Category Archives: indian fiction

Book Review: This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition. Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh

This Side That Side Title: This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition: Graphic Narratives from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh
Curated by: Vishwajyoti Ghosh
Publisher: Yoda Press with Goethe Institut
ISBN: 9789382579014
Genre: Graphic Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

What is home? What is its meaning? Does it lose its value when disassociated from it? When torn away and not being able to look at it and then made to rely only on memory to experience what it feels like to be home. What is home then? What was home during the Partition of India? Two countries were formed no doubt. The herald of a new beginning some would say and yet it was disastrous for so many. Perhaps, it has reached a stage that while it exists in our subconscious, we yet are afraid to acknowledge its horrors. The fact that it happened – it took place and claimed lives is something too strong for us to give it its due and then when we fail to do that, we have art to remind us. All the time.

Art makes us see what we do not want to. It makes us hear what we choose to become deaf to. It compels us to not turn our face to the other side. With this in mind and maybe more, Yoda Press in conjunction with Goethe Institut has published a brilliant graphic anthology on the partition of India and Pakistan, and also the creation of Bangladesh, called, “This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition”, which is curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh.

The collection is unique not in the sense that it is in the graphic format, but perhaps because it aims to store memories in the form of lines and drawings and black and white. The shades of grey have no need to be documented. They are there – all-pervasive and daunting. There are twenty eight pieces in this collection – written and illustrated by over forty people. A work of greatness, in the sense of the contribution and most empathic – sometimes bordering sentimental, however don’t those times deserve that? Memory doesn’t let go.

I remember my grandmother telling me tales about partition, when she and her husband came to India. They had no choice, she would tell me and I didn’t understand then. I was but a child and now while reading this book, all I could think of was her. Displacement. It almost seems but a word till you face it. The stories in this collection look at every facet of Partition – whether it is in the most Bollywood of manner as portrayed in “An Afterlife” between two lovers who must part or in the way of the survivor as documented in “Know Directions Home?” depicting how a tribe moved from Pakistan to India and made a home for itself.

It isn’t that because of the form of expression being different (graphic + words in this case), the impact is any lesser. You end up feeling the same. At some level, only a South Asian can understand this book and at another level it speaks universally to all those people who have left home or searching for home. Vishwajyoti Ghosh has done a commendable job of getting these people together and somehow while reading this book, you know that they share a common emotion – yearning and longing. It just doesn’t let go of you as a reader. “This Side, That Side” is not just another graphic novel. It has the effect of pulling you right in and making connections that you never otherwise would have. A read to be savoured. Page by page. Illustration by Illustration. Word by Word.

Book Review: Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell by Rabisankar Bal (Translated by Arunava Sinha)

Dozakhnama by Rabisankar Bal Title: Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell
Author: Rabisankar Bal
Translator: Arunava Sinha
Publisher: Random House India
ISBN: 9788184003086
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 544
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Translations are needed – to let us readers know what we have missed out on and what we cannot anymore. I am a champion of translations, only because I wish I could read some works in the language they were written in, but if I cannot do that, then well, a translation suffices any given day. With a book that is translated, there is so much at stake. Are all the emotions translated as well? Are words used the way they are supposed to? Is every phrase and every thought in its place? Maybe so, is punctuation to convey the correct idea? Translation is not easy business. It takes a lot from the translator – it is almost a bond needs to be there between the writer and the translator for sure. With this, I begin my review of, “Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell” – written by Rabisankar Bal and beautifully translated by Arunava Sinha.

“Dozakhnama” proved to be is a very special read. I read it cover to cover and could not stop reading it. I managed to finish it today and here I am talking about it. The book is about two of my favourite writers conversing beyond the graves – Mirza Ghalib and Sadaat Hasan Manto. Their lives are entwined in shared dreams. The book has all elements – love, anger, hate, jealousy, magic realism (a lot of it and maybe that is one of the reasons I enjoyed the book the way I did), and covers all ground – right from Bandra to Ashok Kumar. This is what I love the most about the book – Bal doesn’t hesitate to imagine and Arunava doesn’t hesitate to work towards getting the emotion right for the reader in English.

The writing had me gripped from the first page and I couldn’t put it down, though it was heavy in most places. While reading the book, I often wondered, how it would sound in the language it was written in. The nuances of Bengali may not have come across totally in English; however I must say the translation was packed with power and to the hilt, as it was supposed to. I will not give away the meaning behind the title, because I want other readers to explore what is there to it. At the same time, what I loved most was the couplets and quotes that kept appearing in the book since but obviously it is about two great writers.

I have yet to come across a translation as good as this one. Arunava as always does a brilliant job of translating works. Dozakhnama is a read that I will not forget for a very long time to come. In fact, if I have the time to reread it, I will do that as well. I cannot stop raving about it and with good reason.

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The Novels of Anita Desai

One needs a lot of patience and time on hand to read Anita Desai’s books. Not because they are difficult reads, but because they make you ponder, mull, stop in between and reflect on your state of mind and heart, and just make you come back to the book/s in bits and parts.

I started reading Anita Desai while I was in college and the only thing that got me going with her books was the trailer of the movie, “In Custody”, which was based on her book. That was the first Anita Desai which I read and I haven’t looked back since. The movie was conceptualized by the duo Ismail-Merchant, which also led me to watching all their films and be in awe of their direction and production values.

Anita Desai writes with candour – the feelings are stark and need no explanation. Her characters are often cocooned, living in their own selves, comfortable in their skin and at times restless like any other character/s would be.

I have had various arguments with friends or acquaintances about her writing prowess and how she should be given more credit than that. Her novels are bleak but sometimes that is the truth about human nature – there is also the unknown kindness that makes itself visible in her works – from the relationship of the poet and his fan in “In Custody” to the delicate balance between a great–grandmother and her great-granddaughter in “Fire on the Mountain”, which gets maintained over the course of the book.

Desai’s characters are but human. They are awkward, shy, boisterous and often just want to live their lives cocooned without any interference from the world. Maybe that is the reason why her novels most of the time seem out of place in today’s times. That is the reason I read them. They somehow provide the necessary calm and quiet which is needed.

I remember reading, “Clear Light of Day” with great trepidation. The same applied to “Fasting Feasting”. That was due to the underlying themes of loneliness, despair and life not giving too many choices to the protagonists. Both the novels have the same undercurrents – of being there and yet wanting to have a life of their own. This is written without much sentiment, so though you feel sorry for the characters (to some extent), you do not feel the choke in the throat. For me that is the understated beauty of her books. They make you feel and that is more than enough.

My favourite Desai has to be, “In Custody” for sure. The subtlety of a poet’s last days and lost grandeur is depicted with such pathos, that even I could not help but cry in some parts (I am not being contradictory. Just stating the truth). The relationship between the poet and his long time admirer is so delicate and so factual, that one begins to wonder and introspect about all relationships in that manner.

“Fire on the Mountain” begins with an intrusion. Nanda Kaul is living her last years peacefully in the small town of Kasauli. Her great-granddaughter Raka is then dispatched to live with her. They think they are different from each other, till their similarities come to the surface along with the hurt, pain, kindness, only ending in tragedy.

The above-mentioned book is probably Desai’s most poetic work according to me. The descriptions and scenes are what are not present in her other books. The book has less dialogue and more beauty in the way the characters behave and silently ponder over the events unfolding around them. That is the true mark of Anita Desai’s books according to me – the slowness, the quiet and then suddenly a series of events occur that change the course of the characters’ lives.

Anita Desai’s books probably are set in different times and worlds, and yet they ring so true for present times. The pathos of “In Custody” to the grimness of life in “Fasting, Feasting”, her novels are not for the weak-hearted. Every book of hers is a gem to be cherished and kept and to go back to and admire as the years pass by. Anita Desai is truly one of India’s prolific and erudite writers. A must read for all literary lovers.

(Anita Desai’s 4 Titles Courtesy: Random House India)

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Book Review: Goat Days by Benyamin

Title: Goat Days
Author: Benyamin
Translator: Dr. Joseph Koyippally
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 9780143416333
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 264
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

The part about a translated work that irks the most is that it is translated. As a reader, you wish to read the original work in the language it was thought it, felt it and experienced in by the writer. There is always this sense of dissatisfaction at some point that manifests itself as a perception while reading a translated work. It happens to me a lot and happened again while I was reading “Goat Days” by Benyamin (born Benny Daniel), which is translated (and very well at that) by Dr. Joseph Koyippally.

“Goat Days” is set in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The protagonist Najib Muhammad is a young man from Kerala who is recently married and dreams of a better life. He wants more, just like anyone else. His idea of success: Working in any of the Persian Gulf States. The minute he lands, he is taken away by a rich Arab animal farm supervisor and there start his troubles. He is kept in isolation and has to take care of the goats – day in and day out. He is tortured, beaten and starved. Najib is away from any kind of human interaction, so much so that he actually starts believing that he is a goat as well. All he dreams of is his escape and that is at the core of the book.

That in short is about the book. The writing, though translated is well-paced and intelligently done. At no point did I get bored of the book or put it away. I am also on the other hand a strong believer of translated fiction – only because I believe that readers in that way are exposed to better and good literature.

Najib as a character is neither complex nor simple. He is somewhat in between. I loved portions of the book when he almost starts speaking with goats, thinking of himself as one of them, since he doesn’t know the language and cannot interact with anyone else. The pathos and humour that is achieved through the writing at the same time is highly commendable.

I liked the structure and premise of the book. Dreams that do not get fulfilled only make you realize that there is something more which might be in the offing. I felt a part of Najib’s journey – his hopes to his oppression to his escape. The book is intelligent and humane. For me it was a great read.

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Book Review: One and a Half Wife by Meghna Pant

Title: One and a Half Wife
Author: Meghna Pant
Publisher: Westland Publishers
ISBN: 978-93-81626-48-1
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 296
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Too many characters in a book sometimes just make the reader lose interest in the narrative. The reader is too caught up in the relationships of characters, and loses sight of the bigger narrative. This however did not thankfully happen to me while reading, “One and a Half Wife” by Meghna Pant.

“One and a Half Wife” may at times feel to be a clichéd book with a plot that is not very unique, however don’t be fooled by the writing that starts off as a simple narrative and then veers into the a little more complicated manner of writing – in the sense the shift between characters and their personalities and how it all interweaves through the story.

The book is about Amara Malhotra and her so-called American Dream gone wrong. She is everything a girl could ask for and has everything a girl could want. Intelligent, spirited and with a strong head, she leads a life worth being envious of, till she marries a Harvard-educated millionaire, Prashant Roy. It doesn’t seem to get better than this for Amara.

Till but obviously the twist in the tale has to occur and it does. The fairytale marriage doesn’t last the way it is supposed to. Amara returns to the place of her birth, Shimla and there starts another episode or rather a series of episodes of her life.

The juxtaposition of the life she had led and the life she would have to given the circumstances is beautifully done by the author. Amara doesn’t know what to believe in anymore – the old is in constant battle with the new and that is not even the start of her problems. She makes new friends; there are new battles to be fought and new territories that need to be explore.

What I liked about the book is that it doesn’t force anything on the reader. The writer says what she has to through the book and leaves it at that. My favourite character in the entire book has to be Baba – the silent, supportive and sometimes someone who speaks his mind nonetheless. Amara is strong, independent and yet sometimes quite not sure of her decisions, which I liked, as it made her only more human.

For me, the book represents the age-old tug-of-war between the old and the new and how much can one or should compromise? Or should one compromise at all?

This is one of my favourite parts of the book: “This is all hogwash, she told herself. All marriages were a consequence of security, tradition, money and beauty. Love was a chance, a lucky coincidence. Its existence was an after-thought, for more serious matters cemented marriage.”

This excerpt is enough to show you the skills of Meghna Pant as a writer – sometimes razor sharp, assured and knows where to take the story and at what pace. I did not get bored reading this book and I am sure neither will you. One of those reads that is perfect for a lazy summer afternoon.

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