Saturday, December 03, 2011

With an eye on the market

The Fatwa Girl, Akbar Agha, Hachette India, Rs. 325.

The Fatwa Girl, Akbar Agha, Hachette India, Rs. 325.
A potentially interesting novel that is let down by the effort to produce a bestseller.
A few years ago, an Irish friend of mine remarked, ‘For a writer of literary novels, it is lucky to be born in South Asia as he has no dearth of subjects and issues (terrorism, religious riots, Maoist violence, etc.) if he decides to get into the business of serious writing.'

I can't agree more. Of course, a conflict zone is a treasure trove of creative ideas for authors of literary fiction. The exceptionally talented Pakistani authors like Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Haneef have actually used the socio-political turmoil in their country to weave poignant stories and that too with great critical acclaim. When I got hold of this novel titled The Fatwa Girl by Akbar Agha, I expected that the author would offer some fresh insights into the Pakistani state of affairs. But, this book, to my disappointment, turned out to be an attempt to produce a bestselling potboiler like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.

The story begins as Omar, a Sunni boy, spots Amina, a Shia girl, in his Karachi neighbourhood trying to learn to ride a bicycle and is impressed with ‘her act of defiance in their conservative surroundings' and then he falls hopelessly in love with her. Amina reciprocates his feelings and they begin meeting often at their friends' places despite knowing that their alliance — given the Shia-Sunni hostility factor — is next to impossible. Amina is a girl of fiercely independent thoughts. She believes that whatever is happening in her country, in the name of Islam, is not only immoral but is also against the basic tenets of Islam itself. She tries, passionately though unsuccessfully, to get a fatwa issued against the suicide bombing and in the process earns the moniker ‘ Fatwa Girl'. She also believes that music is something which can work as an antidote to the growing extremism in the Pakistani society and motivates Omar to join a music band. But Amina is not strong enough to defy all the societal conventions and finally she marries a politically powerful man of her own sect. Omar persuades himself that he should be happy for his beloved. Initially, Amina is satisfied with her marriage but soon she discovers that her husband is not what he pretends to be, and subsequently her life becomes hellish.

Promising start

The couple of opening chapters are really impressive; especially the author's idea to start the novel with the call of the morning prayer, and to include the backstory of Amina's family. They whet readers' appetite for the stories ahead but unfortunately the same tempo is not maintained throughout the book. There are a number of subplots which seem to be interpolated to enhance the commercial appeal of the novel. For example, there is a subplot about Gulbadan, a prostitute with a heart of gold, whom Omar meets accidently and develops some sort of friendship with her. He has a physical relationship with her and later, also helps Gulabadan escape from the tentacles of her master and pimp and takes her to her native place in the Taliban ruled valley of Swat.

Here the author has deliberately taken the story to Swat and has made Omar have an encounter with the Taliban as he is aware that anything related to Taliban sells well. Even the backstory of Omar's grandfather - he used to be amujahid or freedom fighter in Afghanistan of the Soviet days - appears to be made up. Again, Afghanistan sells well in this post 9/11 era. In the story, the Ahmedi angle given to the Shia-Sunni conflict also doesn't sound plausible.
There is a kind of impatience in his writing as he tries to pack the book with as much historical and cultural details of Pakistan as possible to make it accessible to the foreign (read American and British) readers. Then, by making his characters, time and again, heap praises on the ‘shinning India', he attempts to appease Indian readers — the author knows India is the biggest market for his novel.

Despite lacking in the literary qualities, The Fatwa Girl is an entertaining novel and you can enjoy it as you enjoy typical Bollywood movies.

Sunday, October 02, 2011


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Release and Other Stories

Here is a wonderful collection of short stories about Indian Muslims and thankfully there is no talk of terrorism or communal riots, no lurking presence of the vicious right-wing Hindu politicians, no discussion on the collective marginalisation of the community or Islam being in danger, no frequent invocation of Allah's name. Further, all major characters, to my surprise, are middle class Muslims. And like their Hindu, Christian and Sikh counterparts, they don't live in ghettos, but in bungalows and apartments. They don't work as masons, factory workers, and labourers but are businessmen, engineers, officers, software professionals... They speak English and drive cars. Like other middle class Indians, their mundane lives are guided by the social mores of their class and are, of course, not governed by the Sharia Laws.

Release and other Stories by Rakhshanda Jalil. Special Arrangement

The first story of the book, “A Mighty Heart”, is a simple but interesting tale. It is about a woman who discovers at the funeral of her son that her husband has a second wife when her step-sons come to participate in their half-brother's last rites. But for her husband's ‘deceit and duplicity' she doesn't detest her step-sons; instead she shows magnanimity and accepts them as her own.
“A Perfect Couple” is another story that touches upon the issue of marital infidelity and is a portrayal of the emotional dilemma of Samir who suddenly finds out that his seriously ill gorgeous wife loves somebody else. Heart-broken and green with envy, Samir unexpectedly empathises with his wife's lover, Ali, because “Ali's grief and terror is so like his own”.

Emotional dilemmas

Later, you meet charming but mysterious Dia Mirza in a story called “A Real Woman”. Dia's journey from a 19-year-old shy divorcee from a middle class Muslim family to a beer-drinking, cigarette smoking, and opinionated middle-aged modern woman amazes you. The idiosyncrasies of the character have been beautifully, but credibly, captured by the author. The narrative has the pace of a thriller, which makes a reader turn pages quickly. The best and most poignant, however, is the title story “Release”. This is an exquisitely woven love story of Hasan and Azra who are first cousins. Engaged to be married, they grow up together and develop a very strong fascination for each other. But, Hasan's mother's pathological aversion for his aunt and to-be-mother-in-law ends this relationship. Azra is married elsewhere and Hasan remains single. Years later, Hasan, an officer of Indian Foreign Service and the narrator of this story, returns to see Azra who is in coma at a hospital. Standing near a comatose Azra, Hasan remembers his past. His trip down nostalgia lane has been deftly handled and one feels great sympathy for these two unfortunate lovers. The story draws its inspiration from the traditions of Urdu Afsana-nigari as far as the thematic treatment is concerned.

Florid style

For each of these stories, Rakhshanda Jalil adopts the florid style of Urdu short story writing and you can actually feel the fragrance of ornate Urdu idioms and phrases in her sentences. The scenes are so vivid and evocative that you can see everything playing out like a movie. This kind of magical effects can only be created by an author who is equally at home with English and Hindi-Urdu and who can efficiently translate the emotions expressed in a native language into a foreign language and that too without losing any of the dramatic elements of the original. And Rakshanda does that with finesse.

Of the 10 stories in this collection, only two disappointed me. The remainder tickled and exhilarated me, made me cry, forced me to smile and, at times, coerced me to re-read them.

Release and Other Stories; Rakhshanda Jalil, Harper Collins India, Rs. 299

Sunday, September 11, 2011


 THE REMAINS OF A DREAM (yet to find a publisher)

The time of the Emaarat Committee meeting was announced on the loudspeakers of the Jama Masjid. All members were requested to attend the meeting, which was to be organised in the courtyard of Chhote Hakim Sahib’s house on Thursday afternoon. There were three important cases to be discussed. The first involved an inter-community issue, so senior members of the Hindu community had also been invited; among them was Chhote Hakim’s childhood friend, Harihar Prasad Srivastava. The other two cases involved only Muslims.

Arif and Shakir were also present, standing under the Neem tree at the far corner of the courtyard. The winter sun in its full glory had kept the air pleasantly warm. A crowd of more than a hundred people had gathered. But, before it started a baby goat, a buckling, emerged from under the wooden chowki, which was kept there to seat some of the junior members of the committee. All the seniors sat on the chairs. Seeing a crowd, the buckling panicked and started to run here and there.

 ‘Whose goat is it?’ Chhote Hakim Saheb asked in an authoritative tone. A frightened boy aged ten came out of the crowd. ‘Get it away soon,’ somebody shouted. The boy moved swiftly and caught the buckling by its ears and dragged it away. The crowd made way for them.

The proceedings for the first case started. Shakir told him about it, ‘Sanjay Kumar Gupta, a teacher at a local primary school was having an affair with Sabira Begum, the wife of Sheikh Waris. Sanjay frequently visited Sabira in the absence of her husband. The neighbours had noticed the two of them together many times and their rumoured affair had become the talk of the town. Last Saturday, some village women had caught them red-handed in a sugar cane field. The people of Inayat Nagar, especially Muslims could not bear this.  Since this was an inter-community issue, the elders decided to resolve it, before the issue turned communal.’

Sabira Begum sat on the bench kept in the nearby verandah, which was covered from side to side with a semi-transparent makeshift curtain.  All the women invited sat there. Sanjay was standing with his father. He kept his eyes on the ground. His father, an old man in his sixties with a white stubble of a beard, looked anxious. Sheikh Waris was not present.

Sanjay was asked if he had anything to say. Instead of speaking, he started crying.  In a swift move, his father took off his hawai chappal, the flip-flops, and started beating him. ‘Abey chutia, speak now, why are you keeping silent?’ Harihar Prasad intervened, ‘Ram Prasad! Stop this immediately. We are here to decide on this issue.’

A Hindu man snatched the chappal from his father’s hands. The old man started weeping. ‘The boy has brought shame to our family. He has smeared soot on my face. It would have been better if I were without a son.’

Syed Hafiz Ahmed, a tall man with a clean shaven pale yellow face, and one of the committee members, stood up to speak, ‘Sabira Begum, do you want to say anything in your defence?’

Through the curtain, Arif saw the silhouette of a woman standing up; she was wearing a saree and covered her head with its anchal. ‘Why is everybody so troubled with my personal life? If I do anything wrong, I will have to pay for it on the Day of Judgment.’

‘We have just asked you to say something in your defence if you have anything to say at all. If you want to live in our society, you have to follow its decorum and live with propriety. Individuals can’t be allowed to bring shame or create nuisance in our society. Your behaviour is against our religion and culture.’ This time Chhote Hakim Saheb spoke.

Suddenly her voice became acerbic as she replied. ‘Where was society when my husband was lying in the hospital? Where was society when my daughter was married off to a man double her age because we could not afford dowry for a younger groom? Is dowry not against our religion? I know that many people who are esteemed members of the Emaarat Committee also took dowry in their sons’ marriages, some openly, others discreetly. Why didn’t the Emaarat committee summon them for an explanation? Let it be. As far as Sanjay Sahib is concerned I respect him a lot. He has always helped whenever I was in trouble. I just tried to pay back his debts by being good to him. That’s all.’

Md. Nasir Ali, a short-tempered man with a soot-black beard stood up. ‘Shut up, you shameless woman!’ His body trembled with anger, and his untrimmed beard swirled in the air as he spoke. Chote Hakim Saheb silenced him and then said. ‘Did you come to ask for help from the committee?’

‘Do you expect me to go door to door with begging bowls? We are not faqirs or beggars.’
Nasir Ali again rose and shouted, ‘Shut up!’

This time Sabira stopped talking. She drew the loose end of her saree around to cover her face.

Chote Hakim Saheb silenced him again and turned towards the people to make an announcement. ‘Now members of the committee will decide upon the issue.’ They started talking in whispers. The chairs of all the seniors were drawn into a circle.

Meanwhile, Shakir said to Arif, ‘Sheikh Waris is really a eunuch. He has no control over his wife, nor is he able to f**k her; that is why she is offering her p***y to this Hindu boy. How shameful!’ A bemused Arif looked at Shakir but said nothing.

The committee announced its decision: Sanjay Kumar Gupta had to atone for his improper conduct. He was asked to spit on his chappal and then lick it and promise the committee that he would not repeat the mistake. Sabira, being a woman, was let off with a warning that if she did not mend her ways, the committee would take severe action against her.

When Sanjay was made to go through the punishment, he cried inconsolably because of the humiliation. He bent to spit on his pair of worn-out hawai Chappal with webbing blue strap, blue outsole and white insole, which had blue patches at all the pressure points, three toes and one heel bone. As soon he licked the saliva, he vomited. On the verandah, Sabira Begum turned restlessly on the bench she was sitting on.  A member of the committee remarked, ‘This will suffice to deter him from repeating anything like this in future.’ Everybody else nodded affirmatively.

All Hindu members of the village committee departed as soon as the punishment was carried out and tea and biscuits were served. Now two more cases were to be discussed. But they were strictly intra-community issues and so had to be dealt in the light of Islamic sharia by the Emaarat committe. For this purpose, Mufti Maulana Jamalluddin from the nearby village was summoned.  He had earned the title of Mufti because of his knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence and the committee valued his opinion.

The next case was a case of talaq. A elderly looking man with long white beard and a prominent prayer mark on forehead, whom Arif did not know, stood and greeted the gathering with asslam aalikum rahmetullahe barkatahu and began, ‘Md. Rafique Khan has divorced his wife by pronouncing talaq. Now, he is regretting his decision saying that it was made in a fit of anger. In fact, he has not directly said that dreaded word to his wife. He had been angry with his wife over some domestic issue and said that if she touched his lota, the water pot, which he used for wuzu, the ritual ablution, the talaq would be effected.  His wife, Shafina Begum, had in retaliation touched the lota, without realising that it was an extraordinary act. By touching the innocent copper vessel, she had severed her ties with a man to whom she had been married for the last 24 years. Like her husband, she had also become blind with anger. There was no witness to their foolhardly acts but Allah is omnipresent. Both of them had to show their faces to Him on the Day of Judgment.  So, they have mutually decided to take up the matter with the Emaarat committee to clarify if they were still man and wife or whether their divorce was final.’

The Mufti listened patiently when the old man was briefing about the case. Then, he asked the questions from Rafique khan and his wife Shafina Begum. Four witnesses were called for cross-questioning. Then, he stood to announce his decision on the validity of this talaq in the light of the Quran and Hadith. He began, ‘Talaq is allowed in Islam but detested by Allah. When a man pronounces talaq to his wife, Aers-e-Azam, the heaven trembles. But, we are human beings and prone to making mistakes. In this case, what I understand from the statements of Rafique Khan Saheb, Mohtarma Shafina Begum and the witnesses is that he had pronounced two single talaqs in the past but had taken back his wife within the period of iddat as allowed by Sharia. But, this was the third one. Although, it was not directly pronounced, but his intention was clear. Since Shafina Begum had touched the lota, it became effective. Hence, Shafina Begum is no more the wife of Rafique Khan and he has become Gair Mehram, unlawful, for her. And only after Halala is performed can he remarry Shafina Begum and take her back. For Halala, Shafina Begum has to marry somebody else, who will then divorce her. After a lapse of Iddat which means lapse of three periods, she would be eligible to remarry.’

Chhote Hakim Saheb raised his hand and said he was willing to have a nikah with Bhabhi Jaan for the purpose of Halala.

The Mufti cut him short and resumed.  ‘No Hakim Saheb, it is not so easy. First of all, remarrying a divorcee with an intention to divorce her so that she can marry her former husband is not an act of virtue and is disliked by the Almighty. Further, a symbolic marriage will be of no use. One has to marry her and has to live with her like a husband, a real husband. I mean to say, the marriage has to be consummated.’

Hakim Saheb immediately withdrew his hand.

Shafina Begum who was sitting on a chair in the verandah was quick to her feet. ‘Mufti Saheb, what had to happen has happened; I am not willing to go through Halala. How can I marry somebody else even if it is symbolic?’

‘But Islam allows women to remarry.’

‘Your words are absolutely true, Mufti Saheb. But I have never seen any woman in our village or in nearby villages remarry whether widowed or divorced. So, I can’t think of it.’

Chhote Hakim Saheb intervened, ‘Bhabhi Jaan, it is not obligatory for you to remarry.’

Finally it was decided that she could not live with Rafique Khan any longer as after the divorce, it became unlawful for her to live with him in the same house. She had to keep purdah from Rafique Khan. But, she had the right to live with her son. The Mufti ruled that her right over the land given to her by her husband in haq-mehar, the marriage gift, would stay intact and that she would be the rightful owner of the produce from that piece of land.

‘Think of it, Arif, if you were given a chance to marry this woman for a week or two. It would be really fantastic to f**k her.  Or play with her big b**bs,’ said Shakir whispering near Arif’s ear and sucking his lips. ‘Oye! Oye!’

‘Stop this dirty talk.’ Arif admonished Shakir.

Beta, don’t try to pretend. I know you will be a big f**ker whenever given the chance.’

Arif said nothing in reply but moved a few steps away from him. He suddenly began thinking about Shafina Begum. ‘Shakir is right, she has got big breasts.’ His fantasy continued only until Syed Hafiz stood to announce the third and final issue to be considered.

Kalam Khan’s only son had been ill for the past year. He had been treated by a number of doctors at Sitamarhi, Motihari and Muzaffarpur but nothing had worked. The last time his wife returned from Muzaffarpur, a Hindu woman who worked in Kalam Khan’s house as domestic help advised her to visit a Sadhu, the Hindu Saint, who lived on the bank of the river Sonaya and had cured many with his magical powers. The very next day she had visited the Sadhu without telling her husband. The medicine given by him worked and her son’s condition improved a little. The Sadhu had also advised her that if she wanted to cure her son permanently, she had to do a special puja to the Goddess Kali and offer a goat in sacrifice. She knew that if her husband found out that she had been following such rituals, he would kill her. But, she was desperate to do anything that would cure her son.  So, she decided to give it a try and asked her maid to be privy to this secret mission. She gave the Sadhu two thousand rupees to offer puja and sacrifice on her half. Although she did everything discreetly, news leaked out and reached the ears of the Emaarat Committee members.

Kalam Khan was a lean man, his genial face dominated by his big eyes. He stood near Chhote Hakim Saheb, with a worried look. He scratched his head time and again, in nervousness. His wife sat on the verandah reserved for ladies and was trembling with fear. Her saree covered her face.

As proceedings began, Kalam Khan was asked to explain his position. He started by hurling abuse at his wife. ‘I had no idea what this woman was up to. It was she who allowed herself to be misled by Iblis the devil. For ages women have led men astray. That is why it is said that if a woman doesn’t have a nose, she will even eat shit. The moment I came to know about this thing, I have beaten her and she has promised me never to repeat it in her life.’

‘Kalam, you know the consequences of being involved in the rituals of infidels. Technically, you are Muslims no more. You have done shirik, amounting to attributing a partner to Allah, one of the serious forms of sin in Islam,’ said one of the committee members.

‘I know, Chacha’, he said and began crying. He also bent to fall at the feet of Chhote Hakim Sahib. Seeing her husband weeping, his wife began to sob as well.  The wailing could be heard even where Arif was standing.

Their tears worked and melted the hearts of the Emaarat Committee members. Ultimately, Mufti Saheb asked Sheikh Wadood, an elderly man, to make the announcement.

‘After consulting with Mufti Sahib, the committee has decided that Kalam Khan was not involved in this ritual. His wife is an illiterate woman and doesn’t understand the matter of Islamic sharia. Even so, she has committed a shirik by performing such a ritual. Now, she is repentant and ready to atone. Allah is most merciful and beneficent and He is the greatest forgiver; we all will pray to the Almighty to forgive her.  She has to recite Kalam-e-tawhid proclaiming the oneness of Allah to return to the fold of Islam.’

Then he turned to Kalam Khan, ‘you have to perform kuffara to atone for the sin your wife has committed.’

‘Hanh! Hanh!’ Kalam’s voice reflected his gratitude. 

‘Listen carefully,’ Sheikh Wadood continued, ‘go and sacrifice two goats in the name of Allah and distribute meat among the poor. And, distribute food among 60 poor people. Further, your wife should observe roza, the fast, for 60 days.’

After the meeting, the crowd dispersed. ‘Allah ho Akbar’, the muezzin called for the evening prayer. The members of the committee moved towards the mosque.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Review of Pran Nevile's Book 'Sahib's India'

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Title: Sahib's India, Vignettes from the Raj. Author: Pran Nevile

(Published in The Hindu Literary Review , dated 04/09/2011)

Pran Nevile's Sahib's India is a fascinating expedition into the social lives of British in colonial India. It provides insightful details about the way they led their daily lives and their social intercourse with the native people.

The book opens with an interesting chapter titled ‘Household Retinue', telling us how the number of servants in a British household decided the position of the family in the social hierarchy. Some families had as many as hundred servants and maidservants with strict division of work and defined chain of command. In short, the White sahibs spent a luxurious life, which was full of vanity, almost comparable with the lifestyles of the old days nabobs and maharajahs. In the following chapter, the book touches upon the topic of sexual lives of Sahibs in India.

Running away from English prudery, they had very open sexual lives in India, and many of them even indulged in debauchery here. Initially, white women were scarce making the European men opt for Indian girls. The ‘Indian bibi' was a term used for an unofficial wife and long-term consort of White men. ‘Sleeping Dictionary' was another interesting nomenclature for an Indian mistress; she was called so because a mistress doubled up as a teacher of local language and culture for her master. In army cantonments, official brothels (later abolished because of strong protest by Christian missionaries) were maintained to satisfy the physiological urges of soldiers.

Later in this book, two chapters have been dedicated to two European women, Fanny Parks and Lola Montez. Fanny, an Indophile, had travelled across the country during her stay in India from 1822 to 1846. She learnt Hindi and Persian and keenly observed the Indian customs, religions and culture. Her experience as an explorer of India beautifully came out in the form of a journal. Published in 1850, her book had perceptive accounts of Indian ways of living in the first half the 19th century.

The other woman, Lola Montez, who believed in captivating men with her physical charms, had a very interesting life too. But, she does not deserve an entire chapter in book as most of her sexual adventures were outside India. Instead, a couple of paragraphs about her escapades in India would have been enough.
Subsequently, the book covers many more exciting topics about the Raj. And it has chapters on Hookah, Nautch Parties, Shikar, Sufis, astrologers, magicians, thugs, etc.

Historian's voice
The voice of the author is almost neutral and narratives have largely a matter-of-the-fact tone. Except in a couple of chapters where the author tries to force his personal views on issues like ‘religion and Indian culture' on his readers. While doing so, he appears more like a demagogue than a historian.

For example, in the chapter ‘Banning of Indian Erotic Epic', he attempts to portray the banning of Radhika Santwanam , a Telugu erotic epic with the graphic details of lovemaking, and opposition of Devadasi System as conspiracies against Indian culture hatched by the Christian missionaries and the Westernised Indian intellectuals.

The editing of the book, it seems, has been done in a hurry. At places, there are repetitions and overlapping of information. Further, the production quality of the book is not up to the mark. Pran Nevile is a respectable social and cultural historian of India and at least deserves a good quality paperback, if commercial considerations do not allow a hardcover. Despite these minor flaws, it is a highly readable book.
Sahib's India: Vignettes from the Raj, Pran Neville, Penguin India, Rs. 299.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

My Review of 'I Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded' in The Hindu

Lal Ded or Lalla, the great 14th century Kashmiri poetess and mystic, has been venerated both by Hindus and Muslims for nearly seven centuries. Known as Lalla Yogini by the Hindus and Lal Arifa by the Muslims, Lalla's mystical poems or Vakhas — despite the passage of hundreds of years — continue to inspire, guide and offer succour to the people of Kashmir on a daily basis.
Questing for truth

Born as Lalleshwari in a Brahmin family near Srinagar, she was married at the age of 12. But her spiritual inclination did not give her a happy married life. Brutalised by her husband and her mother-in-law, she left her home at the age of 26 and became a disciple of a famous saint of her time. Later, after completing her apprenticeship in spirituality, she went out as a wandering, clotheless mendicant. As a ‘quester' of the ultimate truth, she challenged the existing social practices and religious ritualism. And during those spiritual journeys and detours, she came out with her Vakhas or sayings (or ‘Utterances' as Ranjit Hoskote has suggested in his book). Each of her vakhas ‘strike us like brief and blinding bursts of light: epiphanic, provocative, they shuttle between the vulnerability of doubt and the assurance of an insight gained through resilience and reflection.' Self knowledge, renouncement of worldly desires and intense longings to annihilate the self in order to finally merge with the Supreme Being or God are the main motifs of Lalla's utterances. Here is an example:

True mind, look inside the body,
this body they call the Self's own form.
Strip off greed and lust, polish this body,
this body as bright as the sun.
There is another one:
I, Lalla, wore myself down searching for Him
and found a strength after my strength had died.
I came to his threshold but found the door bolted.
I locked that door with my eyes and looked at Him.

In context

Meticulously researched and beautifully written, the book starts with a 69-page introduction which explains the social, historical and philosophical context of Lalla's poems. For the uninitiated, it gives a grounding of the poetic and spiritual legacy of Lal Ded. And for others it unearths the hidden meanings of Lalla's Vakhas. About the proprietorial claims of the Muslim monopolists and the Hindu exclusivists over the spiritual heritage of Lal Ded, the author takes a neutral stand. He emphatically says that Lalla was a seer or yogini of Kashmiri Shaivite sect and a Sufi-saint at the same time. And that is why he refers this mystic-poet by her ‘most celebrated and non-sectarian appellation Lal Ded. In the colloquial, this means Grandmother Lal; more literally, it means Lal the Womb'. When it comes to rendering Lalla's words in English, he does an excellent job. Though this reviewer is not familiar with the Kashimiri originals but has read a number of translations of Lalla's poetry. So, he can confidently claim that the translation is of high quality. No stilted language, no vague phrases and no attempts to temper with the true spirit of the poems for making it more accessible to the Western readers.

At the end of this book in ‘Notes to the Poems' Hoskote provides a detailed commentary on the 146 Vakhas included in this collection. The commentary will help readers (non-Kashmiri readers in particular) to understand the cultural background of the poems, and to decipher the meaning of those phrases and proverbs which are rooted in the Kashmiri ethos. I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded is a wonderful offering.

I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, translated by Ranjit Hoskote, Penguin India, Rs. 450.

Published in HINDU LITERARY REVIEW dated 07 August 2011

Friday, July 29, 2011

My Review of 'Last Man in Tower'


In his Booker clinching The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga shows us the ugly underside of the shining India. The antagonist of his debut book Balram Halwai is a country bumpkin, who learns the ways of city folks quickly to climb the ladder of the social hierarchy. He doesn’t give a damn to the unethical and criminal aspects of his act, and even philosophically justifies his misdeeds which also include a murder. Balram Halwai, in fact, was just an instrument for the author to paint a greater picture of the greed infested and rabidly capitalist post- 1991 India; the country which once took refuge in its Gandhian legacy for guidance, is now being run by the carpetbaggers, pimps and middlemen. Adiga continues with the same leitmotif in his second novel (and third book) Last Man in Tower.
The protagonist of the novel is Yogesh Murthy. He is also known as “Masterji’ among his neighbours because he is a retired schoolteacher. An atheist, he firmly sticks to his principles which have earned him respect of almost everybody around him. He lives in an old crumbling housing society known as the Vishram Housing Society. Built in 1950s the society is the only one with ‘absolutely, unimpeachably pucca’ structure in entire Vakola area of Mumbai, which mostly comprises of the slums. The society in itself is a miniature of India; with all its religious and cultural diversity. The people living there are retired account, small time real estate broker, internet cafĂ© owner, social worker, etc. The people living there are Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The people living there are Punjabis, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Bengalis, etc. But they live like an extended family.

 One day, Mumbai’s well known Builder called Dharmen Shah’s prying eyes fall on this society and he decides to buy it to build his dream project, a luxurious residential complex.  He sends his emissary with an offer to all the members of the society to sell their apartments to him. His offers are more than generous. But he sets a deadline before which all residents of society must agree or the offer will be withdrawn. As the last date nears, all the flat owners take the offer except ‘Masterji’. For Masterji the house is associated with the memories of his long gone daughter and the recently dead wife, so priceless. His neighbours do not understand the emotional angle of Masterji’s attachment with Vishram Society. For them he is a great hurdle in the way of their prosperity. So, first, they try to convince him but when he refuges to budge, they become enemies and co-conspirators. Even his close friend Albert Pinto forsakes him. Finally, Dharmen Shah, with all his guile and cunningness, achieves what he has desired.

Thematically speaking, the novel is a discourse on the changing yardsticks of morality of Indian middle class where values and ethics mean nothing, and where material possession stands for everything. Masterji here symbolises the last remnant of ideals on which the idea of India was conceived in 1947 by its founding fathers. Dharmen Shah, on the other hand, is the truth of today’s India. Like Balram Halwai he rises from the dirt and becomes a shining star. On his way to success, he does not shy away from doing the things which are morally or ethically wrong if they guarantee him success. Just like Balram Halwai.

During last two decades India has witnessed a rapid economic growth that has created a big middle class and even bigger under class. This middle class has great material aspirations and are simply brutal in their approach to achieve their goals. This upward mobility among middle class has also created huge demand for the real estate. In absence of any visible governmental control over real estate activities, it has become very lucrative business for unscrupulous and undesirable elements. In bigger cities, you can observe that there are so many builders and property dealers who resemble more with a crook or a petty criminal than a respectable business man. Under the political patronage, these builders are new age mafia who do their business with the stamp of legality. Adiga, undoubtedly, has created the character of Dharmen Shah from those real people.

Aravind Adiga has worked equally hard on all the characters. From the weird and secretive Secretary of the society to the guard Ram Khare, he has fleshed out each of the characters. But, the central character Masterji doesn’t get the space he deserves. Even Dharmen Shah should have made his appearance more frequently. Further, the way the neighbours of Masterji behave after committing a ghastly crime doesn’t appear to be plausible. At places, the dialogue seems to be in the need of the tightening.

Take away the minor glitches and the novel is an apt commentary on the darker side of the contemporary India. But, when it comes to the entertainment value The White Tiger scores over this book. And when it comes to the literary merit Adiga’s second book Between the Assassinations scores over this book.
Originally Published  in The Daily Star  

Thursday, June 16, 2011




Seated on a cold bench, Arif looked at the black electronic clock hanging from the corrugated steel ceiling of platform no.1. Its blood red display said 1:43am. He left his place, walked to the enquiry booth and knocked on the glass. The man at the counter was asleep, his head resting against a table, his mouth agape. He knocked again and the man woke up with a start. Rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, his other hand reached for a bottle of water; he took a couple of swigs, and gave Arif an angry look. ‘See Mister! I’ve already told you that we’ll announce as soon as we get information about the arrival of North East Express.’ Arif moved away without a word, trudging back to his seat close by, his steps increasingly heavy with anxiety and waiting. A few yards away, a stray cow was pulling out garbage from a dustbin. And two railway porters were pushing a cart full of parcels.
It was the thirteenth time -- possibly even more -- that he had enquired about the train. He thought it was only natural for the man to get irritated. He decided that he would return to the enquiry counter only after an hour, and that would be a very long wait. Restlessness seized him. ‘Ya Allah! Please give me my brother back, and I would never ask anything from you.’ He prayed silently while tears welled up in his eyes. Stretching himself, he lay on the bench, the travel bag doubled up as a pillow, and closed his eyes. A nightmare troubled him: he saw his brother’s bullet-ridden body lying in the compartment of a train. Screaming, he jumped off the bench. ‘Zakir, my brother!’ When he realised where he was, he simply sat on the bench, holding his head.
At 3:45am, the loudspeakers announced that the routes to Mughal Sarai had been finally cleared. Then, after a dramatic pause, they added that North East Express had reached Danapur station and would be the first train to reach the platform. Arif stood up, trying to hold his tears, walked up to the edge of the platform, and looked westward for the incoming train. Far away, the signal light had turned green. The sky was morose and starless. He started reciting Surah Al-ikhlas, the verses of the divinity and oneness of God, from the Holy Quran.
Inside him ‘Hope’ and ‘Despair’ played hide and seek. One said Zakir was alive and he was aboard the train Arif was waiting for. The other said exactly the opposite. Arif’s spirit soared in anticipation of unexpected joy, and then he felt abysmally low fearing that the news about his brother might just be false.
The headlight of the engine was now visible. Arif could hear the train whistle. His heart raced, and his recitations became desperate.