Category Archives: Tranquebar Press

Book Review: Tamarind City by Bishwanath Ghosh

Title: Tamarind City – Where Modern India Began
Author: Bishwanath Ghosh
Publisher: Tranquebar, Westland Publishers
ISBN: 978-93-81626-33-7
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 315
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

What comes to mind when one thinks of Chennai? The heat. The Marina Beach. The food may be and nothing beyond that I guess. Chennai has been a different universe for most who do not belong to it. One cannot relate to it easily if one hasn’t lived there. I think that applies to every city, however as one of the metros, Chennai gets the most flak.
Bishwanath Ghosh has brought Chennai to readers in a different light. One that is beyond misconceptions and shatters perceptions. The book “Tamarind City” (Apt title considering the city he is talking about) is all about Chennai – from when it was Madras to present times.

Ghosh talks of the city as a muse at times, as a lover and sometimes an indifferent friend. He takes the mood of the city (so to say) and travels with it – from people he meets along the way to talking about Tollywood (the Chennai film industry) to the local cuisine and places surrounding it, Ghosh takes the critical and unbiased perspective.

The Chennai that Ghosh takes us through the book is very different from what we have imagined. He cleverly merges both – the traditional and modern aspects of the city, without favouring any. He visits historic sites, neighbourhoods, people and introduces us to varied lives led and dreams dreamed.

The writing is fluid and doesn’t jump too soon from one topic to the other, though it tends to drift a little, which can be ignored given the content. The people one meets in the book are quite different, belonging to different spectrums – from a transsexual to a yoga teacher to a top sexologist. With such people, the anecdotes and stories also get very interesting. In fact there were times while reading the book, when I forgot that it was non-fiction. The voice is casual and doesn’t demand too much intellect while reading it.

All in all, Tamarind City is one of its kinds book on Chennai as a metropolitan city and in some ways still a city that is taking its own time. I would recommend this book to those who want to know more about the city and also to those who know but like I said have a different view.

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Book Review: Hot Tea Across India by Rishad Saam Mehta

Title: Hot Tea Across India
Author: Rishad Saam Mehta
Publisher: Tranquebar Press
ISBN: 978-93-81626-10-8
Genre: Travelogue, Non-Fiction
Pages: 191
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3/5

A travelogue according to me is the most difficult to write. How can one capture images, beauty, and memories in a book? How much would it take to conjure every detail on the trips that you have made and the people you have met? I always marvel at the skill of writers who accomplish writing a travelogue to the smallest details. I started reading, “Hot Tea across India” on a cold night in December and it was a great experience.

I have always been wary of travelogues written by Indian writers, not for anything else, but for the fact that I feel the details are missing most of the time. So I started this one with trepidation, however all my fears were laid to rest.

Hot Tea across India is a book about tea all over the lay of the country. It is about the author’s obsession with travelling on his Bullet and otherwise and exploring lands, and while doing so drinking tea as he and his friends go along journeys over periods of time. Tea is something which is available anywhere in India. It is almost the staple or national drink of the sub-continent and it is around this that the author weaves his travelogue. Tea as tasted across his journeys. From Manali to Rajasthan to Delhi to Mumbai. The experiences are varied and brilliantly accounted for in this book.

Rishad Saam Mehta was working with Autocar India and it is through them that he took to writing and photography. The pieces are well-written, though not all talk about tea and that’s what one will expect, given the title. At the same time, the writing is very good, especially when Mehta describes scenery and breathtaking Himalayan ranges as he is riding past them or setting camp. My favourite chapters in the book were about food – what is available on the highway roadside eateries to what can be cooked by strangers who become acquaintances and then friends.

Throughout the book, I wondered how good it would be if the book could be substantiated with pictures. That would be a reader’s delight. All in all Hot Tea across India was a good reading experience to start off the year.

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Book Review: Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands by S. Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges

Title: Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands
Author: S. Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges
Publisher: Tranquebar Press
ISBN: 9789380283777
PP: 308 pages
Price: Rs. 250
Genre: Non-Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

Yes it is true, behind every successful man, no matter what the profession, there is always a woman. A Woman who is not only strong-headed but also sly enough to accelerate the man’s thoughts and decision-making process, in the direction she wants to. And yes women rule the roost (though for some men it is hard enough to accept the fact) and that’s true.

The reason I say this is because I have just finished reading Mafia Queens of Mumbai, a realistic and hard-hitting portrait of women who were the Mafia Queens of the metropolis. It is not weird to think that young Dawood Ibrahim in need of the hour would turn to Jenabai – a freedom fighter converted to a bootlegger. Haji Mastan and the other gangsters would also consult her and act on advice given when needed. That’s what got me thinking the most while reading the book, and come to think of it, it is just but one of the thirteen accounts of the book and Jenabai stays the most in memory as she has also been portrayed by many on the silver screen.

Each of the 13 narratives are real, pieced from official documents, case reports and anecdotes. From a woman who fell in love with a gangster to avenger her husband’s death to another who convinced her husband to join the underworld only to cheat on him and forced to flee the country.

There are so many more real-life incidents in the book such as these and it makes you wonder about what takes place behind closed doors. Mafia Queens of Mumbai is real and the writers do not mince words. Almost everything is layered and nothing is ever as simple as what meets the eye. I loved the writing. It is direct, in-your-face and unapologetic and that is what makes the book so readable.

Wives, Lovers and Mistresses – they are all there in the book. They seep through the pages and their voices are clear. They have had the will to survive and all of them are survivors, in one way or the other. From prositution to being a moll to silently being hidden behind the scenes and running the show, so to say. These women fall down and rise back to action with clearer minds and stronger determination to do what it takes to find their place in the throes of the underworld.

You can also order to book here on Flipkart

An Interview with Shehryar Fazli

When I first read Invitation, I was mindblown by the writing. I got in touch with the publicity representative and she in turn got me in touch with the author and here is the interview for you readers. Hope you enjoy it. You can read the review of the book here

1. Could you tell me a little more about the inception of the title for the book?

 

The novel went through several working titles, but none of them actually worked. It was quite tedious. But ‘Invitation’ was the title of one of the sections, and when it came time to decide on a final title when the manuscript was going out, I thought about ‘Invitation’ and asked myself if this title captured some essence of the book. I decided that it did.

2. Invitation is a book with many layers. Did you start off by ideating so many layers for the book?

You know, in fact, the challenge throughout was actually getting rid of several layers. This may be something that first-time novelists are especially vulnerable to – the urge to fill the book with everything, as if this is the only chance you have. Throughout, I realized that I was writing many parallel stories that may have worked individually, but not within the architecture of this novel – there were some major characters, who I loved, who I eventually had to give the boot. Hopefully I can resurrect them in later work. There was also a lot more about Shahbaz’s past in Paris. Now you see his past selectively, through a filter, and I think that works much better in this case since this is not your big bildungsroman. So, yes, I was always writing a big book, because it’s big books that have influenced me. It remains, as you say, multi-layered, but I actually see it as far tighter than it was in earlier drafts.

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3. With so many Pakistani writers in the limelight, how difficult or easy was it for you to make your presence felt or your voice heard?

On the one hand, Pakistani writers are getting unprecedented attention, which of course is productive and allows someone like me to reach a large audience. On the other hand, it’s a little awkward as well. I have a few friends from the U.S. and elsewhere trying to get their work published, and they often tease me and say, “You’re lucky you’re a Pakistani writer.” The suggestion is that you owe your success as much to this interest in the phenomenon of ‘Pakistani writing’ as to individual talent. This sounds unfair, and yet there may be some truth to it. A mild concern I have is that the attention sometimes shifts from a discussion of the individual book, towards this phenomenon of ‘Pakistani writing’ so that we’re talking about a historical or cultural event rather than the novels themselves. But, ultimately, if your book is strong, it will be the story, the characters, and the language that people will remember long after their interest in this little ‘boom’ subsides.

4. Why is this presumption that Pakistani writers will churn out “a certain kind of story, “the certain kind of novel”? When do you think this will stop?

Well, the most welcome aspect of this whole Pakistani boom or renaissance, or whatever you want to call it, is that the work is so different. Kamila Shamsie’s work is very different to Daniyal Mueenuddin’s, which is very different to Nadeem Aslam’s, which is very different to Mohammad Hanif’s, which is very different to H.M. Naqvi’s… I could keep going. I think you’re right in that there seems to be an expectation that a Pakistani writer will address the major concerns like terrorism, gender inequality, tradition and custom, but I think there are similar expectations for writers everywhere. If you’re writing about New York, for example, you’d have to make a very conscious decision not to address the events of 9/11. If you were a German writer writing after World War II, you couldn’t not address the Nazi experience in some way. So, yes, people will expect to see this theme or that theme in the literature coming out of a particular time or place, but it’s important for writers not to bother about that, not to service those expectations. So far, it’s refreshing to see such varied work out of the Pakistani experience.

5. What role does “the sexual” play in your book considering that it is out there and for all to read and imagine?

A basic fact about the sex in this novel is that it’s certainly not good sex. On the contrary, it’s seedy and demeaning – and by that, I mean demeaning for Shahbaz. It’s not there to titillate and it’s not gratuitous, but reveals much more about Shahbaz, a guy who hasn’t figured out how to engage with women, or how to express masculinity. You have this character who is, throughout, unable to take action, who keeps everything bottled up, who remains silent when he should speak up, who’d prefer not to know and not to reveal too much. But where he is completely naked, figuratively and often literally, is in his dealings with women, whether it’s Malika the dancer, or the many prostitutes he pays for. For him, sex provides solace, in some cases a sense of power… but above all I think the scenes reveal his contempt towards himself and his own situation.

6. How does the cover capture the essence of your book? This was one thing I was struggling to understand…

I wanted something to capture the cabaret, one of the central venues in the story. We toyed with a couple of options, all very striking, but this one also conveyed a sense of mystery, of the hidden or not-quite-revealed, that I thought was apt.

7. Shehryar’s Top 10 All-time favourite books

How about 5 (after that it gets a little tough)?

  1. Herzog (Bellow); 2. Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee); 3. Midnight’s Children (Rushdie); 4. Remains of the Day (Ishiguro); 5. In a Free State (Naipaul)

8. So how did it feel when you finally finished writing the book?

I forget who originally said it, but he’s quoted in John Banville’s The Sea: a work of art is never finished, only abandoned. It was a great feeling to get the first draft done, in that the story now had a beginning and end. But what happens in between was always shifting, being reworked, and I don’t know how many ‘final’ drafts there were. I have to confess that I still think of it as an evolving thing, that in subsequent editions, this or that may be tweaked. I don’t know if I actually will, but the mere possibility keeps the book alive in my head. Also, even when you’ve finished work on the text, the project is still unfinished, in that now the book’s got to get out there, be read, be talked about. I go through spells of excitement and of vulnerability, because it remains a very personal work, a big part of me, that is now public property in a sense. But, overall, it’s a great feeling for the story to be a thing in the world — and an addictive one, which may be why I’m going through the torture all over again in writing a second novel.  

9. Why did you pick the 70’s as the backdrop for your book?

Originally, and for some time, this story didn’t have a specific setting, even a time period, but it did involve the narrator’s return from West to East, and about his very idiosyncratic pursuit of a sense of citizenship. At the same time – and this was when I was still in college – I was learning more about this very fascinating period in Pakistan’s history when popular protests in the late 60s were in large part responsible for the end of a military regime and the country’s first democratic transition. In a moment like that, people end up questioning the basics – what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be a nation, what one’s responsibilities are to the state and to fellow citizens, and what the state’s responsibilities are to the citizen. This was the perfect backdrop to Shahbaz’s story, and once I put him in that clutter, I decided I liked the results.  Also, I’ve always been a close reader of the State-of-the-Nation novel, and have always wanted to take on big public events in a literary way. In Pakistan, two of those events, the lessons of which still haunt us, are the country’s breakup in 1971 because of a failure to honor diversity and democracy, and the hanging of the country’s first elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in 1979. In retrospect, I think it was inevitable that I would use them in my first novel.

10. Your advice to both writers and readers…

To both: keep reading. Read enormous amounts. If a book is not working for you, don’t feel obliged to finish because there are too many great books to read and there’s no time to waste on a book you’re not enjoying. But, at the risk of contradicting myself, read challenging stuff. Read books that expand your vocabulary (literal and figurative), your way of examining human life, your appetite for life, books that show you what all is possible in literature. I have similarly simple advice just for writers: write! Get the words on the page, treat it like something mechanical rather than something mystical – don’t wait for that state of grace, that inspiring moment when the words just gush. There’s no such thing. Give yourself a daily word target, and then treat it like a job, don’t get up until it’s done. Even if what comes out if drivel that you’ll later discard, the point is to enter a regular rhythm, get pages piled up, and worry about making it good later.

 You can also purchase the book here