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Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha



Title: Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me

Author: MA Sreenivasan

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

This is a delightful book for two reasons: One, it is a reminiscence of a civil service official with the princely state of Mysore and Gwalior, and later with the government of British India. Secondly, the stream of language and the lucidness with which the author has penned his recollections is remarkable. What is more, it reflects on the administrative practices of the former princely states of India.

M.A. Sreenivasan (1897-1998) lived through almost the entire 20th century and was among the very few people who witnessed at close quarters the enormous changes that took place in India during this period. Born in Madras, he belonged to a family that traced his subsequent generations of Pradhans (ministers) of successive kings of Mysore for 150 years. Sreenivasan joined the Mysore Civil Service in 1918 and, after a varied career both with the Mysore Government and the Government of British India. He became a Pradhan of the Maharaja of Mysore in 1943. In 1947, he was invited by the Maharaja of Gwalior to become the Dewan of that State. During that momentous year, he was a member of the Constituent Assembly of India and in regular touch with many of the leading figures (including Mountbatten) involved in the transfer of power from British to Indian hands.

Much more than an autobiography, the book is a rare portrait of India during and immediately after the British Raj. The princely States of India have been neglected by scholars, many of whom have tended to be unfairly critical. There is much in this book on the effectiveness of administration in two major princely States. It redresses the balance and makes the book a valuable document on the subject. Further, Sreenivasan provides sharp insights into the negotiations that led to the end of the Raj, and into the new polity that emerged after Independence. 

Writes Sreenivasan about Louis Mountbatten: “I had seen and talked to Mountbatten at lunch parties in Viceroy’s House and meetings of the Chamber of Princes. Tall of stature, with an enviable reputation as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during the War, he impressed everyone with his fine personality and pleasing manner. Standing on the dais that day, wearing his bright, white naval uniform, festooned with medals and decorations, he addressed the gathering as Crown Representative of His Majesty, the King of Great Britain, his cousin, and spoke of the King’s concern for the Princes of India with whom the Crown’s long-standing associations and obligations were soon to come to an end.”

Elsewhere in the book he writes about Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer: “He was a remarkable man. Endowed with a fine personality and a keen intellect, he was learned and brilliant, an eloquent speaker, and a brave and dynamic administrator. In his early years, he was a much sought-after lawyer and one of the first, most ardent, champions of Home Rule for India. CP, as he was called by friends, was among the leaders and statesmen whose views were sought by successive British missions. He did not, however, take part in the Constituent Assembly or its committees. I knew he had plans of making Travancore an independent maritime State. I had always held him in esteem as a distinguished elder statesman and called on him at Travancore House in New Delhi, asking him why he had not agreed to the accession of Travancore.”

Write Shashi Tharoor in the foreword: “This book is simultaneously an exploration of the region’s glorious past and present and a memorable personal history, tracing Sreenivasan’s life and career, which was as challenging as it was deeply interesting. From the ups and downs of local politics to navigating the bureaucracy of nascent independent India, not to mention moving forays into Sreenivasan’s home life particularly relating to his beloved and constantly supportive wife, Chingu, there is little that is not covered. The reader follows the author through his myriad journeys, from Mysore to New York and London, to the Chambal Valley and beyond.”

The last few chapters of the book are notable. Whether it is the merger of the princely states or Prime Minister Nehru, Sardar Patel and the two Nobel laurates- CV Raman and Dalai Lama – Sreenivasan’s chronicles make for an absorbing read.

In the epilogue, he writes: “The years have witnessed revolutionary changes in India. There has been impressive progress in many directions and many remarkable achievements. The scourge of smallpox and plague has been eradicated. The shame of human beings carrying night soil has ended in many cities and towns. Infant mortality has been reduced, and life expectancy enhanced.

“The production of food grains and other needed crops has vastly increased. Thanks to generous foreign aid and increased revenues, huge dams and reservoirs have been built. Hydro-and thermal power generating stations installed. An industrial revolution has taken place. Thousands of mills and factories turn out myriads of products, from cotton cloth and silk to telephones, television sets, computers, locomotives, motorcars, and aeroplanes. Transport and communication have also been revolutionized. Scores of universities, hundreds of engineering and medical colleges and research institutions have been started and equipped. India can boast of having perhaps the largest surplus of scientists and technologists in the world for export. But progress has not come with both hands full. With great gains have come great losses. An irreparable loss is the grievous vivisection of India.”

This captivating life story will be of particular interest to students and scholars of modern Indian history as well as the general reader.

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

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Review

Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley

Book Review By Rakhi Dalal

Title: Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories from Bastar and Kashmir

Author: Freny Manecksha

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

People who have never lived in or around conflict riddled zones, have a scant notion of how the politics of a nation impact survival in such places. In the name of curtailing extremism, the punitive measures adopted, achieve little more than turning daily living into a nightmare. How would one feel if the forces employed by a state, supposedly to safeguard the common people, barge into their homes unannounced at any time whether day or night and leave them terrified? Or, if a group of civilian people are fired at by the forces while sitting in their fields discussing as routine a thing as celebration of a festival?

In a country like India where the mainstream media turns a blind eye and sometimes help propagate a biased and false narrative, it takes courage of a few who, despite looming threats, try to bring in stories from such places, stories that tell of the oppression of common people both at the hands of extremists and the state.

Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley by Freny Manecksha is one such attempt towards bringing out truth from two militarized zones of the country – Bastar and Kashmir. Manecksha is an independent journalist from Mumbai. She has worked with Blitz, The Times of India, Mid-Day and Indian Express. She has travelled and written extensively from Kashmir and Chhattisgarh. She is the author of Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children.

In documenting the accounts from these restive places, Manecksha draws parallels between the everyday struggle of people to live in their villages or homes, the distrust for the forces or police system because of the brutalities suffered, the hesitation to file reports because justice is seldom achieved, the state narratives which usually demonstrate scant regard for the people and their right to live with dignity, the impunity with which their lives and their bodies, especially those of women, are disregarded and desecrated.

In case of Kashmir, “the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) gives blanket immunity to the security forces against crimes like unlawful detentions, torture and custodial killings.” As a result, they can force enter a home at any time for a raid and search the entire house while deploying a member as a ‘human shield’. This makes the concept of home as a safe and inviolate space alien for the people because anything can happen at any time.

Neither home nor outside is safe. Whereas in Bastar, public institutions like schools become places for interrogation and torture, in troubled towns of Kashmir, the hospitals becomes places for identifying and arresting protestors. Shot with guns or pellet guns, the bodies become spaces trampled by coercion and ruined or silenced by violence.   Their stories of suffering and pain find echo in a poet’s words:

“At an avant-garde cafe in uptown Pune
the reserved tables celebrate 
a teenager’s birthday in cosmopolitan English
My nearly dead phone flares up with a call from home
My mother laments in frayed Kashmiri: 
I am happy you aren’t at home, two other boys
Were shot dead today.”

The reports from these fractured lands are harrowing and forces one to delve into the motives and repercussions of State’s militarisation policy which, instead of maintaining peace, has brought unrest to people’s lives. Whether it is through Ikhwanis[1] in Kashmir or Salwa Judam[2]in Chhattisgarh, the state, irrespective of the Government at Centre, has tried to constrain people through violence. In the name of national interest, their lives have been dispossessed of the merit to normality. At stake as ‘collateral damage’, a term used by state or forces as matter of fact, has just not been their lives but also the dignity in death. The struggle, whether of the Adivasis of Bastar or of people from Kashmir, has been to reclaim their everyday life, their land and their homes.

These stories, however, are also those of resilience. The book celebrates the idea that even in the face of tortures and abuse, collective grief transforms into collective sharing which make people stand together and claim their rights to live. Manecksha writes with empathy and tenderness. Her reportage reflects the efforts that are put in collecting these narratives. It is a book as critical as it is relevant to our times. 


[1] Religious Militia

[2] Militia employed to crack down on counterinsurgents

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

Of Ghosts and Tantriks

Book review by Basudhara Roy

Title: Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural

Author: Bibhutibhushan

Translator: Devalina Mookerjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

The book decides to arrive on a crisp Friday morning, its sunshine so keen and abundant that any thoughts of the supernatural can only be merrily chuckled over. The cover, however, is strangely disconcerting. It takes me time to mark that the brilliant art on it actually depicts skulls. Not ordinary enough to be dismissed as mere biological specimens, the skulls seem to represent, in their complexity, vibrancy and the silhouette of birds that haunt them on every side, a text that is both hauntingly familiar and eerily not so. Bibhutibhushon’s short stories exploring the supernatural and tantra, a practice associated with dark forces and the Goddess Kali, translated by Devalina Mookerjee from Bengali — could not, perhaps, have been showcased better.

Bibhutibhushan (1894-1950) was an eminent Bengali writer whose best known works are his novels, Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) and Aparajito – both immortalised into films by Satyajit Ray,  Chander Pahar (Moon Mountain) Aranyak (Of the Forest). Some of these books can be found in translation.To one even remotely acquainted with Bibhutibhushan’s oeuvre, his stories offer a definite assurance of being in good company. In reading , Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural, however, what the reader might fail to bargain for is the almost complete obliteration of the physical world by the world of the book, and by the time the journey through the nine translated stories therein has been made, one is no longer sure where one world ends and the other begins.

It takes time to step out of the frame and to express admiration for the conduit that has led to this extraordinary experience in fiction – the translator. To transcend spatiality and temporality and conjure these tales again for an entirely different readership in an entirely different language is likely to have been a project fraught with its own pointed challenges. Mookerjee, however, seems to have successfully met them all, so much so that in the context of the English language, these spooky, unsettling tales offer not the slightest semblance of foreignness, even when they deal thematically with something as acutely local and specialised as tantra. The language is sparklingly contemporary and in its inflections, energy and dreaminess to allow these nine narratives to carve their own particular niches. The pace of the collection stays heady throughout and the atmosphere is completely overpowering.

Of special significance is Mookerjee’s nuanced and insightful twenty-seven paged ‘Introduction’ to the collection that calls upon the reader to visualise concrete connections between social justice and the genre of the supernatural. Mookerjee writes: “Seen against the background of what people are capable of doing to each other, stories of ghost may be seen as corrective mechanisms in the scales of justice. A person who has been wronged returns to tell their story, perhaps to wreak havoc on their tormentors. A disbeliever sits in a séance for which the medium is clearly not prepared, and chaos ensues. We have a word for this already. We call it karma.”

The ‘Introduction’ serves, also, as a brave attempt to place Bibhutibhushan’s writing in current socio-cultural perspective, and to bridge the disparate worlds of rural Bengal that birthed these stories and that of the contemporary English reader of these tales who could belong to almost any geographical space on the global map.

The first two stories of the collection are centred around the protagonist after who the book has been named, a dabbler in the dark arts, Taranath Tantrik. The remaining seven stories are each unique in their own ways as they chart their individual journeys into the terrain of the invisible and the occult with remarkable skill and clarity. “Human beings have historically shown very little need of support from the otherworld to behave in perfectly horrible ways with other people. This is the point at which the darkness of the uncanny and the darkness of people converge,” avers Mookerjee, pointing out how the surreal is often only another dimension of the real revealed in a disjointed spatial-temporality.

Not all of the nine stories strike with equal power. If ‘The Ghosts of Spices’ appears quite facile and juvenile in its description of a march-past of spice sacks on the deserted nocturnal streets, ‘A Small Statue’ appears rather simplistically cinematic in its  dream presentation of the tableau of the monk, Dipankar’s life. In the most evocative stories of the collection like ‘Maya’, ‘The House of His Foremothers’, ‘Arrack’ and ‘The Curse’, however, the quiet, intricate weaving of setting, psychology and idea dazzles in its brilliance, leaving behind a sense of both fracture and healing.

Bibhutibhushan’s poignancy is at its unsurpassable best in his delineation of place and in his exploration of links between physical place and human placed-ness. His most unforgettable stories are those in which people and places interact with each other organically and without inhibitions, creating a documented identity of both being-in-place and place-in-being. In ‘Maya’ for instance, the house acquires an identity of its own as its past inhabitants gently draw its present dweller/s into the folds of its mystery and inexplicable self-sufficiency. In ‘The House of His Foremothers’ similarly, the ghost-girl Lokkhi mourns for the bereft house more than her lost family and consistently haunts its silences in the hope of resurrection for the house which, unlike her, still lives across the family’s generational lifetimes.

To allow one’s imagination to be overpowered by these stories is to experience a strange welding of the probable and the improbable into the arc of the possible — to be awakened to a new dimension of being in which while vision remains at par, the other senses experience a heightened participation with what is positively undefinable but utterly undeniable.

Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural, by thus placing the reality in the larger context of a world that still evades the cartography of reason, becomes a portal to a widened, heightened and more enlightened worldview. It helps remind of the intersections between our own human finitude and the infinite world with its geo-historical consciousness incapable of forgetting and thoroughly unable to forgive.

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Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Drawn to gender and ecological studies, her four published books include a monograph and three poetry collections. Her recent works are available at Outlook India, The Dhaka Tribune, EPW, Madras Courier and Live Wire among others.

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Tarnath Tantrik by Bibhutibhushan

Title: Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural

Author: Bibhutibhushan

Translator: Devalina Mookerjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Since I was deep in meditation, it took a few seconds for the smell of musk to register on my consciousness.

It was with a smile that my mind turned towards the smell. What a wonderful fragrance, I thought, nature is truly magnificent in her bounty! Immediately after this my senses sharpened because it felt as if someone was standing behind me, on the other side of the trunk of the tree. It is true that I could not see the person, but that made me no less sure of her presence. Sometimes instinct serves better than eyes. My entire being was suddenly, completely awake and alert. The air went still. Then, I felt as if my body was on fire, burning embers scorching my insides and exploding outward. The excruciating pain was growing. Was I about to faint again? Just at that moment, the pain disappeared, and there was a woman standing in front of me. I was absolutely certain that she had not been anywhere near that spot even a heartbeat ago. The suddenness echoed exactly that night when I occupied the tantrik’s seat. But this time I knew that she had come for me. This time, I would not slide into unconsciousness. I looked at her. She seemed to be frowning in disapproval—’

***

‘Are you sure you saw this woman yourself, with your own eyes?’ The question slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it. Taranath heard my disbelief, and his tone became agitated and defensive—‘Did I see her with my own eyes? Of course I saw her with my own eyes!

There she was, large as life, standing in front of me! Look, you can believe me or not, that’s up to you. But you can’t say that I’m lying to you, because I’m not.’

‘What did she look like?’ I asked, hoping to appease him somewhat.

‘If I said she was beautiful, that would be less than a proper description. She was exactly as the incantation to call her says, a loveliness beyond words, beyond compare, beyond this world. I realised that the incantations of power I had been pronouncing for months were not simply words made up to call this being, they were descriptions of her power and beauty.’

‘Did you talk to her?’ I was hanging on to his words.

‘Talk to her?’ he scoffed. ‘I was just barely hanging onto consciousness, and you want to know if I talked to her! This was not a normal woman, you understand?

Not from any point of view was she ordinary. Her power radiated from her like the sun. And those eyes!

The incantation to call her mentions her eyes, I had thought those were just words to propitiate the goddess and compel her to respond to the call. My god, you should have seen those eyes—worlds could be conquered and burn in the fiery steel of those exquisite eyes.’

I became impatient. ‘Never mind the long descriptions! What happened? What did you talk with her about?’

He became circumspect. ‘What we talked about is private, between her and me. Such things are not for others to know.’

***

‘What happened is that Madhusundari Devi started to visit me every night. In that desolate place by the river, I had called her as a lover. But you must have guessed that already. After all, who could possibly be dull enough to listen to overcautious warnings from an old tantrik?

It was a mild winter. The waters of the Barakar river were gentle, and low in the bed. The lilies in the shallow water near the banks had become dry and yellow, revealing rock-minerals in the sand that sparkled in the light of the moon. The forests on both sides of the river were shedding leaves into the breeze. The skies were clear and blue in the day, and the moon shone in a cloudless sky at night. From that time on, for three months, she visited me every night. I felt completely alive in those three months, never before, or since, have I felt like that. It’s painful to talk about feeling like that now.

You cannot imagine the pain of it, the grief of loss over a self capable of that kind of joy. I reached a pinnacle of happiness and stayed there for three whole months. She was a goddess indeed. No ordinary human woman would be able to grant such experiences of love, such deep, perfect friendship. Being with her was heavenly, not of this earth. I can’t explain it to you. What words would I use? And you would disbelieve me anyway. You’d call me a liar, or say I’m mad. Perhaps you’re thinking those things right now, as I gabble on.

It’s not just you, even my wife does not believe me. She says the tantrik had used his black magic skills to shut my brains down.

That kind of happiness is intoxicating, like being drunk on very strong wine. But being drunk on strong wine also creates an ennui of its own. I would be listless all day, nothing in this real world held my interest. The daylight hours would go in longing for the evening.

When would dusk darken to twilight under the trees, in the forest by the river? When would she appear, my beautiful actress, perfect heroine to my new-found role as hero? The nights would pass like a dream, time slipping through my fingers like dry sand, each night deeply intoxicated and glittering with joy. My consciousness would expand outwards, grow unfettered, till the sky, the planets, the gods and goddesses were all part of my being, each night, under the stars by the river.

Then, something happened.

A young woman who lived in the nearby village used to come to the river to get water. Since she came every day, I saw her quite regularly.

Excerpted from Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated by Devalina Mookerjee. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Ghosts are everywhere. Most are ghosts of ideas, feelings, memories. These are our personal ghosts, and they follow us alone. But there are other ghosts, in which we share a common fear. Thickening shadows pooling at the corner of the room, unexplained breathing in the dark, the child who steps out of an old photo—the shiver of supernatural frisson, a thin crooked finger of ice tracing its way down your spine. This fear, and thrill, is rightfully the domain of the kind of ghost you will meet in this book.

In Taranath Tantrik, Devalina Mookerjee translates nine stories of the uncanny and occult by legendary Bengali storyteller, Bibhutibhushan. Seven are short stories of séance, curses, return for revenge, and the desire for things that have no place in human lives. Two are about tantra, of necromancy, spiritual power, goddesses, and ghosts.

The borders of reality are porous in this world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (1894–1950) is regarded as one of the greatest Bengali writers. His best known works are the autobiographical novel, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), which was made into a film by Satyajit Ray, Chander Pahar, and Aranyak.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Devalina Mookerjee is a translator and publisher. She is also a researcher in health and education. Her interest in ghosts is based on two decades of social science research. She learned to play bass over the lockdown, mostly jazz, blues and folk, and finds that the sound of the bass goes beautifully with stories of ghosts. She lives in New Delhi with her partner and five dogs.

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Ruskin Bond Recalls…

Title: Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills

Editors: Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

She was eighty-six, but looking at her you wouldn’t have guessed—she was spry and took some care to look good. Not once in the five years that we spent together did I find her looking slovenly. The old-fashioned dresses she wore were clean and well-ironed, and sometimes she added a hat. Her memory was excellent, and she knew a great deal about the flowers, trees, birds and other wildlife of the area—she hadn’t made a serious study of these things, but having lived here for so long, she had developed an intimacy with everything that grew and flourished around her. A trust somewhere in England sent her a pension of forty or fifty rupees, and this was all the money she had, having used up the paltry sum she’d received from the sale of her property.

She’d had a large house, she told me, which she had inherited from her parents when they died, and she’d had an ailing sister whom she had nursed for many years before she too passed away. As she had no income, she kept boarders in the house, but she had no business sense and was losing money maintaining it. In the end, she sold the house for a song to one of the local traders and moved into two small rooms on the ground floor of Maplewood Lodge, a kindness for which she remained grateful to her friends, the Gordon sisters.

It must have been lonely for Miss Bean, living there in the shadow of the hill, which was why she had been excited when I moved into the floor above her. With age catching up, she couldn’t leave her rooms and her little garden as often as she would have liked to, and there were few visitors—sometimes a teacher from the Wynberg Allen School, the padre from the church in town, the milkman twice a week and, once a month, the postman. She had an old bearer, who had been with her for many years. I don’t think she could afford him any longer, but she managed to pay him a little somehow, and he continued out of loyalty, but also because he was old himself; there wouldn’t have been too many other employment opportunities for him. He came late in the morning and left before dark. Then she would be alone, without even the company of a pet. There’d been a small dog long ago, but she’d lost it to a leopard.

Camel’s Back Road, going to a tea party at a friend’s house, the dog sitting in her lap. And suddenly, from the hillside above her, a leopard sprang onto the rickshaw, snatched the dog out of her hands, and leapt down to the other side and into the forest. She was left sitting there, empty-handed, in great shock, but she hadn’t suffered even a scratch. The two rickshaw pullers said they’d only felt a heavy thump behind them, and by the time they turned to look, the leopard was gone.

All of this I gathered over the many evenings that I spent chatting with Miss Bean in her corner of the cottage. I didn’t have anyone to cook for me in the first few years at Maplewood. Most evenings I would have tinned food, and occasionally I would go down to share my sardine tins or sausages with Miss Bean. She ate frugally—maybe she’d always had a small appetite, or it was something her body had adjusted to after years of small meals—so I wasn’t really depriving myself of much. And she returned the favour with excellent tea and coffee.

We would have long chats, Miss Bean telling me stories about Mussoorie, where she had lived since she was a teenager, and stories about herself (a lot of which went into some of my own stories). She remembered the time when electricity came to Mussoorie—in 1912, long before it reached most other parts of India. And she had memories of the first train coming into Dehra, and the first motor road coming up to Mussoorie. Before the motor road was built, everyone would walk up the old bridle path from Rajpur, or come on horseback, or in a dandy held aloft by four sweating coolies.

Miss Bean missed the old days, when there was a lot of activity in the hill resort—picnics and tea parties and delicious scandals. It was second only to Shimla, the favourite social playground of the Europeans. But unlike Shimla, it had the advantage of being a little more private. It was a place of mischief and passion, and young Miss Bean enjoyed both. As a girl, she’d had many suitors, and if she did not marry, it was more from procrastination than from being passed over. While on all sides elopements and broken marriages were making life exciting, she managed to remain single, even when she taught elocution at one of the schools that flourished in Mussoorie, and which were rife with secret affairs.

Do you wish you had, though,’ I asked her one March evening, sitting by the window, in the only chair she had in her bedroom.

‘Do I wish I had what?’ she said from her bed, where she was tucked up with three hot-water bottles.

‘Married. Or fallen in love.’

She chuckled.

‘I did fall in love, you know. But my dear father was a very good shot with pistol and rifle, so I had to be careful for the sake of the young gentlemen. As for marriage, I might have regretted it even had it happened.’

A fierce wind had built up and it was battering at the doors and windows, determined to get in. It slipped down the chimney, but was stuck there, choking and gurgling in frustration.

‘There’s a ghost in your chimney and he can’t get out,’ I said.

‘Then let him stay there,’ said Miss Bean.

Excerpted from Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills, edited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

 ‘What is it about the hills that draws us to them again and again?’ asks one of the editors of this collection. In these pages, over forty writers—from a daughter of the Tagore family and a British colonial officer in the 19th century, to a young poet and an Adivasi daily-wage worker in the 21st century—show us what the many reasons could be: Green hillsides glowing in the sun; the scent of pine and mist; the wind soughing in the deodars; the song of the whistling thrush; a ritual of worship; a picnic, a party, an illicit affair. They show us, too, the complex histories of hill stations built for the Raj and reshaped in free India; the hardship and squalor behind the beauty; the mixed blessings of progress.

Rich in deep experience and lyrical expression, and containing some stunning images of the hills, Between Heaven and Earth is a glorious collection put together by two of India’s finest writers, both with a lifelong connection with the hills. Among the writers you will read in it—who write on the hills in almost every region of India—are Rumer Godden, Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, Emily Eden, Francis Younghusband, Jim Corbett, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khushwant Singh, Keki Daruwalla, and of course the two editors themselves. Together, they make this a book that you will keep returning to for years to come.

ABOUT THE EDITORS

 Ruskin Bond is one of India’s most beloved writers. He is the author of nu­merous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics and several of them set in the hills of north India. Among his best-known books are The Room on the Roof, Time Stops at Shamli, A Book of Simple Living, Rain in the Mountains and Lone Fox Dancing. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. He lives in Landour, Mussoorie.

Bulbul Sharma is an acclaimed painter and writer, author of best-selling books of fiction and non-fiction, including My Sainted Aunts, The Anger of Auber­gines, Murder in Shimla and Shaya Tales. Bulbul conducts ‘storypainting’ work­shops for special needs children and is a founder-member of Sannidhi—an NGO that works in village schools. She divides her time between New Delhi, London and Shaya, a village in Himachal Pradesh.

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Building a Free India

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Building A Free India

Author: Rakesh Batabyal

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

“Under this Flag there is no prince and there is no peasant, there is no rich and there is no poor… Whether we be Hindus or Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs or Zoroastrians and others, our Mother India has one undivided heart and one indivisible spirit.” — Sarojini Naidu, poet and political activist, on the resolution on the national flag in the Constituent Assembly, 22 July 1947

The immutability of prodigious speeches and their magnifying impact on people can’t be underestimated. The prize of a great speech comes from pure wisdom that originates from indulgence. These words from Naidu’s speech can work as magic anytime one reads them.

Building A Free India – Defining Speeches of Our Independence Movement that Shaped the Nation by Rakesh Batabyal is just the book you needed to read as India celebrates her 75th year of its independence. It is a thought-provoking assemblage of solicitous speeches delivered by some of the most prominent Indian personalities.

Many of these men and women have made invaluable contributions to India’s coming together as a nation of people and are the pride and honour of the sub-continent. These are people who impacted the lives around them. Their words were the gems that had the power to evoke courage and emotion in countless people and inspire them to make history.

Rakesh Batabyal teaches history, theory, and philosophy of media at the Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches is widely accepted as an important work in the genre. He is working on a book on the history of nationalism in India.

Says the blurb: “The new public sphere that emerged in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century India was a space that enabled magnificent public oratory, particularly that which mounted a challenge to colonial rule. From social and political platforms like the Indian National Congress, in the courts of law, or inside legislative bodies, leaders of the freedom struggle gave eloquent and clear-eyed articulations of not only the social, economic, and political problems that faced India and their possible solutions but also the kind of sovereign nation we must collectively aspire to be. India’s democratic ethos was a product of these foundational ideas of the freedom movement.”

Building a Free India brings together these landmark speeches delivered over roughly a century by the leading lights of the national movement—from Dadabhai Naoroji, Surendranath Banerjee, Bhikaiji Cama, Lajpat Rai, and Tilak, to Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Bose, Sarojini Naidu, and Maulana Azad—as well as a range of lesser-known but equally remarkable figures.

Writes Batabyal in the book: “As the movement progressed—from the economic critique of colonial rule by the early nationalists to the unequivocal demand for Purna Swaraj[1] and the immense moral authority of the Mahatma Gandhi-led resistance—the notion of an equal society that ensured dignity to all—irrespective of caste, class, gender or religion—came to occupy a central place in it. By the time the Constituent Assembly met in December 1946, not just civil rights, but the particular rights of women, of minorities, of the Depressed Classes, and the Adivasis were being articulated and demanded, not as favours but as a matter of course.” As the editor of this volume writes in his brilliant introduction, the effect of the speeches delivered by the leaders of our national movement was to focus “political action towards scripting an ennobling nationalism that would give us a just and equal society”.

A couple of speeches in the book are captivating. This one by India’s philosopher-President Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan on India’s history and legends reads: “Our pledge tells us that this ancient land shall attain her rightful and honored place. We take pride in the antiquity of this land for it is a land which has seen nearly four or five millenniums of history. It has passed through many vicissitudes and at the moment it stands, still responding to the thrill of the same great ideal. Civilization is a thing of the spirit; it is not something external, solid, and mechanical. It is the dream in the people’s hearts. It is the inward aspiration of the people’s souls. It is the imaginative interpretation of human life and the perception of the mystery of human existence. That is what civilization actually stands for.

‘We should bear in mind these great ideals which have been transmitted to us across the ages. In this great time of our history, we should bear ourselves humbly before God, brace ourselves for this supreme task that is confronting us and conduct ourselves in a manner that is worthy of the ageless spirit of India. If we do so, I have no doubt that; the future of this land will be as great as its once glorious past.’

Painstakingly divided into six chapters, each section in the 300-plus page veers around freedom and that itself makes the collection unique. What’s more Batabyal provides a context to every single discourse.

On his way to Noakhali and in the face of the large-scale massacre, to the question ‘Will Partition Change Us Forever?’ Mahatma Gandhi replied: “I have seen more of history than anyone of you, and I tell you that I have known Hindu boys who called Muslims ‘uncle’. Hindus and Muslims used to participate in each other’s festivals and other auspicious occasions. You want to force me to leave this place but you should know that I have never submitted to force. It is contrary to my nature. You can obstruct my work, even kill me. I won’t invoke the help of the police. You can prevent me from leaving this house, but what is the use of your dubbing me an enemy of the Hindus? I will not accept the label. To make me quit, you have to convince me that I have made a mistake in coming here.”

This and many such defining speeches make the collection truly exceptional. The book  is not only a priceless history of India’s  freedom movement but also of the ideas of universal equality, dignity, and justice that are—and must always remain—at the root of any democracy. The assortment of some sixty communicative moments of oratory would provide the reader with a fresh perspective and evoke feelings of patriotism, motivation, and infinite stimulus.


[1] Full self-rule

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

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Review

The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh

Reviewed by Indrasish Banerjee

Title: Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) is a reflection on the Hindi film industry as much as it’s a biography of the legendary actor.  An eminent scriptwriter in Bollywood and director, Ghosh was an award-winning Bengali writer whose oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. As a script writer, he wrote the scripts in Hindi for iconic films like Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta and many more.

Ashok Kumar (1911-2001) was a part of both the small and the big screen in India while he lived. Was Ashok Kumar a star? What was his position in the Hindi film industry? When did he become a character actor? Was he a good actor? These questions are very easy to answer about others but when it comes to ‘Dadamoni’, as he was fondly called, the answers become nebulous.

Ashok Kumar started his career in the early 1930s which makes him senior to stars like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand who made their debuts and attained stardom when Ashok Kumar was already a reigning star. Ghosh knew Ashok Kumar personally for many years. And the personal touch comes through in many places – through anecdotes and because of the regard that shines through the narrative. The jokes that Ashok Kumar cracked from time to time, the things the thespian told the author, all find place in the book. There is also a visible attempt to protect Dadamoni’s reputation against any allegation of vices generally attributed to stars. Ghosh, who had gone to Bombay as part of Bimal Roy’s team, constantly tries to establish Dadamoni as a gentle, thoughtful and educated person.

But this gentle, thoughtful and educated person didn’t have it easy in the world of films. Ashok Kumar had a shaky start. A shy and retiring person, he had gone to Bombay while studying to become a lawyer in Calcutta — to become a director. The ambition was idealistically driven – films, a new medium then, could be a means of educating people. But fate intervened. The person supposed to play the hero’s role in Achhut Kanya (Untouchable Maiden, 1936) had gone missing and the search for a replacement was on.

One day, Ashok Kumar, an employee of Bombay Talkies then, discovered the owner of the studio, Himanshu Rai, quizzically looking at him. Rai had found the replacement for the hero of Achhut Kanya. But for the hero, it was beyond belief that he could act in a movie. The most endearing part of the book is how this diffident hero finds his footing in the industry becoming its earliest and biggest star. And the most poignant part is the gradual decline and death of the studio system even as its product – Ashok Kumar – rose to new heights.

As the narrative draws to a close, one is left wondering what is Ashok Kumar’s position in the legion of Bollywood stars? This has been answered exhaustively in the ‘Afterword’ by Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent film critic and Ghosh’s daughter, who brings in not only personal lore but also her own experience. She tells us Ashok Kumar served “as a textbook for actors wanting to perfect characterisations, voice control, timing, gestures postures” and that he transformed “the acting style in Indian cinema from theatrical to naturalistic – which is still the cinema language worldwide.”

Naming him the “Elder brother of the industry”, Sengupta asserts, “I’d say he is the one personality who symbolises Indian cinema’s journey from Bombay Talkies to Bollywood.” She brings in his stories of interactions with film stars, his hits and directorial ventures, his launching of major actors and his deep links with them, including his acclaimed brother, Kishore Kumar, with more anecdotes from multiple eminent actors like Shammi Kapoor, Moushumi Chatterjee, David Lean and his associates and family ties that stretch to embrace actors from different religion and race. Bharti Jaffrey, Ashok Kumar’s daughter, who has written a heartfelt forward for this edition, is married to actor Saeed Jaffrey’s elder brother.

What makes this book unique is that Ghosh wrote this book in English himself and it has been republished posthumously[1] with the addition of a forward and an exhaustive afterword by the well-known daughters of the two film icons. It also has classic photographs of Ashok Kumar. Both the emotionally charged forward by award-winning actress Bharti Jaffrey, and the afterword by Sengupta, a national film award-winning journalist, explore further the enigma that was Ashok Kumar. By the end of the ‘Afterword’, one realises how deeply tied and organic are the Bollywood families and how much they do to try and create bridges and close gaps – the Ashok Kumar Foundation being one such effort. The whole package – the forward, the narrative, the photographs and the afterword — leaves one spellbound.  

CLICK HERE TO READ THE BOOK EXCERPT


[1] First published in 1995 by Harper Collins – mentioned in the ‘Preface’ written by Ghosh in 1995 and reproduced in this edition published by Speaking Tiger Books.

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

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Excerpt

Wordsmith Sarat Chandra and Tell-tale Ashok Kumar

Title: Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Wordsmith Sarat and Tell-tale Ashok 

The child Ashok Kumar was highly imaginative and could tell stories to his maternal grandfather, Raja Shib Chandra.

‘Come on boy, tell me a new story,’ the Raja would demand with a smile.

The five-year-old great grandson would gravely start, ‘You see great grandpa, yesterday I was walking through the jungle –‘

The Raja narrowed his eyes, ‘At what time?’ he interrupted.

The boy did not lose his nerve. ‘Yesterday, when you were having a nap after your lunch,’ he kept up the grave tone.

‘And where was the jungle?’ the Raja quipped. 

The boy smiled, ‘On the bank of the Ganga.’

‘Carry on,’ said the Raja.

‘As I walked through the jungle,’ little Ashok went on, ‘there were birds chirping and peacocks dancing. I was feeling fine when suddenly I heard a tiger roar. I stopped. The birds stopped chirping, the peacocks flew fast and in panic. I turned around. And there it was standing, the tiger. It was a huge tiger, snarling at me and thrashing its tail on the ground…

‘Trembling in fear, I broke into a run. The tiger roared and sprang at me. I ran and ran hard. The tiger chased me. It almost reached me, it would soon fall upon me, grab me, swallow me. What shall I do? Oh, how shall I save myself? I prayed for wings and they sprang out of my two shoulders and I flew upward through the trees and escaped in the air. The tiger roared and roared and roared on…’

Little Ashok looked at the Raja for a due appreciation.

But the Raja looked at him with disbelief in his eyes and asked, ‘So you can grow wings out of your shoulders?’

The boy stared at him and nodded, ‘Yes, I can.’

‘Show me,’ the Raja demanded.

Undaunted, the boy said, ‘You become a tiger and I will show you my wings.’

The Raja roared with laughter. ‘Bravo my little one, bravo!’ he conceded. 

Two servants peeped in at this moment on hearing the Raja’s laughter. The Raja beckoned one of them in.

‘Jagai, go to Upen Ganguly’s house and house and call that dark chap – you know –‘ Raja Shib Chandra ordered.

‘Yes, master.’

Soon a young man came there. He was dark but attractive, with handsome features and exceptionally bright, penetrating eyes.

The Raja welcomed him, ‘Come here, my lad. Do you know my great grandson, Ashok?’

‘No sir – but now I will know him,’ the dark young man smiled at little Ashok and added, ‘Ashok is the name of an Emperor.’

The little boy smiled back at the compliment.

Shib Chandra said to the young man, ‘Look here, my great grandson is no less than you — he can also tell stories. Tell him a story Ashok.’

Before starting to narrate a story Ashok looked at the young man and asked, ‘Have you ever eaten silver rice and fried silver parval?’

‘I will eat them when I find them.’

Many many years later when the cinema houses displayed a ‘House Full’ board everytime an Ashok Kumar film was released, New Theatres of Calcutta invited the actor to join the concern. It had earned the reputation of producing quality films — and to this day the name remains nonpareil in the history of Indian cinema.

Ashok Kumar agreed to meet them to discuss the matter. When he met Birendra Nath Sircar, the managing director, in his office there were some other directors and a dark man with silvery hair and sharp burning eyes.

Mr Sircar introduced the gentleman in dhoti-kurta by saying, ‘Mr Ganguly, he is our pride — Shri Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the great novelist.’

Startled, Ashok Kumar turned towards the legend and bowed low.

Sarat Chandra smilingly asked, ‘Do you remember me?’

Ashok shook his head, ‘No sir — sorry.’

Sarat Chandra laughed and said, ‘Try and you will remember that you used to narrate stories to me — of silver made rice and fried silver parval.’

And the scene came back to Ashok Kumar. So, he used to narrate to this great magician — story writer Sarat Chandra!

Every one had a hearty laugh when Sarat Chandra narrated the story from the past. In his tum Ashok Kumar narrated how Sarat Chandra’s uncle, the writer Upen Ganguly, would regretfully say, ‘This chap, my nephew Sarat, does nothing! I am worried about him.’ This unleashed another round of laughter.

Ashok Kumar finally acted in only one film, Samar. He did not join New Theatres. It was Bombay Talkies that had groomed him and made him what he was. He would never leave Bombay Talkies.

(But, in 1953, after Bombay Talkies closed its shutter for good, he bought the rights to Parineeta. It was the first film of Ashok Kumar Productions.) 

(Excerpted from Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, Speaking Tiger Books 2022)

 About the Book:

Ashok Kumar (1911–2001), fondly known as Dadamoni, is one of the great icons of Hindi cinema. This warm, intimate biography traces his remarkable journey, from reluctant actor to Bollywood’s first superstar and, in his later years, a much-loved presence on national television.

Born in Bhagalpur (then in the Bengal Presidency), Ashok Kumar was enthralled by the ‘bioscope’ as a child. In his twenties, he quit his law studies and came to Bombay to become a film director. But life—rather, Himanshu Rai, the founder of Bombay Talkies—had different plans for him. Despite the director’s reservations, he was cast in the lead role opposite Devika Rani in the 1936 film Jeevan Naiyya when the original hero went missing. The same year, Ashok Kumar was paired with Devika Rani again in Achhut Kanya, which was a blockbuster. The transformation of the accidental hero into a charismatic star-actor had begun. Over the next six decades, he proved himself to be a master of the craft, playing cop and thief; genial grandfather and sly matchmaker; villain and hero; heartbroken lover and suave rake with equal ease in numerous films, including Kismet, Mahal, Parineeta, Kanoon, Gumrah, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Aashirwad, Mamta, Jewel Thief, Khoobsurat and Khatta Meetha. But as Nabendu Ghosh writes, Ashok Kumar’s world was much larger—he was also a charming conversationalist, mentor, homeopath, astrologer, painter, linguist, limericist and, above all, loyal friend and devoted husband and father. This book is also a mini-history of the early decades of Bombay’s Hindustani cinema, and its pages are rich with little anecdotes featuring legends like—besides Devika Rani—Saadat Hasan Manto, Sashadhar Mukherjee, Leela Chitnis, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Meena Kumari and B.R. Chopra. Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru make brief appearances too, as does Morarji Desai.

For anyone interested in the Hindi cinema of yesteryears—in its cosmopolitanism, camaraderie and charm—this thoroughly engaging book is a must-read.

About the Author:

 Nabendu Ghosh (1917–2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories, including That Bird Called Happiness: Stories and Mistress of Melodies, edited by Ratnottama Sengupta. As scriptwriter, he penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan.

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An Aesthetic Rebellion set in Mumbai

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: Half-Blood

Author: Pronoti Datta

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Review

A Manmade Humanitarian Crisis

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

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

Author: Harsh Mander

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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