Tag Archives: caste

Outcaste by Matampu Kunhukuttan. Translated from the Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan

OutcasteTitle: Outcaste
Author: Matampu Kunhukuttan
Translated from the Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayana
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9388292498
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

For me, personally, it isn’t easy to read a book on how women are treated in India. It disturbs me and rightly so. It upsets me and it should. It should shake my core, because how else will we become aware and perhaps do something about it? How else will we know more and understand the atrocities committed in the name of caste and religion time and time again, without any repercussions at all?

Outcaste is the kind of book that jolts you from your cushy and comfortable existence, making you see the injustices perpetuated by upper caste men in India. A problem that sadly is relevant even today. A problem that shouldn’t have been relevant, after 72 years of Independence and yet it is.

The book is about the revenge of a single woman named Paptikutty on her lovers who belong to the most powerful families of the land. The book is based on a 1905 trial – where Paptikutty was tried for adultery. Outcaste also looks at the arc of the Namboodiri family in Kerala who were most powerful in Kerala and how Paptikutty’s revenge weakened them. It was the Namboodiri men who took her court to outcaste her because she had so many lovers. She was one of them and they wanted nothing to do with her.

Outcaste is a book that is about the patriarchal society but deep down it is also about its downfall and how that happens slowly and steadily at some level or another. This isn’t an easy read and yet I could not stop turning the pages. The book explores ancient Kerala culture and there were a lot of words and phrases that needed me to refer to Google, but it was all worth it because that’s the essence of the book. Vasanthi’s translation and Matampu’s writing gives us a cast of characters that are victims of their own choices and situations that they choose to be in because of society constructs. Outcaste is a love story of sorts, but also a march against injustice, inequality, and is a call to heal the broken with only justice and vengeance at the core.

Stories on Caste by Premchand. Edited by M. Asaduddin. Translated from the Hindi and Urdu by Various.

Stories on Caste by Premchand

Title: Stories on Caste
Author: Premchand
Edited by M. Asaduddin
Translated from the Hindi and Urdu by Various
Publisher: Penguin India, Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978-0670091447
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Translation
Pages: 168
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

There is no chance that you will read any short-story written by Premchand and not be moved in some manner or the other. To add to that, I started reading his “Stories on Caste” which I knew would show me the stark mirror of reality that exists in our society, even until today. We might like to believe that the caste system has been done with, but we are so wrong. It exists and how. And not just in small towns and villages, but also in cities. When we normalize abuses referring to caste; when we overlook perhaps even the smallest occurrences of caste differences at home – that’s precisely when we need to be aware and look at what is happening around us.

Premchand’s stories aren’t extraordinary. Not the writing style to a large extent. However, what makes them extraordinary are the circumstances – the acute sense of observation and transferring those experiences to words. It is unfortunate and very sad that he had to write from life. At the same time, Premchand’s stories are not all without hope. There are some that bring some amount of wit, cunning and not-all-is-lost sense of things to the table. For instance, in “The Lashes of Good Fortune”, an orphan makes something of his life when he runs away from his oppressive master and returns to a different village altogether and a different life. The book begins though with a punch-in-your-face story “Thakur’s Well” (Thakur ka Kuan) – where a woman has to slyly try and get clean water for her ailing husband and that too from the Thakur’s well.

I think Premchand was perhaps one of the only writers then who depicted the lives of the underdog so to say with such empathy and nuance. The oppressors and oppression did not limit themselves – they came in various forms in his stories. For instance in “One and a Quarter Ser of Wheat ” (Sawa Ser Gehun), a poor farmer doesn’t even know what he has done to his generations to come, just by borrowing sawa ser gehun from the local landlord. Premchand never shied away from telling it the way it was (that quality to a very large extent, I have found in most regional writers’ works. The stark reality is always shown to the reader, no matter what).

At the same time, what I found very interesting about his stories was that the oppressors were found whether sarcastically or not shown to be oscillating between doing the right thing and what their “dharma” asked of them to do. In “Salvation” (Sadgati), poor Dukhi dies a meaningless death, trying to work on something so senseless because he doesn’t want to offend a Brahmin priest. And yet, ironically enough there are times in the story when the priest and his wife get sentimental about Dukhi and yet do nothing to show any emotion because they aren’t supposed to as they are of a higher caste. This inner battle of what to do and what is ultimately done continues to be seen in almost all of these stories in this collection. Of course, Premchand explores guilt in every form – but redemption is something rare.

Premchand’s stories may seem clear and straightforward and yet the layers to each of them are that of a wider scale and thought. Might I also add that nothing gets lost in translation in these stories. I was told by plenty of people on social media to read them in Hindi but I chose to read in English only because it moves faster for me. Having said that, none of the nuances of Hindi or Urdu (3 have been translated from the Urdu) have been lost. I had read some of these stories in Hindi earlier so I am aware (well superficially though) that the translators (there are about twelve to thirteen that have worked on these stories – sometimes individually, others collectively) have been true to their craft, because the emotion hits you real hard, no matter the language.

“Stories on Caste” is one of the five collection of Premchand’s stories published by Penguin India. The remaining four are on: Women, Village, City and Animals. Each I am sure unique in their own way. I for one can’t wait to start reading the others.

Book Review: The Moslems are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist by Azad Essa

Title: The Moslems are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist
Author: Azad Essa
Publisher: Harper Collins India
ISBN: 9789350294390
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I picked up, “The Moslems are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist” when I was in a different state of mind, actually the right state of mind to read a book of this sort. I was questioning religion and how much of a part does it play in our lives.

Let me tell you something about the book. “The Moslems are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist” is a collection of pieces written by a young Muslim South African blogger of Indian origin, Azad Essa. It started off individually as articles for various publications which have now been compiled into a book by Harper Collins India.
What I liked about the book? A lot of things. The book deals more so with a mix of religion and identity in modern times. About what it is to be a Muslim in today’s times and how are you viewed or looked at, more specifically as a modern Muslim Youth. That is the core of the essays in the book. While on the surface, the pieces seem tinged with humour and sarcasm, there is a lot more to them than what meets the eye.

For instance, the way Azad has spoken about the so-called Kashmir Issue and its impact on both sides – the Kashmiri Pandits and the Muslims, who have continued to stay on in the valley and the impact of violence on them. I liked his point of view, the fact that some Hindus are living in the valley, safe, sheltered by the Muslims and yet there is an unseen divide, always hovering above them.

The book also looks at another country, whose citizens face the issue of identity on a daily basis that is South Africa. Azad’s experiences are raw, vivid, and contain a lot of cultural references, which attempt to almost appeal to a larger audience.

You will be surprised with the book as you read along, that it isn’t all about Muslims. It is about humanity at the end of it all. Azad Essa writes bluntly and does not refrain from using swear words when necessary. He covers almost every terrain of topics that we normally shrug aside. His views on world politics and cultural issues are stark and often laced with wit and black humour.

The questions that were raised in my head, while reading the book were of an intense nature. I could not tear myself from the book once I started reading it. This book is real, honest, without any inhibitions, and stays true to what the author observes and wishes to document. The Moslems are Coming is a strong reflection of the times we live in and how maybe we can change some parts of it.

You can buy the book from Home Shop 18 here

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Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Title: Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Author: Katherine Boo
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 9780670086092
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 280
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

When I first started reading, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo, it didn’t strike me as a different book. I mean I had read the similar story in Suketu Mehta’s, “Maximum City” (Honestly I didn’t think much of it), though it was in brief. It was still more or less the same – Mumbai and its dichotomy (like every major cosmopolitan), its slums, its smells and sights and the hidden side to the city, which we ignore or pretend doesn’t exist most of the time. Then what made this book so different that I finished in almost a day?

The difference lies in the way Katherine Boo has written the book – from providing a perspective on the what, the why and the how to experiences that will sometimes warm the heart and sometimes break it, knowing that this is the condition of a city that never sleeps. Having said that, there were also gaps in the book – the way it jumped from one story to another and how that was written almost in a haste which at times provided some disconnect with the overall structure.

The book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is essentially about “Annawadi” – a slum in Mumbai next to the International airport and close to the luxury hotels there (again another facet of the caste and class division). The Annawadians are full of hope as the Indian Economy rises without any realization that nothing is going to change for them. The parity will exist if not widen itself. The under-city and over-city are explicitly portrayed in the book and that makes the reader think: Is this my city? Or could this be any booming cosmopolitan in the nation? The story (I call it that because it reads like one at times) is essentially about these people and their lives – some more and some less.

Abdul, a teenager sees a future beyond counting the recyclable garbage that the city’s rich throw away. He is quick at sorting waste. He is almost there in fulfilling his family’s dreams of moving out of the slum. Asha, a woman of the world and witty at the same time, opts for a different way out of this misery: political corruption. She wants her daughter to become the first female graduate of the slum and will not stop to make that dream come true. And just when all seems to fall in place, there is global recession and Abdul is falsely accused of a terrorist attack and the dream-world they are hoping has crashed to pieces.

Boo’s writing is stark and in your face. There is no pretense and cannot be when one is writing life-stories. The people in the book may seem stereotypical but they aren’t. Each of them is as different as you and I and with their own story to tell, which Boo captures beautifully. There are times when she appears disjointed in the book and fragmented, however in the larger scheme of the plot and writing, the reader tends to easily overlook that.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a depiction of our times and where we live. It represents the societies we create and how we take advantage of those to fulfill our selfish ends. The book removes masks that we sometimes wear and compels readers to take a better look at their worlds and surroundings. A disturbing read at times, however quite stark and impactful in its essence.

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Book Review: The Hindus – An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger

Title: The Hindus: An Alternative History
Author: Wendy Doniger
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 9780143415343
Pages: 800
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

An extensive work on Hindus and Hindu Mythology isn’t something which I would’ve read a couple of years ago. Why? Because I would in all honesty find it boring and I am glad that was just a phase when I felt this way. I was introduced to Hindu Mythology and ancient culture by a friend, and I am glad that it gave me a different perspective and at the same time made me want to read more.

Wendy Doniger’s, “The Hindus: An Alternative History” is a big book about The Hindus. She has through extensive research almost dwelt on every topic in the book concerning religion and caste. However, the alternative history angle comes from the fact that the book is centred mainly on women and the lower caste.

The book isn’t about philosophy. It is more about a social history and of course that would involve various Gods and Goddesses. There are tribal tales as well, which are a totally different take on the regular epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata. I loved how Ms. Doniger brought these to the surface.

There is nothing new about the book per se. There are tales and facts and legends that most people are aware about. What is different is the way they have been documented. Wendy Doniger knows how to write and she does so without it being complex or difficult to read.

A beginner can read this book and understand The Hindu culture better. Each chapter has several textual examples – which are intended to communicate the beliefs and traditions in the form of myths and legends to the reader. This kind of writing always works with readers who may find the subject boring.

There is a lot of imagery in the book which probably could have been cut down on and yet that is one of the ways of better understanding while reading a book of this nature. At almost 800 pages though it does get tiresome to read. I for one had to put it down and pick it up several times before I could finish it completely.

Hinduism is an entire universe so to say. It isn’t easy to comprehend or chronicle and Wendy Doniger has done a reasonably good job in merging the old with the new. There will be times when an experienced reader will be tempted to argue with the writing, which is fair enough. At the same time, the book has a quite charm about it despite its flaws. I left taking in a stronger sense of how diverse a tradition Hinduism is and how it evolved over a period of time. There are many ways to represent Hinduism and how the world views it, and yet Doniger has given us another view – which is refreshing and conflicting at the same time.

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