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Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

Reviewed by Rashi Rohatgi

“‘It’s not like I haven’t dated bad boys before,” she pointed out,” like “the L-school douchebag who now worked for the Republican Hindu Coalition. Gross.”

It’s 2021, Trump’s vision of America is well on its way towards coming to pass, and Neha Ahluwalia can’t figure out why she’s so attracted to Joe Peluso, a wolf-man she knows to be a killer. Despite growing up in a loving home with non-judgmental parents, she is willing to throw away her years of experience helping people as a psychologist and a lawyer to help Joe evade the mafiosos who want to kill him – and over the course of this very hot book, she realizes that perhaps it is because of the love and the lack of judgement she carries within her that she can make the choice to fight for someone so different. Worth it for the conversations about interracial relationships alone, Snyder’s first foray into paranormal counters assertions (https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/own-voices-indian-romance-novels-limitations) that all Indian American #ownvoices romances are palatable love stories for white audiences.

Raised Stakes

“That was who Neha was. A woman who had lines she wouldn’t cross. Joe’s entire life was about erasing the lines. Kicking dirt over them. Covering them in blood.”

Snyder is known for her high-stakes interracial pairings; her protagonists have fallen for their stepbrother chefs, their vice-presidents, and perhaps most prominently, their local biker/Chris Evans lookalike. In Tikka Chance on Me, the white biker is revealed to be not quite what he seems, but in Big Bad Wolf, we get no such relief: Joe really is a killer. And the world, too, is relentless: Trumpism has prevailed, and though as a wolf-man Joe faces discrimination of his own, there is no “Jess, I’m Irish” resolution. Neha and Joe bond over their Queens background, her with a Sikh Auntie brigade and his with tales of making out and more underneath the bleachers at Aviation High, but Neha’s brownness isn’t just some ethnic flavor: her survival as a brown woman in America provides her with the hope she needs to save both their lives. Neha both lusts after and loves Joe, and in between the gunshots and the romantic banter – both simultaneously bonkers and on point – she has to figure out how she is going to survive a life so engulfed by and enmeshed in whiteness.

A Welcome Series

Despite that thorny central issue, this is New York City, so there are relatively few white people in the book; as this is the first in a series, part of the fun here is getting acquainted with characters we can only hope will be featured next. As a fellow girl-who-counts-her-cousins-as-confidante and desi raised on stories of Uloopi, Chitrangada, and other sea-snakes, I’m hoping to see more of Naga shapeshifting twins Tejal and Toral; though Neha’s bosses Nate and Dustin are already a couple (and reading their support for her as she makes some seemingly dodgy choices is as comforting as a weighted blanket), her eventual top-secret justice brigade coworkers Grace, Elijah, and Finn are promising (with Grace, a Black doctor and excellent shot, hopefully arriving first). I found a resolved subplot between a Korean-American cop, Danny, and an unwilling Ukrainian criminal, Yulia, to be the least compelling part of the book – though the subplot was necessary for the plot, I’d have bought this as a novella and been just as happy – but the links between Danny and Neha present a slew of related stories. And despite the good news this election day, while Trump’s ideas still hold sway in any quarter, we’re going to need them.

“Exuent, pursued by a werebear,” she thought with a lunatic giggle. Because if you couldn’t reach for your college Shakespeare when you were about to die, then what even was the point?”

Rashi Rohatgi is a Pennsylvania native who lives and teaches in Arctic Norway. Her writing has appeared in, amongst other venues, The Toast, Wasafiri, and Electric Literature. Her recent short story, “A Year in the North,” was a finalist for the Prime Numbers Magazine Short Fiction Prize, and was nominated for a Best of the Net Award by The VIDA Review. She has served as an intern for Ayesha Pande Literary, Reviews Editor for Africa in Words, and Fiction Editor for Boston Accent Lit, where she convened the Accent Prize. She is a former AWP and Binders mentee and a Bread Loaf and VONA alumna, and a current reader for The Rumpus. Her translation of the seminal Mauritian novel Blood-Red Sweat [Lal Pasina] will be released in 2020 with Prabhat Publications, New Delhi. Her debut, Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow, won the Galaxy Galloper Novella Spectacular Award, and was published through that press in March 2020. She is currently at work on a novel.

Atlas of Lost Places by Yamini Pathak

Reviewed by Anu Mahadev

The dichotomous rivers of love and sorrow flow seamlessly in the countries, birds and poems of Yamini Pathak’s debut chapbook, Atlas of Lost Places, published by Milk & Cake Press. The poet expertly displays her love of language in free verse and established forms alike, and this makes her lush poetry a delight to read. She even invents a form – a field guide – to describe a bird, a creature known for its transience.

As immigrants, we never stop looking for that place called home – when we find it, we long for what we have lost. And when we go back to what we left behind, does change triumph over familiarity? We wish to bequeath our home to the next generation, but will our children truly inherit it? These are some the themes explored in vivid and masterful detail by the poet. The poems are rich in imagery, they capture the myriad emotions the poet experiences, in a raw earthy way, enmeshing them in sensory details and metaphors. She creates a travel guide through her world, and we the readers, follow her path – we are lost, then found.

As in ‘Ahimsa,’ meaning non-violence, the irony comes through with the power and violence conveyed in the lines. It startles the reader – this kind of cruelty in love, the bonds of possession, a one-sided quest to belong to someone, or something; the fight for making a difference in her own life. There is a quiet strength, a force, that pushes against what is impossible to attain or defeat. This duality of the love and destruction is what makes this poem stand out.

Would you judge me a fool if I said my love/is a parched well that never quits reaching for the aquifer?”

The different shades of love emerge in the second poem, ‘Geography of bedtime.’ Love in this poem is of a different kind, where the geography of a place really begins to shine through. When we think of Pangaea that moved and morphed into different continents, sharing a common origin – isn’t the experience of motherhood the same? What is unfamiliar for the mother is the most familiar for the child since that is all he/she has known. Whereas for the one holding, birthing this is all new territory. Yet “my skin knows his body on a cellular level” – as if it has known all along. How this bond strengthens even when the bodies are separate and the geography changes again – because the child and the mother are now transported to a “borderless town in a country all our own”.

My personal favorite is the ‘Ghazal for the Children Born Far from Home’. A beautiful poem of lament from a mother to a child, born so far away from home that the child has no real country. The mother comes from a country where rotis are gathered for stray cows, and rice for the crows. But when she emigrates to a different country, she “severed you from old ways.” Where food is eaten by hand to savor its real taste. Where the old myths that have passed down through ages, are now only ghosts that don’t stir their imagination. In Hindi, the world “kal” means yesterday and tomorrow depending on the context in which it is used. But they are exiled from it, and in the process, they “wander thirsty with no tongues”. The repetition of the sorrow builds up into a frenzy –a climax where the mourner realizes that her child only has her own body to call his true country.

There is so much movement, that makes the writing vital and dynamic. In ‘Jetlag’, time becomes a different reality as the plane lands in the pre-dawn to “a billion sleeping breaths”. The birds emerge again – this time a brain fever bird, also called a hawk-cuckoo, native to India in its mating season hidden among the green mangoes – a bird that lays its eggs in another’s nest. I find the poet’s choices of birds interesting as in her invented form of poetry – the ‘Field Guide to Broken Birds’. This time, it is a common sparrow, injured and maimed. Or in the title poem, Popat, the parrot. The mythical gryphon beating its wings in the speaker’s chest. Even if native to certain countries, they fly away when the migration fever hits, and may or may not return for good. This is the speaker’s predicament.

Slaughter threads through the sorrow in the speaker, in the poem, ‘Bazaar’. While the title brings to mind eager hawkers, shoppers and haggling, one cannot forget the animals that dot the landscape – the sand-colored camel, or the innocent lamb. That for some, to open the gates of heaven, charity and prayer are represented by violence. We feel the speaker’s dilemma as to how to come to terms with this ritual.

The class divide is more than apparent in ‘In Rough Hands’. How is it that within a country, there are several other countries that people inhabit by dividing themselves into castes, socio-economic classes, religion? How can this innocent play date with a girl aptly named Kajol, for the kohl in her eyes, turn into a scene if found out, by the ‘smells of petrol and poor people. And how long can this friendship possibly continue when people change, countries change?

In ‘13 fears’, the lump of fear chokes in our throat with each bullet point in this heartbreaking list. Even if the speaker says they are in no particular order, we readers can piece them for ourselves.

There are plenty of references in ‘Elegy for the way home’ to Hindi words which the speaker obviously misses because they don’t cross her tongue any more. Like the cutting sting of mangoes during mango season in May, “aam” meaning mango and common, like how certain rituals were the norm – sitting cross-legged at your parents’ house and sucking on the juices. How “uttar” means North as well as answer. Or “parsaun” means the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow? How will the children born of mothers who live elsewhere ever appreciate these peculiarities?

The poet pays a tribute to the triolet describing the sorrow of the women with the ‘unopened wombs’ bringing their desire and despair to the tomb of the Sufi saint, Salim Chishti. In a country where being childless is considered the fault of the woman, this struck me hard. Another social evil is touched upon in the ‘Manifesto for the Indian widow who wishes to live,’ where there are references to so many creatures – birds, insects (cockroaches, praying mantis). The imagery of this poem is stark and marvelous. How in small towns, especially Banaras along the river Ganges, young widows are cast out of society with no possessions, nothing to remind them of their short-lived married life. The poem becomes powerful with its ten-step manifesto style of writing – another salute to the listicle.

There is some levity and room to breathe in ‘At the Nail Salon…’ and ‘In my own skin.’ But the poet whose birdlike mind is forever flying, seeking, bids adieu in ‘The Long Goodbye,’ to a lover, a love, a past, a present, where ‘The river I swallow runs underground you/the rock in the tide-pool I/the moss that cleaves.’ The speaker-wanderer is here, but not really – she needs the atlas to remind her of the places that still exist, but are long gone.

AnuEditor-in-Chief Anu Mahadev is a left brained software engineer- turned right brained creative poet! Originally from India, she is now based out of New Jersey, with her husband and son. She is a recent MFA graduate of Drew University and a prolific writer. Other words to describe her are dreamer, choir singer, social bee, book and movie addict, avid hiker, lifelong learner and traveler. She writes mostly about love, life and the ties that bind us.

The Black-Marketer’s Daughter by Suman Mallick

Reviewed by Ghada Ibrahim

Suman Mallick introduces a powerful and compelling narration in his debut novel, The Black-Marketer’s Daughter. He ventures into the uglier sides of systems designed to uphold society but, in turn, end up eroding it instead. His writing takes on a rueful tone as it traverses borders, continents, justice systems, and the cocoon of familial life. In shedding light upon cultural traditions and customs of two vastly different countries, Pakistan, and the United States, Mallick exposes the reader to a plethora of experiences spun into 166 pages of a story that one can simply not put down.

Set in Texas, United States, the story revolves around Zuleikha, a black-marketer’s daughter, who travels to the United States to live with her husband Iskander, to whom her marriage was arranged. It is not long before the couple has a child, Wasim, whom Zuleikha observes being molded into everything Iskander wants out of a male heir. As Wasim picks up golf and tennis, Zuleikha begins to feel her role in her family’s life diminish to the sidelines. She turns her attention to her lifelong passion for playing the piano and accepts the way things are. It isn’t long before her talent blooms and she begins giving lessons to others.

As she immerses herself in all that she loves, Zuleikha stumbles upon Patrick at a birthday party of one of the children from Wasim’s daycare. And so unfolds an enchanting love affair between the pair. She falls in heady love with the strange new romantic who wines and dines her, welcoming her into his life in a manner Iskander never did. While the tumultuous affair continues, Zuleikha finds herself pregnant one fateful evening. She grapples between ending her affair and celebrating the joy of bearing a new life until Wasim announces how “Jamieson’s daddy likes to kiss Mamajaan” to a full table at a family dinner. What ensues plunges the reader into the intricacies of broken families, abusive husbands, and shelter homes that Zuleikha and Wasim nestle into.

The horrors of tormented wives and daughters emerge, and we step behind the curtains of religious manipulation and male dominance in a society entrenched in religion. The facades fall and the ugly monster that dwells behind the silken drapes of banners of Islam rears its head. Zuleikha’s life takes a turn as she experiences power dynamics and finds herself trapped between authorities determined to use her case that made national headlines for their own benefit. Shocking events and memories arise from the other ladies at the Oasis Foundation shelter. As the readers immerse themselves in the women’s experiences, the realization that Mallick’s novel holds more truth than fiction spreads in the throat, making it difficult to swallow. But, Mallick’s beguiling style of writing only pulls you in deeper.

In the romantic prose, the reader is left with plenty of quotes that cling to their memory fiercely. Aside from being an entrancing read, Mallick’s words push one to question their understanding of life and the world. He writes “everything is a truth laced with untrue motivation or a lie coated with veracious sincerity,” and one is instantly whisked into daydreams that morph and “bleed into bleary” ponderings.

“Is strangeness an anodyne or an antidote?”

What starts off as a journey swathed in “shades of molten gold” and the warm hues of a happily ever after quickly transforms into an exploration of abuse, deceit, and steadfast resilience. As the story progresses, Mallick introduces troubling themes and tactfully presents both sides to the same coin without passing any judgment of his own. Islam is discussed in the context of religion as well as a social construct entwined with domestic abuse, patriarchal dominance, and the justice system. The story’s details are woven together to create a brilliant canvas depicting society in its rawest form.

Ending on an abrupt note, The Black-Marketer’s Daughter leaves a strong impact in a final show of resilience and tenacity on Zuleikha’s part. Every page of the book flows into the next, captivating the reader. It feels like a steady blend of languid siestas on hot summer afternoons and racing heartbeats paired with bulging eyes. Mallick mesmerizes with his dreamy expressions and harsh realities intertwined in a publication that stole a piece of my heart.

Ghada Ibrahim is a Senior Psychology student, a voracious reader, and a published writer. She likes to live with no regrets and has been blogging and writing since the age of 15. Aspiring to publish her book one day, she revels in sharing her love for all things literary with the rest of the world. Her writings have been featured in Mad in Asia Pacific and Bloomer Magazine.

Name, Place, Animal, Thing by Lux Narayan

Reviewed by Mary Ann Koruth

My favorite chapter in Name Place Animal Thing, Lux Narayan’s highly practical how-to on keeping spiritually fit and mining meaning out of the drabness and ennui of modern living, is titled ‘Animal.’ It opens with a confession from the narrator. “I knew that there was a connection with my physical self that had, so far, eluded me,” they say (the narrator is gender-neutral). This struck me for two reasons, the first being that this very personal admission provided an insight into the narrator’s state of mind, but applied broadly, it revealed a mystifying gap in our own existences that goes too easily unaddressed. Where, in our bodies, are our selves, our feeling, wanting, thinking personas? When it comes to our bodies, we dress, undress, or seek redress when we are in physical pain. But what beyond that? The book does not pretend to provide answers; instead, it offers ways of engaging within and without our distracted, hyper-put-upon lives, to help answer this question and other big picture queries.

Narayan’s insights are framed in the context of a popular alphabet-based trivia game played with pencil and paper by elementary school kids in India–in all likelihood it’s been booted out by smartphones–and this is also the title of the book. I played  ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing,’ on bus-rides home from school with my friends, during the infinitely un-stimulating ‘80s (compared to any year after 2000) when it was not only acceptable but cool, to shout answers across the seats, while the wind tugged at our ponytails, knowing, but not admitting that ‘Djibouti’ with a ‘D’ was a more erudite choice of ‘Place’ than ‘Delhi.’

To practice and personalize NPAT–by creating one’s own ‘MyNPAT’ as the author exhorts us to do at the end of the book–one might have to channel a quieter state of mind. Name Place Animal Thing does this almost immediately, delivering bite-sized nuggets that tease the depths but do not drag you down, in a light, engaging and superbly readable voice. The innovation here, though, is that Narayan’s insights function like darts to be thrown anywhere on a broad canvas of ambition and ability; you can lowball or highball or put his suggestions into practice somewhere in the gorgeous in-between, but, if you truly engage with your choices as they are, you will likely discover the elusive contentment that dodges many of us who rush to be fulfilled. Narayan’s book emphasizes action–actions that are tiny and incremental, or singular and momentous in scope. Think of action on a spectrum of creative work, from as small as crafting a paper boat, to as ambitious as crafting a novel. Both are available to the reader to choose from as creative acts of self-determination and healing, but though we might attribute far more value to the novel over the paper boat, the satisfaction we can derive from these acts is intrinsic and independent of how we are taught to view them.

Narayan arrives at these insights through a seemingly simple but elegant process that he reveals through riddle-filled and gently humorous conversations between a group of mid-career men and women who are also close friends: the sub-text of NPAT is bonhomie, and goodwill. He identifies a problem, a big, sky-wide problem, like how to place your mind and soul (or locate your inner animal) in your skin and flesh. Next, approach the problem in a way that makes it manageable and down-to-earth. Finally, pinpoint a DIY, usable solution that can be mapped out in words, catchphrases (travel near and narrow stuck with me), and hand-drawn graphs (the book is littered with them, so much so, I wondered how much of it was written on a computer versus on paper napkins and scraps — until I read the epilogue and learned that the author wrote this book on ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ over several years and at least one rewrite). The book’s illustrations give it a rare authenticity. Tuck these into your pocket or a corner of your mind and go forth and BE! This is not to be reductive and trivialize the myriad micro-solutions that Name Place Animal Thing offers. Rather, it speaks to seekers of every stripe.

Narayan takes liberal helpings from great minds like Daniel Kahneman and Kurt Vonnegut, and the Japanese philosophy of Ikagai, crediting them throughout his book. His adaptations of their ideas are original and transparent. He does the work for you, drawing parallels between, say, finding satisfaction in ‘making’ things (think a paper boat that floats successfully) and Vonnegut’s famous shape of a successful story. Different endeavors that can be mapped to the same graph—including a final and delightful blueprint-for-growth sketch inspired by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, no less. Prior to writing the book, Narayan ran a successful social media marketing start-up. He is a licensed non-commercial pilot, and a stand-up comic. You do not have to be a polymath to appreciate NPAT, but, as he himself appears to have done by completing this book during a pandemic, there are times when no one surprises us more than we, ourselves.

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.

Morning Light by Manohar Shetty

Reviewed by Samreen Sajeda

My memory a half-filled

Library where borrowers

Have left bookmarks

After the first few pages.

~Manohar Shetty

Isn’t it a despairing truth that unlike a raptured audience in an opera, ‘Only a trickle or so listen’ to poets read out their poems? Not to mention the book-binder who ‘Has gone out of business.’ And yet Manohar Shetty takes delight in the act of writing and passing on his words as ‘keepsakes.’ His subjects are mostly ordinary like the prisoner who ‘blinks / At his future stripped down / To a bundle of old clothes’ and the themes that dominate the book are that of nature, old age and death; not as an abstract entity but something that is concretely captured.

Shetty is an acute observer, and nothing escapes him; not even ‘A snake camouflaged by / Hanging roots.’ What distinguishes him even further is that his poems are ‘trimmed like a hedge,’ far away from the fallacy of poets who forcefully stretch what they see. Instead, Shetty listens with ‘stretched ears…to the dialect of the bush.’ There is a certain sensitivity with which he writes about these creatures (although one wonders why a marvelous poem about a cat is titled ‘Wild Dogs’) and this consciousness about a parallel world surrounding us, is not momentary but runs throughout the book so much so that even the stuffed eagle ‘Still looks you in the eye.’ Thereby, the realms of animals and humans overlap like ‘the startled / Deer at zebra crossings’ or when ‘parrots speak the alphabet.’

The metaphors employed are intelligent, making one pause over eggs that look ‘like scorched sunflowers’ or the old hairbrush appearing like ‘a flattened hedgehog.’ The images crafted are effortless as when ‘a snake pours itself into a hole’ or when ‘A bee drinks from / the mouth of a hibiscus.’ And what adds to this flow is a flawless use of internal rhyme.

His poems remain crisp, without any flab. So much is said in merely the eight lines of ‘Profit and Loss’ as the speaker acknowledges how his ‘postbox is disturbed…by bonus dividends and balance sheets.’ However, ‘There are no / postcards from snowcapped mountains’ thereby remembering Agha Shahid Ali. There is also, what seems like an allusion to Vinod Kumar Shukla’s style of metaphors when the speaker announces that ‘the coffee / Smells of coffee and tea / Tea.’ This style of alluding to different writers as is also witnessed in other books by the poet, elevates his poems; as though these gems are homage to the poets gone by.

A number of poems meditate on old age amidst a passing monotony when ‘You wonder if those hours / Were better spent…making / Faces like a clown / Before an empty crowd.’ One is a bit startled to know that the title poem in fact alludes to death, wherein the speaker irons his ‘dark coat / Between burnt toast / And cups of cold tea’ for a funeral. Death has been dealt with extensively but refrains from suffocating the reader; whether it be an infant leaving, his ‘future buried in the past’ or an old widow mourning the death of her aged husband such that ‘The rosary hurts like raw / Blisters in her hand.’ Not to forget that death could perhaps leave you feeling ‘Becalmed’ as you perform the last rites for your father when you yourself have grown old. Interestingly, even poems about death are closely linked with natural surroundings—even while in the cemetery, the speaker watches ‘A lone eagle crossing / The skies…’

Most of these poems witness a twist at the end, not always easily graspable but strongly felt. And for those who might seek company far away from the madding crowd, rest assured, this book celebrates the odd like ‘the lone humming bird / In a squadron of lawny eagles.’ If that is not enough, his is a craft of patience as he weighs each word ‘polished from the rough,’ even as he urges the reader to listen ‘To the pause crackling / Between the lines…’

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. Her work has been published in the Indian Cultural Forum, Muse India, Spark, Hakara, and the 2017 anthology of Poetry Society of India.

Flowers on the Grave of Caste by Yogesh Maitreya

Reviewed by Kiran Bhat

What does it mean to represent Dalit-hood, not as a condition, but as an aesthetic? In Yogesh Maitreya’s life, writings, and work, he has taken on this very monumental question. His project is to change the way that we as Indian readers perceive, treat, and interact with Dalit-ness on the page. This is not to say that Maitreya is creating narratives from a Dalit perspective that can be boxed into this or that version of identity politics. Oh, no. Maitreya is too specific for that; he wants to remind us very much of the random killings of Dalits by Brahmins in villages, the big city manual labourers lost to the floodings inside sewers, and artists whose dreams are crushed by a life of passive aggressive comments and constant rejections. What makes Maitreya’s work stand apart is the way his sentences hunch forth, as well as his mastery of symbol and structure. For Maitreya, the short story is just as much of an art form as it is a vehicle for social change. As a result, Flowers on the Grave of Caste is an important piece of literature not just for those who are keen to see Dalit writers fleshed out, humanised, and moved to the centre of literary discourse, but for those who are keen to see a young visionary of the short story form embark on a career of much promise and potential.

I will start with the most fulfilling story of the collection, “Life is Beautiful.” We begin the story in the perspective of Sadashivrao Kulkarni, a humble Marathi teacher from Vidarbha who is lynched for falling in love with a Brahmin woman. Their son Vishnu becomes a priest of great fame and success, with devotees coming from all corners of India to receive his blessings. He is visited by Nagraj, a sewer worker who aspires to see his son’s blossoming talents for painting achieved, to the point that he will work any job, or take on any task. What makes “Life is Beautiful” work is Maitreya’s ability to enter into three very different voices with authenticity and empathy, and to blur them into an omniscient streaming third person narrative. It is certainly not effortless. For example, Nagraj is introduced with ‘Vishnu [receiving[ offerings (cash and kind) ….from the temple,’ and then, looking outward, ‘he [becomes] worried and irritated that he [has] to see Nagraj, a Safai Kamgar, every day.’

That is it. Vishnu’s disgust at observing a lower caste person is the space at which these two narratives link, and then Vishnu’s voice disappears, the story becomes entirely Nagraj’s. Maitreya’s decision to have these two voices change so abruptly has a jarring affect, and I was even wondering if these lines were meant to be a transition, or the introduction of a side character for many paragraphs after. On a second read, I realised how intentional Maitreya’s slight at his own character was. After all, how often do people who are priests, manual labourers, and humble villagers meet at the same level in modern Indian life? The stiltedness of the transition works to remind us that most lower-caste people in literature, culture, and even general society are introduced not through their talent or prowess, but from a perspective of disgust and annoyance.

Another story of note is “The Sense of a Beginning.” Aspiring writer Kabir centers the narrative of a university student who is caught between the world of academia and his life as a Dalit. Kabir briefly dates Saira, but their relationship falls apart because of their differences in backgrounds. Kabir’s poor English and inability to relate to the university world further, his ability to connect with his professors and classmates. Unable to move upward, Kabir loses himself to alcohol and drugs. The story ends on a hopeless, albeit realistic note: “My father and mother certainly had dreams. But their dreams have neither become the story nor the history. What is the story of their dreams?”

We will never know, because just like the story’s ending, it is implied that Kabir’s dreams too are meant to end much like the story itself, abruptly, suddenly, and unfulfilled.

And then there is “Flowers On The Grave of Caste,” the most brilliant piece in the collection by far. The narrative takes the shape of an interview between Nagya and a two-hundred year old gravedigger. In the most philosophically profound and expansive story in the collection, Maitreya muses on the construction of history, the passing of time, and those who are lost to our collective consciousness as a result of this intersection. “Dead people do not have any religion. It is the people who are alive that see dead people as part of a religion.”

My soft copy of Flowers On The Grave of Caste is littered with highlights. That is how fresh the use of language in the book is. There are just too many insights beaming on the page, or casually shimmering a sentence to light. For example, the story “Re-evolution” begins with the narrator observing “outside [a] bus window, under the scorching sun in the month of May, … eagles in the sky, flying in circles, screaming, as if celebrating life.” As he glimpses on this horrific hunt, the narrator recalls the wise words of a fellow villager: “When any evil spirit on earth dies, eagles fly in circles and scream. Their screams imply that justice has been carried out by nature.”

The brutality of the scene coupled with the sparseness of the language set the scene for a narrator whose life, much like the claws of vultures against carrion, is torn apart viciously by the unfairness of caste discrimination. Similarly, the narrator Kabir in “The Sense of A Beginning” reflects on how different he is from the world of academic Mumbai. “People here looked different; they smelled different. I wanted to smell like them, I wanted to fit in their world, secretly. Yet I couldn’t.”

Because fundamental differences are often impossible to reconcile. But Maitreya’s characters do not always relent, or give into the pressures of the society they are forced to be born in.

As a father reminds his child in “Life is beautiful,” we must recall the following: “Remember, generations our people have been destroyed carrying the shit and burden of this society. You should aspire for a life of truth and beauty.”

Indeed, Maitreya writes with nothing but truth and beauty brimming over his pen. A storyteller with the firm social convictions of a Gorky or Premchand, but with the ability to dissect and disseminate insights into the human condition much like Chekhov or Manto, Flowers on The Grave of Caste is the debut of an author who has too much to say, is already making his mark on the literary world, and will write many great works of genius in the years to come.

Kiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. He has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. He is primarily known as the author of we of the forsaken world... (Iguana Books, 2020), but he has authored books in four foreign languages, and has had his writing published in The Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Colorado Review, Eclectica, 3AM Magazine, The Radical Art Review, The Chakkar, Mascara Literary Review, and several other places. His list of homes is vast, but his heart and spirit always remains in Mumbai, somehow. He currently lives in Melbourne. You can find him at Kiran’s Weltgeist.

One Man Two Executions by Arjun Rajendran

Reviewed by Kinshuk Gupta

To read Arjun Rajendran’s fourth collection of poems is to simultaneously surf through unexpected seas and flawless sails. One Man Two Executions is certainly long, but Rajendran’s conviction remains strong as the ship voyages in the rough currents of the Carnatic Wars of the 18th century, French-occupied Pondicherry.

The 12 hefty volumes of history by Anand Ranga Pilliai (a dûbash, an interpreter to the French governor of the time, Joseph François Dupleix) becomes the anchor to the first section on Pondichéry. Rajendran chooses succulent details—like that of celestial comets, or the inflammable begum resting near the bills of lading and mouseholes—over the dry bones of history and marinates them with his anachronistic imagination.

Carving poems out of history might appear easy but is not necessarily so. One has the material and metaphors to work with, characters acting from their contradictory motives, rib-tickling superstitions of locals, and most of all, a visible and brutal conflict. While most of the historical poems try to highlight the vanity of war and the uselessness of the bloodshed, they cannot achieve the desired effect or convey their magnanimity to the readers, without an infusion of imagination, poetic diction, and artful compression.

That is where historical poems can be challenging: you have 20 lines to accommodate multiple weighty tomes of details, images, and characters. Rajendran recalls in one of his interviews that each of the poems in the section took him close to a month to write—”[p]eople who read [his] initial poems found them dense, so [he] realized that [he] needed to go easy on the history.”

The poems in Pondichéry depict a world largely dominated by fluttering masts, schooners, lascars, pirates, and their contradictions. As the scenes unravel, we witness characters behaving eccentrically. In the titular poem, One Man Two Executions, we see an adamant priest, who ignores the sacred intervention of breaking off of the noose and orders for another hanging: the priest/(foaming against custom)/condemned/the condemned/soul to a second hanging,/his epitaph,/a palimpsest.

In the next two sections, ‘The Girl in the Peapod’ and ‘Were it Not For’, Rajendran deals with a variety of themes, but love and loss stay as a recurrent idea in these poems. Though these poems are not historical, his references to the Soviet Union connect personal and political flawlessly: what all strong metaphors should do. (Your spine—/its Soviet bent, published/in a Moscow before perestroika.) Another poem ‘playing truant’ juxtaposes the death of a personal dog named Laika ‘whose name killed her more than the trash she’d eaten’ due to the crumbling of the Soviet Union.

I particularly liked the poems where Rajendran uses his experiences as an editor to write poems with deadpan humor. In ‘Editing’—the last poem of the book—he produces jarring combinations of a and the, draws out on the common editorial suggestions of not repeating words in close succession, of not ending lines with prepositions, etc. Through the whole poem and few others (‘Editing You’ and ‘Publishing’) from the second section—dealing with the similar issue tangentially—Rajendran comments how technicalities can become robotic, how some ruthless editors edit out emotions for a well-crafted, and perhaps mechanical, poem.

Though grief remains as an undertone in most of these poems, Rajendran’s unflinching portrayal of death in ‘Carousel’, ‘How They Went’, ‘Ferris Wheel’ makes a reader vulnerable. He clings to the pain desperately and mourns publicly, trying to cope up with his loss. These poems remind me of what Borges said: ‘We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.’

In ‘Carousel’, he says: One time, I held onto/a Siberian Husky on the Ferris wheel, counting/his last breaths. Counting can be a prayer. Enduring a terminal illness is to have a gun pointed at you, but nobody to pull the trigger. There is the anxiety of death approaching, hopelessness, and suffering What should one ask for—an agonizing life or a peaceful death. The prayer becomes a dilemma.

Rajendran’s poems present slivers of ideas which he leaves for the reader to string into a cohesive whole. This is perhaps, like the Zen story, where the monk explains that knowledge is a vast river, and the disciples can fetch water as per the volume of the vessel they bring. These poems demand a meditative eye, annotations, and re-readings for them to yield to you. These poems, very much like the sea, keep expanding as soon as the reader thinks he has come to the end of the book.

With his second book, The Cosmonaut in Hergé’s Rocket, Rajendran’s poems take a flight into the future with the planets, rockets, and the universe as his motifs. Get ready for time-travel, as his new poems navigate through the choppy waves of history.

Kinshuk Gupta uses the scalpel of his pen to write about his experiences as an undergraduate medical student. He was longlisted for the People Need Change Poetry Contest (2020) organized by The Poetry Society, UK. His haiku have been nominated for the Touchstone Awards and the Red Moon Anthology. His work can be read or forthcoming in The Hindu, Modern Haiku, Haiku Foundation, Contemporary Haibun Online, among others. He currently works as the Poetry Editor for Jaggery Lit.

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).