Wednesday 18 November 2015

What does one write about, this morning?

The auspicious Chhath sun has just risen. It’s sneaking into my drawing room, making itself comfortable on the sofa, touching the console’s marble and tapping its fingertips on the dried flower arrangement sitting in the corner. The birds have woken up too, to the sound of firecrackers going off in a nearby park, where a make-shift pool has been built for the blessed dip. Through the light mist that is typical of early winters in Delhi, I can hear chirpy school children crossing my window to go from the Press Colony to the main road bus stand; kicking pebbles, playing spit, pulling out leaves or swinging their oiled plaits. Some, of course, are dragging their feet and lagging behind. Sleep-lagged, perhaps, or with nothing new to look forward to in the day except for broken desks, torn books, dirty dark blue uniforms and truant teachers. They don’t even want to take their hands out of the pockets to wipe their noses … 

Another celebratory firecracker goes off in a distance, making the thin layer of holiday dust at Buddha's feet quiver with ecstasy. The Sun is being blessed with our prayers today. Or is it the other way around? It does seem a different shade of orange but that could be my imagination!

I have folded my legs on to the dining chair, tucking in the toes which are the first to feel the nip, and am looking around at a very still house. It seems to be resting, taking a breather and breathing in leftover lingering fragrances of cologne and baby talc, Bournvita and toasted bread, and half a tin of Cherry Blossom on each Bata shoe. Breathing in like me. The two hours of madness that every working morning means have melted into a quiet which usually spreads gracefully into every known and unknown corner of my house. And mind. Usually. 

Except, the bachelor neighbor is cooking his lunch and hitting the steel ladle on the thick kadhai with gusto. I’ve heard he’s taken to cycling early mornings. Separated by two backyards, can’t really sniff to tell what’s cooking out there. An infant is incessantly crying in the flat above his. This curly-haired boy has a very nasal daadi and I will hear her voice any second now, asking him Chhonu, kya hua, Chhonu? His parents must have left for work by now. But her house is not empty. 

My mind is empty but for one nagging wife - What does one write about, when there is nothing to write about?

I should probably finish the last two slices of apple on the black-and-white Melamine plate before me. That might help as I wait for answers. Or something, anything. They get brown with time, those slices, thanks to the iron. I will eat them soon, after forking the triangular banana corners which he’s lovingly left for me and certainly before the box of Khasta Rewri trying to seduce me with its gur glamour right next to the healthy plate. My uncle said they are from the best shop in Doon. One bite and I knew he wasn’t lying. I am so sure my dining chair can feel the weighty difference post Diwali. My belt most definitely can. Is it making a creaking, stretching, leathery sound? One can’t tell when the silence within the home is so loud. 

The firecrackers have stopped, though, and the birds are finally singing louder.  The fridge is going drrrrr-grrrr. The keyboard click-click. The brooming bhaiya is at it in the back lane, making piles of leaves where he should be, ideally, picking them. They still use wheelbarrows which must be extinct in many countries! Suddenly one day smoke will drift into my kitchen window. Yes, that’s when I know he has stealthily set fire to the small piles. I’ll have to switch on the noisy exhaust fan then. Oh, you missed hearing the doorbell ring when the newspaper guy came to collect his 250 a moment ago. Or the conversation which was all about safeguarding our respective ten-ners. It remains the same, you know, month after month, and I am not the one who gives in, mostly. I like change in my wallet. It’s good, nay great, for times when you are short of time…  

It’s funny to feel so free that you can hear the clock tick, when there is much work waiting to be done. Is this a kind of freedom? To just remain in one place, gently erasing from the mind’s eye all deadlines marked in red? Must be plain laziness, really, or shirking of duties, or mithai-induced lethargy. Blame it on the sugar, though I shrug to say I don’t know. One knows so little, sometimes.

What does one write about, when there is nothing to write about? Hm. I guess one just writes, you know, no matter how pointless the piece. 

Consciously Created Pointlessness... is quite freeing. I’ll have a khasta rewri now. And probably put my feet back on the ground, to get up and get set and get going. 


Thursday 29 October 2015

The Poet in Vikram Seth's 'Summer Requiem'

It is that time of the year when brown leaves carpet morning walks, making us ponder on the fragility of life. Longer nights mean more time with one’s self and dark hours of contemplation in the undisturbed company of memory. Autumn is upon us and we sit surrounded by its moods. Vikram Seth’s poetry collection ‘Summer Requiem’ is not just a seasonally suitable book to read but one which makes the reader find herself somewhere within its folds of poetic musing, watching the orange dusk. Because ‘sombre thoughts become this hour, Hour of red copper, rust, dark iron’ (from ‘Summer Requiem’). 

The overarching idea in Vikram Seth’s poetry is that of transience – of seasons, of love in relationships and of life itself. We see the poet, at home or in the world, looking around at shifting scenes and poring within with thoughts of change, and even death. Observation and contemplation unite to create vivid visuals which add profundity even to the usual. And the poet? A man whose streams of thought, whether flowing backwards in time or surging ahead, seem poignantly lonely in a crowd. However, the low notes of remembrance of things gone by are in peaceful symphony with those positive ones reflective of acceptance of this very impermanence around; a flux which impresses itself upon the poet’s mind as he bids adieu to summer. 


Outside the great world’s gifts and harms
There must be somewhere I can go
To rest within a lover’s arms,
At ease with the impending snow. 
(From ‘Late Light’)

In the poem ‘Summer Requiem’, the poet knows that ‘I must forsake attachment.’ We wonder why. We see the world around him gradually turning leaden from rust, bringing ‘everything to a close’. It’s a closure to the day or to the season. And it seems the poet too has reached a finale in his life. He’s looking to be detached because ‘where the lock of longing was opened, There there will be a perpetual wound.’ 

A love lost, or one never found? 
I love you more than I can say.
Try as I do, it hasn’t gone away.
I hoped it would once, and I hope so still.
Someday, I’m sure, it will.
No glimpse, no news, no name will stir me then.
But when? But when?
(From ‘What’s in it?’)

A lover lost it is, then. Though not the love. How so? 

Caged’ describes the torment of the poet feeling ‘dispossessed’ with the partner while being still in love. A relationship bitter and ‘bent on staggering on’ with a perpetual question in the estranged poet’s head – ‘Why could this not wait till our love could die?’ Togetherness is not equal to happiness, and a string of communication lies snapped in ‘A Winter Room’ too. Reminds the reader of modern, urban relationships.

It is this that makes you sense the poet’s loneliness even in moments of richly described solitude.

My friends have left, and I can see
No one, and no one will appear.
This must be happiness, to be
Sitting alone with birds and beer.
(From ‘Evening Scene from my Table’)

The ‘must be’ in the third line marks a tentative insistence on being happy. He seems unsure if he prefers the company of solitude, even though this theme is recurrent. Is that why many poems contain references to muses, friends, lovers and memories, ‘gathered and scattered’? And, is that why there is a turning to Nature, a calming company to his musing soul, though reminding him continuously of his waning life? 


Vikram Seth is not a Romantic poet. While his sense of ‘I’ is remarkably real, divinity is not what he sees when he views trees and beaches, birds and sunsets. However, faint strokes of similarity can be seen between the poet’s and William Wordsworth’s relationship with nature. They both drew solace in its lap; learnt to value it when they were away from it. And as a result of this reminiscing, they both learnt to appreciate the role of memory. 

When, sniveling on my grieving knees,
I’d feed the College tortoise peas,
The torpid glutton, on the whole,
Poured balm on my afflicted soul.
(From ‘Fellows’ Garden’)

Just what a beautifully visual ‘One Morning’ reveals how ‘as I breathed the callous air, I lost the drift of my despair.’ ‘Red Rock’ describes that beach’s scene, the waves and toddlers and ‘Three dolphins ballet in the din, In bottle-nosed felicity.’ The poet wishes it would always be like this. But it cannot be this warm forever, can it? 

‘Next year I’ll freeze, though God knows where.
In Shimla, fingernumbed and scowling,
In New York on a chilblained street,
In London with the North wind howling
Or vile Vienna in the sleet.
Yet I’ll be warm wherever I go
If Red Rock burns beneath the snow.’

And that is the role of memory in ‘Summer Requiem’. It is ‘a poison’ that reminds the poet of the absences yet at the same time it makes him remember warmer, joyful times. Both triggered by Nature and calmed by it too. It is this theme that lends the book lush visuals, giving its readers ‘The sense of privilege’ that the poet himself felt in ‘Suzhou Canal on a June Night’.

Nature does another thing, as summer bids adieu. It becomes a personification of the poet’s own being. Of a man believing he stands in his twilight, already. These collected poems thus become a continuous, and rather personal, contemplation of life and death.

Ageing … and beyond

There is a heavy note that lines the poet’s voice (say in the poem ‘Summer Requiem’) born out of a realization that ‘everything learnt has been trivial’. There is a coming to terms with the truth of life, that ‘Perpetual replacement is the only song of the world’. Of waking up one morning to see how …

My joints have rusted and my brain is lead.
I drank too much last night …
My love has gone. What do I have instead? –
Hot-water bottle, God and teddy bear.
I find I simply cannot get out of bed.’
(From ‘Can’t’)

As summer makes way for autumn, ‘The Yellow Leaves’ glint, making the poet wonder ‘What is this heaviness that won’t unclench my heart, My work by day, my spirit nightly?’. Life is ‘this ungiving game that waits till it or I am finished.’ The mood is somber, and death a constant unnamed refrain.

‘Alone, I wander where I choose,
And soon there will not be a me to lose.’
(From ‘Which Way?’)

The pathetic fallacy of watching summer turn to bitterness in his own being is unmistakable.

But a sense of hope twinkles …

In the ‘Summer Requiem’, you cannot separate the art from the artist. The poet is a part of his surroundings, almost one with them with his moods and memories. Like one organic whole.

Bright darkness is my comfort,
Dark daylight is my friend
And even I can’t reckon
Where I subsist or end.
(From ‘Bright Darkness’)

While there is a proclivity to harp on loss and disintegration, the reader cannot see the poet as separate from his landscape – and cannot see him dead and gone. Because that would mean the world collapsing too. Perhaps, the poet knows that. He wants to be. His memories of the summers gone fill his eyes, make faces appear, make him confess ‘To the Moon’ how ‘it gives me pleasure to remember and to count the stages of my sorrow.’ The voices in his head whisper in ‘Late at Night’ how ‘Live you must, for we must too, And we have no home but you.’ And he wants to house them. Resolves with ‘I must’ are oft repeated in his poems, even if it is that ‘I simply must get out of bed, And press that reset button in my head’ (from ‘Can’t’).

Shakespeare knew ‘The Readiness is all’. In the poet’s mind this idea resides, with the wish to ‘sleep dreamlessly’. This acceptance of change, of life’s flux by the poet adds serenity to his thoughts, even if a feeling of pure contentment seems to evade him, as yet. That there is a world beyond this empty one is what he wants to believe. And love in that world is what he is hopeful about. Death, then, is but one stop in the full circle of life. But till then, like in the ‘Parrots at Sunset’, he does 'give uncertain thanks, For the one world I’ll get.’ This book can thus be seen as Vikram Seth’s attempt to simply ‘turn the hourglass to re-sieve its sands, a fragile monument half-built by hands.’ 

A letting go and yet holding on…but not a swan song. No.

Somewhere in the valleys of interpretation that ‘Summer Requiem’ creates we find the poet wandering, and us readers wondering alongside. Thus luring us into shared intimacy with his mind, Vikram Seth in his latest collection of poetry traverses moods with soulful ease and unreels panoramas of landscapes – of change in both the outside world and the labyrinths within. While each poem stands apart from the other (and not just in rhyme scheme) one can choose to view them as a continuous contemplation of life and its vagaries, connecting birds with stars and themes with dreams as one reads on. 

Timeless poetry that you can turn to, again and again, to see something anew every time you do. 

'Summer Requiem' by Vikram Seth is published by Aleph Book Company, 2015.

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

Tuesday 13 October 2015

The very peculiar ‘Escape from Baghdad!’ by Saad Z. Hossain

The classic Reader’s Digest story ‘Stowaway’, about a teenager’s miraculous escape from Cuba in the wheel of a DC-8, was also called ‘Escape from Cuba’. Saad Z. Hossain’s ‘Escape from Baghdad!’ took me back many years, to Jorge’s disillusionment with Cuba because ‘the system takes away your freedom—forever,’ to the girl from California who said ‘You are a hero, but not very wise’ and to the narrator confessing ‘Even knowing the risks I would try to escape again, if I had to.’ By an absurdist twist of fate, with a mind tunneled on existentialist philosophy, these phrases come alive for Saad’s bizarre debut novel.

The story unfolds in Gazaliya, with the blood of the Iraq War on every door and guns going off in every street. Dagr, a former university professor, and Kinza, a thug, are trying to escape undead to find the bunker of gold (‘maybe it’s filled with 72 virgins too’) in return for smuggling out safely their captive, Captain Hamid, the star torturer of Saddam Hussein. Private Hoffman, a corrupt US Marine, is helping them. But as Baghdad turns to bloody dust, they find themselves in the eye of a chaotic plot, twisting with unexpected turns. Every informant, including an Old Man who has lived for centuries, is looking for these ‘three petty thieves’ who chance upon a Druze watch which is ‘doing something’. Teeming with finely etched characters who add to this cauldron of terror, death, comedy and insanity, the reader, like the main characters, finds it impossible to escape this peculiar world.

A very peculiar world, actually…

Like mtabbag simach, an Iraqi fish delicacy, each layer of the plot pushes us into another till we are left wondering on unsteady ground – Can Hoffman indeed be so stupid? Is Mother Davala a witch? Kevlar? A boy cut into 17 pieces and alive? What flew out of the urns? The Lion ‘has been fighting this war for a millenium’? Did this scene of action in the ‘witch house’ actually occur or is the character imagining it? What all are we imagining?! Oh dear, Plausibility has been hit with a grenade! 

And the very next moment, the real story amidst the madcap events crawls upon us like poisonous smoke. The poignancy of Dagr’s loss of family and of a past erased forever, the Shi’a or Sunni or Coalition issues, the imam being Al Qaeda, ‘stolid Iraqi soldiers debating whether to shoot or salute’ civilians, interrogation torture methods tested on mentally ill, bumbling American soldiers in their Humvees … the reality of the invasion of Baghdad has a conspicuous presence. So …

‘It was not certain who was who anymore, which camp, which informant, how many dead in each family, and by whose hand.

We oscillate between the possible and the impossible at the speed of a machine gun, through scenes as visual as would make you feel you’re watching a movie in 3D! Because fantasy, mythology, mystery, history, satire and parody are expertly brought together in this novel. This is done not just for entertainingly hooking the reader, at which the book soars anyway! For discerning eyes, and this is why I loved Saad’s work, ‘Escape from Baghdad!’ becomes a spectacular literary member of war literature which marries the Post-War nihilism of Existentialism with the uncomfortable laughter of Black Comedy to create a landscape which delights and depresses, both. 

The quiet notes of Existentialism

Existentialism, simply put, says the world is meaningless. After all, see how “unfair” it is – war, disease, death, catastrophe! Anything can happen to anyone, and it takes a tragedy to drive in the reality of this meaninglessness. It confuses man with this absurdity. There is despair, a hopelessness which comes when one’s identity is broken down. (The crisis, as we call it.) But then, the philosophy also says there is anyway no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it. And so each individual, not society or religion, is responsible for giving meaning to his life, by living it passionately. Thus, the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals, conscious beings and not labels, albeit loose in a universe empty of real meaning. No one can escape this. 

Escape from Baghdad!’ is rich with this philosophy, reminding us of Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. ‘Someone had taken a gigantic brush of whitewash to their past’ and so the characters in Gazaliya are ‘stuck in a piece of circular fate’ now, ‘Cut off. Unmoored…flounder purposeless’, despairing …

No happy endings for us I suppose.’
‘Look around. No happy endings for anyone. Not for a long time. Not ever again, perhaps.’
‘What makes us go on like this, I wonder?’ Dagr said. ‘Day after day this whole damned mess.

The truth of the New Baghdad was that ‘freedom had a price, as the Americans loved saying’ and everyone, including The Lion, ‘seemed to want to escape, to retain a sense of purpose’. But then comes this conversation between Dagr, Hamid and Kinza…

And how do we get out?’
‘We don’t worry about that, Hamid’
‘We don’t worry’, Dagr said, ‘because we won’t come out’.

There was a reason they were stuck in this perpetual cycle of escalation’, confused ‘whether they were coming or going’. All of them know there is no use ‘to an unending life when one is forced to run and hide and fight continuously for every breath of air’, but every character in the book is fighting for that breath, and in doing that giving meaning to an otherwise hopeless life falling apart around them. Dagr and the Druze show that angst:

Reality isn’t there anymore. What do I have left?’, Dagr said.
‘You have no hope then?’
‘Hope? Not that kind…What’s the point of running now?

In the final scene of action, Hamid speaks:

The normal controls of society are gone, and then you realize that you don’t have to take their shit anymore.’
‘Whose shit don’t you have to take anymore?
Everyone’s shit. Your teachers, your boss, your banker, the bill collector, the cop, the army. It’s all gone now. No more parents. We’re free.

Free of social baggage and labels each character, no matter how minor, becomes an existentialist individual. Despairing, yet forcing meaning into his or her life. There is no Godot to wait for here, where life is like a toothpick on the road and to keep alive the point. All everyone seems to be following is their dream, simple yet as unreachable as ‘the old dream of the alchemists…

Does this insistence on living constitute their freedom then, their real “escape” from Fate and rising above it, like Sisyphus? Saad Hossain, by adding that telling exclamation mark in the title, is ordering his characters to keep on trying to escape. Except, where to?

The loud laughter of Black Comedy

It’s a war. We kill you. You kill us.  Who cares? The important thing is to have a sense of humour about it. When we were bombing the Kurds, do you think they were crying like babies?’

Saad Hossain does not give you the privilege to ponder on the philosophical alone. He makes his story provoke discomfort too, through Parody and Satire, enough to make you want to ask him like Xervish, the scared boy ‘How can you joke about this?’ And he does that by making light of dreadful subjects – of war, terror, violence and death. The opening lines of the book see Kinza saying for Hamid, ‘We should kill him, but nothing too orthodox’. The tone has been set! 

Death is so commonplace, so usual, that ‘the neighbourhood had suddenly realized that they had been bombed and were going through the usual reactions: disbelief, anger, exhibitionist wailing.’ There is an easy-going attitude towards killing and a mockery of death, even as the characters try their best to survive. While suffering is not trivialized, ‘colossal stupidity of plans’ of attack, comic armours, mock-epic scenes of combat and larger-than-life episodes of heroism mark the narration, making the characters seem like actors fittingly in a Theatre of the Absurd. 

You think logic operates anywhere in this entire fucking circus?’ Private Hoffman’s questions near the dangerous climax, while hatching a plan which ‘involved rope, a belt, scotch tape, nails, a Swiss army knife – a plan of such genius that it could not help but succeed through sheer chutzpah alone.’ We know the answer by now.

A not-so-flattering portrayal of the American presence in I-Raq adds to the humour, leaving even the 600-years-old Mother Davala ‘bereft of speech’. In the book, ‘Saddam is dead. We are ruled by American sheikhs now.’ Of course, Saad shows us the consequences of war on their psychologies too. But, showrooms are being ‘mistakenly raided’ as bomb factories and subsequently being looted, nursing homes are being converted into triages, dim-witted, doped soldiers are at high-level duties showing-off by giving a higher body-count, and ‘uncouth Americans’ are at every corner in the road. The American hunt for WMDs continues in a world where ‘weaponized laundry detergent’ is a plausible object to their phobic brains! Says Sabeen, a crucial character in the second half of the book:  

What kind of person makes up ridiculous lies about a random country, invades it, destroys all its civil institutions, brands all its citizen terrorists, causes a civil war, and then pretends everything is alright?’.

Perhaps, therein lies Saad’s subtle political comment, albeit tip-toeing, for does he not say in this book itself that ‘in passing judgement, in executing that judgement, you become tainted yourself’? 

‘Stranger things have happened …’

…in the real Iraq of our world map, perhaps. 

Escape from Baghdad!’ is an exhilarating depiction of what those things could be. As if they were the Djinns of Solomon, Saad Hossian has commanded various literary elements to create a landscape of ‘eerie darkness’, to show ‘the depths to which the world was deeply fucked up beyond the patina of normality that coated most lives.’ You finally put down this book, feeling a numbness – from all the laughter it generates and from a realization that it is our own gravely terrifying reality we are laughing at.

An outstanding book for all kinds of readers! 

'Escape from Baghdad!' by Saad Z. Hossain is published by Aleph Book Company, 2015

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

Friday 9 October 2015

Softest for Baby Skin

Ask new parents what humankind’s best ever invention is, and chances are they’ll say diapers. It’s not surprising at all. You know why!

Babies are aware of one birthright the moment they enter our lives, which is – Thou art free to do as you please. And they use their freedom to the lees, yes ma’am they do! They crawl under tables, toddle over sofas, climb book shelves, enter cupboards, jump in laps, snooze on carpets and surprise you with their sprinting skills when you least expect them to. They like to feel free. And they like to say hello to the world around them as they go about feeling free. We can’t take away this freedom to learn from them. Can we? No.

What we can do is put good diaper sentinels around their toddling bums, bums which wait for no bathroom etiquette before … doing their jobs. What we also need to ensure is that they be of the very best quality. A soft, dry diaper helps the baby sleep well, and play well too – both essential to their development.

Pampers, in keeping with its 50 year old tradition of caring for our babies, has recently launched the all new Pampers Premium Care Pants. These have been designed by experts such that the babies won’t even notice them! The product promises 5 star skin protection. Here’s how:

- Soft materials and fabrics specially chosen keeping in mind the delicate bottoms of our babies.

- All-around waistband and soft cuffs, which makes the diaper fit snugly and minimize leaks.

- Upto 12 hours of dryness.

- A drop of baby lotion can be used to protect your baby’s skin.

- Wetness indicator, which turns yellow to blue, telling us when the diaper needs a change.

Just like babies and toddlers are getting smarter by the day, their diapers need to keep up with the times too. That is why Pampers Premium Care Pants, #softestforbabyskin, are here!

[This is a product review.]

Monday 5 October 2015


I’m going to go meet my sister since I’m in Gurgaon. She stays close by, on Sohna Road’, I told a gathering of friends over lunch.

Sister? But you said you have a brother?’ asked a doubting Thomas.

Oh, my cousin’, said I with a smile.

So say cousin, na. Not sister!’ he was quick to correct.

But we grew up together, in the same house, so the concept of ‘real’ … but the conversation had moved on. The thought, however, remained stuck. 


Most of us trying to grow up since the 80s have lots of cousins. That’s because at that time children did not wait for office promotions or ‘right ages’ to come. They just came, like a logical next step to a formally organized marriage and a year or so of couple time, at best! Single children were as uncommon as a house without a carrom board, and ‘hum do humaarey do’ as common as evening cricket in the lanes. Kid 2 happened right after Kid 1, riding on the wave of left-over nappies, or after the mother had regained her breath and sanity and combed her hair. Economy of time, money and getting done with bodily expectations for the woman remained the drivers for “completing” a family. With romance and drama in it the movie reel went from I’m ready, set, go, boom, aaaa, push, out (times 2). Pack-up!  

As a result of all that mathematically proven conception and delivering, happening in all our extended homes, we in our 30s have a vast network of cousins. If we compare the spoils with how many our parents had, we don’t have the same numbers. So let us not. But, if we compare with how things will be, with the single-kid wave spreading like a chalky patch of hopscotch in rain, we know Cousins, as a role and relationship, will slowly fade away. 

And so will the Superpowers that cousins have had ever since the Big Bang. 

Back then, when the bones were young …

… we did lots together! If you grow up in a joint family, like I did, you’re far above the rest of humanity in the Republic of Fun. Top class, really! But it is not the only way to know what cousins are made of, of course.  Cousins, lived with or met over summer vacations after a day’s train journey with our mothers, were precious wherever they were. Distance no bar! Age no bar! 

An older cousin was a window to our own futures, setting standards for a younger, aspirational demography of children in at least a couple of houses of the family. From getting princesses in Mario Brothers to ones in school; from acting guides on how to pluck mangoes to being buffers against bullies in the lane, older cousins were relied on with wide eyes and mouths agape. Idolising one such was as easy as the swish of hands pulling out a sling from the back pocket, or a billet doux. Looking up was especially easy if your relationship status with the ‘real’ brother or sister was … ahem … complicated, making you wish your parents never got a second ‘from the dustbin’ after they got you from a ‘pretty nurse in the hospital’! 

Older ones put in place standards – of smartness, sportiness, suaveness, sensibility, sense and maths scores, sigh. They did the hard work of setting benchmarks, and the younger ones like me simply had to try to reach them. No marks for guessing the parental dialogue we heard-unheard if we did not. Let’s not go there! 

On the other hand, a younger cousin, with kachhi mitti in all games, was exactly that. Soft clay in the hands of those who had lived slightly longer, and an inspiration for the older ones to act wiser than their milk teeth could ever allow. For all we know, those emulating hands and feet forced them to cut the wisdom teeth in time. In the complete food chain of all cousins put together! A sister who first taught you how to plait your hair may have grown into a confidant to discuss your period pain. A brother who let you in on his school bunking secret did so, so as to sneak you along to the cinemas. Another told you how bees do it because she had a chapter in the biology book. An army of cousins who made your goriest battles their own, and only in exchange for WWF trump cards (everyone wanted The Undertaker, and to see his face).  

Yes. Our cousins were a cross between best friends and siblings, and they were great at being both; like those double-sided tattoos Boomer gum came wrapped in, or audio cassettes where both Side A and Side B were equally exciting! They oscillated from becoming kith to being kin, helped us grow up or grow down, and most importantly left us feeling a part of a big happy family, because they were family.  No matter how infrequently we met them.
Now, when the hearts are getting weaker …

…families have undergone a change. We’re not just smaller, we’re also living lives within our own addresses. And our cousins are scattered all over the world. That proximity when we batted not an eye lid to share a bed with three others (tallest near the feet, please!) can no longer be achieved, not even at their weddings or our children’s first birthdays. We’re still close but we’re living apart and our lives are very different from those days when the same jean-pant passed down three pairs of legs, or the same Tobu cycle changed its moulded plastic seat for three toddlers in a row. 

Does that mean we are islands drifting away from who we thought were our ‘real sisters’ and ‘real brothers’? Was what nourished us and shaped us as children and teenagers that impermanent? No. It has to be about scarcity of time and a busy life. Has to be. You can’t make invisible the little bits of our cousins that we have inside each one of us, no matter how you have found your I-for-Individuality in the maddening urban crowd. Nope, you can’t.

As I sit and type this, I realize how there is a very important secret superpower we cousins can tap in each other. The power to keep holding hands even when factions of families feud - over property or businesses or marriages or mere gossip - things that adulthood in our parents often comes furrowed with. What if we kids-of-yore stand up to our respective parents to say ‘You and your brother don’t get along. But my brother and I still do.’ Do you think this insistence to look beyond the temporary ‘now’ will help bind extended families with glue better than the translucent grey one we used to make birthday cards with, popping brushes into a shared blue-and-black bottle?

Isn’t it worth it to ground ourselves in happier memories of climbing trees and playing pitthoo than letting grown-ups fight like the kids we never were, not permanently at least? Isn’t it worth using that superpower, the power of choosing to be brothers and sisters despite all odds and above all else? Totally worth it, then, not growing up enough to let differences seep in. And especially now, at a time when cousins are an endangered species. Endangered, because the family tree is tapering and one day this role and relationship will … 

Fade into nothing? 

No. Not in my lifetime.

Thursday 24 September 2015

Panther by Chhimi Tenduf-La

Chhimi Tenduf-La, in the Author’s Note to ‘Panther’, clarifies that the Sri Lanka of his latest novel is highly invented. He says that in reality the students are disciplined, the educational standards are good, the people are peace-loving and most importantly his depiction of war in this otherwise culturally rich country totally ‘fictitious’. He insists that ‘there are some bad people in this book. Very bad. This is fiction.’ We can’t question him. But we can ask ourselves… 

Why then has he placed his characters in Sri Lanka, in a book where cricket and childhood are so disturbingly married to war and terrorist training camps that every time you stand at ease while reading, you are straightened into attention on the next page? Yes, Chhimi lives there and he knows the country. He could simply be appropriating the surroundings to suit his novel’s needs. Fair enough! However, a reader anywhere in the world too is well aware of Sri Lanka’s context - its politics and history and cricket – and certainly enough to not swallow this novel’s world as pure fiction. Is this ‘apologia’ then aimed at escaping censure? Or, is this a clever way of shrouding in fiction a reality which news coverage of wars has yet to show us? He’s got us thinking even before we’ve begun reading! 

Panther’ is the story of a Tamil boy who is ‘of the name Prabhu and I love cricket, athletics, reading books, and listen for the music. Thank a lots for your greet me.’ He survives a war, accepts his family is dead, and continues to ‘bat like God’. He gets accepted into an elite international school on a cricket scholarship. Except, this is only conditional freedom, for he has to perform well. (Else, he goes back to a dangerous life.) Incredible Indika, handsome, hunky and Sinhalese becomes this Prabhu’s ‘brother’, introducing him to a world of girls and arrack and starry hotels - so far removed from Prabhu’s origins that apart from surviving the Supreme Leader of his camp, Prabhu is now to survive the duality of his life too. 

The novel takes you into thick jungles where, when you hear a twig snap it ‘could be animal. Could be man. Likely, if man, to be man with gun’ and also shows you plush homes of those not pushed into training to be martyrs. An unknown first-person narrator makes an appearance every few chapters, watching as if from the skies. Prabhu’s Amma? Sister? God? Can’t say who. Not even when the novel, after a breath-taking spiral, reaches its final end.

Some aspects make ‘Panther’ a strong narrative on wars, any war anywhere in the world, where there are children living through it even long after it is over. It is these which make this book much more powerful than the blurb attempts to reveal.  

War and childhood 

You have memories that are locked. Memories that come out when you are pushed.
Memories no kid should have.
It’s not your fault.’

Throughout the book you will find a depiction of young days of gay abandon; days of early adulthood when snogging a girl or finishing a bottle of arrack were the only surest signs of manhood, for instance. Throughout the book you will also find the most dreadful scenes of pain and blood, flies and slush, abuse and violence too.

Prabhu and Indika’s friendship over cricket is at the heart of the novel, even though one plays to win and the other to survive. In good times, it lends the book a relationship so real you will remember your own times. Prabhu’s wild-eyed idolization of Indika makes him see a ‘protector’ in him. Indika, in turn, finds a tail who would do anything for him. Times test them. Prabhu is ‘younger than you, he’s had no coaching, he’s poor, but he’s taking over your life’ – of cricket and girls, and Indika is upset to hear that. On the other hand, Prabhu has gradually faced racism at his hands, ‘you look down to me thinking I am stupid, because I do not know so much the ways of behave in a city.’ Their friendship has to weather many storms, including those which follow a war.

You wish they did not merge to become one never-ending scar, but war and childhood do. ‘Panther’ is a heart-wrenching portrayal of this deadly union. War ends with its ‘cold call asking Tamils to serve the community’; uses fathers and mothers, converting waffle-makers into army spies and children into traumatized orphans, sitting in a camp where you ‘sweat till your muddy t-shirt is drenched, but still your teeth chatter. You shiver. It’s fear, it’s sadness, it’s anger. You’re helpless.’ And then some boy is ‘in the jungle. A friggin’ jungle cat. Cradling an AK-47. No sweat on your palms. Combat…But …you remember this is no game. No walk in the park. And you want to call out for Tarzan, for Appa, for Amma, for Akka, but…’ War converts. Kills children and makes killers of those who survive.

The aftermath of War sneaks into the city, and Prabhu is blacker than the Sinhalese, he is made to realize. ‘Sledging is wasted on Prabhu. He’d heard worse’ but there is no one to trust, and that betrayal is what breaks his child-heart. We want to shake Prabhu away from the ‘mission’ that he prepares for. Save him from sodomy. Give him his childhood back, ‘the way it should be’. Because Chhimi creates a character who we want to protect like our own child.  Till Prabhu is made to grow up as if in one moment:

Every time he had been chased before he had been caught or saved by someone else. Not this time. 
This was his.

What does war do to children? It plays havoc with their lives, forcing them into roles, messing with their relationships, scaring away their sanity and snatching away their identities, for life. 

Identity – Tamil, Panther, Cricketer, Black Boy?

Are you a vandal?
No, I’m a Tamil.

Prabhu is oblivious of his facelessness, till he has to face it. Prabhu’s identity is forever being created and broken apart. It all depends on where he is…

Hit the bloody thing or no dinner.
You’re hungry. Starving. Famished. So you pivot on your heel and hook the next ball.’

Prabhu bats like no one else in his camp because he has to. He sees a ball to hit and hits it. Even imagines they ‘are Sinhalese testicles’ because he is being asked to. He’s an urban Tamil Panther first, and cricketer later. 

His cricketing prowess makes Coach Silva welcome him ‘like one of us’. Like a Tamil. The school wants him to play international, after all! Prabhu is now cricketer first, Tamil later.  But only till he bats like God. Otherwise – 

That’s what you Tamils in Colombo want. Be a part of us then make us lose. Make us smile. Make us cry. Make us look foolish to the outside world. We’ll never give you your own bloody land, so you want to contaminate ours.

Prabhu is Tamil; the red of the cricket ball on his hands forever being mistaken for blood. It is this identity that decides everything in a post-war Sri Lanka. And that is what makes ‘Panther’ a socio-politically relevant book. It cannot change for Prabhu, even if his combat uniform changes for the school cricket team’s. ‘His mission … to survive’ is true for both his “training camps”. Prabhu realizes it too and the level of racist rudeness Chhimi gives some of the characters in the book is enraging. Finally, he is forced to long for ‘my home, home. Where I am same as others.’ But does it matter to Prabhu, this Tamil identity, more than, say, his friendship with Indika? Does it to Indika? In the answer to this question lies the beauty of this otherwise saddening book. Therein also lies the bit about childhood that no war can steal.


Chhimi’s book becomes an important literary text in its rejection of proper sentence construction, and not just in Prabhu’s mouth. The whole book uses a lot of fragmented or one-worded sentences to portray innocence, to make a shocking impact, to endear us to a character, to register a point or to simply leave the reader thinking. Language has also been shown to carry international linguistic influences and naming of people and schools is a loaded activity. 

If I were to see his manuscript as a word document, I would see red all over. Chhimi has rebelled against rules of language, consciously, and devised his own rules. In a good way! ‘Panther’ is not a normal story with normal characters you meet every day. Chhimi needed a new way of speaking, altogether, to question wars and politics and racism and the telling of history itself. Even if Chhimi protests, his book is a statement, and one which aligns the voice in it against the atrocities of war. More often than not, it is a child’s voice, with each character speaking in his or her own style and in their own thoughts. That helps make Prabhu ‘much more better’ than most young adults walking in contemporary fiction.

The end was the only disappointing feature of this book, for me. Did Chhimi need to give his poignant story and powerful story-telling a shocking twist, like the ones short-stories hunger after? Or is this his way of saying that some wars never end?  That history is nothing but a past stuck in a present continuous tense? Read, and tell me what you think.  

I would call ‘Panther’ a coming-of-age story, except that I realize what we witness in Prabhu’s life is but a fraction of what he must have survived. And also how his relationship with his best (and only?) Sinhalese friend, Indika, evolves is not known beyond the shocking last line. Even when we see ‘a six-foot-two Sinhalese hugging a five-foot-one Tamil’, we know the image is short-lived. Because Chhimi’s ‘Panther’ is not just a story about beginnings and endings. It is about children growing up and childhoods lived in war-torn countries in a continuum. Except, there are no lullabies in this deeply moving story which could be someone’s reality.

No one can see this as purely ‘fictitious’. No one can say the trauma of war is beyond Chhimi’s understanding. A must-read!

'Panther' by Chhimi Tenduf-La is a Harper publication, 2015

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

Monday 7 September 2015

Will you have a drink? (And BlogAdda’s #WIN15 awards)

It was a usual Friday night. God had been thanked for the lauki-roti on the table, watching late-night TV called Disney Jr. was underway and our morning’s fight was still continuing. Silently, for he had called from office to say sorry but I was yet to make up my mind - to forgive, or to milk it over the weekend till good Chinese food entered my tract? Difficult decisions. Tough life.

Will you have a drink?

I didn’t answer. Why should I? But I am kind.

You go ahead. I don’t feel like it.

And then I got busy with things we do to look busy when we want to appear disinterested, even though our ears stand upright waiting for a placating offer we cannot refuse. Obviously more than one which just has 60 ml vodka in soda with lime juice, and three ice cubes in it!

I removed invisible food scraps from the table cloth, took ten minutes longer to set the chairs back, another fifteen staring at my toes, that is after loudly sighing and plopping on a dining chair with Atlas’s domestic burden on my shoulders. Toes done, I leaned back to stare at an errant cobweb peeping from behind the fridge now. I was desperate to hear something, other than his unimaginative shuffling feet, till I went delirious thinking I could hear the spider's footsteps entering the jaali behind the Whirlpool monster. So quiet this Friday night.

Time ticked by. The silence of a wife not talking was deafening to his ears. I am sure. The kid couldn’t care less. Captain Hook had just stolen Jake’s gold doubloons and the suspense on his pretty island was thrilling and unrolling to a peppy tune.

Let us please have a drink?

Tch. Still there. No progressive ache din here. Hello, time warp. Good to be stuck in you!

I said I don’t want to.

And I picked up my phone looking intelligent and thoughtful and philosophical because that is the look you give as you scroll down Facebook pictures and more pictures of strangers you like to call friends. And then I saw … a friend asking for votes to be a finalist in BlogAdda’s WIN15 Awards!

Oh teri! The shortlists are out! I said to the spider behind the fridge, because it was the only one I was talking to.

The shuffling feet had hurriedly come to stand behind me, with teeming curiosity, or perhaps just happy I was feeling my Punjabi self again, in words if not deeds, for I was still refusing the peg. (It was a day of wonders.)

Shivering timbers! 

No, that wasn’t me. It was the kid on the bed, shaking his tiny cot at that exact moment. Momentarily, I had looked away from the loading awards page. When I looked back my eyes popped through my pink spectacles.


That was me, full frontal me, not the feet. (Feet take longer to speak.) I had spotted my name among 11 other finalists. My blog had been shortlisted by BlogAdda. In the Creative Writing category. I can write creatively. I am in the running for winning this. I can win. I can win. 

You can win this, honey!

Finally he and I were on the same wavelength. Phew!

Oh darn. I need votes.


I have to ask for them.

Ask. What goes?

I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.

Yeah. Ask your best friends, family, everyone. They’ll vote. You’re good. 

I know! But, votes?

Yes, votes. Your blog is public. Readers’ views matter. I will share your link.

YOU will share my link?


Can I have a drink?


A drink! A drink! Usual wali. Why do you look surprised?

(Please note that it was not that I had forgiven him. But, greater frontiers beckoned and I had re-scheduled my faux annoyance to be published on Saturday morning, 7 am. I am practical, that way.)

There was not much left to do, except to swallow, remember Hanuman ji, and make a list of who I had been naughty or nice with, and ask the latter to support my candidature in the ongoing elections. Last date for voting– 13th Sept.

It was about 9:30 pm on a Friday night. I chanted TGIF, thrice, and composed a message which did not show the begging bowl bluntly but carried enough overtones of supplication as would make the recipient feel a patron of great value with the orb of an Elizabethan King in his hands, or an executioner’s axe.

Meanwhile, Jake and the Neverland Pirates had made way for Sam Sandwich, teaching kids good eating habits.

Cheers. Oh! Can you change the channel? I don’t want him learning that too much cheese is bad.

Obviously he did as he was told. Our marriage on this Friday night was still on shaky grounds.

Parental duty done, I started sending the vote-for-me messages. One, two, three, twenty-three … selecting those I was close to, avoiding burdening mutual blogger friends with unnecessary existential crisis. Thirty-three, forty-two …

Of course I was feeling odd. Never done it before only. But what to do? The Romans had spoken, and I had to parade in a toga with a smile on my face, to earn my laurel wreath. It requires courage, if you ask me. It was a night to remember. I felt like a cross between a politician, a best friend, a fund-raising NGO worker and a cow, rolled into one.

Can I help with anything, honey?

Yes, please. Can I have another drink?

Tick. Tick. Gulp. Tick. I realized I was fast running out of those I was close to, so I did the next best thing that vodka suggested – messaged the ones I felt close to. So what if the other person did not feel the same for me? felt for them. It’s good to love. My heart grew tender wings, it soared with love and vote-hope and pressed 'send' and dunked the vodka with equal speed.

Jake had long left. Sam Sandwich and even Mickey Mouse were asleep. My son was dangling between sleepiness and wakefulness with Hotwheels cars all over his tummy and Mister shuffling feet was standing behind me, no longer shuffling and with his right hand on my right shoulder. Was this chance pey dance? Did he think he was forgiven, totally?

It is then that I reached that number of messages sent that my arrested mathematical development had never allowed me to spell, even though it was double-digits. On top of that, FB wanted to know if I wasn’t a spamming robot and asked me to differentiate pictures of dogs from cats, in a photo grid. I passed with flying colours in the third go. Because the day’s tiredness (no, not the 60 ml + 60 ml) was taking its toll. Also, I had called a school teacher ‘mama’ instead of ‘maam’ and … err, some more errors you needn’t know about.

It was time to call it a day.

A day’s worth of hay had been made. I had to make more tomorrow. Had to. I had tasted blood!

That's my story from Friday night last. Today is a new evening. (Is it Sunday?) I take this opportunity to say this to all my readers. I have always felt very close to you, probably more than you can imagine or see in this lifetime. So, please, would you be so kind as to vote for me? Click on the 'You can write, creatively' below and just FB like below the blog image.

I have nothing to offer in return for you supporting ‘Between Write and Wrong’. No cash, no movie award tickets, no free grains, no LED TVs. But I can offer you one thing, which I have just been asked on this Sunday night –

Will you have a drink?

Some things are not meant to change.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Unresolved by Shobha Nihalani

Thrillers have been filling up Indian book shelves for some seasons now. And even though certain publishing houses are rumored to have removed the ‘Welcome’ sign for this genre’s manuscripts, there are enough people daring to write them for a hungry audience. I say daring because they must not be easy to write. To successfully generate ‘thrill’ in a person already bombarded with multiple stimuli (from movies and social media to three-lined terribly tiny tales of horror) must require hard work of a different kind. An intelligent and involving kind. With these thoughts I began reading Shobha Nihalani’s psychological thriller ‘Unresolved’.

When we first meet Maya, the protagonist, she is a seemingly content newly-married woman, finding her bearings in a new house with a husband she assures herself she loves. Deepak tells her that he is a police-officer involved in covert missions, but shrouds all curious questions of hers in insistent silence. She is to continue his wife, serving food and washing his blood-stained shirts. Curiosity, however, gets the better of Maya. Curiosity and … paranoia? Once, ‘what swam deep under dark waters was not her concern.’ But now she cannot help but make it her concern, moving from suspicion to confirmation that Deepak is not who he claims to be. Secret chambers and swanky gadgets, busy airports and psychiatric wards, accidental killers and mysterious calls, rape and ‘popping pills like candy’ make the story steam-roll to the climactic scene, and then there are gunshots!

Was Maya right about her husband, after all? ‘The more she screamed inside her head, the more she moved towards the conclusion that she really had gone nuts.’ Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t. My lips about this or anything more about the story are sealed!

About the other aspects of this novel … 

Shobha Nihalani calls ‘Unresolved’ a ‘psychological thriller’. Rightly so! The author has done an excellent job of doing justice to the form of novel she has written, by being true to the aspects which make it a psychological thriller. There is drama; domestic, disturbing and deadly. There are murders; mysterious, accidental and mindless. And there is action; from inside whispering cupboards to loud bustling bazaars. 

But my favourite out of all of them is the theme of psychological horror that Shobha has used as a skeleton for the book.

That “Dissolving Sense of Reality”

It was an odd feeling, as if she were dangling from a rope at a great height, upside down. And someone else had control over that rope and would ultimately decide when it was going to get cut.’

When you begin reading the book, you are alone with Maya and her thoughts and in her thoughts there’s always someone ‘watching and listening’. Actually, her self-talk is like a character in the book! Yet, she escapes you. Because she is a woman battling her own mind; working hard to determine real from imagined. Never far from her fears, however well-founded, is the thought that she has suffered mental breakdown once and she shouldn’t trust the voices in her head. ‘Maya suspected something, but she didn’t know what.’ Maya doesn’t believe in herself. Who are we to believe, then? Deepak’s job could just be what he calls it. And Maya could just as well be paying for skipping her pills … with a fast dissolving sense of reality.

Shobha cleverly keeps the unravelling of the mystery at bay, making her readers stand on slippery ground for a while. Even when one card is revealed, there are plenty to keep the hands of suspense ticking. A psychotic wife who is ‘slowly unravelling’ and a secretive husband. Suspicions are forever alive and we’re not allowed the privilege of ‘knowing’ anything that easily, or for too long. Maya doubts everyone. Deepak doubts Maya. And we doubt along. Curiously thrilling start! 

The characterization in the book is spot-on, and in keeping with the theme of the book. Deepak, Maya’s husband, has been created so well I could not only imagine every facial expression of his, but I could also feel him getting under my skin, breathing down my neck yet simultaneously lovingly whispering to me to not snoop around. There is something so bleak about their marriage that you want to wake Maya up to the reality of the psychological horror he is making her undergo, and which escalates to gargantuan proportions and deaths as the book proceeds. 

Unstable emotional states and the psychological horror they suffer within or wreak on others. That’s what you find in ‘Unresolved’, fitting to the t the genre of psychological thriller and adding high doses of suspense to a story which later spirals into an action-packed (but unresolved) closure. 

A complete package for lovers of this genre, if you ask me.

There’s something about Maya …

… which makes her a unique creation. 

Initially, she goes about her wifely duties silently, trying not to overstep how Deepak liked things at home to be. Yet, he senses an ‘odd nosiness about her, like she was silently monitoring his movements.’ She has a voice, for she insists that she ‘wants a relationship’ with Deepak, full of trust. And she does have guts, to hide in closets and hear hushed whispers or scratch phone numbers on compact boxes. What she also has is an acute sense of observation, and those details add strength and suspense to the plot. Most importantly, you find yourself empathizing with her when in her mental turmoil she struggles to find confidence in her own suspicions. Shobha has explored and laid bare this character’s psychology that well!

We feel bad, until the second half of the book begins, and ‘like thick gooey black tar, a sense of resentment was slowly enveloping her insides.’ That’s when we stop feeling sorry. Maya has been forced to experience deaths and is slowly metamorphosing. She has gone ‘to the crazy depths of emotion, and returned’ to take charge - not just of how she wants events to unfold but also of her own mind, her heartbeat, her voice, her tone, her sweat and her future. Maya comes into her own, ‘squashing panic to the pit of her stomach’, the moment she walks out of the mental care facility for the second time! And this time, she plots against the perpetrators. For ‘like a snake she had shed her skin, the one that was thin and sensitive.’ She wills herself to hope. 

And Deepak? ‘He saw it all, but he didn’t see what she could see.’ Could not see how Maya empowers herself with the same mental disability that hurt the core of her being. That she was ‘always clearing out wayward thoughts so that he didn’t catch any of them’ when they are together. And now the river of psychological horror starts flowing backwards. Same house. Same marriage. Tables turn. Victims change. And guns are pointed in the opposite direction now, till he has to crawl out of a shit hole to survive … 

You’re already hooked and then the book does a neck flip, because Maya makes it jump with her new avatar!

“Nots” and Crosses

There are a few misses about ‘Unresolved’ which warrant mention.

For one, Shobha has a tendency to repeat facts and phrases. For instance, we are told far too many times that Maya’s new neighborhood was much quieter than her previous milieu, question if ‘her mental state affecting her reasoning?’, that Deepak was the 'perfect husband'. Then, skipped words or grammatical slips. You wonder why the editor did not correct the errant ‘went’ to ‘gone’, add some missing articles or convert a few paragraphs of choppy sentences into less-hurried ones. 

I am aware that psychological thrillers ask us to suspend disbelief to a certain extent. It is easy to, but the technique fails when a scene seems borrowed from a movie. Creation of Deepak’s workplace, implausible use of psychiatric shock therapy and the final scene of action border on been-there-done-that, especially because the rest of the book does not. Also, Maya’s father seemed an unrealistic cardboard cutout of men who believe their daughters’ husbands more than their daughters. How Maya acquires a cellphone in the thick of things and why she, a sufferer of mental illness, calls her creepy house-guest ‘psycho’ befuddled me too. 

Nevertheless, Shobha Nihalani’s ‘Unresolved’ has all the ingredients that a good psychological thriller enjoys. The linearity of plot works well to unfold it, gradually, like peeling an onion. Do be warned that while the characters play mind games with each other, Shobha does the same with her readers. The book will make you a suspicious person, and you may get obsessed to read it to the end in one go especially because it is not needlessly convoluted.

What 'Unresolved' will also do is show us, as if from a secret camera, what transpires in abusive marriages inside bedrooms which look lovely from the outside, sitting snug in lush gardens and among blooming flowers. And the solitary darkness in which those with psychological illnesses struggle to survive will leave a lasting impact on you.

The best from Shobha’s pen, yet.  

'Unresolved' by Shobha Nihalani is a Hachette publication, 2015.

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

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Murder with Bengali Characteristics by Shovon Chowdhury

Shovon Chowdhury’s ‘Murder with Bengali Characteristics’ wears a spectacular jacket. In the dark it glows. In the light it reminds you of Mithun da’s hero uniform, but that could be because there’s ‘Bengali’ on the cover and fish all around it. The red could also signify a certain political party, or bloody murder which follows close on political heels, especially if we are to believe what the blurb says about the story. 

This novel, it says, is ‘gripping, wildly inventive and laugh-out-loud funny’. I took this as method in all the madness that ensues. And I will tell you if it is indeed all of that. 

Wildly Inventive’ 

It is the future, many years beyond 2021, and the Chinese have taken over Bengal (You heard that right).

Calcutta had never been nuked, and had kept it that way by inviting in the Chinese. It was ten years since the war. The Indians had rebuilt New New Delhi, but the area where Mumbai used to be was still radioactive.

Now, ‘the black-and-red flag of the Bengal Protectorate has a silhouette of the Poet Rabindranath with his hand on the head of a tiger. It was the only flag in the world featuring a beard’. Bengal has transformed from ‘British to Communist to Chinese, with little bouts of anarchy in between.’ It is now under weepy Governor Wen’s rule, who wants the people to ‘fulfill the Chinese Dream’. India is a bordering half-country and the Competent Authority, its ruler, is busy provoking hostilities with China. There is a rising threat of war… 

In the meantime, Inspector Li is busy solving the mystery of a teacher’s murder, in a village near Calcutta.  Who could have killed Barin Babu? The New Thug Society, religiously determined to free Bengal from Chinese oppression, under Amalendu Lahiri? Resurrected members of the Bengal politburo, who are stalking the land? The CPI (Marxist) leader Bijli Bose? The Maoists in the jungle (still), led by Debu? Also around doing something is Verma, the mining magnate and Agarwal, his assistant. Crazy Wu, the Information Officer working underground, loves chocolates and is helping Li, somewhat, but Propagandist Wang wants Li to stop. 

Law and order remain the missing ingredients in this geo-political soup served in Bengal. But what to do? All fish have been caught in a racket, and so Bengalis are out on the roads! Also in this highly invented milieu drones deliver electric shocks to make tardy sweepers sweep faster. Paper is old-fashioned. Magazines blare and speak. Telepaths are reading brains. Cars fly and have tentacles to attack or defend or cuss. 

What you see is a brand new world in a brave new novel. Change. Everywhere. 

Its sudden onslaught left me confused, till I made some notes to keep track (you, dear reader, may just c.f. to my review. You’re welcome). 

BUT … 

What about Bengali Characteristics. Can they change? 

Of course not! Shovon agrees. 

It was a Calcutta thing. They lived in a world where time had no meaning.

The air in Calcutta is still ‘full of smoke and intellectual banter’. Men like Phoni-babu still carried ‘a deep aversion to work’ and everything is ‘always about politics.’ Agarwal says ‘Bengalis are very excitable, sir. Historically they have caused many disturbances. Traditionally their attitude is poor. Right from Mughal times there are reports which confirm this,’ and the current situation confirms that’s still the case. Calcutta’s walls are still covered in writing. ‘It was how the city spoke. Like its people it was talkative.’ And most importantly, the Bengali love for books still remains the best sign of a ‘very cultured … thinking person.’  

The world created in the novel is so different it will take us sometime to lend it reasonable plausibility, yet there’s much in this Bengali setting that is timeless. What? Why, “Bengaliness”! 

Laugh Out Loud Funny

Shovon Chowdhury is a man of Satire. The proper wala satire and not its puerile versions out to offend. ‘Murder with Bengali Characteristics’ is a superb socio-political commentary which uses wit and LOL humour to draw attention to the follies and vices that define our country’s masters, and us as its people. 

An impractical idealist’, a sincere, hard-working man who cleared his files in time and aimed to teach kids the good changes the world needs, has been murdered. Sad. So sad. But, you are meant to roll with laughter as you read what comedy transpires around this mysterious death. Shovon’s satire is all-encompassing and omni-present, sparing no rods and making you laugh, quite like you are laughing at your own self. Uncomfortable? Yes.

Each character you meet will remind you of a political leader, or a film star, or even a chief minister. You’ll be putting faces to names like Bijli Bose, Junior Khan of Kolkata Light Striders or Pishi who is ‘ebhrywhere!’ and ‘nebhar difited’.  

She was once a tall leader of Bengal, although size-wise she is very small. She is a fighter. She is not scared of anyone, except Maoists…If you require gadar, whatever the opposition, there is no better candidate. Unfortunately she is currently in a mental institution.’

They will seem familiar, these characters, from prime time or trending on #scam, but they remain uniquely created entities in this mad, mad world. After all, we’re way beyond 2021. These guys you are reminded of ought to be dead by now, ought to be, no!? 


Too many familiar bells will ring in your head. 

Clean white dhotis … for goons to hide behind’ are still in fashion. The Public Security Bureau is ‘like Scotland Yard with lathis, and a greater tolerance for paunches.’ Crazy Wu, the information Officer, spent all his time ‘making knowledge disappear’; suppressing reports, comments, paintings, memes, and ‘anything that contained the wrong type of thinking.’ If you hear gunshots in a distance, know ‘it’s just the students’ union. It’s election time … they use country revolvers.’ There is also an A-card, which the government uses to locate anyone any time they want!

Favouritism still abounds. Why else will an umpire of a match the principal of a school is playing turn out to be the principal’s cousin? And thanks to the ‘jiggery-pokery with the admission procedure, nowadays it was all somebody’s nephew and somebody’s grandson’. 

Crime is aplenty, though naturally grows ‘some amount of adjustment between goonda class and police people.’ Organisations which murder have registered offices – ‘how religious people work here. They are a vital component of society. They are protecting the sentiment….their leaders are well respected in society. Chief Ministers have tea with them. Police commissioners hold open then car doors…Some of them become Ministers.’ As for the thugs, ‘they’re upper-class Hindu type. Their work is never finished. Driving backwards always takes more time.’ (Those familiar bells in the head becoming gongs, yet?)

But be as amazed as Crazy Wu to spot ‘Honest men in the Party! Who could imagine such a thing?’ Financial deficits are not improving, but so what! The ‘accuracy at estimating the deficit has improved by over 22 per cent.’ Are these two the only rays of hope in Bengal Protectorate? Write to me if you find more.

Shovon’s imagination has run wild to create this setting, but even then it could not step beyond the contemporary political reality we are surviving. Is he saying then that an unchanging continuum exists, of human vices, mindless violence and utter silliness, the effluents from which will flow right into our not-so-near future? So while we may have automatic maids, and speaking visiting cards, common sense and humanity are hard to manufacture – for VIPs and for the aam admi.

He could be saying that, really.

Lastly, ‘Gripping’? 

Here I give the fancy jacket a re-look after reading the book. I enjoyed the satire and relished the funny moments. I rest impressed, I do. But did the story per se in the book come to me full of suspense, gripping my insides with curiosity enough to follow Inspector Li from one suspect to the next? No. Two reasons:

One, the entries of various characters are so convoluted that if you have read this review carefully you will know by now that I had to make notes – of who is who and doing what and is Big Chen and Sexy Chen  the same person. Perhaps, a key at the beginning of the book would have been good, for us slow ones, who never before imagined a China in Bengal. Totally our fault!

Two, at all points in the novel, tongue-in-cheek satire and mood for fun surpass in prominence the peak points of twists and turns in the narrative. You are enjoying Shovon’s social satire and wit so much you forget that actually this is a novel, which has a story and a thick plot and a victim and a murderer. But, even though you may have a frolicking time while you’re at it, you feel no urgent need to know what happens next!

Everyone’s guilty,’ said Li

Books like ‘Murder with Bengali Characteristics’ are rare. They fool you with the fun and games as if they were written over a plate of hilsa and two smokes. But, they come from acute observation and understanding of ‘things as they stand’.  Shovon’s insight about how deep the pit of dung in which Indian polity drowns is spectacular. Without sounding like a cynic on a prime time news panel, he has told us exactly what stink tomorrow holds for us, and especially if we continue to murder the Barin Mondols of the world.

In the end, one wonders what he thinks. Does he agree with Pishi that ‘Rebholushan! Neshan requires eet!’? Or, bemoans with Governor Wen ‘How is this the City of Joy? Where did all the joy go?’ Or, is he giggling at his writing desk, repeating the jungle guide’s ‘It’s all theatre!’ slowly nodding his head? 

A book for all ‘common pipool’, and also for the ‘bold and visionary, thanks to IAS training’! 

'Murder with Bengali Characteristics' by Shovon Chowdhury is published by Aleph Book Company, 2015

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

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