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Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet who has recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award, 2020, for her book When God is A traveller (2014). She has authored a number of books and won multiple awards and fellowships. She has been part of numerous anthologies and journals.

Interview

In Conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam: An online interview with the 2020 Sahitya Akademi winner, Arundhathi Subramaniam. Click here to read.

Poetry

Catabolic Woman by Arundhathi Subramaniam. Click here to read.

More Poems by Arundhathi Subramian houses three poems. Click here to read. The following poems from her collection can be found here.

  • When God is a Traveller
  • Eight Poems for Shankuntala
  • The Fine Art of Ageing

Book Review

A review by Bhaskar Parichha of Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves, published by Speaking Tiger Books. Click here to read.

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Review

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History

Author: Wendy Doniger

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Horses have a captivating and curious existence in India. Stallions have been graciously carved into the Indian landscape in a variety of ways. To view the subcontinent’s past through the prism of the horse is to be swept back in its power and propriety. Horses have a galactic connection to Indian history, mythology, art, literature, folklore and also popular belief.

The political symbolism of the horse, its vital function in social life, religion, sport and war, its role in shaping economies and forging crucial human bonds is too obvious to point out.

Emergence of local breeds such as the Kathiawari and the Marwari, the Zanskari and the Manipuri is an interesting tale of gallantry. In India’s modern history, there were fabulous horsewomen too, Chand Bibi, Maratha princesses and women polo players among them. Horses have an intimate connection to grooms, blacksmiths, breeders, traders and bandits.

Rana Pratap’s legendary Chetak, Ranjit Singh’s much-contested Laili, Pabuji’s cherished black mare and those horses captured in paintings and equestrian portraits are riveting. This glorious age of the horse met its painful decline with the onset of colonial rule and automation.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History by Wendy Doniger is an engrossing book not only for the subject but also the research. In this inspiring and scholarly book, Doniger — who has been called the greatest living mythologist — examines the horse’s significance throughout Indian history, from the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, followed by the Greeks, the Turks and Mongols (who imported Arabian horses) and the British (who imported Thoroughbreds and Walers). 

Along the way, she delves deep into the rituals of horse sacrifice in the Vedic age. She rummages through the stories of warring horses and snakes in the Mahabharata. She digs into   tensions between Hindu stallion and Arab mare traditions; imposing European standards on Indian breeds; the reasons many Indian men ride mares to weddings; the motivations for murdering Dalits who ride horses; and the enduring myth of foreign horses who emerge from the ocean to fertilise native mares.

Doniger combines erudition with storytelling and gives the reader a persuasive account on the horse in Indian culture just as she does it in her other books on Indian mythology. 

Quoting from the book: “The horse is not indigenous to India, except in a few small pockets. Even after it was brought to the subcontinent sometime between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE by the Indo-Europeans. It played almost no part in the lives of ordinary Indian villagers, being too expensive for all but the most privileged people to own. In India’s folklore, epics and popular culture horse stories abound and there are some brilliant images of the animal.”

Doniger’s ride through four millennia of Indian legend and folklore is full of sacrificial horses, horse-headed gods, transformations and couplings. Like Doniger’s other works on Indian mythology and history, this book  is astonishingly accomplished with the threads of mythical narratives woven into a meaningful depiction of the Indian imagination.

Author of classic works like The Hindus: An Alternative History and Hindu Myths, Wendy Doniger has two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian studies, from the universities of Harvard and Oxford. She has taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. Her other books include Siva: The Erotic Ascetic; Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities; The Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra.  

The Vedic ritual of the sacrifice of a stallion is balanced by the myth of a goddess who takes the form of a mare named Saranyu (Fleet). Doniger retells the story thus:

“The blacksmith of the gods gave his daughter, Saranyu, in marriage to the Sun, and she gave birth to twins, Yama and Yami. Then the gods concealed the immortal woman from mortals; they put in her place a female of-the-same-kind (Savarna) and gave that look-alike to the Sun. Saranyu took the form of a mare; the Sun took the form of a stallion, followed her, and coupled with her. From that were born the twin equine gods called the Ashvins. She abandoned them, too.”

Doniger takes us on the trail of the horse into and within India. What follows is a surprising and exhilarating journey, covering caravan-trade routes originating in Central Asia and Tibet, sea routes from the Middle East, and the dominions of different sultans and Mughal emperors, the south Indian kingdoms as well as the Rajput horse-warrior states. 

Doniger professes her earliest exposure to India and the horses was in 1963 when she was twenty-two years old. Her meeting with Penelope Betjeman — daughter of Field Marshal Sir Philip Walhouse Chetwode who was the head commander of the British forces in India from 1928 to 1935 — gave her an introduction to these creatures. Doniger has dedicated the book to Penelope who died accidentally in 1986 in the Kulu Hills.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares has about a dozen chapters — most of which have a throwback to the Vedic and Puranic times. It is only in the last two chapters where she writes the horse saga of modern India. With a slew of illustrations and profound research, the book makes for a gripping read. 

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

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Review

Women Who Wear Only Themselves by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha   

 Title: Women Who Wear Only Themselves

Author: Arundhathi Subramaniam

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021
                                                                              

This is an unusual book–unusual because of the theme, approach and style. And when it comes from a skilled author, it ought to be still more engrossing. A tiny book of about two hundred pages but not so diminutive in its journey to profile four women — who are known little outside their small world of followers and who matter in the arena of spirituality. It is a melodious presentation.

Women Who Wear Only Themselves–Conversations with Four Travelers on Sacred Journeys’ by Arundhathi Subramaniam is prophetic, in-depth and counter-revolutionary.

Author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, Arundhathi is an award-winning author. Her most recent book is Love Without a Story. The Other books include an anthology of bhakti poetry, Eating God, and a book of essays, Pilgrim’s India. The Book of Buddha and the bestselling biography of a modern-day mystic, Sadguru: More Than a Life are also the talked about ones. Arundhati is widely known as a poetry editor, curator and critic. Her book, When God Is a Traveller, won the Sahitya Akademi Award 2020 besides being shortlisted for various other prizes.

Arundhathi’s book provides glimpses of four spiritual practitioners – Sri Annapurani Amma, Balarishi Vishwashirasini, Lata Mani, and Maa Karpoori — who unlike the chatty sadhus prominent on the social media, practice in isolation. Arundhati talks at length to these women of substance and in doing so, she gives some promise for the jaded souls. Besides, she looks for a gender-balancing act and tries to widen the circle of women spiritual leaders.

In a world where women have been seen traditionally as someone’s wife, mother, daughter, or sister, why would a woman choose to follow a spiritual path? Perhaps because, deep inside every woman has a longing to be someone in her own self, confident and in control.

In the last two thousand years, women have not fully used their spiritual power. Instead, aspects of the feminine have taken mainly symbolic forms from the Virgin Mary to the vestal virgins, from Earth Goddesses to the Shakti Devis. Women have been put on pedestals and worshiped on account of their purity or femininity; but have been excluded from religious activities and barred from entering places of worship.

In the present book, she talked to Annapurani Amma who left the safety of home and family to follow the summons of a long-dead saint (she lives naked but delivers prophecies.) Balarishi Vishwashirasini who was predicting futures ultimately transformed into a guru. Now in her thirties, she is a gifted teacher of nada yoga. Lata Mani, a respected academician in the US, was plunged into the path of tantra after a major accident left her with a brain injury. The fourth woman is Maa Karpoori, who had a rollercoaster ride that catapulted her from marriage to monkhood.

Writes Arundhathi in the Preface: “The primary motivation behind this book is simple. Thirst. Hopefully, a shared one. As a seeker, I have spent years thirsting for conversations. With spiritual teachers, with fellow travellers committed to the life of the spirit. I cannot complain. My life has been rich in conversations.

“I have had conversations with seekers of various persuasions. I have spent long hours listening to the yogi and mystic who later became my guru. I have eavesdropped on countless conversations with mystics in books — Shirdi Sai Baba, J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Osho. I’ve even imagined the lapping waters of the Hooghly quieting to listen to the extraordinary exchanges between Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciples. But another kind of thirst remained.”

So, what made her plan this book? “There was no crusading zeal that motivated this book. There was no schematic design. No spirit of advocacy. But there was a longing to listen to the voices of lesser-known women—women who choose to live in relative seclusion and shadow, and yet burn brightly. Women whom I met, accidentally, in the course of my own journey, and who generously allowed me a glimpse of their light. Something shifted within me after each of these chance encounters. I did not leave any of them unmoved.”

Arundhati doesn’t skip history: “The Indian spiritual landscape is not devoid of its women. We are routinely reminded of an illustrious litany: Maitreyi, Gargi, Andal, Karaikal Ammaiyar, Akka Mahadevi, Janabai, Muktabai, Bahinabai, Lal Ded, Rupa Bhavani, Gangasati, Meerabai. The list is long and varied. There are well-known figures in more recent times too, from the 20th-century mystics, Anandamayi Ma and The Mother of Pondicherry, to contemporary guru, Mata Amritanandamayi. Remarkable women. Beacons for many even today.”

 Says Arundhathi admittedly: “These women made no effort to impress. They were gracious enough to share their life journeys, without trying to flaunt their attainments, win recruits, or garner publicity. I am a seasoned listener, and instantly alert to subtle attempts to broker deals. There were no bargains being hatched here. I write about these conversations primarily because they were so remarkably free of agenda.

“My initial encounters with the women in this book were unplanned. I happened to have spent large swathes of time in southern India in the past decade, and so, not surprisingly, that is where these meetings happened. They are not meant to represent the religious plurality of the Indian subcontinent, although I do believe that they reveal the still-vanquished hospitality of vision that characterizes its spiritual ethos.”

While she is on the subject, her incredulity and concerns goes farther than the original remit: “The terror of uncertainty is more blazingly evident in our world than it ever has been. To carve a path between the certitudes of a frozen faith and the dogmas of arid materialism can be challenging. I marvelled at how these women held their own in a world so conceptually fragmented. A world that divides the material and the spiritual into such impermeable categories. How did these women tune into their own inner guidance? How did they come to terms with that simple but oddly elusive truth: that we are both flesh and spirit? That we do not have to masquerade as simply one or the other?”

Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.

Interspersed with her own poems to uphold the content, the four conversations in the book are as fascinating as pathbreaking. Appropriate for an awakened reading!

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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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Click here to read Arundhathi Subramaniam’s interview and poetry.

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Review

Murder at Daisy Apartments

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: Murder in Daisy Apartments

Author: Shabnam Minwalla

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

Murder in Daisy Apartments (2021) by Shabnam Minwalla is a young adult murder mystery story set in Colaba, Mumbai, India during the COVID-19 lockdown days.

Shabnam Minwalla has worked as a journalist with the Times of India. Her debut novel, The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street (2012) won the Rivokids Parents’ and Kids’ Choice Awards. She writes children’s fiction now. She has written a number of children’s story books including the Nimmi series, and a forward to an edition of Little Women brought out by Speaking Tiger Books.

Murder in Daisy Apartments starts on the forty-third day of the lockdown when 78-years-old Mr. Sevnani a resident of Lily Apartments, who had a bad heart, and an even worse temper was mysteriously hospitalized. The emergency that led him to be rushed to the hospital did not come as a surprise to the residents. Sevnani’s case was one in which a swarm of men wearing masks and sinister blue safety suits took him away in an ambulance.

But it happened again. On the forty-fourth day, a BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) van drove to the housing complex to pick up a dead body. People grew apprehensive. The shock deepened as residents came to know that Raghunath, a long-time resident of these apartments had been evicted by Baman Marker, the Chairperson of the Daisy and Lily Apartments as he had tested corona positive, and the complex had been declared a containment zone. During such severe lockdowns, movements were restricted.

On the forty-sixth day, Mr. Marker was found poisoned in his apartment. Since he was murdered during the pandemic lockdown, the killing could have only been masterminded by a resident of the complex. Nandini Venkat, a 15-year-old murder mysteries enthusiast, who calls herself and her twin brother as “standard issue South Bombay brats” is glued to the details of this “OMG (o my God) moments” in the history of Daisy and Lily Apartments. She joins the dots to detect and solve Marker’s murder mystery. Honing her investigative skills, with keen observation of people and the chronology of events, Nandini turns into a detective on the fiftieth day of the lockdown. Her sunny, social and festival loving brother, Ved, and her best friend, Shanaya, join her to find out more about this mysterious death.

Who could have murdered Baman Marker? Was it the Kurians, the Carvalhos, the Khambatas, the Habibullahs, the Lambas, the Burmans, the Kapadias, Lina Almeida, Maria, Alfonso, Mr. Shetty or Chemmen Saab? Who was the mysterious man that Mrs. Kurain saw early in the morning of the fateful day? Whose were those “black legs” that Nandini spotted climbing up and down the stairs on the night of the murder? More questions assail Nandini and the air gets thicker with thrill, nervousness and excitement all at the same time. Ved sings in a low voice:

"Beware, beware, he’s out and about, 
So be careful ’bout the rumours you monger, the panic you spread. 
The Big Bum’s at the door, revenge cooking in his head."

Ved and Shanaya make the best investigating team with Nandini. Nandini’s “LIST OF SUSPECTS—Means, Motive and Rating” tactfully streamlines the possibilities of finding the murderer. The strong suspects in the list includes Mr. Carvalho, Daniel’s father and a physics teacher who took crazily expensive tuitions and has a shady history; Amrita Aunty, Shanaya’s mother, who had had major disagreements with Marker; old and mean retired principal Lina Almeida, the granny gruesome who makes fabulous immunity boosting juices and detox smoothies; Marker’s chartered accountant Ranjit Burman with whom he had a nasty fight some months back; the secretly courageous Rashida Habibullah; and, the aged and immobile Mr. Alimchandani, who had long-buried secrets.

Amidst the fearful environment of death and pandemic in the Daisy and Lily Apartments, Minwalla beautifully brings out the characters of the young investigators and the residents with many details. The role of internet and social media during the pandemic and in the present day is infused in the narrative. For instance, she has highlighted the unavoidable participation in the Apartment’s WhatsApp groups of adults, where daily updates that thrive with rumours or gossips and the Daisy-Lily kids’ group for the children who discuss school, crushes, movies, people and latest information. Nandini and Shanaya discuss TikTok and Instagram followers, zombie teenagers addicted to social media, FOMO, Zoom call with school friends, Netflix and WiFi connections. Nandini on the verge of solving the mystery says, “My mind will be thinking about nachos or the red boots on sale in H&M, while my fingers pick up my phone, click, swipe, click.”

Minwalla also uses subtle humor to make the story a delightful read. This is evident in the children calling Mr. Sevnani “the Abominable Snowman”, or in imagining Baman Marker, the shrewish Chairperson of Daisy and Lily Apartments as “an arch criminal—a sort of Macavity the Cat” or “SoBo version of Kaa the python” and more. Minwalla’s use of phrases like ‘Work from Home’, disowning someone, sealed apartment, social distancing, stay safe, compulsory registry of visitors, tested corona positive, online meetings, and mental deterioration, instantly connects us and sheds light on the shift in the usage of language for depicting the pandemic. Nostalgia, empathy, magic and mystery mingle as one reads with a sense of enjoyment, revelling in the suspense-filled clandestine moves taking the mystery forward.

Murder in Daisy Apartments is entertaining and organically Indian. It gives a flavour of Mumbaikars to those willing to step into a local residential complex and mingle with the residents.

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

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Review

The Third Eye of Governance

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: The Third Eye of Governance

Author: Dr N Bhaskara Rao

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Populism may be   a decent expression for politicians; but social science researches would give a damn to the way government policies are planned shorn of any rationality and wisdom. Research is key to whatever social development one talks about because that gives an edge to the expected change. This book takes forward precisely the idea of good research and the downsides of not having an investigation into the way governments’ function.

The Third Eye of Governance–Rise of Populism, Decline in Social Research by Dr N Bhaskara Rao is an eye-opening book because it is written by a pioneer of social research in India. Being  Founder Chairman of the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) and of Marketing and Development Research Associates (MDRA), Rao  built up the equally prestigious Operations Research Group (ORG) as its CEO.A member of the National Population Policy Committee and one who reorganized the media units of the Information and Broadcasting ministry, Rao has authored a couple of other books : Social Impact of Mass Media, A Handbook of Poll Surveys in Media , Sustainable Good Governance, Development and Democracy, Citizen Activism in India and The TRP Trick: How Television in India Was Hijacked. 

A first-of-its-kind history and analysis of social research in India from Independence to the present, this book discusses India’s most important research projects, and the policies based on them. That includes the family planning programme, the five-year plans and the decennial census which has been put on hold because of the pandemic. 

According to Dr Rao, there has been a steady decline in social research with the rise of populism in Indian politics, and there is an utter disregard for transparency and accountability. The volume shows how data, statistics, analysis and research have become politically sensitive and belligerent. Rao argues that if the current refrains about development and progress are backed by applied social research, India can reach new heights in democracy, development, and governance.

Forthright to the core, Rao says with political parties dominating policies, there has been a greater emphasis on winning elections. And this trepidation has to become the priority for research. He contends that research is a distinctive form of enquiry — and that is why he calls it ‘third eye of governance’. The book is a valuable investigation of public policy successes and failures of governments led by different PMS, from Nehru and Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. 

Writes Rao: “Populism is an outlook of leaders, and a methodology and strategy of those in power to control, command, and exert their authority. What we are witnessing today is an altogether new populism where ideology has little importance. The new instruments of communication and network have changed the course so much that populism is being made to appear or sound synonymous to democracy and development, when in fact it can turn out be a countervailing phenomenon.

“What is being regarded as a boom may turn out to be a bubble. This depends on the leaders’ grip or control over the instruments of administrative authority or political power. In populism, the difference between ends and means becomes blurred.”

Terming the new wave of populism sweeping across the nation ‘rhetoric-centered’, he argues: “It purports people as masses but is led by a few who are masters of rhetoric. Here, institutions matter less, as do future implications and research and feedback. Populism depends on revisiting the past rather than focusing on the future beyond three-five years. Polarizing people through destabilization is part of the strategy. Perpetuating hate, anger, and resentment form the core of populism and help sustain the phenomena. Double-talk also comes handy in this process.”

Academically comprehensive, the book cites the example of how the ‘melting pot’ idea of American society in the mid-20th century was studied closely by sociologists and contributed to the assimilation process that changed the course of American social progress by changing the mindset. In India, however, Rao says, despite Nehru embarking on the idea of assimilation, people continue more divided, and development has not reached a large number. Part of the reason, according to him, is the lack of critical research and independent appraisal of policies and plans.

While acknowledging the potential of the development themes echoed by Prime Minister Modi, Rao points out the glaring gaps between the stated intention and actual practice. The ideas have to be backed by “high-quality independent and unbiased research”. Slogans and themes such as ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (united, we progress)’ deserve to be followed up far more seriously, consistently, and critically.

The government’s recent campaigns such as Swachh Bharat (clean India) or Smart Cities has brought about a new research. He calls it “Endorsement research” or supportive research. Whether research is independent is no longer the preferred criteria. Even the credibility of independent institutions, which have been the primary sources for the country’s statistics, have come under questioning. There has been more reliance on audit-based method than evaluative research in recent years, according to the book.

Divided into ten chapters and running through a little more than 300 pages, the book unequivocally tells how credible public institutions of the country are being reduced to the level of drum beaters. “Covid numbers being doled out by state after state reminds the extent political leaders stoop to suit their immediate advantages. As if we are reviving a regime of numbers.”

The book further says, citizen activism, debates, deliberations, and checks and balances are no longer virtues, and may even be snubbed. Populism does not care so much for self-correctives or plurality. He goes to the extent of saying populism needs an imaginary or a virtual villain or an enemy to prompt realignments. It submits a polarization that thrives in terms of ‘We of now’ and ‘They of the past’.

Dr Rao delves into the history, successes, and failures of research since Independence. He seeks to “regroup social sciences towards a trajectory of good governance, development and democracy, so that social research can lead towards a citizen-centric, society-sensitive future than one focused on just the market and consumer”.

With a foreword by Dr RA Mashlekar, former Director General Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the book is in-depth, fetching and has a broad sweep. It looks at the outlines of public and social research in India through a critical lens. An indispensable read.

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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

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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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!

About the Book:

Bombay, 1943. The young Parsi actress who was playing Salome in the newly founded Theatre Group’s production of Oscar Wilde’s eponymously titled play drew the line at performing the Dance of the Seven Veils, a sort of ‘Biblical striptease’. So director Sultan Padamsee’s 19-year-old sister Roshen stepped in. And met the handsome, intense Arab who played the male lead-Ebrahim Alkazi. In 1946, they were married. Thus was forged one of the greatest alliances in the world of theatre and art in post-Independence India.

Ebrahim Alkazi took English theatre from its early beginnings in Bombay to national and even international acclaim as he directed and acted in more than a hundred plays, ranging from Oedipus Rex, Murder in the Cathedral and Macbeth in the 1950s, to Ashadh Ka Ek Din, Andha Yug and Tughlaq in the ’60s and ’70s. As director of the fabled National School of Drama from 1962 to 1977, he launched some of the finest actors of our times, including Om Shivpuri, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Rohini Hattangadi, Manohar Singh and Uttara Baokar. The chief costume designer and seamstress for all his productions was Roshen Alkazi. In 1977, when Ebrahim and Roshen decided to open Art Heritage in Delhi, it gave a new dimension to the world of art, as the leading artists of the day, including M.F. Husain, Krishen Khanna, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta, K.G. Subramanyam and Laxma Goud, flocked to this space that was not just a ‘commercial’ gallery, but a foundation for documenting and preserving the arts. With more than 50 rare photographs, Enter Stage Right is the story of theatre in India as it has never been told before…to be treasured by theatre buffs, and savoured by anyone who loves a good story.

Author Bio:

Educationist, theatre director and activist, Feisal Alkazi has carved out his own niche with his group, Ruchika. He has directed over 200 plays with adults in Hindi, English and Urdu. He has also directed over 100 productions for schools all over India, and in the field of disability, he has directed 30 documentary films and produced several plays.


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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