Category Archives: penguin india

Dangerlok by Eunice De Souza

Dangerlok by Eunice De Souza Title: Dangerlok
Author: Eunice De Souza
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 978-0143065074
Genre: Novella, Literary Fiction
Pages: 166
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I remember reading Dangerlok a long time ago and being so moved by it. Nothing was different this time around as well. I felt more, if not the same. Eunice De Souza, being the poet, she was makes you see the way sentences can be strung together and how poetically prose can be handled. I think this is true of most writers I have read who are poets first and then writers of prose. Having said that, I think everyone who is from Bombay or not, should read Dangerlok. It encapsulates the city like no other I’ve read set in the city.

Eunice’s Dangerlok is precise, exact, and doesn’t waste time. Its brevity astounds and makes you understand that a book need not be lengthy to say what it has to. So, what is Dangerlok about?

Dangerlok is Mumbai – the swirl, the scum, the acid aftertaste, the lingering, the seductive city who lures you and then enters your head and heart like a disease. And in between all this stands the protagonist, Rina Ferreira (positively modelled after Eunice) who is an English Literature Teacher, who lives in Santacruz East with her two parrots – Totha and Tothi and her hoard of books, writing letters to David (a man who she once loved and may be still does), enjoying a casual cab ride, observing her neighbours, friends, cabwallahs, the existence of them all and the humour and irony behind things that seem so little and normal on an average day. She comes across Dangerlok on a daily basis while smoking her cigarettes and drinking her jungli tea. She observes. She notices and dashes off letters to David about the world that surrounds her.

I cannot put a finger on what I felt while reading this book – I loved it to such a great extent. It was the description of the small things – Totha sitting on her head as she opens the door to a neighbour, the memory of having bought David Copperfield for four bucks, her worry over her parrots and hence she does not leave the city for long, the fact that she does not want to be “involved in life” and yet her heart goes out to the stray pup, nutty clerks at the post office who refuse to acknowledge, and many such instances. De Souza gives Rina her space to play, her canvas to paint and yet it’s sad that the canvas is only a mere 124-page long novella. It makes you yearn for more. There is ennui and there is hope. But you better watch out, because chances of seeing Dangerlok everywhere around you are not that slim.

 

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

BLRW Title: Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Dark Star Trilogy)
Author: Marlon James
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241315583
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 640
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Black Leopard Red Wolf is a piece of art – it needs to be read with such intensity and focus. This came to be as I went along with the read, it sort of grows on you and then you are hooked. I might gush right now, however, you just cannot read it in one sitting – you need time to devour it, embrace it, and most importantly love it. A lot of people have compared it to Tolkien or GRR Martin’s works but let me also tell you that it is extremely different from any of those writers’ creation. It is for one set in several worlds – each complete in their own and not so much – it challenges the reader at every step to figure and know more, only to turn back the pages to make the connect between places and people.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf may not also be everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, I would urge everyone who has little interest in literature to read it – only to be aware of what literature is and what it can achieve. With the sheer style of writing, that almost changes with every chapter, the crumbs of information left here and there for the reader to pick up on, and more than anything else it achieves to bring out a lot of emotions in the reader. From love to envy to desire (raging at that), to sometimes even anger towards situations and people caught in it, you just can’t get enough of BLRW.

BLRW is high-fantasy, it is also a book that challenges you, your world, the way you think, and how you most commonly perceive the world to be. It makes you see ancient worlds seeped in African myths that perhaps you weren’t aware of. So in that sense, it also makes you go down the rabbit hole of mythology that makes you a more-aware person at the end of it. For instance, the way James writes about the Anansi Tales or the Sundiata Epic and makes it a part of his story, is what most writers might have struggled with. And it is only the beginning – the first in the Dark Star trilogy, at around six hundred and twenty pages.

What is the book about?

The book is set in several ancient kingdoms. It is the quest for a missing boy. Tracker is one of the questers who has been hired by a mysterious figure to bring the boy back, given the fate of a kingdom. You get to realize this only when you are halfway through the book. So wait for it, and even then James doesn’t give it all away. Tracker isn’t the only one who has been hired. It is a motley crew – a chatty giant, a shape-shifting leopard, a witch, a buffalo, a girl raised to be the food of the ogres, and a water goddess who melts into puddles. Tracker is known for his nose. His nose is known to lead him to any missing person. This is all I shall reveal about him for now. Also, where Tracker is from? Where are the other characters, what is their role to play in this quest, etc are questions that I am sure will be answered in the remaining two parts of the trilogy.

The group dynamics are what one would expect – there is humour, there is conflict – sometimes with little or no resolution, and there is a camaraderie of sorts between them. Marlon’s Tracker and Leopard might be linked to Achilles and Patroclus, but they have so much more rage, fury, and desire.

Also, might I add that the start of the book gives you a list of 80 characters that will appear and reappear throughout the book or the trilogy in this case. While this is intimidating, it is most certainly very helpful to go back to time and again. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is violent, it is not your usual comfort-food story that is based on folktales that heal you. Men, women, and children are raped to death and that in a way only brings out the tenderness of the protagonist. While African mythology is largely at its base, plot, and structure, it is also earthy, salted with stunning chase and fight scenes, unfolding at a very leisurely pace. Marlon James’ world is superlatively unique and that’s what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so darn refreshing. I honestly don’t think that it can be compared to any works of high-fantasy. The worlds built – shape and reshape as you the reader, goes along with the book. There are surprises and shocks along the way that make the story tumble on its head, making you wonder as the reader if you ever got it right to begin with.

Might I also add that the queer perspective of the book is brilliant. I have not in my reading of fantasy literature come across a prominent queer protagonist (there are many on the surface and as sidebars to the protagonist, but just someone as complete as Tracker for sure, I haven’t) and Marlon James nails it down pat. The love so to say between Tracker and Leopard is of magnanimous proportions and that can only be understood once you are one-third into the book. For me as a queer reader, it was overwhelming, and full of love. It was the kind of love that I was searching for in fantasy literature but hardly found it and I am extremely glad that Marlon James wrote about it.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a novel that resists categorisation and classification of any kind and rightly so. It is set in a world that is researched brilliantly given the myths handed down from Central and West Africa. It is a world that does not conform to gender. It breaks it to the core. It is a world of political corruption, queer identity, and love and some glorious sex while we are at it, between black men.

A lot of care and thought has gone in the making of these characters. Marlon James really couldn’t be bothered with the relatability aspect, and yet as a reader he leaves it all up to you. Queer love to me is at the heart of this novel – it is beautiful in every single way and stands up against patriarchy. Also, the following two books are versions of the same elements told by other characters – almost like a Rashomon style of telling the story. Yes, there are black fantasy writers such as N.K. Jemisin (whose Broken Earth trilogy also has queer characters), and Walter Mosley, and even Nalo Hopkinson to name a few, however none of them were or are able to bring out the aspect of race and queer identity in the same way that James has.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is to be read for its dejected women – who are brave and fearless and will make their voices heard. Read it for the thrill, adventure, and quest that will grab you by the throat at every single page and not let you go. The plot intricacies that will make you want to reread it at least once more. Read it because it is subtle, in your face, loud, violent, and sexy. You must read it because it is the best you will read this year. Or at least, one of the best. 

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti. Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti Title: A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There
Author: Krishna Sobti
Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670091195
Genre: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Memoir
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Despite the translation, Krishna Sobti’s book, “A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There” isn’t an easy read to begin with. Only when you get used to the person narratives being changed constantly, time being fluid, and above all anecdotes thrown about constantly, and in-between chapters, that you realize what a marvel of a book you are reading.

I honestly did not want this book to end. This novel (meta), memoir, a commentary on the Partition, a commentary even more on the world left behind, makes you want to explore everything written by Ms. Sobti, if you haven’t already read her. In fact, even if you have read her, you’d just want to go back and reread her books.

“A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There” is a book that can perhaps be summed as falling under many genres, but to me it was a book about the Partition, about home and longing, about old and new worlds that will never merge, and mainly about displacement. Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginama is perhaps one of the finest works on the Partition to have emerged from the subcontinent, however, this book is so diverse in the plot and sub-plots that to me it is perhaps even better than Zindaginama.

The setting of course is 1947. A young Krishna and her family are now in India. The country is new, and they are treated as refugees (more about this later). She is determined to make her own path in the world and an opportunity presents itself in the form of heading a preschool in the princely state of Sirohi. From there on, she faces misogynistic behaviour from Zutshi Sahab, the man charged with hiring for the position. And finally, she is governess by twist of fate to the child maharaja Tej Singh Bahadur, which accounts for around hundred pages of the book.

Like I said, the book is a lot of things, but don’t let that bother or distract you from the writing. Sobti’s writing is charming, often melancholic, and peppered with nostalgia. She constantly goes back in time to speak of pre-partition and how it was then. The comparisons also occur. For instance, when she meets her Nani and her great-uncle on a trip to Bombay, she is overwhelmed at how her Nani is still stuck in the past (and longs for it), and how her uncle ensures that she is well-taken care of.

One of my favourite scenes is when Sobti goes to visit her aunts in Ahmedabad and they think that drinking tea (cardamom and cinnamon) will make them forget about sad incidents. I love the simplicity of this scene. It is extremely endearing and relatable to most. Tea in a way does make you forget the bad things. Also, before I forget, my most favourite part of the book is the picnic Sobti’s friends and headmistress of the college go on due to her birthday is iconic. This happens before Partition, so the sense of it never happening again hits the author so hard, and in effect the reader.

Sobti’s writing is razor-sharp. She observes acutely and doesn’t hesitate to talk about the horrors of Partition, which is of course where the book gets the title from – a Gujarat with us and another Gujarat that side of the border. Another incident that brings out the ruin of Partition is Sobti speaking of Lady Mountbatten and Rameshwari Nehru visiting the refugee camps and how the women there were told to wear colourful orhnis to show respect for the Laat Sahiba.

Everything in this book is deliciously worded. Even though at times I wondered that it could become a translator’s nightmare – given how Sobti moves from past to present and changes person from first to third almost line after line. Daisy Rockwell has done a stupendous job of this translation. I loved The Women’s Courtyard last year, which was again translated by her. I love how she gets the nuance so right – the structure, the plot, and the meaning plus emotion doesn’t get lost at all. Rockwell gets it all pat-on and the reason I say it, is I am also reading the original in Hindi alongside.

Feminism in this book isn’t lost at all. If anything, it is so subtle and yet makes itself felt, heard, and seen on every page. From Sobti choosing to work away from home to her friends and aunts and niece’s choices, women empowerment and rights shine through the book. At the same time, it isn’t easy for them. Also, the parts when she asserts her role of a governess. Though she is taking care of royalty, she does what she must.

Krishna Sobti has written a lot about women and the hypocrisy faced by them in everyday life in her other works as well – from Zindaginama to Listen Girl! (Ae, Ladki) to To Hell with you, Mitro! (Mitro Marjani). If anything, just to know her body of work, read these as well, and more.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There is a brilliant book, that juxtaposes the past and the present, with nostalgia and loss at its core. It is the kind of book that must definitely be read with copious amounts of tea on the side. Read it! You will hands-down love it.

 

The Music Room by Namita Devidayal

The Music Room Title: The Music Room
Author: Namita Devidayal
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-8184000542
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoirs, Music, Indian Writing
Pages: 320
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I first read this book when it released in 2007. It has been more than a decade, and I decided to reread it. It has been a while since I cried while reading a book and this one managed to make me weep, yet again. The story of a mentor and a student, and above all music that binds them is beyond beautiful. It is so sublime that there were times I had to just keep the book aside, to only soak in what I had read. Namita Devidayal’s writing skills are beyond ordinary. She tells us the story of her music teacher, Dhondutai and does it with great empathy, feeling, love, and honesty.

The Music Room is also about Hindustani Classical Music – it is so wide that perhaps only a bit can be covered in one book, but Devidayal does try to bring to fore what she learned, what her teacher learned, and in turn manages to enthral readers with every turn of the page. Namita started learning music from her teacher Dhondutai from the Jaipur gharana at the age of ten, at the insistence of her mother.  And thus, begins a journey of not only learning music, but perhaps also learning how to be a better person.

The book traverses the journey of Namita’s musical education and moves back and forth in time – tracing how Dhondutai got her musical education, how she became a part of the Jaipur Gharana (at a time when women were not taught music at all or the ones who did learn music were looked down upon or thought to be nothing but courtesans), how she was trained under the tutelage of greats such as Alladiya Khan, and the tempestuous Kesarbai Kerkar.

The Music Room is a homage to a time gone by. I don’t remember or cannot think of anyone undergoing music lessons as of today and that too in Hindustani classical. But that’s not the point I am trying to make. The Music Room is a book that has so many layers to it – women empowerment, women who do what they must because they are passionate about something, men who do not bind, what music means – what it meant to rulers in an India gone by, and of course at the heart of it there is always music. It is because of this book that I became aware of ragas, of taans, of what raag is sung when, and it all happened organically – in the sense the book isn’t preachy. Thank God for YouTube so I could listen to the greats as I read about them.

This is a book full of anecdotes, of life, of how we find ourselves in places where we least expect to be, and how life comes full-circle more often than not. It is a beautiful profile of Dhondutai, but my favourite portions were ones on Kesarbai. Devidayal writes about her mischievously, with a lot of love, and reverence as well. But when she speaks of her teacher – there is a whole lot of heart and you can sense the bond without it becoming too sentimental. Read it. Please read it. You must. Just must.

 

 

 

Interview with Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

Last year I read a book called The Rabbit and the Squirrel by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and was deeply touched and moved by it, as most readers who read it were. It is a short book about love, friendship, and loss, told with great brevity, given it is only about sixty pages long.  I wish it were longer. I wish we had more illustrations by Stina Wirsén, as the book moved along and became larger than what it is. But, I am glad it is out there in the world for all to read, love, and appreciate. Siddharth is a friend and I am only extremely happy to have this short interview published on my blog. I wish him more such books, for readers such as I. Thank you, Siddharth.

SDS

Why the long hiatus between The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay and The Rabbit and the Squirrel? 

I don’t think of myself as a professional writer. I make things – photographs, drawings, books. So I don’t measure a gap between books but try and look at what I had done with my time. Between the book, there were photographs, shows I curated, houses I designed – it was all a way of being. But I am also very interested by nonsense things, such as swimming at sea, and I can spend hours, even days looking at cat videos and drinking Goa’s Greater Than gin.

Rabbit

The theme of The Rabbit and the Squirrel to my mind is more than friendship. There are so many emotions that take over this small book, almost everything packed into one. What was the writing experience like? How was it collaborating with the illustrator, Stina?

You know, I have almost no recollection of writing this little fable. I’d made it for someone I cared for deeply; I see now that tenderness for my friend eclipses all recollection of the writing process. Perhaps the story had always been there, a memento of shared, private time. The process of bringing the fable to book form was urged on by my astonishing publisher, Hemali Sodhi; and it was edited with such grace by Niyati Dhuldhoya that it became something else – a rarer, leaner thing – under her attentions.

Stina, the book’s illustrator, is also its co-parent – her sublime, frisky, careful illustrations give this book soul and energy. She is a close personal friend, and instinctively suggested to me to publish this fable – the book exists not only because of her sterling drawings but quite simply because she had been the one to suggest that I publish it.

SDS - Image 1

How important is the writer’s role in the scheme of things today? When the world is literally falling to pieces, what part do writers play in providing some semblance of hope? I say this because The Rabbit and the Squirrel is full of hope, even though fleetingly. 

Writing, and language, holds steady all that is intangible in our lives. In the articulation of our existence – the articulation of prejudice or heartbreak, of dissent, of rage – we are also able to repair. Language is both a measure as well as the meaning of our time. The writer’s job is to hover a lamp over what is, with language, she must illuminate, show and reveal. Reading is a form of civilising the most private self. It is a way of recognising that a part of this world is falling apart – and then of marshalling language to undo this damage.

Do you ever think one can write without reading? 

No, firmly, absolutely no: you cannot write without reading widely, promiscuously. Your writing will only be as good as your reading.

Your favourite books?

Beloved – Toni Morrison.
Light Years – James Salter.
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

SDS - Image 2

Is there another book that we could look forward to? A novel, perhaps? 

I would be so lucky to serve another book. (And thank you for your support over the years, Vivek).

SDS 3

The Rabbit and the Squirrel moved me to tears. I know several people who have had the same emotions evoked while or after reading the book. What was your intent when you started writing this universal tale? 

I had no intention except to make a gift for a friend. That is what I think of it, still and always, a private little thing made for, and with, love. But yes, I know what you mean – other friends have said that, which has always reminded me that all of us going about our lives with so many broken pieces in our pockets. All of us are suffering. All of us are enduring.

You can buy the book here

Please do buy the book. Please do read it. Please weep and laugh as you read it. Please repeat the process all over again. Gift the books to loved ones. You will be gifting them joy.