Archive for March, 2019

I was excited when I discovered this anthology of short stories, ‘She Speaks‘. I read it in one breath yesterday.

She Speaks‘ has twenty stories, all written by Indian women writers, many of them first time writers. The first three stories are stories which are set in India and they describe the life of a woman married into a traditional family and what happens when a girl child is born. The next seventeen stories are written by writers who live abroad and they mostly address themes of immigration, cultural integration, the wonder of the new country and the yearning for the homeland, how in some cases the umbilical cord stretches from the homeland and holds back a young woman and refuses to let go. There is also a science fiction story in this part. The last three stories in the book are reinterpretations of mythological stories set in contemporary settings. There is something in the anthology for every kind of reader.

I am giving below a brief description of the stories in the book without revealing any spoilers.

(1) Padma by Kamalika Ray – A woman waits on the steps of the ghat. The man who she is waiting for finally arrives. They behave like strangers, like they don’t know each other, but first she leaves and then he follows. For the reader, the implication is obvious – they are having an affair. But there is more to it than meets the eye. And as we read the story, we find out more. The ending leaves a Schrödinger’s Cat kind of feeling – is the cat alive or dead? Or is it in both states at the same time? I want to ask the author or any other reader who has read this, and find out. This was one of my favourite stories from the book. This was the first story in the book, and as you can see, the book starts with a bang.

(2) The Inner Voice by Ashwathy Menon – Ayesha gives birth to her baby. It is a girl. She should be happy. But she is not. As we see the world through Ayesha’s eyes, we are taken into her past, and we see what happened, for her to feel the way she does now. As the dark secrets from her past come tumbling out, how will Ayesha deal with them while taking care of her newly-born and showering her baby with love? You have to read the story to find out.

(3) The Survivor by Shweta Dasgupta – Kamla is coming back home when she discovers an newborn baby on a garbage heap. It is a girl. It looks like the parents of the girl have abandoned her. Kamla takes the baby home. Her inquisitive neighbours stop by. They ask her whose baby it is. When Kamla tells them the truth, they ask her to put it back on the garbage heap. Kamla’s husband is supportive of her. As the baby is unwanted to her biological parents, Kamla and her husband decide to bring her up as their second child. But the conservative villagers turn against Kamla and her husband and their children. And bad things start happening. Does Kamla survive this? What happens to the baby? You have to read to find out. This was one of my favourite stories from the book. The story feels very realistic and the tension rises, as the pages move and we root for Kamla and her new baby.

(4) Shades of Amara by Sindhuja Manohar – This story describes the life of Amara as she goes through different phases in life. As a student she loves a fellow student, but he is from a different community, and is scared of introducing her to his parents. Then she falls in love with a second person, but this time it is Amara who blinks, because she is scared of introducing him to her parents, because he is from a different ethnicity. Then Amara gets married to a third guy. Does she find happiness? You have to read to find out. This is a very Indian story, and the events are very realistically portrayed. Because of this, it is sometimes very frustrating to read. Not because the story is not good, but because it is too close to comfort. Young Indians’ lack of courage to defy their parents and elders is legendary. It is hard to read that in this story.

(5) Khushi by Tania Basu – A woman boards a plane. She stows her luggage and settles down, when someone taps on her shoulder. She turns back to discover that two of her old friends are sitting behind her. They are going home to Kolkata to celebrate their daughter’s first birthday with family and relatives and friends. They invite her to come. Before long we discover that our main character is Australian. And through the rest of the story, we see India depicted through an outsider’s eyes, which is quite fascinating.

(6) Languages : An Expat’s Confession by Ekta Sharma Khandelwal – This story describes the life of Ira, who gets married and moves to Tokyo, and how languages play an important part in her life – Japanese which is spoken in her present city which she calls home, Punjabi which is her mother tongue, which moves her the most, Hindi which she is most fluent in, English which she is also most fluent in. We see Ira’s life through these different languages which inhabit them. This story had one of my favourite lines – “As has been quoted from the famous musician, Frank Ocean, ‘when you’re happy, you enjoy the music. But, when you’re sad, you understand the lyrics’.

(7) Gari by Poppy Choudhury – It is early morning when Sheen wakes up and she has a panic attack. As she manages to survive it and gets to the other side, the story takes us to her past to her childhood and we get to see her life through her eyes and the story reveals how something that happened in her past manifests itself as panic attacks now.

(8) Paksh (For) and Vipaksh (Against) by Munmun Gupta – We see the themes of immigration and cultural integration explored through the eyes of Maya, who joins the university as a debate teacher.

(9) A Journey to Remember by Sumona Ghosh Das – Jhilik is newly married and moves to Chicago to live with her husband. The new experiences she goes through, the new people who touch her life and how the new place and culture transforms her as a person is told in the rest of the story.

(10) Sour Apples and Hot Peppers by Suparna Basu – Megha receives sad news from home and her mind goes back to her childhood and later adulthood when she moved to a new country and we see how her parents, her family, her new country and the work she does, all shape her as an individual.

(11) Solitude by Sujatha Ramanathan – It explores the relationship between two sisters across time and space.

(12) The Remains of Goodbye by Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra – Describes the story of a woman who leaves her husband and how things evolved for her to get here. Very realistically portrayed from a cultural perspective.

(13) Five Half-Lives by Abhilasha Kumar – A woman goes on a bicycle ride to meet her lover. Before long, we discover that she is married to someone else and has children. How her complex story unravels is told in the rest of the story. One of my favourite stories from the book.

(14) The Half Ticket by Ipsita Barua – Anika moves countries when her husband get transferred to a new office. How her life changes and whether she gets used to the new place and the new culture, where she doesn’t know the language, forms the rest of the story.

(15) Ageless by Jyoti Kapoor – J uses a time machine and travels to the future. She expects to see some amazing things and she does, but things are also not what they appear to be, and there is more to the future than meets the eye. You need to read the story to find out what J discovers.

(16) The Forgotten by Rejina Sadhu – Lavanya hears the news that her childhood friend Vinay is no more. Her heart goes back to her childhood when she and Vinay were best friends and the rest of the story describes how their friendship evolved across the years and enriched both their lives.

(17) The Goddess is Missing by Nayana Chakrabarti – This story describes the lives of Dolly, her husband Arjun, and Arjun’s mother Shukla, and how their intertwined lives evolve across the years. Parts of the story were heartbreaking to read. While most of the expat stories in the book describe how it is great to migrate and how the main character’s life changes for the better, this one shows how sometimes the pull of culture is strong and there is no escape, and how the umbilical cord still pulls the main character back.

(18) Radha and Govind by Ridia Chauhan – The narrator wakes up in a hospital. She wonders how she got there. She looks back and narrates her story. A reimagining of the Radha-Krishna legend, this story was fast-paced and gripping with a surprising ending, and it was one of my favourite stories from the book.

(19) Durga’s New Dawn by Pallabi Roy-Chakraborty – A reimagining of the Goddess Durga story set in contemporary times, this story is cool and stylish and humorous. One of my favourites.

(20) Sita’s Vacation by Brindarica Bose – A reimagining of the Sita-Rama story set in contemporary times, we will see Sita with new eyes after reading this story. One of my favourite stories from the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘She Speaks‘. It was fascinating to read stories by Indian women writers from across the world, straddling different, interesting themes.

Have you read ‘She Speaks‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Zeenat Mahal’sThe Historian and the Hunter‘ for a while now. I loved two of Zeenat Mahal’s earlier books, ‘The Walled City‘ and ‘Haveli‘, and so I was excited to read her newest one. (Faiqa Mansab writes literary fiction in her own name, and she writes romance novels and fantasies as Zeenat Mahal.)

The Historian and the Hunter‘ is set in Lahore. Shirin and Laila are twin sisters. Their parents have been killed violently and they have been brought up by Madam Ara. Both Shirin and Laila work for the Council, which keeps the city safe from monsters and supernatural creatures. Begum, who is related to the twins, heads the Council and the Council comprises people from different walks of life, from different parts of the world. Shirin is the hunter. Whenever a new monster enters the town, she alongwith Emir, goes hunting. Laila is the historian. Her job is to study history, prise out its secrets, and help Shirin in her hunting and the Council in keeping the city safe. Strange things start happening in the city. A nau-guzzah, which is a giant, is suddenly spotted in the city after many decades. A churail, who looks like an old woman, but is extremely scary and nasty, is spotted in the city after a century. Shirin and Emir are extremely busy because of the arrival of these new ‘guests’ to the city. It seems some dark force is summoning them and more and more dark creatures listen to the call and start congregating towards the city. Why are these dark creatures being summoned? What is the nature of this dark force? Will Shirin and Laila be able to combat this dark force and save the city? The answer to these questions form the rest of the story.

The Historian and the Hunter‘ is fast-paced and gripping. Zeenat Mahal’s earlier novels are mostly romantic fiction, but here she has moved beyond familiar territory and has explored the fantasy landscape. But all the things that Zeenat Mahal’s fans love in her stories are present here, though the genre is different – there is verbal sparring and banter between the main characters, there is beautiful romance, there is humour, there is beautiful prose with gorgeous passages throughout the book. I loved most of the characters in the story, especially the twin sisters, Shirin and Laila (I liked Laila a little bit more, because she loved books and was mostly immersed in books), Emir, Rustam, Shahmeer, Madam Ara, Begum. Begum reminded me of the grandmother character in ‘Haveli‘ – she was loving, affectionate, strong and intimidating, all at the same time. I also loved some of the supernatural creatures, especially a handsome young man and a beautiful young woman who are actually snakes but appear in human form. I loved the scene in which they appear – it was so eerie and beautiful. The story weaves in some history with fantasy – for example the story of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is woven into the book and the father of Rudyard Kipling makes an important appearance in an interesting way – which is fascinating to read. There are two major revelations which happen towards the end of the book – I half suspected one, but not in the way it happened, but the second one was amazing and I didn’t see that coming.

I loved ‘The Historian and the Hunter‘. I am glad that Zeenat Mahal ventured into the fantasy genre and I am happy to say that she succeeds wonderfully. I can’t wait to read Zeenat Mahal’s next book.

I have a rant though, before I end my review. In the last twenty years – that is the whole of the 21st century till now – there has been only one fantasy novel published by Indian / Pakistani / South Asian publishers. That is Samit Basu’s GameWorld trilogy (the first part of the trilogy is called ‘The Simoqin Prophecies‘). (If you feel that this statement is wrong, please do let me know. I would love to hear more about original fantasy fiction published in this part of the world.) The two other books which can be almost included in this list are the English translation by Musharraf Ali Farooqi of ‘The Adventures of Amir Hamza‘, the Urdu fantasy epic, and ‘Ember of the Ashes‘ by Sabaa Tahir, but these two books were published by American publishers. So in nearly twenty years, while the rest of the world has gone gaga over fantasy fiction, South Asian publishers have turned a blind eye to the fantasy genre. I wonder why. While year after year, many new novel versions of the Mahabharata get published (I am so tired of them now. I think it is time for writers to close that shop and move on. I don’t think anyone needs one more new version of the Mahabharata. Just looking at one of those new versions in the bookshop now, makes my eyes ache), publishers keep avoiding original fantasy fiction. I don’t know why. I hear from writer friends that publishers say that fantasy won’t sell in India / Pakistan / South Asia. It is surprising to hear that, because readers from this part of the world love fantasy fiction and have lapped up Harry Potter and and every other international fantasy writer. I know friends who read fantasy fiction by international authors that I have never even heard of. Inspite of this, I don’t know why South Asian publishers have a myopic vision and continue to avoid this genre. There is money to be made, there is a readership out there, there is a potential market there, and there are filmmaking opportunities. What is the problem? I hope publishers and editors wake up from their long slumber and get some original fantasy fiction published. We need more books like ‘The Historian and the Hunter.’ Rant over.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Sometimes, a story is not just a tale but the weaving of magic, a binding of words with lives, a knitting of magic into time, because words my friend, have power beyond anything you may ever have encountered.”

“What a grand thing it is, this destiny. What a kind thing, too, because our emotions would blind us, render us useless puddles of guilt, anger, love, hate and everything else—were it not for a string somewhere that pulls us up, or beckons us to follow it. That’s what it is, isn’t it, my dear? A broken thread has found its way into your life, and tugs at the other broken threads and now they all bite you like little vipers?”

“You think all the wars ever fought were started by evil men? No, Shirin half of them were started by idealists who thought they knew better, they knew how to set the world straight, they knew who deserved to live and die.”

“Decades on, room by room the roost of the zenana quarters had become a narrative of multiple revolutions, simultaneous histories, opposing arts and a synthesis of splendour and elegance.”

“They say this tale is as old as love; as familiar as pain; as true as death and as chock-full of betrayal as life can sometimes be. Like all stories that are important—those that survive through the ages that turn in cycles, that ebb and flow with the turning tides, and change with the shifting seasons—this, too, is the story of friendship and love.”

“The whetstone made a long screeching sound as she sharpened the blade against it. Sometimes, it emitted a few sparks. She watched out for those. They were so pretty, like little fireworks, like the small joys in a life, unexpected and extinguished too soon but leaving their mark on the heart.”

“She loved the silence of summer afternoons. The heat seemed to drink all sound into its vast opaque belly that had swallowed the world and everything in it.”

“People know of the past much as they do poetry and dreams. Half remembered, partially understood, often misrepresented.”

Emir : “Centres are sacred.”
Laila : “So are peripheries.”
Emir : “Indeed. Centres are meaningless without peripheries.”
Laila : “You are too much of a man to understand my sarcasm.”
Emir : “And you are too much of a woman to understand that you are being complimented.”
Laila : “Women are not the periphery. Men think they are and being called a meaningful periphery isn’t my idea of a compliment.”

Have you read Zeenat Mahal’sThe Historian and the Hunter‘? What do you think about it?

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I was excited when I discovered that Sara Naveed’s new book ‘All of My Heart‘ had come out. It took me a while to get started but I finally started reading it yesterday and finished reading it today.

Rehaan is a photographic artist who is based out of London. In his spare time he drives for Uber because it makes him relaxed and happy. One day when he is driving, he gets a new customer. But when he sees her, he realizes that he knows her – her name is Zynah. Rehaan’s thoughts go back to a time eleven years ago when he was living in Lahore with his parents and he was in school. He describes how he met Zynah in school and how it was love at first sight. But Rehaan and Zynah being from different parts of the social spectrum, they didn’t talk much but there was an arms-length warmth that they exhibited towards each other. How this changed across time and how they became close friends and and how their relationship evolved, how they lost touch with each other and how they found each other again in London is described in the story. Then the book takes the story forward and describes what happens after Rehaan and Zynah meet again. At one point the narrative shifts from Rehaan’s point of view to Zynah’s and we get to see the events of the story through both their viewpoints.

I think the whole book can be divided into two parts. The first part which describes the events which happen in Lahore, and the second part which describes the story which happens in London. I loved both the parts. The first part is a beautiful story of friendship and love and the main characters go through emotional highs and lows and upheavals, which readers of romance fiction love. In the second part, the story kicks to a higher gear and it is amazing to read. It asks some very important questions on life, love, family which is very relevant in the South Asian context today, when society is in flux, with modernity trying to pull young people into the future and tradition trying to hold them back. This book depicts beautifully what happens when this emotional struggle takes place inside the hearts of a few individuals and within a few families. There is a huge surprise which is revealed in the second part, which is the core of this struggle, but I can’t and I won’t tell you anything, not even a whiff – you have to read the story and find it out for yourself.

I loved most of the major characters in the story, especially Rehaan and Zynah. Their characters are beautifully sculpted – beautiful and imperfect and passionate and human. Sara Naveed continues her love affair with the letter ‘Z’, by naming her heroine Zynah – in her first novel ‘Undying Affinity‘, her heroine is called Zarish. I loved some of the minor characters too. There is one scene in which Rehaan is in bad shape emotionally, and he comes downstairs and his roommate’s girlfriend Avantika asks him if he wants some coffee, and then sits with him while they talk and he pours out his heart and she shares her insights on life and love. It is one of the most beautiful scenes in the book and though Avantika comes only in a few scenes, she is one of my favourite characters.

So what do I think about ‘All of My Heart‘ when compared to Sara Naveed’s earlier two books, ‘Undying Affinity‘ and ‘Our Story Ends Here‘? I loved all three in different ways, because they are different kinds of love stories. I will always have a soft corner for ‘Our Story Ends Here‘ because it was the first Sara Naveed book I read. But I loved ‘All of My Heart’ too. It is a beautiful love story and the second part is so amazing because it makes us contemplate and introspect on the nature of love. There are also beautiful descriptions of London in the book, and it is almost like a guided tour covering the popular and less familiar parts, and they transport the reader to this beautiful city. And the book’s cover – isn’t that breathtakingly beautiful?

Sara Naveed has sometimes been called the Queen of Pakistani romance fiction and this book shows why. I read the book in one breath and now I can’t wait to read her next book.

Have you read ‘All of My Heart‘ by Sara Naveed? What do you think about it?

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