Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, Blind Screens, The Sun And Her Flowers, Wild Embers

Standard

Even when Tishani Doshi writes of the strange gratitude of “not being in the nicer hotel”, for the inspiration that comes “Because if it weren’t for this mouse-spiced/ air, this particular desire to be anywhere/ but here, how else to turn the howl/ into song?”, or when Ranjani Murali takes a recording-assisted tour of Alcatraz, the blood and body of their new books of poetry is quite literally just that. No matter what their other preoccupations or locations, both poets circle around and back to the subject of female fear. Doshi’s Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is underpinned by macabre newspaper headlines that cut close to home, manifesting in brutal crimes, and memories and dread that breathe down one’s own neck at all hours. In Murali’s debut, Blind Screens, she often employs as her canvas the cinematic screen, and in technicolour or off-camera, she situates several of her most politically loaded poems from a tangential gaze, always framing as her subjects women in relation to morality and society.

This is the most visceral of Doshi’s three books of poetry, reaching into the wounded places of the feminine psyche in ways that ache with how universally they are experienced. Some of the poems have direct triggers, cases that make the headlines, and the triggers open out onto traumas. Take this powerful description in the poem “Disco Biscuits”: “… most of us have known a man/ who arrived like Bill [Cosby] – sleek and proud as a July/ thunderstorm. How so many of us gave in to that sleekness/ because when you’re young you don’t know that your bones/ have been giving way the second you were born. So you give/ and your giving’s large and uncalculated. But then/ there’s the haunting.”

Throbbing through the collection are many hauntings, among them murdered women unknown or beloved. In “Everyone Loves A Dead Girl”, the poet says frankly, in the voice of such a ghost: “I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow/ feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine,/ all delicate/ and beloved, before it is crushed.” The poet does exactly this, pinning down images of death and decay unflinchingly. Even musings on aging relatives and crematoriums don’t come from nowhere: at the centre of them is something beyond idle morbidity. In “The Leather Of Love”, she writes: “And when we lie in bed and talk/ of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of / disenchantment and insufficient passion,/ we’re chewing through fears so thick our/ teeth are beginning to rust.” An army of girls – girls “with panties tied around their lips”, “girls “found naked in ditches and wells”, girls who didn’t survive or maybe did – emerges in the collection’s eponymous poem, dedicated posthumously to a murdered friend of the author’s. Rather than rouse, it chills. “Girls are coming/ out of the woods, clearing the ground/ to scatter their stories” she writes. You can almost hear her breathlessness in the last line – the poet passing the baton to the voices coming through her: “Girls are coming out of the woods./ They’re coming. They’re coming.”

In Blind Screens, Murali slips a cast of heroine characters, female actors and women in celluloid-stronghold cities like Bombay and Madras into poems in several registers, and just like all subtext cinematic and otherwise, they bind the collection together. Sometimes, we see them through the dehumanization of the male gaze, as in “Circa 1970’s Tamil Film Stalker’s Ghazal”, which escalates quickly from admiration to physical violence. Murali’s voice changes deftly; in the very next poem, “Mangaatha, or The Case of the Former Circus Artiste Now Distracted”, she takes on the persona of a performer as she flees a gang of men, all whom have handled her, literally, in less that professional ways. She holds tightly to her trapeze bars and swings away – but straight into the gaze of “the young policeman…. his mouth blackening/ at the sight of my pooling silk”.

This deft interplay between stage illusion, misogynist delusion and the literal difficulty of being female in a society trained to perceive itself as entitled to putting its hands on all it rests its eyes on comes together most forcefully in “Historical Movie Scene”, in which a male audience member heckles the narrator as she gets up to leave a theatre. Onscreen, a woman dances, “a glitter-filled belly button zooming into our faces”, while the man screams, “Ey, figure da, looking, going”. She stumbles and keeps walking, while “The same heckler calls out, “Wait, ma, watch/ where you’re going!” to me as the actress dances a stream of blood/ into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,/ cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her mouth.”

This accomplished collection contains many variegations that fill and colour its pages with all the elaborate textures of Indian cinema: among them, “Beggars”, with a fortune telling parrot electrified with terror by a feline scent, which morphs beautifully through Murali’s phrasing into predators of another kind: “the director who recently/ celebrated the hundredth day jubilee,/ the local minister, the mayor, and even/ the child-star who likes to play with/ cheetah cubs in his spare time.”

In “Female Lead Waits For The Kurinji”, she juxtaposes two tropes: that of the flower that blooms once every twelve years, archetypal since ancient Tamil literature, and that of the modern heroine for whom a flower is but a metaphor. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator says to the kurinji, with or without self-consciousness: “Your own curse/ is not that of lack, but of being watched as you bloom.”

One imagines that the girl who becomes a woman – who “blooms” under watch – may often speak to herself in the rudimentary voice of Rupi Kaur’s poems. The Sun And Her Flowers is a book that surprises: nothing of Kaur’s work online suggests it will be anything but craftless, but placed in context, in page after page rather than in pithy cropped Instagram lines, a different effect accrues. Not quite beautiful or original, but together, the poems carry a clarity that is convincing, a soft voice that soothingly intones the familiar. A few pages in, one is reminded of a specific multi-genre work of art, discussed below, and understands that a slow-release impact is intended. What is not achieved in craft is compensated for in fine emotional control, the tenor in which Kaur writes about topics as personal as rape and the poignance of knowing how little time she has left with the mother who she has finally begun to understand. Some of Doshi’s girls, too, along with Murali’s women, must have had these thoughts.

But this is not to suggest ingenuity. In interviews, Kaur deliberately presents the image of being a non-reader. A recent article on her sardonically points out her interest in a book of Kafka’s – not for the contents but for the cover design. It’s an image that those who love to loathe all writers of her ilk, and the Instapoetry fad itself, enjoy. But it is patently false. As even just the first pages of The Sun And Her Flowers turn, there’s a clear debt to Beyonce’s Lemonade – which was scripted by the poet Warsan Shire. Again, in the sections that speak of immigrants and refugees, Kaur transparently aspires to resonate like Shire does. It would be remiss to not bring up Nayyirah Waheed’s allegation that Kaur plagiarised her work, an allegation layered with an undertone of anti-blackness. So the poem “legacy”, which goes “i stand/ on the sacrifices/ of a million women before me/ thinking/ what can i do/ to make this mountain taller/ so the women after me/ can see farther” begs the question: whose shoulders has Kaur chosen to stand on, unacknowledged? It is not enough that she labels two illustrations as homages to two Punjabi visual artists, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sobha Singh – more problematic is how she devises the image of herself as a literary pioneer in her lineage, without credit to the many pools from which she sourced her syntax.

But here, another poet similar in background – female, Punjabi, raised in the West, famous through social media – bears mention. Read side by side with Nikita Gill’s new book, Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty – which attempts to revise fairytales without ever moving past the Disney versions and is replete with confusion about its emotional and political core – The Sun And Its Flowers appears all the more sincere in its naïveté. It’s an uncanny contradiction: Kaur is clearly winning for she has studied how to be accessible, but the work somehow comes across as true. Which is why we can’t dismiss her on the basis of craft alone – not only is she better than her contemporaries who attempt depth, but the struggle and sentiment conveyed in her work is also the very pathos that moves stronger poets like Shire, Waheed, Murali and Doshi. Whatever their calibre, the girls are certainly coming out of the woods – bearing words, accusatory and revelatory.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

Book Review: Beauty Is A Wound by Eka Kurniawan

Standard

Somewhere in mid-20th century Indonesia, just as the shackles of Dutch colonialism make way for Japanese occupation, a woman flies off a hill and vanishes into the sky after a brief reunion with her lover following sixteen years of captivity as a Dutch lord’s concubine. Several decades later, another woman rumbles out of her grave twenty-one years after willing herself to death upon the birth of her fourth daughter. In between these two mysterious occurrences sprawls Beauty Is A Wound, Eka Kurniawan’s debut novel, translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Annie Tucker.

Beauty Is A Wound has repeatedly been compared by many to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and there is a moment in its third chapter when one smiles at recognition at the nod made to a memorable line from the same. In the Columbian magic realist’s canonical novel, the young Aureliano asks his brother the question of what sex feels like, to which he replies, “It’s like an earthquake.” In Kurniawan’s, “It was amazing, like an earthquake,” are the echoing words.

Kurniawan’s novel is a book about sex, but notably, only about male pleasure. That smile of recognition lasts only a split second, for the dialogue takes place after an act of sexual barter between a Commandant and a young prisoner-of-war – the first such act in the long career of Dewi Ayu, Halimunda’s most illustrious whore, and the book’s chief protagonist.

It is Dewi Ayu who rises from the grave in the book’s opening sentence, and wanders back to her erstwhile home, in which her old housekeeper Rosinah and the youngest of her four daughters, Beauty, now reside. Little does she know that her fervent wish that her youngest child be spared the alluring looks she believes to be a curse has come true: when Beauty was born, she had an electrical socket for a nose and was so repulsive-looking that “the midwife assisting her couldn’t be sure whether it was really it was really a baby and thought that maybe it was a pile of shit, since the holes where a baby comes out and where shit comes out are only two centimetres apart.” Dewi Ayu had not looked upon her newborn’s face before deciding that at 52 years, four kids and hundreds of men old, she’d had enough of life, and wrapped herself in a burial shroud and proceeded to die. Much has and hasn’t changed in the town of Halimunda in the interim years up to her resurrection, but a shockingly unattractive young woman from whose room sounds of lovemaking mysteriously emerge every night is the last thing Dewi Ayu expects to encounter.

Dewi Ayu’s elder three daughters – Alamanda, Adinda and Maya Dewi – have all, as she says sardonically, “left as soon as they learned how to unbutton a man’s fly.” This is not strictly true, but Halimunda is a society in which women’s physical attributes are their only value, and so we infer that like their mother, they too simply learnt how to survive. The novel tells us how, in a narrative so bizarre and swiftly-paced that its darkness has no time to settle until all the pages are turned.

Indonesia, meanwhile, is an independent nation when the story opens – and it bears the lacerations of Dutch, Japanese and communist regimes. In Halimunda, however, reality is kaleidoscopic: people are “still” superstitious, but why wouldn’t they be when spirits abound, the dead walk and talk and come back to life, and communist ghosts appear with “gunshot wounds, mouthing some verses from the Internationale”? Regimes come and go: a mass grave of over a thousand communists needs to be dug overnight, a comrade who is a son-in-law of Dewi Ayu’s is exiled to Buru (the same prison in which the great Indonesian litterateur was himself incarcerated, and set his famed quartet of novels) by another son-in-law, there is war in East Timor, and the decades pass. And all the while, princesses fall in love with dogs, full-term pregnant bellies are found to be full of nothing but air and fishermen unionise but continue to perform sacrificial ceremonies to the Queen of the South Seas, throwing her a cow’s head as an offering.

There’s a particularly vivacious scene in which the interesting way in which communism often began by eschewing foreign cultures and promoting local ones is described. “He didn’t stop there, but started putting pressure on the city council, the military, and the police to confiscate those brain-rotting Western pop records and throw whoever listened to them – even in the privacy of their homes – into jail. ‘Crush America and may its false culture be cursed!’ he shouted every time. In exchange, the Party began to generously support folk art, providing the usual snacks and some Party propaganda too, so that all the folk art that had been subversive in feudal and colonial times now began to jazz up the Halimunda scene. For the Party’s anniversary they performed sintren, with a pretty girl who disappeared inside a chicken coop and reappeared holding a hammer and sickle, looking even more beautiful in full makeup (and the audience clapped). The kuda lumping trance dancers didn’t just eat glass and coconut shells, but now also swallowed the American flag. The forbidden rock and roll records were also smashed and swallowed.”

Beauty Is A Wound is bawdy and compulsively readable. Full of twists and turns, downfalls and mirth, there’s much to be entertained by, although one learns quickly that emotional distance is a vital part of that enjoyment. Characters die, disappear and disappoint. It is a brilliant tale woven against a canvas of ultimate futility: war and wickedness win, and the sooner we adopt Dewi Ayu’s steely detachment, the better the book is.

In a book so rich with multiple narratives, each reader will find a particular character or sequence that stands out. For me, it was the gravedigger Kamino, who owing to his profession has never had company. Aware that no one will want to move into his home in the ghoul-filled cemetery premises, he avoids romantic proposals entirely, and his social interactions are restricted to his line of work. “The sole entertainment in his lonely life was playing jailangkung – calling the spirits of the dead using a little effigy doll – another skill that had been passed down through the generations of his family, good for invoking the spirits to chat with them about all kinds of things.” But when he sees a girl weeping on her father’s grave and refusing to leave, his life changes sweetly – although only in the way that it can in a novel of such a sweeping longue durée of individual human lives.

Colonialism, nationhood and epic storytelling may be the foreground of the book, but its driving force is sexual desire. Here, the male gaze holds absolute dominion. It is only the supernatural events that are so naturally peppered throughout the book, and their invitation to suspend belief, that allow us to accept Halimunda’s depraved populace as a part of the mise-en-scène. Because it’s not acceptable, in fact, for a person to rape goats (and chickens until their intestines come out of their bodies), eat his own excrement, and teach schoolchildren how to masturbate with this bit of extra advice: “It will be even more enjoyable if you try it with the private parts of little girls”. And even if that person happens to live in a cage, it’s not acceptable for other people to then say, “Only love can heal such a crazy person.”

And most grievously of all, there is the excess of rape in the book – a husband rapes his wife whenever he catches her without her magical chastity belt, prostitutes are routinely violated, and among various other incidents, there is even a brutal set of rape-murders by a lovelorn teenager. Women who have been raped for years suddenly begin to “make love” to their oppressors or rescuers. Rape is simply par for the course, as is the absence of acknowledgement about the traumatic results of sexual violence as a weapon of insurgency or war, and the complex politics of trading physical succor for protection, favour or money.

Considering that the key protagonists in Beauty Is A Wound are almost all women, and the strongest and most fully-realised character is the matriarch-sex worker Dewi Ayu, this elision is not an aside but a deliberate one. There is no female proletariat in this political novel, only female prostitutes.

But Kurniawan is a master storyteller, of this there is no doubt, which is why this book is highly recommended despite this glaring, trigger-friendly oversight.

An edited version appeared in Biblio.

Book Review: Song of the Sun God by Shankari Chandran

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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)

Book Review: Love, Loss, And What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

Standard

The muse writes back, and is far more generous about the marriage than the artist was. Maligned in ex-husband Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, model and culinary savant Padma Lakshmi tells her side of the story, along with a handful of comfort food recipes. Love, Loss, And What We Ate opens on a promising, often evocative, footing.

She’s gracious through the recounting of her high profile marriage and divorce, compelling when talking about her early childhood and fiercely independent mother, and canny in her self-deprecations (“silly little cookbook”). Her descriptions of life within her grandmother’s kitchen are charming and familiar. Even a chutney of discarded citric rinds as a metaphor for how her grandmother dealt with the bitterness of marriage doesn’t ring twee.

So when a shockingly problematic streak shows up about a third of the way through the book, the reader who has rooted for her all along stumbles. The first trace of trouble is when Lakshmi extends her experience of racial discrimination as an immigrant schoolchild to her country of origin. For her to say that she is considered dark-skinned in Tamil society is disingenuous, to say the least. And she backs this with this bombshell: “my extended family urged me to avoid the sun… out of fear that my skin would darken to the shade of an Untouchable..”

While we’re still reeling at her word choice, we’re introduced to her second stepdad Peter, whom she hates. He is a “lower-caste” Fijian Indian, with a “crude, beast-like ignorance”. What follows includes references to his “stench”, his “ugly” Hindi accent, and “some inferior poni grain” he eats instead of basmati. She wants her mother to be with someone more “cultured”.

This vitriol is reserved for only for Peter, who is still her mother’s partner, as well as her own daughter Krishna’s favourite grandparent. By contrast, her mother’s second husband, whom she divorces when he doesn’t believe that a relative of his has molested the young Padma, is merely “pretty darn handsome”. The casteism, classism and colourism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self-reflectivity nor shame.

The author – well-travelled, well-heeled, well-connected, speaker of half a dozen languages and self-proclaimed bookworm – has no excuse for her lack of sociopolitical intelligence or conscience. At the very least, somewhere between her late partner Teddy Forstmann’s philanthropy and the Rousseau she thanks Rushdie for handing her in the acknowledgements, a little tact would have served her well.

Perhaps unable to recoup after this ethical failure, or perhaps because Lakshmi’s early style gradually gives way to a tabloid-friendly one, the narrative simply begins to bore.

And then she chucks another jawdropper. The first non-breast milk meal Lakshmi gives her daughter are a few sips beef broth at a hawker stall in Singapore. The result? Brahmin guilt. “I prided myself on how well one could eat following a Hindu Brahmin lacto-vegetarian diet. I had extolled its virtues on many occasions and truly believed in its merits. I know what had happened, while an accident, was also karmic retribution for all the bodies of animals I had consumed in my life and career in food”. Yes, really.

Who would have known that the saffron brigade had an ally in the glamourous Lakshmi, who without irony refers to her ex-husband as a “fundamentalist atheist” and to herself, repeatedly, as a “secular Hindu”? After watching the author eat everything from live snails to her own placenta, it’s the reader who’s left with a bad taste in the mouth.

Love, Loss, And What We Ate is really a book about men – a series of partners whose influence and guidance shaped Lakshmi’s life. She plays the ingénue often, and credits everything from her sartorial sense to her gastronomical savvy, and even this — her writing — to a lover. She does not memorably detail even a single non-related female friendship or mentorship. Most disappointingly of all, as co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, Lakshmi speaks only about her experience of the disease, not the work of the foundation, or its impact. With the exception of her mother, she does not weave in other female narratives of struggle and success – be they on the catwalk, in the culinary world, or in any of the many spheres of her experience. Her feminism begins and ends with the desire to date more than one man at once – a desire she quickly regrets once she realises she doesn’t know who has fathered her child.

But there is a singular feminist saving grace in this memoir, and that is the other Ms. Lakshmi – her mother. Vijaya Lakshmi’s journey is a tale of its own, beginning with an arranged marriage in which the groom cheats on her on their wedding day, and a divorce after which she endures a two year separation from her child. Upon her arrival in the US, she takes her mother’s name as a surname, abandons her limited diet, dates and falls in love, has the courage to leave marriages, explores what the world has to offer, and even takes her daughter to a nudist beach. None of this is typical for her generation, and in the Chennai they still call home, it isn’t even typical for her daughter’s. It is the story of this dedicated nurse – who keeps fruits in the fridge for her terminal patients, and manages somehow to save enough money to give her daughter Indian vacations, skating rinks, and myriad pleasures – that is ultimately the maverick one.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

Book Review: Matchbox by Ashapurna Debi

Standard

The title page of this new volume of selected stories by Ashapurna Debi carries this evocative credit: “Translated into a Bengali English by Prasenjit Gupta”. It’s a small homage both to the many sub-languages that we speak, write and think in, as well as to the oft-forgotten translator, whose burden it is to prove an author’s entire reputation to a foreign audience.

In Ashapurna Debi’s case, that reputation is complicated. She began to publish her work as a teenager, in 1936, and by the time of her death in 1995 had penned a staggering 242 novels and novellas, 62 books for children and over 3000 short stories. Although widely-read, her work was also largely derided for its tendency toward the domestic and quotidian. The author did not command respect, only recognition.

This is surprising, especially if one skips the excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri’s master’s thesis that serves as the book’s introduction, and returns to it later. Lahiri writes at some length about the author’s critical reception, offering the observation: “[A] complaint issued by critics is the author’s supposed conservatism, especially with regards to women’s lives.”

Only 21 of the aforementioned 3000 stories are collected in The Matchbox, and while the extent of the author’s palette remains out of the grasp non-Bengali readers, what is represented here contradicts, or at the very least complicates, her reputation as a non-feminist writer.

Ashapurna Debi’s feminism is extraordinarily subtle. She does not forget men: their rage, their worries, their susceptibility to being manipulated. In “Brahma’s Weapon”, Oshima seeks employment at a former flame’s company, to her husband’s jealousy. In “Glass Beads Diamonds”, Shomita shows up unannounced to a wedding in her ex-in-laws household, while her current husband waits in the car.  In the disturbing “Shadowsun”, sisters Mollika and Ghentu are pitted against each other since childhood, one deemed feminine and the other inferior. In “Earth Sky”, Rojoni is temporarily swayed by a warm welcome on a visit home but ultimately chooses to keep working at the tea plantation: the subtext is the pain of those at home, who cannot experience that freedom to choose. Her characters do not challenge the milieu that causes them this grief. They lie to themselves and to others: little Monoroma in “A Covering Of Leaves” learns from watching her deeply-bonded parents that love is the only true wealth but a pretense of success will spare the providers’ pain; in “Grief”, Shoktipoda decides to delay telling his wife Protibha her mother has died, and she in turn feigns not having seen the postcard with the news so as to fully express her anguish only when he comes home. They are not progressive in any way. The author, however, in her close rendering of their lives, lays bare the suffering within.

Only in the title story, “Matchbox”, does her concern for the status quo of a patriarchal worldview – take an explicit turn. “This is precisely why I compare women to matchboxes. Even when they have the means within themselves to set off many raging fires, they never flare up and burn away the mask of men’s high-mindedness, their large-heartedness. They don’t burn up their own colourful shells. They won’t burn them – and the men know this too. That’s why they leave them scattered so carelessly in the kitchen, in the pantry, in the bedroom, here, there, anywhere. And quite without fear, they put them in their pockets.” In one reading, this is a statement of restraint. In another, it is a statement of sheer power.

Here, the introduction sheds light again, quoting from the scholar Manisha Roy’s 1972 critique: “Ashapurna Debi’s novels, which emphasize the glory of love in a conjugal setting, are frequently given to brides as wedding presents. They have attractive jackets, often with illustrations of a demure wife touching the feet of her husband to show respect.” On the one hand, her books were seen as light romantic reading. On the other, they told the truth about mundane oppression within marital contexts. This bifocality of her work is what explains its popularity: it was subversive literature about life within ordinary households, welcomed in those same households through a non-threatening guise.

In terms of language, that Bengali English brought to life by Prasenjit Gupta is well- rendered. The languages are interwoven effortlessly, without the awkwardness of italics. Onomatopoeic touches are maintained: a cat purrs pirring-pirring, and a drawing is made at khosh-khosh speed. A glossary at the back of the book needs little consultation – not because of a pan-Indian familiarity but due to the smoothness of the translation and the universality of the spaces in which the stories occur. There is something to be said for understanding through osmosis: in any fine translation, such ease is a characteristic most notable when it goes unnoticed. For instance, when Keshob Rai in “The Scheme Of Things” is full of vitriol for a child described as “that cold-in-the-nose, enlarged-spleen-in-the-abdomen, amulet-on-the-arm, tiger’s-claw-around-the-neck, rickets-stricken boy”, we need no explanation for the meanings of this odd string of invectives.

Reading these stories, one senses what its original audiences – those whose lives most closely mirrored those of the characters – must have felt. For lack of a better word, they must have felt understood. Even the distant reader, at times bored by the domesticity of squabbling in-laws or long-suffering spouses, sees the genius it takes to stir such clarity of recognition.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

Book Review:The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing By Mira Jacob

Standard

When a successful brain surgeon begins to sit on his porch and speak to his long-deceased mother, his daughter is summoned to her childhood home in New Mexico to try to make sense of what is happening. Kamala Eapen and her husband, Thomas, have maintained no more than a cordial engagement for decades. Their marriage has been savaged by enough trauma: a rift sown by a fateful 1979 holiday to his own childhood home in India, the subsequent loss of that entire wing of relatives, and then their own son Akhil’s tragic death as a teenager. So Amina Eapen – a gifted former photojournalist who has chosen to hide in the more banal world of wedding photography in order to cope with her varied melancholies – is only one among the many who return to her father. His memories, regrets, and more than several of his dead loved ones have too. Amina’s task is not so much as to find out why, but to find a way toward an elusive peace – for all of them, and all of their ghosts.

Mira Jacob’s debut novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing, is a brilliant accomplishment. It takes a familiar premise – that of a crisis in the family forcing someone in the younger generation to confront the past and thus facilitate healing – and spins it into something original, fresh and often funny.

The book brims with the honesty of its setting and its characterisations: it is unlike the vast majority of diasporic fiction in that neither it nor its protagonists’ lives pivot on the fact of immigration. India is not romanticised; the only losses that count are those of people and relationships. True to life, in the circumstance of immediate grief, there is neither room nor reason to indulge grandiose imaginaries.

But certain things are definitely not imaginary, even as they find rational explanatory parallels. Medical science explains Thomas’ visitations from the dead, but not Amina’s own enigmatic experiences. With an astonishing lightness of hand, Jacob weaves the realms of spirit and doubt in a way that resounds with the truth of most human experience.

At a substantial 500 pages, a length at which any novel might risk tedium, The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing nonetheless glides by. Jacob has succeeded in creating that rare thing in this age of the fragmented attention span: a big book so gripping and so charming that it truly can be read in a day, its many pages flying by effortlessly.

The heart of this novel is not suffering, but the ways in which faith and love can suffuse pain with a quality that makes it somehow less irredeemable. In Albuquerque, the Eapens belong to a motley new family composed of other Indian immigrants. They are so close that Amina’s best friend Dimple, who like her lives in Seattle as an adult, is introduced to people as her cousin. It is this patchwork family who rally around through Thomas’ medical diagnosis, just as they had in all difficulties past. In caring for her father, Amina finds in them her own safe harbour – and with it the courage to end her own self-sabotages and step into the potential others see in her, as an artist, a partner and a daughter.

Among the novel’s outstanding points is its beautiful structure. Moving between Seattle and Albuquerque past and present (with a brief prelude in Salem, Tamil Nadu, where the Eapens’ ties to India are permanently severed), the author maintains the story through a talent for the graceful cliffhanger, convincing dialogue and a palpable compassion – we know what binds the characters is not their grief.

Thus, despite its sadness, this is above all an uplifting, reaffirming book. The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing is a moving paean to human existence: forever poised between the facts of the mundane yet also waltzing with the mysterious in experiences too esoteric to bring into the open, except by way of that great intangible – love.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Review Of One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

Standard

Distance allows us to be dismissive of the lives of other people, to filter their narratives down to a few essential keynotes and tragedies. In One Part Woman, translated into English three years after its Tamil original garnered widespread acclaim, Perumal Murugan turns an intimate, crystalline gaze on a married couple in interior Tamil Nadu. It is a gaze that lays bare the intricacies of their story, culminating in a heart-wrenching denouement that allows no room for apathy.

Kali and Ponna, land-owning farmers in Thiruchengode, enjoy a completely happy marriage on all counts but one. Despite over a dozen years together, they are yet to have children. Theirs is a sexually-charged and mutually fulfilling relationship; it is neither for lack of effort nor of intent that they are unable to conceive. The couple perform countless acts of penance, entreating various deities – among them the half-male, half-female god on the hill attended by a Brahmin priest and the tribal goddess Pavatha of the same hill, to whom blood sacrifices are made. Ponna weeps at the onset of every menstrual period. Neither love nor their thriving land is enough to keep at bay the despair of being without offspring in their community. They are constantly on the receiving end of disparagement from the people around them: Kali’s sexual potency is the subject of sly and open taunts, while every slip or argument Ponna has with another is turned on her using her childlessness as an indication of her character or capabilities.

The disparagement arrives in wounded, less unkind guises too – particularly from their mothers, who tell stories of hereditary curses that could explain their misfortune and sing dirges lamenting the couple’s barrenness. Eventually, the two women decide that there may be only one way. Every year, on the fourteenth day of the chariot festival to the androgynous deity on the hill, the rules of all marital contracts are relaxed. Any man is allowed to lie with any woman – a tradition acknowledged as being a socially and divinely sanctioned method of conceiving should a husband be sterile. Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law, in the hope that it is Kali who is the cause of their infertility, suggest the solution of sending her to participate. The resulting anxieties and attendant manipulations challenge the marriage, and alter its course.

One Part Woman is a powerful rendering of an entire milieu which is certainly still in existence, which it engages with insightfully. The author handles myriad complexities with an enviable sophistication, creating an evocative, even haunting, work.

The novel is also acutely sensitive in its approach toward gender and sexuality and humane in its treatment of longing. While fundamentally an emotional work, driven by personal desires and losses, it also unsettles the reader with what it frankly reveals about simplistic ideas about progressiveness. The society in which the book is set in is permissive in ways that the urban middle-class in the same state at large is not, even though known markers of suppression, such as caste laws, hold sway. But, here as elsewhere, the true hindrances to happiness and progress come in much more personal forms.

Murugan’s writing is taut and suspenseful, particularly as the book progresses towards its climax. At a slim 230 pages, the novel moves quickly, but with such a finely-wrought intensity that tension remains high right up to the final paragraph. Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation deserves mention – the language is crisp, retaining local flavour without jarring, and often lyrical. Highly recommended.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line.