Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A BOOK REVIEW IN EARTHEN LAMP JOURNAL

Earthen Lamp Journal
 Image result for the way things were review
·         Title of the Book: The Way Things Were
·         Author: Atish Taseer
·         Hardcover: 563 pages
·         Publisher: Picador India; First edition (4 December 2014)
·         Language: English
·         Price:  INR  699/-


Aatish Taseer’s latest novel, The Way Things Were, is about a strange beast called History. ‘What constitutes history?’ has been a subject of constant discussion in our country since the British left the Indian shores in 1947. Everybody, from the hoi polloi to the intellectuals and the politicians, looks at history through the prism of their particular ideologies and beliefs, especially the politicians, both left and right  manipulate it to suit their ideological necessities.
In Mark Twain words, ‘the very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.’ But, one of the main characters of this novel, Toby, would never agree with Twain. For him, the word Itihasa which means The Way Things Were is self-explanatory, and mythology and legends are also a part of them.

The question ‘what exactly history is and how it impacts our present and future’ is a major theme in this novel. The book is also about Sanskrit and the genesis of languages across the world. Similar sounding words from different languages with similar meanings but no direct cultural connection indicate that several languages have a common mother. The book tries to convey the message that languages are a shared legacy of human beings. It also tries to assimilate different definitions of Indian culture.  Concerns regarding the rise of right-wing politics run through the entire novel. 

The book opens in Manhattan, New York, with Skanda, a Sanskrit Scholar, who is busy translating the text of Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava from Sanskrit into English when he receives the news of his father’s death. His mother, Uma, who is separated from his father, Toby, insists that he should take his father’s body to his birthplace in India for the final rites and then he should immerse his father’s ashes in the holy river, Tamasa, as per Hindu traditions.  
Skanda’s trip to India gets him a beautiful girlfriend called Gauri. His journey brings him ‘deep within three generations of his family, whose fractures frailties and toxic legacies Skanda has always sought to elude.’ The important part of family history that matters most to Skanda is the story of his parents’ doomed marriage. As the story of Toby, the Sanskrit Scholar from a royal family, and Uma, the former air-hostess is recounted, we hear the reverberations of the major events of the post-Independence India. It includes the Emergency of 1975, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the subsequent anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 and the demolition of the Babari mosque at Ayodhya in 1992.

The exceptional quality of prose has always been the hallmark of Aatish Taseer’s writings. From his memoir-cum- travelogue  Stranger to History to his translation of Manto and then his novels, he plays with language beautifully. His understanding of South Asian history is very deep and that comes out well in his narratives. A close reading of his books reveals that there are similarities among the protagonists of all his novels as each of them is in part influenced by the life of the author. And this fact, somehow, makes the characters predictable. Complex, multidimensional characters connect better with the readers but that doesn't happen with this novel. Both Skanda and Toby are believable and likeable characters but the readers may not be able to make an emotional investment in them. For example, when Toby and Uma separate, the reader feels no pang of separation.

 The major socio-political events like the 1984 riots or the Babari Mosque demolition were supposed to play significant roles in defining the tone and feel of this novel and draw the readers deep in to it. But it doesn't happen since the reader only hears the echoes of these incidents as a bystander who has no stake in it.

Despite these shortcomings it is a novel worth reading.










Sunday, March 29, 2015

An Interview with Raza Rumi

 This interview was meant to be published in an international magazine but it couldn't be. So, I am posting here on my BLOG. The interview was conducted just after the release of Raza Rumi's Book in India. 

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Raza (Ahmed) Rumi is a Pakistani columnist, writer, journalisteditor, and peace activist. He edits and regularly writes for The Friday TimesExpress Tribune and The News on diverse topics such as politics, security, history, arts, literature and society. He is also associated with Aman Ki Asha which a joint initiative by The Jang Group, Pakistan and The Times of India, India to promote peace between India and Pakistan. Recently, he has published a book on Delhi which is getting rave reviews in the media. Here Raza Rumi talks to Abdullah Khan about his Book (Delhi by Heart) and the past and future of Indo-Pak relationship.


The Star: Delhi by Heart is being lapped up by the Indian readers. What are the responses of the Pakistani readers?

Raza Rumi:Quite surprisingly the Pakistani readers have given a great reception. All copies of the book which have come to Pakistan have been sold out. The literary festivals have celebrated it and almost all the Pakistani publications have carried rather favourable reviews. What more can a write ask for? To be honest I did not keep the audience in mind when I wrote the book. There is however a small group of people who have without reading the book criticised it for the fact that it is about Delhi – the enemy capital – and thus raised questions about my patriotism. This is the irony of our predicament: a book which celebrates history becomes a threat for some fragile, ill-informed nationalistic minds.

The Star: You have travelled to many great cities in your home country as well outside Pakistan. But you chose to write about Delhi. Why so?

Raza Rumi:I have explained this partly in the book. It was an accident as I intended to write about something else but visits to Delhi and exploring its past was most exciting and profound – almost as if I was exploring myself, my history and complex, centuries-old heritage.
 Image result for Delhi by heart
The Star: How do you slot your book? Is it a travelogue? Or is it a book about the social and cultural history of Delhi? Or this is something else?

Raza Rumi: I know such definitions are important for the publishing industry. The book is pitched as a travel-memoir but as a very senior English professor said that DBH defies the necessity of a genre: it is a bit of many things much like my scattered personality – part history, part travel, reportage & commentary. This is why I chose ‘impressions’ in the byline to ensure that there is no overt label. A Pakistani linguist, historian Dr Tariq Rahman has also called it the social history of Muslims in North India, etc etc. However, I would like it to be read as a documentation of a personal journey.

The Star: What aspect of the city you liked the most?

Raza Rumi: As the book shows, Delhi’s past is most fascinating. Also the ability of the city to have withstood the vicissitudes of time.Even as a modern metropolis despite its problems of pollution, overcrowding and disconnectedness it is an intriguing mix of past and present. Its older cultures are apparently dying but in effect trasnmuting into diffterent shapes and sensisibilites.

The Star: During the book launch in Delhi, you said there are many similarities between Lahore and Delhi. Please elaborate.  And what are the differences between these two cities?

Raza Rumi:I wrote in the book that initially the city reminded me of Lahore and hence was immediately familiar and accessible. But overtime I am revising my opinion. Lahore after 1947 turned into a provincial capital and was robbed of its diversity due to huge population transfers. The contemporary Lahore is well developed and thriving as a cutural centre yet it betrays a neglct of its history and heritage. Not too different from Delhi where the old seems to be an inconevenice of sorts.

The Star: You are among selected few South Asian intellectuals who have been striving to improve relationship between Pakistan and India? According to you what are the major hurdles in the way of the lasting peace between these two neighbours?

Raza Rumi: The baggage of history and the young, constructed nationalisms are the greatest barrier. The two states display myopia and utter disregard of public interest. Blame game is almost a policy tool. However, in Pakistan there is an unprecedented moment now – all political forces want normalisation of ties with India and are engaged in a struggle with civil-military bureaucracy to achieve that goal.



The Star: Do you think that the track II diplomacy and initiatives like‘Aman ki Asha’ will make any difference?

Raza Rumi:Track II process is a vital component of larger gamut of diplomacy. On its own it can’t achieve much unless Track I (formal channels) are active and vibrant. I have been and still am a part of many such initiaitves. They are useful but becoming a little repetitive and unimaginative. Aman ki Asha has a distinctive edge of being led by two corporate media houses. It has a huge spillover effect. There is a bit of a schizophrania as well. Media outlets sell jingoism as well whule advocatign peace.

The Star: Whenever we talk about the peace in South Asia, we only discuss the issues between India and Pakistan? Do you think Bangladesh has any role to play when it comes to the issues of peace between India and Pakistan?

Raza Rumi:I think Bangladesh is a very importan country of the region. Also, its creation, memory is central to the fears of Pakistani establishment. Pakistan cannot be at peace with itself until it recognises that it wronged the Bengalis. At the same time, Bangladesh has to be cognizant that Pakistan is not the same as 1971 – its has changed and evolved with generations oblivious of the past acrimony. Having said that, it does not have a direct role in ending Indo-Pak rivalry. The elites of India and Pakistan need to realise that they have been unfair to the people and in waging their power struggles have impoverished the subcontinent. Public opinion is important here but it is also hostage to elite manipulation.

The Star: Where do you see India and Pakistan in next 50 years? Do you believe that the things are going to change for the better?

Raza Rumi:There is no alternative for things to move in the right direction – of regional economic integration, bilateral trust building. The other option of continued conflict will be inimical and suicidal. I foresee a South Asian Union, a desi version of the European Union model in the decades to come. Hopefully before 50 years when I am most likely to be dead.

The Star: When are you going to write your next book?

Raza Rumi:I am already working on a book on Pakistan’s contemporary political events. Having worked as an active journalist since 2008 there is a story to relate. Let’s hope I finish it soon!




(Abdullah Khan is a Delhi (India) based writer and literary critic. He can be reached at abdullah71@gmail.com)

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Review of Siddharth Gigoo's Book

The human angle

Siddhartha Gigoo’s latest book highlights the mundane struggles of common men and women trapped in a vortex of political upheavals
The human angle
A few years ago, in one of his interviews, Siddhartha Gigoo said, “my interest is only human stories. Stories about people, their dreams, their loves, their perfections and imperfections.” And true to his words his writings as well as films always emphasise on the human angle of a story.
His debut novel The Garden of Solitude is a story of a Kashmiri Pandit in exile who flees his homeland to escape a bloody political conflict. At the same time, it is a human story of lost dreams and the author doesn’t, even for a moment, allow his prose to lose contact with the human angle of the story.
His latest book A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories continues in the same spirit of humanity as he tells the stories of men and women who have either been displaced from their homeland or are prisoners of a vicious circle of violent political movements. Poignancy, the author’s belief in the dictum that every single human being is basically good at heart, and a refusal to categorise or give political colour to a human tragedy are hallmarks of Siddhartha Gigoo’s writings.
The Search, the opening story, is about a researcher who comes across many strange incidents during his research and discovers disturbing secrets about a dying clan. The story is somewhat allegorical in content and is dedicated to the people across the world who have been forcibly evicted from the land of their birth due to socio-political reasons.
Another story Poison, Nectar depicts the difficulties of a routine life of a Kashmiri Pandit family in a refugee camp. An old man, exiled from his native place, dies without proper treatment in a tiny tattered tent which is not enough for two persons but has been housing a family of four grown-ups. A heart wrenching story Sleep Robbers is set in Kashmir (author doesn’t name the place but you can guess) where a boy mourns the death of his friend named Firdaus. He observes that this untimely death has shattered his friend’s parents, but in order to save their own lives from the state agencies his friend’s father disowns his own dead son branding him a disgrace to their family.
There are more such stories where the author’s main concerns are to tell the stories of mundane struggles of common men and women who are trapped in a vortex of political upheavals. Most of the stories bring into play the sense of desolation, loneliness, suffering and pain. But there is one story that is poignant and makes you smile with an unexpected climax. An old man’s sons’ insistence that their father should go on a pilgrimage makes the old embark on a journey to visit religious places. But before leaving his home what the old man does leaves his sons and daughters-in-law flabbergasted.
It is the funniest story of the lot giving respite to readers amid the sea of gloom and despair. The story raises many questions regarding the changing chemistry of our social structure in the South Asian countries. The idea of privacy has infected people so much that they consider their own family, like parents, as an intrusive presence in their lives. Titled The Pilgrimage, this particular story reminds this reviewer of famous Hindi writer Amrit Lal Nagar’s collection of short stories called Ek Dil Hazar Afsane which has many stories with deliciously surprising and fulfilling endings.A FISTFUL OF EARTH
Siddhartha’s stories are basically about Kashmir and its people though he avoids mentioning it explicitly. It delineates the alchemy of political violence and its impact on human societies and human condition. Violence and counter-violence spare nobody. Everybody, including the active participants in the bloody game of the conflicts and those on the peripheries, has to pay some price at some point of time. For the author any loss is loss to the humanity. In his stories sufferings and deaths are not divided into ‘theirs’ or ‘ours’. And that is why he has not named characters or places in many of his stories and almost prevents readers to read his stories by using glasses fitted with political prisms and personal prejudices.
The way he deploys his language is sumptuous and fragrant with metaphors and similes. The narrative flows effortlessly and smoothly. There are two minor complaints about this collection. One, some of the stories end abruptly and, two, some are too abstract to be understood in one or two readings.
A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories
Author: Siddhartha Gigoo
Pages: 244
Publisher: Rupa 
Publications India
Price: INR195