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Interview Review

The Oldest Love Story – In Conversation with Editor Rinki Roy

The Oldest Love Story, edited and curated by Rinki Roy and Maithili Rao published by Om Books International, 2022, carries multiple voices across cultures on a most ancient bond and nurtures pertinent questions and observation, which hope to redefine the role.

‘Antara 1’

Antara rising from primordial waters
As the first sun, forever new, forever old,
You made me the universe.
History and prehistory filed through me hand in hand 
In gradual evolution.
Antara, because of you
I have earned the right to enter
The tenfold halls of my foremothers.
Clutching your baby hands in my fist,
I have made the future a debtor to me
Antara, in an instant you have filled all time
By your grace I am coeval with the Earth today.

-- Nabanita Dev Sen, The Oldest Love Story(2022)

The Oldest Love Story, curated by two eminent authors and journalists, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao, is an anthology that not only describes a human’s first love, their mother, and their lives, but also explores the social and psychological outcomes and ramifications of motherhood with powerful narratives from multiple writers. They range from eminent names like the late Nabanita Dev Sen, Shashi Deshpande, Kamala Das to Bollywood personalities like Shabana Azmi and Saeed Mirza and contemporary names like Amit Chaudhuri or Maithili Rao herself.

The anthology has narratives clubbed into three sections: ‘Being a Mother: Rewards and Regrets’, ‘Outliers’, ‘Our Mothers: Love, Empathy and Ambivalence’. The headings are descriptive of the content of each section. These real-life narratives, some of which include translations by editors Roy and Rao among others, make for interesting and fresh perspectives of the age-old story that is as natural as water or air. More than two dozen diverse voices as well as Roy’s powerful “Preface” and Rao’s exhaustive “Introduction” paint motherhood in new colours, giving it an iridescence that glitters with varied shades. Stories of what mothers faced — bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome, a child who drove his roommate to suicide and yet another daughter who marries a man old enough to be her father — bring us close to issues we face in today’s world.

One of the most interesting and unusual aspects of this book is at the end of each essay is a takeaway from the narrative where the writers write about themselves. This is not a biography but a description of the writers’ perception about their mother or what they learnt from their experience of motherhood. The most interesting takeaway is given by Shabana Azmi, who wrote of her dynamic mother Shaukat Kaifi (1926-2019).

“I am cut from the same cloth as her. But who am I?

“I would say I’m a woman, an Indian, a wife, an actress, a Muslim, an activist, etc. My being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity but today it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into, at the absence of all other aspects. This is not the truth about India. India’s greatest truth is her composite culture.

“The Kashmiri Hindu and the Kashmiri Muslim have much more in common with each other because of their ‘Kashmiriyat’ than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Muslim from Tamil Nadu in spite of them sharing a common religion. To me, my cultural identity is much stronger than my religious identity.”

And she concludes: “My mother taught me that identity must not be a melting pot in which individual identities are submerged. It should be a beautiful mosaic in which each part contributes to a larger whole.”

Major social issues are taken up in multiple narratives. Mirza used the epistolary technique to describe how his mother discarded her burqa forever in Pre-Partition India.

“You were emerging from the hall of the Eros theatre and were about to wear your burqa in the foyer when Baba popped the question to you.

“‘Begum, do you really want to wear it?’

“You told me you paused for a moment, and then you shook your head. And that was that. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I am trying to imagine that moment. The year was 1938 and you had been wearing a burqa ever since you were thirteen years old.”

Mannu Bhandari’s spine-chilling narrative of her mother, a child bride around the time when Mirza’s mother shed her burqa, shows a young girl punished and abused for accidentally tearing her sari. It showcases a conservative, abusive culture where women turn on women. An extreme contrast to the bold maternal outlook described by Mirza or Azmi, the narrative highlights the reason why women need to protest against accepting familial abuse bordering on criminality. That these three mothers lived around the same time period in different cultures and regions of India only goes to enhance the large diaspora of beliefs, customs and cultures within one country.

Dalit writer, Urmila Pawar’s reasserts her mother’s belief, “A woman is a wife for only a while/ She is a mother all her life.” “Screams Buried in the Walls” by Sudha Arora dwells on the abuse borne by women to pander to societal norms. Narratives of abuse of women who could not stand up to social malpractices seem to have turned into lessons on what not to do for daughters who condemn patriarchal norms for the suffering their mothers faced.

On the other hand, Shashi Deshpande tells us: “Motherhood becomes a monster that devours both her and her young; or, when the children go away, there is an emptiness which is filled with frustration and despair. I have been saved from this because of my work. My children no longer need me, but my life does not seem empty.” While Shashi Deshpande found her catharsis by writing her stories, Deepa Gahlot, justifies her stance of remaining unmarried and childless by espousing a voice against motherhood.  She contends that the only reason to perceive motherhood as a viable alternative would be propagation of the species. But concludes with an interesting PS: “Does it even make sense to bring a child into such an ugly, nasty, brutal world?” As one hears of senseless violence, wars and mass shootings in the news, Gahlot’s words strike a chord. She has actually researched into the subject to draw her conclusions. But one would wonder how would humankind propagate then — out of test tubes in a bleak scenario like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? Would humans really want such an inhuman existence?

I would rather go with Dev Sen’s outlook. While she emoted on motherhood in her poems on her daughter Antara, she has given a powerful prose narrative elucidating her own perspective. Antara, the daughter to who these poems are addressed, has given a beautiful takeaway on her mother at the end of Dev Sen’s narrative. Despite being abandoned by her husband, Amartya Sen, who later became a Nobel laureate, Dev Sen not only fulfilled herself as a woman and a mother but threw out an inspiring statement that well sums up motherhood for some: “[C]ould I do anything to make this planet worthy for my kids?”

Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, one of the editors of this sparkling collection and author of a number of books, especially on the legendary film maker, her father, Bimal Roy (1909-1966), had published an earlier collection on a similar theme called, Janani (Mother, 2006). She agreed to tell us more about the making of this meaty and gripping anthology, The Oldest Love Story.

Editor Rinki Roy Bhattacharya at the book launch in Mumbai. Photo sourced by Rinki Roy

Motherhood as a concept that is ancient, natural, and yet, not fully understood nor explored. What made you think of coming up with this collection that highlights not only stories of mothers and how it influenced women but also discusses the process of being a mother?

The present collection, titled “The Oldest love Story” goes back several decades. This is mentioned in my preface. It began when I woke up to the fact that I was redundant as a mother. By the time the children had grown up one-by-one and left home. I began to explore the situation with other women to understand, why we give so much importance to motherhood? Foolishly, I felt. Motherhood as a concept is indeed natural but taken for granted. I have a problem with that. My maid, Laxmi, is a classic example of a mother who is exploited to the hilt by her children. She is blind to their exploitation and refuses any change that will help her live with comfort or dignity. As if women are just mothers and nothing else?

Was it a personal need or one that you felt had to be explored given the current trend towards the issue where women are protesting the fact that looking after children saps them of individuality? Can you please explain?

I answered this issue as have others in this book. The deep resentment that follows after raising kids who then go away to find greener pastures, is an extremely common, and collective experience for most parents. Particularly in the Indian context. Parents cannot let go. The main reason, I think is, the parent’s fear. The fear of who will light the funeral pyre if not the son? In the event of not having a son,  a close male relative takes over. Do you see the gender bias, the patriarchal assumption? Daughters are not considered legitimate enough to light the pyre?! Yet it is daughters who care for elderly parents in most cases.

This is not the case in Europe, nor the West, where children are expected to become independent very early. In fact, European teenagers seize their independence at the earliest opportunity. It is the expected thing, and no one resents that inevitable shift.

You had an earlier collection called Janani (Mother). Did that have an impact on this book?

I am glad you referred to Janani, published by Sage books in 2006. That collection is the cornerstone of our new book. In this collection, we have included eight extraordinary essays from Janani. We have retained, for example, Kamala Das and Shashi Deshpande to name two. And guess what we discovered out of the blue? In the oldest love story, we have several Sahitya Akademi winners amongst our writers, including these stalwarts. This raises our book to a huge literary stature.

How was it to work jointly on a book with Maithili Rao? Did you both have the same vision for the book?

Working with Maithili was fantastic, and it was great fun. She is the most generous of people and shares without fuss. Ours was a good partnership. I could not have produced this book without Maithili. She has been and continues to be a rock.

You have done many translations for the book. Why is it we did not find an essay from you as we did from Maithili Rao?

Yes, I did. I helped fine-tune Mannu Bhandari’s story It ranks as one of my personal favourites. Her narrative is beautifully visual. I find it cinematic. I also translated Sudha Arora’s poignant essay. Sudha is a noted Hindi writer. It was, however, difficult for me to write my personal story. But the hope is, our next reprint will carry a story I wrote on my son Aditya’s birthday in 2021. In this I have given graphic details of how childbirth robs women of their dignity in the so-called natural process of birthing children. My essay is entertaining and somewhat satirical in style.

You have written a beautiful preface to the book, reflecting your own experience with your children. Were you, like the other writers, impacted by your mother?

I take that as a compliment. Yes, I wrote a heartfelt preface. My relationship with my mother, admittedly, was a strained one. Our age difference was just eighteen years…whatever the reason, I have not been able to fathom or pinpoint it. So, I thought it was best to refrain from the troubled territory.

Would you say that Bollywood had some bearing on the book as a number of writers are from within the industry? Also, your father, the eminent Bimal Roy, made a movie called Maa in 1952. If so how. Please explain.

I do not see any bearing from Bollywood. The fact we have eminent personalities from the world of cinema, for example, Shabana Azmi, Saeed Mirza, and Lalita Lazmi do not make it a Bollywood-driven work. My father, Bimal Roy’s Bombay debut was with a film called Maa. Apparently, Maa was inspired by a Hollywood film titled Over the Hills. The main protagonist was an elderly mother of two sons. Maa bared a socially relevant issue, elder abuse, that has been globally recognised and is prevalent. My father’s empathy for the elderly is well documented in this fictional account. In day-to-day life, my father supported the elderly. His widowed aunt in Benaras was maintained by him. His brothers were educated and helped by his generosity. Compassion was his second nature. From him, I learned that a silent, discreet way to support others is the best way to reach out.

There are so many women in the anthology who reiterated the huge impact their mothers had on them, and they were quite critical of their ‘patriarchal’ fathers. Do you think this is true for all women? At a personal level, did your father or mother have a similar impact on you?

I am glad to hear that these woman are critical of their patriarchal fathers…while most women tend to overlook the patriarchal aspect. In general, women tend to ignore or even neglect, their mothers. In my case, it was distinct. My cultural upbringing was instilled by my father’s secular and inclusive vision and social values. These played a decisive part. Much more than my mother, who was a gifted photographer. My parents, by the way, were a made for each other couple. Rarest of rare in the movie industry. My father is my mentor. If you contemplate his well-loved films, let us take Sujata [1959], for one. I have yet to see another film that speaks so eloquently of social boycott. It is not just the caste issue of Sujata, which doubtless is the main thrust. It is the combined forces of class, caste, and gender that play havoc with human relationships as portrayed compassionately in this work.

Yes, Sujata is indeed a beautiful film and your book has taken up many of the issues shown in the movie through the voice of mothers, whether it is caste or religion. Was this intentional or was it something that just happened?

The voices of our contributors in the book are of individuals who write with exemplary honesty and spontaneously. Nothing is contrived in their writings. We did not brief our writers to take up any specific issue. They wrote from the heart.

One of the trends that emerged from my reading of the book was that educated and affluent mothers through the ages had it easier than child brides and less educated mothers, whose children also reacted with more vehemence, looking for a better world for themselves. Do you feel my observation has some credence? Please comment on it.

I do not agree entirely. Bearing children, and raising them in our complex, the confusing socio-economic culture is a challenging matter for all mothers. For all parents in fact. Child brides are subjected to it more intensely than others. There are no shortcuts, nor ready-made answers.

There is an essay against motherhood in this anthology. Do you agree with the author that it is a redundant institution and can be replaced by test-tube babies? Do you not think that could lead to a re-enactment of what Aldous Huxley depicted in Brave New World

I think, you mean Deepa Gahlot’s essay. This was from the earlier collection. Deepa is entitled to her views. As are others. I think many younger women would agree with Deepa. Balancing motherhood with one’s professional life is a knotty business. I know women who have opted for one or the other to do full justice to it.

Yes, it was Deepa Gahlot’s essay. As you have rightly pointed out in your preface, motherhood can be interpreted variously. What do you see as the future of motherhood in India, and in the world?

Motherhood, remains subjective. Interpreted differently in each case. Every childbirth is a different experience. It may be life-threatening. A case to note is my dear friend Smita Patil’s. She died giving birth. But, I doubt women will stop being mothers, or abandon stereotypical mothering options that live up to that Deewar [Wall, 1975] dialogue: “Mere paas maa hain [I do not have a mother]”. There is a change, a shift, nonetheless, it is slow. Women are afraid to rock this entrenched image of motherhood. At least in India. I know successful women filled with guilt that they failed to be good mothers.

Well, that is certainly a perspective that needs thought.What books and music impact your work?

I read both Bangla and English. After leaving Calcutta where I read the children’s Ramayana, Raj Kahini, or stories by Tagore and Sukumar Ray. But there was an interruption when I got into an English medium school. Culturally I moved out of Bengal. During that phase, my mother introduced me to Agatha Christie. I was 12 years perhaps…I devoured her works. And I still do. Christie fascinates me.

I fell in love with the piano and began to learn it. As a result, Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt were my musical inspirations. I also learned Rabindra sangeet and Manipuri dance in Calcutta…. there was no dearth of cultural grooming. We are especially fortunate that our parents enjoyed the best in performing arts. Pandit Sivakumar Sharma, the great santoor maestro who just passed away, played at home. Sitara Devi danced for private programs. We were wrapped in a rich tapestry of culture.

What is your next project? Are you writing/ curating something new?

I am a compulsive writer, always itching to write.  I believe that writers do not age…they mature and get better. Currently, I am compiling non-fiction episodes about some of the most celebrated artists from Indian cinema who I was privileged to meet…the collection may be titled, Brief Encounters. Writing keeps me creatively busy. Before I sign off, we have to thank our editor Shantanuray Chaudhuri for his unconditional support to make this book a reality. He has been marvellous.

Thank you for taking our work seriously.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering the questions

From Left to Right: Rinki Roy, Maithili Rao and Shabana Azmi at the Mumbai book Launch in June 2022. Photo sourced by Rinki Roy

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Review

An Aesthetic Rebellion set in Mumbai

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: Half-Blood

Author: Pronoti Datta

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Half-blood by Pronoti Datta is a gripping noir-fiction that speaks about the harsh realities of urban settings, morally negotiated characters, dysfunctional families, and atypical individuals with dark secrets and surprises. Pronoti Datta was a journalist for about a decade and a half, covering culture and society in Bombay, the city from which she draws inspiration. She resides in Bombay and works as an editor of digital content. Half-blood is her debut novel.

The novel starts with a letter from Burjor to Moonie (Maya), the two main characters of the novel. In the letter, Burjor clandestinely explains his reason for disappearance by writing, “You see, Moonie, I did a terrible thing for which I had to leave Bombay. I don’t want to burden you, in this letter, with the details of my deed – or my life. It’s a long story and I’m not a man of words.” The prologue with this letter sets the tone for the story. The book has thirty-two   chapters with an ‘Epilogue’ that gives the new order of things and “a sense of having created meaning” to life, or rather to newer ways of looking at life.  

The story gives a glimpse into the lives of the dwindling Parsi population of Mumbai. The narrative spanning generations, time and space is a perfect read for those who love city stories, or love to know more about multicultural India. Most importantly, it is a fascinating story for those who love crime and suspense with a touch of history and culture. Datta brings to fore snippets specific to the lives of people and places in the then Bombay and now Mumbai. The author successfully addresses the failures, shortcomings, and the uglier side of life with wit and humour.

Maya, a journalist, who is young, talented, confident, ambitious, and disillusioned with life suffers from an existential crisis. She resurrects the past in search of her roots and meaning in life. Through the limited clues left in the “letter” from her biological father, she traces her bloodline. She embarks on a journey, stumbling upon unexpected facts and fiction on the life of Mumbaikars and Parsis some of who are poor and sometimes half-blooded or of mixed ethnicity. This is a story of rags-to-riches, underrated heroes and people in the sidelines. Burjor Elavia, a half-blood, a “fifty-fifty” is an “Adhkachru” — an illegitimate child of a Parsi man and a tribal woman. He accepts poverty and bondage to resist being pushed aside as a non-existent bastard.

Through the story of Burjor and Maya in Mumbai from the seventies, at the time of the prohibition till the 26/11 attack in 2008 in recent times, Datta weaves the  less explored facets of history of the city into her fiction. The characters in the novel range from different religions, language backgrounds, and communities residing and crisscrossing paths to give voice to the culturally diverse mega-city.

Maya, born to Mini and Burjor, is adopted by an unusually matched Bengali parent. Brought up in Mumbai, she grew up in a locality with a good mix of residents from different communities and religions. Moved by stories of those who “persisted in their beliefs, fielding scorns and disapprobation, and emerged victorious,” she goes on to study Philosophy in Delhi and mingles with friends from across the country. Datta presents a realistic picture of a young girl of mixed descent from Mumbai, pursuing her path of self-discovery by connecting the past with the present. In this quest, she unravels smaller plots that add to the larger picture. As she unravels her own past, Maya describes her situation as similar to that of the Prince of Denmark — Hamlet. She says, “I am Hamlet looking into my father’s ghost.” Datta grinds a story that carries a peek into the time and gives a space to those at the margins and the unconventional like the infamous “Aunty Bars,” savage liquor barons, Adivasi women, scandalous navjotes[1], and children growing up in multicultural society

The novel is an aesthetic rebellion as it delves into the Parsi way of life including that of poor Parsis, good-hearted rogues, crime and punishment in defiance of pigeon-holes and labels about a community or group. Half-blood as the title suggests, reveals wider horizons and deeper nuances of identity. A fiction about modern India, this book takes us on a tour of less revealed nooks of history and culture to unearth beauty in diversity. Elegantly presented with a cover design by Maithili Doshi Aphale, which speaks for itself, the Speaking Tiger book, Half-blood breaks through stereotypes and clichés to win your heart.


[1] A religious initiation to Zoroastrianism, the religion followed by Parsis

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Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature. 

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Her Stories – Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Her Stories –Indian Women Down the Ages — Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens

Author: Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Publisher: Rupa Publications

This is a motivating book and a curious one too. Talking about several women of substance, it goes to jog your memory about their contributions to the respective arenas.

Her Stories–Indian Women Down the Ages- Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens by Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a bold account of the women who have been overlooked and ignored. A political scientist with cross-disciplinary interests, Mehrotra counsels civil society organisations on gender and education issues. Having taught social science at Delhi University and TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), she is the author of pioneering books that include Home Truths: Stories of Single Mothers, A Passion for Freedom: The Story of Kisanin Jaggi Devi, Gulab Bai: The Queen of Nautanki Theatre and more.

Says the book’s blurb: “Some were celebrated, others vilified. While some were casually neglected. Yet, the story of these women lived on Her-Stories is a discussion of women from Indian history whose contributions have been all but forgotten. These were poets, performers, warriors, saints, philosophers, activists and more, yet we hardly remember their courage and contributions. The time has come to bring their history to the fore.

“Their stories describe desperate situations, ingenious strategies and brilliant sparks of feminist consciousness. Rather than accounts of isolated ‘great women’, these stories place at the center the ordinary woman, in all her splendid diversity, multifaceted struggle and achievement. The women profiled were encouraged and supported by others—their achievements represent the aspirations of many in the past and provide inspiration for us in the present.”

Spanning different regions of India, the book presents in chronological order from the second millennium BCE to the mid-nineteenth century India stories of women who have been thinkers, doers, movers and shakers who have subverted hierarchies, brought peace out of chaos and survived despite routine devaluation. Philosopher Sulabha, philanthropist Vishakha, fearless Uppalavanna, wandering bard Auvaiyar, justice maker Leima Laisna, astronomer Khona, mountain queen Didda, radical poet Akkamahadevi, intrepid Sultan Razia, martial artiste Unniyarcha, poet-saint Janabai, Gond Rani Durgavati, historian Gulbadan, cultural ambassador Harkha, pepper queen Abbakka, fakira Jahanara, brave Onake Obavva, Dalit rebel Nangeli, dancer-diplomat Mahlaqa Bai Chanda, lion queen Jindan, Nawab Begum Qudsia, sharpshooter Uda, guerrillera Hazrat Begum and feminist writer Tarabai Shinde.

Writes Mehrotra in the introduction: “Where mainstream histories display yawning gaps, feminist scholarship, and Dalit, subaltern and gender studies have gradually unearthed rich data, and made analytical advances. Some gaps persist, for historical sources are inevitably limited. One needs to sift through document, legend, myth and hagiography, to arrive at the most plausible truth. While remaining true to evidence, through empathy and imagination facts grow wings and characters come alive.”

The book is incontestably a saga of valiant women achievers, dissenters, fighters and advocates who changed the wave of complacent human existence. Igniting the spark of feminist consciousness, it celebrates the stories of women with forgotten glory. 

In ‘Didda: Mountain Queen’, she contends: “Didda ruled in Kashmir for 50 years: nearly half of it is as an absolute sovereign. She earned the rare distinction of bringing stability into the fractious kingdom. Didda’s father-in-law, Parvagupta, was a clerk until in 949, he killed King Sangramdeva and grabbed the throne, only to die within a year. His son Kshemagupta took over, and proved as incapable as his young wife, Didda, was capable. Kshemagupta married Didda immediately after assuming power, slyly calculating that her royal lineage would provide legitimacy to his rule. Didda’s father was Simharaja, king of Lohara, and her maternal grandfather was Bhima Shah, powerful ruler of Kabul and Gandhara. Didda was in her mid-20s when she married, later than the usual age of marriage—quite likely because she suffered from a disability.” 

Mehrotra reasons about the book: “Critical feminist subaltern historiography asks new questions and makes fresh interpretations. The move away from androcentric elite history breaks down walls, releasing a surging ocean of human beings who have much to tell. Women characters emerge from nooks and crannies; each different, in varied circumstances, yet each laboring against the grain of patriarchy, in some or the other aspect of her life. For centuries, patriarchy has defined and limited, reserved the public sphere for men and assigned subsidiary roles in the private domain to women.” 

“Mainstream male-stream-history has colluded with these constructions, naturalizing women as stereotypical daughters, wives, mothers symbols  of domesticity, rather than active human being Dalit and working-class women have been, additionally, naturalized as workers whose labor belongs to the elite.” 

In about three hundred pages, Mehrotra writes about the injuries without making it an insipid narrative. She captures the drama concealed beneath the surface. If the women she dwells on in the book were not just victims, but makers of history and of literature, philosophy, law, medicine, science, art, architecture, music and religion, Her Stories goes that extra mile to bring out the tale of survival in a system rooted in domination and defeat.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Going by Keki N Daruwalla

Book Review by Indrashish Banerjee

Title: Going: Stories of Kinship

Author: Keki N Daruwalla

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

There are short stories where the ending is a collective culmination of all their subplots and themes, somewhat like a novel, but if you have read Somerset Mugham, you know what I mean. And there are stories which couldn’t care less. They move from one event to another, one subplot to another, make abstract observations and then suddenly come to an end. Maybe because every story must come to an end, but it’s the journey you must enjoy; it’s the journey that’s of greater importance. There are readers who like the former style – they appreciate its logical pattern of one thing leading to another. And there are readers who like the journey and believe disorderliness is a better reflection of life’s idiosyncrasies – and reflect on the sudden ending to connect it with what happened earlier.  It is a delight to discover a writer. I knew Keki N. Daruwalla’s works – For Pepper and Christ – but had never read him. And now that I have read Going: Stories of Kinship, I will move back and try out his other works.

Among Keki N. Daruwalla’s acclaimed short story collections are Sword and Abyss (1979), The Minister for Permanent Unrest and Other Stories (1996) and Love Across the Salt Desert (2011). His first novel, For Pepper and Christ, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Fiction Prize in 2010. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2014. But Keki N. Daruwalla is better known for his poetry. His poetry volumes include Under Orion, The Keeper of the Dead (winner of the Sahitya Academy Award, 1984), Landscapes (winner of Commonwealth Poetry Award, 1987) and the Map Maker. Most recently he was honoured with the Poet Laureate award at the Tata Literature Live, Mumbai Litfest, 2017.

Thematically connected short stories are in fashion. But it’s difficult to identify any common thread running across the stories in Going. Each one is different.

Sometimes that sudden or understated ending can be a reference to a subplot within the story. Lionidas Campbell, in ‘The Bhahmaputra Triology’, many years after making love to an Indian woman discovers that he had sired a son from the relationship – and the story ends there. It can sometimes be reflective of the larger message the story wants to convey.  After Ardeshir’s daughter, Arnavaz, elopes with a Muslim boy against her father’s wishes refusing to be dissuaded by her father’s attempt to invoke the history of persecution of Parsees by Muslims, Ardeshir is a heartbroken man.  At the end, while wallowing in grief, sitting on armchair, Ardeshir suddenly feels the “frail silhouette of Arnavaz adrift on his memories” – and a yearning for his daughter grips him. The climax makes two messages very clear. The helplessness of a man seeing personal concerns of his daughter triumphing over a need for historical justice; filial love prevailing over community loyalty and concerns about history.

As much as all the stories, to an extent, explore the inner lives of characters, Bikshu is more so. The entire story is about Bikshu’s inner journey, its conflicts, evolution, emotional layers with occasional detours to Bikshu’s past, his family and mother. At the end of the book, I discovered the commonality.  When you have read the stories and reflect on them as a collective, you feel they are about human relationships and how they evolve over time.

Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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A Manmade Humanitarian Crisis

Meenakshi Malhotra visits Harsh Mander’s Locking down the Poor contextualising it against the current scenario

Title: Locking down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre

Author: Harsh Mander

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Harsh Mander’s Locking down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre is a moving and poignant account of a crisis that he views as preventable. He gives us a detailed account of the havoc wreaked by the sudden announcement of a nation-wide lockdown in March. In early 2020, the first cases of Covid-19 infection were confirmed in India, and on 24 March the country’s prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown, giving the population of over 1.3 billion just four hours’ notice. It became obvious within a matter of days that India had plunged into a major humanitarian crisis.

In this stringent and harsh critique, Mander, a social activist, demonstrates how grave this crisis has been, and why it has had a lasting impact, from which the economy is still reeling. The author further shows us that this impact  is the direct consequence of public policy choices that the governance made, particularly of imposing the world’s longest and most stringent lockdown, with the smallest relief package. The underprivileged were abandoned even as their livelihoods were destroyed and the blue collared work force were pushed to the brink of starvation.

Mander brings us voices of out-of-work daily-wage and informal workers, the homeless and the destitute, all overwhelmed by hunger and dread. From the highways and overcrowded quarantine centres, he brings us stories of migrant workers who walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages or were prevented from doing so and detained. His book can be seen as an expose that lays bare the callous disregard for basic needs during an emergency closure of a country where tens of crores continue to live in congested shanties or single rooms, on pavements with no toilets and no running water and no possibility of physical distancing, even though more than seven decades have passed after independence.

While the pandemic was a world-wise crisis which forced nations and countries to take emergency   measures, Mander contends that the response within the country was a betrayal of the common people, the starving millions of India who live on the edge of hunger and poverty. Their increased precariousness, the author believes, was a result not only of a natural but a man-made, humanitarian crisis. It was the result, he says, of a short-sighted governance operating with a middle-class bias, who just refused to take into cognisance the ironies of pronouncements like “wash your hands” “stay home, stay safe”.

The author’s concerns here can be framed in the larger context of his anxiety and fears about the erosion of democratic politics in India. Speaking with the authority of an ombudsman wielding a blunderbuss, Mander backs his account with facts and statistics, observation and detailed reporting. Carrying out relief work in the unauthorised urban slums of Delhi, he sees the desperate situation of the people who are more threatened by hunger than the pandemic. That the government turned a blind eye to the omnipresent reality of hunger and poverty, was appalling to the author. Further, the alarming rise of domestic violence during the pandemic has also exposed the domestic space as a precarious location for many women in India and elsewhere. This fact has been well documented across a range of platforms and though this is not a primary concern in Locking Down the Poor.

The book concerns itself with hunger, the uncertain fate of migrants, daily wage labourers, the deepening class divides and many other issues of relevance. Mander points out the neglect of food security and the dismantling of informal labour rights, the wilful blindness of the courts and the state machinery which forced people into the space of their ‘homes’ regardless of the distress or human cost which has been colossal and disastrous. Commenting on the impact of the lockdown on the upper classes, Mander comments, “For the rich and middle classes, the lockdown was disorienting and a nuisance, but largely seen as necessary.” However, in the absence of safety nets, it was the poor who had to bear the brunt of the devastation that followed.

Thus, he writes that while the “appallingly planned lockdown offered zero protection to the poor, it placed the burden of the most destructive costs on their shoulders.” He also quotes journalist Ipsita Chakravarty who wrote in stark terms that “with the nationwide lockdown, the government drew a cordon around the bodies it wished to protect…pulling up the drawbridges to guard the chosen-those who could afford to stay in. On the bodies of those outside this charmed circle, the lockdown wrought havoc.”

Looking at the crisis of the first lockdown in 2020, after a gap when some time has elapsed, we realise that much of his critique holds true even now. The lack of foresight and proper planning became evident in the second wave as well, given the colossal tragedy of humongous proportions that unfolded in front of us and made all of us — rich, poor, middle -class citizens — mute victims and witnesses. A very comprehensive account of the impact on India of the Covid crisis, Locking down the Poor is also a chronicle of our times, of brutal exclusions that we practice unthinkingly on a daily basis. The book is in a sense as the blurb says a “ledger of our accountability at a time when the poor of India have been brought to despair and abjection by a callous state and an uncaring, unequal society”.

 Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Review

Tagore’s Play Performed 105 Times in WWII Concentration Camps

The Post Office by Tagore was written, translated and performed in multiple languages throughout Europe, eventually made into a Bengali film by Satyajit Ray (Postmaster, 1961). Rakhi Dalal revisits the original translation done by Devabrata Mukherjee in 1912.

Title: The Post Office

Author: Rabindranath Tagore

Translator: Devabrata Mukherjee

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Dakghar was written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911. Devabrata Mukherjee, an Oxford University student at the time, translated the play into English in 1912. It was first published in London by Cuala Press in 1914 with an introduction by W.B.Yeats.  He, along with Lady Gregory, had also directed its first staging in English in 1913 by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The production then transferred to the Court Theatre, London, later the same year before the Bengali original was staged at Tagore’s Jorasanko theatre in Calcutta in 1917.

This play was translated into French by André Gide and was read on the radio the night before Paris fell to the Nazis. During World War II, there were 105 performances of The Post Office in concentration camps in Germany. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy was its staging by Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator who ran a Jewish orphanage in a ghetto in Warsaw. It was there that the play was organised for children just a few weeks before they, as well as Korczak, were deported to the concentration camps of Treblinka.

The story revolves around a young child Amal, an orphan adopted by his Uncle Madhav, who suffers from an ailment. On the instruction of the physician treating him, he is restricted within the house and is not allowed to go outside. In his quest to explore the world beyond the confines of his home, he sits near a window facing a road and talks to people passing-by. He becomes fascinated by the newly constructed post office near his window and imagines receiving letters from the king. The play presents a vivid picture of Amal, his longings, his ideas of life and the limitations that he faces.

Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, in the introduction to this edition, quotes the bard from the letter he wrote to Andrews in 1921 where he says, “Amal represents the man who has received the call of the open road – he seeks freedom from the comfortable enclosure of habits sanctioned by the prudent and from the walls of rigid opinion built for him by the respectable.”

The narrative traverses through the realms of a mind born free, eager to understand and appreciate the beauty of the natural world and, yet with time, constrained by the ideas fostered as acceptable by societal norms. Amal would rather venture outside and hop like a squirrel than sit at home, toiling at books which his Uncle thinks makes a man learn. He would rather cross mountains and go farther to seek work than be disheartened by their imposing structure. To his Uncle, the hills are barriers whereas to Amal, they are the hands of earth raised into the sky, beckoning people from far off.

The play also explores the nature of human dealings with outsiders, the usual conventions of a society while dealing with persons we may only come across as strangers and seem to emphasise upon the virtue of the sense of fraternity which the otherwise busier life tends to disregard. Amal meets a dairyman, a watchman, a flower gathering girl, a gaffer and a headman while sitting at his window and leaves an impression on each of them. He endears as a persona in harmony with nature as well as in his interactions with other people through his life so that the journey becomes more joyous for everyone. 

This play is written in two acts. In the first act, Amal wishes to discover the world outside his restrictions while sitting at his window. In the second act his condition worsens, and he is confined to his bed where he spends his time waiting for the postman to deliver a letter from King. And finally, he sinks into his last sleep.

In its October issue of 1914, The Times Literary Supplement wrote: “This is the first impression that the play gives, as a play should: an impression of actuality, complete within the limits of human life as seen and heard in a real world.” The second act may be seen as a wait for the messenger of God/death which delivers the final fate for Amal. W.B. Yeats says that the “play conveys to the right audience an emotion of gentleness and peace” which is epitomised by Amal’s character.

This play translated by Mukherjee more than a hundred years ago continues to touch hearts to this date. Given our present context, impaired by the excessive capitalistic tendencies of the age, marred by wars, blurred by frenzies of hatred seeping into the fabric of societies, this comes as a gentle reminder of the necessity to live in peace, to approach nature and humans, even strangers, with compassion and to show more consideration in our dealings with them. It helps us understand that a mind that can live in harmony with nature and with humankind, can eventually embrace the final call in tranquillity.

The Post Office is a splendid play written with a poetic cadence which has elements of tragedy and yet manages to leave the reader with a sense of serenity that seems to be the writer’s message for a life to live in harmony with nature, with humankind and with oneself.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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  Is Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee a ‘Commercial Thriller’?

Book review by Indrasish Banerjee

Title: Villainy

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

                                                

Delhi has many sides to it. It’s the city of Islamic dynasties, transformative history, cultural finesse, power politics. However, some of the celebrated books in last the decade or so on Delhi — The White Tiger (Arvind Agida), The Capital (Rana Dasgupta) — have mostly highlighted its cynical side: the shallowness of its rich, the constant oppression of the poor, the misuse of wealth and power, the ubiquity of corruption, moral decadence and a casual acceptance of everything wrong. I spent a few formative years in Delhi in the 80s. Even back then the common view about Delhi was it wasn’t a place for the straightforward.  But people also felt the city had some redeeming qualities.

In last two and half decades or so, the Manu Sharma case(1999) where the murderer shot a bartender for refusing to serve him; the sordid  tandoor murder (1995) where a suspicious husband killed his wife and several other outrageous occurrences which wreaked havoc in the city exposing its underbelly  and shaped its reputation as a place where nothing is right. This is the timeframe of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s latest book Villainy.

Upamanyu Chatterjee shot to fame with English August in 1988. The Last Burden (1993), Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000) and many more critically acclaimed novels followed. He also wrote a novella, The Revenge of Non-vegetarians (2018) and a collection of long stories, and The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019). He won the Sahitya Academy Award for the Mammaries of the Welfare State in 2000 and, in 2008, was awarded the Order of Officer des Arts et des Letters by the French Government for his contribution to literature.

Villainy is structural delight. It starts in 2016 and then takes the reader to the late 90s, into a completely different narrative setting without any obvious linkage to the former strand. In 2016 a dead body of an anonymous person is discovered in a park one early morning when the residents of the area are starting their day. It remains anonymous even after the police leaves no stone unturned for establishing its identity. The other strain is set in 1997, a boy, a spoilt brat, high on Ecstasy pill, out with his father’s Mercedes Benz, murdered two people and a dog.

Loosely based on the high profile Manu Sharma murder case where a rich man’s son killed a woman and justice was meted out only seven years later, the novel would have been every bit a commercial thriller but for the literary style of Upamanyu Chatterjee. If you subtract the style, however, Villainy reads like a novel waiting to be adopted for a pacy web series. The narrative is speedy; the chapters are long, without becoming tiresome, and episodic; the scenes have a visual quality, and they transition swiftly.

There is another thing that reminds you that Villainy is a work of a literary writer: ideological hangover. When a literary writer writes a thriller, characters’ actions mostly conform to their ideological stereotypes. Nemichand, a rich jeweller, is (or has to be) an amoral man. His attitude towards social or economic inferiors is always driven by a bristling class consciousness. He is boorish and uses expletives whenever aroused but when his benefactors do the same, he feels they are acting above station. Atmaram, Nemichand’s driver, on the other hand, is no paragon of virtues – he has accepted money to have his son, Parmatma, falsely admit to committing the murders – but Atmaram is largely a victim of circumstances, which, being the making of the rich, morally exempt the poor man.

But whatever may be its biases, Villainy works at different levels. As a thriller it doesn’t give you too many boring moments. As a literary fiction it gives some moments to reflect on – you should read Chatterjee’s take on villainy in general. Chatterjee has been able to create a sense of time for both the periods (2016 and the late 90s) the plot operates in. His efforts are sometimes cliched like invoking the most talked about events of those times but sometimes they are subtler and less obvious giving you a feeling of reliving those days.

With declining sales of literary fiction and burgeoning popularity of web series, former literary fiction writers are taking to thrillers discarding their subtler muses. Villainy is quite a journey from English August.  But that the likes of Chatterjee are taking to popular genres is actually good news.  Villainy projects a picture of a society with all its flaws and failings — responsibly and deftly.

Click here to read an excerpt

Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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Limitless

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Limitless: The Power of Unlocking Your True Potential

Author: Radhika Gupta

Publisher: Hachette India

What do you do when you are rejected for your dream job and can’t handle one more person telling you to be strong? What stops you from asking for that big role at work when you know you have a shot at getting it? For many, the real world of work isn’t cool to navigate and life’s challenges hardly ever have simple answers.

 Limitless: The Power of Unlocking Your True Potential by Radhika Gupta has answers to these vexing questions. The three essential batons in this book are: one, the world is full of possibilities; two, each of us has infinite potential to fly; and three, the book tells how to climb up the ladder.

MD and  CEO of  Edelweiss Mutual Funds, Radhika Gupta  is one of the youngest CEOs in corporate India and the only female head of a major asset management company. A graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, a hedge fund manager and an entrepreneur, she has been listed by several media outlets among top powerful men  and young business leaders. Her audiovisual ‘The Girl with a Broken Neck’ has inspired lakhs of viewers. 

What Radhika does in this book is this: she offers straight-talking advice on how one can multiply one’s chances at attaining success. It begins, she says, by investing in the most valuable asset one possess: one’s own self. 

Drawing on personal experiences of overcoming adversity and attaining success, Radhika’s intensely stirring stories and sharp, practical counsel provides all the motivation one need to discover self-confidence and live one’s best life. The account is her own and those of other achievers she has met. 

Case one: “Vinita is a student at an engineering college in Pune. In her family, she is not only the first girl to have left her home city to study outside, but is also the first prospective engineer. Every girl, she says, should make ‘use of every opportunity she has and every resource she is provided’. Vinita is driven, ambitious, and clearly wants to be someone. And yet she feels more than a little low. This is the last week of her final year at engineering college, and, she has been rejected by five companies during the campus placement process.”

Case two: “Prateek is 32 years old. He graduated from business school nine years ago and works for a well-known multi-national company in Mumbai. His work hours are comfortable and he has been with the company for five years. He is paid well enough and has received two, promotions since he joined. He wants to try something different–joining in a higher position in a smaller company, starting his own business, just anything that is different, really. He wants to take a risk. But he just can’t seem to make that jump.”

Through several such real-life instances, Radhika’s advice is: “Own your ambition. Embrace your uniqueness. Recognize the role your critics will play in your achievements. Build adaptability. Allow rejection to redirect you to your desired destination. Cultivate resilience.” Cherished tips indeed.

Cut to her own story. In the concluding chapter, she has some animated questions like what are the challenges of being a young woman in the male-dominated world of finance. She tells how she is asked a version of this question nearly every day on panels, in interviews and on social media. She states, characteristically, as if this question has to be asked and she has to respond.

Luckily, for Radhika, her gender hasn’t posed challenges. But she acknowledges that Sexism- both conscious and unconscious still exists, despite the progress we have made. Even if there is no outright bias, there are subtle reminders that make you feel dissimilar.

Divided into seven chapters and with a little over 270 pages, this handy self-help book makes for indispensable reading–particularly for youngsters who have to swim through the banalities of the corporate world.

Her inspirational wisdom in the book is so uplifting!

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Re-deciphering the Human

Book Review By Basudhara Roy

Title: Burn the Library and Other Fictions

Author: Sunil Sharma

To embark on a relationship with a meaningful collection of short fiction is to hone one’s awareness of the world that shapes us and is, in its turn, shaped by us. A well-conceived short story is a sharp ray of light that undertakes to illuminate a particular plane of the compound and poly-faceted experience that reality will always be. Urging us to concentrate on that angle alone,  the short story crucially assists in peeling off our familiarity with life at that point of being and invites us to locate new meaning in what we might have long known.

In the company of Sunil Sharma’s Burn the Library and Other Fictions, a collection of twenty dense pieces of short fiction, one is on a riveting journey into the physical and psychological entrails of a society that is blissfully absorbed in plotting the architecture of its own doom. Sunil Sharma is an academic from Mumbai who has relocated to Toronto post-retirement. Acutely conscious of the subtle but definite ways in which social life, interaction and communication are being endangered by stereotypes, prejudices, capitalist strategies, ICT, artificial intelligence, eroding faith, self-doubt and the surrender to myopia, Sunil Sharma attempts, in these tales, to not merely draw our attention to what ails us as a society but also offers valuable possibilities of grace and redemption.

Ranging in form from flash fiction to full-length short stories, the themes in this collection are eclectic. Dreams, conjugal relationships, diasporic intimacy, the plight of migrants, women and elderly people, the breakdown of the family, the disruption of social cohesiveness and harmony, the threat of being transformed from consumers to victims of hyper-functional gadgets, and the consistent search for meaning amidst life’s ruins contour this collection through angst, satire, tenderness and hope. 

What immediately draws one towards Sharma’s style is his capacity for intricate observation and his incisive, almost brutal honesty in his descriptions. Here is a writer who does not hesitate to call a spade a spade without resort to satire, irony or humour to dilute the effect of his statements. In fiction where it is easy to camouflage and refract ideas, Sharma impresses and inspires by keeping critique frank and unencumbered by location, ideology or craft.

In ‘Love: Beyond Words’, the reflective narrator-husband observes:

“Our worlds, exclusive, were held together by an arranged marriage and later on, by the kids only…like rest of the middleclass Indians. Two perfect strangers brought together by common practices who discovered each other in initial years of marriage and then lost by the pressures of work and antiromance conditions of our living in an Indian metro…like others of our ilk.”

In the poignant flash fiction ‘Skeleton in the Attic’, once the skeleton has been identified as that of the paternal grandmother whom the family forgot to unlock from the attic when it left for its vacation in a hurry, the omniscient narrator quietly points out, “Once the shock was over, food was ordered and video of the visit played out and they forgot the skeleton.” In ‘Beware! Migrants are Coming!’, the interrogator minces no words in establishing the migrant’s statistical invisibility and thereby his ontological dispensability:

“You are a scum. A bloody scum. You come first to our holy land. Then you bring your entire hungry village that sucks us dry. We will no longer tolerate this N-O-W. The thieves are disposable. None cries for a thief. You are not human. You are not us, your death will not affect us, or anybody here, or anywhere.”

Concern for the margins remains central to Sharma’s intellectual, emotional and moral vision of a sane and progressive society. In story after story, it is these interstices that he examines, emphasizing their structural importance to the well-being of the centre. The malady, as the writer establishes, is rampant and global. Whether it is women, the poor, the elderly, the disabled or the migrant, the health of the margins directly determines the health of the centre. In ‘Two Black Stones and an Old God’, for instance, faith in divine reward and punishment becomes a device of empowerment for the grandmother and granddaughter both of whom are victims of the family’s neglect. In ‘The Street’, the narrator maps the entire cultural change that has taken place in his native town of Ghaziabad by observing the difference in the metrics of spatial arrangement and communication. The transformation of the public space that once symbolised community, shared concern and active empathy into a space of inequality, indifference and social apathy marks, for the narrator, the apotheosis of postmodernist social fragmentation and alienation.

However, the most stringent and memorable critique of postmodern and posthuman culture is perhaps put forward through the eponymous story ‘Burn the Library’. Though the setting of the story is 2071, around fifty years into the future, the conflict that it explores between information and knowledge, between programmed intelligence and creative thinking and between human growth and entropy is vital to the fabric of contemporary intellectual debate. What is the future that we are enthusiastically chasing, the writer seems to ask. Does it promise an unfolding of our rational and emotive powers or does it seek to arrest and freeze them unconditionally? For Sharma, the possibility of resistance to the omnivorous challenges of technology usurping humanity lies only in and through the circulation of ideas via writing. Ideas alone, for Sharma, are indestructible and even if all libraries were to be burnt and all sources of information were to be destroyed or corrupted, new knowledge could be founded and resurrected in the world through the strength of individual creative thinking alone. The Advanced Homer (AH) virus that seeks to alter “consciousness about culture” says, “Wake up! Find out authenticity. Life. Real life beyond the wired universe. Think – alternatively. Subdue the dominant of technology. It is not our master anyway. Go human. Re-think culture.”

‘Go Human’ is a powerful slogan, lethal in its simplicity as it indicates how far we have strayed from what we were meant to be. For me, it richly encapsulates the vision of the entire collection since it is only by the reclamation of our own humanity and that of others around us that we can battle the evils of discrimination, prejudice, violence and self-destruction.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Author of three collections of poems, her latest work has been featured in EPW, The Pine Cone Review, Live Wire, Lucy Writers Platform, Setu and The Aleph Review among others.

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Ever Since I Did Not Die

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Ever Since I Did Not Die

Author: Ramy Al-Asheq

Translator: Isis Nusair

Publisher: Seagull Books

How does one write about the experiences of war, escape and migration? For one who has not died and has lived on to tell the stories, what form of language can justifiably give voice to the atrocities endured or horrors encountered? Can the ugliness of wars be borne by poetry or the distress experienced, articulated reasonably by prose?

Ramy Al-Asheq, a Syrian-Palestinian poet who writes in Arabic, was born in Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus. In 2011, during the Syrian revolution, he was imprisoned and persecuted by the Assad regime. After being released from jail, he was recaptured and imprisoned in Jordan again. He escaped the prison and spent two years under a fake name in Jordan during which he won the Heinrich Böll fellowship, which allowed him to move to Germany in 2014. He currently lives in Berlin. He has founded a German-Arabic cultural magazine, called FANN, and is a curator for Literaturhaus Berlin. Ever Since I Didn’t Die was written between 2014 and 2016 and was published in 2016. It has now been translated into English. His most recent poetry collection, My Heart Became a Bomb, was published in 2021.

Refusing to classify this collection as prose or poetry, in the preface of the book, the author says:

“I gather these texts like someone collecting body parts. Here are the pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag. This randomness of body parts is real in its destruction. Bloody at times, violent, honest, imaginary, personal. It looks like me with all my madness and sickness, how the revolution made me grow, what the war broke inside and what exile chipped away.”

The author’s voice aches with pain. In a world where nations are maddened by the desire to seek control and exercise unquestionable power, war ‘reaches across the horizon, loftier and older than peace’, leaving behind lives fractured by violence, displacement or exile, lives shattered and left crippled; their stories do not belong to an individual but map out the collective grief of all those forced to flee their homes.

Al-Asheq recounts the tragedies brought about by wars and oppression, by militarisation which seeks to replace the God of people by God of death, resulting in a place inhabited not by those living but by people dead-alive, turning a paradise into a wasteland. Those who escape the paradise are compelled to find shelter in distant camps. He also writes about the othering of refugees in a refugee camp, about how even after being born or living in a camp for decades, they are still seen as others, as people from distant lands who do not belong and cannot become citizens of the country they seek shelter in.

He writes of a mind in delirium which after having witnessed a massacre, becomes frenzied as if touched by jinn. His pen assumes the identity of a woman who cuts her braid and fights for revenge against the oppressor. With trembling words, he speaks of the bodies of women which are turned into sites of violence, where ‘from head to toe, the body turns into openings for death to penetrate’. He does not shy away from admitting his own cowardice which made him flee even when he wanted to scream with revenge, anger and hatred.

Al-Asheq tries to conjure up his lover as if to meet her in the sentences he weaves. His words reverberate with a yearning ‘like the sound of a lute when strummed’. Conversely however, they also deliberate on killing loved ones in his imagination, if only to get rid of their memories which do not leave him.

The seventeen texts which make this collection are marked by dualities which become part of everyday living of those wrecked by the violence. They cling to life in the face of death, their moments of relief tinged by the pain of loss, the longing for love accompanied by a despair as dark as a bleak night in prison.

In his narrative, the idea of homeland doesn’t assume the accepted notion of a place of belonging. He believes in the idea of a world where countries are without borders and humans can travel as freely as the migratory birds do.

For someone who did not die and lived on to tell his stories, Al-Asheq admits that fear has been the most honest feeling he has known. If not for that, he would have died and become a hero. And because ‘there can be no hero on a land sown with injustice, he thinks there is nothing deserving in heroism’.

“Ever since I did not die, I have lost my identity he declares in the last chapter, an identity which was imposed upon him by a totalitarian regime and an affiliation to which only meant a life threatened by violence and shadowed by death. Loosing that identity and transformed by his experiences, the author returns to life to chronicle those sketches which may be identified with stories of millions of displaced people around the world. Perhaps texts like these can give voice to those voiceless and move the humankind to heal this world broken by injustice.    

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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