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99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai

Reviewed by Samreen Sajeda

It was odd, I thought, how a few miles could turn bombs into lullabies.

-Jamil Jan Kochai

The very first chapter of 99 Nights in Logar is titled ‘On the Thirty-Second Morning,’ prompting a prediction: this novel is going to break the monotony of a linear narrative. True to that, the novel evolves into an intricate narrative pulling the past into the present through good story-telling that illustrates the rich culture of Afghanistan, with the subtle yet lingering ache of migration.

Just the chapter titles are intriguing documentations of days and times, echoing diary entries. Although the first part of the novel revolves around the speaker, Marwand and his gang—Gul, Dawood, and Zia walking “deeper and deeper into the valves of the country” in search of Budabash, the lost dog, the novel is in no way limited to narrating that adventure.

The story is set in 2005, when “the American war was sort of dozing, like a coma.” Yet it constantly looms in the background like the “the distant chatter of artillery.” Even as the children “plopped toot” in their mouth, they “picked at the old bullets stuck in the bark.” This juxtaposition of antithetical images run throughout the narrative as though the mind constantly strives to balance the terror with flashes of beauty such that, even as Marwand and Gul spoke of Watak Kaakaa’s execution, ‘white lilies fell from the chinar, scattering on the water.’

Women are prominent in the novel, like the “mother, who, during the course of the war, had learned to patch up bullet holes,” or little Miriam who plays a vital role in supervising her cousins as they nurse their elders falling sick at the same time (magic realism, reading that bit at the time of COVID-19 had its own resonances). Abo, seems to have a stronger say in matters of the household unlike in most patriarchal families. Nabeela khala’s “little dress shop started netting a tidy profit” and although Moor is heard less often than Agha, her words demand immediate attention whenever she chooses to speak. This is made emphatic as their son prays “for her mind and his body.”

The novel complicates the idea of oppression. One of the most poignant scenes is when little Marwand along with other kids decides to pelt stones at the butcher’s son—

There came this moment between the holding of the stones and the ambush itself, when I was watching the butcher’s son walk the road,…knowing what he didn’t know,… and I felt so bad for him and for me too, Wallah, because although I knew that the stones were coming, I didn’t know why, and in that way me and the butcher’s son were the same.

This dilemma is a profound metaphor for the entangled relationship between the oppressor and oppressed, the Occident and Orient, or America and Afghanistan. For ironically, in the absence of the oppressed, the oppressor would cease to be.

A collective struggle shrinks the distance between the homeland and the host country. When Masoom informs Agha “of what was going on with his own family (certain things were always left out: the failing crops, the lost toe, the bruised face…)” On the other hand, the reader is also given a glimpse of the situation back in America—“My father worked. From six in the morning till seven at night, he hauled barrels of pesticide, drove trucks, and landscaped the lawns in white neighborhoods. Weekdays, weekends, and holidays too…How hard he tried not to be broken, not to break us,” thereby hinting at the perils of a forced migration, as the oral narratives become a route to remind the younger generations of their Afghan roots.

Kochai unsettles the reader by magnificently documenting the Afghan tradition of story-telling. There are numerous stories strewn across the main narrative. Mealtimes become an occasion for the entire family to sit together and share bowls of chicken shorwa while sparking stories narrated to the “children of her children, to ease the tension, or to teach a lesson.” Paradoxically, along with the reader, the speaker himself becomes a listener, scripting the oral word.

Language spills over cultures as Marwand’s relatives try to communicate with him in “a butchered mixture of English, Pakhto, Farsi, and sign language.” Native words are sprinkled without italics, making it a hybrid tongue. There is a fine blend of humour even in the most unexpected scenes—“Agha bit down on his lower lip like he always did right before he smacked me, but I kept on eating, quickly shoveling small bites into my mouth…He wouldn’t hit me with food in my mouth.” The prose is poetically rendered. There is a quirkiness in metaphors—comparing green eyes to duck shit, pink sores to blossoms, or the long white scar to a stream. These comparisons are like conceits and make the reader take a pause to marvel. Often, paradox adds to this literary feast, like when Marwand and Zia lie in order to “stay true” to their word. Most importantly, the novel ends with the story of Watak Kaakaa’s execution, in Pakhto, untranslated; as if in homage to the oral word. This aesthetic and experimental use of language is also the reason why one feels that the narrative voice is too articulate and intelligent to be a twelve year old’s, perhaps not if he grows up into becoming a writer.

Kochai’s stories preserve the timeless space between love and loss while not being oblivious to the futility of war. After all, ‘it hurts to hold a gun.’ What makes it even more unique is the glowing faith the characters cherish and the promise of returning ‘home’, ephemeral and eternal.

Samreen Sajeda

Samreen Sajeda graduated in English literature from Sophia College, Mumbai. Thereafter, she completed an MA in the same discipline from the University of Mumbai. She is, at present, reading for a PhD in Palestinian poetry in translation. She writes poems and, occasionally, short stories. She is also interested in photography. Her work has been published in the Indian Cultural Forum, Muse India, Spark, Hakara and, the anthology of Poetry India (2017).

Purple Lotus by Veena Rao

Reviewed by Pooja Garg

The Buddha famously said, “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” In Veena Rao’s debut novel Purple Lotus, we see such a path unfold for Tara as she journeys towards self-discovery and empowerment.

The lotus is a well-known symbol of purity; it rises from murky waters but is unsullied. It is also the symbol of following your path, your dhamma. A purple lotus is especially known as a symbol of wisdom and dignity. But Tara of Rao’s novel has a long and bleak journey before she can reach a place of wisdom and dignity. Shorn of symbolism, Tara is a girl entangled in her own sense of grief, as also yet another girl trapped in a patriarchal society.

The book begins with little Tara losing her doll during her family’s move to Mangalore. In trying to cope with the loss of the familiar, losing her doll turns out to be deeply traumatic. This is underscored by Mark Twain’s quote that the novel opens with, on how loss of a toy for a child and the loss of a throne for a king are similarly painful.

Tara’s sense of abandonment is further deepened as her parents leave her behind with her grandparents and a schizophrenic uncle. They do, however, take her brother with them while little Tara is too young to grapple with what it means to be a girl in a gender discriminatory society. As Tara grows up, her respite are books and her time with her uncle on his good days. When she finds that Cyrus from school likes her, life suddenly feels a lot more bearable. But then her parents come back to claim her, and she is yet again torn from what she has come to regard as home.

Much like Rao herself, grown-up Tara finds journalism to be her calling. Soon she begins writing on women empowerment even as she herself, ironically, is pushed into getting married by parents who find her getting too old to be marriageable. Her marriage lands her in Atlanta three years after waiting for her husband to get her to the US where he works. In these three years Tara has endured constant questions and pressure from family and friends, and so even when she realizes she is trapped in an abusive marriage, her family insists that she stay on and make it work.

Even as Tara’s life continues to unspool in an ever-deepening spiral, it is her silent strength that is uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time. Her strength is not of one determined to be brave but one cornered in a blind alley. Through it all, she clutches at every little thing that comes her way: even the time with her husband before he reveals his abusive side. Just as she clutches at every little lifeline she gets tossed along the way—whether it is working as a cleaner, learning new skills, or modeling. There is no one easy way for Tara and her struggles resemble those of many other women who find themselves in similar situation. In Tara’s challenges, such as with learning to drive, Rao takes the opportunity to share experiences which would resonate with every immigrant woman. Finally, Tara finds friends in local Indian and American community and leaves her husband.

Life finally takes a turn for her when she accidentally meets Cyrus and they marry. Love had finally found its way in Tara’s life, but what should have a period of contentment in her life yet again remains elusive. Her old fears continue to beset her, and she returns to India to hibernate. Except that this journey home also turns out to be a journey into her past and she finally confronts her sense of loss.

Life comes full circle for Tara in a swift arc when she finds her doll, only to let it go. It is in placing the loss of a doll at the center of Tara’s journey that the story comes closest to its symbolic bearings. While every other trauma was inflicted from outside, this gnawing loss had been Tara’s own. Buddha also said, “Pain is certain, suffering is optional… One of the hardest things to do in life is letting go of what you thought was real.” In letting go of the doll, Tara also sheds a lifetime of trauma.

At once a universal theme as well as one that is specific to the Indian society, Rao’s book is essentially a story of survival and empowerment. For a book invested in these themes, the book reads remarkably like a pebble drop in the silence where the author is present only in the quietness of the book.

Rao says she spent much time polishing the draft, and it shows. A richly narrated book, it is a far cry from the crisp style of journalism that has been Rao’s work so far. The writing style keeps pace with the storyline. The haunting quality of Tara’s past is a sharp contrast to the immediacy of her present, just as it turns mellow after meeting Cyrus.

Having spent many years in Atlanta, Rao’s book does not stray far from this known location and is richer for it. Mangalore and other areas in the book also bear a similar stamp of familiarity.

Women empower other women, and Tara’s journey too would have been incomplete without the friends she finds in women around her. From strangers pitching in with everything from advice to shelter, it is this sisterhood that carries her through her darkest hours and becomes an important theme in the book.

Rao says bits of this book were inspired by the stories of women she had heard on her journalism assignments. And so, she lends her voice to Tara who she takes up writing again towards the end of the book and begins to work for women empowerment. Towards the end of the book, Tara writes,

“Not all monsters are egregious. Some stay hidden in plain sight. They wear a normal mask. They don’t set you on fire. They crush your spirit slowly, until you die every day, from loneliness, purposelessness, worthlessness, hopelessness… I was expected to exist for society. I chose to live. To love. I take heart in the knowledge that the monsters around me do not sully me, because the names they have for me are not the names I give myself.”

Rao chose to give her the name of Tara, the Buddhist goddess of liberation, and by the time the book ends, she is well on her way to healing and becoming whole. As her uncle Anand had told her, “The whole of the universe is inside you. To rule yourself is to rule the world.”

Pooja Garg is Founder Chief Editor for The Woman Inc., an advocacy and literary magazine. She also works with Raksha, a nonprofit working for survivors of violence, and Khabar magazine.

When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays by Jhilam Chattaraj

Reviewed by Amit Shankar Saha

The three-line opening of Jhilam Chattaraj’s poem, “Distance,” shows the effects of separation from a loved–one. The poem reads like an embalmed memory. According to the poet, poetry is the house that “preserves” lovers with “perfection.” The quintessential tropes of leaving and longing have been in etched in poetry since time immemorial. For instance, the separation of Lara Antipova and Yuri Zhivago in Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago births poetry. Chattaraj’s debut collection, When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays is no different. Chattaraj offers forty musings—all inspired mostly by love and relationships but also desire, career, travel, creativity, and literature.

If we plot on the cognates of time, the points of lovers’ leaving and connect those lines, we get elliptical diagrams of poetry. These ellipses with multiple foci are poems, which cannot be dissected with the forceps of theory. There is the infiniteness of the Fibonacci Series, the complexity of Lagrange’s Equation, the certainty of Rolle’s Theorem, the beauty of Euler’s identity formula and an eternity found encompassed in Zeno’s Paradox. And that is what love has always been: a set of irrational numbers; a Venn Diagram of imaginary spaces; a matrix of impossibilities and a logarithm of improbable probabilities. And so, when a poem, which is a labour of love, is presented to a reader, masquerading as a critic, how should we read it? This is how Chattaraj puts it:

They taught me to hold the poem against a wall,
choke it with questions, (lines 1-2, p. 7).

So, this reviewer too will try not to pin her poems on the wall and choke them with questions based on the bias of literary theory. What does the poet say in “Lovers Leave, Poetry Stays?” She says: “Pour me love/ to rain the pages that/ refuse to remember you,” (p. 47). And, does she get what she desires? Yes: “The seed once planted by a kiss/ now grows in words, / spreading in sheets/ and scribbles,” (p.47). Here, unwittingly, I am doing what I vouched I would not do – asking questions. This is the dilemma of the reviewer. Just as “grief” becomes impatient to leave when the poet starts finding comfort in it, a reviewer too becomes impatient to ask questions of a poem. In her poem, “I Made Grief a Cup of Coffee,” Chattaraj writes that this grief, preserved carefully, gives birth to poetry. And, one secret cause of such grief is revealed in the lines of the poem “Losing”: “I lost a lover/ to a husband,/ followed by/ lust-lapped clouds/ to a lonely, gentle breeze” (p. 30). How can one reconcile with such a separation – a distancing that goes beyond time and space? Perhaps, it is a weakness on the part of the poet to use grief as a crutch to propagate her poetry writing, but it is so aesthetic and unapologetic.

Travelling to different places is the concrete form of distancing from a place of origin. A number of poems by Chattaraj, are on those lines. When she writes about Hyderabad, she writes that “This is a city of cities/ spread on the henna laced hands of three sisters,” (p.23). When she writes of Kolkata, she writes: “we/ walked back into the foggy, blue light/ of a joyous city,” (p.42). She writes about Bidar: “Her unwilling hands still nurture the decaying/ Bahmani eras,” (p.13). And of Benares, she writes: “Benares unpasts all that we know,” (p.12). Just as there are places, there are also people. In a very poignant poem, titled, “Origins” Chattaraj writes:

I sat by your bed,
as if I were your mother
and imagined you,
a handsome young man
marching through the rebellious streets of Bengal.
I whispered, ‘walk on, walk beyond winter, papa, be brave (lines 12-17, p.37).

She also writes about her grandmother: “My hands are not mine/ but elfin heirlooms/ of a woman I see rising/ from the flossy folds of my flesh,” (p.22). She compares her academic ambitions with the domestic delights of her grandmother andimagines her mother as a bohemian, “village stamp collector,” (p.33), who settled in marriage instead of spending her life, “smiling alone at a book,” (p.33). There is much tenderness in Chattaraj’s words that just by virtue of being tender ripen into poems.

Another element that suffuses Chattaraj’s poetry is the idea of creativity itself. First, as a student and then being a professor of literature has given her a space where she can tackle creativity as a subject on its own terms. In the poem, “The Way I Write,” she explains her poetic process of sitting by the “window,” on “starless nights,” to imagine and wait for the lone fox to enter the forest in her head. The poem seems to be written in response to British poet, Ted Hughes’s “The Thought-Fox.” Instead of the animal, her words “boil over tea,” “peep through the cauliflower,” “leak from the body,” “stick on broken hair and the pages are flooded,” (p.52). In “Uninked,” she invokes technology and writes: “My fingers tap dance on delicate keys/ and thoughts trot on plug-in pages,” (p.54). In “Writing,” she explicates her vocation as a poet: “I’m on a trip with myself,/ travelling miles of language/ in search of a country without prose,” (p. 54). Chattaraj raises questions on gender, politics, society, and popular culture. Her approach is inquisitive and coloured with imagination. For her, poetry is an “unimagined home” because when lovers leave, they leave behind unimagined “walls, windows, novels, bed sheets,” (p.47). This is her first collection of poems and is promising enough show that she will grow in the course of time experimenting with forms and themes and developing into a better artist of an art form, she is already good at.

Amit Shankar Saha is a widely published award-winning poet and short story writer. He has won the Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature, the Wordweavers Prize, and the Nissim International Runner-up Prize for Poetry. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets, the Assistant Secretary of Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library and the Fiction Editor of Ethos Literary Journal. His poems have been included in Best Indian Poetry Anthology 2018 and he has read his poems at Sahitya Akademi, Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival and at other literary events. His two collections of poems are titled Balconies of Time and Fugitive Words. He has co-edited a volume of short stories titled Dynami Zois. He has a PhD in English from Calcutta University and teaches in the English Department of Seacom Skills University.

Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Reviewed by Jyothsna Hegde

By Sita, of Sita, and for the Sitas of the world, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Forest of Enchantments amplifies the essence of the revered epitome of sacrifice and virtue in mythology, through the lens of Sita, zooming into not just her divine, but every womanly facet, humanizing her journey and highlighting her strengths.

Synonymous with fertility and purity, the traditional image of Sita etched in our minds is as the paragon of filial, spousal, and maternal merits, the ideal woman, a symbol of nobility. Divakaruni’s Sita, is all of that and something more. This Sita is every bit human as you and me, plunging into the abyss of despair, anger, frustration and rising to the pinnacle of elation, serenity and satisfaction. It’s not that ‘Sitayana’ has not been attempted before, but Divakaruni’s Forest…lets you in on deeper, darker and even, enchanted secrets.

The Forest… stays true to the original script by Valmiki and is inspired by Kamban’s Ramayanas and the 15th century Bengali Krittibasi Ramayan, as the author mentions in her introductory note. So then, what sets this Sita apart? In this Sita, the narrator, has a distinct voice and is not afraid to use it. And, here Sita’s character is layered with a myriad of dimensions all of which emerge at different stages of the narrative. This Sita empathizes and pays tribute to all the women of Ramayana, even those outcast and undermined. She reasons and demands, even as the young princess of Mithila and asks: “Why can’t customs change? Especially ones that don’t make sense?” when her mother Sunaina tells her that the kingdom of Mithila can be ruled only by a man.

Sita is well-versed in martial arts and is a gifted healer whose magical powers cure the ill with herbs from nature. And so, she loves to preserve the green around her. Her fierce passion for the environment unravels multiple times, including when she requests Ram to ask his soldiers to chop the least number of trees in the jungle to make way from Mithila to Ayodhya. She is empowered and an environmentalist!

Advised by her mother to “endure”, Sita does so, all the way – when she relinquishes comforts of the palace to spend 14 years in the forest with her husband, when she waits for Ram in the firm belief that he will win her back from the clutches of Ravan, when she enters the fire to prove her purity, when she raises her twin boys in the forest after being banished by Ram and eventually when she makes the crucial choice to preserve her solemnity.

“For the sake of my daughters in the centuries to come, I must now stand up against this unjust action you are asking of me,” declares Sita in the final chapter, asserting her right to choose between right and wrong, when asked to prove her fidelity for a second time in order to be accepted as the queen of Ayodhya. No shrinking violet, this Sita is empowered in the truest sense, willfully giving up her life instead of bearing the brunt of injustice inflicted upon her, because, as she puts it, “this is one of those times when a woman must stand up and say, No more!”

Even as this Sita gracefully embraces womanhood in its entirety, allowing her beauty to manifest through her inner strength, Divakaruni never undermines the underlying melancholy that engulfs Sita all along her tumultuous odyssey. As human as her portrayal is, Divakaruni is careful to make plenty of room for mysticism, adding color to her canvas. So Sita often has visions of her future, not essentially in the way it would happen, but glimpses that guide her to where she might be headed, and often, it leads her down some dark paths.

It is not just the story of Sita that occupies center stage. The other women of Ramayana claim their due credit too, because as they voice out in the novel, they, “have been pushed into corners, trivialized, misunderstood, blamed, forgotten – or maligned and used as cautionary tales.” So Sita sees her mother Sunaina as a wise queen who advises her husband, king Janaka about matters of the state only within the confines of her quarters but allows him to bask in the glory of its reaping. Urmila, Sita’s sister and Laxmana’s wife is the ideal sister and wife, without a strain of jealousy, ever giving, always supportive. She is also someone whose sacrifice is overlooked. While Ram allows for Sita to follow him to the forest, Urmila, who also wanted to accompany them is denied the chance and Sita acknowledges her suffering. “Forgive me, Sister,” says Sita “silently, you who are the unsung heroine of this tale, the one who has the tougher role: to wait and to worry.” Sita also relates to Ravana’s sister, Surpanakha’s pain, of being wronged by two men, even though her complaint to Ravana about Ram and Laxman disfiguring her, triggers his anger into kidnapping Sita. “I could see the men wouldn’t change their minds,” says Sita having watched her husband and brother-in-law toss Surpanakha between them. “Their belief in the superiority of their own ways was too deeply ingrained for them.” Ravana’s wife Mandodari, is a queen in the true sense, abiding by her husband but allowing for her dignity to shine, nevertheless. In Kaikeyi, Ram’s stepmother who banishes him to fourteen years of forest and strips him of his kingship, Sita sees an accomplished charioteer and warrior who simply wanted her son to rise above the rest.

But then the most precious treasure in this enchanted forest in the love that Ram and Sita share, that blossoms with time, only to be tested over and over again. Divakaruni weaves this strand with tender love and care. So even in her final act of defiance, this Sita forgives Ram because she has discovered the other face of love, compassion. “It isn’t doled out, drop by drop,” says Sita. “It doesn’t measure who is worthy and who isn’t. It is like the ocean. Unfathomable. Astonishing. Measureless.”

Self-sufficient and self-aware, Divakaruni’s Sita in her roles as a daughter, sister, wife, daughter-in-law, and mother is dutiful as she is defiant. She will compromise her luxuries but not her self-respect. This bold and beautiful Sita may very well be the feminist of the Treta Yuga, and Kali Yuga, even!

Someday, when my now 6 year old daughter reads the Ramayana, I would like her to explore this enchanted forest to discover the courage of Sita who conformed to all social boundaries and yet managed to hold her own and hail her dignity, even at the price of giving up much: being a queen, a mother and ultimately, her very life.

The succulent sudha (nector) of this Sitayana, laced with sour traces of sorrow lingers long after consumption of its last page. And then some.

Jyothsna Hegde is City News Editor at NRI Pulse newspaper and an independent software consultant. She holds a master’s degree in Computer Science and has served as faculty at Towson State University. She is drawn to literature of all kinds and finds immense pleasure in sharing the triumphs and tribulations of the indomitable human spirit through her writing. She has been part of the organizing committee of Kannada literature featuring top pandits in the field and also enjoyed being part of the 45th Anniversary Souvenir edition, Chiguru, of Nrupathunga Kannada Koota. She believes that literature is the only form of expression that has been and will continue to be part and parcel of human life through the ages and beyond.

Rituals by Kiriti Sengupta

Reviewed by Shikhandin

In his introduction to Kiriti Sengupta’s Rituals, US based poet and editor Dustin Pickering writes, “Ritual, properly understood, signifies gratitude, and is rooted in the habitual nature of the human organism.” Sengupta’s poems dwell on this aspect of ritual, what is ritualised, and occasionally ritualist. His poems are both personal meditations and commentary, with a mildly wry sense of humour, appearing and disappearing like an elusive spice. The poems often play hide and seek with their metaphors and images, as if the poetic persona’s purpose is to throw the reader off the track, only to bring them back with an enticing hook. This happens in poem after poem. Why and how does Sengupta do it?

Visualise the poet leaning against a barred window, looking at the world outside. His posture may be idyllic, but his mind is not. As he watches what is beyond, he makes observations, he mulls and muses. He forms opinions and further reflects on them. Rituals is the product of a series of apparent inactions, wherein the poet remains physically still, within the world although not entirely a part of it. It poses a paradox of sorts. Many of the poems act as riddles, even as they are full of sorrow, angst, love, gratitude—as if sprayed in a fine mist. On occasion, they are huddled like evening shadows—four emotions in a single poem. Like “Observance” for instance, a poem in four parts, which Sengupta concludes by admitting, “I witness this from a distance.” And then poses the question, “Does proximity help in faithful depiction?”

Rituals is not only about poetry built with words, its narrative draws on illustrations as well. The meditative quality of the book is deepened by the black and white-washed images that accompany poems. The illustrations by Partha Pratim Das are akin to Chinese brush painting and have an ethereal quality. They capture the barest essence of the poems, creating their own visual story. The poems and illustrations together create a jugalbandi of thought and image. Physically, the book delights with its elegance. Reading it is a mindful experience.

The book opens up with the pair of poems – “Comeback” and “Resurrection.” The prosaic poems create a near mirror effect, reflecting images back and forth. In “Comeback,” the poetic persona returns like a prodigal. The setting is a room, which though covered with “thick silt,” is just as it was a year ago! One senses bereavement here, though not necessarily pertaining to death. Nostalgia, like “the filth radiates intimate odor” and “tired eyes uncover the kohl of night,” while the poetic persona’s “glasses spot tears.” In “Resurrection,” the setting is once again a room. Is it the same room? Sengupta offers clues, but they could lead the unwary reader elsewhere. Perhaps in “Resurrection,” the persona is not returning to the room, but is seeing it as a fragment of memory, which the illustration on the facing page amply corroborates. He is watching a slice of another life when the “tiny particles scattered in the air absorb the sunlight; …Sleep is now conscious like the attraction between mother and her new-born…the room is ready for hard work.” The imagery is wilfully connected with seams, like parts of a broken mirror reflecting different things that still belong. The analogy of sleep as a baby in a mother’s arms is evocative; it is implicit at the start of the poem but progressive clear.

“On the Richter Scale” is one of the longer poems, also prosaic with three parts. Its chimeric amalgamation of images creates an unsettling effect on the reader, like experiencing an earthquake in one’s mind. The disjointed metaphors ultimately turn earthquake itself into a metaphor. Or at least the measurement of it. The following lines connect each of the three parts together, like a riddle:

i “4 on the Richter Scale sits comfortably on the human body.”
ii “The scale marks 5. Does vapor perspire?”
iii “Desolation stands still. The Richter scale fails to respond.”

Sengupta’s habit of throwing of riddles at the reader and quizzing them continues in “Appraisal,” a poem in two parts, in which he asks, “Do you consider Nature baffling?”

In poem after poem, he continues this technique, almost loth to let go. In “Where God is a Woman,” he slashes through society’s curtain of hypocrisy. Here I must add for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the Bengali festival of Durga Puja, that the Devi’s idol is made with clay, a small portion of which comes from a brothel.

There are small poems that spring up like April blossoms, bright with imagery, startling with the luminescence of fireflies. In “Accommodation,” Sengupta muses on the irony of life from a fern’s point of view. “Kalpavriksh” provides a tiny dose of spirituality. “Gravity,” creates a metaphor for turbulence. In “Screenplay,” the title plays an important role in accentuating the irony in the poem.

Humour too wends its way into the book. In “Timings,” for example, Sengupta does a tongue-in-cheek exploration of friendship as also in the pithy, three-lined “Dentures.” At times, Sengupta is too concerned with opening an issue, but disinterested in providing solutions. His intention is to rile and provoke because truth is both universal and particular as well as subjective. Sengupta too being entitled to his own subjective truths.

The thoughts, moods and ideas expressed in the book are succinctly represented in Sengupta’s eight-liner, “Tradition.” The poem works as a distilled core of the entire collection, Sengupta might have as well ended the book with it:

“I have no choice but to listen
to the same words again and again.
Neither am I aware of consequences.
It is not cerebral but sensory.

Customs are like meditation –
worthy of unhurried contemplation.
Practice adds to their maturity,
I know servitude is congenital.”

Closing the book, I felt these words sink in, not like a sediment at the bottom of the glass, or a stone at the riverbed, but like cotton wool soaked to saturation, which must now float downwards. In the process I find myself re-experiencing Sengupta’s Rituals, much like the mirror in “On the Richter Scale,” which “bathes in glassy water to reflect light.”

Shikhandin is an Indian writer who writes for both adults and children. Her short story collection “Immoderate Men” was published by Speaking Tiger. Her illustrated book for children “Vibhuti Cat” was published by Duckbill Books. Shikhandin’s accolades include, winner 2017 Children First Contest curated by Duckbill in association with Parag an initiative of Tata Trust, winner Brilliant Flash Fiction Contest 2019 (USA), runner up Half and One Short Story Competition (India), Shortlist Erbacce Poetry Prize (UK), first runner up The DNA-OOP Short Story Contest 2016 (India), 2nd Prize India Currents Katha Short Story Contest 2016 (USA), winner Anam Cara Short Fiction Competition 2012 (Ireland), long list Bridport Poetry Prize 2006 (UK), finalist Aesthetica Poetry Contest 2010 (UK), Pushcart nominee by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2011 (Hong Kong). Shikhandin’s work has been published worldwide. Notably in HuffPost India, Scroll.in, Jaggery (USA), Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong), Eclectica (USA), Per Contra (USA), Markings (Scotland), Himal Magazine (Kathmandu), Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine (UK), The Nth Position (UK), Mascara Literary Review (Australia), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Stony Thursday (Ireland), The Little Magazine (India), Out of Print (India), Sybil’s Garage (USA), Pushing Out the Boat (Scotland), South: A Journal of Poetry (UK), Off the Coast (USA), Etchings (Australia), Silver Blade (USA), Going Down Swinging (Australia), Scoundrel Time (USA), Reckoning (USA).

 

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

Reviewed by Ghada Ibrahim

In Vijay’s tale there lies an inexplicable warmth bundled up in layers of melancholy; they enveloped me as I read it. Part of me wished to sink into the book and let its “oblique seductiveness” embrace every inch of my being. It left me feeling a certain way and I struggled to find the words to describe it. Days on end, I sought an escape in the bustle of Bangalore, the hilly mountains of Kashmir, and the captivating journey that Shalini embarks upon.

Shalini is an only child, born and raised into wealth, amidst all that Bangalore has to offer. In the warm embrace of familial life, she flourishes both as an adult and as her mother’s “little beast.” By the time Shalini is ready to step into the world at twenty, calamity strikes and she loses her mother. The shock stretches on, embedding itself deep, debilitating her for three continuous years. One day her father tells her of his wish to remarry and the shock of such a revelation pushes her to make the hasty decision of packing away her whole life and journeying to Kashmir. The story follows Shalini as she embarks on her soulful journey to find one Bashir Ahmed – an acquaintance of her mother from back in the day. The reader is treated to snippets of the childhood memories of a six-year-old Shalini as she witnesses and unwittingly becomes a part of her mother’s secret friendship.

At times I felt like the story was based off of true events rather than simply being the product of a creative mind. In the meandering narration of events and the eerily detailed recollections of Shalini’s childhood, I felt as if I were sitting across from her as she recounted her story. There is a resounding tenacity that shines through the pages, paired with utter tenderness and at times cruelty, which leaves the reader grappling with multiple emotions. At the center of The Far Field lies deep sentiment rivalled only by the consummate skill with which the prose is woven, resulting in an enthralling plot presented in smooth, vivid and memorable language. I do not recall the last time a book made me feel this way.

Vijay carefully knits together events from the present and the past leaving just enough to the imagination to pull the reader in. Nothing feels predictable and at the same time the 400+ pages do not feel like a drag. Carefully paced and brilliantly penned, the words spring out of the book to form an enrapturing halo around the reader. At times, the vague aimlessness Shalini experiences as she wallows in the grief of her mother’s demise becomes too relatable. She describes her mother as “incandescent” and herself as “her little beast.” Her memories of her mother exude confidence and fervor – qualities that she failed to inherit as she prospered in her mother’s shadow.

Shalini’s journey into the heart of Kashmir highlights more than just the disparity of her wealthy life and the traditions of those who dwell in small villages bedecking the mountains. It unpacks violence and politics in one fell swoop encompassing an incredible range of emotions, events, and perspectives. Vijay’s novel carries a heavy tone of fleetingness pushing the reader to consume her prose voraciously for fear of missing out. She writes, “we kept pace with the present, discarding as we went” and “people flowed around me, shops and bars glittered and trembled, and I tried to think of the future” perfectly encapsulating the transient nature of her story.

The intense honesty that shines through Vijay’s words bring people, moments, and places to life. In an inexplicable way, The Far Field leaves an ineffaceable impression on the reader. Vijay does not shy from wholeheartedly indulging in intense expressions of love, lust, grief, and forlornness. Amidst enjoying the raw brilliance, the ache of wanting more refuses to subside long after the pages have been devoured. It is the kind of story that nestles into your heart, as you submerge within it, making a home out of your soul. At the same time, it also steals a part of your soul leaving you hollow with want once you put it down.

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.

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 an 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 translucent, 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.