The Endgame by Kunal Basu, Translated by Arunava Sinha

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The Endgame by Kunal Basu, Translated by Arunava Sinha

Published by: Picador India/Pan Macmillan India

Fiction, 179p

Rating: 3.50/5 stars

Book summary

Saddam Hussein is dead, but there’s no end to war in Iraq. Armed with a reputation for daredevilry, reporter Tejaswini Ray arrives from New York to cover the conflict and is immediately enmeshed in a skirmish with Commander Luke of the US Marine Corps. Bound by Luke’s strict censorship rules, Tejaswini – Tejo – revolts, her coverage of the death of American soldiers killed by landmines draws the world’s attention to a futile war and invites the Commander’s ire. Tejo’s uneasy mission is further troubled by her chance encounter with Shabnam – a young woman trafficked from India and sold into slavery at the Marine camp. Drawn together by an unlikely bond, the two find solace amidst the carnage, but their friendship reveals a secret that links them back to the very beginning of their lives. When the war threatens their camp, Tejo and Shabnam abandon the Marines and embark on an audacious journey. But will they escape the dangers, or will their past invade the present, reversing the wheel of time to hasten the end?

About the author:

Kunal Basu is the author of 6 acclaimed novels and a collection of short stories. He writes in both Bengali and English.

About the translator:

Arunava Sinha is an award-winning translator with his work ranging from classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English, and from English into Bengali.

My Review*

 *Thank you Arunava Sinha for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

 The Endgame plunges readers into the world of embedded journalism with the main protagonist Tejaswini, an Indian American hot on the heels of breaking stories while wrestling with egos, fierce competition and strict guidelines imposed by the military with regard to what can be reported and when. A few scenes did remind me of the Hollywood film, ‘The Bang Bang Club’ which captured the lives of four war journalists and the many situations they found themselves in. In fact, there is a scene that is totally similar to the story behind Kevin Carter’s infamous award winning photo of an eagle swooping on a near dead child.

Set against the backdrop of American forces occupying Baghdad seven years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the narrative of The Endgame holds readers with the thrills of being in a war zone but ties it up with morality and human connections. Overall, the book reads like you are watching it on screen: there are layers being revealed with situations unraveling. While the perils of war journalism plays out on one hand, the entry of a young girl to the military camp brings an emotional slant to the story and plot for it unravels Tejo’s own past. Tejaswini’s back story is as fascinating as her job and when she comes face to face with Shabnam, who she realises is tied to her own roots. Overall, the book reads like you are watching it on screen: there are layers being revealed with situations unraveling. Read this if you like fast reads with a mix of emotions.

Interestingly enough, Kunal Basu writes in English and this is his first Bengali novel that is being translated into English. Arunava Sinha’s deft hand ensures that the reader can easily forget that it is a translated work.

 

 

 

Moustache by S. Hareesh, Translated by Jayasree Kalathil

Moustache

Moustache by S. Hareesh, Translated by Jayasree Kalathil

Published by: Harper Collins India

Literary Fiction, p328

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

Book summary

Vavachan is a Pulayan who gets the opportunity to play a policeman with an immense moustache in a musical drama. The character appears in only two scenes and has no dialogue. However, Vavachan’s performance, and his moustache, terrify the mostly upper-caste audience, reviving in them memories of characters of Dalit power, such as Ravanan.

Afterwards, Vavachan, whose people were traditionally banned from growing facial hair, refuses to shave off his moustache. Endless tales invent and reinvent the legend of his magic moustache in which birds roost, which allows its owner to appear simultaneously in different places and disappear in an instant, which grows as high as the sky and as thick as rainclouds—and turn Vavachan into Moustache, a figure of mythic proportions.

Set in Kuttanad, a below-sea-level farming region on the south-west coast of Kerala, the novel is as much a story of this land as it is of Vavachan and its other inhabitants. As they navigate the intricate waterscape, stories unfold in which ecology, power dynamics and politics become key themes.

Originally published in Malayalam as Meesha, S. Hareesh’s Moustache is a contemporary classic mixing magic, myth and metaphor into a tale of far-reaching resonance.

About the author:

Hareesh is the author of three short-story collections of which Adam received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. He is also a recipient of the Geetha Hiranyan Endowment, the Thomas Mundassery Prize, and the V.P. Sivakumar Memorial Prize. Moustache (Meesha in the original Malayalam) is his first novel.

About the translator:

Jayasree Kalathil is an award winning translator and author. Her translation of N. Prabhakaran’s novella ‘Diary of a Malayali Madman’ was awarded the Crossword Book Award for Indian language translation (2019)

My Review*

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

Reading S. Harreesh’s ‘Mustache’, I was struck with its various layers slowly peeling away in bits and pieces until at last, there lay bare the author’s brilliant writing style. The main ‘story’ set in Kuttanad in Kerala is about what happens to and around Vavachan/Moustache, a Pulayan (a class that the reader knows belongs to the lower social caste order) after he ends up wearing a moustache for a play. The larger context of course is that keeping moustaches is deemed a privilege as a status symbol for the higher caste and the most upper social class (which hold true till date in certain parts of the country) When Vavachan takes to the stage, the sight leaves the audience gasping in fear and awe. When he decides to grow his moustache further, the life and exploits of Vavachan takes on a turn of events that keeps him on the run even as many stories sprout up about him.

So then, is the book about the social and caste system? Or is it about the socio cultural history of the Kuttanad region? Is it more about the hardships faced by people in a region faced by yearly floods and hard labour? Is it about the lack of agency for women given they hardly occupy a meaningful position or place in the story or narrative except being the victim of sexual exploitation and violence? Moustache is all of these and more: the tone of writing is extremely conversational and makes reader to pause and think, to engage with the narrative. There is humour and satire, magical realism and stark scathing commentaries throughout the stories that flow like a wide water expanse that seems placid at first sight but which leads to various bends and streams with identities and whims of their own. The author pays an ode to the old traditions of story telling with a character whose name mirrors that of Sita in the Ramayana who has been carried off by men against her wishes. The probing on art, culture, literature and how they are perceived by the audience, the dynamics of class, caste and the abuse of women as sexual objects, the historical asides will have you enthralled.

There are two endings to the story of Vavachan or rather, there are two strands to the story but both leave his final condition to the same end and therein, lies the sheer beauty of the writing by S. Hareesh who makes a point about the power of story telling: is it the story or is it how it is told?

I would recommend this book to those who love Indian literature and to lovers of clever writing. This is MUST read.

 

 

Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories by Bijoya Sawain

SpeakingTiger

Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories by Bijoya Sawain

Published by: Speaking Tiger

Fiction, 159p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary

At Shadow Men – A thick mist envelops an isolated house and a cottage atop a hill. Raseel, looking out from her window, hears the sound of shots. Suddenly the mist parts, and three men come into view, furtive, quick. Then they are gone, and there is silence.

Raseel, visiting her old school friend Aila in Shillong, is determined to get to the truth behind the strange death of a ‘dkhar’, an outsider, in the grounds of her hosts’ house. Why was he killed? Who are the killers?

As she begins to unravel the mystery, Raseel finds herself caught in a tale of intrigue and violence that mirrors the world of insurgency around her.

The tense and dramatic undercurrents that emerge in Shadow Men continue in the stories that follow. In ‘The Flight’, eighteen-year-old Mawii has to make a difficult decision between her ‘own people’ and her one true love—when that love involves a ‘vai’—yet another word for ‘outsider’. And in ‘The Limp’, octogenarian Nipendro Roy finally feels he ‘belongs’ in this hill state to which he came as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Bengal.

Shillong remains the true hero in these stories, as Bijoya Sawian draws the reader into a world where the downside of a matrilineal society, the scourge of drugs, alcohol and corrupt politicians, the disconnect with mainstream India, and above all, the fight for identity and belonging, threaten to rock this idyllic hill state that was once a paradise and, perhaps, no longer is.

About the author:

Sally Bijoya Sawian is a translator and writer who lives in Shillong and Dehradun. Her works essentially deal with the life and culture of the Khasi community of North East India. The Teachings of Elders, Khasi Myths, Legends and Folktales and About One God are three of several books that she has translated from Khasi into English.

My Review*

 *Thank you Speaking Tiger for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

As someone who grew up in insurgency torn Manipur, reading Bijoya Sawian’s Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories set in Shillong (one short story set in Aizawl) is familiar territory for me: the uncertain atmosphere of not knowing whom to trust, the fear of something bad about to happen and the manner in which people push unwanted thoughts/actions under the carpet just to make it through another day. This is not to say that this book is only about issues relevant to North East India for given the current climate of xenophobia, the three stories in this book are prime examples of how the suspicion of the ‘other’ brings out the worst in people and lead to violence that tears apart fragile ties and leaving behind scars.

The writing is atmospheric and when you read the tittle story, you can feel the cold and damp air of Shillong along with a sense of dread that unravels soon enough with the sound of a bullet being fired. The characters are well fleshed and balance out the outsider-insider narrative that was at its peak in Shillong in the early 80s. Shadow Men also places its main protagonist who has sought treatment from a psychiatrist for her depression and anxiety and uses this track brilliantly to mirror the malaise that suspicion of the other brings out in people.

The other two stories in the book: The Flight and The Limp takes further the same themes as the main story. The Flight looks at young love and passion that comes undone when confronted with the harsh realities of life while The Limp makes for a much needed positive note with the turn that the story takes.

I would recommend this book to readers who are keen to know more of the people and their concerns in North East India.

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

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Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

Published by: Context/ Westland Publications

Literary Fiction, 336p

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

Book summary

From Karim and Maya are lovers. They share a home, they worry about money, and then Maya falls pregnant. But Karim is still finishing his film degree, pushing against his tutors’ insistence that his art must be Arab like him. And Maya, working a zero-hours job and fretting about her family, can’t find the time to quit smoking, let alone have a child.

Framed with fragments and peppered with footnotes Exquisite Cadavers is at once a bricolage of influence, and a love story that knows no borders.

About the author:

Meena Kandasamy is an Indian poet, fiction writer, translator and activist. Most of her works are centered on feminism and the anti-caste Caste Annihilation Movement of the contemporary Indian milieu. Exquisite Cadavers is her third fiction novel.

My Review*

 

*Thank you Westland Publications for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

How much of an author is in a book? Does literature and art take shape from and form from the realities around the writer/artiste? How much does an author’s real life experiences or belief systems influence her book? Can an author writing literature walk away from it all?

Meena Kandasamy’s Exquisite Cadavers is a demanding book: it asks you to be attuned to the socio political situation of the country, it asks if you to question literary forms and structure. If you are willing to give in to the demands, this intense rumination over where an artistic creator hovers around his/her work is addressed in two tracks: the story of Karim, an Arab film maker and his wife Maya, who is caught in between an unstable job being one track and the author’s freewheeling or is it selective thoughts? written on the margins of the story telling the reader a bit of her world and why she has structured her characters and settings in the milieu they are set. Are the two tracks parallel or do they meet at some point or wait, are they entirely separate? Are Karim and Maya the way they are because of the author’s own life and beliefs? Meena Kandasamy throws these questions as sharp gauntlets to the reader and literary critics and in the process weaves a spell.

The writing is sharp and cleaves at you with clinical precision and poetic elegance even as the author teases the reader with the way the main characters have been fashioned out – as outsiders with the baggage of their roots sometimes questioned, sometimes judged and sometimes made exotic. And then in the margin, you read about the author being asked by a white woman whether her son (born to a white man) is indeed her child. Karim’s character set in the mould of a film maker who must put in applications for film grants and the author’s thoughts asking how she is expected to write only about the many ills that the country of her roots (India) ails from is all sorts of astute commentary on the expectations of consumers of art.

Reading Exquisite Cadavers is like being pulled into the soul of a painting and seeing what colours and forms on the canvas has come with which thought from the painter. Read it if you are prepared to be rattled.

 

 

 

A Window Lived in the Wall by Vinod Kumar Shukla, Satti Khanna (Translator)

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A Window Lived in the Wall by Vinod Kumar Shukla, Satti Khanna (Translator)

Published by: Eka/Westland Publications

Fiction, 242p

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

Book summary

Raghuvar Prasad teaches mathematics at a mofussil town college. He travels to work by jitney, cramming into the little spaces left by other passengers, their milk cans, vegetable baskets and the like. Sometimes, these jitneys have not the slightest gap he can squeeze into, and Raghuvar Prasad must find other ways to commute. And that’s how, on the day his newly-wed bride arrives in town, Raghuvar Prasad happens to come home riding an elephant. She imagines elephants are a part of his regular lifestyle.

 

A Window Lived in the Wall delicately peels back the many layers of Raghuvar and Sonsi’s beautiful marriage. While there is the grandeur of an elephant outside, there is also the minimalism of their home. Their possessions are meagre, their one-room rental barely accommodates a bed and some kitchen utensils. But beyond the window of their one room is a magical place that sustains Raghuvar Prasad and Sonsi’s spirit.

 

At a time when critics have announced a crisis of imagination in Hindi literary fiction, Vinod Kumar Shukla continues to dazzle us with his investigations of the hidden magic in ordinary things. A work of deceptive simplicity from one of the finest writers of our times.

 

About the author:

Vinod Kumar Shukla is a poet and novelist writing in Hindi. He work mixes daily experiences with dreams, the mundane with the surreal. Deewar Mein Ek Khirkee Rahati Thi (A Window lived in a Wall) won the Sahitya Akademi Award for the best Hindi work in 1999.

 

About the Translator:

Satti Khanna is an Associate Professor at Duke University, USA. He has translated novels by Vinod Kumar Shukla and Suryakant Tripathi Nirala besides a travelogue by Mohan Rakesh.

 

 

My Review*

 

*Thank you Westland Publications for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

I am still trying to find a way to describe the thoughts and feelings that this book evoked in me. It’s nothing like what I have read: there’s Raghuvar Prasad who teaches mathematics to primary school children in a small town college who lives in a small rented room. He takes a jitney to the college and is on the verge of starting a married life with his wife. That is how A Window Lived in the Wall starts and before you know it, you find yourself marveling at the word play, the poetry that emerges from short sentences, the languor that envelops the pace taking the reader to the sheer delight of what our imagination can lead us to discover.

 

Having heard so much about the writings of the author, I had to read this acclaimed book and it left me thinking that it could have gone into any direction: about domestic life, about life’s purpose, about relentless struggles, about poverty or about battling social ills. It’s none of this: instead, we are taken to in a different realm altogether with the characters in the book through a window in the wall! Outside of the house are an elephant and a sadhu who becomes part of Raghuvar’s daily commute to work bringing delightful asides.

 

Shukla’s writing touches upon the magic of simplicity, of wonder and joy in small things, the uniqueness that we miss in what we assume are the mundane matters of everyday life. I loved the eloquence of conversations filled with the hope of where the talk could go. Shukla’s writing is not something to be boxed up neatly in a genre: it’s vibrant in terms of the imagery it evokes in the simplest of word play. It is not so much about a story with a beginning and an end but the many journeys that the main protagonist takes us to his world, a world that is not so much about material possessions but one of harmony with nature and thoughts and people.

 

The writing is dream like: it is fluid prose that reads like poetry or rather it is poetry kept at bay as sentences but carries readers to vivid imagery of moods and settings. I am absolutely smitten and will read more of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

Bombay Balchao by Jane Borges

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Bombay Balchao by Jane Borges

Published by: Tranquebar/Westland Publications

Fiction, 216p

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

Book summary

Bombay was the city everyone came to in the early decades of the nineteenth century: among them, the Goans and the Mangloreans. Looking for safe harbor, livelihood, and a new place to call home. Communities congregated around churches and markets, sharing lord and land with the native East Indians. The young among them were nudged on to the path of marriage, procreation and godliness, though noble intentions were often ambushed by errant love and plain and simple lust. As in the story of Annette and Benji (and Joe) or Michael and Merlyn (and Ellen).

Lovers and haters, friends and family, married men and determined singles, churchgoers and abstainers, Bombay Balchao is a tangled tale of ordinary lives – of a woman who loses her husband to a dockyard explosion and turns to bootlegging, a teen romance that drowns like a paper boat, a social misfit rescued by his addiction to crosswords, a wife who tries to exorcise the spirit of her dead mother in law from her husband, a rebellious young woman who spurns true love for the abandonment of dance. Ordinary, except through their own eyes. Then, it’s legend.

Set in Caval, a tiny Catholic neighborhood on Bombay’s D’Lima Street, this delightful debut novel is painted with many shades of history and memory, laughter and melancholy, sunshine and silver rain.

About the author:

Jane Borges is a Mumbai based journalist. She currently writes on books, heritage and urban planning for Mid-Day. She has previously co-authored Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands with S. Hussain Zaidi. Bombay Balchao is her first fiction novel.

My Review*

*Thank you Westland Publications for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

Bombay Balchao is a book that teases readers with its narrative structure, its characters and setting. Set in Caval, a tiny Catholic neighborhood on Bombay’s D’Lima Street, the author effortlessly weaves an intergenerational tale of a Goan catholic family, the Coutinhos living in Bosco Mansion, an old two storeyed building. Other residents of the building and the neighbors of the Coutinhos, the lives they live and the situations they find themselves in make for an engaging read.

The back and forth in the chronology of events can be slightly confusing to begin with but the narrative casts a spell that binds the reader to turn the pages while stopping at times to laugh with consternation at times and at times with great amusement. The characters are unique and their life journeys more so: one sided love, elopements, a miracle regarding a Pastor on fire (literally), a crazy misunderstanding over chikkoos and the matter of ghosts and some more.

Borges takes readers to the history of the Catholic population in the city of Bombay, peppering the book with historical facts and fictional ties which makes for fascinating reading: the diversity in the community stemming from different backgrounds: the East Indian Christians who are descendants of the Portuguese colonial elements, the Goan Catholics and the Manglorean Catholics.

The cherry on top is the reference to the culinary richness of the Catholics and how food plays an integral role in times of celebration and conversations with how just the mix of spices to make a common dish can taste so different. The chapter on a main protagonist making Balchao, the Goan masala paste/pickle is poignant and evocative, leaving one longing to reach out and taste it and be seduced by it. That chapter alone is poetry and will create a flutter of emotions in the reader, as it does, to the characters involved.

The sprinkling of socio political history in the narrative and the contributions of the Catholic population in the backdrop of existential issues in Bombay/Mumbai: shared spaces, rent and landlord issues, water allocation and housing woes coupled with the mix of characters that are extremely regular people yet so unique personalities make Bombay Balchao an unforgettable read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amma by Perumal Murugan, Translated by Nandini Murali and Kavitha Muralidharan

Amma

Amma by Perumal Murugan, Trnslated by Nandini Murali and Kavitha Muralidharan

Published by: Eka/Westland Publications

Non Fiction, 191p

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book summary

Perumal Murugan’s tender yet truthful essays capture the life of a strong, independent and extraordinary woman: his mother. She raised her children with the income from just a few acres of land that she managed on her own, tending to the cattle and crops with maternal concern, all the while minding her unruly husband. Every obligation met, all accounts squared up, each meal cooked to satiate the tongue and heart—Amma never rested, not even when bedridden with Parkinson’s. She lived a farmer’s life and died a farmer’s death.

 

Amma is a homage to a way of life and values—simplicity, honesty and hard work—lost to us today. Peppered with unsentimental nostalgia and delightful humour, and vividly documenting village and farming life in the Kongu region, Amma tugs at generational memory. Murugan’s non-fiction writing, his first to appear in English, is as deeply affecting as his fiction

 

About the author:

Perumal Murugan is a critically acclaimed and much loved Tamil writer and poet. He was written novels, short stories and poetry anthologies. Many of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim. The English translation of his novel Madhorubhagan, or One Part Woman, by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, won the Sahitya Akademi’s Translation Prize in 2017 but also mired the author in controversy.

 

 

My Review*

 

*Thank you Eka (Westland Publications) for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

 

 

Perumal Murugan’s writings in the realm of fiction have already made strong connections with readers and literary critics alike and his latest ‘Amma’ is going to be much loved and appreciated as well. A collection of 22 chapters/essays that revolve around the writer’s mother, this latest offering from Perumal Murugan is not just a memoir of the author’s childhood but also, the memories of his ties to his mother juxtaposed with his social cultural commentary. This combination gives an intimate look into the author’s early life filled with the everyday rigor of hard agrarian life and how it consumes his mother.

 

The essays are deeply personal in the way the author has taken readers to the domestic life he lived in: a father who has a small job but a big addiction to local toddy and how it leads to domestic strife and physical abuse. Any reader who has read Murugan’s work will be able to see the seeds and grains of the author’s fictional characters in his mother: her innate wisdom and knowledge of farming practices; the way she is full of heart and deep courage but still follow patriarchal stereotypical practices as dictated by society in the way she defends her husband’s vagaries and later, when her own father comes to live in her house; in the way she is practical and contradictory, taking charge of things around her.

 

It is difficult to pin down a favorite chapter from this book given the way the author has captured memories and presented to them but I will have a special place for ‘The Gift Accounts’ based on the practice of Moi (Mandatory gifting). I come from a different part of the country but we practice the exact same socio cultural practice under the name ‘poppaang’ for gift in kind and ‘poyeng’ for gift in cash in times of family functions like birth, death, sacred thread rituals, marriage/engagements etc and could relate to the sometimes deep churn that such a practice leaves on a close knit community when gifts are a burden or an accounts waiting to be tackled.

 

Two translators – Nandini Murali and Kavitha Muralidharan are credited for the book and while the weight of translating from one language to another and hence, shifting a socio cultural context from one culture to the other is not felt, the initial chapters that speak about the food that the author’s mother makes, felt a bit lost in translation for someone who is not familiar with the food and the terms used.

 

If you love reading personal essays, there is no way that you can forgo reading this beautiful book. If you love Perumal Murugan’s writings, you have to definitely read this without fail.