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.]
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