Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Excerpt from Anuradha Kumar’s collection

A Sense of Time and Other Stories (coming soon)

The Entomologist at the Trial

The last time I went to visit my uncle, he was still chasing his dreams of making it big in the High Court. A lawyer in the small district court of Old Town, he dreamt big. He could enact long courtroom scenes, such as the one in the Hindi film, Waqt, or Portia’s defense of Antonio, and one day soon, he always promised, he would assist the great lawyer, Ranganath Singh, in the High Court of New Town, the state’s biggest city. Once, after a particularly affecting portrayal of Atticus Finch, he told me, “That great lawyer, Singh, just has to notice me, then there is no way he cannot take me on.” Uncle had never sounded more sincere.

To draw the attention of the great lawyer whose understudy Uncle wished to become, he took on the cases all his peers refused to take on. Sometimes Uncle’s decisions, driven by idealism, flopped miserably. For example, when he took on the case of the temple dancer who had been cheated out of her savings by the priest, everyone said he was mad and sure to lose. Uncle did lose and was forever barred from the temple.

On another occasion, Uncle came to the rescue of the local rat catcher. I had seen the man a few times. He walked slowly from street to street, silent unlike the other vendors, holding out a shiny colorful placard in front of him. It described with very graphic images, every possible way of killing a rat. You could strangle, poison and drown them or trap them in all kinds of contraptions he had especially designed. Long ago, the rat catcher had a voice, but he lost it one day. 

As the story went, this had happened because the rat catcher had shouted himself hoarse in court when a case was slapped against him by an irate client who insisted that the man never caught a live rat. Rather it was a cat that did so, and hence it was the cat who deserved the heavy fees the catcher always charged. My uncle had tried to defend him, but the rat catcher never gave him a chance to talk. The court fined the rat catcher and Uncle was reprimanded. He considered it one of his most humiliating moments. Something he hoped Ranganath Singh would never get wind of. I think it was Uncle who spread the story that it was not any incompetence on his part that forced the catcher to take up his own defense, but rather the latter lost his voice when the Listerine he used every night to gargle and clear his throat turned out to be contaminated. If the rats had chosen this devious way to get back at the catcher, Uncle never let on. 

Last year, I spent another summer with Uncle. It was cramped in his two-room bachelor set-up because I had to share space with someone whom uncle introduced as the entomologist. A man who studies insects, my new acquaintance told me seconds after uncle had introduced us. My indignant response, entirely spontaneous, was to tell him rather coldly that I knew that. I study botany in school, I told him. Maybe it was my imagination or hindsight now, but I think I saw something like panic cross his face. I do remember with certainty, however, the manner in which the entomologist grasped my hand, clapped me on the back, and called me a comrade. It seemed overdone. “Don’t worry,” he told me, “I am no Brundlefly, and just for the record, I never liked The Fly. Insects really aren’t so diabolical, most of them, at least.” He winked at me, and that gesture contorted his face in a peculiar way. As if he wanted to be jovial, but was in fact nervous. 

Later that night, after the entomologist turned in, Uncle and I sat on the porch outside, watching the stars appear one after another in a rapidly darkening sky. We spoke in whispers, so as not to disturb the neighbors. The only sound in that still night was the unending buzz of the crickets and the creak of cane as we shifted in our chairs. “He’s here for a case.” Uncle spoke in the softest whisper and my chair made an agonized creak as I bent forward to listen.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

My review of Mudassar Bashir's Punjabi Novella Rekh

Prolific Mudassar Bashir’s latest novella, Rekh, revolves around a character named Ashi, short for Ayesha, who’s on her way to becoming a medical doctor and is in love with her maternal cousin Khalid. In general, the cousins in her family are close to one another and a lot of relatives congregate during wedding ceremonies in the family.

The patriarch Hashim Ali enjoys the love and respect of his four sons and a daughter, who’s the mother of Ashi. Ashi resists her beloved Khalid’s suggestion that they let their parents know about their mutual attraction for each other because she wants to finish her MBBS without distraction. Circumstances, then, force Khalid to marry Ashi’s sister. As more tragedies pile up, Ashi appears to be the worst loser.

Although the title Rekh may suggest that the author intends to explore the concept of predestination and how it shapes our view of our lives, it is also a character study of a strong-willed person. While Bashir studies the character by situating the narrative within an educated, modern, middle-class milieu, he also does so by invoking the price traditional values exact from a person.

Bashir tests the limits of love and sacrifice in a deceptively simple story. Ashi has a chance to marry Khalid again when her sister dies in childbirth but cannot bring herself to share the bed with Khalid after her sister. Ashi chooses instead . . .

You can read the rest here.

Monday, November 9, 2020

The Day the Cookie Froze


After playing baseball in a newly renovated park, I ended up in a shopping area near my home with my younger son. We had to buy a few things which I didn't want to put off till tomorrow, including a new baseball glove for him. He was a little resistant, mostly because he was getting hungry. He tried to trick me into getting something from a fast food menu but I reasoned that today we needed to stick to eating home cooking. He agreed, but I felt bad and suggested that perhaps something small from a cafe might not be too bad. Peet's was right there before we could reach a sporting goods store. My son couldn't decide what to get after staring at a very uninspiring display of sugary items. Also, one of our neighbors was going to drop off a few cinnamon rolls later in the evening, but I knew we were going to be spending quite a bit of time deciding which glove to get for him, not to mention other distractions in the store. So before he could lose his appetite, I pointed out the lone cookie. "How about that? It's not that big."
   "Yes, sure!" he said.
   "Can we have that cookie please?" I asked the person behind the cash register, a young Asian-looking woman. 
   Just as she reached for the cookie, she inquired, "Do you want it heated?"
   Did she say Eated? Is that how young people now talk? I have always believed in the impermanence of a language.
   "Heated?" I asked just to be sure.
   She nodded, leaving me puzzled.
   "Do people really get their cookies heated?"
   "Yes, they do," she said, frozen midway, in case I changed my mind.
   "Wow, really, I thought you were joking!" I said softening up. 
   I took out my wallet. I noticed my son was as usual beginning to get embarrassed. The young woman slid the cookie into a small brown bag and handed it to him. I usually ask him to say Thank you, but I was distracted. 
   "We do it," she offered of her own volition, "because that's what they do it at Starbucks."
   "Starbucks!?" I asked, amused yet irritated.
   "Yes, because it's frozen," she added. 
   The idea began to sink in. 
   "Because it's coming from a warehouse where it's been kept for quite some time," I conjectured.
   "Frozen. That's right," she said.
   "And we don't know if this cookie was made ten years ago or a year ago," I offered.
   "And they must have used chemicals for preservation."
   She pursed her lips and nodded.
   "But we know that because we are smarter than they think," I added, not knowing what I meant by that.
   She nodded again as if signaling that though she sold the cookie, she wouldn't eat it herself. My son bit into the cookie, annoyed, as we walked out. He chided me lightly for getting into an unnecessary conversation, and when I tried to explain, he said he understood it. I knew he did because there's more awareness about healthy eating at his school. I wondered if there was hope if despite growing awareness and knowledge regarding corporate fast food and chain cafes those business models continue to control our balls, guts, heads. The younger generation, their activism and their knowledge, can take on anything, I believe. Only time will tell how long they are willing to eat the frozen cookie!



Saturday, September 12, 2020

I review Anne Tyler's novel Redhead by the Side of the Road


This is the story of a man in his early 40s whose existence flits between feeling lonely and alone. The two states are not diametrically in opposition to each other, but they are not the same either. The difference is important and central to the story of Redhead by the Side of the Road.

Micah Mortimer’s life has not panned out as he had wanted. Starting as a bright computer science student, going into a startup tech business with a wealthy partner, he walked away to end up as Tech Hermit answering random calls from people who need their computer and printer problems fixed. He lives in a basement apartment of a building rent-free in exchange for serving as the manager. The youngest after four sisters, Micah can’t seem to hold on to a woman although even before he became a teenager “not even fully aware of sex, he had already longed to have a girl of his very own.”

The latest disruption, the one we witness in the narrative, is caused by a young boy, Brink, a runaway, who shows up outside Micah’s patch one morning out of the blue, claiming to be his son because he learned that Micah was the love of his mother’s life when she was young. Quick math puts that speculation to rest, but Micah ends up acquiescing to let him use the guest room just when Cass, his woman friend, is dealing with the fear of being evicted. Cass sees that as a signal from Micha that she is not welcome to move in with him, and no pleading, no amount of explanation would help change her mind. The case is closed. That’s the thick of it.

Micah, in his moments of solitude, looks back, wondering why women would leave him on one pretext or another. There are differences between Cass and him, but they are minor. There’s more care for the suffering in Cass’s worldview than that of Micah’s and he knows it, but their relationship has worked so far because both, as adults, recognize and respect each other’s physical and emotional space. But is there any place in Micah’s world for flexibility, for bending of the rules?

Anne Tyler, one of the most loved American authors of more than 20 novels, does not let the narrative either spin out of control or descend to irreversible tragedy. For the most part, it simmers on a constant low flame. The runaway boy is reunited with his mother and adoptive father, who develops respect for Micah. Cass takes Micah back. Brink’s mother and Micah’s college sweetheart, Lorna Bartell, is allowed to share her perspective with Micah of how and why their relationship fell apart.

This idea of a clash of perceptions between how men and women see certain events unfolding around their lives seems like a common theme now and brings to mind Clifford Garstang’s The Shaman of Turtle Valley, whose protagonist, Aiken, has a similar problem vis a vis the two most important women in his life with a far more serious issue on hand.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Moazzam Reviews Clifford Garstang's The Shaman of Turtle Valley for Heavy Feather Review

"What to Aiken’s mind has always been a matter of betrayal from Kelly when she left town and eventually married after Aiken joined the army, Kelly’s perspective shatters his sense of self. Their last love-making moment, she considers rape."

There’s been a lot of talk, at least since Trump’s victory, about the poor Whites left to rust and rot due to our neoliberal economic policies pursued by the two political parties. We often get stuck with an image of illiterate redneck pockets unable to cope with the evolving nature of modernity and corporate greed. There’s a risk of dehumanizing which must be avoided despite political differences. Clifford Garstang has done a decent enough job to explore the good, the bad, and in-between by focusing his lens on a family whose presence in a small idle place called Turtle Valley, Virginia, goes back generations. For now, Garstang goes after the current  generation with Aiken at the heart of the story.

According to one view, America keeps a certain part of its population illiterate and poor, Whites and non-Whites, on purpose to be used as cannon fodder for its imperial wars around the globe. Without any regard for their well-being afterwards if they’re lucky enough to return in one piece. It is not rocket science to see the connection between the Korean War and onward to a rising number of veterans ending up homeless on American streets, begging or going insane. So it is only natural that Aiken, the younger son of Henry and Ruth, joins the army to be deployed to Kuwait and Iraq around Desert Storm. Luckily his deployment is short, though he has his share of war trauma but it has spared him more or less. Before he can quit the army, however, his second deployment takes him to South Korea, where he befriends an underage young woman interested in practicing her English with American soldiers and gets her pregnant towards the end of his tenure.                                      

  The novel opens with Aiken loading his truck with few of his belongings in order to move in with his parents while contemplating how best to stay in touch with his four year old son, Henry named after his father, a Navy veteran, and how to make sense of the distance which has opened up regarding his Korean wife.

You can read the rest here.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

My Re-evaluation of noted writer Altaf Fatima's Urdu Novel Chalta Mussafir

When novelists take on historical events or embed their characters into watershed moments of history, they complicate narratives peddled by the state, and even historians, whose primary concern revolves around countering a popular narrative set in motion by state actors via textbooks, patriotic songs, popular media and compromised journalists. 

  A historian’s focus is on facts extracted from primary or secondary sources offering a counter-narrative. For example, in the US ‘the no taxation without representation’ narrative persists. Some historians have however argued that the fear of losing slaves caused the revolution. There were slave rebellions. Then King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, forbidding white settlers from usurping more land from the natives.  
Historian Gerald Horne argues that the revolution was, in fact, a counter-revolution spelling disaster for African Americans and Native Americans. When novelists enter the fray, they draw a narrative arc with ordinary humans at the centre. Altaf Fatima’s novel Chalta Mussafir was written about a decade after Pakistan army’s unconditional surrender in Dhaka. 

  Except for the weak ending, I loved her book Daskat Na Do (The One Who Did Not Knock, translated finely by Rukhsana Ahmed) for its diction and for situating two outsiders at the heart of the story. One would think that a decade was a long enough time to gain perspective about an emotionally charged moment in history, and weigh official and unofficial narrative and counter-narratives to offer an undidactic lens. An equal number of Hindus and Muslims don't have to die and en equal number of perpetrators of violence should not should not also be lined up. Since no one has a complete grip on the truth, the author must look far and wide.
ad the rest Here

Monday, March 2, 2020

My review of I'm From Nowhere by Lindsay Lerman


Towards the end of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the chief butler at Darlington Hall, reconciles himself to the realization that by agreeing to live a subservient life, he couldn’t even make his own mistakes. “Really, one has to ask oneself, what dignity is there in that?” Lindsay Lerman’s central character, Claire, of her powerful debut novel I’m From Nowhere, struggles with a somewhat similarly existential pang when John, her husband, suddenly passes away at a young age. In Lerman’s sensitive and compassionate hands, Claire juggles, for days since John’s death, the twin emotions of grief and identity crisis. Claire is barely thirty years old. That only complicates emotions further. Two of their friends, Andrew and Luke, are present at the funeral silently polishing their sexual and/or romantic bait. Both men, in the past, have made their attraction to her clear, risking their friendship with John. That Claire never confided in her husband about Andrew’s advance or Luke’s love letter lest that rupture the friendship among men, served to prop up her self-esteem, which serves, in essence, as the novel’s dominant, if not central, theme.

You can read the entire review here.