Book Reviews

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s “Time’s Barter” || Review by Ananya S Guha

The haikus in Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s collection Time’s Barter are elegant, delectable, witty, and humorous. They are imbued with colour, imagery of the natural world, the world of change, and a frenetic  rush for what is ‘new’. The verse is splashed with nature, rains, the wind, and burgeoning fruits. The technical virtuosity and the craft is apparent, but the overriding consideration is content. They are contemporary in tone and intent, marked also with wry and sardonic humour. Talking about the region’s backwardness the poet quotes a road sign which reads: “Slow men at work” Such irony is present, but what is also noted in these haikus is the metamorphosis of change. What is change? What impact does technology have on present times? What happens to the innate beauty of nature, the cascading waterfalls of Sohra, for example? The pivotal points are the poet’s home towns Sohra and Shillong. The poems turn around these two places to ask searing questions about life, its mechanization and whether the city of Shillong is actually a town, desperadoes may call it a city, all because of this frenetic search for new found expressions, and changing with the times! Technically, these haikus adhere to the traditional mould — 5-7-5 syllabic utterances — but their poetry lies in their suggestibility as the last section amply demonstrates. They have an apparent directness, simplicity but the last section is a take off into a new spinning world. It is as if after the flotsam and jetsam of life, characters take a new shape and meaning. They become more shadowy and less flesh and blood: “man telling a tale- a loud tune, friend turns away, left hand holding his ear.” The ambiguity and paradox of these haikus are poignantly underlined: “juicy-looking plums, watery taste- shouldn’t have plucked on a rainy day”. Or, “wind- whipping the rain- on the soggy earth, blood-red, the plums.” Though technically perfect, the haikus are concerned more with content than form. The themes have a wide range: love, relationship, a changing consciousness, and nostalgia. The poet remembers suddenly  his home town in the midst of a busy life in the metropolis. Nostalgia has to do with the hills, pines, and the rivulets. The dialectics of change and modernity imbue these haikus with a mood of sad resignation. In fact, moods dominate them, the poet is variously sad, angry, and happy. In his beautiful  introduction, the late Nigel Jenkins, Welsh poet and scholar puts the haiku in the main tradition of Japanese Haiku verse and examines Nongkynrih’s verse in this literary context.  He avers that haiku in India is still incipient, and Nongkynrih’s verse is a new found voice and seminal in this respect. One cannot but agree with him, with the rider that Nongynrih has once again penned delightful verse with all universal concerns of a life that is, with implications of dynamism and  change. This is a must read book and a watershed in Indian poetry in English. Title: Time’s Barter Publisher: Harper Collins, India Price: Rs 325/- Pages:140 Ananya S Guha has been born and brought up in Shillong, North East India. He has seven collections of poetry and his poems have been published worldwide. They have also been featured in several anthologies. He is also a columnist, critic and editor. He now is a Regional Director at the Indira Gandhi National Open University. He holds a doctoral degree on the novels of William Golding....

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“My Glass of Wine” – an overview by Gary Robinson

My Glass of Wine: the expanded edition by Indian poet Kiriti Sengupta is a small book written in a hybrid style of prose and poetry consisting of eight chapters or autobiographical tales (though the poet decries categorization for causing a clash between writers and readers), plus two additional chapters of reviews and an interview with Dr. Sengupta. My Glass of Wine follows a similar style found in The Reverse Tree, a book I had the pleasure of reviewing. Dr. Sengupta’s eight chapters are complemented by short poems that function more than in a mere ancillary role. The poems are sparkling illuminations of the prose. They enhance each other. But this book is above all a series of tales. I would compare My Glass of Wine to a salon that one wanders in where a friendly voice greets you and before you know it a delightful vignette springs up before your eyes. I enjoy learning something about a poet and Dr. Sengupta is a most accomplished raconteur. The eight prose pieces do have the feel of a memoir without ever excluding the reader who has not shared the same experiences as Dr. Sengupta and may even be from a completely different culture. I would say the most remarkable and salient feature of My Glass of Wine is how one is so very well entertained by accounts as disparate as dentistry, Christianity, southern Indian cities, and shoes. There is a universal need that we have, as fellow inhabitants on this blue planet, to learn about one another and Kiriti Sengupta takes center stage in My Glass of Wine, though he introduces in a generous and completely unselfish spirit other characters such as his wife, his son, his guru. Could another Indian poet, or scholar for that matter, speak so informally on a variety of topics, always maintaining the keen interest of the reader who may have only a superficial knowledge of India? I think the key to it is that Dr. Sengupta paints himself as an everyman, a guide without pretences or affectations, someone with a genuine desire to reveal himself as no different from anybody else. Of course each person is different, otherwise we would suffer mass ennui, and Dr. Sengupta kindly asks us to listen to his particular stories. But there is not an ounce of conceit to him. At all times I felt a great warmth emanating from his words. Here is a poet who merely wants to tell us something about himself. What makes one person’s confessions different from another’s? I can think of nothing other than sincerity. It is rare to meet a sincere human being. Life beats us down, after all, and we are often rendered cynical and embittered. Yet there isn’t the slightest taint of falsehood to My Glass of Wine. I sense only an honest man, a poet, discoursing on aspects of his life, family, and friends. The Great Russian masters, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, believed a man had to explain himself. One sees the same influence in modern day writers like Roberto Bolaño and Gabriel García Márquez. Maybe all literature is an attempt by a writer, through the characters created in books and short stories, to offer an explanation to the reader. “I am writing this to explain to you something of myself,” the writer is saying. I see the same motive in Dr. Sengupta’s writings. The anecdotes are non-fiction but isn’t the poet still trying to explain something of himself to us? Gary Robinson is a poet and short story writer from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been published in Canada, the United States,...

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Chhimi Tenduf-La’s ‘Panther’ || Engaging Story, Intelligent Writing

How often do you come across a book that appeals to you at several levels? Not too often, I assume. When I picked up Panther by Chhimi Tenduf-La from Harper Collins’ office I definitely expected to read a good book, but not one that would leave me spellbound for days and one that I would think about over and over again. The book is set in a war-torn Srilanka, recovering from a long conflict between a Tamil terrorist group called the Panthers and the Sinhalese. It is a story about the challenges of rehabilitation, about postwar trauma, about the conflicts that exist even after the war has ended. Prabu, a young Tamil who has spent several years training at a Panther camp, is now trying to get his life back. Having lost his family, he seeks a sense of belonging with his friend Indika’s family. A gifted cricketer, Prabhu manages to find a place in one of the best schools possible. But has he really been accepted? By everyone? And has he really left his past behind? These questions will haunt you till the very end. And perhaps even beyond. Two separate narratives run in parallel in the book, and the author expertly uses different voices and different narrators to set the two narratives apart. While the story of Prabhu in the terrorist camp is told using a strong second person narrator, that of his attempts at reintegrating with the society is told using a guileless, naive third person limited narrator. And the fact that the author manages to give each character a unique voice speaks volumes about his skills. Consider the following dialogue, for example: Indika extended his arms out by his side. ‘How’d you know I’d be here?’ ‘You told.’ ‘Did I? Honestly can’t remember.’ ‘I think maybe you have been take the many alcohols. You told to me also and Gayan, Rajiv and Gish.’ ‘Yeah I told them, but…’ Indika closed his eyes. ‘Okay, okay, now you’re here, sit, sit.’ A girl with wet hair, tan highlighted by a white bikini top, skipped up to Indika. ‘Oh. My. God.’ She grabbed his wrists. ‘It’s been too long.’ Laughing, Indika pointed at Prabu. ‘Fiona, meet my new, what would I call him, friend?’ Prabu offered his hand. ‘Pleased to be meeting you.’ Resting her hands on Prabu’s shoulders, Fiona leaned forward to kiss him on either cheek. Prabu froze, feet stuck in the grass, jaw locked. He’d heard foreign girls were forward, but kissing him before she knew his name? Wow. He straightened his back, combed his hair down into a side parting, deepened his voice. ‘My name is called the Prabu.’ ‘Pleasure,’ she said. Even without the speech tags you can easily make out who is speaking what. With his wide-eyed observations of his new life, Prabu comes across as a very convincing unreliable narrator – we look at the world through his eyes and are able to make out that his friends are making fun of him, even though he himself remains blissfully unaware of it. The characters, with their positive traits and flaws, are delightfully round and realistic. For someone who teaches creative writing, this book is pure delight. The storyline is full of unexpected twists and turns and you can never be sure of what is going to happen next. At times you may feel that you have deciphered the book, but rest assured that you will be proven wrong. And in keeping with the plot, the storytelling itself is surprising – you will find humour where you least expect and profound wisdom when you are...

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Kiriti Sengupta’s “Healing Waters Floating Lamps” || Review by Ananya S Guha

Kiriti Sengupta’s poems are at once lonely, spiritual and a mystique of the open wide world punctuated with existential questions, In Healing Waters Floating Lamps the poet holds constant dialogue between what is signified — call it God, a moral question or retribution, or even a pantheistic credo. The persistent reference to water, the sea and the ethereal connote a world that is sacrosanct, such as the invocation of a holy city, or a Tagorean utterance of God and a hushed mystical world. Throughout the poems there is a defiance of the ordinary as the poems catapult into an emblazoned extraordinary world. Yet the poems are not reductionist, they are structures embedded in a philosophy of humanity which is God-centered. The cultural stance that the poet takes is culled from everyday situations such as the apparent ordinariness of a fish depicting a cultural symbol. The Tagorean impulse dominates some of the poems: “Have you seen the floating lamps in the river?” (“Evening Varanasi”) Or “My Master enjoys the stage” … (“Unravel”) While “Eyes Of A Yogi’’ ends with a crescendo “The mother changes to sky.” These poems are not arid intellectualism. They are poetry of the heart, the spirit. Yet they are complex interfaces of existence. They are not subject to one interpretation. Such interpretative dimension imbue these with fine, subtle qualities. Throughout the poems there are reverberations of the infinite pinned down by a finite well-ordered reality. But the subversive elements dominate the poems- this well ordered reality should be transcended into the metaphysics of life. It is a Meta world we live in. The poems reveal this intensity of grappling with prescient but not foreboding truths. Always there is light, not darkness: “I reach the sky While I draw a circle in the water Looking at the image I take a dip” (“Beyond The Eyes”) The poems militate against arid intellectualism. They open out the citadels of love, they are not susceptible to one interpretation, they are rather interpretative and multi-layered. They are irreducible statements not of the cerebral, but that of the spirit. This breaks new grounds in Indian English poetry. The power of Sengupta’s poetry lies within, not without. The images are retained inwardly and inner senses cry out for something, somewhere: “I have seen my mother Preparing Ghee out of milk- She never used butter To clarify it further…”  (Clarity) “Clarity” here assumes an ambiguous connotation. Do we have it in what we say and do? Sengupta’s poems rest continuously in such clever word making and imagery. Let us look at the images in his poems: eyes, water, tears, river, yogi are some of them. The sacred city of Varanasi is another one. The poet is subsumed by a quest for the ordinary transformed into extraordinary metabolic desires. This gives to his poetry a pugnacity, barring any raucousness. The voice is always quiet, meditative, it is never sentimental or maudlin. If there is a cry for God, then it is an act of surrender. In fact surrender is one of the dominant themes of these poems. But it precludes any kind of overt religiosity. Sengupta’s poems are no ontology, they are direct references to life, the rustic world and sometimes to relationships. They may be direct statements, but their innards are complex and philosophical. They maybe short poems, but they “say” much more than they state. A lot of Indian poetry in English today is pretentiously cerebral and exercises in word play which has become a fetish. Healing Waters Floating Lamps is a refreshing and daring breakaway from this slip shod tradition. Ananya S...

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Book Review: NK Sondhi’s “Cart Full of Husk” ||Partition and Beyond

The partition of India in 1947 did much more than just divide the country. It uprooted families, revealed a truly demonic side of humanity, and created a new section of Indian population, referred to as the “refugees”. Many of us weren’t born at the time of partition (and this includes the author who was born just one year after the event), but those whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents migrated from the other side have heard the heart-wrenching, fear-inducing stories of distrust, fear, torture, and poverty rampant during that time. And this is where the story central to this book stems from. The story starts in 1947 from the Village Basal, now in Pakistan, where the family of Mr. Karam Chand lives. A kind and generous man, Mr Karam Chand convinces his son Dr Dayal Chand to stay back in the village and provide free medical advice and treatment to the poor. Their family is respected far and wide and because of the fact that they have helped people of all religions and faith over the years, when the threat of partition looms, their employee Mohamad Ali, sacrifices his life to help them commence their journey towards the parts of the country that were most likely to be included in India. And from here starts the story of loss and, eventually, of survival. The first part of the story is told largely from the point of view of Dr. Dayal Chand. His eldest son Sunder takes on after the doctor falls seriously ill, and after him the baton is passed on to Narender, Sunder’s younger brother, who carries it till the end. One common thread that weaves through the narrative, from the beginning almost till the end, is Karma Wali, Dr Dayal Chand’s wife. We discover that after the partition, much after the bloodbath is over, tough times are just beginning for the “refugees”. Even as Delhi, and other cities, grudgingly make space for them, they are treated with distrust and disdain. They struggle to find work, to rent a house, and basic necessities like simple food and clothes are difficult to come by. Large families live in a one-room accomodation, without amneties like a kitchen and a toilet. It is only through stubborn perseverance and resilience that these families are able to survive years of poverty and deprivation. But some scars never heal and often members of the same family turn against one another in their race to stay afloat, while at the same time selfless friendships survive misunderstandings and tussles. While Cart Full of Husk is essentially the story of one family, experiences of other uprooted families are woven into the narrative. What I greatly admire about the story is that it doesn’t deliberately try to maintain a balanced facade to appear secular, neither does it dwell overly on the religious aspect of the event. And simply by not trying too hard, the author is able to keep the focus on how partition impacted humanity as a whole. The story telling is simple and linear and the author doesn’t try anything extraordinary with it, which isn’t necessarily a negative, as this makes it possible for the complicated story that spans across seven decades, to shine through. The book does need some tight editing though and some parts of it, especially the descriptive pieces about the various monuments of Mehrauli, distract from the narrative and could have been removed altogether. I found myself skipping through these to find out what happens next in the story. That said, this is a thick book and can appear overwhelming, but once I picked it up...

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Raghav Chandra’s “Scent of a Game” || As real as life itself

When it comes to tigers in India, we seem to be a united lot, at least on the surface. While no one in their right mind, in this age or time, would dream of openly declaring their passion for a good hunt, you never know what lurks beneath the surface, deep inside the heart of a person who proclaims to be passionate about conservation of wildlife in its natural surroundings. And this is how Abhimanyu Pratap Singh, the Maharaja of Baikunthpur comes across to Ram, our protagonist who has run into exceptional hard luck upon his return to India for his father’s last rites. In the US, Ramachandra Prasad works for Zentigris, founded by the first generation entrepreneurs, the Raja brothers. He has recently been promised a “board-level position” at the company and the company is at the brink of partnering with a Chinese firm. Ram receives a call from Guruji, his father’s neighbour in India, informing him of his father’s rapidly failing health. He rushes to India and all hell breaks loose, not only for Ram, but also for his employers, the Raja brothers and Zentigris. Abhimanyu comes to Ram’s rescue when Ram finds himself without money, without luggage, and without his phone outside the airport. Abhimanyu’s generous help only proves to be a temporary respite from the terrible events that await Ram. He reaches his father’s home too late, only after the senior Prasad has passed away. Decades old preserved tiger skinned, owned by his father, lands him in jail as he is accused of killing Burree Maada, a tigress that has gone missing from Kanha Tiger Reserve. He sells his soul to the devil, namely Feroze Goenka, a friend of Abhimanyu, for his release and gets sucked deeper into the muck with supporters of tiger farm, tiger poachers, and traffickers of tiger parts. Stories of Sherry, a strong-willed journalist, and Gangavardhan, a righteous IFS officer, are also woven into the narrative. On the whole, it is an intriguing tale of grey characters, many of whom are instantly relatable. Ram, charming and materialistic, shows all the failings and experiences all the dilemmas a man in his position is likely to face. Surrounded by grandeur, this once middle-class man is tempted and often gives in to his temptations. Abhimanyu, royal and powerful, though generous at surface, makes all roads bend in order to get what he has set his heart upon. Be it for making friends or for hunting a formidable tiger in the wild. Sherry, a talented journalist, manages to extract the juiciest stories from the most formidable people while working on her personal agenda of conservation of tigers in the wild. Though she manages to leave a mark on everyone she meets, she has a past that she is unable to come to terms with and a mystery she is unable to solve: Why can’t she sustain a long-term relationship? Gangavardhan, a brave man, ready to take risks for the right cause, probably the most likeable character in the book, has a tendency to foolhardiness that turns out to be his undoing at the end. The end of the novel, and mind you I am not talking about the climax, is as real as life itself. Many questions are left unanswered, just as they are in life. Characters do not reach their logical conclusion, as we normally don’t. And all stories don’t have a definite end, as they normally don’t in life. The author has done a brilliant job of ensuring that “the end” is just that – an end. Not a completion, not a finish,...

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