Saturday 13 May 2017

Keeping the faith

'He who is not my friend-

May God be his friend.

And he who causes me distress-

May his joy increase.

He who places thorns in my path-

With malice in his heart,

May every flower that blooms in the garden of his life

Be without a single thorn.'

When I got an opportunity to review ‘Song of the Dervish’ (Bloomsbury, 2017) by journalist Meher Murshed, I immediately grabbed it. The shrine of the renowned Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya is around  6 kms from my residence and I have seen (and read) about the huge number of devotees and visitors from all walks of life thronging to the shrine throughout the year. Many celebrities (including Ranbir Kapoor and AR Rahman) are regular visitors and there are many stories of people’s wishes having been fulfilled after they have payed obedience at the shrine. Hence I was looking forward to reading a good non-fiction account of the life of Mehboob-e-ilahi (as Nizamuddin Auliya is often known).What is that attracts so many people from all over the world again and again to the dargah? At a time when religious intolerance is rampant in our society, is there something that the Sufi’s life can teach us? What does it take to be a Sufi?

Were all my questions answered by this book? Yes and No.As far as the life and times of the Sufi saint and his favorite poet-disciple Amir Khusro is concerned the book fell short of my expectations. Perhaps normally when you read non-fiction the expectation is that everything should be explicit! In black and white. However in this case maybe that is not possible as we are dealing with mysticism where the line between the real and the unreal often blurs. There will always be many shades of grey. Maybe you got to read it yourself and then reach your own conclusion.

From an early age Nizamuddin had become a mureed of the Sufi dervish Baba Farid who stayed in Ajodhan. After completing his education in Delhi, he had planned to become a judge as he was good in studies but fate had something else in store. At the age of 20 he told his mother ‘I have to go to Sheikh Farid’ and their first meeting was an emotional one. Baba Farid welcomed Nizamuddin with these words:

‘The fire of your separation has burnt many hearts. The storm of desire to meet you has ravaged many lives.’

Nizamuddin became Baba Farid’s disciple and he knew that his journey had begun. He started staying at Baba Farid’s place along with the other disciples. Life here was tough as they had no source of income and their whole life was devoted to realizing God by serving the poor (the essence of Sufism). Simultaneously Amir Khusro was prospering as a poet in the court of Delhi’s Sultan. However the throne of Delhi frequently had a new ruler during Nizamuddin’s time as the ruler’s frequently had to face rebellion and the machinations of their relatives/nobles who were always ready to strike in their back. The ruling dynasties (Khilji, Tuglaq etc.) are not covered in much detail in the book except for the frequent blood shed which led to the coronation of a new king and the uneasy relationship they shared with Nizamuddin. On returning from Ajodhan, Nizamuddin eventually settled in Ghiyaspur (present day Nizamuddin area in Delhi) where he passed away in 1325.

Where the book triumphs are the back stories of people whom the author met at the dargah to understand their unwavering devotion to the saint. From Sanjiv who survived a stabbing on a train to Feroza who picked up the pieces of her life after a rape, each one has a unique story to tell. In the end think it all boils down to faith. This is what Moti Lal Mehra, who has been coming to the shrine for the past forty-three years has to say.

‘Nizamuddin draws me to him. He gives me a sense of belonging. I know he’s there to protect. My mood is lifted. There is no explaination.That is the beauty of this.’

Saturday 18 February 2017

Dark Chocolate

In the last few years I have found myself to be more attracted towards non-fiction and hence it was with some trepidation that I picked These Circuses that Sweep Through the Landscape (Aleph, 2017). What attracted me towards this collection of short stories was the unusual title and the unusual cover design. This is the debut collection of stories by a London based writer, Tejaswani Apte-Rahm, who has spent her life in places as diverse as Serbia, Cambodia,Israel and Bangladesh besides India. Although the stories cover a wide range of themes, the common thread running through them is a dark and grim streak, at times bordering on the obscure and at times with a dash of humor. The stories will remain with you long after you’ve put the book down and don’t be surprised if you find yourself visiting some of the stories again. The range in the theme and in the story setting is truly amazing.  If  ‘Cotton’ deals with a lonely girl  in a house who finds that the floor suddenly getting littered with white fluff and is determined to find the source of the same, ‘Drinks at Seven’ deals with the complex relationships and sexual undercurrents between two couples gathered for  dinner. In the rousing opening story, ‘Homo Coleoptera’, the Beetle collector finds himself getting more and more tangled in a trap of his own making. However, the stories that follow, fail to live up to the expectations set by the opening story. In the title story, which happens to be the last in the collection, an ageing architect has a devious plan up his sleeve which he plans to unleash on his own masterpieces.

If you are looking for an easy read or a romantic adventure, this won’t be your cup of tea and you are recommended to give it a pass. Nonetheless, if dark and complex stories are your scene then you won’t be disappointed by this collection. Overall this is a promising debut and we should hear more about her in the future.

'I received a copy from Writersmelon in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.'

Saturday 19 September 2015

Nowhere People

‘Can one just step into a photo frame and thus re-enter the past?’

The first time I heard of a place called McCluskieganj was in 2013 when I read Ian Jack’s lovely collection of non-fiction work, Mofussil Junction. It is a  village located roughly 65 kilometers from Ranchi (Jharkhand) which gets its peculiar name from its founder, Mr. Timothy Ernest McCluskie. Mr. McCluskie ( who ran  a real estate business), was a  prominent member of the Anglo-Indian community along with being a member of the Bengal’s Legislative Council in the 1920s. He had a vision for establishing a separate homeland for his community and formed a cooperative society through which fellow members could buy plots near a station then called Lapra.The foundation ceremony was held in November 1934. Unfortunately Mr.McCluskie passed away the following year but his dream was fulfilled even though it was doomed to fail in the future. The community was looked down upon by the British ( “racially impure’’) and local population (mostly tribals) always looked upon them as outsiders. Though many Anglo-Indian families settled there post independence, most of the next generation decided to migrate out of India to Canada, Australia and New Zealand for better prospects, never to return.

Vikas Kumar Jha’s book, McCluskieganj, The story of the only Anglo-Indian Village in India (Harper Perennial 2015, Rs.399) presents an updated account of life in the village seamlessly mixing fiction and non-fiction. The author who is a journalist, has spent a considerable time in the village and several of his characters are based on actual people staying there. The protagonist is Mr. Dennis McGowan who like many others had moved to Hong Kong from McCluskieganj, and now longs to go back to his village where he grew up. He is extremely nostalgic about his life in the village and continuously shares his stories with his son Robin. This motivates Robin to plan a visit to McCluskieganj and write a novel about the place. Meanwhile life moves on slowly in McCluskieganj where mostly the senior members of the Anglo-Indian community are left and they have over the years more or less integrated well with the local tribals. Their daily chores and challenges are very well described in detail by the author and they seem to have made peace with their existence even though a sense of tragedy always hangs in the background. Each and every character has an interesting story linked to him/her. Most poignant amongst these is the story of Mrs. Kitty Taxeria who once belonged to a wealthy family but now sells fruits at the railway station to make ends meet. (Her photograph also adorns the cover of the book).
 Robin’s arrival in the village triggers old memories in the community. At one level the novels also works as a commentary on nostalgia and displacement. After spending time in the village and falling in love with a local tribal girl, Robin comes up with the idea of celebrating 3rd November as the founder’s day. This decision sets of a chain of events as the whole village starts gearing up for the big day with relatives flying in from abroad to take part in the celebrations. Towards the end the story, a rather dramatic turn takes over. Some of the readers would find this sudden turn in the story a bit incredulous but that is only a minor irritant in an otherwise excellent book. It is a tribute of the small community which has not got its due and may not even exist in the next few decades. Many of us would always be grateful to the community for the excellent educational institutions which they continue to run selflessly  with discipline and without compromising on the values.
This book was originally published in Hindi in 2011 and it is easy to see the amount of effort put in by the author and the relationships he established in the village. In a small interview towards the end he says ‘The completion of McCluskieganj left a big void in my life. For several years I was at a loss as to what I should write next’.

The book also contains several photographs of prominent people and places of McCluskieganj and these along with the excellent cover add value to the book.

Sunday 6 September 2015

The Desert Fox

The first thing which intrigued me when I received the book – The Ghost Runner (Bloomsbury 2014, Rs.299) was the name of the author –Parker Bilal. Turns out that the name is the pseudonym of England born, Barcelona based writer, Jamal Mahjoub. The name Parker Bilal is a homage to his grandmother, who fed him thrillers when he was a child growing up in Khartoum, Sudan. His parents later moved to Cairo and it is a city the author knows well and it shows in the novel. The protagonist, Cairo based, private detective Makana, who is battling his past of escaping from Sudan and losing his wife and daughter is called upon by a lawyer to investigate the death of a young girl, Karima who has been burnt alive in downtown Cairo. The investigation takes Makana from Cairo to Siwa a small town deep into the desert in Egypt. This is the place from where Karima’s parents –Nagat (who raised Kaima in Cairo) and Musab (who was later exiled to Denmark) grew up before moving to Cairo.
 Siwa appears to be a typical laid back small town. The peace is however soon shattered by the mysterious death of the Qadi (town judge) and the police chief Hamama, with an eye on his promotion, asks Makana to help him in the investigation. Soon, another murder follows. And then another. Could these murders and Makana’s search for Karima’s killer be connected? Has the police chief been entirely honest with Makana?  What is the secret of the beautiful women’s rights’ worker Zahra Sharif whom Makana met in Cairo and is in constant touch with? What is behind Musab’s sudden return from Denmark? In order to unravel the maze, Makana has to deal with a bunch of quirky characters in Siwa. From Dr Medina, the town doctor with bare minimum facilities and  who needs a drink to be sober (and also has secrets of his own) to Wad Nubawi the evasive superstore owner, to Sadig the aggressive police chief’s assistant who is always suspicious of Makanas’ moves and dying to put him behind bars. Events unfold against the background of Israel-Palestine conflict and the aftermath of 9/11 and these also cast a shadow on the plot besides giving a contemporary edge to the story. This a very intelligently written crime thriller which is sure to keep the readers of this genre glued. It is can easily hold against the best of Nordic crime fiction which has come to dominate this genre nowadays.  This novel is the third in the Makana series by the author and even as I write this a fourth novel (also based in Egypt) is already out in the market. Can’t wait to get my hands on the same.

Sunday 28 June 2015


Whenever we think of a graphic non-fiction narrative, the first artist who normally comes to mind is Joe Sacco, who has firmly established himself as the foremost exponent of the form through classic works like Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde.(He has also some spent some time in a village in UP,India  and that particular piece was published in Caravan a few years back). Now, there appears to be a new star on the horizon-Nina Bunjevac , a Yugoslavian  graphic artist, based in Canada. A friend presented her second book (Fatherland, Jonathan Cape 2014) to me recently and I am highly impressed by her narration and the art work (in black and white) is absolutely stunning.
In Fatherland, Nina gives us an account of her family and their life’s story in erstwhile Yugoslavia and Canada interspersed with briefs about the history of Yugoslavia and the origin of regional tensions which subsequently led to the Balkan wars in 1990s resulting in the breaking up of Yugoslavia. The history of the Balkan region is very complicated and the author has done a good job of explaining it succinctly, without going into too much details. She provides just enough information for the reader to understand the motivation of the main protagonists in the novel.
Her father  Peter, a staunch Serbian nationalist, who was against the communist leadership of  Josip Toto was the first to leave Yugoslavia in 1959, after spending three years in jail on account of trumped up charges of espionage. Her mother moved to Canada after marriage and Nina was the youngest of the three siblings born to them. Peter joined  the anti-Tito organization -Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland and became an  active participant in carrying our anti-Yugoslavia activities  secretly on Canadian soil (In present times Peter would be called a terrorist and his organization a terrorist organization but that was a different era).He also started drinking a lot and that combined with his deep involvement in anti-Tito activities made Nina’s mother very insecure about the family’s future in Canada. When she saw that Peter wasn’t going to mend his ways, she decided to leave for Yugoslavia in 1975 with her two daughters, never to return to her husband. Nina’s grandparents, who were strong supporters of the communist government, were obviously very happy to see them even though they struggled to make the ends meet.  Peter continuously wrote to his wife and tried to convince her to come back but they both knew that he could not turn his back to the Serbian organization he had got so deeply involved in. He slowly became a mental wreck and in 1977 he died in an explosion in a garage where he was attempting to assemble a bomb along with two compatriots. Whether the bomb went off by mistake while assembling or the module was sabotaged by Tito’s secret police … one would never know.
Apart from Peter, the other person who played a major role in influencing Nina’s family was Nina’s grandmother.  A smart lady and a staunch communist, she was the one who got Nina’s mother and Peter together for marriage. Later when she visited Canada and sensed the dangers to her daughter and grandchildren, she decided to split the family by asking her daughter to move back to Yugoslavia where she kept a strict control on the life of her daughter and granddaughters. Nina also provides us with some beautiful vignettes of life in Yugoslavia under the communist rule and weaves in bits of Balkan folklores into the narrative. The excellent production quality of the book (art paper, hard bound and in A4 size) helps in bringing out the finer details of Nina’s artwork which almost has a life-like feel to it.

The novel ends suddenly after Peter’s death. Maybe a sequel is in the offering which would tell us what happened after Peter’s death. Since the novel begins with a meeting of Nina and her mother in 2012 in Canada it would be of interest to know how and when did the family moved back to Canada and  how was their experience on return after Peter’s mysterious death. What happened to the eldest sibling –Petey (whom the father had not allowed to go to Yugoslavia with the mother) after his father’s death and how did his relationship develop with his estranged family. Will Nina oblige us with these unanswered questions in her next book? 

Friday 10 April 2015

The Legacy of Mario De Miranda

The last time I was in Goa (in 2013) I struggled to find ( any merchandise related to my favorite artist, Mario De Miranda (1926 -2011). Much water has flown under the Panjim Bridge since then. Thanks essentially to Gerard da Cunha, a Goa based architect whose firm Architectural Autonomous runs the Mario gallery in Porvorim, Goa and now has branches in Panjim and Calangute (both in Goa).They also have a kiosk close to Shoppers Stop in Bandra, Bombay. At all these places you can find a huge collection of Mario’s work and related merchandise varying from prints to mugs to books to t-shirts (you can also order online  at The prices are decent and the quality excellent.
During my visit to Goa earlier this year I was fortunate to attend a talk by Gerard on the legacy of Mario at the International Centre on the outskirts of Panjim. In this talk, Gerard highlighted the various dimensions of Mario’s work which are often overlooked by the general public. I have tried to summarize the same below:-

A.      Cartoonist:- Most of us have known Mario by his cartons which appeared regularly in The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Economic Times (published by The Times of India group where he was employed). Many of these  revolved around  a corporate setup  as the two cartoons below illustrate

These cartoons were often dominated by the sexy secretary Ms Fonseca, in a polka dot miniskirt and her Boss
Some were also a scathing commentary on the politicians and the political situation in the country though he mostly refrained from directly ridiculing a particular politician or a  political party unlike his colleague at The Times of India ,R K Laxman. The cartoons below would rank amongst his top political cartoons.

Like all good art, most of his cartoons (including those shown above ) would transcend time and  are  still as relevant today as they were when they were originally published more than  20 years back.

B.      Socio-Historical:- Mario started drawing at an early age of  6 and used to scribble on the walls of his house in Goa. His mother then got him a blank notebook in which he started maintaining his daily diary by sketching the happening in his surroundings. He continued with this habit while in school and college. Pages from this diary chronicle the life in Goa in those days (1940s / 50s).A fine example of the same is given below where the details of a dance party being organized and the mishaps that follow are beautifully captured by Mario.

C.      Illustrator:-  Mario was first and foremost a great illustrator. He had an eye for the details and enjoyed observing and drawing people and buildings around him .He drew sketches in a variety of styles as the sketches below show. Infact it would be difficult for a layman to make out that all the sketches below have been drawn by the same person. Look at the observations on the faces of the gentlemen in the striptease sketch below. Each and every individual watching the show is reacting in a different way as the pianist plays on, nonchalantly.

D.      Chronicler of Bombay and Goa:- Mario was born and grew up in Goa and spent most of his career in Bombay. After retirement, he returned to his ancestral house in Goa where he passed away in 2011. His montages of life in Goa and Bombay are amongst my favorite Mario illustrations. Each one features so many unique characters that a story can be woven around each.  On the whole, they capture the spirit of the city-be it  Goa or Bombay. One can spend a long time analyzing (and enjoying!)each and every detail in these montages as is evident from the two sketches given below (Local Bus in Goa and a snapshot of the Bombay local train)

E.       Fine Art:- Besides the cartoons and the sketches, Mario also drew some wonderful fine art in which he adopted a completely different style.

For someone who never attended any art school/college, Mario has left behind an astonishing array of work which would be hard for anyone to emulate.

(The formatting has gone a bit haywire as I struggled to insert the pictures in the blog.Kindly excuse.)