Category Archives: Indian Authors
The name sounded different. There was something about it, though. It kept coming back, in some article or another. I got to know it was a woman and she was usually referred to along with my new favorite author Sadat Hasan Manto. Then another article mentioned something about controversies, and I love such women. The name was ear marked and stored in one of those soon to be retrieved shelves of my memory.
I could never resist the crinkle in his eyes. And there he was, saying wistfully, “if only we can live half the life she lived..,” fondly referring to her as Ismat Apa. Who is this woman? Curiosity got the better of me, as Naseerudeen Shah talked about meeting her, on her controversial short story ‘Lihaaf’ and how he, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heeba decided to stage their play on her, in Urdu, ‘Ismat Aapke Naam.’ The name was dusted afresh and pushed towards the front of the memory shelf.
Short stories were a genre that I usually kept away from. Maybe the reader in me wanted the stories to go on for ever. With work that never seemed to end, the long form was turning into something that had some hard demands. And I turned towards the ones that took the time of a short break. The stories transformed themselves into an alternative for the banter across the cubicles and long coffee sessions that I were missing, as I worked more and more from home. Pick up one, read a couple of stories. Keep it aside, pick another one, and so it went.
A sleepy mid morning and a dull conference call. The hard bound volume opened at a random page, there was no bookmark to remind where I’d left it last time. The name stared at my face. It was time, to meet the woman and her ‘Lihaaf.’
The protagonist, a young girl has no name , it would be apt to describe her as a tomboy. Rather than leave her to her fights with her brothers and their friends, her mother leaves her with an aunt as she travel s to Agra for a week. The Begum Jan, married to the Nawab Sahib, ‘essentially a decent man who stayed away from the company of whores and dancing girls.’ He had no vices, in fact, he was so virtuous that ‘he had students staying over at his home – fair, young boys with slender waists – whose expenses were borne entirely by Nawab Sahib.’
As can be expected in such cases, Begum Jan withered, devoid of attention from husband and family. Until Rabbo arrived with her oil of secret ingredients and the never ending massages. The girl is obviously enraptured by the sensuous Begum Jan, but is old enough to sense something is not right between the Begum and her trustworthy masseuse. As night falls, the tom boy turns into a timid girl who is scared to sleep alone. Having slept off in a small cot in the Begum’s bed room, she wakes up in the middle of the night to some muffled sounds in the room. In the dim light, the quilt on the Begum’s bed has come to life. To her young mind, it is as if an elephant had got under the silken quilt. The strange noises and the billowing shapes frighten her no end. The story goes on to say how the girl grows up overnight in the Begum’s hands and the animals that she find under the quilt.
And I find myself going back to Naseerudin Shah’s words,
” It’s a story that has given a certain notoriety to Ismat Apa which makes people curious about her. On the one hand Lihaf made her famous; on the other, people read nothing else but Lihaf. It’s not a titillating story, it’s not about lesbians but about child abuse. It’s a disturbing story. She never says a single thing directly, it’s all elliptical. People failed to understand that.”
The real story is between the lines. In the words that are not written, but those you could still read. Of the stereo types that young girls are expected to be. Of marriages that are not. Of vices that are camouflaged as virtues. Of repression, sexual and emotional. The ways in which women escape, and how, at times drag their own down, along with them. Yet, nothing is overt, not a word is out of place, nothing is even remotely sexual.
Remember Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ and the controversaries it created? One cannot but relate Begum Jan to the characters portrayed by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Women who are forced into marriage and men who find satisfaction elsewhere. And the finding of happiness where they can find it. If ‘Fire’ created so much heat at the beginning of twenty first century, imagine the furore such a story could have created in the Lahore of nineteen forties.
Ismat Chughtai had to face an obscenity trial for this story and was asked to apologize. She promptly refused to do so and defended the case by herself. The prosecution failed miserably in establishing their case, for the story was said from the perspective of a young girl, there was no obscenity whatsoever anywhere, and she had woven the story in a suggestive manner. And she won. Some woman, eh?
As I go in search of her other stories, you can read the ‘Lihaaf’ here:
* Name of the play on Ismat Chughtai, produced by The Motley Theatre Company.
( Naseerudin Shah on Ismat Chughtai – http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/naseeruddin-shah-on-ismat-chughtai-if-only-we-can-live-half-the-life-she-did )
Some stories are like that. You can read it again and again and then some more. You start smiling in anticipation, the feelings remain the same irrespective of the number of times you have read and relished it. And the end, that is why you go back. To relive some memories. The kind that make you feel this world is after all a good place. If not humans, there are sparrows and mango trees that care for you.
I read it again, today. After an year or so. And the wistful smile in my eyes is still the same, I know. And the ever so gentle tug in my heart, hasn’t changed. Even a teeny weeny bit. If someone asks me how many times I’ve read this story, the only answer would be, ‘a lot.’
A grandson remembers his grandmother. Khushwant Singh’s ‘Portrait of a Lady.’ His memories of an old lady, one who hasn’t changed a bit in the twenty odd years he has known her,
“we were certain she had always been as we had known her. Old, so terribly old that she could not have grown older, and had stayed at the same age for twenty years. She could never have been pretty; but she was always beautiful.”
Back in the village , they were good friends. The boy and the old lady. The tie began to fray as the family moved to the city and the boy’s horizon grew beyond the walls of their room and the road to the village temple. He got his own room and later moved abroad for higher studies. He didn’t expect his grandmother to be alive at the end of five years, when he came home. Yet, she was still there. The only change was she had started feeding sparrows instead of the stray dogs back in the village pathways. The prayer beads still continued to turn in her hand as her lips moved in prayers that only she could hear.
Her demeanor changed one evening. Instead of her prayers, she started singing to the tunes of an old drum that she thumped along with the women of neighborhood whom she had collected. She was a wise woman. She knew her time was up and leave she did, peacefully as she prayed. The ending of the story leaves me with bittersweet memories. Every single time. Without fail.
“We lifted her off the bed and, as is customary, laid her on the ground and covered her with a red shroud. After a few hours of mourning we left her alone to make arrangements for the funeral.
In the evening we went to her room with a crude stretcher to take her to be cremated. The sun was setting and had lit her room and verandah with a blaze of golden light. We stopped halfway in the courtyard. All over the verandah and in her room right up to where she lay dead and stiff, wrapped in the red shroud, thousands of sparrows sat scattered on the floor. There was no chirping. We felt sorry for the birds and my mother fetched some bread for them. She broke it into little crumbs, the way my grandmother used to, and threw it to them. The sparrows took no notice of the bread. When we carried my grandmother’s corpse off, they flew away quietly. Next morning the sweeper swept the breadcrumbs into the dustbin.”
The other end of the country, another wrinkled face. The hands were as hard as a man’s. Calluses left behind by a lifetime of garden tools. Hues of green fell on her hair that was now white. Seventeen trees that dropped mangoes in the night rain and daytime breeze. Then the others, each had their own season. Jack Fruit, Bambloos Naaranga, Cinnamon, Kokum, Guava, even Oranges. But it was for the mangoes that her eyes shined the brightest. Neelam, Salem, Moovandan, Chandrika and a host of other nameless ones. The ones that stained her grandchildren’s dresses as it oozed down in thick yellow down the young chins that quivered with mirth.
It was a monsoon evening that she fell ill. She had a pact, with Mother Mary. To call her on a Saturday, that she could go directly to heaven. No purgatory in between. A straight pass. And Mary kept her promise. She went, on a Saturday evening. In style, thunder beating the drums and lightning showing the path. Straight, to heaven.
December came, cold and dry. The leaves turned tender everywhere. And then burst out in dull green flowers. Like stars in the sky.
But the seventeen that she left behind, they didn’t cry. Even a single teardrop.
The yard lay silent that year.
( picture courtesy – google images)
Are you one of those who have always believed Rajesh Khanna’s and Dimple Kapadia’s first off spring could not act even if her life depended on it? Let me admit, I was one of those. To add insult to injury I even thought she was one of those dumb star kids. And then, she disappeared from the silver screen into the arms of a chef turned action hero from Hong Kong (originally from Punjab). The next we heard she was busy spreading the aroma of scented candles and ornate furniture. Until one fine day, she started writing. Or, to put it in the right perspective, her writings start getting published. The stereotype that I am, again typecast her as one of those over rated star wives. Mea culpa.
It’s been more than one year since I’ve started reading her columns and I’ve only grown to like her writing more and more. Contemporary topics talked about in the tone of a light banter and with an impeccable sense of tongue in cheek humor has become her trademark. She doesn’t spare anyone, most of all, her family and herself. The book is no different.
The best part about the book is the fact that she writes about things that she is most comfortable with and those she can relate to. No pontification from the roof, nor is it malicious. The characters are very familiar, after all many of them are stars in their own right. Her mother, the charming Dimple is portrayed as someone whose only purpose in life is to rededorate her daughter’s home, every day, if possible. The husband, lovingly referred to as ‘the man of the house’ is this food loving, macho Punjabi who lives this funnily dangerous life. One is left chuckling on remembering it is in fact the action hero, Akshay Kumar, that she is talking about.
What connected with me is the sheer simplicity of her language and the down to earth approach she seems to have towards life. We also realize there is a sharp brain that is churning out these words. And this is corroborated as she mentions a certified IQ of 145. The manner in which she presents her achievements takes the ‘brag’ element out of it. ’97 marks in Maths and 97 kilos in weight,’ as she puts it.
Theirs is one of the long standing marriages in Bollywood. And it appears to be going strong after more than 15 years. No wonder. The guy knew a good thing when he saw her. Well done, AK. She Is totally worth it. A girl with super brains and a kiackass sense of humor. Can’t beat that combination.
And I sincerely apologize for judging people based on almost nothing. Twinkle, may your stars turn brighter. (bad joke, I know 😛 )
Verdict : Ignore that vada paav and have her for chai today. Seriously.
The abbreviation IPKF, loud speakers blaring some mumbo jumbo and the name Rajiv Gandhi resonating in our ears in the early morning hours from a hostel room, the disbelief, shock and painful pictures that followed and years later, the portly figure of Velupillai Prabhakaran with the marks of a gun shot on his forehead, the war in Sri Lanka could very well have been summarized in these fleeting pictures. Strangely, it was the names of the places that had stuck on – Jaffna, Killinochi, Vavunia, Mannar, Mullativu, Batticaloa – were as familiar as a Fort Kochi, Ambalappuzha or Changanacherry. The newspaper statistics were something to be read like the daily weather report. Until I read this book.
For most of the world around, the war in Sri Lanka ceased to exist when Prabhakaran was shot dead. The silence that followed was eerie when you think of it in retrospect. Samanth Subramanian has tried to break through this darkness. Travelling cautiously and talking in hushed tones to people, who many a time sounds like ghosts stuck in a time warp, he has tried to bring out stories of a race who was betrayed by a country they thought was theirs as well as by those who was supposed to protect them.
Reading mostly one sided stories from a Tamil perspective, the LTTE and Prabhakaran were almost heroic figures of my youth. And with a name that is so obviously Tamil, I am guilty of expecting a somewhat biased story from a Subramanian, told from a parochial perspective. And as happens with unfounded prejudices, I was proved wrong, and for once am glad about it. Setting a context to the origins of the war, going back as far as 2500 years or more, the question at the root is what was the war all about? If it was about ethnicity, history proves the very foundation of the war to be absurd.
“Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils. Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries, and they have spent that time not only feuding but also intermarrying. Legend informs us that, 2500 years ago, even the progenitor of the Sinhalese race imported a Tamil princess to be his wife.”
As you read on, you understand the origins of LTTE. A majority race trying to suppress the minority, forcing a ‘national’ langauge, reservations for ‘natives’, a systematic and focussed propaganda network, side lining a community that seem to have thrived and as always, the hunger for ultimate power. Simultaneously reading Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India after Gandhi’ and following the chronology, the uncanny similarities were scary in some places. But then, when war is told from the angle of those who are affected the most, it is the same wherever in the world the war might be.
Subramanian’s success is the impartial way in which he writes , irrespective of whether it is about Prabhakaran or Rajapakse. Both of them are intoxicated by the power they wield. Where the reader is hooked is in the human elements. The author narrates stories instead of reporting. Whether it is the wife of an abducted journalist, a reformed terrorist in London or the innumerable ordinary men and women whom he meets, it is they that show us the travails of a war that did no one any good. The gradual loss of faith of the Tamil population is poignantly brought out in these words,
“It was a scene where Tamils were beating up Tamils and sending them to their certain deaths. It shouldn’t have been like that. If this was really our cause, we should have wanted to go voluntarily. But we didn’t.” This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf.
Predominantly a country of Buddhists, one would think that the monks could have played an active role in bringing peace to this ravaged land. That notion is dispelled as you read of monks who turn politicians and who are equally bad or even worse than the others. Yes, they have their own theories too, on the why. As the author says,
“Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must see easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.”
The psyche of paranoia is unbelievable and it shows the extent to which a forest brigand could terrorize a nation. The erstwhile home of Prabhakaran is razed to the ground, even the sand was dredged and dumped in some unknown location lest people start deifying the land blessed by his feet. The systematic destruction of anything that is even remotely Tamilian can only be described as a genocide. It is more about destroying something you hate than establishing what you believe in.
What leaves you with more than a heavy heart are the families of those that were abducted in front of their loved ones and about whom there are only rumours. A group of people who live in eternal hope, refusing to let go. For, many of the camps were in undisclosed locations with no access for even organizations like the Red Cross and very few people have come out from there to tell any stories. There is a feeling of sheer despondency as he leaves you with these words,
“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”
Verdict – A must read, for anyone even remotely interested in human stories.
(p.s. I am going in search of his first book, ‘ Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast‘)
So when V, a good friend, sent out an invite, I was excited. For more than one reason. V is a born raconteur and his sense of humor is truly out of this world. So by law of genesis or whatever, his brother had to be a chip off the young block, I presumed. And rightly so, I was to find out.
RM Rajgopal, the author wrote these stories ‘while pursuing a hectic career,’ says the introduction in the book. And the author corroborates it when he says tongue-in-cheek that he has a lot to thank Indian Airlines for the number of delayed flights, most of these stories were written either while waiting at the airport or while on a flight. Apparently he used to carry and notebook and pen with him, always. That he must have observed a lot, not just in the course of flying, is evident from each of the story that he has penned in this debut collection.
‘The Empty Pedestal’, the title story, and the first one in the book is about how times change and the labor leaders along with it – from being idealistic to realistic . The tone was a little sombre and I was more than a little disappointed. I had an inkling of the next one, ‘They Listened’, this was one of the stories from which an excerpt was read out at the launch. An old musician’s yearning for at least one discerning ear and how a few choice requests change his whole life, albeit for a few days, is told so well.
The true meaning of that twinkle of mischief in the author’s eyes starts getting visible from the third story, ‘A Genuine Blonde’. The climax is brilliant, I wouldn’t dare to add any spoilers here. That he is still a boy at heart is brought out in the following stories about a nursery interview, the swaggering senior in a boarding school, and a boy who has lost his mother.
Humor turns into satire as he goes on to regale us about the God-man in ‘All the people all of the time.’ Life’s strange twists and turns are what the next few stories are about. ‘The Bombay Edition’, is set in a typical corporate office, and was something that I could totally relate to – how the news of a promotion can bring out the attitude of a typical Indian male mind, even today. I was nodding vigorously through the story, reading the archetypal comments about Finance departments and women working there 🙂
The brash Punjabi graduate in ‘A B-Class Abode,’ the hapless Krishnaswamy who is caught between the eternal tangles of principles and an avaricious wife in ‘Principles and the Price Line,’ the ill fated Umesh in ‘Sharing a Berth,’ – all of them are characters taken straight out from life. We would have encountered them sometime in our lives, their stories are heartening and tinged with the pathos of middle class life as it truly is.
The author’s pen turns political in the next four stories. You cannot help but chuckle as you read ‘The Hand’ . There was a time when his words might have been truly prophetic ,
“The irony of what has happened cannot be forgotten. That fifty years after the last Englishman who ruled us left our shores, a daughter of Europe was sworn in as Prime Minister last evening….”
That Mr. Rajgopal decided to have ‘A Guffaw in the End’ is so apt. It is the changing face of today’s woman, practical, clear of what they want, they knowing exactly where they stand and how they will walk their life.
The charm of this collection is how true to life each story is. That the author is a keen observer of what happens around him need not be stated, his tales speak for themselves. What is also evident throughout is his zest for life and the eyes of a naughty boy that looks at life through his sparkling eyes, hiding his seriousness behind resounding laughter.
However, what enamored me totally is the exquisite language, there is that unmistakable charm of old world. You feel as though you are sitting at the end of a long dining table, the dinner is done, you are picking at morsels now and then, the tinkle of crystal and the muffled sound of silver on porcelain somewhere in the background. Your eyes and ears are keenly attuned to this sixty something charismatic, worldly wise guy, churning out tale after tale amidst loud bursts of laughter, with a few guffaws thrown in here and there and the inevitable anecdotes by others around the table, adding to the spice. The kind of night that you wished never ended.
Verdict : If you are one who loves tales that smell of life as we know it, told in an exquisitely elegant manner and impeccable language, a must read. You will love it.
p.s. somehow I could not connect to the title story, it seemed to stand apart from the rest. Maybe that explains why it is the title 🙂
says the inimitable Khushwant Singh at 95. The name was a taboo in my younger days, for what he was known most for was ‘sleaze and scotch.’ Reading his articles in the occasional ‘Illustrated Weekly’ I was lucky enough to get my hands on , the title bestowed on him was difficult to believe, at times. ‘Train to Pakistan’ was the first of his books that I came across. How could this man write about something so serious was the first thought. Finished it in one go and it was after many a day that the pain subsided. The next one was ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and I was in love with this ‘notorious’ author.
‘Absolute Khushwant’ is a collection of his thoughts and experiences on writing, religion, people he admire, partition, the Delhi riots, in short, his life. The one trait that comes through is his honesty, in all areas of his life, including his unhappy marriage. Here is a sample,
“I have never taken anyone seriously, least of all myself. I have always been a nosy person, forever probing into other people’s private lives. I love to gossip and have an insatiable appetite for scandal.”
The picture that he paints elsewhere sounds contradictory as he tells us about his work ethics.
“Over the years I have discovered what enormous energy silence creates, energy that socializing and useless chit chat depletes.”
The partition and the 1984 Delhi riots left a deep impact on him and it is evident that he could never get over the pain. His concern for the religious fundamentalism had landed him in trouble , he was on top of the Khalistani hit list. Even an almost successful attempt at his life did not stop him from speaking out about what he believed in. His philosophy on life is best summarized in his own words,
” I would like to be remembered as someone who made people smile.”
Isn’t that essence of being a true human being?
Verdict – An absolutely delightful read, whether you have read him before is irrelevant. Perfect for a pleasant afternoon.
I was grinning with glee as I read Margaret Atwood echoing my sentiments in her ‘Curious Pursuits‘ (sounds quite pompous, I know, but then what the heck!)
“I don’t review books I don’t like, although to do so would doubtless be amusing for the Ms Hyde side of me and entertaining for the more malicious class of reader. But either the book is really bad, in which case no one should review it, or it’s good but not my cup of tea, in which case someone else should review it.”
But then, when you have willingly agreed to review a book, one has to set aside certain principles and go ahead and do what you are supposed to.
Readers Cosmos reached out sometime back and asked whether I would be interested in reviewing this book by new author Sid Bahri. As usual, I jumped at the offer, anything…well, almost anything, for a free book is my motto. Little did I know this would be the second disappointment in a row.
Aditya and Radhika are childhood sweethearts who meet , greet and separate at different points in their lives. As the curtains go up, its been a year since Aditya has lost his job to recession and he has just drunk his last rupee down his drains. Radhika, who is just 31 (or is it 33, anyway), is found marrying off her step daughter so that she can finally be free of her super rich dead husband’s ‘will’ful diktats. The story goes up and down between the two lover’s lives, from childhood, school, work , (college part is negligible since the two aren’t anywhere nearby during that phase), two marriages, a miscarriage, a divorce, a widowhood and so on and so forth. The title obviously tells you how this is all going to end.
The story line sounded interesting and the most of the reviews said ‘fabulous’, so I was expecting a riveting tale that would just not hold but grip my attention. The reality, was another story altogether.
The chapters alternated between the two protagonist’s lives. To give the author credit where it is due, the book held my interest till about the first one third part. Then , chapters started getting shorter and stopping like the episodes of a saas bahu serial – nothing much and a feeling of what the heck!
Radhika’s life especially sounded too far fetched, what with being born after two boys, then being adopted, returned back, loved, married, divorced, jilted, married again, widowed, massaged… 😉
Verdict – Will not recommend to those who love lovely tales told beautifully, even if they are my enemies
When this sweet girl asked me whether I would like to review a book, my first reaction was, “why not? anything for a free book.” To be honest, I did not expect much and the book blurb seemed like a typical boy meets girl, in true Bollywood style,
…..he is the son of a billionaire,
she is the daughter of a socialist.
….he is quiet and unassuming,
she is firebrand and spirited.
After the first two chapters, it was as if my skepticism had been proven right. Aditya Mehta, son of multi billionaire industrialist Ketan Mehta, who lives in a twenty storied building in South Bombay. His mother , Naina Mehta is an equal partner in the business and is even suspected to be the real power. And if that was not enough, the wealth was amassed by his grandfather who started his life as an ordinary trader and rose to heights through apparently dubious means. Sounds very familiar, right?
This is when we meet Radha, like the quintessential breath of fresh air. The story is told through a flash back. Adi and Radha meet as 12 year olds, there is an instant connect and the bond is strengthened when Adi saves Radha’s life. The two share something special, it is as if however far they are physically, they seem to instantly know when one needs the other.
Life’s paths takes them through parallel roads, but the soul mates keep each other sane. Adi, who is shot back to crude reality after a dream that was shattered, joins his father’s business and as expected, shines brilliantly. Radha, with her haunting family ghost, goes into ‘activism’ and her revered Sudha-ji is obviously sketched after Medha Patkar. There is the resort that is being built by a goonda don by displacing tribals, there is the 500 km padayatra, and even a mention of fast unto death.
So what is so special about the book, isn’t it like a typical Bollywood masala flick, you ask? That is where this book differs from the dime a dozen chick-lit type best sellers that are being churned out these days. I loved the way each character was etched, the strength and weakness of each relationship was brought out beautifully by the author. It is as if you really know them, and you want to know what happens to them after each twist in the plot. I also liked the realistic manner in which the story was brought to end, no miracles , just the stark truth and an acceptance of what cannot be changed.
Whatever the story line maybe, even if you find it a little difficult to believe, if an author can make you reach back to the story after each time you put it down, that is when it becomes a success. You can clearly sense his passion for the protagonists and what they stand for. It is as if he know both of them personally and have lived their life with them. The differences in the parent -children connect at two levels of society was also brilliantly brought out without being preachy.
I was truly surprised that I hadn’t heard of Rohit Gore before this. My only wish after completing the book was if only he hadn’t built his characters on some well known figures in society, the similarities are so blatant. That somehow made an otherwise lovey tale a bit hollow. As also, the very smooth way things seems to have been taken care of. There were some editing errors that could have been avoided. For instance, ‘of course’ being spelt as ‘off course’ in at least two pages.
Verdict : Loved the characters, specially the firebrand Radha. A light, but gripping read, in spite of the somewhat artificial feeling plot, at least in places. But I loved the way his protagonists and their family relate to each other, that was realistic. Worth a read.