Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Title of the Book: The Blind Lady’s Descendants
Author: Anees Salim
ISBN: 978-93-84030-79
Publishers: Tranquebar Press
Year 2014
Pages: 297
Price: 599.00

Lyrical Prose
I start this review with a confession. I know the author of this novel in person. And that is why for last one year I have been resisting the temptation of reviewing any of his books for the obvious reasons. But, I can’t anymore. In 2013, when I put my money on Vanity Bagh for The Hindu Fiction Prize, for a fleeting second I doubted my literary judgment. Maybe, because of my friendship with the author, I loved his novel. But, the jury of the Hindu Fiction Prize vindicated my choice, and I felt happy and relieved. Now, I can confidently say Anees Salim is one of the fresh literary voices that continue to surprise us. Don’t believe me! Please read his latest literary offering ‘The Blind Lady’s Descendant.’
Strewn with the dark humour and written in a lyrical style, the novel is crafted in form of a very long suicide note of its protagonist, Amar Hamsa. If you read it closely, you discover that it is an intimate portrayal of human life. You also find that it is also a poetry and philosophical treatise on the complexity of our existence. The book not only tells us a unique story with universal appeal but also alters our perception towards everyday things in our surroundings. It raises a lot of necessary questions about the futility of rituals and the hollowness of religious dogmas. The book also investigates the darker sides of human psyche. Delving in to the idea of family and kinship, it tells us how, at times, the relationship and familial bonding become shackles of our life.
Born into a dysfunctional family, Amar Hamsa develops a depressive attitude towards life from very tender age, thanks to their incessantly (but silently) warring parents. He begins to look at his life with doubts, not knowing exactly what he wants from his existence in this transient world. He also doesn’t know what exactly the cause of his miseries is or what would make him happy. The sadness he has been imbibing for many years has now become a part of his persona which he doesn't want to shrug off or simply he can’t get rid of it. But, all these characteristics don’t make Amar a boring or uninteresting character because his sense of humour is still intact. It is another thing that his sense of humour has a darker shade and a philosophical angle. And his cynical remarks about religion and its rituals make an interesting read. Amar’s abilities to observe things keenly make him discover many dark family secrets and those add into his sufferings and push him towards the threshold of destruction. Then, a death happens in his family and that send him to a road of no return.
In addition to Amar Hamsa, all other characters, including minor ones, are also dealt deftly. From Amar’s parents, Asma and Hamsa, to his three siblings, Sophiya, Akmal and Jasira, they all come alive on the pages of this novel. Even the inanimate objects play important roles in taking the narratives forward. The bungalow where Amar and his family live, for instance, emanates desolation and pessimism from its crumbling fa├žade hinting what lies ahead for the readers. The writer uses similes and metaphors with the exactness of a good cook using salt while preparing his favourite broth. The cook knows that a pinch more or a pinch less will spoil his dish.
The Blind Lady’s Descendants is a perfect follow up novel after the award winning Vanity Bagh. In fact, it is even better than the previous one.

[Originally published in The Dhauli Review]

Friday, July 25, 2014




Abdullah Khan
Photo: Manan Morshed
Photo: Manan Morshed
Shrief told Arif about the Pandooa, the river ghost.
Arif laughed, 'How superstitious people are in this village!'
Arif lived in the city of Patna. He had been visiting his native village Alipura after five years, where his uncle lived. Shrief, his cousin, a tall, fair Pathan, had spent all his 25 years in this village, and was mostly untouched by the general disbelief of the city folks about anything supernatural.
Sharief insisted, 'Arif, this is not superstition. At least two people from our village have seen the Pandooa.'
A few months back, Hasrat Khan had seen her first. One evening, he had gone to the river bank for his customary walk. He saw a woman, dressed beautifully in a bridal saree and blouse, laden with gold and silver jewellery, standing near a banana tree. He stopped near her and asked, 'Who are you? Why are you standing here?' She didn't reply and looked straight into his eyes. He felt a sudden shiver gripping him. He started to walk briskly towards the village. As he was about to reach the outskirts of the village, he saw the same woman standing in the middle of the road a few yards ahead of him. Her face was devoid of any expression. The following day the villagers found him lying unconscious in the middle of the road.
'An interesting story! And who was the second person to see pandooa?' Arif asked mockingly.
'Maulvi Murtuza, the sixty-five-year old Imam of the Jama Mosque.'
Photo: Manan Morshed
Photo: Manan Morshed
On a Tuesday evening, Maulvi Murtuza, had been returning from the neighbouring village. The sun had set. So, he decided to offer the evening namaz at the bank of the river. After performing wuzu, the ablution ritual, in the river, he spread his gamcha, the soft towel, on the sand and stood to pray. As he finished his namaz and bent to collect his gamcha, he saw her smiling.  He had heard from the village that a newly married Rajput girl from the neighbouring village had jumped into the river. And here she was, fully dressed in a bridal wear. He started reciting 'Ayatul Kursi' from the Holy Quran and then started running at once. He stopped only after reaching the village.
Arif remembered his grandma's words about Pandooas. 'See, they are departed souls who have committed suicide by jumping into the river. They try to kill whoever they find near the river at an odd time like noon or after dusk. They do that so that they can get some company.'
Two days later, when Arif asked Sharief to come with him to swim in the river, Shreif first hesitated. Arif challenged him saying that he was a coward despite being a Pathan, he further added, ' Shrief Bhai, this is the holy month of fasting and in this month Iblis and all evil spirits are imprisoned by Allah Ta'la  and we both are observing fast, so we should not be afraid of this Pandooa'. Shreif finally agreed and promised to go with him in the morning.
At the outskirts of the village, a poster was pasted on a defunct electric pole. It warned the wayfarers about the threat of the river ghost. It advised them not to go near the river alone after dusk. Such electric poles were everywhere in the village. But there was no electricity. The Member of Parliament who had won the Inayat Nagar constituency for the last three terms, could do only that much for the development of the village.
Arif and Sharief walked past the tiled houses with mud walls, thatched hutments, and then came to Shohaib Khan's bungalow. An Englishman, an indigo cultivator, had built it almost a hundred years ago. While leaving India in the 1930s, he had handed over the house to his only friend in the village, Sohaib Khan's father. They climbed the embankment of mud and sand, which surrounded Alipura and other nearby villages. As they were climbing down, Arif looked for a suitable place and sat down to pee. The narrow stream of water hit the field and his eyes searched for a dry piece of earth or grit for Kuluf.  When Arif got up, Sharief remarked, 'Arif, always look before you pee. See, you have pissed on ashes. Never do that again. Bones and ashes are the food of Djinns. This can anger them.'
Arif laughed, slightly shaking his head but said nothing.
At the river, they bathed and swam till noon. In the evening Arif fell sick. A fever with a chill came on him. He was trembling and shivering continuously. Hanif the compounder, a retired army man, was called. He had experience of working in military hospitals as a nursing assistant and was the best-qualified doctor in the village. Qurban Ali the homeopath was also called. But, both of them could bring only Arif some temporary reprieve. The shivering kept returning. When Arif's uncle, Abdul Waheed Khan, learned about his visit to the river, he was very angry with Sharief. 'Must have been possessed by the river ghost,' his aunt, Saleha Begum, remarked. On her advice, Abdul Waheed Khan called the Imam of the Jama Masjid. He recited from the holy book and blew on Arif.
During the night, Arif remained calm and slept well. But in the morning the trembling returned. This time it was more violent. Two blankets and a quilt were needed to cover him. A woodfire was kept burning. Hanif the compounder was once again called. Arif's uncle decided he would take Arif to an MBBS doctor in Motihari if his health did not improve by tomorrow.
Asma Begum, an old lady in the neighbourhood, told Saleha Begum, Arif's aunt, that it was nothing but Jarwa-Jaraiya. 'Dulhan! You must call Baso Nani immediately. She knows the totka and rituals to get rid of Jarwa-Jaraiyya. Inshallah! He will be OK by tomorrow,' she advised. Saleha Begum immediately sent Sharief to fetch her. Abdul Waheed Khan was not at home. Otherwise, he would not have allowed this to happen. According to him, this was a Hindu ritual, one a Muslim must not associate with.
Photo: Manan Morshed
Photo: Manan Morshed
Baso Nani was grandmother to everybody in the village. From a six-year-old to a seventy-year-old, everyone called her Nani. She had been living in this village for the last fifty or sixty years. She had come here to live with her daughter and son-in–law who were long dead. There were no grandchildren.  She lived alone in a thatched house, surviving on the charity of the village people. Many of the villagers believed that Baso Nani knew magical things. A few of the village women even blamed her for indulging in witchcraft.
Baso Nani, a frail looking woman with silver white hair and who walked with the help of a stick, arrived. She asked Saleha Begum to bring Arif out in the open air since Jarwa-Jaraiya needed an open space to fly away. She got ready to start the ritual to get rid of Jarwa-Jaraiya. Baso Nani would now tell the story of Jarwa-Jaraiya.
Once upon a time, a widow lived in a village with her only son. Her son was very naughty and mischievous.  One day, out of anger, the widow hit her son on the head with a stick. It started bleeding. The boy, angered by his mother's behaviour, left the house and ran away from the village. He went to a city and was adopted by a rich, childless couple.
After their death, he inherited all their property and business. He became very rich. Since then, twelve years had passed. One day he was passing through the village alone. He felt that the place was familiar to him, and decided to stay in the village for a few days. One evening, he saw the widow and fell in love with her. The widow also fell in love with him. The villagers came to know about their love affair and decided to organise a marriage ceremony. The widow became pregnant. One morning, she was massaging her husband's head when she saw the mark of a gash. When she asked him, he told her that as a child, his mother had hit him with a stick and he had run away from his village at the age of six or seven. He could not recall the name of his village or his mother's face.  But, the woman looked at his face and realised  this man's face resembled that of her first husband so much.
When they came to know that they were mother and son, they were so ashamed and sad that they decided to commit suicide. They prepared a pyre and jumped into it. Even after death, their souls got no rest. The man became Jarwa and the woman became Jaraiya. Now they trouble people by possessing them, making them shiver. Whenever the story of their shameful liaison is repeated before the person they possess, they run away.
'O! Jarwa Jaraiya, if you have shame, go away from here.  If you don't go away, I will repeat the story of your sinful liaison,' Baso Nani spoke in a very loud voice.
Baso Nani was repeating the lines again and again when Abdul Waheed Khan walked in. He was furious with Saleha Begum, 'How dare you call this oldie to do something which is prohibited in our religion. That too in this holy month of Ramzan. Biddat is a great sin, you foolish woman.'  His face blazed with anger while he spoke.
Saleha Begam said nothing.
'Bade Abaa….' Arif tried to intervene but could not muster courage to do so. Frightened, Baso Nani left the chair she was sitting on, drew the pallu of her saree to cover her face and receded in the corner of the verandah. And she was about to turn to leave when Abdul Waheed Khan turned to her, ''who told you to come here and perform this ritual of idol worshippers. Get out from here, and don't come to my house ever. Bloody witch.' Baso Nani began to a sob. Abdul Waheed Khan lifted the walking stick and handed it over to Baso Nani and yelled, 'Get out of here, right now.'
Arif had listened to the story with great attention. In fact, he enjoyed this unusual treatment for his illness. He felt bad when his uncle humiliated the old lady. He was sad to see Baso nani crying. She reminded him of his own grandma whom he loved dearly. But, he remained silent.
Next day was the Eid.  Surprisingly, Arif recovered fully within five or six hours of his treatment. On the following morning, he even went to Idgah to offer namaz with his uncle and cousins.
The same evening Baso Nani was found dead in her thatched house.
Published: 12:00 am Friday, July 25, 2014
Last modified: 2:09 pm Wednesday, July 23, 2014