Friday, March 27, 2009

The Courtesan's Keeper - A.N.D Haksar

This is the new English translation of a 11th century master piece of Kshemendra, called Samaya Matrika. Unlike the usual religious, spiritual or the divine stories, here is a social satire from one of the eminent writers of that time. Spread across 8 chapters, Kshemendra, brings out the fragmented Kashmir social life and its moral degradation through this interesting book.

A young courtesan Kalavati is upset and is dampened spirit over her unsuccessful life as a courtesan. Her friend and agent, the barber suggests , that she need a keeper to support her to guide her and to enrich her with wisdom and the tricks of the trade. Old Kankali, about whose life and adventure he narrates in detail, would be the ideal guide for her in this endeavor. The keeper Kankali, takes charge and teaches Kalavati the ways of the world in a courtesan's life and guide her through the events until she seduces a wealthy son of a merchant, and taking away his processions.
The book is spread across eight chapters, describing the life of Kankali , Kankali's advice to Kalavati on ways of passion and the way to identify your pray and the way to discard him after you have gained the wealth of that person. Through the life of Kankali and the young courtesan, the writer exposes the fragile social order and the moral, political and social corruption of values during that time in Kashmir.

A.N.D Bhaskar is a well-known scholar in Sanskrit, and have contributed significantly to the Sanskrit Literature with various translations. The book has been translated superbly, to the audience of this time. One must also understand the difference in style and the use of language during 11th Century and the complicated Sanskit words and phrases; considering that, I found this book with good translation, supported with the introduction and insight to the original writer Kshemendra and his times both in socially and in literature.

The Courtesan's Keeper: A Satire From Ancient KashmirKshemendra ( Samaya Matrika ) translated by A.N.D.Haksar
Rupa Publications
80 Pages
Furhter read: A Cashmirian Sanscritist

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The sound of Butterflies -Rachael King

Thomas, a young lepidopterist, returned from Amazon abruptly from his collecting expedition. But it isn't the same Thomas who left his young wife in their small town Richmond in the UK , returned. The changes are not only physical, but more concerning as he has turned mute. He does not talk to anyone. As his wife Sophie, trying to get him back to the normal way of life, by exploring the events occurred during his time in Amazon, through the reading of his journals, the story unveils of the cruelty, the greed and the slavery under the dreaded rubber baron in the Amazon jungles.

Thomas , an amateur collector of butterflies, was selected to join a group of 4 scientists in an expedition to the Amazon, sponsored by Santos, a rubber baron in Brazil. As they reach and enthusiastically set out to collect specimens in the dense jungles fighting the insects bites, the heat and the tough conditions, they also started seeing the harsh realities of fear, submission and servility of the people to the land owner. The accidental fire of the huts, the death of the Captain and other cruelties of the rubber mafia is a startling knowledge to Thomas. The collection of samples and shipment of consignment to London has continued despite the difficult conditions and recurring illness. The whole affair has taken a turn on Thomas's life after their meeting with the sponsor Santos in his palace. After being drugged, and his misadventure under its spell with Santos wife, Thomas has become vary of Santos and his men. The situation worsens resulting the death of Santos's wife and one of his colleague, and a forceful return of Thomas to his home country.

Thomas is fighting two battles. One of his own guilt and shame of betraying his wife. The other of the shock and the forced muteness out of fear resulted from his experience. On the other hand, Sophie is fighting her battle with her past (and her father) and her temptation to seek revenge. Well , as expected everything ends well.

This is the first novel published by this New Zealand writer and for that it is a good work. Set in the early 20th century, when it was a fashion to explore nature and species from all over the world and to discover something new, Thomas was also duped by a rumour of a asymmetrical butterfly and spend his energy and focus to find it and document it for the world ( he goes to an extent of naming the to be found butterfly after his wife). The prose is good and is structurally perfect and simple to read. A good work of fiction, but not for a serious literature reader.
The Sound of Butterflies
Rachael KingPicador
354 Pages
Rs 285
Further read : Listener Review

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The soccer War- Ryszard Kapuscinski

"May be he will make it" , one of the soldiers ventured.
"No way" , the orderly replied, holding a bottle of Glucose.
There was a gloomy silence.
"Doesn't anybody know him?" one of the soldier asked eventually.
The wounded man's heart was working at maximum effort; we felt its feverish thumping.
"No body". Another soldier answered.
A truck was climbing the road, its motor was complaining. Four soldiers were digging a hole down the woods.
"Is he ours or theirs?" a soldier sitting by the stretcher asked.
"Nobody knows' said the orderly after a moments quiet.
"He is his mother's" a soldier standing nearby said.
"He's God's now" added another after a pause.
"Life is so strong" a soldier leaning on his rifle said in astonishment. "It's still there, still there"
Everybody was absorbed, silent, concentrating on the sight of the wounded man. He was drawing breath more slowly now, and his head tilted back. In the end-it was a while yet- somebody said: "He's gone, All he was is gone".
They stayed there for some time..when they saw nothing else would happen, they began walking away...

We drove on...
..and our response to the news from all over the world is no different. We see, read the conflicts all over the world with the same indifference as if these are happening in a separate planet. What is also important to know is that there is life and truth, beyond what is seen on the television or read in the news papers. There are stories of suffering ( not glorified by the cameraman for the world), the sacrifices , the pain, the loss of beloved, the struggle , the exploitation ...carried with them for generations.

Ryszard Kapuscinski , renown journalist and writer from Poland, spend large part of his life in the countries in turmoil, constantly changing guard, across Africa, Asia and Latin America telling the world about the happening in those part of the globe. As per the credits given in the book, he has witnessed ( being there ) , 27 coups of power and was caught and sentenced to death at least four times, during his illustrated career as a journalist.

In this book, published in 1979, he recollects some of those moments with his clear insight and the compassion for the victims and the victors. This is a collection of reportage, journals , his notes and personal entries with no specific order or chronology. From Ghana , Congo, Algeria , Sudan , Nigeria in Africa to the famous 72 hours "Soccer war" between El Salvsador and Honduras, he gives us the sort of non-journalistic view of the conflicts with its visible truth and the the background.

"Then Kwame Nkrumah spoke about freedom. Ghana must be independent, and independence is something that has to be fought for. But there are three roads. The road of revolution. This, the speaker rejected. The road of closed-door pacts. This, too, the speaker rejected. And then there is the fight for freedom by peaceful means. The battle cry of that struggle was proclaimed then, right here in west end square."
The story of every dictator is the same. It did start with a very good intention of uplifting the people of his country . Most of them are highly educated and wanted to make a change in their country. However, they all end up at the wrong side trying to control their destiny by the use of force. They are all alone, and are under constant fear of loosing their crown to another. The distrust begin here. This turns to imprisonment and torture of everyone he suspects. The energy and focus is on retaining the "chair" than to deliver to its people.
He also has his insight to the problems of these countries. Most of them has suffered the colonial rule for long periods. They all were subjected to humiliation, torture and exploitation of manpower and natural resources by the ruled "whites", there in began their hate to people with white skin. At many places, he has witnessed the white men being the target of the anger of the public. He himself was subjected to it many times, and he recall them as the anger of the generations who suffered at the hands of colonialists are pouring out, despite being the fact that his country ( Poland) itself was one who suffered the most in the first half of the 20th century.

"The awakened Africa needs great names. As symbols, as cement, as compensation. For centuries th history of the continent has been anonymous. In the course of 300 years, traders shipped millions of slaves out of here. Who can name even one of the victims ? Foe centuries they fought the white invasions. Who can name one of the warriors ? Whose name recall the suffering of the black generations, whose name speak of the bravery of exterminated tribes ? Asia had confucius and Budha, Europe Shakespeare and Nepolean. No names that the world know emerges from the African past. Mere: no name that Africa itself would know."

The conflict is not only at the political , military or social level. There are huge issue of identity crisis in these worlds. While they wanted to embrace the western or developed world in their living , there is another constant thirst to retain their national and regional identities. "When Nkrumah travels to Europe, he demonstratively puts his African costume on. When Lumumba travels to an African village, he demonstratively puts on European dress."

Most of the articles here are written during the 50s and 60s of last century. There are no self proclaiming statements, there are no finger pointing nor any judgemental sentences. This has come out as one of the very absorbing and thought provoking book. Even the silly matters which can evoke laughter in the reader ( especially the child- support bill of Tanganyika ), it has the underlying pain of a population glaring at you.

The Tanganyika Government had a parliamentary debate on Child-support for illegitimate children. One of the study turned out that more than half of the women in that country ( from the sampling) had from one to six illegitimate children and most of them do not receive any support from the father of the children. Hence, the government was proposing a child-support bill. The debate supposed to be "the stormiest debate in the history of Independent Tanganyika's Legislative Chamber". The outcome of this was nearly 95 per cent came out against the government. What was interesting was the debate itself, which was covered in detail, and has some interesting takes. One such was by the delegate Mtaki, who quote none other than... "experts in this field, such as Karl Marx, teach us that prostitution is capitalism".

His personal notes also carry the glimpses of a good writer. Writing about the old Indian in the Mexican desert who told him "Son, I am the river and I cant cross myself".. or about the inner struggle of Mario Terana, who shot and killed Che Guevara. and lived next couple of days in fear and restlessness before shooting himself were all carry those qualities.

An outstanding book, sadly even after 30 years of publishing , nearly 50 years of these incidents, the world hasn't changed a bit.
The Soccer War
Ryszard Kapuscinski ( translated by William Brand )
Vintage international
234 Pages
Rs 330/-
Links : Guardian Obituary , NY Times

Monday, March 09, 2009

Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi , takes us through her growing up years in Iran, during the revolution, the war with Iraq and the post war building of an Islamic state of Iran. Originally published as two parts, this book consolidates both into one. The first part is her early childhood until her journey out of the country to Austria for studies. The second part is her Austrian years and her return to the new Iran, her life and friends , marriages until her second ( and final) leaving of Iran to France.

Satrapi, looks back at the years of revolution and the war, she remember as a young girl living with her 'leftists' parents. He recalls many of her relatives, fathers and brothers of her friends being in jail and even takes a bit of pride in the facts. He parents are also participate in demonstrations, and the discussion at home are also leads her to believe in the fight for justice. A rebel, is already born. The crackdowns by the fundamentalists made the life of her ( veils , parties ) difficult and her parents decides to sent her away from Tehran until the war is over. Thus starts her new life in Austria, as a student.

Life in Austria is different. Often fighting with the Convent Matrons and the land ladies, she end up out in the open. She had to spend her time and night with the homeless people. Despair and homesick, she wanted to comeback to Iran to her parents. Her time in Austria also made profound effect in her life. The "empty roads" , gay room mates, her boyfriend who discovers that he is also a gay, different family life and bonding, loneliness ..

But the days after return was also not great. After the initial happiness and attention, the real Iran under the regime has opened up in front of her. Slowly the disappointment sets in. While she enrols in an arts college and befriends and marry her boyfriend, the isolation from this world ( with the family, friends and partner) is obvious , ending up in her leaving of Iran again.

Graphics books have the ability to communicate with mere sketches and minimum words. She uses them to a great effect in this book. The drawings are in Black & White , simple without any surroundings and features. Many long shots, fewer close ups and very clear and non complex. This book has been now made into a motion picture.
Persepolis - The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return

Marjane Satrapi ( written & illustrated)

Translated by Mattias Ripa ( first part) & Blake Ferris ( second part)

343 Pages
Links : Powells Interview , Bookslut Interview, Complete Review

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

General Chathans - VKN

Its been a long time since I read a Malayalam book. Wanted one that can lighten my mood, and there is none other than VKN , I can look forward to. I have read this book 15 or years ago and it still gives me the same excitement. General Chathans is originally written and published in 1972, soon after the War with Pakistan , which also saw the separation of Bangladesh into a new country.

The story starts with Chathans, a local leader of the ruling left party in his small village ( padinhattukara). His raise to fame starts with the acquisition of the public land and building huts for the farm labourers , which will be inaugurated by the Minister. While there are rebellion in the local camp, on the naming of the new settlement and Chathans has to concede to the demand of the rival factions, he does use this chance to get what is needed from the minister. With some smart manipulations and black mailing ( the minister with his alleged "un-natural" sexual preferences) , and with the help of the powerful Ittoop , the publisher, he manages to get one of the previously un-published poems, the prestigious State Literary Award on his name. He was also able to get this included in the state syllabus for the high school students, thus ensuring business for the publishing house. It does not end here, as he now wants to get the Central Literary Award and the Jnanpith for his book. His political clout and his popularity in the central Kerala, makes him an important ally for the ruling Nationalist Party at the Centre. The elections are imminent and for them to return to power, they would need at least 10 seats from Kerala, which would be possible only with the support of Chathans. It is for this, the 'middle-man' takes him to Delhi and arrange his meeting with the Union Defence Minister. India is at war, and the deputy chief of the Armed Forces is on leave. There is a dire need of someone to lead the forces successfully against the Pakistan at the West front and China from the North. Chathans volunteer to take the role, considering the need of the country, willing to sacrifice his personal life and pleasures. With his natural wisdom and drive and by leading the forces from front, he manages to destroy the enemy tanks, smashing all the F-14 of the competition ( thus winning friends from the west , who wanted him to repeat this every year , so that their sales get a boost) and advancing into the enemy territory. He manages to win the war single handedly, thus getting all the accolades, to the displeasure of the Chief of the Army. The novel ends after General Chathans takes control of the country as its leader.

VKN is noted for his wizardry with the language. This book is no exception. His effective uses of Tamil, Hindi, English , Telugu phrases with his in-imitable translations are outstanding. Outrageously humorous, witty to a level of insult, this political and literary satire is a phenomenal work.
General Chathans
DC Books

150 Pages
Rs 70/-