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Ruskin Bond Recalls…

Title: Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills

Editors: Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

She was eighty-six, but looking at her you wouldn’t have guessed—she was spry and took some care to look good. Not once in the five years that we spent together did I find her looking slovenly. The old-fashioned dresses she wore were clean and well-ironed, and sometimes she added a hat. Her memory was excellent, and she knew a great deal about the flowers, trees, birds and other wildlife of the area—she hadn’t made a serious study of these things, but having lived here for so long, she had developed an intimacy with everything that grew and flourished around her. A trust somewhere in England sent her a pension of forty or fifty rupees, and this was all the money she had, having used up the paltry sum she’d received from the sale of her property.

She’d had a large house, she told me, which she had inherited from her parents when they died, and she’d had an ailing sister whom she had nursed for many years before she too passed away. As she had no income, she kept boarders in the house, but she had no business sense and was losing money maintaining it. In the end, she sold the house for a song to one of the local traders and moved into two small rooms on the ground floor of Maplewood Lodge, a kindness for which she remained grateful to her friends, the Gordon sisters.

It must have been lonely for Miss Bean, living there in the shadow of the hill, which was why she had been excited when I moved into the floor above her. With age catching up, she couldn’t leave her rooms and her little garden as often as she would have liked to, and there were few visitors—sometimes a teacher from the Wynberg Allen School, the padre from the church in town, the milkman twice a week and, once a month, the postman. She had an old bearer, who had been with her for many years. I don’t think she could afford him any longer, but she managed to pay him a little somehow, and he continued out of loyalty, but also because he was old himself; there wouldn’t have been too many other employment opportunities for him. He came late in the morning and left before dark. Then she would be alone, without even the company of a pet. There’d been a small dog long ago, but she’d lost it to a leopard.

Camel’s Back Road, going to a tea party at a friend’s house, the dog sitting in her lap. And suddenly, from the hillside above her, a leopard sprang onto the rickshaw, snatched the dog out of her hands, and leapt down to the other side and into the forest. She was left sitting there, empty-handed, in great shock, but she hadn’t suffered even a scratch. The two rickshaw pullers said they’d only felt a heavy thump behind them, and by the time they turned to look, the leopard was gone.

All of this I gathered over the many evenings that I spent chatting with Miss Bean in her corner of the cottage. I didn’t have anyone to cook for me in the first few years at Maplewood. Most evenings I would have tinned food, and occasionally I would go down to share my sardine tins or sausages with Miss Bean. She ate frugally—maybe she’d always had a small appetite, or it was something her body had adjusted to after years of small meals—so I wasn’t really depriving myself of much. And she returned the favour with excellent tea and coffee.

We would have long chats, Miss Bean telling me stories about Mussoorie, where she had lived since she was a teenager, and stories about herself (a lot of which went into some of my own stories). She remembered the time when electricity came to Mussoorie—in 1912, long before it reached most other parts of India. And she had memories of the first train coming into Dehra, and the first motor road coming up to Mussoorie. Before the motor road was built, everyone would walk up the old bridle path from Rajpur, or come on horseback, or in a dandy held aloft by four sweating coolies.

Miss Bean missed the old days, when there was a lot of activity in the hill resort—picnics and tea parties and delicious scandals. It was second only to Shimla, the favourite social playground of the Europeans. But unlike Shimla, it had the advantage of being a little more private. It was a place of mischief and passion, and young Miss Bean enjoyed both. As a girl, she’d had many suitors, and if she did not marry, it was more from procrastination than from being passed over. While on all sides elopements and broken marriages were making life exciting, she managed to remain single, even when she taught elocution at one of the schools that flourished in Mussoorie, and which were rife with secret affairs.

Do you wish you had, though,’ I asked her one March evening, sitting by the window, in the only chair she had in her bedroom.

‘Do I wish I had what?’ she said from her bed, where she was tucked up with three hot-water bottles.

‘Married. Or fallen in love.’

She chuckled.

‘I did fall in love, you know. But my dear father was a very good shot with pistol and rifle, so I had to be careful for the sake of the young gentlemen. As for marriage, I might have regretted it even had it happened.’

A fierce wind had built up and it was battering at the doors and windows, determined to get in. It slipped down the chimney, but was stuck there, choking and gurgling in frustration.

‘There’s a ghost in your chimney and he can’t get out,’ I said.

‘Then let him stay there,’ said Miss Bean.

Excerpted from Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills, edited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

 ‘What is it about the hills that draws us to them again and again?’ asks one of the editors of this collection. In these pages, over forty writers—from a daughter of the Tagore family and a British colonial officer in the 19th century, to a young poet and an Adivasi daily-wage worker in the 21st century—show us what the many reasons could be: Green hillsides glowing in the sun; the scent of pine and mist; the wind soughing in the deodars; the song of the whistling thrush; a ritual of worship; a picnic, a party, an illicit affair. They show us, too, the complex histories of hill stations built for the Raj and reshaped in free India; the hardship and squalor behind the beauty; the mixed blessings of progress.

Rich in deep experience and lyrical expression, and containing some stunning images of the hills, Between Heaven and Earth is a glorious collection put together by two of India’s finest writers, both with a lifelong connection with the hills. Among the writers you will read in it—who write on the hills in almost every region of India—are Rumer Godden, Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, Emily Eden, Francis Younghusband, Jim Corbett, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khushwant Singh, Keki Daruwalla, and of course the two editors themselves. Together, they make this a book that you will keep returning to for years to come.

ABOUT THE EDITORS

 Ruskin Bond is one of India’s most beloved writers. He is the author of nu­merous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics and several of them set in the hills of north India. Among his best-known books are The Room on the Roof, Time Stops at Shamli, A Book of Simple Living, Rain in the Mountains and Lone Fox Dancing. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. He lives in Landour, Mussoorie.

Bulbul Sharma is an acclaimed painter and writer, author of best-selling books of fiction and non-fiction, including My Sainted Aunts, The Anger of Auber­gines, Murder in Shimla and Shaya Tales. Bulbul conducts ‘storypainting’ work­shops for special needs children and is a founder-member of Sannidhi—an NGO that works in village schools. She divides her time between New Delhi, London and Shaya, a village in Himachal Pradesh.

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When I Discovered Laziness…

Title: Comfy Rascals: Short Fictions

Author: Rhys Hughes

Publisher: Raphus Press, Gibbon Moon Books

DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER

He who was King in the land of Booshooba ordered his most trusted messenger to deliver a sealed envelope to another ruler, the King of far distant Zazkhaban. The messenger set off on the dangerous journey and was never tempted to open the envelope and read the message within. He knew he would face terrible dangers on the path, diversions, bandits, doom pits. One diversion might lead him into a dimension of woe. Another might not. As for bandits, there were a great many of those. For countless ages they had been terrorising the lonely passes of the mountain ranges that lie between Booshooba and Zazkhaban. The messenger had to be agile and astute to avoid their clubs, spears and nets. He crawled past their sentries and soon was up and hastening again. He never tired, this most trusted messenger. Little wonder that the King of Booshooba had favoured him!

But the doom pits are worse than the bandits. No one who has fallen into them has returned, nor have even their screams risen out of those grim holes in the gruesome ground. Will the messenger be fit enough and light enough to leap them all in mighty bounds? They fall still, those unfortunates who fell into them, and now they are loose bones tumbling like jugglers’ clubs down and down through phosphorescent infinity.

But the messenger is safe beyond them. After months of hard travelling, he finally reaches the palace of the King of Zazkhaban, who takes the envelope from him and opens it. The King reads the letter with a frown that grows deeper. Finally he reaches for a loaded musket and points it at the messenger‟s head.

“Clearly you have received some bad news,” the messenger says, “but I am not responsible for what has happened. Don’t shoot the messenger! For I have simply completed my assigned task.”

Silently, but with a stern expression, the King of Zazkhaban offers the letter to the messenger. It says simply, “My dear brother, I have one favour to ask of you. Please shoot the messenger who delivers this letter.” The king pulls the trigger of the musket. There is noise and smoke and the most trusted messenger slumps to the ground and his blood flows quickly.

BALDNESS

Baldness in men is not natural but a result of civilization. It probably comes from wearing tight hats or eating processed foods. In our original condition evolution would never choose baldness because the moonlight reflecting off the shiny scalp would give away our position to predators in the jungle. Men with thick heads of hair are less likely to be pounced on by tigers. They are more likely to be used as a paintbrush by gorillas, yes, but pounced on by tigers, no! And yet, maybe we need more light at night. Could it be that bald men are necessary? The reflections of the male heads of an entire tribe might provide sufficient illumination for late sessions of applied mathematics to take place. Or for the continuance of guitar lessons.

WHEN I DISCOVERED LAZINESS

When I was young I was full of energy. I read in a book that if every man, woman and child in China jumped up and down at the same time, a tidal wave would be created by the vibrations that would engulf the United States of America. I remember thinking: so why don‟t they do that? If it’s possible, why not make the attempt? Later, I read in a different book that every man, woman and child could fit onto the Isle of Wight standing up straight like skittles, tightly packed together, and that the island would sink. Once again I asked myself: so why don’t we do it?

Even later I was told by a teacher at my school that if every man, woman and child in the world stood on the equator facing east in a long line and took one step forwards, pushing back with their foot, the globe would stop spinning. So why aren’t we lining up and stepping forward, I demanded to know? Then the answer occurred to me. Laziness! That was why there were no human-generated tidal waves, sinking islands or planetary brakes. It was because people were too lazy to make them happen. That was the precise moment when I discovered laziness and what it really meant and its importance to the daily workings and evolving history of the human race.

IDENTITY

Our identities can never survive death because they barely even exist while we are alive. They are not constants but variables. Our identities are constantly changing but so gradually that we do not perceive the changes and thus assume we are a single entity all our lives. In fact we are so far removed from the way we were, and the way we will be, that if our past or future selves were suddenly killed, we (the present “we‟) would feel nothing at all. And we do die sometime in the future without feeling a thing now, which would hardly be the case if all our selves through time were connected and merged into one unit. This is what I think and I thought it.

About the Book:

Many rascals are too tense to be comfortable. Real life rascals have much to worry about. But rascals in fiction can afford to relax a little in the waves of prose that surround them, gently swirling on the wit and wisdom, bobbing on the contrivance, floating on the syntax. It is nice to be a comfy rascal. The language and its ambiguity are the territory where Rhys produces his best in fiction. In the flash fiction format, the stories by Rhys at Comfy gets a full language ambiguity game, in the words of the superb author Brian Evenson: 

“Each of these stories is a shimmering whimsical fleck which not only satisfies in and of itself but, taken with its compatriots, builds an image of life and language that is pure play and discovery. Like Kafka’s parables, if Kafka’s sense of humour was less dark and had more puns.” 

About the Author: 

Rhys Hughes has been writing fiction from an early age. His first book was published in 1995 and since that time he has published fifty other books, nine hundred short stories and many articles and poems, and his work has been translated into ten languages. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Having lived in Britain, Spain and Kenya, he is now planning to move to India. His poetry tends to be humorous light verse and offbeat lyrical fantasy, influenced mainly by Don Marquis, Ogden Nash, Edward Lear, Richard Brautigan, Ivor Cutler and Spike Milligan.

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O, Terrible Angel

Title: O, Terrible Angel

Author: Michael R. Burch

Publisher: Ancient Cypress Press

Enigma
 
(for Beth)
 
O, terrible angel,
bright lover and avenger,
full of whimsical light and vile anger;
wild stranger,
seeking the solace of night, or the danger;
pale foreigner,
alien to man, or saviour.
 
Who are you,
seeking consolation and passion
in the same breath,
screaming for pleasure, bereft
of all articles of faith,
finding life
harsher than death?
 
Grieving angel,
giving more than taking,
how lucky the man
who has found in your love, this—our reclamation;
fallen wren,
you must strive to fly though your heart is shaken;
weary pilgrim,
you must not give up though your feet are aching;
lonely child,
lie here still in my arms; you must soon be waking.
 
(Published by mojo risin’ magazine (the first poem in its issue), Silly Bear, Love Poems and Poets, The Kitchen Sink, and in a YouTube reading by Jasper Sole)
 
Are You the Thief
 
(for Beth)
 
When I touch you now,
O sweet lover,
full of fire,
melting like ice
in my embrace . . .
 
when I part the delicate white lace,
baring pale flesh,
and your face
is so close
that I breathe your breath
and your hair surrounds me like a wreath . . .
 
tell me now,
O sweet, sweet lover,
in good faith . . .
are you the thief
who has stolen my heart?
 
(Originally published as “Baring Pale Flesh” by Poetic License/Monumental Moments)
 
She Gathered Lilacs
 
(for Beth)
 
She gathered lilacs
and arrayed them in her hair;
tonight, she taught the wind to be free.
 
She kept her secrets
in a silver locket;
her companions were starlight and mystery.
 
She danced all night
to the beat of her heart;
with her tears she imbued the sea.
 
She hid her despair
in a crystal jar,
and never revealed it to me.
 
She kept her distance
as though it were armor;
gauntlet thorns guard her heart like the rose.
 
Love!—awaken, awaken
to see what you’ve taken
is still less than the due my heart owes!
 
(Published by The Neovictorian/Cochlea, Borderless Journal, The Eclectic Muse (Canada), Shabestaneh (Iran), Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Famous Poets and Poems, The Chained Muse, Inspirational Stories, Lilac Blossom Collection, English Poetry, Love Poems and Poets, Not Just a Label and Captivating Poetry (Anthology))
 
 
Warming Her Pearls
 
(for Beth, after her bath)
 
Warming her pearls, her breasts
gleam like constellations.
Her belly is a bit rotund . . .
she might have stepped out of a Rubens.
 
(Published by Erosha, The Eclectic Muse, Muse Apprentice Guild, Nisqually Delta Review, Erbacce, Poetry Life & Times and Brief Poems)
 

About the Book: O, Terrible Angel is a collection of love poems written by Michael R. Burch for his wife Beth.

About the Author: Michael R. Burch is an American poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Beth and two incredibly spoiled puppies. He has over 6,000 publications, including poems that have gone viral. His poems, translations, essays, articles, letters, epigrams, jokes and puns have been published by TIME, USA Today, BBC Radio 3, Writer’s Digest–The Year’s Best Writing and hundreds of literary journals. His poetry has been translated into 14 languages, taught in high schools and colleges, and set to music by 22 composers, including three potential operas if the money ever materialises. He also edits www.thehypertexts.com, has served as editor of international poetry and translations for Better Than Starbucks, is on the board of Borderless Journal and has judged a number of poetry contests over the years.


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The Dreams of a Mappila Girl

Title: The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir

Author: B. M. Zuhara Translator: Fehmida Zakeer

Publisher: Jointly published by SAGE Publications and Yoda Press under the Yoda-SAGE Select imprint

The kitchen was a woman’s world in those days. Work started there soon after the morning prayers. Each morning, Ummambiumma and Ummatha had the job of grinding parboiled rice that had been soaked in hot water. The clacking of the grinding stone resounded through the nalapad and the central hall during the early hours of the day. A half wall divided the big kitchen into two sections. On the ground in the main section, facing east, were five firewood stoves. Squatting on the floor, Kunhamina got these stoves burning every morning. Three grinding stones, one large and two small, were placed on a ledge built against the half wall. Ummambiumma called the big grinding stone Bombayiammi, after the city from where Valippa brought it. 

‘The master brought this ammi from Bombay especially for grinding the rice for pathiri. If the consistency of the dough is not correct, the pathiri will not be good. The pathiri we make here is famous,’ said Ummambiumma, her tone full of the pride she took in her work.

The ammis operated from morning until afternoon. Once the rice for the pathiris had been ground, the coconut for the curries was ground next, then the items required for making lunch. Ummambiumma and Ummatha kept up a continuous chatter as they worked on the ammis. Kunhamina, seated on the ground and attending to the pots on the stove, joined in their conversation every now and again.

‘If you keep talking like this, your mouths will become dry,’ Kadeesumma who supervised the work in the kitchen would warn. Mostly she went unheeded. ‘Talking helps us to do our work quickly, Kadeestha,’ Ummatha would say.

Since we cultivated rice, we always had either puttu or pathiri made with unpolished red rice for breakfast. At night, it was always pathiri. The curries were rotated on a daily basis—onion, dried fish, drumstick leaves, egg curry. The onion curry was prepared by frying peeled and diced shallots, adding turmeric and chilli powder, and finally mixing in coconut milk. When drumstick leaves were substituted for the shallots, it became drumstick leaves curry; when dried fish was added to the basic onion curry, it became dried fish curry; adding boiled eggs to the onion curry converted it into egg curry. A change in the menu happened only on special occasions or when we had visitors. When the children grumbled about the unvarying fare, omelettes or bulls-eye eggs appeared on the table. Sometimes, they gave us coconut mixed with sugar, a favourite with me.

For breakfast, the side dish for the puttu was supposed to be fish in red gravy. But we didn’t get fish early enough on most days, and so the children were served bananas and sugar with their puttu. The puttu, which was made by steaming rice flour layered with liberal quantities of shredded coconut in hollow logs of bamboo, was delicious enough to eat without any accompaniments. 

In the mornings, the kitchen was a cacophony of sounds. After the morning prayers, Valippa and Uppa were each served an egg along with their morning tea—half boiled for Valippa and hard boiled for Uppa. After he was diagnosed with diabetes, Valippa stopped eating rice pathiris, switching to wheat dosas and oats boiled in milk for his breakfast. The preparation of wheat dosas involved soaking the wheat grains in water the previous night and grinding them into a fine batter in the morning. Valippa liked tomato roast with his wheat dosas. Uppa wanted egg roast for his breakfast, whether it was pathiri or puttu. Egg roast was made by frying onions in coconut oil, adding turmeric, chilli and cumin powders, and finally breaking an egg over the mixture. When we had guests, egg chops replaced the egg roast. Instead of breaking an egg into the onion mixture, hard-boiled eggs were added into it and topped with a layer of finely sliced onions and thin round slices of golden-fried potatoes. Egg chops were Umma’s speciality. She also prepared Valippa’s oats.

Umma supervised the making of breakfast. Ummama avoided the morning rush in the kitchen and came in to oversee the preparations for lunch. When the servants heard the tapping of Umma’s medhiyadi, they would turn down the volume of their chatter.

‘Kunhiammayi is coming. Have you boiled the milk for the oats, Kunhamina?’ Kadeesumma, sitting on the wooden box peeling onions, would ask.

‘I’ve boiled the milk and kept the pan ready.’

Kunhamina would wait with the washed and dried pan. Umma came into the kitchen holding a tin of oats. On the tin was a picture of a man with a white hat that never failed to intrigue me. The tin of oats was bought specially for us at Jambu Stores in Kozhikode. Umma scooped two spoons of oats into the pan placed on the table in the kitchen. She added milk and handed it to Kunhamina who boiled the mixture, cooled it, poured it into a glass tumbler and then covered it with a lid. Meanwhile, Umma sat on a low stool by the stove on the ground. She made the egg roast for Uppa, intermittently giving instructions to Kunhamina who had started preparing the wheat dosas for Valippa.

‘Drizzle some ghee and turn the dosa, Kunhamina. Don’t let it burn.’

Like a shadow, I would stand behind Umma.

‘Move aside, Soora. Don’t follow me like a tail.’ Irritated, she pushed me aside and I started crying.

‘Dear girl, don’t cry, I’ll give you a dosa secretly,’ Kunhamina whispered. I stopped crying.

Assan came into the kitchen. ‘Is the master’s breakfast ready?’

Umma placed the wheat dosas, tomato roast and oats on a tray for Valippa. On another tray, she placed Uppa’s food and asked, ‘Have you laid the supra on the thinna?’

Assan confirmed that he had laid the mat and went to Valippa’s room with his breakfast.

Uppa and the older boys had their meals on the thinna beneath the front staircase. Mats were laid out on the platform before serving the food. Valippa joined them on the thinna for lunch.

About the Book: As a young Muslim girl growing up in the 1950s in a small South Indian village, B. M. Zuhara had simple dreams—to go to the newly opened ‘talkies’ in town and watch a movie, play with her brothers in the rice fields, learn the ancient martial art of Kalari Payatu with them, stand on the bridge and listen to the songs sung by the farmhands as they worked. But she soon realised that even being the pampered, youngest child of her family would not help her in realising some of her dreams because of her gender. Set at the time when Independent India was embracing its new identity as a free nation, this book provides a wide lens for the reader to view life in a semi-rural Kerala village. Zuhara recounts the social mores of the society she lived in and offers glimpses into the secluded lives of Muslim girls and women who, despite obstacles, made the best of their circumstances and contributed positively to their communities.

About the Author: B. M. Zuhara is a Malayalam writer hailing from Thikkodi near Kozhikode. She has written novels and short stories and has been a columnist in regional newspapers. She is the first Muslim woman writer from Kerala. Her new novel titled Pennungal (Women) is forthcoming from Chintha Publications. She won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for her contribution to Malayalam literature in 2008 and has also been a recipient of awards such as Lalithambika Antharjanam Memorial Special Award, Unnimoy Memorial Award and the K. Balakrishanan Smaraka Award. Her novel Iruttu was translated to Arabic recently as part of the Qatar Ministry Cultural Exchange and was launched at the Doha International Book Fair in January 2020. She has also translated Tayeb Salih’s Wedding of Zein and Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walkinto Malayalam. The English translation of her novella Nilavu (moonlight) was published by Oxford University Press in the anthology titled Five Novellas. The same novella was translated into Arabic and published as Zooul Khamar while Mozhi (Talaq), another novel of hers, was translated into Arabic and published by IQRani Publishers, UAE.

About the Translator: Fehmida Zakeer is a writer hailing from Kerala. Her work has appeared in Indian Quarterly, Rose and Thorn Journal, Out of Print Magazine, Asian Cha, The Bangalore Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Muse India and elsewhere. Stories written by her have come out in print anthologies such as Pangea: An Anthology of Stories from Around the World (Thames River Press, UK), Ripples: Short Stories by Indian Women Writers (APK Publishers, India), Happy Birthday to Me (Dahlia Publishing, UK) and others. A story of hers placed first in the Himal South-Asian short story competition 2013 and another was chosen by the National Library Board of Singapore for the 2013 edition of their annual READ Singapore anthology. She was twice on the honourable mentions list of the Binnacle Ultra Short competition (University of Maine at Machias). A story of hers was shortlisted in the DNA-Out of Print short story competition, 2014 and another one was published in the Out of Print magazine issue focusing on Sexual and Gender Violence. An anthology of stories, titled Keeper of Secrets, is forthcoming from Dhauli Books.

(Excerpted from The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir by B. M. Zuhara; translated by Fehmida Zakeer. Jointly published by SAGE Publications and Yoda Press under the Yoda-SAGE Select imprint.2022, 228 pages, Paperback, Rs. 550, ISBN: (978-93-5479-280-9), YODA SAGE Select.

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Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince

Title: The Prince Mendicant

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Publisher: Picador India

January 1921

1

The Sannyasi

It was a raw, blustery morning in late January. A small knot of people could be seen standing near the Buckland Bund, an embankment on the Buriganga river. The river, which swirled and foamed along the edges of the city of Dhaka, was especially turbulent this winter.

All eyes were fixed on a man, a stranger to these parts. He had been sitting cross-legged on the Bund, gazing into the distance day and night, for the past three months, impervious to the cold gusts of wind and spray that rose from the agitated waters below. There was something odd about his appearance. He could be a Bengali, the locals surmised, judging by the shape of his face with its somewhat square jawline, wide nose and high cheekbones. His body was covered with ash but the patches that were visible were as fair as a European’s and his eyes, hooded by dark, heavy lids, a greenish brown. Masses of tawny hair fell in dreadlocks down his sturdy back and shoulders and a matted beard almost touched his navel. A tattoo—a word in some strange language—could be seen on his right arm. He was naked except for the strip of coarse orange cloth that covered his genitals. The men standing around stared at him with unabashed curiosity and exchanged glances. Once in a while someone would fling a question at him. They had been doing so from the first day they saw him sitting on the Bund.

‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ A middle-aged man in a silk lungi and woollen vest asked in a stern voice.

‘Main Bangla nahin jaanta.’ [1]The stranger’s lower lip twisted to the right as he answered in Hindi.

A barrage of questions followed in a Hindi thickly accented with Bengali.

‘Where have you come from?’ ‘Bahut door se.[2]

‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Nothing. Just sitting.’

‘That we can see. But why here?’

‘No reason. I just … just came here …’

‘Are you a sannyasi?’

‘Yes. I’m a roaming sadhu.’

‘You look quite young. Must be in your mid-thirties. Am I right?’ The stranger shrugged his heavy shoulders and turned his eyes northwards on a massive structure looming in the distance. It was the zamindar’s mansion locally known as the Rajbari. The zamindars of Bhawal were rich and powerful beyond ordinary landowners and had been dignified by the title of Raja. Their sons were addressed as Kumar, each according to his position in the hierarchy.

The man in the lungi moved aside. Another, an elderly gentleman in a dhuti[3] and shawl, took his place.

‘You are too young to abandon the world. When did you become a sannyasi?’ The old man leaned forward and examined the stranger’s face and head closely. There was a puzzled look in his eyes.

‘I ran away from home in my youth and joined a group of holy men.’

‘How long ago was that?’

‘I don’t remember.’

 ‘Where did they take you?’

‘To the mountains. I spent many years there.’

The old man nodded. But the answer didn’t seem to satisfy him.

The crowd ebbed, melted and swelled once more. Others took up the interrogation.

‘Do you have parents?’

‘No.’

‘Are you married?’

The man, calm and unruffled all this while, stiffened at this question. As though alerted to some hidden hostility. He had a prominent Adam’s apple which jumped up and down his throat.

‘Um …’ he hesitated, ‘yes … n-no. Yes. I had a wife … once.’

‘You left her too?

‘Yes.’

‘Why do you keep looking at the Rajbari?’

‘No reason.’ The answer came pat as though he had prepared for the question. ‘There’s nothing else to see …’

The men walked away and stood a little apart. They exchanged meaningful looks and nudged and whispered. Snatches of their conversation came floating through the air.

‘Exactly like the mejo kumar[4]. The same height and build. The same small hands and feet. Even the tiny wart on the lower lid of the right eye. What do you think, Taufique?’ The elderly gentleman turned to the man in the lungi.

‘Yes, indeed, Kashi kaka. I never did believe the story.’

‘You think anyone does?’

‘I don’t know about the family. The subjects certainly don’t. Not one.’

‘The man seems to be about thirty-five or thirty-six. Exactly the age the mejo kumar would have been today. Have you noticed the way he sits? Hunched forward like a bull.’

‘And his complexion! What man other than a royal could be that fair? His body is covered with ashes but I noticed his hands and feet. Particularly the feet. Rough and scaly but shell pink. Like new milk with a drop of vermilion mixed in it.’

‘The colour of his eyes? And the tiny angles sticking out from the tops of his ears? The resemblance is uncanny. The mejo kumar too had …’

‘There are marks on his back and legs. And tiny patches on the scalp in between the dreadlocks. I looked at them closely …’

‘Yes, I noticed them too. The mejo kumar’s body was ridden with syphilis when he was sent to Darjeeling. These must be the scars.’

‘He seemed a bit rattled when I asked if he was married.’

‘He did indeed. He couldn’t decide what to say.’

‘He is the mejo kumar,’ a chorus of voices joined in. ‘The story we have been told is bunkum.’

‘Concocted by the mejo rani[5] and her brother.’

‘Without a doubt. Without a doubt.’

‘Why do you think they did it?’

‘Who knows? They must have had their reasons.’

‘Mark my words, brothers,’ an old man wearing a skull cap observed darkly, ‘this man is pretending to be a sadhu, when he is in fact the mejo kumar – the second prince of the royal family. Now that both his brothers are dead, he is the sole heir of the estate. The real ruler. If I’m proved wrong, I’ll never venture another opinion as long as I live.’ He moved his head solemnly from side to side.

About the Book:

In the winter of 1909, Ramendranarayan Roy, the ailing second prince of the Bhawal zamindari, proceeds to Darjeeling with his wife Bibhavati, brother-in- law Satyendranath and a retinue of officials and servants, after being advised a change of air by his physicians. Three weeks later, a telegram from Satyendranath arrives at the Bhawal estate, carrying news of the prince’s demise and subsequent cremation.

Soon peculiar rumours start circulating around Bhawal and the surrounding town. Some say that the prince was poisoned, while others suspect that his body was taken to the burning ghat but not actually cremated. There are also whispers about an incestuous relationship between Bibhavati and her brother. The story takes a bewildering turn when, twelve years later, a mendicant comes to Bhawal, claiming to be the long-lost prince and the heir to the estate.

With no resolution in sight, matters reach the court, where the so-called prince and some family members face off against Bibhavati and her brother, aided by the British Court of Wards who are keen on maintaining ownership of the zamindari. The breathless legal drama that ensues will culminate in an incredible series of events, permanently altering the course of the estate’s history.

Inspired by the legendary Bhawal sannyasi case and evocative in its recreation of pre-Partition Bengal, The Mendicant Prince is an intriguing tale of dual identity and the inexplicable quirks of fate.

About the Author:

Aruna Chakravarti has been Principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books to her name. Her novels, The Inheritors, Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko and Suralakhsmi Villa, have sold widely and received rave reviews. She is the recipient of the Vaitalik Award, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Sarat Puraskar.


[1] I do not know Bengali – translated from Hindi

[2] From very far – translated from Hindi

[3] A cloth wrap that is a substitute for trousers

[4] The second prince

[5] The second queen or the prince’s wife

Amazon pre-order link: https://amzn.to/3uZgjCy

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Wordsmith Sarat Chandra and Tell-tale Ashok Kumar

Title: Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Wordsmith Sarat and Tell-tale Ashok 

The child Ashok Kumar was highly imaginative and could tell stories to his maternal grandfather, Raja Shib Chandra.

‘Come on boy, tell me a new story,’ the Raja would demand with a smile.

The five-year-old great grandson would gravely start, ‘You see great grandpa, yesterday I was walking through the jungle –‘

The Raja narrowed his eyes, ‘At what time?’ he interrupted.

The boy did not lose his nerve. ‘Yesterday, when you were having a nap after your lunch,’ he kept up the grave tone.

‘And where was the jungle?’ the Raja quipped. 

The boy smiled, ‘On the bank of the Ganga.’

‘Carry on,’ said the Raja.

‘As I walked through the jungle,’ little Ashok went on, ‘there were birds chirping and peacocks dancing. I was feeling fine when suddenly I heard a tiger roar. I stopped. The birds stopped chirping, the peacocks flew fast and in panic. I turned around. And there it was standing, the tiger. It was a huge tiger, snarling at me and thrashing its tail on the ground…

‘Trembling in fear, I broke into a run. The tiger roared and sprang at me. I ran and ran hard. The tiger chased me. It almost reached me, it would soon fall upon me, grab me, swallow me. What shall I do? Oh, how shall I save myself? I prayed for wings and they sprang out of my two shoulders and I flew upward through the trees and escaped in the air. The tiger roared and roared and roared on…’

Little Ashok looked at the Raja for a due appreciation.

But the Raja looked at him with disbelief in his eyes and asked, ‘So you can grow wings out of your shoulders?’

The boy stared at him and nodded, ‘Yes, I can.’

‘Show me,’ the Raja demanded.

Undaunted, the boy said, ‘You become a tiger and I will show you my wings.’

The Raja roared with laughter. ‘Bravo my little one, bravo!’ he conceded. 

Two servants peeped in at this moment on hearing the Raja’s laughter. The Raja beckoned one of them in.

‘Jagai, go to Upen Ganguly’s house and house and call that dark chap – you know –‘ Raja Shib Chandra ordered.

‘Yes, master.’

Soon a young man came there. He was dark but attractive, with handsome features and exceptionally bright, penetrating eyes.

The Raja welcomed him, ‘Come here, my lad. Do you know my great grandson, Ashok?’

‘No sir – but now I will know him,’ the dark young man smiled at little Ashok and added, ‘Ashok is the name of an Emperor.’

The little boy smiled back at the compliment.

Shib Chandra said to the young man, ‘Look here, my great grandson is no less than you — he can also tell stories. Tell him a story Ashok.’

Before starting to narrate a story Ashok looked at the young man and asked, ‘Have you ever eaten silver rice and fried silver parval?’

‘I will eat them when I find them.’

Many many years later when the cinema houses displayed a ‘House Full’ board everytime an Ashok Kumar film was released, New Theatres of Calcutta invited the actor to join the concern. It had earned the reputation of producing quality films — and to this day the name remains nonpareil in the history of Indian cinema.

Ashok Kumar agreed to meet them to discuss the matter. When he met Birendra Nath Sircar, the managing director, in his office there were some other directors and a dark man with silvery hair and sharp burning eyes.

Mr Sircar introduced the gentleman in dhoti-kurta by saying, ‘Mr Ganguly, he is our pride — Shri Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the great novelist.’

Startled, Ashok Kumar turned towards the legend and bowed low.

Sarat Chandra smilingly asked, ‘Do you remember me?’

Ashok shook his head, ‘No sir — sorry.’

Sarat Chandra laughed and said, ‘Try and you will remember that you used to narrate stories to me — of silver made rice and fried silver parval.’

And the scene came back to Ashok Kumar. So, he used to narrate to this great magician — story writer Sarat Chandra!

Every one had a hearty laugh when Sarat Chandra narrated the story from the past. In his tum Ashok Kumar narrated how Sarat Chandra’s uncle, the writer Upen Ganguly, would regretfully say, ‘This chap, my nephew Sarat, does nothing! I am worried about him.’ This unleashed another round of laughter.

Ashok Kumar finally acted in only one film, Samar. He did not join New Theatres. It was Bombay Talkies that had groomed him and made him what he was. He would never leave Bombay Talkies.

(But, in 1953, after Bombay Talkies closed its shutter for good, he bought the rights to Parineeta. It was the first film of Ashok Kumar Productions.) 

(Excerpted from Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, Speaking Tiger Books 2022)

 About the Book:

Ashok Kumar (1911–2001), fondly known as Dadamoni, is one of the great icons of Hindi cinema. This warm, intimate biography traces his remarkable journey, from reluctant actor to Bollywood’s first superstar and, in his later years, a much-loved presence on national television.

Born in Bhagalpur (then in the Bengal Presidency), Ashok Kumar was enthralled by the ‘bioscope’ as a child. In his twenties, he quit his law studies and came to Bombay to become a film director. But life—rather, Himanshu Rai, the founder of Bombay Talkies—had different plans for him. Despite the director’s reservations, he was cast in the lead role opposite Devika Rani in the 1936 film Jeevan Naiyya when the original hero went missing. The same year, Ashok Kumar was paired with Devika Rani again in Achhut Kanya, which was a blockbuster. The transformation of the accidental hero into a charismatic star-actor had begun. Over the next six decades, he proved himself to be a master of the craft, playing cop and thief; genial grandfather and sly matchmaker; villain and hero; heartbroken lover and suave rake with equal ease in numerous films, including Kismet, Mahal, Parineeta, Kanoon, Gumrah, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Aashirwad, Mamta, Jewel Thief, Khoobsurat and Khatta Meetha. But as Nabendu Ghosh writes, Ashok Kumar’s world was much larger—he was also a charming conversationalist, mentor, homeopath, astrologer, painter, linguist, limericist and, above all, loyal friend and devoted husband and father. This book is also a mini-history of the early decades of Bombay’s Hindustani cinema, and its pages are rich with little anecdotes featuring legends like—besides Devika Rani—Saadat Hasan Manto, Sashadhar Mukherjee, Leela Chitnis, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Meena Kumari and B.R. Chopra. Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru make brief appearances too, as does Morarji Desai.

For anyone interested in the Hindi cinema of yesteryears—in its cosmopolitanism, camaraderie and charm—this thoroughly engaging book is a must-read.

About the Author:

 Nabendu Ghosh (1917–2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories, including That Bird Called Happiness: Stories and Mistress of Melodies, edited by Ratnottama Sengupta. As scriptwriter, he penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan.

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Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road

Author: Rabindranath Tagore 

Translator: Somdatta Mandal 

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Chapter 1 – Prelude to the Journey

Our ashrama school is situated in the midst of a meadow, a place where both the old and the young, students and teachers all reside in the same room. We also have other playmates; we do not have a concealed relationship with the blue sky, the light and the breeze. Here the early morning rays of the sun fall directly upon our eyelids, the evening stars in the sky directly stare at our faces. When the storm comes, its dusty stole warns us from a very long distance. The arrival of a new season is first heralded through the new leaves on our trees. It is as if Nature does not have to wait for a moment outside our doors. Our desire is to share this kind of a relationship with the people of the world as well. The desire of our heart is to see clearly all the seasons that come and go in the history of mankind, the rising and setting of the sun or the tumult that storm and rain create. This is possible for us because we stay far away from human habitation. Here all the information of the world is not received in a particular cookie-cutter mould; if we want we can receive them in an unadulterated form.

In order to make the relationship of our institution to the rest of the human world an open one, I feel it necessary to explore the world. We have received the invitation of that larger world. As it is not possible for all the 200 students of this school to accompany me in this grand tour, so I have decided that I shall alone attend the invitation on your behalf. Through me I shall complete all of yours travel. When I will again return to your ashrama I will be able to capture a lot of the external world in my life and bring it for you. Once I come back I will share my experiences at leisure, but now, before departing, I want to clearly explain some of my thoughts to you. Many people ask me why are you going for an Europe travel? I cannot find an answer to this question. If I give a simple answer that I am going because I simply want to travel, then people will think that I am dismissing the fact lightheartedly. Man is not at peace until a result is declared and an assessment made of the profit and loss involved. Why should man venture out of home without any need is a question that can be raised in our country only. We are oblivious of the fact that the wish to venture outside is a natural instinct in man. Home has bound us up in such a manner that we are tied by many superstitions and tears once we decide to set our feet across the threshold. Thus the outside is totally beyond us while its connection with home has been completely severed. Our friends and relatives enmesh us so closely that outsiders are outsiders in the true sense of the word.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Travels formed an integral part of the personae and creative artist that was Rabindranath Tagore. During his travels to England and the USA (1912-13 and 1920) Tagore wrote essays for publication in various Bengali journals. In 1939, Tagore selected fourteen of these essays and an appendix containing seven letters he had written to some of the teachers in the Shantiniketan ashram while he was on these trips, for publication as a volume. Tagore rewrote the original essays then using the colloquial instead of the formal language; he also revised the texts substantially. Later editions altered the number of essays, sometimes digressing from Tagore’s own selection, sometimes going back to Tagore’s original formal language. The travelogue provides an insight into Tagore’s perception of the different facets of western life and the diverse philosophical issues that cross his mind as he journeys from one continent to another. Translated from Bengali for the first time, Pather Sanchoy would be of interest to all those who enjoy exploring unknown territories geographically and psychologically.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rabindranath Tagore, sobriquet Gurudev, was a Bengali polymath who reshaped Bengali literature and music, as well as Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Author of Gitanjali and its “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.He is sometimes referred to as “The Bard of Bengal”.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Somdatta Mandal is a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.

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Waiting

Title: Waiting

Author: Suzanne Kamata

Publisher: Kelsay Books, 2022

Waiting
 
My brother Benjamin waits
for Gent
our lost cocker spaniel
to come home.
 
Dad waits 
for his boss
to give him a promotion.
 
Mom waits
for portents
and signs.
 
My boyfriend waits
for me to say 
“yes.”
 
I wait 
for the future
far away from
here.
 
The town waits
for a missing girl
to turn up and tell us
it was all just a joke. 


Vigil
 
My little brother Benjamin 
fills the plastic dish
only to later dump

the untouched nuggets
and fill the dish
again, a ritual
a sacrificial offering
to our lost cocker spaniel.
 
He’s gone door to door
promising mown lawns
washed windows
shined cars
in exchange for information.
No one helps.
Everyone is more concerned about
the disappearance of a young woman.
 
Young women disappear
with alarming regularity.
Two dead, in the woods
naked.
A third 
still missing.
Shira Bates.


Shira
 
I was invited to her birthday party
in kindergarten.
I tried to wrap up
my mother’s engagement ring
after snatching it from a crystal saucer
while she washed dishes
a suitable gift for such a princess of a girl
I thought.
 
Mom caught me
spanked my behind
made me give Shira a Barbie
with silky blonde hair
smooth skin

wearing the latest fashions
like the birthday girl herself.
 
I was more Raggedy Ann.
 
Later, Shira and I drifted apart.
She fell in with the cheerleaders
became star of the chorus
girlfriend to Number One Hottie
Greg Shealy
found God.
 
While I faded into
gawkiness
good grades
and hid behind glasses 
and my long stringy hair.
 
Invisible me.


Her Voice
 
On the last day of school
a week before she went missing
Shira Bates sang with the chorus in
the school cafeteria
while I ate my blueberry yogurt.
 
Her voice blended then
soared above, the others went
silent, listening to her solo before
jumping back in again.
 
That girl could sing angels out of
the sky, could get larks to land on
her outstretched hands, I thought with
a kind of wonder instead of the usual
jealousy that I felt around Shira Bates.
  

ABOUT THE BOOK

American Suzanne Kamata attended Lexington High School in South Carolina with Sharon Faye “Shari” Smith, who was kidnapped and murdered by Larry Gene Bell in 1985. This crime compelled the writing of Waiting.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

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Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Title: Villainy

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Death of late having been much on her mind, it did not seem surprising to Dr Mujumdar that she should, at seven-forty of a December morning, during her constitutional in the neighbourhood park, be the first to come upon the corpse or rather, to recognise it to be a dead body. Of course, they were all concentrating on striding along on the jogging track – rolling their hips, pausing discreetly on occasion, only for a micro-second, to break wind – and all moving clockwise as per the rules set down and put up by the Residents’ Welfare Association on the signboard at the entrance, and if they had eyes for anything, it was for the odd, protruding pebble in their paths and every now and then, a Johnny-come-lately in his new car outside the gates, prowling in search of a parking slot. But beneath the hibiscus bushes just before the Children’s Corner, they so stared her in the face, leapt out at her to shout out their presence that she marvelled that no one else appeared to have noticed them – a pair of off-white Bata tennis sneakers, stark against the dark, damp loam, blue socks in a heap at the ankles, khaki trousers that had ridden up to reveal scrawny calves, with the rest of the travesty mercifully hidden by the foliage and a mound of compost awaiting distribution. For travesty she knew it would be and she did not want to see it; for since when has death not been a travesty of all that holds meaning?

       ‘Something tells me that that is not a drunk Colony guard or municipal gardener sleeping it off,’ said she, aloud, to herself, glanced at her watch even though she knew what time it was, and continued silently, But could I still do my half-a-dozen rounds as though nothing has happened, or at least as many as I can before someone else notices something amiss? Or would that be callous and unfeeling of me? She lengthened her stride and began doggedly to pump her elbows in an effort to get away quickly. Her heart though was really not in it that morning. ‘It does seem shameful for someone who’s almost a medical doctor,’ she carried on her conversation with herself, ‘to run away from a corpse. Waddle away, more accurately. But people must never know. And all this – ’ She looked up and about her for a moment, blinked ‘ – is going to have to stop pretty soon, isn’t it?’ She exchanged a ‘Morning’ for a ‘Hello, dear’ as she overtook portly Mrs Gulati. ‘I mean, no one can possibly jog or skip rope or stretch or do his yoga and breathe through his anus or laugh his therapeutic Santa Claus belly laugh in the presence of a dead body, can he?’ And then, aloud, ‘Morning, Sanjeev-ji. You are early today?!’

      Dr Mujumdar took more than her usual eleven minutes to cross the Children’s Corner, pass the Water-Harvesting Area and loop around the Nano Golf Course. By the time she turned into the straight stretch along the C-Block side of the park, a knot of the regulars, forced to abandon their burpees and their Hanuman pushups, had formed around the hibiscus bushes. Automatically, Dr Mujumdar slowed down, even wondered for a second whether she could about-turn and, disobeying the commandment of the RWA, clump away anti-clockwise.

       ‘Don’t touch anything! Just call the police.’

      ‘Could it be someone we know? Even a member of the Health Club?’

      ‘Doesn’t look as though his membership did him any good. Somebody had better telephone the police, I say.’

      ‘I can’t. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘I can’t either, unfortunately. I always leave my phone behind at home when I step out for my exercise.’

      ‘Why don’t you call them? They will respond immediately to your commanding personality.’

      ‘It is the RWA that should phone the police. After all, the dead body has been found in a public place. Just call Tutreja at the Association.’

      ‘I can’t, I just told you. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘Why are you carrying around a phone that doesn’t work?’

      ‘To time my rounds, if you must know. The clock works. And how damn nosey you are, if I might add.’

      ‘Is something the matter? I’m a doctor. A pharmacist, more accurately. Perhaps I might be of help.’

      The knot of exercisers, three-deep by then, stirred and parted like porridge to make way for Dr Mujumdar and then congealed around her even before she could look down once more upon the Bata shoes and the scrawny calves, the khaki trousers. The press of bodies made concentration all the more difficult.

      ‘We’ll have to pull him out and turn him over. Any volunteers?’ The doctor looked about her at the knot, watched it stir and thin. ‘Backache,’ murmured a man with a white moustache, his hand ready to clutch his hip.

      With a grunt of annoyance, portly Mrs Gulati planted herself in the hibiscus bed, pushed aside the vegetation and bent to grab an ankle. The shadow of a momentary queasiness crossed her features at the touch of that cold, alien flesh. She was suddenly surrounded by several fellow-residents whom she had abashed. Freely directing and admonishing one another, they lifted the body up and sideways and laid it down, face up, on the jogging track. The group emitted a sort of collective moan, part sigh, part gasp, on first seeing the face. With difficulty, Dr Mujumdar got down on her knees beside the body. The onlookers, four deep now, gathered about them as though caught in an eddy.

      He was dead, there was no doubt about that. The dead do not look like the living. She felt for his pulse. The wrist was cold and stiff. She extracted a large handkerchief from the pocket of her tracksuit and gently dusted the loam and grit off the face. A murmur, a commentary on the vanity of all that is not death, rustled through the group like the hint of a breeze.

Excerpted from Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

 Walkers in a Delhi neighbourhood park come upon a body on a mid-winter morning—an unidentified body, unremarkable but for an extraordinary scar right between the eyes.

A delinquent teenager—who prefers, to the rest of living, an Ecstasy pill with a beer, and the interior of an expensive car with a gun in his pocket—leaves home one evening for a joyride in his father’s Mercedes.

In the nineteen years separating these episodes, five killings take place—and one near-fatal battery—none of which would have happened if a school bus hadn’t been in the wrong lane. Deals are struck between masters and servants, money changes hands, assurances are given and broken. The wheels of justice turn, forward, backwards and sideways, pause and turn again. Old alliances are tested and new ones are formed in prison cells, mortuaries and court rooms. And every life is a gamble, for no one is entirely innocent.

A meticulously crafted literary thriller, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh novel is a riveting story of crime and retribution, and a meditation on the randomness of evil, death and redemption. It will keep you spellbound till the end.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Upamanyu Chatterjee is the celebrated author of English, August: An Indian Story (1988), The Last Burden (1993), The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Weight Loss (2006), Way to Go (2011), and Fairy Tales at Fifty (2014)—all novels; The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian (2018), a novella; and The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019), a collection of long stories. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2000, and in 2008, he was awarded the Order of Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government for his contribution to literature.

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The Refugee and the Other

Title: Ever Since I Did Not Die

Author: Ramy Al-Asheq

Translator: Isis Nusair Editor: Levi Thompson

Publisher: Seagull Books

The Refugee and the Other,

the Other Refugee

War is vast. It reaches across the horizon, loftier and older than peace. Killing came before war, but it might also be that refuge preceded war. It got attached to war like a child holding on to its mother’s dress with one hand, the other waving to those it does not know. The refugee: a flute weeping over its original image before there was a camp. The camp: ginger on the back of humanity’s infected throat. The camp is necessary, sometimes, for remembering that the lands across the river dropped off the face of the map when we weren’t looking. The map: geography on paper, its borders drawn by the tank and the mortar shell for eternity. The mortar: a tiny cosmic explosion that re-arranges habitats by the whims of whoever launches it. One night, the mortar launcher awakened superstition from its sleep and dragged it away with an F-16 saying, ‘I cannot exist . . . unless there is a refugee.’

Is it our instinct to always blame the victim? Is it customary for the victim to keep playing this role even after the decided time has passed? The victim might even like it and consider it a privilege. That way the Other—but not every Other—will have reason to regard the victim as a scapegoat. The victim sees the Other as a potential enemy, a current friend who is ready to attack at any moment. This has become an essential existential component of the dualities of the universe that are always, as they say, subject to unilateral rule. Good is sometimes evil, and wrong is right. A supporter could be an opponent on another side, and night might be day. The Other is not an Other elsewhere. ‘There’ is only ‘there’ here. Likewise, the refugee could become the Other someday, and responds to another who has become a refugee just like them. Dualities are suspended in conflict and change. Absolute unilateralism lies at the root of this conflict as creator and caretaker and is one of the main reasons for its persistence.

The Other asks the long-time refugee, ‘Do the people in the camp really live in tents?’ The refugee doesn’t respond. Instead, the refugee camp responds, ‘Nothing has anything to do with its name!’

How?

The tents tricked time and stretched their necks until they blocked out the sun. People came to me for pilgrimage from every corner of the earth. They were crowded, since the ‘earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.’

So, why are you still called a ‘camp’?

How would the Other recognize me if I were to change my name?

The Other branded them and marked their pictures in red: ‘You have no place here in the long run.’ Others contributed by adding features in bright oil on their foreheads, so the Other named them. They liked the new name—at least, they liked it until it didn’t please them any longer. It became as ordinary as death in this vast war. The Other did not tell them anything. They did not know the place or the time when yet another Other would rename them. They made a point of not asking. Perhaps fewer questions mean less pain.

One of them says, ‘I’m a refugee who was born here, the son of a refugee who was born here. We know nothing but “here”. Fifty years of my dad living “here” were not enough to change what he was called. My mother’s nationality wasn’t enough for me to change what I’m called! That’s why I hate children—my children, not those of others—because I do not want them to be refugees.’ He does not want them to be like him: different! Even in revolution, the Other wins when he turns those who are alike into Others from themselves.

The refugee opens the door of his tent (his palace) to the Other (the non-refugee). The Other becomes part of this camp that was destroyed except for its name. The Other grows up saying, ‘I am from there,’ and the refugee says, ‘I am from “here” and from another “there”. I am from my temporary “here”, and my original “there” until the day I return!’ Should things get hard one day, the Other will scream in the face of the refugee, ‘You are not from “here”. You are from “there”. You and your camp are in the “here” that belongs to me, so leave!’

So, he leaves, and not much leaves with him. When he remains, nothing will be left of him. The fiasco does not stop here. Indeed, the Other, who used to be a brother, becomes an informant, an enemy. The refugee goes back to repeating the story and playing the role of the victim. The victim is another victim, and the criminal is, of course, an Other!

Everything changes. Nothing remains fixed except for the refugee. Even a temporary homeland becomes a prison, borders surrounded with barbed wire tightly connected to the sea on one side, and to stolen electrical lines on the other. This homeland-prison becomes more merciful than the neighbour-prison. The next camp becomes a real, not metaphorical, prison. The escapee becomes a wanted man, accused of infiltrating paradise. They are tossed into the hell of war seventy times. He ages like fruit. The newspapers sleep on his story through day and night. The people of the land, the sky, and those in-between ignore him because of a royal decree.

Several long-time refugees were rescued along with some Others. They sang the anthem of death to sea and land. The weather picked up, and only those who were already buried could be saved without the camp. The partners of refugee and tent were separated, but they were allowed to return if the Other approved. The Others were called refugees. The long-time refugees are now called ‘without’. This is not about nothingness or nihilism but about a death verdict. He carried many names, as many as his migrations. They put them all to death with another Universal Declaration. The ‘without’ remained nameless, just like they will always be!

With this separation and change in the structure of dualities, some refugees received a nationality and became citizens. They might not want to admit that they are half-citizens or second-class citizens. The original defence mechanism of denial always wins out over confirmation. Having gained their nationality, they were considered to be part of the Other, and they practiced their Otherness on Others. Whenever war smiled, they screamed at them. As they were transformed, they forgot their past: ‘O Refugees!’

This is how one refugee killed another when the first became an Other. The second had to hold onto the title to avoid turning into nothing.

About Ever Since I Did Not Die:

“I gathered these texts like someone collecting body parts. Here are the pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag. It looks like me with all my madness and sickness—how the revolution made me grow up, what the war broke inside me, and what exile chipped away.”

The texts gathered in Ever Since I Did Not Die by Syrian-Palestinian poet Ramy Al-Asheq are a poignant record of a fateful journey. Having grown up in a refugee camp in Damascus, Al-Asheq was imprisoned and persecuted by the regime in 2011 during the Syrian Revolution. He was released from jail, only to be recaptured and imprisoned in Jordan. After escaping from prison, he spent two years in Jordan under a fake name and passport, during which he won a literary fellowship that allowed him to travel to Germany in 2014, where he now lives and writes in exile.

Through seventeen powerful testimonies, Ever Since I Did Not Die vividly depicts what it means to live through war. Exquisitely weaving the past with the present and fond memories with brutal realities, this volume celebrates resistance through words that refuse to surrender and continue to create beauty amidst destruction—one of the most potent ways to survive in the darkest of hours.

About Ramy Al-Asheq (Author):

Ramy Al-Asheq is a Berlin-based Syrian-Palestinian poet, journalist and curator. He has published five poetry collections in Arabic, and many of his texts have been translated into Bosnian, Czech, English, French, German, Kurdish, Polish and Spanish. He launched the German-Arabic magazine FANN in 2017, and was recently selected as a fellow at the Academy of Arts in Berlin and Academy Schloss Solitude.

About Isis Nusair (Translator):

Isis Nusair is associate professor of women’s and gender studies and international studies at Denison University, Ohio.

About Levi Thompson (Editor)

Levi Thompson is assistant professor of Persian and Arabic literature at the University of Texas at Austin.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL