24 June 2014

Unbordered Memories by Rita Kothari

Unheard stories

I first came across this book when I was writing my book Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland
I was writing my book with the keen awareness of the lack of documentation about the Hindus to whom Sindh was once home, a fairly large community now living all over India and in many parts of the world, but by and large firmly faced away from their past and almost entirely disconnected from their roots. To find this collection of short stories, originally written in Sindhi, was like finding treasure. 
These stories give a glimpse into life in Sindh during, just before and just after Partition, and capture customs, habits and the inaccessible ways of life of a time gone by. For the Hindus who left their homes, life has moved on, and it’s not just the place that they lived in that they no longer have access to but also their close-knit community that has had to scatter far and wide. Everything has changed. In refugee camps and new settlements, we see what happens to people whose language nobody understands, and whose abrupt homeless condition is viewed with indifference. 
This narrative I understood, and I found it gratifying to read about the real and fictional instances this book presents. One that I found moving was the studio photograph a family went to have taken, not knowing when they would all be together next. Accustomed to shrugs and a philosophical attitude towards their estrangement from homeland, I found the emotional fabric of this book most refreshing.
To me, the most fascinating stories in this book were the ones which take us into the Sindh of yore and show us how closely integrated the Hindus and Muslim Sindhis were before Partition caused its breach. It was a shift in which religion rooted in spirituality transformed into religion arising from ritual. Just a few months after reading this book, I started experiencing for myself, time and time again, the intrinsic one-ness of the Sindhis of Sindh and those of the diaspora.
There are thousands like me who would find this book precious for the period of history it captures so well. But even to others less emotionally invested, the stories are engaging and elegantly presented. Some follow a crisp reporting style, others are poetic and self-indulgent. I felt this book was a brilliant translation because it is written in good-quality English and also manages to convey nuances of thought which are indigenous to the Sindhis, both the diaspora settled around the world as well as those who remain in Sindh.

17 June 2014

The Prince and the Sannyasi by Partha Chatterjee

Real-life thriller

This is the fascinating story of a man who died and later reappeared. Well, maybe it wasn’t him. But somebody appeared claiming to be him. Discussions, rumours, sworn statements, legal battles and nearly a century later, we are no closer to the truth.
In 1909, the Second Kumar of Bhawal, Ramendra Narayan Roy, died. In 1921, a naked sannyasi who bore a striking resemblance to the Second Kumar, and gave accurate answers to questions about the Second Kumar’s childhood, appeared. The Second Kumar had never been cremated. Was he still alive? Could the naked sannyasi be him?
This beautifully-written, beautifully-produced book is actually much more than just this thrilling mystery. It has maps, evocative descriptions of landscapes and communities, the thought processes of people, the workings of the courts, and detailed historical information that transport us to another place and time with great skill. There are layers around the central story – and, surprisingly, other similar stories are included too. In fact, the high-quality research and production values of this book somewhat subdue its sensational aspect.
This book could have been a 'bestseller' if it was one-third its present size, with a lot of its details carefully pruned out. It was in fact a bit long and detailed for my liking. But if you're looking for something compelling, which gives you a ringside view of life in a princely home in British India and delves what it calls ‘the Secret History of Indian Nationalism’, if you find pleasure in reading slowly and with concentration, this one is for you.

13 June 2014

The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street by Shabnam Minwalla

Encore please

I read somewhere that Shabnam Minwalla had written a ‘charming’ book, and pondered for a while on how the well-meant adjective could easily be construed as patronising. Anyway, that was the word that led me to read this book – and I did indeed find myself charmed.
The six spellmakers are school-going children who live in a Bombay building, one that was built around the time of Partition by someone who left his home, crossed the new border and settled on Dorabji Street, Colaba, in privileged South Bombay. Since then, the building has changed names and a few residents, but the little garden with its two lovely, climbable bimbli trees remains.
As an adult reading a children’s book, I admired its language and plot, its distinct characters, and the many authentic descriptions and episodes, through some of which life-values are subtly conveyed. I liked the spectrum of children’s feelings encountered as the narrative proceeds, creating awareness and inviting empathy. I enjoyed the book design and its apt and elegant, evocative illustrations. And I loved the idea that Colaba (which happens to be one of my adopted native villages) has a garden in which the leaves are not coated in Bombay's characteristic grime.
I smiled through every page of this book, and yesterday, reading in the Local between Churchgate and Andheri, realised with embarrassment that I was laughing aloud at the spellmakers’ antics. At an emotional level, this book did to me what others like The Magic Faraway Tree, The Secret Garden, and Alice in Wonderland had done in their time, many-many years ago, and I felt sorry when I’d turned the last page and had to reluctantly put it down. In fact, I felt myself not just charmed but enchanted, and maybe even enraptured, and look forward to more about Nevi, Sarita and the others.

Outlook Bibliofile 16 June 2014

What is a critic but one who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely? 

David Mitchell, writing in Cloud Atlas

For a few years I wrote a weekly book column for Sunday Mid-day, Bombay’s most wonderful tabloid. It was one of the most enjoyable assignments I’ve ever had. The perks included a never-ending supply of new books, and junkets to the Jaipur Literature Festival (that Disneyland for the reader).
Among the negatives was horror at the growing number of mediocre books that the combination of new technology and a lack of discernment were conspiring to produce. Another problem I had was that readers quite often complained that they didn’t enjoy my reviews, because, they said, I only ever praised books. Apparently, mean, nasty reviews are much more fun to read than positive ones, and one can build a much more attractive reputation as a reviewer if your reviews are dripping with wit and sarcasm. Sometimes people even asked me whether authors and publishers paid me to write good things about their books. So I would explain (trying to hide my indignation) that they did not, but that I saw no point in writing about books that I hadn’t enjoyed reading.
I hardly ever condemn a book, even if I hate it, because there’s no accounting for tastes and something I dislike could well be liked, enjoyed, and may even be admired by someone else. There’s only one book on this blog with a ‘burn’ rating – Culture Shock! India, and it is in fact a popular book which scores of hapless visitors to India refer to, perhaps even with deference.

08 June 2014

The Last Wave by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Island Purgatory

The Last Wave is set in one of the most beautiful, pristine places on this earth. Its primary characters are a young man and woman – a gentle, sincere, capable pair. We travel with them through the Andamans, experience its complex environment, its many distinct and exotic communities, learn about its fascinating history, and observe life, administration, ‘development’ and tourism on the islands.
The Last Wave is not a romantic novel only because it has a young hero and heroine who encounter each other in this honeymoon paradise. It is also the romance of its author with a place he loves and has worked for decades to protect, and for whose survival he fears. The novel was launched in Pune yesterday and I felt honoured when Pankaj Sekhsaria invited me to be ‘in conversation’ with him at the event.
I had met Pankaj years ago, I think it was 1996 or 97, to profile him for a glossy magazine called Marwar, a short meeting with a lasting impact. What I learnt from Pankaj about the Andamans in our hour together all those years ago stayed with me, and I passed on the message to whomever I could, whenever I could. The message was basically the manner in which the indigenous peoples of the Andamans were being colonized by the government and and the people of India, and robbed of their culture and dignity. As a people ourselves recently freed from colonial yoke and all too conscious of the loss of our own precious heritage, making do as we are with our veneer of superimposed non-native culture, many like me have felt sad, and helpless to repair the damage that has been done or even prevent the continuing damage.
Reading Pankaj’s book and marvelling at the many situations which he worked in to show different aspects of the islands, I wondered whether he had written it as a means to reach out to more people to share the Andamans tragedy, and some of the questions I asked him at the launch were aimed at finding out whether this was so. What I understood from Pankaj's replies was that his novel was a purely creative enterprise; an attempt to put all that he knew about the Andamans into a fictional setting, and not particularly aimed at creating awareness or social change. However, while I did find it an engrossing story, the biggest value I got from it was the enormous amount of information it has. I also feel that this is an extremely important book for the way in which it entertains readers while giving us insights into different ways of living, and showing us the delight and wealth of being sensitive to and promoting cultures radically different from our own.