The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady by Deepa Agarwal, Tahmina Aziz Ayub

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The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady by Deepa Agarwal, Tahmina Aziz Ayub

Published by: Penguin Random House India

Non Fiction: Biography, 256 pages

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Book summary:

Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan was the wife of Pakistan’s first prime minister. She was born Irene Margaret Pant in Kumaon in the early twentieth century. A generation earlier, her family had converted to Christianity, and Irene grew up in the shadow of the Brahmin community’s still active outrage. Always intelligent, outgoing and independent, she was teaching economics in a Delhi college when she met the dashing Nawazada Liaquat Ali Khan, a rising politician in the Muslim League and an ardent champion of the cause for Pakistan.

She was immediately inspired by both the man and the idea; they married in 1933 and Irene Pant became Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan. In August 1947 they left for Pakistan-led by Liaquat’s mentor and friend, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Ra’ana threw herself into the work of nation building, but in 1951 Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated, and the reasons for his murder are still shrouded in mystery. Ra’ana continued to be active in public life-and her contribution to women’s empowerment in Pakistan is felt to this day.

Ra’ana’s life story embodies all the major tropes of the Indian subcontinent’s recent history.Three religions-Hinduism, Christianity and Islam-had an immense impact on her life, and she participated actively in all the major movements of her time-the freedom struggle, the Pakistani movement and the fight for women’s empowerment. She could see clearly what went wrong after 1947 and wasn’t afraid to say so. She spoke out openly against the rise of religious conservatism in Pakistan and the growing role of corruption. She occasionally met with opposition, but she never gave up. It is this spirit that The Begum captures.

About the authors:

Deepa Agarwal (India) is a poet and translator and is the author of over fifty books in English and Hindi. Tahmina Aziz Ayub (Pakistan) has worked with several national and international NGOs in the struggle for human rights and women’s empowerment.

*My Review:

*Thank you Penguin India and Vivek Tejuja for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

‘The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady’ is a biography put together by two authors from India and Pakistan tracing the roots of a woman who was part of the shaping of Pakistan as a young nation. It comes in two parts: the first part traces the roots of Irene Margaret Pant in Almora while the second part follows her journey as the First Lady of Pakistan. I found it quite a revelation that Pakistan’s First Lady belonged to a family with a strong Hindu lineage and then going on to face social censure once they converted to Christianity and then history repeating itself with Irene having to cut off family ties after she converts to Islam to marry Liaquat Ali Khan. The anecdotes put into the first section of the book from family and acquaintances give a personal touch to the writing and the readers get to see the intellect of The Begum on her own steam: as someone who keenly follows the political developments around her and an equal partner to Liaquat Ali Khan towards the movement for establishing Pakistan.

I found that the second part of the book repeated quite a few areas covered in the first part but overall, it is a fitting tribute to the woman who became much revered and admired and was conferred the title ‘Madar –E-Pakistan’ or Mother of Pakistan. This section follows the Begum not only in her official role as the Prime Minister’s spouse but as a far sighted person who involved and inspired women to contribute to nation building. The book captures the essence and persona of a woman in traditional clothes but with a liberal approach and political voice and in the current context of divides over how women dress, it makes the subtle point that one’s dress is more than just one’s identity. It is a fascinating look at what history doesn’t tell us enough: the role of women in shaping political outlooks and narratives.

I would recommend this book for history buffs and for those of you who are keen to discover stories and lives of trailblazing women we don’t know much of.

 

 

 

 

 

Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci

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Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci

Published by: Panmacmillan

Fiction: Thriller, 401 pages

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Book summary:

#1 New York Times bestselling author David Baldacci introduces a remarkable new character: Atlee Pine, an FBI special agent assigned to the remote wilds of the western United States. Ever since her twin sister was abducted by a notorious serial killer at age five, Atlee has spent her life hunting down those who hurt others. And she’s the best at it. She could be one of the Bureau’s top criminal profilers, if she didn’t prefer catching criminals in the vast wilderness of the West to climbing the career ladder in the D.C. office. Her chosen mission is a lonesome one–but that suits her just fine.

 

Assigned to the remote wilds of the western United States, Atlee has never stopped the search for her sister and wracked with survivor’s guilt, she has spent her life hunting down those who hurt others.

 

Now, Atlee is called in to investigate the mutilated carcass of a mule found in the Grand Canyon–and hopefully, solve the disappearance of its rider. But this isn’t the only recent disappearance. In fact, it may be just the first clue, the key to unraveling a rash of other similar missing persons cases in the canyon. . .

 

About the author:

David Baldacci has published 36 novels for adults; all have been national and international bestsellers, and several have been adapted for film and television. His novels have been translated into more than 45 languages and sold in more than 80 countries. David has also published six novels for younger readers.

 

 

*My Review:

*Thank you Panmacmillan India for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

 

 

Meet FBI Agent Atlee Pine who rides roughshod over mean people who dare to cross the line. David Baldacci has certainly got a badass female protagonist who is a tough cookie with just a hint of pathos (a twin sister whose whereabouts are unknown after she was taken from their shared bedroom when they were 6yrs): she is a loner and a stickler for what is right.

 

She is happy working away her cases in a lonely posting place that covers the Grand Canyon. Known the world over, the Grand Canyon comes alive in all its beauty and remoteness where a dead mule has been found with two letters cut into its hide. The look for the mule’s rider leads Pine to the dark shadows of Government agencies and their heads planning international conspiracies. The plot twists and theme is very contemporary world politics while the pace of the narrative goes fast with just a mix of emotions at times.

 

Pine’s character gets a stand alone book series for herself but it is the character of her secretary Carol Blum that is the surprise delight. The rapport between Pine and Blum grows subtly and then grows into a strong partnership that the readers know will grow strong over the rest of the series. When the reference to the cult movie Thelma and Louise creeps in (not once but twice), one can only chuckle away for it couldn’t get more apt!

 

If you are looking for a fast paced read with loads of action, this one will work pretty well. Happy reading!

 

Preeto and Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil

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Preeto and Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil

Published by: Thornbird (An imprint of Niyogi Books)

Fiction: Urdu Writing, Translated Writing, 203 pages

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

In a world where more women are joining the work force, where ever more are stepping out from their secluded and cloistered world and can be physically seen in larger numbers, the short story collection Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu seeks to explore how male writers in Urdu view and consequently present or represent the women of their world.

The woman has been both subject and predicate in a great deal of writing by male writers. Be it muse or mother, vamp or victim, fulsome or flawed, there has been a tendency among male writers to view a woman through a binary of ‘this’ or ‘that’ and to present woman as black or white characters, often either impossibly white or improbably black.

In her Introduction, Rakhshanda Jalil traces the history of ‘writings on women’ by both male and female writers – from the doyens of Urdu literature to contemporary writers dealing with contemporary issues, setting the mood for the stories in this collection and giving the reader a sampler of what to expect in the ensuing pages.

The collection includes themes, which are timeless as well as topics that are an outcome of the times we live in. Starting with two of the four pillars of the Urdu short story – Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar – who can be credited with introducing a realistic portrayal of women in Urdu fiction, the stories in this volume offer multiple ways of ‘seeing’ women.

About the author:

Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. Her published work comprises edited anthologies and a collection of esssays on Delhi. She is also a well-known translator, with eight published translations.

*My Review:

*Thank you Niyogi Books for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

This anthology of 13 Urdu Short stories brings together a range of male Urdu writers starting from pioneering short story writers like Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishnan Chandar to writers of the genre in contemporary times. Writer and Critic Rakhshanda jalil who has edited the anthology and introduced the theme of looking at the male gaze on women gives an insight into how women are portrayed: as the muse in poetry and as compartmentalized binaries of virtuous women v/s fallen woman and then slowly, as people with their own agency once progressive writers entered the scene.

The stories in this collection all feature women who stay on in the reader’s consciousness long after the story gets over. The opening story – ‘Woman’ by Rajinder Singh Bedi is every woman who is both mysterious and vulnerable, helpless and tenacious while Gulzar’s ‘Man’ looks at gendered stereotypes of what a man can get away with and what a woman must endure.

Faiyaz Riffat’s ‘Shonali’ and Abdus Samad’s ‘Ash in the Fire’ have a common strand: women as hired caregivers. Both stories stand out in terms of their narrative: the former are the musings of the man being cared for while the second is a moving piece told in the voice of the young care giver who has not known physical contact with a man but who must intimately care for a paralysed young man, even sharing the same bed in order to monitor his health. ‘Ash in the Fire’ stands out though with its capture of how physical proximity can lead to unknown desires and then its implications on a young mind.

The title story of Preeto by Krishnan Chandar is another powerful story in terms of the narrative but still made me ponder over why a particular type of women (damaged or unconventional ones) in most of earlier Indian literature and films have to die in order to be redeemed or pitied.

This is overall an anthology that will leave readers pondering over the agency of women and their portrayal in literature. I will recommend this to readers who love to read up translated writing and for students who are eager to look at the representation of gender biases in writing.

The Flower Girls by Alice Clark – Platts

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The Flower Girls by Alice Clark – Platts

Published by: Raven Books

Fiction, 330 pages

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

The Flower Girls.

Laurel and Primrose.

One convicted of murder,

The other given a new identity.

Now, nineteen years later,

Another child has gone missing.

And the Flower Girls are about to

Hit the headlines all over again…

About the author:

Alice Clark-Platts is a former human rights lawyer who worked at the UN International Criminal Tribunal in connection with the Rwandan genocide. She is the author of police procedurals – Bitter Fruits and Taken. She also runs The Singapore Writers’ Group, which she founded in 2012.

*My Review:

*Thank you Bloomsbury India for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

The Flower Girls starts out with two children who are sisters playing outdoors with a third smaller child being the center of attention. It is the briefest description but one written in such a manner that the reader can sense a deep unease and a premonition that there are undercurrents that will be unraveled further.

Cut to 19 years later and a sense of gloom and anxiety falls over a small hotel when a five year old girl goes missing. Guests are questioned and the news brings despair to everyone but it is Hazel/Rosie who is most affected and unsettled. We soon find out why: she was the younger of the two sisters and the child they were playing with had been found tortured to death. Her elder sister was tried in court then convicted and kept in prison but Rosie being too young to be tried and having blocked events of the said incident is given an identity change along with her parents to escape the social hatred.

What happened 19 years ago? What has happened to the 5yr old missing child? What happens to Hazel who has been getting mysterious letters hinting that the sender knows her true identity and who is sending those letters for which end? Even as these questions drive the narrative, three other main characters add various complex nuances: Max, a former journalist who is working on a book and who makes the connection between Hazel and her real identity, Detective Constable Lorna Hillier who is overlooking investigations into the girl’s disappearance and Joanna Denton, the aunt of the girl killed by 19 years earlier who has relentlessly campaigned for harsher punishment conditions for Laurel. These three characters play pivotal roles in the narrative, adding interesting insights.

This is a thriller that works on the basis of the atmosphere it creates and the questions it throws regarding the moral compass of evil, the idea of justice and prison as punishment versus rehabilitation. The ethical dilemmas that Hillier and Joanna face in the pursuit of their beliefs are real and thoughtful provocations that will surely engage readers. As for the thriller aspect, the twist thrown at the end is just the cherry on top. Go read this if you love creepy thrillers.

 

 

Waiting by Ha Jin

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Waiting by Ha Jin

Published by: Vintage Books

Fiction: 308 pages

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” Like a fairy tale, Ha Jin’s masterful novel of love and politics begins with a formula–and like a fairy tale, Waiting uses its slight, deceptively simple framework to encompass a wide range of truths about the human heart. Lin Kong is a Chinese army doctor trapped in an arranged marriage that embarrasses and repels him. (Shuyu has country ways, a withered face, and most humiliating of all, bound feet.) Nevertheless, he’s content with his tidy military life, at least until he falls in love with Manna, a nurse at his hospital. Regulations forbid an army officer to divorce without his wife’s consent–until 18 years have passed, that is, after which he is free to marry again. So, year after year Lin asks his wife for his freedom, and year after year he returns from the provincial courthouse: still married, still unable to consummate his relationship with Manna. Nothing feeds love like obstacles placed in its way–right? But Jin’s novel answers the question of what might have happened to Romeo and Juliet had their romance been stretched out for several decades.

 

About the author:

 Ha Jin is the pen name of Jin Xuefei, a novelist, poet, short story writer, and Professor of English at Boston University. Ha Jin writes in English about China, a political decision post-Tiananmen Square.

My Review:

Winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction in 1991, Waiting by Ha Jin is a compelling narrative set in the late 60s in China following Lin Kong, a doctor in the army who feels trapped in an arranged marriage with a woman with country ways. He returns every year to his village to seek his wife’s assent for a divorce in order to marry Manna, a nurse at the hospital. His wife falters at court every year when asked by the judge for her consent and so Kong continues a rather platonic relationship with Manna due to army regulations.

This plays out for 18 long years (YES!) in which course Kong tries half heartedly to match-make Manna for a relative and then later, having to come to terms with a senior officer’s interest in her. Things come to a head with another officer who enters the picture later.

The sum total of the book is not so much the plot or dramatic elements or lack of them but the political allegory of how regimented lives and thought processes cast shadows on the life and feelings of individuals who do not have the means to follow their emotions. It is easy to feel bad for Kong’s wife Shuyu for she is the ever dutiful wife who suffers in silence but Manna is the one I would root for, a woman who has to wait endlessly for some validation. Manna goes through a gamut of emotions and lack of self esteem trying to find a place with Kong. On the other hand, Kong will certainly not get any sympathy from any reader but if one reads his character in the larger scheme of things, he had to be who he is.

Recommended for readers who love multicultural and socio political settings. This is not a regular ‘enjoyable’ read but one that will engage with you.

 

 

Yeh Un Dinon` Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends Selected and Translated by Yasir Abbasi

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Yeh Un Dinon` Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends Selected and Translated by Yasir Abbasi

Published by: Bloomsbury India

Non Fiction: Memoir, Film Writing, 389 pages

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

Peppered with heartfelt accounts and charming anecdotes, Urdu film magazines were in great favour with the public from the 1930s through the 1990s – a considerable period of seven decades. Unfortunately, as Urdu got progressively marginalised in later years, these magazines were not archived, for the most part; leading to their inevitable disappearance from popular imagination.

Tracking down these lost publications, Yasir Abbasi followed leads – some futile, some fruitful – to obscure towns and people’s homes in a last-ditch effort to save valuable records of Indian cinema. As challenging as it was to locate faded issues and original texts, he managed to uncover and translate many fabulous memoirs covering a wide gamut of our favourite old artistes at their candid best.

A gloom-laced piece on Meena Kumari by Nargis, a rollicking description by Raja Mehdi Ali Khan of an eventful evening with Manto (not to mention a mysterious woman and a house on fire), Jaidev writing about his chequered career, Balraj Sahni introspecting about the relevance of Hindi and Urdu in films – it’s a rich mix of engrossing narratives brought back from oblivion.

About the author:

A trained cinematographer by profession, Yasir Abbasi completed his early education from Gorakhpur and Lucknow. He has been involved with documentaries and independent films, and has won several awards at film festivals for his work.

*My Review:

*Thank you Bloomsbury India for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

This book from is such a lovely read that took me to through time bringing some very well known Hindi film personalities and some not so well known through its pages. The beauty of this book which is a collection of carefully selected pieces from Urdu film magazines (which were hugely popular at one point of time before what is known as film tabloids took over) is that it also features lyricists and script writers and not just actors and directors.

Comprising of three sections: Khaakay – Pen Portraits; Aap Beeti – Reminiscences and Nuqta-e-Nazar – Perspectives; this book is a delight for Hindi film enthusiasts. The pen portraits section not only serves as profiles of various film artistes but bring out the camaraderie of people struggling to get a foothold in the film industry, the role of mentors and associations and of course, the rivalries and frictions. There is trivia, there is humour and there is poignancy too, particularly the pieces written by Nargis on Meena Kumari and Shyama’s own reminiscence that looks at the greed and personal toll that comes attached to the glamour of film making. Who would have known that the evergreen actor Dev Anand suffered from terrible migraine and would take medicines to sleep? The anecdotes also serve as a journey of the craft of film making in the Hindi film industry over the years: how creative partnerships were made and unmade, how poor technical knowledge would be overcome by sheer passion, hard work and the belief that things would happen.

The book also features photographs of film shoots as well as film posters. I will recommend this book for its nostalgia value. You NEED to look this up in case you love to read about the Hindi film industry. It is a very intimate look at the Hindi film industry, one that continues to enthrall people across generations and language.

 

 

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Published by: Vintage Books

Non Fiction: Memoir, 230 pages

Rating: 5/5 stars

Book summary:

Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a tough-minded search for belonging, for love, identity, home, and a mother.

Jeanette Winterson’s novels have established her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most admired books of the past few decades, including her internationally bestselling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents that is now often required reading in contemporary fiction.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the Universe as Cosmic Dustbin.

It is the story of how a painful past that Jeanette thought she’d written over and repainted rose to haunt her, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother.

About the author:

Jeanette Winterson was named as one of the 20 ‘Best of Young British Writers’ in a promotion run jointly between the literary magazine Granta and the Book Marketing Council. Her novels include Boating for Beginners; Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; The Passion; Sexing the Cherry among others. She is also editor of a series of new editions of novels by Virginia Woolf published in the UK. Why Ne Happy When You Could Be Normal? Won the Lambda Literary Award in 2013 under the Lesbian Memoir or Biography category.

My review:

This is a book that gives food for thought: about our childhoods and how it can leave many scarred; about coping or trying to; about trying to fit it and trying to get by with the small things of life that takes away the bigger meaning of life; about longing to belong…about the power of books and reading as escape, as inspiration, as trigger points to think in wonder or as flickering hope. I was left quivering with a range of emotions while reading this: it made me laugh and cry and smile and shake my head.

Jeanette Winterson’s memoir of growing up as an adopted daughter to parents who are distant: the mother a domineering woman lost in religious zeal and a father who might well be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder syndrome is not just about the lows of the childhood she had. Rather, it is about what she has not written that lurks around the words in the pages: were they too tough to write down? The writing is profound and moving, wry and makes you feel so many emotions all at once.

There is politics and there is socio cultural context in the parts of the author’s roots in Lancashire, there is literature even as books other than school text books are banned by her adoptive mother which takes Winterson to the library where she finds refuge and literary a shelter; and then, there are life lessons in the narrative. This is a memoir that does not look at chronology or life events as they happen but a non linear narrative that ties up the fragmented pieces life of the author. I was struck by how subtle the writing came across when it could have been blisteringly accusatory: when Winterson writes about her biological mother commenting on her adoptive mother who was anything but kind to her, she writes: ‘she was a monster but she was my monster’. That line made me weep for it said so much of how our ties are complex and our emotions more so. I don’t think I have written down as many passages from a book as this one. I would beg all of you reading this post to go look this up.