Friday 27 March 2015

Book Review - A Fistful of Earth; and other stories by Siddhartha Gigoo

A Fistful of Earth; and other stories’ by Siddhartha Gigoo is a collection of short stories, they say. The beauty of good literature is that while they are right in their own way, so am I to believe that the 16 stories in this book flow so seamlessly into each other that it is difficult to ascertain when one ended and the other began. Much like listening to people’s tales sitting around a common fire where one man carries the other’s thread forward and a third gives it his own ending, with most of them in the twilight of their lives. Just like how memory works. Or grief survives. 

Siddhartha’s work is about characters pregnant with remembering and reminiscing, and hence reviving and resurrecting bits of their histories which their memories preserve. We’re being painted a picture of a shared history which was violent, yes, but more importantly which displaced and dispossessed whole communities and changed their idea of identity in an exodus. Now, there are ample references which will clearly connect this book to Siddhartha’s Kashmir (of walnuts and large earrings, of sharp noses and weeping willows, of training camps and estranged youth, of two religions and conversions) but that is just one of the points, if a point at all. Siddhartha’s lyrical and oft philosophical stories take the politics of marginalization and monarchical authorities and the ensuing narrative of homelessness, grief and death to a universal level of global memory. You could be reading about Kashmir’s bleeding heart here, but you could well be remembering the many Partitions always under way somewhere in the world, never to be left behind in the ‘tunnel of forgetfulness’. 

Just like for the young doctor in the story ‘A Fistful of Earth’, it became important for Siddhartha to ‘delve into the very essence of their (his characters’) existence in order to understand the nature of their ailments’.  The ailment? His characters are imprisoned in the inevitability of their circumstances; just like humanity everywhere. It is for this reason that this Indian literary book will find echoes in many lands ‘ravaged by political upheaval and war’.

Let me tell you what made ‘A Fistful of Earth’ an unforgettable read for me. 

Pain of Dispossession - Problematics of Identity

First, it was the dormitory in the temple, then the barn, then the tent, then the hovel, now this flat which is ours.

Siddhartha’s characters are proverbially ‘The Banished People of the Nowhere Kingdom’, the name a researcher studying a near-extinct clan gives his treatise in the first piece, ‘The Search’. Through the stories one comes across camp dwellers, new owners of flats, men in uniforms, sons in cities, migrants, mad old men in villages, ailing men in tents, tending women everywhere and lonely writers. Mostly, the characters have not been given names by their author, as if they are all a continuum of consciousness beyond creed - displaced from their homes, dispossessed of their sense of belonging and politically shoved into a space where identity is always at crisis between the past and the present, between old age and youth. Each story is either an incident in their lives or reflective of their whole lives lived. What rings true in most of them? The idea of what dispossession does to not just people but also to their memories, leaving them not entirely bereft of hope for a better future but still in a state of suspended animation. 

Life for most of them is wondering, like the two prisoners in ‘End of Time’, if the ambient peace means – ‘We may have been pardoned. Or is it that we have been left out by mistake?’ The younger generation is being reminded that ‘you don’t know what pain is’ by an older one which is increasingly losing the will to live. Or simply not knowing how to, because ‘I detest this borrowed life of mine.’ Parents and their children from ‘the valley’ are often shown living differently because while the former have memories alone to keep them company (good or bad) their children still have jobs, cars, lives in big cities. What does invade both generations is this conflict, expressed in a surreal scene in ‘The Debt’ – 

His own identity evaded him…Nothing of him remained which he recognized any more. His name, his voice, his thoughts, his memory, his shadow, his identity and his heartbeats had become alien.

It is a homelessness passed down generations, almost, because of forces which marched into their ‘paradise’, or took birth there, and changed it forever. Passed down in the form of memory. 

Memory - History

Memory is such a burden … (but) the torment of forgetfulness is beyond my endurance.

So is this the only role of memory in these stories, to pass down the umbilical cord a painful baggage? No, it is not as bleak as it sounds. Particularly when it comes to the collective memory of the marginalized, because it is made up of those very images which find no voice in the documents of History and which still need to find space.

Think about it. How apart is memory from history, after all? How important it is for writing the history of the sidelined, the evacuated, the exiled, the executed. It is their memory that Siddhartha frees through his characters and gives voice to. Of a certain section of humanity which was forced to form, live with and hand over ‘longings that pervade within’. They had been asked to keep silent and incidents ‘had been erased from their remembrance. But it summoned itself up’, as if the past does not want to fade and wants to be remembered. And ‘the exile will die with me’, not before that! By using the uncanny and supernatural, Siddhartha gives bodily form to repressed memories through dreams and apparitions in order to make them heard. While some characters want to escape this ‘liminal space between forgetfulness and remembrance’ others give meaning to their meaningless lives through it. 

So, there is a lot of remembering and a lot of forgetting going on in this book. Simultaneously, for the reader, it is an act of being reminded and a request for resurrecting a history that never got written down. It is what Siddhartha is doing, and asking us to do too. 


Exit is not a good option. Besides, who knows if the door exists at all.

For those who are acquainted with Post-modernism and Existentialism, just too many stories will remind you of them and of a post-war devastation. The idea of knowing that life is meaningless yet working hard to give it meaning, or to believe there is meaning. Just like it was the rain in ‘The Umbrella Man’ which ‘defined the umbrella, gave it its purpose, its essence, its meaning’ it is these people’s pain which defines them. Different kinds of pain. Physical and mental. Say the woman in ‘Poison, Nectar’ who kept applying ointment even on ‘sores which were beyond healing’. For some characters who we would call mad it is poignant to repeat ‘Are you dead or alive? Dead and alive are both one.’ 

So long as they are in their cells, there is hope’, and who will not be reminded of ‘Waiting for Godot’? Who will not be reminded of that glimmer of hope that keeps us all waiting, even if endlessly?

Language - The Author the Rebel  

Language has not just been used as a subversive weapon by Siddhartha to show us the human faces of political tragedies. It has been taken to such levels of metaphor and magic realism as would keep the reader wavering, wondering if what they were shown was beauteous, barbaric or plain bizarre. 

Like what Garcia Marquez is known for, Siddhartha has married the real with the mystical with an ease which bespeaks his skill as a writer and lends the book with a lingering, often disturbing, feel. Much is open to interpretation, as happens with any good literary book and the reader is constantly alert to not just intrusions of the other world into the world of his characters but of his own interpretation being reflected upon the written text. Dreams are as real as reality and voices in the head no less real than those of humans actually sitting around. The world that Siddhartha creates is sad, spooky, sombre, savage, surreal, all at the same time. Omens and signs, spirits and folk rituals merge to create a tapestry of meaning that may escape you, yet not let you forget it. And madness, that constant metaphor for alternative realities, is always round the corner.

It is almost as if such wrongs have been committed in these places that other worlds are colluding to help human agency in coping with them, or escaping them. Just like in the story ‘The Coronation’, ‘the rationalists fell silent’, so will they on reading these sixteen stories. 

Like the researcher in the first story, perhaps Siddhartha realized that ‘some traces are indestructible. They are all over the place…the walls narrate the tales’ and sought them. He shows characters coming upon make-belief books, letters, journals, parchments to impress upon his readers the importance of the written word in all its forms. So many stories find their roots in a place called Nagbal; an epicentre of these stories much like the epicentre of an exodus - where stories and memories merge; a dot on a map, tucked away from popular view and opinion but no longer from ours.

Sometimes the temptation to talk about the hard times can be irresistible, especially when one is at peace with oneself.

A Fistful of Earth’ was not written to please. It was written to shake, shock and remind us of parallel universes in our backyards. It will sadden you, for hope is faint though there, by leaving impressionist images of grief in your minds. I cannot recommend this to just any reader, to be honest. The reader looking for pure entertainment might come away midway from the book calling it heavy, too depressing, too dark, too deep, even when it is only partially that because after all it is a text being savagely true to the life it is imitating. 

But I cannot recommend this beautiful piece of literature enough to those who like to be stirred out of their comfort zones, of normal living and happy books, and not just via 'twists in the tale'. It is a book meant to be read and kept safely on a shelf in the memory.

'A Fistful of Earth; and other stories' by Siddhartha Gigoo is a Rupa Publication, 2015.

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

Monday 23 March 2015

A Good Diaper

A diaper would never feature on your ‘Man’s best inventions’ list before you become a parent. But the moment your baby comes wailing out, asking to be tended to without much consideration for day or night, sleep-lagged eyes or breaking back, you will scribble it as Item no. 1 in the life-saving category. Those with kids know I am not kidding. Those on their way to becoming parents will soon know what I mean.

Parenting is learnt in hindsight, or so I think! When my son was born, I made a mistake. I did not introduce diapers till he was about 4 months old. Call it influence of a generation which managed their babies toddling all over their homes sans diapers or lack of research at my own end, I struggled with cloth nappies and strings for much longer than was required. I wanted to keep diaper rash away and in the process I kept many other important things away too; for instance, a good night’s sleep for myself and my baby. But once he started wearing diapers I realized what the both of us were missing in our initial days together. There was no looking back from there!

The features that matter

I used Pampers Baby Dry Pants from S to XL, right till the age when he was wearing just one-a-day, overnight, and soon enough not even that. I had tried other brands (especially when there were discount offers on them, because diapers are not inexpensive) but had veered back to Pampers the moment I realized how some features which were most essential in a good diaper were not ensured in all brands. Let me list them out for you:

1. Most diapers manage to not leak and keep your sofas, carpets and laps dry. But some diapers do let the “goods” out, especially if they are full or the “goods” runny. Now, there is no way of saying when a diaper is really full, so one needs to make sure the brand they pick will stick with them in the heaviest of times. No matter how much treasure has been collected, it should not spill over beyond the treasure chest!

2. It is even more important that the diapers remain dry on the inside. Quite like a goodly apple rotten at the core is a diaper dry on the outside but keeping your baby’s bottom wet on the inside. And then, diaper rash, apart from inexplicable crankiness and needless discomfort in the baby. Imagine walking around dressed in your designer clothes but with a wet pair of shorts inside? And then being asked to sleep soundly in them? Do you think you will wake up feeling happy and ready to seize the world?

3. The diaper should feel like a breeze to the baby, and not a tiny prison cell tightening its grip on his tender thighs and waist just to keep itself anti-leak. Once I saw the red pressure lines that some diapers could form on my baby’s body, I made doubly sure that I switched to a brand which did not clutch the baby too tight. Picking quality over discounts mattered here.

4. Size matters. Make sure you are using a diaper which supports the weight that it promises. Or else, it’ll be leaks and skin tweaks all the way. It could also mean the diaper’s glue giving way in the most unexpected of times, and it slipping out of place when the active baby is busy toddling all over your linen or bouncing in his daddy's lap.

5. Not the most important feature, but yes, cute and colourful doodles on the outside of the diaper do no harm. If anything, they can be used as a distraction to make the baby comply while being put in a diaper or befriend them if fussy about the whole thing.

Here’s a video of the diaper brand that served me and my baby well.

[This is a sponsored product review]

Sunday 22 March 2015

Book Review – The Closet People by Hemanth Deshpande

Let me begin this review of Hemanth Deshpande’s ‘The Closet People’ with a quote from Audre Lorde’s ‘Zami: A New Spelling of my Name’ – 

Once I accepted my position as different from the larger society as well as from any single sub-society – Black or gay – I felt I didn’t have to try so hard. To be accepted. To look femme. To be straight. To look straight. To be proper. To look “nice”. To be liked. To be loved. To be approved. What I didn’t realize was how much harder I had to try merely to stay alive, or rather, to stay human. How much stronger a person I became in that trying.

There is no comparison between Audre’s historic biomythography and Hemanth’s debut novel. What they share is a premise, a theme, the intent to depict a reality that traditional love stories filling the contemporary book shelves do not, and finally to add a voice to the chorus of ‘Gay Pride’. Hemanth’s two male protagonists and their story of finding themselves by embracing forbidden love and growing beyond the stigma of society took me back to ‘Zami’.

This is the story of love between two men, Zoze and Nik – one nearing fifty, the other younger than his own son; one a world-famous algebraist the other an aspiring artist; one who once succumbed to the logical-next-step of marriage and kids the other who will just not. This is also the story of their loved ones, their feelings of rejection and their rejection of the feeling of gay-love as an ‘unnatural’ phase at best and a barbaric birth ‘defect’ at its worst. What is laudable is not just this author’s idea in writing such a book. How he has managed to give expression to the most basic eddies of love and conflict between partners and families is what endeared it to me. All this, without making it feel like activism.

Coming home to love

I was home. I was in Zo’s arms.’

In the initial chapters the reader is gradually introduced to the characters and their proclivities with subtleness and sensitivity. Hemanth, here and throughout the book, aims not to shock or create melodrama. The slow-paced unravelling and freeing of consciences is effortless and done such that Nik and Zo appear before our eyes as flesh-and-blood. This is important; important because we are being asked to understand and get involved in love which is not readily understood, or even accepted. It is an ushering in into their lives and the author did well to not rush it up! 

What was also equally important was to not depict their relationship as ‘a sack of clichéd gimmicks’, borrowed from social media. Zo and Nik’s increasing intimacy and eventual dependence on each other needed to be free from images of popular perception about gays and their cohabitation. How did Hemanth manage that? In telling us this story is he taking out of the closet a story of someone he knows? Just an aside, really, but I do believe the portrayals could not have been made-up out of thin air.

Nik will amaze you with his frankness. His unabashed stalking to unashamed confession that ‘I am interested in the algebraist’ oozes with an I-don’t-care attitude in keeping with his tender age. On the other hand, Zoze’s hesitance to embrace his own history or indecision of ‘I still don’t know what I am doing with you’ is that of a man encumbered with age and responsibility. While Zoze is still walking towards Nik, Nik lands up at his doorstep with his bags! It is a love which is fulfilling and never bordering on the physical alone. Hemanth breaks the carnal myth to show how their relationship left them feeling more creative, younger and at peace with how they claim they were born and which is now their new identity.  How sex is not the point, but companionship is, where even ‘silence’ was pregnant in Zoze’s apartment for ‘I simply loved the uniquely uncomplicated way in which it let the moment evolve’. 

But are the two men looking to define their love or give a name to their relationship? No. And that gives their partnership the freedom of subjectivity that “normal” love is usually not allowed. By the end of the book they no longer need to answer ‘Why are you scared of love?’ because they no longer are. 

And then the world with its book of laws intrudes.

Their other homes 

Parents are a part of our lives’
‘Only a part of our life and not life itself’

If there is an element of predictability that enters the story, it is in the reactions of their families towards their sexual preferences. From Nik’s parents to his ‘girlfriend’, the college principal to 92-year-old Fr. Demello, there is not a single person who is anti-gay for a reason that we have not heard already in ban-homosexuality discourses. Family values to reputation, social standing to career prospects, emotional blackmail to even the idea of sin, no page is left unturned to make Zo and Nik stop the shame. Not even threats of ‘a hundred other ways to fix Zo-like characters’ because ‘going against nature is not natural’. However, while the stigma that same-sex relationships generate in society is something we have heard of before, what imparts ‘The Closet People’ another level of realism is the way Hemanth makes both his protagonists tie-up threads of their past relationships and present roles neatly and rather sensitively; especially so for Nik with his parents and Zo as a parent. 

There is barely any high-octane court drama or hyperbolic twists in the tale. ‘The world colligated us as per their own convenience’ and makes them ‘feel stirred, lost and even guilty’. Nik and Zo’s arguments in favour of their relationship come based on the pure and simple ideas of love, of individuality, of happiness and of living a life sans masks. Plus, ‘I am just homosexual. I am not a criminal … I am not diseased. I just have a different preference’ is not just plain-speak but grass-root honesty. I found Nik’s musing after Reem breaks up with him very telling about how society thinks – 

I was still not sure what had hurt her most; that we had broken up or I was gay or that she had fallen for someone who was gay or the thought of her friends laughing at her “gayish” breakup.

Hemanth decided to write about a contentious issue, but not without giving equal print-space to both sides of the debate. In fact, you realise which "side" of the debate he is on without him waving a flag in your face. 

A thought in my head, ever since ‘Zami

There is this question that nags my head the moment I think about homosexual relationships. Do they too, eventually, become parallels to conventional relationships? Is there a power-dynamic that develops and a rule book quite in line with the marriage one? Is there a convention of commitment they follow within all the unconventionality that gives birth to their relationship in the first place? 

Just like in ‘Zami’, in this book too I found numerous instances which point towards an affirmative answer to the questions above. Zo’s ex-partner had demanded a commitment towards himself when Zo was about to become a dad and Zo had thought it “right” to break-up with him once Nik moved into his life. Nik too reminds Zo that ‘you have some commitment towards me too’ and acknowledges that often he ‘did sound like a possessive woman’. No ‘fancy names’ and no ritualistic seal yet this companionship too comes with its own rules? Just a thought.

The disappointments 

First, the title. ‘The Closet People’ reads as impersonal as the book is personal, and as devoid of emotion as the book is full of it. I wish Hemanth had not tried universalizing these two homosexuals’ lives in the title, no matter how shared their experiences are with gays in other parts of the world. Because, this book is not activist material. For me, the title should have reflected on the unique relationship he has strived hard to create and portray. I would have named this book after Nik and Zo, though I am taking some liberty here. 

Then, the ending of the book. Why, Hemanth? Was that the only way forward, the only way to give permanence to a relationship that shaped so well? The only way to reconcile all the disparate voices? Can some of us read it as defeatist for a cause we share our views on?

And then, the editing. But on that front a high degree of immunity is descending on my mind. I have learnt (rightly or wrongly) to not shut the book at the first editorial mistake. As if I have sub-consciously decided to see the books for what they are and not for what the editors decided to do to them; awry commas and elusive articles included. So many badly edited books around! Why? 

In the end

I will remember this book for using the plainest language to successfully strike a chord in the reader’s mind, and that too about a kind of love most of us understand not. My doubt when I began was whether a straight person will be able to feel gay-love, enough to feel involved in the protagonists’ lives. It was a needless doubt. 

It is almost as if Nik’s challenge to Zo – ‘when are you planning to invent an algebraic equation for love?’ - was met by Hemanth in the form of this book. I laud the premise and the portrayals of characters and conflicts, though not the final closure. Leaving you with a simple truth from Nik – 

I am not a terrorist. I am not a rapist. I have not killed someone, I am not trying to kill myself. I am just trying to be myself. I am in love with a man. I want to be with him. Please don’t criminalize our relationship.

'The Closet People' by Hemanth Deshpande is a Leadstart Publication, 2015

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

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Food Online

I’m not a woman who was made for the kitchen. And no kitchen which can keep me inside, cooking happily daily, has been made yet. So, while appliances like a dough-kneader and roti maker are nothing short of Godsends, a site like is the Culinary God Himself descended from the heaven above!

Foodpanda helps you order food online for free home delivery service in 100+ cities. The site provides you an overview of all the best restaurants and delivery services your city has to offer, with over 4000 restaurants featured. You can order sitting in office, at home, or from the neighbour’s garage where you are escaping a wife who threw the rolling pin at you because you demanded round chapattis. After all, hunger knows no “good time” and strikes just about anywhere. 

To make eating quality time spent, wherever you may be, there’s foodpanda. Let me tell you why it appealed to me: 

1. It’s very easy to order food on foodpanda. Just 4 simple steps – (i) Search, for restaurants that deliver you food. (ii) Choose, your food by browsing hundreds of menus to find the food you fancy. (iii) Pay, either by cash on delivery or use the fast and secure online process. (iv) Enjoy, freshly prepared food delivered at your doorstep. 

2. Cuisine no bar! Whether I crave Fast Food, Punjabi, Japanese, Biryani, or even Bengali, Pasta, Chinese, French, I order what I will because there is a wide range of cuisines to pick from.

3. The best restaurants are listed on Foodpanda. My favourite ones too. So, on days when I don’t feel like driving 15 kilometres to reach them, they reach me by the click of a button – on the computer or through the Foodpanda app. 

4. There’s even a convenient late night delivery service, for times when you ate a late lunch, skipped dinner, and then couldn’t sleep over a rumbling-grumbling tummy. 

5. Discount deals and offers. Who doesn’t love those?

Finally I can do away with the library of take-away menus occupying prime real estate in my kitchen. Do I even need a kitchen? Now that’s a thought! 

[This is a sponsored site review]

Book Review – The Patna Manual of Style by Siddharth Chowdhury

You cannot not read a book whose jacket pronounces such earth-shattering fashion truths as –

Go to any party, in any country, on any moonlit terrace of the world, the best dressed man is the one from Patna.

If you just said ‘Gosh!’ and rolled your eyes, then clearly you are not a vain, upper-class man from Patna but exactly that from some other city. But if you agreed, you’re as defiant an upper-class as Siddharth Chowdhury from Bihar is, in his book ‘The Patna Manual of Style’ and probably otherwise too. While I need no more empirical data to prove this author’s unsentimental observations and social bearings (because the nine interlinked stories in the book have spoken) I still wait with bated breath for someone to give our cuddly Laloo ji the ‘Best Dressed Man of the Evening’ award. Sash and crown, included. 

However, let it not be the ‘affable Harish Trivedi from Allahabad’ doing the honours, mentioned in one of the stories in the book. You see, we go back a long way and specifically to an Indian Literature class in MA, Delhi University, where he caught me “not paying attention” and immediately asked me the difference between an Act and a Scene. Which I knew, of course! I was a good student, that way, just not interested in too much formality of education. Oh! The academic memories of Arts Faculty! 


But what to do. From publishers' Daryaganj to tipplers' CP, Dilli University to gin-drinking arty fraternity, it took Siddharth's stories to walk me backwards to days of rented accommodations, quarter bottles of Old Monk for toasting new and ex flames and Doordarshan’s ‘garaj ke saath chheente’ weather reports. We were students and interns. The century was about to flip. Those were the days. 

And those are the times Siddharth has brought alive in the book, with a penchant for detailing with such vivid strokes as would make you taste the ‘life-affirming fare’ that Delhi’s street food is, especially Patna Large at Yadav ji Litti Centre in Paharganj! Our very own Pragati Maidan and its humble movie hall with ‘twelve-rupee tickets’ was God’s divine grace on days of  a ‘borrowed budget of 150 rupees for the date’. Holi in DU meant ‘thandai laced with Azadpur Mandi bhang and Blue Riband gin and Limca’, a Bihari in DU meant at least four attempts at the Civil Services and a Cottage Emporium sari with ‘big red bindis on their foreheads for target practice’ meant a Prof! Reading that it was no ‘big disgrace’ missing making the first division by 2 per cent in English Literature calmed me and the mention of Prem Studio in Kamala Nagar reminded me of the guy at the counter re-endowing a woman candidate’s election bust and doing God’s own work with his bare hands. (She won!)

Not so Quintessential)

You see all this through the eyes of a handful of characters, who are talking to us in each piece, making the book a series of first person narrations. While each character, by-and-large, has been given a particular style of speaking, you cannot help but see Siddharth as the ventriloquist. Such is his reign over his extremely interesting characters and such the strength (and the weakness, perhaps) of his writing style. Out of all of them, Jishnu da, the ‘importer of blondes’ and screenplay writer of 'fuck movies' with ‘diaspora experience’ is the most memorable; not just because of a lovely twist-to-the-Anna-Kuchma tale but also because he’s ready to ‘do dharam-parivartan and call myself Johnny’ because ‘this janeu is not made of cotton but copper. It is cutting into my skin’. All for love! The proofreader, S.A.M Crown’s, is the most touching story in the book, and the most useful to the central character, Hriday, for it is from Crown that he learnt the ‘nuts and bolts of the publishing business’. Crown’s own story, though, is laden with a room full of books, and loneliness. He ‘would get bold-italic in my happiness’ and so he lost his family ‘because of my sentimentality’.

These two being my best men from the book!


By God Siddharth has made them all talk about Hriday Thakur, ‘the literature junkie, aspiring writer, inveterate lover of women and rain’. Which is to guess, his own reflection in the mirror! Makes me wonder. Is Hriday a photocopy of Siddharth himself, albeit intentionally the quality you get for 25p per side at Patel Chest, DU, where the difference between an ‘r’ and a ‘t’ is entirely left to imagination and smudged carbon? Meaning, are Hriday and Siddharth two different people by the thinnest hair-line fracture barely visible because it’s not there at all? They share a ‘storyteller’s intrinsic hunger for new material’, I have a feeling they both like to ‘sit and stare’ (how else do you breathe life into characters thus), stay unsentimental like a detached observer of life around and most importantly, share pretty much the same published-unpublished writing history. Too many coincidences!

That all the nuggets of “autobiographies” link with each other, often in unexpected ways, makes the reader wonder if indeed these are people who shaped our author’s life. Real people, maybe tweaked a bit, maybe not at all. Like a blend of fact and fiction and Harish Trivedi! What if Siddharth has decided to take cover inside the well-dressed Hriday’s persona in order to enter the characters’ heads to make them speak about themselves, and always about Hriday, and thus in turn about himself? 
Gosh! That is complicated. And vain. And I think it’s true too!

A novelist is many things)

What it is to be an aspiring writer is rendered beautifully in the book. What moving beyond writing ‘Manohar Kahaniyan’ takes, and doesn’t take. How love and money and passion mix like gin and tonic because ‘to keep writing I needed Charulata and to keep Charulata I had to keep writing’. How, often, ‘a line a week’ is progress and a week’s worth of words on paper celebratory. The aspiration to be on Page 3, but for now spreading it on a bench and sitting on it. Not knowing the ‘English equivalent of jootha’ but giving it some thought. And despite everything, pronouncing ‘Still a virgin, sir. Entirely unpublished’ without a drop of inky tears. 

There’s something about writing in each of the stories in the book, and a little bit of a writer in each character that they make you listen to.

Relationships. All kinds.)

As much as a Bihari (located on any sun or moon lit terrace) would want to believe, it is not Patna or its style that forms a common thread between the narrations. Siddharth Chowdhury’s stories are strung together along the theme of relationships – intimate and sensuous and sometimes hard to define. There’s a man craving ‘something permanent’ when he proposes marriage to a woman, after moving into a servant’s quarters just to be close to her. He’s still looking for a steady job, by the way. There’s a dancing girl who is ready to do anything for another dancing girl, at the risk of her own freedom in a foreign country. An ex-flame is reading from her book to the students of a college ‘All the while reading ‘Omkar’ I hoped that he noticed that my hair was long again, the way it was when we first met and used to take those long bus rides on Route 901’. A marriage sees the man confessing how ‘I loved being married. I love its everyday voluptuousness and security’ and his wife wondering a few pages later ‘Is it possible that he has still not got over Charulata Roy?’ 

Some relationships affirm the ‘profound, round the clock love’ while others occupy the by-lanes of nostalgia, faded but not empty of fondness. A handful can be given no name. Only the Scottish proofreader dies a lonely death, but even then ‘six people besides the priest of St James’ Church were present by his graveside’, and one of them was sitting by his death bed the previous night. There is something at once impermanent as there is permanence in the myriad relationships the characters in the book share, including the relationship an aspiring writer forges with writing itself.


The ‘linguist Laloo’ kind of Bihari does not occupy prime position in the book but some references should make one happy. Say how Jishnu da waxes eloquent – ‘Biharis can manage anything. We have infinite patience and our skin is made of stainless steel…we are the most philosophical of Indians …We make for good true friends … a Bihari friend will manage anything for you’. (This was many refills down in Volga, but that’s not relevant here, right?) 

Of course, Siddharth Chowdhury ‘suffers from delusions of grandeur’ enough to know his class and himself as a class apart from Biharis as we know them; in his head-boy coat, talk of Marx and gin-soaked brunches. Call it the ‘enduring vanity of the alpha male’ borrowed from his character or his ‘special power’, Siddharth has managed to both keep himself a part of all the drama yet step aside to view it and narrate it as a distant observer collecting tales. Distant, though not indifferent, and always dry-eyed. In making a greatly personal book, which I think this book is, impersonal lies his art. 

If you are looking for the scent of Patna within the covers here, it’s merely a whiff. The perfume that is stronger is of a city that so many of us from our generation come to occupy, and own like a mistress if not make a wife, Delhi. And it lingers in the air much after you button up the jacket.

A different mix of stories and character sketches.

'The Patna Manual of Style' is published by Aleph Book Company, 2015.

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

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Book Review – The Other End of the Corridor by Sujata Rajpal

Sujata Rajpal’s ‘The Other End of the Corridor’, like some other contemporary works about women in society, is poignant for its portrayal of the central character’s evolution and rife with commentary on abusive marriages, repressive relationships and regressive social norms. Reading Sujata’s book thus became an exercise in seeing its distinctness from the other books in the genre. 

Leela ‘felt like a piece of furniture in the market’ because ‘potential buyers’ were being sought for this 19-year-old to get married to. ‘I was being sold’, says she, and on page 10 itself we realize how Leela views things through a crystal-clear lens. With no love lost for her parents, and especially none for her father, ‘the self-proclaimed emperor of the house’, Leela is married off to a suicidal fraud. None, neither her in-laws nor her own parents, think stopping the cigarette burns and daily beatings make sense. Because, much like what so many still believe, where is a married woman to go if she leaves her husband? Leela realizes soon enough that ‘real life … didn’t have a hint of reel world’, While life continues with ‘the same bruises, same promises, same him, same me’, Sujata shows us how Leela is indeed not the same, gradually changing into the confident alter-ego she day-dreams about, and finally coming into her own.

There is nothing particularly spectacular about the plot or most of the characters of ‘The Other Side of the Corridor’. Sujata has leaned against stereotypes of people almost to a fault. The mother-in-law is a chip of the beaten-to-death block (despite the hard-to-fathom surprise in the end!) and the other characters too seem to be created from set moulds which we have witnessed on myriad media. As the book proceeds from one chapter to the next, the reader is almost prepared for everything to go wrong with Leela’s life, till it does. While we cannot deny each segment its tinge of reality, or the characters their bold shades of grey, the story in itself is not the selling point of this book. 

Having said that, three distinct aspects made ‘The Other Side of the Corridor’ a worthwhile read in the end.  

Showing (in detail) and not just telling

Sujata, through Leela’s eyes, has managed to convey situations and emotions without putting them in so many words. As Leela looks around her middle class life to tell us her story, intricate ambient details merge with her thoughts to create scenes of immense poignancy which echo in the reader's mind. Which show what is on, without telling what is. I don’t know how to exemplify this, but let me try. 

The night Leela’s ‘virginity walked out of the door’, she turns towards her husband the next second to see, ‘his back turned to me, brown checked blanket pulled over him. Only a part of his head was visible.’ The next morning, ‘Vishal’s side of the bed had been straightened…the blanket folded neatly’. There is a hint that all is not well, but we’re still not sure. Neither is Leela, as she ‘hurried to the bathroom and secured the latch on the top as well as the bottom.’ In securing two latches, Leela’s actions spoke out loud.

Leela is created through a string of such images. Her unspoken misgivings on picturing her rich friend ‘Harleen sitting in my middle class apartment’ or how her ‘eyes were glued to the right side of the menu’ without saying why make readers feel they know this woman since a long time. She never needs to tell us what she is thinking yet she can make us hear her simple, conscious voice. It is an access to this central character’s mind that is as intimate as embracing a friend.

Getting to know Leela, and understanding her, becomes a personal process. So personal, that the cardboard cutouts of some other characters stop mattering. Leela is who we are watching and listening to, just like Sujata intended. 

‘How long can one go on folding clothes?’ – Leela’s walk

From the first page itself we see how Leela is simple but no simpleton to not see through the charade of the marriage market. Even though her thoughts are nothing but simmering embers at this point, she has a quiet opinion. She knows that ‘my parents had allowed a complete stranger to sleep with their daughter’. She tows the claustrophobic line like a mute cow, but she is anything but that when she “talks” to us; showing us the seeds of rebellion within. What breaks the cliché of the setting is the ‘distinctive voice’ she makes herself heard in, albeit to only us. For now, and for the most part of the book.

What we also sense is her ambition. Her aspiration for upward mobility in the social rungs of life, the ‘solace in the fact that my marriage had helped me come up to a middle class status’ and ‘big dreams of becoming a Radio Jockey’. Following her parents’ orders stemmed from this very desire to marry better, move into a bigger city and do something worthwhile. To find an answer to ‘What’s my identity’ by first trying to build one in an abusive relationship but then helplessly creating a couple. One free in the online world and another in the company of elite and successful women, feeling carefree listening to their ‘dirty talk’. By smelling their perfumes and absorbing their richness, though painfully aware of how apart their worlds were, Leela finds enough distractions to gradually start enjoying the ‘taste of adventure … glass in my hand … made me feel important’. While nothing is changing within the walls of her marital house, much is inside of her. What she finally finds is courage to hit Vishal back. Because by now she feels desired, elsewhere. By now she says ‘I love you’, to someone else, ‘even if it was a wrong number, the number was mine’.

Throughout we see Leela shuttling between an oppressed adult and a girl with eyes as wide as a teenager who ‘loved the smell of gold’. This makes her flesh-and-blood. Makes her embarrassingly honest. Tells us what pushing young girls into marriage does to their psychology. Leela owns you in her struggles.

But, why does she suffer Vishal? This question nagged me throughout the book.

Is it because ‘an unemployed man in Delhi was better than living in the unloved, glum atmosphere of my parents’ house’ that she drags herself, bruises and all, in a loveless life? Her self-talk is powerful but it barely converts into a permanent stand. She muses – ‘I didn’t know why I always surrendered’. We are glad she is asking that. And nod when she accepts ‘it was ironic that after all the promises I made to myself, like my mother, I too had a mute existence in my marital home’. We agree. We are angry for her and somewhat with her too.

Why doesn’t she change her circumstances, for so long? Why does her prayer for freedom and ‘I longed for Vishal’s death’ come so late in the day, and feeling so sudden? Is this a problem with the plot? Or is this what is called “and then it all snapped, forever”? 

‘I questioned myself. I couldn’t find an answer.’ - that important question...

There are moments of epiphany that make Leela realize how ‘I had lived in a dream world all my life, always blaming the circumstances for my own weaknesses’. So, while she gradually walks the corridor of freedom – from unquestioning dependence and social norms towards what she wants to be, she opens herself to questioning by the reader, by questioning herself thus. She invites us to think when she says ‘call it a compromise, adjustment, or selfishness; I agreed to return to my marital home’ even after Vishal is ready to divorce her for hitting him once. 

You think, sitting in much loved homes - Why do so many women continue battered and worn, used and abused, till circumstances step in to deliver them? Till the glass is brim full? The book doesn’t answer that. Leela knows ‘it was always something I did, or failed to do, something I said or didn’t say’ that is held responsible for how people treat her, yet she also realises ‘It’s a very cruel world. Can a woman live alone?’ 

Sujata does well to give expression to this dilemma and voice to the particularity of it all. As for answers, some are as subjective as the questions are real.


Leela’s story contains threads that you too would have heard of, in real life. Leela’s journey towards freedom wrought with equal amounts of conviction and misgiving might sound familiar. You would understand it. The walk in the ‘The Other End of the Corridor’ is a painfully slow one for Leela, but in the end she finds what she was looking for – her distinct voice, spoken aloud and not just to us.  

Sujata has dedicated this book to all ‘those Leelas, they are suffering, they are suffocating, they are shrieking in infinite silence, waiting for someone to come and free them from the invisible shackles.’ This one being the book about Sujata’s Leela. 

And like I began, there are many such books being written. Each such endeavor to give them space on the part of the writers is special because each carries a unique perspective. Every such book is a voice in itself and a part of a larger chorus. You can’t help but wonder - If so many women have such stories inside them, waiting to be written and read, what does that say about our society? Something to think about.

A sensitive and thought-provoking read.

'The Other End of the Corridor' by Sujata Rajpal is published by Mahaveer Publishers, 2015

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

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