Saturday, May 30, 2015

Night life in small town India - a potpourri by Subhi Jiwani


I judged this Tranquebar edition by its cover. I love it. Ahlawat Ghunjan’s art work brings to light the shades and spaces of night. The subdued glimpses of a water body and of stars suggest twilight in a small town. I presume that it is also his art which forms a prelude to each article.

Each article wraps up with a some neatly presented information about the town-regular or seasonal events like theater, cinema halls, book stores, malls...which also makes this book a handy buy if you're visiting one of those small towns.

While some of the narratives in Subhi Jiwani's anthology on Life After Sundown in Small-Town India make for slow reading, are rather academic in tone, others wax lyrical. A fine blend of information and gossip characterises most of the pieces.

Reading this shortly after Urban Shots: Bright Lights made perfect sense. Fiction about the metros followed by real life accounts of night life in small towns.

Night, in a small town in India, is closed to women. Dogs, booze, pot and power cuts are some of the other elements common to these towns.

My favourites in this collection are The World Came to Town and Dharini Bhaskar's A Country of Words. The focus of the first is the screening of international films in a small town in Kerala. Not only did I get a glimpse of the stories of two Kurosawa films, but was also enchanted by the author’s insight into some of the aspects of life in Kerala-how women fare and how arty farty the Left can get.

Bhasker’s piece is poetic - from descriptions of leaving Delhi on a bus to MacLeod Ganj (“Delhi appears in jump cuts, as fragments, a potholed road, a smokehued building, and always the startandstop of angry rushhour traffic”.), through the eventful journey (“Before me rests a finely woven sheet of mist”.), to the town (“It’s 9 pm, and it is stirring with tales of the night”.). I look forwards to reading more of her writings.

I looked forwards to ‘Monsieur, Keen on Rajnikanth?’, as I lived in Pondicherry long ago. It was a nice read, with a subtle melange of gossip and information.
In Bihari Nights, Amitava Kumar captures the essence of the enterprise straightaway: “The inhabitants of Bettiah are satisfied, especially during summer,if the power supply revives for a few hours every three days.”

We glimpse the reality of Bihar of which we have only heard rumours: the abductions, thefts...The atmosphere of fear, the division of Hindu and Muslim-these things are echoed in some other voices in the anthology. As are films. A film is or was a big event in small towns. And some of these authors also speak of the X-rated films in the noon shows.

However, Amitava devotes a lot of pages to Naipaul. I fully sympathise and empathise with Naipaul bashing but that’s my pet bias. Mr. Kumar juxtaposes what Naipaul saw (and smelled) with the virtues of people he meets in real time, and people he’s told about, particularly touching in an anecdote about the degree of interpersonal trust in  small towns. And he has skillfully balanced this with all his tales of dacoity.

Food is present in most of the writings and Amitava doesn’t linger on it, unlike Akshay Pathak in Escaping Home and Returning. The latter will have any Indian, if not anyone else, drooling with his descriptions of things to eat in Bikaner.

Theater plays a part in some of the stories. Amitava attends a play by Girish Karnad staged in Bihar, a play about caste and caste has a major role in these diverse narratives too-as both the Hindu-Muslim divide and the caste lines are cast in iron in small towns.

But, lest we assume that this anthology is a morose look at evil hilly billies, note that there is frequent reference to change. Mr. Kumar speaks of women cops in Bihar - and that too at night.

I was eager to read Tabish Khair as I’ve added him on FaceBook but must admit that his In The Bigness of Small Towns is a little pedantic. Very enlightening, of course, and I love how he’s woven Kolatkar’s Jejuri into the narration. It’s a most valuable essay. He talks of the literary geography of India and traces the transition of the setting of writings from R. K. Narayan’s times through the Shashi Deshpande era down to Rushdie’s rushing us into the urban milieu.

For some no small reason, Tibetans figure in several of the works. These exiles were homed in many remote locations in India and, though their angst is well represented, we see that many can call India home (according to the Indian Citizenship act, Tibetans born in India between 26 January, 1950 and 1 July, 1987 automatically qualify for citizenship). Mr. Khair mentions them in terms of the “excitement” in the “other” that characterises the small town in contrast to the urban situation where the “other” rubs shoulders with us all the time.

Taran N Khan’s Little Women, Fewer Men is a demure and simpering memoir of life as a girl in Aligarh. It smacks of a school essay but is, nevertheless, charming in its own way.

Following directly after, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s Seeking the Spirit of Night, is also a bit school boyish. However, it’s innocence is alluring as is its informativeness. Shillong, though a popular tourist spot, is one of those parts of India that we Indians don’t know much about.  Mr. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih also tells us about theater in Shillong and  about booze and pot and how women cannot favour night  outside as do the boys and men.

Ms Bhaskar’s A Country of Words and Akshay Pathak’s Escaping Home, and
are, perhaps, the most entertaining of the lot. Very readable. Pathak has dogs, booze (‘child beer’), pot, and the situation of Muslims all covered. His is a delicious piece, not only because of the famous cuisine of Bikaner, but because he writes so well.

Crossing Lines by Zahir Janmohamed is a rich and resonating article. And painful to read. If the other Muslim authors in this collection have chosen to be bland about the truth of life as a Muslim in India, and very understandable that would be, he’s stripped all sham. I salute him. Oh, and there’s plenty of booze in his byeline. He’s crossed a lot of lines.

I’m sorry to say that, apart from Ms. Bhaskar, the other two women writers disappoint. Sumana Roy’s Raat Ki Rani ought to be thrilling as she spends a lot of time with women who smuggle goods across the border on their bodies. It ought at least to make one cringe. It does neither. It almost does nothing. There’s something rather middle class and whiny in her tone.

So, from the fine introduction by Subhi Jiwani to the bios of the writers on the concluding pages, Day's End Stories: Life After Sundown in Small-Town India is a must buy.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Rabbi's Cat, a Graphic Novel by Joann Sfar

Some months back, I saw the animated film of Joann Sfar's graphic story. So, it was a thrill to get my hands on the BD.

This is a story, I can safely tell you, where a very cynical, rather cruel, and very canny cat acquires the gift of speech. This cat happens to belong to a Rabbi. And, with the advent of speech, it proceeds to argue over various aspects of the religion, mostly with its master, but also with his master and so on. The ideas, while set in the framework of Judaism, are applicable to all religions.

Be it the art, where the nature of people, of the cat, is deftly brought out in a raw style or the sophisticated theological debates, the book is well worth reading if you are a fan of the graphic novel or love a touch of dark humour.

The drawings are very evocative and provocative. How you like them will depend on your tastes. One reviewer praises the artwork

as rich and lovely as the story, full of squiggly lines, tapestried walls, cobbled alleyways, opulent costumes and palpably warm lighting 

while, to another, it is 
mangy and unkempt as the cat, with contorted figures and scribbly lines everywhere. 

  On the last page of the BD, we read that this album is homage to all the painters of Algeria in the XXth century.

You can get a clearer picture about the author and the story from this review.

I would hesitate to add more lest I let the cat out of the bag but, if you are into graphic novels, then you should buy The Rabbi's Cat.

A glimpse of the master's art:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India by Urvashi Butalia

     I was drawn to this book because my mother’s family came over to India during the Partition. The title was also significant as I learned very little of what happened, first hand, from my mother. She always told me that she and her sister had been sent off to India long before the bloodshed began. Many years after she passed away, a cousin sister told me that, in fact, my mother had witnessed the turbulence. She also told me that my mother was in some sort of  post where she wore a uniform. But, she stressed, all this was to be kept a secret. For me, this was the other side of silence. It was, apparently, a shame to the family if a woman of those days wore a uniform!

Urvashi Butalia writes in a very bland tone, using the interview format at times, a dry descriptive note most of the time and, rarely, introduces an element of drama. We are launched into her experiences with her personal story, though, even in this, she maintains a neutral stance. Her maternal uncle chose to stay back in Pakistan and converted to Islam. She goes to meet him but her family remains convinced that he did it to acquire property. Not for a second does the academic style falter, yet it is not entirely shorn of heart.

      Indeed, many such tales emerge, where some made use of the tragic turn of events to confiscate the property of others, even that of relatives. In this way, we see to what uses the Partition was put by diverse actors.

     Throughout, Ms Butalia restrains herself from bias and, it was significant to me that she includes accounts of Hindu brutality to balance Muslim acts. I was, personally, shaken to the core when, after years of being fed, by my parents and ambient society, with the myth of Islamic tendencies to butcher, I heard a bloodcurdling first hand narrative.

      I had joined a neighbourhood sewing class in my early thirties. A dear old lady ran the class. As is the habit of age, she was wont to entertain us with tales from her youth. Mostly, it was amusing - how her mother-in-law would lead her to her husband’s bed at night and escort her back afterwards, and how the double bed has destroyed our morals.

    But, on one occasion, she graphically related how she and other young women stood on a balcony or terrace and watched Muslim families being burned alive and how they cheered.  I think I grew up in that second far beyond the capacity of my physical age.  

       As must be expected from the founder of  Kali for Women, she has a section on women which explores the violence against women. These stories range from suicides, failed and successful, honour killings where men killed the womenfolk before the other party “besmirched” the family honour and, of course, the expected rape and murder of women on both sides. Yet, the author manages to find the unexpected in all this - a love story albeit a tragic one where a girl, sold over and over, finally lands up with a man who loves her, only to be snatched from him in the initiative of the respective governments to restore  abducted women to their families. Butalia also had to face being the object of violent loathing when she was personally party to one  such restoration. It is not always simple and straightforward to set past wrongs aright.  

One snippet stands out in my memory of the reading: an incident where a Britisher tells an Indian employee that they, the British, are leaving India but not without creating havoc. There is, thus, an indictment of sorts, something of which we are all, we who were and are, involved, aware at some level or the other.

   Although the book is hard to read for the most part, given the textbook like nature of its treatment, it has places where a more human face emerges - a whole section is devoted to one particular lady. In this part, the style becomes more journalistic, following this woman’s experiences in the dangerous past down to her life in the present and even up to her death. It was a curious look at those violent times, seen through the eyes of a rather amazing person.

Reading this book in light of the ongoing attempt to record first person accounts from those times, raises questions: will all this lead to more heartburn?

I think not - silence is a cancer. Sweeping things under carpets is never very hygienic.  And I am convinced that many stories will emerge showing the triumph of human goodness on both sides than those which make us all hang our heads in shame.

In seeking to write this review, I came across one article which referred to 
“the harkening back to an—often mythical—past where Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs lived together in relative peace and harmony”. 
I wonder at the cynicism. I was raised with descriptions of the warm friendships between Muslims and Hindus/Sikhs, of my grandmother’s Muslim besties with whom she hung out all day, smoking a hookah and having a great time. I wonder because, even today, it is so instinctive and easy for a Hindu Indian and a Pakistani to be friends - good friends.  Especially when we meet abroad.

What if such close bonds incur jealousy? After all, should our two countries be healed and embrace business and other partnerships, will not prosperity flourish in the region? What keeps us both down benefits those who would still like to see us as barbaric in our violence, those who, most probably, orchestrated all that bloodshed back then.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Excerpts of Experiences with my First Expert

The pity of it is that we never considered her an expert at anything. Well, we did but we were only being tongue in cheek.

We considered her an expert at booby-traps. She’d arrange things such that, if you moved one item, a whole pile might come crashing down. Ever since she passed away, I suspect she now resides in me as I’ve become that kind of expert these days. Fact is she was adventurous as you can see from this photo.

The bond with my first expert began long before I was born. She was so eager for me to manifest and be guided by her that she cherished a song from Navrang in the late months of pregnancy when a mother-to-be gets really impatient for the surprise gift to be unwrapped.

And, when I finally popped out, she made much of me, tending to me with all the keen care of a mentor. I was massaged and cuddled and, even before I acquired language, I was aware of how much I meant to her.

This expert had all the fervour of a connoisseur of diamonds. For her, I was Sunday’s child, dhanishta nakshatram who could turn all things to gold, I was her doll, I never peed or shat without warning and, so, was always a clean baby-thus my expert systematically brainwashed me.

All through infancy, my expert provided me with all the warmth of her love. Until I got married, I always slept tightly embracing my expert.

My expert was also my bodyguard. On a nightly basis, she protected me from ghosts and geckos. When I had to pay the toilet a late-night visit, my amma was there to walk sleepily with me, thus warding off bogeyman and his hordes. At the toilet, she had to go in first to ensure that no gecko was lurking anywhere. And, should there have been one, she would manfully drive it far away from me.

From my expert I found out a lot about beauty, inner and outer. Alas, she was living the life of an ascetic when I grew into womanhood but it is from her old photos that I came to know that she was an expert in the use of cosmetics. Though I let my hair grey now even as she did, were she still here today, I'd have taken her to a salon on Mother's Day and coloured our hair just for kicks.

While grey is good, and it's not do or dye, I'd love to have seen my expert's long hair gleam with magic. Perhaps I'll work up the courage to do it alone-for her.

When I was a teenager, we once had to walk to a clinic close to midnight, as my father was hospitalised there. On the way, a man got off his cycle and blocked our path. My expert proved her worth as she instantly recognised danger and pushed me behind her and surged forward with her slipper in hand. I suspect that man was an exhibitionist for he whimpered and promptly rode away into the night.

Teenage heartbreaks were always unquestioningly soothed by the expert who knew the greatest truth: just hug, just wipe away tears, just be there…All my secrets were safe with her-she knew me inside out.

Thanks to my expert, I topped all exams, from school final to my BSc. And I realised her worth only when I did not top after parting from her.

What was the secret? My expert would listen to me mug up my lessons, however tired she was. Often, she was so exhausted by all the household chores that she would fall asleep while listening to me read aloud. I would then scold her and she would apologise and assure me she was paying full attention.

No film was worth watching without my expert. We saw many Hindi, Tamil and English films together and my expert never failed to bring a greater enjoyment to the experience. Again, we had another “our song”, listening to which we both got lumps in our throat.

It is from my expert that I learned to cook, to clean, to study, to be a wife and mother, a friend, and all the many essential roles of life. From how to wear a sari to how to care for a pet, my expert was there to take me through all the steps.

All this light stuff apart, my expert taught me all that has helped me survive, all that has made me who I am, all the strengths needed to face life.

And, as is the way with the best of experts, she did it via example. The example of selfless service, of the ability to listen without judging, of offering, instantly and without reservation, a pair of cuddling arms.

My expert taught me all that is needed to practise Dasya Bhava.

Maa, tujhe Salaam! 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Stupid Guy Goes To India - A Graphic Novel

Stupid Guy Goes To India by Yukichi Yamamatsu is my first manga. While my desire to read manga grew in direct proportion to my increasing engagement with Japanese doramas and films, most of which are based on manga, I did not know where to begin. By this time, I had even forgotten my excitement at seeing this book at a Comic Con in Delhi, some years back.

So, I was justifiably thrilled to see it at my library. With my new strategy for catching up on reading, including a self-imposed challenge, I finished this graphic account yesterday.

It is hard to say if I would have enjoyed it as much had I not been such a fan of J doramas and films. Perhaps I would still be enchanted with it as my recent search is for books from other voices.

Even today, most people, the world over, read "White". Most best-sellers, most books which get some exposure, are either by authors of European origin or have been endorsed by bodies in lands with European origin population majorities.

Of late, I'm on the lookout for authors outside this circle and for accounts by non-White authors which explore other non-White cultures. One reason for this is that we have been brainwashed to think that we, the victims of racism, are the most racist. It is pointed out that we behave most intolerantly to the other. This is not so well borne out by traveler accounts from among our many nations which pre-date colonialism.

Published by Blaft Publications Private Limited in association with Tranquebar, this 230 page book reads from right to left and from back to front. That, in itself, made this a gourmet experience.

Author Yukichi Yamamatsu, was already a recognized name in the world of Japanese manga when he first came to India. The result of this visit is his autobiographical account, first published in Japanese in 2008.

Translator Kumar Sivasubramanian, an Indian-born Canadian, who has translated over sixty volumes of manga to English,  has done justice to the incredible task at hand.

The cover, it seems, has been changed to avoid the usual Hindu fanatic uproar.

In 2004, 56 year-old mangaka, Yukichi Yamamatsu, who, very uncharacteristically for a person from Japan, cannot even use a cell phone, comes to India to introduce us to mangas by getting them translated into Hindi and selling them. This book is about the trials and tribulations that he faces in this Herculean task. He has scant funds and an even scanter knowledge of either English or Hindi. He has diabetes and some terrible bowel condition.

Called Indo e Baka ga Yattekita, the outcome of that visit was translated into English three years later by Blaft Publication, in Chennai, as Stupid Guy Goes to India.

His irreverent humour which does not even spare himself peppers the book. Delhi and its denizens are described most mercilessly, yet with incredible affection. Right from the word go, he is swindled, but he learns to bargain fiercely, travels in all forms of public transport, gets lost and meets many bizarre adventures in his quest.  

The graphic narrative follows his search for a place to live, food to eat as our food is too spicy for him, locating a clean latrine when his bowel condition needs attention or buying sandals and many other mundane pursuits which turn out to be almost phantasmagorical.

And then he has to locate a translator. From landlords to auto drivers, cops to shoe sellers, he meets all kinds of typical Delhi "namoonas" (specimens). It's an education in itself to go through his struggles to find a translator, paper, to get the manga printed and to find out how and where to sell it.

Reading the many Indian reviews on this book, I smile. The slightly shocked tone shows me that they have not cut their teeth on Japanese humour.

I can imagine an Indian fuming at his representation of our typical head shakes, his "graphic is right" description of our toilets and even getting apoplectic at his depiction of his visit to a brothel.

The remarkable contrast between Japan and India comes through as he finds that Indian cello tape is not easy to peel off and otherwise handle for his purposes and other instances where perfection is not a priority in India. Obviously, he invents a cheap solution but no one will buy it just as he can find no takers for the manga.

It's soon apparent that he has done no homework for this visit, but with all the dreadful misunderstandings, he finds time to play marbles with urchins and even bet on horses.

Mostly, it's an account of all that goes wrong: a bewildering time at the airport on arrival, frustrating interactions at the first hotel he had booked into, cow dung on the streets, greedy guides and auto drivers.

The manga he's trying to get translated into Hindi and sell here is Hiroshi Hirata's Chi Daruma Kenpo (“Bloody Swordplay”), which seems fairly obscure even by world manga standards.  

All he has is a Hindi phrase-book and, for some time, a kind of guardian angel to bolster him against all sorts of mishaps in putting the translated Hindi words into the speech balloons, and delays, publishing goof-ups, the cost of paper, trouble with fonts, missing colours and oily smudges. The Samurai confronts the mighty Indian Chalta Hai.
“Aren’t Indian people interested in anything? What’s going through their minds?”
I could not put better this fine balance between his outrage and the real bonding that happens between us, the "others", than these lines from Rrishi Raote

"Indians in these drawings often look angry and appear to be shouting. The mangaka illustrates his incomprehension by showing Hindi words as little geometric symbols. But the settings, whether streetside, indoors, in a marketplace or a small businessman’s office-workshop, are closely observed and credible. One doesn’t feel the sting of an outsider’s summary judgement."

I wonder why we get hurt at his view of us. After all isn't our view of the Japanese as jaundiced? 

And I wonder why he did not head for the arty farty sections of Delhi but all my admiration goes out to him for finding the real people and coping there.

Convulsively hilarious are his attempts to make money - manga drawing classes, producing, or trying to sell little tin things to tear cellotape at Rs 10 each.

We have to admire his persistence and perseverance though he achieves nothing on this trip. Well, his six months here were not entirely fruitless as his manga did well in Japan.

And we now have a sequel.