Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Manjiri Prabhu Author interview



Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I write because I imagine, dream, feel, love and reciprocate.
And because I have a story to extract from my interactions, from my emotions, whether in imagination or reality and turn it into a fictitious reality.
I want to create a world of my own and enjoy the trials and tribulations of the journey and finally when it is done, sit back and let the world see my creation.
I write because I want to create memories, because I want to learn, explore and live many lives and travel with many characters to lands known and unknown. To feel fulfilled, to remind myself how blessed I am. . . .
I write because that’s what I can do . . . …and love to do!
What advice would you give your younger writing self?
First and foremost, I would tell my younger self that she was right. That feeling that she had all along as a child that she was born to be a writer was completely justified. I would like to congratulate her on her success and persistence. As advice I would tell her to be ready for challenges, be patient and learn to take rejections as opportunities to do better. I would tell her to be more competitive in today’s world and go all out and shout out her achievements. I would tell her to go wild, travel more, love more, absorb more and create more. I would tell her to be more in touch with reality as well as fantasy, experiment more and get out of her comfort zone of writing. I would just want her to live every moment to the fullest so that writing would come inspired, faster and better.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
As a child I wrote for myself, content in the art of creation and heedless to public consumption.  As I grew older, I realized that it wouldn’t matter if someone read my work. In fact it would be great if others did. That’s when I published my first novel ‘A Symphony of Hearts’ in 1994.
Over the years, I’ve written and published books, and the need to reach out to more and more readers has increased. Mostly because publishing a book takes it out of your inner, controlled circle and exhibits it to a world of readers with varied views, opinions and backgrounds. Great feedback from readers is one of the biggest rewards of writing!
The equation of writing for ‘self’has now changed to writing for ‘us’ – for my readers and I. I still create plots that excite me and characters that speak to me but they carry a vision that I want readers to grasp and understand and emulate.
So publishing my book hasn’t changed so much the process of writing, as the need for visibility and exposure to it. Now marketing and promotion also take a big chunk of my time and attention.
What was your greatest writing challenge?
Actually, each of my books has posed a challenge. The Cosmic Clues and The Astral Alibi or Stellar Signs were about a lady detective who solves cases with the help of Astrology. So a lot of research went into choosing the right plots and solving them using Astrology in a systematic scientific manner, and not as a superstitious, magic wand. Similarly, The Cavansite Conspiracy takes place in 48 hours and the protagonist travels from Pune, to Hamburg, to the Isle of Sylt and to London in a matter of so many hours. Matching the time-differences and flight timings was a huge challenge. Finally, my latest thriller The Trail of Four takes place entirely in Salzburg and is about non-Indian characters, taking Re, the investigative journalist on a trail set 75 years ago. The biggest challenge was writing the novel like an insider, and combining history with a contemporary plotline. Having said that, I have enjoyed writing each of these novels.
What’s your idea of literary success?
I write so that people will read, enjoy the product of my imagination and take away something from it. When books sell, the monetary gain enables you to be at peace to write some more. So it helps. It is practical. But I would like to go beyond this materialistic gain . . . to grasp and capture something that is more ephemeral and transient. Memories. For me literary success would be when readers carry me in their memories forever, in the form of my books, characters, stories or messages. When I freeze into their memories, I would feel that I have touched that peak of success as an author and have attained virtual immortality.
What’s your idea of bliss?
My idea of bliss is complex. I want a world where every dog has a home – which means the world is compassionate enough to understand that ‘lives’ matter. It spells peace and love.
I also want a world where each being is treated with respect and love and given the freedom and choice to live his/her own life.
And finally, on a more personal note, my idea of bliss is to travel with my loved ones including my dogs, from country to country, absorbing new cultures, making new friends, writing and filming about it and more, and in the process collecting  answers from the Universe and unravelling the mystery called ‘life’.
Your latest novel, The Trail of Four, is set in Salzburg, Austria. As an Indian author, what inspired you to set your story here? Did you feel compelled to make Re, the protagonist, a person of Indian origin?
I have often wondered what the lure of the foreign books is for the Indian reader. Even today, I believe that books by foreign authors are read more than by Indian authors. And I think it is mostly to do with habit. I grew up reading books by British/American authors and I knew that I was totally fascinated by the milieu and culture and language. Now, after having written 8 books that are based in India but which pop in and out of some parts of the world, I felt this need to explore foreign horizons and move out of my comfort zone. And that is why The Trail of Four is based entirely in Salzburg with Non-Indian characters. However, the Indian in me needed to be satisfied too, so I made Re half-Indian, but alienated from his Indian roots.
But what really inspired me was a visit to the Palace Leopoldskron and Salzburg. I fell in love with them both. I knew way back, when I first set eyes on the Schloss that one day I would set a novel here. I think I was destined to write this novel. Incidents unfolded in such a manner, rather mysteriously and everything aligned perfectly for me to write The Trail of Four. I think the novel ‘happened’ to me. It got itself written. I simply followed a pre-destined path to accomplish this feat.
When did you first realize the power of the written word?
Speaking from an author’s point of view – My childhood was complete and content as I grew up reading Enid Blyton books and lost myself in the world of mystery, adventure and fun. I believe that those books laid the foundation for my career because I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a writer and create such worlds which offered hope and joy to every reader.  Personally for me, that was the first impact of the power of the word.
Later, as I matured and my reading habits encompassed more serious work, my belief in the written word was only strengthened. A good piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction is like a living, breathing entity. It can hook on to your brain and either mess up your thinking or create patterns of thought that can change the world. Either way, the effect can be stunning.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
I get furious when I see dogs or other animals being abused or see nature getting destroyed.  I feel that taking care of street dogs is the answer to world peace. I have a philosophy called my ‘Dogtrine of Peace’. Destroying nature is like destroying ourselves. When you cut down trees, encroach into hills and the sea, all you are doing is cutting into the lifetime of your generations. Sooner or later, the consequences will rise like a Tsunami, sweeping off races.
Other than that I get furious when people lie, and are manipulative, are ungrateful, take advantage of the weak and tons of other things. I am basically an angry woman 🙂
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence. 
Kindness and love make a difference. Do your bit. . . .

About the Author:
Dr. Manjiri Prabhu is an independent film-maker for Television, a Writer/ Novelist in English and also the Founder/ Director of Pune International Literary Festival. Having authored 9 books published by Penguin, Bloomsbury, Random House USA and Jaico Books, Prabhu has been acknowledged as a pioneer in India among women writers of mystery fiction. She is also the first female mystery Author to be published outside India and has been labelled as the ‘Desi Agatha Christie’. She has been invited to reputed International Literature Festivals like The Agatha Christie Festival, UK and International Women’s Fiction Festival, Matera, Italy.
Her novel The Cosmic Clues was selected as a Killer Book, by Independent Mystery Booksellers of America and The Astral Alibi was honoured as a ‘Notable Book’ in the Kiriyama Prize. Her unpublished psychological thriller novel was adapted into a Hindi feature film by NFDC, titled
“Kuchh Dil Ne Kaha”. Her thesis-cum-book, titled Roles: Reel and Real, has become a rare reference book for students of Hindi cinema.
Recently chosen as one of 50 Inspiring Women of Maharashtra, she was awarded for “Excellence in Writing” by ERTC Global Herald, in Mumbai. She has also been awarded the Rex Karmaveer Gold Medal Award.
This review is published in Kitaab

The TRail of Four by Manjiri Prabhu: book review


This intriguing mystery by an Indian author is set entirely in Europe, in the historic city of Salzburg, Austria. The novel brings to life the beauty and rich heritage of an old European city, which serves as a striking backdrop for an exciting intrigue. The three-century-old heart of a princely archbishop is mysteriously stolen from its place of rest. Who would do such a thing, and why? An insane criminal is out to destroy the pillars of the city’s heritage and culture. Re, a photo journalist and psychic, Isabel the beautiful local historian, police chief Stefan and hotelier Dan, who is managing the prestigious high profile Salzburg Global Seminar in the Schloss, are compelled to work together to stop impending disaster. As the threats materialise and mayhem unfolds, they must figure out which of the city’s many historic landmarks will be the next target, and prevent further chaos.
It’s a well-crafted, exciting story that will keep you turning the pages all night long. The mystery and fast-paced action are cleverly plotted. There are deliciously interwoven mysteries within mysteries, leaving readers with never a dull moment. There’s even a mystery from the historic past, coming alive in the present. Renowned theatre director Max Reinhardt once owned the majestic Schloss, a luxurious palace by the lake. Forced to flee the Nazi advance during World War II, he left behind a series of complex clues to an unsolved mystery, a hidden secret. As the hours until the next attacks tick away, our heroes must solve the clues and hand over the hidden treasure to the shadowy perpetrator of the attacks on the city’s landmarks. This is the only hope to halt further destruction.
Isabel’s American husband Justin has vanished, and is suspected to be dead. He has left cryptic messages which connect to the attacks on the city. Is Isabel really an innocent, grieving wife, or does she have a hand in Justin’s murder? Is she truly working to solve the clues and save the city, or is she in league with the enemy?
This novel is great material for a film adaptation, with spectacular settings and nail-biting, edge-of the-seat action. With drones spraying toxic gas, floods from the city’s underground water supply system threatening to engulf the city, an explosion in a famous cathedral filled with praying devotees and tourists, shock waves are threatening the very foundations of a city famed for art, culture and fine living.
The plot and the mystery take readers on a virtual tour of Salzburg, and its history and heritage. It is a delightful bonus to the reading experience. Salzburg in all its beauty, is brought to vivid life. The shimmering lake with its undulating blue-green waves, the surrounding mountains, the magnificent Schloss, a historic palace turned hotel that dazzles “like an eternal bride in glitter and gold”; the vivid descriptions are deftly woven into the action. The Schloss, a focal point of the novel’s action, has its own fascinating history. “Concerts, theatre performances, serenades by the lake; the Schloss had created so many careers, ignited so many affairs – it was the perfect baroque dream.”
The novel at times rises beyond complex mysteries to present a blend of beautiful settings juxtaposed against many facets of subjective realities. “Laughter trickled in from the street, carefree and happy. As if just some hours ago the cathedral had not been almost blown apart, as if the threat to the fourth Pillar was only a frightening dream, as if every ticking minute they were not getting closer to a horrendous conclusion. That was why truth was subjective, reality had such different dimensions and memory was sweet and short.”
The characters are convincingly drawn, with light but firm touches which do not distract from the compelling action. Re, the photographer, journalist and psychic sleuth, has an Indian father and a French mother. As such, there are passing Asian cultural references in the story. Whenever faced with a difficult situation, Re clutches his ‘Om’ pendant, that powerful Hindu symbol, to regain spiritual equilibrium and focus. Since the author is Indian, one may have expected a stronger Indian and Asian connection. However, this does not dilute the overall reading pleasure. Readers can expect the unexpected, and turn the last page with a satisfied smile.
this review is published in Kitaab

Shahbano Bilgrami: THOSE CHILDREN book review

Those Children 
Shahbano Bilgrami     

Harper Collins
2017, pp 352
Rs 399

This is a delightful and sensitive tale about the innocence of childhood and growing up, of family ties, loss and love. Imaginative and poetic, with touches of humour and childlike innocence, this novel presents unique and engaging characters seeking their roots.

Ten-year-old Ferzana Mahmud’s life in Chicago is shattered by the untimely death of her mother due to cancer. As their affectionate father nurses his own sorrow, Ferzana and her older sisters Fatima and Jamila, and her big brother Raza, must console each other as they try to cope. They do this by creating their own fantasy world, where they are superheroes with special powers.

To further complicate matters, their father moves the family to Karachi, half a world away. Landing in a strange city with alien people and unfamiliar customs, the children must adjust to a completely new life. They now live in a large compound as junior members of the Mahmud clan. There are grandparents to deal with; sometimes distant and forbidding, and sometimes affectionate. Uncles, aunts and cousins with diverse personalities must be tackled, and school poses new challenges. There is the secrecy around their late mother and the circumstances of their parents’ marriage. Clandestine meetings with their flamboyant maternal uncles raise more questions than answers. What was their mother really like as a young girl? Why is she never mentioned in the Mahmud household? Why is Ferzana’s Dadi so sad, and what secrets lie buried within the folds of the Mahmud family?

“My instinct was to tell her that she was wrong,” Ferzana thinks at one point about her dear Dadi. “That it was unfair of her to deny us the right to find out about our family’s past. After our mother’s death, we needed anchorage; after being displaced... we were searching for something to hold on to, to explain to us who we were and why we were here.” 

As she navigates her way through this chaotic new world, Ferzana begins learning things that school books don’t teach. “It was no less a surprise to me, after countless geography classes and colouring my way through outline maps, that countries, like people, were not stable entities, that they were made and broken, then made again.”

Religious differences and intolerance are a reality creating rifts even within Ferzana’s own family. Her youngest uncle, Shahbaz, says in an uncharacteristic fit of outrage, “But the evidence is everywhere. Where do you think this rigid, intolerant, unforgiving version of our faith has sprung from?” Their orthodox uncle Jamshaid Chacha retorts, pointing at Ferzana and her siblings, “What about the filth these people have brought into our country?”

The influence of religious intolerance is all-pervasive and a reason why their late mother and her family are never mentioned. As Shahbaz Chacha points out to Ferzana’s father, “Even Bhabi and the kids are into it. It doesn’t end there... it just seems as if some of them have lost sight of the essence, or spirit, of the faith in the process.”

Her friendship with Shahnaz, their driver’s daughter who is a girl of her own age, brings home to Ferzana the reality of class divisions. “Even after months of living in Karachi it struck me as odd that people were not always seen as individuals but as products of several abstractions which, when combined, typecast them as surely as if they were mediocre actors in a third-rate comedy.”

People can be dangerous. Ferzana and her brothers and sisters barely escape an attack on their father by “a typical ‘aunty’ complete with full stage make-up... They were intentionally khatarnak, or dangerous, and feared by children the world over, especially for their wet kisses and cheek-pinching fingers.”

Ferzana learns harsh worldly truths when she realises she is being used by her teacher, Mrs Naseem, to carry on an illicit relationship with her rakish teenaged brother Raza.
Despite such grave themes, Ferzana’s imaginative escapades liven the story and prevent it from sinking into gloom. The children suspect the warm and lively Shahbaz Chacha to be “born of a scandalous union”, because he is so unlike the Mahmuds. Ferzana as the superhero Little Furry sleuths around, losing her sister Fatima’s black panties to a devious opponent in the process. She weaves fantasies around her parents’ first meeting and falling in love. A college trip to the scenic hills of Swat and the chance meeting of future true lovers; or Baba as a placard-wielding student protester and Amma as his revolutionary sidekick facing a lathicharge together; she imagines “their pure love a perfect example of the union of the personal and the political.” When Fatima raps her for reading their maiden aunt’s forbidden Mills & Boon romances, Ferzana’s innocent retort is hilarious. “I’m telling a serious story. What do baboons have to do with it?”
As secrets unravel, a transformation takes place in the family. Durdana Phupo emerges from the cocoon of her little-girl room, and slips off her chador. Shahbaz Chacha comes to terms with the truth of his parentage, which is stranger than any fiction the children could have concocted. Dada and Dadi mellow, and the beautiful ending is of hope, tender love and reconciliation. This is, overall, a heart-warming and memorable read.

This review is published in Sunday Herald

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

International Women's Day

She's an Eagle When She Flies

(This was first published in Deccan Herald)

On International Women’s Day 2017, the spotlight is on women’s progress. New initiatives are being launched to help forge a better world, where men and women will be truly equal. This annual focus on women has indeed triggered awareness and positive action. Organisations and individuals as well as governments, have been making sustained efforts to help women achieve their full potential.
Disparities and injustices entrenched since the dawn of civilisation cannot vanish overnight. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report tracks the intensity of gender disparities and the progress made. The 2016 Report covering 144 countries in the crucial sectors of health, education, economy and politics, predicts that the gender gap will not be fully bridged until 2186. We are unlikely to see complete equality for half of the human race within our own lifetimes.
However, the progress is impressive. Complex intellectual realms are welcoming more women, and they are shining with unparalleled brilliance. Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani became in 2014 the first woman and the first Iranian to be awarded a Fields Medal for “her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.” The Fields Medal, awarded once in four years, is widely regarded as the Nobel Prize for mathematics.
Women today are flying higher, and the sky is no longer the limit. In November 1997, India born Kalpana Chawla shattered barriers to fly into space aboard the US space shuttle Columbia. A decade later, Sunita Williams became the second woman of Indian origin to conquer space when she flew aboard the US shuttle Discovery. Today, Canada-born with Mumbai roots Shawna Pandya is shortlisted after gruelling selections to fly with eight other astronauts in space missions planned by 2018.
Closer home, ISRO’s women scientists have helped build India’s spectacular Mars Orbiter or Mangalyaan project. Rocket science is part of the day’s work for ISRO’s Minal Sampath, Anuradha T K, Ritu Karidhal, Moumita Dutta, Nandini Harinath, Kriti Faujdar and N Valarmathi. These dedicated women teamed up with their male colleagues to set ISRO’s world record by launching an amazing 104 satellites in one shot. Breaking gender stereotypes, these wonder-women earned the applause of every Indian. 
India’s women are rising to the highest echelons of the corporate world. State Bank of India is among the elite seven Indian corporates to rank among the world’s leading Fortune 500 companies. This gigantic Indian multinational is headed by a woman, Chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya. She is listed as the 4th most powerful woman in Asia Pacific by 'Fortune' and as the 30th most powerful woman in the world by 'Forbes'.
Indian women are taking centre stage in the world of sports. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, Sakshi Malik fought heroically for a bronze medal in wrestling. P V Sindhu earned a brilliant badminton silver. Dipa Karmakar won the nation’s heart by finishing 4th, missing a medal by a whisker. She became the first Indian female gymnast, and the first Indian in 52 years, to compete in the Olympics. Wrestler Vinesh Phogat stormed valiantly into the quarterfinals, but missed a medal because of an injury.
To appreciate the changes in our own neighbourhood, I spoke to talented and motivated Bangalore women from diverse professions and experience levels. Rashmi Misra is founder and chairperson of VIDYA, an NGO providing quality education and uplifting boys and girls from the poorest sections of society.   Founded 32 years ago, VIDYA has seen 3.5 lakh people pass through and benefit from its systems. VIDYA currently has around 45,000 young beneficiaries enrolled in its 57 projects spread over five states.
Annabelle Manwaring, Pro Vice Chairman, Delhi Public School Whitefield and Delhi Pubic School Mysore Road, has guided a stream of promising young girls and boys emerging from her schools.
Prof. Sahana Das, Head, Dept. of Communication Studies, Mount Carmel College, has mentored numerous brilliant young women to follow their dreams.
Madhulika Dant, VP and Head – Corporate Search, Daedalus Consulting, deftly matches a growing stream of highly qualified professionals with suitable jobs.
Megha More, Co-Founder and COO, Trueweight, balances the challenges of building a start-up while mothering a lively toddler.
 With a fresh masters degree in International Relations from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore, Shibani Mehta is currently working at the Military Affairs Centre of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi. Like many of today’s girls, Shibani received full family support to go abroad, and enter a career of her choice.
These women see growing awareness and social support for women to realise their potential. Madhulika Dant’s professional career began three decades ago. “Having given up my career with the Tatas to bring up my children, I can see that husbands today are more supportive at home, in the kitchen and parenting. Equal importance is given to both careers.” Megha More agrees. After marriage, she went to the US to join her husband, but a formal job did not satisfy her. She wanted to give her best to an enterprise she could call her own. She and her husband agreed that he would remain in the US, while she went to a new city and founded her enterprise along with a friend. He wanted her to be happy, and to follow her dreams. He joined her two years later, when both were sure of their choice to return to India. By then, Trueweight was flourishing with around eighty people on board. Having a child was also a joint decision, and they share the duties and joys of parenting their lively three year old. “Today’s men are becoming naturally more supportive, and are active partners at home,” Megha says. “Improved support systems such as good daycare facilities, helps women make better life choices.”
“While we used our education for financial stability and social identity, my students aspire to be free,” says Sahana Das. “While my generation balanced home and career, the girls today include their individual passion into their profession.” Sahana is proud of her students like Vaishali Dinakaran, who was passionate about racing as a sport. Today she is a leading writer on Formula One racing. “Another very bright but restless girl said she liked to walk. And she walked… Across the Himalayas! Today Shikha Tripathy has written for Planet earth and Nat Geo and is a travel blogger who organises treks and runs an eco-friendly resort in Uttarakhand.”
“The negative attitude towards marriage and family is changing, and there is less gender rivalry among adolescents,” says Annabelle Manwaring. “Girls today no longer feel that marriage and family will curb them. Youngsters don’t feel that some careers are inferior or better than others. Whether they opt to be homemakers, chefs, entrepreneurs or artists, they want to choose their destinies and give their very best. They see themselves less as boys or girls, and more as seekers of knowledge and self-fulfilment.”
Shibani Mehta is inspired by a Minister sharing how “her gender played little role in her rise to power. She never used her gender as either a crutch or a privilege. That is something we need to consciously and constantly remind ourselves,” Shibani says. “I find these reminders everywhere. A young mother, my boss juggles vaccination appointments and review meetings while fulfilling the commitments of a senior research scholar. I admire my landlady, who at 78 plays golf and drives her own car. Women are each other’s best inspiration.”
2016 saw steady advances in gender parity. The CRPF sent a path-breaking team of 135 women commandos to tackle Naxalite insurgents in the forests of Jharkhand. More Indian women are donning uniforms to fly military planes, and actively serve in our armed forces. Policewomen are visible everywhere, and women Indian Police Service officers are no longer rare. More women are making their mark in the prestigious Civil Services.
The highly demanding field of medicine has a growing number of Indian women doctors. Karnataka’s elite Bangalore Medical College (BMCRI) alone has produced several young women Plastic Surgeons and Orthopaedic Surgeons in recent years, proving that women can take on the most skill and knowledge intensive challenges.
Indian girls next door are conquering new bastions. Surekha Yadav steered a Mumbai local train in 1988 to become India’s first woman train driver. In 2011, she became Asia's first woman to drive a major passenger train, the celebrated Deccan Queen. Other women are following her footsteps. On the streets of our major cities, it isn’t unheard of to encounter capable, business-like women auto drivers, bus drivers and bus conductors.
 “There’s gradual and positive sea-change,” adds Annabelle Manwaring. This optimism is trickling to the most deprived women, feels Rashmi Misra. In rural Haryana where girls rarely go to school, Rashmi has helped ghungat smothered mothers emerge confidently from VIDYA centres knowing English and driving. Her underprivileged youngsters have excelled in Board exams and computers. In one of her schools in Delhi, 100 kids scored IQ of over 120. “Given facilities and exposure, these children are capable of anything, she says. Boys are learning to treat their sisters equally. Not looking down at each other as rivals, they are becoming friends. These girls as well as boys have the capacity for crystal clear thinking, and are shining in the national robotics championships, Maths Olympiads and Mock UN.
The dedicated efforts of countless women spanning several generations, is building up this change. As a young girl in Delhi, I was fortunate to be inspired by trailblazers in women’s education. Smt. Kamala Sengupta, retired Principal of Delhi’s Lady Irwin School, and Prof. Bina Dasgupta retired Principal of Indraprastha College, shared their experiences with me. In the early Twentieth Century, a few such remarkable Bengali women ventured into northern India leaving their homes in undivided Bengal. Armed with impressive degrees from distant Dhaka University, they helped start schools and colleges for girls in Delhi, where nothing existed. On International Women’s Day, let us celebrate this spirit of women who led the way, those striving for excellence today, and for future generations.

Monday, January 09, 2017

One Last Look at 2016


(This was published in Deccan Herald)

As we welcome a new year, let’s look back on the year gone by. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, with sensations, surprises and shrill reactions being the norm. We hope that in the New Year, these storms too, shall pass, and more positive things will happen.
The Rio Olympics, the US presidential elections, and Pokemon Go, the new real world mobile game, got the whole world, or at least the world of Twitter, most excited in 2016. At Rio Olympics, records were broken and new sport stars emerged. India’s women athletes’ stellar performances did the country proud. American swimming legend Michael Phelps won his 23rd Gold Medal and a career total of 28 medals to retire as the world’s most decorated Olympian.

Defying widespread expectations, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, defeating Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. The US saw protests and talks of a rigged election, while several expressed loss of faith in America’s political system. Donald Trump is expected to withdraw military support to countries in Europe and Asia, unless adequate compensation is provided. Trump has indicated a desire to ease tensions with Russia, praising President Putin’s leadership, Trump has threatened to scrap several existing free trade agreements with other countries, which he blames for American job losses. Trump has said that he will “cancel” the Paris Climate Agreement within 100 days of taking office and will strive to reverse climate change regulations introduced by President Obama. On December 8th, Trump sent a sealed letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, through the US Secretary of Defence. The significance of this gesture will emerge in the days to come.

On June 23rd, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in their "Brexit" referendum. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned immediately, and Conservative Party MPs elected Theresa May as Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Modi dominated the news by boldly ordering cross-border surgical strikes against terror camps in Pakistan. On January 2, seven bravehearts died thwarting a terrorist infiltration into Pathankot Air Force station. In June, a CRPF convoy was attacked in Pampore, killing eight Indian officers. In a dastardly attack in Uri on September 18th, militants threw grenades on a brigade of sleeping Indian soldiers, killing 19. Pakistan faced international censure. Eleven days later, Indian forces carried out ‘surgical strikes’ on terrorist camps across the border. They worked on intelligence that these camps were planning terror attacks in Indian metros.
The strikes drew unequivocal public support. Even staunch detractors, the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress and Arvind Kejriwal, calmed after demanding “proof” of the strikes. Modi dedicated Diwali to the Indian soldier, whose courage and sacrifice allowed the country to celebrate the festival in security and peace.

On November 8, Modi made a surprise announcement demonetising existing 500 and 1000 rupee notes in a bid to remove black money and counterfeit cash for funding terrorists. But even after a month, many ATMs and banks didn’t have adequate cash. Long queues were frequent, and people were disappointed with packets of ten rupee coins or 2000 Rs notes, when they wanted some other denomination. The general public, and daily business suffered. When The RBI is supplying over thrice the normal amount of cash, how could this happen? Hoarders diverting cash with the connivance of corrupt officials and money launderers, are a key. Such a tremendous exercise has never been undertaken anywhere. With no past guideposts, the government is tackling difficulties as they arise. The planning is imperfect. At this stage, we cannot condemn demonetisation as an utter failure. Nor can we expect a magic wand to instantly end all corruption. Nobody doubts the good intentions of this measure. Let us pray that issues are soon sorted out, and that demonetisation, combined with other measures like tracking gold and real estate, yields the desired long-term dividends in the war against corruption.

Demonetisation has brought more money transactions under the scanner, and huge cases are already being investigated. Hundreds of crores of rupees in cash, and gold bars weighing hundreds of kilos have already been seized. The list of post demonetisation seizures is growing.
Meanwhile, 7,900 tribals of Attapady hills in Kerala and residents of Ibrahimpur village, Siddipet Dist, Telangana, are among the success stories of cashless transactions.

Are these news items evidence of a larger plan to effectively battle corruption and black money? Are we ourselves ready to change our time-honoured corruption-tolerant ways, and accept that we are the ultimate sufferers? Will our elected representatives heed President Pranab Mukherjee’s call and work constructively? “Disruption is totally unacceptable in Parliamentary system,” the President said. “For God’s sake, do your job,” he added, upbraiding the Opposition, and telling them that their disruptive strategy amounted to “gagging of the majority” by the minority. 

Corruption is deeply ingrained in India. The high and mighty set an example with mega scams through the years, inspiring ordinary people to resort to bribery and cheating wherever possible. It’s smart to flout rules. Indians proved their ingenuity in a multi-million dollar scam relating to India based call centres which cheated thousands of American citizens. Unfortunately, their party ended in October when several Indians were charged by the US Department of Justice for that scam. Will our own lawmakers and enforcers have the same will and the public support to ensure justice?

On December 9th the CBI arrested former Air Force chief SP Tyagi and two others for alleged corruption in the Rs 3,600 crore Augusta Westland VVIP choppers deal, which was scrapped on January 1, 2014, over charges of kickbacks of Rs 423 crore. We hope the truth will come out, and justice will prevail in this, and other past mega-scams.

In 2016, War and terrorism continued to trouble our planet. On March 5th, an US air strike killed 150 Al-Shabaab militants near Mogadishu, Somalia. As refugees continued to pour out from war torn West Asia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia closed their borders from March 9th. ISIS suicide bombings in Brussels killed nearly 30 and injured over 200. Taliban connected Jamaat-ul-Ahrar suicide bombers killed over 70 in a park in Lahore on 27th March. ISIS backed Suicide bombings at Brussels killed 28 and injured 260.
April brought hope, when an UN-backed cease-fire eased conflict in Yemen between government forces and Houthis rebels supported by Iran. However, in May, three ships carrying refugees across the Mediterranean, sank killing over 700. On June 12th, a gunman claiming loyalty to the Islamic State went on a rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Nearly 50 people were killed and an equal number wounded.
In June, suicide bombers and gunmen attacked Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. 42 people were killed and over 200 wounded. In July, Islamic militants attacked a cafe in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 20 hostages and 2 police officials were killed. In July, a lorry bomb killed over 125 and wounded 150 in Baghdad. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

2016 saw welcome strides in gender parity. Indian women excelled in the Rio Olympics. Sakshi Malik fought valiantly for a bronze medal in wrestling. P V Sindhu earned a sparkling badminton silver. Dipa Karmakar won the nation’s heart by finishing 4th, missing a medal by a whisker. She became the first Indian female gymnast, and the first Indian in 52 years, to compete in the Olympics. Woman wrestler Vinesh Phogat reached the quarterfinals, but an injury made her miss a medal. In another first, the CRPF deployed a team of 135 women commandos to tackle Naxalite insurgents in Jharkhand. Meanwhile, the BMJ Open Report tracking four million people around the world for ever a century, showed that women were now almost as likely to drink alcohol as men. In June, US Defence Secretary Ashton B. Carter lifted the ban on transgendered people serving in the US military.

Technology continued to amaze. The first flower in space, a zinnia, was grown aboard the International Space Station using NASA Veggie system. In April, the first baby with DNA from three parents was born in Mexico, facilitated by mitochondrial transfer. In October, researchers in Madrid developed a robot teacher that can sense when children are distracted in class, and respond by encouraging them. A driverless truck built by Uber’s unit Otto used cameras, radars and sensors, to travel 200 kilometres in the USA with a cargo of beer. Will humans be outsmarted and rendered obsolete by superior machines? That possibility loomed as Google's DeepMind artificial intelligence won Go challenge against Lee Se-dol.

Environmental degradation remained a burning issue. Climate change and increased acidity in the oceans, has brought the 25 million years old Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific Ocean on the brink of extinction. This UNESCO designated World Heritage site is the world’s oldest and largest living structure, and the only one visible from space. Much of the corals forming the reef are now dead or dying. UNESCO has listed 55 of the world’s 1,052 heritage sites as under risk from wars, natural disasters, poaching, pollution and uncontrolled tourism.

A report by World Wide Fund and other organisations indicate that half of India’s wildlife is on the verge of extinction. The Living Planet Index shows a dramatic decline of 58% between 1970 and 2012. The big picture pieced together from small news items, is chilling. In August Anthrax, caused by global warming, broke out in Siberia killing one person and infecting several others. 2,300 reindeer also died. The Royal Society Open Science journal published the chilling findings of 15 top conservational scientists. 300 odd wild mammal species in Asia, Africa and Latin America are dying out thanks to humanity’s greed for bush meat.

Closer home, our government declared the unprecedented levels of air pollution in Delhi an emergency situation in November.  Schools and construction sites were temporarily shut down. The dramatic increase in toxic particles in the air, was due to increase in construction, toxic fume emitting vehicles, noisy and polluting crackers during Diwali, and burning of leaves and crop wastes.
 As individuals, we can make a difference by switching to public transport or car pools. Composting and reducing non-bio-degradable wastes will definitely help. Let’s strive to use less plastics and generate less waste during all celebrations.  On April 10th, firecrackers caused a deadly explosion at Puttingal Temple in Kerala.  In memory of the over 100 who died, and the 400 injured in this tragedy, we hope firecrackers will be banned.

Eminent theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking rightly observed that this is the most dangerous time for our planet. We cannot go on ignoring inequality, because we have the means to destroy our world, but not to escape it. Technology is making many labour intensive jobs, and even some traditional industries obsolete. This will increase the rich-poor divide, as large populations migrate to other cities and countries to eke out a living.

In the year gone by, astronomers announced the discovery of an earth-like planet named Proxima B, orbiting star Proxima Centauri. An eminent group of international scientists and entrepreneurs, including Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerburg, announced a project to send robot spacecraft to our nearest star, Alpha Centauri. If we insist upon fighting among ourselves and destroying our planet, at least the survivors can hope to find and reach new worlds to exploit and lay waste.
___________________________________________________________________________
BOX:                      obituaries
Many prominent people passed away in 2016. May their souls rest in peace.
Leaders
J Jayalalithaa, Honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Fidel Castro, founder of the Western hemisphere’s first communist state in Cuba.
Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand.
Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister of Israel. Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Science, Arts, Literature, Sports :
Leonard Cohen, American music icon.
Prince, pop music megastar. Purple Rain, Little Red Corvette.
David Bowie, British rock superstar.
Veteran Carnatic Music exponent Balamuralikrishna.
Eminent Author and social activist Mahasweta Devi. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Padma Shree, the Jnanpith, the Magsaysay Award, and Deshikottam Award.
Writer and futurist Alvin Toffler. The Third Wave, Future Shock, Revolutionary Wealth.
Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight world champion.

Manohar Aich, India’s first Mr Universe. 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The narrative of Literary Festivals


As the rains abate and cool breezes begin blowing, people all over the country gear up for celebrations. In recent years, literary festivals have joined this exuberant bandwagon, with almost 100 such galas planned in India this year. Litfests, as they are fondly termed, add glamour and crowd pulling appeal to reading and writing, which are essentially quiet and solitary activities. Publishers, publicists and ‘Famous Authors’ of every feather flock to literature festivals all over the country. With new literary festivals sprouting up every year to add to the already rich variety,  lifestyle coaches, gawkers, culture vultures, fast food vendors, aspiring writers, fitness gurus, film personalities, film stars of every sparkle level, and everyone who is anything else, all join the festivities. With so much fanfare and drumrolls, are these litfests becoming commercial circuses? Or do they really serve the cause of literature by focusing on good books, offering a platform to a variety of voices and artistic perspectives, and drawing in new readers to books they would otherwise never have known?
First, let’s take a look at the not-so-literary but equally vital practical part of litfests. Organising any literary festival is a huge exercise in management. The Jaipur Literary Festival, that mother of all Indian litfests, draws stupendous crowds that can fill up an entire town. Other litfests are also catching up. This is enough to prompt borderline introverts like me to hide inside the nearest cupboard at the very thought. Such litfests are organisational wonders, with promoters juggling finances, public relations, logistics and heaven alone knows what else. Star guests have to invited and hosted, air tickets and tour itineraries have to be synchronised, sponsors have to be tapped, venues have to be booked, security has to be in place, volunteers have to be organised and trained, and I faint to think of what else organisers have to go through to present these grand events to the world.  What happens in Jaipur on a mammoth scale, is repeated in varying degrees in all the other litfests. Hotels are fully booked months in advance, and a galaxy of literary greats descend from all over the globe. Many star studded sessions are organised simultaneously, and the audience are spoilt for choice. Food stalls, book stalls, souvenir stalls, contests, workshops and many other activities are also presented to keep the crowds entertained and well fed as they pursue the literary muses.
Litfests are definitely big business. The many visitors also look for accommodation and visit places of interest, giving a shot in the arm to tourism and the local economy. Hotels, restaurants, tour operators and other business establishments profit from this influx of migratory literati. Many visitors consider Famous Authors themselves as major tourist attractions, jostling to click selfies and grab their autographs. No wonder many literary festivals are co-sponsored by government tourism departments and major corporates.
Book sales are only a small part of the commercial extravaganza. From what I’ve seen, malls and junk food stalls steal a march over books. Fine dining in fancy restaurants, grand cars and designer clothes may cost the earth. People still feel their money is well spent on such luxuries for making a lifestyle statement. Books are cheaper than pizzas and burgers which we gobble to attain blissful obesity. But books are considered a waste of time and money by many, who have never read anything but textbooks or advertisements in their lives.  
Meanwhile, brick and mortar bookstores are downing shutters. Authors like me whom nobody has heard of, are delighted to get occasional four-figure cheques for what some bright comedian has termed ‘royalties’. If more people bought, read, and learnt to love books, they would realise that books are not only cheaper than junk food, they are healthier for our brains and bodies too. The hoopla of litfests will be well worth it if it draws such doubting Thimmaiahs to reading books.
Publisher Dipankar Mukherjee of Readomania perfectly sums up the symbiotic connection between literature and commerce. “There is a distinction between a literary platform and a literary jamboree. A platform that promotes literary voices, celebrates good writing and showcases different perspectives is a cultural and societal need, but a jamboree to make noise, earn money and create a saleable property is a commercial need. Both must co-exist.”  Which, in my ‘author whom nobody has heard of’ speak, also means that well written books for the edification and entertainment of humanity cannot be produced with empty coffers.
Accepting an invitation to the recently held Pune International Literary Festival (PILF) I experienced this happy combination of a literary platform in a lively carnival atmosphere. While three literary sessions were conducted simultaneously in various halls, street plays, book readings and signings by authors, and just plain fun happened outdoors. There was a colourful exhibition on Enid Blyton, and book stalls, souvenir stalls and food stalls to keep everyone busy between sessions. Bestselling author of mystery novels and PILF founder Manjiri Prabhu seemed all hands, eyes and ears as she coordinated the three-day event, while playing gracious hostess to the many literary guests. I observed author Shinie Antony speaking at sessions and interacting with fans. All the while she was mentally planning for her own responsibilities as the lady behind the Bangalore Literary Festival. As I prepared to speak at my own session and braced to don the mantle of moderator for a panel discussion, I realized that planning and smoothly executing such massive events was a challenge requiring much blood sweat and tears to flow behind the scenes.
PILF 2016 showcased multiple genres of books. Mysteries, thrillers, crime fiction, yoga, comics, mythology based fiction, romances, self-help books, food writers, health, beauty and nutrition all had a space here. There were also fascinating movements across various art forms. A ballet was performed based upon Pervin Saket’s novel about a modern day Urmila, the neglected wife. The ballet incorporated several classical dance forms such as Kathak, Odisi and Bharat Natyam. There was even the screening of a film on Lahore, a travel documentary about filmmaker Rahul Chandawarkar’s visit to Pakistan to perform a play. And of course, there were the lively street play performances. The exuberant fairground atmosphere helped in the free flow of ideas as people moved from one session to another, soaking in whatever suited them.
From Pune, I travelled to Bhubaneswar, where I was invited to speak at two sessions of the Utkal Literature Festival (ULF). I saw how each litfest has its unique character and flavor, offering fresh perspectives and insights. ULF 2016 was a more formal event conducted inside a spacious auditorium. While there were poetry readings in the lawns and a bookstall, there were no food courts or other fairground trappings. Acknowledging that intellectual activities cannot be digested on empty stomachs, visitors were generously offered lunch by the hosts. The focus was upon novels, short stories and poetry, giving equal importance to both English and Odiya writing. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand the gist of what was being read and discussed in Odiya. This offered another wonderful perspective on the great work happening in our neglected languages. There were lively panel discussions on relevant topics such as the crisis in translation in Odiya literature, the art and craft of fiction writing, independent publishing, book promotions, blogging and the role of literary festivals.
Literary festivals are coming up to cater to every angle of the complex world of literature. Bookaroo, the children’s litfest, is going strong with editions all over the country. As a speaker in Bookaroo in Delhi a few years ago, I saw how the playful open air atmosphere drew excited kids to books. Another theme based festival Comic Con, focuses upon comic books and graphic novels. Poetry festivals attract many enthusiasts.
Do we need more litfests? Yes, says author and publisher Zafar Anjum, who is launching the Seemanchal International Literary Festival in November. Set in Kishanganj in the picturesque foothills of the eastern Himalayas, this litfest will draw attention to a beautiful but neglected region of India. Anjum’s literary venture Kitaab focuses on building a platform for Asian writing in English. In keeping with this spirit, speakers will be coming from countries such as the US, UK, Singapore and elsewhere. Among other attractions, the India release of noted Singapore author Isa Kamari’s latest book Tweet is planned here.

As ‘an author whom nobody has heard of’, I am all for litfests. Through them, an eccentric reader or two may have come to know of my books. Perhaps someone may actually buy, read, enjoy my books and tell others. We live on hope. I have a soft corner for literary fiction, with its stress on the inner life and struggles of fictional characters, and style and artistic expression. It was enlightening to learn of new work in other areas. I reconnected with old writer friends, and met some interesting new ones. I’m still ‘an author whom nobody has heard of’, and my books are languishing on Flipkart. But thanks to generous sponsors and hosts, I briefly emerged from under my bed, travelled to new places in comfort and had literary adventures.

This is published in Sunday Herald

Monday, October 17, 2016

Eka Kurniawan: Man Tiger.

This striking novel set in the lush hinterlands of Indonesia was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Kurniawan draws readers into a richly complex tale with the very first sentence. “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat...” The killer and the victim are identified beyond doubt, yet a riveting mystery is deftly built up.


 Why would a good-natured and popular young man kill his harmless middle-aged neighbour, that too in an unimaginably gruesome manner, by biting through his neck?

Yet there are eye-witnesses, and the victim’s mauled body stands testimony to the brutal attack. When the story begins, Margio has already admitted to the killing and surrendered.

The killer, Margio, is a popular 20-year-old who drank, smoked weed and made out in shacks in the cocoa planation along with other village boys. Like a helpful son to his neighbour Anwar Sadat, Margio was much in demand for his prowess during wild boar hunts. “While some of his friends got into fights, he wouldn’t lay a finger on anyone.”

Just before killing Anwar Sadat, Margio gave clear, ominous signals of his intentions. “Right now, I’m afraid I’m really going to kill someone,” he told a friend over drinks, shortly before attacking his victim. “But of course nobody who hadn’t been there would believe these words came from Margio. He was the sweetest and most polite of his peers.” When Margio went to Anwar Sadat’s house on that fateful day, he didn’t even carry a knife or a cleaver or a rope with which to commit the murder.

“Who could predict he might end a man’s life with a bite?” Colourful and bustling rural Indonesia is brought to vivid life by the author. Cacao plantations are criss-crossed by paddy fields, ponds, and peanut gardens. Clouds of mosquitoes take charge over the swamps and ponds, and Major Sadra’s ancient motorcycle loudly traverses the mud roads of the villages. An old Panasonic radio is the greatest asset in Agus Sofyan’s tea shack, where the villagers enjoy listening to soccer commentary or dangdut or other types of pop music. This half-dead machine with its insides hanging out in a messy tangle from an open top “could make enough noise to be heard booming at half the soccer field’s distance.”

Soon, darker and mysterious facets of this cheerfully chaotic world emerge. Margio’s abused mother Nuraeni expresses her stifled sorrows and desires through her lush garden, which soon overwhelms the house itself with brilliant flowers of every hue.

Margio’s Grandpa “would take the boy to a rivulet he called the Kingdom of Genies” and talk of spirits, and of tigresses, whom many men in the hamlet called their own.

“Some married one, while others inherited a tigress, passed down through the generations.” Little Margio wonders when their family tigress, which has belonged to them from the times of distant ancestors, will choose to belong to him.

Deftly sketched minor characters with their own quirks further enliven the setting. Occasionally they lighten the mood as the mystery builds up. They also add to the mounting tension by casually dropping significant clues. The worst these easy-going and peaceful villagers do is gamble on pigeon races and cock fights, or hunt down wild boar. Margio’s harsh private world is a stark contrast. As the story inexorably flows in a flashback towards Anwar Sadat’s killing, we learn that Margio did, after all, have this latent murderous streak. He ran away from home because, as he confessed to his sister Mameh, he was afraid that he might really kill his father someday. The news of his father’s death brought him back home at last. Everyone noticed how happy Margio was, but they thought it natural, for his father was well known to have been very harsh with Margio and his gentle mother, Nuraeni.

From their conversations we learn early on that Margio took Anwar Sadat’s daughter Maharani to a film show the night before he killed her father. Maharani cut short her vacation and suddenly left next morning for her college in the city without giving any reason, refusing to talk to her father.

The mystery revolves around the strange and terrible, yet protective tigress ruling Margio’s inner world. “It was bigger than a clouded leopard, bigger than the ones people saw at the zoo or circus or in schoolbooks. If a man couldn’t control his beast, it could turn so violent that nothing could restrain it once enraged... The tigress was there, a part of him, the two of them inseparable until death.”

A heady and memorable blend of magic realism, murder mystery and a deeply sensitive and sympathetic exploration of what drives a gentle soul to kill, this is a beautifully crafted and memorable read.
This review is published in Deccan Herald

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer  
Viet Thanh Nguyen  
Hachette
2016, pp 371, Rs. 499
 
When tinged with humour, the gravest of subjects like war acquires an interesting and profound colour, writes Monideepa Sahu about ‘The Sympathizer’
This engrossing tragi-comic novel set in the final days of the Vietnam War richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2016. The story and its style and rendering are striking, to say the least. The novel startles with the vastness of its scope; the clash of civilisations, cultures and ideologies; war where no party is right, and its futile aftermath; art as insight or propaganda; the many faces of racism in America and in Vietnam; the flaws in the dazzling American Dream, and in the egalitarian Communist dream. The narrative negotiates complex ideas with a flawless touch, showing how everything has multiple contradictory facets.

 Momentous concepts do not weigh down the narrative, but are turned inside out to expose their inherent absurdities. Even torture need not necessarily be gloomy, but can ironically be laughable. Even American military muscle flexing can be incongruously self-contradictory. “After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” All this is deftly woven into an exciting, action-packed plot, with espionage, bombings, executions, military evacuations, movie shootings and musical extravaganzas, and romantic interludes.

The novel opens with the nameless narrator writing his confession in a prison interrogation cell. He is addressed as ‘Captain’ by his commanding officer, while others never think of referring to him by any name at all. After all, he is “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, (he is) also a man of two minds.” This spy hides “where everyone can see him and where he can see everything. “We cannot help but admire his intelligence and talent for seeing every issue from both sides, unveiling the comic and ironic aspects of the dangerous situations he negotiates. He is a rare man capable of laughing at himself.

As he writes and rewrites lengthy confessions as a prisoner of the same communists for whom he had been spying, the narrator reveals many conflicting identities. He is a socially ostracised racial-hybrid illegitimate son of a French priest and a Vietnamese girl; too tall and fair to blend in with the native Vietnamese, and too oriental in appearance and upbringing to be accepted as a Westerner. As a Captain in the vanquished army of South Vietnam, he is a mole passing information to the Communist ‘enemy’ northerners. He is a communist sympathiser who studied in a US university to understand Americans through their perception of the Vietnamese. This education and exposure to a decadent culture makes the narrator see too clearly how a war “that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world” could mean “nothing to most people in the rest of the world.” It also makes him a reactionary sullied by American ideas to the hard-core communists into whose fold he wishes to return.

His political choices and his secret police service eventually force the narrator to cultivate his violent side. But his saving grace is his sense of humour and irony. He is “not just any mole” or spy, as his friend Man tells him. He is “the mole that is the beauty spot on the nose of power itself.” He is “more lover than fighter.” With quirky insights, he can turn traditional morality upside down, sometimes with hilarious effects. “Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly non-consensual squid? Not so much.”

We feel for the narrator’s inner struggles when he is commanded to plot the killing of the probably innocent Crapulent Major. He even shares with the Crapulent Major’s widow his compensation money for a grievous accident or murder attempt (depending on your perspective) he suffered on the sets of a Hollywood movie. Memories of his execution victim Sonny the journalist, the Crapulent Major, and the tortured Communist woman agent, whom he failed to protect, haunt him throughout the narrative. This reluctant killer is capable of deep lifelong loyalties and love, towards his mother, and his childhood friends Man and Bon. We grow to love him for his intelligence and insightfulness, his sense of self-criticism and his ability to see the absurdity of it all. We feel his pain as he undergoes torture to become what he cannot; transformation from an American into not just an anti-American, but one hundred percent Vietnamese.

We share his inner struggle as he powerlessly watched and did nothing, while a beautiful young female communist agent was tortured and gang raped. She defiantly says to her tormentors that her surname is Viet and given name, Nam. Her torture symbolises the ravaging of Vietnam itself, not just by foreigners but also by her own people. If only “we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play...” The narrator’s ironic insightfulness turns upon revolution itself as revolutionaries metamorphose into reactionary imperialists. “How our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power... Hadn’t the French and Americans done exactly the same?” He urges us to question along with him, “Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?”
Packed with exciting action and undercurrents of deep ideas, this is a brilliantly executed and deliciously memorable read. 
 
This review is published in Deccan Herald

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni: Before We Visit the Goddess


Before We Visit the Goddess
Chitra Banerjee
Divakaruni
Simon & Schuster
2016, pp 208, Rs 499


This is a sensitive and delicately rendered tale of love and longing, of pain, misunderstandings, exile, self-inflicted isolation and of reaching out for affection.


The novel spans 3 generations of women protagonists. Grandmother Sabitri flounders in search of love, blaming her daughter Bela for driving a wedge between her and her husband. Finally, she finds her true calling as the creator of delicious sweets, just like her own mother before her. Bela, the truant daughter, elopes to the US with a man who ultimately fails her. Bela’s daughter Tara turns out to be another rebel without a cause.

Flawed, rebellious and often inconsistent, they make mistakes and suffer, and irreparably wound the ones who love them most. They “appear so ordinary”. Yet their lives are “filled with violence and mystery”. Proud and stubborn, these women are so like each other. If they had had anyone else to turn to, they would never have called their mothers for help. Yet they are also eminently capable of giving and receiving love.

The characters are memorable, and finely etched. “Why, you could be acquainted with a person for years, thinking you knew them. Then suddenly they’d do something that showed you there were layers to them you hadn’t ever suspected.” Minor characters like Mrs Mehta, whom Tara helps to transform from a frumpy, lonely old woman to a lively person, who happily fits herself into the American way of life, add interesting touches to the story. However, Bela’s gay friend Kenneth crops up as more of a detour from the main path of the story.

Sabitri grows up in poverty in a village in Bengal, helping her mother Durga make delectable sweets in order to eke out a living. Her dream of going to college appears to be coming true. A wealthy client is impressed with the sweets and the girl who delivers them. She offers to support Sabitri if she does well in her exams and gets admission in a college in Kolkata. Sabitri succeeds. But once in Kolkata, she becomes infatuated with the wrong man, and cannot wholeheartedly reciprocate the right man’s love. From being the good daughter and fortunate lamp brightening her family’s name, Sabitri strays into becoming the firebrand, who blackens the family’s fame.

The novel opens with the ageing Sabitri receiving a desperate phone call from her wayward and estranged daughter Bela, from the distant US. Bela pleads with Sabitri to persuade her granddaughter Tara against dropping out of college and ruining her life. “What can she write in her rusty English to change Tara’s mind? She cannot even imagine her granddaughter’s life, the whirlwind foreign world she lives in.” The only link Sabitri has to a granddaughter she has never seen, is a handful of photos. They remind her of the pang she felt when she received them, “because she had so wanted to be present at Tara’s birth. But she hadn’t been invited.” The author deftly uses clear, simple yet powerful images to bring home the character’s deepest and most aching emotions. Everyday things like photographs and photo albums capture life’s turning points, and show new facets to those we think we knew and understood.

Elsewhere, the author uses beautiful, poetic descriptions to evoke deep feelings. When little Bela goes to Assam with her parents, she misses her friend Leena, and realises early on how physical distance can pull the dearest friends apart. “Bela tried to write back, but she was struck by a strange paralysis. How to describe the riot around her: the night-blooming flowers with their intoxicating odor, the safeda tree with its hairy brown fruit, the oleanders with their poisonous red hearts? She wanted Leena to be here, to run hand in hand with her across a lawn so large it was like a green ocean. But what was the point of wanting the impossible? She never answered the letters... But inside loss, there can be gain too. Like the small silver spider Bela had discovered one dewy morning, curled asleep in the centre of a rose.”

The plot is aesthetically structured around Tara’s life-changing visit to the temple of an accepting Hindu goddess. “The goddess doesn’t care how many minutes you spend in front of her... Only how much you want to be here... The goddess does not care about what we are wearing, only what is in our hearts.” Throughout the novel, small and apparently ordinary incidents change lives. “How she got back at her one-time hosts but learned that revenge extracts its price. How the problems between (Sabitri) and (Bela) began, with words of deadly innocence spoken in a car, and a slap that echoed through the years.”

The persistent and frequent shifts to and fro in time can distract and confuse the reader, however.Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, memorable read rife with insights.

This review is published in Deccan Herald