A Respectable Woman by Easterine Kire

Kire

A Respectable Woman by Easterine Kire

Published by: Zubaan Books

Fiction: Fiction 182 pages

Rating: 3.50/5 stars

Book summary:

The Second World War has just ended. The Japanese have departed. In Nagaland in northeast India—one of the key theaters of the battle—political unrest and tremendous social changes have generated new social problems. For returning soldiers and others dealing with the aftermath of war, alcohol provides some relief and a way of dealing with new realities. The Church, a major presence, joins the battle against alcoholism with its support of the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition Act. This mandate, however, only leads to bootlegging and the more insidious problem of domestic violence. Forty years after the event, Khonuo recreates this moment, stitching together her memories, bit by painful bit, for her young daughter.

As memory passes from mother to daughter, the narrative glides seamlessly into the present, a moment in which Nagaland, much transformed, confronts different realities and challenges. Using storytelling traditions so typical of her region, Kire leads the reader gently into a world where history and memory meld — where, through this blurring, a young woman comes to understand the legacy of her parents and her land.

About the author:

Born Easterine Kire (Iralu) is a poet, writer, and novelist from Nagaland. has written several books in English including three collections of poetry and short stories. Her first novel, A Naga Village Remembered, was the first-ever Naga novel to be published. Easterine has translated 200 oral poems from her native language, Tenyidie, into English.

 

*My Review:

 *Thank you Zubaan books for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

Easterine Kire’s latest novel A Respectable Woman is partly a fictional memoir of the life and times of a generation of people in Nagaland and partly a narrative of how events shape the course of the lives of people. A slim volume at 182 pages, the book starts with Kevinuo narrating to us the memories of her mother Khonuo growing up in Kohima during the post Second World War era and then seamlessly merges into events unfolding around Kevinuo. The device of writing the story that a mother tells her daughter is an interesting context – that of the age-old tradition of oral history found in many societies across the world.

As we read about Khonuo and her family, her neighbours and community elders; we are able to map the way the lives of people and their own age old beliefs are first at contrast and then slowly shaped by the exposure to the larger scheme of things: the beginning of Christianity in the Hills and then the British rule followed by the tenuous relation with India.

The book brings out the friction between the old ways and the new settle down but how the Second World War brings things to a head. The after effects of a global war on the lives of simple villagers and how everyone tries to move on is evocative: young men joining the army leaving parents, the presence of soldiers and the tension they create, the fear and sometimes, bonds forming amongst opposing sides. As the narrative begins to focus on Kevinuo, we see how the socio political landscape of Nagaland has changed: the growing militarization that leaves many scarred and the alcohol abuse that affects domestic lives.

Look up this book if you are keen to know about Nagaland and its people but if you are looking for a book with characters that stay with you, this might not work for you. I felt that the bigger canvas of the book in terms of the history and the memories associated with them weighed down the narrative as a whole.

 

The Essence of Delhi: Stories and Essays by Various Authors/In a Violent Land: Stories and Essays by Various Authors

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The Essence of Delhi: Stories and Essays by Various Authors/In a Violent Land: Stories and Essays by Various Authors

Published by: Aleph Olio

Fiction/Non Fiction: 134/144 pages

Rating: 4/5 stars each

Book summary:

One of the meanings of the word ‘olio’ is ‘a miscellany’. The books in the aleph olio series contain a mélange of the finest writing to be had on a variety of Indian themes—the great cities, aspects of Indian culture and civilization, uniquely Indian phenomena. Filled with insights and haunting evocations of a country of unrivalled complexity, beauty, tragedy and mystery, each aleph olio book presents India in ways that it has seldom been seen before. The essence of Delhi captures the ‘riches and horrors’ (in William Dalrymple phrase) of the myriad cities of Delhi, beginning with the first one established by Suraj pal, a Tomar Rajput, at the edge of the Aravalli hills. The writers who feature in this volume are Malvika Singh, Ahmed Ali, Kamaleshwar, Khushwant Singh, William Dalrymple, Nirmal Verma, Aatish Taseer, Nilanjana Roy, Pamela Timms, Ruskin Bond, Deepti Kapoor and Siddharth Chowdhury.

In a Violent Land features writers like Mahasweta Devi, Udayan Ghosh, Suketu Mehta, Barkha Dutt, Shahnaz Bashir and many others on topics and facets of violence: from insurgency to the violence of mobs and poverty.

*My Review:

 *Thank you Aleph Olio for the review copies. All opinions are my own.

These two collection of stories and essays from the Aleph Olio imprint are a must read. Both features a range of writers and brings excerpts from novels or short stories in full and a nod to the editing department for putting the chapters in the book in a seamless canvass. The Essence of Delhi coincides with my move to Delhi and while I loved Malvika Singh’s Perpetual City, which traces the roots of the city, there are other stories that unravels life and the ethos of Delhi. The story ‘Signs’ by Nirmal Verma is deeply poignant wherein a 64/65 year old man reminiscences when asked to write about his experience of seeing the Partition as he grew up in the said time frame. He refuses but his thoughts go back to time, taking us to an innocent and youthful romance that could have taken root and the unsaid and unwritten part of the story is what stays on with the reader. Many of the stories and essays in the collection takes one to the by-lanes of Delhi, some familiar and some others not so familiar. I particularly found Pamela Timms’ God’s Own Street Food about her search for the myths and facts of making the famous Daulat ki Chaat in the grimy lanes of the Old Delhi area fascinating. It made me remember my own jaunt along the Jama Masjid area to taste the delicacy I had heard so much about.

‘In a Violent Land’ puts the spotlight on violence as a spectre that underlies and haunts the socio political landscape and history of the country. The collection starts with an excerpt from Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and ends with a short piece on how the armed unrest in Mizoram in North East India fermented and took shape, told through the moving story of an Army Brigadier whose son joins an armed group that his forces are fighting against and how he reacts to a gamut of emotions when confronted about his son’s death. Incidentally, many of the stories in this collection follow the cycle of acute exploitation of landless and lower caste people by land owners or those occupying Government positions: Seeds by Mahasweta Devi is a blistering story about how a low caste man seemingly loses his sanity due to the violence meted to him and that he is made part of while Gold from the Grave by Anna Bhau Sathe follows a quarry worker who becomes a grave/pyre looter by default due to his poverty.

Both the collections are superbly presented and leave one asking for more. I will definitely recommend them as essential reading.

The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Published by: Harper Collins India

Fiction: 358 pages

Rating: 3.50/5 stars

Book summary:

The Ramayana, one of the world’s greatest epics, is also a tragic love story. In this brilliant retelling, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni places Sita at the centre of the novel: this is Sita’s version.

The Forest of Enchantments is also a very human story of some of the other women in the epic, often misunderstood and relegated to the margins: Kaikeyi, Surpanakha, Mandodari. A powerful comment on duty, betrayal, infidelity and honour, it is also about women’s struggle to retain autonomy in a world that privileges men, as Chitra transforms an ancient story into a gripping, contemporary battle of wills.

While the Ramayana resonates even today, she makes it more relevant than ever, in the underlying questions in the novel: How should women be treated by their loved ones? What are their rights in a relationship? When does a woman need to stand up and say, ‘Enough!’

About the author:

 Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning author and poet. Her themes include the Indian experience, contemporary America, women, immigration, history, myth, and the joys and challenges of living in a multicultural world. Divakaruni also writes for children and young adults.

My Review:

The Forest of Enchantments has everything going in its favour: the retelling of an epic, a much loved author whose earlier retelling of The Mahabharata was a runaway success, a gorgeous hardback edition with a cover that is truly eye catching and earnest reviews that had set of waves of excitement and expectations amongst readers.

The prologue and the first two chapters work their charm on the readers and set up what is to follow: Sita is unhappy with Valmiki’s Ramayan; she finds that her voice is not present and so decides to write her own ‘Sitayan’. She takes readers from the time she was found by King Janak of Mithila and the whispers amongst the people of her being the birth of a divine being. The writing is lyrical and will keep readers enthralled. Unfortunately, this tone of the narrative and the writing gets uneven and the language jars at so many points. When Parshuram confronts Ram after he has broken Shiva’s bow, the former roars in anger with ‘You Pipsqueak!’ and I rubbed my eyes in disbelief for the confrontation scene sounded more like a Voldemort Harry Potter face off. There are a few other occasions when the use of contemporary expressions looks forced and disjointed with the rest of the narrative.

What works for The Forest of Enchantments at a certain level are the meditations on love and the many lessons it leaves one with. But overall, I think I am more excited about reading Volga’s The Liberation of Sita now. I have a strong feeling that those who have read that book are going to be a tad disappointed with this retelling.

 

Ten years ago, when Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni wrote The Palace of Illusions, a retelling of The Mahabharat from Draupadi’s point of view, there were not many retellings. Since then, a lot of retellings of mythologies and of both the Ramayana and The Mahabharata from different perspectives have appeared in the publishing world and on TV as well. This has worked against The Forest of Enchantments for not only have feminist narratives of The Ramayana made their presence but multiple retellings of Sita as a strong woman, as a warrior princess and a woman who questioned the ways of the place she was relegated to earlier (as a meek woman who suffered silently) are there in various books and on TV (Siya Ke Ram for one).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

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The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Published by: Bloomsbury Publishing

Fiction: Fantasy, LGBTQ; 848 pages

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book summary:

A world divided.
A queendom without an heir.
An ancient enemy awakens.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction—but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel. Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep

About the author:

Samantha Shannon is the New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling author of The Bone Season series. Her work has been translated into twenty-six languages. The Priory of the Orange Tree is her fourth novel and her first outside The Bone Season.

*My Review:

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

Whew! What a book is how I will begin with for Samantha Shannon’s ‘The Priory of the Orange Tree’. The book opens with only a few details of the setting or the context of how things will unfold but the word play draws a strong mood of anticipation and suspense. I would recommend that you sit down with this book when you are able to give it some undivided attention for the beginning can look a bit vague. But stay with the narrative and you will know that the beginning could never have been anything else for the characters and their allegiance, their connections and conflict with one another play out beautifully soon enough.

The main protagonists have backgrounds that are at odds in terms of beliefs and political affiliations: Ead Duryan, a sorceress of the Orange Tree posing as an Ordinary Chamberer in the household of Queen Sabran of Inys; Tane, who has been trained to be a dragon rider in the East; Queen Sabran The Ninth of the House of Berethnet who has to wed and bear a daughter to protect her kingdom from The Nameless One; Doctor Niclays Roos an alchemist who has been banished by Queen Sabran of Inys in the West and Loth Beck, a close friend to both Ead and Queen Sabran.

In the best of the fantasy genre, there are not only dragons but also shape shifters and other ‘birds’ with their unique abilities and bonds with the ones they hold close to them. I love it that the dragons in this book are not just magical creatures that instil awe, fear and dread but ones that are full of wisdom and speak about love and life. The story weaves in elements of how one’s beliefs honed over generations, as the only truth can be a baggage and a barrier to moving ahead towards a better world.

There are pirates and priestesses in the narrative and then there are strong badass protagonists to warm one’s heart: ones filled with fear and uncertainty but full of bravery and a willingness to see where things go. There are sexual identities and relationships that carry the story forward and the beauty of how the support of friends can be so life affirming.

I am selective when it comes to reading books belonging to the fantasy genre and only a few manage to whet my interest. This one works for me because of the humane elements of the story. The over 800 pages can look daunting but believe me, the story progression and the interplay of the lives and adventures of the protagonists work so well that you don’t feel the pages weighing you down. Go read already!