Friday, August 16, 2019

Sita Under the Crescent Moon by Annie Ali Khan

Book Review 

Sita Under the Crescent Moon by Annie Ali Khan

"Meeting Durga at Hinglaj reminded me of the sacrifices life demands at every step." (From the book's foreword)
Sita under the Crescent Moon by Quratulain (Annie) Ali Khan chronicles sacred sites through the length and breadth of Sindh and Balochistan provinces in Pakistan in vivid detail where women seek solace in worship, derive strength to fight their ordeals, pray for a cure for illnesses that plague them and their loved ones and share a few moments of ecstasy, a feeling of oneness with the Almighty.
The author born in Karachi returns to her city as a writer after spending a few years in New York. She sets off on a pilgrimage to a site highly remote and equally sacred - Hinglaj, the resting place of Durga, popularly known as Nani Pir by locals in Balochistan, the largest province by land in Pakistan, constantly in strife against the state, sparsely populated and extremely rich in natural resources.
Sati fought for her husband, Lord Shiva's dignity and immolated herself turning the sacred fire of her father Daksha's yagna into a sacrificial pyre. Her body was chopped into pieces by Lord Vishnu, 52 of which fell on Earth, her head falling on this remote mountain at Hinglaj, nestled in the heart of a lush oasis along the barren Makran coastal belt.
Treacherous terrain, persistent political issues and threats from militants, repeated attacks on religious minorities, innumerable security checks hardly deter the pilgrims from flocking and paying their respects at Hinglaj. They arrive at Devi's cave temple after a difficult trek up a barren, dormant volcano called Chandra Goop en route where prayers are offered to Lord Shiva.
From here on, the author sets on a quest to learn more about the legend of women burned or buried or swallowed by the Earth and then worshiped.

The Spiritual Odyssey Begins

Accompanied by a social worker from Lyari neighborhood in Karachi - Naz, the author sets out to witness a Maalid ceremony, a dhamaal or a Sufi dance in a settlement called Kalri. We get an insight into types of dhamaal, their origin traced to Sheedi community (settlers from Africa) and from people of Ratanpur, Rajasthan.

The dhamaal commences well into the night to the beat of drums. Heads circle, arms sway, some women fall into a rapture to the music and frankincense fragrance. The dhamaal bestows few moments of oneness with God for women with untold suffering - guarding their kith and kin from gang wars, police encounters, sudden disappearances and routine domestic violence.

The spiritual sojourn begins from Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine facing the sea in Karachi, the seventh largest city in the world, earlier only a fishing hamlet called Mai Kolachi after the local deity here. It is believed that this shrine was well connected to Haji Ali in Bombay and was an oft frequented route by many Sufi saints before the borders came into existence. 

The author thereafter travels to Manghu Pir shrine, the tale behind a lake of crocodiles here is an interesting one. Gaji Shah shrine, one visited only by women in Johi, close to Hyderabad is the next stop. Livelihood is extremely difficult in this town with the water poisonous and unfit for consumption and almost no electricity supply.

The Mecca of shrines- Laal Shabaz Qalandar's shrine - Sehwan Sharif with its beautiful golden dome in Dadu is the most popular tourist spot for spirit seekers. Unfortunately, this was the site of a devastating bomb blast in Feb 2017. The author travels further down to Keti Bunder wildlife sanctuary near the delta to pay a visit to Shah Aqeeq's shrine who is widely believed to be the spiritual surgeon. 

Every visit details out popular tales woven around the sacred site, provides a description of nearby villages, and prevailing social conditions. The seemingly incongruous accounts of travel shape up as we read a detailed account of Miran Pir shrine, Karachi.

We understand that the word 'Sita' used in the title is only metaphorical as the author compares Miran Pir to Sita in Bala Kand of Ramayana. Much like how a chasm in the Earth opened in front of Sita and welcomed her and closed over her head; Miran Pir was also swallowed by the Earth as she prayed to save her dignity.

Women from different countries come here for a sacred thread and some clay, with the hope that water from Shah Pari will cure their children. Their resolute faith keeps the shrine's caretakers going about their chores with a smile even when they are on the verge of giving up on life and living.

In search of Sati and Sita

"That is how a young woman's body was, a pot made of unbaked clay that had to spin, spin, spin before it was emptied of its milk- before the clay pot , like the body, fell , turned to dust. " (as quoted in the book) 

The author's spiritual excursions take her to shrines in Thatta in Sindh, to the hill of Makli, to shrines of Sheik Ali, Satiyan Bibi, as far as Khuzdar in Balochistan to the shrine of Shah Noorani.

She worships the seven sisters, the Satiyan who fled the clutches of evils that accosted them and prayed for the earth to consume them at Mai Mithi in Tharparkar, east of Karachi, very close to the Indian border.

Every where she encounters women who cannot leave their homes without a male company making a difficult pilgrimage alone. She delves into many life stories that render a plain fact - many women led and lead lives worse than a caged bird.  

Analysis and Recommendation

Sita under the Crescent Moon, a work of non fiction centered on travel to spiritual sites, provides information on local folklore, socio-economic conditions in a region with few details from contemporary political history. Through a kaleidoscope of all elements mentioned above, the book gives a voice to women who want nothing, who have nothing and for whom nothing is everything.

The read definitely gets cumbersome at places with information overload. Accounts of women's strife and girls possessed by spirits though elicit empathy get trite with repetition, A rudimentary map behind the covers of the book does minimal justice for the scale of travel undertaken. Few photographs from shrine visits and of locals would have illuminated this work of reportage better.

Nevertheless, the epilogue of the book written by the author's friend provides reasons why one should read this book. The author's painstaking efforts over three years to give voice to the women who would never be heard or allowed to speak undertaking extensive travel alone to the most remote and dangerous locations in Pakistan is highly laudable.

In small parts, the book also serves as the author's memoir, of her childhood days largely. From a simple, curious girl to a brave writer, her life was one truncated too soon. This book serves as a testament to her passion for writing and sacrifices that life demands ruthlessly at times. In a way, she too reminds us of Sati or Sita, under the crescent moon.

3.5 stars - Buy a copy and assimilate this work slowly.

Suggested Reading

The author's stories as a journalist  -
  1. Missing Daughters of Pakistan -

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Marooned in the War against Nature

Book Review 

A short preface before I get down to the review

NA D'Souza, the author worked for about 25 years in connection with the Sharavati hydroelectric project and has seen the Linganamakki Dam come into existence. He has seen people dismantling homes, loading their families into lorries and carts migrating to lands allotted to them, deserting an identity and life they knew all along for generations. His keen and upclose observations of displacement and loss that development spurs to produce gains for a few are poured out into this novella.

Development-induced destruction is the central theme in this novella Dweepa and his many other books that include Mulugade (submersion) and Oddu (Dam/Barricade). He is known in Kannada literary circles as 'submersion' writer for he has exclusively focussed on people and families affected by big dams.

Dweepa, first published as a book in 1978 though written years back, describes an insider's view of what it means to live amidst fear of being marooned. The river Sharavati, bound by a dam, the rain - river's companion form central characters in the book. The chapters are named after stars that influence different phases of monsoon. The dam, a man-made evil not only threatens livelihood but creates deep chasms in human relationships.

The book was made into a movie too by Girish Kasaravalli and won President's Gold Medal in 2006. The translation into English is by Susheela Punitha, a retired professor of English, Mount Carmel College.
The translator's note elaborates the challenges translators face and asserts the importance of the process. The Oxford Novella series editor vouches to bring literary excellence bundled with socially relevant themes to the reader's table.

The review

Five families in a small village on the banks of river Sharavati - Hosamanehalli find themselves living in constant fear of submersion due to Sharavati hydroelectric project and construction of Linganamakki Dam. Two landlords and their labourers move to government allotted land in nearby towns in haste, content with compensation available.

Ganapayya, his wife Nagaveni and his ailing father Duggajja become the sole human inhabitants of the village. While cultivation of areca nuts and paddy in their lands engrosses them initially, the dread of loneliness, the fear of rising waters leaving them marooned in Hosamanehalli soon engulf them completely, damaging their lives irrevocably.

The river Sharavati is a principal character in the story, first free to flow her natural course, only to get blocked later, to get restless, swell in size and get unpredictable; quite like a human being who wriggles and gets violent under a loathsome, compelling force. The monsoon rains along with whistling winds are her companions instilling more power in her to break free from bondages the dam impose upon her.

The chapters are named after stars that influence different phases of monsoon - Krithika and Rohini where grey, overcast skies urge man to prepare for a rough monsoon period ahead; Mrigashira and Aridhra describe rain's unabated fury, it's only intent to soak the parched earth until verde green.

Ganapayya harbors many untold worries that turn him bitter and taciturn with time. This affects his relationship with his wife which only worsens with arrival of Krishnayya, an orphan/labourer who grew up in Nagaveni's house who comes to lend a helping hand with farm work.

What happens to Ganapayya and his family, the village? Do they withstand the onslaught of river that monsoon? What havoc does the huge concrete dam wreak? To know the answers, read this perfectly crafted book with an end so befitting, well translated, rendered with elements that show how man is closely knit with nature and how his intent to often alter it affects him in ways more than one causing unfathomable damage with time. HIGHLY RECOMMEND this read!!

Creepy tales all the way from Argentina

Book Review 

Twenty stories - eerie, haunting, creepy, unsettling, vaguely dystopian that leave a feeling of walking down dark and cryptic alley ways during an unearthly hour are bundled into this slim volume.

Most of the stories twitch your eyelids, send a shudder down your spine and chill your bones as the author, a master of macabre, presents peculiar content with immaculate precision. Praises heaped on her at the start of the book addressing her as Edgar Allan Poe of Argentina and a modern day blend of Grimm brothers and Kafka are no exaggerated claims. The first five stories literally bowled me over, churning my gut at times; an impactful start for the book that doesn't disappoint you till the end.

Stories - Butterflies and Slowing down reveal the author's exceptional talent in crafting powerful tales in an extremely  limited space. These reminded me of Daphne du Maurier's short story - The Old Man.

Headlights, Preserves, Mouthful of Birds, The Test, Olingiris, Heads against Concrete, Underground, The Heavy suitcase of Benavides are other big favorites from the collection. Violence is a strong undercurrent in all stories - in some it is explicit and brash and in others it is subtle, like a vehement force that constantly works for a change. The book only little over 200 pages demands absolute attention to detail and slow absorption over time. I loved reading this book and definitely look forward to reading more from this author.

Have you heard the famous song by a group Scorpions - Here I am, Rock you like a Hurricane? This book renders that song loud and clear as you read it.

Volga reinvents Yashodhara for her Readers

"Why is a woman's intellectual prowess mistaken for madness?"

Volga does it again - raising important questions about our society, filling gaps in history in a seamless manner, her imagination full and fierce in this work that provides a minor enlightenment for the reader even within the precincts of a room.
About 175 pages long, with a slow start, the book introduces us to Siddhartha Gautama, son of Mahamaya Devi (who dies seven days after childbirth) and king Suddhodhana of Kapilavastu. Mahaprajapati Gotami brings up Siddhartha, the sensitive child right from his birth.

Siddhartha's extremely loving and compassionate nature, learning Kshtriya skills only for knowledge and never to wield superiority over foes, hatred for violence and bloodshed, inclination to question the real purpose of life and human relations leave his parents in utter doubt and despair.

Time binds Siddhartha in marriage with beautiful and industrious Yashodhara, daughter of a rich landlord Bimbanana from neighboring Koliya village. Both realise similar questions intrigue them, they denounce similar practices of the society and yearn to serve the humanity.

To start with, it appears Siddhartha under tutelage of Kalamuni and Sramanas, already on his path to attain true knowledge of the world shapes up attentive Yashodhara's way of thinking. The story changes course post 100 pages where with an incident, Yashodhara realises that she can't become a pathfinder herself and must pave the path for her husband instead. She vows to make it comfortable for him to break familial ties without guilt, urges him with an undying passion to lead the world out of darkness of dogma into the light of rational thought.

How Yashodhara manages to achieve this, what are the obstacles she faces from members of her family, what happens to her when Siddhartha leaves the palace and their few days old son in search of the ultimate truth form the rest of the story.

Behind every successful man is a woman - they say; this book is the story of a woman who with single minded devotion nurtured her husband's dream as her own and catalysed the transformation of Siddhartha to Gautama Buddha.

Allowing some room for further discussion, here I would like to state the importance of translation.
" To fight a war you just need to go with a weapon into the battlefield. There you fight on one side and win over the other. Preventing a war is different. It is fighting with both the sides and winning over both sides. That is very hard." - page 94, as spoken by Siddhartha Gautama to Yashodhara. (written in Telugu by Volga, translated by PSV Prasad). Some lines stay with you even days after you are done with the book. 

Within the confines permitted by a language, the translator replicates original ideas, emotions and events with best and sincere intentions to retain the sheen as in the native language. And to achieve this, one wields an superior command in both the languages in question. Despite that prowess, a translator barely lays claim to the success of having made the original work reach millions of more readers.

If not for translation, I couldn't have read Tagore's Choker Bali. I would have missed the brilliant pieces of literature from Vaikom and Thakazhi of earlier times and that of KR Meera and TD Ramakrishnan from present. I wouldn't have developed a soft corner for Bengali literature if I hadn't read Mahaswetha Devi and Buddhadeva Bose. I wouldn't have got back to reading so fervently after a break of few years had someone not translated the book 'A Man called Ove' from Swedish.

Going along a predefined and chartered path with limited freedom and creativity under tight control is undoubtedly a tough job. It for this reason that people like Arunava Sinha, Lakshmi Holmstrom and Rakshanda Jalil impress me and command greater respect. Their names drive me to pick books without a second thought.

Each language has a flow, a structure, elements of beauty and poignance that make it unique but as a simple mortal with a clear inability to master multiple languages, translated works are only a boon in my opinion. While we feel something is amiss and lost in the course of translation, it is only a question of viewing a cup as half full or half empty.

More Complications than Color in this Garden

Book Review

"I once read some where that the single minded pursuit of one course over a lifetime can only be justified if one engages in two enterprises - building a garden, or raising a child". Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar's My Father's Garden ends with the lines above, leaving a feeling of warmth and love for nature, a sense of sadness for the unfulfilled dreams and unspoken thoughts of its characters; something beyond comprehension - if the book worked in parts or as a whole.

It is a coming of age tale of a young Santhal man, studying in Jamshedpur medical college described in first person narrative, divided into three parts - short novellas knitted together to make up a memoir. A huge positive - lucid description of Jharkhand's  towns and villages, the festivals, food and customs, life of  Santhals, the demand of Adivasis for a separate homeland and the ensuing political movement enriches the reading experience only after half of the book is over.

The first part 'Lover' details the narrator discovering his sexuality, the freedom to ponder about love at college away from home and his affairs with three men, one serious enough to thoroughly devastate him. The details are extremely graphic and often leave a sense of revulsion.

The narrator is posted at Sadar hospital, Pakur, Jharkhand, a highly minimal government hospital in the second part 'Friend' where he allows a daily routine to swallow his life in entirety. He befriends a certain Bada Babu only to realise that there is more to this cherubic, good-willed man. Serious life-like things: government bureaucrats, red tapism, votebank politics and constant exploitation the poor face allow the narrator to mature and grow.

The last part 'Father' details out the narrator's family - his grandfather, his father, their undying passion to achieve tough goals for a better life. A 'big slice of life' in rural Jharkhand is painted in beautiful colors. The narrator's inner turmoil, his failure to become a perfect son his father wishes for indicate how the weight of expectations squeezes and pushes one in ways possible to fit into a void in the family's jigsaw puzzle.

The book is an amalgam of many emotions and as is with human emotions, they are never uncomplicated, so is the read that leaves a sense of void even when pages turn no more.