Category Archives: indian fiction

365 Short Stories: Day 3: Boyfriend like a Banyan Tree by Sharanya Manivannan

the-high-priestess-never-marries-by-sharanya-manivannan

The story I read yesterday, the 3rd of January 2017 was a story which just flowed. To some extent, I couldn’t understand what it was about but then I reread it and reread it because I loved it. The story, “Boyfriend like a Banyan Tree” is a story of desire, of wanting what you do as a woman and not be ashamed of it.

The story is of a woman who wants a boyfriend like a banyan tree and she tells us why. It could also be a metaphor. It could also be highly erotic (which it is by the way and sensuous like no other story in the book, according to me). It could be interpreted anyway and I loved that about Sharanya’s writing. I have read four stories from this collection and I can tell you that you have to pick this one up.

The Thirteenth Day: A Story of the Kurukshetra War by Aditya Iyengar

The Thirteenth Day by Aditya Iyengar Title: The Thirteenth Day: A Story of the Kurukshetra War
Author: Aditya Iyengar
Publisher: Rupa Publications
ISBN: 978-8129134752
Genre: Fiction, Myths
Pages: 260
Source: Author
Rating: 4/5

I have always maintained that mythology must not be tampered with. I am sort of wary of the idea of retellings (so-called) and drifting away from the original or the real deal. It somehow scares me to read something like that. Having said that, I was quite taken by surprise by a book that had a retelling (of sorts) and somehow also stuck close to the original plot (had no choice given it was the Mahabharata).

Aditya Iyengar’s “The Thirteenth Day” is about the thirteenth day (well of course) but it a part of the war that is known only on the surface to most. It is the day when Yudhisthira, Radheya and Abhimanyu collide on the battlefield and what is the past and present to that day. It is about Abhimanyu majorly and how the story moves ahead using the “chakravyuh” as the core metaphor (at least that is what I interpreted from it).

There have been a lot of retellings of the Mahabharata – there is no dearth of stories out there on the epic. Then why must you read this book?

The book is no frills. It is simple, clear and tells a story that is riveting and keeps you hooked. What else do you need from a book?

The narration is in first person, which I am most comfortable with and might I add that it is most difficult to write a book in first person. The danger of losing the plot or the readers’ interest is quite high. However, Aditya never manages to do any of that at any point.

The thing with retelling or writing a story from the Mahabharata is that your research has to be five folds over and nitpicked. If that is not then, then you have already set yourself up for failure. But this book doesn’t do that. The research is thorough – so much so the minor characters also stand out and sometimes have their own stories to tell. There is also the element of surrealism (in some places) and it doesn’t at any point become an impediment but only helps the story move ahead. There are a lot of layers and sub-layers to Mahabharata. One cannot write about it and not be swayed to include some of them, which is what also happens in this narrative and that works for the book at every page.

The reason I am not talking much about the plot is that I would really want more people to read this book and experience it for themselves. A read that I would urge you to pick up because it is a fresh voice and tells the old tale with that voice harnessed all along.

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The Thirteenth Day : A Story of the Kurukshetra War (English)

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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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