August month sees the celebration of Indian writing in the form of a readathon called - Discovering India readathon hosted by select Indian bookstagrammers on the Instagram platform.
Adding my reviews of four books that I read for the readathon - different books fitting different prompts/themes marked for the month long readathon.
1. Sepia Leaves
Sepia Leaves by Amandeep Sandhu, semi autobiographical in nature, is an account of a 7 yr old boy Appu's highly fractured childhood with a schizophrenic mother (he calls her Mamman) and a meek father (he calls as Baba) who has unconditionally surrendered to fate. Appu acts as a bridge between his parents who don't touch each other even by mistake. At a tender age, he swaps roles with his mother, escorting her to the hospital for her psychiatrist visits, cajoling her to eat, calming her after her bouts of unguarded temper for she simply cannot stand the sight of Baba.
The narrative shifts between the present - Baba has passed away at the age of 66 in their Bangalore home and the past - Appu's childhood days in well planned steel town of Rourkela during the period of Emergency mingled with days spent in parents' native towns - Rajpura and Bhatinda, Punjab and in his boarding school in Dehradun. After Baba's death, Appu makes a piecewise approximation of the trio's journey as a family, not an absolutely normal one but one that managed some peace with the passage of years from memories, pictures in albums, ghazal casettes, diary entries written and letters filed by Baba.
The book is absolutely brilliant for its brutal honesty. It needs lot of mettle to lay bare details of a difficult childhood, talk of one's parents, their shortcomings without getting judgemental, a nearly impossible feat. There are parts that make you cry (not just moist eyed).
Baba is definitely a man from Mars, he defines what true commitment is, loves and cares without reasoning, staying distant from his wife who physically abuses and mentally tortures him reducing him into an aimless pulp. Appu too in many ways is like Baba for his sense of commitment and love.
The book clearly reveals the plight of the caregivers for the mentally ill, how their lives totally eclipsed dwindle between the storm at home and silence outside for people on streets either kill them with excess pity or stigma.
Sepia Leaves has important lessons for parents without getting preachy - to not thrust what they feel is good for the kid but know what the kid feels is right , to draw a line on information dissemination - know how much to keep away and divulge to kids, never expect them to prematurely shoulder too many responsibilities that the very word responsible itself evokes hatred. The book would have shone brighter with tighter editing in parts and with some important WHY s getting answers. Memory constantly shifts shapes , their origin at times cannot be traced, they stay strong or get too frail to recall but to let them go rather than have them weigh upon us may be the best exercise as quoted in the book - "in order to generate new life , a tree sheds its sepia colored leaves".
2. The Night of Broken Glass
The Night of Broken Glass by Feroz Rather is a collection of 13 interconnected short stories set in Kashmir scarred by 3 decades of insurgency. Sharing characters and events between them, these do not interlock perfectly like puzzle pieces but weave in to make an impressive 'dastarkhwaan'. The book begins with - The Old Man in the Cottage where an unnamed narrator's earnest wish - to wreak vengeance on Inspector Masoodi who nearly killed him 25 yrs back is squashed by a strange twist of fate. In other quirky stories, tyrannical Inspector Masoodi is taunted by a rebel leader's ghost and highly notorious Major S who unleashes terror in the valley has his inner demons to tackle daily when he heads back home.
The Souvenir gives a quiet but strong blow where a teenager strings a rosary not out of prayer beads but from bullet shells. Rosy, The Cowherd, Robin Polish, The Night of Broken Glass studded with many characters freely moving between them make an incisive commentary on caste divide and gender atrocities that plague the society. With Syeds on top of the caste ecehelons and Sheiks near its bottom, powerful lines reveal how man erects many invisible 'walls' around him. There is no escape from excessive scrutiny of identity even on death - was he a renegade or a martyr? A collaborator or a rebel?
Stories - Summer of 2010, The Stone Thrower and The Pheran send a terrific chill down the spine.
Feroz Rather's lyrical prose, little ornate at places, juxtaposes the beauty of Kashmir with brutality of everyday existence here. A Pheran with embroidered venations of leaves in its neckline and sleeves symbolises beauty, also a bullet ridden Pheran is all a father has to remind him of his deceased son. The valleys and peaks pose in splendor against the eyesore like military camps - huge concrete walls, barbed wired tops & piled up sand bags. A snag in a machine ruthlessly consumes an innocent's life on the Zero Bridge which gets etched in our memory as a site of horror. This masterfully crafted collection that draws its title from German November pogrom - Kristallnacht (reasons become clear in last few stories) makes a good, impactful read.
3. Khooni Vaisakhi
The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act - a draconian law that allowed indefinite preventive detention, arrests without warrant, no judicial trial turned out to be huge turning point in the Indian independence movement, none in the British Raj anticipating the opprobrium it would generate.
Dubbed as no Dalil, no Vakil, no Appeal, the passage of the act prompted resignation of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Madan Mohan Malviya from the Legislative Council. Dr. Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew lead a huge hartal in Amritsar, mobilized people from both Hindu & Muslim communities in huge numbers for the Rama Navami celebrations on April 9, 1919. The display of communal amity shocked and scared the British to such extent that the two leaders were arrested and deported the next morning to Dharamsala on orders by Governor of Punjab - Micheal O Dwyer. Repeal of the 'Black' Act and release of arrested leaders were clear demands of the people. In quick precipitation of events, Brig Gen Reginald Dyer was posted in Amritsar to control the mayhem.
On 13, April 1919, with 50 soldiers for assistance, he ordered opening fire on a large, peaceful and unarmed crowd gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, an enclosed maidan on Vaisakhi day. Sealing the main entrance, he ordered 1650 rounds of firing till they ran out of ammunition creating the worst 10 minutes in our history leaving a toll that till day cannot be accurately confirmed. The bullet pockmarked wall and the Martyr's well are silent reminders of the most heinous episode under colonial rule, one that made Tagore give up his knighthood and Gandhi his Kaiser i Hind title.
Nanak Singh, the father of Punjabi Literature, a trail blazing writer was 22 when he visited the Bagh on the fateful day, he survived the massacre but the indelible mark it left on him made him pen down the poem Khooni Vaisakhi. Published , only to be banned and destroyed in entirety by the British in May 1920, it took 6 decades to trace a stray copy of the original and many's concerted efforts to republish it. The translation of the poem by the author's grandson Navdeep Suri came years later.
The poem in bilingual format is comprehensively packaged along with the translator's recollection of his grandfather's life and literature, the Bagh Massacre, the events in its run up and immediate aftermath. Justin Rowlatt's The Sins of the Great Grandfather talks about a sense of shame he can never assuage. HS Bhatia's essay details excellent instances in Punjabi Literature centered about the massacre. A scathing critique of the British Raj, an impeccable piece of survivor's literature on contemporaneous history , a precious artefact, Khooni Vaisakhi makes a must read for every person who can trace their origin to undivided India.
4. Walled City
From an art critic & an artist, Esther David turned an author at the age of 50 with this debut work. That she chose to write about the Indian Jews is readers' good fortune. Set in Ahmedabad, The Walled City in short chapters is a 'coming of age' story of a young girl in a large Indian Jewish family. Beginning 1940, our unnamed narrator (possibly in pre/early teens) through description of her family members, friends, other important people, and scattered life events paints a family saga in which she is trying hard to understand her roots, her home and her Jewish identity.
With no clear plot and a slow start, what feels like "why am I even reading this" transforms into an irresistible urge to keep reading for the pull of the author's writing grows on you. In staccato prose, the narrator weaves a web of life (rich in Jewish everyday traditions) with her parents, maternal and paternal grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, school friends and domestic help detailing the clear imprint each one of them has on her. There are many characters but you are never squashed under the number. Winds of change blow constantly over the family as its members carefully safeguard the purity of their tribe and ensure strict adherence to Jewish rituals. Old ones die, sons in the family go astray; it's left to the women and young girls of the household to bury themselves under a gravestone of 'responsibility'. The narrator and her cousin Malkha are groomed to bury their dreams of romance and family life, expected to serve as an anchor for their old parents even as they remain rudderless thus giving this work a clear feminist tone. The sights, sounds and smells of Ahmedabad, the demonic riots that plague the city come alive in writing.The Sabarmati river that divides the city often matches the narrator's moods.
The insight the author offers into daily life of the Indian Jewish community is terrific that at the end of the book, you may want to kiss the Mezuzah before entering home or put a Kiddush cup of wine to your lips on Sabbath day. A crackling debut novel in 200 pages where each turn of a page sharpens the final image in words, so poignantly beautiful.