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Reviews of books in running DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015

Reviews of books in running DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015

January 19 2015

We are a little more than three days away from knowing what South Asian inspired book will come to be declared the novel of 2015 in the region…

By Chitra Mogul

FIVE quite different but brilliant novels are all vying for a $50,000 cheque and the grand title of DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015 – but only one can triumph this coming week.

On Thursday (January 22), the suspense will finally be over and a winner will be announced at the Zee Jaipur Literature festival, which opens the day before.

And which of the five novels will it be… Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s “The Mirror of Beauty”, a lyrical Indo-Muslim saga set in 18th century Delhi; Kamila Shamsie’s “A God In Every Stone”, a politico-historical novel that traces the friendship of an Englishwoman and a young Pathan boy against the backdrop of the First World War; Bilal Tanweer’s “The Scatter Here is Too Great”, a fragmented tale about a bomb blast in Karachi; Romesh Gunesekera’s, “Noontide Toll”, a story about one man’s peregrinations across ravaged post-war Sri Lanka; Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland”, a tale of two Bengali brothers whose lives are engulfed by the Naxalite (violent Maoist) movement in India.

After a rollercoaster ride through each, is about to reveal its hand and offer a prediction. While three are very much literary blockbuster authors who already command a considerable (international) following, two are not and Faruqi and Tanweer probably stand to gain the most from the glittering prize.

However, the judges who were all present in London for the nominations announcement (read this) are required to put aside any such thought and chose the book and its author purely on its merit against the others.

mirror of beautyThe Mirror of Beauty” is best described as a politico-historical story about an independent and spirited woman Wazir Khanum, an anachronism in her time, who moves in with Marston Blake an officer of the East India Company. Her often tragic and tumultuous life leads her into relationships with a nawab and a Mughal prince. She was the real-life mother of the famous Urdu poet, Dagh.
Faruqi’s translation of his own work from the original Urdu successfully brings to life the splendour and courtly traditions of a long lost Indo-Muslim culture that flourished in late 18th- and early 19th-century India. The 984-page magnum opus is meticulously researched, but its strength is also its weaknesses, and the excessive attention to detail detracts from the main narrative.
Extravagant descriptions of the life of Wazir’s ancestors and intricate, if fascinating, details about crafts including that of miniature painting abound. One learns, for example, much about the art of Banithani from Rajasthan. Muhammad Yahya the great-grandfather of Wazir Khanam falls in love with a miniature portrait which is an imaginary painting of Radha, consort of the Hindu God Krishna. The title of the book is derived from this Persian quote referencing the painting: “Like a difficult text in front of a dull scholar: When you look into the mirror, your beauty sends the mirror to sleep.”
There are lengthy descriptive passages about nature, myriad Urdu and Persian quotations and much use of flowery titles and honorifics which were the style of the day. In the end it makes one long to wield a red pen and trim it down drastically. This is especially true of the first quarter of the novel.
Thereafter it picks up, especially in the account of the relationship of Wazir’s lover Nawab Shamsuddin Ahmed Khan with William Fraser, the British Resident in Delhi, which is based on historical fact and makes for an arresting read.
Faruqi is a well-known Urdu critic and writer who lives in India.
ACV rating: ** (out of five)

noontide tollNoon Tide Toll” – Gunesekera tells the story of Sri Lanka in the aftermath of its brutal and bitter 30-year-old civil war, through the eyes of ‘Vasantha’, a van driver from Colombo who drives foreign entrepreneurs, charity workers and families around the country. The book gives interesting insights into the Tamil-Sinhala conflict and its wounds through Vasantha’s often witty observations. He is the archetypal common man, an endearing character who is the link between the different stories.
His passengers are a varied bunch from the garrulous ‘Mrs Cooray’ and her taciturn Dutch guests; pastors invited to a military base for dinner; a father and his son from England visiting the country of their origin to see “what was left of the nightmare” and visit the family home; Chinese executives buying scrap, the detritus of the war; a couple on a Jaffna ‘tour’ who stay at a hotel where the mysterious ‘Miss Saraswati’ displays her killing skills. The novel is an eye-opener on a country limping back to normalcy and trying to make peace with its past.
Vasantha uses surprisingly sophisticated language which doesn’t quite ring true, though he might have taken ‘evening classes’. He has a surprisingly good knowledge of world history, the state of the Japanese in 1945, the Dutch and their dykes and several other titbits of general knowledge that cause one to pause. In referring to his father he has this to say – “Although he rejected religion, he did believe in consequences. It sometimes sounded like dialectical hogwash but, in his view, one thing always followed from another. ”
Gunesekera has written five novels and “Reef” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994.
ACV rating: **

scatter hereThe Scatter Here is too Great” shows the devastation wrought by years of violence in Karachi, not just on the outward appearance of the city but the inner psyche of its residents. Tanweer’s talent lies in being able to capture the voices of different people who are at the scene of a bomb blast; ‘Sadeq’ a recovery agent who strong-arms defaulters on car loans; his girlfriend who concocts stories for her younger brother to conceal a forbidden relationship; an ambulance driver at the scene of the blast who is driven into a catatonic state on the eve of his wedding; ‘Comrade Sukhansaz’ a comedic communist and poet; and the main narrator, referred to as ‘a writer in the city’.
Tanweer (incidentally a protégée of fellow short listed author Kamila Shamsie) enlivens this account of the characters’ somewhat bleak lives with a dry and trenchant humour that saves the book from becoming a dirge about doomsday. The fantastical and the real are interwoven in the minds of his characters which, depending on the reader’s inclinations, can be off-putting or stimulating.
For example, we have the strange mythical beings that show up at the site of the bomb blast, ‘Gog’ and ‘Magog’, who are supposed to herald doomsday and belong to a giant warrior race separated from human beings by a wall. Shades of “Game of Thrones”?!
The strongest link in the chain of nine interconnected stories is the last story, “Things and Reason” in which ‘the writer in the city’ follows a man referred to as the ‘bird of death’ into a netherworld of urban decay.
Tanweer is dispassionate, yet tender, in his appraisal of Karachi, where he lived till the age of 19 and this ultimately gives the novel its authentic feel and voice. He was the recipient of a Fullbright scholarship for a Masters in fine arts in creative writing at Columbia University.
ACV rating: ***

lowlandShamsie’s “The Lowland” is about brothers ‘Shubash’ and ‘Udayan Mitra’ whose lives take very different paths that in time threaten their childhood closeness. The Naxalite movement of the 1960s and 1970s attracts Udayan, the idealistic young firebrand. He is first made aware of the inequalities of the society he lives in during the brothers’ childhood forays into the sylvan and off limit surroundings of the Tollygunge Club. ‘Shubash’ on the other hand is the ‘good son’, the one who falls in with parental hopes and expectations. He wins a scholarship and goes to the US to Rhode Island, for his further studies.
The novel explores themes of exile, loneliness, alienation and family loyalties. With a sparse and elegant prose, so characteristic of Lahiri’s writing, it unravels and reveals the secrets and lies that sustain and, at the same time, very often sabotage ordinary lives.
It’s a reflection on conformity and rebellion, both in the lives of the brothers as well as in the life of Udayan’s wife ‘Gauri’ and their daughter, ‘Bela’. The characters, with the exception of Udayan, are wooden and seemingly, emotionally stunted. Nothing wrong with that if there is some sort of redemption but apparently there isn’t. If you do try to swim against the tide, like Udayan you might have to pay the price for youthful impetuosity and idealism.
A melancholy study on marriage and domestic life, Lahiri depicts the fault lines that lie below the apparent solidity of relationships. Alternating between Rhode Island and Kolkata, the writing captures the details and minutiae of small-town American life which seems, at times, quite relentless in its uneventfulness.
Despite the fact that there is a curiously detached feeling about the narrative which fails to completely engage the reader’s emotions, it is a well-written novel and you find yourself turning the pages with a sense of anticipation right till the end.
Lahiri is the acclaimed winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2000. She is the author of “The Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Namesake” which was made into a feature film by Mira Nair and has won numerous awards and accolades.
ACV rating: ***1/2

a god in every stoneA God in Every Stone” by Shamsie, who was named in 2013 as among Granta’s Best Young Novelists, has produced a novel that takes the reader on a memorable journey through time. Opening in July 1914, it traces the footsteps of ‘Vivian Rose Spencer’, a young Englishwoman with a passion for archaeology, who is also a nurse during the Great War. Along the way, we encounter 21-year-old Pathan, ‘Qayyum Gul’, a soldier in the Indian Army fighting in Ypres for the British, and his little brother, Najeeb Gul, who forges a bond with the Vivian Rose.
It is a story of love and betrayal, divided loyalties and rising nationalism told against the backdrop of the Great War and colonial Lahore. The narrative criss-crosses the globe from Turkey to France to England and Lahore, in present-day Pakistan, in a seamless tale. The last few chapters build up to a fast-paced finale when a peaceful protest turns violent and Vivian Spencer revisits Lahore to realise an old dream.
Shamsie, who grew up in Karachi, is a much-celebrated novelist who has written five novels. She now lives in London.
ACV rating: ****

CONCLUSION: If the winner is selected with an eye to recognising newcomers first and foremost, the award should go to Tanweer.
If it is given on the basis of pure literary merit, there is no doubt that Shamsie should be the winner for her engrossing tale of crossed love and loyalties and her vivid portrayal of a turbulent period of politics and history in the subcontinent and it’s obvious that it’s my favourite.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture