Monday, July 13, 2009

Middle India: Selected Stories by Bhisham Sahni reviewed by Sourav Roy


“I am getting to know this man bit by bit. This man of slow gait and unhurried thought. He doesn’t have many occasions to repent thinking of would-haves, should-haves and could-haves. He is the man walking the middle path.” This introductory voiceover describing Bhisham Sahni in a Sahitya Akademi documentary describes the protagonists of almost all the short stories in Middle India: Selected Stories by Bhisham Sahni perfectly. They are the denizens of Middle India – the middle class – neither rich, nor poor; neither conceited, nor depraved; neither too tragic, nor very comic; just trying to walk their humble middle path and being shoved and pulled from both the sides.

This collection of 17 short stories, is delightfully translated by Gillian Wright, inspired and aided no doubt by Bhisham Sahni, a master translator himself. The stories are selected by the author, strictly not playing any personal favourites, but tipping his hat to the readers’ favourites instead. So you can expect the most well-known ones like ‘Dinner for the Boss’, ‘Paali’, ‘Sparrow’, ‘Veero’, ‘The Witch’, ‘Before Dying’, ‘Radha-Anuradha’ and ‘Salma Aapa’ and relatively hidden gems like ‘Wang Chu’ and ‘Genesis’.

The very first one, ‘Dinner for the Boss’, a tragi-comic tale of a man’s desperate attempt to please his boss set against his mother’s desperate attempt to please him, leaves you craving for more. You get more than you asked for with ‘Nandlal’s Leela’, the subtle comedy of a nobody trying to work his way through bureaucracy, ‘Mother or Stepmother’ a heartrending tale about the many shades of motherhood, ‘Salma Aapa’, a touching story of letting whimsy run its course and ‘Paali’ on sheer pointlessness of communalism as shown by a lost child being shared between a Hindu and a Muslim family. By the time you reach ‘The Sparrow’, the story of a bereaved widower finding redemption in lunacy, ‘Wang Chu’, a tear-inducing end-of-innocence account of a young Chinese Buddha-devotee and ‘The Witch’, a post-modern fable of household witchcraft, you have been through all the nine emotions or navrasa in equal measures. The only chink in this multifaceted gem of a collection, in my humble opinion, is ‘The Wondrous Bone’ – a fairy tale of greed and salvation. It fails to impress, because Sahni hasn’t had to chance to display his great characterization skills.

Bhisham Sahani, known to most as the writer of ‘Tamas’, a dark epic novel set against the partition, actually considers these short stories as higher achievements than his novels. In his words, “a short story is like lodging in a house one night and moving away the next morning, whereas a novel is like coming into a town where you have to bide for months on end. In a short story, every word must have some eloquence, every utterance some significance.” We can only guess how many painstaking rewrites it took to achieve the water-like flow of his language, as simple, as real and just as refreshing. His characters and tone of voice are no exception. It is surprising how little bitterness or judgment shows through in his stories, even when he talks about the reckless murder of innocence or rank opportunism by Hindu and Muslim upper classes alike. He never has to raise his voice to make his point for his great faith in Middle India and it’s inherent goodness. Because the middle class he has pinned his hopes on is not the kind which just ‘measures out life in coffee spoons’ but the only species with some shreds of humanity left in them. They get beaten black and blue by life, but get up and keep walking with a smile. Because that’s the only way they have ever known.
It saddens to see this species evolving into a cheaper clone of the upper class.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Kural by Tiruvalluvar, translated by P.S. Sundaram, reviewed by Leela Soma


The first rhyming words one hears as a child, a mere play on words to infant ears, steep into one’s conscience and are never forgotten. The first couplet of the Kural by Tiruvalluvar, translated by P.S. Sundaram is ingrained in the DNA of most Tamil children:

“A begins the alphabet

And God, primordial, the world.”

The cadences, inflections and richness of the mother tongue become part of our heritage, of who we are. As a child I remember the joy of reciting this couplet and feeling proud to have mastered the tongue-twisting beauty of these words. Rereading this Penguin Classic ‘Tiruvalluvar The Kural ‘translated by Professor P.S Sundaram was a wonderful task, reliving those moments of childhood etched in my mind.

Scholars debate that the date of the ‘Kural’ could be anything from the second century BC to the Eighth century AD. As Professor Sundaram has explained in his excellent introduction, translations of the Kural have been in existence since 1700’s, first in Latin by the missionaries and then in English by various authors. So what is unique about this edition by Penguin India as part of their Penguin Classics Project? The author’s introduction clearly illustrates both his erudition in Tamil and English as well as his vast research on the classical texts. He has read extensively on the Kural, starting with the ‘terse and obscure’ work of the thirteenth century commentator Parimeelazhahar.

The Kural itself is unique. It is comprised of 1330 couplets written in a “metrical line of two feet, or a distich or couplet of short lines, the first of four and the second of three feet.” The work is also divided into the three themes of Virtue, Wealth and Love. Such clear and concise explanations by Professor Sundaram assist a layman like me in understanding the layers of this ancient text which has survived for centuries and continues to be read in Tamil, a “living language” unlike Sanskrit.

The book is set out in a simple format. Here is an example from page 15:

“Valluvar knew the value of words and didn’t waste any. He took delight in rhyme, repetition, pun and alliteration and exploited them to the full to drive home a point

“Cling to the One who clings to nothing
And so clinging cease to cling.”

is typical in its English of much of the brevity and wordplay of the Kural.”

The author has translated the couplets in language that has not diminished the beauty of its rhyme. The copious notes at the end (pages 157-168) would help all readers to understand the nuances of the text. He has often compared them to Western literature: for example Stanza 5 is compared to Milton’s Lycidas, stanza 702 to Hamlet, stanza 716 to The Pilgrim’s progress by Bunyan. He also makes references to the Manusamhita, the Bhagavad-Gita and Arthasastra.

I would highly recommend this Penguin Classic as a great ‘dip-in’ book for one to keep by one’s bedside. This is a book that one will never tire of, a book that one could revisit for the sheer universality of its messages. Its words, scribed on palm leaves, can be read and marveled as they resonate with life in the twenty first century. The Kural would be a valuable addition to everyone’s collection of well-loved books. To paraphrase the Kural Stanza 783:

“Good books are like good friends - A perpetual delight.”

Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie by Sivadasa, translated by Chandra Rajan, reviewed by Vijay Krishna


Penguin Classic's "Five and Twenty Tales of the Genie" by Sivadasa translated from the Sanskrit and with an introduction by Chandra Rajan is an interesting and informing read. Penguin is to be commended for imaginatively adding value by the design of this book, starting from an excellent translator, to an exhaustive and learned introduction by said translator and an appendix containing 'bonus' stories.
Many of us (Indians) will have been exposed to these stories in one form or the other earlier. They are alternatively known to us as the tales of King Vikram and the vetaal (betaal). I read these stories (actually not these stories but other stories in the same format!) as part of the "New Tales of King Vikram and the Vampire" series of the Chandamama magazine, and many others of my generation will fondly remember this. Chandamama did a good job with those stories with questions and answers that honestly probed moral and ethical issues as well as encouraged reasoned thinking, a salutary experience probably for a young mind.
The construct, for those not in the know is as follows: as a consequence of of string of events, King Vikramaditya is set the task of bringing down a corpse hanging from a tree in a cemetery. The corpse is possessed by a genie which then tells King Vikram a story. At the end of the story a question pertinent to the story is asked by the genie. If the king answers the question correctly the corpse/genie flies back to the tree and the cycle starts again (if the king knows the answer but remains silent he will die -- but the reader never gets to know if this is an empty threat as this option is never exercised by the king in the story). "Now tell me O King.." is the genie's inevitable refrain at the end of each story. In this fashion the genie tells 24 stories, asks 24 questions and gets the right answer. The 25th time, something different happens and leads to the resolution of the story.
The structure then provides an opportunity for good storytelling, the potential of which is fully realized. The crown jewel in each story of course is the Q&A at the end. We are keen to challenge ourselves to answer the question too and see how we fare in comparison to the king.
To a modern reader the stories are amusingly long-winded and digressive. A conversation in the story will normally include a half-a-dozen poems and asides expounding on all manner of topics breathtakingly irrelevant, it would seem, to modern's mans mind, so boringly obsessed with sticking to the point and getting on with the story. In today's world, therefore, it takes a certain kind of mood to sit back, relax and appreciate the storyteller's efforts. But if one does, the rewards are there. There are thoughtprovoking discussions of human nature that resonote even today. This is also an authentic peep back into time to see how Indians of a bygone age lived. I found the actual stories inconsistent in quality but uniformly interesting. The Q&A at the end is also varied, sometimes the question is thoughtprovoking and the answer is insightful and satisfying, sometimes not so much.
The substantial introductory notes by Chandra Rajan are quite an impressive piece of scholarship. Chandra Rajan obviously cares a great deal (sometimes it seems a trifle more than justified) about her subject and more generally, ancient Indian literature. This is shown in her dedication of the book to Vyaasa, Vaamiki and Vishnu Sharma, "the three greatest storytellers of all times". She throws much light and useful context on the stories and the King Vikramaditya of history.
"Five and Twenty Tales of the Genie" is a set of stories within a 'framing' story. In fact some of the inside stories contain a further level of story within. This technique of stories within stories is seen very often in Indian literature (including the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Panchatantra), resulting in massive story complexes. The translator also introduces us to the idea of recensions which are different versions of a story or story-complex that arise in the course of oral transmission. The bonus stories alluded to in my first paragraph above, are stories from a different recension of this book, by Jambalabhatta.
Poetry forms a central part of the enjoyment of this book, so I will excerpt a few here.
Central to the framing story is the attempt by the villain to gain 8 great Siddhas or powers:
To be minute as an atom, or enormous as a mountain,
light as air or heavy as rock; to be invisible at will,
to have all one's desires fulfilled, to subject others to one's will;
and t have lordship of the world.
King Vikramaditya's actions are defended through the following statement of ethics:
Pay a man back in his own coin;
do harm unto him who has done harm to you;
I see no harm in that;
adopt foul means towards an evil man.
Sivadasa makes the following claim for the book:
A simple and straightforward narrative
pleases some learned readers;
some, wiser, delight in the figurative -
irony, ambiguity, metaphors,
while others love a tale filled with flavors
of fine sentiments plentiful and pleasing.
So there's something here to please every palate.
As Rajan says, it is a not unjustified claim.
The book is quite frank about sexuality:
Ha! For the enjoyment of a woman!
What can give greater pleasure in this world!
No, not even the Elixir of Life!
All senses, altogether, all at once,
find in it their perfect fulfilment!
At least one tale is disconcerting in its emphatic position that women are inferior to men:
Woman, and she alone deserves censure
here in this world of ours; not men, never,
for men are directed to, and instructed
in matters of good and evil.
Here is Sivadasa on secrecy:
Even if it be a trifling matter,
if to rulers of the earth it relates,
it should not be uttered, said Brhaspati,
in the open assembly.
Magic spells, medicines, matters of sex,
good works, cracks and flaws in one's house and home;
forbidden foods, slander, vital secrets:
a shrewd man does not broadcast these to the world.
Heard by six years, a secret breaks;
heard by four ears, it stays secure;
and not even the Creator himself
can get to the bottom of a secret
that is heard by two ears alone.
Climbing right up to the top of a hill,
going in secret to an open terrace;
in deep woods or in some spot desolate:
in such places is a secret disclosed.
An interesting aside from the translator is regarding her choice of the word 'genie' to translate 'vetaala'. The author gives a nice description of the word 'vetaala' and explains why she rejected various English words for its translation (including 'vampire' which was often used in the past) in favour of 'genie'.
A lot more could be written about the book, but let me stop here in the hope that I have accurately described the book and given some people reason to make a note to read it. This is a book that will not appeal to all, I had mixed feelings about it. But it justifies its selection as a Penguin Classic.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Winter Night and other stories by Premchand, reviewed by Tracy Jose


Only a small number of writers can write about the underprivileged the way Premchand can. His short stories, A Winter Night and other stories, narrate the stories about the aged, the unnoticed and the poor in a way that communicates their sorrows and poverty without them seeming like objects of pity. Like in Kaki’s story, that of an old lady, who is considered as a misfit, it ends with the realization of a mistake. Although the times of Premchand is something that the young reader of today’s generation would not be able to understand, those situations are prevalent even at this period in India. This book is certainly a must-read and a must-have.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Legends of Khasak by O V Vijayan, reviewed by Dharmajsoni


First, The Legends of Khasak by O V Vijayan is a classic for sure. Which necessarily means that you don't read it in a jiffy, understanding everything at a go. You proceed slowly through the narrative, absorbing the scenario, and get into the mood.


And, each chapter is a story in its own right; even if you lose the book (unfortunately!) after having read it half way through, you won't feel so bad as you would if you read a general, plotty novel. You gain something with each page of reading. This novel is of that type.


It is set in a remote fictitious village, Khasak, in Kerala, some decades into the past. The author shows us various facades of the life Khasak's inhabitants. There are two communities, Hindus & Muslims. Some myths are prevalent around the founders of Khasak, which are very powerfully ruling the people's mind. Not many comforts of life are present, but the ever present alcohol is surely there, as toddy, a local drink from palm trees. The Muslims have their own legends around the settlement founder Sheikh and the Hindus have their own about their Godesses. But mixing of the two is not uncommon. Often, religious festivals are celebrated with great fervour by all, even though sometimes communal colours are seen in the village.


Ravi, the protagonist is himself not sure why he has landed in such a place as a school founder & teacher, even as he could have got better jobs at better places in the world. But he likes his job, does it well and tries his best to get the village children educated.


The novel has its share of weird characters, who are nevertheless real, and punctuate the general attitudes towards life. Reading through, you get a glimpse of the cosmic law of Karma, essentially the unending cycle of birth and death for most living entities, most & not all, because some do rise above it.


A very important point is that the novel, originally written in Malayalam, has been translated into English by the author himself, thus there are no doubts as to whether the original sense is being conveyed.


Also, the novel sheds light on the social conditions, especially of women, who get the stick for almost anything gone wrong. Maybe not much has changed from when the novel was written, and emancipation is largely a city issue, even after the various movements which were undertaken to this effect. Ravi is not the usual hero, he has his shortcomings, which make him look real and lend support to the story.


It was a new experience, especially for me who has never been to Kerala, and has made me aware of some other people's outlook on life. I think it was a good read.

Kalidasa: The Loom of Time by Chandra Rajan, reviewed by Revathi Sampath Kumaran


For more than a month I have been caught in a fascinating web woven by Chandra Rajan through ‘The Loom of Time.’ I have read, in the original, two of the three Kalidasan works presented in this book, albeit with the help of translations. So, I can say, with some assurance, though I’m far from being a scholar myself, that Chandra Rajan has captured the spirit of the original works, which so often is lost in translation, particularly of Sanskrit works.

The author’s erudition in Sanskrit and English, as well as her trained ear for music have undoubtedly come together to create this masterpiece, which could be called a classic in itself. Her scholarship in all three areas also makes for highly nuanced comments such as the one pertaining to raga Saranga in the Introduction [p. 81].
Shrungara rasa binds the three works together, though it is an assorted collection: two poems and a play. However, while Rtusamharam is a pure celebration of love and passion, there is an underlying pathos in Meghadootam and Abijnanasakuntalam. I don’t know if it was the publisher or the author who was responsible for bringing these three works together, but as a reader, I think the choice is inspired and so is the order in which they appear in the book.

Much as I hesitate to expose my ignorance by saying anything on the flip side, I guess it would be an incomplete critique if I do not put down the few points that occurred to me, which could be considered as suggestions for future editions of the book.

Some of the original Sanskrit verses are so beautiful that an audience that knows the language, which would, I think, be a natural market, would enjoy reading the original, at least in transliteration. A couple of such verses have been thoughtfully included, but one omission that could be made good is the sloka pertaining to Kalidasa’s prowess, in the Introduction [p. 21]. The word ‘anamika,’ without the original verse, makes little sense and even the ‘note’ on p. 325 does little to make the explanation complete. Similarly the sloka in Acknowledgements [p. 10] and the Rtusamhara verse referred to on p. 19.
I also feel that the opening page of the book, which introduces the author and the translator could do with sub-titles to indicate that they are, respectively, about the author of the classiscs/ Kalidasa and about the author of The Loom of Time/ the translator, Chandra Rajan.

The book also refers to Marica and his consort Aditi [in the Introduction, p. 83], a character in Abijnanasakuntalam. Appendix II [p. 317] refers to Aditi as one of the wives of Kasyapa. As far as I know, Kasyapa gets the name Marica by virtue of his being the son of sage Marici. To the uninitiated, however, it may appear as if Aditi is wedded to two sages – Marica and Kasyapa [whereas both are the names of the same person.] This may need to be clarified.

However, as the author herself says in the introductory chapters, Kalidasa can be read with pleasure even without any of the explanatory notes. Though, of course, the scholarly explanation and the comprehensive glossary add immeasurable value to the book.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Selected Poems by Rabindranath Tagore, reviewed by Arun Kumar



"Selected Poems", by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by William Radice, is an excellent and powerful translation as well as a representative selection of the Tagore's poems. Tagore has carved a place for him in the World Literature. He is one of the greatest poets of India and a leading Indian literary figure of the world literature.

It is really exciting for an Indian reader to see Kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore in translation and that also by an European scholar and doing proper justice to him in his translations.
Amazing.

An excellent example worth emulating for any translator of world literature - worth a salt . He has conveyed both the feelings of Tagore as well as his literary craftsmanship to his readers even in translations. The title is published by International publisher - Penguin India, under its classics initiative.

The erudite translator has exemplified that one who knows his subject and his works well could convey the feelings and literary craftsmanship to the readers in translation. The book deserve to recommended for anyone who has a musical ear and a real love and appreciation for poetry.

As one knows that the poems of Kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore are most delicate in Indian as well as world literature. His literature convey passionate human yearning.

His subjects deals with the interplay between the God and mortals, a changing universe in tune with unchanging harmony. Poems titled "Earth" and " In the Eyes of a Peacock" depict picture of natural processes untouched by human concerns. In his poem "Recovery — 14," the poet discusses his place in this world. Likewise the poems "New Rain" and "Grandfather's Holiday" convey the poet's amusement to the creation of nature.


William Radice explains that Unending Love ‘is a lyric poem which it takes us into the world of Tagore’s songs.

" In life after life, in age after age forever.
Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain, Its ancient tale of being apart or together, As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge Clad in the light of a pole-star peiercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever."

Translating the poem "Unending Love" the translator has done a wonderful job treating Bengali culture and its folklore in his translation. Amazing translation of the words and phrases used in bengali society and that also by an European scholar amuse the readers.

Detailed 16-page glossary given at the end of the book accompanied with the notes, listing Bengali/Indian words used in the poems i.e proper names of mythological characters, places, plants, mountains and rivers, palaces so on and so forth makes it intelligible even to those readers who are either not Indian and also to those Indians who know little about the Bengali society. It makes it a great translation.

Worth Reading. Recommended for Connosieur of Poetry.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Narayana's Hitopadesa, reviewed by Nagalakshmi Balakrishnan



Close your eyes and open the book. Read the story you find on the page, or find the beginning. This would perhaps be the easiest way to read Narayana's Hitopadesa. Or read one or two at a time, else an entire section in one go.

Most of the stories take you back to the storytellers of your childhood. Who told me a version of this story, or where have I heard it before? We may also remember a story from the panchatantra or a fable from Aesop.

The combination of prose and verse could take a little time to get used to. Remember our oral tradition, and the advantage rhyme has in committing anything to memory.

The verses seem to hide prophesies for the contemporary world.The following stanza brought the Satyam downfall to my mind.

In finance the evils are:
Excesses in expenditure
And lack of proper inspection;
Injustices in tax collection;
Fraud, which is like robbery;
And a remote authority. (93) page 104


Here's a Talibanic view of women in ancient times as well.

The name of 'wife' should be denied
To one who can't her husband please
The latter being satisfied
The gods with women are at ease. (198) page 66


To drink and keep bad company
To roam about excessively
In others' homes to sleep, feel free
From husbands staying separately:
Six blemishes of women be.(115) page 46


Amusing or infuriating? Whoever accused 'westernisation' as a bad influence on women - the multifarious sena(senae?) please take note. Unless these 'evils' existed in our culture, they would not have been mentioned! Now eat your words, protectors of Indian culture!

Read in sequence, it is interesting to find one story woven into another. A parrot or a crane narrate many set in the world of birds, animals and humans.

The translator's introduction and the notes will help understand the nuances of the work. Many students of sanskrit read the original as a textbook. They would be able to use this translation for reference.

Go ahead, grab a copy, and enliven a boring summer day. Better still, read it and charm a listening child.


Discover more about Hitopadesa here.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bhishma Sahni’s Tamas, reviewed by Diptakirti Chaudhuri



Reviewing books published under the ‘Penguin India Classic’ can be fraught with a lot of risks. Especially since the novel at hand has been published to tremendous reception three decades back, translated into English by the author himself to great success, filmed into a critically acclaimed television series by a renowned director and generally acknowledged as one of the seminal works on Partition.

What follows is not a ‘review’ of Bhishma Sahni’s Tamas but more of my observations after reading the classic for the first time.

Kites (and vultures) shall fly (over this town)… This recurring line from the book – Kites shall fly – was the alternative title of an earlier English translation of Tamas. Indeed, it is this deep sense of foreboding that permeates almost two-thirds of the book – where there is hardly any depiction of violence.

The ‘expectation’ of a Partition story is the recounting of the orgy of violence that is enacted by the two communities. Authors have often been rather graphic in this respect (probably to bring about a sense of revulsion among the readers). Saadat Hassan Manto’s short stories and Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan are two such examples that come to mind.

Tamas, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. For the majority of the story, there are only stray acts of inconsequential violence that make up the narrative. And to accentuate the impending acts of hatred, neighbours of different communities recount their several years of living in harmony. People who have spent their entire lives together remember most details as they succumb to baser instincts.

In this respect, Tamas resembles the Bengali classic Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) written by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee (author of Pather Panchali) and filmed by Satyajit Ray. That novel ends with the first death of the Great Bengal Famine (a horrific event, that left literally thousands people dead from starvation) and the narrative is built around the cast of characters in a small Bengal village living in the shadow of an imminent food crisis.

In some ways, Tamas is also the exact antithesis of Manto’s short stories. Most of those short stories never stretched beyond a page or two and had an act of swift – but imaginative (for the want of a better word) – violence at its center like a tableau. Tamas – on the other hand – builds tension through the unlikely route of a conversation between the British Deputy Commissioner and his wife, which tries to explain why the Government should not interfere in the ‘religious matters’ of the Indian people.

Another thing Tamas does exceptionally well is the decoding of the psychology of riots.
A riot is the outcome of an attempt by an ethnic group to ‘take revenge’. A large number of people who form a rioting mob are doing so for the first time and through a series of stray events, Sahni does a sketch of the rioters’ minds brilliantly.

One has to identify with distant deaths as one’s own.

Rumours of killings in far-off villages spread – with embellishments on each hearing – among the young and excitable. This creates a supposedly moral energy and that leads to a mission for vendetta.

One has to distance oneself from the victims to remove the emotion.

With the Partition riots happening in small towns of Northwestern India, this was particularly tricky because the people baying for each other’s blood knew each other too well for comfort.

In one particularly ironic incident, a Sikh couple seeks refuge in a Muslim household. The womenfolk – unsure of the reaction of the absent men – hide them in a barn, from where the Sikh couple sees the men return. They have returned from the riots, with the spoils. And the heavy trunk they have collected is actually from the Sikh couple’s home. When they are trying to break the lock, the Sikh gentleman reveals himself and offers the key. Suddenly, the tables are turned and the head of the refuge-providing household is shamed by his deed. Shamed enough to let the Sikh couple leave unharmed. Though not enough to return the trunk.

Tamas derives its reputation – like most classics – from the timelessness of its message.
Neighbours go at each other’s throats, because a ‘leader’ asks them to. Cultural similarities are ignored at their insistence. Political leaders take advantage of mob mentality, always for material gains. And government turns a blind eye.

Despite knowing fully well that a token gesture would put an end to the bloodletting, the British administration follows the book to let the populace sort out their religious differences and paves way for the impending transfer of power.

Six decades on, politicians and government have merged into one apocalyptic body and now wreak the same unspeakable havoc on the people, described so vividly in Tamas. We, the populace – unfortunately – have not learnt anything from history and continue to do the dirty work on ourselves.

As the British Deputy Commissioner says in a prophetic moment – “Most people have no knowledge of their history. They only live it.”

We are still suffering from the same curse.


Find out more about Tamas here.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Making a Mango Whistle, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, reviewed by Minakshi Jaswal



The book is a story of a family, a priest by vocation but still the headman of the family seems to have maintained his silence on a lot of wrong around him, the ill-treatment of his sister by his wife for instance.

The book starts on how a little girl Dugga is so deeply attached to her father's sister whom she lovingly calls 'pishima' and how the wife ridicules and pushes the old lady out of the house more than once. The girl is shown to be bold and in love with nature, a free spirit. The mother seems to have an indifferent attitude in the beginning of the book, or so it seems which gradually softens a little towards the middle of the story.

When pishima dies the story seems to move on without too many bumps but when there is another loss of life in the later half of the book, the story seems to come to a sad and abrupt point. The birth of Dugga's brother Koka comes as a whiff of fresh air in the story. The author has described him as one of the most beautiful children.

Koka's innocence, his running after hare in the jungle, his rushing to his mother and being scared of her and having his food without a demur for the fact that he might get scolded, yet his taking a stand when his mother thrashed Dugga for a theft she was accused of shows that though he is young, he has an understanding which sometimes even people of a ripe age lack. His coyness and inhibitions in making friends initially in school , yet his being able to make conversation with people much older than his father leaves the reader thinking that the child is gifted with knowledge in abundance. The thirst for reading that the child has in him and the way he goes in the jungle practicing the scenes of Mahabharata all by himself go on to show how like any other child he also lives in a make believe world for the major part of his childhood.

The relation between Dugga and Koka is the highlight of the story. She wanders all by herself all day long but at the end of the day, she makes it a point to share the booty of the fruits she gathers from people's gardens. The story is compassionate as each member of the poverty striken family, does not feel bad for themselves or ask for anything, rather they feel sad for others of the family being deprived of a certain thing, eg books for koka, clothes for the wife or Dugga or rich food on occasions for the family.

The major part of the story is light and though the family goes through rough patches the writer makes up by filling in adequate incidents of the playful childhood of the children which prevents the story from going sombre.

The part where the village is flooded and Dugga's father is away looking for work but not finding any, the family in the village not having money for two square meals, Koka's mother selling off articles for the sustainance of the children to buy rice and feed them, Dugga suffering malaria and her wish to see trains and Kokas assurance that they would all go to bathe in the Ganges when she became better is heart wrenching. Dugga's death leaves the reader cheated who while reading the book has been wishing all along for her to get well and that the children would be fine.

The last part where the family, now only consisting of the parents and Koka, is a sort of detachment from the village and shows how the little boy is promising his sister that he is being forcibly taken away from her but that he would never forget her - definitely moves the readers heart.

The book on the whole would get a rating of 7/10 and it is addictive if one wants to be a part of the idiosyncracies of the children's lives as it puts you back in time and makes you forget your daily worries. Not a mandatory read but yes if given a chance, and having the time, one must read the book.


A Tale of Four Dervishes by Mir Amman, translated by Mohammed Zakir, reviewed by Roma Jaspara Nair



Don’t look for rich Urdu literature in Mir Amman’s Bagh-o-Bahar translated as A Tale of Four Dervishes! The book is not as much a literary fiction as is an interesting tale of five men having suffered through the hands of fate from their women.

A Tale of Four Dervishes was originally written in Persian sometime in the fourteenth century as Qissa Chahar Darvesh by Amir Khusrau. Its first translation (1775) was in chaste Urdu; hence it was later commissioned to Mir Amman to translate the original Persian script in a language that that was simple and easy to read. Interestingly, Mir Amman’s Urdu translation, completed in 1803, made Bagh-o-Bahar popular and also his most celebrated work.

The book is an interesting collection of five main stories of each of its protagonist and several intertwined stories. The underlying theme of Bagh-o-Bahar is romance. The principal characters are four dervishes—three rich princes and a rich merchant—who have renounced the world because of lost love. The central character is Azad Bakht, the middle-age king of Turkey desiring a son to succeed him. Unable to cope up with his grief, he leaves his palace one night and meets the four wandering dervishes who recount their adventurous odyssey to Turkey.

The stories are typically medieval with all the ingredients of a traditional Oriental epic—beauty, valor, love, adventure, and fantasy. The men though brave and strong, are portrayed emotionally weak compared to their women. Each of their stories portray a colorful depiction of the life and times of an era gone by, and its customs and traditions. At times frivolous, the characters nonetheless draw you to their lives and beliefs in their quest to win over their women.

Read A Tale of Four Dervishes during bedtime. It is one of those books with all the feel good ingredients to end your day—djinn and fairies, princes and their adventures, and love and romance.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Premendra Mitra's Mosquito and Other Stories, reviewed by Dharmaj Soni



A great read.

I was not aware of Premendra Mitra's works till I read this book, and it was a very different experience from the ordinary.

Ghana da takes you to a different world altogether, but you don't realise it when he is at it; it seems so believably true, the tales which he conjures up for the other residents of the boarding house.How weird for the boarding house members, they want Ghana da, despite his peculiar selfish looking habits, perpetual cigarette borrowing being one of them.

The stories, although independent, have a common feel, striking believability and a nice narrative.

Characters such as Ghana da are present among us but none so interesting as him and as expert in telling tall tales that so expertly mix sci-fi with geography, ethnography, seafaring and what not ?

A superb and coherent compilation of short stories.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Srikanta, by Saratchandra Chattopadhya, translated By Aruna Chakravarti and reviewed by Bharathi Prabhu



Srikanta, an important work by Saratchandra, is, by the author’s admission “A series of scattered memories”. What vivid memories they are! They succeed in making the reader reflect on how things have changed and yet how they have remained the same in nearly eight decades since its first publication.

Saratchandra was aware of the novel’s universal appeal and wanted it to reach a larger population through translations. A task that Aruna Chakravarti has ably accomplished through her English translation of this modern classic.

Srikanta tells the story of the eponymous 19th century Bengali Brahmin from the time he is a young boy to the time he settles down into domesticity in his late thirties. Reluctantly or otherwise is left to the reader’s interpretation. The novel covers a period of roughly 20 years in which Srikanta encounters various characters and situations. Srikanta offers his own insights into events, personalities and his actions or lack of them. Contrary to what the novelist and the protagonist (the work is supposedly semi autobiographical) say, Srikanta comes across as a person who takes action when it matters, he goes to assist people when they need him most- accompanying his friend Indranath into the gushing waters, nursing a dying friend at the risk of catching fatal illness, being the pillar of strength for Kamal Lata... our hero gently worms his way into the reader’s specially the female reader’s heart.

The other important characters, Pyari(later known as Rajlakshmi),who is forced into prostitution but who later reclaims her life and love(Srikanta), Kamal Lata, the devout Vaishnavite who sees no contradiction in nursing a musalmaan or falling in love with Srikanta, Ratan, the faithful servant, are well etched with all their human frailties. Even the briefly appearing Gahar and Ananda leave a lasting impression because of the Author’s ability to suffuse them with endearing and credible traits. Srikanta’s inability to resist his life’s steering by Rajlakshmi is the Lei motif of the later half of the novel. Rajlakshmi is beautiful, wealthy and charming and her idolization of Srikanta since childhood binds Srikanta in golden shackles. His brief stint at Burma to earn a living or his considering joining the Vaishnavite akhra and spend his life with the less charming but also less controlling Kamal lata are his half hearted attempts at rebellion.

The novel suits the sensibilities of the time it was written in. There is just the hint of physical proximity between Srikanta and Rajlakshmi. The description of rural Bengal with its flowering plants, the life styles of peasants and the upper class transport you to a by-gone era. The novel reminds the present generation reader very much of Amitav Ghosh’s Booker nominated “Sea of Poppies”. The Bengal setting with its caste hierarchies, the powerful yet traditional women, the languid pace and epic sweep are present in both the works. When one is through with the novel, the feeling is akin to finishing a long nap and you are left wondering…. “Ma go! Is it over?”

Find out more information on Srikanta, by Saratchandra Chattopadhya, here.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Folktales from India, by A.K.Ramanujam, reviewed by Kamala Balachandran



How many folktales have you heard, which you can recall and narrate to your children? If you have lived in a Metro all your life (like I have) chances are that your answer is, ‘none’. But as the compiler of this book points out in his introduction, even urban folks have a few stories buried somewhere in our memories. But because we have lost the tradition of narrating them and passing them on to someone, they have remained lost to even us.

I too realised this while reading the book. Apart from those that are familiar to most of us as a Panchatantra/ Akbar-Birbal/ Tenali Raman story I was surprised that I was also familiar with a few others. Perhaps it was my grandmother or mother who had narrated them to me sometime in the past. And I wondered why I had always picked either Western fairy tales or Indian Mythology as bedtime stories for the children. And if I carried a handful of stories within me, I can imagine what a repository of folktales, those from the rural background must have.

Thanks to the printing press, Penguin and efforts of folktale enthusiast, A.K.Ramanujam, it has been made possible for all to access the collective memories of all these carriers of folktales, in a language that is now the ‘knowledge mother tongue’ for most urban Indians.

Folktales from India is a selection of oral tales translated from stories in twenty two different, Indian languages! Selected and edited by A.K.Ramanujam this four hundred page paperback contains within its covers, as many as 108 folktales! Delicate floral motifs and small sketches appear scattered through the pages thus breaking the monotony of the printed words.

To break the monotony of reading the same kind of stories, the tales themselves are arranged in eleven cyclic, sessions, with each consisting of eight to eleven tales. Each session has one or more seven kinds of tales that Ramanujam collected. Thus by rotation one gets to read a men/women centred tale, tales of two families at the two ends of the good-bad spectrum, tales about fate, death, gods, demons, ghosts etc., clever-person tales, tales where animals speak, and finally stories about stories!

Ramanujam has mentioned that he had gathered over one thousand stories and selected a tenth for publishing.. But even one hundred odd stories is lot of tales and as such the collection has some good stories, some average and some that don’t appeal to the modern day child/adult. The many, mother-in- law, daughter-in-law tales and most women centric tales are examples of this category of tales. Again there are a few, like the Bengali story, ‘A Plague Story’, the Santali story “one, two, three” which carry profound ideas and leave the adult reader in deep thoughts.

Reading/listening to these simple stories is not just entertainment. Psychologists hold that folktales have an important place in the education of children. They are a potent source of psychoanalytic insights as they concentrate on close family ties and childhood fantasies.
An additional take home for the Indian reader is the awareness that a commonality of traditions and culture connects the different language-regions in the country.

I would recommend a copy of this book in every home. When the children demand a story to be told or when you are in mood for something short and light, reach for the book, pick a title at random and lose yourselves in the simple, timeless tales.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Making a Mango Whistle, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, reviewed by Malarvizhi Jayanth



Making a Mango Whistle by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay hovers between childhood and adulthood, dreams and death, magic and fear. It is a book for adults, young readers, film buffs and the literarily-inclined – many people will find much to appeal to them in this book that is intended for children.

The ghost of Satyajit Ray's Panther Panchali hangs heavily over the book for the contemporary reader. The cover art invokes it with the iconic image of Durga and her mother fussing over Apu on his first day to school. The images that flit through the reader's head are from the film.

Adapted for children from the novel Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, the narrative occasionally zooms in intensely on the emotion of a child. In a sequence where Apu watches a kite soar, he feels strongly the pull of a desire for freedom, followed immediately by a desire for the security of his mother's arms. At other times, it describes adult social politics with an assumed neutrality and distance, though it is always clear where the author's sympathies lie.

The many kinds of fruit and who has access to which, the haunted tree, the politics of who a fallen fruit can belong to – all the intertwined relations of nature and culture of the time animate the childhoods of Durga and Apu, children of an impoverished Brahmin family. The interventions of man seem minimal in this landscape that is circa early 20th century rural Bengal. The railway is a source of exquisite wonder and deferring the dream of seeing it terribly painful for the two children

Spoiler alert:

For someone who has seen Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, the delight of the book is rediscovering Durga. A brave, untamed, much-maligned and much-beloved girl child, well-versed in the lore of the natural world but less sure-footed in negotiating tricky societal structures and adult power games. Her death feels far more traumatic in the book after having followed her through several adventures - gathering forbidden fruit and dragging her unloved elderly relative back home and standing up defiantly to the bossy adult women around her.

Spoiler ends.

This conflicted narrative is presented in all its complexity in the adaptation. The book suddenly seems to talk to young people and suddenly to adults. It blur genres in an interesting manner, though Penguin has clearly demarcated this Puffin Classic for a younger audience. It has also been positioned as a potential textbook with additional information about the author and some truly provocative questions that can spark off crucial discussions on the cultural and natural worlds we inhabit.

Also included is a brief description of how a mango whistle is made. This being a very whimsical book, it hasn't made up it's mind on what it wants to be. It doesn't use the title through the narrative, and the reader is left wondering what it means. The doubt is cleared, thanks to the kind people at Penguin.

The translation by Rimli Bhattacharya mostly works well, retaining several names in Bengali and providing a glossary. The reader is also left wondering if the original Bengali version has the same (delightfully) split personality – wandering between a complex adult world and the child's simple explorations and attempts to come to terms with it – or if this personality has been found in translation.

My suggestion: Read this book with a curious child. It will open up new worlds for both of you.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Upanisads, translated and introduced by V.J.Roebuck, reviewed by Moinak Dutta



The Upanisads, translated and introduced by Valerie J. Roebuck, is indeed a unique publication by Penguin India as a part of its Penguin India Classics project. It is not that for the first time The Upanisads are translated from Sanskrit. The author herself has made quite a few references of earlier efforts like that of Patrick Olivelle. So where does Ms Roebuck score over other similar efforts? Well, principally in her empathetic vision towards the Sanskrit texts-the thirteen texts which form the basis of the Hindu Religion.

Her own experience as a teacher of Indian Religious traditions came in handy as the translator. She never lost her sight of the basic idea of her job as a translator. She always stuck to the originality, ambiguity, perplexity and dichotomy of Sanskrit words and phrases. She even declared with sufficient candidness that certain words like ‘upasana’ are ‘untranslatable…combining the ideas of meditation, worship and contemplation’ (page xx, introduction). She is always aware of the inadequacy or limitations of any translation work. She is also conscious of the fact that while explaining certain ideas presented in the Upanisads, she should avoid the temptation of ‘explaining away’, which many translators, knowingly or unknowingly do.

Many translators tend to interpolate the translation with their own convictions or ideas. In case of this book, one will find an austere practice of restricting oneself to the base i.e.; the Sanskrit text. Yet the readers will be amused by the flexibility, erudition and simplicity of the whole approach. Ms Roebuck has showed her ingenuity and brilliance in presenting before readers, unfamiliar with Sanskrit texts, a complete, accurate and readable version of a kind of vedic literature which distinctly belongs to the tradition of ‘Sruti’. The tradition of ‘Sruti’ of the Upanisads, is never violated. So we come across several uses of ‘This’ and ‘That’ in the work, indicating directions much like that is done in any kind of ‘oral’ literature (a classic example of that could be found in page11 of ‘Brhadaranyaka Upanisad’ where Death was divided into three). She has effectively rendered a translation of the religious text preserving all of its originality-specially the conversational quality.

Another important aspect of the book is the author’s eagerness to represent the flavour of rhyme and rhythm. She keeps 3x8 syllable form while translating the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ to preserve the rhyme and symbolism attached to it. She has included the invocations that begin and end each Upanisad in traditional recitation so as to keep the spirit of the original texts alive.

‘The Introduction’ chapter not only lays down the basic aims and objectives of the book, it also serves as a good indicator of the translator’s free and frank nature to explain complex ideas into easily comprehensible forms. She has discussed quite a few ambiguities in ‘The Introduction’, like those concerning ‘brahman’ and ‘Brahma’; ‘atman’ and the ‘self’; ‘purusa’ and the ‘body’; etc;

She has provided copious notes and footnotes to each and every word, phrase or idea presented in the book so that the readers, unfamiliar with the basic tenets of hindu philosophy or religion or for that matter vedic literature, will find no hassles in understanding ‘The Upanisads’. The bibliography provided at the end of the book can also serve as a good reference and resource material to anyone interested in the ‘Upanisads’-one of the most revered and profound woks of literature of human civilization.

Discover more about The Upanisads here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Making a Mango Whistle, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, reviewed by Dyal Talreja



Making A Mango Whistle is an easy to read parody but an excellent panorama of rural Bengali countryside.

Set amidst, mostly jungle locales and villages with fruit orchards, agriculture fields and ponds teeming with fish, the reader experiences the thrill of village life with its fragrance in all the four seasons.

Most of the charactors including God men, despite their predicament live with adversity and humiliation in a contented way sans qualms.The varied festivals and functions are celebrated with gusto and the age old customs adhered to zealously.

But despite the pseudo contentment, life and earnings in the adjacent cities do beckon the villagers to try their luck by starting anew.

The rest is exhaustive and enjoyable reading.

To find out more about Making A Mango Whistle, look here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Seven Summers, by Mulk Raj Anand, reviewed by Varun Kandwal



I'd never review a book I've not read with full attention that I can offer. Therefore, this is not a review; it's an account of the thoughts that ran through my head when I couldn't get past the first 100 pages of Seven Summers, by Mulk Raj Anand.

What is the purpose of writing, or any other form of art for that matter? Is it not to question, challenge or celebrate life?

An artist could do it with a bouquet or a brick, in a manner unbearably cruel or with sympathy.

One can cajole you like you're a kindergarten kid or thrash you, there can be numerous corrective measures.

Some writers indulge us with our own misfortunes disguised as the plot. Some unashamedly pat us on our back for something we need to be kicked for.

Some do ask questions but in a manner that doesnt demand answers. The majority, though, consists of the herds of populist writers lauded for the escape they provide by taking us on fantastic journeys. Journeys which are far away from the crude reality of our sad, little, meaningless lives.

Seven Summers does nothing more than indulging the reader and though that's not too bad a thing to do, it still isn't my cup of tea.

Discover more about Seven Summers, by Mulk Raj Anand, here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, reviewed by Rashida Ansari



Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain is considered to be one of the earliest and the most outspoken feminist writer from Bengal. Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag are two bold and thought provoking works that focus on issues pertaining to women, and considering that both of them were written in the last century, one cannot help but marvel at Rokeya’s determination to bring about social change through her writing while having to live with the risk of being ostracized.

Despite the seriousness of the subject at hand, the author tackles it all in a rather playful and insightful manner. The short story ‘Sultana's Dream’ is a delightful satire on the ‘uselessness’ of the male species. Set in a land where the men are relegated to purdah because they have messed up the environment and the political situation, the tale focuses on educated and intelligent women who take charge of running the country.

Meanwhile, the novella ‘Padmarag’ revolves around an organization which caters to oppressed and battered women who have nowhere else to go. It is founded and run efficiently by women who have striven hard to rise above their circumstances. These are the women who have seen it all –cruel and cunning husbands and in-laws, indifferent parents who don’t spare a thought for their daughters’ education or welfare, and scheming relatives and zamindars who have no qualms about duping women of their property and inheritance.

The protagonist Siddika, affectionately called ‘Padmarag’ (which means ruby), is one such individual. Abandoned by her husband due to a misunderstanding, the proud and self respecting Siddika holds her own in a largely male dominated society which emphasizes solely on the importance of home, hearth and husband in a woman’s life.

Interspersed with romance, melodrama and disasters, the novella is an interesting read though at times the coincidences in the tale seem a little too pat. The best part about Rokeya’s writing is how women from diverse religions, regions, ethnicities, class and creed come together and take concrete action against social ills like illiteracy, child marriages, male oppression and female seclusion.

Find out more about Rokeya Hossain's Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag here.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Kamba Ramayana, reviewed by Jaideep Khanduja


Written by: Kamban (originally in Tamil)
Translated by: P.S. Sundaram
Edited by: N.S. Jagganathan

Penguin has done a great job by publishing this unnoticed and hidden gem not known to many a people due to language barrier. The translation in English has opened its door not only to the non-Tamil knowing people in India, but to all people interested in Indian Culture, epics and history. The translation is neat to understand the minutest of the drum beat tried to be told in Kamba Ramayana.

Originally written in 12th century in Tamil by the son of a drummer of a temple, whose name was Kamban, and who had a good mastery over Tamil and Sanskrit. The two versions of Ramayana one written in Tamil by Kamban and the other written in Sanskrit by Valmiki are state of the art respectively but though the theme of the epic remains the same, the two versions have many differences. Main is that Valmiki Ramayana presents Lord Rama as a simple ordinary man whereas the Kamban Ramayana emphasizes on the godhood of Lord Rama.

The book becomes a must read for all as it brings into light many instances not so far known or read anywhere else. Otherwise also it is written and translated so well that it becomes a treat for eyes, heart and mind.

Discover more about the Kamba Ramayana here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Partitions by Kamleshwar, translated by Ameena Kazi Ansarm, reviewed by Anupa Shetti



Kamleshwar's 'Kitne Pakistan', translated by Ameena Kazi Ansari as 'Partitions', is a cry for humanism over communalism, peace over war-mongering, culture over mere religion. The book jumps through times and regions as it runs through history to locate the beginnings of the creation of Pakistan - Pakistan being a metaphor for the division of people.

The author calls forth personalities from history, in fact, he questions history itself, as he seeks to find the seeds of communalism. In a court that transcends time and space, with a adeeb or litterateur as judge, the author summons scheming gods from various pantheons, political leaders, historical figures, emperors, and fanatics to demand reasons for the fracturing of nations, divisions of people, and creation of hatred and mistrust, in regions ranging from Kosovo to Kashmir, Sri Lanka to South Africa.

'Partitions' is more like a painting than a novel, as the author makes angry, broad strokes with his brush as he grapples with history, with drops of paint flying across the paper and landing on various historical figures, who must answer for their role in the creation of Pakistan. The novel also serves as a lesson in history, as it digs beneath the history that we have learnt from textbooks in schools to lay open the sinister realities of the respective times.

'Partitions' is a must-read for every Indian, for those have never felt the turmoil of dislocation and uprootment from one's home, and preach the superiority of one religion over another, and for those who look on as religious zealots sow seeds of distrust, and feel they are helpless to do anything.

The book will never lose its relevance as long as there remain dividing forces in the world, driving wedges between people, when all they want to do is go on with their lives without bothering about the next person's religion or faith.


The Roots of Ayurveda, translated by Dominik Wujastyk, reviewed by Sandhya Srinivasan



The Roots of Ayurveda is a selection of medical writings by physicians renowned for their mastery over one of the most ancient forms of medicine. Starting with the compendia of Caraka and Susruta, the book also covers some chapters from the works of the other great physicians Kasyapa, Vagbhata, and Sarnagadhara, who practiced medicine in the period before the fourteenth century AD.

Dominik Wujastyk has selected text which he believes are of contemporary interest like the use of garlic or the suppression of urges. At the same time, he has also included text which helps us to know about the concerns and preoccupations of a more ancient society. Given that Caraka’s Compendium itself consists of 120 chapters, one can imagine the huge task that confronted Wujastyk. This book is of great interest to the medical practitioner who wishes to know more about Ayurveda. At the same time, Written in simple uncluttered English, the text is quite clear to the layperson that picks up this book to acquire some basic knowledge of this ancient medical system.

One of the interesting sections in Caraka’s Compendium was on the root cause of epidemics and how these could be brought on by corrupt rulers! Surely there is a lesson somewhere in this for us in this day and age. Of similar interest are the sections on the earliest record of professionalised surgical practice like ophthalmic couching or removal of splinters and arrows, as described in Susruta’s Compendium.

Kasyapa’s Compendium deals principally with the ailments of women and children, and their treatment. The idea underlying this selection is that disease is caused by evil conduct and Revati or Lady Opulence gains entry into a household and wreaks havoc because of the build-up of unrighteousness. It touches on the prevention of miscarriages and the rituals to be followed to ensure safe pregnancy.

Vagbhata’s Heart of Medicine touches upon the importance of massage and exercise and the appropriate savours for the different seasons, the different humours and the treatment of corrupted humours. This is of particular interest to a layperson, as is the section on the lethal points of the body.

Sarangadhara’s Compendium describes the weights and measures used in Magadha and Kalinga, the quality of the ingredients used and the system of introducing medicine through the skin.

At the end of the book, one can’t help but be awed at the extent of advancement in medical sciences that was prevalent in ancient times. While the book does not qualify as light reading, it is a classic that provides excellent reference material.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column, reviewed by Dinesh Maurya


Elegance of finely balanced merging of traditional Muslim family with love and India’s freedom struggle, frank contemplations and childlike curiosity makes Sunlight on a Broken Column insightfully written by Attia Hosain a pleasing and enlightening read. The book’s fadeless tone and characters make it appealing even in these different times and perhaps that is why Sunlight is an unsullied perceptive take of Indian-Muslims, British Raj and social prejudices.

The novel stays peculiarly around love, marriage and traditional practises though the place, people and situation change with the passage of time, which in the whole establishes an unbreakable and gripping cord between social stigmas, political disturbances and emotional longings. Initially I was not certain about Anita Desai’s remark that Sunlight is ‘a gallery full of portraits’, however when I countered so many jumbled but delicately detailed and memorable characters erupting with each new chapter, I agreed to every word of Ms Desai.

Laila doesn’t want to be ‘paired off like an animal’ as her conservative aunt Abida and Mohsin, a kinsman, has decided to choose a good husband for Zahra, aunt Majida’s daughter, while living in her severely ill grandfather Baba Jan’s house as an orphaned daughter of an eminent Muslim kin. Finally after going through a lot of distressing and confusing conditions in Lucknow where she lives with her liberal but autocratic uncle in the uprising of India’s freedom struggle, Laila falls in love with Ameer, however the problem is that he has not being chosen by her family as per the norm of arranged marriage strictly prevalent in their custom. Consequently, Laila and Ameer leave the house, which is narrated by Laila as ‘yet I had already left this home for ever. Ameer’s hand held mine tightly.’

There are numerous mesmerizing lines in the book that not only grasps my attention but makes me read on and on till the last page inquisitively. Presented below are two instances:

‘European and American aesthetes and intellectuals and the ‘smart set’ of Bombay and Delhi had discovered the art and culture of ancient India simultaneously.

It appeared at times that neo-Indians wore their nationalism like mask, and their Indianness like fancy dress.’

‘But as the curtains stirred I felt the hidden fear in my heart flaming in the desire to escape through the imprisoning doors and out to the moonlit veranda, to the courtyard, to my room among those who were untouched by the transformation of dark death.’

Sunlight on a Broken Column may leave a few troubling questions unanswered and doubts unexplained to let the readers think and discover the considerate answers themselves, but it says enough to make every issue apparent and unforgettable thereon.

Find out mroe about Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column here.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mulk Raj Anand's Seven Summers: A Memoir, reviewed by Lavanya Karthik



Mulk Raj Anand, considered one of the greats of modern Indian literature, was known for his sympathetic portraits of the poor and marginalized in Indian society, as also his use of Hindi and Punjabi in his English writing. He was also one of the earliest Indian authors to gain an international audience for his work. Seven Summers: A Memoir, is the first of a seven volume autobiography that Anand had planned but never completed.

This book is a charming recollection of the first seven years of the author's life, lived in army barracks in various north Indian cantonment towns, in pre-Independence India. Anand names his protagonist Krishan, but in every other sense the character is modelled on himself, and the characters in the book are frank representations of his own family and friends. The book is structured as a series of vignettes from the author's life, describing incidents and experiences that shaped him as a boy. These are further divided into two sections -The Road and The River. The road represents the journeys and adventures the boy dreams of experiencing. At the very beginning of the book, a young Krishan even ventures across one, an early indication of the curiosity that will characterize him as he grows older.

If 'The Road' is about the yearning for adventure and excitement, a breathless wait for life itself to begin, 'The River' marks Anand's flow through life as he begins these long awaited journeys .This section marks several changes in the young Krishan, his growing awareness of himself and his surroundings, and his gradual disillusionment with several of the people and places he has idolized. He begins school, but his love for learning is dulled by the harsh treatment meted out to him by his teachers and later, as he begins to excel at work, his classmates as well. As the tremors of the Independence movement make their presence felt in the barracks, Krishan's father begins to vent his fears and anger on his children, eroding Krishan's hero worship of him.

At this juncture, Krishan also begins to bond more deeply with his mother whose nationalistic views are at variance with those of her husband's. This relationship is clearly the core of Krishan's childhood - it shapes his opinions, and even his relations with everyone else around him. The portraits the author draws of his family are not always flattering, yet his love for the people most important to him is clearly evident. He does not spare himself either - Krishan is portrayed as jealous, needy for attention and capable of spite and manipulation. He is fearless and impudent, also insatiably curious, academically bright, and eager to show off his knowledge, a fact that wins him adult affection, but also the spite of his friends and brothers. And he is no innocent - at the age of four and five, he is already aware of the sensuous charms of physical contact with his female relatives.

The author skillfully recreates the heat and dust of small town India, the petty squabbles and small pleasures of his childhood in the barracks. The book also deftly reveals the acute notions of caste and prejudices between communities that divided people then, and still do now. Krishan is warned against playing with 'lower caste' boys or eating in his Muslim friend's house, even though his own family is neither vegetarian nor high-born, and his mother is a loyal follower of the Aga Khan! Most poignant are the scenes revealing prevailing sentiment against the so-called untouchables- in particular, one where Bakha, a sweeper boy, assists a seriously injured Krishan, only to be berated for polluting the boy with his touch.

Anand has been credited with being among the first Indian writers to present a child's view of the world. But I felt that this was not a child's view, so much as that of an adult looking back on his childhood. The reader is not always allowed to merely view and understand an incident as seen by Krishan, but rather have it filtered through the writer's own analysis of it. I also wish that he had stayed with using vernacular phrases in their original form in the text, rather than resorting to switching between these, and their rather strange English translations. Nevertheless, these are still minor details in the face of the greater rewards this wonderfully detailed coming of age story offers its reader.

Mention must also be made of the striking cover of the book - a boy in silhouette, precariously balanced on a post, with his arms reaching up towards the darkening sky. It wonderfully captures the mood of the book, the joys and struggles -and isolation - of Krishan, his resilience and his unquenchable spirit in the face of the many hurdles he faces in his journey through life.

Discover more about Mulk Raj Anand's Seven Summers: A Memoir, here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Tale of Four Dervishes (Bagh-o-Bahar) by Mir Amman, reviewed by Satyajit Gupta



A Tale of Four Dervishes is the English translation of Mir Amman's Bagh-o-Bahar ("Garden and Spring"), which in turn is an Urdu translation of sorts, based on a much earlier work (and later variations thereof), the 14th century Qissa-e-Chahar Darvesh by Amir Khusrau. Mir Amman, a munshi at Fort William College in the early 19th century, finished this Urdu work in 1803 AD. At a time when Urdu was rarely used for prose literature, Mir Amman's work was unique. A Tale of Four Dervishes is among the best known and highly regarded works of Urdu fiction -- it remains "a monumental classic of Urdu literature", as Mohammed Zakir (the translator into English) writes in his Introduction.

Entertaining, fantastic and an out-and-out spellbinder (for children and the young at heart!), A Tale of Four Dervishes is a roller-coaster ride. Turkish emperor Azad Bakht's story is the background to all: his life and rule is perfect, except that he doesn't have a male heir. As he seems to go in a case of severe mid-life crisis, he gives up on everything. While he gradually comes back to his senses, he remains dissatisfied and one night puts on a disguise and heads out of the palace - and sees the four dervishes. All the four dervishes have quite a tale to recount. They're all powerful and rich - merchants and princes, but they've had terrible reversals in their lives. And the story-telling doesn't end there, as some of the accounts allow for stories within stories, describing the lives of yet other troubled souls.

While the stories are based in various exotic cities across the world, such as Baghdad, Damascus, Basra, Constantinople and so on, the characters, the weather, the food, the culture and the traditions are all quintessentially Indian. The work benefits from the fact that its length is ideal - neither too short nor too lengthy. A Tale of Four Dervishes is an entertainer, which reminds one of one's childhood when all the stories began with "Once upon a time, in distant lands..." and ended with "... and they lived happily ever after"!

Find out more about Mir Amman's A Tale of Four Dervishes here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore, reviewed by Naveen



Rabindranath Tagore
does not need an introduction to lovers of Indian literature but a book presenting a collection of his lectures certainly does need one. This book sent to me courtesy of Penguin India, has an excellent introduction by Ramachandra Guha. He uses anecdotal evidence to give us a perspective or rather a framework to understand the ideas that Tagore has put forward in his lectures. Students of history will immensely benefit from the extensive references that Guha has added at the end of his introductory piece.

The book Nationalism is a compilation of three lectures delivered by Rabindranath Tagore. The three lectures published in this book are: Nationalism in Japan, Nationalism in the West and Nationalism in India.

Nationalism is a complex concept to understand. It is supposed to act as the force that breathes life into the combined aspirations of the citizens of a country. The feeling of nationalism is usually manifested in a pride for local culture and a certain amount of self interest governing the actions of nations. If this is your idea of nationalism, then Tagore’s lectures will give you a broader canvas to build your thoughts on nationalism.

Tagore dwells on the interdependencies of cultures as opposed to the narrower definitions of nations and nationalities to exhort his audience to elevate their thinking to include nobler thoughts of compassion and mutual help. He is quite sure that self interest should not play a dominant role in the actions of world leaders.

These lectures are highly relevant in the present day international scenario when the concept of community living is overshadowed by considerations of caste and religious affiliations. I recommend that this book should be read by Indian youth to understand the vision that our founding fathers had for our country and to assess how far we have diverged from their path in the first sixty years of our independence.

Find out more about Rabindranath Tagore's Nationalism here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third, reviewed by Roshni Sengupta



If one had to select Indian authors having a definite style, a deep understanding of social system coupled with dry humour, Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third would be counted as one of the foremost in this category. The book is one of the very few literary works that I have come across that manages to give the reader the minute details of rural life and zamindari system during the pre-Independence period.

The book offers significantly more than just a peek into the life and times during that era. It brings forth a multitude of human emotions caught by a fluidity of actions that the author weaves into a narrative that not only captivates your senses but takes you right back to the times where zamindaris flourished.

The characters are well defined with brief words describing their quirky nature and innate characteristics. Right from the weavers' wives to the chowkidar to every minuscle character, the author has built up the story in a steady pace carefully highlighting the necessary ingredients. The narrative like a gentle wave slowly and smoothly builds up to a crescendo and tapers down to the final conclusion.

The story revolves around the rather ruthless and unscrupulus zamindar Ramachandra Mangaraj who with skillful maneouvering of government officials and by taking advantages in the flaws in the legal system manages to gain control of vast amounts of land. However, this seemingly powerful zamindar who has attained the status of a demi god meets his downfall while trying to acquire six and a third acres of land belonging to a simpkle weaver and his wife.

The book skillfully brings to life the Indian feudal system, the absolute and ruthless nature of zamindars, the law enforcement system, the customs, traditions, social heirarchy prevalent during the pre-Independence era. Rather than merely telling a tale, the story gives a critical insight and subtly stresses Indian values and beliefs. But what draws readers into this gripping tale is that even almost a century later, the story, the characters, the circumstances all can be easily identified with. The background setting may have changed into a more modern establishment but the basic essence remains the same and infact many parallels can be drawn with our lives and the lives of the people in the story.

Six Acres and a Third is one of the most prolific stories of Indian rural life ever written. While comparisons can be made with notable authors of Eastern India like Rabindranath Tagore, Tarashanker Bandopadhyay or Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Fakir Mohan Senapati's work scores over the rest in its unique narration style, depth of content and its relevance in the 21st century.


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Parashuram's Selected Stories, reviewed by Shaheen Saeed



This elegant book published by Penguin Books presents a unique collection of Short Stories (seventeen of them) translated by Sukanta Chaudhuri and Palash Baran Pal. The author Rajshekhar Bose who wrote under the pseudonym "Parashuram" was a Scientist, a Corporate Executive and went on to become one of the most eminent Bengali humorists of the 20th Century. Rajshekhar Bose’s works are known for their satirical and humorist style.

Here Sukanta Chaudhuri and Palash Pal have translated his Bengali stories - Eight have been translated by Sukanta Chaudhuri, and nine stories by Palash Baran Pal.

The book bears excellent introduction by Sukanta Chaudhuri, where he delves into the author’s background, and gives us a bird’s eye view of the life and times of Parashuram’s story lines, and details of settings where the stories have been written. Both translators have retained many of the original words in Bengali/Hindi in an effort to retain its realistic vein (but in italics). For some readers this may be extremely useful, but for others it could become a distraction.

Rajshekhar Bose (1880-1960) - himself a well known personality in Bengal, was a man of letters through his vast contributions to Bengali literature. He compiled the first (and perhaps the only one of it’s kind) Bengali Dictionary – Chalantika. It is a much sought after reference book for scholars even to this day. Though true recognition of his work came a bit late in his life, he rose to become one of the most eminent writers of Bengal. He was awarded The Padma Bhushan in 1956 .

His stories capture the changing patterns of society in Bengal, spanning forty years – a period from 1920 - the British India to 1960 – the Independent India . The genres he covers in his short stories are a nice mix: mystery, socio economical, political, and pure fiction. And all his characters are powerful and vivid creations of his written words. He creates such intense images of his characters, that you feel they are a familiar part of events happening around you. His story line is simple, but the reading is tough. I had to read some stories twice to understand its layers and the overwhelming situations.

The author seems to draw his story lines from reality in his fiction, and from experiences of his own life; yet he is not really very realistic. His stories are a strange mingling of realism and fictitiousness, because his style is comical and satirical. Some of his story subjects are deep and intense with vivid descriptions of characters and situations that gives a peek into the social scenario of Bengal. His stories have all been set in Bengal, and serve as a window to the history of Bengali customs and culture.

This collection of 17 stories, consists some of his best comic writings.

The first story in this collection ‘Shri Shri Siddheshwari Limited’ was published in 1922. It is also the author’s first ever published work. It is supported by some excellent sketches of the characters, created by the author with his words, by artist Jatindrakumar Sen, as in many other stories. These simple illustrations of various scenes and characters within the story bear distinct resemblance to each other providing continuity and a raw diversion to its readers. I am glad they have retained the sketches rather than replacing them with photographs. ‘Shri Shri Siddheshwari Limited’ is also my best story.

Some of his stories have distinct flavors, with discrete subjects and would be worth a mention here:

‘Choosing a husband’ is a light story that is a typical mix of the British scenes and Bengali culture. ‘All in a Night’ throws light on the Bengali youth culture during that era, and also reflects the young people’s unchanging aversion to parental authority, specially when choosing their life partners. ‘The Magic Stone’ is pure fiction, with subtle mention of connections from the political scenario of Russia, and Britain. It also bears a strong moral message. ‘Conversations With Akrur’ is a highly recommended read. The humor and satire, which is in fact the author’s renowned forte’ is neatly wrapped in subtlety and sarcasm here as Mr Akrur Nandi is a wealthy & elite gentleman.

The sketch used on the cover of this volume is from the comedy ‘A Medical Crisis’ .

A concluding observation is perhaps in order here: As is evident, all his stories convey the author’s rural experiences in his inimitable, subtle, comic and humorous style.

It is a must read book, specially for people whose interests lie in cultural history of Bengal, India. It can easily qualify or may become a strong contender for ‘International Man Booker Prize’ if they have a category for translated writers.

I feel privileged to have found this mine of humorous short stories, thanks to Penguin Books (India) for their theme ‘Blog a Penguin India Classic’ who sent me this beautiful review copy. Many thanks for also trusting me to write a review of the book. I honestly loved reading the Selection of Short Stories by Parashuram.