Category Archives: women writers

Read 65 of 2022. In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition by Aanchal Malhotra

9789354898914

Title: In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition
Author: Aanchal Malhotra
Publisher: HarperCollins India
ISBN: 9789354899140
Genre: Nonfiction, Partition Literature Pages: 756
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I love Partition Literature – it tells me about my ancestors and their way of life, which I didn’t bother asking about when they were alive. Partition Literature is more than just novels or oral history. It goes beyond grief, loss, and belonging. I love Partition Literature because I was always so safe knowing who I was, not fearing about displacement, not knowing any better, till I did.

My grandparents – both maternal and paternal – migrated to India in July 1947, right towards the end, from Pakistan. I was all of eight years old when my paternal grandmother died and I wasn’t born when my paternal grandfather died. My parents don’t remember much about the Partition either. My mother never asked her parents about it. Neither did my aunts and uncles on both sides. That says a lot about trauma and grief, about what we remember and what we forget, and what we do not want to know about.

In the last couple of years, I have read Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation at least three times to make sense of where I come from – at least some of it. I believe art saves you, and it does, and it has, whenever I have turned to it. It is painful to read about the Partition but in a way it is also very cathartic. As a third-generation resident of independent India – who has only heard about the Partition in snatches of stray conversations – trying to make sense of pain and loss, reading about the events can be a means of providing closure, even if in the smallest of ways.

Aanchal Malhotra’s In the Language of Remembering is a book for me, for people who belong to my generation or after, for anyone who wants to understand the Partition from where we are now. It is a book about remembering – of conversations Malhotra had over the years with generations of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. She speaks to them about identity, about the relevance of the Partition today, whether we wish to talk about the Partition, and the need to preserve the painful past.

While growing up I used to think of the Partition as an event in my grandparents’ lives. It was cut off from my existence. I didn’t realise till much later that I too am a product of the painful past in one sense or the other – of two people whose parents had memories, who could never forget what they endured, about how they crossed the border, and how long it took them to build a new life.

In the Language of Remembering has been published at a time when the country is in the grips of a destructive chaos – when relationships have taken a back seat and religion is at the fore, when Muslims are being othered, and people are being categorised as “minority” and “majority”. The book has been published at a time when we need it the most – to understand where we have come from and how far we have come, and what it will take to be truly secular.

I never understood what the Partition meant to me, and how it perhaps even impacted me till I read about it. It all began with Kamleshwar’s Partitions in the year 2000, and after twenty-two years and having read about some forty-and-odd books on the subject, I feel we still don’t have enough Partition Literature. We constantly need to look and relook at it, to understand ourselves better, and perhaps generate some more empathy within us – to be kinder to each other and ourselves. I admit, it isn’t as simple as that. Sadly, we have a long way to go since maps and borders continue to be an integral part of our existence, whether we like it or not.

In the Language of Remembering makes us aware of what we carry within ourselves. Malhotra’s book is about regrets, losses, hopes, about what we gained, and what we were separated from. It is about the choices one made, about family, about generations, and how some incidents are not passed over, not told as stories, not revisited because of how painful they are and the need to talk about them – both in order to look ahead and constantly keep looking back so as not to lose a part of ourselves.

Read 40 of 2022. The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

Title: The Swimmers
Author: Julie Otsuka
Publisher: Penguin Fig Tree
ISBN:  9780241543887
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

We descent into something unpleasant. We fall toward it. We do not know how it happens, but when it does, we don’t even know how to witness the deterioration, because people around us are busy doing that. Not only witnessing it, but also remembering it for us. The big and the small incidents. The ones we have forgotten along the way, and the ones we will not remember soon enough. It isn’t that we choose to forget (or sometimes we do), but that’s how it is. Memory is like water.

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka is a book about memory, about its loss, time standing still for some, maybe also about redemption, and forgiving oneself to a large extent. The Swimmers is a short book that cuts through you with its brilliant prose, reminding you of the transient nature of memory. We take such pride sometimes in remembering. I know I do, till I cannot remember the word for “chair” one day and I lose my bearings over it.

The Swimmers reminded me of my living parent and her mortality. Of how she could suffer from dementia some day and what would I do in that situation. The Swimmers, as the title suggests, is about a couple of swimmers who swim in an underground pool, away from the rest of the world, in their own blissful bubble. Till cracks appear in the pool, and everything changes. They aren’t allowed to swim anymore. Alice, one of the swimmers is slowly and steadily suffering from frontotemporal dementia – changing, drifting, losing her personality – cracks that take over her life.

Otsuka writes beautifully and with so much grace, that you wish the book were longer.  She makes you a part of the story. You become one of the swimmers (even if you are petrified of large water bodies like me). You become the crack in the pool. Otsuka makes you believe you are broken (which you probably are anyway). She speaks of swimming as an act of praying. A ritual that has to be followed, speaking of people who undertake it, who become obsessed with it, who feel safe because of it, focusing finally on one person who perhaps represents them all – Alice. Alice who is now forgetting, soon becoming the forgotten.

As the chapters progress, the book of course becomes less about swimming, but more about memory and dementia – in a way also about swimming through one’s mind to remember, to hold on to what one can, to the husband and the children and their perspectives as you are swimming away from them into oblivion. Otsuka writes about it all – the past, the present, and what might shape the future. A chapter on the home, Bellavista, in which Alice is a resident after things go south is written in the most dystopian and clinical way (as it must) and shakes you up as a reader. Each chapter by Otsuka is carefully plotted – no sentence is out of place. Each memory, each object, each incident mentioned in the book makes you as a reader feel enough and more – about your life, the objects that surround you, the incidents that have taken place in your life, and finally about the impermanence of it all.

The Swimmers is a book that says so much in so little. What it feels like to lose a child, to move to a new country, to lose someone you loved a long time ago, the children you raised and what has become of them now – all of this in relation to what you were and what you are.

Julie Otsuka is a writer of great brevity. Her books have always been short, and yet communicate what they want to. Her characters are mostly lost, each searching and finding themselves, as though lost in a maze. Once again, I cannot gush enough about her writing prowess. The Swimmers is a book that will leave you thinking so much more about memory, forgetting, death, and how life fits in all of this.

Read 33 of 2022. Sin: Stories by Wajida Tabassum. Translated from the Urdu by Reema Abbasi

Sin by Wajida Tabassum

Title: Sin: Stories
Author: Wajida Tabassum
Translated from the Urdu by Reema Abbasi
Publisher: Hachette India
ISBN: 9789391028886
Genre: Short Stories, Women in Translation
Pages: 220
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Wajida Tabassum wrote at a time about women and their lives, when it was practically unheard of. That too of Muslim women and their lives – hidden behind veils or traditions – the lives that no one knew about or did but didn’t speak of it – she chronicled all of it in her short stories that bridge the gap between ignorance and truth.

Tabassum came from a family that had seen immense amount of wealth but by the time she turned nine, it was all squandered and both her parents were dead. Her maternal grandmother took care of her and her siblings, selling her jewelry to provide for their education and daily living. They had to go through immense hardships that she then wrote about in a short narrative titled “Meri Kahaani” (My Story).

Wajida started writing short stories at an early age. She wrote about the world she knew and did it with humour, bite, and the desperation of women in it who want a way out but do not get that exit. The book is about the spaces they inhabit and how men are all-pervasive, extremely territorial and want more and more – Tabassum covers four aspects of “sin” – lust, pride, greed, and envy. There are 18 stories in all – dissecting, humanizing, dehumanizing, rarely empowering, and mostly placing the woman at the center of dilemmas, confusion, weakness, and sacrifices.

There are also times when female agency kicks in very strong. For instance, the first story Chhinaal (Fallen Venus) is about a courtesan Gauhar Jaan and her marriage to one of her patrons, how she is treated in the family, and what happens when she decides to take some matters in her hand. There is sadness and a lingering feeling of helplessness, yet you know that Gauhar did what she wanted to, on her terms. Or even Talaq, Talaq, Talaq (Separation) where Mehru takes matters in her own hand when Nawab Sarkar forces her husband to divorce her.

Tabassum’s women are creatures of circumstance and the time they lived in. Her stories are set in Hyderabad, right after the partition, and some before. The exact timeline is not known but you get an idea as you go along reading them. Her women are full of desire, longing, craving, and also ambition – mostly these do not see the light of the day, but when they do you want to cheer out loud as a reader.

In Lungi Kurta (The Exchange), a wife gives a befitting response to a husband’s infidelity and wayward ways. Zakat (The Alms of Death) exposes the hypocrisy of nawabs (as do the other stories in the book), and how Ujala a young girl manages to do that.

Wajida Tabassum’s stories are steeped in honesty. They reflect the times she witnessed – the dynamics between the women and men across class, caste, and what society expects of them. Reema Abbasi’s translation does not make you want more as a reader. It is perfect, bringing to fore the worlds, the language (without footnotes or glossary, which is a huge relief), the nuances of living in a world full of custom and rituals, and above all doing most justice to the original.

Wajida Tabassum is a treat for readers who love the short-story form and want to experiment with new writers, thereby expanding their horizon and clearing biases, page after page.

Read 9 of 2022. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Title: Mrs. Dalloway
Author: Virginia Woolf
Publisher: Vintage Classics
ISBN: 978-0-593-31180-6
Genre: Classics
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This was my fourth reading of Mrs. Dalloway. The fourth time when I would go back to the book, as if it were the first time, and it would reveal itself a little more, another insight, maybe not, maybe just the usual run-of-the-mill circadian novel that it is, but not monotonous. Never uninteresting, and most certainly never out of touch with the contemporary landscape of emotion and thought.

Mrs. Dalloway is a book about community than just one person. It is about illness, suffering, love, sensations that merge together in sentences that portray that at every page. Clarissa is a protagonist who isn’t likeable and yet you relate, you empathise, you find yourself being a part of her world – and more than anything of the banal every day. Whether it is through the life of Septimus Smith or that of Peter Walsh or even Rezia – who is the most sympathetic character, it is all the every day. A Groundhog Day kind of scenario, but the one that is perhaps bearable, tolerable to read during a pandemic – the prose saves you.

So, then what is Mrs. Dalloway about? A day in the life of someone who wants to throw a party? A day in the lives of people who are as confused and torn apart in a world that didn’t opt to live in?  Why do so many readers, year on year, want to read Mrs. Dalloway? What is it about this novel? Maybe because the characters are flawed and fail constantly. Maybe because it is about younger generations, trying to find a way after the war and not knowing what to do. It is about Clarissa’s regret – of being married to the wrong person and not being able to make the choices she wanted to. It is about declaration of life, and yet ironically not living. It is about how Peter and Clarissa move through the party and the incidents that occur during the course of a single day – merging the past, the present, and the probable future.

The inner lives of characters more than just shine through Woolf’s writing. They gleam, they break apart, and they also reflect the lack of profundity. There is a lot of suffering – some latent and some on the surface, and there is no redemption for anyone. Mrs. Dalloway is constantly asking questions that one cannot answer: Why do we die? Why must we die? What is living? It asks this of a world that is ignorant to them – a world that engages in a party, in life, in the hopeless optimism that life is worth something, only to realize the mediocrity of the living, and even then to turn a blind eye to it.

Read 229 of 2021. To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

9781529077506

Title: To Paradise
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1529077476
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 720
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

To Paradise isn’t A Little Life. It will not break your heart. It will not make you cry. It will not torment you days after you finish it. It will not haunt you or your memories. It is not that kind of a book. But what it is – for its writing, multiple plots, characters that are engaging and well-fleshed out, it is about family and relationships and how we are forever stuck or not with them, it is about inheritance, and passion, love and lack of it, and more so about Hawai’i.

It is not The People in the Trees, yet there is enough science for people who loved that one. It isn’t what you think it is – even though the blurb is given, and you think you know what this book is about, but you do not. To Paradise is nothing like I have read this year, and this is what I expect of Yanagihara.

To Paradise is divided into three parts and each part feels like a different novel. I failed to see the larger connect and that to me is alright, because I will reread it and see where I missed out. The first story is set in an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is a part of the Free States where anyone can do what they please, love and marry whoever they want – it all seems very idyllic. The nubile and young scion of a very distinguished family David is smitten by a music teacher Edward, who has nothing to show for, when he is almost betrothed to a wealthy suitor Charles, way older than him and perhaps incapable of understanding him. Yanagihara’s characters take time to grow and for readers to even get to know them. It is almost a slow-burn of a novel in that sense.

The second part of the novel plays out in 1993 Manhattan with the AIDS epidemic taking more lives by the minute. This part of the novel looks at the relationship of a son and father, both Davids this time. The son, David is living with his older and richer lover Charles and the father is combating a serious illness, contemplating on life – past and present through a series of monologues. This by far was my favourite section of the novel. Yanagihara writes prose like no other. Even though like I said this book isn’t traumatic, it has its moments of melancholy, grief, and loss.

The last part of the novel is set in a not-so-distant future where pandemics are a common thing and charts the relationship between a grandfather, Charles and his granddaughter Charlie. This is the part where science (as it played out beautifully in The People in the Trees) comes to fore along with questions of identity, climate change, and uncertainty.

The themes of the book are so large and interconnected that it makes you want to keep turning the pages. Love, loss, loneliness, the need for someone, shame, death and fear keep getting played out in several ways. The writing is taut and perfect. Not a beat is missed, and nothing is out of place. The book may seem chunky, but it is needed. Yanagihara works on details – this is the only way to get to know her characters and understand the world she creates.

To Paradise left me stumped as well in a lot of places – there are a lot of questions unanswered, too many loose ends that weren’t tied, too much left for assumption, but it is alright. I think some books are meant to be that way. I will most certainly reread it when it is officially out in January.