Half the Night is Gone by Amitabha Bagchi

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Half the Night is Gone by Amitabha Bagchi

Published by: Juggernaut

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

Book summary:

The celebrated Hindi novelist Vishwanath is heartbroken by the recent loss of his son in an accident. The tragedy spurs him to write a novel set in the household of Lala Motichand. It follows the lives of the wealthy lala and his three sons: Self-confident Dinanath, the true heir to Motichand’s mercantile temperament, lonely Diwanchand, uninterested in business and steeped in poetry; and illegitimate Makhan Lal, a Marx-loving schoolteacher kept to the periphery of his father’s life. In an illuminating act of self-reflection, Vishwanath, the son of a cook for a rich sethji, also tells the story of the lala’s personal servant, Mange Ram and his son, Parsadi. Fatherhood, brotherhood and childhood, love, loyalty and poetry all come to the fore as sons and servants await the lala’s death.

By writing about mortality and family, Vishwanath confronts the wreckage of his own life while seeking to make sense of the new India that came into being after independence. Spellbinding and penetrating, Half the Night Is Gone raises questions of religion, literature and society that speak to our fractured times.

About the author:

Amitabha Bagchi is an Assistant Professor at IIT Delhi. Half the Night is Gone which was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature (2018) is his third novel. It is also in the Shortlist for the DSC Literature Prize 2019.

My Review

Half the Night is Gone is a story within a story: acclaimed Hindi writer Vishwanath is in the process of writing his next novel which is a shift from his usual writing genre – satire. The reader is taken through the world of fiction that Vishwanath weaves, a story of a rich feudal man and the members of his family which is set in the years leading to the last vestige of the British rule in India. On another level, Vishwanath’s life unfolds, warts and all and we see him struggling for redemption and forgiveness from the people he has hurt the most: his brother whom he has distanced himself from and his wife who he has burdened with as he pursued his writing career.

Dwelling on the nature of family ties and forgiveness, both narratives have common strands: the manner in which people from lower social classes have to depend on the largesse and whims of those at the top, social distinctions, women as victims of social norms and then again, as those who can scheme to get things going their way. The nature of literature and language is another common theme: in the fictional world that Vishwanath creates, much of the narrative revolves around the Ram Charit Manas and the takeaways of love, brotherhood, familial ties, duty and forgiveness while Vishwanath himself dwells on the writings of various Hindi writing stalwarts.

Reading this made me want to really understand the nuances of Hindi literature. The author has made a convincing case for Hindi literature in this and keeping firmly within the narrative of the two stories, made it clear that Hindi literature is a rich ouvre that needs to be read, understood and realized. I absolutely loved the way the Ram Charit Manas has been given a literary perspective beyond the religious context and how Tulsidas gave Hindi language its form and popularity with his work.

Half the Night is Gone is a book that has left me searching for the right words to describe, all I can say is read this for sure and enjoy the stories that unravel.

 

 

The Many That I Am: Writings from Nagaland by Anungla Zoe Longkumer (Editor)

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The Many That I Am: Writings from Nagaland by Anungla Zoe Longkumer (Editor)

Published by: Zubaan Books

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary

A grandmother’s tattoos, the advent of Christianity, stories woven into fabrics, a tradition of orality, the imposition of a “new” language, and a history of war and conflict—all of this and much more informs the writers and artists in this book. Filmmaker and writer Anungla Zoe Longkumer brings together, for the first time, a remarkable set of stories, poems, first-person narratives, and visuals that showcase the breadth of Naga women’s creative and literary expression. The essays are written in English, a language the Nagas—who had no tradition of written literature—made their own after the arrival of Christianity in the region during the nineteenth century. In The Many That I Am, each writer speaks of the many journeys women undertake to reclaim their pasts and understand their complex present.

About the Editor and authors:

Anungla Zoe Longkumer (Editor) can best be described as a free individual discovering her way through creative pursuits in music, writing, filmmaking, and folk traditions. She is the author of Folklore of Eastern Nagaland comprising of translations of folktales, folk songs and real-life accounts, collected from the six tribes who inhabit the more remote districts of Eastern Nagaland.

The anthology features the work of 32 women authors and poets and artistes.

My Review*

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

This anthology of writings from Nagaland focusing on the voices of women is a must read for not only does it bring together a collection of genres from short stories to poems and slam poetry but also personal essays. By the end of reading this anthology, you cannot help but sense as if you have felt and understood in parts mind you, the socio cultural and political life of the Naga women, sometimes as victims, sometimes as survivors and sometimes as women who will also take advantage of the society around them.

This anthology gives a brief overview of the journey from the tribal ways of life to the push and pull that Naga society went through once Christianity came and took root, the subsequent upheavals brought about by militarization – first, being caught between the Japanese and Allied Forces during the Second World War and then the growing insurgency in the state due to various factors. The stories are not only powerfully narrated through the voices of women and keeping women at the center of things but also a nuanced and insightful commentary on the many paradox that women in Nagaland face: as peace keepers in the society when there is a looming threat of violence over a village on one hand and as silent victims of patriarchy and domestic violence within the homes; as a known woman political worker who has the agency to negotiate a Government service for a daughter but one who does not have the time or the inclination to listen to her own daughter’s voice.

There are also stories that focus on universal themes: of forgiveness, of the importance to reclaim one’s roots and the nature of violence and fear. Many of the poems are translations of Naga folk songs that will take you to a time that not many are familiar with.

At less than 200 pages, this anthology, which collates the work of 32 women authors and poets and artistes, is a must read. I loved the way the anthology has been put together touching upon so many facets of life in Nagaland. I will strongly recommend ‘The Many Voices That I Am : Writings from Nagaland’ to lay readers and to those who are interested to read about the socio cultural history of Nagaland through its many women.

 

 

Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

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Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

Published by: Bloomsbury Publishing/Bloomsbury India

Rating: 3.75/5 stars

Book summary

A coming-of-age story in Sixties Sri Lanka by the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Reef.

1964. Ceylon is on the brink of change. But Kairo is at a loose end. School is closed, the government is in disarray, the press is under threat and the religious right are flexing their muscles. Kairo’s hard-working mother blows off steam at her cha-cha-cha classes; his Trotskyite father grumbles over the state of the nation between his secret flutters on horse races in faraway England. All Kairo wants to do is hide in his room and flick over second-hand westerns and superhero comics, or escape on his bicycle and daydream. Then he meets the magnetic teenage Jay, and his whole world is turned inside out.

A budding naturalist and a born rebel, Jay keeps fish and traps birds for an aviary he is building in the garden of his grand home. The adults in Jay’s life have no say in what he does or where he goes: he holds his beautiful, fragile mother in contempt, and his wealthy father seems fuelled by anger. But his Uncle Elvin, suave and worldly, is his encourager. As Jay guides him from the realm of make believe into one of hunting-guns and fast cars and introduces him to a girl — Niromi — Kairo begins to understand the price of privilege and embarks on a journey of devastating consequence.

Taut and luminous, graceful and wild, Suncatcher is a poignant coming-of-age novel about difficult friendships and sudden awakenings. Mesmerizingly it charts the loss of innocence and our recurring search for love — or consolation — bringing these extraordinary lives into our own.

About the author:

Jamil Romesh Gunesekera’s novel, Reef, published in 1994 and was short-listed as a finalist for the Booker Prize, as well as for the Guardian Fiction Prize. In the USA he was nominated for a New Voice Award. His first collection of stories, Monkfish Moon (1992) was one of the first titles in Granta’s venture into book publishing. It was shortlisted for several prizes and named a New York Times Notable Book for 1993.

My Review*

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

What happens when the young have to cope with the weight of the adult world around them: a world that is additionally being fractured by the push and pull of a political change that shows authoritarian control? This is the essence of this coming of age story set in Ceylon in 1964, narrated by Kairo whose life cannot be counted as anything remarkable till he meets an on the edge Jay who is his complete opposite in terms of temperament and family background.

Jay is flamboyance personified with the advantage of a few years over Kairo and he personifies a near about adult to Kairo even though the later senses the fault lines and near cracks in his idol friend. But every doubt gets swept under the charms of trying out big wheels and being given entry into Jay’s life resulting in Kairo straining at his own reading of people and situations around him. Jay serves as Kairo’s guide into the chaos of an adult world that is fraught given the political situation in Sri Lanka.

The backdrop of Sri Lanka in 1964 is not so much for the historical perspective for the author does mention that he has taken a few liberties with the chronology of certain events but it tells enough to the readers, specifically when it comes to the identity politics that will rear up later between the Sinhalese and the Tamil population and the seeds of polarization in the way political systems and institutions set about playing divisive politics.

The writing is kept simple: there is no maudlin undertone or pathos and that works remarkably well to portray a young soon to be adult’s world. The author juxtaposes the adult and pre adult world through the two sets of parents and Jay and Kairo in a way that is part inevitably world weary and filled with a tinge of anguish over the loss of innocence.

Pick this book if you love coming of age novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai

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99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai

Published by: Bloomsbury Circus/Bloomsbury India

Rating: 3.75/5 stars

Book summary:

A coming-of-age story about one boy’s journey across contemporary Afghanistan to find and bring home the family dog, blending the grit and immediacy of voice-driven fiction like We Need New Names with the myth making of One Thousand and One Nights.

Twelve-year-old Marwand’s memories from his previous visit to Afghanistan six years ago center on his contentious relationship with Budabash, the terrifying but beloved dog who guards his extended family’s compound in Logar. Eager to find an ally in this place that’s meant to be “home,” Marwand approaches Budabash the way he would any dog on his American suburban block—and the results are disastrous: Marwand loses a finger and Budabash escapes.

The resulting search for the family dog is an expertly told adventure, a ninety-nine-night quest that sends Marwand and his cousins across the landscape of Logar. Moving between celebrations and tragedies, deeply humorous and surprisingly tender, 99 Nights in Logar is a vibrant exploration of the power of stories—the ones we tell each other, and the ones we find ourselves in.

About the author:

Jamil Jan Kochai is a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming in A Public Space, Ploughshares, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. 99 Nights in Logar is his debut novel.

My Review*

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

Part satire, part absurdist fiction and parts magical realism, 99 Nights in Logar is a crazy caper across the socio political landscape of parts of Afghanistan as a country wrecked by political ideologies at loggerheads, its social fabric in tatters and its people under constant militarization. On the face of it, we have the story of 12 year old Marwad who has returned home to Logar, a small village in Afghanistan from the US and the reader gradually knows that the setting precedes 9/11 when Taliban Forces were still the good boys in the books of America whose soldiers have a strong presence in the country. The story (amongst various stories) follows Marwand’s search for Budabash, his uncle’s dog who has run off with his index finger though we are never sure whether the search is to exact revenge on the dog or to get back the finger.

Marwand embarks on a 99 day trek with his cousins: Gul, Dawood and Zia (rather significant names if you throw in the India Pakistan angle) and the narrative that follows is more about community ties and how important story telling is to the socio cultural fabric of societies. So instead of an adventure of a physical trek to find a dog, we have Marwand and his team taking part in weddings, community events and social meetings where almost everyone has a knack for story telling. Is the story telling a means of escape for the people, a way of trying to make some sense from the familiar world of the stories they live with instead of their unease over the growing violence and militarization they must cope with? Each story being told sound ludicrous and then one realizes that we live in a world that is more crazy than the crazy tales we think we are being told.

Reading 99 Nights in Logar feels like a challenging negotiation of the terrain of languages: there are no English renditions of Farsi and Pashto terms. There is an entire chapter towards the climax that is written in in a language that I and most readers will not know and that left me smarting but made me think as well: do we need languages to tell us what is beautiful and what is scarred?

This is not en easy book to read but if you are up to finding new ground in literary voices, you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Larkin

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Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Larkin

Published by: John Murrays

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

Book summary:

Burma, where George Orwell worked as an official in the Imperial police force, is ruled by one of the oldest and most brutal military dictatorships in the world. Around the country posters promise to ‘crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy’, and a vast network of military intelligence ensures no one says or does anything to threaten the regime. In short, George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ is alive and well in Burma. Over the course of a year, Emma Larkin visited the places where Orwell lived, to meet the people who live there today.

Starting in the former royal city of Mandalay, she travelled through the moody delta regions on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, to the mildewed splendour of the old port town Moulmein, and ending her journey in the mountains of the far north, in the forgotten town Orwell used as the setting for Burmese Days. The book journeys into the Orwellian land Burma’s ruling generals have created, a place in which reality is distorted by censorship and truth is a dangerous commodity. Secret Histories uncovers the reality of life inside this secretive, totalitarian state.

About the author:

Emma Larkin is the pseudonym of a journalist who was born and brought up in Asia. She has contributed to newspapers and magazines around the world and has been visiting Burma for ten years. She studied the Burmese language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

My Review

A non fiction that is part travelogue, part literary overview of the works of George Orwell AND part commentary on the socio political journey of Burma (the name Myanmar is an imposition by the junta there), here’s a book you have to read if you are a fan of Orwell or been fascinated by his writings. It is a book that takes you behind the scenes of a country that has been presented as idyllic and puts you face to face with its oppressive surveillance.

Emma Larkin (a pseudonym of an American Journalist) traces the places and influences of Eric Arthur Blake better known as Orwell through Burma, a country he spent five years of his life as an officer in the British administration and which inspired a majority of his writings. Through Larkin’s meetings and interactions with dissidents, academics and more important, the common men and women of the country, we are treated to an intimate look at Burma and its people and how Orwell’s writings well reflect the various stages of his own literary positioning: the push and pull between colonial rulers and natives in Burmese Days, the growing control by authoritarian forces in Animal Farm and the oppressive air aided by fear and monitoring in 1984. Apart from the three well-known works of Orwell, his essays and poetry too find a place in this book.

The writing is crisp and insightful: I particularly liked the intense look at whether Orwell did root for Colonialism in Burma or was ambivalent about it which the author does through her own lens and that of various people she meets in her journey. It was fascinating to look at Orwell’s life and work in Burma through the eyes of its many people.

Ironically, even as this book is about Orwell and Burma, it is as much about Orwellian realities where nation states operate on the rush of fear and authoritarian control. This is book that one cannot restrict to one country but which hold true for many present realities. This is a necessary read.

Excerpts

On history and the politics of changing names:

‘When a place is renamed, the old name disappears from maps and eventually from human memory. If that is possible, then perhaps the memory of past events can also be erased.’

On Government control over narratives/propaganda in Burma but which might hold true for the country we live in now:

‘The Burmese media: books, magazines, movies and music are controlled by a strict censorship board and Government propaganda is churned out not only through newspapers and television but also in schools and universities.

 

 

 

 

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas

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The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas

Published by: Zubaan Books

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

In 1970s Karachi, where violence and political and social uncertainty are on the rise, a beautiful and talented artist, Tahira, tries to hold her life together as it shatters around her. Soon after her wedding, her marriage is revealed to be a trap from which there appears no escape. Accustomed to the company of her brother, Waseem, and friends, Andaleep and Safdar, who are activists, writers and thinkers, she struggles to adapt to her new world of stifling conformity.

Tragedy strikes when her brother and friends, are caught up in the cynically repressive regime. Faced with horror and injustice, she embarks upon a series of paintings entitled ‘The Empty Room’, filling the blank canvases with vivid colour and light.

Poetic, elegant, and powerful, The Empty Room is an important addition to contemporary Pakistani literature, a moving portrait of life in Karachi at a pivotal moment in the nation’s history, and a powerful meditation on art and on the dilemmas faced by all women who must find their own creative path in hostile conditions.

About the author:

Sadia Abbas teaches in the English Department at Rutgers University-Newark. Sadia is Adjunct Professor at the Stavros Niarchos Center for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University. The Empty Room is her first fiction novel

My Review*

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

Set in the backdrop of Pakistan in the 70s, The Empty Room is an intense look at the personal and political sphere. The focus on the personal is brought to the fore through the life events of Tahira and her progressive family on one side and the conservative patriarchal family she marries into. It takes only the first chapter for readers to sense early on that Tahira’s marriage is headed to an empty chamber where barbs and humiliation echoes. Debut author Sadia Abbas weaves the despair that Tahira land in, the despair of her parents and her brother who want better for her and flail at how her arranged marriage to a ‘good prospect’ : into a family who agrees at face value to let her paint is playing itself out.

The political tone comes in the setting: the socio cultural and political milieu of Pakistan where Tahira’s brother Waseem, and their common friends Andaleep and Safdar are non conformists and question the status quo around them: of socio cultural mores, of political leadership and chaos. The shift from a country unsure where to head to slowly spiraling towards one where muscle and power throws off rhyme and reason is captured in the way Tahira’s liberal brother is at odds with her husband who insists his wife obey everything he says or sets his mind on. Both brother and husband reads and are influenced by words but it is their choice and intent that they find in what they read that are radically different.

The Empty Rooms also juxtaposes the question of whether art can survive political and personal storms and how much of one influences the other. The writing is atmospheric and effortless in the way it brings to life the despair and hopelessness that women with aspirations face when they are married: the feeling of being boxed in by social norms, of having to go through the daily rituals of being put down by scheming family matriarchs and their enablers are well captured.

It would be most easy for readers to question: but why does Tahira not walk away? Why does she accept her fate? But does every women in every unfulfilling marriage have the choice and the agency to be able to walk away? In a sense, The Empty Room is realistic in its portrayal of a marriage that is crumbling away but exists in name and appearances and a nation (Pakistan) that is crumbling the aspirations of its youth and the promises they hold in their hands. There is no ‘happy ending’ with this one, but one knows that Tahira will hold on, that even as she knows where things are going wrong around her, she has found the will and the drive to persevere. And that – that is all it matters.

Go read this one but only if you are ready to not judge the characters and the situation they find themselves in. Read this if you love to read about other lives, other worlds and if you love the intersection of art, politics and culture. I loved it for the way the characters brought alive a Pakistan we do not know much about when it was liberal and intent on questioning.

 

 

 

Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi

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Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi

Published by: Aleph Book Company

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

In a peaceful southern town, amidst lush spice plantations, trouble is brewing. In the town live three generations of two families, one Hindu and the other Muslim, whose lives will be changed forever by the coming violence. At risk are Dada, the ageing grandfather who lovingly tends and talks to the plants on his estate; his strong-willed grandchildren, Abu and Fareeda; the newly married Devaki, who cannot fathom the forces that are turning her husband and her father into fanatics; Mariam, of the gifted hands, who kneads and pounds the fatigued muscles of tourists into submission; and Garuda, the high-school teacher who, in his own desperate way, is trying to impart the truth about the country’s history to a classroom of uninterested students.

Quietly but surely, the spectre of religious intolerance is beginning to haunt the community in the guise of the Self-Respect Forum whose mission is to divide the town and destroy the delicate balance of respect and cooperation that has existed for hundreds of years. Told with brilliance, restraint and extraordinary power, Annie Zaidi’s book is destined to become a classic.

About the author:

Annie Zaidi is the author of Gulab, Love Stories #1-14, and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales. She is the editor of Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing. She won The Hindu Playwright Award in 2018 for her play Untitled 1, and the Nine Dots prize in 2019 for her essay ‘Bread, Cement, Cactus’. Annie Zaidi writes poetry, essays, fiction of varying lengths, and scripts for the stage and the screen.

My Review*

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

Complex history, convoluted present or is it convoluted history and complex present? This is foremost what Annie Zaidi positions in ‘In Prelude to a Riot’, where each character takes the reader into their most intimate personal spaces filled with their thoughts and convictions through soliloquies. Set in an unnamed location somewhere in India where there are vast estates and plantations, the focus is on the members of two families – one Hindu and one Muslims, the writing takes readers through the thoughts processes of certain characters through which one sees fissures erupting: they start harmlessly enough but soon the readers feel the tingling countdown to an inevitable showdown somewhere in the immediate future.

Conversations are kept to a bare minimum between characters but each character has numerous questions and observations, perhaps mirroring the disquiet in today’s dysfunctional world where the majority has lost the art of meaningful conversations and dialogues, going instead for polarizing debates. The soliloquies are powerful and encompasses a range of pressing socio political issues we are confronted with: whose privileges comes at the cost of whom, the push and pull between ‘them’ and ‘us’ where each needs the other but is not prepared to give way.

Zaidi’s characters and their opinions and thought processes are representation of the confusion and complexity of the India as we know today: where histories are being dug up and examined but with a jaundiced eye and then used for subversion and polarization. My favourite character has to be Garuda, a Class X teacher of history in a local school whose approach to teaching and history itself breaks norms but expectedly, he is the solo person who must remain solo and isolated. Zaidi’s writing is terse in parts and full of angst in others but one thing is constant, there is truth and anxiety in them…As Garuda tells us, “No big colonial sword needs to come down and slash the fabric of the nation. Muscle by muscle, atom by atom, we are being torn from within. We are our own bomb.”

I see this book making it to many literary award lists for next year. Go read this if you are into socio political commentary through fiction. Take this up if you are game for writing styles that break form and structure.