Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Book Review: Lamplight - Paranormal Stories from the Hinterlands, by Kankana Basu


There are ghost stories and ghost stories, some fall flat and some make you sit up in fright, hair on end, desperately reaching out for something to hold on to. I think the best ghost novel I have read is Little Stranger by Sarah Waters which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009. I have read Kankana Basu before and when I found out that her latest offering was a collection of ghost stories, I was, to put it mildly, shocked. Both of Basu’s previous offerings, Vinegar Sunday and Cappuccino Dusk, are set in Mumbai and revolve around large Bengali families, their retainers and friends. Even though both these books tackle a number of contemporary issues, there is a definitive feel-good factor about both these books which I was sure would be missing in a collection of ghost stories. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lamplight consists of eight short stories, all of which, except one, are set in Monghyr, Bihar, in pre-Independence India and revolve around a large extended Bengali clan, their neighbours and servants. The Chattopadhyays are rich and aristocratic, but also friendly and warm. The matriarch of the family has three sons, Srikanth, the eldest, a doctor, affectionately referred to as Boro Jetha, Deep the second son and Balai, the youngest, a novelist. The grandsons outnumber the granddaughters and all the grandchildren evolve and grow as the stories progress. Srikanth has two sons, Tutul who is shown to have become a lawyer as we reach the end of the collection and Nabendu (Benu) who throws off a debilitating ailment and becomes an industrialist, Deep has two daughters Mala and Mini and Balai has three sons, Sutanu (Shontu) and Ronojoy (Ronny) and Manohar (Montu). Balai’s spouse Bonalata has a crucial role in one of the witch-hunts. There is no shortage of friends and neighbours either. Balai’s friend Nirmal Choudhury plays a pivotal part in Séance, the first story in this collection and for me, the best of the lot. Kumkum, the maid and Raghu Kaka the gardener are flesh and blood characters who make their mark despite their lowly stature.

I found all members of the Chattopadhyay clan, their friends and hired help to be lovable, except for maybe Deep in The Séance. The feel-good factor, which I think is Basu’s hallmark, is ever present as we are gradually introduced to various characters. The ghosts dutifully make their appearance in every story and I didn’t particularly find them to be scary, and to be honest. I don’t think they were meant to be. These are stories which a twelve year old could read and not have nightmares. Basu’s ghosts are gentle and sometimes helpful, as in the Terrace, where they help football genius Ronojoy get a job with a manufacturing concern in Bombay.

Basu is extremely good at conveying the atmosphere of 1930s India, without appearing to try very hard. There is no reference to the independence movement or poverty, but there is no doubt that we are in pre-independence India. Basu’s characters are very individualistic and different from each other. For example when describing Chitra pishi, a neighbour, we are told that she of average height, had a stick-like physique, was pigeon chested, sallow skinned and gaunt of countenance. However, she had a fine pair of eyes which nullified every shortcoming in her appearance.

In The Guide, Shontu is dying to ride Montu’s new, red bike and when a need arises for someone to reach faraway Sitamarhi and deliver medicines to Dwarakanath Misra’s daughter. Shontu promptly volunteers and I wondered for a while if I was reading the Adventures of Tom Sawyer rather than an Indian collection of ghost stories. However, a ghost eventually made an appearance, followed by a number of rustic Indian characters and my confusion faded away.

One of the stories, Monghyr Fort, revolves around an actual fort and when I googled the name, I realised that Monghyr Fort actually exists. In this story, Basu’s references to the Slave Dynasty and characters like Mir Kasim seem to be authentic.

In Blood Emerald, the final story in the collection, Basu moves away from Monghry and takes her heroine, one Avantika, to faraway Mahabaleshwar where she meets the ghost of a pretty Maharashtrian lady who died in unhappy circumstances. Despite the change of venue, the same old world charm, courtesy and grace of a bye-gone era are kept alive.

On the whole, Lamplight left a very pleasant aftertaste in me, it’s the sort of story you could read after a tough day at work. I recommend this book to all those who are interested in ghost stories and all others who, like me, like to read good stories.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Book Review: A Happy Place And Other Stories by Vineetha Mokkil


I just finished reading an excellent collection of short stories by Vineetha Mokkil which goes by the title “A Happy Place And Other Stories”. The strength of a story, any story, whether it be a long novel or a short story, depends largely on the writer’s imagination. A good writer takes the reader to places hitherto unknown, on the wings of beautiful prose. Mokkil does more than that. Mokkil takes her readers to a tall cliff, straps on a pair of wings and forces the reader to take off.

SPOILER WARNING

For example, in “A Quiet Day”, we see Ameena, a suicide bomber leaves her house on a snowy day. We are told that her husband and daughter were killed by the army and Ameena is thirsting for revenge. And then? And then nothing. We do not know if Ameena is ultimately successful in carrying out her mission. All of that is left to the reader’s imagination. Similarly, in “In Case of Fire”, we see Gyan rushing home to his daughter Mia’s birthday party, stopping at a mall to buy return gifts for the kids at the party. The party has already begun and Gyan is really running late. His wife Helen has called many times and she is angry. To make matters worse, Gyan gets locked in inside the mall. What happens after that? Mokkil leaves it to the reader to imagine the consequences. In this quest, Mokkil supplies the reader with sufficient information about Gyan and his family. We know that Gyan’s wife Helen is a rich heiress who led a peaceful and happy life at Ann Arbor, USA, before moving to Delhi with her daughter Mia once Gyan decided to take up a teaching job at Delhi University.

Mokkil is very good not just with cliff top exits, but also in mid-journey breaks. She narrates a situation, places you in the midst of some very smooth activity and then, as is her wont, leaves you. Thus in “Baby Baby” we see Vijay, a man in his fifties, expecting a baby with his second wife. Surprisingly, it all goes off well. We can sense Vijay’s worry and tension in wanting to get it all right, since he is estranged from his son from his first marriage. However, Mokkil is soothing from the beginning and we feel strangely comforted by the writer.

In “The Tenant” a widowed mother is lonely after her daughter Priya leaves her on account of her job with Lufthansa. To keep herself occupied, she takes on a tenant who has the same name as her daughter, but with an extra “a” which is meant to bring good luck. Does she get along with her tenant Priyaa? Mokkil has no intention of ever telling us.

A Happy Place And Other Stories” isn’t a collection of entirely feel-good stories. Sadness and tragedy are woven into many of the tales. In “Nirvana” Yashodhara’s pain as Siddhartha abandons her and baby Rahul is beautifully captured. In “A Happy Place”, the story after which this collection has been named, we are introduced to Asha, a maid working in the house of an American couple. Mokkil introduces some tension in the beginning as the wife gets mugged. Yes we know that Delhi is dangerous, but for Asha danger lurks inside the house as well. When the wife is away on a cruise, the husband who works for the US consulate tries to paw her in the middle of the night. Asha’s happy place ceases to be so and Asha is forced to run away.

The Girl Next Door” makes one wonder how quickly one rushes into judgements. In this story, we see some posh people lobby to have a fellow tenant, the girl next door, who possibly works as a commercial sex worker, thrown out of their building. Later on when the narrator Sonia is abducted, the so-called prostitute tips off police and saves Sonia.

For me, the best story of the lot was “Other Lives”. The wife of a well-known Industrialist is arrested for shop-lifting. Since the lady in question is a well-known kleptomaniac, we know that such an incident has occurred before. The detainee has an interesting conversation with female cop as she waits to be released. The cop is respectful since she knows that the lady will be released and released she is. She goes home by foot, back to the same boring life. Does she have a choice to do something for herself? To find out the answer and to read more such stories, please do read this wonderful collection.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Is Shrien Dewani Gay?


And finally Shrien Dewani has been extradited to South Africa to face trial!

Almost three years ago when I blogged about Shrien Dewani, extradition proceedings were going on and it was felt that they could go on for many more weeks or even months. Well, they went on for almost three years!

The core question seems to be whether Dewani is gay. This is because unless Dewani is gay, the prosecution will be hard-pressed to find a motive for the handsome, rich Dewani to hire killers to bump off his pretty and young bride.

The allegations about Dewani’s orientation have been swirling around ever since Anni’s murder. Dewani is supposed to have been a regular visitor at a gay fetish club called The Hoist, at Vauxhall. A German male prostitute named Leopold Leisser, who goes by the work name The Master, claimed that Dewani paid him GBP1,100 for three sex ¬sessions in London and the West Midlands.

Just after Dewani arrived in South Africa to face trial, it was reported that Anni Dewani had sent a honeymoon message to her cousin revealing that she had sex with 33-year-old Shrien “five times” in one night. The Police were said to have been left reeling by the text that experts have retrieved from 28-year-old Anni’s stolen BlackBerry. Naturally, if the Dewanis “did” it five times in a single night, it is unlikely that Dewani is gay. I however had my doubts about the genuineness of this report which was attributed to “sources”. Look at it this way: Anni’s text message was reportedly sent to her cousin. If Anni’s cousin had actually received such a text, Anni’s family, the Hindochas, wouldn’t be so hostile to Dewani. The Hindochas have all along been wanting Dewani to voluntarily face trial in South Africa. If the Hindochas thought that the Dewanis were having a normal married life, then they wouldn’t be fighting hard for Dewani to face justice.

Surely enough, a couple of days later, it was clarified that Anni had not sent any such sms. Rather it was stated that Anni had sent her cousin a text message to the effect that sex with her husband wasn’t to her satisfaction.

I wish we had some clarity on how the first report (which made the 5 times in a night claim) came about. The “source” had obviously not considered that if such a claim was made, the cousin who is supposed to have received the text would deny it. Also, how come no one knew that Anni had complained to a cousin about the state of her conjugal relationship with her husband? Of course it is possible that the Hindochas had passed on this information to the Prosecution and this was kept under wraps for use at the trial once Dewani arrived in South Africa. The Hindochas may have been forced to leak this information to counter the earlier insinuation. I just wonder though, when the extradition proceedings were going on, if this information had been made available, wouldn’t it have eased Dewani’s passage to South Africa?

When this trial is over, I hope the authorities in the UK and South Africa carry out a joint investigation to find out the extent of influence exerted over this trial by publicist Max Clifford and if any laws were broken as a result.



Monday, 7 April 2014

Book Review: The Gypsy Goddess, by Meena Kandasamy


If you are one of those Indians who were brought up on a diet of Soviet literature, readily available in India till the early nineties, you would be forgiven for assuming that Meena Kandasamy’s debut novel The Gypsy Goddess was written by a winner of the USSR State Prize in Literature and Arts and published sometime in the late 1970s or maybe even earlier. The subject matter – the massacre of forty odd Dalit labourers and their families by henchmen employed by upper caste landlords - is definitely a topic that would have fitted in within the milieu of Soviet literature. Since Kandasamy is known to be a poet, I had expected something lyrical, but no, Kandasamy adopts the tone (and even authority) of a Soviet era prose writer as she builds a novel around the massacre that took place at a place named Kilvenmani in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur (earlier known as Tanjore) district in 1968. If Kandasamy’s English was anything less than blemishless and beautiful, such an affected pitch/style would have fallen flat, but no, Kandasamy carries it off and one ends up doffing one’s hat in admiration at the end of the novel, which I assume must be a slim volume, since I got through it pretty quickly on my Kindle.

Kilvenmani is a village where the poor refer to a car as “pleasure”, something poor people in Tamil Nadu did even in the 80s, if my memory serves me right. Gopalakrishna Naidu is the main tyrant in the novel. A father-figure for the landlords of Nagapattinam, this balding, middle-aged man runs the Paddy Producers’ Association and seeks to address the interests of his own class in a manner which reminded me of several characters from a collection of Soviet Armenian Short Stories I read ages ago and which I have reviewed here. As Gopalakrishna Naidu schemes and plots and fights to replace the red communist flags with the yellow flags of the Paddy Producers Association, we the readers gain a ring-side view to the bloody tussle between the proletariat and the exploitative landlords.

In chapter 5 of her novel, Kandasamy publishes a Marxist Party Pamphlet which takes stock of the situation of those times, even as it calls on the workers to unite and fight for their rights. It is an unequal fight, the DMK Party in power has done precious little for the downtrodden and the landless poor suffer extreme hardship and oppression as they seek to obtain basic living wages from the landowning class. The policemen are tools in the hands of the landlords. Kandasamy singles out stalwarts of the Dravidian movement such as Karunanidhi and even Periyar EV Ramasamy for special treatment. We are told that after coming to power with the help of the Communist parties, Karunanidhi boldly proclaimed that the Communists would be crushed with an iron fist. As for the great Periyar, Kandasamy would have us know that “he was angry (about the massacre) and he showed it. There was little else that could be done when the government was actually run by his protégé.” Finally when the Landlords are tried on the scales of Justice, the High Court judges do a better job defending the landlords than even the defence lawyers and acquit them all.

Since The Gypsy Goddess is part story, part communist commentary, one is treated to quotations from individuals like Gramsci and post-modernists such as Derrida. Most of the commentary is a Kandasamy’s monologue, but as I said earlier, she does it well and I have no complaints.

Is Kandasamy a dyed-in-the-wool-communist or is she an open-minded writer willing to consider different points of view? The character Maayi suggests that she belongs to the latter class. Maayi, we are told, is the widow of the village’s witch doctor who once tamed evil ghosts and vampires and chased away devils and demons. When I first encountered Maayi, I assumed that she would be placed under the guillotine by the brave workmen of Kilvenmani. But no, they do nothing of that sort and one sees Maayi comfort the survivors of the massacre.

There were a few things I wishes Kandasamy had done differently. I would have liked to get to know atleast one of the victims much better, at least as well as I got to know Gopalakrishna Naidu. At times, I did wish Kandasamy would get on with the story and stop pontificating, but then, the story of the massacre could have been written in two pages and the pithy annotations make this novel what it is.

Once again, let me reiterate that Kandasamy writes exceedingly well. When describing the fire that wiped out so many innocent lives trapped in an enclosed space, Kandasamy says that “Born without eyes, the fire had used its feet to move. Lacking the forgiveness of water, it had burnt them with blindness and bitterness. So, that morning, the cheri did not carry the roses-and-marigolds smell of death. Only the coppery sick- sweet smell of charred flesh: a smell like nothing else, a smell that was almost a taste, a smell that was meant to be smuggled to the grave. Through the smoke clouds that hung heavier than mist, the police van returned to Kilvenmani to fetch the dead.” Since the official death toll was forty two, the two small babies who were charred to death were “habeas corpses”, Kandasamy proposes. As for the survivors of the massacre, “the police, in love with variety, generously give everyone multiple sections of the Indian Penal Code.

Why the title The Gypsy Goddess? No, I am not going to play spoilsport and give that one away. When you have this book in your hands, you’ll find the answer in Kandasamy’s second chapter.

How does it all end? Does Kandasamy offer the victims even a semblance of justice or does she leave them waiting for a Communist dawn to receive reparations? Remember, this is ultimately a work of fiction and the author does have some freedom in this regard. Go on all of you, whether you are champagne socialists like me or genuine communists or someone just trying to make sense of the extreme poverty one sees in India, rush out and buy this book and read it to find out if the Kilvenmani massacre victims receive some form of closure from Kandasamy.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Book Review: Residue, by Nitasha Kaul


In a world riven with prejudice, hatred and sectarianism, Nitasha Kaul, through her first novel Residue, gives us a host of characters who do not wallow in such muck. Leon Ali, the main protagonist, is a Kashmiri who grew up in Delhi. Despite an Islamic heritage, Leon is an atheist who doesn’t take sides easily. There’s a scene in London where Leon meets a number of Kashmiris from “Azad” Kashmir. Spurning their invitation to join them, Leon thinks, ‘honestly, you are not Kashmiri.’ Then there’s Keya Raina, a co-protagonist and a Kashmiri Pandit, who too grew up in Delhi and later moved to Bristol, in the UK, to become a liberal arts Professor. Agni, born Agnes, a Christian from Orissa, is a dancer who has broken through a number of barriers and is equally at ease with the world. Shula Farid who plays a very vital role in the story and its plot, lived a generation before Leon and Keya, but is equally secular and nice. Born to an atheist Muslim father who teaches mathematics at Shantiniketan and an East European mother with a Jewish heritage, Shula made the mistake of falling in love with and marrying Abhilash, a clever and successful civil servant, the odd man out amongst the various characters in this debut work, standing out on account of his orthodoxy and inflexibility.

Leon’s father Mir, an engineer and a communist, had deserted his mother and left for Berlin even before Leon was born, when the couple lived in the UK. Leon’s mother returns to India and brings up Leon single-handedly, the only contribution from her family being the occasional taunt or other unhelpful comment. Life in Delhi is tough for a single woman bringing up a son on her own. It gets even tougher if the mother and son are Muslims. From bullying and name-calling at school, to trouble finding decent accommodation, Leon and his mother see it all, but they persevere and survive.

Leon is inclined towards the liberal arts and he makes it to St. Stephens, where for a brief period he is part of the posh crowd, eats hot sams and g-jams with friends from the Rez and watches the ShakeSoc fellas do their rehearsals in the open. At Stephens, Kashmir is but a Led Zeppelin song. But the honeymoon period at Stephens doesn’t last for long. Leon’s lack of money and social status forces him to seek the company of his equals. Post graduate studies follow, but Leon is no longer motivated. Since Leon was born in the UK, he is British or rather, he is entitled to a British passport. Leon moves to the UK.

Just as at Stephens, Leon has a good time in the UK initially, until shit happens in the form of 9/11. Leon is forced to avoid certain areas and roads. Once in a night bus, he is called an Arab Pig and a Paki Terrorist. The internet chat rooms are full of hatred for Muslims, Islam and the infidels. The anti-Islam wave is contagious. Back home, Gujarat boils overs post-Godra. Leon needs to re-discover himself. He decides to go to Berlin to trace his father and in Berlin, he runs into Keya.

Kaul writes in simple Indian English which works well for her characters. There were a few times in the beginning of this 324 page book when I felt Kaul was digressing or dwelling too long on something instead of moving on, but on the whole, Kaul does get on with the job of telling a story and a very good story it turns out to be. Teaming up with Keya in Berlin, Leon manages to find traces of his communist father Mir Ali and his relationship with Shula Farid, then unhappily married to Indian diplomat Abhilash. Mir and Shula had found each other and plotted to get away from their respective worlds. It wasn’t an easy task since Mir was a communist, living and working underground, always on the run. We see Mir and Shula communicate with difficulty, at times leaving messages on the Berlin Wall! Kaul doesn’t tell us till we nearly reach the end whether Mir and Shula succeeded in breaking free. Also, in a way, the relationship between Leon and Keya mirrors that of Mir’s and Shula’s, with the further complication that Leon constantly worries that he might turn out to be a deserter like his father. You need to wait till the very last page to find out where that relationship is headed to.

On the whole, Residue left a very pleasant aftertaste in me and I recommend this book to all those who want to see this world become a better place, free of sectarian prejudices and all those who like to read a good story.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Book Review: A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie

I have always wanted to read Kamila Shamsie, a Pakistani writer based in London, one of the most well-known amongst Pakistani writers of this generation, her reputation on par with say, Mohammad Hanif or Daniyal Mueenuddin. From the blurb of the recently released A God in Every Stone, I was led to believe that I had a thriller in my hands, what with its mention of an young English woman named Vivian Rose Spencer, discovering a temple of Zeus in Ottoman lands, a young Pathan soldier returning home after losing an eye at the Battle of Ypres, a brutal fight for freedom in Peshawar, an ancient artefact and yet another attractive woman, this one green-eyed. The initial pages only added to the feeling that I was on to a page-turner since the Author’s Note tells us that ancient Caria, a part of modern day Turkey, was once a part of the Persian Empire and that the city of Caspatyrus, possibly the old name for Peshawar, lay on its eastern fringes. The novel begins with an extract from 515 BC and we see Scylax with a silver circlet (the ancient artefact!) in his hands, all set to explore the Indus. I was convinced that I was on to something akin to a Wilbur Smith classic set in ancient Egypt.

Though I was entirely misled by initial appearances and impressions, I bear no ill-will towards Shamsie, a case of asking a fruit-seller for a kilogram of fruit, any fruit, the brown paper bag smelling of apples and the pears turning out to be very delicious. Shamsie’s tale travels through various eras, from ancient Persia to the Ottoman Empire to Peshawar in British India. More importantly, it draws parallels between the Carian revolt against Persia, in which the once-loyal Scylax, described by Herodotus as Kai de Kai, one of Darius’s most trusted, played a role and World War veteran Qayyum Gul’s role in the Indian freedom movement, as a soldier in Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan's non-violent Khudai Khidmatgars.

The most outstanding feature of A God in Every Stone is Shamsie’s prose, very British and very beautiful, which weirdly reminded me of Nick Griffin‘s rant about BBC newsreaders who were "glamourous Asian girls with cut-glass English accents”. Vivian Spencer meets a one-eyed Pathan soldier on a train to Peshawar in July 1915. As she alights at Peshawar, she befriends a twelve year old boy, who we later find, turns out to be the one-eyed soldier’s brother. What are the chances of such an incident happening, one might normally wonder, but when one reads Shamsie, one doesn’t wonder since Shamsie makes it sounds so natural though she does make a big deal out of the coincidence. Najeeb Gul, the twelve year old who Vivian had earlier befriended, taught Greek and motivated to seek echelons of higher learning becomes the Indian Assistant at the Peshawar Museum. Najeeb has inherited Vivian’s dreams of finding the silver circlet and in 1930, Najeeb persuades Senior Lecturer Vivian Spencer from University College, London to return to Peshawar to help him find Scylax’s silver circlet. Back in Peshawar, Vivian meets elder brother Qayyum Gul and lo, and behold! Vivian realises that she has met him before. What’s more, Qayyum Gul too remembers the fleeting meeting from many years ago. Once again thanks to Shamsie’s effortlessly eloquent prose, eyebrows aren’t raised.

Shamsie also displays an eye for the extra-ordinary detail, such as when she describes how, when Vivian Rose Spencer meets Qayyum Gul on a train in British India, she knows exactly why Qayyum Gul’s good eye is chapped and reddened. I believe Shamsie when she says that all men who lose an eye, especially those who do so in battle, keep rubbing the survivor for fear of it suffering the slightest damage. Shamsie’s explanation sounds so authentic that I don’t care if Shamsie made that one up or if she did some research. I mean, any man who loses an eye, especially in battle, is bound to keep rubbing the good eye in order to keep it safe. Period. In Shamsie’s hands, all of the characters, from the extremely liberal Vivian Spencer to the Gul brothers to Vivian’s parents to the Ottoman Turkish Archaeologist Tahsin Bey, come alive in believable three dimensions.

For me, Shamsie’s description of British ruled Peshawar (1915-1930) was a revelation, with its Hindu money lenders and traders from Tashkent, Tibet and various other parts of Asia. In the Peshawar of those days, the city’s Buddhist past was not hidden from public view. Rather God actually seems to have existed behind every stone in that beautiful city. I am not sure if that's the case anymore. In any event, I am in no doubt that the Peshawar of yore was a lot more tolerant and cosmopolitan than the present one which is reeling under the Taliban’s thumb. The descriptions of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his red shirts, the Khudai Khidmatgars, only added to my conviction. Just as interesting and authentic is Shamsie’s portrayal of the Pathan soldiers’ lives in war torn France and in England and their relationships with French women and British nurses.

SPOILERS AHEAD

I have read very many volumes of excellent prose to wonder at the end, so what was it all about? It is a well-known fact that many leading litterateurs are incapable of stringing together a decent tale, from beginning to the end. Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone does not fall in that category, though I wouldn’t give Shamsie more than 6 out of 10 for story telling. The novel starts off with twenty two year old Vivian trying to understand her own feelings for her father’s friend Tahsin Bey, twenty five years older, but still an active and attractive man. Close on the heels comes Tahsin Bey’s betrayal by Vivian. Once the novel moves to Peshawar, the reader is allowed to forget the past and leave all that behind. As mentioned earlier, Najeeb Gul grows up to become the Indian Assistant at the Peshawar Museum. Qayyum joins the Khudai Khidmatgars after mulling over the alternate option, to sign up with a Jihadi fighter on the other side of the border. Towards the end, on 28 April 1930 at the Storytellers Market, British troops massacre a number of Red Shirts and Najeeb Gul goes missing. There is so much speculation on whether Najeeb Gul is still alive that one forgets all about the silver circlet and ceases to care about it. Is the silver circlet found at all or is it consigned to the graveyard, as happened to the victims of the massacre? Do please read this wonderful book to find out for yourself.



Friday, 14 March 2014

Book Review: Dolmens in the Blue Mountain, by Kandathil Sebastian

The chain of evergreen hills which forms the Western Ghats runs through the entire eastern length of Kerala and is home to a variety of flora and fauna. At one time, it was inhabited entirely by hill tribes, but over the past hundred years, Malayalam speaking immigrants from the coastal plains have taken over the hills completely. Just as in the rest of Kerala, the Ghats are dotted with concrete monstrosities, built with remittances from overseas. Stone quarries have laid waste to large sections of the ever green hills. Much of the wildlife has been systematically hunted down to extinction. The biggest losers however have been the hill tribes, who believe that the hills are imbued with the spirits of their gods and goddess and whose ancestors sleep in dolmens on cliff tops. The tribal population of Kerala’s Western Ghats has been decimated ever since the migrations began and large parts of the traditional homelands over which they roamed have been denied to them under the pretext of forest conservation.

The extreme damage caused to the ecology of the Western Ghats in Kerala has been repeated in five other states, prompting the Kasturirangan panel to recommend that around 60,000 sq km of Western Ghats, spread across six states, should be turned into a no-go area for commercial activities like mining, thermal power plants, polluting industries and large housing plans. These recommendations have evoked violent opposition, especially in Kerala.

Through Dolmens in the Blue Mountain, author Kandathil Sebastian tells us the story of a hardworking Syrian Catholic farmer, Devasy who starts life as a sharecropper for a Nair landlord at Ezhacherry, a village fifty kilometres away from the famous port Allepey and prospers to become a landlord in his own right, and Devasy’s descendants. Devasy’s son Ouseph (Malayalam for Joseph) fathers five children, two boys and three girls and builds a church at Ezhacherry. Ouseph could have educated his children, but doesn’t, even though his second son Thomman is keen to study. Ouseph’s elder son Varghese migrates to the hills and starts farming on cleared forest land with the help of tribals, to whom he supplies arrack. Varghese has two sons, Philipose and Dominic. Varghese’s brother Thomman stays on at Ezhacherry and ends up in jail after killing a goon who was trying to rob him of his money. Thomman’s son Saju is intelligent and hardworking, though Thomman cannot afford to send him to an English medium school and saju is forced to attend a Malayalam medium school.

Dolmens in the Blue Mountain is the story of Philipose and Dominic, their cousin Saju, Deven, the tribal boy whose father had helped Varghese conquer the hills, Deven’s wife Kannnagi who is raped and exploited by Philipose and who takes to the path of violence in the company of other Naxals and finally of the dolmens where Deven’s and Kannagi’s ancestors rest. Sebastian’s charatcers are authentic and one can find them all over Kerala’s Ghats and in the various places all over the world to which these hardy folks have migrated. Philipose is a ruthless exploiter who cultivates both politicians and cannabis. Dominic joins a seminary, but leaves disenchanted, unable to tolerate the total obedience and subservience demanded by the Church. He ends up in Canada, married to a nurse, the fate of so many Keralite Christian men who are unable to find a remunerative vocation by the time they reach a marriageable age. Saju, despite not having had the best schooling and undaunted by his inability to clear the civil services exam, obtains a Ph.D and works in the development sector, happy in his own skin. The author’s bio at the end of the book confirmed my suspicion that Saju’s story is that of the author.

Sebastian writes in the sort of everyday English spoken by the majority of Keralites and other Indians. Though every sentence in the novel might not receive a stamp of approval from Wren and Martin and Sebastian constantly flip-flops from the present tense to the past, something I found disconcerting, Dolmens in the Blue Mountain is on the whole, well-conceived and executed. A very interesting read, I would recommend Dolmens in the Blue Mountain to everyone interested in knowing more about Kerala, especially its Syrian Catholic community which is very influential and punches above its weight in Kerala’s politics.