Lascar by Shahida Rahman (2012)

'Lascar' by Shahida Rahman, Leicester: Indigo Dreams Books, 2012. Provided with a review copy from the author.
Lascar by Shahida Rahman, Leicester: Indigo Dreams Books, 2012. Provided with a review copy from the author.

Cambridge author Shahida Rahman’s Lascar is an ambitious historical novel about a character from a specific section of the colonial-era underclass, Lascars. As Rahman explains in the brief introduction:

“Borne out of a rich and unique aspect of world history, the word ‘Lascar’ originally referred to a sailor from South Asia, East Africa, Arabia, South Asia [sic], Malaysia or China. Over time, the term has evolved to mean any servile non-European who toiled aboard British sea vessels.” (p. 11)

I found this very educational, because despite my background in South Asian history and literature, I had never come across this term before. Seafaring life of the past has a tendency to be Romanticised, unjustifiably, and Rahman, through the protagonist Ayan–a young Muslim Bengali man–demonstrates how Lascars were little more than slaves.

I had trouble, however, with how this novel had been edited. The numerous typos and incorrect word usage were one thing–I recognise that not all readers are bothered by such things as I am–but I felt that the plot progression, character development and nuances really needed more work throughout, and would have benefited from a couple more rounds of thorough editing. Time jumps forward rapidly at several points in the novel, leaving the reader quite confused about what happened in the intervening years. The characters–including Ayan, who does learn and develop somewhat as the novel progresses–are very one-dimensional, being either entirely good or entirely bad, morally. The language with which Ayan and his Bengali friends referring to white British people–and the way that the white British refer to him in turn–is overtly racist, as might be expected of the day, but is again very stark in its brutality, with little room for nuance. I recognise that the author was attempting to reflect the attitudes of the time, but there was something crude in the lack of grey areas. I also found it completely implausible that Ayan and his friends encounter a young, female Italian beggar in London who is fluent in Bengali. She serves a function in the plot–initiating them into British life at a time when they spoke no English–but she did not strike me as a historically plausible character.

Rahman clearly has a knack for plot, with so many events shaping the life of her protagonist, who has little choice but to be the object of fate. It is a shame that these were not edited into a more convincing whole, as there was the beginnings of something interesting in Lascar.

An extract from the novel can be found on Shahida Rahman’s website.

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The Story of Noble Rot, Uzma Aslam Khan, New Delhi: Rupa, 2009 (2001)

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Having read Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing and Thinner than Skin, two of the author’s later novels, I thought I knew what to expect from her: beautiful, ornate yet precise language combined with a complicated yet ultimately somewhat flat plot. (I’m still holding out hope that her great novel will be her next book, she’s building up to something big.) However, The Story of Noble Rot is a very different book. It’s easy to say in retrospect that this is clearly a first novel, in which the Khan found her voice and set herself on the writing path. But the style of this first novel is so very different from her later writing that it is actually difficult to see the connections.

The Story of Noble Rot is comical, in a bleak way. As one reviewer from The Indian Review of Books put it, it’s “pleasantly quirky”. This is a world away from her other novels (the two that I’ve read), which are uniformly serious, earnest even, in the way that a lot of Pakistani writing in English seems to be (OK, not Mohammed Hanif). There are elements of the fantastical and the fable in this novel, making it vaguely reminiscent of some of Githa Hariharan’s earlier writing, or even Aravind Adiga.

The Story of Noble Rot is essentially a tale of class inequalities and the middle- and upper-classes’ sense of entitlement in contemporary Pakistani society. It is the type of tale that has been told frequently in Indian English literature, because it is an issue that is just getting worse in the region. A house-servant witnesses the corruption of her mistress and a complicated game of blackmail ensues, in which the grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous.

The title is intriguing, enigmatic and clever, as it sums up so much of what this book is about—or, rather, what it explores, because it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing. But, as a thread running through the novel is the enjoyment of wine, the title is actually connected with that: “The sweet taste of the wine comes from the muscadelle grape, and the grayish mould that it attracts. The fungus sucks water from the grape, leaving it with an unusually high quantity of sugar and glycerine. We have lovingly named the mould pourriture noble, noble rot.” (p. 121).

Indian Jewish Literature in Himal Southasian

Jew Town, Cochin.  Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen
Jew Town, Cochin.
Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen

After a few weeks of politically-heavy articles at Himal, we have just published this piece on Indian Jewish literature, by Navras Jaat Afreedi.

I’ve copied the first paragraph below, and the rest can be read here.

“2013 was an exciting year for Indian Jewish literature: two works of fiction were published, one in Hindi, the other in English. Sheela Rohekar’s Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha (Miss Samuel: A Jewish Saga) is one of only two Hindi novels depicting Indian Jewish life, and the first Hindi novel in 52 years to explore the Bene Israel community, the largest Jewish group in India. Jael Silliman’s The Man with Many Hats, on the other hand, is the first novel by a member of the Baghdadi community, the latest Jewish settlers in India, and one of the only two novels to depict Baghdadi Jewish life there. Both authors are women, legatees of a rich tradition of women’s writing among Indian Jews.”

 

Concern for the Destiny of the Country

I’ve just had my article “Concern for the Destiny of the Country: Indian Feminist Novels” published in the online, non-academic literary journal, The Critical Flame. It focuses on three novels: Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too (translated from Urdu), Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Vaasanthi’s Birthright (translated from Tamil, and also reviewed by me here.)

TCF came to my attention a few months ago when they announced that for a whole year, they would only publish reviews and criticism of literature written by women and minorities, to help rectify a general imbalance in reviewing practices. I’d been looking for serious, intellectual open-access journals and magazines with which to publish, and TCF seemed to fit the bill.

Update: 3 Quarks Daily reposted my article last week, a lovely and unexpected stamp of approval 🙂

The first paragraph is extracted below, and you can read the whole article here.

“Indian literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee has said that the essential concern of the twentieth-century Indian novelist was the changing national scene and the destiny of the country. She was referring to novels of the first half of the twentieth century, but these same concerns continue to operate today. It is only the definition of what the “destiny of the country” means that has changed over the decades. The concerns to which she refers are not confined to the Independence struggle, but increasingly turn toward problems of class and gender. Three novels—Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s classic My Temples, Too, English-language author Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Tamil author Vaasanthi’s Birthright; all published by India’s two leading feminist presses, Zubaan and Women Unlimited—highlight the changing nature of national destiny. Though these novels differ in both style and content, their central characters face renegotiations of youth, class, and gender, in the shadow of post-Independence national identity. These works not only reveal the shifting ground of Mukherjee’s concern, but also demonstrate that there is no such thing as a representative Indian feminist novel. In these titles, diversity is privileged above adherence to ideology. Each one expresses a different India—newly independent, ruling class, revolutionary, Muslim; urban, globalising, corporate; rural, educated, tradition-bound—all with women’s experiences at their center.”

 

Forget Kathmandu, Majushree Thapa, 2013 (2005)

Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, by Manjushree Thapa. New Delhi: Aleph, 2013 (originally publihsed in 2005).
Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, by Manjushree Thapa. New Delhi: Aleph, 2013 (originally published in 2005). Purchased in Nepal.

The best, and first book that anyone should read, on Nepal. I wish I had read this as soon as I had arrived in Kathmandu, it would’ve helped me understand the politics and history much quicker. Manjushree Thapa is a brilliant writer, no less so in her non-fictional works than in her fiction. Forget Kathmandu begins with the infamous 2001 massacre of almost the entire Nepali royal family (including the king), and ends in the midst of the Maoist insurgency in Western Nepal in 2003. The essays in between are all attempts at explaining contemporary Nepal–both to explain it to others, and for Thapa herself to come to terms with the chaos and instability of her country. Much of this book is akin to her novel The Tutor of Historyin its elegant style as well as its vigorous, political content.

An admirable and unusual characteristic of Thapa’s writing (here and elsewhere) is her owning of her bourgeois urban privilege. When she travels, in 2003, into the heart of the Maoist insurgency, she admits her background that enables her to make the judgments she does, far removed from the realities of Nepal’s rural working class, yet she doesn’t apologise for it. There is a fine balance to be struck–between an over-compensatory liberal guilt, and an arrogant dismissal of the ‘masses’–and Thapa does it perfectly. She strongly disagrees with the Maoists, particularly their violent and disruptive tactics, yet concedes that if she were an uneducated young peasant woman, she, too, would have been drawn to the movement. Thapa’s bewilderment at everything that is happening in her country around her could come across as naive or self-indulgent in a lesser writer, but her anger, her deep knowledge of politics and the centuries-long inequities of Nepal turns what could be a book of catharsis into something so much more important.

Forget Kathmandu, though several years old now, is certainly not outdated. The events recounted here are important for Nepal’s history (and its present) and Thapa’s speculations as to what could happen to Nepal are still largely relevant today–things are far from decided, here. Yes, parliamentary democracy has been reinstated, and a fairly successful election was held this past November. But democracy here is young, and there is still no constitution (successive Constituent Assemblies have failed to produce anything) and here the country is, six years later, treading water. The subtitle of Forget Kathmandu is An Elegy for Democracy, and in the years since the book first appeared, that subtitle could very well have become A Eulogy for Democracy. This updated edition, published in 2013, includes updated paratexts, but in 2011 Thapa produced another book to follow the story. The symmetry is clear and jolting: the final essay in Forget Kathmandu is called ‘The Massacres to Come’, and this newer book The Lives we Have Lost. I started that immediately after finishing Forget Kathmandu, to complete the picture.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera, 2013

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Nayomi Munaweera. Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2013. Purchased in India.

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is a beautiful, if unnecessarily complex novel. Set during Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, and told from the standpoints of a Tamil and a Sinhala girl (amongst others), it recounts the horrific recent history in haunting and beautiful language. The novel begins prior to the war, so when its full ferocity becomes evident it takes the reader as much by surprise as it does many of the young, relatively isolated and apolitical characters.

There were echoes here and there of Rushdie, something perhaps natural in contemporary South Asian literature, but that I find a little problematic. The man has his own stylised techniques and ways of formulating fantastical plot elements so that they appear natural (almost, if you can suspend disbelief for the course of an entire book). So when I encounter echoes of Rushdie in a realist narrative, I am jarred. Two of Munaweera’s protagonists are born at the same time, to women known to each other, forever connecting their fates in a way somewhat reminiscent of Midnight’s Children:

“Shiva and I are born on adjacent beds in a large white room while the nurses stroke the thighs of our writhing, crying mothers. We enter the world on waves of our mothers’ iron-flavored blood. First, I, secretive and shy. I did not cry, they say, until he too had arrived. Purple faced, I had to be slapped into breathing. And then immediately after me, Shiva, as if he had been waiting for me to test the terrain. But when he does arrive, our crying fills the room, makes our tired and torn mothers laugh. Our fathers come rushing to claim us.” (p. 60)

Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but the connections between these characters’ fates and those of their country, of personal and national destiny, reminded me of Midnight’s Children in ways that the novel could have done without. Surely there are more inventive and plausible ways of aligning an individual’s life with the fate of their country.

The shortish novel (225 pages) was overly complicated in other ways as well. Multiple characters were used to tell the story, coming to a head in Chapter 12, which switched rapidly between narrators. I’ve called out this trait (that I do consider to be a flaw) in other, inferior works as well (such as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed) but I think this practice of switching between narrators to tell multiple sides of a story is usually a sign of weak writing. It takes an expansive canvas or superior literary skill to pull off effectively. It is understandable that an author would want to approach a deeply emotive and problematic topic such as the Sri Lankan civil war from multiple perspectives–so as not to be seen to be siding with one faction over another, to demonstrate that in war there are no winners among civilians, the explore the many ways that violence alters the lives of ordinary people. But switching between narrators frequently but also fairly haphazardly can also come across as a sign of incomplete character development. Perhaps it takes more skill to flesh out a single character with real-life human nuances than furnish a host of characters with the spectrum.

But, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a good book, reflective of an exciting young talent from Sri Lanka, and I think these critiques arise from the fact that it is a debut. The civil war must be an obvious, though difficult, topic for Sri Lankan authors to address, so it will be exciting to see what Munaweera does next.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors was nominated for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Atreyee Sen’s book review in Himal

I’m very pleased to have gotten Atreyee Sen to write for Himal. Atreyee wrote a fantastic book called Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum, which I wrote an article about in Intersections open-access academic journal. Keeping with the topic, in Himal, Atreyee reviews Kalyani Devaki Menon’s Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India. The review can be found here.

Here is an excerpt:

“For several decades, women’s involvement in various expressions of Hindu nationalist violence has been the centre of controversy in India. The national media has given enormous coverage to the actions and ideologies of political priestesses who have emerged as prominent leaders within the movement. Whether it was Sadhvi Rithambara’s venomous speeches urging Hindu men to be virile and eliminate “the Muslim threat”, or Sadhvi Pragya’s alleged involvement in orchestrating the bomb blasts that shook Malegaon, a small town in Maharashtra, the imagination of Hindu nationalist women as “home-grown terrorists” has continued to capture the attention of the nation. Ordinary Hindu women are also placed at the heart of communal politics, as rightwing rhetoric consistently blames the Muslim community for being historically untrustworthy, carrying out “riot rapes”, and promoting hatred against majority religious communities. Several political parties come forward to support and speak for all Hindu women. While the Shiv Sena, the dominant Hindu nationalist political party in Mumbai, criticised the actions of the anti-terrorist squad which arrested Sadhvi Pragya in relation to the blasts, the women’s wing of the Shiv Sena, the Mahila Aghadi, distributed chilli powder and pocket knives to women at Mumbai bus stops for their self-protection.”

Read the rest.