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Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Reviewed by Ghada Ibrahim

Quichotte, Salman Rushdie’s tribute to Miguel Cervantes’ seminal literary comedy is far from being merely inspired by it. Featuring a story within a story, Quichotte mirrors Don Quixote in numerous ways– from wielding metafiction as a literary device to retaining the names of the characters. Yet, Quichotte doesn’t out-do its inspiration but stands in the shadow of its near-namesake, lacking in impact, as if its skeleton simply cannot carry the flesh of its object.

The story follows the adventures of a traveling salesman who is enthralled by American television. So intense is his obsession that he begins to believe that he belongs on the other side of the screen – with the sparkle and brightness of the American screen. One person stands out among the many characters in the cinematic productions he enjoys: Salma R – a celebrity television host. Quichotte embarks on a quest, and brings along a companion; his imaginary son Sancho.

Quichotte is a read that either beguiles or puts you off instantly. To delve into the pages of the book and follow the travels of Quichotte is by no means a bore. However, the monotone voice, bordering on sarcasm, fails to draw one in. What could have been an enchanted expedition comes off as a ridiculous pursuit. While in essence the expedition is one that calls for derision, Rushdie takes away from the readers’ ability to enjoy this quality of the narrative by assuming a subtly condescending tone.

Rushdie applies pop culture references in his narration and uses terms such as “cray cray.” Whether this is an attempt to engage younger readers by adapting their style of social media slang or a novel approach to writing, the language used is quite different from what one typically expects from Rushdie. Rushdie’s nearly experimental style in using such language lacks allure. In addition, there is a dullness of tone. Reading aloud, it made me feel like I was orating a Twitter feed from a third person’s point of view. It is ultimately a matter of personal taste, but the magic of story writing and books is diminished when authors resort to texting parlance, as done in Quichotte. It is in the vast difference between these two ‘styles’ that language flourishes, allowing to be bent to accommodate everyday conversations and molded into magical prose that leaves one entranced.

One enjoyable aspect of the book is the chronicling of racism, which is still vastly prevalent in the United States. The book makes references to celebrities we are well acquainted with; Elon Musk, Oprah, and Trump: perfectly capturing the life we experience in all its existential ludicrousness. Perhaps the inconsistency of the prose was designed to reflect this? Even so, the book is a woeful representation of the altogether messed up world we live in. As a book, Quichotte is an artful jumble. It is layered to almost infuriate and packs a steady switch in timelines challenging the reader to go above and beyond their capacity for reason and logic.

Rushdie does a good job in connecting with his readers through the inexplicable experiences he narrates. And, though there are elements of Quichotte that are silly, even frivolous, it is ultimately the sweet story of a hopeless romantic and a loving father. Nevertheless, the journey of the traveling salesman in pursuit of love leaves the reader with a superfluous weight that cannot be fully shaken off.

Ghada Ibrahim is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Psychology. Aside from being an avid reader immersing herself in the literary world, she likes to live with no regrets. She has been blogging and writing since the age of 15 and aspires to become a published author one day to share her love for all things literary with the rest of the world.

Sunshine Blooms and Haiku by Sneha Sundaram  

Reviewed by Neelima Talwar 

In Sneha Sundaram’s Sunshine Blooms and Haiku, nature is at once in the focus and the background. It is not merely an active ingredient but is also interactive. Her chosen form of expression, the Japanese poetic form ‘Haiku’ or ‘Hokku,’ is often a three-lined poem that consists of a fragment in the first or third line, followed by a two-line phrase. Haiku is written in 17 syllables or less and has a juxtaposition of images or a ‘aha’ moment in the fragment line. 

Typically, a haiku poet or Haijin finds inspiration in nature and links their thoughts to it. The Haijin observes events around them and writes in plain and common language without any hidden meanings or complexity. The honestyspontaneity and philosophical possibilities in Haiku attracts many poets from all over the world.  

It takes a very special ability for people to listen to nature and Sundaram has that. She mellifluously writes poems about the changing seasons or “kigo” which is a word or phrase that refers to a particular season. The book is divided into five separate sections, each depicting Spring, Summer, Rains, Autumn and Winter. The reader can sense longing, seeking and reminiscing interspersed with cherry blossoms, swans, lotus buds, moons, skies, silences, seas, peacocks, sea bubbles and snow.  

In two of her haikus, she writes 

waiting for you 

to make the first move 

cherry blossoms 

 

lunch rush 

finding at sakura’s* feet 

a full moment 

In the first haiku, cherry blossoms or ‘sakura’ as it is popularly known in Japan becomes the surprise element adding to the thought of waiting for the poet’s loved one. In the second haiku, a full moment is juxtaposed with cherry blossoms which were probably being ignored in the rush for a quick lunch. 

In another haiku, the sound of the sea is captured in the conch.

temple bells ring 

the sea still echoes 

in the conch 

The conch becomes the epitome of the show don’t tell. ?It gives the reader a chance to feel wonder-struck at nature’s secrets. 

long walks 

seeking in the lotus bud 

Buddha 

 

morning fog 

the mountain goat 

senses my company 

In the haikus above, an “aha moment” occurs in the last line. There is an image of springtime in the first two lines and the third line surprises us by talking about the mountain goatIn yet another haiku, Sundaram writes: 

reminding me 

of a distant home 

red chinar leaf 

Juxtaposition of images is used to bring about a sharp contrast. The poem is built in a run-on line and phrase, and then juxtaposed with a fragment. In her Autumn haikus, Sundaram writes, about the last leaf wabi sabi 

wabisabi 

the last leaf 

in autumn 

*(Japanese) beauty in imperfection  

According to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, by accepting imperfections one can make the most out of life. The simplicity and comfort of sitting on worn-out couch has wabi in itThe “beauty in aging things,” in antique things, and places which tell a story in their ruins as well as the last leaf, all have wabi in them. 

spring cleaning… 

I store your memories 

in a Ziplock 

 

in the heart  

of a blooming violet 

unspoken desire 

In the above haiku, Sundaram creates the visual image of memories stored away in a pouch with Ziplock for later use. The haiku is waiting to happen just about anywhere.  

Sundaram writes about the various faces of moon – the full moon plays hide and seek behind the clouds, the harvest moon in the porcelain dish, the blood moon among banyan roots, the hunters moon behind the ocean and the winter moon when the loved one left. 

the full moon 

peaks through the clouds 

a lotus blooms 

 

in the cracked 

porcelain dish 

harvest moon 

 

blood moon 

my ancestors hide 

in banyan roots 

 

hunters moon 

the ocean swallows 

everything 

 

long before  

you walked away 

winter moon 

The full moon shines brightly and peacefully in Sundaram’s haikus; the protagonist looks at them in the sky and is reminded of her loved one and ancestors who are no longer with her. The moon triggers the poet’s longing for love and home. As David G. Lanoue puts it, the night of the harvest moonthe full moon nearest to the autumn equinox, the New Year’s Day and the blooming of cherry blossoms are the most important dates in a haiku poet’s calendar. 

Sundaram draws a parallel between the darkness and light and associates it with the moth. The darkness is probably the last night of life for the moth and whether it will reach the light determines its fate. 

swaying 

between darkness and light 

a moth 

In her single line haiku, Sundaram writes wittily that she regrets not laughing more, as she would have been better if she had more crow’s feet on her facegreat way of allowing the readers to read between the linesOn the whole, Sundaram offers a fine ode to the form of the haiku with contemporary and everyday themes.   

Neelima Talwar is a poet doubling as a Language specialist at Lionbridge Technologies. She has an MA in English from Hyderabad Central University and enjoys writing brevity poems and Japanese poetic forms like haikus, tankas and haibuns. Some of her poems have been published in All Poetry under the pen name, Neel. Her first book of poems was published by Writers Workshop in 2014. Neelima is passionate about water colors and oil painting, travelling and making exotic salads. She currently lives in Bangalore 

Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow by Rashi Rohatgi

Reviewed by Tina Shashikanth 

During a lecture that I attended recently, the orator, a famous octogenarian author in Kannada language, said: “I fall into a great dilemma when it comes to labelling something as modern or ancient. Is it because in the 60s and 70s, we were young and part of a social revolution rejecting casteism, class differences and sexual taboos or is it this decade, where an increasing number of youngsters are being drawn towards antiquated social structures and restrictions? Is it the regression of a timeline or the evolution of sensibilities?  

Rashi Rohatgi’s Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow also deals with similar thematic spectrums. It strikes you as modern and radical in many ways. A new century was dawning upon India under British rule in 1905, the year the novel is set in. It is also the year Viceroy of India Lord Curzon decided to divide Bengal into Hindu and Muslim regions, a segregation that left lasting impact on the whole country that then opted for a partition after independence; the political aftermath of which is ensuing 

The novel opens with a mention of the land of the rising sun. Leela, the protagonist-narrator, is training to be a teacher in the quaint town of Chandrapur, Bihar. She eagerly awaits the return of her fiancé ‘Nash’ aka Avinash Choudhury studying engineering.  With her younger sister Maya in tow, Leela narrates her life as it unfolds after Nash’s abrupt homecoming. 

Initially, Leela appears to be a young woman (in this case, a teenager, since women were married young according to social norms those days) besotted with her betrothed, dreaming of marrying into a large, comfortable household. She has lost her mother to plague at an early age. Her father is a Samajist, follower of Arya Samaj, a reformist group that advocates an egalitarian society, and has brought up his daughters to appreciate those values. However, Leela is aware of what is expected of her as the future daughter-in-law of Nash’s family and tries to mould herself accordingly. At the same time, she witnesses a sea of change around her which awakens in her a new responsiveness. 

Rohtagi juxtaposes the private lives of Leela and Maya with the politics of the times, as the responses of a younger generation to various aspects of the Indian independence movement, reminiscent of Ismat Chughtai’s famed novel ‘Terhi Lakeer’ (The Crooked Line), a bildungsroman wherein the life of the central character continuously clashes with the Indian independence movement.  

An important milestone in post-colonial literary works has been the acknowledgement and reappearance of women’s experiences after being concealed from the histories of colonial societies. Many of the fixed representations of Indian women have been powerfully rejected in a flood of contemporary writings. As Nabaneeta Dev Sen points out, writers like Jean Rhys, Anita Desai, Buchi Emecheta, Olive Senior, Nadine Gordimer, Grace Nichols and Arundhati Roy have placed women at the center of history, as makers and agents of history, not as mute witnesses to it. Rohtagi’s Leela too is an agent, no mute witness. While she idolizes Emperor Ashoka’s transformation after the Kalinga war, she also wonders about his initial violent streak. 

Bimala in Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Home and the World also set in 1905is a homemaker who crosses the threshold to join the protest against colonial rule. It was historically a time when women in South Asia had just started to become politically conscious. Many became involved in the revolutionary armed struggle while others joined non-violent campaigns. The struggle for independence gave them a legitimate reason to become political and participate in the public world. Eventually, Bimala sees the ‘fault’ in her choices and begs her husband to forgive her, clearly reflecting a backward movement for women. Leela is a sharp contrast to this.   

Leela is a fun-loving, romantic young woman who is looking at a promising, fulfilling life through her marriage. But she is also sensitive and observes changes in Nash after his return from Japan. She copes through physical proximity and other digressions considered bold for the women of her timesFinally, when she sees Nash unravelshe bravely confronts it. Leela’s interactions with Zainab reveal her own struggle with the biggest question that is going to tear up the nation very soon – the question of Hindus and Muslims.  

Leela seeks to eradicate the segregation between Hindu and Muslim schools initially as a selfish act to please Nash. She does not understand his nationalistic fervor. However, while Nash is eager to move away from Chandrapur, Leela stands firmly rooted. She cannot comprehend why he wants to get away when ‘everything is here. The novel tracks an arc of Leela coming into her own.   

Leela is astonished when she learns that her mother played an active part in her father’s business, which eventually leads her to contract plague and die. She cannot remember her mother but is attached to the paraphernalia she has left behind – her legacy. Leela finds solace in quizzing Nash’s mother who was close to her mother. There are conflicts inside of her – while she can understand her father’s need for company, she is horrified by her sister’s romance with Hasan. Leela projects her collective fears onto her sister’s ‘misdeeds’ while she does not hesitate to make a rather defiant trip to meet Nash. Her conduct during Lord Curzon’s visit to her hometown flouts all norms and she seems to be in a daze, walking alone in its aftermath. She is a flawed but brave character.    

Progressive feminist politics has largely rejected the alluring and constricting boundaries that regulate women’s experiences, a move we see Leela makeWhere The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow is fearless and breathtaking because it attempts to record many unheard female voices.  

Tina Shashikanth is a poet and journalist who hails from the mountainous Malnad region of Karnataka state in India. She?works with The New Indian ExpressBangalore and is fascinated by modern approaches to poetry and new discourses in literary theory. Her poems deal with a variety of thought processes, especially scientific. She has started juxtaposing sexual, spiritual relationships with various scientific theories, of late. She usually deals with urban, sensual themes. She believes that deeper exploration of the erotic and the material eventually leads to transcendence. Her book of essays in Kannada titled Kanna Koneya Kitaki (A Window to the Hollow Within Your Eyes) and collection of poems will be published shortly. Having strong female role models such as her mother and grandmother who defied several social norms, she has grown to admire feminism in its entirety. When she is not writing, she loves to grow things in her garden, has long-drawn, heated discussions with her friends over current developments in politics and literature and visits water bodies. 

 

A Dinner Party at the Home Counties by Reshma Ruia 

Reviewed by Sushumna Kannan 

Reshma Ruia’s poems echo the thoughts of nearly everyone in the diaspora. Her title poem is a subtle take on the typical questions directed at one’s identity, not one’s self, at a dinner party. It deals skillfully with the vast array of experiences in the diaspora, especially the patronization and the labeling. And the stereotyping that makes others ask about arranged marriages and stipulates the things the protagonist can and cannot speak of—since the conversation will typically lead to—further exoticization or deprecation or just plain misunderstanding. Ruia shows us why attending a dinner party in the home counties is fine act of balancing      

What is life like in the diaspora, anyway? What is this fuss, you ask. Experts have reflected on various aspects of the question for a few decades now, sweeping English literary studies, at least, with concepts of alienation, split self, nostalgia and hybrid identity. Despite the disciplinization of Diaspora Studies, the experiences of the diasporic appear to have remained tragically unchanged; the people they interact with have no inquisitiveness or have too much of it. Or, perhaps there has been a small shift from Orientalism, i.e., viewing India, for instance, as the land of snake charmers, caste system, elephants, tigers, mosquitoes and of course, the inimitable Kamasutra. For some of the diasporic, life away from homeland is peppered with the excusable chai tea, naan bread and henna tattoo, while for others, it is displacement, loneliness and self-mockery arising from low self-esteem. For some, it is exhausting and exciting simultaneouslywhile for others, it is home and hell flowing into one another seamlessly 

In the diaspora, it appears, one is always attending an interview—are you following rules, are you highly-skilled, are you dressed appropriately and so on. One must earn one’s place in it notwithstanding the equivalency certificates; they amount to littleThere is a sense of betrayal because the promise was of equality and non-discrimination—an elusive thing that never translates into reality. Life in the diaspora for too many of us is, constant contending with ambiguity and muttered phrases that only we can hear but never be sure of hearing. Akin to the men who grope you in crowded places—although this one’s a world-wide phenomenon—stumping you a little every time, no matter how much you practice what to say or do.    

Ruia’s poems cover all these different themes of diaspora life but not with half the brazenness of prose with which I have listed them. Instead, her delicate, precise, subdued and muted observations of the everyday unravels exactly how alienation, even assimilation takes place through a series of poetic, resonating and striking imagesThe book of nearly fifty poems is divided unequally into three sections, Beginnings, The Space Between and Endings. In Beginnings, Ruia explores writing from a male point of view and follows a stream of consciousness methodHer exploration of the convenient excuse for mispronunciations of names is on point. There are inner rhymes and occasional rhymes with little commitment to follow them through the entirety of the poem. Millennials are anyway undecided about rhyme schemes, I think—they love it, they hate it.  

Ruia touches upon the violence of partition in “1947,” through a series of impactful images that convey their charm in collage-like scenesThen there is Mrs. Basu, the deported woman, who contrary to common expectations, is relieved, even happy that she is going back home. Some of the following lines from “Biography” about a mother or her namesake stood out. They are beautiful 

She flings me high as she sings out loud. 

Folds her arms, watching me  

as I fall. 

Ruia takes on the hypocrisy of anti-immigration in “Brexit Blues” and explores the feelings of a mother who has followed her son to the UK next. The mother’s woe is also the tragedy of her son being an MBA in India but driving vans in London for a living. Again, as an expectant mother’s thoughts, the following lines stood out.  

You won’t fell me down, my unborn child, 

with your love or your blows.  

I would read them as emerging from the overwhelming love one feels for one’s child. In the second section, The Space Between, the description of meeting with an old friend is poem with great flow and apt words. I loved these the best although they must be read within the context of the poem 

The fairy tales she sings to herself.  

I forgive them all. 

In “The Patient,” Ruia is fairly direct in sketching the experience of being black. There is sense of immediacy and irreverence in this poem. Ruia uses reported conversations and dialogue with care. She doesn’t restrict herself thematically at all and explores a wide range of thoughts and situations, revealing a complex, sensitive and thinking human being behind her words. I was puzzled by where Pomology was going though. Is Ruia mourning the loss of youth? But why? Aging is beautiful too. Especially for those women who are not invested in what others think of them or think of themselves as mere bodiesThe poem begins as a critique of the beauty industry but appears to end with nostalgia for youth 

In the final section, Endings, Ruia ruminates on old age, the death of a parent and the like, sneaking lovely little insights on mundane or life-altering events. She offers beautiful observations on powerful themes and shapes her poems variouslymonologue, ballad, prayer, conversation. Ruia walks us through her ideas slowly, exploring it in depthallowing us to savour it. On the whole, a great collection focused on the unfunny predicament of hailing from a colonized, interrupted culture and having to explain oneself a lot, while the colonizer culture somehow has no explaining to do at all.

Sushumna Kannan is Jaggery Senior Reviews Editor and has a PhD in Cultural Studies from Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, India. Her research on the South Asian devotional traditions and feminist epistemology focused on the medieval saint, Akka Mahadevi and her vachanas. She received the BOURSE MIRA, French research fellowship in 2006 and 2007 and the Sir Ratan Tata fellowship for PhD Coursework and Writing in 2003 and 2007. She has published her research on Bhakti, dharmashastras, ethics, women’s writing in Kannada and English as well as on translation theory in peer-reviewed journals and as book chapters. She is currently working on a couple of book projects and the translation of Kannada fiction into English. She also writes poems. One of her articles was nominated for the Laadli media awards 2017. She is currently Adjunct Faculty at the San Diego State University, San Diego, USA. For more of her writings, visit www.sushumnakannan.weebly.com

Gariahat Junction by Rituparna Roy 

Reviewed by Dipika Mukherjee  

Kitaab International, an independent press based in Singapore, has been building a reputation for publishing diasporic desi voices deserving an audience. When the evocatively titled Gariahat Junction landed in my mailbox, I was eager to discover Rituparna Roy’s debut fiction within this slim volume. 

Gariahat Junction, as those familiar with the Kolkata landscape already know, is a bustling marketplace at the heart of a commercial district, spilling over with sari shops and food stalls and roadside vendors. This is a cacophonic junction that brings together the old curmudgeon and young schoolchild, the college student and the trousseau-shopper, the office workers and chaiwallas…in short, it consists of a cross-section of Kolkata life.  

In the nine short stories presented in this collection, Roy narrows her focus sharply, to the exploration of the inner lives of middle-class Bengali women. Like women everywhere, these women juggle a work/life balance, until the constraints of tradition and the Bengali bhadrolok mentality fetters the women in ways they cannot transcend. Prurient are the sexual mores that stifle desire, or even the glimpse of a bare body, as hormones rage in A Phone Call: 

Rakhee could deal with the bare human body as long as there was a safe distance. She admired its representation in art – though she was drawn rather more to the beauty of the female form. And of late, she was obsessed with the idea of love-making. A sad obsession, as she had no lover. Totally inexperienced about sex, but dying to know all about it, she now fell back on books and especially films to illuminate her on the subject. It was thus that she came to enjoy the love scenes in English films with guilty pleasure. 

As Rakhee struggles to accept the “public” nudity of her friend posing as an artist’s model, there is perhaps some homoeroticism, but the narration is as restrained as the character: 

That one hour (or was it two?) was an ordeal for Rakhee. She was highly uncomfortable in the presence of such exposed flesh. It kind of hit her in the face – both Sharmi’s nakedness, and the fact that she was so very beautiful. Sharmila had always been pretty for as long as Rakhee could remember. But without her clothes, she was absolutely stunning! 

I found the strongest story in this collection to be The Housewife, which was first published in Jaggery LitRuplekha, a trailing spouse in Amsterdam, wrestles with the challenges of anomie and exile as she aimlessly wanders through the art galleries of the city. Then, a serendipitous turn into the Amsterdam Historisch Museum leads her to an epiphany: 

What was great art all about? What were the trackless centuries full of? – Mundane, everyday activities. Getting on with the business of living  eating drinking and working to make a living. … A bowl or chalice with was not just an object to eat or drink from– it said so many other things. And each remain stamped with its own story, generations or even centuries, later. 

Ontological questions lie at the heart of the title story, Gariahat Junctionthe junction is both literally and metaphorically evoked. Katha is a woman trapped in a taxi in the rush hour jam: 

There were times she did not feel like going anywhere, just like there were times she did not feel like doing anything. It was not weariness or stupor or languor. It was plain, simple blankness – a form of being without color or sensation. A void within. Today was one of those times. 

In almost all the stories – Langorous Afternoon is the only overtly sexualized exception – the women in Gariahat Junction struggle to express individual desires within the choices allowed to them, whether in Bengal or the diasporaMadonna and Child is an evocation of Indian society confused by changing gender normsDancing Queen is an examination of the globalized marketplace challenging Indian families in interesting ways.  

Gariahat Junction is lyrical debut by a promising writer. I look forward to reading more of her work. 

Dipika Mukherjee is the author of the novels Shambala Junction (UK Virginia Prize for Fiction), and Ode to Broken Things (longlisted, Man Asia Literary Prize). Her short story collection is Rules of Desire (Fixi, 2015) and she writes a literary column for The Edge in Malaysia. She is contributing Editor at Jaggery Lit. 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Reviewed by Mary Ann Koruth 

Doors appear in a world swarming with refugees, a world already changed and marked by their certain presence on today’s global landscape. Dark doors, doors that seem impossibly deep, doors that frame the end of mysterious passages as fraught as the birth canal itself, magical doors that appear for no reason than to transport refugees willing to be reborn and recast into better, safer, newer lives. Doors that bend time, delivering human beings from war-ravaged Somalia to the island of Mykonos in Greece, from Sri Lanka to Dubai’s shopping district, and so on.  

It is a solution that can only exist in the imagination, and Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid employs it with great artistry in the 2017 novel Exit West. Framing and weaving a story inspired by the horror of the global refugee crisis, the novel’s two protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, live in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, watching, as it is taken over by militants. I have often wondered what it must be like for ordinary people to eke out ordinary lives in cities that grow increasingly dangerous. By omitting all political detail, yet providing enough references that impel the reader to make the necessary connectionsHamid creates a picture in my mind of the careers and talent lost in Syria’s post-war ghettoes, of dreams abandoned and babies born when Kabul and Pakistan’s Swat valley fell to the Taliban, and Mosul to ISISAnd though Hamid’s disciplined omission of real-world detail only broadens the universe he has etched, Nadia and Saeed’s city is clearly acknowledgement of the instability that Pakistan often teeters on. So much soI wondered if the city they were escaping was the Pakistan of Hamid’s worst nightmares 

 Nadia and Saeed seek out a door, to escape their besieged city. Exit West is the story of their journeys. Interspersed in their wanderings are glimpses into the straggling lives of other migrants and escapees, only these individuals are nameless and anonymous. A ‘woolly haired’ and dark man in Sydney. Two fragile, thin children with parents who wander the streets of Dubai, appearing to be ‘Tamil.’ Another, a family of translucently light skin and hidden wealth in a tent in a camp. Appearing at points throughout the novel, Hamid executes these emotional portraits of strangers in a quasi-journalistic voice. Their stories are culled out, appearing like buoys throughout the narrativebobbing up and harking to the ‘lives of others’, stories that neither Nadia nor Saeed are privy to. They are episodic, tearing the reader away from the reverie of the main storyline, and so attesting to the novel’s primary concern, the human conditionTo be a refugee, is to be orphaned – of home, of country, of rights.  

From the very start, I was struck by the authorial voice. It is omniscient and poetic, with long, meandering sentences capturing its characters’ every nuance, and nearly biblical in their style and formality. Its effect was to stay with me in the hours after I completed the novel; I felt steeped, perhaps a little hungover. The novel struck a chord, both artistic and emotional. A reference to Silicon Valley in relation to its home county of Marin is mystical because though the valley is left unnamed, its description hovers, liminaland geographical fact is just another ever-present cloud in the reader’s consciousness. 

 “…that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay like a bent thumb, ever poised to meet the curved finger of Marin in a slightly squashed gesture that all would be okay.” 

 All fiction is a door, designed to deliver us to new worlds. Hamid has erected very different worlds for his characters; where Saeed is devout and seeking the home he left behind, Nadia, his lover, freewheels into the world with an instinct for self-preservation that she has carefully cultivated. Clearly, Hamid prefers Nadia over Saeed. It is with her outwardness, her embrace of life, of the consequences of her decisions, of her mettle, that he, her creator is enamored. She is a pioneer in a world where the stakes lean in favor of people like her; she seeks out a better life and does not look back.  

  “I am pro-migrant,” Hamid said, in an interview that followed the release of Exit West. Yet the story explains the tribalism that drives society; Saeed possesses this tribalism, like the very communities where he seeks refuge but would keep him at bay. It is foreign to Nadia, who stands only for herself. In the end, it is just one of the forces that tugs at their bond, distinguishing them as individuals and as migrants who travelled together. 

Reviews Editor?Mary Ann Koruth’s writing and reviews have appeared in?The Indiana ReviewThe Rain Taxi Review of Books?and?The Hindu. She has written for?TheAtlantic.com?while interning as web editor, and has covered art and culture for other publications.  

Wayfaring by Tikuli

Reviewed by Shikhandin 

The poet as a wanderer. This is what comes to mind when reading “Wayfaring” by Tikuli. Not as a wandering minstrel. Rather as one who collects snapshots of experiences and sketches of mental spaces, through seemingly aimless wanderings. Yet nowhere does Tikuli come across as footloose and fancy-free. Rather there is an oblique brooding quality to the poems. In her foreward, this New Delhi based poet points out that poems in the volume go beyond the elegiac, “there is an interweaving of shapes, smells and the changing moods of a city” where she grew up. The poems have history and landscapes running down their spines. And then there is protest, subtle, unobtrusive, but it is there. 

The book is divided into seven sections or themes: – Trains, Exile Poems, Remembrance, Travel, Mosaic, Acrostics and Delhi Poems. The poems, fairly straightforward and easy to decipher, are mostly short, almost concise. Few are longer than a single page, and many are less than ten lines. They are almost like postcards mailed back by Tikuli during her sojourns. The white space around the shortest poems add an ethereal quality. The book would tempt a doodler to put down his or her reactions to the poems. Perhaps Tikuli intended it so, being something of a painter herself. 

A poet’s other parts may well seep into the poems. ‘Wayfaring’ is no exception. So Tikuli’s passion for food and cooking lends a tactile quality. For example, “The edge of the rain slices the ruddy sun” from the poem ‘Rain.’ One can even taste them in some – “that peppery winter noon” – from ‘Winter.’ Tea is a recurring motif pouring down her poems. Then again, most of her poems are set in winter and/or in trains and railway stations, where tea is a ubiquitous presence. 

The poems in ‘Wayfaring’ call out to themselves as they move through the pages. In the poem ‘Snow,’ which is set in a narrow-gauge train track, the line “a poem uncoiling into oblivion,” evokes the train’s passage. In another, ‘City Metro,’ evokes a similar mood with “laden with shopping bags/this poem rides the rush hour tide.” 

In the section ‘Exile Poems,’ nostalgia cradled in pain takes centre stage. Even in the poems that appear to be purely descriptive, a phrase here and a line or stanza there, reveal Tikuli’s inner feelings. This is abundantly obvious in the title poem ‘Exile,’ which makes no attempt to couch its emotion in descriptions of the past. The poem bares itself at the onset, refusing to relent even in the last line.  And in the poem ‘Winter,’ that season becomes a “grisly metaphor.”  There is a raw honesty in Tikuli’s work.  

Many of the poems in this collection have a little story at heart but leave themselves open ended. At times this becomes a fault, and the poems feel like flash fiction pieces broken up into stanzas. ‘Home,’ ‘Child Widow,’ ‘Exhaustion 1 and 2,’ and ‘The Last Meal,’ are examples. Then, there are poems at the other side of the spectrum, very, very short poems that feel like jottings or sudden musings. ‘Words,’ ‘Traces,’ and ‘Monsoon,’ to name a few. But these are minor hurdles in a book that has no pretensions, where the poems are brave enough to show themselves as they are, and (as cliched as it sounds!), even wear their hearts on their sleeves. 

‘Wayfaring’ is sprinkled with memorable images, which uplift the book. I quote from a couple of poems: “To you I may be only a memory/to me you are a pause in my thought.” From ‘Trail.’ “Waylaid, the night snuggles in to the bed of morning…” From ‘Kinnaur Revisited.’ 

Many poems in the collection carry the shadows of the personal, as if they were first written to dispel the poet’s own tragedies. But they manage to move beyond the personal. They cannot be called autobiographical. It is like, Tikuli snatched those moments from her own or her immediate surroundings and buried them inside her poems. Other poems become keen observations from her wanderings, sharply detailed, turning them into her own experiences. The title is apt. And, taken in its entirety, this is what the book is trying to say – that everything is a sojourn, even movement within the tight bounds of one’s own emotions or domestic space. And, that nothing is permanent; everything dissipates. Life itself is an act of wayfaring. 

It is refreshing, in these times of loaded poetry, to sit on a quiet day with a book of poems that speaks in a pure, almost youthful voice, guilt free and with a steadfast gaze. There is no sophistry here. No trying hard to be poems that cry out to be intellectual. The poems are clutter free. They set the reader free. And in doing so these poems speak with a clarity that draws meaning for the everyday reader looking for some comfort and repose through poetry. It is this quality that gives Tikuli’s poems their sheen. 

Shikhandin is the nom de plume of an Indian writer, whose recent published books include a story collection “Immoderate Men” published by Speaking Tiger Books, India, and a children’s book “Vibhuti Cat” published by Duckbill Books, India.  Shikhandin has won awards and accolades for her poetry and fiction in India and abroad. Her work has been published in journals and anthologies worldwide.

More about Shikhandin at her Amazon Page, Facebook, and her publisher’s websites: http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/ and http://www.duckbill.in/author-page?aut_id=61 

Utopia Revisited 2050: We Journey into a Brighter Future by Bhaskar Sompalli and Prem Menon 

Reviewed by Mary Ann Koruth

Set in the not-too-distant future, Utopia Revisited 2050 tells the story of an Indian expatriate’s return to Trichy, his hometown, a city in India’s deepest south. Sid Manekshaw, a Silicon Valley professional, returns home in the unlikely circumstance of personal loss. Sid, whose life so far consisted only of successes—he owns a private jet and is the proud founder of a startup—is devastated as crisis after crisis hits him. He loses his wife and parents to accidents within the span of a year. Utopia Revisited challenges Sid to reexamine the value and worth of his life in the year 2050, in the face of changes that promise to make his world a far more livable and empowering place. These changes are presented to the reader as an array of solutions implemented to rid contemporary society of the ills and prejudices that plague it, ranging from gun violence and school shootings to racial profiling. The solutions are imaginative and satisfying to contemplate—it would take away from the story to discuss them in detail here. Among the most progressive is an unprecedented approach to designing guns. Guns in 2050 are built to have a ‘consciousness’. These ‘smart’ weapons intervene at the crucial moment before the trigger is pulled, to affect the shooter into examining the prejudices that drive her actions. With support for the second amendment showing no signs of weakening, what better solution than to redesign weapons to trick their owners into reconsidering decisions to wield them? In this way, Utopia Revisited 2050 is an attempt by its authors—both tech professionals based in California—to suggest that all is not lost in present day America. Thinly veiled references to Donald Trump sketch a picture of why things should have got as bad as they did, until three decades or so into the future, when technology begins to be harnessed to bring peace and civility.  

Sid is presented with a subtle choice—can changes such as these, and changes implemented on a grassroots, local scale, truly transform his experience of grief? Does a commitment to creating a better and more humane world enable healing even when one loses one’s nearest and dearest? If the living must go on, as he recalls his deceased wife telling him, then how can this living be made more bearable?  

The premise of the solutions described in the book is that society can rid itself of the mindsets and biases that result in discrimination and violence—by enabling technology, big data and innovative approaches to design everything from education to weapons. Sompalli and Menon’s utopian society relies on technology to bring out the best in people. No doubt, compassion and humanistic action is difficult or hard to achieve on a purely human level, with purely human effort. The result, inevitably, is conflict—from police brutality to teenagers acting out in extreme ways. Enter technology—microchips that dismantle prejudice, continuous tracking of the effectiveness of these solutions, large scale analyses of social change—to achieve a very practical deliverance from human limitations. “World peace was no longer a toast at the dinner table, but a well-tracked problem that could be optimized,” says a character in the book.  

This debut novella holds the creators of today’s tech miracles—with a reflexive nod to the book’s authors—to the highest standards. It is a work of optimism and sympathy. It dreams of a more perfect world. The story of Sid’s suffering—is narrated simply and unsentimentally. What endeared me was its confidence in the possibility of a world that takes our reliance on technology to a level that is above and beyond what we know today, towards a world truly transformed. Yet its emotional core is wanting. Sid strikes a deep friendship with a woman, an ‘amma,’ who is revered as a spiritual guide among locals. Their conversations sound sometimes like exchanges of information—so much so that sometimes Sid and Amma become vehicles for the authors to communicate their vision for a better world. This is not for lack of effort on the part of Sompalli and Menon, who nonchalantly admit in their notes that they are ‘tech guys’ making a writing debut. Though the word ‘amma’ set off alarm bells in me, the character herself turned out to be the opposite of what I imagined based on the god-women who might have inspired her. No spoilers here, except that she turned out to be an unusually refreshing candidate for anamma. A Ted talk gives the reader a view of an entirely reimagined world in 2050. Yet the use of a Ted talk—a monologue—as a story telling device is so much less effective than an actual recreation of circumstances. Was a novella too limiting in scope for a work that takes on so much? Or was the choice of telling the story in a novella simply more manageable?  

Through it all, Sid discovers aspects to his parents lives that compel him to reevaluate them as individuals. Like himself in the wake of their death, his parents too, sought out ways to bring meaning to their own lives. They looked outward and away from their own pain and into the pain of others, as a way of dealing with it—a gallant goal for anyone looking to mend things. 

 

Reviews Editor Mary Ann Koruth’s writing and reviews have appeared in The Indiana Review,The Rain Taxi Review of Books and The Hindu. She has written for TheAtlantic.com while interning as web editor, and has covered art and culture for other publications. Her love for the English language came from growing up in a family where fidelity to literature and grammar bore a moral dimension. She is currently a candidate in the Rutgers-Newark MFA in creative writing.

The Last Vicereine: Love in the Time of Partition by Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang 

Reviewed by Rituparna Roy 

Lady Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Lord Mountbatten, is the star of Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s novel, The Last Vicerine (2018). Released the same year as another fictionalized and much criticized historical drama, Gurinder Chadha’s film, Viceroy’s House, reviewing Tsang’s novel is unusually and inevitably a comparative project. Unlike the film, which historians deplored for the liberties it took when telling the story of the partition, Tsang’s novel being fiction is let off more easily. Yet, the question is what she does with her chosen subject.   

Nehru and Edwina 

The book’s cover of Edwina’s profile superimposed on a silhouette of Nehru is evocative; it is widely known that the two shared a special relationship. Their lives, quite unforgettably, have been amply documented through several biographies and Nehru himself was a prolific letter-writer who penned his autobiography from prison. His correspondences take up several volumes in the Nehru Memorial Museum and its Library archives in Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi. One had hoped for deeper insights into their relationship than those offered by Tsang. 

Nehru’s private correspondence with Edwina that was first housed in the Mountbatten family archives at Broadlands, and later in the Mountbatten Archives at Southampton University, where they were placed under embargo. Unfortunately, the author has not been able to gain access to this important primary material, which though acknowledges is a major drawback. She has been able to consult other Mountbatten papers at Southampton and that is precious. Reliance on Janet Morgan’s Edwina, Mountbatten, A Life of Her Own – in which a part of the Nehru-Edwina correspondence had been published is an advantage with caveats. Other sources such as the recollections of Alan-Campbell Johnson (Press Attaché to Lord Mountbatten) and Margaret Bourke-White (famous Life magazine photographer) add value to the novel; both of them are characters in the novel. 

Edwina and Pippi  

What emerges from Jenkins’ research is a story of Edwina told by an imaginary character who plays a close associate Lady Letticia Wallace, nicknamed Pippi. And in the world of the novel, both women work for the St John’s Ambulance Brigade during the London Blitz and build a bond. When Mountbatten is suddenly asked to replace Lord Wavell as the Viceroy of India by King George VI in February 1947, Edwina is morally bound to accompany him. But their marriage has long been a sham (with Mountbatten having a steady mistress and Edwina having had affairs herself) and she is no mood to keep up pretences anymore. Luckily, like her husband, she is allowed to choose her staff, and she makes the India mission bearable for herself by deciding that Pippi would be with her in the capacity of ‘Special Adviser to the Vicereine.’ The latter is a recluse in Oxford after losing her entire family in the war – her lawyer husband and their two sons . Edwina however succeeds in persuading the reluctant Pippi to accept her offer, and thus starts a new phase in Pippi’s life. Pippi accompanies the Mountbattens to India, staying with the Viceregal couple for the entire duration of their brief, and actually continues to stay even after they leave since she finds her new love in Delhi 

Pippi’s narration follows a straightforward chronological arc, a veritable ticking time bomb in five parts, with titles that detail the period, like Part I – ‘India Full Speed Ahead, February 1947 to late May 1947; Part II ‘Saints, Sinners, Lovers, Traitors, June 1947 to 15th August 1947, and Part V – ‘Marigolds, New Delhi, 22nd February 1960. We are left in no doubt about the historical narrative and we get to see and hear many of the big players in addition to Alan Campbell-Jonson and Bourke-White, we have George Abell (Private Secretary to Lord Wavell, and then to Mountbatten), Claude Auchinleck (Commander-in-Chief, India), Sir Cyril Radcliffe (the man brought in to divide India), Sir Evan Jenkins (Governor of the Punjab) on the British side; Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhi and Patel on the Indian side.  

That all of them are accessible to Pippi is fictionally plausible – because she is “SE to her Ex (Special Adviser to her Excellency the Vicereine), but her forced insertion into historical events is not always convincing. It is pertinent to note that all the major events in India in 1947-1948 have been covered in the novel — the Viceregal swearing-in ceremony, the Asian Relations Conference, the Viceroy’s visit to riot-affected Punjab, the Simla Conference, Independence day celebrations (in Delhi), the mass migrations following Partition, the Maharaja of Jaipur’s Silver Jubilee Celebrations in December 1947, Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948 and its immediate aftermath to the extent that one could just as easily read it as a book of narrative history, not necessarily fiction. The novel resembles in style, Dominique Lappierre and Larry Collins’ 1970s bestseller Freedom at Midnight, minus its narrative pace and thrill.   

Given Jenkins’ British sources, and the fact that the principal point of view in the novel is that of a member of the Viceregal staff, it is hardly surprising that what we get is a British perspective on the Indian Independence and Partition – one that is full of sympathy for Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe’s monumental responsibilities in the summer of 1947, and more generally, for the predicament on the British side; Tsang’s perspective on riot-affected victims in the Punjab and Delhi is far less emotionally engaging. Though Pippi meets Rajkumari Amrit Kaur – Gandhi’s personal secretary and a social worker of standing and plays an active role in post-partition relief work, along with the Vicereine, we don’t enter the lives of the people they work with, a disappointing omission given that a wealth of literature spawned by the partition was at Jenkins Tsang’s disposal. 

We don’t enter Edwina’s emotional life either; this is the most disappointing aspect of the novel: the novel has not delivered on its promise. SE to her Ex” is an excellent ploy on the part of the novelist to give the Edwina story from the inside, but more is needed to sustain the reader’s interest. We learn about the Viceroy’s house (its people and routines and the radical changes introduced in its protocol by the Mountbattens), but not the Vicereine’s much teased-upon affair with Nehru. Here is Pippi, in one of the early chapters, chancing upon the Vicereine and the Congress leader at the Asian Relations Conference dinner party:  

I went out on to the terrace. It was then that I saw them – Edwina and Jawahar. Caught in a halo of light from the stage, they sat in the centre. In that moment everything that was happening seemed to be spinning off them, happening because of them, and in some way connected to them. Edwina was sitting on a sofa, watching a performance of Indian dance. He was cross-legged at her feet. It was written on their faces, in the turn of her head and the angle of his back against the sofa, pressing too close to the hems of her skirt. Whether they knew it or not, it was unveiled for all the hundreds to see. Shocked, I realized that this was what those red-faced schoolboys, Alan Campbell-Johnson and Krishna Menon, had been gossiping about the other day.  

I was looking for more moments like these when I could actually see them together, but they come again only at the end of the book, with Nehru officially bidding farewell to the Mountbattens in 1948. Since such moments would have been rare and unofficial, and their correspondence largely inaccessible, reimagining their relationship in flesh and blood required a leap of artistic imagination that Jenkins does not venture into. Though she says in her acknowledgements: “I am of the opinion that a sufficient period of time has now elapsed to make it possible to tell the story of the great friendship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten in a fictional format,she plays it safe.  

Pippi and Hari 

What the novel does deliver on is a romance between Pippi and Hari Rathore. Hari is a doctor by profession, but also a nationalist, a close friend of Nehru’s. Hailing from a privileged family of Rajputana, he returns to India from Cambridge and dedicates his career to serving the needy of his country. In 1947, he is a widower in his late 50s, with a son settled in the US, and a married daughter and grandchildren living in Lahore. He marries young, and is unable to connect with his even younger, superstitious wife before a brain tumour takes her away. A short affair with a socialite ends abruptly. In Pippi, Hari finds the companion he needs – a mature, educated, sympathetic woman who shares his ideals and lonelier than he.  

Pippi and Hari’s love story halting, uncertain at first, but finally life-affirming is beautifully told, with many arresting moments: their very first meeting during Mountbatten’s durbar’ in 1947, their second sudden meeting at Nehru’s York Road residence the morning after the Asian Conference, and their visit to the Qutb Minar while spending a day with friends at Mehrauli are some of the most memorable potraits. It is their relationship that drew me into the novel.  

The novel came alive for me in the sections that center round them. However, immediately after an emotional momentum is built, political musings, summaries of events, and historical telling take over. The romantic anticipation is lost in the process. And by the time one meets them again, one has to re-invest oneself in their story.  

Of the two parallel love stories in The Last Vicereine, the imaginary one between Pippi and Hari is rendered more imaginatively and successfully than the historical one. Though the novel appears to want to be about Edwina and Nehru, the story is Pippi’s, and had Jenkins Tsang been attentive to this, a different novel with the title “SA to her Ex” might have been her truer calling. 

Rituparna Roy has taught at the Leiden University College (LUC), the Hague & the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS). She is the author of ‘South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh (AUP: 2010) & co-editor of the ICAS volume,’ Writing India Anew: Indian English Fiction 2000-2010′ (AUP: 2013). Her articles, interviews and reviews have appeared in The Wire.in, Scroll.in, The Punch Magazine, Our FrontCover & Kaani. Her fictional writings have been published by The Punch Magazine, Lebowski Publishers & Jaggery and a maiden collection of shorts, ‘Gariahat Junction’, is forthcoming. 

 

The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto

Reviewed by Praveena Shivram 

Fatima Bhutto’s The Runaways has words that dance to a music of their own, with tunes that once you catch – which you invariably will– sweep you into irresistible beats that throb with great urgency. Set between 2014 and 2017, with compelling characters – young, restless, full of glorious and tragic lives – caught in the web of politics and religion and their social implications, The Runaways is awash with such detail that you physically breathe in the world. Here, thoughts singe and burn, personalities crackle and simmer, and choice, that all pervasive thing, is like circumstance’s dangling noose, at once dangerous and inevitable.

The novel begins with Anita Rose leaving Karachi, her neighbour and comrade Osama’s words, still ringing in her ears: This city will take your heart… You don’t know what Karachi does to people like us. Take your heart, do you hear? And right there, a quiet sense of fear creeps in, and the motif of escape, central to the book, makes its first appearance. Escape, which, you will quickly learn, is intoxicated on its own sense of freedom, much like Anita’s old neighbour, who, forever with a glass of sharab in his hands, spews lines from Hafiz, Ghalib and Faiz, which Anita diligently notes down in her little red notebook. He calls her “lion” and that is what the first part of the book is also titled, “They Call Me Lion.” Bhutto has fashioned this book like a jigsaw puzzle divided among the three characters – Anita Rose, Monty and Sunny. Timelines, even though set within a specific time frame, do not matter here as Bhutto effortlessly moves from past to present, from yesterday to tomorrow, from Anita to Monty to Sunny, and even though it is confusing at first, you submit to its rigour.

If Anita’s life represents the journey of moving from the slums of Karachi to its more urban working-class town of Gulshan, then Monty’s life is the other extreme of Karachi, belonging to a world that holidays in London, that can indiscriminately hire and fire servants, and that can have the luxury to choose the life of superficial austerity (in Monty’s mother’s case) or a life of superficial hardship (in Monty’s case). Monty’s life has turned upside-down when he has met the mysterious Layla in school, a new admission, constantly smelling of cigarettes, a reader of Urdu poetry, a purposeful, ferocious rebel. He falls deeply in love with her. The first thing she asks him when they meet is: ‘What do you know of the world?’ and you can feel the ground beneath Monty’s feet being pulled away and there is nothing left to do but fall. In Bhutto’s words, here is how the scene unravels: When he spoke to her, she noticed that his pupils dilated, like coffee spilling in slow motion, until you could no longer see the light brown of his eyes. ‘What do you know about the world?’ Layla shot back, running her tongue along the seam of the cigarette. ‘What gives you the right to have an opinion about anything?’ And without meaning to, Monty gave the only answer someone like Layla would respect. Nothing, he replied. I don’t know anything.

And, then, there is Sunny, in Portsmouth, UK. The most misunderstood of the lot, the one carrying his immigrant father’s sedate bitterness most consciously, feeling most tangibly his Muslim roots, and grappling with the many-hued layers of his sexuality, and eventually choosing, within this morass of confusion, a path of no return. Bhutto saves a large part of her compassion for Sunny, almost as if she knows he is too fragile, where even one word that misses its mark could break him. Several times, you hold your breath as you watch Sunny struggle and flounder, and then are filled with dread when Oz, Sunny’s cousin, arrives and begins to tell him about the fight for the Promised Land. As you enter part two of the book, titled “And We Were Born Again”, that exclusively chronicles Sunny and Monty’s long trek through the desert as ‘jihadis’ fighting for the Ummah Movement in Syria, you read Sunny’s version with more care, you read his Twitter feed and Facebook posts with alacrity. Sunny is so deeply lost that he is willing to kill a large part of himself to be found, to be seen, and in this engagement with his pain, he discovers a semblance of order.

When their paths cross in part three, ‘Truly They Speak, Only Those Who Have Seen The Truth’, you begin to feel the anguish of endless hope and faith. When Anita asks Osama, ‘How do I stop it? How do I stop this city from eating my heart?’, and Osama says, ‘You fight. You take theirs first.’ you start to feel the descent, the descent into a void of heady freedom, freedom that is old by virtue of its birth and new by virtue of its constant, small, everyday deaths, evident even in the abbreviated versions of their names – Mustafa becomes Monty, Salman becomes Sunny, Ozair becomes Oz, Ezra becomes Feroze, and Anita becomes Layla. One of the triumphs of Bhutto’s novel is that even the characters that stand outside this circle are so richly detailed that they never seem incidental to the plot. Each one brings something precise and sharp that changes lives, so that, by the time we come to the fourth part, “The Land of Milk and Honey,” we are spent, having fallen in and out of the vastness of this landscape contained so precariously within Anita, Monty and Sunny’s young fists.

Bhutto, with her own history – of being raised in Syria and Karachi, being niece of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and deeply troubled by her father’s death who was killed by the police in Karachi – brings a sense of vulnerability to her writing, that is powerful and yet devoid of conceit. In the end, when we read, And at that moment Sunny thought Monty – whose face was slightly tanned, the bridge of his nose burnt from the sun – was somehow more beautiful than when they had first met, we know, with the inevitability of thunder following lightening, that this is true for the book as well – it resonates with a beauty we do not expect in the beginning when Anita leaves Karachi and the moon hangs low in the night.

Praveena Shivram is a writer based in Chennai, India, and currently the Editor of Arts Illustrated, a pan-India arts and design based magazine. She has written for several national publications, including The Times of India, India Today, The Hindu, The Swaddle, Biblio: A Review of Books, Asiaville, and Culturama. Her fiction has appeared in the Open Road Review, The Indian Quarterly, Jaggery Lit, Desi Writers’ Lounge, Spark, Chaicopy, and Helter Skelter’s anthology of New Writing Volume 6. She is a single mother of two children and an occasional powerlifter. Read her work at www.praveenashivram.com

A Roll of the Dice by Mona Dash

Reviewed by Ghada Ibrahim  

A Roll of the Dice is a book that resonates with sadness and joy; altogether an amalgamation of ardent fervor, a mother’s love, and the world’s gentle sway in the direction of good fortune. It is a story of motherhood and resilience and the power of hope. Mona Dash’s memoir narrates her ill-fortune of being a genetic carrier of the Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) virus – a fact she learned the hard way: losing her first born to it.  

Despite this, Mona is determined to pursue motherhood. With several odds stacked against her and stacked high, she gambles with life for another chance and wins. Determined in her pursuit, Mona leaves her hometown and moves to London to start afresh. Surrounded by better medical resources and an even stronger determination, she leaps into the world of maternity, hoping and praying for a miracle.  

Once I picked up the book, I could not put it down. Nose glued between the pages while commuting to work, on buses and in cabs, every fortunate moment I had to myself was spent burrowing deep into this courageous and heart-touching story. The memoir plucked at my heart and took me on a journey of humor, grief, and palpable excitement. With every new development in Mona’s life as a mother-to-be, the story grew on me. 

Mona’s hope to conceive and raise a child who could potentially lead a normal life took her from India to London on a toilsome journey which lasted an entire decade. Her story is the clearest depiction of the unpredictability of life; of how situations can bounce between numbing joy and crippling sadness. Some of the many lines that stuck with me from the book are “They say that grief is like a little stone in your shoe. You don’t always feel it but you know it’s there, ever-present and, from time to time, it bites into your soul to remind you that all isn’t well.”  

In moving to London, Mona found a new home which was what she needed the most to begin anew. While being a difficult decision to uproot from one’s homeland, it was not the case with Mona. She writes, “the freedom I felt was the manna I craved.” Despite migrating to a completely foreign land and diving headfirst into a culture that stood poles apart from India, the warmth and love received from people made her feel like she belonged. During the strenuous and endless hospital visits, she developed unbreakable bonds with doctors and nurses who despite being surrounded by illness, disease, and death, displayed a warmth she had hardly experienced back home.  

At the peak of her misery, Mona never gave up hope. From struggling with endometriosis and sitting through fertility checks to juggling her job and a premature child at the brink of death, her resolve shone through like a beacon in the dark. Devoid of self-pity and chockful of fearlessness, Mona’s story serves as a guide and solace for parents experiencing infertility, dealing with premature infants or children with SCID.  

It is powerful, enriching and an explosion of emotions that envelope you in a fierce embrace. It is a story that is bold and speaks its truth, loud and clear. From amongst the messages that one can take after traipsing down Mona’s memory lane is the need for being thankful, for friends whom you can call upon in times of desperate need, for continuous advancements in medicine, for the gift of being normal.  

Ghada Ibrahim is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Psychology. Aside from being an avid reader immersing herself in the literary world, she likes to live with no regrets. She has been blogging and writing since the age of 15 and aspires to become a published author one day to share her love for all things literary with the rest of the world.

A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian 

Reviewed by Aravind Mitra 

A People’s History of Heaven is an unusual title for a work of fiction, but it aptly works for Mathangi Subramanian’s debut novel. It doesn’t deal with incidents and events of the people buried in the pages of Indian history, but gives voice to the life stories, hidden past, and biographies of women who have been the subjects of patriarchy, gender norms, and domestic problems. Subramanian’s creative universe defies several ideas of novel writing. It cares less for a strong plot, the appearance of the characters is random and except for the slum called Heaven, nothing connects the inhabitants. Subramanian’s debut is an ambitious and an innovative attempt that extends the frontiers of Indian writing in English by addressing several concerns that are relevant to the present societies 

Swargahalli, a slum, is a blot on the beautiful geography of Bangalore. It is an odd landscape amidst the tall buildings, sprawling bungalows, and a busy airport. The authorities want to supplant Swargahalli with a swanky shopping mall and this effort is halted by the slum’s residents. This vapor thin storyline of power and resistance becomes interesting, unique and a strong social poetic commentary because of Subramanian’s characters. The narrative unravels the lives of five girls addressing a few issues that plague women’s life. Within a limited time frame, the novel reveals the past and conjectures the future of the flawed characters. Subramanian carefully crafts Heaven’s universe with women who belong to two different generations. Banu, Deepa, Rukshana, Joy, and Padma are not only young school going residents of the slum but also the representatives of the lost selves of Neelamma Aunty, Banu’s ajji, Selvi Aunty, Gita Aunty, and Fatima Aunty. The young women promise to continue the struggles of their mothers and grandmothers.   

Deepa accepts her blindness and chooses her partner. Her rationality is limited to replicate the societal norms and she says, Well I have permission from my husband to be here, so there’s nothing you can say.” In several places, she represents her mother’s unrequited love. Rukshana’s assertion, “I don’t dress like a boy. I dress like myself,” reminds her mother Fatima’s words to one of the representatives of the health department, “These people come and talk to us like we don’t know anything.” Banu’s unrecognized skills, “Poverty might make our lives ugly. But, in Banu’s drawings, our survival is full of beauty, are similar to Banu’s ajji’s way of saving many women in the slum from their violent husbands and miscarriages.  

The novel is a people’s history, a history chronicled to reflect several ideologies that project an egalitarian society. The characters’ lives become only a tool to prove Subramanian’s intentions. The novel’s language is musical, quite literally, as ‘rhythms’ and ‘symphony’ keep on recurring. Subramanian’s linguistic experiment is quite innovative and there are no parallels in the recent past except for Mohan Rao’s The Smoke is Rising. Many feelings are expressed in precise sentences abruptly punctuated with commas and periods. What makes her dialogues very innovative is that in the chapter ‘Frangipani’, the characters are called by the things they are associated with, “Earbuds says”, “Cricket Bat mumbles” and “Spectacles says. The inner worlds of the young girls flow in a meandering riverlike sentences, “Truths flat and round that fit in your palm like five-rupee coins.” Sentences are flavored with Kannada and a couple of Hindi words and carry a lot of references to popular cultures. Subramanian’s experiment is praiseworthy but doesn’t suit the context and the world she intends to create. Her ironical nomenclature Swargahalli is too Sanskritized to be the name of a slum. Poetic narration is too beautiful to be called conversations and result in inconsistent descriptions.  A confident narrative voice declares, Women who were fiercely loved, cruelly abandoned. Who woke up every morning with fists clenched, knees tensed, ready to fight. Desperate to live,” only to be contrasted with a statement like, “Everyone in Heaven is always losing all the time.” Swargahalli is populated by migrants, people hoping for a better life and orphans. Subramanian’s highly philosophical, artistic, poetic and aphoristic language does not infuse life into these characters.   

To provide an inclusive universe, Subramanian forces the characters to easily accept gender differences and alternative sexual choices. Crucial scenes like Banu’s ajji witnessing her husband’s secrets get only a few paragraphs. The language, the characters’ journey and experiences are not organically related to the context but to the author’s convenience.    

The scene of a foreigner clicking Swargahalli’s picture reflects the novel’s condition. “The foreign woman doesn’t call the newspaper. She doesn’t bring help. She doesn’t do much anything at all besides framing the photographs she took and hanging them in a gallery.” As the foreign woman remains alien to Swargahalli’s conditions, the narrative voices unknowingly distance themselves from the pain and agony of the slum. However, this history is a must for it genuinely tries to build a subaltern voice through various characters and hopes for a better future.   

K Aravind Mitra is currently teaching in Government First grade College, Napoklu. He studied in English and Foreign Languages University and the Central University of Hyderabad. His reviews, articles and short stories have been published in The Hindu, Prajavani, and online platforms. Now, he is trying to read classical Kannada epics to write a book on Halegannada.