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.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mosquito and Other Stories by Premendra Mitra, reviewed by Shabana Ansari

Premendra Mitra uses a combination of science, geography, adventure and fantasy in his Ghanada stories. Though associated with tall tales, the protagonist Ghanada commands a grudging respect from fellow boarders who are not convinced about the authenticity of Ghanada’s narration. But at the same time, they hang on to every word he says - sometimes going to extreme lengths to prod him into narration, other times barely able to suppress disbelieving remarks, laughter or even sarcasm.

What makes this collection an absolute page turner is the audacity, inventiveness and nonchalance of Ghanada while spinning his tall tales. Another striking aspect is how the mundane and familiar life of a boarding house (where all the stories are situated) is contrasted with the exotic and unfamiliar locales of Ghanada’s so-called adventures.

Ghanada’s character is best summed up in the author’s own words. In ‘Hole’ Mitra describes how Ghanada’s trunk is a subject of speculation for the other boarders who had ‘endlessly debated and quarreled about what it might contain’ as no one had ever seen Ghanada open it. “The more evil minded have been heard to say that the trunk was a visible symbol of Ghanada himself. There was nothing that Ghanada couldn’t produce from inside it, but in fact it was absolutely empty!”

The dozen short stories in this volume combine several narrative styles and techniques as Ghanada regales his audience with accounts of his numerous adventures in varied geographical settings. The names of places in the tales oscillate between genuine and make-believe but are romantic sounding nonetheless. It’s hard to keep track of what’s real and what’s fake while getting carried away by Ghanada’s riveting narrative style.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Kural by Tiruvalluvar, reviewed by Mohit.K.Misra

What a Classic.

This books is simply awesome and one of the best I have ever read. I was angry with Penguin India for rejecting my work in 48 hours but now I forgive them for sending me this masterpiece. I thoroughly enjoyed every couplet in this book.

In the introduction by P.S. Sundaram he says-page 11-"It is not the work of a mystic but of a down to earth man of the world,concerned with the home and community". This statement is absolutely ridiculous and obviously Mr Sundaram has no idea what an enlightened one or mystic is.

This work is the work of of great sage or mystic, a master of the highest order. Such wisdom is possible only by an enlightened one who works to benefit the community sacrificing his own live.

One small error -asterisk 655 is shown as 665 at the end of the book where the asterisks are explained.

The only asset in life is fame,
Then comes charity.

Its is a pleasure to meet a scholar,
A pain to part with him.

Such superb couplets, Kural has gone straight up to one of my favorites.

This is poetry and not the garbage we have available in the market today. Poetry the most condensed form of philosophy will permeate with the essence of god and will be timeless as proven in the Kural.

The only thing missing is he doesn't show you the path how to get enlightened and here I appreciate the great master Patanjali who goes to the extent of saying seven breaths of one pointed concentration will get you enlightened.

Find out more about Kural by Tiruvalluvar here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Yashpal’s Divya, reviewed by Anuradha Shankar

There have been many Indian authors who have made their presence felt by their way with words, whether in English or in their mother-tongue. One such author is Yashpal, who wrote in Hindi in the days before India regained her independence, but whose works continue to be read and appreciated even today, and more importantly, are relevant even today.

Thanks to Blog a Penguin India Classic, I have had the opportunity to read and review one such gem from his collection – Divya.

Divya is the story of a woman’s quest for freedom set in the first Century BC – a time when the friction between Hinduism and Buddhism had crept into the politics of the times. Kings were fast embracing the convenient precepts of Buddhism, while Brahmins were trying to rid society of what they felt was a threat to their superiority. In addition to all this were the Greeks who had their representatives in powerful positions in most kingdoms, capable of dictating terms with their wealth and power. Yashpal recounts the fictional story of a young girl growing up in this milieu, while keeping to historical facts of the era in the matter of happenings and events. It must have been a difficult task, researching all the details, and he seems to have traveled widely all over India collecting the facts for this beautiful novel. That he, in his own words ‘has tried to avoid unforgivable errors’ is an achievement by itself.

The novel traces the story of Divya, born and brought up in a well to do and powerful Brahmin family, protected from the harsh reality of the outside world. To her, the turmoil going on due to the caste system and ruling hierarchy, and the different opinions within her own family are not really important, until the day she falls in love with Prithusen – the son of a freed slave, now extremely wealthy, but unable to shake off the stigma of his birth. In contrast to this is Rudradhir, son of the Acharya, the most eligible groom for Divya. While attraction for Prithusen makes her antagonistic towards Rudradhir, there is one more man in this story – Marish – the sculptor, who is almost an outcaste – though well born, he is an atheist, who chooses his own path, and refuses to do anyone’s bidding. While he is often punished by Divya’s great grandfather in his public capacity as the Chief Justice, he is welcomed into the elderly man’s home for open discussions on any subject.

While Divya and Prithusen fall in love, the country faces war, and finds itself completely unprepared. In such a situation, Prithusen’s father, the wealthy slave-turned-merchant, Prestha, a wily and cunning man, uses the opportunity to push his son forward and succeeds. Faced with separation due to war, the young couple succumbs to temptation, and soon Divya finds herself pregnant, and awaits the return of her lover from the war.

Prithusen returns victorious but injured from the war, and is awarded a hero’s welcome. He is tended to by the Greek President’s granddaughter, while Divya languishes in her home, trying to cover the growing signs of pregnancy. When Prestha suggests that in order to improve his situation, he ought to marry the president’s granddaughter, he is unable to stand up for himself and his love, and agrees to give up Divya.

Shocked and saddened by his betrayal, Divya leaves home to save her family’s honour, and thus starts her journey in quest of her own life. She is sold as a slave, forced to feed her mistress’ child rather than her own, and undergoes all sorts of troubles, until one day, faced with the prospect of being separated from her child, runs to the Buddhist monastery and asks for acceptance. While she tasted servility and cruelty as a slave, at the monastery, she learns about rejection on the basis of just being a woman – the monks refuse her plea because she is a single woman, protected neither by her father, husband or son. They inform her that she needs her protector’s permission to enter the fold of Buddhism. It is then that she learns the truth of the times – it is only a prostitute who is really free – she is free to use her body the way she wishes, though she uses it for all, she is beholden to none.

Chased by her master, she jumps into the Yamuna, only to be rescued by a courtesan. While her child doesn’t survive, the viceroy allows her to be handed over to the courtesan – Ratnaprabha. Now begins another phase of her life – where her talent for dancing is recognized, and she gains a new name – Anshumala. As Anshumala, she gains name, fame and wealth, and in the process, meets Marish and Rudradhir, both of whom ask for her hand in marriage. However, she no longer wants the protection of a man, because all she wants is freedom, which, she believes, she can get only as a prostitute.

Meanwhile, times change in Divya’s country, where, under the leadership of Rudradhir, the Brahmins manage to usurp power once again, and Prithusen finds himself a fugitive. He is granted sanctuary at the Buddhist monastery where the patient monk makes him aware of the futility of anger and revenge. Prithusen begins a new life as a Bhikshu, while Rudradhir struggles to forget Divya.

Devi Mallika, the state courtesan, and the erstwhile dance teacher of Divya, goes in search of an apt successor, recognizes and brings back Divya as Anshumala. She returns to the land of her birth, and all is set for her being declared Mallika’s successor, when she is recognized, and it is declared that, being a Brahmin by birth, she cannot aspire to the title of state courtesan.

She is now faced by the ultimate choice – the offer of marriage and status by Rudradhir, acceptance as a Bhikshu by Prithusen the monk and the marriage cum companionship of Marish, the outcast. What she chooses to do is something you must find out for yourself.

What really struck me about the book is this: It was written before independence – it could almost be a metaphor for India seeking her independence from the shackles of the outsiders, and also from the chains of tradition. It is a story set in the first century, yet the situation holds true even today.

Instances of moral policing by the so-called champions of Indian culture only highlight the situation the Indian woman is placed in, in this day and age. The story of Divya and her quest for her identity and freedom has never been more relevant. As I read the book, I found myself identifying more and more with this talented and simple girl caught in the web of intrigue and politics of caste and creed, tradition and freedom. Once I started, I couldn’t keep it down, and it has only spurred my desire to read more and more such books.

Anuradha Shankar

Find out more about Yashpal's Divya here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The launch of Blog a Penguin India Classic!

The world famous Penguin Classics offer an unrivalled range of more than 1,500 books from around the world and across the centuries. Constantly redefining the idea of what makes a 'classic', the list includes many of the best books ever written, of course, and many surprises. The list also includes a collection of Indian classics (Black, Modern and Puffin) published by Penguin India including the The Ramayana, The Pancatantra, The Arthashastra, Rabindranath Tagore’s Selected Poems and Stories, The Bhagavad Gita and many more.

To celebrate the Penguin Classics, we are launching 'Blog a Penguin India Classic'. We're encouraging readers and book clubs throughout India to celebrate the entire range of Indian Classics by blogging about them, and what's more, we will provide the books!

The epic tale of The Ramayana, one of the many Penguin India Classics we want you to review!

Each of the 74 Penguin India Classics is up for grabs. We want to hear what you, the reader, thinks of these books, and so we have set up 'Blog a Penguin India Classic'; a platform that will allow you to post your reviews on the Penguin India Classic that we send you. Here's how it works:

1. Sign-up quickly by emailing your name and address to: blog@in.penguingroup.com.
2. Wait for your FREE book to arrive by post*.
3. Enjoy reading your Penguin India Classic!
4. Email your review to: blog@in.penguingroup.com.
5. Come back to the blog to read, comment and debate any of the books reviewed.

So what are you waiting for, review some of the best books in the world - sign up to receive your FREE Penguin India Classic today!

Terms & Conditions
You must live in India to take part in Blog a Penguin India Classic.
By signing up to Blog a Penguin India Classic, we do expect you to submit a review of the book we send you.
The blog will run for approximately 6 months and reviews will be posted up randomly over that time. We cannot guarantee when your post will appear.

* While stocks last.