Tag Archives: independence

The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness by Anirudh Kala

The Unsafe AsylumTitle: The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness
Author: Anirudh Kala
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Ltd.
ISBN: 978-9387693258
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Stories of the Partition of India always leave you heavy. There is a knot in the chest that refuses to leave. Even though you haven’t witnessed any of it, yet the stories have passed from one generation to another. The generation that witnessed and the generations that had to keep the memory alive, even though these memories are perhaps worth not bringing to the fore.And yet there is the question of never forgetting – memory that should remain rock solid when it comes to tragedy and pain and displacement. Homes were lost. Relationships broken. I cannot imagine what it must be like to witness what our ancestors did during that time and yet they did – they survived broken, fractured and somehow still hopeful.

“The Unsafe Asylum” is a collection of stories (interlinked) of partition and literally the madness surrounding it. Yes, you will be reminded of Manto but Anirudh Kala has a distinct voice that will make you think and leave you with a lot of emotion. I think this collection also adds a lot of weight only because Anirudh is a psychiatrist and has been studying the long-lasting effects of Partition in both India and Pakistan. This collection starts when the Partition is over, blood has been spilled and people displaced. Even the patients in Mental Hospitals. India got its share of Hindu and Sikh patients and Pakistan, the Muslim ones. This book is about the stories of these patients, their lives before and after the Partition and the long-lasting impact of the catastrophe.

At the core of these interconnected stories is Prakash, an Indian psychiatry student who learns of the stories of these patients through one of them, Rulda who was discharged from Lahore’s Mental Hospital. At the same time, Prakash also learns of how he came to be born in 1947, when he visits Lahore. From there, starts another story of the lives of the patients, their stories and how Partition still lingers on, not only in their memory but in everything they do, the way they think and the way they feel.

Kala builds characters that stay. Whether it is a young man who believes that Benazir Bhutto loves him to a woman who passes on her delusions of being chased by a mob to her children, or even if it is a doomed love story – all of these are fixed in your head long after you are done with the book. If anything, also beware that the book will play with your head to a large extent. And yet, the experience of reading this book is excellent. Yes, the topic is not palatable. Yes, it will not be easy. But I strongly believe that literature only builds empathy in people. And for that read it all. Read books that make you laugh. The ones that make you cry. The ones that make you smile. The ones that make you uncomfortable and think of what is going on in the world – past, present and what may come in the future.

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Indira by Devapriya Roy and Priya Kuriyan

Indira by Devapriya Roy and Priya Kuriyan Title: Indira
Author: Devapriya Roy
Illustrator: Priya Kuriyan
Publisher: Context
ISBN: 978-9386850683
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I am not a fan of some ideologies of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and yet I find her life extremely intriguing and to a very large extent, am in awe of her for sure. I guess it has a lot to do with being told stories from her life as we were growing up. She was almost an idol then, till of course, we made our way into the world and got to know her political aspirations and the means she sometimes used to achieve them. However, that is not what I should be talking about right now.

Right now, I want to talk about the graphic novel (interspersed with a lot of text as well) “Indira”, beautifully illustrated by Priya Kuriyan and written just as well by Devapriya Roy. I remember discussing this book with its publisher at Jaipur Literature Festival this year and being very excited to read it. I finally did and I loved it for so many reasons.

At the same time, there were times I felt that this book felt short in terms of chronicling so much more. I guess they also had to stick to the story of the other Indira and her coming-of-age in contemporary India. Also, kudos to Devapriya for not idolizing Mrs. Gandhi but showing her just as she was – another human being with very strong talents.

Kuriyan’s illustrations are simple and yet breathtaking in so many ways. The detailing is strong and complements the writing tone. The writing is simple and at so many places I loved the meta angle to the book which totally works to its advantage (you will know when you pick it up and read it).

We need more books such as “Indira” to reclaim our past and history, given so much of it is at stake in current times. Lest it be forgotten. Books such as these will remain proof of what happened, why and how.

In the City of Gold and Silver by Kenizé Mourad

In the City of Gold and Silver by Kenize Mourad Title: In the City of Gold and Silver: The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal
Author: Kenizé Mourad
Translator: Anne Mathai in collaboration with Marie-Louise Naville
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609452278
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I love books set in the period when India had just begun fighting for their independence or had started again way back in the 1940s. Historical fiction has always been close to my heart and will continue to hold that spot – whether the books are set in India or any other country.

“In the City of Gold and Silver” by Kenizé Mourad was the first historical fiction novel read this year and I was completely taken in by it. Set in Awadh during the time of the first Mutiny in India – this book traces the life of the fourth wife of King Wajid Ali Shah – who ultimately had to give up on Awadh when it was annexed by the British like most other princely states and territories in India during the East India regime.

What is different about this story though is that the book doesn’t end with Wajid Ali Shah being exiled, but begins with Begum Hazrat Mahal taking charge of the affairs in the state of Awadh and how she seized control of Lucknow.

The book to me beautifully charts a part of history – which isn’t forgotten but is often not spoken of. Yes, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 is linked to this region as well and is fleetingly mentioned in the book – but the book is mainly about the king Wajid Ali Shah and his wife – Hazrat Mahal – the formidable, strong and independent woman that she was.

Mourad’s writing is in third person and she does a clever job of introducing her characters and etching them. The fluidity of language and perspectives of each character blends in beautifully – from Wajid Shah to Hazrat to the deputy in charge of playing the middleman between the king and the Governor General to the farmers and the sepoys, Kenizé takes you back in a place and time that you cannot imagine and yet as you turn the pages, they come alive.

The book in a sense is a big fat historical lesson – in how one woman succeeding in changing the face of Awadh in troubled times and how she rose from being a courtesan to the fourth queen. That to me in the true sense of the word is “feminism” – how she refused to back down and let go. I think more than Wajid Ali Shah, of course the focus was on her and her story – which is how the book delivers and stays on target with it.

“In the City of Gold and Silver” is a book that will educate you, will make you wonder, will also make you feel really sad for the sovereign and hoot out loud for Begum Hazrat Mahal. I recommend this book very highly if you want to know more about that era or you just want to start reading some good historical fiction.

Book Review: The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

Title: The Dream of the Celt
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Publisher: Faber and Faber UK
ISBN: 978-0571275717
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Mario Vargas Llosa is pure genius when it comes to the writing business. His sentences, his words, the plot of his books are beyond stupendous. The reason I praise him the way I do is apparent in his writing and he proves it yet again with his new book, “The Dream of the Celt”.

The Dream of the Celt is the fictionalized biography of Roger Casement (a failed revolutionary) – who was instrumental in Ireland’s struggle for Independence (after he served the British Government and was rewarded by them in more than one way), which culminated in the Easter uprising in 1916. That is just the basic plot of the book, which appears only in the third part. The first two parts of the book are about Casement’s struggle to expose the exploitation of natives in the Congo and the Amazon by rubber barons.

“The Dream of the Celt” is spot on with reference to not only the Peruvian scenery (but obviously he would) but also Irish culture and history, which is evident not only from the story, but also in the manner in which it is narrated. The other angle that Llosa explores is that of Casement being homosexual (and involved with powerful people in the system) as seen through his letters and journals. This propels the story beside the revolution.

I have read Vargas in the past and immensely enjoyed what he has written. Most of his novels center on a political theme or so. The historical novels explore the human toll taken by political idealism. This novel however explores somewhat the lighter side of Casement, which is quite a relief. At the same time, there are a lot of political issues seething at the core of this novel, due to which I had to read up a lot on the side, not only about Casement, but also about his revolution, its cause and thereby the effects.

Edith Grossman has done a wonderful job of the translation, considering that all elements of the book (I am assuming from the authors’ point of view) have been tied eloquently. The story moves back and forth from prisons to Roger’s outside-of-prison experiences, his ideologies and values, giving us a glimpse of the man he was.

The only problem that I had while reading this novel, like I mentioned earlier, was the political scope. It left me confused in places (especially when it came to the dates and which ship did Casement ride) but then it was alright after a while. Vargas can write anything and some of us will love all that he writes. That’s the power of his words.

This book is not for everyone though. It is a challenging read and you might not want to make this your first Llosa read. Try starting with, “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” or “In Praise of the Stepmother”, which is ideal to an introduction to this fabulous writer.

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This Is Not That Dawn by Yashpal

 

Jhootha Sach was serialized almost 50 years ago, by the most popular Hindi magazine then, called Dharmyug. The effect it had was huge: People looked forward eagerly for the next installment. Much of the Hindi reading populace of the country had for the first time read an authentic and humane narration of life in Lahore and the trauma of the exodus that had struck Punjab. The author, till then better known as a revolutionary and a writer, instantly carved a niche for him among literary giants.

Today, for those of us who are aware of the trauma that the partition of the country inflicted upon them or their grandparents or their parents for that matter, Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach, christened as “This is not that Dawn” in its English avatar, is not just a novel dealing with the cataclysmic event. It is rich in its writing and vision – it takes you to the same places with a new perspective. This, according to me is the only definitive fictitious account of the Partition and its aftermath.

I still remember as a child watching Buniyaad – a serial about the partition and wondering: Is this what my grandparents went through? My Nani (maternal grandmother) used to tell me endless tales of the life she led before Partition and it almost seemed unreal to me. Her world was cut into two – Pre and Post Partition and she like many countless humans would live like this. We tend to take everything for granted, well almost, including freedom. Our right to express and our right to do what we wish to. It is almost like we have no value for it, and may be we don’t. Our grandparents would think differently though.

It is not easy for me to chronicle a huge masterpiece such as this into a single review of close to a 1000 words even – considering the book is close to 1119 pages long, and not once did I get bored reading it.

Jhootha Sach narrates the events of Partition through the lives of the people who suffered a thousand deaths before they were actually torn away from their motherland to become sharnarthis (refugees). The story of their transformation from sharnarthis to purusharthis in the second volume is equally riveting, more so because the author, like his characters, is hard-pressed to provide some moral moorings to an increasingly amoral society in the new nation. It does not place a judgmental value to decisions made in those times – probably because they did not seem best in such a situation, nor does it try to evoke feelings of any volatile nature. What it does best is present the truth.

Jhootha Sach is a huge canvas that needed not only large brushes with huge strokes but also the delicate handling of a watercolour artist. It is a sad movie that runs into reels and the one that you so riveting that you don’t want it to end.

Thus, he deals with the politics of Partition wherein the dubious role of the much-lauded Khizir Hyat government and the British bureaucracy in Punjab is exposed as also deftly examining the socio-economic composition that gave birth to inequities and consequently the need felt by Muslims to have Pakistan. As Pakistan begins to emerge as a distinct reality, many of the Hindus remain baffled, clutching at straws of hope, arguing that since 80 per cent of the property of Lahore was held by Hindus and the vast majority of the industrial workers in Amritsar, Jalandar and Ludhiana were Muslims, the creation of Pakistan was an unrealistic goal.

Yashpal breathed life not only in the characters of Bhola Pandhe’s Gali but also brought alive a life, where the neighbours demonstrate their solidarity and concern in matters of both life and death. The first part of the novel, Homeland and Nation, narrates the lives, hopes and fears of the characters in the shadow of the powerful tempest that was about to strike and when it does overwhelm Lahore and the rest of the Punjab, it fathoms the pits of degeneration and depravity that mankind descends.

This is Not That Dawn; Yashpal; Penguin Modern Classics; Penguin India; Rs. 599