The List

I finally break the silence on my blog with a first-time fiction on a guest blog for Sid Balachandran – Author at I Wrote Those, Photographer at I Took Those, winner of more awards than my fingers can handle, a cooking enthusiast who can whip up eye-popping scrumptious chocolate sinfuls and last but not the least, a work-at-home Dad ! Now that’s what’s called breaking stereotypes ! Sid maintains delightful catalogs of his parenting escapades at Daddy Journals.

A wonderful blogger friend, I got introduced to Sid through his most delightful post about an ever-perennial problem – Finding the right pair of Jeans. Here’s his kickass post – Fashionista ? I think not!

Sid is a master in the craft of fiction.So, when he invited me to write a fiction post for his blog, I went ‘Ulp’. Fortunately he gave me enough time to hammer something together, so here I am – with my first-ever true-blue fiction !

-oo-

Buy groceries. Pay bills.

Indu crossed out items from the to-do list, on the laptop and leaned back with a palpable sense of relief. Only few more left to go. Unfinished things rankled and nipped at the edges of her consciousness. Resigning to the fact that ‘Cleaning the closet’ was too daunting to be attempted immediately, she stretched wearily and headed to the bathroom.TheListThe street lights were casting long shadows through the window. The haggard reflection in the bathroom mirror revealed an average looking woman. With the hair pulled back severely away from the face, into a tight bun and the round horn-rimmed glasses, her face appeared unflatteringly mousy. Shoulder length hair tumbled down as the strangling metal pins were pulled out and neatly stacked inside the medicine cabinet. Deciding to take a quick shower, she ran the hot water in the tub. A strange prickling sensation caused her to glance at the door which creaked open slowly inwards. She suppressed a scream, as the bottle in her hand fell with a dull clunk and scattered small white pills all over the floor.

Read the full post on Sid’s blog…
http://www.iwrotethose.com/2015/05/06/the-list-by-asha-vishwanathan/

An oil slick amidst the Hungry Tide

Just a short while ago, I hadn’t the remotest clue of what an Orcaella or the Irrawaddy Dolphin was.But within a span of two months, I encountered it twice. Two days ago, I glanced at the papers and it jumped out at me.A huge oil slick off the coast of Sunderbans had endangered several lives including that of the Irrawaddy dolphins.Somehow,this struck closer home as I had just finished Amitav Ghosh’s book ‘The Hungry Tide’. Human activities continue to threaten the fragile ecological balances existing worldwide as we doggedly pursue our blinkered journey towards self-annihilation drowning out the few dissenting voices of naturalists and environmentalists. Piyali Roy, the main protagonist of the book is one such lone voice.
The_Hungry_Tide
Fiction set in rich contexts exploring a historical setting or those examining the uniqueness of a particular locale is always an intriguing read.But it transforms into a magical journey in the hands of adept authors like Amitav Ghosh when the characterization takes on a different dimension altogether.’The Hungry Tide’,set in the Sunderbans, brings to life all the magic, mystique, intrigue and perils of the place that one could possibly associate it with. The lives of people for whom change is enduring, living is indeterminate, survival – a daily odds; those who are aware that the very ground they stand on, could be swallowed up the very next minute. It portrays the psyche of such people who encounter death on a daily basis but nevertheless, life elsewhere is unthinkable. They are the inhabitants of the tide country. And with such a narrative, not only are you riveted by an engaging plot but also absorb the essence of a place and time painstakingly sketched by an author’s extensive research.

The protagonists of ‘The Hungry Tide’ are as unlikely a bunch one could envisage. A young cetologist, Piyali Roy, whose life’s ambition is to study the habits of the little known Irrawaddy dolphin.An illiterate rustic fisherman, Fokir.And Kanai, a suave city-bred translator, who is summoned to Lucibari – a remote,unreachable and hostile island in the Sunderbans, for a very curious reason.In typical Ghosh’s style, each of them is very expansively portrayed.Piyali comes across as a resilient woman; passionate about her scientific work and single minded in her pursuit,enabling her to overcome the harsh extremes that her work imposes.She also happens to be a woman, who’s still searching for her identity and discovers her answers in the remote Sunderbans amidst the congregations of the Irrawaddy dolphins.Fokir, though an illiterate fisherman and a man seemingly so far removed from the scientific and highly educated Piyali, still remarkably congruent in his passion for the flora and fauna of the mangroves.And hence, it comes as no surprise that when fate throws Piyali and Fokir together, they connect. A primal bond that renders language superfluous, barely acknowledged yet resilient enough to withstand a storm. And finally there was Kanai.Out of all of them, it is his mutable character with the shades of grey which would have been the trickiest to portray.At one instant, his character smacks of superficiality and conceit but at the very next, it also manages to elicit sympathy for the struggles of a reasonable mind against the prejudices that form the bedrock of his upbringing.Confident to the point of arrogance,but also possessing a remarkable sense of intuition, Kanai rises above himself when he’s put to the ultimate test.He arrives in Lucibari on a strange mission – that of reading his dead uncle’s diary which chronicles his last days before the massacre of Morichjhanpi,when the government of West Bengal forcibly evicted thousands of refugees.And in that dairy,he again encounters his childhood friend,Kusum, who is an ephemeral presence throughout the novel, entwining the past with the present.

It’s a novel which explores many facets – about human bonds that transcends barriers, about rising above oneself, about life in the Sunderbans but above all, I felt it was a novel about exploring one’s identity and the human spirit. Finding that elusive purpose divergent from materialistic pursuits. It also poses several thought-provoking questions when environmentalism comes into conflict with humanism. Does the plight of the Sunderban tigers far outweigh the plight of human refugees ? Though the novel is a good 400 pages, my interest hardly flagged even through the arcane descriptions the author provides on the habitat and the etymology of the Irrawaddy dolphins.

And thus it was, that I came to know of the existence of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin and of the wonder that is the Sunderbans and of the remarkable people of the tide country. In light of my almost personal acquaintance with the animal through the eyes of the cetologist, it was even more distressing to read of the oil slick off the Sunderbans that threatens to disastrously tilt the scales.The need of the hour is to join forces to save the last of the wonderful creatures that depend on these fragile eco-systems. The hungry tide has risen and it shall not be stopped by the narrow confines of national boundaries.

File Photo: Irrawaddy Dolphin
File Photo: Irrawaddy Dolphin

Three Rivers of Tears

Three Rivers of Tears is a story, set in the context of three nations which splintered out of colonial India – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – where people were brutally torn asunder and the embers continue to simmer to this day.
Three River of Tears

This book is written by Lopa, a post-graduate in physics from IIT Kanpur. She has many short stories, essays and poems to her credit and has scripted and produced a few documentary films.The work is a product of some pertinent questions – Why are borders between so many countries a zone of uncertainty, torn by open conflict or surviving on a precarious peace? Even when commonalities stare us in the face why do we focus on differences? Tradition, lifestyle, history, language – all the diversities that enrich our spirit – why do we use them as weapons of mistrust?

1970’s Calcutta – A young urban educated woman, Binapani, brimming with romantic ideologies infused by Russian novels, gets sucked into a communist revolution to be rudely awakened to the practical realities of the uprising which started in Naxalbari.
1971, East Pakistan – A child Partha,named ‘Rahim’ through a stroke of fate, was born to a young Hindu woman, Madhumati amidst burning cities and villages which had become Hindu graveyards.Madhumati with her husband Sulaiman Ali and son, then begins the arduous journey of escape to India and establishing a new life for themselves.

Around the same time, Tariq, a young boy from Pakistan, whose parents emigrate to India in search of a better life, sees the wonder of Taj Mahal for the first time.

A brief tryst with communism alters Binapani’s destiny forever and as her life progresses on a different tangent, Binapani’s story gets enmeshed with several other characters. To her is born, a free-thinking and avant-garde daughter, Panchali.As Panchali grows older, she feels passionately for the people of the three countries, bound by a shared cultural heritage yet distanced by political interests.As her life traverses and crosses the path of Tariq, Rahim and various other characters impacted by the partition, she questions the need for continued division in the minds and hearts of people and seeks to perform the ultimate sacrifice for the unification of the three countries.

-oo-

This is a book on historical fiction that traces various historical events and happenings from 1970 till 2007 through a simplistic style of narration. Along with history, the book is richly interspersed with mythological references, culture and traditions of India. The book is divided into 6 parts and Part 1 of the book, which deals with Binapani getting sucked into a communist rebellion, is the most promising. The rich background context, in this part, can lend itself to a whole book.

From Part 2 onwards, the book meanders and branches off into too many characters, many of whom are of no consequence. This profusion of people, most of who do not warrant sufficient depth or mind space, creates unnecessary distractions.

The history,in various places, is narrated in a question and answer form and seems contrived to educate the reader.Introduction of some characters has been done purely to ask a leading question which is then answered in detail by another.

“Where is Brindavan?”
“Brindavan is on the banks of River Yamuna, in northern India….”

….

“Anand, tell them the Mahabharata” requested Binapani.
And four pages of abridged Mahabharata follow.

There are some instances, where the occurrences are narrated by the author as a commentary and also carry the author’s opinions on the political scenario at that time.

“What India needed most at this juncture was internal stability.The Iron Lady,Indira Gandhi, who had proved her mettle in the Bangladesh war, put a strong government back on its feet.”

The narration on several instances, verges on the yawningly text bookish. The history, ideally should have been woven into the story unobtrusively, without being obviously focused on as an academic discourse and should have made a sufficiently strong impact on the reader to want to search and read up the historical facts.

Many ubiquitous items, which would be obvious to an Indian, is explained in detail which further lends credence to an assumption that it is aimed towards a non-Indian audience.Explanation of Sari, Duppatta,Golgappa,Amchi-Mumbai, Hindi film songs are not something an average Indian is going to be enthused about.

Though ideologically sending a strong message, the depth of the characters demanded to be portrayed for roles like these, seemed shallow in comparison.Even the protagonist’s character and her goal don’t resonate much owing to the lack of a sound bedrock of convictions shaped through interactions, introspection and reasoning. The conversations which aim to remove the communal disconnect and illustrate the commonality across religions seem too simplistic and unimaginative.

Taking cognizance of just the history chronicled during the period mentioned, it does a commendable job of mentioning almost every political incident worth mentioning. Stories from the epics also create an interesting diversion with the names of a lot of key characters derived from them, though the passages can drag for readers who are already cognizant of them.

Do pick up the book, if you would like to know more about the Indian mythology and culture interspersed with a story weaving in and out. But if you already are aware of all these, then I am afraid that it would verge on the blase.

Author – Lopa
Publisher – Lifi Publications
ISBN 978-93-82536-00-0
Pages – 492
Price – Rs.325

Sea of Poppies

There is no greater leveler than misfortune.And in all probability, the British rule united us is more ways than one.A Rajput rural woman, a princely Zamindar, a priest, a French woman, a half-black American all come together in life changing journeys in the “Sea of Poppies” by Amitav Ghosh.The book is the first of his Ibis Trilogy,which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008.

SeaOfPoppies
Set during the time when the East India company was just spreading its tentacles and imposing opium cultivation on the farmers, the story charts its course through its various characters who hail from different strata of a checkered society.

Deeti,the Rajput wife of an ‘afeemkhor'(an opium addict), who resolves to perform Sati in an age-old tradition in her husband’s pyre – more to evade the clutches of her lecherous brother-in-law than any allegiance to devout faith, is snatched from the jaws of death by none other than the village cart driver who incidentally is also a ‘Chamaar’ – Kalua. They are then on the run from a caste strangled village, men for whom caste and honor were not boundaries to be broken.

The author sensitively portrays the life of a lower caste person through the life of Kalua, who despite being of an impressive physical strength, silently bears autrocities meted out to him. At one instance,Deeti unwittingly becomes an audience to the humiliation of Kalua – “So it could happen to a man too ? Even a powerful giant of a man could be humiliated and destroyed in a way that far exceeded his body’s capacity for pain”

Neel Rattan Haldar, a zamindar, has everything he could ask for albeit for one small problem. He is debt-ridden to a ruthless British Planter. Overnight his fortunes turn and he’s at the mercy to a fate more pathetic than a ‘Chamaar’. He’s incarcerated on false charges and sentenced to deportation. “So it was that for Neel, no aspect of his captivity held greater terror than the thought of sharing a shit-hole with dozens of common prisoners”
Till the end the thing that troubles him the most is the loss of his caste more than his riches.

A french girl,Paulette, is raised in a surprisingly liberal manner by a doting father, but loses her independence with her father’s death and is thrust into a British planter’s household. In a life stifled by orthodoxy,coming face-to-face with the perverted nature of her benefactor, proves to be her undoing.

A man who is a ‘white’ for all practical purposes but with one minor difference, he is ‘half-black’- a mulatto American – a fact that made all the difference, that makes him appreciate the feelings of suppression which transcends language.Zachary Reid is portrayed as an interesting mix of youth and maturity, of innocence and experience.

We make the acquaintance of a strange character – the character of Gomushta Baboo Nobokrishna Panda. Despite all his religious idiosyncrasies, we would have relegated him to a character of not much consequence, if it were not for his rather pivotal role in the lives of the key protagonists. He embodies a sort of religious fanaticism who’s searching for his elusive god mother Taramony and in the process, is convinced of the rebirth of Krishna as Zachary Reid.

The myriad characters all come together in ‘The Ibis’, a ship – a white winged bird in flight, denoting escape from some, torment for others .The ship invokes both fear and fascination for its taking them to a destination and fates unknown.

Irrespective of their background caste,race or religion, in the ship, they are only fellow ‘jahazis’ and in its hold, isolated by the past and the future, there is only one defining language that unites – that of a basic humanness and the insurmountable divide of the good versus evil.

Amitav Ghosh weaves magic with his vivid portrayal of characters and the depth he creates in each one of them.The characters too, are carefully chosen from different classes of people to create the rich tapestry that is the ‘Sea of Poppies’. He uses a lot of Hindi-anglicized words to depict the language of the British in India at the time and though authentic that helps portraying the culture and language necessary for creating an alluring background, the unaccustomed words did create a hurdle in the otherwise smooth flow of reading.Since I failed to locate a glossary for such words in the book, it might pose a hurdle for the non-Hindi speaking readers, though in some cases, obvious assumptions can presumably be made.I relished reading it and though the story shifts across various characters and places as it spans Ghazipur to Calcutta to the rolling high seas, there was no disconnect as they seamlessly join to create a vibrant story.

This is not a new book and I am sure many of you might have already read this.But as they say, a good book never gets old and every book will be read at its own time. So, if you have already read it, do put in your comment to share how you felt about it.

Is fiction an escapism ?

While glancing through the newspaper’s editorial, I chanced upon this rather interesting piece by Jug Suraiya.The fiction readers are alleged to be escapists from reality and the author defends this on how ‘escaping’ can be considered more in terms of escaping from one’s own consciousness to the consciousness of others.

Being an avid reader of fiction for a long time, it came as something akin to a surprise and I did ponder on whether it was escapist. Fiction in the form of storytelling and folk lore has existed since time immemorial. Who hasn’t listened to grandma’s stories with its abundance of moral lessons?

Fiction could be of the speculative fiction variety like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter where the reader is transported to the narrative’s imaginative world. As many ardent readers would vouch for, is that it requires a childlike ability to be able to live in the unreal, to be able to cast aside the shackles bound by reality and for those brief moments of time to be able to don the garb of a child again. The ability to create a pseudo-world where the rules are only limited to what you perceive them to be is imaginative thinking at its best. As the dialogue from Matrix goes “A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible”.

Comic novels written by humorists like P. G Wodehouse can have anybody, with matching sensibilities, in splits. Author E.B. White said “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”As humor writing relies a lot on hyperbole, achieving the same through a realistic reconstruction of events might not always lend itself to iconic characters like Jeeves or Bertie Wooster.

Historical novels and movies have enabled people to relate to a face, making it much more personal and involved. They have also been credited with encouraging nationalist sentiments.  Novels based on First World War or the Third Reich still abound and bring the historical/political sentiments prevalent at that time into sharp relief. Political fiction like 1984 by George Orwell brought out the extremes of a dystopian society. Along the same lines are books around social issues or ’realistic fiction’ as they are called, acted as the literary means of protest and spread awareness of abuses far beyond political boundaries.

Suspense fiction, romance and thrillers are definitely the one’s which are closest to escapism via the adrenalin way. They have purportedly acted as sustenance for the strenuous intellectuals by giving an emotional release. A lot of people would have been unaware of the thrills of life on the fast lane or gained the rich knowledge of guns and the life of spies, of glances and veiled meanings, of the underworld and mafia, of crime and detective reasonings, if it were not for the Jason  Bournes and Hercule Poirots.

Just like a bird escaping from a cage, fiction can be viewed as escapism or freedom.But most definitely, our lives would have been a tad bit dull if it were not for these characters residing in the pages of fiction books.

Elementary, my dear Watson.