08 August 2019

Why do some stories seem more important than others?

On Wednesday, I spoke to the Book Club at Gyaan Adab about “Some complexities of depicting Partition in literature”. I recorded what I said so you can see it here if you like!
Saaz Aggarwal speaking at
the Book Club, Gyaan Adab
on 7 August 2019
While preparing the talk, I remembered that my very first foray into this subject had been on facebook. It was 14 August 2011, and I posted that I intended to spend Independence Day thinking about my grandparents who lost their homeland when Independence took place in 1947. I was bemused when some of the responses were argumentative if not actually hostile. I also received a private message:
Saaz, with all due respect, time we forgot those memories. They don’t let us go forward. It’s time we buried hate which is redundant.
This message I found quite annoying (if well-meaning). I hadn’t said a word about hatred or indicated anything like that – all I was doing was speaking with affection and admiration of my grandparents and thinking about a difficult time in their lives which they had faced with courage. It seemed clear that referring to Partition could get you into trouble. I’m not sure if this was the spark that actually set me off on my journey, but it certainly did give me an important insight.
I also looked through my books to see what I could refer to for the talk at Gyaan Adab, and found that they all seemed to have been written by people who had witnessed the horrors of Partition themselves. Some of them were personal accounts of trauma and tragedy. Along with this were indications that the accounts were not welcome by others: someone had even filed a petition to prevent the screening of the TV serial based on Bhisham Sahni’s Sahitya Akademi Award winning Tamas. It was 1988, more than forty years after Partition. The Supreme Court rejected the petition, and the serial ran. The Bombay High Court judgement said:
Tamas  takes us to a historical past – unpleasant times, when a human tragedy of great dimension took place in this subcontinent … Naked truth in all times will not be beneficial but truth in its proper light indicating the evils and the consequences of those evils is constructive and that message is there in Tamas*.
Even Manto, so beloved by lovers of literature today, was badly reviled in his time, twice prosecuted for obscenity, and once accused by a critic that he had “desecrated the dead and robbed them of their personal possessions to build a collection**.”
The stories I have collected about Partition do have trauma and tragedies but, being based on extensive interviews of people so many decades after the event, they give a more balanced view of what life was like before Partition, what happened during Partition, and the story after that. The most remarkable thing about these stories is not the horror of the event but the heroic rebuilding of lives that were disrupted. We have not done justice to these marvellous stories or given the people who lived them the appreciation they deserve. I feel very privileged to have interviewed so many of these exceptional people and heard about their lives, and they will always be role models to me on how to deal with adversity.
Since a very large majority of the people I have interviewed are Sindhis, a little more than half my talk presented aspects of the Sindh Partition story, including:
  • how they put aside their grief and confusion and worked hard to adapt to new places and succeed,
  • how this approach caused them to blend into new communities so seamlessly that nobody noticed that they were a people who had lost their land, their language, their culture and their past,
  • that they themselves did not really think they had a story worth telling,
and so many more that, towards the end of the interesting discussion that had ensued after my talk, someone stood up and said, a little puzzled, “but this talk was not about the REAL Partition”.
An audience of the book club regulars that day
I found it interesting to experience at first hand how it can sometimes be difficult to convey subtle messages; to change perspectives. It reminded me of something I’d spoken about earlier, in the course of that evening's talk, one of the most terrible things that happened during Partition. A huge number of women suffered rape, abduction, separation from their children, being used as instruments of torture, being forced to jump into wells to supposedly save the family ‘honour’ and more. And then, many who were rescued and returned to their families were rejected by their families. These things had been known all along but not considered significant. The first major work on this extremely important human history was The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia – in 1998, a full FIFTY years after it took place.
It has taken even longer for the Sindhi story to gradually emerge but even now, seventy-two years later, there are some who don’t think it is about ‘real’ Partition.
Saaz Aggarwal

*India Partitioned edited by Mushirul Hasan Vol 1 Roli Books p114 
**India Partitioned edited by Mushirul Hasan Vol 1 Roli Books p88 



22 July 2019

Afghan Hindus and Sikhs by Inderjeet Singh


A plea for recognition

Can a Hindu or a Sikh be a real Afghan? Or could it be possible that people left their homes in India to settle in a country where they would always lead challenging lives because of their religion?
This book is a systematic and earnest compiling of a wide range of information about the origin of this once strong and mainstream, but over the last few decades blighted, community. It is clearly structured, written in simple language and, an earnest and poignant plea for recognition, aims to prove once and for all that Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are an indigenous people and not recent settlers.
A superficial and prejudiced understanding denies native origin to Afghan Sikhs and Hindus by claiming that they were brought to Afghanistan as slaves by Mahmud Ghaznavi in the 11th century, or later when they fled Babur’s territory in the 13th century – or even to the influx of Sikh and Hindu traders in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Inderjeet Singh disputes this with a large number of written records, starting from the rule of Kabul by the Hindu Shahi kings which ended in the 10th century, all the way to the present. From his citing of these, the reader learns that Hindus worked in responsible positions under the Ghaznavi rulers in the 11th and 12th centuries, serving as physicians, important court officials, and even army generals. He exposes a trite understanding of history by underlining that Genghis Khan’s 75-year rule was the rule of an infidel: his name was Khan but he was not a Muslim. In fact, his was a period that introduced unfamiliar religious traditions along with non-Sharia taxation, non-Muslim personnel in high office and a liberal approach to all religious practice which reduced the status of Islam in the area. The book also has descriptions of Hindus during Timur’s 35-year rule. Then, in the 16th century, the Sikh religion emerged and spread as Guru Nanak travelled and preached, and the community developed in the area. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the migrations continued, supplementing the indigenous population. Lifestyles are seen through the eyes of the many travellers across this region. Inderjeet Singh also documents the gurudwaras of Afghanistan, providing important historical information and their present depleted condition. Some have proof of antiquity with dates on handwritten copies of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, as the beautiful landlocked country developed into a battlefield of international intrigue, the Hindu-Sikh community became a victim of internal as well as external attacks – denied of the freedom to eat, drink and perform their religious rituals; facing violent processions when they tried to cremate their dead; their real estate in peril; their children mocked in school and told to go ‘home’.
This book is largely a clean read, with little slips that a sharper proofreading eye could have caught. To extend the whines, I could also point out that it did not give me a sense of the difference between Afghan Hindus and Afghan Sikhs. I asked Inderjeet, and he said that in a way Afghan Hindus are similar to Sindhi Hindus. (Most Sindhi Hindus observe the tenets of Sikhism, their prayers are largely from the Guru Granth Sahib and their ceremonies at the gurudwara. However, mainstream Sikhs generally disapprove of their easy affinity with Hindu ways; neither do they classify themselves as Sikh.) Inderjeet specified that Hindu places of worship in Afghanistan do not keep Guru Granth Sahib; that Hindu and Sikh attend each other functions; that their numbers are approximately 2:3.
On 22 June 2019, when India played against Afghanistan in the World Cup Cricket match at Southampton, the stadium was packed with fans cheering loudly for India (and against Pakistan, not Afghanistan). There were Afghan fans too, and I was intrigued to see one box of Sikhs with flags of both countries. I messaged Inderjeet Singh asking if he was in the stadium. Silly question. He replied confirming that they must be Afghan Sikhs, of whom there were 10,000 in London. And 20,000 in Delhi – in contrast to just 8000 in Peshawar today, depleted to half over five years by kidnapping, extortion, and the murder of prominent Sikhs, which caused many to flee their homeland.

26 June 2019

The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Absurd comedy and grand horrors


I wanted something light and fulfilling to read on a journey, and picked The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian by Upamanyu Chatterjee from a teetering pile (a very patient teetering pile) on my bedside. It turned out to be the perfect choice because I thoroughly enjoyed every one of its well-chosen words. At the end, the jacket blurb included this sentence in the author description: “He spent over thirty calm and undistinguished years in the Indian Administrative Service; during that time, he wrote six novels – when no one was looking.”
That was inspiring – I got online looking for the other five. I remembered reading English, August when it was new and enjoying it thoroughly as a work of literature but being revolted by quite a bit of the story.
The description of The Assassination of Indira Gandhi said that “In the twelve long stories that comprise this volume, he investigates, as only he can, the absurd comedy and the grand horrors of the human condition.”
‘Absurd comedy’ and ‘grand horrors’ are indeed the fabric of what I’ve read of Upamanyu Chatterjee. Perhaps not entirely of the human condition, but certainly of a westernized IAS officer reigning supreme in rural India.
The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian is one of those books that evokes vivid images and transports the reader deep into its plot using tightly-packed and crisp prose. At one level it’s a grotesque story of vicious murder followed by a ludicrous implementation of justice. At another, it holds a mirror up to us as a people who exploit those weaker than ourselves, make the wretched even more wretched, and then accuse and incarcerate them of wretchedness. It is a brilliant parody of the truth that comprises India and its administration.

29 March 2019

Shillong Times by Nilanjan P Choudhury


Violence in paradise

I read this book because my daughter recommended it. It meant I was assured of a really good read; what I did not expect was that it would be so strewn with unhappiness. After all, the central character, Debu, is just 14.
Like most people who lead insular lives preoccupied with their own minutiae, I was unaware of the civil unrest in Shillong at around the same time that I was growing up in the peaceful Nilgiri Hills. When I read Murli Melwani’s book Ladders Against the Sky and interviewed him, he told me that his family had left Shillong at this time and on account of the strife. I did not ask for details, and barely sensed the pain of disruption his and so many other families experienced. Reading this book brought the situation starkly alive. I wasn't surprised to see Murli's name in the author's acknowledgements, and when I emailed this to Murli he replied saying that he had suggested people for Nilanjan P Choudhury to interview. Murli wrote a review too and you can read it on this link. He told me that the title of his review is a line from one of Bob Dylan's songs and that Dylan is very popular with the Khasis of Shillong. 
While this book skillfully presents social problems and human suffering caused by human greed and political vested interests through an interesting story, it is more than just a device to do so. One of the things I enjoyed most was the way it gripped me. It took me back to my younger self, bringing alive that old familiar feeling of resenting anything that came between me and what I was reading. Beyond the story, there are also passages of commentary which give context, sometimes in a thoroughly amusing way. And the excursion to Mawphlang had me admiring the poignant symbolism of violence erupting in paradise, as well as hoping that I would one day be able to visit the ancient sacred grove.

25 March 2019

The Women's Courtyard by Khadija Mastur


Zooming in on a microcosm

If a women’s courtyard is considered an enclosed inner space, this book is a canvas with streaks and splashes of unexpectedly vibrant colour and design. The women that inhabit the courtyard are strong and lifelike, and the qualities that each one epitomizes is perceived through her actions and speech. So while we never learn the given names of Amma (also known as ‘Mazhar’s Bride’) and Aunty, we experience them very clearly as real people.
This is a historical period and a segment of society where poets sing on the streets – but also where arrogance is native to wealth and privilege. Amma has been betrayed by her circumstances, and her constant taunts, bitter appraisals, never-ending self-pity and glorification are received with tolerance and even empathy simply because life has been cruel to someone who expected better. Her sister-in-law Najma, an MA in English and a working woman who in the 1940s arranges her own marriage (and later walks out of it), is vain and consistently demeaning of those she considers beneath her because they have not studied English. She flaunts elitist opinions such as, “Only people who are incapable of getting a job know Arabic and Farsi”. Najma’s sister-in-law, Aunty, on the other hand, is that loving and giving woman – one whose eyes can be seen ‘filled with centuries of grief’ – on whom every large household relies. Even when immersed in disappointment, loss and financial struggle, she  labours on, almost always emanating warmth and kindness. Young Chammi –  acknowledged as Shamima but once by the author – has the status of one whose mother died and whose father left to live elsewhere, his new life overrun by new wives and their offspring. Beautiful, unwanted Chammi, treated with love by Aunty, somehow became that wild, shrewish girl whose tantrums are feared to such an extent that when her marriage is arranged, no one dares to inform her. Kareeman Bua, who came with her mother in the mistress’s dowry, lives a life of domestic servitude, devoted to the family, oblivious to scars formed by disproportionate rage on her body.
This book is not just about women and their cloistered existence; it also shows how global events infiltrate the courtyard and shape their lives. It is set in a period of Indian history of which authentic details have been so obscured by political propaganda and regressive patriotism, that what remains in textbooks and the general mindset is a trite caricature of what once truly was. Khadija Mastur was known for her own underprivileged background and her political views, and the lives and conversations in this book open a window on the actual terrain of the era. Here is a Muslim household, steeped in tradition and piety, and the nationalist reality portrayed is complex. There is an overwhelming love for country, which leads to sacrifice of family life and personal comfort, imprisonment, suffering and death. There is also an irreparable rift between members of the family, some of whom follow the Muslim League while others consider them traitors, believing that party to be an instrument of further divisiveness and a fundamental cause of inciting violence and continuing strife.
The most enchanting voice in the book is of Aliya, the heroine, who shares her reality with the reader. Sensitive and thoughtful, Aliya feels the pain of the women – but just as much of the men and their inability to bring happiness to their families. The stories on which Aliya thrives mirror through romantic legend the lives of their characters, fueling their wellsprings of emotion and, more than once, resulting in ghastly tragedy. (Women would commit suicide for love and depart as examples of perfect fidelity, and then, some dark night, men would appear to momentarily light a lamp over the tomb, then leave, and that was that). Intertwined with the tradition of stories originating in Arabia runs a strong and persistent strain with the stories and symbols of Krishna and Rama making numerous appearances.
And the most beautiful scenes are as the book ends, in the newly-created Pakistan. The clamour and strife subside and wonderful fictional coincidences transpire, one bringing a tragic finality and another opening out onto a horizon of love and hope.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 23 March 2018. 

17 March 2019

The Sunlight Plane by Damini Kane


Coming of age, in Bombay

I started reading this book primarily from curiosity to learn what a 22-year-old who grew up in a home full of books, and with parents who are both writers, would produce. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a mature, well-written, entertaining story with strong characters. The extras that I enjoyed were its solid moral base and quite a few giggles along the way.
The Sunlight Plane is a book about a group of children and written in simple, engaging language. I emailed Damini to ask if she’d had a reader in mind while writing it, and she replied, “I imagined the reader to be anywhere above the age of 18.” Actually, while reading it I’d felt I’d recommend it to ‘young adults’, expecting them to enjoy and gain from it the way they would with books like Catcher in the Rye or The God of Small Things – or even Portnoy’s Complaint. This book does not have graphic and potentially controversial scenes as the last named, it does have a central issue which is quite horrific and it clearly outlines the trauma and the dilemmas of the children who encounter it from different angles.
Damini told me that she started writing this book when she was 19, when she was in college. She started with a clear idea of who the characters were, and how their interpersonal conflicts would further the plot. The first draft took six months, and after that it was just rewrites and editing. While this book will not have a sequel, Damini is working on monthly fantasy and science fiction short stories, just for practice. These she uploads on her blog www.everythingkane.wordpress.com.
In answer to my question about her advise to aspiring young writers, she replied:
Practice and read, read and practice! There's no short-cut around this. It's especially important to practice the things you're not as good at. Personally, I'm doing these monthly short stories because I'm not half as confident at writing short fiction. Working on what you're weaker at will only make you better.
Good advice for anyone doing anything, is what I thought, and it felt good to know that young people today aren’t all low-attention-span, low-hanging-fruit gimme-gimme type people as it quite often fearfully appears to be.

22 February 2019

Even Against all Odds by Sunder Advani



Looking back

On Tuesday, I attended a book launch at the US Consulate, an event held to honour an extraordinary person and his commitment to Indo-US relations.
When I first met Sunder Advani a few months ago through my research into pre-Partition Sindh, I had no idea who he was. His family’s story was fascinating, and I felt gratified when he liked the way I had presented it, and commissioned me to work with him on his memoirs. As we proceeded through the story of his life, I felt surprised and impressed to learn the extent of his contribution to the Indian hotel and hospitality industry. I have lived in India all my life, enjoyed the Taj and Oberoi in Bombay when I was young, and later hotels of the many international chains that entered in the 1990s. However, I had absolutely no idea that there was an individual, one sole person, and that too someone without family money or political connections or even a home of his own when he first came to live in Bombay – who had significantly shaped India’s hotel industry through his personal vision and efforts.
Edgard D Cagan, Consul General and Sunder Advani
Sunder had been just too busy working, and struggling to get things done, and his story had never been told until now. For a full fifty years, Sunder had also been committed to developing stronger ties between India and the US – starting long before the time when the two countries were considered natural allies, as they are today. It was a fitting tribute that the US Consulate launched his memoirs a few weeks after they were published on his eightieth birthday.
Sunder (seated, left) with his boss, economist Frank Piovia,
at EBS Consultants, Washington DC, 1968
In the 1960s, as a young man living in the USA, Sunder worked in a prestigious and well-paying job where he used his education and analytical abilities to provide information on the basis of which decisions important to that country would be taken. At his father’s urging, he left it behind and came to live in India – then still a developing nation, newly independent, overpopulated, rife with poverty, illiteracy and corruption. Every step of the next fifty years was fraught with peril – and bravely defended. He was badly let down by his partners and suffered a series of business betrayals, hostile takeovers and concept pirates. Through it all, he worked his way through the hardened maze of government bureaucracy with steadfast courtesy and tenacity, endlessly seeking and acquiring one permission after the other to conduct his business and grow it.
With Kemmons Wilson, Founder and Chairman of Holiday Inns Inc.
in his office in Memphis, Tennessee, 1970.
Sunder Advani was the first person to bring international standards to the hospitality industry in India, through the mature systems and processes of Holiday Inns Inc., USA. His visionary public issue in 1972 – preceding those of both Taj (Oriental Hotels) and Oberoi (EIH Limited) – was fully subscribed.
In the 1970s, when Bombay was serviced by just one domestic airline and just one airport for domestic and a few international flights, Sunder set up a flight kitchen, and India's first sound-proof airport hotel, Airport Plaza (later Orchid Hotel, after it was bought by Vithal Kamat). In 1978, a time before mobile phones, the hotel had the only discotheque in the Bombay suburbs and a pool with a jacuzzi.
Sunder Advani was among the first to see the potential in Goa and work single-mindedly to develop it for tourism and foreign-exchange earnings. In 1988, when Goa only had the infrastructure to attract backpackers, his was one of the earliest luxury hotels. It was viciously maligned and put under litigation, despite his having kept strictly within the limits of the law.
To extend tourist spend in Goa over the lean monsoon months, Sunder envisioned indoor entertainment in the form of casinos. His offshore Casino Caravela provided an elegant evening and attracted well-heeled spenders. When competition made the playing field murky, Sunder gracefully withdrew.
The Five-Star Caravela Resort, luxury living surrounded by
smiling faces and a beach of soft, powder-white sand.
One of the most interesting things I observed about Sunder is his commitment to a good life. He works hard, but his family is always at the centre of things. All through the years, he has travelled on work and taken them along with him on enjoyable holidays.
Today, at eighty just as much as when he was a young man, he continues to work hard, committed not just to his own Caravela Resort in Goa but also to his continuous campaigns to increase tourism in India. You can get a sense of his achievements in the glowing Foreword Amitabh Kant wrote to his book:

13 January 2019

Mappillai by Carlo Pizzati


Happily ever after

Carlo Pizzati, who suffers terribly from ‘the most interesting man in the world’ syndrome, came to India as a ‘yoga-person’, and stayed on. He married a woman who proposed to him in the course of their relationship. “I think you should marry me. Hello? I’m a caaatch!” she said, and he agreed. Many locals thought he wouldn’t last but, so far so good, he has. It can’t be easy because even the gated communities named Bella Rive and Calm Waters are ridden with mice and snakes, and when the tsunami comes it will wipe away your foundations.
This book is partly biographical, an account of the author’s life in India in a beach house with the woman he loves and their large family of stray dogs. His love for his wife, respect for her family, and admiration for her very cool chemical-engineer father are refrains so persistent that I wondered what exactly he was trying to sell. But Carlo also claims to grow luscious tomatoes and splendid roses on inhospitable beach sand so perhaps it was only good energy manifesting.
Besides a little about his earlier life, and what happens to him in village Paramankeni and environs, this book is also quite a lot about Carlo Pizzati’s conclusions about all kinds of things in an incredibly complex land! While he stoutly claims not to be Wendy Doniger, William Dalrymple, Patrick French, – or even Megasthenes, Xuanzang, Al Biruni (and so on) and therefore this CANNOT be ‘an India book’, he does have his own engaging theories about the way things work here. Arriving in ‘the watershed year of 2008’ he embraced ‘Mamma India’ in a period of exceptional cyclones, of Tata Nano, Premier League, an Indian winning the Booker Prize and 8% economic growth. Through his journey as a ‘yoga-person’, someone who made exceptional choices and landed up as a mapillai (Tamil for ‘son-in-law’) of Gujarati Jain in-laws in Besant Nagar, Chennai, Carlo’s narrative is strewn with interesting data and contextual information. He well understands the importance of the mango and its role in parochialism and identity across India. He has observed women staying married to violent mummy-spoiled brutish husbands, surrounded by friends and family members who may gossip but never intervene. He marvels at how Indian law allows a person named in a suicide note as psychologically responsible for the suicide, to be arrested, tried and at times convicted. When he muses on the auntie-uncle cultural nomenclature, it is to spot the auntie concealed within the hottie, the uncle germinating in the stud; to appreciate the stud nature in an aged uncle with a wild streak and the charming seduction of the hottie quietly inhabiting the auntie. Carlo Pizzati experiences India’s synthesis of religion, politics and commerce, and highlights one of the exceptional icons of this nexus: the best dressed poor people in the globe, with their multifarious saris, striped lungis and wrap-around turbans. In his relatively rare setting for ‘an India book’, he  approaches the ‘marvellous human experiment called India’ – from its outskirts, a location of limitless sea and sky where open defecation abounds. And the brave, sporting Carlo attempted open defecation too, but sadly found himself unable to perform.
In slow, contemplative sentences and in rapid exclamatory ones, his prose and his theme switch rapidly. Perhaps this is just a modern book, aimed at the sophisticated short-attention-span reader who delights in toying with new formats – but it is rather effervescent at times (like a stereotypical Italian?) Not surprisingly, Carlo has mastered and neatly documented Indian hand gestures. Fingers pointing inwards and then, suddenly swinging out an open hand to say ‘all!’. And the sudden twist with index finger pointing upwards for ‘wtf?’
The insight that most impressed me was the truth about why natives consider vellais (Tamil for ‘whiteys’) better than them. It’s not the scars of colonialism but because they are – SPOILER ALERT – mentally freer, with fewer social obligations to succeed, to marry, and behave as required.
And the claim that most annoyed me was that “Indian women are like Italian men”, indicating that the entire population of Indian women tends to encircle men, sniffing to select the delicacy they might savour. Was this supposed to be a compliment? An enticement? A joke? I don’t think so.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 12 Jan 2019. 

07 July 2018

Ladders in the Sky by Murli Melwani

A gift of his travels


I picked up this book and started reading it as reference material for a research paper on the global Sindhi diaspora. The author is a global Sindhi businessman and I knew, in a patronising sort of way, that I was surely going to learn something interesting. Halfway through the fourth story, when I had to get something else done and it was a wrench to put the book down, I realised that I was in fact reading entranced. These were splendid stories: good plots, lifelike characters, beautifully laid out in clean, distinctive language. What made them even more fascinating was that each one is set in a different, exotic location. Murli Melwani is an inveterate traveller and this collection, as the jacket describes it, is a “gift of his travels”. 15 of the 23 stories are set in different parts of India and in them we encounter separatist movements, landslides, cramped urban spaces, insights into different aspects of religious devotion and various other complex situations in unexpected locales. Murli grew up in Shillong. Between school and college, he travelled a lot and visited different parts of India. Later he worked in the English Department at Sankerdev College, then took up a Coca Cola distributorship and for a while ran a bookstore. In time, he moved to work in Taiwan and his job took him to countries around the world, doing something many Sindhis do.
A little more than half the book features this diaspora, families which originated in Sindh and now live and do business in countries around the world. Water on a Hot Plate is set in Toronto. Hari and Rajni are visiting their son and in this story, they meet an Indian Chinese lady who runs a restaurant there. They converse with her in Mandarin – from their several years in Taiwan; of course they speak to her in Hindi and English too. From the Bollywood music playing in the background, Hari can tell that the India she belonged to was not the India he had left. Resh, their lunch guest, is visiting from Curacao. She speaks Dutch and English and even idiomatic Papiamentu – a Portuguese and Spanish-based Creole language – but not Sindhi.
Writing a Fairy Tale is a gripping love story in which we somehow journey into the rainforests of eco-versatile Chile – and also, unexpectedly, encounter the Arabic aspects of the country too. The Mexican Girlfriend is also a love story, and though set in a home by a lake where migratory birds flock – a real place – has more sinister than exotic twists. Followed by The Bhorwani Marriage, a high-energy satire of Sindhi weddings, including an expose of the business opportunities offered by matchmaking in the diaspora, it appears that Sindhis don’t really do romance. Family comes overwhelmingly first; business and profits are a priority; living comfort is never going to be sacrificed for a lover. 
It’s not that everyone in the community is money-minded. This book takes us beyond that stereotype, with businessmen who are polite, mature and love to read. And the skilled portrayals of many different kinds of relationships reveal the author to be an exceptionally subtle and discerning person himself. Even the businessman in Shiva with a Garland, lonely in his marriage, “had grown sensitive and become aware of many things. He had come to understand the right and wrong of things and the meaning and worth of happiness.”
Still, Murli is not just an observer of humans and their situation, not just a weaver of tales. He is a skilled businessman too and his stories give us practical never-fail tips on selling, exposure to business cycles, and the understanding that large investments, even the most obvious, could turn out to be ruinous.  There are young employers who clone themselves, swiftly learning the trade and soon enough snatching it out from under their employer’s feet to set up as competitors. Some families have members living in other countries: the father ships out goods from a manufacturing location while the sons sell in other parts of the world, creating hugely profitable companies which run around the clock. So while Murli’s Master’s is in English Literature, this book tells all kinds of things he didn’t learn at IIM-A.
I wrote this review for Hindustan Times and it appeared on Saturday 9 Jun 2018 and can be read on the HT site on this link.
Before I wrote it, I emailed Murli Melwani to find out more about him and we had an interesting discussion. One of the emails was about the pseudo Sindhi names that his book has, creative and great fun, as his explanations show, with the personality trait cleverly embedded in the name like erudite clues in a detective game! Murli said:
Phado in Sindhi means someone who throws a spanner in the works in order to negotiate an advantage. No Sindhi would take on a name like that!
Karomuwani: a curse word in Sindhi is “Karo mu thia yi” which figuratively means “you are behaving like a blackguard”. The Hindi “Kaala mou
Kurwani: “kur” in Sindhi means “a lie”; which Sindhi would like to be called a liar even if is one in real life.
Dingowani: dingo has the same connotation as “tera” in Hindi, not straight.
Loliwani: “loli” is a Sindhi paratha; a glutton
Budhwani: “buddhu;” there a bonafide Sindhi name : “Budhrani.” Which an opposite meaning, someone with “buddhi
Gawlani: “gaw”in Sindhi means grass; a man of straw.
Fatwani: comes “phatako” (the Hindi “fataka” or firecracker;) sound and fury signifying nothing.
Bujowani: “bujo” is the Sindhi term for a goad; some people have to be whipped to move their limbs.
Thaparwani: same as the Hindi “thappar”; same type as the last one above
Varyowani: “viaro” is Sindhi for “spaced out”
Charyowano: “charyo” is Sindhi for “mad” 

About a month after the review appeared, I visited Santa Clara, California, to attend the 25th International Sindhi Sammelan and was was able to meet him and his wife Mona, as they live nearby. The book in this photo of Murli and Mona is a collection of the stories which are based in India and it is the first copy the publisher sent to Murli. The dedication reads
To
My wife Mona
My “lucky charm”
and of course Mona was delighted with the tribute.



24 February 2018

Paiso by Maya Bathija

Well told, but only a small part of the picture


This book is well-structured and engaging, and provides an insight into five Sindhi family businesses. The Harilelas set out in retail and built their fortune in custom tailoring for American soldiers on R&R, turning Hong Kong into a popular global destination for mail-order suits. Merrimac Ventures, real estate giants and urban developers in the US, came about through the sheer bravery and brilliance of the indomitable Romila Motwani. Jet-setting Harish Fabiani grew to extraordinary wealth and fame using his native brilliance, and hobnobs with the likes of Donald Trump. The Lakhi Group is a diamond empire so professionally run and a family life so admirably simple and equal-opportunity that it shines forth in this narrative like a dazzling solitaire. And Jitendra ‘Jitu’ Virwani built his real-estate dominion brick by brick, racing ahead with giant leaps and battling all the way.
Each of these extraordinary stories has elements of some of the characteristic Sindhi ways of doing business: difficult times bravely faced; fearless risk-taking and the ability to move with great swiftness when opportunity is sighted; intensely close and devoted family relationships; the role of women defined by family background (Sindhis are remarkably heterogeneous in this and a range of other important matters); the talent for shoring up against business cycles with real estate; and an impressively large commitment to philanthropy, sometimes vulgarly demanding attention, but often (in fact in more cases than can ever be known) completely anonymous.  However, the book also has disturbingly anachronistic statements like “the Fabiani family has its roots in Pakistan.” (Roots, really? But Pakistan only came into existence in 1947 and that was when the Sindhis were rudely evicted!) 
Sindh has an ancient tradition of trade and mobility and its own range of rich products. Marco Polo wrote of the curiosities of Chin and Machin, and ‘the beautiful products of Hind and Sindh, laden on large ships which sail like mountains with the wings of the wind on the surface of the water.’ In the 1860s, a group of young men set out on the British steamship routes and ventured into trade in ports around the world. The retail chains of these early capitalists, M Dialdas, JT Chanrai, KAJ Chotirmal and others, formed the first Sindhi multinational companies. Inland, the money lenders of Shikarpur had extended their services into a phenomenally secure and sophisticated banking system with bases in South India and a network of agents on the trade routes extending from Central Asia into Russia, China and Japan. 
After Partition, many of the Sindhis forced out of their ancestral homeland with nothing, took to trading as a dignified means of earning an honest living in the places where they settled. Working on low margins, selling the packaging for an extra buck, they interfered with the profits of long-established trade cartels, for which they were resented and bitterly derided as ‘cheats’. 
Most of them had not been to Harvard Business School but they understood that the key to business success is to directly address the customers’ need, and they rebuilt their fortunes by doing precisely that: in garments, construction, education, and in time in every other industry. Partition also swelled the global outposts into communities and there are Sindhi shopkeepers in ports around the world. Many of the 'shopkeepers' grew their businesses with enterprise (and real estate) and are billionaires just as much as the five profiled in Paiso. Many of them retain links with each other, the remarkable phenomenon of a community which lost its roots when evicted from its homeland by Partition – but retains its connection in strong links which encircle the globe.
 There are Sindhi shops across the length and breadth of India too: Coonoor market, so remote in geography and culture, had a Quetta Stores when I was a child. So the phenomenon of Sindhi business is by no means restricted to glamorous billionaires.
Similarly, it is true that traditional Sindhi business families considered education “a waste of time” and that this is by no means the case today. What is less known is that a huge population of Sindhis did hold education to be extremely important. These include the entrepreneurs coming from three and four generations of education who established the Indian multinational companies Onida (Mirchandanis) and Blue Star (Advanis); the global retail giant Landmark Group (Jagtianis); and in the case of Inlaks (Shivdasanis), three generations of Oxbridge education. The Ador Group, another multinational conglomerate, continues with the third and fourth generation of university educated partners who started their business in Sindh 110 years ago. As for Dr NP Tolani of the highly reputed Tolani Shipping, he earned his PhD in 22 months – still a record at Cornell – and returned to Bombay in 1964, intent on taking up a business in which there was as little corruption as possible in India.
There are many more and most, despite strong bonds to their community and their families, and linked by the complex unspoken trauma of Partition, prefer to remain low profile and never flaunt their Sindhiness, perhaps to avoid being tarred with that ‘loud and vulgar’ brush that haunts the Sindhis, doomed as they seem to be to be represented by their flamboyant, attention-seeking brethren. Perhaps this book will help bring them out of the closet.
I wrote the above review for Hindustan Times and it was carried today. You can read it in the newspaper online here but without the line highlighted above which I have just added. It is interesting to see that HT illustrated this review with a photo of Harish Fabiani, one of the billionaires featured in this book, and his wife – who, according to Paiso, he doesn't 'allow' to call him by his name.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 24 Feb 2018. 

24 December 2017

Reaching for the Sky by Urvashi Sahni





The best book I read in 2017

The most important thing I learnt from this book is that women’s education is essential not so much to make India a great country, but to empower a girl to live a fulfilling life, experiencing herself as an autonomous person deserving respect and equal rights.
Reaching for the Sky is the documented history of Prerna, a school in Lucknow, written by its founder. Established in 2003, Prerna’s students are underprivileged girls and part of the book is their story, with their photos and in their voices, and it shows how a school can change a girl’s life. These six girls were among the first to join Prerna, and have articulated their experiences objectively. They are girls who come from homes so poor that some were cleaning others’ homes along with their mothers at age seven. One had a brother who drowned in a pond at the construction site where their mother was working. Some had been forced into sexual intercourse by their own fathers. These and other Prerna girls belong to that enormous population of Indian women whose fathers and husbands exercise almost absolute control over their minds and bodies. So Prerna’s educational goals, Urvashi Sahni writes, in addition to imparting the government-mandated syllabus, include guiding a girl to recognize herself as an equal person and emerge with a sense of control over her life and aspirations for her future, with the confidence and skills to realize them.
One of the instruments described is critical dialogue, a conversation in which a girl describes her life situations and begins the process of understanding the social and political structures that restrict her, empowering herself to deal with them. Another is the use of drama through which a girl may immerse herself in role-model characters learning, for example, to speak loudly, walk tall and hold a steady gaze – things her real-life contexts have taught her not to do.
It turns out that Dr Sahni is an entrepreneur like her father, SP Malhotra of Weikfield, with a group of entities, one funding the other. Her first school, Study Hall Educational Foundation (1986), supported Prerna for its first four years. In 2008 she established DiDi’s, a social enterprise to provide livelihood to mothers, its profits diverted to support the education of their daughters in Prerna.
The part of the book that moved me most was Urvashi’s own story: a brave and gracious exposé of her own gradual liberation from strongly patriarchal, if privileged, situations.  A family tragedy propelled her into social work, and her higher education at Berkeley University imbibed in her the value that the teacher-student relationship must be one of mutual respect, response, acceptance, empathetic understanding and care.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 23 Dec 2017. It can be viewed online about halfway down the page on this link and with this image! 

01 December 2017

Behind Bars by Sunetra Choudhury


Criminal justice in India: perversion, sleaze and corruption

In jail, if you have money you can be comfortable. You can wear expensive clothes, eat whatever you want, and keep personal servants. If you don’t have money, you can still buy favours using your body. And if even that is not possible, prison life will be an unimaginable hell. 
As Indians, we may have been dimly aware of these simple truths, and this book puts them on the table. Sunetra Choudhury got the idea for it when a high-profile prisoner, Anca Verma, contacted her to tell her story. What she learnt was fascinating, and she decided to look for more people like Anca: people so extraordinarily influential that they knew they were never going to get into trouble for telling the truth about what happens inside an Indian jail. While some of the stories are anonymous, most are well known. We are also treated to snippets of information about jail legends such as Charles Sobhraj (apparently he quietly killed off a cellmate to get more jail space for himself.) In clean and engaging language, rich with detail and well-chosen adjectives, the book presents interesting facts about jail food, extraordinarily sincere jail employees as well as corrupt and perverted ones, rituals such as mulakat – and more. Says an un-named prisoner whose imprisonment suddenly and unexpectedly turned his life into a nightmare: “The toilet was full of goo, so much so that when I was lifting my feet off the ground, the black peanut butter lifted off my feet.” Some stories extraordinary, with a fable-like quality: Rajesh Ranjan, alias Pappu Yadav, was apprehended at a young age and found protection through a member of his caste. Over a period of nearly thirty years, he completed his entire education in jail, fell in love and got married. All this while he was building institutions in jail such as the ‘VIP’ ward and gym at Tihar. These days he is a Member of Parliament and his primary occupation is philanthropy.
Prison, this books also shows, can be an opportunity for spiritual cleansing. The Tandoor Murderer has turned to piety. For Peter Mukerjea, it’s like being in a spa: “What can I say? No alcohol, no cigarettes, early to bed, early to rise, exercise for a couple of hours, lots of reading, plenty of time to think, no junk food – all very healthy.” Arushi’s parents, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, were reasonably comfortable in jail because, as doctors, they provided their services to the jail staff and their families. 
Many, like the Talwars, are incarcerated by the scheming of an incompetent force trying to make themselves look good. This is most poignantly portrayed in the case of Wahid Sheikh, a teacher, who quietly reported to the police station every single time he was summoned to prove that he wasn’t a terrorist. Despite all the atrocities committed against him, he continued to obey the law and persist in firmly stating his innocence. He was acquitted after years; many who confessed just to stop the torture were put away for good. One young man confessed after his father was brought in, stripped naked and harassed. Torture in Indian prisons is routinely committed by well-known police officers who have been awarded medals for bravery.
In the Indian justice system, if an official doesn’t like an inmate or hasn’t been paid off by them, they would see that the release papers were not signed or simply disappeared. When someone in the court hurled a shoe, the judge ruled that no prisoner would be brought inside the courtroom with shoes on. Worst of all is that every inmate knows who is innocent and who is guilty of the crime they are accused of.
This book kept me up at night. It made me feel so terrible that I wondered whether life was worth living at all. It made me remember that, less than eighty years ago, Indian prisons were filled with people protesting against British rule. Prison authorities were harsh and dictatorial but never stooped to the ghastly perversions of cruelty this book documents. Prisoners knew their rights and were placidly confident that the law would prevail. What happened, how did things go so badly wrong?
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 1 Dec 2017. It can be viewed online here


16 May 2017

Perhaps Tomorrow by Pooranam Elayathamby with Richard Anderson

A hug for the kaamwali bai

A blurb on the back of this book attempts to lure readers seeking greedy shudders at the horrors of domestic servitude in a barbaric country. There is an underlying promise that we might be gratified to find that we treat our own ‘servants’ in a generous and praiseworthy manner.
Despite the titillating invitation, this book is not merely about how badly Pooranam’s employers treated her. Like the best kind of memoir, it presents more than just a few aspects of a person’s life. The authors of this book weave different narrative strands together, skilfully introducing social, historical and political context, and evocative pictures emerge.
Kommathurai, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, is a Hindu town that follows the social segregation of traditional Hindu casteism. Pooranam herself is of the ‘laundry people’, the middle daughter of five. Life is sweet and beautiful. Then tragedy strikes and her father dies under his bullock-cart, leaving her mother with five little girls and no source of income. A strong and enterprising woman, Kanagamma starts her own business. Part of this is taking eight-year-old Pooranam and seven-year-old Sodi out of school and putting them to work, carrying thirty-kilo sacks of rice from the wholesaler’s village, cooking, drying, re-packing and selling the processed rice from door to door. Neighbours whisper that farm animals get better treatment.
When Pooranam is privileged to capture the attention of the town’s most eligible bachelor and he marries her, the book gives insights into traditional or cultural male entitlement where helping yourself to your wife’s belongings, violence against her, and sexual relationships with other women are considered acceptable. In counterpoint are the quality of dependence and attachment a strong and intelligent woman can experience despite these ignominies.
Set in the jungles of northern Sri Lanka at the height of the LTTE insurgency, this book presents the Tamil side of the story: the marginalization and persecution of a people historically perceived as subordinate. In the jungle camp, we observe how ordinary people suffer in a political battle. Kommathurai is abandoned, then ravaged; Pooranam is left a widow with three children before she turns thirty.
Meanwhile, the housemaid market in the Arabian Gulf, initially restricted to non-idol worshipping monotheists had expanded so much that it was giving ‘religious’ fussing a miss. Pooranam took employment contracts, aiming to convert, as many did, domestic drudgery into cement homes, proper furniture and a future for her children – though this would entail sad years separated from them.
After many adventures, much intense hard work, getting renamed Sandy, learning about different aspects of life in the desert as well as all kinds of new recipes – this beautiful, intelligent, determined, enterprising and hardworking woman has her happily-ever-after. Pooranam marries Dick, an American professor of architecture at Kuwait University. She enters a phase of stability and comfort; he helps her lead her children to a better life, and in time they write this book together. It turns out to be well written and engaging, and Pooranam’s warmth and depth of character shine through. While the contextualisation and odd literary reference appear to be in the voice of the architecture professor, it is surprising that the book is littered with racial stereotyping: Arabs are lazy; Egyptians are stingy; the British are not expected to be arrogant and mean-spirited.
Besides all this, this book could serve as a useful handbook for the Indian Madam. It could inspire us to consider that the wretch who stands between us and the jhadu/pocha/bartan might have left terrible times behind at home her family from starvation. She misses her children terribly. So when she throws the food out because she misunderstood what you said, don’t scream at her in rage. Laugh, give her a hug, and gently explain what you actually meant so that she’s motivated to get it right next time. This is what Pooranam’s Indian employers, the Khans, actually did.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 13 May 2017. It can be viewed online here

20 February 2017

The Silliest Autobiography in the World by PG Bhaskar

The Silliest Review in the World


Finally, a book that really does deserve to go into a time capsule, carefully placed in a steel cylinder and buried deep into the earth to await eager historians from future generations or from outer space. Before this, Bhaskar wrote two books which mysteriously turned out to be both modestly-successful as well as best-selling. Somehow, he remained unknown to billions.  Now he has written a silly autobiography but structured it meticulously. Bhaskar, the son of an LIC ‘odditor’ and himself a fully-qualified chartered accountant, opens with a chapter called 1963, by a fascinating coincidence, the very year in which he was born! The next chapter is 1964, then 1965, then 1966, and all the way up to 2015. Through the life experiences of the unknown Bhaskar, the eager historian of the future will learn how people lived between 1963 and 2015, especially those who lived in Madras, Udupi, Delhi, Bombay, Coimbatore and, erm, Dubai. They will also obtain some mildly useful information about movies, cricket, politics and entertainment. From an anthropological perspective, Bhaskar gives an insight into transitions in his world. To begin with, people would hang onto their toothbrushes, discarding them only after the bristles began to resemble a strip of savannah grassland that had been viciously trampled upon by a herd of stampeding elephants. They would stealthily pocket cutlery from aeroplanes. Then, as the socio-economic environment advanced, they began buying whole sets of crockery which sadly did not last as long as the stolen cutlery. They developed quaint professional rites of passage called ‘mini-offsites’ at which overpaid bank officials engaged with ‘escorts’ and later, exposed on Facebook, bought expensive presents to placate their enraged spouses.
At a personal level, Bhaskar reveals himself as one who, to the great merriment of his friends and classmates, faints. He faints quite often! Let us hope he is not going to faint when he reads this review. Or, perhaps the friends could get together and sell tickets in anticipation.
While this book could emerge winner in a time-capsule competition, it could also gain esteem as entertainment to the present-day reader. I was laughing very loudly, and my husband, lying in bed next to me and waiting for his turn, became increasingly agitated, muttering to himself, “Who is this Bhaskar! Wait till I get my hands on him,” etc.
To be honest, I started cackling away right from the dedication which is really very funny. Towards the end of the book, there is an explanation which I was glad to read, because without it the dedication would have remained a mystery to the future historian unless Bhaskar’s publishers had contrived to also squeeze a few c1980s telephone directories into the capsule to provide context. It occurred to me that the enterprising publishers might also want to introduce footnotes for the puzzled historians wondering why the trend of women taking to the study of economics in droves should be called The ‘Rajan’ Effect. And how come, when the family driver in Udupi was Bhavani Shankar, in Delhi too the family had a driver with the same name! And the ‘household help’ in Chennai was also called Bhavani! Could this be coincidence? Or was Bhavani a generic of Bhaskar’s time? So – footnotes, please, dear publishers.
There are also long passages where the humour lags and verses which strike a wrong note. So, to end, a minor stricture for the author from an almost-fan of somewhat similar vintage and demography:

Bhaskar: your poems are not short or too long
But they’re neither doggerel nor ditty nor song.
Your ‘limericks’ rhyme
And the jokes are just fine
But the metre, dear chap, is all wrong. 
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 18 February 2017. It can be viewed online here.

26 April 2016

With a little help from my friends by Dev Lahiri


Energetic mud-fest

This is the depressing story of a brilliant man who faced many struggles. Though he writes with affection and gratitude of certain people and events, the persecution he describes at different points of his career appears to have dominated his life. His heart condition resulted in numerous dramatic collapses and hospital internments. It is also unfortunate that Dev Lahiri, a Rhodes Scholar and member of the heyday staff of Oxford University Press, has his memoirs strewn with proofreading and design disasters.
This book has 222 pages, of which 66 are devoted to the horrors he faced while trying to bring reforms to The Lawrence School, Lovedale, between 1991 and 2000. Later, at Welham Boys’ School, Dehradun, things went bad for him again. Lahiri describes his victimisation in detail, blithely naming perpetrators and valiantly trying to clear his reputation with an energetic mud-fest.
This review is not concerned with what actually happened, but cannot help observing that the inaccuracy and exaggeration in the book reduces its credibility. Lahiri sneers at a career in marketing, mocking the enthusiastic selling of soap. However, his book exposes him as a master of the glib half-truth. A few examples follow.
He says he gave up his job as a tea planter in a few weeks because: “I just felt uncomfortable dealing with plants. I realized I needed to do something with people.” Hmm! A tea planter’s job requires sound fundamentals of agriculture, but it is in fact through the management of labour in the field and factory that the job gets done and it is actually more about people than plants.
He also claims to have been the first headmaster of Lawrence “to have actually allowed” a girl student to lead the Founders Day Parade. Not true. Rohini Gopalan, a girl student, led the parade in May 1977.
Lahiri writes, “My daughter was followed into the town, her photos taken and morphed. Matters got worse. Anonymous letters started arriving addressed to the student body, accusing me, among other things, of sleeping with the lady teachers and Indrani of sleeping with the men.” But in the 1990s, morphing photos was still only science fiction! Even if we allow that a headmaster might have inadvertently used an anachronism and his daughter had actually felt disgraced by misuse of her photo, by what standard could anonymous letters, however scurrilous, make matters worse?
Lahiri also quotes a report which states that it was he who made Lawrence “one of the most famous schools of the country”. Well: Lawrence School, Lovedale, was founded in 1858. When I joined, in 1971, it had long been recognized as one of the best schools in India.
Every institution has its ups and downs, consequent on the people who lead and manage it. Evaluation and improvement may vary in consistency but they are continuous processes, never the work of just one person.
This memoir is neither a work of literature nor a source of inspiration to coming generations. When slotted as a ‘tell-all exposé ’, it could provoke a careful reader to question whether the author (even if his intentions were blameless) had the emotional strength and stability required to implement reforms effectively.

This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 24 April 2016. It can be viewed online here.

15 April 2016

Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai by Hari Govind Narayan Dubey

A precious but forgotten world


One evening a few days ago, sitting on the warm parapet to enjoy the unique charms of Marine Drive, Mumbai, we noticed two buildings across the road: Firdaus and Ganga Vihar. 
Why would anyone name a Marine Drive art deco building facing the Arabian Sea “Ganga Vihar”? As soon as the thought entered my mind, I realised with a pleasant jolt of surprise that I did know who must have done so. It had to have been Lal Singh and Man Singh, the Rajput brothers who had come to Bombay from Mainpuri District in the erstwhile United Provinces in 1910 or thereabouts, to earn their living.
I heard about Lal Singh and Man Singh from Hari Govind Narayan Dubey in the course of working with him to produce his book Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai.
The book tells the story of his father’s life and work in and around the Mainpuri District in the decades leading up to Independence. Dubey is a skilled storyteller and his book is more than just the life of Pandit Ram Narayan Azad. It is a tribute to the many brave men and women who sacrificed everything they had to their vision of an India where every citizen would lead a life of dignity and personal choices. Their stories have long faded away, and replaced by simplistic icons such as ‘Mahatma' Gandhi and ‘Chacha' Nehru. Revived here, they offer charming tableaux of life in an Indian village and involvement in various aspects of India’s freedom struggle.

Lal Singh and Man Singh found employment with a wealthy Parsi gentleman who owned one of the prominent jewellery stores in Bombay. Dubey told me that the Parsi gentleman lived in a building of his own, Firdaus, on Marine Drive. However, he hesitated in mentioning the name in the book since he, ninety-two years old, felt it was a risk to put into print any information which he could not verify. What was relevant to the story was that it was through them that Pandit Ram Narayan Azad got the opportunity to meet Jinnah. How this was possible forms one of the many charming stories in the book. 
Lal Singh and Man Singh had arrived in Bombay and in course of time, one of them became the cook of the Parsi gentleman and the other his security guard. The gentleman was old and had no heir. He fell ill and came to the end of his days. The registrar was sent for, to ascertain his wishes regarding the disposition of his assets. When the registrar entered his bedroom, the gentleman stared at him intently, raised his arm and pointed at the ceiling. He then collapsed and was found to be dead.
The registrar sent the subordinates who had accompanied him to the higher floor. There, Lal Singh was in the kitchen. They called him down and informed him that his employee was no more – and that he had inherited his entire estate.
When Lal Singh and Man Singh next came to visit their village, they came as wealthy men. Over the years, they contributed considerably to the development of Mainpuri, starting a training school for trade skills as well as separate intermediate colleges for boys and girls. They also constructed a ten-mile road connecting their village, Bhawant, to Mainpuri town – something that the Government of India had neglected to do. These facts are known to Hari Govind Narayan Dubey. However, was it really Lal Singh and Man Singh who named their home Ganga Vihar?

11 April 2016

The Living by Anjali Joseph



Illuminating the beauty of all our lives 

One can usually tell that a book is bad in just a few pages but to tell that a book is good, you do have to read right through to the end. I held my breath as I read this one. Its first few pages held the kind of promise that an eager reader prays will last. 
I enjoyed the book very much, and enjoyed interviewing Anjali Joseph for Hindustan Times. In the course of the interview, which I’ve pasted below, I realised, with growing horror, that I was the longsuffering mother of the person with whom Ms Joseph was accosting young men outside a bakery in the evening, to find out more about ‘haathbhatti’. A coincidence, I promise, but in the interest of full disclosure and all.

Why footwear, why these particular cities?
For me, the impetus to write a novel comes in two forms. The primary one is an image; the secondary is an idea or a question. For Saraswati Park I had an image of a man at a secondhand book stall in Flora Fountain in Mumbai, looking for books with marginal notations just before evening rush hour. And I knew I wanted to write about the daydreaming, book-reading, middle-class Bombay where I’d spent my early years and where my parents and grandparents had lived. For this book I had the image of a man making a pair of chappals. I’ve been wearing Kolhapuris since I was a child. The first pair I had was brought for me by my grandfather from a work trip to Kolhapur when I was three or four. I still wear Kolhapuris all the time, and find them both beautiful and practical, and I knew I wanted to write about the idea of daily work, of craft, and of some of the parts of life with which fiction deals less frequently: routine, habit, and ruptures in both. I also had an image of a woman in Norwich, originally in a place called Lion Wood, which appears in the novel. I realized she worked in a shoe factory, a profession that’s now anachronistic but which used to be one of the main trades in Norwich, where I was living when I started writing this novel.

Could you describe the reader you were writing for?
I don’t really know, but I did want to write a book that plausibly might carry the voices of these two people – the kind of working class people who don’t consider themselves especially interesting and wouldn’t see their lives as the stuff of fiction. I am more interested in those lives than in the apparently exceptional or heroic, and I suppose my larger project is to illuminate the beauty of all of our lives, even (especially?) in their humdrum moments: everyday magic.

Then you’re not writing for a particular reader as some writers say they do?
I don't think about anything other than the writing while I am writing. The reader-writer connection does matter to me – as a reader to begin with, and also as a writer. It's a small miraculous thing, the possibility of connecting with someone you may never meet. It's a real connection.

I enjoyed your poetic translation of Akashvani, any examples I may have missed because I didn’t have the context?
I did use a few bits of Norwich speech, though Claire, the first narrator doesn’t talk in full Norfolk dialect, since she’s grown up in the city. ‘There was weather’, for example, means ‘The weather was bad’. I was also inspired by some of the things I’d seen when growing up in England in the mid and late 1980s: canned Alphabetti Spaghetti, for example, or corner shops. Those things are part of the furniture of the novel.

Did you find your characters changing as you wrote, or did they stay true to your early conception of them?
Arun was initially more sarcastic, less tender, less nagging; Claire’s relationship with her son is something that became much warmer than I’d initially predicated. The process of writing a novel involves getting to know characters: their facades and what’s inside.

Any interesting stories about the research you did to get all this together?
I spent a week in a shoe factory in Norwich, in January a few years ago. The people who worked there were generous with their time and attention and let me watch them work, and chat to them as they did; I found out the things I would rather not make up, like what it feels like when the bells go for breaks, or how the light falls at different times of day; how the shop floor, as it’s called, smells when the roughing machines come on in the morning. I also visited Kolhapur and nearby Miraj twice. Once I met chappal makers, thanks to the kindness of Vinayak Kadam of Adarsh Charmodyog Centre in Kolhapur. Most of the chappal makers work at home so I went around their houses with him and watched them work a little, and talked to them. The second time I visited, I wanted particularly to do two things. One was visit a country liquor bar in the area where the chappal makers live and work, because I knew Arun, the second narrator, had been an alcoholic for many years. The other was to find a small temple in a field that I’d dreamt of his visiting as a child. It was good that I went to Kolhapur because I realized that unlike Bombay it doesn’t have that many country liquor bars; government authorized country liquor is sold by certain people in certain areas, and then illegal, much cheaper and stronger ‘haathbhatti’ is sold as homebrew. A kind young man, a non-drinker himself, helped me find some haathbhatti when I accosted him outside a bakery one evening and asked where the country liquor bars were. He was worried my friend and I would get into trouble so he chivalrously escorted us to buy haathbhatti, then pleaded with me not to make a regular habit of drinking it. And the next day, while we were aimlessly driving around in the morning, we found the temple in the fields, basically as a gift.

I was going to say, ‘hmm why so much sexual activity!’ but also wanted to note my appreciation of your female interpretations of the sexual act.
Sex is a big part of life, isn’t it? For Claire I think it represents a new opening out of her life after a long period of essentially mourning the teenage relationship that resulted in and ended with the birth of her son. For Arun I think it represents one of the few unregimented parts of his life. Everything else – work, marriage, eating, sleeping – is somehow inevitable. He loves his wife; he loves his family. But the randomness of unplanned extra-marital sex creates a rupture in that, and brings both a sense of freedom and sadness and guilt. I’m not sure what to say about a female experience of sex in general. I think for Claire there’s an experimental quality to the relationships she has. In her youth love was simple, but it ended. In her thirties, it’s not so simple for a while, but she also has a few transgresive encounters with a much younger man, her son’s friend, and there are no repercussions from that. That idea, which somehow seems normal for a male character, is something I found interesting. Part of the matter of factness of these characters and the lives they lead, in which time is parceled out in units that they make, is expressed in this experience that at times sex is just sex. At other times, of course, it brings emotions: wonder, surprise, grief.

Sexual acts in the public domain invariably describe men as experiencing mindless enjoyment whereas Claire does seem capable of thought during the process, could that be a feminine statement?
I don't know. Now that you say it I seem to remember Molly Bloom doesn't stop chatting to herself during sex either. Perhaps it is a type of mind, not a gender-based difference?

Amit Chaudhuri gave The Living a rave review in The Guardian and a disgruntled reader wrote in to say that, as your former teacher and mentor, he must be biased?
I was glad and grateful to read the review – it was written by one of my favourite writers. I hadn't asked for it to be written, or tried to influence what it said. Huffington Post wrote about the incident and asked for my response, but I didn't see why I should engage with accusations levied in anonymous emails. In any case, it’s for a reader to flip through the book and decide if it seems to speak to him, or her.

A few years ago, I wrote about Anjali Joseph’s debut novel Saraswati Park in this blog after reading it aloud to my friend Gladys, once a librarian but no longer able to read. We both admired its literary skill, and did not feel the need for more action than it has. This is relevant because critical reviews at the time complained that the reviewer had read on, waiting, but nothing exciting had happened and therefore concluded that this was not a good book. We wondered what these people would have had to say about Jane Austen if they were reading her for the first time, before all the hype, and congratulated ourselves smugly when Saraswati Park went on to win the Betty Trask Prize, the Desmond Eliot Prize – and in time the Vodafone Crossword Prize too.
With The Living, Anjali Joseph has surpassed her skill of saying so very much with so very few words. I look forward to reading it to Gladys – and to hearing about the prizes that come its way!