Selina is in her final year in high school. Her final exams are soon approaching. She is hoping to go to college soon. Her dad passed the previous year and things have been rocky at home since them. Her mother is grieving and Selina misses her dad very much. Her grades at school have also dipped since then. One of their family friends, who teaches at the university, offers to help Selina by giving her lessons in Economics, a subject which she finds the most challenging. The initial lessons go well, but one particular day when his wife is away, the family friend rapes her. He then threatens her, saying that if she tells anyone, he will ruin her life. Selina goes home and keeps quiet and doesn’t tell her mother or anyone else what happened. Meanwhile, for sometime, her mother has been trying to get Selina married. Her mother feels that an unmarried daughter at home is a burden. Selina refuses to agree to that till now, because she wants to go to university and study law and become a human rights lawyer. After this horrible thing happens to her, Selina tries locking away the memories of the incident in the deepest part of her heart and she hopes it stays there. But, unfortunately, it rears its head, surprisingly, a few weeks later, when Selina discovers that she is pregnant. She doesn’t know what to do, because she hasn’t told anyone what happened. She is afraid what would happen if her mother or other people discover that she is pregnant. To tide over this crisis, she tells her mother that she is ready to get married. Does Selina get married? Does her new husband discover her secret? Does she meet again the man who perpetrated this violence on her? Does she get justice? Is Selina able to survive all this and live a happy life? The answers to these questions form the rest of the book.

Stained‘ is a gripping book. It grabs the reader’s attention from the first page and refuses to let go till the last page. The story takes the reader on a roller coaster ride as we don’t know what is going to happen next, and we hope and pray that Selina survives the ordeal. Abda Khan’s prose is spare and it makes the story flow smoothly like a river. Abda Khan is a human rights lawyer herself and her writings and talks are focused on themes related to her work, especially the rights that women have and how they can take the help of the legal system to protect their rights. The parts of the story which talk about that are beautifully written. There are also beautiful descriptions of Pakistani culture in the book – the description of a Pakistani wedding is beautiful and is a pleasure to read, and it is almost like watching the Bollywood movie ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun‘; the description of food makes us almost smell the fragrant aroma wafting from the kitchen and makes us yearn for those delicious dishes. The book is very Pakistani / South Asian in some ways. For example, a Western reader might wonder why Selina didn’t go to the police and file a complaint, when she was raped. A South Asian reader will understand why she didn’t – going to the police would mean revealing something very private to the world and people will avoid doing it at all costs. A Western reader will believe that the police is out there to help the common person. A South Asian reader will regard the police with suspicion – in some places, entering a police station itself would be regarded as something which results in the loss of dignity for the family and the individual concerned. Hopefully readers who read the story with a Western sensibility will be able to get the subtleties of culture depicted in it.

I loved ‘Stained‘. I have wanted to read it for a while, and I am glad I finally read it. It is a moving story of the struggles faced by a young woman who suffers violence at the hands of a perpetrator and what she does to survive the ordeal. It is also a story about family, friendship and love. Abda Khan’s new novel ‘Razia‘ is coming out in July and I can’t wait to read it.

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

“I breathed the scent of home deep into my lungs. I smelt a homey fragrance that exudes an underlying security you find nowhere else. I breathed in a calm serenity that only your home can give you. I inhaled the delicate scent of inner peace; if you search for it, you will surely find it here, I concluded. Home was not the place. I knew that now. Home was the people. My people. My family. I had missed them all so much.”

“I missed my mum’s home cooking. No amount of fine dining could ever compare to her dishes, which tasted of that unique combination of years of heritage and experience infused with the love that only a mother can impart into the food she prepares for her children.”

Have you read Abda Khan’sStained‘? What do you think about it?


The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly‘ by Sun-Mi Hwang was highly recommended to me by Claire from Word by Word and another friend. I borrowed it from this other friend and read it in one breath today.

Sprout is a hen who lives in a farm. She is reared for the eggs she lays. Her dream is to get out of the enclosure she is in, go and walk around the yard outside, lay eggs and watch chicks hatch out of them, and bring up her little ones. But the humans who keep her, take away her eggs, as soon as she lays them. One day she stops laying eggs. The humans feel that her time is up and throw her and other hens, who have stopped laying eggs, into a pit. There a weasel is eyeing her as a potential next meal. But a mallard duck called Straggler helps her out and takes her to his barn and provides her temporary accommodation. But the other birds and animals in the barn compel her to leave the next day. Sprout leaves the security of the barn, goes outside finds her own food and lives a freespirited life – a life which is unusual for hens. One day she discovers an egg. It appears to be freshly laid. Deep feelings gush our of her and she decides to sit on the egg to make it hatch. At some point her friend Straggler finds her there and he helps her with food. When the incubation period is over, the egg hatches. A small bird comes out of it. Sprout thinks that it is a strange-looking chicken. She loves her baby very much. What happens after that is amazing.

I can continue telling the story till the end, but I will stop here. I will let you read it for yourself and experience the pleasure and the joy it has to offer.

I loved ‘The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly‘. It is a beautiful book about a mother and her baby, about the joys and challenges of parenting, about how the only way to parent our kids is to unconditionally love them, nurture them, help them see their true selves and realize their potential, not hold them back but help them to fly high, and if they come back enjoy their homecoming, and if they don’t, be satisfied that one has done a good job. Parenting is the most difficult job in the world, and the most selfless, but also the most beautiful and the most rewarding. Sprout shows how she is an awesome mom and though her baby is very different from her, she helps him see his true self and realize his potential. There is atleast one surprise in store for the reader towards the end, and when I reached the last page, I cried, because all beautiful things have to come to an end. But as Ellie Harp says in ‘One Tree Hill‘ – “Every song has a coda, a final movement. Whether it fades out or crashes away, every song ends. Is that any reason not to enjoy the music?” I enjoyed this particular music composed so beautifully by Sun-Mi Hwang, singing the glories of the beautiful life of the awesome mom Sprout and her beloved baby.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly‘ is a beautiful book which will uplift your spirits when you are down, and if you are feeling uplifted already, it will make your spirits soar high. Go read it ☺️

I discovered Reema Zaman’s memoir, ‘I Am Yours‘, recently and I was excited to read it.

In the book, Reema Zaman tells the story of her life, by narrating it to her imaginary friend from childhood. She describes how her parents got married, how her mother was a talented, literary person before she got married while still a student, about her own birth, about how her father first moved to Hawaii and then to Thailand on work, taking his family with him, how Reema Zaman grew up there as a child and then as a pre-teen and then as a teen, how she moved to America for college, how she tried becoming an actress and an artist, how she fell in love and got married and what happened after that and how she ended up writing this book. During the course of this journey Zaman also describes her relationship with her parents and her siblings, the relationship between her parents, how she was bullied in school and how the people who bullied her found her attractive and tried to get close to her when she became a teenager, how her teachers inspired her, how one of her best friends assaulted her, how hard it was to be an aspiring actress when work was hard to come by, how children showed her the power of love.

I found many things fascinating in the book. For example, the description of her Bangladeshi family was quite interesting – how her mother made all the sacrifices but was mostly treated badly by her father, and how when she complained sometimes, he told her that she can leave the house if didn’t like it there. This is the typical, cruel line that patriarchal husbands, especially of the South Asian kind, tell their wives, to hurt them, and to make them realize on which side the power lay in the household. I have heard this line spoken so many times and it was interesting to see it described in this book too. Zaman’s mother threatens to leave her husband many times, but is not able to, because of the stigma attached to it. But at some point when she does it – the unthinkable, in Bangladeshi culture – we cheer for her. And when she flowers as a human being after she frees herself from the clutches of the patriarchy and finds happiness and joy and love, we all delight in it. There is, of course, a popular opinion, that if one moves out of South Asia (or a similar kind of region) and migrates to the West, life is hunky-dory and all dreams come true. Zaman contrasts this popular opinion with her own life. She falls in love and gets married to an American and after the initial honeymoon is over, we discover that her new husband inflicts pain on her in different ways, different from the way her father inflicts on her mother, but it is pain nevertheless. It just shows that patriarchy is alive everywhere, and if there is a kind of inequality among two partners and the power is on the man’s side, he might use that situation and inflict pain on his wife. There is a scene towards the ending of a movie called ‘Snake Eyes‘. A young woman and a cop expose corruption in a deal between an arms manufacturer and the Navy. The young woman then tells the cop that everything is going to change for the better. To which, our cop, who is a wise man, replies – “You know, they say back years ago… pirates put phoney lighthouses right out by those big rocks, right out there. Ships would set a course by the lights, crash on the rocks, then everybody’d go out and rob ’em blind. Only one thing’s changed since then – Iights are brighter.” I remembered this when I read the book. Marriages sometimes seem to be similar to this. It doesn’t matter which country one belongs to, where one lives in, the lights might be brighter, but the marriage is the same. It is the same age-old thing with the patriarchy inflicting pain and undermining a woman who is married. I don’t know why some married people continue to inflict pain on each other when a better option is available. What can be gained by inflicting pain? Atleast the pirates are getting some loot. What is the purpose of inflicting pain, especially the kind husbands inflict on wives? What can be gained from this? It never ceases to amaze me and puzzle me and anger me. Reema Zaman’s book offers a very perceptive commentary on the state of the marriage by exploring marriages of different kinds. To balance things out, she also depicts a happy marriage, when her mother falls in love and marries again and her new husband is gentle and kind and loving, and how Zaman and her siblings fall in love with him – it is so beautiful to read. When Reema Zaman tells her new stepdad during Christmas – “For my present, may I call you ‘Dad’?” – her new dad cries and so do we.

Another thing I loved about the book is the narrator’s voice – how it is a child’s voice initially, and how it gets transformed into a pre-teen’s voice, a teenager’s voice and then a young woman’s voice. It is beautiful to see this transformation across the book. Two of my favourite passages are narrated by the child, Reema Zaman, and they go like this :

“I am 3. I know some things, but I don’t know many. I know crayons don’t taste like their names. A name is a word, and a word is different from a promise. I know I don’t like loud. At home it is happy and quiet and then loud. Loud makes my head hurt. It is happy, quiet, loud, and then quiet again. Sometimes it is so quiet, it is loud. That hurts too.”

“Momma is crying again. She is trying to hide, but I am too good at seeing. I am small so I can see from everywhere. There are many places to hug her because I always fit. There are many ways to love Momma. Hugs, drawings, staying asleep until 7 a.m. and going to bed at 7 p.m. There are many ways to love me because I still need help with things like tying shoelaces and making the slanted leg on the letter R. Momma takes care of all that to let me know she sees me. I ask Momma who God is. She says, “The one who made all things and takes care of all of us.” This makes me laugh. I don’t know why Momma has two names. God and her real name, Momma. How silly.”

Reema Zaman’s prose is beautiful, soft, gentle, lyrical. Though the book deals with some heavy themes, the prose and tone are gentle and serene, and they soften the blow, and they calm the heart.

One more fascinating about the book is that Reema Zaman follows ‘The Transporter’s’ Rule #2 – “No Names”. None of the characters who appear in the book have names – or rather the author doesn’t reveal their names. This is another minimalistic way of writing, like Cormac McCarthy not using punctuation marks. It is really interesting because we may not really notice this while reading the book, and even if we do, it doesn’t really bother us. Though sometimes we wonder who Reema Zaman’s father’s cousin was, who was the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, and who was the tennis legend whose kids Reema Zaman babysat. It just shows that characters don’t need to have names in a story and people don’t need to have names in a memoir, and we can still understand the story, differentiate between the characters, and appreciate the book. It is a fascinating thing to ponder about.

Towards the end of the book, Zaman depicts the power of love through the eyes of children, and it is so beautiful to read. There is one passage, which made me smile. It goes like this :

“Although they’re exhausting, I love my toddlers. They care not a whit about my intelligence, attractiveness, talent, possibilities, or lack thereof. They desire only that I be present. That I give them authentic hugs and closeness, eye contact, and affection. Walking home one night, I realize why I’m so happy and fulfilled these days: giving is synonymous with my truth. With the children, with this book, I’m living as my complete self. Cheryl Strayed writes that her mother would say, to heal, grow, and nurture joy, “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” I like to think that includes service—another manifestation of beauty.”

I loved ‘I Am Yours‘. It is a beautiful book about life, love, family, growing up, pursuing one’s dreams, heartbreak, healing and everything else in-between which is a part of life. It explores some important, intense themes, but it does that in a beautiful, gentle language, which is a pleasure to read. It shows the importance of speaking in one’s voice and depicts the power of love.

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

“The idiom everything happens for a reason has never sat well with me. One cannot blurt “everything happens for a reason” to a person who has just lost a loved one, been raped, or been diagnosed with cancer. “Everything happens for a reason” sounds passive, as though all the power in one’s narrative has been surrendered into the hands of others, or, to life’s harsh whims and winds, to decide one’s path, destiny, identity, and sense of self. The truth I prefer is only I assign my experiences their reasons.”

“The foremost and simplest reason we chose the heart as our symbol for love is that our mother’s heartbeat is our original song. Our first inkling that someone is here, with me, and I belong to her. Our mother is our first person in the dark. Perhaps it is off that sublime sensation and memory that we then search for a similar bond, with a future, special person. To be separate yet together, entwined while individual, hearts slipping into sync.”

“I have learned all individuals are beautiful on their own but certain combinations can be catastrophic. Like books and water. Both are vital and life-renewing, but together, they promise tragedy.”

“We tend to think deaths and events are all that require grieving, but selves, choices, habits, and relationships we’ve known, they need loving rituals of healing as well. The speed at which life demands we run, simply to make it to the next day, makes it difficult to see them through. Wounds tally. Addictions anesthetize the pain. We try to stitch while moving. But life’s racing pace continually tears open old scars and mangles the new ones. Mending-while-enduring is well meant but ultimately futile, the sutures never tight enough to hold.”

“Oregon boasts all kinds of rain. There is drizzle, so light it sounds like gentle static. It settles on your skin like the shyest kiss. There is lush rain made of fat droplets, so rotund you see them clearly. There is hail in the winter, chilling and aloof, paying me no regard as I run, delivering winds that lift me off the ground. Finally there are summer storms brought by clouds that pass and return swiftly, growing loud then soft with lusty arrogance, making the earth and me swoon, loving every second. The rain is right: if you are to do something, do it well and do it boldly.”

“Language births art, literature, dance, theater, and bedtime stories. Language, science has proven, shapes the way we formulate thoughts. Language sculpts the fables we mine for morals, the idioms that guide us, the jokes we tell to lift the rains. The speeches and anthems that teach us values, inspire our courage, and charge our souls. The lullabies we sing to our children to soothe their fears and make them kind. The poetry we weave around a lover. Words shape thoughts, thoughts breed action, actions create identity, identity directs legacy. We are our words.”

Have you read Reema Zaman’sI Am Yours‘? What do you think about it?

Waiting for Jazz and other stories‘ is a collection of thirteen stories by Amishi Batha.

The first story in the collection, ‘Friendship‘, is about two friends. One of them is in the hospital emergency room in a coma and the second one is watching over him with both their families. This second friend narrates the story and takes us back to the past and describes how these two met and became friends and how their friendship evolved and how they ended up in the hospital in this state. It looked like a straightforward story of friendship, but when the last passage arrived – Wow! What is that? The twist that Amishi Batha throws at us is stunning and we don’t see it coming! It would have made O’Henry and Roald Dahl proud.

When I started reading the second story ‘Waiting for Jazz‘, I kept a close eye on the story. I wanted to catch the surprise in advance, this time. Because as they say, “If you fool me once, shame on you, but if you fool me twice, shame on me.” ‘Waiting for Jazz‘ is about a grandfather who is sitting in the courtyard of a cafe, sipping tea and having pie and chatting with the café owner Betty, and telling us about his granddaughter Jazz, while he is waiting for her. We learn about their relationship which is beautiful, and we also learn about the friendship between the grandpa and the café owners. And the story reaches the last page. I thought – “Okay. Nothing much can happen now. This story is beautiful. That’s it.” But then, Bam! We don’t even know when the revelation hits us! It is so amazing!

The third story ‘Story for Grandma‘ starts in an unassuming way. The narrator is trying to get some sleep. She just had a fight with her grandmother and left the dinner table in a huff. Her grandmother comes to her room to make up. Her grandmother tries to tell her an old story, which our narrator used to enjoy during her childhood. After listening for a little while, our narrator tells her grandma that she will tell a new story today. So our narrator picks a book with pictures and starts telling a story. So far so good. I was, of course, keeping a close watch over the events, expecting Amishi Batha to slip up so that I can catch the clues and catch the revelations before they come. But this story was pretty straightforward about two people who had a fight and who were trying to make up. Or so I thought. But when I told myself, “Okay, this is it. It is a beautiful story“, the surprising revelation arrived, and it was so beautiful that it made me cry. This was probably my most favourite story in the book and I would recommend that you read it with your family, your partner, your parents, your children. It is so beautiful.

I want to write about every one of the rest of the stories – it is so tempting! – but I will stop here. I want you to read the stories for yourself and experience the pleasure they have to offer. As you can guess now, most of the stories have a twist in the end, which we don’t see coming, which surprises us in the end. Many of them look like normal slice-of-life stories and that is why the twist is so brilliant. There are stories on family, love, loss, friendship, marriage, nature, crossword puzzles. There are one or two stories, which depart from the norm and have a straightforward narrative but these are exceptions and make us lower our guard and the story with the surprising revelation arrives soon.

I loved ‘Waiting for Jazz and other stories‘. The stories are beautiful and the revelations are stunning and brilliant. This is Amishi Batha’s first book, which is very hard to believe, because going by the evidence of the stories, she looks like an accomplished writer. The book is slim at 58 pages – before we know, it is over, while our heart is still chiming ‘Dil Mange More‘. It is a beautiful book to read, sitting in your garden during spring or summer, sipping a cup of hot spicy tea, taking a bite of chocolate cake, while following the lives of the beautiful characters that Amishi Batha has created.

Have you read ‘Waiting for Jazz and other stories‘ by Amishi Batha? What do you think about it?

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?

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?

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?