Quote Unquote

If you remember, not so long ago (that is last year) I had written about The Ayah’s Tale by Sujata Massey. Her new book India Gray is out now which contains The Ayah’s Tale among two other new stories. Having just received a review copy, I opened it and read some very familiar lines! What a surprise! How lovely of Sujata to quote what I said on my blog in this book! Thank you. Here’s a screenshot from the e-book edition.

I’ll be writing about this book in the next few days. Watch this space.




Free School Street

Isn’t that a charming name? That’s the name of a street around the busy Park Street area in Calcutta. Of course as with all things, it’s been also given an Indian name: it’s now called the sonorous Mirza Ghalib Street.

Free School Street has quite a colourful history. William Makepeace Thackeray, the English novelist, who wrote the novel Vanity Fair (1848), was born here. It’s rather popular with backpackers and budget travellers. Next time, I plan to visit the second-hand bookstores and record shops on this street. There is always something to discover in Calcutta.

So I had gone there to Tung Fong with the family for lunch on the recent holiday. I hear it’s quite famous but that day it felt like it was our second choice because our original destination was 6 Ballygunge Place, the Bengali fine dining restaurant, but it was closed for renovation. The next on the list was Bar-B-Que, another institution, on Park Street. However, Bar-B-Que did not accept reservations and we didn’t want to make my aunt, who was not well, climb up the stairs and wait in line as well. So Tung Fong it was.

We were not disappointed: it was the regular Indian Chinese food supposed to be available everywhere in India but the taste, on my, was out of this world. Calcutta is THE food lover’s paradise.

Now, I started this post with no intention of writing about food. I wanted to tell you a bit about the new header image. After lunch, when we stepped out of the plush dimly lit interiors of Tung Fong, the world had been washed anew. The scene took my breath away: I had to take a pic. That’s what you can see as the header.

Here’s the Instagram version.



‘Relearning the properties of light’

That’s a line from the poem I recently came across and it’s stuck with me. I have been relearning many things. Travelling does that to you. I have been away for a short time but it feels like my compass of understanding has shifted a bit. I’d probably need to examine that idea properly before I commit to more here.

In the meantime, the young poet whose lines stayed with me is Aisling Fahey. Here are two extracts from her poems. I am trying to track her work down. So far she seems rather elusive. She is a spoken word artist, which means finding her work in writing will be difficult. I just love the way she plays with words.

Cab Rides At Dawn (an extract)

by Aisling Fahey

In the place where dawn breaks continuously,

I am relearning the properties of light.

I used to go hunting for stars on my aunt’s farm,

come back with them between my teeth

like the flesh of an exotic fruit.

We dont have these in the city, I’d say,

swallowing them until they settled in my belly,

before exploding, making me shine outward.

I confess more to strangers than to friends.

I am discussing Poetry and God in a cab
with a driver from Bulgaria.

If I recorded my conversations with cab drivers

I think I’d be closer to my dreams.

I always ask them where is home 

as they drive me to a place that is meant to be mine.

Foreign Bodies (an extract)

by Aisling Fahey

When a stranger pronounces my name right

I want to cut our ears off,

dig for other sounds we share.

There are names I cannot pronounce.
Each time, my tongue becomes a guilty weight,
I score a tally on my thigh
of all the countries I have not been to.

We love what is foreign
because it reminds us of ourselves.


My face is my parents’ homeland,

sometimes they look at it and cry

for all the things they’ve lost,

their lost things crawl under my skin,
look, there is the river we never did swim in,
I don’t know which one of them spots it,
the vein at my temple,
but by the time they turn around
the other one has long gone.

Entombed in my face is what they built together,
when they were in the business
of making love and lives
in foreign lands.

(The copyright for the poems/extracts rests with the poet.)

My, oh my, what a wonderful day

I have to be honest I am a bit high as I write this. You know how sometimes out of the blue things happen which you never ever expect even in your day dreams? Yeah, that’s what happened. So Selma Dabbagh whose book ‘Out of It’ I wrote about in this post has read my review and said nice things about it as well as the reader (that would be me). Now tell me, wouldn’t you be high too if this happened to you?

Thanks so much Selma Dabbagh! You can read her lovely comment in the About page. You might have to scroll a bit. Feeling lazy? Here’s a screenshot.

Selma Dabbagh

Notes on books: Out of it by Selma Dabbagh

So I injured myself again – I am quite accident prone – and finally had time to read! Let’s say I like to see the positive side of things. I will spare you the details though – of my injury not the book.

I have to be honest: this is not a book I would normally pick up. It’s a part of the book club book of the month and so I happen to read it. It didn’t also have a great first line. It actually failed the first line test but I was intrigued by it. However, despite everything, it surprised me by being fast paced, witty and deep.

Just like I had understood the history of India from independence till the 1980s by reading Midnight’s Children, and the history of one part of South America though A Hundred Years of Solitude, I finally started to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict through this book. That is indeed a tall claim for a book that is a first novel. However, Out of It is politically engaged but also at the same time, deeply human.

As far as I can remember this conflict has been around. My earliest memories related to this conflict was not a war but a person: Yasser Arafat wearing his trademark keffiyeh and army greens smiling and waving on grainy Doordarshan News. India has traditionally been pro-Palestine following a shared colonial connect. It seems wherever the British are involved, they tend to cause conflict. I will leave the explanation for the complicated history of this region to better writers and political analysts.

The story follows a set of twins (reminded me of Rahel and Estha of ‘The God of Small Things’ a bit) Iman and Rashid Mujahed and how they try to find their place in the world in the middle of the conflict a process which is confusing and difficult even during peace time.

The novel opens with Rashid receiving an email of acceptance to study in London. He is excited and wants to get ‘out of it’. Iman on the other hand has come back from school in Switzerland and wants to start making her contribution to the cause except she is seen as an outsider with no connection to the homeland. So when a religious woman, Manar, approaches her, Iman is very tempted to go for it. However, Iman seems oblivious that this action would entail probably becoming a kamikaze warrior for a religious faction. She is stopped in time by people from her father’s former political organisation.

Rashid has been working his friend Khalil on recording the situation in Gaza. Their contact in London, Lisa, with whom Rashid is having a relationship is enthusiastic in the unsubtle and non-nuanced Western way. She wants to help but has no clue about the ground reality or the Arab culture.

Iman and Rashid also have an elder brother, Sabri, who has lost his family but continues to fight in a very intellectual way.

Rashid is also increasingly distracted from his life in Gaza because he is bent on leaving. It seems as if Rashid and Iman in spite of being twins are moving in opposite directions. Perhaps this is Dabbagh’s way of pointing out the choices available to young politically aware people in Gaza who want to be involved in the Palestinian cause.

Option 1: Do nothing. (No way)

Option 2: Write about the conflict in an academic way (Sabri’s choice)

Option 3: Join a religious group and blow up people to make a point (Iman’s first choice which she doesn’t make)

Option 4: Leave the country and create awareness of the Palestinian cause abroad (Rashid’s and Kalil’s first choice; Iman’s second choice)

Option 5: Return by courting controversy (Rashid gets caught at a rally for the Palestinian cause for possession of marijuana)

Option 6: Return without courting controversy (Iman’s final choice)

Option 7: Sacrifice oneself in the mistaken notion that it will help the family (Rashid final choice)

I am aware I am being facetious making the choices available at war time into a multiple choice question. If I do that, it’s only because the conflict itself takes on shades of the absurd.

Sabri loses his wife and child and even his legs in an attack on them. While Iman wants to go find her father who is living with another woman in Egypt, she is questioned at the Palestine border. Though she is not overtly mistreated she is not allowed to go to the bathroom even though her period has started. Sabri, Iman and Rashid’s mother turns out to be a freedom fighter/terrorist (choose your term; choose your side) called the Sparrow who had hijacked a flight to blackmail the other side into giving into their demands. Are those demands legitimate? I don’t know because by then the conflict is so murky no knows who is right or left anymore. Who is killing whom and why becomes so muddled up that even within Palestine people start turning on each other. I gave up trying to understand it. As Sabri says:

‘It’s not something that you ever get “straight in your head,”” Sabri says turning away from the television to look at Eva. ‘It’s too wrong to be justified, too screwed up to be straightened out. If you force yourself to understand it in any way that leads you to justify it then you are fucked and we are lost.’  (Dabbagh, 284)

I am reminded of this sentence that I read or heard when I was studying absurd drama. (If you know who said it, let me know and I will add the name.) It’s not an exact quote: What does one do in the face of the absurd but laugh? Indeed several parts of the book this laugher springs out. Rashid nicknames his marijuana plant, Gloria. (Let us pause to reflect on that.) His father Jibril Mujahed doesn’t know his wife is an ex-freedom fighter/terrorist (have you chosen your term/side yet?) called the Sparrow even though British Intelligence agencies and almost everyone in ‘the Organisation’ (the Palestine Liberation Organisation) know it. He finally finds out when someone makes a joke about it.

To balance out the absurd elements, Dabbagh forces the reader to confront the existence of the self/other. At one point in the novel, in London, Rashid is brought to his English girlfriend Lisa’s family home, “as though she had brought home a particular piece of jewellery from a junk shop and could now, against a plain background, appreciate its particular panache” (Dabbagh, 113) Later Rashid gets into the London tube, and spots a woman who:

…tested the air twice with her nose as through trying to detect prey and looked up and down the carriage.

Rashid looked at what she was looking at. It had to be the otherness of the passengers that was disturbing her. Their darkness, for they all were, without exception washed up there like him. (Dabbagh, 120)

According to Post Colonial theory, ‘the other’ is the opposite of the ‘self’, which is the coloniser. The ‘other’ is the (ex)colonised subject, the brown or black people who have been once subjugated. The other is both to be feared and exoticised. It’s kind of an ambivalent reaction. Rashid’s awareness of being othered comes through several times in the narrative. It irks him because it is a kind of prison. His relationship with Lisa is perpetually slipping into these two roles: roles that perhaps they want to escape but don’t know how to.

Iman’s roommate in London, Eva, typifies another reaction of the West to the East. On the face of it, Eva has many good intentions. She is a medical student and works for many charities. Iman explains why Eva’s naïve political outlook irritates her:

‘She was trying to talk to me about what was going on in the news and she kept trying to do this supposedly objective BBC thing of being so intelligent and always looking at the other point of view, and she kept using their terms: “terrorism”, “democracy”. I flipped.’ (Dabbagh, 193)

Eva represents a kind of unsubtle and criminally exuberant response that the West has towards the especially troubled East. It builds on exoticising the East. As Iman says a United Nations/BBC kind of objectivity which is perhaps born out of good intentions but does not necessarily understand the East or its problems. It is in fact another kind of prison.

Prisons are all over the book – the house in which the Mujahed family live, the country itself and once they leave the country, they are imprisoned by ideas of otherness.

I noticed an interesting thing – for much of the book, the other side (i.e. Israel) is mentioned obliquely. In fact I think the word ‘Israeli’ is mentioned either once or less than a handful of times in the book. Usually euphemisms like the ‘other side’ or ‘enemies’ are mentioned. There is a kind of self-censorship at work perhaps to avoid being accused of anti-Semitism.

Throughout the book, there are several secrets that the family has which are not revealed to Iman and Rashid. The fact that their mother is a high level operative of the Organisation is kept a secret. This they find out by looking up the recently released classified documents at the British Library. The sense that this family is not quite the regular one calcifies at this moment. The twins react in diametrically different ways. Rashid is disappointed and offended that this secret was being kept from him. Iman is proud of this heritage and feels empowered by this knowledge. Rashid is so disconnected from his Gazan life that he offers to die instead of another soldier.

Whatever their choices are, as narrators they are easy to relate to. Rashid and Iman have travelled all over Europe with their families; Iman has studied in Switzerland and later London; Rashid goes to London to study. They are young, neither of them is religious and both are insider-outsiders, people who are born in Gaza but educated abroad.

Finally, ‘Out of It’ apart from giving us a glimpse of Gazan life also contributes to world literatures from the conflict zone. Think South American literature, Partition literature, World War II literature, South African literature (apartheid) and Kashmiri-American literature (Agha Shahid Ali).

Read Out of It if you want to question the regular ways of seeing the world.

Notes to self

I tend to write in whatever piece of paper or notebook I find and then forget all about it.  The other day I opened a tiny notebook with a kantha-stitched cover, where I note down the bills I have to pay and then score them out once I have paid them, and found written in pencil these lines:

The short story demands to be understood while the novel demands to be embraced. In all these years of back-breaking familiarity with the novel, I have stepped out to make a shy acquaintance with the short story. Hence these enthusiastic dates with the lean, mean and demanding form of fiction.

I thought, not bad! The lines are pretty good. But what was I writing about? A book of short stories yes but which one? Obviously I was reading something inspiring and these lines were meant to start the post for this blog but for the life of me I don’t remember what that book was. I didn’t date the note so I don’t know when it was either! I got the notebook in Shantiniketan so this much I know, the note was written after 2010. I don’t have much of clue beyond this.

Note to self: I must be more organised and at least keep all incomplete notes in one place.

Does this sound familiar? Do you also write anywhere and everywhere and then forget about it?

That reminds me, I think I found an old poem that I wrote in an old bag. I must go retrieve it before someone throws it out.

Saying no to reading favours

So I attend this book club at a library that I frequent. After a few meetings, one old man started pestering me to read a book he had written.

They are all old men there. Sometimes I think there are no young men left in the city. At least no young men who read. A handful of people land up at the book club most of whom are there because they are retired. And exactly two women including me. Where are the women who read as well?

You could ask me what am I doing there. Well, about 90% of time, I am conducting it. By that I mean come up with discussion questions and host the session. It’s not that difficult.

Anyway too polite to refuse, I agreed. And immediately regretted it. I had no idea how many pages that book had. I warned him that if I don’t like it I will be honest. He nodded his head vigorously. Right away, I knew I wouldn’t like the book. Thankfully, I got only one chapter to read. I discovered that he had illustrated it too! Well, I told him exactly what I thought of that chapter. I didn’t like it. There was such forced humour and puns without any effort at the craft. Puns, I am sure you’d have heard, are the lowest form of wit. Imagine if there are only puns in a chapter. Of course, I softened it a bit. I didn’t want the old man having a heart attack right there.

I ended the review with a disclaimer that I usually give for anything I review: ‘Feel free to ignore what I said and go with your instinct’. He replied without batting an eyelid, ‘Yes, I intend to do exactly that.’ What the eff? Then why waste my time?

This is the last time I am doing a stranger a favour. I don’t mind reading books of friends because (a) I know them (b) I care about them (c) I enjoy reading what they write because we think alike but strangers are a different species. I’ve made up my mind: I will not be reading books of anyone whom I have just met.