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.


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.