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

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon: Book Review

Land of Terror: The mountainous region of Waziristan, the setting of Fatima Bhutto's book. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon: Fatima Bhutto    Penguin/Viking

In this striking novel set in Pakistan’s frontier province of Waziristan, Fatima Bhutto attempts to bring to life the myriad aspects of life on opposing sides of strife. The intriguing opening draws readers into a world of apparent normalcy, a small town where the bazaars are opening to accommodate last minute Eid shoppers. Yet ominous forces cast heir shadow upon this community of ordinary people going about their daily business. The “fog makes it seem as though the tanks aren’t there at all. On the roofs of the town’s buildings, snipers lie in their nests, surrounded by sandbags.”
This is a world where religion has become politicised. People now choose their mosque carefully. “Fridays were no longer about the supplicants; they were about the message delivered to them by faithful translators of the world’s clearest religion.” Men of Pakistan’s frontier regions like Inayat and Ghazan Afridi felt that they were treated by those in power as barbarians. They knew that ‘democracy’, ‘development’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘devolution’ were mere words, new ways used by the government to “use our own people against us.” Men like them dedicated their youth to struggling against oppression. The state began fighting its own. “Town by town, civil wars were lit by the wide-scale violence of the army — a violence that spanned decades and finally reached its zenith in the War on Terror.” Peaceful dissident professors, students and intellectuals were illegally captured by the government authorities to join the ranks of the undead, the missing, and the unknown. Or, like Azmaray, their brutalised and mutilated bodies were left on university campuses to serve as public warnings.

This novel spans the startling events of a single day in the lives of Inayat’s three sons and Ghazan Afridi’s daughter Samarra. The author deftly moves the narration back and forth, using flashbacks to trace developments in the lives of these young people striving to live and love in the throes of rebellion. Inayat’s three sons have chosen different stances on the ongoing conflict in their homeland. The eldest, Aman Erum’s quest for “success, comfort, respect” and freedom from the restrictions of life in a small border town leads him to sell his soul as an informant to Colonel Tarik of the Pakistani intelligence. In exchange for a passage to the US to seek a coveted foreign degree, he makes the deal himself, eagerly dropping “his country like a weight off his back.” He sacrifices and later betrays his childhood sweetheart Samarra, who becomes the object of the youngest brother Hayat’s affection. Samarra and Hayat take on the burden of their fathers’ struggle to free their homeland. These two idealists face danger, disenchantment and pain. Aman Erum’s second brother Sikandar chooses the middle path as a doctor striving to practice the profession of peaceful healing in his ravaged homeland. Yet violence overwhelms him, snatching his young son in an act of terror.

The author tells their stories in polished prose. Some memorable passages bring to vivid life the characters and their world. We feel for the characters and can understand, if not always agree with, their actions and motivations. However, one wishes also to know them better, to get more glimpses of their inner lives. We could, for example, look deeper into Sikandar’s love for his son and wife, and the reasons for his staying on in his homeland, while many of his colleagues migrated abroad.

Samarra is a strong and memorable character; the tomboy who evolves into a beautiful, confident and complex young woman capable of powerful emotions. Sikandar’s wife Mina, in contrast, is quite flat. Crazed by the loss of her child, she goes to the funerals of strangers, hoping to understand her loss. The older women, Malalai and Zainab, are also one-dimensional, quietly coping and keeping the home fires burning in the background. Colonel Tarik and the Taliban leader, who intercepts Sikandar on a mission of healing, have immense potential. As the novel stands, we get only the briefest glimpses of them. Explorations of the mind behind the spy kingpin’s hand that turns the wedding band on his finger as he recruits traitors and tortures innocents, would enrich the narrative. The Taliban leader lets Sikandar and Mina go, when Mina’s hysterical rants remind him of his role in the misdirected attack which killed Mina’s child. Delving into the human side of a hardcore extremist would offer another unique perspective on the many facets of war and violence.

This review is published in Sunday Herald

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Nazi Goreng by Marco Ferrarese; book review

Association with Kitaab, an exhaustive website on Asian writing in English, gives me the opportunity to read books from other Asian countries which are not accessible in India. Marco Ferrarese' racy novel Nazi Goreng gave me ringside view of the world of young Malay fanatic skinheads.

This exciting and engrossing novel explores racial animosity and urban crime. Steeped in local colour, this very Malaysian story has wider relevance in today’s world of the global village. Urban conglomerates the world over are rapidly becoming cultural melting pots. People are migrating to far corners of their country and abroad in search of a better job and life. This trend can heighten the insecurity of indigenous populations, who feel threatened as they perceive outsiders to be vying with them for finite resources and jobs. Urban crime and racial tensions are the inevitable result.

Foreigners migrate to Malaysia in search of a better life. Even educated people like Ngoc and her friends leave their home in Vietnam.   The math is simple but compelling. In a corporate office in Vietnam, Ngoc ‘s university degree in Economics will fetch her only half the pay that she earns as a waitress in Malaysia.  The author perceives Malaysia’s multi-racial and multicultural society as akin to the wholesome local dish, nasi goreng, which is a delicious mix of varied and nutritious ingredients. The book’s title is a play on this, and the racial bigotry which can ruin the beautiful cultural symphony.
In Nazi Goreng, the author skilfully draws us into the story of small-town boy Asrul’s metamorphosis from innocent victim of street violence, to a neo-Nazi skinhead out to brutalize foreign immigrants, who is sucked into Malaysia’s underworld of drug trafficking and crime. ...

The author brings the setting to life. From the underground heavy metal music movements to the criminal underworld, to the world of poor working class immigrants, the details and descriptions are vivid. At some places though, the descriptions are overdone. “Mr Porthaksh came closer and they could see his face more clearly as the shadows were erased by the lamp’s rays, forced to retract into his pores like mad vampires escaping the sun’s light.” Elsewhere in the same overdone vein, “ his Adam’s apple rock(ed) up and down like a horse with rabies.”
The plot is well-crafted, tracing Asrul’s metamorphosis into a hardened criminal, and the exciting climax. There are a few parts though, which could have been smoothened out. For example, it is implausible and awkward that drug dealer Tan Moe and his moll Siti take several pages to explain their operations to the captive Asrul.
On the whole, this is an interesting and racy read, which will appeal to readers everywhere.

My detailed review is published in Kitaab

Friday, December 06, 2013

The world of Santhals: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar's debut novel

I've had the pleasure of knowing Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar virtually, and his thoughtful comments and messages stood out amid the clutter and inanity which can fog Facebook. A medical doctor by profession HSS, as we call him, has created the time and space in his busy life to craft which is probably the first novel in English to explore the world of Santhals from within. The novel is due soon from Aleph, and promises to be an exciting read.

HSS shares how the novel happened.
" I got the idea for this novel from an incident which happened in my village. I took hints from village gossip and from the stories and incidents my pishi told me. My pishi who's raised me told me a number of stories and I've also included some of them in my book. There are political events too, to give the story a certain time frame. The info for this I got from my father and my Hopon-daadu (Chhoto-daadu, my grandfather's younger brother). My novel is full of Santhali folklore and songs and rituals and everything that happens in a Santhal village in my part of Jharkhand: the East Singbhum (Purbi Singbhum) district; more specifically the Chakulia and Ghatsila blocks of East Singbhum district. I got many other details from other members of my family, like my other pishi. Since it all comes from me and my family, one can be pretty sure it's authentic Santhali material and not some exotic stuff."

Monday, December 02, 2013

Crowfall; book review

by Shanta Gokhale
Penguin/Viking                Crowfall
2013, pp 274

This award winning novel follows a group of artistic friends who brave external pressures and personal anguish in search of creative fulfilment. Through their art, they try to come to terms with injustice, unreason and violence in the world around them. If society is to change for the better, is the power of words, the power of art, the only instrument to bring it about? Or is it sheer stupidity to expect the world to change through the artist’s vision? This finely crafted novel explores the wider significance of art, artistic freedom, and its connections with everyday life.

Mumbai is a city whose peace and orderliness is constantly threatened. This compelling narrative opens with Anima’s memories of that fateful night in January 1993, when she lost her husband to senseless communal violence. She opts to break free from the vortex of grief by destroying the journals into which she poured her emotions for over a decade. She finds fulfilment in connecting with her young students, who are like the children she could never have. Her brother Ashesh, a painter, accepts the challenge posed by accidental patches of black on his canvas. ...

Author Shanta Gokhale weaves in such touches of sharp wit and satire, which hit right on the mark, without distracting us from the main story. The narrative and dialogues flow smoothly, punctuated with memorable images. The author makes every word count, while creating vivid scenes such as that of crows falling from the sky because someone has attacked them with an airgun.

“Each time a crow fell, the others’ cries reached a crescendo. Blinded by fear and grief, they dashed against the veranda.” The circles of senseless violence continue, but there is an underlying base of hope. The characters find solace and joy in friendship and love. Feroze is excited by the prospect of creating a new masterpiece from the torn bits of his vandalised painting.

The reflections on the many aspects of art are expressed naturally through the characters and their distinctive views, without weighing down the narrative. However, the seminar on “The Many Views of Art”, organised by gallery owner Vikram Shah, seems intrusive and too obvious a device to air an ongoing philosophical debate. The speakers’ speeches run through several pages of what would be more fitting in textbooks than in a novel.

The author’s English translation from the Marathi reads like an original work in its own right. It gives us a tantalising taste of the wonderful writing happening today in our regional languages.

My detailed review is published in Sunday Herald