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A Discourse on ‘Freedom as Mobility’

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)

Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Somdatta Mandal’s translation from Bengali to English, A Bengali Lady in England, is a first person account  of the first ever woman’s travel narrative written in the late nineteenth century when India was still under British imperial rule. Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) was a middle-class  Bengali lady who accompanied her husband to England for eight years between 1882 and 1890.Her narrative, England-e-Bangamahila was published in Calcutta in 1885. 

Women’s travel writing in Bengal circulated /proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the popular form of serialized publications in journals such as Bharati (1877),  Prabasi (1901), Bangadarshan , Kalpataru, among others, but Krishnabhabini’s account was the first full length travelogue. Though there followed a rich output of travel literature, it would be a fallacy  to box the many writings as a single, homogenous genre. Travel writing in this time undergoes several generic modulations and modifications as it journeys through the turn of the century. For example, Krishnabhabini’s account could also be described as ethnographic writing  as she turns her gaze on British society, culture, customs , manners.

In addition to being a wonderful addition to the archive of women’s writing, Das’s account seems to reverse the gaze. It offers a fascinating glimpse into 19th century English life and culture, as she attempts to set the record straight in many ways. Krishnabhabini’s capacity for observation is admirable in its sociological detail, especially so when we consider that she was barely out of her teens when she wrote the book. A Bengali Lady in England also offers a wealth of ethnographic detail on English life, character, interaction between classes, marriage, attitude to work, family organisation and life.

As Krishnabashini responds to a spectrum of sights, sounds, affects during her extended stay in England, we come across many nuggets of information. The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies. Her motive here is to overturn the largely negative view of British women that prevailed in colonised spaces like India, based on their view of the “memsahib” who were often stereotyped as being snobbish and indolent. Her endeavour seems to be to inform her Indian sisters that British women in England were more active than the colonial “memsahibs” they usually came across in India.

She is eloquent in lauding the virtues of British domesticity by pointing out the merits of companionate marriages, where the wife is active in being a true helpmate to her husband as well as being the custodian of the private domain. Her perception is that Indian women and men would benefit in emulating such models of domesticity, instead of remaining in segregation and separation. As the translator and editor Somdatta Mandal points out, Krishnabhabini’s opening of the veil as a means of freeing herself from the constraints of her family and society is probably the first step in “the discourse of freedom as mobility’’ that enables her to construct her own sense of self (Mandal p.xx). Though she deplores the materialism evident in English society, she is also acutely conscious of the difference between the two countries. Thus she writes, “the more I compare the two countries, the more I realise the great difference between them and looking at the poor condition of India, I keep on suffering within.”(150)       

The translation and commentary by Somdatta Mandal, a translator and academic of considerable reputation and experience, highlights Krishnabhabini’s keen and observant eye, both in her translation and her comprehensive introduction to it. Her introduction shows evidence of her scholarship as she contrasts Krishnabhabini’s narrative account with her husband, Devendra N. Das, who with “an Orientalist agenda”(Mandal xxiii) was trying to “educate his fellow Britishers with the myths, religion and lifestyle of Indians back in India-speaking about the jogee, the astrologer, the zamindars, the nautch girls, infant marriage, the matchmaker, the Hindoo widow, funeral ceremonies, et al-his wife was trying to educate fellow Indians about different aspects of British life-English race and its nature, the English lady, English marriage and domestic life, education system, religion and celebration, British trade, labour ”, cityscapes and rural life. Both the editorial commentary and Krishnabhabini’s narrative are peppered with delectable nuggets of information.       

Exposure to European literature, proliferation of print culture and ideas of romanticism percolated into the ‘Bhadralok” consciousness creating new modes of self-fashioning and new reading publics that made space for the publication of serialised travelogues . Much of the travel writing which did emerge and prove popular at this time were those authored by Hindu, upper class, western educated males, who were often renowned luminaries, scholars, or litterateurs in their own right. Several of the travel accounts are of men travelling outside India, usually to England. These works contained observations on western culture and a comparative study with India’s own. Romesh Chunder Dutt wrote Three Years in Europe: 1868- 1871, which was published in 1896. Both Rabindranath Tagore and Vivekananda authored various works on travel. An earlier account of travel writing was Bholanauth Chunder’s Travels of a Hindoo (1869) which chronicled his journey from Bengal to Punjab.

In contrast, socially sanctioned forms of travel for women till the mid nineteenth century was largely restricted to pilgrimage. However, with the advent of the railways and the opening of the Suez Canal, by the mid-nineteenth century we have instances of women, usually from educated Bengali upper-class families, travelling for entirely secular reasons—for convalescence, their husbands’ work, for leisure, or even for education. Aru Dutt and Toru Dutt went to England at around 1870 to pursue an education.

In 1871 Rajkumari Bandhopadhyay, wife of social worker Shashipada Bandopadhyay, became the first Indian woman to visit England. In 1877, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in -law, Jnadanandini , along with her children, travelled by ship to England to accompany her husband, Satyendranath Tagore(the first Indian ICS officer). This was against the wishes of her father-in -law, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. In each of these instances, the act of travelling to a foreign land was deemed sacrilegious and transgressive, with the women facing extreme social backlash and, in the case of Rajkumari Bandyopadhyay, ostracisation. However, these acts set the way for further instances of travel, and more importantly, written accounts for the same. In 1894 Jagatmohini Debi set sail for England, and in 1902 published Seven Months in England (England e Saat Mash).

Krishnabhabini’s work is indeed a pioneering effort as far as Bengali women’s documentation of their travels, at home or abroad, are concerned. Yet her travel to England came at a personal cost; she had to leave her daughter behind with her conservative in-laws, resulting in lifelong estrangement. However, what ultimately makes this book unique it the quality of its specularity, its simultaneous awareness  of the self and other. It is this quality of self-consciousness or self-reflexivity which makes it  truly a  text of modernity.

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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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The Hottest Summer in Years

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: The Hottest Summer in Years

Author: Anuradha Kumar

Publisher: Yoda Press

The Hottest Summer in Years is just one of the two books published in quick succession by the author, Anuradha Kumar. The other A Sense of Time and Other Stories appeared a month before this one. Kumar has authored a number of books  and writes for a number of journals. She has won the Commonwealth Award twice in 2004 and 2010 for her short stories. Earlier in 2021, in an interview, Kumar said that she lives and writes across continents and declared that she was “truly a borderless writer”. The Hottest Summer in Years (2021), is a testimony that upholds her declaration.

This novel opens with the protagonist, Hans Gerter, a perplexed young man caught in between dichotomies, in a world alternating between war and peace in the early 1960s, when India too as an independent country was young. The ‘Prologue’ sets the tone of the story. The protagonist is shown to be part of a German firm setting up the steel industry in a small town in the heart of India, a historical truth fictionalised with skill.

The first chapter starts with the puzzling murder of Ahmed Ali. It encompasses the formal and informal meetings of people, the ploy in the efforts to frame the Raja Sahib, the politics of governance and power play taking shape in a newly born India, the brewing Hindu-Muslim tension with a potential to ignite bigger flames in the future, and amidst all these Gerter’s attempt to protect the Raja’s family even as he whirls between his two worlds of the past and present. Gerter ruminates through the story and reflects on the heat in Africa of his childhood and the mirage-like images of all that happens after the night of the murder which holds the story together in what was supposedly one of the hottest years recorded in India, thus justifying the title of his novel.

Love, lust, and belonging criss-crosse across borders to amalgamate with the history and politics of the period from the 1940s to the 1960s. Gerter’s own history is beautifully linked to the Nazi regime and the German holocaust that followed. Through Gerter’s journey from Germany to his displacement in Rourkela and then to Dharamsala, a narrative that spans continents, Kumar brings out the futility of the big wars and their effect on the mental health of people across generations.

Blending facts and fiction, mesmerising scenes of love, abandonment, and mystery make the book an imaginative and compassionate read. Kumar manages to creatively flit through history wherein she props on the landscape people, forests, forest dwellers, animals, Adivasis, seas, the voyage, the call of the wild at night, the train and the railways. Each character and even the vehicles the Blue Daimler, Gerter’s constant companion, the green Austin or the ship SS Giovanni are brilliantly placed to add to the wealth of the narrative. Gerter battles with the fear of the inner demons that breed from his past and present. His taking up the role of a protector in the process changed him. Memory, love, and freedom drive the story with history and mystery gelled in.  

The cosmopolitanism in the story is starkly evident but subtly worked on. It is interesting to note the nature in which his ideas of home and identity sway with the impact of the places his destiny takes him. Gerter brings out the beauty in being the young edgy global citizen, who is everywhere and yet nowhere, as he describes himself as “always on the margins” and that “no place had been home” despite being in many homes far away from home. With a childhood spent in the west of Africa and, in his early youth having awakened to the truths of war and of his country, Germany in the early 1940s, Gerter sped on greater realisations of people he had met or been with, in different places in time. Despite the despair, madness and gloom, a letter and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) shines new hope in towards the end of Gerter’s narrative.

Kumar’s historical novel is a well-packed and well-paced story. It brings forth nightmares, conspiracies, insanity, secrets and fills them with love, hope and aspirations for a better world. The damages of war, the heartbreaks, the longing to mend the wrongs in life and history come together in Kumar’s fiction. In a blend of cultures and history, the story blends genres. Noir and mystery meet history in fiction. Indian writer, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, rightly described the novel as “… A noir-ish, brooding read, a book to be savoured delicately…”. Kumar, through Gerter in the novel, brings to light how we share different worlds, how multiple people seem to reside in one person and the varied lives we live. A beautiful cover illustration by Sanjhvi Noul rightly speaks to us on the climate of the book. Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years is definitely an all-season book.

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Gracy Samjetsabam is 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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Sisterhood of Swans

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Sisterhood of Swans

Author: Selma Carvalho

Publishers: Speaking Tiger Books

To feel a kind of belongingness, to find acceptance in a society is an inherent human desire. Perhaps this desire stems from the need to strengthen alliance with something larger than individual identities. It is not only family, but also the place we live in, the community we come from, as well as the prevalent societal and cultural norms which fall into this ambit for most of us. Sometimes the scales in life do not balance till this desire remains elusive. More so when one makes home a place not native to the community one belongs to.

Selma Carvalho is a British-Asian writer whose work explores the themes of migration, memory and belonging. She is the author of three non-fiction books documenting the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. She led the Oral Histories of British – Goans Project (2011-2014) funded by UK Heritage Lottery Fund. Her stories have been published in various journals and anthologies. She is the editor of two volumes of The Brave New World of Goan Writing & Art (2018 and 2020). Her work has been shortlisted for various literary prizes including London Short Story Prize and the New Asian Writing Prize. She is the winner of the Leicester Writes Prize 2018 and a finalist for prestigious SI Leeds Literary Prize 2018. Sisterhood of Swans, her debut novel, was shortlisted for Mslexia Novella Prize 2018 in the UK.

Carvalho’s book explores the complexities around this desire to belong and yet the inability to fully embrace the possibilities a place offers because of conceived notions a propos the idea of identity. Her writing, traversing the world of immigrant Indian community in London, is focused upon anxieties and their repercussions, as experienced by a second generation immigrant. Anna-Marie Souza is plagued by a yearning to belong and to hold onto the familiar. Her restlessness stems not only from the inescapability of ethnic alienation, being a Goan-Indian in Horton, but also from the inevitable suffering caused by her parents’ separation.

Consequently, she longs to find a soul mate, a bond for life. In her relationships, first with Nathu and then with Sanjay, she seeks a father figure, a man in whom she may find a resemblance of her father. The choices Anna-Marie makes are flawed and she carries on with them even while understanding that they might be doomed for failure.

The men in Anna-Marie’s world are all adulterers, diving into new relationships and then abandoning their families to move onto other women. It appears almost like a cycle. Every woman she comes across goes through the ordeal. Left in misery by their husbands/partners, they desperately try to put the pieces of their shattered selves together. Their kids endure fractured lives. But it is never the men who suffer, they keep moving on like a river flowing into another and renewing itself, unbroken and unburdened.

It is to this sisterhood of pain of women that Anna-Marie belongs. Like swans, these women look to pair for life but it is disappointment they are fated for. Whether it be her mother, Ines, Sanjay’s wife, Kaya, or her schoolmate, Jassie.

In drawing out the characters of Anna-Marie and her best friend, Sujata, Carvalho also puts the focus on what is inherited from parents subconsciously. In case of Sujata, her father’s illness comes a full circle to haunt her person as she grows up and try to make sense of her existence in a place she recognizes as her home but do not completely fit in. Anna-Marie on the other hand, start relating more to her mother once she steps into motherhood herself, recalling that it was never her father but mother who had always stood by her.

 Carvalho’s pen proficiently renders the intricacies brought about by intersection of different cultures and their consequent uncertainties. She handles the notions of belongingness delicately and with much sensitivity. Her characters are not without flaws and yet they are memorable for their openness and ability to perceive things genuinely. As pointed by Sujata, Anna-Marie comes to accept life as a constantly evolving construct in which to grow also means to allow oneself to evolve irrespective of the contradictions confronted with. To come to a juncture where the permanence of a place or constancy of people does not matter and lives are aglow with the radiance of all the love received.  

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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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John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha 

Title: John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee

Author: Amit Ranjan

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Retracing colonial history is always fascinating. And, if the characters are out of the ordinary, that re-examination is even more interesting. This book revisits the life of John Lang, an Australian writer-lawyer settled in India in the 19th century. 

John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer of Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee by Amit Ranjan is about Lang’s life, his accomplishments and his literary works. Lang (1816-1864) was a fiery journalist and novelist who constantly annoyed the establishment of the East India Company with his vituperative and pathogenic humor. He had lived in India since the age of 26. 

A visiting fellow at University of South Wales, Sydney, a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Miami and who teaches English at NCERT , New Delhi Ranjan’s earlier books  include poetry collections Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’m Almost Thirty

A lawyer, John Lang learnt Persian and Urdu fast to argue cases in lower courts. He mostly fought against the British and won a few well-known cases in the company’s own court. Also, Lang represented Rani Laxmibai in her legal battle against the annexation of her kingdom of Jhansi by the East India Company. 

In about five hundred pages, Ranjan looks at the personality of Lang rather vividly. Australia’s first native-born novelist, John Lang and an attorney, had a remarkable life. Coming from a family of 10 children (including half- and step-siblings), he went to Cambridge to qualify as a barrister. When he represented the Rani of Jhansi against the East India Company, he documented his impression of the queen. 

Amusingly, this became the basis of some scenes in an Indian television serial depicting a fictitious intimate relationship between them. Lang flamboyantly fought yet another case of Lala Jotee Persaud for his due as a provisioner in the British army. Persaud won 2 lakh rupees, which was, in 1851, a princely amount. 

It is not because Lang was the first Australian writer or was among the first writers of English prose on India, or because of the historical place where Lang lived in the politically volatile 19th century that propelled Ranjan to write the book. The motive behind the book is clear:  Lang was a fine writer.

In his short life of 48 years, Lang produced 23 novels, one travelogue, some plays and five volumes of poetry. His novels were mostly in the romance genre and were set in India. His themes were typically bold and very much so somewhat rebellious. After his death in 1864, he remained a well-known writer and his books continued to sell for another 40 years. Lang’s novels were found to be too feminist for Victorian comfort, and his white male protagonists were often described by the narrator as ‘India he loved, England he despised’.

Lang also pursued a career as a journalist, producing The Mofussilite from Meerut — editions of which came out from Ambala, Calcutta. Apparently, as it carried anti-government reports, its file copies were destroyed. 

 “Lang can indeed be viewed as the father of Indian tabloid journalism. The tabloid, of course, had its equivalent of what is now known as ‘Page 3’, but it was very different–in that it was very literary, with an overdose of Lang’s Latin, Boccaccios and Byrons,” Ranjan writes in the book. 

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Indophile spoke at least five languages and produced works as a translator. There were numerous fictional works presumed to have been written or co-authored or significantly inspired by Lang. 

Lang’s versatile talents and established scholarship were surpassed by the colourful life that he led. His escapades and misadventures — landed him in a Calcutta jail for libel and in Vienna on suspicions of being a spy. He won the bets. His divorce and love affair even led to an illegitimate child. 

Lang had a rationalist’s curiosity about phrenology — a pseudoscience that correlated measurements of different parts of the skull with race and mental ability that was fashionable among Europeans in his times. All these are explored and commented upon. 

The book also captures some interesting episodes in Lang’s life like this one: There was a party in progress at John Lang’s house in Mussoorie as he died. Lang had frowned upon the idea of truncating it merely on account of his illness. Bronchitis was the immediate cause of this unforgettable personality’s demise. 

Writes Prof. Saugata Bhaduri in the foreword: “Far from being just another piece of sound academic literary-historical work and a well-researched biography of a lesser-known author who needs to be repatriated to the canon, this book is an exuberant exercise in passion – a passion that set one off on a late-night foray into the unknown just to look up some obscure tomb, or to pick up some obscure discursive thread. Amit’s is an exercise that demonstrates how variegated, yet connected, our little histories are.”

Part history and part literary pleasure, this book is captivating. It will be a delight for history and language buffs as also aficionados of wordplay. Ranjan’s book is well researched, with plenty of reference and end-notes. Witty and interweaving, the narrative makes for an interesting read.

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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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A Sagacious Tale of Oppression & Turmoil

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Two and a Half Rivers

Author: Anirudh Kala

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021

How do we understand a land and its people? How do we look at its history, at a phase of turbulence which once ravaged the lives of its people? At the social structures rarely talked about? And how do we make sense of it? Can the perception be whole if only selective truths are voiced?

The Partition of India in 1947 had left Punjab with only two and a half rivers out of a total of five. From the early 1980s onwards, a state which had witnessed much violence and bloodshed at the time of Partition, began to be devastated by the spread of militancy again. This period of unrest spanning almost a decade was the time when common people, who had yet not recovered from the trauma of partition, faced the torment of not only terrorism but also counter insurgency. And though there are numerous reports on the violation of Human rights during counter insurgency in Punjab, both the Central and the State Governments have continually refuted such reports.

Two and a Half Rivers is a fictionalised account of those troubled years of Punjab through the lives of three main characters — a clinically depressed doctor, trying to take on life one day at a time, and Shamsie and Bheem, both Dalits, struggling to make their dreams a reality. Writing with keen perception, the author, Anirudh Kala, not only offers a striking account of the many ordeals that people went through that period and the solidarity which helped them keep afloat but also of the less addressed issue of oppression of lower castes and their sufferings.  

Kala is a psychiatrist by profession. His aim is to educate people about mental health and mental illness, focusing on eradicating stigma, labels, and prejudice. His debut fiction The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness was published in 2018. Two and a Half Rivers published by Niyogi Books is his second work of fiction.

In this novel, he juxtaposes the situation of state with that of the mental illness of the doctor who is also the narrator. As the fog of depression descends on his mind, the state is also veiled by the layers of sorrows and anxieties from which no escape seems visible. With the increase in terrorists activities, the rivers start filling with the dead again as if to devour those who had somehow survived the Partition. An increase in extortion, abduction and killing by the terrorists leads to the nabbing of common people on doubt by police. The custody, seldom resulting in the release of those apprehended. Jails become torture centres and those captured subjects of experiments for effective torturing. The unrest that follows compels Shamsie and Bheem to shift to Bombay in search of a peaceful life only to return back few years later in the aftermath of a crackdown on Dance bars.

Following the timeline of those difficult years, the author looks at the tragic events which made the ‘Punjab problem’ worse in succeeding years. He takes into account Operation Bluestar, the assassination of the Prime Minister (who he names as Durga), the pogrom of November 1984 and counter insurgency. The novel offers a commentary upon the inept tackling of the situation by the state including ruling dispensation and police. The narrator minces no words while observing that the State and Army had conveniently forgotten that there were to be a large number of pilgrims in the Golden Temple at the time of that operation as it was the celebration of the martyrdom day of a Sikh guru or that more common people began disappearing after the police chief announced incentives and rewards to curtail terrorism.

While the narrator narrowly escapes the custodial torture after being picked for alleged connection with militants, Bheem isn’t that lucky. His identity becomes the final noose around his neck. Shamsie suffers assault too, a punishment for escaping advances of an upper caste boy in her teenage. Whilst common people die and more disappear, Punjab is steeped in sorrow of losing loved ones from which only the tears of grief bring some respite. We are told that more than eight thousand young people have not come home, and never will.

With the poignant telling of this tale, the author also prompts the reader to ask why the lives of those from lower castes are far more easily dispensable, why are they inconsequential, why this malaise is so deeply ingrained in the minds of upper caste and why is it a normal way of life. In a religion which believes “Awwal allah noor upaya qudrat keh sab banday, aik noor toh sab jag upjaiya kaun bhale ko mande” (All humanity was born from a single divine light, and everybody is born equal. All are the children of nature, and no one is good or bad), how can there really be a discrimination based upon caste?

Sensitive is one word that can be best used to describe Kala’s writing. He writes not only from a place of awareness but perhaps also pain and anguish. His description of the distressed years of Punjab carries a rare sensitivity which warrants a deeper understanding of the place as well as its people. That he chooses to tell it through the lives of two Dalit characters, also bring forward his focus on the otherwise lesser talked about issue of caste discrimination in Punjab. The narrative voice is subtle and sometimes seems distant, which works well for the reason that it gives the narrative a sagacious tenor, making it compelling and very moving.

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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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In the Service of Free India

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: In the Service of Free India

Author: BD Pande

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Memoirs of civil servants offer a ringside view of the events that shape up a country. Of late, there have been several memoirs by civil servants of India. But this one is unique.

In the Service of Free India–Memoirs of a Civil servant by BD Pande has some of the best chronicles as India was in the formative years after she got freedom. In reverence to his wishes, the memoir has been published posthumously. It is a fascinating record of Pande’s own life and that of India in the half century after Independence.

Edited by his daughter Ratna M Sudarshan, the autobiography comes more than a decade after Pande’s death in 2009 at 92. The memoirs were penned between 1986 and 1999 and the family was instructed to publish these at least five years after his death.

B.D. Pande was the first person from Kumaon and Garhwal division to pass the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination in London in 1938. In his thirty-nine years as a civil servant, Pande held many important offices in the state and central governments. He served as finance secretary, development commissioner and food commissioner in Bihar; chairman of LIC at then Bombay; and finally cabinet secretary to the Government of India from 1972 to 1977. The first person from Uttarakhand to be appointed the governor of West Bengal and later Punjab, President K.R. Narayanan conferred on him the Padma Vibhushan for his meritorious service to the nation.

Says the blurb : “In the decades following 1947, as the tallest national leaders were building a new India, they were supported by a band of idealistic civil servants fiercely committed to the country’s Constitution and its people. Among these remarkable officers was Bhairab Dutt Pande, a young man from the Himalayan district of Kumaon, who joined the Indian Civil Service in 1939. Over almost forty years as a civil servant, and later as governor, he played an important role in the country’s administration, and interacted with leaders like Indira Gandhi (as cabinet secretary during the Emergency), Morarji Desai and Jyoti Basu.”

Writes Pande in the preface: “Ever since I retired in 1977, people have been asking me to write my memoirs, even more so after I resigned as governor of Punjab in July 1984. I have also been approached by some publishers. But I always refused on the grounds that I have no talent for writing. I was a student of science and writing was never my forte. During my service, I did not write notes exceeding a page or page-and-a-half, no matter how intricate the subject. And more importantly, I kept no notes during my service or lifetime, kept no copies of important papers, letters or memos and therefore my recollections will tend to be biased. With the passage of years, one’s memory tends to play tricks and might even get facts wrong. Furthermore, I did not possess any means of rechecking what I have written from contemporary accounts or official records. For these reasons I never took up the pen to write.” Honesty at its best!

Pande chronicles several landmark events and initiatives that he either participated in or witnessed. He helped increase food-grain allotment to the state as food commissioner of Bihar in the early 1950s and drew up a new famine code as land reforms commissioner. His work in the Community Development programme some years later still has important lessons for today’s Panchayati Raj institutions. After retirement, he was governor of West Bengal during the resurgence of Naxalism in the early 1980s, and of Punjab in 1983-84—a tragic and turbulent year in the history of the state and the nation. Pande chose to resign as governor rather than carry out unconstitutional orders.

A trumped-up narrative about Punjab’s situation was built in the months leading up to Operation Bluestar in June 1984, leading to disastrous consequences. The five chapters in this memoir on Punjab offers an absorbing narrative of the behind-the-scenes events and negotiations leading up to the Anandpur Sahib Resolution and Operation Blue Star is of great value.

Pande, who had a front-row seat of the events, lauds the Sikhs as a community and is highly critical of the central leadership, especially PM Indira Gandhi, and some “Hindu hardliners and vernacular press for contributing to the false narrative”. He also blames the tussle between President Zail Singh and former Punjab CM Darbara Singh for the unfolding of the events. It is his view that many Sikhs had been the victims of attacks by terrorists, he writes, and whenever an incident occurred, the Punjab Police Intelligence was blamed even though they had supplied advance information.

Mark these dauntless words: “I have known people who, living in Delhi, were even afraid of coming to Chandigarh. Then from Chandigarh, if one went to the real Punjab — Amritsar, Jalandhar, or Ludhiana — one would find similar normalcy. Driving through the countryside, all was peaceful, with farming going on normally. The cities were bustling with activity. Factories were working normally, even schools and colleges. Hindus and Sikhs were walking together, visiting each other’s shops, riding together. The contrast between what one anticipated and what one actually experienced was vivid… I could not help but emphasize on this otherwise peaceful atmosphere.”

On the controversial ‘White Paper’ tabled by the Centre before the Army operation, Pande says he was not even consulted. He notes that Akali leaders of the time were divided. They came to meet him separately while other political parties came to one group. He has also questioned the official figures of casualties in Operation Blue Star. “The number of casualties among the terrorists and civilians was 1,200 (and not 700). Some 200 terrorists still got away. Blue Star did not achieve the desired result.”

For everyone who wants to know the truth behind the Operation Bluestar in Punjab, this is a  de-facto account. The machinations by the central government of the time are revealing. The other chapters in this 300-paged memoir make for a fascinating read and give a privileged perspective on issues and their outcome.

Stimulating and exalting in coequal measure, this memoir, with photographs from the author’s personal album, is both a riveting record of an extraordinary life and an important and an informative document. There is also a detailed timeline to refresh one’s memory.

This book is a must-read for anyone who has been, is, or aims to be a civil servant in India and equally, for anyone who is interested in the history of the times. It is a candid memoir of past times, and the events leading up to them. The informal style of the memoir makes it effortless to read and transports the reader to that time period.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No 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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Beyond the Veil: A Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti

                                                                              

Title: Beyond the Veil

Author: Devika Khanna Narula

An important task for those committed to tracking the path of women’s Issues, past and present, is to embark on a study of the academic discourses on gender sparked off by feminist scholars and activists — an area that is fast gaining ground all over the world. Yet there is another dimension to the effort. It also involves an exploration of creative writing generated by sensitive, imaginative feminism. It is important to understand that concepts such as Patriarchy, Agency and Resistance are not limited to feminist debate and discourse. They are equally and dynamically present in poetry and fiction. In India, the field of feminist creative writing is growing rich with promise every day.

One such endeavour is Devika Khanna Narula’s novel Beyond the Veil.  A work of epical dimensions it operates on a vast canvas. Vast both in terms of space and time, it spans half a century, between 1900 and 1950. It offers interesting insights into life as lived by upper class and middle-class women during a momentous period of Indian history. A time when a mass resistance against British rule was spreading all over the country culminating in the independence of India. A movement in which some women also participated.

Spatially the narrative shuttles between two families from two different parts of India linked by marriage. They belong to different cultures though they come from a common stock. They are the Punjabis of Lahore and the Punjabi Khatris of Bandhugarh, a fictional name for Bardhaman, in West Bengal. The founder of the Kapoor family in Bandhugarh, came from Punjab in the sixteenth century and, by sheer dint of merit and hard work, amassed lands and wealth. His progeny followed in his footsteps, established themselves as zamindars and, at some point, were dignified by the title of Rajah by the British.

The Khannas of Punjab and the Kapoors of Bandhugarh seem very different in externals. The first belongs to the ‘small business’ class. The other is related to royalty. One is of pure Punjabi extraction. The other, though from the same genetic type, is highly Bengalised having lived in Bengal over many generations. They speak Bengali, eat Bengali food, dress like Bengalis, worship in Bengali temples and use idioms and expressions that serve to accentuate the effects of defamiliarization and alienness among the daughters-in-law who, in an effort to keep the bloodline pure, are brought from the old pristine stock.

These women face the challenges their upheaval brings in its wake. They are required to come to terms with another kind of life, learn to adapt to a new environment, cope with taunts about their dissimilarities and conquer their fears and insecurities. It works both ways. Roopmati, coming from Punjab has to turn herself into a Bengali in her marital home. Her daughter, brought up as a Bengali in Bandhugarh, is wed to a young man in Lahore and has to adapt to a different set of priorities and values for which she is totally unprepared.

Yet, scratch the surface and the fates of women, whether in Punjab or Bengal, are identical. Denial of education, economic dependence on the male, social conditioning over generations and the suppression of individual identity by an oppressive ‘joint family’ ideology are present across the spectrum. Humiliation and desertion by husbands, violence—physical and mental, molestation and rape both marital and by other males of the family are normalized and hidden from view. Adherence to tradition have rendered other horrors acceptable and inevitable. The custom of Sati and Purdah, female infanticide and neglect of the girl child are part of a patriarchal system that exists in both communities.

The strange thing is that the women who suffer these indignities, day in and day out, are the very ones who are entrusted with perpetuating the system. Males set the rules but females are expected to implement them. And many do. Mindlessly like automatons. Some even enjoy the process. Because this is the only area of dominance men have relegated to women. Women like Bebe of Bandhugarh and Rukmini of Lahore enjoy power through a determined subjugation of the younger women of the family, particularly the daughters-in-law. They also see it is as their duty to break the clay of the other and force it into the patriarchal family mould. 

The world in which the young women of Beyond the Veil live is cold and dark. But occasionally a shaft of sunlight pierces through the clouds. Some women upset the status quo from time to time. These are rebels who expect consideration and fair play. They demand change. The mother and daughter duo Roopmati and Maina are two such women. It is heartening to see that, under their influence, their husbands too develop sensitivity and compassion for the women in their households. Other males follow suit. The curtain falls on a world slowly waking from slumber.

The ambience of both worlds is created with great sensitivity and detail. Descriptions of food eaten, clothes worn, journeys undertaken and the joys and sorrows of day-to-day living are totally credible. The narrative flows smoothly unmarred by jolts and jars. The topography of Lahore, Karachi and Bandhugarh of those days is authentic and accurate. Life as it is lived in, whether it is the Khanna family or the Kapoor, the cultural differences come through with clarity and precision. Events and locales are rooted in history and dates are adhered to. Names of streets, restaurants, railway stations, cinema halls… even the films that were shown in them a century ago… can be put to the test and will not fail. Best of all are the local legends and myths that have grown around communities and families, rivers and lakes, temples and mansions. The book is a storehouse of information of a bye gone era.

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Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

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From Japan to Australia with a Cat

Book Review by Keith Lyons

Title: The Cat with Three Passports

Author: CJ Fentiman

Going to Japan to teach English seemed like a good way to earn money, but animal lover CJ Fentiman came away from living and working in Japan with more than she expected as chronicled by her in The Cat with Three Passports: What a Japanese cat taught me about an old culture and new beginnings.

A book  that could be  considered a travel memoir, but it stretches beyond the normal scope of a travelogue, due partly to the introverted author’s inner reflection and personal transformation, but mainly due to the courageous actions of the writer in turning a soft spot for a cat into an international animal relocation mission. Sorry to spoil the ending of the book, but in most cases, foreigners going to a strange and different country take a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” approach. So when they leave, it is with fond memories, tales of culture shock and culinary misadventures, and bulging suitcases.

Not so with Fentiman and her partner, Ryan, who faced new challenges while taking a homeless cat with them to Australia, some 8,000 kilometres away. So why would you rescue from the streets a bedraggled silver tabby and then contemplate taking it with you across the oceans? If you are a cat lover, you already know the answer.

Let’s back up. One of the reasons The Cat with Three Passports is such a good read is that from the outset, the reader is invited in to experience Japan as seen through the eyes of someone right off the plane after a long flight. Throughout the book, there are vivid descriptions of landscapes, encounters and events, including weird festivals (naked men) which give an insight into an unfamiliar culture.

If the anticipation isn’t enough, the author exposes her vulnerability by sharing her anxieties and self-doubts, along with her past patterns of escaping situations and places, and how she has been distant from her estranged family.

Cats feature literally and figuratively throughout the book, and the author has blended in feline-related sayings and some of Japan’s cat wisdom. In a way, the cats make CJ and Ryan more “at home” in Japan among the cherry blossoms, bullet trains and vending machines. Essentially, the cats they encounter are the facilitators of the adaption and softening, helping them discover their purpose and giving them fulfilment.

Things take a turn for the surreal when they transfer to a job at a school set in a British theme park high in the mountains. Their time in Japan is not complete without a visit to the famed Cat Island, where cats outnumber humans perhaps thirty five to one. In the same way that cats love warmth and sun, humans are also attracted to cats because they bestow blessings on homo sapiens. One study found that cat owners have better psychological health than people without pets. Cat feeders claim to feel happier, more confident, less nervous and to sleep, focus and face problems better in their lives.

The Cat with Three Passports will appeal to anyone who has or wants to visit Japan, any animal lover or ailurophile along with readers who enjoy travel memoirs. It is a heart-warming and touching tale of outer and inner discovery.

If you’ve already encountered some travel classics on Japan, such as Lost Japan by Alex Kerr, Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson, or Pico Iyer’s recent A Beginners Guide to Japan, consider reading The Cat with Three Passports even if you aren’t a pet lover or Japan fan.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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Click here to read the book excerpt.

Click here to read CJ Fentiman’s interview.

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Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes

Author: Shylashri Shankar

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Shyalashri Shankar is an academic whose third non-fiction, Turmeric Nation: A Passage through India’s Taste, won a woman author’s award in India called the AutHer Award (2021). This book is a detailed and rich journey through India’s multiple cuisines and culinary cultures divulging interesting facts like Aurangzeb was a vegetarian.

In the literature of food writing, we have both advocates of diversity, food fusionists as well as food fashionistas. Shankar’s approach is fairly eclectic and informed, drawing on the anthropology and sociology of both food and the cultures they originate from. Professing to write a “food biography” of India, she also realises that such a task is both “challenging and daunting”, given the magnitude and diversity of the task involved. She describes Indian cuisine as layered and pluralistic, where there is no one cuisine which can be described as ‘Indian’. Her book proceeds to map these regional diversities not only in food and food cultures, but also cooking styles.

Giving veritable gastronomic glimpses into the fascinating world of the great Indian kitchen, Shankar explores food histories of ancient India dating back to Harappans, while keeping a keen eye for networks of customs, habits and styles of living. From time to time, the cuisine has absorbed new methods of food processing and cooking and been hospitable to new and foreign influences. At the same time, it has at times exerted injustices since the sociology of food is shown to be intricately linked to the that of the caste as shown in the section on Dalit foods. Shankar rightly refuses to mythify or romanticise food, instead she refers to social anthropologist James Laidlaw’s notion that nowhere in the world are food transactions socially or morally neutral, and that the politics of and around food are probably the sharpest in South Asia.

She draws from the theories of ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, she argues, analysed different cooking techniques to put forward an influential structuralist idea of the raw and the cooked. Food, according to this theory, is a medium between nature and culture. The activity of cooking performs a process of civilising nature.

Shankar asks more fundamental questions: Did our ancestors determine the way we eat? What is the DNA of food preferences? Which is a better diet — vegetarian, non-vegetarian or paleo (what Is paleo)? Does food have a religion? What food creates ardour and desire? What are the transgressions and taboos on certain kinds of foods? What is the purpose and function of certain rituals around food — for instance, the logic of feasting and fasting? As Shankar takes us on this fascinating journey of culinary exploration, we see the emergence of a rich map of cultural anthropology.

Turmeric Nation is an ambitious and insightful project which answers these questions, and then quite a few more. Through a series of fascinating essays—delving into geography, history, myth, sociology, film, literature and personal experience—Shylashri Shankar traces the myriad patterns that have formed Indian food cultures, taste preferences and cooking traditions. From Dalit ‘haldiya dal’ to the last meal of the Buddha; from aphrodisiacs listed in the Kamasutra to sacred foods offered to gods and prophets; from the use of food as a means of state control in contemporary India to the role of lemonade in stoking rebellion in 19th-century Bengal; from the connection between death and feasting and between fasting and pleasure, this book offers a layered and revealing portrait of India, as a society and a nation, through food. It takes us on a fascinating culinary journey through the length and breadth of the subcontinent.

The proof of the pudding, many might feel, is in the eating. Why such a learned dissertation on food, gastronomy and culinary traditions? Is it ultimately to map unity, diversity, and work towards an idea of syncretism? Either ways, the book is worth keeping on our shelves and stocking in libraries, swelling the corpus on food studies which is now studied as an important part of Cultural Studies in many universities. The book ultimately gives us much food for thought as it theorises the practices of cooking and eating across Indian cultures.

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  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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The Tale of a River

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Mahanadi — The Tale of a River

Writer: Anita Agnihotri

Translator: Nivedita Sen

Publisher: Niyogi Books

 ‘I have seen the Mahanadi in so many ways: in the early morning light, in the reclining afternoon glow, in the blaze of the midday and in the shadow of the orange tinge of the sunset. I have seen this river in the form of its narrow current in winter, amidst profuse rain, in the forested region where it originates, and in the turbulent boundlessness of the estuary. And each time the river, serene, terrifying and quiet, has filled my mind with tremendous joy and nostalgia. Many people, both at the origin and basin of this river, are known to me. Their lives, inextricably linked with the river, have made me think, and have both fascinated and enriched me. The chronicle of this river, therefore, is also an extract of my life.’

One of the largest rivers of India, the Mahanadi has flown more than a thousand kilometers through Chhattisgarh and Orissa from the foothills of the Sihawa hills in Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh and has fallen into the Bay of Bengal. Leaving behind the huge diamond reservoir at Sambalpur in Orissa, the archeological background of Subarnapur and Buddhist districts, the plains of Nayagarh, Cuttack and Jagatsinghpur flow through the middle of the deep forested gorge of Satakoshia, finally crossing the border near the port of Paradip.

But its journey is endless, as it flows day-after-day from the plateau to the forest to the ravine and finally to the plains. It unites with the sea every day. At every new turn, it leaves behind scores of villages, towns and cities. The din and bustle of a mofussil town, the solitary life in a standalone village, people’s struggle for survival, the episodes of their joys and sorrows, the sighs of the displaced people of Sambalpur during the building of the Hirakud dam mingles with the cries of the endangered people on the banks when the river overflows.

In the long journey of the river, it encounters mountainous plateaus, dense forests, villages and uninhabited emptiness. There are traces of the Paleolithic era at its source. There are ancient lyrical stories around it. Farmers, weavers and artisans have come and settled on the banks of the river to draw in the water. Mahanadi is to Odisha what Huang Ho is to China.

And so, Anita Agnihotri’s novel Mahanadi –The Tale of a River (translated from Bengali by Nivedita Sen) captures all these essential elements in a never written story of a stream which is a sorrow rather than a joy for crores of people in Odisha.

A civil servant, Anita Agnihotri, writes in Bengali in a wide variety of genres — poetry, novels, short stories and children’s literature. Recipient of prestigious awards like Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Award and the Bhuban Mohini Dasi Gold Medal conferred by Calcutta University, her writing explores the vast and complex Indian reality, many facets of human relations, and brings out the unheard voices of the marginalised and the underprivileged and has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages.

Translator Nivedita Sen taught English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She worked on other popular genres, apart from Indian writing in English, post-colonial fiction and translation studies. She has translated Tagore’s Ghare Baire, and stories by Syed Mustafa Siraj, Leela Majumdar and others.

In the fiction, the narrative is through stories of the people living on the banks of the Mahanadi. Characters like Tularam Dhuru, Malati Gond, Neelakantha, Bhanu Shitulia, Parvati and others might never meet each other, but the story of their lives will remain strung together by the common thread of the ever– the streaming Mahanadi. The chronicle of Mahanadi is a journey through travails and misfortunes into life’s joys and mysterious beauty. 

Writes Sen in the ‘Translator’s Note’: “A socially conscious writer with a relentlessly dissident voice, Anita Agnihotri’s writing explores struggles in the lives of marginalised communities that are oppressed by underhand politics, social privilege and economic disparity. Though she was a member of the Indian Civil Service, she has maintained an anti-establishment stance throughout her writing career spanning four decades.

“In this novel, her non-noncompliance exposes the irony of Nehru’s urging those dispossessed by the building of the Hirakud dam to accept their suffering in the larger interest of the nation. She critiques the police turned into mercenaries by the state when they passively stand by during a violent attack on a social activist because they are paid to do just that. But she also elicits commensurate outrage at two policemen having to confront and succumb to senseless Maoist violence. The novel depicts how a cotton mill falls apart due to squandering of money and corruption in higher places and also how an upcoming steel factory with international collaboration threatens the livelihood of betel-leaf farmers. Her characters with enhanced sensibilities are haunted by the blatant social and economic inequality they witness all around. Yet Tanmay’s research on the abysmal living conditions in the slum clusters of Cuttack cannot resolve their problems.”

What is of significance is that there are a lot of facts in the novel that substantiates the geography, history and economics of the river and the state it mostly passes through. She sensitively kindles – rather in great detail — the realism, the deprivation and the travails of the people living on the riverbanks. The river forms the crux of the narrative, both as the central character and the primary subject.

As a novel, Mahanadi is poignant and is a fitting tribute to the place and people. Anita Agnihotri has been a percipient writer.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No 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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