‘A Lonely Harvest’ & ‘Trial by Silence’ by Perumal Murugan and Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

A_Murugan.jpeg

‘A Lonely Harvest’ & ‘Trial by Silence’ by Perumal Murugan and Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

Published by: Penguin Books

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

At the end of Perumal Murugan’s trailblazing novel One Part Woman, readers are left on a cliffhanger as Kali and Ponna’s intense love for each other is torn to shreds. What is going to happen next to this beloved couple?

In A Lonely Harvest-one of two inventive sequels that pick up the story right where One Part Woman ends-Ponna returns from the temple festival to find that Kali has killed himself in despair. Devastated that he would punish her so cruelly, but constantly haunted by memories of the happiness she once shared with Kali, Ponna must now learn to face the world alone.

With poignancy and compassion, Murugan weaves a powerful tale of female solidarity and second chances.

Trial by Silence- In this sequel, Kali is determined to punish Ponna for what he believes is an absolute betrayal. But Ponna is equally upset at being forced to atone for something that was not her fault. In the wake of the temple festival, both must now confront harsh new uncertainties in their once idyllic life together. In Murugan’s magical hands, this story reaches a surprising and dramatic conclusion.

About the author:

Perumal Murugan is an acclaimed Tamil author. The English translation of his novel Madhorubhagan, or One Part Woman, by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, won the Sahitya Akademi’s Translation Prize in 2017. The book mired the author in controversy and attacks on his way of writing that calls out castiest practices.

My Review

 Perumal Murugan’s writings are always rooted in the earth and the soil and the lives of people who work in fields under tough conditions and are wrapped in their social beliefs and practices. These two books, the sequels to One Part Woman are no different and carry forward the story of what happens after Ponna, a childless woman who is in a very loving marriage is tricked into heading to a socially sanctioned religious festival during which she can enter into a sexual relation with another man to beget a child. While One Part Woman in itself is a beautiful exploration of the love and lust between a couple that makes other people envious and taunt them on their childlessness, it is not necessary that readers should have read the book before reading the sequel (s).

Both the books takes readers into the tough life of farmers in a small village in the country on the cusp of new changes (the white man might be leaving the country soon) where old social moorings are tight enough to expect women who don’t give birth as a curse and men are given the leeway of being the master of his destiny.

In ‘A Lonely Harvest’ Kali has committed suicide after knowing that his wife has gone to the temple festival and follows what happens to Ponna and his family while ‘Trail by Silence’ has Kali trying to commit suicide but gets thwarted after his mother Seerayi intervenes. Kali sets out to punish Ponna with his stony silence, part contempt and an unforgiving stance. In both sequels, it is Seerayi who shines with her ready wit and support for her daughter in law with whom she has earlier never seen eye to eye. It is Seerayi who gently schemes so that the truth of Ponna’s pregnancy is not revealed. Ponna remains a victim of circumstances: she has to suffer the indignity of being cut away totally by the husband in one version while in the other, she has to go through a public ceremony where she stands with her head bowed even as the villagers has to decide on whether her unborn child is indeed that of Kali’s.

There is rough beauty in a tough life filled with back breaking work but filled with the small joys of life even as social sanctions box in people. The characters that flit into both books do so by raising questions on women’s agency, social hypocrisy and on who decides social norms and community acceptance. Many of the points are raised through bawdy stories and anecdotes that work well in the milieu that the books are set on.

The power and beauty of Perumal Murugan’s writing is that both sequels are believable, possible and inevitable. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Secret History of Compassion by Paul Zacharia

B

A Secret History of Compassion by Paul Zacharia

Published by: Context/Westland Publications

Rating: 3.50/5 stars

Book summary:

The art of lying reaches the zenith of its glory as Lord Spider, famous author of popular fiction, J.L. Pillai, eminent executioner, aspiring writer, shape-shifter and meditative voyeur, and Rosi, Spider’s wife and freelancing philosopher, get together to write an essay on Compassion for the Communist Party.

God herself is here. So is Stalin (whose real identity is now revealed). And Satan (whose true nature is finally discovered). As also a Gandhi doppelganger. And making a guest appearance in this pre-truth tale about a post-truth literary partnership is Jesus in his 37th incarnation. Other personalities include Brother Dog, the cynic of the household, Tarzan, a well-known stud bull, and Pretty Man, a snake-father.

Flying and shape-changing flourish in this wordy world. There’s virginity in the air. If there’s madness, there’s no evidence of it. And far away waits the Valley of Lost Songs.

By one of India’s foremost writers, widely known for his wicked turn of phrase and unfailing irreverence for the Establishment, this is a novel in brilliant, irresistible freefall.

About the author:

Paul Zacharia, popular by his pen name Zacharia, is a renowned Malayalam author. A journalist by profession, he has written some of the most popular short stories in Malayalam. His novella- Bhaskara Pattelarum Ente Jeevithavum has been adapted into a film titled Vidheyan by the renowned director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. He is a recipient of both the Kerala and National Sahitya Academy Awards.

My Review

 This will go straight into the genre of absurdist fiction where anything and everything under the sun can and does happen. Lord Spider, a famous, best-selling novelist, is asked to write an essay on compassion, by the Communist Party. The name of the famous novelist who has written a total of 131 books is just the tip of the iceberg. Very soon, we get to meet a shape-shifting hangman called Jesus Lambodara Pillai who is a fan of Spider’s work. Between the two of them springs up the possibility of a collaboration of the said essay which is to be included in a ‘souvenir for the Communist Party to raise funds for a home for destitute comrades’ thus doffing a hat towards how the political party has lost its way after its grand scheme of setting up an egalitarian world.

The two begin to work on the essay while contemplating on religion, death and sex as offshoots of compassion and embark on adventures that will keep readers enthralled but confused if one is not clued in about the socio culture and political narratives in Kerala. At one level, it is also about the nature of writers and their writing: do writers always become voyeurs, peeking into the life and experiences of people around them to become material for writing? The conversations that Lord Spider has with Pillai are part crazy, part intense, part stimulating but always comes back to the idea of what compassion is as per the absurdity standard that they build up. A third protagonist who feature in the conversation is Rosi, the wife of Lord Spider who is a philosopher. But really, this is hardly about character arcs but more to do with satire and sarcasm that gives the zing to the commentary of the times we live in today.

The situations and characters that pop up are mind boggling and while there are times when they take the narrative in directions you least expect, there is no guarantee that it would be something up every reader’s alley. But if as a reader, you are prepared to lose yourself in the situations that an author creates for you, this can be a roller coaster ride as you laugh out loud at the subtle put downs of certain practices and institutions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction by Roshan Ali

1

Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction by Roshan Ali

Published by: Penguin Viking/Penguin India

Rating: 3.75/5 stars

Book summary:

‘And then finally I felt sadness, aided perhaps by those futile notes, by the dust that keeps thickening, by the untouchable past, the inevitable future, and by everything else that pushes us around.’

Ib lives with his schizophrenic father and his ‘nice’ mother negotiating life, not knowing what to do, steered by uncaring winds and pushy people. From his slimy, unmiraculous birth to the tragic death of a loved one, Ib wanders the city, from one thing to another, confused, lost and alone, all the while reflecting on his predicament. He is searching for something—what he does not know—and must overcome many obstacles: family, religion, love and, finally, death. Will he be defeated by ‘this wreckage of modern life?’ Will a mysterious woman lift him out of the ‘cement’ in his soul?

In this journey of sadness and self-reflection, Ib transforms into an ordinary man from an ordinary boy and along the way, tries to figure out life and understand himself. In this audacious debut that is insightful, original and deeply disturbing, Roshan Ali’s play of language is nothing less than masterful.

About the author:

Roshan Ali started writing soon after dropping out of college. His work has been published in the Huffington Post India and he blogs at http://www.thesapota.com. Ib’s Endless Satisfaction is his first novel.

My Review

A book that one can easily label as unsatisfactory is how I will describe this debut novel. This is a story of Ib who grows up being left to his devices and who makes up imaginary friends at home for his father is schizophrenic and is taken care of by his mother. Ib’s narration of his life from childhood to adulthood is a lonely exercise and the only people he gets to be around are his parents and his maternal grandfather. There are no emotional moorings between any of these characters: Ib has no friends his age but neither does he talk about wanting to have friends.

Ib puts it in a few sparse words: ‘I am an empty man in an empty city, and every time I begin to fill up, the city sucks it all out again.’ Ib’s character is contemplative in nature and seeks no sympathy for the kind of childhood he’s had or the solitary creature he has become. He is matter of fact when describing his father’s schizophrenic condition where he does not allow the reader to have a tiny peek at how it affects him. So, mental health is not used as a writing trope by the author and that, I heartily approve.

I would call this a coming of age story, a seeking of the meaning of what life is despite the everyday mundane existence: of how an almost isolated boy steers his life with imaginary friends, standing up to a patriarchal figure, that of his maternal grand father whose money runs the family to drop out from college which he finds lacking of any purpose and his work stints that leave him with an array of insights, questions and disdain. During the course of the journey that Ib covers, the readers will see questions and doubts about religion and spirituality, education and intellect, parents and empty callings, connections and endings, life’s purpose and ordinariness.

This is no emotional book: rather, it is quite the opposite. You will wonder where are the emotions: why isn’t the author trying to make readers cry? You will want the character to find his way to some emotional connect but there are two significant people in his life who dies and Ib sees how the world goes on despite everything. And then, you see, that is just how life is.

Read it only if you can let yourself to ponder over life and its ways. Read it when you are ready and you will find out how for yourselves how Ib’s life speaks and mirrors so many of our own thoughts.

The City and The Sea by Raj Kamal Jha

Amazon

The City and The Sea by Raj Kamal Jha

Published by: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House India

Rating: 3.50/5 stars

Book summary:

In a crumbling neighbourhood in New Delhi, a child waits for a mother to return home from work. And, in parallel, in a snow-swept town in Germany on the Baltic Sea coast a woman, her memory fading, shows up at a deserted hotel. Worlds apart, both embark, in the course of that night, on harrowing journeys through the lost and the missing, the living and the dead, until they meet in an ending that breaks the heart – and holds the promise of putting it back together again.

Called the novelist of the newsroom, Raj Kamal Jha cleaves open India’s tragedy of violence against women with a powerful story about our complicity in the culture that supports it. This is a book about masculinity – damaging and toxic and yet enduring and entrenched – that begs the question: What kind of men are our boys growing up to be?

The novel takes off from the night of a horrific rape in New Delhi, where Jha leaves behind the story that was, and sets out in search of a story that could have been, opening a conversation, listening to voices that can, perhaps, find utterance only in fiction.

The City and the Sea, Jha’s fifth and most audacious novel yet, is a call for empathy and imagination in the fight for justice. It’s also one possible answer to the fundamental question which drives the art of the novel and is the basis of all hope: What if?

About the author:

Raj Kamal Jha is Chief Editor of The Indian Express. Jha was awarded Journalist of the Year at the Red Ink Awards by the Mumbai Press Club in 2017. He got the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, for his ‘journalism and fiction that tell stories of a changing India with honesty and courage.’ His fiction has been translated into more than a dozen languages. This is his fifth novel.

My Review

There can be no denying at all – this can be a difficult read. Readers start off by knowing that the narrative follows a woman in a deserted hotel in Germany and a small boy in Delhi in search of his mother who has not returned home. Both situations are fraught with the tensions of what could be the circumstances that both protagonists have encountered. Sadly, all we get is clever word play that can really try one’s patience and so, instead of being involved, one can end up feeling the weight of a long wait for the plot devices to work and make its point.

The book picks pace only halfway through when December, a young man starts telling a part of his life journey to the small boy. It is December who takes the boy to his mother but not before but not before he shows the boy his own world made up of pressing issues and where the people frequenting it seem unaware but also aware of the world they left behind. It will surely make the cut for literature students in terms of the writing that is more free style poetry than prose.

The frequent mentions of Herta Müller (a Romanian-born German novelist, poet, essayist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature who mostly gave voice to ‘the dispossessed’) is the first clue for readers to guess early on that the narrative is going to give voice to someone/those whose voice is seldom heard (December). The second clue about what lies in store for readers is the description of the clothes that the boy’s mother had dressed in while heading to work. The third clue is the mention of newspaper headlines about violence and missing people. Tie the clues up and you know the two parallel stories will meet.

Overall, the premise of this book that sets itself on the horrific case of the death of young girl (whose real name has been taken over by a given one) after she was brutally gang raped in a moving bus is on a track of possible forgiveness. The use of a free style poetry like writing for a major section of the book is to give the dream like feel that people say exists in the moments between life and death but too much of it takes a toll on the plot narrative.

Read it only if you are comfortable to reading a book with patience. Read it knowing that it can be trying but worth it somehow at the end of it.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

Madhuri Vi

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

Published by: Fourth Estate/Harper Collins India

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

An elegant, epic debut from a tremendous new talent, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field follows one young woman’s search for a lost figure from her childhood, a journey that carries her from Southern India to Kashmir and to the brink of a devastating political and personal reckoning.

In the wake of her mother’s death, Shalini, a privileged and restless young woman from Bangalore, sets out for a remote Himalayan village in the troubled northern region of Kashmir. Certain that the loss of her mother is somehow connected to the decade-old disappearance of Bashir Ahmed, a charming Kashmiri salesman who frequented her childhood home, she is determined to track him down . But as soon as Shalini arrives, she is confronted with the region’s politics, as well as the tangled history of the local family that takes her in. As life in the village turns volatile and old hatreds threaten to erupt into violence, Shalini finds herself forced to make a series of choices that could hold dangerous repercussions for the very people she has come to love.

With rare acumen and evocative prose, in The Far Field Madhuri Vijay masterfully examines Indian politics, class prejudice, and sexuality through the lens of an outsider, offering a profound meditation on grief, guilt, and the limits of compassion.

About the author:

Madhuri Vijay was born in Bangalore and taught for many years in Kashmir. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and her writing has appeared in Best American Non-Required Reading, Narrative Magazine and Salon, among other publications. The Far Field is her first book.

*My Review

 *Thank you Harper Collins India for the copy. All opinions are my own.

Reading The Far Fields has left me with so many emotions and reflections that are so familiar. We start with 30-year-old Shalini being self deprecating: ‘I am thirty years old and that is nothing’ and soon there is a sense of unease over the fact that because of her, a young man vanished from his home.

As a narrator, Shalini is terse and clinical but that is in parts and perfectly in keeping with the people she is talking about and the ambience she is in. She is dismissive of herself and comes across as a distant observer when she brings to us the emptiness of a dysfunctional family made up of herself and her parents – a distant workaholic father and a mother who has no social niceties. The terse tone turns poetic when she discovers the joy of bonding with people, when she explores the beauty of a land that has been distant to her but one she is in close proximity later. It turns meditative when she is exposed to the many layers and many versions of the story of people and incidents. It turns morbid when she is helpless to do anything for anyone, much less herself.

Of her parents, it is her mother Shalini is closer to, but fails to connect with, even as she remains fascinated by her demeanor (the reader will have a vague sense of why her mother is the way she is and find out partly towards the end of the book).When Bashir, a salesman from Kashmir enters into Shalini and her mother’s world, she sees a different side of her mother. But Shalini’ mother who seeks escape from her world fails to see that Bashir too is seeking escape from his own and almost forces him to go back to Kashmir and ‘not be a coward’. A series of events play out that leaves a trail of loss and trying to cope with circumstances that one has no control of. Shalini’s journey to Kashmir to find Bashir unfolds and unravels slowly in the way she finds connections with total strangers and the bonds that strengthen. But it brings its own set of conflicts and consequences over a period of time and while it will be easy to dismiss Shalini’s action/non action and judge her, the larger picture is really about how we learn too late, too little; about the contours of relationships and the risks of attachments and how difficult it is to grieve honestly. I loved the fact that the author did not have to lay everything bare but left it to readers to look within to understand the characters and why they do what they do.

Set partly in Kashmir, The Far Fields looks at the larger dilemma of conflict and whose version holds true and for what ends. Growing up in Manipur, a militarised conflict zone, the trauma of loss that does not find a space to be understood or even heard about outside of the state; the steady stream of young and old people who leave to find some peace outside to be met with ‘are you Chinese?’ or ‘Why don’t you want to be a part of the country?’ are familiar territory for me.

And no, one does not have to know how it is to live under the shadow of guns and darkness to feel for every character in this book for it is more than the actual violence but about how much most of us live in isolated comfort zones. Which brings me to what I want to say: if you want to get read something out of your comfort zones, if you are feel that an author should also leave readers to fill in what has not been written but only hinted at, this is the book for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Blue Lotus: Myths and Folktales of India by Meena Arora Nayak

A

The Blue Lotus: Myths and Folktales of India by Meena Arora Nayak

Published by: Aleph Book Company

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book summary:

Here you will find gods who make the three worlds tremble and lightning swing wildly across the firmament, shape-shifting asuras living in enchanted forests, wandering rishis with formidable magical powers, bewitching apsaras gliding through heavenly palaces and heroes so tall they touch the skies.

Myths and folktales have nourished the cultural and spiritual heritage of India since the dawn of creation. They not only accentuate the splendour of the country’s diverse cultures—Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic, Christian, Sikh, Parsi and tribal—but, collectively, they also blend to shape our nation’s psyche. Many of them are familiar to us from our own childhoods. Those that are new serve to remind us of the extraordinary complexity of India’s storytelling tradition. Sometimes these tales are archetypal and sometimes they defy categorization. Sometimes they affirm our core values and, at other times, they make us question the motives that drive us. But what is always true about them, no matter how fantastical or creative the forms they take, is the rare insight they give us into the lives we live. They teach us about kinship, desire, greed, conflict, friendship, treachery, compassion, arrogance, persecution, empowerment, secrecy, romance, suffering, courage, challenges, wisdom, sexuality and spirituality—and innumerable other things we might expect to experience in the course of our journey through life.

Through her masterful retelling, Meena Arora Nayak brings to vivid life familiar and beloved stories from the Vedas, Puranas, the great epics, Kathasaritsagara and the Panchatantra, as well as lesser-known offerings from the Jatakas, Bible, Holy Quran, Sikh Janamsakhis and the folk traditions of the Santhals, Khasis, Oriyas, Bengalis and Punjabis, among others. Perhaps the most comprehensive collection of Indian myths and folktales to have been published in our time, the tales in The Blue Lotus will leave readers of all ages spellbound

About the author:

Meena Arora Nayak is the author of three novels, Endless Rain, About Daddy, and In the Aftermath, and a children’s book, The Puffin Book of Legendary Lives. Her stories are included in the anthologies The City of Sin and Splendour and Enhanced Gravity. Her last book was a monograph, Evil in the Mahabharata.

My Review*

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

To begin with, this book is a labour of love: the love to compile folk tales across diverse faiths, communities, tribes, region and scriptures. Bringing together a 188 stories in one volume is not something that sounds like an easy task but that’s what comes in this collection: I dare say, this is like a Collector’s Edition of myths and folktales of India. It has been exhaustively written and can almost intimidate the reader in you with its sheer volume and appearance (it is a Hardback edition) but believe me, this is a treasure trove that tells you just how much of a cultural diversity we have in our country. Some of the stories will be familiar as ‘that is also a folk tale in my community’ and then you see that commonalities can exist with diversity.

The stories in this collection are under four broad categories: Roots and rhizome, that looks at the creation of the world; A Thousand petals, a section in which beings in the world grow, procreate, love, lusts, creates, feels, desires, fights, bonds, destroy, fight, suffers; The Seeded Pod, that covers death and endings and finally, The Lotus which looks at the spirituality of life and death.

The stories from the various religious scriptures have a common feature: women who have no agency, whether they are of heaven or earth. Yes, the Hindu scriptures have the Devi too, the one who can destroy but these are the only facets of women we get to see: women without a say or women who are destructive. No wonder our social cultural norms reflect what happens in these fictional stories in our myths and folklore.

At 539 pages, the book might look like a tough one to crack but believe me, reading the stories takes one to the delight we felt when we heard stories being narrated to us by the elders in our family. I will recommend that you get this book: it will surely appeal to you and every one in the family regardless of age.

 

 

 

Milk Teeth by Amrita Mahale

A

Milk Teeth by Amrita Mahale

Published by: Westland Publications

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

Childhood allies Ira Kamat and Kartik Kini meet on the terrace of their building in Matunga, Mumbai. A meeting is in progress to decide the fate of the establishment and its residents. And the zeitgeist of the 1990s appears to have touched everyone and everything around them.

Ira is now a journalist on the civic beat, unearthing stories of corruption and indolence, and trying to push back memories of a lost love. Kartik works a corporate job with an MNC, and leads a secret, agonising, exhilarating second life. Between and around them throbs the living, beating heart of Mumbai, city of heaving inequities and limitless dreams.

Milk Teeth is subtle, incisive, unputdownable.

About the author:

Amrita Mahale’s writings have appeared in Hindustan Times, Scroll, Himal Southasian and Brown Paper Bag. Amrita who trained as an aerospace engineer is a product manager at a nonprofit research lab working on artificial intelligence for social good. Milk Teeth is her debut book.

My Review

 Having fallen under the spell of the world and the mood and the character graphs of the protagonists in Amrita Mahale’s debut book, Milk Teeth I know why readers have loved it and I join their ranks now.

Set in the backdrop of the jostle and hubris of Bombay in the 90s in a run down housing building called Asha Niwas where tenants and the building owner are in a tussle over redevelopment over who would give more and get less, Milk Teeth is a fascinating narrative on how a city and its people shaped each other through the push and pull of their lives and their hopes and prejudices. It is a coming of age story: of Ira, Kartik and Kiaz but also of Bombay to Mumbai. It is an ode to the city with its teeming millions, a city bursting at its seams with as many thoughts and beliefs that are at odds and harmony with one another.

The narrative plays out in three parts through which we get to follow the main protagonists: Ira and Kartik who are not just childhood friends but live in the same building and Kiaz who drops in unexpectedly and walks out figuratively and literally carrying the crux of the story.

The beauty of Milk Teeth lies in the mix of the expected and the unexpected: those familiar with the socio cultural fabric of the 90s will love the expected footprints: coveting the air condition breeze of the Taj Hotel, the charms of cable TV, the world of internet chat rooms when connections were beyond patchy…the many ways in which the Babri Masjid incident singed the city slowly polarizing people along the lines of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

It is a love story, just that it is the unexpected shift that adds layers: we start rooting for strong willed Ira who falls in love with Kartik who she looks for approval from their time together as children. But the two part ways only to meet again and continue their journey many years later by which time, Ira has become a journalist covering the civic beat and Kartik a management consultant. Kiaz comes in as an intruder but it is through his character and his questioning, his beliefs that we begin to look at Bombay/Mumbai with a mix of emotions. It is only through Kiaz that Ira’s character arc reveals itself: her unease at not fitting in when moving out of her comfort zone, her lack of social ties even as she desperately seeks entry into Kiaz’s intellectual circle and Ira’s own attachment to the city and its people. The characters are well etched with all their follies and failings, their prejudices and stubbornness, making them real: from minor characters to the main protagonists.

 

It is the slow unexpected twist in the Ira-Kartik-Kiaz story brought about by a minor character that is the most delicious part of Milk Teeth. Be sure to read this book slowly and savour the intimacy of the journey of a city and its people.