How Non-nonsensical is Sukumar Ray’s Nonsense Verse?

Book review by Nivedita Sen

Title: Habber-Jabber Law:  Nonsense Adventure.

Author: Sukumar Ray; translated from Bengali to English by Arunava Sinha  

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

It is believed by and large that Ha Ja Ba Ra La (1921) by Sukumar Ray, the father of Satyajit Ray, was attempted as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Both start with the child protagonist going off to sleep out of doors on a hot summer’s day, under the shade of a tree, and entering a dreamscape in which creatures that are a mix of the real and the fantastic live out their lives. These characters are caught in situations where they constantly argue with one another and the protagonist about the strangest of words, events and ideas. Yet the very normalcy, credibility and sanity offered through the voice of the first person protagonist, juxtaposed and tested against the curious and the implausible in their formulations, is portrayed satirically, critical of some of the assumptions and values we take for granted, and interrogated for their logical fallacies.

Although Alice travels down a rabbit hole that leads her to Wonderland, Sukumar Ray changed everything from this point onward to match the ambience of an Indian, more specifically Bengali, way of life. And in the process, he not only crafted an original which is a milestone in the genre of nonsense writing in Bengali for children but offered food for adult thought to anyone who could read between the lines.

The book has an attractive cover and design and includes all the delightful original illustrations by the author. But it is a colossal task to actually translate line by line, if not word by word, this early twentieth century Bengali classic into English. Over the last forty years, language based translations have moved to culture based translations. This initial spadework was taken care of by Sukumar Ray in his adaptation of Alice.

When Arunava Sinha translates this text into English, we can assume that it is meant for an Indian readership. A crow (read human being) that traces its upper caste pedigree to the pure-blooded Rex Ravenus, a man who coyly appeals to people not to ask him to sing only because he wants his singing to be heard, and a court case for defamation in which the number of witnesses goes up because they get paid (bribed) for the ‘work’ are not unfamiliar across a pan-Indian spectrum. But the facetiousness and irony also extends to a universal human predicament in which the child encounters the worldly wisdom of ‘money is time’ that has to be factored in every calculation (reminiscent of a railway journey scene in Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass), when he iterates a multiplication table correctly but naively. Or in the utopian make-believe of making the world a happier place, when he learns, to his bewilderment, of an odd reversal in which the ages of people turn backward after they are forty, so that nobody dies old age.

Sukumar Ray’s Ha Ja Ba Ra La provides undiluted amusement to child readers but communicates more seriously to adult readers. Ashish Lahiri, an academic and writer, in an essay in 1982 in a magazine called Prabashi, had underlined the significant dichotomy between the first and second parts of the story. In the first, the current ‘scientific culture’ with its discourses of temporal and spatial relativity is tried to absurd extremes by the nonsensical utterances of the cat, the crow and the two dwarfish brothers. To start with, the handkerchief-turned-cat deconstructs our accepted structures of logic and common sense by arguing that he can be called cat chief, kerchief or capital zed, and extending its reasoning to spell out the ridiculous combination of alphabets that can identify it. Exact nomenclatures and absolute definitions are challenged in this episode.

Similarly, in keeping with findings in astrophysics and geography about the rotation of the earth, the cat says that we will never find anyone where we expect to find them, because no creature remains rooted in the anticipated spot, even if they are stationary. This hilarious observation while looking for someone called Big Tree Brother dwells on the relativity of time. It is corroborated by the logic of the crow who says that seven times two is not always fourteen because time is forever on the move and the arithmetical calculation changes by the time one works it out. Yet, all the bodily measurements of the first-person protagonist are fixed at twenty-six inches by the very creatures who make a case for the idea and practice of relativity, perhaps because he carries a baggage of absolute and rigid assumptions imposed on him by the adult world of common sense.

Hzzbuzzbuzz (whose original Bengali name Hijibijbij suggests hijibiji, a scribble that is garbled and meaningless) connects the two parts of the story with his compulsive need to laugh at the most hypothetical and incredible of situations. The second part, set in the open air courtroom of fantastic creatures, is resonant of human society at large for its dishonesty and deceit. It keeps the reader’s focus on the incongruity, dissonance and comicality of everything we ever learned or cultivated, from science and philosophy to the legal arbitration of civilised, educated, middle class life.

The court scene includes the moss-ridden coat or camouflage of the fraudulent lawyer, the book of law that epitomises a theoretical and meaningless justice and the owl-judge who cannot see things that are obvious by the clear light of day but only when they are under cover of nocturnal darkness. The crocodile’s convoluted questions for the sake of questions and his own weird interpretations suggest the ambivalences and distortions involved in the legal process. That the entire organisation of law and other human institutions and systems is based on big, unintelligible and fancy words that are absurd lies is critiqued in Hzzbuzzbuzz’s incoherent, unrelated but irreverent ramblings that tickle his funny bone. These anomalies, it suggests, are extant not only in law but every template of our civic rights and duties.

The transference of culture, except for very Bengali-specific ways of talking, social and professional behaviour, is not required in an Indian context. The simplicity and transparency of the situations would also not be difficult to translate verbatim if they were not based on tongue in cheek utterances that are apparently nonsensical. The translator’s credit lies in his translating each and every one of the nonsense rhymes, and much of the word play, including alliteration, assonance, puns, internal rhymes and onomatopaea. Evaluating what is technically termed as the aesthetic equivalence of the source text against the target text, these word and sound-related fragments are commendably done.

Sinha has, at times, morphed the nonsense expressions to equally incredible but compatibly bizarre sounding words and phrases that maintain an altered meter and matter in an attempt to integrate the English language within the coordinates of an indigenous linguistic culture. In a rhyme, for instance, that uses three different words for female ghosts – petni pishi, shankchuni and ultaburi, for example, the translator uses banshee aunty, ghouless and crone to cover all of them. Rhythms and cadences can hardly be the same in both languages, but Sinha struggles with and juggles the nonsense vocabulary by muting certain words, mutating others but also ends up mutilating a few. That, of course, is unavoidable in the linguistic upheaval of such a landmark of nonsense prose.


Nivedita Sen is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She works on Bangla children’s literature, and has translated authors like Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Asha Purna Devi, Leela Majumdar and others for Harvard University Press, Vishwabharati Press, Sahitya Akademi, Katha, Tulika and more. Some of her works on children’s literature are Family, School and Nation: The Child and Literary Constructions in Twentieth Century Bengal. (Routledge, 2015), The Gopal-Rakhal Dialectic: Colonialism and Children’s Literature in Bengal (Tulika, 2015), translated from Sibaji Bandyopadhyay’s book, and articles on Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass in Alice in a World of Wonderlands (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2015) and Libri et Liberi: Journal of Research on Children’s Literature and Culture (2016).




The Dissent of Man –Asserting Humanity by Raising Voices

Book review by Debraj Mookerjee

Title: India Dissents — 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument

Editor: Ashok Vajpeyi

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

Every man loves liberty and freedom.
Do not interfere with another’s freedom.

– Gautam Buddha

They say inside the heart of a black hole there is a point of singularity. A point of singularity is where no laws of nature exist, like in the instant before the big bang. That point is so powerful that it obliterates all the rules of the universe. It is a place where the laws of nature collapse. We cannot know what happens inside a black hole, because we do not have the tools with which to predict what might be happening inside. There is no physics. Essentially there are no bearings. There is a lesson in the analogy presented here. When power becomes absolute, it freezes everything within its domain. The only way to prevent power from becoming absolute is to check it. Edited, and with an introduction, by poet Ashok Vajpeyi, India Dissents (Revised and updated edition: 2017, 2020) is a critically important book at a time when many believe India might be hurtling towards its own tryst with ‘singularity’. This timely tome is an attempt to articulate the contrarian views inherent in the Indian tradition, spanning from times of yore, to the present. It is an attempt to chart the organic link between freedom and the courage to check power and its manifestations, whether spiritual, social or political.

The most effective way to check power, as demonstrated by this compendium of ‘3,000 years of difference, doubt and argument’, is to call it out. Dissent is at the heart of the human desire for freedom. And without freedom, we are not human. Lord Acton (who’s by and large more quoted than understood) defines liberty thus: “the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion” (The History of Freedom in Antiquity).

Critical moments in history have seen the suppression of freedoms. The progress of the human race has not been linear. Ancient India experienced great enlightenment in thought and philosophy. Those who have had to endure the attempt – by contemporary media platforms and concomitant experts – at manufacturing consent vis-à-vis a  narrow world with narrow identities, via appeals to visceral emotions and spurious theories of hurt and cultural assault,  might be surprised to read from the Brihaspati Sutra (foundational text of the Charavak school of Indian philosophy, composed in 600 BCE):

“There is no heaven, no final liberation, not any soul in another world,
Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders or priesthoods produce any real effect.
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic’s three staves, and smearing one’s self with ashes,
Were made by Nature as the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness …”

The Classical Age saw the birth of Democracy in ancient Greece. Absolute power was kept in check by the voice of the people within the Senate. In India, the counsel of wise voices ensured virtuous actions by Kings. When power heeded the voice of the people or the counsel of the wise, society remained enlightened. But there were intermittent periods of darkness, such as the 1,000 year long dark ages in Europe. The modern world had apparently understood this, which is why modern societies were founded on the principles of liberty, fraternity and equality, the call of the French Revolution against the singularity of power enjoyed under feudalism. But that world is at risk, not only in India but in so many other nations that are otherwise functioning democracies.

Vajpeyi’s book does weigh heavily on recent dissenters whose works are widely in circulation. There is no new ground broken here. And yet it is important for those who have not transcended the plethora of voices that are constantly articulating views smoke-screened by the cacophony of mainstream opinions, championed uncritically by the media, that has long forgotten its mandated role as the Fourth Estate. Some attention is also paid to the freedom struggle, and the thinkers and freedom fighters who left with us a rich legacy of dissent. Amartya Sen traces India’s argumentative nature to our ancient text. He observes how the national penchant for dharnas (strikes) and protests are seared into souls by the struggle against colonial oppression. These voices feature in the book. But the real meat of the book is in the voices of minor poets and dissenting voices (little voices if you like) from our past, unknown perhaps to most.

Here are some voices from the book for you to gauge the diversity of dissent articulated in it. Ghalib in his plaint against God, “Whenever I open my mouth you snap: And who are you? / Is it your culture that I must not speak, only listen to you?” Raja Rammohun Roy against social customs: “Men are in general able to read and write and manage public affairs by which means they easily promulgate such faults women occasionally commit but never consider as criminal the misconduct of men towards women.” And then there is Kazi Nazrul, who along with Tagore, is revered as Bengal’s poetic voice:

“Blow your horn of universal cataclysm!
Let the flag of destruction
Rise amidst the rubbles of prison walls
Of the East!
Who’s the master? Who’s the king?
Who is it that gives punishment
Having snatched away the truth of freedom?”

These words of Nazrul would speak to power, were they to be voiced today. Whether it is Gandhi’s articulation of dissent against colonial rule, or Tagore’s denunciation of the idolisation (literally the worship of the nation as Mother, venerated via the slogan: ‘Vande Mataram’) of the nation over humanity, or even Periyar’s cry against superstition and caste oppression, and of course Bhagat Singh’s sharp critique of the world of oppression around him, India Dissents reminds us of what lies at the core of who we are: a plural society shaped by myriad traditions and cultures bearing the influence of peoples from faraway places. No one ruler, no one rule, no one singular identity, can ever define ‘the wonder that is India’ (to misquote A L Basham slightly).

Particularly amusing is the inclusion of the ‘obscenity’ trial against Chugatai and Manto (who was a born dissenter), presented in Chugtai’s voice. The presiding judge being perceptive decided he needed to talk to the contestants in his chambers and had drawn them therein. Chugtai: “The judge called me into the anteroom attached to the court and said quite informally, ‘I’ve read most of your stories. They aren’t obscene. Neither is ‘Lihaf’. But Manto’s writings are littered with filth.’ ‘The world is also littered with filth,’ I said in a feeble voice. ‘Is it necessary to rake it up then?’ ‘If it is raked up it becomes visible and people feel the need to clean it up.’” The judge laughed. Today, no anchor on prime news TV would laugh if told someone needs to rake up what’s wrong with our system so that we could work together to fix it.  Such a person would be labelled ‘anti-national’. 

India is at the crossroads. Not because its politics is troubled. Politics is all about rotation, and every moment in history is contested by that which is to follow. The world so far has witnessed many ups and downs and so shall India. What is troubling is the anger throbbing inside the people who are ready to rake offense, at almost anything. This is particularly true of the entitled, the middle classes — those with a modicum of education and material wealth. The facile credulity of the great mass of people who can be led by fake news, ‘What’s App University’, misogyny and the willing suspension of disbelief is what is truly threatening I contemporary India. To dissent is to grow. To accent without questioning is to shrink. To read India Dissents is in a way therefore an attempt to try and rediscover India’s soul.

India’s strength lies in its diversity, best explained in the words of Maheswata Devi’s words, reproduced from the book: “Indian culture is a tapestry of many weaves, many threads. The weaving is endless as are the shades of the pattern. Somewhere dark, somewhere light, somewhere saffron, somewhere as green as the fields of new paddy, somewhere flecked with blood, somewhere washed cool by the waters of a Himalayan spring. Somewhere the red of a watermelon slice. Somewhere the blue of an autumn sky in Bengal. Somewhere the purple of a musk deer’s eye. Somewhere the red of a new bride’s sindoor. Somewhere the threads from words in Urdu, somewhere in Bengali, somewhere in Kannada, somewhere in Assamese, yet elsewhere in Marathi. Somewhere the clothes frays. Somewhere the threads tear. But still it holds. Still. It holds.”

Diversity and dissent go hand in hand. To be able to dissent is also to be able to accept the dissent of others. Dissent is not always angry. It is questioning and it is curious. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. It is what makes us modern and free of the prejudices that have often laid civilization low. It is Des Cartes’ great call ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ (I think therefore I am). The method of doubt foregrounded by the advent of reason, as it were, led not just to political emancipation, but also to the great scientific discoveries that define modern existence. Dissent is the source of discovery and research. Dissent is our door to adulthood, our way of finding ourselves. Any society that demonises dissent shuts the door to what it can become; it shuts the door to as yet unmapped possibilities. By crushing dissent, a society seals its tryst with negativity and slides into the prison-house of its worst fears and anxieties.

But then who is the most distinguished dissenter among them all? My choice is clear: It is none other than Mahatma Gandhi himself. To understand the nature of Gandhi’s dissent, one must first recognise the fact that perhaps along with Emperor Ashoka and the Prophet Muhammad, he was among those who believed in the imperitive of morality in politics, and in the politics of morality. Said he: “In my opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” By imbuing a moral quality to political action, Gandhi brought to bear exacting standards to politics, unheard of in the modern era. His very politics dissents against the existing dictum of political action: That politics is the art of the possible.

But Gandhi’s is not merely a great dissenter in politics. He is, in the words of the author of the internationally recognised novel Samskara (1965), and litterateur, UR Ananthamurthy, a ‘critical insider’. Gandhi, avers Ananthamurthy, allowed himself to be absorbed by the traditions of India, and from within that position, articulated his critique of what he saw as wrong with that tradition. He was a devout Hindu who was secular to a fault, and against the evils inherent in Hindu society. It is precisely because of this that Gandhi was so successful in mobilising India both politically and socially.

Alas today, those who are critical are seen as outsiders: westernised, liberal, socialists, and so on. And those who are insiders are not critical: they are viewed as provincial, obsequious, bigoted and belligerent. India will have to find the will to shake itself free of the straight jacket it finds itself in at the moment. That can happen with only more, and not less, dissent.


Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.


Gandhi & Aesthetics

A review by Bhaskar Parichha

As India celebrated the sesquicentennial of MK Gandhi last year, Marg had come out with a special issue on the lesser-known aspects of Gandhi’s engagement with aesthetics.

Gandhiji’s aesthetics was two-fold: one, it was a quest for exquisiteness and two; it was a set of principles fundamental to the personal practice. Edited by Tridip Suhrud, the nine essays are a fitting tribute to the inventive beauty of Gandhiji and its wide-ranging applicability in present-day society.

In an art project organised by Sahmat in 1994–95 as a continuation of a program called Artists Against Communalism that emerged in response to the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya and as a part of a year-long series of events, artists — from KG Subramanyan to Atul Dodiya, from NS Harsha to Nilima Sheikh, A Ramachandran to Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, PT Reddy, Nand Katyal, Shamshad Hussain, Orijit Sen, Parthiv Shah — were invited to create postcards that could later be displayed as artworks in galleries and also be circulated among the general public as boxed sets. Ram Rahman’s essay   ‘Thematic Ad-Portfolio: Postcards for Gandhi’ deals with these postcards.

In the editorial note, associate editor, Latika Gupta, gives an overview of the underlying themes of this volume and how they explore Gandhi’s conceptual understanding of art which combined the ideas of truth, beauty, and utility. The Mahatma is also placed in the context of the current times when his legacy is being put to different political uses.

It is a widely held belief that the Mahatma had no place for art, music, and literature in his ascetic life and ideas about national regeneration. In the introductory essay ‘Art as Namasmaran: The Aesthetics of Gandhi’, Tridip Suhrud unravels the various human and natural artistic elements that moved and influenced Gandhi, the concepts and patterns that guided and came to be reflected in his choice of attire, living spaces, and discipline.

‘In the Footsteps of Spectres: The Aesthetics of Gandhi’s Walks’ by Harmony Siganporia, we get to see how walking was an integral part of Gandhi’s private and public engagements with politics and truth. Gandhi embarked on several important walks throughout his life. They served as forms of pilgrimage, mass agitation, and individual protest. This essay explores various aspects of Gandhi’s walks by revisiting his writings and the photographs of these historic events.

Sudhir Chandra in his article ‘Gandhi’s Hindi and His Aesthetics of Poverty’ dissects Gandhi’s appreciation of minimalism and purity, which is evident not just in his sartorial style but also in his use of language. Convinced that Hindi alone could be India’s national language, Gandhi attempted to transform it into a more inclusive language, incorporating certain words from regional languages and others of Urdu-Persian origins.

‘Music for the Congregation: Assembling an Aesthetic for Prayer’ by Lakshmi Subramanian explores Gandhi’s adoption of musical prayer as an important tool for shaping ashram life and community at Sabarmati. For Gandhi, music was a useful prop to make prayer a joyful experience and prayer was crucial for character-building among satyagrahis. His taste for music was shaped by his exposure to the church choirs of England, and the larger repertoire of devotional recitation and music that had been popularized by V.D. Paluskar and the Gita Press. These influences eventually guided his choices as he approached Pandit N.M. Khare to lead the prayer sessions and public meetings at his ashram and created a collection of songs — Ashram Bhajanavali.

In ‘Architecture as Weak Thought: Gandhi Inhabits Nothingness’. Venugopal Maddipati looks at two houses inhabited by Gandhi in Segaon (Sevagram), Wardha —Adi Niwas and Bapu Kuti. While the former is very simple and minimalist, the latter is more elaborate in design with clearly partitioned rooms. Though it would seem that architecture played a secondary role in Gandhi’s life and was relegated to the marginal spaces of domesticity and interiority, Maddipati has an alternative viewpoint.

‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ by Jutta Jain-Neubauer brings into focus a lesser-known aspect of Gandhi’s personality as a designer and maker of chappals. Gandhi saw in handmade sandals an aesthetic route to eradicate the stigma that had been associated with the communities of skinners, tanners and leather workers. Inspired by the Trappist Roman Catholic monastic order who were staunch believers in austerity and manual labor, Gandhi set up a shoemaking unit at the Tolstoy Farm and later replicated the model at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Made from the skin of animals that had died a natural death, this iconic ashram Patti Chappals also came to be known as ahimsa slippers.

‘A Biography in Prints: Gandhi and the Visual Imaginary’ by Vinay Lal studies the evolution of the representations through a range of prints that offer a chronological rendering of his life, charting his transformation from a law student in England to a satyagrahi in South Africa and finally the architect of India’s independence. Lal discusses the subtler meanings and politics conveyed in the compositions.

Throughout his long political and spiritual career, Mahatma Gandhi frequently stated that his life goal was to reduce himself to zero. This was a goal that he variously pursued by shedding worldly attachments, declaring celibacy, adopting abstinence, and periodically undertaking to punish bodily fasts, all for the sake of meeting his ideal of aparigraha or “non-possession”. ‘Reducing Myself to Zero: The Art of Aparigraha’ by Sumathi Ramaswamy reflects on the aesthetic dimension of this key Gandhian aspiration.

‘Ark, Saint, City, Cipher: The Gandhi of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’ by Ananya Vajpeyi focuses on the Baroda-based artist’s engagement with the Mahatma and his ideals. Looking at a series of paintings made by the artist from 2000 to 2019, the writer analyses how Sheikh draws on references from various older texts and images and places Gandhi as an interlocutor across different periods and philosophies.

A fitting tribute by the Marg foundation to the father of the nation.


Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies. His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 




Ballad of Bapu

Book Review by Moinak Dutta

Book : Ballad of Bapu

Author: Santosh Bakaya

My first impression of M.K. Gandhi is a simple drawing of a drooping figure of a frail man with a stick in hand. It was drawn by one of my cousin brothers, when we were studying in primary school. That drawing then appealed to me as a simple thing to do without much artistic skill. From that pictorial knowledge of Bapu, I graduated to something celluloid, when my father one beautiful spring evening brought home a videotape cassette ( at that time VCP was in rage) titled ‘Gandhi’ I was told that the movie was the first one to get American Motion Pictures Award for India.

After watching the film for many days, I thought of Ben Kingsley as the real Gandhi. That got rectified later when I was made to read an interesting article on Gandhi (this time by my mother). Several research books with razor sharp debates and deliberations can be easily found on Gandhi. Afterall, Bapu had remained one of the most ‘loved and hated’ man all through his life. Reading Ballad of Bapu is like having a dream on Bapu — colourful, smooth and enchanting, for it is not a mere research work on Gandhi’s life and his doctrines, it is a ballad, a lyrical one, sustained from page one to the last. Divided into several short chapters and decorated with rare photographs of Bapu’s life, the book is a poetic analysis of Gandhi and his works. I might have said that it is a poetic biography, but if even by mistake should I say that for once about the book, I will be committing a great blunder. I will be completely overlooking the deft touch of analysis of Gandhi’s works as done with meticulous ease by the author-poet. The author is not merely writing a biography. She has mined out several incidents apparently small and insignificant of Bapu’s life, only to indicate a larger pattern.

For any student of history, the book will amply provide details which are astoundingly well researched. But that is probably not the focal point of the book. The author has found how by different actions and deeds, Gandhi laid a foundation of non-violence as a principle which is undoubtedly Godly and because it is Godly, it had to face severe challenges, the final challenge being the assassination of Bapu. By sacrificing his life, Bapu had, with finality, proved the Godliness of his principle. Chapter by chapter, events by events, the author has shown how Gandhi became Mahatma. Of all the chapters , the ‘Centrestage’ , ‘ Phoenix farm’ ‘Tolstoy and Gandhi’ ‘Tolstoy farm’ ‘Gandhi in India’ ‘Annie Besant and Gandhi’, ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ , ‘Chauri Chaura’ and ‘Imprisonment’ appeared to be the most engaging for in these chapters we not only find different anecdotes on Bapu’s life but also the valuable authorial commentary on Bapu. For example, ‘Phoenix farm’ explores Gandhiji’s reading habit:

At dawn Gandhi read The Gita, the Koran at noon”

 In ‘Tolstoy and Gandhi’, we find how voraciously Bapu read Tolstoy while in jail at South Africa.

 “In jail, in Tolstoy’s books he found a soulmate

Greatly inspired by this man born in 1828”

 To write history is difficult, to write personal history is more difficult, but to write personal history of a man like Bapu and that too in ballad form maintaining ‘ a-a-b-b-a ‘ rhyme scheme all through is simply superhuman a work and that Santosh Bakaya has performed with ease, as if she were a musician or a pianist running her practiced fingers on words to make them sing. And they sing in tune with Gandhian philosophy, his unwavering faith on non-violence and peace. A testimony to the author’s assertion on Gandhian philosophy can be found in the chapters like ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ where she has written:

“Towards a self-disciplined Bardoli his eyes turned

 A policy of senseless gore he had always spurned”

The same assertion comes to the fore in the (in)famous ‘Chauri-Chaura’ incident. Bapu with all resilience stood for non-violence and went to prison again, blaming himself for the crime which was not his doing, truely like a father, who can go any distance, to any extreme, for his sons and daughters.

No provocation can justify murder, he exclaimed

For the protestors’ crime, himself he blamed”

The unshakeable faith in non-violence, however, never posed any hindrance for Bapu, who always stood for what is right. While he was imprisoned, he wrote to the British Government why he felt sedition was the creed that he followed. In fact, Bapu was imprisoned more on charges of sedition than any leader in that period, yet how wrongly his non-violent acts were judged. The author has rightly pointed out: “Sedition was their creed, said the man with integrity

 In his first article ‘Tampering with Loyalty’”

 In similar vein Bakaya has carried on in the chapter ‘Imprisonment’ when she explained:

“On 19 September 1921

Fearlessly wrote this son

The government was shocked at his sheer audacity”

But Gandhiji probably had been too much for both the British and those who could not comprehend his philosophy, as the author has pointed out:

“He started Harijan, a weekly new

Which, with his rapier touch he did imbue…

… But for the Sanatanists an unpalatable brew”

This outer struggle led eventually to an inner struggle in Bapu. So, even after independence he could not be happy. He had remained restless with agony, hurt by pains.

“2nd October 1947 did not dawn like any day

Though it was the Mahatma’s 78th birthday

He was restless

The fury relentless

Dampened his spirits he could smell decay”

 And that decay took him to the point of being challenged. He responded by sacrificing his life.

“Was he a mad man or a coward?

He whipped out a pistol, with no compunction?”

 The author has left that rhetorical question beautifully, almost theatrically poised towards the end of the concluding chapter.

If we are to rediscover and relearn Gandhi, if we are to trace the path between Gandhi and Mahatma, this book is a must read.


Moiank Dutta is a teacher by profession and published fiction writer and poet with two literary & romance fictions to his credit. His third fiction is going to be published soon. Many of his poems and short stories have been published in dailies, magazines, journals, ezines.




‘Women are Born Free, But Everywhere they are in Chains’

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Beyond the Fields

Author: Aysha Baqir

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish International, 2019

Recently, an instagram handle questioned women: “No Men for One day — What if there were no men for 24 hours?” Majority of the women replied that they would go for a walk alone. And this is the year 2020. We are living in a so called modern world where women are now freer than ever to pursue their ambitions and make a life of their own. But what does this fear of going out alone, for such a small task as an evening walk alone, tells us about our social system. If educated, independent women feel uneasy venturing out of their houses alone in advanced societies, then it isn’t difficult to imagine what women in socially and politically repressive systems go through.  

In her debut novel, Aysha Baqir steers the reader’s gaze to a small village in 1980’s Pakistan, chronicling the lives of rural women whose existence was sanctified by the written and unwritten rules of the society. It was the time of Zia-ul-Haq’s reign and much controversial Hudood Ordinances.

Baqir grew up in Pakistan. After graduation, she won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College where she studied International Relations. In 1998, she founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused trainings for girls and women of rural Pakistan. Perhaps meeting those women and hearing their stories prompted Baqir to recount such stories of courage and defiance, even in the face of repression, which may become beacons of light for generations to come.

The narrative follows the life of a young Zara and her twin Tara. Poles apart in nature, they are bound by a sisterly affection for each other. Tara is the beautiful, fairer and obedient one from the duo who resigns herself readily to her mother’s desires and ideas. She is ready to get married as and when it pleases her parents. Zara, on the other hand is the rebel, who insists on studying though girls are not given education in their village. She is born in a society where more education for women is a matter of shame. If a woman reads or writes, would she be a good obedient housewife, good mother to her children? Would she be any good for the community?

Zara wishes to live her live abundantly, run amok in fields, eat Kairis from the trees, play outside, and study like her brother. It infuriates her, when more restrictions are imposed on her and Tara with the coming of age. That meant no going out alone and no playing and veiling themselves with burka even when stepping out with parents. Zara believes that she and her brother are equal, but for a life changing incident which brings her life to a halt.

It brings forth to her the reality of being a woman in her community — the brutal rape of her sister, the conduct of her parents in hiding it because it would bring shame to the family, their unwillingness to file a case because of Hudood ordinance in practice and then her subsequent marriage to someone in haste to veil the shame. When they lose contact with Tara and fear an unfortunate happening, it becomes too much for Zara, but she decides to find her sister.

This novel is the story of Zara’s grit and determination, her belief in the power of women in an unbalanced society, her conviction that she is not merely the body she inhabits but also the mind she possesses. She follows her sister to city, after convincing her parents, and plunges into the dangerous world of prostitution to bring back her sister.

Through this novel, the author attempts to bring forth the tribulations of women in such an oppressive system where it is not only the men but also women who play the agents of repression, to keep the system intact by inducing fear and shame in those who go wayward or rebel. In such systems, women are made subservient to imposed rules so much so that they accept them as code of honour even if adhering to them means hurting loved ones and acting against them.

Perhaps nothing could be more startling than the shaming of a rape victim or vilifying a woman who dares to fall in love. It is a system where the birth of a woman, in itself is a burden to family and a mother’s most important role is to suitably prepare them for marriage, to collect their dowry and start looking for prospective grooms when they come of age. Their propensity to literally dispose the girls as soon as possible, even takes over the maternal love which they only express by trying to put restrictions on their beloved daughters.

Baqir writes in a discreet manner and her narrative bears testimony to the amount of research and hard work which has gone into writing the book. For a reader from a neighbouring country, this book brings familiar sounds and smells which makes it more relatable. Local flavours are induced with the usage of Punjabi words. Word pairs are used to evoke the sense of belonging to familiar lands – playing on the concept of twins separated at birth. The ideas of women’s honour, shame and their bearing on family are comparable to that in India.  

Though changes are questioning patriarchal mindsets, women’s emancipation continues still to be a tough battle. Beyond the Fields is an effort to highlight the struggle of women and an entreaty to be on the side of humanity, to break the shackles which stifle women who are born equal to men but are made to feel inferior by the rules of society.


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 . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.




The Myriad Hues of Love

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Love is not a word: The Culture and Politics of Desire

Editor:  Debotri Dhar

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

Love is not a word: The Culture and Politics of Desire edited by Debotri Dhar is a timely and illuminating book. It asks the right questions, sets up the debate on issues which need to be debated in order to bring the many hues of love and desire out of stranglehood of monolithic constructions. Dhar has brought together some interesting essays  by noted academics, art historians and curators, cultural and literary  historians  and writers  musing on the theme of love, its histories and its manifestations in religious mythography.

In the first essay in the anthology, ‘Swayamvara, Arranged Marriage, Desi Romance’, Professor Malashri Lal brings her considerable acumen and expertise to offer “some fascinating perspectives on Indian love, mapping both continuity and change, possibility and paradox.” She draws upon a spectrum of sources to unsettle some of the binaries and clichés about love and marriage in India. She points out the very heterogeneous nature of Indian realities and the simultaneous existence of designer weddings along with the prevalence of child marriage, the latter motivated by  stark poverty and custom. In this heterogeneous context, where contradictions exist and jostle with one another, it is difficult to formulate one overarching reality which collapses every aspect of Indian reality into one single, overwhelming truth.  Drawing upon a diverse set of sources from the Indian epics like Ramayan and Mahabharata to the writings of diasporic women writers in the US, to Bollywood films, Lal problematises the question of women’s choice in love and marriage, even when it is arranged. In her essay, she highlights the exercise of agency enabled by the ancient practice of  swayamvara, where the  bride reviews a number of suitors and selects one as her husband to the popular Hindi film, Queen (2014), where the ‘bride’, jilted by her suitor at the eleventh hour when practically at the altar, sets off alone on a ‘honeymoon’ to Paris and Amsterdam. All these vignettes, according to Lal, point to a long history of critiques of compelled marriages for women. Decoding the history of marriage and the space both accorded to and  negotiated by women within it, the author traces both continuities as well as complicating questions of love versus arranged marriage, choice, desire and agency.

Some of the themes and issues initiated by the first essay are questions that come up elsewhere, albeit in varying registers. Professor Makarand Paranjape’s essay focuses on immortal love and on the lover-God Krishna and his consort Radha, who is “a milkmaid elevated to the status of the erotic and holy beloved of the Supreme Godhead”. Paranjape reads the figure of Radha in the context of Indian history, art, culture and metaphysics, traces the genealogy and argues that the increasing importance of Radha acted as a corrective to the male-dominated theology which lacked a strong Goddess prior to the emergence of Radha. According to the author, she is largely absent in the classical sources and in the scriptures, her origins shrouded in obscurity, but assumes importance later as Krishna’s chosen paramour in Jayadev’s Gitagovinda, which is how medieval poets like Chandidas, Vidyapati and Surdas write of her.

A common theme which is indicated in the previous essay is developed by Paranjape and then later, by Alka Pande in the subsequent essay on ‘Love, Longing and Desire: A Nayika’s tale’. The flattening out of desire in keeping with the imperial puritanical norms of social control dwell on how desirous voices create discomfort. The messiness of love and desire is sought to be controlled and circumscribed into the heteronormative frame of marriage. Both imperial control and nationalistic schemes of reform collude to silence and erase traces of lascivious female desire and the erotic is therefore subdued and subsumed into the discourse of female purity, with which it sits uncomfortably. Thus, Prof Paranjape discusses how, “with the beginnings  of colonial modernity in India, Radha the Goddess underwent another drastic modification, now coming to often represent illegitimate sexual desire. In the new Puritanism fostered during the so-called Indian renaissance(18th to 19th century), Radha and her dalliance with Krishna proved an embarrassment to the agenda of social reform that the proponents of Hindu respectability espoused.”

By the 20th century, Radha was represented as “a victim of patriarchy” — as a symbol of the degraded and exploited woman, a fallen or abandoned woman. This is a far cry from the tantric version of Radha , which exalts her, sometimes over Krishna. In other traditions, she is often domesticated and shown to be a “chaste and jealous wife”, very possessive of Krishna, given to fits of rage. The theme of romantic love  is played out in varying registers and the sacred and profane so intermingled and intertwined that it is difficult to separate the two.

Alka  Pande’s essay on ‘Love, Longing and Desire: A Nayika’s Tale’ is deliciously erotic in its texture as it  narrates the tale of Amrapali, the “nagarvadhu”(bride of the city) of Patliputra, who lives life and fulfils her desire on her own terms. It shows the courtesan as an empowered figure, who exercises considerable agency in her choice of partner after the demise of her royal consort. As a reader and an editor of Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, she claims to have transformed the book “from a compendium of living a deeply enriched and sexually fulfilled life to much more: strategies of romance, love, longing, desire, seduction and an unabashed valorization of carnal love.” (Pande,44) The essay also sets the record straight about the popular reception in the public imagination which sees the book as a manual of sex; rather it conforms to the Indian philosophy of “Purusharthas” which includes the goals of “dharma”, “artha”, “kama” and “moksha”, roughly translatable as virtuous living, material prosperity, aesthetics and pleasure and salvation, respectively. Kamasutra, in this narrative, emerges  as  a document which explores the art of living life to the fullest. Love and its many facets are explored along a spectrum of aestheticism, in a way that elevates it to a level beyond hedonism.

Christina Dhanaraj’s essay on ‘Swipe me Left, I’m Dalit’ explores the world of possibilities of romantic love for Dalit women, and finds the odds heavily weighted against them on account of caste prejudice. She therefore finds the optimistic and celebratory accounts on social media and /or dating apps like tinder which declare ‘caste’ as a thing of the past to be false and facile. Dalit women, according to the author, “carry the double burden of gender and caste, and are one of the most socially undervalued in India, are therefore under constant pressure to project an acceptable version that mimics the ‘savarna’ (upper caste) ideal.”

From the problems besetting inter-faith Hindu-Muslims relationships because of a persistent polarisation intensified by right-wing ideologies to the variegated spectrum of love’s vows and woes in Urdu poetry, are some of the themes explored in some of the subsequent essays.

 Rakhshanda Jalil, the eminent literary historian , points out interesting aspects of the “Barahmasa”( Twelve Months)which are songs of love, separation and yearning, both mystic and secular, in a woman’s voice. However, while the form concerned itself with the “women’s world, adopted a woman’s voice and spoke of a woman’s needs , none were actually written by women poets.’’(Jalil,125)Further, a study of the “barahmasas show how the word was lost to text, and orality to textuality, but also how pluralism was replaced by Unitarianism, multi-culturalism by puritanism, the feminine-gendered narration by the masculine, and inclusion by exclusion.”(Jalil,112)

Debotri Dhar’s thought-provoking musings on the profoundly gendered nature of love and waiting is a delightful read, punctuated with valuable insights into women’s writing and experiences. So are the other essays by Sumana Roy, Parvati Sharma and Didier Coste.

In its exploration of the variegated hues and discourses of love and its analysis of its many histories, the essays in the book demonstrate that love — as text, as play, pain and pleasure, in somewhat unequal measure —  is truly a many-splendoured thing and makes the world go around. These essays also illustrate the peculiarly gendered nature of love, where we are tempted to echo Byron’s  lines from Don Juan

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,

‘Tis woman’s whole existence


Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.




How old is the Kashmir Dispute?

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris

Author: Christopher Snedden

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

There can be, and have been, countless books on Kashmir and Kashmiris. Given its geopolitical importance in the Indian subcontinent and the constant needling by Pakistan, Kashmir has been a boiling point in the relationship between the two disagreeing neighbors. It has now been a year since the Indian government changed the status of Kashmir by making amendments to Articles 370 and 35A. Since then, Pakistan’s efforts to highlight this unilateral change and the human rights violations within it have been under the spotlight.

The challenge in writing a book on undivided Jammu & Kashmir — the only Muslim majority state in India — in the backdrop of four wars with Pakistan in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999 and also in the context of Chinese conflict in 1962 is enormous. Fortuitously, Christopher Snedden has come out with a book that is unprejudiced and at the same time comprehensive. Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris is just the book you want to read on Kashmir.

Australian politico-strategic analyst, author and academic specializing in South Asia, Snedden has worked with governments, businesses, and universities. Currently, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii, he  visited J&K frequently to undertake research for this and has interviewed many elder statesmen involved in the Kashmir dispute. This authoritative book is the result of that endeavor.

Reads the blurb: “In 1846, the British created the state of Jammu and Kashmir and then quickly sold this prized region to the wily and powerful Raja Gulab Singh. Intriguingly, had they retained it, the India-Pakistan dispute over possession of the state may never have arisen, but Britain’s concerns lay elsewhere — expansionist Russia, beguiling Tibet and unstable China — and their agents played the ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan and what was then known as ‘Turkistan’.”

Snedden contextualizes the geo-strategic and historical circumstances surrounding the British decision to relinquish Kashmir and explains how they and four Dogra maharajas consolidated and controlled J&K subsequently. He details the distant borders and disintegrated peoples that comprised the diverse princely state. It explains the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir’s controversial accession to India in 1947 — and its unpremeditated consequences.

Writes Snedden in the introduction, “The Kashmir dispute is now seventy years old. This makes it older more than ninety percent of Indians and Pakistanis. Its longevity surpasses the average life expectancy of a Pakistani male (65.16 years) and an Indian male (66.68 years)…Wistfully, some of my friends in J&K, India, and Pakistan tell me that the Kashmir dispute would continue for another two-thirds of a century…This book provides sufficient background information for a reader to understand why such a woeful scenario is possible.

Surely, the ground situation in J&K has changed since the book was written and, particularly, after 5th August 2019. But the dispute is far from over because  Pakistan constantly harks back that Kashmir cannot be removed from the agenda of the United Nation Security Council, which was committed to resolving the issue according to the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

Coming back to the politico-historical analysis of Kashmir, Snedden weaves a compelling narrative that frames the ‘K’ dispute, explains why it continues, and assesses what it means politically and administratively for the divided peoples of the state and their undecided futures.

Divided into five parts and punctiliously done chapters, Snedden begins with the Sikhs:  “We now come to an intriguing matter concerning the Sikh Empire: the significant role played by two powerful and influential brothers from Jammu, Gulab, and Dhyan (Dhian) Singh. In particular, as we shall see, the British took Raja Gulab Singh very seriously. The Sikh Empire had many non-Sikhs serving as soldiers and administrators. These included Gulab and Dhyan Singh, plus their other brother, Suchet, from the Jammu area that was located immediately to the south of Kashmir and north of the Sikh Empire’s Punjab heartland. Jammu had some strategic importance as its hilly uplands were relatively remote from traditional invasion routes into India that crossed Punjab. People had sought refuge from invaders in such areas, including most recently from marauding Afghans. Nevertheless, there was no distinct geographic division between Jammu and Punjab. Essentially, Jammu was an undulating-to-hilly extension of the Punjab plains that rose northwards to the Pir Panjal range located at the southern edge of the Kashmir Valley, with this range providing a natural boundary between Kashmir and Jammu.

Because Gulab Singh was a brave and capable soldier, in the 1810s, he caught the eye of the Sikh Maharaja. This was significant as both men thereafter engaged in a mutually beneficial partnership that brought them extensive benefits. For the effective but vigilant Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Gulab provided a non-Sikh ally whom the ruler could trust, an important factor in a fractious empire in which Ranjit was the senior Sikh. The ambitious Gulab Singh used Ranjit as a vehicle for Gulab to advance himself and his interests. Gulab Singh apparently first came to Ranjit Singh’s notice in the Kashmir campaign of 1813, after which Gulab was given control of the Reasi area, north of Jammu, in 1815. Later, because of his actions suppressing the uprising in Jammu in 1819, Ranjit Singh recognized the Jammuite as ruler of Jammu in 1822.”

What enhances the beauty of this 360- page is the in-depth analysis is the lucid explanation. Written in a language that is most nourishing and generous, this book is by far the best chronicle on Kashmir. Snedden has adroitly handled the dispute along with its intricate political and geo-strategic dimensions. He goes that extra mile to probe at length the history of the oft-neglected Kashmiris too.

An excellent account of Kashmiri identity and the conflict between India and Pakistan, the book is peerless on one of the world’s most ‘intractable disputes.’



Revisiting Hiroshima: The Last Cherry Blossom

On August 6, 1945, at 8.15 am, an atom bomb was dropped at Hiroshima to end World War II. Archana Mohan takes us on a journey through a novel which gives the story of before and after the bombing & currently lauded and promoted by the United Nations for peacekeeping.

Title: The Last Cherry Blossom

Author: Kathleen Burkinshaw

When a book opens with American B-29s flying overhead and school children cowering under desks hoping they are alive to see what grade they got on  their school report, it is a wake-up call.

War has no business threatening children in their safe temples of learning.  

But what is war really? It is when we forget that the enemy is a human being too with lives just like ours. That, is the crux of The Last Cherry Blossom, a sparkling debut novel filled with hope and resilience by Kathleen Burkinshaw.

The story, set in Japan, in the 1940s, centers around a pleasant 12-year- old named Yuriko.

Yuriko is an average middle grader. She struggles in government mandated bamboo spear classes and can’t sew to save her life. At home, her aunt isn’t cordial to her and her five year old cousin just keeps pressing her buttons but she is a happy trooper thanks to the two people who love her and understand her like no other — her Papa, a well respected newspaper editor, and her best friend, Machiko.

Soon, there are big changes in Yuriko’s life – a new addition to the family and a stunning secret but all of those pale in comparison to a chilling realization – even though the authorities claim otherwise, Japan is losing the war against the allies.

Amidst the colourful ‘kimonos’, the tea ceremonies, dips in koi ponds, the delicious Toshikoshi Soba and the beloved Sakura Hanami (the cherry blossom viewing), the smell of the inevitable lingers on.

In a poignant moment, Yuriko’s best friend Machiko, who has been drafted to work in an airplane factory says that she doesn’t even bother moving to an air raid shelter because she is too exhausted to care. Still, they carry on, like teenagers do, with their banned American Jazz records, crushes and heart to heart talks.

Until one day, the nightmare turns true.

An ear shattering popping noise.

An intense burst of white light.

And just like that, the lives of Yuriko and everyone around her are never the same again.

In an earlier insight into her mind, Yuriko confesses that she loves mathematics because everything is black and white. But when you lose everything you love, for no fault of your own, does anything make sense anymore?

The cherry blossoms are the glue holding this story together. It is at the cherry blossom festival that the family is together for one last time, hence the title but the significance of these beautiful flowers go deeper than that.

They represent life itself — so beautiful, yet so fragile that they bloom for only a short time. The characters who lived a privileged life before, come to a realisation that not everything can be foreseen, not everything can be planned but life is about living it to the best potential.

This is not a fictional story.  The author’s mother herself is a ‘hibakusha’ or a survivor and this is her true story.

No one knows the devastating  effects of  warfare more than the author.  Effects of the radiation from atomic bombs impact generations and Burkinshaw unfortunately suffers from a chronic neurological disorder because of that.

This is a deeply moving and personal story, laying bare the far reaching effects of war and that is why the book is now a United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs Resource for teachers and students.

Perhaps, the greatest quality of the book is the hope it weaves into the narrative despite the desolation and fear that paints the landscape after the blast.

A point it makes with the versatile cherry blossoms again.

Scientists said nothing would grow again in the Hiroshima soil for many years after the atomic bomb was dropped. Yet, the cherry blossoms defiantly bloomed the following spring.

“The cherry blossoms endured much like the spirit of the people—like my mother—who were affected by the bombing of Hiroshima,” writes the author.

Seventy five years ago, on August 6, 1945 at 8.15 am, the atom bomb or ‘pika don’ killed 80,000 people and the toll rose to more than 1,40,000 within the next five years.

As Yuriko grapples with difficult decisions in the aftermath, through her eyes, something becomes clear as day. We must never find ourselves in a position where the colour of the sky is no longer unrecognizable.

Never must we forget what happened in Hiroshima that day. Never again must we take peace for granted.


Archana Mohan is  the co-founder of Bookosmia (smell of books) a children’s content company that delivers brilliant content to the world through Sara — India’s first female sports loving character. Her book Yaksha, India’s first children’s book on the dying folk art form of Yakshagana received wide acclaim. She has worked as  a  journalist, corporate blogger and editor working with names like Business Standard, Woman’s Era, Deccan Herald, Chicken Soup for the Soul and Luxury Escapes Magazine.  She won the Commonwealth Short Story contest’s ‘Highly Commended Story’ award in 2009. She loves interacting with budding writers and has conducted journalism workshops in colleges.Do check out Bookosmia’s website for more information.




Dara Shukoh: Where would we be if he were King

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra of a historical narrative that continued in the Top 10 Bestsellers List for 10 Consecutive weeks, on publication. Recently, Audible has released an audiobook version of this book.

Title: Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King

Author: Avik Chanda

Publisher: Harper Collins, 2019

Scanning the list of books already written on Dara Shukoh, I wondered why the author had chosen to write yet another book about Dara Shukoh, but that was before I came across Avik Chanda’s impressive work. A magnificent tome, it is richly palimpsestic and multi-layered and articulates the many complex layers of its protagonist’s personality and the forces that he had to grapple with. The book also displays an impressive array of materials and archives that were sourced by the author in putting together this fascinating chronicle.

In adding to a genre of what is known as popular history, the author has left no stone unturned. In doing so, he neither puts Dara on a pedestal, nor does he vilify him. Instead, he shows his protagonist’s limitations in his military campaigns, his aloofness and withdrawal from much of court politics, his intellectual leanings and his impatience with the petty nitty gritty of everyday politics on the ground, which often came across as arrogance to the people surrounding him.     

Avik Chanda’s prodigious research helps him write what seems like the definitive version on the tragic prince.. About Dara Shukoh, he writes:

The emperor’s Shah Jahan’s favourite son, heir-apparent to the Mughal throne prior to his defeat by Aurangzeb, Dara has sometimes been portrayed as an effete prince, utterly incompetent in all military and administrative matters. But his tolerance towards other faiths, the legacy of his philosophy and the myriad myths surrounding him, have far outlived him and continue to fuel the popular imagination. In truth, the Crown Prince was a highly complex person: a visionary thinker, a talented poet and prolific writer, a scholar and theologian of unusual merit, a calligraphist and connoisseur of the fine arts, and a dutiful son and warm –hearted family man.

He also goes on to add:

…he was also cold and arrogant to the mass of courtiers and commanders, whom he felt were inferior to him, intensely superstitious by nature, easily swayed by mystery and magic, an indifferent army general and shockingly naïve in his judgement of character.

Chanda thus sets the record straight; there are no heroes and villains in his version. Instead, we are presented with a complex, multi-faceted scholarly man whose aesthetic taste and judgement were impeccable and one who could participate in scholarly debate and disputation with the best scholars  of his time. A man of eclectic tastes, entrenched in his faith, deeply spiritual and almost other-worldly, Dara Shukoh did not like the strict asceticism of the mendicants. Instead, he believed in a faith full of love and compassion, and experienced nothing but supreme disdain at the Machiavellian machinations of the nobles and courtiers surrounding the king. Interested in mysticism, he was also open in his pursuit of religious knowledge, heterodox rather than orthodox.

Biographies can be of many types, hagiographical, celebratory, laudatory and critical. The best biographies are the ones which show not only fidelity to fact, but also stop short of creating two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs of its protagonists as heroes. Instead, the author undertakes a prodigious amount of research  and steers clear of the epistemic trap of producing historical stereotypes. Rather than depicting heroes and villains, who are judged based on present standards of morality, we have historically dense, nuanced characters whose impulses and motives are subjected to psychological scrutiny. Thus Dara writes of his encounter with Mullah Shah, an experience so profoundly moving that he felt it had to be recorded:

The doors of divine bounty and mercy were opened upon my heart and he(Mullah Shah) gave me whatever I asked.   Now even though I belong to the people of the world…..I am not one of them, for  I have known their ignorance and affliction. Even though I am far from a dervish, spiritually I belong with them.

Dara Shukoh goes on to add:

In the discipline of the school to which I belong, there is  contrary to the practices laid down in other schools, no pain or difficulty. There is no asceticism in it, everything is easy, gracious and a free gift. Everything here is love and affection, pleasure and ease.

Dara is an avid notetaker, and wonders, whether like his grandfather, Jahangir, he too, should keep a detailed journal. We remember also the richly woven narrative and sensuous details of the Baburnama (written originally in Persian by Abdul Rahim, 1589-90, and translated later from the nineteenth century onwards), which has come in for a fair amount of appreciation and critical work.

 It is in these moments that we see the panoramic sweep of monumentalist history and historiography interspersed with jewels like these, little vignettes which record the still, small voice of history. This massing of small but telling details, like  Dara’s relationship with his wife, and his sister, Jahanara  Begum, shows a man to whom humanity is of paramount value, a man who seemed to have an understanding of the bedrock of our common humanity. While Dara’s understanding of the nuances of his  faith, especially Sufism, is truly remarkable, with its notions of tawhid and dhikr/zikr, fana (love and devotion), ideas that are similar to many ideas within the contours of Bhakti devotion. We are in danger of losing sight of this substratum of a common devotional and cultural imagination in the present climate of intolerance that seems to sweep across the world.

Even as he extols Dara Shukoh’s understandings of these nuances, Avik Chanda also mentions, in almost the same breath, that his immersion in the biography of Sufi saints, Nafahat-al-Uns, results in his neglect of state affairs and administration of the empire. His ignoring the call of duty is overlooked by his doting father but noticed by the courtiers.

Historical agency and history’s inevitability are both in evidence here. Further, it is noteworthy to see the intelligence and capabilities of Dara’s sister, Jahanara Begum. Apart from remarkable women like Mehr-Un-Nisa or Nur Jahan, there were many notable women in the Mughal court. It is interesting to speculate if there could be a ‘her story’ (or her stories) that we could wrest from the margins of  this historical and biographical discourses. There are more stories here, not only the tragedy of Dara but of his handsome, noble , dignified son, Suleman Shukoh, which leaves a lasting impression on Zebunissa, Auranzib/ Alam’s daughter who had been betrothed to her cousin and then turns rebellious, penning verses that reek of apostasy, as if to avenge his execution. Aurangzeb may have won the throne, but that victory certainly comes at a cost.

The book ends on a note where there are no absolute winners or losers. As Aurangzib/Alamgir realises, with hardly and inheritors who are both competent and trustworthy, his earthly achievements fade before Dara Shukoh’s reputation, which seems to grow in posterity/ posthumously. In a sense, all historical events are but wrinkles in time, as viewed from the perspective of eternity.               

Reading through Avik Chanda’s account, it is worthwhile to pause for a moment and think about the purpose and function of history, both in narrativising as well as studying it. History is not just a compendium of facts about the past, but a revisiting of the past in the light of the present. Further, there is no one overarching historical truth, but a series of facts which are woven into narratives with different and varying interpretative twists, from varying ideological perspectives and vantage points.

To that extent, the history and biography of a man who stood for a confluence of Indo-Islamic tradition and culture, went beyond its doctrinaire aspect, and embraced mystical traditions which embodied the richest motifs of Sufism, so remarkably similar to that of the  Bhakti movement calls for varied interpretations. It is interesting — and at times tempting — to speculate, in a counterfactual way, whether history would have been any different if Dara Shukoh, and not his brother, Aurangzeb, had ascended the Mughal throne. Perhaps not, since history is the great leveller, devouring good and bad alike as it races and hurtles through time and space.  


Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.




“I am waiting to be at home; where, I don’t know yet”– Dom Moraes

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Never at Home

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

Never at Home is the third memoir in the trilogy of memoirs written by Dom Moraes. The others being Gone Away (1960) and My Son’s Father (1968). This volume was first published by Penguin India in 1992. Here the author writes about his life from 1960 onwards.

The first chapter is a brief account of the phase of his life after winning the prestigious Hawthornden prize at the age of twenty. By the time he turned twenty two, Moraes already had two poetry collections and a memoir to his name. In order to earn a livelihood, he then started writing features and reviews for newspapers. In 1965, he brought out his third poetry collection John Nobody. After James Cameron impelled him to take up journalism, Moraes started travelling and for the next seventeen years he couldn’t write poetry. For someone, who from his childhood knew that he wanted to be a poet and to live in England, he spent a considerable period of his life in transit without writing any substantial poetry. Never at Home chronicles those years he was engaged in navigating the world to collect stories and interviews.

This volume is the third and final in his collective memoirs – A Variety of Absences, which take its name from the poem Absences written by him after a long hiatus from poetic fervour. The book focuses more on Moraes’ professional life as compared to his personal life taken up in his second memoir so that its prose is not as poetic or intense as in My Son’s Father but nevertheless, it is a notable piece of literary writing. It may also be deemed as a historical archive because it records some very important and interesting snippets and observations from the political world he traversed and eminent leaders he met.

The critical success of Gone Away, his first memoir, brought him writing assignments which included scriptwriting for a documentary on India. As a journalist, he covered Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and wars in Algeria and Israel. In his mind he had always been an English poet in England and had no idea of the tribulations other immigrants faced. A BBC documentary commissioned to him made him look at the living conditions of Asian immigrants, specifically from India and Pakistan. This documentary brought him closer to the reality of being an outsider in a foreign country.

While writing articles for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Daily Telegraph, Nova and many others magazines, he met and interviewed many distinguished personalities and important world leaders but perhaps none left as deep an impression upon him as Indira Gandhi, whose biography he was later to write. The liberation of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, had made her a star in the eyes of its natives who were till then hostile to Indians. Moraes writes at length about his meetings with her, about her charismatic personality, political astuteness and her almost invincible demeanor.

His descriptions of the journalistic assignments, which took him across many countries and gave him the opportunity to bring out stories to the world, are finely detailed. His keen eye presents a balanced perspective on the stories he covered, never going too far and never delivering too less. His most important works included a story on political prisoners in Buru and on the tribal people in Dani in Indonesia, the titles of the articles being ‘The Prisoners of Buru,’ and ‘The People Time Forgot’. His Buru piece evoked a violent response in Indonesia. Moraes was banned from entering the country again. But this piece was the first one to come out from the place and the issue was picked up by some human rights organisations leading to a release of seven thousand from the imprisoned ten thousand people. This, if anything, is a proof of the important voice he had become in journalism.

Although, Moraes’ work kept him busy in the world but he could somehow never get rid of the images of his traumatised childhood. As in the case of his second memoir,here also he writes considerably about his fear of confronting his mother. The accounts of his meetings with her are laced with the anguish and anxiety he had experienced in her presence always. Except his mother, all the other women in his life are only addressed in passing. He never dwells much upon his relationship with either his second wife, Judith, mother of their son Francis, or with his third wife, Leela Naidu. In comparison, his association with his friends and work colleagues occupy more space in this memoir. His regret for not becoming the father he thought he was when he wrote My Son’s Father comes perhaps due to his inability to express what he felt before others, including his family.  

Moraes picked up journalism as a vocation to earn a living but it brought him closer to real life. His punctuated visits to India, whether to write on Naxalbari movement, to meet Indira Gandhi, King of Sikkim or to explore Rajasthan, led to an increased understanding of the country of his birth. Nonetheless, he was never at home in India or in the country he had adopted as a youngster.

The disquiet that marked his life is perhaps most poignantly conveyed in this line towards the end:

“I am waiting to be at home; where, I don’t know yet.”

As he settled in the country of his birth, after all the travelling, his muse did eventually return to him. The various absences – of a mother, a father, his friends from the youth or his son — at different times in his life and their memories, continued to haunt him. Yet this memoir ends with a hopeful note. In author’s words, “the best thing to do is to preserve some form of balance on the constantly moving ground tectonic plates of this planet.”


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 . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.