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Review

Fragments of Happiness

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Fragments of Happiness

Author: Shrilal Shukla, translated from Hindi by Niyati Bafna

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Fragments of Happiness is a translation of Shrilal Shukla’s novel, Seemayein Tootati Hain, originally published in 1973. Shrilal Shukla (1925 –2011) was a Hindi writer, notable for his satire. He has written more than 25 books and received the Jnanpith Award, the highest national recognition for writers (2011), the Padma Bhushan (2008) and the Sahitya Akademi (1969). Seemayein Tootati Hain has been translated to English by Niyati Bafna, who has studied translation under Arunava Sinha and is currently a student of Computational Linguistics pursuing an MSc in Prague as an Erasmus Mundus scholar.

In this novel, Shukla, widely known for his satire, weaves the story of a family struggling to come to terms with its reality in the aftermath of an unfortunate incident. Durgadas, a businessman based in Delhi, is convicted for a murder and is sentenced to life imprisonment. He has two sons and a daughter. His children believe in their father’s innocence. Over time, the brothers become convinced that the murderer is Vimal, their father’s partner and a long-time friend. The story is centred on the idea of their father’s innocence and the subsequent efforts of the brothers to find the real criminal. However, the book is not a murder mystery. It does not offer a solution to the impasse that the brothers Taranath and Rajnath seem to find themselves in. And it certainly is not a story which offers closure. Rather it is an exploration of the beliefs, opinions, and nature of its characters as well as of the dynamics of relationships shared by them. The author takes on a well-to-do family in early 1970s Delhi to track the trajectory of each character as they tackle the situation.

Taranath runs a college. Rajnath takes care of his father’s business. Their younger sister Chaand is a 23-year-old researcher in the field of Chemistry.  Rajnath’s thoughts and actions are dictated by his desire to restore the reputation of his family whereas those of Taranath to see his father happy. Chaand is more of a realist, who accepts the situation and is more focused upon her career and her personal life. Vimal, on the other hand, stands by the family through the trial of Durgadas and believes him to be innocent too. However, the zenith of the plot revolves around the relationship between Chaand and Vimal.

Mrinal Pande, an eminent author and journalist, dubs Shrilal Shukla as one of India’s most unique and beguiling writers. This is evident as the author treads ahead with the narrative that is crisp and advances effortlessly to portray remarkably the interplay between societal influences and individual opinions and behaviour. Speckled with spiritual and philosophical musings and satire, the narrative skilfully captures the subconscious of its characters. The characters are life-like, with their fears and insecurities governing their responses and actions. One of the most unpredictable characters is that of Julie, Vimal’s confidante and once a sex worker. She is taken aback when she comes to know of Vimal’s deliberate silence about his presence at the scene of murder in which Durgadas was convicted and adds she wouldn’t have done so in his place, that she would have spoken the truth. Vimal’s character remains beguiling till the very end, and it may unsettle some readers.

Also, quite notable in the novel is the depiction of early 70s Delhi. Connaught Place, its cafes, espressos, cinema, localities –flavours and sounds of old Delhi, reminiscent of a distinctive era that may tickle the senses of a reader. In carving the character of Chaand, the author portrays an independent woman who has the courage to make her life choices, is determined and not affected by the expectations of her family or friends. Her individuality parallels the rising class consciousness among women in early 70s which recognised the inequalities within power structures of family, tribe and region as well. With Taranath’s character, he addresses the question of religion and with that of Rajnath and his wife Neela, the restrictions imposed within the familial structures. We know next to nothing of the character of Durgadas, around whose conviction and sentence, the story is constructed. By making this choice, the author has consciously aimed to focus on recounting the ways in which different characters try to cope with adverse circumstances in their lives.

To translate such a distinctive novel by an acclaimed author from Hindi to English, while capturing the nuances of the language, is not an easy task. Bafna has done a commendable job. Although, those who have read the novel in Hindi may wonder at some points about the choices made by the translator, the overall experience is closer to reading the original work and is, definitely, a step forward in making the work reach diverse readers.

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

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Excerpt

Feisal Alkazi’s Enter Stage Right

Title: Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi Padamsee Family Memoir

Author: Feisal Alkazi

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

The tremendous vitality and ferment in the Western music scene was very much a part of our growing up. From the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, from Janis Joplin to Joan Baez, from The Who to Santana, lyrics of protest set to unforgettable melodies and dense instrumental tracks were to be heard, absorbed and danced to.

And did we dance! Every Saturday night a bunch of my friends and I could be found ‘grooving’ for at least four hours at the newly opened The Cellar in CP (as Connaught Place was known) or Wheels at the Ambassador Hotel. The Cellar was the beginning of the discotheque culture in Delhi, and we were among its first patrons, adorning the ceiling with our names etched in smoke! Foreign hippies in their lungis and tee-shirts, high on ganja or whatever else, brought an edge of curious excitement to our Saturday nights. After all, we were the Dum maro dum generation! The Cellar was situated in the basement of Regal building and the excitement and apprehension of being in Connaught Place at night lent its own thrill to every visit.

 Wheels near Khan Market drew a different, older, more sedate crowd, the yuppie professionals of south Delhi, whom we could elbow off the floor with our vigorous dance moves. In a Gadda da Vida and Hotel California were our favourite dance tracks. We did this from the ages of seventeen to twenty-three. Seven years on the dance floor every Saturday night! Talk of Saturday Night Fever? The phrase could have been coined for us.

All four of us were children of practicing artists and performers. Books lined the walls in all our homes, divans were draped with handloom bedspreads and the walls covered with contemporary art, arresting photographs, classical sculpture or an occasional African mask. Food was often a Burmese dish of noodles and soup called Mahmi, or a detectable Bohri mince pie or best of all, hot chicken patties from Wengers.

Our parents were friends, part of a large and growing circle of artists, who had chosen to gravitate to Delhi and to live in or around Nizamuddin. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, M.F. Husain among others were part of this charmed circle.

 The ‘younger’ lot of artists, somewhere in age between our parents and us, were Eruch Hakim and Nasreen Mohamedi. We would occasionally drop in at their barsati-cum-studio apartments, to watch them create their black-and-white drawings. Nasreen introduced us to green tea, Eruch was always ready to roll a joint.

There was an amazing camaraderie and willingness to help one another within the artist community. They were beyond friends, they were family. When the Mehtas relocated from London to Delhi, they stayed with us for the initial month. When Pablo’s parents travelled to the US for a year, as Richard won the prestigious Rockefeller scholarship, Pablo stayed with us. Going out of your way to help a friend in a very tangible way was an integral part of my mother’s personality.

Husain was already an icon in Indian art, an artist who stood apart with his characteristic white beard, long paintbrush and bare feet. Tyeb was more quiet, the ‘intellectual’ of the group who had recently returned from several years spent in London, Krishen had only just given up his regular job in a bank to become a ‘full-time’ artist.

Husain enjoyed gathering many of these families together, bundling us into his Fiat with his iconic horse painted on it, and dragging us off to see Helen dancing in Inteqam at Golcha Cinema in Old Delhi, followed by a meal at Flora in Jama Masjid. He knew exactly what time Helen’s dance sequence was, so a large group of us would walk into the hall minutes before the dance, and exit immediately after it was over. A compliant management and Husain, the charming smooth-talker, made such a privilege possible.

It was my first encounter with Old Delhi at night with its crowded lanes, women in burqas, the smell of frying kababs, the flavours of dum pukht biryani and the call of the azaan. I wondered if this was similar to Mohammed Ali Road in Bombay where my father grew up. It was an alien, exotic world aeons away from my Westernized, though bohemian, childhood in south Bombay. Little did I know at the time that I would soon spend ten years working in Old Delhi!


Photo credits: Ram Rahman:15-Feisal Alkazi and friends in The Cellar, a discotheque in Delhi 1975

Alkazi Theatre Archives: Jaffer Padamsee and Kulsum with Sultan_Bobby (standing right), Roshen (standing left), Bapsi (seated centre), Zarine (seated right)

Excerpted from Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee Family Memoir by Feisal Alkazi. Speaking Tiger Books, 2021.

Click here to read the book review.

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Review

The Fascinating Saga of Feisal Alkazi

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi Padamsee Family Memoir

Author: Feisal Alkazi

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Feisal Alkazi is an educationist, a theatre director, and an activist. Over the past 40 years, his group, Ruchika, has directed over 200 plays in Hindi, English, and Urdu. Noor and A Quiet Desire, two plays written by him, were produced recently. He has also directed thirty films, and more than 100 productions for schools all over India. He is actively involved in heritage education, initiating projects in Delhi, Jaipur, Srinagar, and Hyderabad each of which has culminated in a book. He has written over 20 books.

Enter Stage Right by Feisal Alkazi is a family memoir which recounts the story of two families intertwined by a single love – theatre, of people who helped shape much of the Indian theatre from 1940s to 1990s, of people who came together by chance and stayed on to weave a rich tapestry which not only included theatre but also art, media, cinema and advertising. A memoir which draws an exhaustive portrait of one of the first families of theatre in a subtle yet candid manner, unveils some secrets, shares some anecdotes while capturing the complete attention of the reader.

The prologue of this memoir titled ‘Around the Horseshoe – Shaped Table’ starts with:

English theatre in Bombay was born on my grandmother’s horseshoe-shaped dining table in 1943. Literally. A group of young college students, among them my father, Ebrahim Alkazi, listened wide- eyed as my Uncle, Sultan Padamsee, spoke of how they intended to form their own group, simply called the Theatre Group.”

These lines open the book with a perfect scene for the reader, drawing attention to the setting which was at the core of foundation of theatre group formed by Sultan Padamsee, the eldest of the Padamsee siblings including Roshen and Alyque. Roshen became a costume designer for plays directed by Sultan and later by her husband Ebrahim Alkazi. Akbar, their cousin, though not a part of the horseshoe table gathering, became a famed painter, one of the pioneers of modern Indian art, while Alyque a famous theatre personality and ad film maker, probably best known for playing Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi.

How in the 1940s, the entire Padamsee clan would come together for the preparation of plays directed by Sultan, or Bobby as he was lovingly called, is well recounted by Alyque Padamsee, who was then a kid and Sultan’s younger brother.

There was a little trellis in our bedroom, the roshandaan. We used to climb up on stools and peek through that window to watch what was going on in the drawing room. Bobby reciting Shakespeare, Roshen stitching costumes, Zarina painting posters, Shiraz making some props. It was like a cottage industry, and it was so thrilling to be in a family that had something so exciting to do!”

The seed of this industry, as he calls, was sown by Sultan’s mother Kulsum Padamsee, who had determined the best of English education for her children, which meant that her children were all sent to an elite residential school in Bombay where they had their first lessons in theatre. At her home in Kulsum Terrace, overlooking Colaba Causeway in Bombay, she would allow them to enact plays. Later, she took them to Shropshire, England for further studies where the worlds of Shakespeare and Dickens and Hardy were revealed to them. However it was Sultan, who — having spent six months at Christ Church in Oxford before World War II — began directing plays for the St. Xavier College’s Shakespeare Society in 1943.

Feisal writes about the flamboyant and bold Sultan who revolutionized the theatre scene in 1940s, about his choice of directing Oscar Wilde’s Salome which was controversial enough for the times. His restructuring Shakespeare’s Othello was also a move towards the unimaginable in those days. He writes about Sultan’s suicide at the age of twenty three, the cause of which remained a well-guarded secret of the family for many years. Though Sultan’s untimely demise did create a void, the revolution helmed by him was forged further by the rest of Padamsee clan. As present on the horseshoe – shaped table that day in 1943, was also Ebrahim Alkazi, mentored by Sultan, who was later to become the director of National School of Drama and to shape the subsequent theatre milieu.

In the successive chapters, Feisal delves into the history of his father’s family and staging of plays by the Theatre group after Sultan’s death, about the split in Theatre group with Ebrahim and Alyque going separate ways, about his parents’ stay in post War London and the influences they carried back to India, about his early years at Vithal Court where his father, perhaps continuing the tradition of Padamsee family, turned the whole house into a rehearsal space for theatre! Imagine a life where entire days of the family were spent in reading, rehearsing, soaking in various forms of art, hosting the likes of Nissim Ezekiel, M.F. Hussain, Tyeb Mehta, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Adi Davierwala, where the house constantly bubbled with activities stimulating the mind, where the children, joined by their numerous cousins and friends, would perform plays for the audience, constituted of their families. Fancy having a childhood like that!

Feisal describes the experience:

Sound, smell, touch, flavor. Open windows that allowed the world in, and that allowed me to peep into the world from my tiny height. Not the isolated ivory tower of the Padamsee childhood but a vibrant, open, engaged view of the world.”      

In one of the chapters, aptly titled Six Women Who Revolt, Feisal gives us a glimpse into the choice of plays his father directed during his last phase of directing for the Theatre Unit in Bombay. Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Eurydice, Lorca’s Yerma and Euripides’ Medea – plays with strong female central characters. While offering critique of these plays and sharing some anecdotes about their production, Feisal interestingly remarks how through the exploration of these characters, his father seemed to be trying to comprehend his own equation with women. It is a discreet, well intended remark which somehow seems to familiarize the reader with the relationship shared by Ebrahim Alkazi with his wife Roshen and then with his later partner, Uma Anand.

In writing about his parents, Feisal dwells more upon his father’s professional life, the plays he directed, the experiments he did with the use of space and light, the revolutionary ideas he brought to NSD (National School of Drama, New Delhi), the fine actors he mentored during his years as Director, but not upon the personal life which Ebrahim shared with his mother. In the chapter where he writes about his parents’ separation, he does write about his mother’s sadness and their difficult initial years in Delhi but focuses more upon his mother’s endeavour in establishing and running an art gallery with her husband and continuing designing costumes for all of his plays even after their separation. What’s even more intriguing is that his parents continued travelling together, every alternate year, to Europe and Beirut to visit Ebrahim’s parents and siblings. Despite their differences, they came together to enrich their children’s lives by revealing to them the best of art and theatre the world had to offer and by letting them spend time with their paternal grandparents, soaking in love, and mores of a culture they lived far away from.

Back home in Delhi, both Feisal and his sister Amal would spend time at NSD, where their father would rehearse and direct plays and their mother would design costumes. During his college years at St. Stephens, Feisal made his own theatre group called Ruchika and spent considerable time in acting and directing the plays. However, it is while he writes about the theatre of questioning and dissent which gained momentum during the late 1970s and 1980s, that the readers get a peek into his role in taking theatre to wider audiences. He talks about the Sikh pogrom of 1984, the rallying of Narmada Bachao, Babri demolition, brutal murder of Safdar Hashmi and about terrorism in Kashmir. Despite his very humane account of repercussions of violence in a society in those times, he does not anywhere refer to the present regime and the sufferings faced by people in the current times.

In writing about his family, he also gives an account of his maternal grandfather Jafferbhai and his aunt Pearl Padamsee, wife of his Uncle Alyque Padamsee. He credits Alyque for making English Theatre accessible, popular and relevant to middle-class audience of Bombay. According to him, Safdar Hashmi, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Alyque were three individuals who widened the scope, subject matter and audience for theatre in 1970s and 1980s, so that it never looked the same again.

Feisal pays homage to his mother by saying that it was the greatest privilege of his life to have been her son — an endearing tribute to the one who taught him all he ever learned of life. He ends the memoir befittingly with an epilogue in which he mentions the death of his father in August 2020. Ebrahim Alkazi was the last survivor of those who had gathered at the horse-shoe shaped table in 1943 and his going marked an end of an era.

Writing a family memoir comes with its own challenges, especially when the entire family is engaged in pursuits which are open to speculations and public opinions. There is always a risk of either going overboard or offering little to the reader in terms of a relevant account. Feisal does a brilliant job in maintaining that balance while offering this memoir. He gives us a detailed account of what matters and merely touches upon that which can be omitted. His writing is astute, rational and pragmatic while being vigorously ebullient.

This memoir is not only the story of a family dedicated to theatre but also an important document which chronicles the history of Indian theatre as well as arts centred around the two important cities of Bombay and Delhi, of the plays which shaped much of the theatre’s panorama in India, of actors, playwrights and directors whose entire lives revolved around enhancing and taking the form to a wider audience, of the efforts the theatre and people associated with it made to give voice to the common man’s concerns in difficult times. This is an essential read for anyone interested in theatre and in the broader art scene happening in the country during the period.

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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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Review

Reconciling Difference

Title: Reconciling Difference — Beyond Collective Violence in India

Author: Rudolf C. Heredia

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

“When the British Imperialists left the Indian subcontinent in 1947, they left behind a legacy of governance based on communal and ethnic polarization. Since then, India has been engulfed by religious and ethnic violence—from the Partition to the more recent Gujarat riots of 2002 and Delhi riots of 2020. This trajectory is in direct opposition to the ideals of ‘justice, liberty, equality and fraternity’ enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Our increasingly polarized society is now faced with the question: Will India follow the ethnic nationalist route that seems to be becoming a global phenomenon?” enquires the blurb of this remarkable book.

Reconciling Difference — Beyond Collective Violence in India by Rudolf C. Heredia is an attempt by an anxious citizen and academic to understand the nature of hate and violence prevalent in India. It is also an effort to find practical ways to restore peace and harmony–so essential to present turbulent times.

A leading sociologist and thinker, Heredia is an independent writer and researcher. Based in Mumbai, he taught sociology at St Xavier’s College, where he was the founder director of the Social Science Centre. With a keen interest on issues related to religion, education and globalization, Heredia has authored Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India andTaking Sides: Reservation Quotas and Minority Rights.

In the preface to the book, Heredia writes: “Violence has no borders. It is like a forest fire which once lit, even if by an accidental spark, in a dry, hot summer drought burns out of control, fanned by the wind until the entire forest is gone. It must then wait for the next rains to restore it. If the rain fails, desertification will inevitably follow.”  

He continues: “But first the crisis must be recognized before it can be addressed, the problem understood, before a resolution can be attempted. The urgency of the present emphatically suggests that collective violence in India, with its brutalizing horrors, is now becoming the new normal.”

In this in-depth study, Heredia urges citizens to seek contexts beyond punitive justice. What he suggests is returning to the Gandhian ideas of ahimsa — non-violence and compassion — in order to heal the fraying fabric of the society. While doing so, he recalls Nehru’s ideas of a pluralist and inclusive India, as well as Ambedkar’s idea of the republic.

With eight reasonable and coherent chapters, Heredia inspires the readers to undertake a politico-historical journey — the way promises were broken and hopes betrayed, the cultural/psychic/political roots of the “spiraling violence”. In this quest, he feels the need to understand Gandhi as “a new hermeneutic is needed to dialogue with Gandhi’s counter-culture and its basic themes of swaraj, swadeshi and satya”.

Relying heavily on pedagogy, Heredia is unfaltering in his conviction. He feels intensely about restoring the country’s damaged polity. Drawing inspiration from the Truth and Justice Commission set up in post-Apartheid South Africa, he urges steady and thoughtful discourses between polarized citizens in order to heal the past wounds of collective violence. Drawing on India’s history, the Constitution and even contemporary initiatives, he shows us how we can bring a healing touch to close the fault lines in our society.

Sample this: “If this dream of peace is to become a reality, we must divest ourselves of a great deal of the presumptions and pre-options we have been, and still are being socialized into by exclusive communal identities and religious fundamentalisms, national extremists and radical rationalism.”

What distinguishes this volume from other such works is its ability to persuade the reader to see the disgruntlements of the times we are living in, comprehend the pathology of the limiting identities, cultivate the art of dialogue, understand plurality and differences, and move towards peace.

Heredia concludes the book by saying: “We need to deconstruct this ideology of exclusion and the politics of hate. We need a struggle, a jihad, a crusade, a padayatra for the idea of a sovereign, democratic secular socialist India. We need to sow the good seed of meaningful, relevant, liberating humane cultural and religious traditions for a hundredfold harvest of a harmonious peace, premised on tolerance and justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. For if we stop dreaming peace, we will stop dreaming India.”

Written in a florid yet graspable language, the argument put forward is persuasive and convincing. Far from being a hypothetical one, the 300 plus paged book is observant, dialogic and meticulously researched and with a touch of contemporariness. Heredia offers solutions to every problem and every delinquent behavior. Coming as it is from a renowned sociologist-activist, this book is an essential read, especially for those who are concerned about preserving the secular and democratic ideals of India.

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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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Review

Whose Land is it Anyway?

Book Review by Nivedita Sen

Title: Nomad’s Land.

Author: Paro Anand.

Publisher: Talking Cub (an imprint of Speaking Tiger Books), 2020

We live in times when the business of children’s literature increasingly turns towards desanitising the world around child readers to expose them to real life accounts of hatred, violence, othering and numerous other ills that are perpetuated around them in a way that they can decide for themselves who or what they want to be amidst all this. In a universe torn by war and the hostile drawing of lines, Paro Anand’s writings are sentient, sensitive and sensible exemplars of portraying the child reader’s realm as one that can subsume the world within it if s/he wants it to. In her book of stories Like Smoke, or her novels No Guns at my Son’s Funeral and now Nomad’s Land, she has let her child protagonists tread on and explore many of the concerns in the lives of adults.

Anand has talked about two ethnic groups – the Kashmiri Pandit community that had fled the valley in the eighties due to terrorist violence that often targeted them, and the imagined Qhushvaha people in the higher plateaus who had got dislodged from their homeland due to the political upheaval in which they had been ostracized by their own kinsmen, a combination of many such marginalized groups of children that the author has been interacting with. The Qhushvahans have come and resettled in what can perhaps be recognised as Majnu ka Tila, the Tibetan resettlement colony of Delhi, although Delhi has been named in the entire novel only once in relation to the Kashmiri Pandit girl Shanna’s grandparents’ residence.

The refugees have made it their camp, their home away from home, by severing their link with their own ancestral territories, reinventing the colony’s open sewer lines as the river that flowed in the lap of Mother nature back home, and reinforcing their disconnect with their own land of not so long ago. Anand claims that this group is based on a combination of children from Tibet, the North East, the Rohingyas, the Syrian child who had been left to die between shifting sands, decriminalised tribes like the Pardhis, and finally the children of the migrant labour who had to flee the cities to walk back to their villages immediately after the declaration of the lockdown with no sense of belonging to any definite region. When Anand mentioned the last group in an interview, one could sense a goosebump-raising contemporaneity about the story. The Qhushvahans represent what Anand calls the ‘Everyman of Nomad’s land’.

Amidst all messages of acrimony that children receive from their parents, Anand, who works with children of various backgrounds, says that they do not necessarily internalise those abrasions, fissures and fractures. She uses a beautiful metaphor when she says in an interview that she wants to spread the message of love and peace by teaching children addition and multiplication rather than subtraction and division. Shanna the Kashmiri girl is one such child who overcomes her diffidence in the subtle manner in which she connects with the other children of her school when Pema her friend is away and suggests to them that we could all be trees. What she means is that even if we have lost our own roots, we could grow not only branches but new roots, a message of inclusiveness that makes them rethink their inherited prejudices about the Nagas. It suggests a review of inbuilt bad blood passed on by our parents.

Pema, the Qhushvaha girl in the refugee colony, is preoccupied with something else — liberating her old grandmother or mola from her racking cough and releasing her into death through an ancient practice of ‘breathtaking’ that is performed on those who are leading vegetable lives in the twilight of their lives. It has, of course, been banned by the government because it is a kind of mercy killing. Anand points out that when laws and policies are framed in a country with a multicultural canvas like that of India, we do not take into account that one size cannot fit all. Interestingly, Shanna is included in this project. She is entrusted with the task of enabling Pema’s mola cross the bridge to death because a kinsman is not supposed to do it.

The cough becomes a motif that unites the frail and elderly across the book — Debek Dan, the only man who can teach Shanna how to perform the breathtaking ritual, Shanna’s grandfather who significantly learnt indigenous medication from a Muslim hakim friend, and Pema’s grandmother. Shanna realises that the cough that links these three people has to do with the pollution in a big city, which is where they had had to resettle after having been natives of “forever skies and endless horizons”. 

An ecological concern over the abuse of the environment comes through in the images of the open drain choked with plastic wrappers that acts as a surrogate for a river or the respiratory distress that affects the elderly across communities that were inhabitants of the mountains. That is when Shanna and Pema hit upon the idea of going back to Kashmir to procure some ingredients like roots and herbs for Nanaji’s medicines from the higher reaches of the Himalayas.

Both of them want to become doctors of indigenous medicine when they grow up, and Debek Dan’s daughter, Doyang, is willing to be an accomplice in their enterprise. The starting point of the fantasized venture would involve a reconnaissance trip to Kashmir themselves to stay with Huma and her family.  And the novel ends with Shanna and Pema undertaking a  mission that seamlessly and happily weaves together so many disparate strands in the novel — Shanna’s mother’s stops mourning to start a new life by accompanying the two girls, the reunion with Huma on whom Shanna had perpetrated communal hatred without any provocation, the understanding that Huma’s family has also been the victim of terrorist violence, the fusing together of Ayurvedic, Unani and Qhushvaha medicinal practices to solve a medical crisis in which the elderly in the novel suffer due to the hazardous air quality index in the urban pockets of the plains, and the children’s environment-friendly command over the ambience we live in. As Anand admitted herself, despite her effort to expose her child readers to sordid truths about the life around them, she ends her stories on a hopeful note so as not to leave them feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Pema is a doer to begin with, and both the girls go up and about towards the end, therefore, to act positively on something that needs to be done to make the world a better place to live and breathe in.

Anand’s invention of the race of Qhushvahans involves not only creating a history and a geography about them, representing a protagonist, Pema as the ‘Everyman of Nomad’s Land’, but constructing a language that expresses itself in the quaint Qhushvaha deathbed rituals and chants, and making up nomenclatures (like Mola for grandmother) and facets of their culture like clothes. The English language is used by the possibly pre-teen protagonists in a way that shows real children imitate their peer group and improvise. Shanna, it is shown, feels progressively proud of being included in a group that uses adolescent colloquialisms like dude, swag, grandmom, wanna, whack, lezzies – what she calls “real TV language”.

The book deploys an anachronistic time scheme in which internet and cellphones exist in the early eighties in which the story is set. She says that this is to enable the children of the here and now to identify and feel more at home with its setting.

Paro Anand’s themes and portrayals have been such that a lot of censorship has been imposed on them by the adult gatekeepers of children’s morality. One of her books was banned from school curriculums because two adolescents of different communities share a fleeting kiss in it, and Anand justifiably calls such censorship the banning of books “for the love of hate.”

It is a work for children that is not only food for thought for children who are trying to find their feet around in a big, bad world but also makes adults pause and revisit the biases with which we inadvertently indoctrinate our children. 

Nivedita Sen is an 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. 

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