Review of Parimal Bhattacharya’s Bells of Shangri-La by Barnamala Roy

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I had recently returned from the misty hill station of Takdah, 28 kilometers from Darjeeling when I came across this book. ‘Takdah’ is a Lepcha word which means ‘fog’ or ‘mist’ and true to its name, sunlight there is scarce even in the summer months of May and June. The wetness of the weather and the mingled strains of the Sunday mass and the Buddhist chants break the silence and peace prevailing there all day. But the question haunts you: how long can one enjoy this peace in the damp and joyless weather?

The same question also comes up in Parimal Bhattacharya’s accounts of his own travels in Bells of Shangri-La: Scholars, Spies and Invaders in Tibet published by Speaking Tiger. He weaves autobiography with historical accounts of other travelers and explorers. In his autobiographical accounts, he talks of the weather in Darjeeling that brings a spell of depression to someone born and brought up in the plains. Bhattacharya mentions a string of suicides by invalid British soldiers in a sanatorium in Senchal (Darjeeling) in the mid-19th century. It is the monotony of uneventful day to day living while posted as a professor in Darjeeling (“My days in Darjeeling followed each other like flocks of sheep over the cliff of amnesia”) that pushes the author into depression too. He buries himself in his scholarly pursuits and tries to fill the gaps in historical data. In the process, he is visited by feelings of eeriness or the uncanny, thanks to natural phenomenon like the Broken Spectre, which makes the book more like a detective novel.

The author’s curiosity is driven as much by the aim of solving geographical mysteries as also by the excitement of exploring the personal lives of travelers and explorers who have been lost to the annals of time. He discovers a rare document, priced at eighteen thousand rupees- ‘Report of Pundit Kinthup’s Exploration of Yarlung Tsangpo’  in an old book shop in Mall Road, Shimla and immediately remembers an earlier discovery of a copy of the same report at a kabari shop in Darjeeling. A connection is established between the two hill stations of the Himalayas, miles apart on the map.

Bhattacharya is interested in Kinthup because he was sent to Tibet to explore the course of the Tsangpo Brahmaputra River by the Survey of India.  Kinthup was a tailor by occupation; he could neither read nor write but knew the basics of topographic survey and was gifted with an amazing memory. What surpassed all this was however his dedication to complete his mission even under the most trying conditions. By putting the tailor’s records against the records of Joseph Dalton Hooker (19th century British botanist and explorer), George Bogle (Scottish adventurer and diplomat) and Sarat Chandra Das (school master and later-day noted Tibetologist), the author erases the line dividing scholarly interest and natural curiosity. He dismisses the elitism of scholarly pursuits and gives back the power of intellectual labour to the common man and woman. The title of the book is also suggestive of the same: ‘…..Scholars, Spies and Invaders in Tibet’.

The book unfolds before us the past lives of Kinthup, Hooker, Bogle, Alexandra, Sarat Chandra Das and Eric Bailey all travelling through difficult terrains to solve geographical mysteries. The author follows in their tradition. Bailey follows in Kinthup’s footsteps, Sarat Chandra Das in the footsteps of George Bogle and the author incorporates the records of all these travels in his own journeys. It is about looking at landscapes anew, with fresh eyes, while always being aware of other ways of seeing in different circumstances, as different people. Bhattacharya looks at these landscapes with the eyes of a poet; his descriptions are vivid and aesthetic- pink and scarlet flowers float in soupy grey fog, mountains lose their crowns in the clouds, trees hold up the sky like columns. Particularly striking is the description of how dusk falls during the winter months at the small frozen village in the Yangma Valley:

 “Before the fleeting daylight would fade, women with wooden tubs would crawl out of the cottages and call the animals in. For a while, the slopes would come alive with shrill human voices and deep bovine grunts answering them. And then, as the temperature would plummet further, milk would freeze in the yaks’ udders, the mountain springs would freeze like candle drippings, the rumble of avalanches would echo in the deathly silence. On clear nights countless stars, pulsating and large, would transform the sky into the coat of a snow leopard in flight.”

Bhattacharya’s book is a passage through time – he notes how the ways of exploration have changed through the ages. The spies, scholars and invaders travelled to Tibet on the sly in Kinthup and Sarat Chandra Das’s time; the author now explores the terrains through organized tours or study tours on Public Private Partnership (PPP). He also comments on the advent of home stays in the hill towns of the Himalayas and how they have changed the economy. The author astutely observes how local life and culture is exhibited and sold to guests and customers – he finds this custom disconcerting. This disconcertion echoes in the utter bewilderment Kinthup experiences on his first encounter with modernization (colonization). The town of Darjeeling had transformed beyond recognition during Kinthup’s absence – his years of adventures and misadventures had cost him his family and he was on the verge of losing his sanity at the sight of the unfamiliar steel tracks in his hometown. Kinthup was ignorant about railway tracks and mistook it for a snake, making himself the butt of ridicule.

The author observes the pathos of Kinthup and Sarat Chandra Das’s life. They passed their twilight years in obscurity and in Kinthup’s case, poverty, cradling extraordinary experiences of their adventures in their minds while living the drudgery of everyday existence. Their colossal effort and dedication were erased from public memory and no longer recognized by the government.

‘Bells of Shangri-la’ also talks about the breaking of stereotypes: Alexandra David Neel, the French mystique is a woman traveler who survives blizzards and braves disguises during her expeditions and lives up to the age of hundred and one. Liekwise, Sarat Chandra Das breaks the stereotype of effeminate Bengali man through his mountainous adventures.

The author has lent a keen and generous ear to past records and brought forgotten lives to light, all the while weaving a poetic experience for his readers. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in history, culture, mystery and adventure.

See the source imageBarnamala Roy has a M.A. in English from Presidency University, Kolkata. She reads an assortment of things, thinks about the films she no longer has time to watch, philosophizes, watches birds and feels more at home in the animal and plant kingdom. A freelance writer, editor and translator, she is currently developing video-content for an Educational App-Notebook, living life and lying low. She takes time off each month and travels to remote areas in West Bengal for fieldwork and sanity.

Covered and Empowered: The Hijab-Donning Superwoman in Deena Mohamed’s Qahera


Qahera is a web-comic created in 2013 by the Egyptian artist Deena Mohamed in response to media representation of Muslim women and their living conditions in modern day Egypt. In Qahera, Mohamed borrows the foreign medium of superhero comics to narrate the concerns of Arab and Muslim women. Superhero comic, in its historically conventional form, is dominated by superheroes who are often while, male and Western, while female characters tend to be hypersexualized as a spectacle for the male gaze. But Mohammad’s Quahera marks a point of departure.

This web-comic series revolves round the exploits of Qahera, a hijab-clad superheroine living in Cairo, who uses her superpowers to defend women under physical or ideological attacks. Her name, carrying a double meaning of “conqueror” and the Arabic term for Cairo, seems to coalesce the concept of agency with her Egyptian Muslim identity. Deena Mohamed, in an interview, claims that she intentionally made Qahera veiled “because she combats Islamophobia that veiled women face to a large extent due to being very recognizably Muslims, and because there is already such little representation of women in hijabs that isn’t dehumanizing.”

Whether vilifying or glorifying the hijab, essentialist Western and Arab misogynistic discourses treat it as a performance of muteness. The former views the hijab-draped woman as an abnormality and she is often abstracted in Western media to epitomize foreign cultural oppression. As the most visible member of Muslim societies, women in hijabs are frequently turned into soft targets for xenophobia and other dehumanizing rhetoric. On the other hand, the sociocultural location of women in hijabs in Arab societies and within patriarchal and religious discourses is quite complicated.  Currently the hijab-clad womanhas become the symbol of “umma”/nation for Muslims— she has become an embodiment highlights the morality of a God-fearing patriarchy where men protect and women need to be protected. But web-comic artist Deena Mohamed rejects this signification that dehumanizes the woman underneath the hijab by reducing her to a symbol. Thus her superheroine in Qahera is depicted in a manner that turns these essentialist discourses on their heads. As a superwoman who fights prejudice and crimes against women in Egypt, Qahera refuses her subjectivity to be subsumed either by the Western discourses that aim to ‘liberate’ her or by the Arab misogynist discourse that deem her as an object to be preserved and ‘protected’. This facet of Qahera’s identity is made apparent by the visual semiotics of the web-comic, wherein all figures are delineated in black and white, with an exception of Qahera who is sketched in grey. Thus she emerges as a hybrising force that troubles the discourses which aim to control and contain her identity. Not only does she surface as an unintelligible entity once she defies the roles assigned to her by the discourses of Western feminism and Arab misogyny, but also destabilizes the discourses that undermine Muslim women’s ability to self-represent and determine the meaning of their social visibility.This is evident from Qahera’s exploits as depicted in the web-comic series, especially in chapters entitled “Brainstorm”, “On Femen”, “On Women’s Choices” and “On Protest”, where she defends Muslim women from ideological assault and sexual harassment.

In “Brainstorm”, aided by her super-hearing, Qahera hears some “misogynistic trash” being spouted by a Muslim cleric to an audience of agreeable men. He defines a good woman as an “obedient wife” who needs to be kept “in check” by her ‘dutiful’ husband.Qahera flies to the scene and interrupts the discourse by brandishing her sword in face of the cleric, before she penalizes him by transforming him into a spectacle hung on a laundry-drying line. Then, having justly discharged her duties, a content-looking Qahera sardonically points out to the subdued cleric: “You’re right, you know, housework is women’s work. I especially enjoy doing the laundry.” Such a punishment for the cleric not only helps Qahera to overly subvert stereotypical gender roles and relocate the chore of laundry outside of its intended domesticity, but it also evinces itself as an empowering act that allows Qahera to ideologically ‘cleanse’ the society by penalizing those rotten souls who disseminate such misogynistic ideas. After exacting her vengeance on the Muslim cleric, Qahera’s super-hearing detects some “rubbish”, this time, being spewed out by white Feminists on the “need to rescue Muslim women.” The comic closes with Qaherapromising another discursive intervention, this time against Western feminist discourse that relegates the hijab-draped Muslim woman as the oriental Other of the Western ‘liberated’ woman.

This theme is continued in the next chapter, “On Femen”, where the hijab-donning superwoman, Qahera, is pitted against “Femen” protesters. This comic was posted online by Mohamed in response to a “topless jihad” held by the “Femen” protestors in April 2013 in front of the Great Mosque in Paris. In their breast-baring demonstration, they demanded freedom for Muslim woman from their ‘oppressive’’ garment. Their toplessness is meant to create a spectacle of contrast with Muslim women, emphasizing the polarity of choice women are forced to make between nudity and veiling—thus, like the misogynistic Arab discourse, Femen’s feminism fixates the body of the Muslim woman as one side of the Self/Other binary.Mohamed visualizes this binary opposition when Qahera confronts the Femen women. The ideological and discursive confrontation is narrated through several picture-specific panels—in one of these, the fully robed superheroine is pitted against the bare-bodied Femen protestors demonstrating in front of the mosque. The panel not only visualizes the binary of covered/uncovered bodies— rather being posited next to Femen and the mosque, which represents institutionalized Islam, Qahera seems to emerge as a third possibilityof what Muslim women could be beyond the cleric’s misogynist discourse or Femen’s homogenizing discourse. Qahera confronts the hegemonic binary opposition of Femen/mosque and challenges both by retaining her subjectivity as a covered and empowered woman. However Qahera’s character brings home the point that she is a superheroine neither because of her hijab nor inspite of it— rather the hijab is choice that she voluntarily embraces and strategically uses her hijab-clad body as a site of performance of power.

This issue of women’s sartorial choices surfaces in the chapter entitled “On Women’s Choice” when Qahera decides to engage in a verbal debate with two men over women’s act of donning the hijab. While entering a café with her unveiled friend, Qahera overhears two men enthusiastically debating over the hijab—the former posits the hijab as a symbol of backwardnessand urges Arab community to ‘progress’ by imitating Western culture, while the latter defends the hijab as a cover that protects women from sexual gaze and compares the uncovered woman as a dirty candy that attracts flies. Being outraged by both the discourses that objectify woman and treat her body as a carrier of social meaning, Qahera erupts and reprimands the men. She tells them that, “Women do not exist as periphery objects in your universe nor are they candy…They’re human beings! Women’s lives are not for you to prove a point! Our choices are not your political punchline.”Qahera not only rejects both arguments of local misogyny and Western superiority, but dismantles them by destabilizing the premise that a hijab is a spectacle of signification. She rather individualizes it as a choice rather than a metonymy of an institutionalized religion or a signifier of backwardness.

Just as Qahera defends women against ideological assault by generating her ‘super-discourse’ (which is not merely about Muslim women, but also by a Muslim woman), she employs her superpowers and weapons to shield women from actual sexual harassment. In the chapter “On Protest”, which deals with sexual assault against Egyptian women who participate in protests, Qahera saves a woman kidnapped by a mob and punishes the attackers. In the final panel, two female protestors appear in grey hijab and veil, which suggests that Qahera’s act is meant to empower women and not to ‘rescue’ them. These women, in their courage to protest against injustice and misogyny, resemble Qahera— this is highlighted by the grey hue of their figures and Qahera’s closing comment: “I am a superhero Ibecause have superpowers. They are superheroes because they do not.”

Deena Mohamed’s web-comic series Qahera not only acts as a medium to raise awareness for ideological issues and practical problems that plague modern Egypt, but it also delineates Qahera as a figure who defies easy categorization by the Arab misogynistic and Western feminist discourses. While Qahera never explicitly states the reason for donning the hijab, her covered body is never reduced to an object of obedience or submission. Qahera generates a discourse that leaves room for Egyptian women to thwart essentialist notions and reclaim their right over their sartorial choices and define empowerment in their own terms. Therein lies the success of Qahera.

If only there was a Qahera in Kathua or Unnao!

-Semanti Nandi

Bridging the ‘Great Hiatus’: The Oriental Afterlife of Sherlock Holmes

One wonders if any other fictional character has enjoyed as numerous and diverse afterlives as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. While a rapid proliferation of Neo-Victorian literature post 1950 has witnessed the rebirth of marginal Victorian characters [such as Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Mason as Antoinette Cosway in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Dicken’s Magwitch as the eponymous hero in Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997) to name a few], they are written in the vein of the Empire writing back, and provide an alternative version to the imperial parent texts by turning the peripheral figures into protagonists. However, the huge repertoire of parodies and pastiches that Sherlock Holmes enjoys, is singular and astounding.1 Even before the demise of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1930, the world of literature witnessed the birth of quite a few parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. J. M Barrie’s My Evening with Sherlock Holmes (1891) is the first parody followed by the pastiche The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet (1920) by Vincent Starrett. Conan Doyle’s relation with such reproductions of Sherlock Holmes was ambiguous. While Barrie earned his praise, he maintained his silence on the other parodies and pastiches, but refrained from granting his permission to the latter, if sought before publication.


After the death of Conan Doyle, the door was opened to writers from around the globe to rewrite and redefine Sherlock Holmes in new colours. Nicholas Meyer in The Seven Percent Solution (1974) pushes to periphery the detection skills of Holmes and instead focuses on his cocaine addiction, and blurs the boundary between fiction and fact by showing Holmes being treated by the historical figure of Sigmund Freud. Four years later was published Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, which exposes the darker side of the detective by showing him to be a perpetrator of the crimes that he solves, and the antagonist Moriarty as a fictitious invention of his insanity. To make a record of the numerous other pastiches is beyond the scope and aim of this article. However, what is relevant is the difference between two broad (and loosely arranged) categories of Sherlock Holmes pastiches: the first comprises those narratives that reveal different unspoken, or newly constructed, aspects of Holmes’s life, such as his weakness for drugs, his homosexual relation with Dr. Watson, or his wife who surpasses him as a more efficient (female) detective; the second category consists of narratives that try to fill up the gap of the years between his apparent ‘death’ at the Reichenbach Falls following a confrontation with his arch-enemy Moriarty in ‘The Final Problem’ and his subsequent reappearance in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’. In ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, Holmes tells Watson that following his apparent ‘death’, he “travelled for two years in Tibet . . . amused [himself] by visiting Lhassa” under the name Sigerson and thereafter “passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum”.2  This little piece of information, left unexplored by Conan Doyle, is extremely interesting against his treatment of the Orient in the adventures of the detective. True to the imperialistic fervour of his age, he portrays the Orient, especially India, as a hotbed of crime, cold-blooded criminals, and a savage race in dire need of a colonial education of civilisation.3 Having had the East thus depicted, the question arises as to how did the sleuth negotiate with the topography, culture, custom and people of the Oriental spaces when he traverses them in person. That such a negotiation is contingent upon the writers of the Oriental pastiches, is evident from the widely differing treatment of the issue in Ted Riccardi’s The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes: Nine Adventures from the Lost Years (2003) and Jamyang Norbu’s The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (1999). Riccardi’s collection of tales is based on the assumption that the British empire was losing its grip over the colonies, giving way to an outburst of murders and mayhem uncontrollable by the local authorities and the occidental figure of Sherlock Holmes was required to solve the crimes and establish order. Hence travels Holmes from Lhassa to Kathmandu, from Calcutta to the deserts of Rajasthan, all the while caught up in the diplomatic machinations of British imperialism that Rudyard Kipling dubbed “the Great Game”. Though Riccardi takes care to include local colours and customs in his tales, his rhetoric fails to break out of the colonial register. Hence, what is described of Calcutta, for instance, is its “native squalor”, the “humid pungency” of its climate, and the “unusual possibilities for crime and evil” that the city boasts of.4 The Indian Brahman is described as “swarthy”, or dark-complexioned, which explicitly reveals that Riccardi is complicit in the colonial discourse of race and colour. Also, while Riccardi’s Holmes has to take indigenous help, such as the aid of an Indian servant, or a knowledge of the Devnagri script, or an understanding of the deities of the Hindu pantheon (the Goddess Kali and the architecture of a Kali temple, for example, in ‘The Viceroy’s Assistant’), he nonetheless, remains largely distant from being absorbed in the Oriental atmosphere. Most of the crimes are traced back to England, and a number of them are solved in entirety only after Holmes’s return to London. Contrary to Riccardi, whose bridging of the ‘Great Hiatus’ is in line with the original imperial plots, that of Norbu is an unveiling of an Orient unseen by the Victorian British readers of Sherlock Holmes.

In The Mandala, Sherlock Holmes arrives in India as the Norwegian Sigerson following the conflict with Dr. Moriarty and immediately connects with a cast of characters borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s fictions. Among these, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, the Bengali spy from Kim (1901), becomes a central figure, enacting the role of an (Indian) Dr Watson. In giving Hurree a physical agility that matches Dr. Watson’s and making him perform crucial acts, especially in the climax of the novel, Norbu subverts Kipling’s caricature of the obese colonised Babu. Norbu’s Holmes, in a series of adventures, dodges attempts on his life, solves an exotic murder, and journeys to Tibet, where he saves the young Dalai Lama from an assassination attempt masterminded by the still living Moriarty, now an agent for the Chinese. Norbu positions Holmes as having his Western rational certainties destabilised by encounters with Eastern mystical thoughts. In his narrative, the arch defender of rational observation accepts that in the enigmatic lands of the East, not everything could be analysed or understood by exercising the faculties of reason. Holmes and Moriarty are portrayed as enemies in two different but interconnected lives. Eighteen years ago, “The Dark One” and Gangsar of Tibet were two of the greatest adepts of the century at The College of Occult Sciences in Lhassa. The Dark One tried to kill the Grand Lama but ended up killing Gangsar who had rushed to save the Lama’s life. The Dark One was temporarily robbed of all his powers by the Grand Master of the College. It is later revealed that he has returned as the evil Moriarty to face Holmes into whose physical body was transferred the life forces of Gangsar by the yoga of “Pho-wa”.5 Working within a framework of Tibetan religion, history, and philosophy, Norbu’s Holmes becomes a part of the Orient. His meditative composure, celibate life, and keen observational powers can, therefore, be attributed to the life-force of an Oriental monk that he carries within him, making him an amalgamation of the East and the West. Unlike Riccardi, for whom the East merely serves as a backdrop where Holmes had spent his underground years, Tibet springs to life in Norbu’s tale. The Sherlock Holmes of 221 B Baker Street, is enmeshed in the history of Tibet, and at the close of the narrative is “attired in wine-red monastic robes, tall and imposing . . . accompanied by his disciples” standing at the monastery gate.6




  1. This article is limiting itself to a selection from among the printed parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. Apart from them, there are loads of rewritings of Holmes on web as well as on celluloid.
  2. ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ in The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes. (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981), p.488.
  3. See for example, The Sign of Four.
  4. ‘The Viceroy’s Assistant’ in The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes: Nine Adventures from the Lost Years (New York: Pegasus Books). Ebook.
  5. Pho-wa is “the yoga of transferring the principle of consciousness from one incarnation to the next without suffering any break in the continuity of consciousness” (Norbu, 242).
  6. Jamyang Norbu. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (Noida: Harper Collins, 2008). p.259.


-Deblina Hazra

Yehuda Amichai: Selected poems

Yehuda-Amichai.jpgMy first encounter with Amichai was at College Street, in the form of a second hand book, entitled, Yehuda Amichai: Selected Poems. Published by Penguin Books, dated 1971, the poems translated into English by Assia Gutmann and Harold Schimmel in collaboration with Ted Hughes at once brings us to the most celebrated poet of Israel. The selected poems are a world at once colloquial and universal, sentimental and witty. It unfolds the man and the poet Amichai, one whose Jewish identity is inextricably interlinked with his poetry, if not overtly explicit. These selected pieces are peopled with God and Jews, mother, father and child, with bombs and Orange groves, with angels and dogs, with remembrances and forgetting, with Bedouins and Jerusalem.

At a time, when Biographical criticism may seem obsolete, with the baggage of the death of the author, and writing occupying that neutral space obliterating all identity, Amichai’s poems showcase a kind of deliberateness of identity. It is at the same time important not to deny that the literariness of the poems is never subservient to the identity politics of the man. Yehuda Amichai, considered a stalwart of Israeli poets, was born in Wurzburg, Germany to Orthodox Jewish parents, who in 1936 emigrated to Mandate Palestine. As a man who actively engaged himself in the war against Germans as well as the Arabs, his is a voice at once poetical and political.

What struck me as a reader of Amichai’s poems are certain peculiarities that form his poetic voice. At the outset, it is the language deployed by Amichai, that grabs our attention. The different poems in this collection at once showcases the tension in language, language which is at once rooted in a Biblical tradition and at the same time, a product of an angst generated out of War and Exile, a certain timelessness juxtaposed with the contemporary culture. The pull of contraries mark a kind of irony, which itself is a hallmark of most twentieth century writings. Take for instance the poem, Two Songs of Peace:

“My love was not in the war.

She learns love and history

Off my body, which was in two, or three.

And at night.

When my body makes battles into peace

She is bewildered.

Her perplexity is her love. And her learning.

Her wars and her peace, her dream.”

As we note in this poem, the idea of war and peace as a simultaneity is brought about seamlessly in the topos of Amichai’s work. The states of transition from being ‘bewildered’ to ‘perplexity’, to ‘learning’ and ‘dream’ are not clear cut but seem to be defy linearity of logos and time. This idea of language being contained and at the same time escaping fixity is further continued in the next stanza of the same poem.

“And I am now in the middle of my life.

The time when one begins to collect

Facts, and many details,

And exact maps

Of a country we shall never occupy

And of an enemy and lover

Whose borders we shall never cross.”

One recognises how the element of continuity, of exactitude as demarcated by ‘maps’ and ‘borders’ is contrasted with the idea of not being able to ‘occupy’ or ‘cross’. The usage of paradoxes as well as the usage of the sacred and the profane marks the language of Amichai’s poetry as in the poem National Thoughts…. “To speak now in this tired language/ Torn from its sleep in the Bible-/ Blinded, it lurches from mouth to mouth-/ The language which described God and the miracles,/Says:/ Motor car, bomb, God.” In the words of Michael Hamburger, in his introduction to this text, this use of contraries, ‘sets up an ironic tension between the deity worshipped in Biblical times and the purposes which the old religion can be made to serve in the age of motor cars and bombs.”

The rubrics of Amichai’s poetic works in this collection poignantly captures the themes of migration, of exile and his unique relationship with the Other. As he himself confessed in an interview published in the Paris Review, he is acutely aware of his Jewish belonging and upbringing, as well as being an upholder of Zionist ideology. The selected poems in this collection showcase the importance that he attaches to his status as a diasporic Jew as well as the poetic consciousness shaped by the fact that his parents migrated to Palestine. This awareness of being (dis)located, of the problematic relationship with the homeland, of the fear of perpetually fleeing is reflected in many of the poems in this collection. In My Parents’ Migration, he laments that he has never been able to makepeace with the fact of his parents migrating, and how home has always been shifting, lacking constancy…  “For my silence among the houses/ Which are always/ Like ships.”This same angst is reflected in another poem.. “Don’t leave me. Please. Please./ You’re not leaving/ I’m not./ Close one eye. Speak in a loud voice./ I can’t hear- I’m already far away.” (Eye Examination) or the line, “Of all the things I do,/ Parting is the inevitable one.” (In My Worst Dreams). At the same time, it is interesting to note, that despite his leanings towards Israel, he is never a jingoist or exclusionist. In his dreams, the Other, the Stranger is a perennial presence, indelibly etched. This stranger is not just an intruder, but one who he cannot imagine his homeland without, one with whom he cohabits… “And into these dreams/ There shall also come strangers/ We did not know together.”(If With a Bitter Mouth). For Amichai, home is not only the place that one longs for but also where someone else would come to stay.. “And what I shall never in the world return to/ And look at,/ I am to love forever. Only a stranger would return to my place.” (The Place Where I’ve Not Been). Drawing upon the Abrahamic tradition, he almost recognises a brethren in the Other, an idea which is espoused in another poem of his… “I shall therefore travel through my life like Jonah in his dark fish,/ We’ve settled it between us, I and the fish, we’re both in the world’s bowels,/ I shall not come out, he will not digest me.” (Two Quartrains).

Taking cue from this perspective, I must necessarily digress, if only to come back to a recurring dream I have often had… Across the windows, a dimly lit room in which both Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish sit across the table. Their voices are inaudible and interspersed with laughter and silence. Undoubtedly, I realise time and again how the relationship between I and the Other, in Amichai’s poems cannot be understood in isolation. In his poems, I hear the echo of another poet, beyond the barbed wires and barricades. Darwish, a contemporary of Amichai, was also his poetic rival, with words and memory as the only weapon of choice. Just as Amichai’s poems in this selection showcase a complex relationship with the Other, so does Darwish, as in his poem “He is Quiet and So am I”:  “He is quiet and so am I./ He sips tea with lemon, while I drink coffee./ That’s the difference between us.”This unique relationship between the self and the Other as proposed by Amichai, where “The many dreams I now dream of you/ Prophesy your end with me” is strangely mirrored by Darwish as well and one which shows how memory gets into the way of history.. “If I were someone else on the road I’d belong to this road/ there’d be no going back for me or for you..”

At the heart of the themes of exile and Other, is the singularly dominant image of Jerusalem that marks many of Amichai’s poems. Jerusalem becomes a metaphor for not only his Jewish identity, a ‘port city on the shores of eternity’ or the ‘Venice of God’ (Jerusalem, Port City), but also a space of contestation claimed by different cultures and traditional symbols.. “And the policemen and the flags and the high masts of churches/ And mosques and the smokestacks of synagogues and the boats/ Of praise and waves of mountains.” (Jerusalem, Port City). Whatever Jerusalem may come to denote, it is the constant symbol and reminder of his identity, which he must preserve through his words and memory… “If I forget thee, Jerusalem,/ Let my blood be forgotten./ I shall touch your forehead,/Forget my own,/ My voice change/ For the second and last time/ To the most terrible of voices-/ Or silence.” (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem).

On a desolate evening, as I gaze languidly across the windows of my ever shifting homes, the smell of the partially tattered book and its yellow pages, gives me another reason to read Amichai. In this collection of poems, one finds a deep level of intimacy, a tone at once personal as well as universal. In his ambivalent relationship with God and his own staggering faith, his personal relationship with his mother, of his reversible role as both the child and the father of his child, his poems at the same time transcend his dreams and longings, to become a plea of humanity to remember against the tide of oblivion and at the same time realising its futility.. “I demand of others/ Not to forget. Myself, only to forget./ In the end, forgotten.”

-Ayesha Begum

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

“Vast is my beloved country,

 Full of forests, field, and rivers.

 I know there’s none other like her,

 Where a man can breathe so freely.” (277)


Histories, we now know, are grand narratives which necessarily come into being by silencing contradictory micro narratives and to portray a nation in a relatively good light. Svetlana Alexievich offers a deft demonstration of this problematic in her book Secondhand Time.

The dominant narrative regarding Russia in the post-Soviet era has trained us to glorify the Russian Revolution, despise Stalin and his despotic rule and celebrate Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika. The reality, the hardships faced by the ordinary people, has been carefully ignored. Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, translated by Bela Shayevich, unfurls those concealed experiences of nostalgia, pain and anger.

Svetlana Alexievich specializes in the genre, which she calls “novels in voices”. Similar to her other books Voices from Chernobyl, Zinky Boys; this book too presents the heart-rending tales of the interviewees untouched by the author as she weaves together more than dozens of memoirs from the former Soviet Union.

Secondhand time is a work of non-fiction and spell-binding collection of interviews from ordinary people all across Russia. Alexievich has assembled her narratives through interviews taken by her of ordinary citizens, Gulag survivors, ex-Communist Party officials and traumatized women; mothers, wives and daughters. The book gives an account of their experiences of the post-Stalin period (1991-2001), when Communism was in demise and the concept of USSR was just a fond memory. The interviewees feel the need to pay respects to the Soviet Era. They cherish communism and the governance of Stalin. Elena Yurievna from Moscow, third secretary of a district party committee, without hesitation states: “I will take pleasure in writing “USSR”. That was my country; the country I live in today is not. I feel like I’m living on foreign soil. I was born a Soviet.” (127-128).They had fought and bled for Freedom but when it arrived, it brought them nothing but torment and hunger. The people could not accept this freedom offered by Gorbachev’s government where promises remained unfulfilled. Money was everything; the poor had no respect in society.

Alexievich’s book revolves around the recurrent theme of nostalgia about Stalin’s USSR, hate for Gorbachev and the dearth of bread, cheese and salami. Before the reign of apparent ‘Peace’, the public got to choose from variety of salamis and everything was equally handed out. Mikhail Gorbachev and his ideals became anathema and people longed for the rebirth of Stalinist regime; the public fell in and out of love with Gorbachev. Snatches of conversation hovered about in the streets: “Gorbachev is an American free agent…a freemason…he betrayed communism.” (66)

Alexievich lets us a peek into the kitchen lives of the Russians! Yes, the kitchen was a very significant place. The anonymous interviewee, a stoker from St.Petersburg, reminisces about his kitchen days filled with food, love and criticism about post-Stalin Russia where “revolution was nothing but a spectacle; a play put up for people.”(76-77). The kitchen was the place where Perestroika actually took place, “Russian culture lived on” and Fear was a stranger since they were among friends having meals (57-58). Most Russians were left with nothing but their memories. Elena, from Moscow, remembers USSR as a place of free will where “no one was forced to do anything. All of the kids dreamed of becoming Young Pioneers, of marching together…. To drums and horns…. Singing Young Pioneer songs:

“My Motherland, I’ll love forever,

Where else will I find one like her?” (138-139)

 The author intervenes between the conversations with cozy comments like, “We take a short break. The eternal tea, this time with the hostess’s homemade cherry jam.” or “She laughs.” (154-157). She carefully keeps her analytical, journalistic approach out of the way and lets the reader travel in the poignant world of the interviewees.

The tales of Secondhand Time collectively turn into ghastly dystopias. Though it is fact based, the author succeeds in molding it into a novel of the history of emotions. The book turns out to be a surprise to the reader, who may be a novice to such an experience, because a book about the communist USSR is immediately taken for granted; imagined to be just another irksome, literary work of political history consisting of collection of field notes depicting the drudgery, pain and oppression in the lives of Russians inflicted by Stalin. Instead it surpasses the expectations as the writer explores the fond memories, the intricate details of Russian livelihood during Soviet times and the sentimentality of the narrators about their lost motherland- the “USSR”.

The powerful and multi-vocal narrative of the novel breaks the norms of chronicling history of a nation. Second-hand Time is practically a bombshell, an unveiling which compels the reader to be cognizant of the fact that rigidly judging a country by a few literary works and reckoning upon the media can be quite detrimental. In the middle of a conversation in Red Square with an engineer (name not mentioned) about the suicide of Sergey F. Akhromeyev, marshal and chief of the General staff of the Soviet Armed forces of the Soviet Union, he shows his notebook full of quotations from the Marxist classics to Alexievich where she spots a particular quote from Lenin: “I would live in a pigsty as long as it was under the Soviet rule.” (376)

The agitation of the anonymous engineer and many other distressed individuals is hard to be oblivious to as Alexievich often receives rebukes against her questions: “What does history have to do with it? You want the facts “fried up”? Served spicy, with some extra sauce?” (359) Their anger against Gorbachev, scarcity of food, death of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the “bloody” bureaucrats lacking convictions, principles or any of those muddled metaphysical ideals, Marshal Akhromeyev who hanged himself from a Kremlin radiator leaving his country in the hands of traitors – all would have died with them if not for Svetlana Alexievich.

Alexievich transforms the grilling conversations about history and daily politics into coherent narratives through her honest documentary style. It is one of her most phenomenal works in which the Nobel laureate takes us back in time, while depicting a disturbing portrait of Russia and the readers can almost feel the emotions and the yearning of the ordinary men and women for the “normal” freedom whose suppressed voices have been buried deep down among unidimensional histories of the nation.

The book is a must read especially because it offers a different perspective and makes the reader experience a hidden history of the people of Russia by letting them narrate it; this is storytelling of a most unusual kind. Like Lorraine Warren had said in The Conjuring, “It’s an insight; like a peek through the curtain into another person’s life”. It is an onerous and perplexing read but also impossible to put down. 2017, coincidentally, also marks hundred years of the Bolshevik revolution.

-Sruti Purkait

Reclaiming Sita: An Exploration of the Subversive Strength and Evocative Power of the Figure of Sita in Malashri Lal and Namita Ghokale’s Anthology In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology


Raja Ravi Varma’s popular painting of Sita depicts her as the abducted wife of Rama, sitting in the gardens of Ravana, lonely and vulnerable; yet there is an evocation of power in her raised head and unblinking gaze. The painting by Raja Ravi Varma captures splendidly the dilemma of the iconic mythological figure of Sita. An archetypal figure of Indian womanhood, Sita is deified in the patriarchal canon; her character is seen as a symbol of sacrifice, loyalty, and wifely virtues. Feminist critics have often seen her as a subservient symbol of the female self and banished her from their emancipated consciousness. Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale’s anthology, In Search of Sita, explores, through essays, commentaries, conversations, and stories, the figure of Sita as an embodiment of strength and power: after reading the anthology we meet the Janaki who could lift bows and fire arrows, who refused to accompany Rama to his palace after her second exile, and who emerges as a woman who resisted the shackles of patriarchy time and again.

In her essay in the anthology, entitled “Sita: A Personal Journey”, Namita Gokhale writes: “Janaki, the daughter of Janaka, was a strong young woman who could lift the Hara, Shiva’s bow, with one arm . . . Then why do I picture her weeping? When and why did she become a figure of weakness rather than strength?” (XIII). As we read through the collection, this “weeping”, “weak” Sita of the patriarchal canon is challenged and overridden; instead we meet the single mother who raised her twin sons, the assertive wife who took decisions in the forest during Rama’s exile, the willful woman who resisted Ravana’s advances and reduced his self-esteem to shreds.

The classical, Sanskrit version of the Ramayana is believed to have been written by the sage Valmiki, who was inspired to write the epic poem after witnessing a mating bird killed by a merciless hunter. The dominant emotion invoked in Valmiki’s epic is that of love and compassion; subsequent versions, translations, and interpretations of the epic, from Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas to Kalidas’s Raghuvamsha to the Tamil, Indonesian, Cambodian, Burmese versions, have appropriated these broad themes and furthered them to bring in ideas of duty, kingship, virtue, etc. Many of the versions portray Sita as a dutiful wife, unquestioningly in love with her husband. The depiction of Sita has further suffered because of the numerous televised dramatized versions of the epic (the most popular being Ramanand Sagar’s 1986 television serial Ramayana) where Sita comes across as not only suffering helplessly in weak meekness but also as a histrionic, melodramatic heroine.  In the commentary section of the anthology essayists like Meghnad Desai and Arshia Sattar have analyzed Valmiki’s version and written how very often Sita becomes an “absent heroine”, someone who dominates Rama’s actions even when she is absent from his life.

Arshia Sattar writes: “She [Sita] seems less and less a victim and more and more a woman of remarkable strength and fortitude . . . As her beloved husband battles his internal demons and external rakshasas to find himself, Sita too, has internal conflicts that she must resolve. Rama and Sita’s final separation, after she is asked to prove herself again (this time for the people of Ayodhya) is at Sita’s initiative. She disappears into the earth without even a glance at the man whom she has loved, and it is Rama who is left alone, abandoned to his public life and duties” (12-13). The ending of Valmiki’s Ramayana has been commented upon by other essayists in the anthology. Meghnad Desai, in “Sita and some other Women from the Epics”, writes: “She [Sita] . . . finally returns to her mother’s womb, thus establishing the autonomy of the female” (9).

Another dominant topic for discourse in the anthology is Sita’s trial by fire, the agnee pareeksha that has become a deep-rooted symbolic icon for testing the Indian woman’s honor. Madhu Kishwar and Rina Tripathi try to decode the agnee pareeksha in a subversive conversation entitled “Trial by Fire” while Smita Tewari Jassal analyzes the recurring motif of Sita’s trial by fire in the jatsaar, the Bhojpuri women’s folk songs. In the essay “Sita’s Trial by Fire and Bhojpuri Women’s Songs”, Jassal points out the similarity between Sita’s agnee pareeksha and the heroines of the Jatsaar who are subjected to various tests of chastity, to be proven by walking through raging flames. Jassal further elaborates on the song of Satmal which is inspired by Valmiki’s treatment of Sita’s agnee pareeksha, which was as much a test of Rama’s loyalty as Sita’s purity: “In Valmiki’s Ramayana, the motif of trial by fire is as much about Rama’s test and transformation in consciousness regarding his own divinity, as about Sita. The song of Satmal offers a glimpse into the anguished mental state of a husband, who, like Rama, must succumb to the censorious pressures of patriarchy instead of offering his wife protection against it” (174).  Kishwar and Tripathi also find in Sita a gesture of defiance rather than submission. Madhu Kiswar remarks:

“. . . Even a casual reading of the text shows that like any astute literary writer, Valmiki develops the two agni pareeksha sequences as great dramatic moments to evoke a sense of utter shock and disbelief in the reader as well as all those characters who witness Rama demanding them of Sita. It is similar to the dramatic horror evoked by Othello’s murder of Desdemona . . . Valmiki does not build any defence whatsoever of Rama’s behavior . . . Rama is projected as being highly flawed in his moral judgment  . . .” (102).

A very interesting reading is offered by Aman Nath in “Reading Pictures: Sita in Victorian Indian Prints”, where Nath connects the “colonized cleansing” of Indian mythological paintings with the influences of the photo studio. The essay features various Ramayana portraitures, paintings, and landscapes during and after the Nineteenth century which depict the hypocitical moralities of Victorian England, through their lack of sensual images. The anthology astutely presents a composite depiction of Sita, her varied interpretations, and the differing views concerning her character. However one chooses to view Sita, as a revered goddess or as a suffering woman or as a symbol of feminist strength and power, she remains a staunch component of the collective Indian psyche. In Search of Sita rereads mythology and literature to offer fresh insights and interpretations of Sita’s character, of the inevitable pull she exerts on Indian women and womanhood.

-Somrita Misra


Lal, Malashri, and Namita Gokhale, eds. In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology. Gurgaon:

Penguin Books, 2009. Print.

The Periodic Table


In retrospect, I remember being one of that tribe of eighth graders who, bewildered by the initial rush of quaint scientific names and signs, secretly questioned, either in their minds or more vocally when amongst the most tightly insulated coterie of fellow classmates, the practical utility of committing to memory the first twenty or more elements of the Periodic Table. Eventually, if not out of bona fide curiosity, then at least due to the dire necessity of satisfactorily vaulting the hurdle of examinations, we did develop, in varying degrees, an intellectual familiarity with that solemn Table of elements. However, no sooner did that compulsion expire than poor old Mendeleev’s Periodic Table- ironically bearing an uncanny resemblance to the innocent buildings children make with colourful blocks of Lego- was quickly packed and parcelled to the farthest reaches of memory, collecting the dust of oblivion. But what is it like for a chemist who has had a life-long commitment with the elements? What memories of youthful happiness and hope, idealism and resistance, love and loss are invoked by the Table? Can the chart then be something more than just a multi-coloured cabinet of methodically arranged fundamental chemical entities: perhaps a coded testimony to a life lived?

Primo Levi’s (1919-1987) The Periodic Table, translated from the Italian original by Raymond Rosenthal, and first published in the USA and the UK in 1984 and 1985 respectively, is intriguingly unique in its amalgamation of autobiographical recounting of significant life events with precise scientific descriptions of various chemical elements and their properties.However, the Jewish Italian author’s own perception of the work, as explicitly put forward in the final chapter entitled, “Carbon”, leads him to regard his work as neither strictly an “autobiography” nor a “chemical treatise”. Rather, he defines it as a “micro-history, the history of a trade…, such as everyone wants to tell when he feels close to concluding the arc of his career, and art ceases to be long.” Similarly, in another chapter titled, “Silver”, Levi candidly confesses to his friend Cerrato, that he finds it unfair “that the world should know everything about how the doctor, prostitute, sailor, assassin…and Polynesian lives and nothing about how we [i.e. the chemists] transformers of matter live”. Consequently, he desired to write a book containing stories not of “the triumphant chemistry of colossal plants and dizzying output”, but those of “the solitary chemistry”, which more often than not required of the chemists to fight against the hostility of matter or “hyle”- “an obtuse and slow-moving enemy”- with nothing more than “their brains, hands, reason and imagination.”

Nonetheless, a reader would be quite far off the mark in assuming the book to be a dull, relentless chronicle of a chemist’s frequent failures, sporadically alleviated by either momentary or lasting breakthroughs. In each of the twenty-one chapters, named after different chemical components derived from the Periodic Table, the titular element plays a vital role in catalyzing human interactions which, in turn, are events having the potential to leave unfading impressions on one’s life and memories. As such, these components not only exist in the stories in their elemental forms but also acquire a larger metaphorical and thematic dimension. For instance, in the story, “Zinc”, the unreactivity of pure zinc is symbolically associated with the aloofness of Rita, a fellow student at the Chemical Institute, towards whom Levi felt the youthful stirrings of a nervously amorous attraction. Since zinc can be activated only through addition of an impurity, Rita being a Christian and Levi a Jew, i.e. one of that race of people who during the years leading to World War II were described by the Nazis and the Fascists as being impure, Levi proudly considers himself to be that essentially indispensible impurity,which breaks Rita’s emotional isolation and forms a bond of love.

Similarly, in “Iron” the eponymous metal epitomizes the heroic strength of character of the author’s friend, Sandro Delmastro, who died “fighting in the Resistance with the Action Party’s Piedmontese Military Command.” Furthermore, while in “Gold” the noble metal symbolizes for Levi as a prisoner the infinite possibilities of a life of freedom, in “Tin” the metal highlights the realistic compromises rooted in an often inevitable reconsideration of one’s idealistic vision of a free and adventurous profession. Interestingly, Levi’s training in chemistry also enabled him to survive the ravages of Holocaust in unforeseen ways. For instance, when he worked as a skilled slave labourer in the laboratory of a rubber factory at Buna, he was able to smuggle cerium- required to make flints for cigarette lighters- to barter it for food for himself and his friend, Alberto in the concentration camp.

In addition to these, The Periodic Table stands as a testament to Levi’s passion for storytelling. This is amply exemplified by such fictional tales like “Lead” and “Mercury”, which stand out in the manner of islands in a largely autobiographical narrative. Furthermore, the author seems to have believed in the therapeutic value of the exercise of writing and/or telling stories. He reminisces that after his liberation from Auschwitz at the end of World War II, he had feverishly recorded his experience in a book, namely, If This Is a Man, published in the USA under the title ofSurvival in Auschwitz. Indeed, Levi appears to imply that inventing stories, based on lived experiences, is one of the most effective psychological processes, by which one strives to come to terms with a traumatic past, or gain absolution. Such is the case with Bonino, a Jewish client from Levi’s days as a “Customers’ Service” officer, and Doktor Lothar Müller, the civilian supervisor of the production plant at Buna. While the former frequently narrated a continually updated- and probably fictitious- story that featured him doing a courageous act when captured by the Fascists, the latter seems to have modified his memories related to the concentration camp in an attempt to soothe his guilty conscience.

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table is a haunting work of nostalgia. Each account has the mellow quality of being viewed through wizened eyes that have seen the highs and lows of life. Indeed, this undying, almost cheerful, spirit of an old man telling his stories is movingly captured in the Yiddish epigraph that opens the volume: “Troubles overcome are good to tell”. Levi’s unpretentious erudition,humour, honesty, lucidity of thought and sincere attachment to the humble things of life- are all of a delicate flavour. So much so that it linger long after the book has been returned to its place on the shelf.

– Aritra Mukherjee

Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killings

Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killings by Vibhuti Narain Rai, published by Penguin Books, 2016.


Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killings is a chilling reminder of that pervasive matrix of communal hatred, inhuman violence and gross miscarriage of justice which has systematically corroded the secular foundations of the Indian polity over the last few decades. Vibhuti Narain Rai’s memoir, translated from Hindi by Darshan Desai, provides yet another instance of injustice that ends up exposing the bloody underbelly of agony and outrage which the vaunted rhetoric of democracy strives to conceal.

V.N. Rai was the Superintendent of Police for the district of Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh in 1987, at a time when communal tensions were running high, owing to the growth of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, and various parts of UP, especially Meerut, were up in flames. It is during this strife-torn context that on the night of 22nd May, 1987, that a group of individuals, belonging to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), led by Platoon Commander Surendra Pal Singh, picked up forty to fifty young and able-bodied Muslim men from Hashimpura locality of Meerut city in a truck and then took them near the Muradnagar Canal and Hindon Canal where they were indiscriminately shot at, leading to the death of 42 innocent citizens of secular India. The book offers a vivid and detailed portrayal of the massacre itself, especially from the accounts of survivors like Babudin and Zulfiqar, and Rai’s own involvement in the search and rescue operations that he undertook that night as well as the subsequent twists and turns in the ensuing investigation, culminating in the shambolic verdict of 2015 which exonerated all accused due to lack of evidence.

But the verdict itself did not really come as a surprise, even though it was both shocking and severely disheartening. While delivering his verdict Judge Sanjay Jindal observed,

“The defects in the investigation are of such a nature which go to the very root of the prosecution case and if ignored the same can cause a serious prejudice to the accused persons, and such ignorance may result in the miscarriage of justice…It is very painful to observe that several innocent persons have been traumatized and their lives have been taken by the state agency, but the investigating agency as well as the prosecution have failed to bring on record the reliable material to establish the identity of the culprits” (156-57).

Rai’s scrupulously mentions the nature of such defects which were deliberately indulged in to weaken the investigation and hush up the truth. Why did it take the authorities to confiscate the truck in which the PAC men carried off the murdered Muslim men, which meant that no worthwhile evidence would be recovered from it? Why did the report of the investigating officer of the CID, not signed by the survivors, refer to jawans in deep green uniforms when both Babudin and Muzibur Rahman (also one of the survivors) had referred to the perpetrators as men in khaki-uniforms in their original FIRs and statements given to the court? Why was it that the CID even listed among the accused a Muslim named Sami Ullah, even though it is quite absurd that he would have been part of the gruesome murders of his own community members? Why was it that the CID insisted from the start that Surendra Pal Singh and his associates were exclusively responsible for such a horrible massacre and that no senior officer was in any involved, even though there were reports of meetings regarding potential raids in Hashimpura and Maliyana, involving superior officers of both police and the local battalion of the army? Why was it that Major B.S. Pathania and others steadfastly refused to cooperate with the investigation and even denied what they wrote in the reports they had submitted to their superiors? Why were army officers actively involved in controlling the law and order situation in Meerut in the wake of communal violence from 18 May, even though there were no specific orders for the involvement of the army? What was the role of Major Satish Kaushik, whom several eye witness accounts placed in Hashimpura on the day of the massacre even though he was not posted there? Was there any link between the massacre and the death of Prabhat Kaushik, Major Kaushik’s brother and nephew of local BJP leader Shakuntala Sharma? The investigation, if carried out properly, should have offered answers to most of these questions. But as Rai confesses,

“Since I had been connected to the case and had monitored it from the beginning, I can say without any hesitation that the investigators were making every attempt to help the accused, right from day one” (154).

Such consequences are the result of an ingrained communalism which not only vitiates the mind of the enforcers of law, but cripples the administration and renders the political establishment altogether incapable to redressing the demands of justice. Neither the erstwhile Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh nor the Prime Minister’s Office took any concrete action, despite being completely cognizant of the events, especially against the PAC. Such deliberate inaction which exposes the sheer vulnerability of the minorities within the nation-state of India threatens to undermine the secular basis by creating an ambience of utter unbelongingness. This is further compounded by the unmitigated agony of the relatives of the deceased who might not only lose faith in the state and its institutions but could well be converted by fundamentalist ideologues into potential terrorists bent on avenging the wrongs inflicted on their families. In fact, the absence of any punitive action against the perpetrators only confirms the notion that people like Surendra Pal Singh, either voluntarily or under orders, will time and again “show the Muslims their place” (60) and go scot free. Any society that fails to prevent such subjugation of a particular section of the population is bound to be riddled with untold violations of humanity that would eventually unleash monstrous countermeasures. As Rai states, “I don’t want the wounds to fade. I want to reiterate in the eyes of the Indian state that it did not bother to do what it was supposed to, rather did everything that our painstakingly created constitution does not allow them to. If we forget one Hashimpura, many more will happen” (179-80). Reading and writing about it are attempts at such reiteration.

At a time when men may be killed for suspecting that they had eaten beef, something the constitution allows them to do, or undertrials may be killed in shoddy encounters to save the expenditure of the state in feeding them or a Muslim mother may be jailed for protesting against the callousness of the administration which fails to locate her “disappeared” son, books such as these become indicators of entrenched maladies we have failed so far to cure. As my earlier reviews of Do you Remember Kunan Poshpora? or Gujarat Files, also substantiate, every section of the Indian state remains besmirched with countless instances of blatant injustice, horrible crimes and heinous distortions of truth and no institution seems capable of redressing these foul atrocities.

The Hindu myths are replete with instances of monsters who keep extending their reigns of terror before finally falling prey to their own evil or being destroyed by some incarnation of divinity. I wonder who keeps track to the gross atrocities of the Indian state and what forces of destruction lurk in our futures. The answer is nowhere in the wind.

-Abin Chakraborty



A Narrative of Loss and Resilience: Review of Susan Abulhawa’s The Blue Between Sky and Water

The Blue Between Sky and Water, by Susan Abulhawa, published by Bloomsbury, 2015


Susan Abulhawa’s second novel The Blue Between Sky and Water (2015) traces the multi-generational journey of the Baraka family of Beit Daras from Palestine to America and back to Palestine over a period of more than sixty years. This is as much a journey of loss, relocation and separation, as it is of renewal, return and hope. The Blue Between Sky and Water, in being a follow-up of Abulhawa’s debut novel Mornings in Jenin (2010), tries to use family history to locate and preserve a sense of Palestinian cultural history that has been facing a constant threat of erasure since the beginning of Israeli colonisation.

The narrative begins in 1947 with the Baraka family residing in Beit Daras, a rural Palestinian village with their quaint lives and dreams. Eldest daughter Nazmiyeh looks after her widowed mother who can summon Sulayman, the djinn, while her elder brother Mamdouh tends to the village bees. Their younger sister, Mariam with her striking mismatched eyes, spends her days talking to her imaginary friend Khaled (who she informs Nazmiyeh is the latter’s grandson in a faraway bleak future) and learning to write from him. Their peaceful life is shattered when the Israeli forces descend on the village and set the family off on the long road to Gaza that will not only label them as refugees for life but will also ensure that the walk takes them from one displacement to another. Abulhawa’s description of the “Naqba” or the catastrophe that inaugurated the erasure of Palestine and the establishment of the new state of Israel is not only hard-hitting, but also chillingly bold in its baring of the extent of animalistic atrocity. Failing to make Nazmiyeh scream out in agony despite raping her ruthlessly, the Israeli soldiers fire a bullet through the head of six year old Mariam. The painful episode is a graphic description of the brutal reality of the Israeli occupation.

The Naqba familiarizes the Palestinians with the concept of statelessness, with what it means to be refugees. The Naqba brings forth the death of Nazmiyeh’s mother, the crippling of her brother and her desperate attempts to hold on to life with the help of the spirit of Mariam. However, the narrative does not merely chart loss or misfortunes; it shows the power of hope. The Blue Between Sky and Water is a story of resilience, of strong women and lost men. It takes us to the refugee camp of Gaza where the beekeeper’s widow dares to normalise life amidst the shrieking cries of pain and mourning of deaths. Her carefully cultivated vegetable garden, the aromas of her cooked food eventually inspire other women to rise above immobility and an eternal wait for ration or governmental help. Communal kitchens and underground ovens are made to prepare bread; laundry lines are put up to do the camp’s washings together; babies are born and weddings are planned – “In time, mud bricks and corrugated metal replaced the cloth tents and the refugee camps gave rise to a subculture marked by adamant pride, defiance, and an unwavering insistence on the dignity of home” (48). It is here that Nazmiyeh gives birth to twelve sons and one daughter Alwan; the camp is where Alwan gets married and Khaled is born to her thereby fulfilling Mariam’s prophecy.

“Hope is not a topic

It’s not a theory.

It’s a talent.” (171)

It is the hope that tomorrow will be better than today that gives the Palestinians the strength of resistance. The late 1970s and ’80s witnessed the rise of “Hamas”, an Islamist movement in Palestine that became “the principal institution of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s military occupation and ongoing repression of the native people’s aspirations for autonomy” (Abulhawa, The Blue Between ix), and gradually gained control of Gaza. Unable to dislodge Hamas, Israel sealed off the tiny strip of Gaza turning it into the largest open-air prison of the world which would make the Palestinians in Gaza go hungry, but not starve. Khaled bears witness to the time when Israel planned to defeat Gaza by isolating them from the world, symbolised by the disappearance of Kinder Eggs which became a luxury for the eight year old boy. He is also a silent witness to the resistance that defeats the plan. Palestinians dug underground tunnels to smuggle goods from Egypt. And every time the tunnels are bombarded, more are dug that are bigger, deeper and longer. December 27, 2008 saw Israel’s bombarding of Gaza, an assault that permanently transposes Khaled to a state of comatose existence from which he will never emerge. But Gaza turns around yet again, rising like phoenix from its ashes, simultaneously cleaning the dead for burial and making dinner for those alive.

 In Mamdouh’s migration to America, Abulhawa tries to chart the loneliness that emerges from exile. Losing his wife to death and his son first to a foreign culture and then to death, Mamdouh gives up everything to hold on to his granddaughter Nur Valdez and dreams of returning to Gaza. His dreams remain unfulfilled in death and Nur lives her life in a state of perpetual displacement. As she moves from one foster home to another, Nur’s hopes for a family are continually formed and dismantled. Sexually abused by her step-father, ridiculed by her friends for being a Muslim and hence an “other”, Nur’s search for family ends when she reunites with Nazmiyeh at Gaza. As she tries to treat Khaled as a psychotherapist, her mismatched eyes make her take the place of Mariam in Nazmiyeh’s eyes and the narrative comes full circle. As she conceives the child of a man who deserts her, Nazmiyeh’s arrangement ensures that in a culture where unwed motherhood is a sin, Nur and her child will be spoken of in reverence. This is where Palestine remains undefeated, in the everyday heroism of the women of Gaza amid relentless loss. Placed against the men – beloved husbands, exiled fathers, jailed sons – the sisters, mothers, wives and daughters provide a sustaining power that symbolically holds Palestine together. Nur triumphantly returns to Gaza defying her western past and leaving behind both the family’s trauma of exile and a deceptive lover. Moving away from western influence, she carries forward her native history and culture that had survived multiple attempts of erasure. Nazmiyeh having spent her life amidst death and loss refuses to bow down in front of any misfortune. Embodied in her is the undying spirit of a resilient race and culture which loves life and would rise every time it is crushed to formulate and adapt to newer ways of living.

-Deblina Hazra


A Little Life

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, published by Doubleday Books, 2015

alittlelife-usVery little about A Little Life is little. At 720 pages, it is a gigantic book that dares readers to pick it up. It is a book that is impossible to read at one go—the harrowing descriptions of pain and despair demand immense degrees of resilience and tenacity—but compelling to the finish. It will lure you with innocuous beginnings and strand you half-way through, leading you around all relief and beat you black and blue. In the end, A Little Life becomes one of those rare books which you curse for the profundity that changes you indelibly.

The book begins on a relatable note, with the story of four friends who meet at an unnamed northeastern college: Malcolm Irvine, the bi-racial son of a wealthy family residing in the Upper East Side, Jean Baptiste Marion (simply called JB), the child of well-off immigrants from Haiti, Willem Ragnarrson, the son of ranch-hands in Wyoming and Jude St. Francis, an orphan. Their friendship, progresses through the entirety of their adult lives, even as they keep drifting out of and into each other’s lives. Each of them, the narrative tells us, acquires spectacular worldly success. Malcolm becomes a starchitect with a flourishing architecture firm of his own; JB achieves acclaim as an artist; Willem slowly ascends the ladder of stardom and Jude evolves into a lawyer of formidable repute. So far, the novel is a convenient bildungsroman, telling the tale of four men, presenting intersections for them to meet to smooth creases out of their lives.

A few revelations later, the familiar comfort zone is dislodged and you find yourself nosediving into a nightmare of paedophilia, sadism and self-destruction. The brooding, enigmatic Jude—the archetypal golden child progressing towards an euphoric, romantic resolution—destabilizes the surfeit of materialism and destroys all semblance of normalcy. Yanagihara’s narrative relentlessly chases Jude’s violence into a merciless world of betrayal and torture, beginning with the scene when Jude wakes Willem up at the middle of the night, telling him, ‘There’s been an accident, Willem; I’m sorry’. There is Jude’s towel-wrapped, profusely bleeding arm and his physician Andy’s frightening disclosure, ‘He cuts himself regularly. You know that, don’t you?’

The graphic descriptions of recurrent self-mutilation, inculcated as a ritual of self-cleansing, is disturbing to say the least:

‘He has long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and he now recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: when the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows, and he is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.’

It is difficult to come to terms with the directness of such violence, even if you have the scene of Ramsay torturing Theon in the Game of Thrones series in mind. Most works of fiction leave the violence undescribed, allowing the reprieve of ignorance. Yanagihara allows no such room. She incisively presents episodes and flashbacks to reveal how Jude was systematically pimped by a priest, Brother Luke, who helped him escape from the rehabilitation center where he was repeatedly assaulted, then raped by truck drivers and a sadistic doctor, who deliberately ran him over with his car to prevent his escape.

As Daniel Mendelsohn of The New Yorker notes in his review, Yanagihara seems to revel in inflicting damage on Jude, to create a providential Job out of him. This seems especially true in the parts when the flashbacks are coupled with a series of humiliations in the present: Jude becomes a wheel-chair bound cripple, then strikes up a relationship with an abusive gay partner who abhors his physical deformity and beats him up before throwing him down the stairs, ends up with an amputation and continuously dodges the company of his adopted parents who try to help him out of his trauma. In a shocking development later on, JB mocks Jude’s infirmity prompting Jude (and Willem) to sever all contact with JB.

Yanagihara’s book however had not begun this way. There were descriptions of camaraderie, drunk confessions and lewd jokes, promises of lasting friendship, simmering tensions and minute jealousies. There was laughter at Malcolm’s guilt for his parents’ wealth and JB’s attempt to conceal his family’s financial solvency and his own complete emotional and economic dependence on his mother and aunt. It is easy to empathise with the group’s envy of Willem’s unprepossessing charm and internalize Willem’s own humility and sensitive empathy given his experience of poverty at his parents’ ranch and the death of his brother.  That Jude would emerge as the problem child of the group is hinted at, but there are warm friendly jokes even about his unknown racial identity, given that he was abandoned at birth.

The narrative becomes wholly invested in Jude’s life so soon that the lives of the other three seem like ciphers in comparison. Yanagihara refers to, but does not waste words on Malcolm’s negotiation of professional and personal identities and JB’s alcohol and substance abuse. If Willem’s gradual success is explored at some length, it comes across as one resulting from his proximity to Jude. Even so, Willem’s experiences of stardom seem more realistic than Jude’s status as a semi-prodigy, partially because Jude’s accomplishments as an expert lawyer, gifted pianist, excellent mathematician and a talented chef do not seem to have as much grounding as Willem’s perception of his transition from failure to success. There is something oddly reassuring about Yanagihara’s insistence that  ‘[t]here had been a day, about a month after he turned thirty-eight, when Willem realized he was famous’ despite his awareness that New York mostly comprised an extension of the circles of ambitious people they had all known since college.

Yet Jude’s numerous gifts provide odd solace for the slew of catastrophes that befall him. For the most part, despite his renown as a ferocious litigator and his insistence upon independence, Jude remains a victim all his life. Scarred, quite literally, he is unable to rise beyond his damned self-worth and his acceptance of love is always tinged by a fear of losing it. He never blames his tormentors, nor blasts them to eternal hell-fire and suffering; merely accepts the humiliation and remains stuck at that point of irresolution for the rest of time. Howard and Julia, Andy, Willem, Malcolm and even JB are unable to convince him of their love as he maintains a kind of starry-eyed fascination of their concern for him as undeserved, outstanding kindness. Even in his relationship with Willem, he finds himself unequal, blaming himself for his sexual failings, assailed by self-doubts, till Willem convinces him otherwise. He provides a counterpoint to degrading experiences of love and sexuality, ‘inventing their own kind of relationship … which felt truer and less constraining’. United at last, they visit parties, take trips abroad in a semblance of lasting domestic bliss.

Yanagihara’s meandering prose would definitely have benefitted from seasoned editing. Her intention to test the reader’s resilience to the limit however is a spectacular success.  When Howard or Asian Henry Young or Andy seem to be too fairy-talesque for such a tale of despair, Yanagihara first kills Malcolm and then Willem in arbitrary car-crashes. Predictably, Jude finally commits suicide.

A Little Life is an odyssey of suffering; it is also a parable of life. It is completely ahistoric, allowing you the luxury of distancing Jude’s timeline from your own. Yanagihara’s persistent pessimism is right in Hardy’s neighbourhood, but there remains the sunshine of brief moments to contend with. She is undeniably the mistress of the little things she fondly remembers to describe- the friendships and loves, souvenirs and stains, the quarrels and jealousies, the jobs and accidents – assorted blocks that make up life.

The book transgresses every fundamental explanation of fictive happiness and thrusts everyone into a chasm of unresolved anguish and hopelessness. Yanagihara will disgust you, make you howl in pain. In the end however, she will have moved you enough to forgive her again.

– Pritha Mukherjee