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Left to right: Author, Murzban Shroff and his book, Third Eye Rising

Third Eye Rising: A Pantheon of Displacement Stories

Some 15 years ago I wrote in these pages a review titled “An Omnibus Repast of the Century Past.”  Yes, in those distant days, our faithful magazine was printed on paper.  And, yes, my review was backward-looking, an appreciation of R. K. Narayan’s two-volume keepsake issued by Everyman’s Library in its centennial year and, serendipitously, in the 100th year of Narayan’s birth.

When Narayan was born in 1906, 89% of Indians lived in villages; when he passed away in 2001, that percentage had dropped to 72.  Today, less than 65% of Indians are in rural settings, but given the subcontinent’s population explosion, that’s still 900 million villagers. Imagine nearly all Americans x 3 living in villages. And then imagine all the stories that each of those villagers has to tell us.

Murzban Shroff’s fertile imagination does the imagining for readers open to exploring India’s rural-to-urban transformation. In Third Eye Rising, a compelling collection of stories featured on Esquire’s list of Best Books of 2021, some things in India stay the same, and other things evolve. What stays the same: a pantheon of gods and families. What changes: most everything else and thus a grand displacement.

The displacement suggests that the Rajasthani villages that my parents came from are no longer the sleepy mofussils that R. K. Narayan wrote about so lovingly in the last century. The village has moved to the city and the city has moved to the village; and in all this movement, the modern Western world has seeped into India.

I thought about all this fluidity while reading “The Kitemaker’s Dilemma,” the first story in Shroff’s book. The story opens rather innocently with a too-long sentence that conveys the languid oral tradition of Indian story-telling. It is January in Amrapali, a small North Indian town, ten days before Makar Sankranti, the festival that loosely marks the end of the winter solstice and the beginning of longer, warmer days.

“Schools were shut, shops downed their shutters, adults became children, and children were allowed to scream their hooplas as kite after kite was launched in good-humored, competitive fervor.”

In the midst of this languorous bonhomie, we meet Baba Hanush, a master kitemaker. For a moment, the reader believes that he is back in Malgudi, Narayan’s fictional South Indian town; one can almost hear Malgudi’s make-believe river Sarayu come to life. To be sure, there are low-grade tensions such as mothers negotiating the price of Baba Hanush’s priceless kites. And the tension grows more personal with Shroff outlining the death of Baba Hanush’s wife, a victim of a bamboo pit viper; but even this tragedy passes through a brief paragraph and is resolved with a whisper: “An artist is best in his grief.” 

None of these conflicts prepare the reader for what Shroff calls “a dark, liquid unease”: the story of Akash, a lonely boy who lives in a shuttered house on Burrah Gully. The viper’s poison is nothing compared to Akash’s father, a venomous drunk who murders his wife and then frames his chit of a son. The story’s denouement pulls at the heartstrings, but the gentle contract that Narayan had with his readers is clearly not the one that Shroff has with his.  

While kites still fly on Makar Sakranti as they have for centuries, India has changed.

People seem more ready to cut each other down the way they once playfully cut down each other’s kites with crushed-glass-laced string.  This is the bargain Shroff makes with his readers: I will give you a taste of the Incredible India sold by the Ministry of Tourism, but you will have to swallow the country’s disreputable underbelly as well.

Psychologically, Third Eye Rising has a mature voice without resorting to distasteful language. These are tales for the 21st century nurtured in the masterful hands of a writer who apparently knows India’s rich folk-tale tradition; perhaps this comes from the story collection being “born out of Shroff’s travels to the villages of India” as noted in the author’s bio. But although the ten stories feature numerous gods and goddesses, they are not didactic in the way of some episodes in the Ramayana or Mahabharata; and even though Third Eye Rising anthropomorphizes in “The Temple Cow,” it is not moralizing like the Panchatantra or Hitopadesha.  

The societal context here is different from the ancient texts or even the more recent Narayan stories. As Amarveer Rathore, the protagonist in “Diwali Star,” says to his wife after they watch the serialized Ramayana on television, “Different times, different values.”  The Rathores contrast the breakup of their extended family, each son going his own way, with the fraternal bond between Rama, Bharata, Shatrughna, and Laxmana.  

Just as most Americans – Christian and non-Christian – know about Jesus and the three wise men bearing gifts, just about all Indians – Hindu and non-Hindu – are aware of how Rama, Sita, and Laxmana lived in exile to honor the extorted wish of King Dasharatha. But those were honorable times in perhaps apocryphal history.  As celebrated at Diwali, when Rama returns to the kingdom after 14 years in the forest with Sita and Laxmana, his brother Bharata rightfully returns the throne to Rama. Right-minded men, doing the right things, in the right way.

Third Eye Rising doesn’t see its world in quite the same way.  While his stories are populated with honorable men like Rama and his brothers, Shroff is just as apt to focus on Sita’s perspective in writing which valorizes a feminist worldview.  Dowry is explored, as are sham marriages and a disconcertingly pragmatic concept called a “professional wife.”  

If M. K. Gandhi was right that “the soul of India lives in its villages,” then what to make of an Indian soul that is rapidly urbanizing in our neoliberal globalized world?

Shroff writes with a gimlet-eyed view of modern India. Readers may be asked to remove their rose-colored glasses to understand and embrace characters who embody Third Eye Rising’s ever-changing India. 


Dr. Raj Oza has written: Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue / Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, and P.S., Papa’s Stories. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.


 

10 Books to Read On Modern Indian History

It is no surprise that India has a long and rich history. However, which books are the best for learning about the country’s amazing history? Below are ten of the best books that delve into India’s politics, culture, and economy.

India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha

“Guha’s India After Gandhi is the must-read guide on the journey of modern India, post-independence from the British in 1947 to the 1990s” says Donald Roussel, a book blogger at Essayroo and Paperfellows. This book thoroughly covers India’s political history over the latter half of the 20th century, providing a great backdrop for India’s current economic and social climate within the country.

India -from midnight to the millennium by Shashi Tharoor

The history of modern India but in the much more precise and succinct style of Dr. Sashi Tharoor. Although this account is not unbiased like Guha’s India After Gandhi, readers will benefit from Sashi Tharoor’s fresh and unique perspective.

India — The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagiriya

This book is the most in-depth account of the most remarkable experiment in economic development under democracy. Panagiriya explores the history of the economic path followed by Nehru to Manmohan Singh. 

An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor

Tharoor explores the lasting damage committed by British rule in India. Funny and witty at times, Tharoor provides ample research lending credibility to his claims. “He systematically debunks any of the arguments that have been made about the positive benefits of British rule” explains Constance Moore, a writer at State Of Writing and OXEssays.

The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan

The Great Partition is an essential read for anyone seeking to understand contemporary South Asia. The book looks at both the execution and aftermath of the partition between India and Pakistan. Khan thoroughly examines the contexts and decisions which led to the decision of partition as well as the horrific cost of human life and the impact it still has today.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

This book is a collection of essays on Indian history by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. It is an essential read for anyone seeking to understand the foundations of Indian polity. Sen focuses on the traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism and Sen argues that is this argumentative history that will help shape India’s democracy today.

Burden of Democracy by Pratap Bhanu Mehta

In Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s book, politics has truly created opportunities for people to participate in society. Mehta reveals that the persistent social inequality, along with the mistaken view of the state’s proper function and organization have modified and hindered the workings of democracy and its effects in innumerable ways. This book offers new ideological imaginations which illuminate the average Indian citizen’s discontents. 

Emergency Retold by Kuldip Nayar

In Emergency Retold, Kuldip Nayar breaks down the Prime Minister’s move and re-sparks a debate on this dark period of events. The book provides the reader with the facts, lies and truths in an easily digestible style. It reveals the atrocities that were committed and who were the chief perpetrators of these crimes. This is a must-read about those harrowing dark months in India’s history.

Our Moon Has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits by Rahul Pandita

The book narrates the bleak history of Kashmiri Pandits.  Tortured, killed, and driven out of their homes by Islamic militants, this book highlights these horrible acts. The book goes on to describe how the Pandits lived out the rest of their days in exile.

A feast of vultures: The hidden business of democracy in India by Josy Joseph

Josy Joseph, an investigative reporter, takes a close look at the darker side of India-how money, business, power, and politics all collide.  This 2016 novel is meticulously researched and highlights modern India’s democracy and how corruption and business and the political arena shape this modern nation.

These are 10 of the best books on modern Indian history. They provide a well-balanced look at all aspects of life within India, including the issues facing this great country.


Lauren Groff is a writer at Coursework Service and Academic Writing Service. She reviews books online. She also is a contributor at Boomessays Reviews.  


 

Audacity to Hope

I sat in my backyard reading Becoming by Michelle Obama on a hot Saturday afternoon. It was the 4th of July, and I had pages to go before I slept. During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, I resolved to read more about the life of minorities, racism, civil disobedience, and much more. The children & I had painstakingly collated a list after reading several lists online, suggestions from friends, teachers, colleagues, and the companies we worked for:

While I sat reading, there was faint niggling guilt to the apparent normalcy of it all. Was it alright to be sitting calmly and reading in one’s backyard while the world around us was still reeling?  

I read as the sun overhead appeared to move towards the west and finally got up to take a long walk. If anything, I had several things to think about in the book. There was a section in the book where Michelle Obama writes about failure being a feeling that sets in long before the failure itself. She writes about this in the context to the South Side in Chicago, and how the ‘ghetto’ label slowly portended its decline long before the city did. Families fled the place in search of suburbs, the neighborhood changed in small, but perceptible ways at first, and then at an accelerated pace. Doubt is a potent potion, and when fed in small portions can quickly shadow everything.

The limitations of dreams are seeds planted in our subconscious slowly and surely so that we may fulfill what society thinks we ought to do, no more and no less. Minorities the world over know the feeling well enough.

Trevor Noah, in his book, Born a Crime, writes about the ability to dream being limited to what a person knows. If all people know is the ghetto, they can truly not think beyond that.

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.” – Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

The largest section of the population to know these limitations must be women.

In the Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates writes in her very first introductory chapter, “All we need to uplift women is to stop pulling them down.” 

It was, therefore, in a somber mood that I set out for the walk.

I walked on taking in the setting sun at a fast pace. My mask was hoisted on my face and I felt sweaty. Every now and then on the trail when there weren’t people nearby, I slipped it down to take a deep breath of the summer air. I was walking by the waterside, and feeling the calm strength of the waters. My thoughts were slowly lifting as the sun was setting, and the full moon rose in the opposite direction. Out in the distance, the sound of Fourth of July fireworks was providing an orchestra of sorts to the accompanying bird sounds, and the sound of water sloshing gently against the shores of the lake. 

“Bring the kids – sunset and moonrise marvelous and fireworks everywhere!” I texted the husband, and off we went in the approximate direction of the fireworks. We parked on a side road to take in the revels of the night. To stand there with the full moon behind us, and an array of fireworks going off in front of us in a largely residential neighborhood was marvelous. 

Later, as we drove on, we listened to songs chosen with special regard to the 4th of July. The children had aced the list, and we drove on through the moonlight, lilting and dancing to the tunes.

Behind the Clouds, the sun is shi—ii—ning. “ – What has to be one of our favorite Disney songs, rang through the car, as we pulled into the garage. 

I read the final section of Michelle Obama’s Becoming later that night, I found the audacity of hope (pun intended) stirring and this too felt different; worth examining. Politics is a dirty game, but Barack & Michelle Obama have shown us what is possible.

Dare we hope?  

Maybe hopes can translate to positive outcomes long before they happen…

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.