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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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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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Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Title: Villainy

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Death of late having been much on her mind, it did not seem surprising to Dr Mujumdar that she should, at seven-forty of a December morning, during her constitutional in the neighbourhood park, be the first to come upon the corpse or rather, to recognise it to be a dead body. Of course, they were all concentrating on striding along on the jogging track – rolling their hips, pausing discreetly on occasion, only for a micro-second, to break wind – and all moving clockwise as per the rules set down and put up by the Residents’ Welfare Association on the signboard at the entrance, and if they had eyes for anything, it was for the odd, protruding pebble in their paths and every now and then, a Johnny-come-lately in his new car outside the gates, prowling in search of a parking slot. But beneath the hibiscus bushes just before the Children’s Corner, they so stared her in the face, leapt out at her to shout out their presence that she marvelled that no one else appeared to have noticed them – a pair of off-white Bata tennis sneakers, stark against the dark, damp loam, blue socks in a heap at the ankles, khaki trousers that had ridden up to reveal scrawny calves, with the rest of the travesty mercifully hidden by the foliage and a mound of compost awaiting distribution. For travesty she knew it would be and she did not want to see it; for since when has death not been a travesty of all that holds meaning?

       ‘Something tells me that that is not a drunk Colony guard or municipal gardener sleeping it off,’ said she, aloud, to herself, glanced at her watch even though she knew what time it was, and continued silently, But could I still do my half-a-dozen rounds as though nothing has happened, or at least as many as I can before someone else notices something amiss? Or would that be callous and unfeeling of me? She lengthened her stride and began doggedly to pump her elbows in an effort to get away quickly. Her heart though was really not in it that morning. ‘It does seem shameful for someone who’s almost a medical doctor,’ she carried on her conversation with herself, ‘to run away from a corpse. Waddle away, more accurately. But people must never know. And all this – ’ She looked up and about her for a moment, blinked ‘ – is going to have to stop pretty soon, isn’t it?’ She exchanged a ‘Morning’ for a ‘Hello, dear’ as she overtook portly Mrs Gulati. ‘I mean, no one can possibly jog or skip rope or stretch or do his yoga and breathe through his anus or laugh his therapeutic Santa Claus belly laugh in the presence of a dead body, can he?’ And then, aloud, ‘Morning, Sanjeev-ji. You are early today?!’

      Dr Mujumdar took more than her usual eleven minutes to cross the Children’s Corner, pass the Water-Harvesting Area and loop around the Nano Golf Course. By the time she turned into the straight stretch along the C-Block side of the park, a knot of the regulars, forced to abandon their burpees and their Hanuman pushups, had formed around the hibiscus bushes. Automatically, Dr Mujumdar slowed down, even wondered for a second whether she could about-turn and, disobeying the commandment of the RWA, clump away anti-clockwise.

       ‘Don’t touch anything! Just call the police.’

      ‘Could it be someone we know? Even a member of the Health Club?’

      ‘Doesn’t look as though his membership did him any good. Somebody had better telephone the police, I say.’

      ‘I can’t. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘I can’t either, unfortunately. I always leave my phone behind at home when I step out for my exercise.’

      ‘Why don’t you call them? They will respond immediately to your commanding personality.’

      ‘It is the RWA that should phone the police. After all, the dead body has been found in a public place. Just call Tutreja at the Association.’

      ‘I can’t, I just told you. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘Why are you carrying around a phone that doesn’t work?’

      ‘To time my rounds, if you must know. The clock works. And how damn nosey you are, if I might add.’

      ‘Is something the matter? I’m a doctor. A pharmacist, more accurately. Perhaps I might be of help.’

      The knot of exercisers, three-deep by then, stirred and parted like porridge to make way for Dr Mujumdar and then congealed around her even before she could look down once more upon the Bata shoes and the scrawny calves, the khaki trousers. The press of bodies made concentration all the more difficult.

      ‘We’ll have to pull him out and turn him over. Any volunteers?’ The doctor looked about her at the knot, watched it stir and thin. ‘Backache,’ murmured a man with a white moustache, his hand ready to clutch his hip.

      With a grunt of annoyance, portly Mrs Gulati planted herself in the hibiscus bed, pushed aside the vegetation and bent to grab an ankle. The shadow of a momentary queasiness crossed her features at the touch of that cold, alien flesh. She was suddenly surrounded by several fellow-residents whom she had abashed. Freely directing and admonishing one another, they lifted the body up and sideways and laid it down, face up, on the jogging track. The group emitted a sort of collective moan, part sigh, part gasp, on first seeing the face. With difficulty, Dr Mujumdar got down on her knees beside the body. The onlookers, four deep now, gathered about them as though caught in an eddy.

      He was dead, there was no doubt about that. The dead do not look like the living. She felt for his pulse. The wrist was cold and stiff. She extracted a large handkerchief from the pocket of her tracksuit and gently dusted the loam and grit off the face. A murmur, a commentary on the vanity of all that is not death, rustled through the group like the hint of a breeze.

Excerpted from Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

 Walkers in a Delhi neighbourhood park come upon a body on a mid-winter morning—an unidentified body, unremarkable but for an extraordinary scar right between the eyes.

A delinquent teenager—who prefers, to the rest of living, an Ecstasy pill with a beer, and the interior of an expensive car with a gun in his pocket—leaves home one evening for a joyride in his father’s Mercedes.

In the nineteen years separating these episodes, five killings take place—and one near-fatal battery—none of which would have happened if a school bus hadn’t been in the wrong lane. Deals are struck between masters and servants, money changes hands, assurances are given and broken. The wheels of justice turn, forward, backwards and sideways, pause and turn again. Old alliances are tested and new ones are formed in prison cells, mortuaries and court rooms. And every life is a gamble, for no one is entirely innocent.

A meticulously crafted literary thriller, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh novel is a riveting story of crime and retribution, and a meditation on the randomness of evil, death and redemption. It will keep you spellbound till the end.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Upamanyu Chatterjee is the celebrated author of English, August: An Indian Story (1988), The Last Burden (1993), The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Weight Loss (2006), Way to Go (2011), and Fairy Tales at Fifty (2014)—all novels; The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian (2018), a novella; and The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019), a collection of long stories. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2000, and in 2008, he was awarded the Order of Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government for his contribution to literature.

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  Is Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee a ‘Commercial Thriller’?

Book review by Indrasish Banerjee

Title: Villainy

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

                                                

Delhi has many sides to it. It’s the city of Islamic dynasties, transformative history, cultural finesse, power politics. However, some of the celebrated books in last the decade or so on Delhi — The White Tiger (Arvind Agida), The Capital (Rana Dasgupta) — have mostly highlighted its cynical side: the shallowness of its rich, the constant oppression of the poor, the misuse of wealth and power, the ubiquity of corruption, moral decadence and a casual acceptance of everything wrong. I spent a few formative years in Delhi in the 80s. Even back then the common view about Delhi was it wasn’t a place for the straightforward.  But people also felt the city had some redeeming qualities.

In last two and half decades or so, the Manu Sharma case(1999) where the murderer shot a bartender for refusing to serve him; the sordid  tandoor murder (1995) where a suspicious husband killed his wife and several other outrageous occurrences which wreaked havoc in the city exposing its underbelly  and shaped its reputation as a place where nothing is right. This is the timeframe of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s latest book Villainy.

Upamanyu Chatterjee shot to fame with English August in 1988. The Last Burden (1993), Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000) and many more critically acclaimed novels followed. He also wrote a novella, The Revenge of Non-vegetarians (2018) and a collection of long stories, and The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019). He won the Sahitya Academy Award for the Mammaries of the Welfare State in 2000 and, in 2008, was awarded the Order of Officer des Arts et des Letters by the French Government for his contribution to literature.

Villainy is structural delight. It starts in 2016 and then takes the reader to the late 90s, into a completely different narrative setting without any obvious linkage to the former strand. In 2016 a dead body of an anonymous person is discovered in a park one early morning when the residents of the area are starting their day. It remains anonymous even after the police leaves no stone unturned for establishing its identity. The other strain is set in 1997, a boy, a spoilt brat, high on Ecstasy pill, out with his father’s Mercedes Benz, murdered two people and a dog.

Loosely based on the high profile Manu Sharma murder case where a rich man’s son killed a woman and justice was meted out only seven years later, the novel would have been every bit a commercial thriller but for the literary style of Upamanyu Chatterjee. If you subtract the style, however, Villainy reads like a novel waiting to be adopted for a pacy web series. The narrative is speedy; the chapters are long, without becoming tiresome, and episodic; the scenes have a visual quality, and they transition swiftly.

There is another thing that reminds you that Villainy is a work of a literary writer: ideological hangover. When a literary writer writes a thriller, characters’ actions mostly conform to their ideological stereotypes. Nemichand, a rich jeweller, is (or has to be) an amoral man. His attitude towards social or economic inferiors is always driven by a bristling class consciousness. He is boorish and uses expletives whenever aroused but when his benefactors do the same, he feels they are acting above station. Atmaram, Nemichand’s driver, on the other hand, is no paragon of virtues – he has accepted money to have his son, Parmatma, falsely admit to committing the murders – but Atmaram is largely a victim of circumstances, which, being the making of the rich, morally exempt the poor man.

But whatever may be its biases, Villainy works at different levels. As a thriller it doesn’t give you too many boring moments. As a literary fiction it gives some moments to reflect on – you should read Chatterjee’s take on villainy in general. Chatterjee has been able to create a sense of time for both the periods (2016 and the late 90s) the plot operates in. His efforts are sometimes cliched like invoking the most talked about events of those times but sometimes they are subtler and less obvious giving you a feeling of reliving those days.

With declining sales of literary fiction and burgeoning popularity of web series, former literary fiction writers are taking to thrillers discarding their subtler muses. Villainy is quite a journey from English August.  But that the likes of Chatterjee are taking to popular genres is actually good news.  Villainy projects a picture of a society with all its flaws and failings — responsibly and deftly.

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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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Half-Blood

Title: Half-Blood

Author: Pronoti Datta

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

And so, I entered a household trembling with various emotional currents. Shivaji, incredulous that acquiescent Mini had actually contravened his order and brought a stranger’s child home, infuriated that there was nothing he could do about it short of leaving Mini or depositing me back from where I’d come (but where had this kid really come from?). Ratna, ecstatic over the drama, dancing on her toes in anticipation of phoning her masters in Calcutta to report that the child was indeed here and that they could hop into the Howrah Mail for Bombay as they had been waiting to do ever since the news of my adoption was broken to them. But also in Ratna, an incipient feeling of something when she saw my swaddled frame. Was it maternal instinct radiating from her dormant womb? Mini, awash with love for the child of a man she had been passionate about, thrilled at her own audacity and at finally having something in this relationship that she could control.

“You had two things in your favour,” Mini said. “As the offspring of a Parsi couple, there was no question of caste. Secondly, you’re fair. If you were dark-skinned, your dadu-thamma would’ve had an issue.”

In the two days it took the senior Debs to arrive from Calcutta, I had won Ratna over fully. She was prepared to mutiny against her masters if they tried to banish me, aligning with Mini for the first and only time. At last, Ratna could practice her vast knowledge of natal care lying untapped, and Mini let her, out of (a brief period of) gratitude. When I was constipated, which was often as an infant, Ratna would oil a betel leaf and lightly brush my disobedient sphincter with the suppository. When I had the runs, she would feed me a buttery mash of boiled potato and rice, the most effective jammer for a mischievous colon, rolled into spheres with fingers and palm and lined up like soldiers on my plate. She massaged my little body with mustard oil to get my circulation going and for a couple of years every day planted a black dot of kohl on my temple to ward off lurking evil eyes.

The Debs tried to persuade Mini to return me. How could she thrust a stranger’s child on their son, especially since she was the one with a bad uterus? At this point, Ratna, who had overheard the fights between Mini and Shivaji, privately told Shivaji’s mother that the problem was not with Mini but with Shivaji’s plumbing. The doctor had suggested the issue could have something to do with his weight. But Shivaji had accepted defeat immediately, refusing to exercise or diet. Her tactic had the desired effect. The Debs, feeling responsible for their son’s deleterious eating habits, backed off, going as far as to gently suggest to Shivaji that the child might repair his strained marriage. Back in Calcutta, when they told the rest of the family and friends about their adopted grandchild, they made themselves out to be progressive folk.

“Everyone there thinks you were their idea,” Mini said.

They stayed for three months. Initially, they viewed me with suspicion, the way you look at a bag that has been abandoned in the train, worried it might detonate. This was partly because I was obviously not a Deb. I was too good looking, with the milky skin, fleshy features and golden-brown ringlets of a cherub gambolling in the skies of an Italian fresco. But it didn’t take very long for them to warm to me and pitch in with their own ideas of child-rearing. They insisted my head be shaved at the age of two months as was customary. Mini was opposed but gave in since the Debs had accepted me. In place of my Botticellian curls, there grew limp, black hair.

“I cried when your head was shaved,” Mini said. “But those two were relieved to see your new hair because it made you look less foreign.”

What Mini hid from everyone, even prying Ratna, was a box of objects that came along with me. Burjor had wanted Mini to pass it on to me at an appropriate age. She gave it to me when I was eighteen, the day after my naïve confession about Danish Khan. Mini insisted I open the carton in her presence.

“I’d like some privacy,” I said.

“You’re such a coward you’ll put it away at the back

of your cupboard without looking if I leave you alone,”

she said.

“I might not be ready.”

“You’re eighteen, you’re ready.”

Excerpted from Half-Blood by Pronoti Datta. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

 ‘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.’

It is 2009, more than a decade after Maya read this intriguing letter addressed to her. The awkward, adopted child of an odd Bengali couple, she’s now a 34-year-old journalist in an existential mess that she alleviates by smoking pot and going on long walks with her latest boyfriend. But in order to find the meaning she craves, Maya must confront her past, and open a box of objects she inherited. When she finally does, she’s led on a startling, sparkling journey of discovery.

At the centre of this journey is Burjor Elavia, a ‘fifty-fifty’, an ‘Adhkachru’— the illegitimate child of a Parsi man and a tribal woman—born in a nondescript village in Gujarat. In 1952, not yet eighteen, he made his way to Bombay, where he lived a colourful life—promiscuous, reckless, involved in a string of shady businesses, but also compassionate and a charmer. His greatest achievement was an audacious venture for fifty-fifty Parsis like himself, many of them strugglers, some of them on the make and all of them eccentric. In their tangled, mixed-up, funny life stories, Maya tries to find her beginnings—and maybe her future.

Set in the teeming, varied universe that is Bombay, Half-Blood is an entertaining, full-blooded novel about dysfunctional families, plucky survivors, chancers, mavericks and good-hearted rogues. A celebration of vitality, impurity and other true virtues of life, it is a marvellous debut.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Pronoti Datta was a journalist for over thirteen years, covering culture and society in Bombay. This is her first novel and she draws much inspiration from the city. She lives in Bombay (minus cats or children) and works as an editor of digital content.

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The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories From Nagaland

Book review by Indrashish Banerjee

Title: The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories From Nagaland

Author: Temsula  Ao

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

The problem with any place that’s politically disturbed is that the rest of the aspects of the place – its culture, society, myths, beliefs – are obscured to outsiders. The place comes to be seen only through the prism of the disturbances and not savoured for its characteristics, its turmoils casting an impregnable shadow on its people, myths, its flora and fauna. Slowly even literature gets so obsessed with its ‘issues’ that it becomes difficult to find anything to read on the place which doesn’t talk about them or delves deeper. 

 Temsula  Ao’s The Tombstone in My Garden cuts through that roughage and takes its readers to the soul of Nagaland – to its villages, tribal myths, social practices that have been woven into five short stories that light a torch into every aspect of society in Nagaland.  Without the pretence of being a social observer or commentator, the narratives unfold with the unobtrusiveness of a storyteller who doesn’t highlight social practices judgementally but as ordinary things — unworthy of special attention. The perniciousness can be felt only after they arrive at their narrative outcomes. 

A very significant voice from Nagaland and contemporary Indian literature, Temsula Ao, has won several prestigious awards including the Padma Shri in 2007 and the Nagaland Governors’ Award for Distinction in Literature in 2009. Her Laburnum for My Head, a collection of short stories, won her the Sahitya Academy Award in 2013. 

The opening story, ‘The Platform’, takes us into the world of Nandu, a Bihari migrant to Nagaland who earns his living working as a coolie in Dimapur railway station. Promoted to become a senior among other porters for his hard work and his knowledge of various languages, including Nagamese, one day Nandu picks up an abandoned Muslim boy from the platform. He, slowly, develops paternal feelings for the waif despite a constant tension between the two due to their religious differences. 

But life in a railway station is hardly far from the lives who make a living from vices. As the boy grows up, he falls into the company of Shankar, a pimp. One day a fight breaks out between the boy and Shankar over a prostitute – and it ends in the boy’s carefully guarded religious identity getting exposed. The next day Nandu sees a crowd in the platform. He goes to find out what it’s about – and finds the boy dead. 

‘Snow-Green’, the third story in the collection, is thematically an open-ended story – where enthusiasts of many stripes will find something for them. The fate of the self-centred mistress will warm the cockles of the environmentalist’s heart. When Snow-Green’s trauma starts, the climate enthusiast will feel vindicated about his convictions about human treatment of nature being responsible for our current climate-induced miseries. The turn of the events at the end is impressive. 

In the ‘Saga of a Cloth’, when a brawl becomes the last straw, leading the village Council to expel Imlijongshi from the village, you will feel a bit vindicated: Imlijongshi, the self-destructive fool has finally got what he deserved. However, when the story makes a complete U-turn after that, you will feel you should have held back your judgement.  

“In a small voice almost breaking with grief and perhaps regrets too, Otsu addressed the departing figure, ‘Jongshi, wait, I have something important to tell you which you must know; do not leave me to die alone with this secret’.” 

This passage brimming with suspense is almost a start to another story retreating three generations, to a different time and space, when Otsu was a young girl dating Imdong and being stalked by Lolen unaware of what the future held in store. By the time the narrative descends three generations and returns to Imlijongshi, your feelings about the boy, his fate, his grandmother and the whole business of life — will be much more introspective, much more nuanced, much less stereotypical. 

‘The Tombstone in my Garden’, the title story of the collection, has some similarities with ‘The Saga of Cloth’. Both are long stories spanning generations; both have a woman at the centre suffering because of marriages to men they hadn’t intended to marry. But there the similarities end. Whereas ‘The Saga of Cloth’ has a rural, rustic setting, ‘The Tombstone in my Garden’ has an urban setting. Whereas Otsu is rooted in Naga traditions, Lily Anne is just the opposite, an Anglo Indian who deals with jibes about her dual cultural identity her whole life.  But that is just one aspect of ‘The Tombstone in my Garden’. 

A first-person narrative, the story starts on a suspenseful note, an old lady explaining her relationship with a tombstone, the graveyard of her husband, in her garden.  Using the tombstone as a starting point, she slowly meanders into her story. The reader is kept guessing till her narrative is complete. The story has a feminist touch. 

The stories in The Tombstone in My Garden may be short but they are very unlike short stories. They don’t rely on snappy twists in the tale to keep them going. Instead the plots move at an unhurried speed, one subplot making way for another seamlessly and gracefully. For instance, the  impact of Lolen’s contempt for Otsu’s life riles not so much while reading of the deeds, their immediacy and narrative pace preoccupying the reader, but impacts when Otsu’s entire later life seems mangled by Lolen’s intemperate actions.  Similarly, the reader is miffed not so much by the supercilious indifference of the mistress to the Snow-Green, a flowering plant of rare beauty but how a shallow human need of the mistress — her desire to win the first prize in the annual flower show — towers over the most existential concerns of the flowering plant. 

You may argue this is the nature of all narratives – to take you to extraordinary outcomes through seemingly ordinary occurrences – but where Tombstone In My Garden differs is that it acquaints with the ‘ordinary’ things about a place where we have come to believe the ordinary is always in short supply. 

At the end, almost all the stories have clearly demarcated epilogues narrating the later fates of the characters. This helps remove the conclusions from the immediacy of the preceding story leaving the reader ruminating with the advantage of hindsight and a melancholic feeling, like an aftertaste of a novel.

 As time goes short stories are moving away from their parental identity – the novel. They are getting shorter all the time and are being seen as tools for instant gratification. The current song and dance over flash fiction is an example. Temsula Ao’s collection of short stories makes the reverse journey, taking the short story back to its parental origin – the novel. 

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

Categories
Editorial

‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’

Art by Sohana Manzoor
‘Why does education in love not feature in today’s curriculum?’
— Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan (Translated by Radha Chakravarty, 2022, Seagull Books)

As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, one pauses to think how far commercialisation has seeped in over time that the very concept of a tender emotion was questioned by Tina Turner in a song called, “What’s love got to do with it” nearly four decades ago. 

This was written even before Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) published a nostalgic memoir of 1930’s Santiniketan in Bengali in 2001. She raised her pen to ask the very pertinent question that is quoted above. Why is education in love not a part of our curriculum anymore? She was reminiscing about her days in Santiniketan where children were brought up with rigorous academics while discipline was coloured with love and affection. They nurtured a love for nature in students too. This has become a rarity for many and perhaps needs to be revived as the Earth struggles to continue habitable for humankind. In the process of educating students to love and give, Santiniketan threw up many greats like the writer herself. We are delighted to host an excerpt from the start of Our Santiniketan translated beautifully by Radha Chakravarty.

Santiniketan was only the very visible part of a huge project taken on by Tagore (1861-1941). The other part now united with Santiniketan under the banner of Visva Bharati University is Sriniketan, a group of villages where Tagore experimented with raising consciousness and standards of villagers to integrate them into a larger world. He brought in new techniques in agriculture and crafts into the villages under this programme involving many prominent scientists, artists and humanists. And the project has blossomed. Did you know Tagore thought of himself as an NGO and his ‘life work’ he felt was developing villages (Sriniketan) and educating young minds to build a world where borders of knowledge, poverty and ignorance could be smoothened?

He wrote: “I alone cannot take responsibility for the whole of India. But even if two or three villages can be freed from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established.

“Fulfill this ideal in a few villages only, and I will say that these few villages are my India. And only if that is done, will India be truly ours.”

All this can be found in a book called A History of Sriniketan (Niyogi Books), written by Uma Das Gupta, a major authority on Tagore who moved from Oxford to Santiniketan and made Tagore’s work in these two institutions her own life’s work. We have featured her and her book in our interview/review section.

Raised out of such ashes of poverty that Tagore sought to dispel, are youngsters from the village of Nithari, where ceaseless efforts by volunteers of organisations like Saksham and pandies’ has given a new lease for life to those who have been exposed to violations, violence, divides, poverty and deprivation. One of them, Sharad Kumar, now studying to be an engineer, kicks off our new section called Pandies’ Corner with his story in Hindustani translated by a volunteer, Grace M Sukanya. His story learns from history and shows rather than tells.

A similar approach to view the present through lenses focussed on the past at a much grander scale has been taken by Shazi Zaman, an author and journalist, who has stepped into the Anglophone world with the transcreation of his own novel from Hindi to English, Akbar, A Novel of History (Speaking Tiger Books). He has brought to the fore how in days when sectarian violence based on religions killed, Akbar (1542-1605) tried to create a new path that would lead to peace so that he could rule over an empire united by administration and not broken by contentious religious animosities which often led to wars. In his interview, he tells us of the relevance of the Great Mughal in a period of history that was torn by divides, divisions so deep that they continue to smoulder to this day and date. That history repeats itself is evident though our living standards seem to improve over time. Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, edited by Ori Z. Soltes, also reinforces these divides and amalgamations in the modern context. The other books that have been reviewed include The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud by Indrashish Banerjee, and Gracy Samjetsabam has introduced us to an intriguing murder mystery in Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons.

Translations have thrown up interesting colours this time with a Tamil story by a Sahitya Akademi winning writer, S Ramakrishnan, translated on our pages by B Chandramouli, one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi and of course a transcreation of Tagore’s songs where he sings of the meeting of horizons. A beautiful poem by eminent Balochi poet Atta Shad (1939-1997) has been translated by Fazal Baloch. We are again privileged to host an original translation of Jibananda Das(1899-1954) by Professor Fakrul Alam. We also managed to get permission to share some of Professor Alam’s fabulous translations of Jibananada Das from UPL (United Press Limited) and are starting it out by excerpting two of his poems on Banalata Sen, which were till now restricted to readership who only had access to the hardcopy. Rakibul Hasan Khan has given us an essay on these translations. An interesting essay on Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) by Rebanata Gupta and personalised tribute to the first Booker Prize winner from New Zealand, Keri Hulme (1947-2021), by Keith Lyons, who had many non-literary encounters with the sequestered author, add to the richness of our oeuvre.

Ratnottama Sengupta has also paid a moving tribute to the music legend, Lata Mangeshkar, who died at the age of 92 on 6th February, 2022. The choral symphony of multiple voices that hums through the paean recreating the larger than life presence of Lata reinforces that her lilting voice will stay embedded in many hearts and lives forever. Her perfect honing of musical skills delivered with the right emotions make her an epitome of human excellence. She gave the best of herself to the world.

Brooding on death and suicide is Candice Louisa Daquin essay. This is a topic under discussion as Switzerland might start a resort for abetting suicides. It is rather frightening that while people value life and as technology and humans work in consonance to preserve it, the rich can think of squandering away this unique process that has till now not been replicated. The other strange long literary yarn that is dark in colours is woven by Sunil Sharma as he explores the futility and self-pity experienced by retirees in their existentialist quest to find a meaning to live. It has bits of poetry too. Penny Wilkes has also introduced verses into her photographic tour of dewdrops. Candice’s vibrant poetry this time has joined that of Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Mike Smith, A Jessie Michael, Ananya Sarkar, Jay Nicholls, Saptarshi Bhattacharya, Rhys Hughes and many more I leave you to unfold. Rhys Hughes has also given us a spooky piece which says ghosts might be genies — check it out. Do you agree or is he just being bizarre and funny?

Wrapped in more dry humour is Devraj Singh Kalsi narrative on why he does not want pets. Meredith Stephens, on the contrary loves pets and sails the seas of West Australia with her camera, words, seals and dolphins. Luke PG Draper also speaks for animals — for the intrusion of pollutants that harm creatures like whales in his short story. Hop all over the world with Ravi Shankar breaking nightly fasts with food from different cultures. More colour is brought in by Suzanne Kamata who starts a new column, Notes from Japan — introducing us to Japanese sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, who has sung his way to hearts with Lativian songs that he loves, so much so that he got to perform at the Japanese coronation and has pictures with the Latvian President.

The time has come to let you discover the mysterious pieces that have not been mentioned here in the February edition — and there are many.  

Before I wind up till the next month, I would like to thank our fabulous team who make this journal possible. Keith Lyons has now become part of that team and has graciously joined our editorial board. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious deserve a special kudos for their fabulous artwork. Our grateful, heartfelt thanks to all our wonderful contributors and readers who keep the journal alive.

Wish you all a lovely month.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Interview Review

Akbar: The Man Who was King

In Conversation with Shazi Zaman, author of Akbar: A Novel of History, published by Speaking Tiger Books

“I profess the religion of love, and whatever direction
Its steed may take, Love is my religion and my faith.”
— Ibn-i-Arabi (1165-1240), Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman

These lines were written by a mystic from Spain who influenced Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), a ruler who impacted the world with his broad outlook. Based on such ideology as preached by Ibn-i-Arabi more than three hundred years before him, with an urge to transcend differences and unite a world torn by strife, the great Mughal founded his own system of beliefs. He had few followers. But Akbar chose to be secular and not to impose his beliefs on courtiers, many of whom continued to follow the pre-existing religions. He tried to find tolerance in the hearts of practitioners of different faiths so that they would respect each other’s beliefs and live in harmony, allowing him to rule impartially.

Akbar is reported to have said: “We perceive that there are varying customs and beliefs of varying religious paths. For the teachings of the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis, the Jews and the Christians are all different. But the followers of each religion regard the institutions of their own religion as better than those of any other. Not only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If these refuse to be converted, they not only despise them, but also regard them for this very reason as their enemies. And this causes me to feel many serious doubts. Wherefore I desire that on appointed days the books of all the religious laws be brought forward, and that the doctors meet together and hold discussions, so that I may hear them, and that each one may determine which is the truest and the mightiest religion.” Of such discussions and ideals was born Akbar’s new faith, Din-i-ilahi.

Was it exactly like this? Were these Akbar’s exact words?

They have been put in perspective by an author and a journalist who has written a novel based on his research on the grand Mughal, Shazi Zaman. He tells us in the interview why he opted to create a man out of Akbar rather than a historical emperor based only on facts. He has even mentioned that Akbar might have been dyslexic in the introduction. But Zaman’s admiration for the character he has recreated for us overflows and floods the reader with enthusiasm for this legendary Mughal. Akbar is depicted as a man who was far ahead of his times. He talked of syncretism and secularism in a world where even factions within the same religion were killing each other.

Akbar by Shazi Zaman in Hindi

The novel was first written and published in Hindi in 2017 by the bilingual Zaman, who started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since, worked with several media organisations. Zaman trans created his Hindi novel on Akbar to English to reach out to a broader audience. The whole experience has been a heady one for Zaman as the interview shows but for the reader what is it like? To start with one felt like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, except one was flitting around in the Indian subcontinent of the sixteenth century, with a few incursions to the Middle-East, but mostly within India. Transported to a different age, it takes a while to get one’s bearings. Once that is established, the novel is a compelling read.

The first part deals with Akbar’s developmental years and the second part with his spiritual outlook which helped him create an empire with many colours of people and religions. This is a novel that has been written differently from other historical novels, like Aruna Chakravarti’s  Jorasanko (2013), for the simple reason that it belongs to a different time and ethos which was farther from our own or Tagore’s times.  Akbar has a larger tapestry of people across a broader canvas than Jorasanko and it takes time to grasp the complexities of relationships and interactions. The other recent non-fiction which springs to the mind while reading Akbar is Avik Chanda’s Dara Shukoh: The Man Who would be King (2019) about the great grandson of the emperor who lived from 1615-1659. Again, this was a narrative closer to our times and was not a novel, but a creative non-fiction based strongly on history. While Dara’s character painted by Chanda showed weaknesses like an inability to respect the nobility or plan wars, Akbar painted by Zaman is kind but a man of action who ruled and intended to rule well. A leader — one has to remember — is not always the most popular man. Nor was Akbar with his eccentricities and erudition despite his inability to read — the book does tell us why he did not learn to read and how he educated himself. Most of the novel is a work of passion based on extensive research over two decades. As Henry Kissinger had said at a much later date, “The task of the leader is to get their people from where they are to where they have not been.” And the Akbar recreated by Zaman does just that.

Shazi Zaman

Zaman who had been with the ABP (Anand Bazar Patrika) News Network as their Group Editor, was on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. He has worked with Aaj Tak, Zee News, Star News and also with the BBC World Service, London. He has served as the Director, Video Services of the Press Trust of India. Akbar is his third novel. He has authored two novels in Hindi earlier. In Akbar: A Novel of History (2021), Zaman with his journalistic background and his love for literature inherited from his novelist father, Khwaja Badiuzzaman, has done the mammoth task of astutely bringing to life a character who might have been a perfect solution to the leadership crisis that many are facing in the current day.

If you are still wondering how close this novel comes to the Bollywood movie called Jodha Akbar (2008), the major things in common were the grand Mughal’s sense of justice and his ability to tame wild elephants! For a deeper understanding of both the emperor and the book, in this exclusive, Zaman tells us what went into the making of this novel and his journey.

Why did you choose to write of Akbar?

One has to have a bit of Akbar inside oneself to write on him—and to read about him as well. Writing on Akbar was not a conscious decision. By the time I realised that I was going to write a novel of history on Akbar, my sub-conscious was miles ahead. Of course his personality had attributes that appealed to me consciously and sub-consciously, especially his belief in primacy of ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind imitation of tradition) and his ability to question all orthodoxies.

Do you think Akbar is relevant in the current context?

I believe that his message is so ennobling that it transcends the boundaries of space and time. Across ages and across geographies, and within a geography by various groups and communities, his memory has been kept alive.

There was a book a few years ago called Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King. Would you say he would be more relevant for our times than Akbar or is Akbar a better choice?

It is difficult to give them a comparative score. Dara could have been a very worthy successor to Akbar. And his initiatives and writings are really inspiring. Robustness of ideas and your resolve to push them are tested when faced with exigencies of statecraft. Sadly, Dara did not get that chance and Akbar did. I find that Akbar could navigate but sometimes be audacious to the extent that his courtier poet-musician Tansen had to caution, ‘dheere dheere dheere man, dheere hi sab kachhu hoye (Slowly, slowly, slowly, all happens at a slow pace)’.How would Dara have navigated while on throne is an unanswered question in Indian history. Having said this, his defeat in the battle of succession should not undermine the originality of his initiatives.

Why did you choose to write this in a novel form? Dara Shukoh was a non-fiction. Have you introduced fiction into this?

History largely tells us what happened. Most often it does not tell us of the state of mind that brought people to the point where we find them take momentous decisions. I think momentous events or actions are rooted in mental journeys. And these journeys are seldom documented. When Akbar faced a mental crisis—‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ (a strange state) as a contemporary called it— in the summer of 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum, one wants to map what was happening in his mind and what had brought him to that point.

What lay behind the agitation of this man who was one of the mightiest emperors of the world, who had never lost a battle and was at the peak of his power ? Were there some forces testing his patience ?  Or as he stood at a place linked to the history of his forefathers, did he wonder about the trauma they had faced ? Or when he dealt a physical blow to a top cleric of yester years, there must have been a mental journey preceding this act. One can try and go into a person’s mind by closely studying his actions and utterances as also that of people and texts that influence him. We all know that people often mean much more than what they choose to say and sometimes, they say one thing and mean the other.

A close examination of this maze can give a glimpse of what was happening inside the great mind. As you try to create a period piece around his state of mind you mine information from all available sources—textual, aural, visual, architectural. For me fidelity to known facts is essential even in historical fiction. But there does come a point when the trail goes cold. Even the best documentary evidence might be insufficient in finding all the pieces of the period piece. For example, we do not know what Akbar was wearing the night he experienced the ‘haalat-i-ajeeb‘ but we have a Mughal miniature in all likelihood of the next morning when Akbar takes an unexpected decision about the great game. Now, it has come down to us that he appeared wearing last night’s clothes. So we know what he was probably wearing at the time he was in ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ of the previous day. Or we do not know the details of the carpet of the room where he lay dying. Nobody recorded that. Thankfully, some details have come down to us of carpets of those times. I have chosen to use them. After exhausting all means of finding the right pieces of this period piece, I have exercised my imagination. So this is fiction very much rooted in history. If I have been able to do what I had intended, you would feel you have read his mind as also feel that you are actually standing backstage in the Akbarian arena.

In the debate I often encounter about the element of history in historical fiction, perhaps we miss a basic point. Most fiction has history in it. Some have history that is known. Some have history that is personal or unique to the author. It is only when known history figures in your work that the issue of reality versus fiction surfaces. Otherwise, this mingling is not questioned.

What was the kind of research you did? How long did it take you to research and write this book? Tell us about its evolution.

The idea had been simmering under the surface since early years. As I have mentioned in my preface, a childhood incident imprinted Akbar on my mind. During my school days, a member of the education department of the government made a surprise inspection and gave a short introduction to Akbar’s life and his relevance to our times. It left a mark. I was especially blessed to have teachers who stoked my interest. I shall be eternally grateful to my teacher Muhammad Amin–Amin Saheb as he was called at St.Stephen’s College (Delhi University) — to have brought history to life in classroom and sessions outside classroom. Amin Saheb taught us Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ , which he said stands not for tolerance or co-existence because even these terms denote some separation. He said, Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ meant harmony. Amin Saheb taught us about Akbar’s desire to build bridges and his respect for diversity. Many like me graduated from the university but never left his class. I feel privileged that for quarter of a century after leaving College I continued to sit at his feet and learn about Akbar. A good teacher teaches and also shows the path to further learning.

My interest in Mughal miniatures took me to various museums within the country and abroad and of course to places like Fatehpur Sikri–a city that Akbar created with a purpose– very often.  Over decades I have gathered in my personal collection most of what has been written about Akbar and almost all books published on his art and architecture. I can say that all published Mughal miniatures reside in my study now.  So Akbar was a character I had been breathing much before it became the idea of a novel.  However, for a period spread over two decades I did consciously try to piece together a story.

 How did you create the character of Akbar ?

Akbar was not merely a historical figure. He was also acutely conscious that he was making history. And as a person conscious of this, he left ample footprints.

When you try to get into a person’s mind you piece together all he saw and read (or in case of Akbar, was read to) and experienced; all he interacted with; all he surrounded himself with; all he spoke and wanted to be spoken, read and spread; and all that he created. Foremost, of course, is  Akbarnama which was a monumental image  building exercise entrusted to a close and trusted courtier, Abul Fazl. Abul Fazl knew what went on in Akbar’s mind. This work is rich in details and is a comprehensive history of Akbar and his forefathers. Akbar also commissioned others who knew his forefathers to write histories that would help Abul Fazl in his work. Akbarnama is an official account. It was vetted by Akbar and tells us how Akbar wanted to be seen by his contemporaries and by future generations. It is extremely useful in giving us the image the emperor aimed to project.

Then there were many others who wrote their histories during his reign. But it is the history called Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh by a disgruntled cleric, Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni, which was written secretly that gives us an unofficial perspective.  I am grateful to the anonymous author of the historic Rajasthani work, Dalpat Vilas, for giving an informal and unique access into the emperor’s mind. Anybody studying Akbar feels especially grateful for the elaborate atelier —tasveer khana — as it was called — that the emperor established. Paintings made under his direction and patronage give us a vivid picture of what he thought was worth projecting. If you look closely, Mughal miniatures of his time often have a story and even a back story that gives you an indication of the emperor’s mind.

Akbar built at a huge scale and many of his buildings still stand tall and the stones speak even now of why he gave them the shape that he did. Then of course are works related to his ancestors like Baburnama which Akbar was fond of and later, of his son’s Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Akbar’s public contact and communication was prolific. We might well have seen him if we were living in that age. He travelled and interacted widely.

Almost every morning of his half a century long reign he appeared at the balcony so that the subjects could see him. Even those who did not see him felt his presence. Banarsidas, a trader of his time, who also wrote a chronicle, notes the widespread alarm amongst common people when the emperor fell ill. Letters  Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar wrote to Uzbek and Persian kings, the emperor of Spain and Portugal, to nobles and others have been handed down to us. His interactions with religious persons find mention in Vaishnavite, Jain and Mahdawi literature. The letters that Jesuits at his court were writing to their superiors are useful for their perspective as also for the ‘unofficial’ details. Then there were personalities Akbar drew to his court who were poets, warriors, administrators and diplomats who were themselves eminent enough to be written about, or  were writers themselves. I closely studied them.

Abdur Rahim Khan-i-khanan was like a son to Akbar and wrote poetry that is timeless in its appeal. Tansen, an eminent poet and musician at his court wrote ‘takhat baitho Mahabali ishvar hoye avtar (the mighty Emperor sits on the throne as incarnation of God)’, which is how Akbar would have wanted to be described.  Works written on Raja Mansingh like Mancharit and Mancharitra Raso helped me understand a mighty noble, who again was like a son—‘farzand’—to Akbar. Akbar himself is believed to have been a poet and pieces of poetry deemed to be his have come down to us. His memory resonates even now in folk songs.

In terms of material evidence of personal effects, we have an armour of Akbar which was helpful in ascertaining his approximate height. Of course, this was achieved with the help of experts.  Not all that one gathered necessarily went into this work but I tried to gather as much as I could so as to know how Akbar lived, ate, slept, worked, played, deliberated, relaxed, fought and thought and what was the world he inhabited, and also what was the kind of world he wanted to inhabit.

I must say that I tried to access original sources in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages with the help of experts, in addition to what I could read myself in English, Hindi and Urdu.

In your introduction you have said Akbar might have been dyslexic or bipolar. Why? What made you think he might have been dyslexic or bipolar? Could it not be that as a child he was not just into books and therefore did not learn to read?

There has been some academic work on some of the issues Akbar faced. I think his behaviour on the full moon night of the year 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum and on occasions before that definitely call for more investigations in that direction, though one is conscious that the emperor himself is not available for close examination. As for dyslexia specifically, one can say that the man loved books. He commissioned and collected them at a huge scale but he did not read them. They were read out to him. Historical sources indicate that he could not read or write. Though I have seen copies of his handwriting, they seem laboured. It would be a fair assumption that he was dyslexic. I think he was a great visual learner. That is why no Mughal emperor before or after had as big a tasveer khana as him.

You have repeated this phrase thrice in the book. ‘Hindus should eat beef, Muslims should eat pork, and if not this, fry a sheep in the pan. If it turns into pork, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it turns into beef, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it becomes pork, Muslims should have it. If it becomes beef, Hindus should have it. A divine miracle would thus happen.’ Why?

More than one account reveal puzzling behaviour and utterances of the emperor. This forced one person to say that this was ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’. Nobody at that time could fully understand his state or his words. I feel that it was reflective of his anguish over religious disputes and religious orthodoxy. An emperor who had never lost a contest was getting impatient. In moments of mental crisis it is possible for a person to  say things which have layers of meaning. One has to peep underneath the words to fathom the anguish of  a sensitive mind. This was one such utterance. 

What is the most endearing quality you found in Akbar? And why?

It is difficult to pinpoint one in a person who embodied numerous qualities. His belief in giving precedence to ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind adherence to tradition). His spirit of enquiry and his desire to provide space for differing thoughts. He believed—“It is my duty to have good understanding with all men. If they walk in the way of God’s will, interference with them would be in itself reprehensible; and if otherwise, they are under the malady of ignorance and deserve my compassion.”

There is an incident mentioned in the book. The Jesuits who came with the intention of converting Akbar finally despaired because he would give them ample space and ample attention but stop short of conversion. So one evening, they came and sought leave since their embassy had failed in its purpose. Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar replied, “…how can you say that the time you have spent with us has been profitless, seeing that formerly the Muslims had so much credit in my land that if any had dared to say that Jesus Christ was the true God, he would straightway have been put to death; whereas you are now able to say this, and to preach the same in all security ?”

You wrote the novel first in Hindi and then trans created it to English. Why? What is the difference between the Hindi and the English versions?

The novel Akbar naturally came to my mind in Hindi, a language the emperor would have been comfortable with had he been alive. Having said this, I am grateful to my publishers, Rajkamal and Speaking Tiger, for initiating the idea of an English  version. And I did immediately see the need to take Akbar to a wider audience because the novel has an idiom and language rooted in Hindustan but Akbarian thought and vision have an appeal that is wider than the regions he ruled. So the challenge was to take the text, sub-text and the idiom to an English audience. The challenge was also to make Akbar’s 16th century intelligible to 21st century English-speaking world. I have tried my best with help of editors at Speaking Tiger to make it a work English speakers would be at home with. I am sure they would be able to savour the milieu, the plot and the sensibility of 16th century Hindustan in their preferred language.  A good translation should in fact be a trans creation and should read like it has been written in the same language. 

You have two novels in Hindi. Do you plan to translate those too to English? Why? Why not write directly in English?

I believe that no thought is completely translatable into words and no words are completely translatable into another set of words. Thus the word transcreation. The first two novels Premgali Ati Sankri (The Narrow Alley of Love) and Jism Jism Ke Log (Various Bodies) have intense conversation between characters which is rooted in their shared understanding of an idiom. Translation is desirable and relatable because stories strike a chord across space but works have texts, sub-text and idiom. The problem and the challenge lies in taking the sub-text and the idiom into another language. That is why trans creation requires a deep understanding of the text, the sub-text and the idiom of the original work as also of the sensibilities of the audience for whom you are trans creating. Having said this, I would be happy to translate the first two novels for an English readership. The theme would strike a chord, the idiom would need some fine work.

Will you shuttle between English and Hindi in the future? Are you planning more books?

Shuttling between Hindi and English is an interesting thought. I am already seized by an idea that came to my mind as an English text. It is germinating. As for more books, I have already sent a Hindi novelet for publication which could be thematically seen as third in series after Premgali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism Ke Log. While telling stories to my children, and making them up as I went along, I created a short novel for children which awaits publication. I am also in the process of writing another novel in the genre of historical fiction.

Thank you for your time.

This is an online interview conducted on behalf of Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty.

Click here to read an excerpt from Akbar: A Novel of History

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Review

The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes

Book Review by Indrashish Banerjee

Title: The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Travel books that I have read so far, broadly fall into two categories. One is investigative and the other is a spontaneous account of the author’s experience. If one is analytical, the other is immediate. It’s not necessary that the two styles can’t be combined. V.S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now (1990) is a good example of that: a mix of investigation of a place’s past and present through ordinary people’s lives combined with day-to-day travel details. Bill Bryson’s Travels in Small-Town America (1989) is about Bryson’s experience of visiting the towns of America with occasional dosage of nostalgia.

The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud falls into the second category – a spontaneous account of events as seen by the author. However, where it’s different from travel books in general (and the ones mentioned above) is that it doesn’t stick to a singular theme. A collection of essays, some autobiographical, some reports, the book takes the reader through a kaleidoscopic journey spanning continents, lives and topics ranging from when the author takes his first steps into the world of writing as a child to the time he is a mature travelling journalist covering topics as diverse as Suharto’s rule in Indonesia to dacoits in India. 

If you are familiar with Dom Moraes ((1938-2004) as a poet, novelist and columnist, you will not be surprised by the sheer finesse of writing you encounter as you move from one essay to another, although you may have your own favourites. Regarded as one of the giants of Indian English literature, Moraes won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize when he was just 20 followed by Sahitya Academy Award and a series of other literary awards in England, America and India.

The book starts with an introduction by Sarayu Srivastava recounting the last days of Moreas with detours to his past. The introduction has a morbid element to it, as did Moraes’s life. But, surprisingly, the morbid mood the introduction sets, vaporises in the pieces that follow.

The first two travel pieces are purely autobiographical. ‘His Father’s Son’ (1945) recollects the carefree childhood days of Dom Moraes in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where is father, a reporter with Times of India, was posted. There is a strong visual element to how the natural world of these places has been described. Anecdotes about a child – Moraes – discovering this natural world slowly almost reads like the formative pages of a novel. In ‘Figures in the Landscape’ (1955) Moraes is equally carefree, if a little awkward, going through a range of experiences, some writerly, others potentially amorous, in that global capital of arts, artists and sensuality, Paris.

But there is a tragic and frightening aspect to the pieces, too, which appears and retreats only to reappear as if to remind you that life is not just about gambolling. That aspect is the gradual mental deterioration of Dom Moreas’s mother who was given to violence. Her fits of violence form a recurrent theme until she leaves Ceylon and returns to Bombay to stay with her relatives. But even after she departs, her presence constantly lurks in the background. And when she does reappear, either actually or via recollection, the atmosphere of the essay instantly changes.

She, although absent from many other pieces in the collection, casts a shadow on her son such that some of the actions of the son, particularly his introverted and melancholic personality, seem to be coloured by his mother’s tragedy. One can sense in later essays where the author has grown up, how the derangement of the mother would have affected the son. That almost becomes a subterranean subtheme.

The following opening passage of ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ is a case in point.

One recalled the oddest things: I remember a toy-shop in a Knightsbridge arcade where I used to go when very unhappy, during my first days in London, in order to buy small delicate glass toys which I later smashed, one by one, in the fireplace of my flat, with a malediction against anything beautiful.”

Moraes had a complex relationship with his mother. And in the essays that are a throwback to his childhood days, you meet a helpless child unable to make up his mind whether he loves his mother for who she is, or is indifferent to her — seeing her from a distance with a sense of fright and awe.

As the book progresses, the world of Moraes opens up further. ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ (1959) is about a sudden journey to Sikkim and surrounding places. There is a tension in the place that it’s abuzz with Chinese spies, and that China is engaged in incursions and military build-up in the Indian border states. The year is 1959 and developments are admittedly a precursor to the things to come in 1962. Written more than half a century ago, the essay reads disturbingly current. The essay’s narrative is much tauter, almost like a spy thriller, than the other essays.

Since the global brouhaha about climate change is not older than roughly a decade and half, we tend to locate all climate disasters to recent times, having settled into the belief that the past generations were coexisting with nature in peace and harmony. However, the subcontinent has always been home to extreme climate events going back to the 18th century.

“Geography as well as history has always been linked to East Pakistan.” When I read this sentence, the first sentence in ‘Death by Water’ (1970), I thought I was in for an account of the atrocities on the Hindu population of East Pakistan during that period but was surprised to find an extremely well-informed report on a cyclone which had hit the region in 1970. The sea level had risen to a great height creating a ‘water wall’, according to eyewitnesses, which had then crashed on the land raging inland with a monster force and then stopping and moving back into the sea. The next day when helicopters were sent to survey the damage, bodies of humans and cattle were found floating in the sea, river and crevices. 

In ‘Dispatches from Indonesia’ (1972), Moraes visits a country under the tyrannical rule of General Suharto. The dictator had come to power seven years before his visit through a military coup, and immediately after, there was a crackdown on the intelligentsia. Some were executed and some sent to prison camps. Moraes travels to one such prison camp outside the city and meets two famous prisoners, Suprapto (Soeprapto), the former Attorney General, and Pramudja (Pramudya Ananta Tur), a famous writer. Their lives are a reflection of the losses and tragedies the critics of the regime suffered.

In ‘The Company of Dacoits’ (1981), Moraes withdraws from the world of dictators and devastating floods and enters the rugged terrain of dacoits.  We meet Lajjaram, who is dead and whose body is being constantly mishandled by the police, and Lakshman Singh Rathore, alias Lachhi, an eighteen-year-old boy who was thrust into dacoity by his circumstances, first to seek help to avenge his father being deceived, and then to pay for the help received by becoming a fulltime bandit. The rest of the essay is about Lachhi trying to get himself acquitted of the crimes committed by other dacoits in his group. 

Likewise, the other pieces also deal with human conditions in varied settings.                    

The essays are undoubtedly dated, but the subjects they deal with brim with recency: human disaster, tyrannical govt, national expansionism, inaccessibility of justice. Over a period of time, these subjects, of course, have acquired a new lexicon: territorial conflict, climate change, human right excesses and so on.

The collective time span of the pieces is almost 60 years. Dom Moraes’s gaze is that of a writer, rather than of a journalist, always looking out for human tragedies, helplessness and intricacies within bigger narratives of climate disaster, military coups and national conflicts.

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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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Categories
Excerpt

Akbar: A Novel by Shazi Zaman

Title: Akbar: A Novel of History

Author: Shazi Zaman

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

Now people began to hear of Badshah Salamat’s close links with the region of Braj. His visit was described in a dhrupad —

Shah Chhatrapati Akbar visits the Braj region,
Kings of the seven islands, nine regions and ten directions tremble.
Cavalry, infantry, elephants, and brave warriors,
With bows, arrows, swords and spears.
Not one blot on the clothes of Humayun’s son,
How formidable was the army of Jalaluddin Muhammad.

The region of Braj was not far from Fatehpur Sikri. It is said that Badshah Salamat, having listened to the poetry of Surdas, asked when he met him, ‘Surdas ji, God has made me powerful and all the talented people sing my praise. Why don’t you sing my praise too?’

Surdas sang the following words in reply: ‘No space in my heart.’

Badshah Salamat thought, ‘Why would he sing my praise? He would sing if he had the greed to seek something from me. He is a man of God.’

Finally, Surdas sang: ‘Seeing God is like nectar for the thirst that the eyes have.’

Badshah Salamat asked him, ‘Surdas ji, you can’t see. How do you know what this thirst is that the eyes have? How come this metaphor?’

When Surdas kept quiet, Badshah Salamat said, ‘His eyes are with God. He sees there and describes what they see.’

Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘He should be given something but he has been initiated into Vaishnavism. He has no desire.’

People say that when Badshah Salamat heard that the Vaishnav poet Govindswami sang very well, he went out to listen to him in disguise.

Badshah Salamat was fond of travelling incognito among people. In the sixth regnal year, corresponding to about 1560–61 ce, a large group from Agra had camped outside the city on the way to the shrine of Salar Masud Ghazi in Bahraich. Badshah Salamat went to their gathering incognito but some petty criminal recognized him and the word began to spread. To convince people otherwise,

Badshah Salamat rolled his eyes upwards. When people saw this they said, ‘Such eyes and expressions can’t be that of an emperor.’

As Govindswami sang the Raga Bhairav, Badshah Salamat was sure he would not be recognized. But suddenly, as he sat listening, these words escaped his lips, ‘Wah, wah!

Recognizing him, Govindswami said, ‘This raga has lost its value.’

At this Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar said, ‘I am the Emperor.’

Govindswami replied, ‘If you are the Emperor, keep to it. But this raga has lost its value because you listened to it.’

Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘I am the ruler of one country. For him, the grandeur of three worlds is meaningless. Why would he obey my command?’

It is said that Badshah Salamat heard an artiste sing the poetry of the Vaishnav poet Kumbhandas and said, ‘Would there be anyone like him who sees God in this manner?’

The artiste replied, ‘Saheb, he lives even now!’

An excited Badshah Salamat asked for Kumbhandas’s whereabouts. The artiste replied, ‘There is a village near Shrigovardhan called Jamunawat. He lives there.’

When Badshah Salamat’s men reached the residence of Kumbhandas he was in Parasoli. Reaching Parasoli, these men said, ‘Badshah Salamat has asked for you.’

Kumbhandas said to them, ‘I am no servant to the Emperor. What do I have to do with him?’

Badshah Salamat’s men said, ‘How do we know what you have been called for? We are under orders from the Emperor to get Kumbhandas ji. Here is a palanquin and a horse. Please mount and come with us. We have to take you.’

Kumbhandas had no option. Wearing his shoes, he said, ‘Brother! I have never mounted a conveyance. I will go on my own.’ When Kumbhandas reached Sikri on foot, Badshah Salamat

said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, come. Please be seated.’

Badshah Salamat’s elegant tent had precious stones and frills. Even so Kumbhandas felt his home Braj was far better because Shrigovardhannath ji played there.

Badshah Salamat said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, you have written much poetry in praise of Vishnu. That is why we have called you here. Sing for me some poetry in praise of Vishnu.’

Kumbhandas thought, ‘The real patron of my voice is Shrigovardhandhar. But now that I cannot avoid it, I better sing something to ensure he does not ever ask for me. Let me say harsh words. If he minds, so be it.’

Kumbhandas remembered, ‘One who has been adopted by Lord Krishna is always safe. He would come to no harm even if the whole world turns against him.’

Then he recited —

Devotees have no need of Sikri.
One walks one’s shoes threadbare, God’s name forgotten,
And salutes those whose face brings no joy.
O Kumbhandas, without Lord Krishna, these are false destinations.

They say Badshah Salamat felt unhappy when he heard this but said to himself, ‘If he had any greed he would sing my praise. He is a true devotee of his Lord.’

Irritated with Badshah Salamat, Mullah Abdul Qadir Badayuni said, ‘… Hindu infidels, who are indispensable, and of whom half the army, and country, will soon consist and as whom there is not among the Mughals or Hindustani Muslims a tribe so powerful, he could not have enough. But to other people, whatever they might ask for, he gives nothing but kicks and blows…’

When it began to be murmured in Fatehpur Sikri that Badshah Salamat had turned Hindu, Sheikh Abul Fazl was forced to respond,

‘This rumour is spread because His Majesty, being of an open mind, would meet Hindu holy men, raise the rank of Hindus and be kind to them in the interests of the welfare of the country… There were three reasons these rumours spread by evil men gained currency. First, people following different religions gathered in the darbar, and because there was something good in every faith, everybody got some bit of praise. Secondly, because of sulh-i-kul, people of various kinds got spiritual and worldy success. Third, the crooked ways of evil people of the age.’

(Excerpted from Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021)

About the book

Conventional historical accounts tend to paper over seemingly minor events related to Akbar’s life, to the detriment of a comprehensive appreciation of one of the most important figures of Indian history. Shazi Zaman fills the gap with this remarkable novel rooted in history.

Akbar’s writ ran from the Hindukush in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, an empire his father Humayun and grandfather Babur had only dreamed of. And his religious policy, boldly unorthodox, was as fierce a contest with the clergy, particularly Islamic, as were his military campaigns with his political opponents. Most histories give us Akbar the commander who never lost on the battlefield, and the fearlessly iconoclastic ruler. But we rarely come across the restless, questing soul who wished to reconcile a sensitive and compassionate heart to the sometimes ruthless obligations of statecraft; and the man who, in his struggle for sulh-i-kul, peace with all, could dare to treat as equal not only all faiths—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and others—but all life as well—human or animal.

With a scholar’s rigour and a storyteller’s insight, Shazi Zaman, in this transcreation of his acclaimed Hindi novel, sifts through fact and many an anecdote to paint a complex yet enchanting portrait of one of the world’s great monarchs. There isn’t another book, as vast in scope and as layered, to help us fully understand the phenomenon that was Akbar: the unsparing pragmatist and benevolent ruler; the austere leader and indulgent friend; the unlettered prince and philosopher-mystic.

About the Author

Shazi Zaman started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since then worked with several media organizations. He has had a long association with the ABP News Network as a senior executive producer and as their Group Editor. He has been on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. Akbar is his third novel. His earlier Hindi novels are Prem Gali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism ke Log.

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