Friday, 24 April 2015

Book Review – Writing by the Window by Nivedita N


In a publishing world where the latest design technology is at the service of book covers, holding Nivedita N’s ‘Writing by the Window’ is like fresh air from humbler, simpler times. In a lot of ways this cover, especially created for Nivedita by her friends and lying beautiful in understated elegance, is symbolic of her whole collection. Her poetry, like this image, is free from ornate attention-seeking frills. Her poetry is also, like the inception of this cover, a result of her home and her world coming together to inspire her pen. 

Writing by the Window’ is a slim collection of poetry, prose and what she calls ‘phroetry’ – Photo + poetry or photo + prose. An experiment with mixed media, so to say. There is no one, predominant, theme which binds the 33 pieces in the book into a bundle. Neither is there a common message that the poet is trying to bring forth. While there is a logical progression of thought in each piece, keeping the content’s flow smooth, the book evades recognizable patterns of rhythm and meter and aims to keep much use of figure of speech at bay too. In short, Nivedita’s book is trying to stand apart from others in its genre. 

Nivedita is viewing things like we do sitting by a window. You see the outside world while you also see the inside of the home, simultaneously. This becomes her thematic foundation. A lot of her poems delve into the personal domain – of grandparents and relationships, old friends and friend’s mothers. Love, in all its human forms, hence comes through as a theme in many of her poems. Equally prevalent in the book is her voice speaking up for those on the margins; from the unconventionally pretty to the conventionally overlooked. Nivedita also gives political expression to topical goings-on in Andhra Pradesh, rooting her voice in a socio-cultural context.

The very personal 

Why did you swallow the last breath, Grandpa?’ reflects a personally felt intensity, with a picture taken from her ammamma’s album. Nivedita questions her grandfather why he did not trick death; why he left her grandmother longing … 

even today. At times, she unties her hair
and stands in the vacant balcony
under the moonlit sky
and looks up, plays with her hair
And in that moment of time,
She looks so old yet so young.

His Mother’ is another poem I liked, which liltingly marries the idea of infancy to old age, wrinkled fate lines to those ‘very light’ ones on a child’s hands. Growing up and growing old become the two sides of the same coin in a mother-child relationship. And then the final irony of life and death …

‘i carry her on my shoulders to the
burial ground
she is tired, dead.

as a child,
i played monkey on her back,
giggled, chuckled, till she said
“dead tired”.

New is replacing the old, and old is making way for the new. The poems are pregnant with a looking back, ‘To reminisce what we lost when we embarked to gain’. ‘Arjun’, a deeply introspective piece sees her delving within herself in the garb of a man ‘President – Baalshiksha Foundation’, torn between the aspired values of doing something worthwhile and acquired skills that we call professions, asking:

Where do I belong?
Here, where my mind lies? Or
There? Where people are wise?
Where do I belong?
Here, where people want me? Or
There? Where I am supposed to be?

Through musing and reflecting, introspecting and questioning, Nivedita’s personal poems are an attempt to understand and then portray – the minds of those departed, the lives of those left behind, the everyday that is common to all our homes and finally, what it means to love. 

Love

Myriad forms of love find expression. ‘In the Land of Krishna’ sits a widow, head tonsured, famished for pleasures, suffering willingly. And in the poet’s home lives her father, pushing away ritualistic suffering from his just-widowed mother, ‘demanded sensitivity’ for his mother when she lost her “Kanha”. The mother? Blushing like Radha eating jalebis, her husband’s favourite, with the ever-observant poet spying at her from behind a curtain. Beautifully visual piece!

Caged Love’ sees Nivedita asking herself if we wrongly call them love birds. And then as if to quell the question and make love inexplicable ...

‘when the green one died, the other gasped for breath
and then
The one in blue
lost its breath too. How?

There is the typical lingering-longing love waiting at the platforms and taboo love between a Brahmin boy and a Dom girl, both ‘born out of making love’ but shunned for choosing a different other; a love busy ‘Listening to heart’s verses, the Gods silenced the curses.’ Much like in ‘Jogwa’ where the lovers’ worlds are full of ‘potholes’, and their minds with questions - ‘why should I serve the Almighty butchering a life gifted by him?’ Let love flourish beyond man-made walls because ... 

It felt divine
More divine than what we
are forced to do in the name of divinity.

And then, how can there not be love that inspires writing? The cheeky poet has stolen a Telugu dictionary to ‘double the choices’ of words to express herself for a someone special and then 'in the pursuit of finding an apt word to describe you, I found another world for you!’ ; a world? A Telugu book shop, fast becoming obsolete. 

The ‘you’ in so many poems remains a charmingly enigmatic beloved we are told nothing about. While I felt the mythological poems lacking in a power that resurrecting epics can carry, the idea of redefining love in ‘Draupadi and Krishna’ deserves mention. 

Voice for the unconventional 

In the quietest of tones, Nivedita has dedicated a few poems to speak for or about things we force into silence. Over two pages of prose, Nivedita sets about to make a case for Bougainvillae over roses, and thus academically for Writing over Maths and Sciences. The narration celebrates unconventionality – of looks and choices. As does ‘Wild Flower’ which is ‘untamed, raw and unkempt’ and ‘Gattu’, with the freedom of exuberance which comes from rolling in the cesspool,  'and become clean from within.

‘Gabbilam [bat]’ stands by bats, ‘Blamed! Named!’ reminding the reader of socially discriminating attitudes and ‘labelled symbols of disgust’. A symbolically sound poem, ‘Menstrual Cycle of the Pen’, portrays a marriage though a paper and pen, where 

Says the shy pen “No! Not even in the night.”
the pen is too embarrassed to explain.
Upset, the paper rolls itself and sulks;
The pen holds its rib and cries in pain.

But the pen in ‘Stubborn Pen’ is more courageous and the poem a representation of writer’s block. 'Unbound, it refuses to be a puppet’and her pen does not want to write. It says:

Benevolently, I’ve spilled over papers
But now, with my own refill I’ve had a fight
We strike. We do not wish to write!’

Those on the margins of the world are being given a voice. But rebellion is brewing in the poet's own home turf!

Political

Nivedita is observing, sometimes with a contained anger but mostly calmly, what changes in regimes mean, for instance, to the ‘Middle Class Poet’ to whom ‘It matters … if Congress or Telugu Desam rules, for the power cuts are frequent under Congress’ rule’. A beautifully telling poem ‘Hyderabadi Pigeons’ lays bare Nivedita’s mind through the pigeons' eyes. ‘As AP Dies’ about Andhra’s funeral as it stood divided is rife with latent rage this State-personified felt, in its own words in this poem, 

I saw my lawyer come and embrace one and all
and get down to business right away
money was distributed to the pundits
and the calculator moaned
as it was pressed hard
even my relatives mourned, louder now.’

Points I ponder about …

... and there have been some keeping me busy. Hopefully, Nivedita will not ask me as she does the world in a poem – ‘Who allowed the self-appointed editors the freedom to preach?’ Perhaps then I will have to meet her for tea and over ‘Tea(Chai)’ too, 

… … Arguing

Talking

Dirtier the glass, tastier it gets!
Making promises to change the world;
for a while, our own worlds we forget!

Come, let’s together have some tea –
one spoon sugar for me
how sweet would you want it to be?

I enjoyed Nivedita’s poetry for its simplicity (though not for the stray editorial errors that sneaked into a few poems). It attempts to speak like a friend does over tea, to be understood instantly, and to be felt unpretentiously. While complex use of poetic figures of speech was not attempted and thus can’t be admired, the idea behind the writing of each poem shone through, because of how Nivedita chose to express and also because of the photographs and footnotes in parenthesis most poems come coupled with. 

I wonder without answers about this experimentation, though. What effect do these photographs and notes, innocently explaining the origin or inspirations behind the poems, have on the reception of the poem itself? Yes, they do add to the personal intensity of the poetry if we are told whose mother is being spoken about, for instance. But, do they rein the poetic sentiment in from flying to universal levels, by localizing it solidly in the poet’s heart and hearth? Then, could making a glossary of all allusions at the end of the book help the reader run amok in his own imagination and interpretation while reading; something some readers love to do? 

The strong after-taste of 'Writing by the Window' is one of a deeply felt memoir; ‘a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions’ as Wordsworth called poetry. And Nivedita, we can sense, is firmly planted at the window in her house; looking without but mostly looking within room.


'Writing by the Window' by Nivedita N is a Parentheses Phroetry Press publication, 2015

[This review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Book Review – City of Spies by Sorayya Khan




Political novels are not every body’s cup of tea. For me, being acquainted with the history of the country the story is set in is a prerequisite, as is a feeling of “connection” with the peoples around whom the political drama unfolds. While the former can be achieved through text books, really involving the reader in the story of stranger populations is where lies the art of narration and characterisation. Sorayya Khan’s ‘City of Spies’, set in General Zia’s Pakistan and told through the eyes of young Aliya manages to convince you through its deeply perceptive narrator how ‘we are defined by the wars we have lived’.

Aliya has just turned eleven, General Zia and his puritanical edicts have taken over the Pakistan of 1977 and PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is in jail, soon to be hanged. ‘No one mentioned the news, but it didn’t have to be spoken out loud’. It was a time of much political intrigue and turmoil and ‘surprising combination of words like ‘American hostages’, even though ‘they were unquestionably worth more than Pakistanis or anyone else’. A time also when families, like that of Aliya’s, couldn’t escape the ramifications of the ‘back and forth and back and forth that counts for Pakistani politics’. After all, the PM appointed Aliya’s father and the general knew his loyalties! The General and his broken promises were everywhere, including in their very homes. As for God, Islamabad seems to have gone off his radar. The fickleness of peace in Pakistan and the ensuing unpredictability is the political canvas on which Aliya paints her story. 

Her story. A story which is Islamabad’s story but more importantly of the life which ‘made me who I am’. The political and the personal come together in the book. This union is not seamless but along fissures where is born the crisis of identity; a sense of belonging-not belonging to a country, colour and culture. The conflict in Aliya’s ‘half-half’ mind (with a Pakistani father and a Dutch mother) is a constant, reflected in her thoughts. Aliya has been created as a beautifully perceptive, keenly observant and a sensitive girl, lending the novel a unique and charming voice of narration. 

The Personal and the Political, entangled.

I felt the end of something drawing near, not the world or our lives but something equally real. It was coming in hops and skips, half steps even, but like the next BBC newscast, it was definitely coming.

The Constitution is suspended, the national assembly has been dissolved and the governors and chief ministers fired. ‘What will there be instead?’ Aliya wants to know from her father but finds out that ‘What about what I wish for?’ was an irrelevant question from the start. Every time she watches the General on TV, she 'felt personally scolded’. Both within and without, things are changing for the people in Pakistan.

Little Hanif, her help’s son, gave up his love for cricket because the imprisoned PM meant something to him. Now, he only prays for his release. All vacation plans stand altered. Her own sister and brother are to stay in foreign countries, away from their families, away from this military dictatorship. In the meantime, American schoolmates are firing spitballs at locals walking the road; the yellow school bus a microcosm of the larger reality of geo-political hierarchies. Changes are seeping into the ordinary lives of Pakistanis, half-halfs and diplomats alike, and none too small to not be a crime in this child’s eyes. ‘The prime minster was about to die, but Sadiq (the servant) was my biggest worry during those bus rides. What if he were hit by a spitball?’ The personal and the political are married for life.

And there is real crime, aplenty. Like little Hanif being run over by a white Buick with diplomatic immunity and his father losing it, ever so slowly, not even realizing any more that ‘a napkin lay next to a plate, not wrapped around it’. And Aliya thinking how the driver had ‘behaved … the way American governments behaved in the world, doing whatever they wanted, without, for the most part, suffering any consequences’. Her father’s country becomes ‘The Land of the Pure, wrapped in a green and white sari-flag, no midriff or cleavage showing, not a hair out of place ... hardly noticed she’d been violated’.

The mosque defiled, the hostages, the siege of her school, the embassy burning, and a series of events which defined modern Pakistani history are shown to wring out-of-shape so many people’s lives. And minds. Each incident makes an impression upon Aliya’s mind, raising swarms of questions and especially those about who she is, exactly. In her self-talk we see her walk towards growth in order to arrive at answers about her own identity.   

Country, Colour, Culture and Conflict

I was trapped by the contradictions of my life – the brown and white, the Dutch and Pakistani, the English and Urdu, the belonging and not.

Aliya is not just seeking answers to the happenings around her. She is also looking for a whole identity, forced into pieces thanks to Pakistan’s politics infringing upon her private space. The smallest of observations trigger thought processes, like how her father is an invitee at the American Embassy because he is ‘the least Pakistani Pakistani’. 

What was I, anyway? Half Pakistani? Half Dutch? Half Austrian? And did my accent, the generic one American schools cultivated, make me part American, regardless of my protests?

She knows her world will always have two universes, but she decides that learning Urdu may help ‘decide which universe I wanted to be in and when’, albeit secretly.  Because while ‘Being white is nice … Being white is not being half-half. It’s being whole. And knowing it,’ she is not white and is exhausted trying to pass off as one of them. Over the course of the novel, she embraces the difference of culture in her best friend, Lizzy’s, house with great envy only to finally find home in her own skin colour, gradually over the book and fully much later into the story. 

When she breaks her silence to tell her grandfather that she speaks Urdu now, he points out ‘You always did. It’s in your blood’. It is this deep-rooted sense of who one is that is explored in the book. Something that can’t be changed, or erased. Through details which have to be experienced to have been reproduced with such visual clarity, Sorayya opens up this girl’s mind for the readers to see with vividness how conflicted identities work, and not work, even as the road-roller of politics flattens lives forever. 

Ironically, when the American school is burned by Pakistanis, she finds herself no longer ‘half-half, but now I was suddenly Pakistani … I did not feel the triumph of being claimed by a category or of belonging, despite the fact that I had longed my whole life for exactly that.’ Almost as if knowing where you belong comes at a cost. At the cost of relationships with people who may belong to a different category. For this reason, the book does well to lend much tender space to Aliya’s relationships, especially with Lizzy and Sadiq.

Aliya – somewhere between a child and a grown-up girl.

How mature trees had come to exist in such a young city.

I thought of Anne Frank more than a few times while reading Aliya’s account in the ‘City of Spies’. How context and character play I-spy, each one giving dimension to the other. Defining each other. Aliya is at once a child and a grown up girl nearing her teens, at once thinking it odd that a boy wore her hand-me-downs and musing in mature breath how the CD64s and CD62s ‘were at war with each other, Cold War … and their playground seemed to be Islamabad’. In her deepest recesses ‘she finds the phrase ‘passed away’ absolutely inadequate for describing what had happened to Hanif’ and in her most playful times she lusts after goodies at Lizzy’s house. By the time she is finally speaking her mind, stating her sense of right from wrong, seeing how people around her were ‘fundamentally changing’, especially Sadiq in his grief, she was ‘good at keeping secrets’.

If Aliya is my most favourite character created in recent times, her relationship with her servant Sadiq is what left a lasting impression. In a scene towards the end, ‘When the spitball hit my hair, I prayed that Sadiq had been spared,’ says it all.

The power of this book is in the perceptiveness of its narrator; her shifting perceptions, her constant struggle to find answers and when not finding them in the world of adults drawing her own, seldom incorrect, conclusions. Aliya is like a spy in the City of Spies herself, showing us the world as we never get to see it broadcast over the radio or on BBC. 


‘It was critical to make my memories real’

City of Spies’ is a powerful story told well and tied up even better, on a note of goodness and humanity surviving beyond and despite tumultuous periods of history. A lot in the plot rides on coincidences, especially towards the latter part of the book, but then ‘truth is as wide and all-encompassing as you let it be, and there is always more of it.’ What seems like a fascinating 'afsanah' for one is ‘zindagi ki kahaani’ for another. 

This book is Aliya’s truth, full of political upheavals and intrigue erasing boundaries between the home and the world. When you read there lingers a sense of something about to happen, even if it does not. A looming shadow of a general, a storm, a spitball or maybe just shame not because the stranger on the road masturbated looking at Aliya's short dress but because he called her 'Amriki'. You will enjoy the story thickly laid in your neighbourhood, no doubt, but what you will remember is Aliya, the 11-year-old character Sorayya has created.

My story and the story of my country were woven into one’, says Aliya. And the memory of both has been given permanence in this book. 


'City of Spies' by Sorayya Khan is an Aleph Book Company publication, 2015.

[This review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Uncle’s Secret




Once upon a time there lived an Uncle in a double-storied house, with ornate railings and palm trees, in a small colony of New Delhi. It was a colony where the pride of knowing the property’s worth was much more than the breadth of the lane separating the windows of houses. Not once did the residents mind what others saw as congestion. After all, most Jaguars could well slide into the ground floors, uniformly turned into garages with elevators to carry the owners up one floor, or more. Uncle’s old-but-maintained duplex, enjoying a view of the lush-green Jassa Singh Park, was considered prime property. Plus, he had no tenants, like some others. He didn’t need to. This fact had got him a seat in the RWA Executive.  

At the time of this story, Uncle must have been 50, or something. His dusky cheeks, slightly saggy, were usually clean-shaven except on Sunday mornings. On Sunday mornings a grey stubble was allowed to erupt in holiday mood to make merry with the wet henna in his hair, now receding South-ward. The draw strings of the Puma hosiery shorts he slept in dangled in delight till late afternoon, and in places they waited all week to be walked to – garden, gate and even across the lane. It was an exposure they did not get, thanks to Uncle’s realty business where meetings with parties happened so often, so suddenly and in such secret circumstances sometimes that Aunty stopped caring about waiting to eat her meals with him. That she was usually on a gluten-free diet helped. 

He was a proper Punjabi, this Uncle, as was his wife, the parents tucked away in separate places, the two daughters, one son and one dog he bought instantly on learning from a close family friend that it was imported. Overall, it was a happy family. The women in the house had their lives, the boy his, the Uncle his own. But, it was this routine of Uncle’s that had always carried a secret none knew, except Shaggy. 

Yes, he had named the dog Shaggy, the one he bought from his close family friend, and for reasons unknown to him his children hated that word, or its short form. And so they hated the dog. Uncle loved Shaggy though, so much that not a morning would pass without them both going for a walk to Jassa Singh Park, adjacent to the Press Colony (only a patch of which was an open-defecation ground). There Uncle would talk to Shaggy ever since he was a pup, about his secret. 

His secret love for dancing. 

Yes, Uncle lusted after dance. Anywhere. Any kind. Just watching good dancing was not the point. Being in the middle of it, hands and body and all, was what made his heart beat like the clang of drums. In long dialogues with Shaggy, Uncle would tell him how he always wanted to become a dancer but never spoke another word after his father threw a ghara full of water his way to drown the dream forever, in a small village in Punjab. Uncle had taken two days, and downed three glasses of Lassi just before mustering enough courage to whisper his dream to his father. But the Punjabi expletives deafened his passion out.  Like the five rivers in monsoon had flowed Uncle’s tears. Then one day, they just dried up. As did the sound of some names his father called him, in place of a simple 'dancer'.

Shaggy knew the whole story. Shaggy also knew Uncle secretly danced. After all, he and the mirror alone stood witness to this expression of hidden love, every time Uncle’s wife and children were off to live their happy lives in their own cars with their own friends. Oh, those were the times when Uncle felt so alive! He would tune in to FM Radio and without bothering to select the music just let his arms and legs, belly and thighs, feet and toes, fingers and hands follow his heart. He would pant, he would sweat, stop a second to catch his breath or put the stray orange-and-grey strands back from his forehead, but he would not stop till a party was calling his mobile, or the gate guard was calling him because the gardener had spoilt his wife’s rockery, again. He lived to dance. He loved his secret. He loved Shaggy for being his confidante. He loved his wife and children for seeing the sweat and thinking it was cholesterol’s doing. He didn’t even mind that on such days he was asked to not eat the meat-curry. For health issues, that is.  

That is why, when the doorbell rang and he received an invite for a wedding, he was ecstatic. Of course, there would be a DJ called Melodhika with lights and sounds from another planet for him to dance to. But before that and what’s more, he would be dancing in a baraat! It was a distant cousin’s son’s wedding, and following the mare-with-the-groom would be a glittering mob footloose on the road. That special moment of dance, knowing that one is being watched, yet also knowing that one can dance without being noticed, being judged, being mocked by one’s father, freed his soul. 

He still remembered the wedding from last year, when he had danced from Subhash Nagar all the way to Tagore Garden, crossing markets and a temple, a metro station and even two schools. It was a joy he could recollect with such passion as would make his pulse treble. That day on the road, he had lost two shirt buttons, his watch and the shagan lifafa, which his wife believed he used to stock-up his cousin’s Car-o-Bar but only he knew he had rained the currency all over the orchestra and light wallahs. Happiness made him generous. Plus, he could swear he saw appreciation in their eyes for his dancing moves. 

It was a freedom he hungered for. Oh, he could barely wait!

But not all stories that begin ‘Once upon a time’ end with a ‘happily ever after’. This chapter of Uncle’s story does not. On the evening of the wedding it rained. It rained for hours on end, refusing to let up. In the middle of March, the unexpected downpour refused to stop, spoiling everything from the wedding pandal to the wheat crops. At the auspicious hour, the baraat was reduced to a train of one decorated Merc, four SUVs, and three smaller cars humbly following behind. The mandap has been shifted indoors, and the DJ had fled. In umbrellas and over three rounds he tucked his family into one of the cars, and promised to reach Hotel Privilege Punjab the moment the rain stopped. It was a promise he knew he would not keep. 

He didn’t go, at all. 

His wife called once to ask after him, and then told him over a happy din to warm the pulao with dal and have it for dinner. She thought she heard wrong when he asked about the DJ. She hung up after telling him to instruct the gate guard about their expected time of arrival, to lock the main door since she had a key and just go to sleep. They were going to be very late. So, Uncle did as he was told. He gave Shaggy an extra helping of Pedigree biscuits and switched off the lights of the house, one slow click after another. Shaggy knew his master’s heart was broken. Only Shaggy knew why.

As if in a syrup of sadness, Uncle changed into his shorts in slow-motion and looked at himself in the mirror. Was this his father’s doing, colluding with the weather Gods and pouring a ghara of water on his day’s dream for which he waited three whole weeks? He laughed a quiet laugh at the analogy. It was just the simplest of wishes, of dancing freely as if the world didn’t exist, wasn’t it? When fathers and sons all danced together. Yes, they did. It was just that wish...just that, wasn’t it?

In the quiet of the house, the refrigerator chortled to a halt. The tap in the basin seemed loud, suddenly. The rain made the rest of the music, on the ornate railing, the palm trees and the snoring guard’s hut. The furrows on Uncle’s brow eased and he took a deep breath. And before Shaggy knew it, the walls around him became alive with shadows of arms and legs, belly and thighs, feet and toes, fingers and hands following his master’s heart. He had slipped to the bedroom door and curled up there a moment back. 

The only witness to Uncle’s secret.




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