longer see it only in its fragments, in small differences of opinion that she can dismiss or look down upon. But neither can she quite see it all. Even once she is a resident of the Tower, having lost that life completely, she retains a mismatched admiration, tinged with nostalgia, for how it all works. She remembers: “Riz’s parents used to serve this special kebab, spicy, soft as pastry, prepared by a thirteen year-old, a bawarchi boy who came to their kitchen from the Qassab Slum outside their sector. They were happy to have him and he was happy to have such good masters. A fine system.”

Akbar has a style that is prone to loveliness and adept at finding tenderness even in so dismal a storyline, with evocative lines such as, “She sits by a window, centred precisely in a square of sunlight. Once in a while a frizz comes loose and falls on the side of her face like a lash of laburnum…” In one of the most surprising, endearing passages in the book, Shalini and Riz become physically intimate for the first time as teenagers, and she tries to not have him roll her T-shirt off completely, despite already being braless. “He looked at me again, smile gone, confused. Nothing’s wrong, I said, I just can’t take my shirt off. He laughed and wanted to know why. For many minutes I refused to explain, as he nibbled at my breasts and my ribs, sure that I would yield. When he didn’t stop asking I had to explain. Innocent of where this afternoon would lead, I’d forgotten to shave my underarms.” Elsewhere, and quite unrelatedly, he subverts the common word “godman” into “man-god”, cleverly defusing and lampooning the term.

It is astonishing how multi-pronged this novel is in its critiques. It critiques not only, and most obviously, the overt dangers of theocracy creeping into statehood, but brings individual accountability into the equation in very subtle ways. Shalini, having survived the night of the raid on her family, is ostracised by the same people who had enjoyed the freedoms she had had in the East End. Meeting one such friend years later, she hands her a gift, nailpolish in a pink box, for the friend’s daughter. It is declined ignominiously. “Pari isn’t this type of girl. Her father would never let her use it…. We have to bring up girls the right way. It’s the main thing. Everyone is watching. Comparing. Until a good man takes her away we have to be careful.” The friend is utterly unaware of the irony of her phrasing. She has simply allowed the establishment to enfold her and her mind, in exchange for a comfortable security.

Indeed, Leila’s power as a political novel lies not at all in what seems to be its overt premise of the authoritarian state, but in the undercurrent of easy privilege that lies just beneath it. This is what makes it lose its dystopian tag and firmly contextualises it in the current and the real. In doing so, it also throws up a great many questions toward the literary firmament. How often does something qualify as a dystopic work merely by recasting the privileged in the role of the helpless? How often are readers more horrified to recognise someone like them in a book about extremism than by what takes place daily in democracies held together by their votes, in their names?  This mordant truth is finely elucidated by Akbar throughout the novel.

In one telling scene, Shalini tracks a woman named Sapna to a slum, believing she will find Leila there. Sapna laughs bitterly as she explains to her own daughter who Shalini is: “Remember this woman. The Tower is where they put high-borns…. Still they get big, big buildings. Toilets, fans, electricity, flush. Even when they break the rules they’re too good to be put out here with us. But us? Our crime is being born. We don’t get anything. We don’t deserve it.” Through Shalini’s eyes, we see gender politics. Through her choices and reactions – through the fact of her having those choices, which produce those reactions – we see the truly large picture: caste, class and communalism in a late-capitalist backdrop.

Leila is a devastating debut, a book that both mirrors and forewarns the India of today.

(An edited version appeared in Biblio, July-Sept 2017)

The High Priestess Never Marries Wins A Laadli Award

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I am so deeply honoured that The High Priestess Never Marries has won a 2015-2016 South Asia Laadli Media & Advertising Award For Gender Sensitivity in the category of Best Book (Fiction). The award ceremony was held at the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai, on May 12 2017. I was presented the award by Kamla Bhasin.

It means all the more to me because the Laadli Awards are not literary, but feminist.

The complete citation for the award is as follows:

“Strung like luminous pearls, The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of evocatively written short stories that feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair. Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice. These are women who have accepted their many loves, their imperfect selves, and their fractured lives. In appreciation of the portrayal of single women in strong roles who cherish their independence and imperfection, The High Priestess Never Marries is awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-2016.”