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.