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A Moveable East by Siddharth Dasgupta 

Reviewed by Rochelle Potkar 

This book is a heptaptych of a vividly viewed life, pre-existing in memory to the conscious tick of time. 

Siddharth Dasgupta in his new collection of poems, A Moveable East has seven stopovers of rolling existence from Hunger to Flame, Sorrow to Melody, Desire to Horizons, to finally Home like a catchment of self-conversations that appear to be a murmuring jugalbandi of hypothesis, memory conspiracies of a musafir declaring sensory associations under green channels of mind travel.  

Dasgupta switches back and forward between cafes and courtyards, promenades, and footpaths to the past and present, oscillating melodiously between milieus infused with a deep quest that we all have for the truth. A truth that is sometimes found in accidental glimpses and sometimes stares so nakedly back at us in stark light to be rendered invisible. ‘There used to be a bookstore here once./ It lingers, still, like the negatives of a dream.’ Some of his poems are ways of penance and atonement, hovering over seething epiphanies, some are peans of love and yearning, and still some are records of fruition and power, corruption and courage, prejudice, aging, decay, celebration and recovery. These, grasp and integrate an overturned and shattered world in a manner of cascading stanzas.  

‘a place that reminds you of / the melodies you have known…’ 

Many poems in the book embody geographic places and people of real and imagined days like the Maqbools and Abdul Chachas, of eras of Persian, Byzantine, Turkish, maritime, Paris, Karachi, Cairo, Beirut, and Kerala. Dasgupta’s memory is syncretic in its delightful nurturing from expresso bars to expressive citizenry. And like an enriched vocabularist, he possesses that singular appreciated quality of transporting an escape also, through the willful embellishment of language. ‘Quay and wharf and pier and seagull disarray—’ where only sometimes one fears that linguistics might threaten to eclipse the imagery. 

Immersed, thence, in a collage of imagery and sensoria, these prose poetry texts become sublime hints to the reader in re-doubling, relooking, retaking moments of existence. Like living it twice or seven times over. ‘I remember gladioli. The far-off scent/of regret; our small towns lake dappled/with the embers of small town fate.’  

Sample phrases like – blustery moons, bliss of saliva, vinyl-cracked rain, honeymooning fireflies, or apricots, figs and strawberries.  

While journeying through various metaphysical cities, nostalgic with associations of calligraphic letterings, the poet’s descriptive prowess features in tones of regret, ache, torment, flux, and a Rumi-eshq thirst, as smithereens of his fragmented selves implode under homes of roofs we generally call: poems. ‘Your prayers resonating with the silent echoes of dissonance.’ 

This book is an oak tree finding the capillaries of its ancient roots, as the poet vacillates between longing and belonging, bringing home dystopic utopias fractured in realism – a cubist way of exaggerations and disintegrations. Sensory openings to temporal landscapes in self-aware significance of intricate introspection.  

‘Like a lover, frantic in departure’s wake.’ 

Each poem relies on a paradoxical bedrock of uncertainty, honesty, and vulnerability, equaled by an undercurrent desire to re-remember amid world instability, that which is lost to time, in an aim to glean retrospectives on truth. Dasgupta is a happenstance philosopher, escape artist, hesitant survivor, who plays with ephemerality as he curates the world to the utmost and outmost with a photographic memory, building a quivering pack of imaginative cards, Houses of dreams, alongside monochromatic photography to blend with mood and atmosphere. ‘An old city an instant hush, wrapped in the/alchemy of jade, of mosque, musk, and prayer.’ 

And like a tumbled bag of marbles uncovered at the centre of a table, these poems roll off centre to the gravitational pull of a reader’s reckoning. ‘Hunger inciting a literature/scripted for prodigal and poor.’ 

With sharp impressions of memory and identity, and a resolute memory that pushes through the debris of time; this book and the poet become a relentless witness that does not submit or overlook the ruins of the mesmeric past that lurks behind the quotidian present.  

The poet hones escape portals taking flights himself with us along. 

Photo Credit: Suhit Kelkar

Fictionist | Poet | Critic | Curator | Editor | Translator | Screenwriter, Rochelle Potkar is the author of Four Degrees of Separation and Paper Asylum that was shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020. Her poetry film Skirt showcased on Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland. Many of her stories and poems have won awards.

 

Two Commas and That Voice by Richik Banerjee

Reviewed by Ghada Ibrahim 

There is something about the raw form of poetry that radiates from Two Commas and That Voice by Richik Banerjee that captivates the reader. From the title to the contents, the notion that poetry stems from incompletion is vividly depicted. While mainstream or popular poetry relies on narrating a story in a coherent and concise manner, Banerjee focuses on the incompleteness almost entirely. 

At first glance, his poems appear to be nothing more than a jumble of words. The reader is required to exert themselves to an extent before settling into the style of Banerjee. Once one does, the poems cradle them in a hollow embrace. I say hollow because it is in the emptiness that one finds meaning. Ironically, the poem that made the most sense to me was “A Poem.” In 12 words, Banerjee encompasses the entire essence of the book. It is important to note the exaggerated use of space. 

“His poems grant every individual reader a chance to create a narrative on the basis of their own experiences, understanding, and vision of the world” 

While reading the book, I was surprised by the deep sense of comfort the pages granted me. For once, the noise in my mind quietened down. In wake of the scattered words bedecking the pages, my thoughts snuggled in the space between. I was not reading a story and I was not narrating a script. My thoughts stepped into the light and filled in the gaps. It was only then that the power of Banerjee’s poetry really struck me. His poems grant every individual reader a chance to create a narrative on the basis of their own experiences, understanding, and vision of the world. 

While Banerjee manages to present an interesting perspective, he falls a little short in his attempt to adequately deliver a compelling read. As far as “sandwiched voices” go, the poems definitely hit the mark. However, should one choose to amplify an otherwise muffled voice, one would need to grant it the right spotlight. In Two Commas and That Voice, I fail to see the message or even the point. In a sense, it reminds me of a bawling toddler who themselves are unaware of what it is they want. In another sense, I feel it is the correct representation of the burning world we live in. Ashes to dust to the deafening noise that engulfs us. 

We do what we wish with Banerjee’s work akin to how we do what we wish with those around us. We determine the roles they play in our lives and we dictate how we treat them. We project our visions, expectations, and needs on everything around us so as to always remain the main character. Banerjee grants us the stage. We play the lead role and we pirouette center stage. And in that, the magic of his work shines through.

Banerjee does not shy away from addressing hard truths. And that grants his poetry a relentless power. It rears its head and lunges forward commanding attention. This becomes rather obvious in the style he pursues throughout the book beginning from “Tick Tick Tick Tick” in the first poem Reach For. Anaphora emerges multiple times throughout the book. It speaks to the idea of drawing the reader in and catching their attention. But “that voice” forms no words. It is a voice that inherently lacks purpose. We can hear the noise. But that is just it. It is not any more than just… noise.?

Perhaps Banerjee intended his poetry to deliver nothing more than that – to draw attention to the noise, to make people more aware. His poetry comes from a place as raw as an open wound. In that wound, we drown. 

Ghada Ibrahim is a Psychology graduate from Middle East Technical University, 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. 

Time Regime by Jhani Randhawa

Reviewed by Sushumna Kannan 

John Donne views poetry as a yoking of the unfamiliar ideas. These poems overdo it. At least in the first part. Sensory vicissitudes are yoked quite forcibly right in the first poem. Except for a couple of lines towards the end, the poem is about as obscure as obscurity can get. Cutting out wordiness or verbs does not mean they all get deleted, poets. Spacing could have been reduced in the first poem, “Primavera.” There was excessive white space—to the point of incorrigibility. Choose your first poem carefully, play it safe, I wanted to say to the poet. Luckily, just when I began craving for full sentences, with more meaning in them, they appeared.  

Subsequent poems had full sentences towards the end. The poems introduce a multitude of interesting concepts from the sciences such as the negative pyramid or engage with the Humanities, mentioning the historian Walter Benjamin. The poet’s wide reading oeuvre was exciting to uncover. There are urban images of driving, a road trip, hiking. There is a nice ode to the fire element every now and then. There is a play of light and darkness and related visceral experiences. There are good words, better sentences, excellent phrases. Yet, I yearned for more explanation while I reeled under the splatter of resonant and new images. Clear meanings do not emerge. Everything is cloaked in words. Obfuscated by meandering connections. The poet makes her reader work very hard. She needs to drop more hints to her readers.  

One rare full sentence in the early part of the book that made me pause was: “I’m looking at the ways we travel to meet our lovers, or leave them. At the grammar.” There are glimpses of ecological themes: “I have considered the spaces silver, grey, an absence of green. Citations. How I am upset by this modernity.” And then, the urban sadness theme: “Your workday carves stone. To make room for their emptiness, you express becoming sad about getting older, and it feels profound.” Some of her lines require us to skip a phrase and backtrack while reading to make better sense and to read them together again: “When I shock open, I meet the dream: stones are in our stones are in our mouths.” 

And then again in this poem, the indented sentences must be read together, while the unindented go together. I am not demonstrating that through this poem as much as offer a glimpse of the style:  

“Germ aligns with edge, love at the
Formal, fast
corrodes with
My empress spread her news
Into the earth in augur bruises
The sand mistook for cloth, and salt
Her letter
on the glittering turn.” 

I loved the internal dialogue voiced out in this fashion:  

“Which food, whose music was revolutionary, what revolution, how have
we been, and how will we continue because of course we will. We will? We will.”  

How the brevity of “with and without skin” achieves so much within such a short amount of space is remarkable: “we’ve leapt into the river, a yonni of silt, and
emerged both with and without skin.” 

The poems prompt an endless back and forth reading to simply stay on topic:  

“I am a child
behind a tree    in a parking lot     the sky” 

The South Asian references feel like a chance encounter. There is no excessive nostalgia or reverence.   

“i begin to feel sad for reasons that my dead grandmother might not have felt sad
about: no women can facilitate gurdwara service, perform simran for a group
gathered
in a sacred place like this temple on the west london high street” … 

“…the death i am mourning. or is it her life i am mourning?
or, as v says, the death of someone else crashes into one’s mourning
for one’s own death”.  

The academic style sentences that sprang up in a poem that was sorting through some issues not necessarily simply about identity were nice:   

“Dealing in
the casual language of empirical psychoanalytics, Hershmann tangles himself in
category
error again and again, and repeats ritual scenes, displacing their historicity
and his own presence as witness within the theater of convention. 

Throughout his argument, Hershmann reiterates (though this is not his intention)  the limits of Eurocentric reasoning. Meanwhile, he still manages to convey that the Punjabi subjects—whose sexy, dirty hair he’s been detailing and chasing—remain opaque to themselves; they are subjects, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, whatever, whose private performative languages are illegible even to them.” 

 The rush of words here are well-done: “We must decide how we love in these seasons. Some might say to whom we how it takes precedence.” 

Some of the poems demand the reader to have infinite patience, to work backwards. Words often act like clues and the poems are like jigsaw puzzles. I ended up grouping similar words first in order to work my way back to make sense of them. This reminded me of how we read poetry in my BA class for an ‘annotation.’ If I had a hard copy of the book, the page would have numerous encircled words talking to each other, looking like a mind map with arrows connecting words and their various senses. There is too much distance between words and ideas and images, and the poet only gives the faintest clues, stretching associations to the farthest possible distance. The poems get better with fuller and longer sentences as we progress through the book. I just hope the reader sticks to discover the latter ones! Although a difficult read, I would recommend these poems to readers and ask them to appreciate their ingenuity.

Senior Reviews Editor Sushumna Kannan 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

Mamaji by Elisheba Haqq

Reviewed by Jasmine Vyas  

I could not put down Mamaji, Elisheba Haqq’s memoir about moving to Minnesota from Chandigarh, India in the 1960s and surviving an abusive childhood. If you are a fan of Educated, The Glass Castle, and enjoy books that are funny and wistful, you will love Mamaji 

The author, Elisheba Haqq, immigrated from India to Minnesota in the 1960s as a preschooler. She writes about life in a family of eight children with her abusive stepmother and at worst, abusive, and at best, neglectful, preacher father. Throughout the book, she harkens back to Mamaji, her biological mother who died suddenly when she was three years old. 

I love memoirs about chaotic childhoods.  I am deeply fascinated by the world children build for themselves to survive cruelties beyond their control. How are some children able to get to adulthood and lead functional lives, while others experience the trauma so deeply that they are never able to heal?  In Mamaji we observe the eight Haqq children grow up in small, snowy Minnesota towns as outsiders both in their communities and in their own home.   

Haqq shares many strategies that she and her siblings coined to insulate themselves from their cruel father and stepmother. In reading her account, I wanted to hug the Haqq children while also laughing out loud with them. For example, the children were not able to properly grieve their biological mother and cry. So, the children play a game called “Mamaji is dead.” They said the phrase and looked at each other, trying to keep a straight face. Eventually the children played the games so many times, they burst into laughter at the phrase. In this way, the Haqq children formed their own darkly funny emotional shelter.  

Despite the difficulties Haqq faced, this is only one of many laugh-out-loud moments.  One favorite of mine was when the children convinced their prissy aunt, in her neatly wound sari, to sit in the back of a children’s toy car. The children tied the car to an older sibling’s car with a rope. What happened next was a hilarious incident that Haqq tells masterfully. 

The memoir contains deeply sad elements as well. As in Educated and The Glass Castle, Haqq’s father and stepmother keep her, and the other children isolated from the outside world. The children are not allowed to socialize outside the home and their every choice is dictated by the adults. They presented as a happy family to outsiders but inside the house, the children performed grueling manual labor and consumed only meager meals. In this way, Mamaji illustrates the dynamics of abuse within a family, and how victims, particularly within immigrant families, can be isolated.  

Aside from these emotional and funny moments, Mamaji shines in elucidating a little-known group, Indian immigrants to the United States in the 1960s. There were few Indian immigrants in the US at the time, and not much has been written about them. I enjoyed reading as Haqq explained the many misconceptions of the Americans around her about India and Indians. To add another layer of nuance, Haqq’s family were Indian Christians. Her father was a preacher and reading about the family’s involvement in Minnesota Christian churches was fascinating. 

For all it does well, the first chapter of Mamaji feels disjointed. If you feel this way too, skip the first chapter or two and dig right in, to when the family moves from balmy Chandigarh, India, to Minnesota on a frigid Thanksgiving Day. From that point on, I could NOT put this book down.  Highly recommend this powerful book! 

Jasmine Vyas is an aspiring children’s book author, book reviewer, bookish podcast guest, attorney, and privacy professional. She loves to read and talk books. You can hear her on the podcasts Your Favorite Book and My Favorite Book. She is currently seeking a publisher for her first children’s book. Outside of reading, she loves spending time with her husband and three children and being outdoors. 

Bombay Hangovers by Rochelle Potkar 

Reviewed by GJV Prasad 

It is often said that poets are also good writers of short fiction. The short story after all is a prose genre closest to poetry and stories have been narrated in and as poems for centuries. Both genres can be indirect, building up moods, rather than explaining characters or forming them fully, sketch-in events and locations with quick strokes, and depend on the reader’s imagination to help in reading the work, to find their own meanings—to create their own moments. It is textures that you look for, the hidden layers that speak to you in well-crafted short stories. And it is this that you get in the sixteen stories that constitute Potkar’s Bombay Hangovers 

These stories are not a drunken romp through India’s most famous city, nor are they about the aftereffects of such excesses. But Bombay (not Mumbai, you notice) is a city that gets to you, that holds out myriad dreams and fulfils some, that lives in hope that crowded gullies will lead to broad boulevards, that the crowded slums and local trains can and do meet skyscrapers and the world of airplanes and one can make connections across these unseen but clearly felt line and cross over occasionally to the other side. Bombay is the city of unlived lives, of distractions, of boring routines, of exciting possibilities, and treacherous slopes. Most people live out their lives of ordinariness in the midst of possibilities, aware of them. Potkar’s stories explore these everyday lives.  

The stories have intriguing titles, and the writer wants us to be active readers filling in the blanks, forging connections, letting our imagination run over the stories she sketches for us. The collection begins with “The Arithmetic of Breasts” (this is a title you don’t have to struggle with), a story about a couple, a mathematician husband and his home-maker wife who had a doctorate but did not take up a career. It is a rather wry story, one that shows how the male gaze works, how a couple fall in love, how their life together weathers the years (they have two daughters), and how they get through the wife’s breast cancer and mastectomy. And how they love each other. And make love to each other. The writer doesn’t judge, doesn’t pass comments, doesn’t give us her opinions. This is one of the ways in which life plays out, she shows us.  

In “Parfum,” Russi becomes an expert perfumer and in his desire to create the ultimate perfume, the scent of his woman, his wife, he drifts away from her, not even knowing her routines, and finally finding the real perfume elsewhere. “Fabric” shows us the rise and fall of Kailas, who from aspirations to higher management in the mills ends up as a security guard in a mall after the disastrous strike that saw the closure on mills in Bombay. The story is really about the impact of his life on two women, his two wives, and how it plays out at the end. Other stories explore how various emotions play out in the life of characters. How is one roused to anger? Does it lead to action? What are the complicated emotions that arise with lust, with sex, with adultery? When is adultery exciting? Would a man want to murder his wife and her lover when she seems to be so different with the other man, almost becoming a different woman?  

When you write about Bombay, Goa can’t be kept out, as it were. So not all stories in this volume are about Bombay. One is relieved at the ending of “Salad” (a partly Goa story), an intricate short story that could have turned tragic. And when you have Bombay based stories, how can you not have one on Kamathipura, the red-light district? The narrative point of view changes from the third person to the first in the narration of this story, “Mist”, but it is again a matter-of-fact telling, even when it is about to have a fairy tale ending for one of the characters at least. And “Honour,” again a multi-layered story, asks the question about the impact of criminal action of one member of the family on the others (do we think of the criminal’s family at all?). Just like we don’t wonder about the impact of raising an intellectually disabled child, someone who is mentally a child when he has grown to adulthood, on the siblings and parents. Turn it into sibling and parent and you have the story “Noise.”  

Potkar is interested in showing us what it takes to live certain lives in certain spaces. All the stories have women playing significant roles, though it is not only women that Potkar is interested in. How do women cope with trauma, with the particular fate that seems to characterize the urban patriarchal jungle – molestation and rape? Bombay allows her a place name that can be seen as particularly apt (“Andheri”) for such a story. How do people cope with bullying – is school, in the workspace, in the residential community? What does it take to stand up and carry on even better than you had done before (read “Paranoia”)? And what is the impact of domestic abuse on the others in the family (“Slice”)? A curious story ends the collection. It is based in 1857, the year of the First War of Indian Independence (or the Mutiny). It ends with an act of personal mutiny, an act of independence, which seems particularly apt in these times.  

You may think that these stories could be from anywhere, but Potkar anchors them in the topography of Bombay – in specific areas and communities. “Euphoria,” for instance, is a Bombay story – nowhere else in India could you imagine the three characters who get together getting together at all.  The really short short story “Our Lovers” could have been set anywhere but Potkar anchors it to Bombay brilliantly. Bombay Hangovers is a collection meant to be read one story at a time, to be savoured slowly, so that one can think of people we know and stories of we don’t know but we inhabit.  

GJV Prasad, formerly Professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University is a poet, novelist, and translator. His teaching and research have focused on Indian English literature, modern drama, and translation. His recent publications include four edited volumes – Violets in a Crucible: Translating the Orient (co-edited with Madhu Benoit and Susan Blattes), India in Translation Translation in India, and Disability in Translation: The Indian Experience (co-edited with Someshwar Sati), and Reading Dalit: Essays on Literary Representations– and a short monograph on Khushwant Singh. His latest publication is a translation of Ambai’s stories, A Red-necked Green Bird. 

There’s No Good Time for Bad News by Aruni Kashyap

Reviewed by Sushumna Kannan

Aruni Kashyap’s book of poems looks at the armed insurgency of Assam dating back to the late 70s and 80s and tells its previously untold story through the varied effects it had on the everyday lives of ordinary people, some of whom were related to the participants in the insurgency and others who were mere witnesses to the insurgency. More importantly, the poems are mostly non-partisan in dealing with the topic and record the experience of violence through intensely visceral descriptions. The book records various responses to the course and aftermath of the insurgency and hence can be used as a resource for teaching about conflict-prone zones. Kashyap’s style of long-winding sentences with intriguing enjambment suit the chosen themes. There are several wow-lines carefully encased within each poem that leave distinct images in the reader. I read this book with great earnestness and lost the notes I had made; all my first impressions were on stylistic aspects. Here are my thoughts on a second read.

The first poem is the diary entry of a soldier recording post-traumatic stress disorder. This is followed by “The Prime Minister’s Visit,” a subtle critique accompanied by disappointment more than anything else. A bomb explosion and what it unleashes is recorded next as an earthquake and flood. In “Fake Boots” the reference to “alien Hindi words” and wives burning in bed because their husbands have been disfigured is well-told. The poem shows children play at war, as happens in several conflict zones across the world. Neglected festivals indicate how the culture of the place is destroyed when violence becomes an everyday affair. In “No One Would Hear Me If I screamed,” a riot is viewed from the vantage point of a newlywed bride who admits: “Propriety gagged me, just the way conscience was gagged by emotions in the subsequent years.”

“The House with a Thousand Novels” reveals the reflective subjectivities of the north-east, an engaged people or civil society, who read and think. Yet, the novels are also stories of loneliness, loss, and sorrow. In “The Chinese, Who Came Much Later,” we see Kashyap’s characteristic style of reporting unconnected events and their horror to paint the chaos of cities and other places. The diversified picture doesn’t localize one or another party as enemy or friend but critically looks at both self and the other, with each bringing its own problems, reckoning with its own context as it were. In “News from Home,” we see the distinctness of the geographical landscapes of the north-east emerge, cocooned in apparently rambling and random observations. “August” captures well how the month of India’s independence, and its celebrations are accompanied by riots and mindless violence. “At Age Eleven, My Friend Tells Me Not to Wear Polyester Shirts” captures how riot-prone areas with the increased likelihood of arson are negotiated in everyday concerns of what to wear, while also pointing to insecurities and camp-shifting perceived among acquaintances who have begun to speak in Hindi instead of Assamese. The title poem “There Is No Good Time for Bad News” is a powerful poem about a mother called to the police station to identify her son’s body. She makes 32 visits over the course of two decades before she confirms it is him and walks out with no tears: “it is him, this blood on the floor is my blood, this body on the desk is my flesh.” “My Aunt Talks About Being Raped By Soldiers” can be triggering but is well-rounded and captures the experiences before and after so well that it is more empowering than tragic. In “Dear India: A Collage Poem” Kashyap breaks not only molds of universality or particularity but also merges them in strange ways. It is not only his American readers who must look up a reference to Maine Pyar Kiya in another poem, but also his Indian readers who must look up some films and novels: “Dear India, have you read A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood’s novel set in November 1962, about a gay man in LA? Have you heard of the book?”

The beauty of Kashyap’s poems is that his intellectual positions never overpower the emotions experienced by the people in his poems. The emotions themselves carry the poems, whether they are of overpowering grief, deep-seated trauma, or fear of bomb blasts. Kashyap doesn’t explain the context too much, which is great for fostering imagination in the reader. He retains local, regional, or national references (I am secretly hoping his American readers find and watch the movie, Maine Pyar Kiya!). Do read this book if you are artistically or politically invested in peace missions, conflict zones, state control, border and integration issues.

Senior Reviews Editor Sushumna Kannan 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

Selected Poems by Jayant Parmar, Translated by Dr. Baidar Bakht

Reviewed by Rachita Swain

Ghazals— does this word not evoke lyricality, does it not delight you even in its hiraeth? Originating in Arabic poetry, this form of poetic expression has blended in the Indian culture so much so that many Indian poets across various regions have adopted it as a part of their own being and expression. Most of you are acquainted with the Ghazals of Ghalib and now, with Gulzar. But here, in this book, is an Indian poet, Jayant Parmar, writing ghazals in Urdu and winning hearts; soothing eyes with his paintings as well (until you lay your hands on the book, his Facebook timeline, strewn with sketches and snatches of his poems, will reveal much).

You can call him a poet of his times, if you may infer from his book Selected Poems, translated and published in the year 2020. Each of his poems aim at grasping the reality of an event within the frame of a canvas. He states plain facts; not much of his ideas are elusive. But that perhaps steals the essentiality of a poem before you are done reading it to the last, especially when you are already aware of the political situations and the ideas implicated. However, this happens specifically in his poems concerning the atrocities that have been rendered on the marginalized section. The poem, “Thousands of Hands”, speaks about it candidly: “I asked for a home,/ And they/ Buried me in the ground./ I asked for a small patch of land,/ And they/ Burdened my head/ With the rock of exile./ I asked for a morsel of bread/ And they/  Put a burning coal on my tongue.” These lines, as many of his poems, talks about the discriminations meted out to these people in retrospect— that they were denied the basic rights of survival, starting from being deprived of a roof over their heads to a morsel of food just to stay alive. These poems move by leaps and bounds. But I suppose that is what it is meant to do— so that you can witness as it happens or has happened over time, and become a part of it, in the very process of reading it. M. F. Hussain’s horses resonate with that of his own— the swift black steed from his painting that begins the book resuscitates to gallop to its destination, if not by the land, surely by his words inked on the paper.

That quick rush, however, recedes in his Ghazals. Although they deal with the same theme, the tone changes. The protest against injustice remains intact. But here, you’re in for soul-soothing verses. In the poem, “I Chased a Symbol”, he feels delighted in a moment’s respite from the symbols of nature: “…Everything was lost in the sand./ And suddenly,/ Moving aside the curtain on the window,/ A tiny colourful butterfly/ Came and sat on the lapel of my jacket.” Poetry and his own self are made for each other; they belong to situations and places that hold the potential to exist in places where terrible events of the past can be reversed at his will. So, you will find not just pictures of social discrimination but also the ability, and the will to rise above them. We come to believe that he, as a spokesperson of his own self as well as his class will rise out of the ashes, like a phoenix, to be re-born again. He is proud of being a “Dalit Poet”. And, his Ghazals give room to ample picturesque scenarios for that to happen; poems like “Nainital” are illustrations of such serenity. Much respite awaits the reader in “A Ghazal”, which acts as a sort of messiah to him and to our mind: “You filled it/ with seven colours:/ The page of my heart/ was ever so pale”— when fear had overwhelmed him.

You are more likely to come across odes to many famous poets and artists of the past like Octavio Paz to Post-Impressionist painters like Vincent Willem van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. His acknowledgement of their works points to contradictions— that, even vibrant colours within a still life, can create the effect of a melancholic disposition, on the corollary, to the inherited loneliness and blackness that he executes in a series of poems with black imagery— “black wings”, “black birds” (who want to shed their darkness and scarred bodies and break free from age-old chains of stigma and fly high into the sky), “black horses”, “black grass” and so on and so forth. All that blackness induces a somber mood like the interpretation of human suffering in van Gogh’s paintings. As with him, so with Jayant Parmar: their art, while being inseparable from society, are a sort of refuge from the turbulent chaos. But if you ask him about the roots of his poems, you’re in for a surprise. His own pencil doesn’t stand as an independent entity. Its existence for the poet, Jayant Parmar, serves to bridge the gap between the present and the past. The continuation of generation serves as vantages of beauty among much turmoil, from the aroma of Ghalib or Gulzar from the East to the madness of the West. There are themes in them that either haunt him or delight him. A gullible persona that he assumes in his poetry is that of a naïve child. He will say that a little bird gets him the pivotal elements required for poetry: “The sparrow also brings/ A bit of the sky/ And some raw material/For my poems.” Yet, the tension that generally prevails in the verses is stripped of all fantasy. Even as they retain the colourful palette of nature, the poems are laid out before you, in flesh and blood, as you’d see the real world, with people who have it intact with places, and things, and beings reflecting an anti-romantic sentiment.

In the collection of poems, “Pencil aur dusri Nazmein” in his book of Selected Poems, the daughter in the poem “Pencil(3)”, carries forward the legacy of willful innocence. Like him, she too draws “Black birds” yet her mind is brimming with naivety. Her pencil sketches are more than just blackness— a peacock wears goggles— innocence blends with ambition as she goes on to draw next, “a tiger chatting with a cow”. In her world, she forges brightness of her own making. But the nib of her pencil breaks when she is forced to conform to the societal norms; she urges to break free from the cage and becomes violent in that process which is put through a lengthy metaphor of the legacy of blackness, inherited from decades of impositions: “The school master/ Gives her some homework,/ My little doll/ Breaks the tip of the pencil/ In anger,/ Extinguishing the candle of the pencil./ The white sky of the paper/ Is left with only dark smoke.”

While social injustice is an essential part of his identity and that of his entire class, he re-invents the filiations forged by the upper wrung of the society. But by no means does he feel estranged from his nation nor can we locate any form of dislocation emanating from his verses. He is more than in love with the people and places around. Countless other authors writing in the vernacular have expressed a crippling sense of alienation from their surroundings, from the people who have relegated them and their class to blackness. At the end of the line, the poet knows that even if his audience deserts him, his poems “Will never refuse/ To listen to my woes.” The entirety of Jayant Parmar’s Selected Poems relays the same emotions. What can make the poetry collection accessible to all kinds of readers is beautifully simplified version in the English translation rendered by Dr. Baidar Bakht, who doesn’t hesitate to retain the lyricality of the Ghazals. For readers, who aren’t very well-versed with the Urdu semantics of the Ghazals and Nazms, this translated book, with its introduction by Gopi Chand Narang, makes it all too feasible.

Ranchita Swain

Rachita Swain lives in Bhubaneswar and is an MPhil scholar in the Department of English Literature and Language at Utkal University, Odisha. Deeply interested in Bhakti movement and literature, her present thesis is on its application and influence in Contemporary Indian English Poetry, specifically, Jayanta Mahapatra and Arun Kolatkar. She writes poems and aspires to publish a book soon enough. Her articles and book reviews have been published in local e-journals.

After I Was Raped by Urmi Bhattacherrya

Reviewed by Kinshuk Gupta

In a society that shies away from sex education and affirms boys’ aggressive sexual presence through irresponsible media portrayals, many boys grow into adulthood thinking that forcing themselves upon resisting women is normal. It is thus that India tops the charts of unsafe countries for women, as we continue to hear about countless incidents of sexual abuse every day. As is often reiterated by professionals working on these issues, these snippets of news comprise only a small percentage of the actual cases that often go unreported because of families worried about their social prestige and the inadequacies of the justice-seeking machinery.

Although one of the major constituents of crime in India, sexual abuse, is the hardest and trickiest to understand. This, I believe, is an important reason why a lot of writing has been happening of late, around the subject matter; an attempt to deconstruct the complexities involved. On the vague understanding of the crime, Sohaila Abdulali writes in her book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, that:

It’s the only crime to which people respond by wanting to lock up the victims. It’s the only crime that is so bad that victims are supposed to be destroyed beyond repair by it, but simultaneously not so bad that the men who do it should be treated like other criminals.

We tend to think of sexual abuse in terms of a crime; our thinking has moved little beyond the causes and motivations. We are ready to dress the survivors in the armour of boldness and are always at loggerheads with society and law to seek justice.

Urmi Bhattacherrya—a former Gender Editor at The Quint and recipient of UNFPA Laadli Award for Gender Sensitivity—in her debut book, After I Was Raped, moves beyond the hackneyed tropes on rape. She tells compelling stories of women who have been brutalized not only by their perpetrators but also by the law that has exacerbated their suffering.

Narrating the stories of five women—a four-year-old girl, two Dalit women, an eight-month-old infant, and a young professional, she grapples with the hard question of where does rape end? In the foreword, she observes:

Media messaging will tell you it ends in the silhouette of a single frosted palm cutting its way down a glass pane.  It will tell you it ends in a news bulletin about a ‘Woman, aged X, raped by men or a man, aged Y’—with the aforementioned women never to be heard of again.

On the surface, the premise of these stories is pretty similar, even clichéd, but what sets this book apart is Bhattacheryya’s compassionate tone. Even while reporting these stories, trying to reach to the core of the truth, her writing never feels matter-of-fact, rather is rich with details that deeply move the reader. She writes about Smita who got raped by her lover, now oscillating between love lost and self-loathing thus:

Plans with Smita hinge on a fulcrum of variables – how “safe” or “dangerous” a certain cafe, metro terminal, or local watering hole feels to her; whether a certain item of food served by an unsuspecting bearer will potentially trigger a memory or elicit a sob; and whether she can return home by sundown or before her parents chastise her for being “out” – whichever comes first.

Another important aspect that I particularly liked about the book is that it doesn’t end with the story of survivors. Bhattacheryya tries to investigate the reasons for delayed justice or no justice at all. Narrating the story of Nidhi, an eight-year-old, who was lured away by a bhaiya and later raped, she talks about the insipid judiciary:

Sometimes the judges are on leave. Then there is large pendency of cases. You don’t get frequent hearings to present your case—so much so that sometimes if you miss a hearing, the next one might be a year later.

The pervading hostility in the courts, which relies blindly on facts, comes across multiple times in the book—the two-finger test designed to check sexual habituation; questions about sexual history; prying eyes of men attending the hearing. She also talks about women lawyers, who despite being determined, are unable to provide justice to the victim, and themselves suffer variously.

Kataria spoke of incidental trauma latching onto the body, mapping itself as myriad physical ailments…That second-hand trauma becomes a part of you.

Often it is assumed that rape ruins lives, that women shattered by it will never have a semblance of normal life. However, Bhattacherrya, through her sensitive portrayal and humanistic approach, tries to affirm that despite rape being a defining memory in one’s life, it is not the end of life. And precisely not the way one wishes to be labelled for the rest of their lives.

As Anubha Bhosle writes in the blurb: “this book shatters the silent heroism of survivors—a myth we love to perpetuate. This book, a voice of survivors as called by Bhattacheryya, actively questions the broad rubric of patriarchy and misogynistic mindsets that are eager to relegate the victim to a guilt-ridden, hopeless life. One cannot afford to miss reading it.”

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.

Out of Print, edited by Indira Chandrashekhar

Reviewed by Sushumna Kannan

Out of Print: Ten Years, An Anthology of Stories is easily the best platform for publishing short stories in India today. It is dedicated to short stories alone; is online and easy to access.  This book is a 10th anniversary publication that brings together stories already published in five sections, titled ‘Making the Myth My Own,’ which presents takes on myths, ‘Angle of Incidence: Is My Vision of Myself an Illusion?’ which explores selfhood, ‘Oracles and Beating Hearts’ –a bunch of love stories, ‘Living Together: Crafting Place from Layers of Memory’ exploring gender and space and a final section titled ‘Reality Imagine,’ of twelve translated works. Each section has a comment by the curatorial editors that makes apparent the logic underlying the selection of stories. As the introduction lays it out clearly, the book presents trans-generational diversity, is multilingual, contains pre-pandemic writing and is not a collection of the best of Out of Print’s stories over the decade.

The stories are selected as a response to world currents aiming to capture India in a wide-ranging timeline reflecting issues dominating our collective psyche; “a documentation of ten years of writing connected to the Indian subcontinent.” This documentation, of course, is left-liberal in perspective, with identity politics being the focus of several stories. For instance, queer experiences, caste issues, Kashmir and the Northeast—are topics explored in the stories. The preoccupation with identity politics, as is well-known, is a double-edged sword, notorious for stifling true creativity. In this book, it works well at times and fails at others.

My major grouse with the book is that the mythology section is sorely lacking for ignoring stories that have a positive association with mythology, thus ignoring the new wave of literary writing and speculative fiction that has reclaimed mythology without necessarily challenging it. Here is where I feel the book fails to deliver on its claim of reflecting issues dominating our collective psyche. This, of course, has to do with the ideologies that drive the curation of the magazine itself, perhaps something to think through or perhaps the level of claim made on behalf of the book can be reduced instead. Most stories in the section on mythology emerge from a perspective of critique and relating it to the present. Shashi Deshpande’s “The Three Princesses of Kashi,” which is the best in the section, still falls short of a proper treatment of myths. Her questioning of Bhishma’s abductions of the three sisters, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, (allowed as an exception for kshatriyas, and generally an unrecommended form of marriage in the dharmashastras) is something the Mahabharata keeps open just as it allows Draupadi to ask the questions that she did of her husband, Yudhisthira. Deshpande’s critique of the practice of niyoga is similarly already potentially present in the Mahabharata given how the dharmashastras do not recommend it for later times, having likely imbibed the Mahabharata’s perspective of women’s experience of the practice. Deshpande’s critique emerges from a fundamental misunderstanding of what women’s duties were in the epic world. It offers a limited relation to the past anchored strictly in the present. Yet, Deshpande’s characters also exhibit layers that keep them partly authentic to the ones found in the epic, albeit with added speculative thoughts and actions. Also, mythical traditions would themselves admit that what “women bear” is equal to the performance of penances. It is therefore that their curses are powerful as revealed by Krishna regarding Gandhari. The rest of the stories in this section relate to mythology in broad strokes, not necessarily engaging them directly or deeply. “The Dolphin King” by Kuzhali Manickavel is funny and Senthil’s character is narrated in a relatable way. The mythology in this story is relatively less, and not particularly distortive. “Seven Little Rooms” by Mridula Garg is an engaging read, almost ethnographic in its tone. Annam Manthiram’s “The Reincarnation of Chamunda” is a gendered response to the pressure on marriage placed on women. “The Moon Mountain” by Shaheen Akhtar, clearly a story about the environment and the violence of development is about making the myth of home one’s own. “The Year of the Kurinji” by Vidya Ravi references Draupadi but suffers from the same drawbacks as Deshpande’s story.

The second section, ‘Angle of Incidence: Is My Vision of Myself an Illusion?’ begins quite aptly with U. R. Ananthamurthy’s “Apoorva,” which depicts a failed marriage. Next, Anjum Hasan’s “The Big Picture” offers warm portrayals of an aged artist ending in a destabilizing realistic moment that sheds light on the irrationality cohabiting human selfhood. Vasudhendra’s well-narrated “Bedbug” tracks a queer person’s tragic end in a village household; it has a rare authenticity to it. Zui Kumar-Reddy’s story explores the starkness of child sexual abuse within the home in a bold manner, exploring the vagueness around it, followed by Mohit Parekh’s “Recess,” which explores several sides of the teen experience of pressures regarding masculinity. Chandrahas Choudhury’s “Dnyaneshwar Kulkarni Changes His Name” explores the awkwardness of a quintessential urban life in India in an endearing way; it is a totally enjoyable story with great humor and timing.

The next section “Oracles and Beating Hearts” begins with Jayant Kaikini’s story of love in a late bloomer and his sudden but stubborn hopefulness. It speaks of the powerful hold of love on humans in the most unforeseen of ways and times. “The Other One” by Hasanthika Sirisena took me by surprise, for although it had characters placed in the diaspora, its attention to identity issues was minimal; it normalized the characters’ presence in such locales, exploring life and relationships as they panned out, instead. “Sujata” by Annie Zaidi stayed the longest in my mind. A story about domestic violence, it is hard-hitting but so well-written that I reveled in its narrative and the single minor twist which sealed it’s end perfectly. The story demonstrates so well that it’s not always twisty plots that maketh good stories; deft meaningful narratives suffice too. Zaidi doesn’t expend any breath on the violent man, seeking to analyze his character or providing a backstory for him, which is so apt, beautiful and satisfying. “Black Dog” by Shruti Swamy explores friendship and young love in a dynamic and hearty manner. The sentimentalism and innocence of intense young adult love is truly moving in this story; it’s nuances are very well-brought out.

Tanuj Solanki’s “The Issue,” modeled after Alan Rossi’s “The Problem at Hand” presents a dense and thick narrative of a couple in disagreement, constantly attempting dialogue but going around in circles, fearful of leaving a familiar past behind and anxious about entering an unfamiliar future. Peppered by the realistic presence of a lizard in the house that governs the beginning and end of the story, the story captures a marriage at its core. Although addressing a fairly modern issue, that of women’s equality, it could really be about any marriage—modern or traditional, love or arranged. One wished for more dialogue to ease up the thick description and reportage in the story, however! “The Itinerary of Grief” by Chika Unigwe explores yet another identity category, that of a traveler to India, which is filtered through the lens of personal grief. So that we have gems such as this: “…but he asked if I had a husband. Back home, I would have taken it as a sly but cheesy pickup line, but I had been in India for over a week and knew that it was conversation and nothing else.”

The subsequent section, ‘Living Together: Crafting Place from Layers of Memory’ has “Bittersweet” by Gangadhar Gadgil, which portrays a stifling family system followed by “Mischief in Neta Nagar” by Altaf Tyrewala, which averts taking politically correct stances in a story on the Muslim identity and co-inhabiting social spaces and the resultant religious conflict.

“The Currency has Changed” by Krishna Sobti is a partition story written in 1948 but eerily resembles certain take downs of the demonetization of 2016. “The Retired Ones,” by P. Lankesh brings the retired and aged tous, hanging together in Lalbagh, a park in Bangalore and captures modernity as well as U. R. Ananathamurthy’s story, manifesting as a gap between what one thinks to oneself and what one says to others. “Jenna” by Anita Roy explores a women’s prison and completely deflects the question of why a mother would hurt her child, through the vivid description of a prison cell.

The final section ‘Reality Imagine’ has “Do It by the Numbers” by Shabnam Nadiya, on intimate partner violence. “Honour” by Ajay Navaria takes caste discrimination head on, especially the flip side of village panchayats. The three stories on caste in the book side solely on the ethnographic understanding of caste rather than aiming to bridge it with a theoretical understanding of caste—a rift that has long driven both scholarly and fictional forays into the topic. And, even within the ethnographic understanding of caste, the book’s stories lean towards descriptions that highlight inequality rather than the ones that muddle up ideas of boundedness and rigidities via syncretism. Next is “The Chameleon’s Game” by Azra Abbas, a Pakistani writer. “The Graveyard” by Ali Akbar Natiq, another Pakistani writer, depicts the ills of classist cultures within the Muslim community. “The Bar” by Paul Zacharia is another plotless exploration of urban life. Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s story is next. He is also a Pakistani writer. It is not apparent why Pakistani writers are included in a book that tracks India. Dalpat Chauhan’s “Home” also explores caste in a village.

In many stories, realism is used to cut through the fog of social conditioning, as it were. But Marx’s own insights show that a wholescale removal of humans from society for the purpose of analysis is impossible. Hence, the intellectual and creative choices of these stories lie further back in their foundational blocks, rooted as these blocks are, in moves against social conditioning and often against tradition. There is a story about partition, but colonization’s effects are conspicuous by absence. Colonialism’s lasting effects persist in India today and not acknowledging that leaves a void. This is especially important when speaking about caste since several semi-indigenous institutions of caste at the village level are somewhat frozen now, while even a 100 years ago, kings would revise caste rules and lift the social ranking of castes from time to time based on their charity work or other contributions to society, rewarding them from time to time.

At a time when literary festivals, educational institutions, publication houses and the internet have opened up to engage with a wide variety of socio-political and cultural views, why should online platforms for creativity such as Out of Print restrict themselves to the left-liberal camp? Creativity can flow any which way! The book is not entirely a nonpartisan endeavor, inclusive of multiple positions and histories in documenting Indian writing, but sides with one kind of politics. If any of the emerging new speculative fiction on Indian mythology had been included to provide alternative perspectives on the same issues, this book could have easily been a richer attempt in educating India’s next generation of writers.

Senior Reviews Editor Sushumna Kannan 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

Collegiality & Other Ballads, edited by Shamayita Sen

Reviewed by Ghada Ibrahim

Collegiality & Other Ballads – Feminist Poems by Male and Non-binary Allies is an anthology of feminist poems by male and non-binary allies. In essence, the anthology is a compilation that seeks to amplify women’s voices via members of society that hold socially privileged positions. This initiative of solidarity deserves recognition. However, as the lingo goes, it does not appear that all the contributors of this series “understood the assignment.” In fact, at some points, it appeared as if the writers solely amplified notions of sacrifice and tragedy.

While the book comes off as a solemn declaration of solidarity, there are only select pieces that aptly deliver on the promise. I was hesitant to read through the anthology at first. After all, women are all too familiar with other genders, particularly the male one, taking the mic away from them to narrate inherently female experiences. In all honesty, as I read through, some of my fears were confirmed. The air of wholehearted celebration of women, and feminism in general, seemed to dissipate in the foreword. The editor’s concerns of whether this was the right time to release a work of this form were genuine.

The dragged out and sorry idea of perseverance that is consistently wrapped around women’s throats rises in Paresh Tiwari’s poem “Surviving Marital Rape.” As he ends the poem with the line “Or you could say, ‘No’.” the focus appears to shift from the perpetrator to the victim, especially as it prescribes a scale for the extent of resistance in the intensity of the protest. Though it may well be intended as an expression of the futility of any recourse, it is easily interpreted as once more placing the onus upon women. How many women are all too familiar with the absurdity of this claim? Similarly, Dibyajyoti Sarma’s “In Which Ganga Explains” attributes sorrow and melancholy to the female form. He writes “I’m the despair that gives you hope” and “I’m the mother of everything that decays.” His interpretation of womanhood to be so heavily associated with grief is one that undermines the very purpose of celebratory solidarity.

Another poem that stands out is Chandramohan Sathyanathan’s “Plus-Sized Poem” that attempts to amplify body positivity – but rather fails to do so entirely. While the poet does attempt to step outside the boundaries of the impossible beauty standards that the world has come to expect of women, his focus on physical appearance comes off as more objectifying than empowering. In a sense, the poem resonates with the trope of “you are not like other girls.” Moreover, it carries the implication that women who do subscribe to “offshore liposuction” and, god forbid, do not have pimples can somehow not compete for “international prizes.” While the essence of feminism lies in the celebration of women, all women, without discrimination, it appears that this poem missed the mark entirely.

Moreover, multiple poems are directed at and addressed to women in the context of familial relations – mothers, sisters, daughters, and grandmothers. Given that feminism in South Asian countries struggles to break free from the deeply damaging ideology of respecting women with respect to their male familial relations alone, these works do not work towards demolishing existing strictures of thought. In speaking for women empowerment, the foundation upon which the autonomy of women rests is that they are human beings and members of society deserving of equal respect and rights.

Irrespective of these drawbacks, some pieces stood out magnificently, e.g., Ankush Banerjee’s “Two Women.” It delivers power and magic in one fell swoop. “As I Watch the Road” humanizes women, depicting strength in their tenacity and capabilities effortlessly. In “Burnt Poems,” K. Satchidanandan celebrates love, womanhood and the love of a woman while augmenting the punishment women must endure for simply loving. One of the most powerful poems in this anthology is “Bride Wanted Ads” by Madhu Raghavendra. It depicts the South Asian perception of women and the deeply ingrained misogyny that is particularly highlighted in advertisements published in search of brides. In spite of its brevity and ingenious lack of letters, the poem resonates with the reader as it touches upon multiple issues within the patriarchal society that envelopes us.

For an anthology that was designed to provide a platform for men and non-binary allies to support feminism and women, the pieces compiled fail to adequately deliver. There is a fine distinction between being an ally and taking up the whole stage. In fact, a significant number of poems snatch the proverbial mic away and even take the floor up entirely. The shallow representation of women depicted by a number of authors simply reinforces the experience of being talked over that women are all too familiar with. While my expectations were not high to begin with, I still found the experience quite disappointing.

Ghada Ibrahim is a Psychology graduate from Middle East Technical University, 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.

Final Cut by Saleem Peeradina

Reviewed by Samreen Sajeda

. . . the family

could hardly afford luxuries like using up five oranges

to fill half a glass of juice.

~ Saleem Peeradina

Final Cut has a charming genesis story in a senior poet’s inability to wander outside like he would earlier, which led to musing on subjects nearer home. And, so, here are a range of poems on household objects strewn across the home with stories of their own, fruits decorating the dining table, or birds flocking over the birdfeed in the poet’s backyard. What beautifully complements these poems is the gorgeous feel of the book; clearly, the publisher has not compromised on quality paper and smooth covers to drape the book.

There is a sensory appeal in the contemplation of the ‘anatomy of a fig,’ or the pomegranate quartered into a bed of ‘rubies,’ or when the poet tells you ‘how to handle a ripe mango should you encounter one.’ The description of the scent of oranges such that ‘an entire orchard has been packed into the single fruit’ arrests your senses as if you yourself are biting into it.

Even more stunning are his set of object poems resembling miniature-autobiographies. Be it the Stapler ‘borrowed’ for keeps! Or the faithful Shaving Brush awaiting its fate at fifty. Not to forget the old-fashioned Juicer waking up on ‘slow Sunday mornings’ to replay a forgotten ritual, just when the aged Grater sportily watches the new one steal the show—unlike the Tava, destined to ‘outlive mortals,’ perhaps like Peeradina’s poetic words.

His poems affirm that imagination has the power to accommodate the universe on a sheet of paper. Not only is Peeradina able to capture still images, he also excels at freezing transient moments like ‘a silent smile in the very next instant, dissolving, fading . . .’ Likewise, he manages to capture the urgency of encountering the beloved in a dream, aware that ‘If I missed you/by a heartbeat, I missed you by a century.’

The poet is not unaware of the illusion of the ‘written’ word. He knows that the contractor cannot be trusted to adhere to ‘the agreement in a timely fashion/whether it is verbal or written down.’ But even more ironic is when he personifies death throughout “Close Call,” because after all, ‘Death was born to steal the show.’ This is just one instance of such splendid surprise lines waiting to greet you at the end of his verses, endorsing the poet’s sheer wit. While most of the poems spread across half a page, a few like “To an Old Friend” and “The Daughter’s Lament” are longer monologues with the fragrance of a short story.

Peeradina’s poems are also a manifestation of other art forms that he engages with as is seen in “Embedded”—an ekphrastic poem on the freshness of strawberries, which the poet will ‘preserve like museum exhibits.’ What is significant is that he refrains from essentializing the voice of the ‘other.’ This is evident when he confesses that his own ‘fingers are strangers to dirt’ unlike those ‘whose limbs have sweated in the fields.’ His older book also preserves poems inspired by paintings making ‘a window on his wall.’ “A Rumor of Birds” is an exceptional piece inspired by a book on migratory birds ‘claiming only a bit of earth and infinite sky.’ This is followed by the poem on crows making ‘a picnic out of a roadside carcass,’ the blue heron striking ‘a ballerina’s pose,’ or the ‘clay-colored’ sparrows. The reader is left gaping at the hummingbird probing the ‘hearts of flowers,’ or the mourning dove avoiding the noisy sparrows, ‘not in disdain but an almost Buddhist aloofness.’

The invisible turns visible when Peeradina makes ‘Something out of nothing’ and the impeccably broken stanzas appeal to the eye. His is surely an art of finesse as even the simplest of things turn graceful under his pen. In the poet’s own words—‘it is not food alone that satisfies the appetite. It is the devotion/with which you have garnished your offering that satiates the hunger.’

Samreen Sajeda graduated in English literature from Sophia College, Mumbai. 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 short stories. Her work has been published in Muse India, The Bosphorus Review of Books, Guftugu, Indian Cultural Forum, Spark, Hakara, and elsewhere.

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.