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Book cover of Zilka Joseph's 'Sparrows and Dust'

Zilka Joseph’s ‘Sparrows and Dust’ is a Heavy Read, But She Makes it Fly

I don’t know the color of a hummingbird’s throat. But when Zilka Joseph brings alive the “green-steel warrior”, I feel as though I’ve recognized the crimson feathers on its dainty neck as an old memory, a remnant of childhood held captive by poetry. That, I suppose, is the secret to Joseph’s pen — the ability to blur the boundaries between her world and those of her readers. This is precisely what she does in Sparrows and Dust, Joseph’s 30-page, Pushcart-nominated homage to her identity as a South Asian-American immigrant and more. As the name of this chapbook suggests, Joseph often draws upon the behaviors and appearances of birds, from beady-eyed sparrows to golden eagles, to explore the depths of her experience. In Sparrows and Dust, Zilka Joseph flits between memory and migration, fight or flight, in this pithy tribute to the birds that have shaped her. 

Joseph is a veteran poet and creative writing instructor, whose work has graced the pages of publications from Asia Literary Review to The Kali Project. Her experience with both writing poems and selecting them shines through in this book, which consists of only 19 poems. Although the brief Table of Contents left me unsure of Joseph’s work at first, later added to my appreciation of her strong sense of word economy and selection.

Every piece of this collection has a purpose, from the emphatic “Listen!” that forces readers to halt in their tracks in “For the Birds” to the “Please stay.” that closes off “Mama, Who’d Have Thought” like a lingering whisper. The poems themselves are generally short and pithy trips into her personal life, with choppy lineation that leaves the poems structurally “wispy”. In fact, that’s what struck me when I read this book for the first time; I felt as though the poems themselves tangibly reminded me of birds’ feathers, slipping out of the tongue and into flight. I suppose herein lies my only critique for this book; many of the structurally similar poems feel clumped together, rather than interwoven with the more visually experimental “Negative Capability” and “So Much”. Thematically, Joseph alternates between nostalgia and quiet introspection, bringing both her childhood home in Kolkata and her current wintry abode in Michigan alive. There’s an aura of desolate solitude to Sparrows and Dust; beyond herself and the birds she chooses to elucidate her emotions with, other characters feel like distant and sad recreations of Joseph’s memory. She channels this emotion beautifully in her leading titular poem, where she mentions how she has “never saved anyone or anything — my parents, the animals, and birds”. 

It’s interesting how Joseph can catch you so off-guard with moments like these. How despite her colorful illustrations of sparrows and their immutable relationship with the natural world, Joseph still creates a world that can be so empty and unforgivably fleeting. It’s not a happy space, but it’s where she thrives as a writer. Some of my favorite moments in this book are where Joseph slips into vulnerable dramatic monologues, whether that means begging with the spirit of her mother in “Mama, Who’d Have Thought” or describing the accidental death of an insect in “Good Intentions”. Strangely enough, she finds a way to convey the importance of both tragedies to her readers, despite our perceived emotional distance from her personal life or the seeming insignificance of an insect’s life. Each time, she leaves the readers clinging to an atmosphere that she has now made barren, by both reflecting on her past mistakes and also on her inability to reverse or rectify them. Personally, I felt especially forlorn after reading “Mama, Who’d Have Thought” and “Scenes from the Deck”; I rarely recognize the mortality in my own parents, and found myself seeking some kind of resolution or closure when the poems were over.  This way, I think it becomes easier to understand Joseph — just as she clings onto her memories, we will have to cling to her poems, despite the way they end. 

Sparrows and Dust is a short and good read, which does not force readers to feel certain emotions but invokes them regardless. Joseph’s third chapbook is illusive, rarely indulgent, and like the birds, she illustrates, never idle. 

With the author’s permission, I have chosen to reproduce her piece, “Scenes from the Deck” in this review to offer a preview into the book:  

Scenes from the Deck

I know how you love that word deck, Dad—

all those years you sailed around

the world. Began at Mazagon Docks,

Mumbai. 25 paise wages. Steamship days.

Diesel days. Deck, bridge, engine room

was home to you, Chief Engineer,

with the booming voice, always in charge,

everyone’s boss. Nothing changed

even when you grew old

and blind. You still wouldn’t listen.

Too late. Too late. Mum sank quickly,

suddenly she was gone. You fought

the storm, your ship still

strong and sea-worthy.

Drowned slowly

in the salt sea that filled

your lungs.

You clutched my hand

for hours. I sang Somewhere

over the Rainbow

by your hospital bed.

You moaned the words

inside the mask muzzling

your mouth. The voice

that bellowed a thousand commands.

Oh my father. Eagle with claws full

of thunderbolts. Now lying shattered

on the deck.

***


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 


 

Left to right: Book - You Beneath Your Skin and Author - Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas’ Book Pulls From Her Work With ‘Project Why’

“I follow words and lines and voices and come to discover the characters, and they take me on their journey,” author Damyanti Biswas tells IC.

Damyanti Biswas’s debut literary crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin has had rave reviews. The plot revolves around a successful psychiatrist, a conflicted single mother, and a clandestine affair. As Indian American Anjali Morgan struggles to cope, she finds herself at the center of a gruesome crime spree investigated by Jatin. The story unfolds as the readers follow Anjali and Jatin across New Delhi as they confront old wounds and unearth old secrets to save the ones they love. 

All the proceeds from the sales of this novel go to Project WHY – a program that provides quality education to underprivileged children in New Delhi, India. In this interview, she talks about her creative process, the art of bringing her fictional characters to life, and her philanthropy. 

IC: Tell us about your love for writing. How did you get started?

DB:  I can’t say with honesty that I love writing. I love having written, but on some days I wish there were no compulsion to write. On days my body is restless with the need to write but the words on paper seem tepid, I wish writing were not for me. Same with when my work is on submission: when acceptance or rejection is out of my hands-on days like those I find myself wishing away the writing life.

I’d never imagined being a writer—and I’d have laughed at the idea 16 years ago. But once I married and moved to a different country where I was jobless for the first time, I found myself willing to try anything at all. My husband brought home an old IBM Thinkpad with the letter I and Y missing, and I copy-pasted those letters from the internet in order to write my first article, for which I was paid the princely sum of 20 USD. 

That started me off on my writing journey, and soon, upon the advice of website owners who were tired of my poetic words on dry topics like domaining, I attended my first fiction workshop. And here we are, more than a decade later.

IC: Tell us about your creative process.

DB: For flash fiction, I usually start with writing prompts. Also for short stories. No plotting is involved at all. I follow words and lines and voices and come to discover the characters, and they take me on their journey. I keep tinkering till I realize I’m damaging the story, then send it for critiques to trusted readers. 

I begin novels with characters, though I’m trying to change that. You Beneath Your Skin started with Anjali and Sakhi: they came to me while writing prompt-based flash fiction. For my latest work, I’m trying to go from premise to character to plot. 

Once I have my characters, I plot using index cards—dreaming up scenes, and checking the entire story for beats and structure as I shuffle the cards around. The only rules are: respect the characters and the reader, and always be escalating. Once I have the basic structure down on index cards with the plot points where I want them, I write a draft. Following this, I let the draft rest for a while and then fine-tune the structure again. A pass each for character arc, pace, dialogues, setting, and I’m ready for beta readers or my agent. Once I receive feedback, the process starts all over again.

IC:  Tell us about your association with the Project WHY. 

DB: I met Anuradha Bakshi, the founder of Project WHY, back in 2006. I began as a supporter and then turned into a volunteer within a few years. 

I’ve been visiting them, interacting with their teachers and beneficiaries for more than a decade now, and feel very grateful for the work they have done for New Delhi’s underprivileged children and women since the year 2000.

IC: What role did it play in inspiring you to write ‘You Beneath Your Skin’?

DB: A large part of You Beneath Your Skin is set in underprivileged communities. Most of it is inspired by Project WHY, their surroundings, and the people I met while volunteering for them.

IC:   Are the characters in your book based on people you know?

DB: All characters are based on people we know or have read about. That’s just the nature of the beast—as writers, we all need raw material. Personally, all my characters are a mixture of various people I’ve met, my own attributes, and in some cases, a function of the settings and the backstory. 

IC:  Did you struggle to develop any of your characters?

DB: Of all the characters, I think I struggled the most with Jatin. He’s unlikable, and it was challenging to layer him as a patriarch with nuance and sensitivity. His arc was also difficult to trace throughout the narrative.

IC:  Do you have a least favorite character in your story? Who is it and why?

DB: All the characters in the story have their facets—I’ve tried to make them real, with plausible weaknesses and strengths, and their own individual desires. I have tremendous empathy for all of them, even those who are quite morally ambiguous. As a writer, I don’t think it is my job to judge characters—that’s the reader’s prerogative.

IC: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

DB: That question makes me laugh because it is an infrequent and welcome surprise when words arrive without forewarning and I’m able to enter a meditative ‘flow’ state. 

Things fall into place on those days—whether I’m editing or plotting, or working on the premise or characters. These are rare occasions. Most of the time, I show up, do my part, plod along, and feel very inadequate, like a complete fraud. To answer your question, I find my entire artistic process quite tough on most days!


Surabhi Kaushik is a writer from the heart and finds joy and comfort in her words. You can find all her published work on her blog https://surabhiwritersmind.blogspot.com


 

Left to right: Book - A Radiance of Thousand Suns and Author - Manreet Sodhi Someshwar.

Radiance of a Thousand Suns: Pieces of Missing History

“To memorialize, to remember, to sear it in our hearts so we never go down that path again. You think the schizophrenic Indo-Pak dynamic of love-hate-war-peace has nothing to do with ’47? That the path doesn’t intrude upon the present all the time? Did we lay the ghosts to rest? Do we tell the stories? Talk about them with our children and grandchildren? Do we have memorials to honor the ten million who trudged across the Radcliffe Line or a memorial for the one million who died?”

This is an example of just one of many stark excerpts from New York-based award-winning and bestselling author Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s book The Radiance of a Thousand Suns (Harper Collins, 2019). The book, which won the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity and the PFC-VoW Book Award for Gender Sensitivity 2020, tells the story of a family through the history of a nation. 

The book’s central character, Niki, was delivered by midwives during the government’s sterilization Emergency, and her mother tragically dies giving her birth. As a result, she is primarily raised by her grandmother and an orphan Muslim girl, Nooran. Growing up, Niki’s grandmother shares with her many personal stories about the Partition, something that would resonate with several Indians whose ancestors had to flee their homes across the border overnight. In a country where Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all lived like “spices in a masala box, tossed together for flavorsome food,” people had to be divided during the Partition. Someshwar goes onto trace the turmoil that continued in the 1980s—the encounter killings of militants, curfews, and shoot-at-sight orders.

As Niki grows older, she begins to realize that the world is a terrible place for women, who hide so many stories within them. Through the novel’s women protagonists, the author shares many thoughts about God, war, religion, men, and politics—primarily through the prism of a female perspective. During the uncertain days of the 1984 riots, Nooran becomes a victim of “fate and faith, patriarchy and prejudice.” Then, there is Jyot Kaur who lived through two terrible tragedies. As a six-year-old refugee girl, she survived the brutal Partition, even though her entire family was killed. Further, during the 1984 riots, she loses her family a second time when her husband and children are tragically killed. 

Someshwar writes that one has to sometimes engage with the past in order to grapple with the present. She questions why even after seventy-plus years of Partition—a time when women’s bodies became the battlefield—we haven’t been able to lay the ghosts to rest. Commenting on the fact that the history of independent India has literally been ‘his’tory, she asks the reader, “Does the fact that women bore the brunt of that violence, echo in this time of #metoo?” 

She concludes that while male victims of violence are publicly mourned, casual violence towards women, though hardly talked about, is a recurring theme—whether during the Partition, the stories of the Mahabharata, the ’84 riots, or daily life. “Rapes, dowry, deaths, female foeticide, bride burning, eve-teasing, acid attacks—it was a violence that sought to show women their place, to keep them in that place and if they dared resist, it would smack them back into place again, or take their lives,” she writes.

In 2001, Niki travels to the US where she witnesses another epochal event—9/11, analyzing its repercussions on the South Asian community. She learns that the first victim of a hate crime post the incident was an Arizona-based Punjabi Sikh immigrant whose beard and turban led him to be mistaken for an Arab. The author also goes on to offer some deep insights on racism, such as the fact that violence ultimately stems from ignorance. 

By means of a stark narrative that recounts horrific incidents, Someshwar relates stories and anecdotes from two cataclysmic events in India’s history—the Partition of 1947 and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984—particularly in Punjab. It leads Niki to finally decide to complete her father’s project of making the political personal by cataloging untold stories of the trauma suffered by silent survivors of the ’47 Partition and the ’84 pogrom in the form of a book.

Someshwar draws powerful imagery with her evocative descriptions. For instance, she creates visions of a typically Indian summer: “the lightest of muslins, sweetest of mangoes, blinds of bamboo, bare feet, cool floors, siestas, and stories…” Along the way, she makes frequent references to the state’s favorite lovelorn heroine, Heer, and quotes the ancient Sufi poet Bulleh Shah. Further, she peppers the prose with episodes from the timeless Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, in which the past is forever intruding into the present. 


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


 

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.


 

Book covers for: The Bombay Prince and The Satapur Moonstone

Historical Mysteries of 1921 in India Resonate a Century Later

Oxford-educated Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first female solicitor, is a clever, spirited young woman working for her father’s respected law firm in 1921 Bombay. Unable to fully practice because a woman can’t earn a law degree, her father relies on her exacting skills with contract law and her nimble mind for additional legal assistance. Introduced to readers in Sujata Massey’s 2015 novella, Outnumbered at Oxford, then launched in The Widows of Malabar Hill (Book 1) of the author’s Mystery of 1920s India series, the success of the second and third installments shows no sign of Perveen’s career being dismissed.

October 1921. Despite being supportive of Gandhi, Perveen accepts a one-time case on behalf of the Kohlapur Agency and the British government in The Satapur Moonstone (Book 2). Like her interaction with the widows in Book 1, the Agency’s clients live in purdah and cannot speak to male outsiders. Her task is to hear both sides of a contentious debate between two maharanis—the dowager and the mother of the 10-year-old crown prince—and make a recommendation for the prince’s education.

The catch is, however, she must travel to the princely state of Satapur in the isolated Sahyadri mountains where transportation is by palanquin or horseback. Upon arrival at her lodgings, the circuit house, she meets Colin Sandringham, the political agent overseeing the area. Quickly, Perveen feels uncomfortable. Sandringham is a bachelor who recalls meeting her one evening at Oxford; she is the only woman at the circuit house; and the environment is breathtaking but treacherous even in daylight. In turn, unnerving details come to light as she undertakes her assignment. She learns the crown prince’s father and older brother recently died; the palace teems with backstabbing personalities; and the royal children are at risk. Consequently, Perveen finds herself trapped in a deadly royal situation and unable to keep from falling for Sandringham against her better judgment.

November 1921. Perveen finds herself caught in an explosive political situation at home in newly-published Book 3, The Bombay Prince. Anti-British sentiments are in the air, and Edward, Prince of Wales, is set to arrive in Bombay. Days before, college student Freny Cuttingmaster asks Perveen for guidance on behalf of an activist group: Would there be consequences for being absent from school in protest on the day of Edward’s arrival? For the parade, Perveen joins her best friend Alice, an instructor at the college, in the school’s viewing area. Following a disruptive protest by another student, Freny’s body is discovered on the college grounds. The supposition is that she had fallen and suffered injuries similar to an incident 30 years prior at another school.

Because Freny sought her counsel, Perveen vows to untangle the reason for Freny’s death. But without eyewitnesses, Perveen faces major hurdles. Her father restricts her movements by booking them in the Taj Hotel because of the increasing violence. There, she is stunned to encounter Colin Sandringham, who is accompanying Edward on his tour. Meanwhile, police are uncooperative, the press is relentless, and the arrested protester’s lawyer is incompetent. Nevertheless, Perveen forges ahead with her own investigation, questioning everyone’s motives, and becoming a target herself.

Author, Sujata Massey (Image from her website)
Author, Sujata Massey (Image from her website)

In all three books, Massey brilliantly sets up challenges, tension, and danger mixed with reasonable doubt about many characters and their possible motives. Those reasonable doubts are the products of Perveen’s questioning mind and focused labor to fit puzzle pieces together. Without modern investigative methods, equipment, or resources, Massey makes certain her legal sleuth remains firmly within all the boundaries of the 1920s.

Around the mysteries, Massey gracefully weaves India’s diverse cultures, religions, and societal expectations into the novels. She recreates 1920s Bombay with precise attention to detail, drawing out the tantalizing smell of foods, the vibrant colors of clothing, the friction caused by political beliefs, the strict Parsi matrimonial laws, the warmth and loyalty between family and friends, the textures and architecture of the city, the lushness of the mountainous jungle in The Satapur Moonstone, and the Parsi funeral customs in Bombay Prince. Massey’s awareness of time, place, and community results in Bombay a century ago so vividly that the reader is effortlessly transported.

It is Perveen herself that makes this series such delightful reading. She is rendered with great humanness as a caring, generous role model. Occasionally outspoken, she knows when to reveal her anger or maintain the decorum expected of her.

“Two of India’s early women lawyers, barrister Mithan Tata Lam and solicitor Cornelia Sorabji, were inspirational for my research,” Massey told me. “Both of them fought for the physical safety and property rights of women. Cornelia went through the jungle to meet female clients who lived in seclusion at palaces and similar locations. Mithan was the guiding force in rewriting the punitive divorce law for Parsi people, but it wasn’t accomplished until 1936.”

Massey is writing Book 4 now, about which she revealed, “I’ve explored British-Indian political themes in Books 2 and 3, and Book 4 is very strongly a woman’s rights themed book.”

Although women still face many struggles in 2021, it was a century’s worth more difficult in 1921. For Perveen, she endures immeasurable pressure as an upper-class Parsi woman who is separated from an abusive husband and who is Bombay’s only female lawyer. Perveen is an early 20th-century champion of truth and justice, women’s rights, and equality. In this way, she easily translates to today.

For mystery devotees, this series is unlike any other. For historical fiction aficionados, the author provides a rich representation of the world in which Perveen lives and works. Bombay in the 1920s, the Parsi community, and the recurring and familiar lovable characters all combine to give the reader a complete and enduring experience.


 Jeanne E. Fredriksen splits her time between homes in both Carolinas and is a long-time contributor to India Currents, a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association, and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. 


 

Left to right: Anuradha Kumar and her book, 'A Sense of Time and Other Stories'

Losing Your Sense of Time While Reading Anu Kumar’s Newest Book

Anuradha Kumar is a writer who has already produced a variety of works. Born in India and currently, residing in New Jersey, she contributes to the Indian publications Scroll.in and the Economic and Political Weekly. She is the author of Coming Back to the City: Mumbai Stories and under the pseudonym of Adity Kay, she is the author of best-selling novels of historical fiction. Her newest book, A Sense of Time and Other Short Stories by Weavers Press, presents a wide canvas of Indian life as well as the author’s ease with multiple genres of the short story.

The opening story ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’ is at first glance a courtroom drama. Narrated from the perspective of a nephew recounting the details of an interesting case in the professional life of his lawyer uncle, the story touches on issues of sexual harassment and speaks to our “Me Too” moment. However, as it unfolds, the short story reveals itself to be a trenchant social satire on the moribund justice system lubricated by money and power. The fact that justice is served in this story seems to be a serendipitous anomaly in the general routine of corruption. Kumar’s concern with sexual harassment against women spans across classes.

While in ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’, the victim is a middle-class woman who is a social worker, in ‘All the Way to the Twelfth Floor’, Gauri, a servant, faces domestic violence at home and the predatory advances of her employer, Hasmukh Singh.

Kumar focuses on the everyday oppressions of women in ‘Missing’, another story in which the protagonist is a rural peasant whose husband has gone to serve in the army. When he returns on leave, the trauma of his experiences at war creates an invisible chasm in the marriage. The story ends with her husband’s desertion from the army and a continuation of the precarity of the wife’s life in the village.

The precarity of intimate relationships is a continuing thread in this collection and Kumar explores the implications of marital disharmony in rural subaltern as well as urban elite contexts. In ‘Rekha Crosses a Line’, a wife facing a crisis of identity falls victim to the charms of a godman while being aware of his manipulations.

Marital disharmony leads Malati in ‘Dorothy Cries in the Bus’ to leave her husband, Ashok, and board a bus for another town. It is on the bus she develops a sudden friendship with a Canadian female tourist, Dorothy, who is also experiencing her own romantic travails.

While the oppressions and solidarities between women form a connecting thread between stories, some stories are more directly a critique of the current state of Indian nationalism, the erosion of the founding promises and ideals of Gandhi and other leaders.

In ‘The Man Who Played Gandhi’, the power of Gandhi is symbolically diminished to that of fading actor invited to play Gandhi in village functions, who is mistaken not for the original Gandhi but the actor who resembles Ben Kingsley. The invitations to play Gandhi gradually diminish till the protagonist who has spent a lifetime perfecting the details of Gandhi’s mannerisms is forced to succumb to a magician creating the illusion of Gandhi disappearing on stage. The disappearance of Gandhi is a metaphoric invocation of the disappearance of Gandhian ideals in contemporary India, characterized by the regime of neoliberal globalization and the dilution of his secular vision. 

Another story that offers a harrowing comment on the failure of the Indian nation-state is ‘Big Fish’, which also invokes the fragility of life for Indians living in coastal areas increasingly subject to violent cyclones as a result of climate change. In this story, we encounter, a young girl Munni who is an internal refugee as a result of a devastating cyclone. The family rescues a stranger from another cyclone, but the guest remains traumatized and unable to speak of his past. In the end, he is taken away by the police since he has no papers to prove his legitimacy. The story dramatizes the hardening of definitions of citizenship, which leaves refugees of wars and natural disasters, displaced and unaccommodated.

While developing some of these serious themes, Kumar never loses sight of the story as a form that entertains even while it presents complex portraits of society. The title story ‘A Sense of Time’ is an interesting rendition of the genre of the glost story, where the drama is played out on a train in a deserted railway station. Like other stories, it is a telling comment on feudal hierarchies and intrigue over the family fortune, while transporting readers into a supernatural experience on a train moving through a desolate countryside.


Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.


 

Left to right: Avni Doshi and her book, Girl In White Cotton.

Avni Doshi’s Uncomfortable Truths

“How many times must a performance be repeated before it becomes reality? If a falsehood is enacted enough, does it begin to sound factual? Is a pathway created for lies to become true in the brain? Does the illogical eventually get integrated with the rational?”

Avni Doshi’s acclaimed debut novel Girl in White Cotton (HarperCollins, 2020), a story about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, makes for a somewhat beautiful, disturbing read – evocative stories mingled with love-hate emotions. Born in New Jersey, Doshi is an American novelist of Indian origin currently based in Dubai. Equipped with a BA in Art History from Barnard College, New York, and a Masters in History of Art from University College, London, she went on to win the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and the Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia the following year.

Having suffered at her hands as a child, Antara is resentful towards her unconventional mother, Tara. Throughout her life, her mother always ran away from anything that felt like oppression – marriage, diets, medical diagnoses. When her mother begins to lose her memory to Alzheimer’s, Antara is faced with the reality of her situation and is forced to confront the truths of her past and present.

As her mother undergoes therapy, Antara traces her tumultuous life – right from her years of teenage rebellion to her unsuccessful marriage, love affair, and subsequent deterioration – seeking to understand what made her do the things she did, and its repercussions on Antara’s perceptions, complexes, and insecurities that she carried into her own adulthood. Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, the book is written in Antara’s first-person and reads throughout like an intimate, personal diary. While its tone is mostly easy and conversational, its subject matter is intense, often draining.

For some of her most crucial, formative years, Antara lived with her mother in an ashram, when the latter found her way out of the loneliness and boredom of her marital home by devoting herself to a guru. It was here that she perpetually began wearing a white cotton fabric as the means to her truth: “a blank slate where she could remake herself and find the path to freedom.” 

Mental health is on the tip of our tongues these days, and it certainly makes up one of the central themes in this book. The prose is routinely sprinkled with several pearls of wisdom, such as “miscommunications emerge from mislaid certainty,” “intention and reception almost never find each other,” and “caregivers need care too.” In a sense, the story also brings out the significance of good parenting and the fact that painful experiences during one’s impressionable childhood can haunt and scar an individual for life. 

The book also has a strong sense of place. The sights, sounds, and smells of Pune make a powerful backdrop to the story and waft right through its pages. Along the way, there are references to well-known city spots such as the historical Shaniwar Wada fortress, MG Road, Boat Club Road, as well as several bars, cafes, and restaurants, such as Kayani Bakery, the Poona Club, and the German Bakery on North Main Road (which was bombed in 2010). 


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.


 

Left to Right: Shikhadin and her book, Impetuous Women.

Shikhandin’s ‘Impetuous Women’: A Story Once Published For India Currents

‘An old neem tree extended its gnarled boughs over the roof which was pockmarked by last year’s hail. Hairline cracks on the roof allowed streaks of sunlight to pour into the hall below.’

Apart from the near ripe guava, there was something else that intrigued her. The tree’s peeling bark. Barks of guava trees peeled easily, but this was such a young tree. Besides it was not so much the peeling bark, the patterns it had made. The tree seemed to be full of faces. One in particular, low enough to be at eye level looked like an old man’s face. A smiling and kindly face and when the breeze made the tree sway the face seemed to nod at her and smile like the grandfather she still remembered and thought dimly. 

In that instant, a mere split second of a summer disk, when the sun seems to have had too much to drink and simply can’t get up and call it a day, and everything else is bathed in a quiet gold.

The above excerpts are from Indian writer, Shikhandin’s new book Impetuous Women, a collection of short stories. With her evocative imagery, the author paints characters, places, and situations, bringing alive the pages.  

Shikhandin’s earlier works are Immoderate Men and Vibhuti Cat. Impetuous Women is her latest published by Penguin Viking. A recipient of several prizes, Shikhandin’s honors include runner-up prize in the George Floyd Short Story Contest 2020 (UK), Pushcart nominee by Aeolian Harp (USA) in 2019, and First Prize Brilliant Flash Fiction Contest 2019 (USA) to mention some. 

Impetuous Women is pivoted around women. Some stories have been previously published in international and Indian publications. Interestingly, the story ‘It Comes From Uranus’ fetched Shikhandin a second prize at the India Currents’ Katha Fiction Contest (2016) which she wrote under her name, R.K. Biswas.  

Impetuous Women opens with ‘Taste’, a story about two friends – Dimple and Sarita. Caught in a game of keeping with the Joneses, their underlying jealousy comes to the fore.   

In ‘Just Dessert,’ we meet Liese, a German woman married to an Indian, Dinesh. A perfectionist, Liese is precise in her work especially when it comes to her culinary skills. Chocolate mousse is her signature. Little did I know that this seductive dessert could send a shiver down my spine. 

Shikhandin picks situations and people from life to peg her stories making them relatable. A rather mundane subject in ‘Threshold’ and ‘The Amma Who Took French Leave,’ is the housemaid. And, when the maid disappears in ‘Threshold’ it makes the narrator confront a hard truth of her life. ‘The Amma Who Took French Leave’ looks compassionately at the less privileged.   

Sometimes lessons on romance are found in the least expected of places. In ‘Missing the Movie’, a young couple – Girish and Seema – on a movie outing get a lesson on love that is far real than the English film they watch in a cinema hall. 

What will a commentary be like when a ‘word’ becomes a spectator to a gathering of poets? With characters named she-poet, barely-literate professor-poet; owl-poet; doorknob-head-poet, and Chinny-chin-chin-poet, this story has you in guffaws.  

‘The Thirty-third egg,’ laced with wit takes a dig at a tourist who smuggles eggs from the breakfast table of her hotel. 

Exploring the interior and exterior worlds, Impetuous Women creates a truly expansive and inclusive feminine narrative. The women are easy to recognize – defined by their quirks, maternal instincts, and a tenacity that comes only to women.

She smiled as she took them, her head uncovered for the entire world to admire her kohled eyes, the dimple on her left cheek and the side locks that she had oiled and curled into stiff upside down question marks lying pat against her cheeks.

The thought lands without warning. Just like Meera’s one-eyed tomcat, which has the habit of dropping soundlessly from the garden wall, casually interrupting the quietness of a day about to curl up for the night. The sun is already sliding down a livid sky and shades of the evening are gathering around her. Ramola drags on the cigar

Sleep at long last does come to them, sauntering slowly into their personal space, catlike in its stealth. This time through, they are ready, even eager to welcome their tardy visitor.

The languor that comes after deep physical pleasure melts and merges slowly into tender conversation, both verbal and tactile.

With her sharp observation of people and places, Shikhandin’s brilliant characterization makes the ordinary and the prosaic unforgettable. And in making us invest in them, the twist in the tale is astonishing. Impetuous Women is like quick bites – easy to savor and fun to read. 


Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India with over twenty years of reporting experience. Besides contributing to leading Indian and international publications including Gulf News (UAE), South China Morning Post, and Another Gaze (UK), she is a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Check out her blog – http://romancing-cinema.blogspot.com/ 


 

Bay Area Poet Relives Oral Traditions

Divine Blossoms is the kind of book I might have never discovered if I was not the founder and host of a poetry group called the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. I am so glad that I agreed to review it and have had it on my bedside table for easy access for the past several weeks.

The poet, Anuradha Gajaraj-Lopez brings wholesomeness to the ordinary life as a householder. As a former journalist, she has a facility with words, using them to reach everyone, regardless of where they might come from. The 134-page book is more than a poetry book. It offers poems that are also prayer, a wide range of ways of worship, and several ancient stories from epics of Hindu mythology, as spiritual fables with lessons for young and old. These are all wrapped and delivered as short poems, with the cadence and essence of a bhajan, a devotional song, in simple English, that makes it accessible to everyone.

The book has two parts: the first called Murmurs from Beyond and the second called Whispers from India. The poems in the first part deal with faith in God and the metaphor of divine love. The latter part has poems in six sessions, on topics of devotees, folklore, epics of Ramayan and Mahabharta, gods Shiva and Krishna, Christ and Yogananda, women in India, and on death. The poems are rich in detail with the pathos of lived life in human form combined with a yearning for the inspiration from the deep faith in the divine, through the references that evoke not just the main characters that are highlighted in the index, but also the poetic traditions, with Kabir, Ramakrishna, Chaitnya Prabhu and others who were seekers in the same vein.  

Anuradha invites the reader into her world with an authentic and heartfelt outpouring of the essence of all that she cherishes. The Indian mythological stories have a living oral tradition such that retelling these timeless stories allows for making them relevant in contemporary times. Anuradha’s rendering does that. If you are not familiar with Hindu mythology, she helpfully provides a short introduction before the poem, to make the story be set in the context, and for them to be rendered in a poetic form. The poems are crystalized into the essence of the story, almost like a bhajan, an Indian devotional poetic form.

I will not be surprised if someone reading them decided to set them to music and create a musical or chant form for these in the future. As many of the stories were familiar to me, parts of the book took me on a journey to my childhood when I had first heard these. The poems leave a fragrance, and it makes sense that she called the book Divine Blossoms. While the poems are light reading, they offer comfort, surprise, hope, and the adventure of a story. The moral lessons are conveyed gently like what the poet believes, and not a lecture on morality. Her voice brings the easy access of an Amar Chitra Katha comic book version along with the message with the clarity of her spiritual guru, Yogananda. The deep convictions of the poet are what make this poetry transparent and luminescent. These are conveyed in an easy manner that makes it clear that the poet practices these effortlessly and speaks her mind genuinely, wearing her faith as easily as a well-loved garment, and releasing the poems with trust that they will find their own readers. 

The book is self-published and shows care in how symbols and images have been added to enhance the presentation. It will feel different from a professionally edited book since it has its own unique layout. This makes me wish that it will inspire others who are carrying their poems and stories within them to also be willing to create their own books. The creativity and fire of the work are best experienced, rather than described by me, so I have selected one of my favorite poems, reproduced with her permission.    

The Stone on the Temple Floor

It is so unfair

I am trodden on by hundreds

Who rush by without a thoughtless care

To seek a glimpse of your form

And yet,

I was hewn on the same old rock as thee

 

Here I lie on the temple floor

While you are daily worship

With honey, milk, curd and

Precious gems galore!

 

“Ha” laughed the divine statue

Standing erect and tall

And gently said,

“Brother, don’t you remember at all?”

 

The days when we lay on

The stone mason’s yard

With hardly a few blows you were

All set, and proudly carted afar

While, I cried each time,

The choice and hammer

Moved relentlessly on

On every inch of this form

You now see and envy from afar

 

And so, the Divine sculptor

Deals the hardest blows on those

He holds very close

Not to be discarded on an old temple floor

But to merge with Him and

Reach the coveted destiny that is His alone!


Dr. Jyoti Bachani is on a mission to humanize management using the arts, specifically poetry and improv, as a founding member of the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, a co-founder of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association, and an associate professor of business at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Love: A Many Splendored Thing

(Featured Image: Debotri Dhar and her book, Love Is Not A Word)

“In literature, culture, history, metaphysics, politics, and their interstices, ideas about love abound,” writes Debotri Dhar who teaches Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. The idea led her to thread together a book — Love Is Not a Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire — a unique collection consisting of twelve well-written essays by scholars, critics, storytellers, and journalists. The idea for the book first occurred to Dhar as a graduate student at Oxford University, and then again while teaching at Rutgers University in the US. It was while she was teaching at the University of Michigan that pieces of the book started finally falling in place. 

The anthology consists of serious yet engaging essays on love, its many definitions, moods, themes, and interpretations. Each chapter is a detailed account of a different aspect of love—tracing both its historical background and contemporary relevance—making it a deeply researched and truly comprehensive read.

In ancient epics, through the practice of the Swayamvara, women such as Sita and Draupadi would review a number of suitors and select one as her husband. And yet, India is known for its arranged marriages and patriarchal attitudes towards matrimony. Marriage is a kind of business in India — thus, giving rise to a lucrative industry of matchmakers, astrologers, horoscope readers, matrimonial advertising, and wedding planners. What’s interesting is that in the same country, Bollywood dreams of romance and love marriages also thrive. In such a context, the living mythology of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata influences modern lives as much as mobile phones and Netflix, writes Malashri Lal, a retired professor at the Department of English at the University of Delhi.

In contrast to the chaste Ram-Sita and Shiva-Parvati pairings in Indian mythology, there is the secret love couple, Radha and Krishna. Then there is Amrapali, the legendary dancer—the most seductive and powerful courtesan in Pataliputra. While writing in Amrapali’s first-person, academic and museum curator Alka Pande traces the history of the Kamasutra, considered the mother of all erotic writing in India. The essay is enlightening as it debunks the myth of this sexual-yogic manual, giving it a much higher status—that of a handbook to help live life to its fullest.

The city has time and again become the backdrop for many a love story. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, much of the tale is influenced by Verona’s streets, piazzas, balconies, and dance halls. Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Bordeaux-Montaigne University, Didier Coste writes a literary, cultural, and global exploration of love and the city through space and time. “Only the stereotypes of light romantic comedy can perpetuate indefinitely the wonders of bumping into each other on Times Square or the Champs Elysees, or fighting for a cab and ending up in bed together for the weekend,” he writes. 

The ghazal has always associated with love, and ideas of the beloved thrive in the ancient poetry of Urdu poetry’s famous exponent Mirza Ghalib. It is ironic then that in the present-day ideas of love, Jihad have negatively colored and taken over daily realities of interreligious love. Delhi-based print, television, and news media journalist, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay traces the politics of love in the aftermath of various historical movements, such as the Partition, the Babri Masjid demolition, and the 9/11 attacks. “Love and Jihad per se are incompatible words,” he writes. 

While the tone of the in-depth essays in the book is mostly academic and scholarly, some are also personal. Through the larger debate around Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, Delhi-based author, Parvati Sharma writes about her personal experiences of being a young gay person in India. “When you love without the trappings that turn private ecstasy into social routine — marriage, family, children — when you insist on ‘living in’ or being flagrantly lesbian, when you harbor the kind of love that depends upon itself to survive, you do, of course, unsettle the world; and that is no bad thing at all,” writes Sharma.

Further, Christina Dhanaraj, a Christian Dalit woman, talks about her peculiar experiences in love as a Dalit woman. She argues that modern-day apps like Tinder only create an illusion of breaking barriers when it comes to caste and that it plays a huge role in one’s romantic relationship. It brings out the idea that love is, after all, a choice that one makes based on who we are and where we come from. “Loving and being loved, in all its glorified beauty, is a matter of privilege,” writes Dhanaraj. 

Overall, the book provides some insightful perspectives on various dimensions of love. We can’t wait for Volume 2! 


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.

Reena Kapoor’s Poetry Is a Nostalgia Trip Of Places Untraveled

What makes you a poet?

Reena Kapoor’s debut book of poetry, Arrivals & Departures: Journeys in Poems makes this question even more relevant. Consider poetry a result of meditation, of thoughts, ideas, and memories that collect in the mind through observation. Reena grew up crisscrossing India as her father was a doctor in the Indian army. Her educational path is, like her poetry, quite diverse. She earned an undergraduate degree in Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, a Master’s from Northwestern University, and works as a software product leader in Silicon Valley. Kapoor’s debut poetry collection is thematically divided into sections interspersed with photographs she took. These images seamlessly connect her poetic utterance with passionate understanding. Recently I caught up with Reena Kapoor, a Bay Area resident, over email to pick her brains about her beautiful bouquet of poems and pictures. 

IC: Arrivals & Departures is your debut poetry collection. What role did nostalgia play in putting this book together if any and how?

I am an immigrant and a traveler.  And grew up as such – my father was a doctor in the Indian army and I grew up living all over India. In fact, I attended about 8 schools through high school, and call myself a “musafir” which is the Hindi/Urdu word for a traveler. Nostalgia plays a big role in my written word both due to my life circumstances and I guess to some extent life stage. Something about middle age and you start to see your life as it has been and how it’s brought you where you are. So looking back becomes much more natural vs. being younger where a solitary focus on the future is more apt and natural. My poems also express a “nostalgia” of sorts for what I don’t actually remember, ironically e.g., “koel” talks about the songbird that reminds me of childhood but the home is my parents’ current home which I did not grow up in but it still feels like mine…

IC: My reading of your collection introduced me to multiple themes, and a speaker addressing different voices. Can you talk about the various themes there are in your work, and how they interact with each other? 

The themes in my work are multiple but they tie back to me, my life experiences and my take on life, and how to live a good one. A lot of what I say has to do with how I grew up, (what it was and I guess to some extent IS like) being a girl/ woman in India and then my own very personal attachments to people and interests and objects that hold enduring meaning for me.

IC: I quite like the interdisciplinary play of images and words, where sometimes the image is a poetic utterance itself. What was your process like in putting this unique book together? What do you want your audience to take away from it? 

This is perhaps the hardest question for me – one that I get a lot of but one that I am pretty much at a loss to answer i.e., the “how” of writing my poems. The pen moves and I follow. I am led by an inner voice that I can’t turn away. When it arrives, I am compelled by words that spill out. I may polish or refine those words later but the initial and main body of the work almost creates itself. I guess it’s probably a given that I can’t “teach” poetry because the “how” of it is so elusive to me. 

These poems have been “coming” to me for over a decade now and I finally found the quiet space to listen and put them down. But it was really my husband who pushed me to publish my work. I was plagued by the usual self-doubt that I guess many writers face – and I still do – as to who would be interested in my words or my ordinary life? The fact that even a few of my friends and loved ones have found some resonance in my poems has been one of my most precious gifts.

IC: You are not just a poet. With degrees from IIT, Northwestern, a keen interest in photography, theatre, and performance as well, did these other aspects of your creativity influence your writing, and if yes how did that come about? 

Becoming an engineer was a practical and financial choice. I liked Math and Physics. And I came from a middle-class family in India where my parents emphasized the importance of being financially independent — especially for women. In those days in India, you could choose to be a doctor, or an engineer or a loser. So I ended up in IIT. I was always active in theatre and continued this pursuit through college and my early working years in the US. Photography came to me later with the iPhone 3…and the iPhone has continued to be my camera of choice. And Poetry came about the same time that I started capturing photos. I guess some latent creative impulses were clamoring for expression all along but I could only hear them once I felt a little more “settled”, a little more free, and in some ways liberated from my own expectations of “success”. It’s been a wonderful path and I am still loving every minute of it. My very first play “Art of the Possible” was played online recently and I am actively writing more theatre and literary pieces that will hopefully be produced soon. 

IC: Every day before I sit to write, I like to read something that I love, irrespective of the genre. What inspires you to write? 

The human condition. Nothing more or less. Why are we this way and what moves us and why? Finding happiness and meaning in the smallest of things is all there really is — yet it is also the human condition to chase so much else for naught; so much prestige, empty adulation, status, endless wealth yet most of which often leaves the traveler feeling alone and empty. Yet the chase becomes a life. Why? Eternal questions and I am not sure I will ever have answers. But the pursuit of such questions moves me and such learning is what I seek.


Dr. Manisha Sharma is a poet, fiction writer, and yoga teacher passionate about social issues in India. Her work is longlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a finalist for the 2020 Cream City Review Fiction Contest, a semifinalist for the 2019 American Short(er) Fiction Contest. Her publications are in The Madison Review, The Common, Puerto Del Sol, The Bombay Review, and more. Currently, she is a lecturer in English and Yoga at two community colleges in Virginia and Ohio. 

Rajaram’s Book On the Reality of the Dutch East India Company

Samantha Rajaram’s debut novel The Company Daughters transports readers to the Dutch Renaissance with the rise in its national power as a seafaring nation, the growth of a new urban bourgeoisie with its patronage for visual arts like portraiture, new styles of urban architecture, gardening, flower arrangement, and cuisine, but beneath this façade of beauty and refinement lurks the seamier underbelly of mercantile capitalism: colonization, slave trade and overt and covert forms of human trafficking. Rajaram, a California Bay Area native, a former lawyer, and an English professor plumbs this rich material for her accomplished fictional debut.

The novel is narrated from the first-person perspective of the protagonist Jana Beil. It follows a tripartite structure with the first part opening in Amsterdam where a hungry and desperate Jana is seeking work as a servant in the prosperous sections of Amsterdam as a house servant after, we will be told later, having escaped a childhood of parental neglect and violence and a horrific period of sexual slavery in Amsterdam’s newly emerging brothels. A wealthy young woman Sontje Reynst hires her, and this marks the beginning of a life-long relationship between these two women from very disparate social strata.

For Jana, employment in the Reynst household provides a modicum of stability and comfort, which is quickly lost when Master Reynst’s fortune is lost in a shipwreck. Jana is quite resilient and secures employment in another rich household, the De Graf family. Sontje’s life is more dramatically overturned by her father’s financial losses and her coveted engagement is called off by her suitor Hans. She cannot find a way out of her mounting debts to creditors and the potential loss of her home. It is at this juncture that she comes across the Dutch East India Company’s advertisement for single women to make the voyage to Batavia, present-day Indonesia, to become wives of Dutch settlers there. She signs up for her arduous year-long voyage and Jana decides to accompany her.

Amsterdam Dutch East India Company Trader

The second part of the novel is set on the ship, Leyden, and captures the hardships and dangers of this arduous voyage. Jana and Sontje, along with the other Company daughters face diseases like scurvy which affects many sailors and eventually kills one of the daughters. As the voyage reaches its final stages there is a shortage of food and drinking water. Sontje is also subjected to sexual violence in this journey, and it is Jana’s loving care that brings her back from the brink of death. It is in the Leyden that the girls establish a romantic intimacy, proclaiming their hearts and bodies as autonomous of the cogs of the capitalist patriarchal Company that is trading them as wives to settlers.

When they reach Batavia, Sontje is married off to Willhelm, a settler of ill repute, who is abusive towards her. Jana is married to Mattheus, an older, though kinder man. Jana feels no attraction for her husband and spends her days waiting for some sporadic contact with Sontje. After the hiatus of their marriages and Sontje giving birth to a son, the two girls renew their intimacy. Both are acutely uncomfortable with the operations of the settler society which relies on various kinds of slave labor. Jana’s tenuous autonomy and marital harmony are again disrupted by Mattheus’s death in an accident. Somehow, when all seems lost until two of her native slaves come to her rescue by offering to sell their native dyed fabrics. The novel closes with the prospect of renewal.

Samantha Rajaram deserves kudos for her historical research in uncovering this material: the Dutch East India Company procuring wives for settlers. She presents a very accurate picture of Renaissance Amsterdam with its class and religious disparities. The depiction of the long sea voyage is powerful in its harrowing detail. The lesbian love story is also presented with great tenderness and serves as a space of feminist defiance against multiple gendered oppressions.

However, the presentation of feminist solidarity between Jana, the Dutch protagonist, and her native Indonesian slaves, Aini and Candra, does not seem to be historically accurate. It is perhaps more of a utopian aspiration of the author. But it feels like Dues Ex Machina in a novel, which is otherwise unsentimental in its representation of colonial history and seductive in its ability to capture and preserve the reader’s interest in this violent and inhumane era.


Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

The Company Daughters by Samantha Rajaram. Bookouture, October 2000