Tiger Woman by Sirsho Bandopadhyay, Translated by Arunava Sinha

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Tiger Woman by Sirsho Bandopadhyay, Translated by Arunava Sinha

Published by: Pan Macmillan India

Fiction: Historical, Translated Indian Writing, 248 pages

Rating: 3.75/5 stars

Book summary:

Calcutta, 1880s. Nationalism is on the rise and the Bengali intellectuals are leading the protest against British rule in India. In this charged climate, ardent patriot Priyanath Bose prepares to set up the first Bengali circus. Soon he discovers an exceptional young girl, Sushila, and trains her to be a trapeze artist. As the circus flourishes and big animal acts are introduced, Sushila and the tigers become the star attractions. But the prize Sushila craves is unattainable, as Priyanath, a married man, is forced to reject her love for him. Jilted, she begins a relationship with a fellow circus artiste, but he may not be as loyal as Sushila believes, and his escape acts are now a bigger hit than ‘Sushilasundari and the Tigers’. At once a riveting page-turner and an uncommon historical novel, Tiger Woman places this tragic love triangle in an era of patriotism, as the circus becomes a metaphor for a frustrated social revolution.

About the author:

Sirsho Bandopadhyay is a journalist and author, currently associated with the Bengali daily Aajkaal and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Tiger Woman, originally published in Bengali as Shardulsundori, is Sirsho’s first novel. He has published four other novels and also published two collections of feature writings and a series on forgotten Bengali luminaries.

About the Translator:

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and non-fiction into English with over forty-five of his translations being published so far. Twice the winner of the Crossword Translation Award, he has also won the Muse India Award for translation. He was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2009) for his translation of Chowringhee.

*My Review:

Thank you Pan Macmillan India for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

Whew! What a story and what a historical graph Tiger Woman brings alive for readers! Set from the 1880s to 1920 and starting from Calcutta to the small towns and villages of a united Bengal and some of them with very quaint names, this book traces the journey of Priyanath Bose who is considered to be one of the pioneers of circus in India when in 1887, he founded the Great Bengal Circus with an all-Indian team.

The narrative is a fascinating account of the many trails and tribulations that Priyanath Bose had to face to set up the first Indian Circus starting from the lack of family support for his venture to the way he had to seek out people he could work with. This is historical fiction at its best with the way fact and fiction has been entwined: additionally, the ambience of the time period in the description of the roads and means of transport, the bonding of community people during those times wherein the people of a village come together to feed the circus troupe all add flavor to the narrative style.

Given Priyanath Bose and his family’s association with many other illustrious families of Calcutta at the time like the Tagores and other historical figures who crossed paths with Bose, the reader in me loved the mentions and appearances of Ramakrishna Paramhans, Vivekananda and many others. The patriotic fervor of the time and the reformist era of Calcutta and India are captured through certain events in the fictional narrative.

My only grouse is that the book has focused more on Priyanath Bose and his Great Bengal Circus and the name Tiger Woman sounds almost misleading given that we do not get to know much of Sushila Sundari, the first Indian woman to perform in a circus and who earned fame for her act with two huge tigers. The portrayal of what looks like a one sided love track that Sushila has for Priyanath is not given much scope and what little of we get to see of Sushila is when she moves on to another man in the circus. The final pages do have the real life incident of Sushila being badly mauled by a new tiger during an act, which leaves her incapacitated. I would have definitely loved to read more of Sushila’s thoughts and discover her character graph.

I will recommend this book to people who love historical fiction. This one will take you an unknown history of the advent of circus in India as a symbol of nationalism and patriotism.

 

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

BarrYou Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

Published by: Bloomsbury Publishing

Fiction, 325 pages

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

An extraordinary debut that explores legacies of abuse, redemption, and the strength of the human spirit–from the Boer Wars in South Africa to brutal wilderness camps for teenage boys.

South Africa, 1901. It is the height of the second Boer War. Sarah van der Watt and her six-year-old son Fred are forced from their home on Mulberry Farm. As the polite invaders welcome them to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp they promise Sarah and Fred that they will be safe there.

2014: Sixteen-year-old Willem is an outsider. Hoping he will become the man she wants him to be, his Ma and her boyfriend force Willem to attend the New Dawn Safari Training Camp where they are proud to make men out of boys. They promise that he will be safe there.

‘You Will Be Safe Here’ is a powerful and urgent novel of two connected South African stories. Inspired by real events, it uncovers a hidden colonial history, reveals a dark contemporary secret, and explores the legacy of violence and our will to survive. Inspired by real events, it uncovers a hidden colonial history and present-day darkness while exploring our capacity for cruelty and kindness.

About the author:

Damian Barr is an award winning writer and columnist. Maggie & Me, his memoir about coming of age and coming out in Thatcher’s Britain was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and Sunday Times Memoir of the Year. ‘You will be safe here’ is his debut novel.

*My Review:

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

I finished reading Damian Barr’s You Will Be Safe Here yesterday but was left reeling under the impact of this book to be able to put up a review in short notice. This book is not just about a story or its characters but how South Africa as a nation and its people have gone through so many trials and tribulations than we can ever imagine and how the politics of polarization are breaking apart societies and ultimately, the idea of a nation.

To come back to the book, I have always associated Concentration Camps with the Second World War and then the Cold War Russia but never in my wildest thoughts did I imagine that such camps existed before the Second World War. Using historical events in South Africa, the first part of ‘You Will be Safe Here’ is set in 1901 and is a vivid and intense look at life in internment camps operated by the British in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War. Described as camps where women and children of Afrikaan Booer descent whose men were fighting against the British, such camps were anything but a safe haven and the diary entries of Sarah van der Watt through which she writes impassioned accounts to her husband teases the reader as to what will unfold further.

The second part of the book can look slightly disjointed as new characters that are totally unrelated to the first part make an appearance but a careful and patient reading will drive home the point that the larger story lies in the socio cultural and political undertones that are subtly drawn in the narrative through the life experiences of Rayna and her family. The time frame of this portion is from 1976 to 2010 which means a post Mandela and post apartheid South Africa which is trying to find its feet after years of political violence and racial polarization.

The third part follows Rayna’s teen grandson at a military style Camp that is meant to ‘man him up’ and run by ‘the General’ and the reader can almost anticipate something dreadful is going to happen. And when it does happen, you take some time to read and re read certain parts of the book. When the General’s name is disclosed, you will be sure to clutch your heart and then take a while to let it all sink in and then cry for the people, the real people who have lived through more of the horrors that racial supremacy and masochism can wreak havoc on.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Please read it well.

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi

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Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi

Published by: Bloomsbury India

Fiction: Contemporary, 261 pages

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

A captivating and original story of family, of the ties that bind and the secrets we bury, set against the vivid and evocative backdrop of modern India.

Escaping her failing marriage, Grace has returned to Pondicherry to cremate her mother. Once there, she finds herself heir to an inheritance she could not have expected – a property on the beaches of Madras, and a sister she never knew she had: Lucia, who was born with Downs Syndrome and has spent her life in a residential facility.

Grace sets up a new and precarious life along the coast of Madras, with Lucia, the village housekeeper Mallika, the drily witty Auntie Kavitha and an ever-multiplying litter of puppies. But Grace’s attempts to play house prove first a struggle, then a strain, as she discovers the chaos, tenderness, fury and bewilderment of life with Lucia.

Luminous, funny, surprising and heartbreaking, Small Days and Nights is the story of a woman caught in a moment of transformation, and the sacrifices we make to forge lives that have meaning.

About the author:

Tishani Doshi is an Indian poet, journalist and dancer based in Chennai. Her first poetry collection, Countries of the Body, won the 2006 Forward Poetry Prize for best first collection. Her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers (2010) was long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2011 and shortlisted for The Hindu Best Fiction Award in 2010.

*My Review:

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

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi has Grace at the center of things: she is the narrator and it is through her that readers are compelled to contemplate the world she inhabits. Set in 2010, the book shifts back and forth from the time she comes back from an unfulfilling life in the US to Paramankeni, a tiny coastal village in Tamil Nadu for her mother’s funeral. If this premise makes readers look for grief and looking at lost time and ties, you couldn’t be more mistaken. There is none of the maudlin or emotional crisis happening at all. Rather, there is a deep seated no nonsense look at coping with what life throws at Grace – in this case, a sister she never knew she had; a younger sister Lucia/Lucy with Downs Syndrome, who has been institutionalised.

Grace settles down at Paramankeni which is the back of the beyond with her dog who starts a brood and Lucy. But while she muses over her almost solitary life, she makes it a point to head to the city and get her dose of social life and gossip. Grace’s interactions with Lucy are bereft of anything more than descriptions of how the later looks and talks and dresses but that comes across as more evocative than any amount of writing that would have delved on the highs and lows of looking after an adult with Downs Syndrome and trying to connect with her as a total stranger. That unflinching narrative is the thread that brings it all together in a haunting string of words.

This is not so much about a story or plot structure or dramatis but more of musings over life and relationships and how existing social order in the way of norms and attitudes mark the lives of women. The brief interludes that Grace has with a local leader to whom she must pay protection money and the reminders about getting a man to ‘look into’ her matters signifies the manner in which women are never allowed to be their own creatures.

I couldn’t but help notice that Grace who has distanced herself from her husband who wants children (because she doesn’t) takes care of the many puppies that flood her home from time to time. Grace’s brooding when she sees stray dogs being mass culled are heart wrenching and will give readers room to pause on the matter of offsprings and bringing them to this world. I love the stark landscape and the way the characters who are almost solitary creatures come together in a complex but natural course. This is a book that will speak to readers who are not looking for drama or tension to take the story forward. This is a book that will leave your thoughts in a whirlwind with its almost meditative tone. This is a book that you will want to read and ponder and then re read again.

 

 

The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhathena

Tanaz

The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhathena

Published by: Penguin Random House (India)

Fiction: YA, 354 pages

Rating: 3.50/5 stars

Book summary:

Susan is the new girl—she’s sharp and driven, and strives to meet her parents’ expectations of excellence. Malcolm is the bad boy—he started raising hell at age fifteen, after his mom died of cancer, and has had a reputation ever since.

Susan’s parents are on the verge of divorce. Malcolm’s dad is a known adulterer. Susan hasn’t told anyone, but she wants to be an artist. Malcolm doesn’t know what he wants—until he meets her.

Love is messy and families are messier, but in spite of their burdens, Susan and Malcolm fall for each other. The ways they drift apart and come back together are testaments to family, culture, and being true to who you are.

About the author:

Tanaz Bhathena is the winner of the 2009 MARTY for Emerging Literary Arts. Her critically acclaimed novel A Girl Like That was nominated for the 2019 OLA White Pine Award and named a Best Book of 2018.

*My Review:

 *Thank you Penguin Random House India for the review copy and to Vivek Tejuja’s blogger program through which I received the book . All opinions are my own.

I will have to say this: Tanaz Bhathena sure knows how to write about young people and their angst, their journey through emotional landmines and keeping readers invested in the world she creates. In ‘The Beauty of the Moment’ we have Susan Thomas and Malcolm Vakil as the main protagonists and narrators from whose point of view, the reader is taken to a world of school grades in the last year of senior high school, bunking, trying to fit in, falling in love, falling grades, jealousy and uncertainty, negotiating through emotional baggage with parents and living with the weight of expectations.

Susan and Malcolm’s narration takes us into their respective background story: Susan, the one with great scores in Saudi Arabia before she moved to Canada with her mother, now trying to fit in without much success in a new country, a new school; Malcolm, the one who wouldn’t care less about school and has an enormous cross to bear with his father and the loss of his mother to cancer. When the two cross paths and fall in love, they learn about themselves and how to find their way of the turmoil they have in their own lives. This is a coming of age story with a lovely romance that has its moments with a subtle thread of cultural alienation thrown in : I loved how Susan mentally describes Dosa as ‘what you would call a savory crepe in France’ when she gets sniggered at for bringing ‘curry smell’ to school.

Tanaz Bhathena’s ‘A Girl Like That’ is referenced in this book with Susan having studied at Qala Academy before she moved to Canada but while the protagonists of this book are miles apart from that one, there is a slight familiarity in the way familial relations are fraught. In this book though, there is room for emotional growth that happens with the main protagonists and with the people around them. There is an interesting mix of other characters who help validate lessons on building trust, hearing out what other people with a counter viewpoint has to say and then trying to build something positive out of it all.

There are various moments when it feels like you have lived through the exact circumstances as described in the book. I would recommend ‘The Beauty of the Moment’ for the beautiful nostalgic journey it takes you to and the way romance amongst teens has been portrayed with a natural flair.

 

 

Outcaste by Matampu Kunhukuttan; Translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan

Aleph

Outcaste by Matampu Kunhukuttan; Translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan

Published by: Aleph Book Company

Fiction: Indian Literature, Translation; 245 pages

Rating: 3.50/5 stars

Book summary:

Outcaste (Brushte in the original Malayalam) is a powerful story of the revenge a single woman named Paptikutty, wreaks on her community for the monstrous injustice done to her. It is based on the 1905 trial of a Namboodiri woman for adultery and the revenge she exacted on her sixty-four lovers who belonged to the most powerful families of the land. In the novel, Paptikutty is an avatar of Goddess Kali herself, bringing justice and revolution wherever there is corruption and sin.

The Namboodiri Brahmins were the most powerful community in Kerala in the period in which the novel is set, more powerful than the King himself. Bound by rigid customs and rules, they silenced everyone who opposed them in their quest for more wealth and power. Namboodiri women were confined to the inner quarters of the house, where they lived in squalor and degradation. The influence of the Namboodiris grew unchecked until the end of the nineteenth century, when Paptikutty’s act of  vengeance weakened the community from within. Passionate and gripping, Outcaste is an unforgettable indictment of the injustices perpetuated by upper caste men—a continuing problem in Indian society.

About the author:

Matampu Kunhukuttan is a well known Malyalam novelist. His first novel, Aswathamavu was well received and sparked his literary career. Brushte, his second novel marked him out as a revolutionary literary figure in Kerala. Many of his novels have been made into films and have won National awards.

About the Translator: Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan is a translator and journalist and has translated several novels from Malyalam into English.

*My Review:

*Thank you Aleph Book Company for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

Matampu Kunhukuttan’s Outcaste ( Brushte in the original Malayalam) is a powerful indictment on the male privilege that the Namboodiri Brahmins in Kerala enjoyed for years till a woman shook its very foundations by making 64 high caste Brahmins as outcaste. Based on real life trail of a Namboodiri woman for adultery in 1905, this work of fiction brings alive the patriarchy of the Namboodiri Brahmin men who totally sequestered their women while they were free to marry or leave women languishing behind the walls of the home and the prevailing socio cultural practices.

The young and beautiful Paptikutty is married to the younger brother of a powerful Namboodiri Brahmin and to her horror finds the elder brother coming to the marital bed. Paptikutty, who is described as Goddess Kali bent on cleansing the social ills of the time decides to entice men and keep note of who, what and when. She notes down intimate physical descriptions and when put on trail, she names every one of the 64 men on her list. When she is announced as an outcaste who has to be forever shamed and banished, the 64 names she has taken are also outcasted, thereby heralding a change in the Namboodiri society.

The author takes the reader into the pages of the socio cultural and political history of Kerala and the manner in which high caste Brahmin men were a great force when there were no check and balance system on their power and the way they exploited women of their own caste and class but also other women as well. I enjoyed the way the book brought alive the times but was a bit disappointed by the fact that Paptikutty is given the Kali analogy rather than be treated as an extraordinary woman.

I would recommend this book for readers who love to read translated Indian literature and who are looking to discover some unknown gems. Outcaste or Brushte is considered a literary masterpiece in Malyalam literature. I did feel that the translation was a bit heavy in parts but I guess that would be keeping in spirit with the flowery prose that would perhaps have been used in the original language. The beauty of this book though is that none of these slight drawbacks take away the voice of reason and questioning that it raises.