Tag Archives: #bookreview

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

The Age of Religious Fanaticism: The Tonic

Newly released book The Tonic (Leadstart Publishing Pvt Ltd, 2020) is an intriguing story set in 1992, against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition and the Bombay riots. Shuttling constantly between the past and the present, the story shares some vivid imagery of the city of Mumbai, complete with its local trains, chawls, high-rise condominiums, and “cutting chai” culture. The novel’s 30-year-old author, Mayur Sarfare, is a Professor of Mass Media at Mumbai’s Usha Pravin Gandhi College of Arts, Science, and Commerce. Passionate about subjects of metaphysics and philosophy, Sarfare regularly hosts events and moderates panel discussions. 

The story runs between a diverse cast of characters. Raem Andrew, who lost his parents in the 1985 bomb blast of a Delhi-bound Air India flight arriving from London, stands out due to his unusually fair complexion and blue eyes. When he moves to a Muslim dominated locality, Raem befriends his neighbor, Masher P Bhasker, a young student with a speech disorder. Masher’s father was burnt by religious fanatics for being a Hindu who was in love with a Muslim woman. Further, due to his stammer, Masher is often bullied and mocked by his classmates. Raem and Masher relate to each other, as they are both outcasts in society, something that becomes a strong basis for their friendship.

Destiny begins to change for them when Raem’s uncle, Sam, gifts him a box of cryptic Bolivian chocolates. The chocolates work like magical pills, giving them extraordinary courage and confidence to do things that they normally could never imagine. Masher manages to correct his speech under their influence, and Raem wins over the girl of his dreams.

However, when Masher’s mother and mute Hindu girlfriend are killed in the 1992 Bombay riots, he is overwhelmed with grief and despair. Decades later, their lives collide with Reymerg D’Souza, a militant atheist cum media tycoon,  who believes that religion is an infection of the worst kind—it has crippled man, robbed him of scientific temperament, and stultified progress. Thus, his mission is to eradicate the malaise of religion altogether. Over the years he has been secretly masterminding the abduction of various celebrated spiritual leaders belonging to different religions in an effort to execute them.

“The foundation of faith is fear. If there is no fear, there is no faith.” The book is filled with several such philosophical outbursts, and could easily work as a racy script for a thriller film or web series. When Reymerg plans a wicked and twisted silver jubilee commemoration of the infamous riots, by scheming something so sinister that could endanger the lives of millions, and it is up to Raem to prevent this colossal damage.

 “The riots didn’t just take a lot of lives; it took with them a lot of hopes, dreams, and ambitions.” The book throws light on possibly hundreds of such untold stories about the notorious riots and the havoc they wreaked in the many lives that they touched. Overall, it is a passionate statement on contemporary religious fervor and the sheer power that it wields upon human minds.  


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’. 

Books I Embraced, Devoured, and Loved In 2020

This year—destructive, unrelenting, heartbreaking —has affected everyone differently. From early in the crisis, I’ve repeatedly heard that many people have struggled with the inability to focus, which includes reading. To combat that during the Stay-At-Home and Phases orders, I sought books that would buoy me, make me laugh, and/or educate me. My hope is that by sharing these titles, you, too, will find something to embrace, devour, and love. Books are listed in author-alpha order, and I believe there’s something for everyone.

 Hungry Hearts

by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond, eds. 

Hungry Town Row is a place where 13 interconnected young adult short stories are set in and around mom ‘n pop eateries featuring cuisines from around the world. Recurring characters populate the stories as they experience family, love, and magic plus delicious food made with heart. Sangu Mandanna, Sandhya Menon, and S. K. Ali team up with ten other #ownvoices YA writers to produce mouthwatering stories.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors & Recipe for Persuasion

by Sonali Dev  

After having devoured Soniah Kamal’s brilliant novel Unmarriagable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan last year in one sitting, I craved other contemporary adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. Dev’s Austen-centric trilogy, “The Rajes,” tells the stories of thirty-something cousins. Trisha in PP&OF (#1) is an uncompromising neurosurgeon of renown in the Bay Area, and Ashna in RFP (#2) is a chef desperately trying to keep her self-confidence and late father’s restaurant afloat. Filled with love (and food) and angsty romance (and food), both are delightful, fun reads with plenty of depth and intriguing backstories. Incense and Sensibility (#3) is due to come out July 2021.

 The Atlas of Reds and Blues

by Devi S. Laskar  

Laskar’s stunning debut novel, based on an incident that occurred at her own home, never discusses racism. However, the incidents in the protagonist’s short life offer abundant fuel for discussions that society must undertake. This story of the unacceptable, unforgivable treatment persons of color—especially women—are forced to endure even now in the twenty-first century is powerful reading.

 A Burning

by Megha Majumdar

Told by three connected characters—a young woman determined to move her family out of the slums, an endearing hijra who dreams of becoming a Bollywood heroine, and a frustrated PT teacher—Majumdar’s remarkable debut novel begins with the firebombing of a crowded train. From there it handily confronts social media and mob mentality, manipulation of the truth, and destructive paths to supposed greatness.

 10 Things I Hate About Pinky

by Sandhya Menon  

Menon’s fun final entry to the award-winning “Dimpleverse” trilogy combines the entertaining “opposites attract” and “fake dating” tropes with hyperlocal environmental issues. As always, her characters earn their happy ending while experiencing the victories and failures required to shoulder responsibility as they mature into adulthood.  

A Feast of Serendib: Recipes from Sri Lanka

by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Getting back to food, there’s nothing more comforting than a cookbook that brings the love of sharing food onto its pages. Mohanraj’s is a volume of family history plus tips and hints about where to purchase hard-to-find ingredients, what to substitute in a pinch, and options for preparing the snacks, entrées, sides, beverages, and desserts. Kitchen-tested, family-approved recipes left me drooling and eager to start cooking something new.

 Choosing Hope: 1 Woman. 3 Cancers

by Munira Premji

In a span of three years, Premji was diagnosed with three late-stage cancers. Inspired by a bracelet given to her that reads, “Once you choose hope, anything is possible,” she embraced the concept. Choosing hope strengthened her resolve during countless chemo sessions, hospital stays, and the long wait to have stem cell transplantation. Premji’s an inspiration not only to other cancer patients and survivors but also to the rest of us – reminding us to stop, breathe, and embrace life.

 This Is One Way to Dance—Essays 

by Sejal Shah  

Shah’s compilation offers twenty-five of her essays chronicled by the year written (1999-2019) and is an exploration of the sharp corners of the hypervisibility and invisibility she bore—identity, race, acceptance, foreignness in her own country. The result is Shah’s inspiring autobiographical search for identity in her birth country, a country that prides itself on its diversity yet persists in designating “Other” to strip away one’s non-white distinctiveness.

Sugar in Milk

by Thrity Umrigar

Umrigar’s second children’s book this year updates the story of her Parsi ancestors’ journey from Persia to India, where they sought a new home. Kindness, goodness, and diversity between citizens and immigrants alike is the theme that makes it so appropriate for today. Despite being tagged for ages 4-8, the book can be enjoyed by all ages. Gorgeous illustrations grace every page.

 Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World 

By Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria dives deep into social, economic, and political lessons we should have learned from previous epidemics/pandemics (but didn’t); how human impact (earth, sky, sea) furthers the chance of larger events; and how politics (worldwide) plays a role in prevention and mitigation. Zakaria’s bottom line is that there is much to do at all levels to understand and prepare, but yes, it can and should be done.


Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she 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. She always wears a mask in public settings, avoids crowds, believes in social distancing, and washes her hands. 

Mother-Son Duo Deliver a Message of Gratitude

After their first children’s book on diversity, We Are One which was published in 2017, San Francisco Bay area-based mother-son duo Pinky Mukhi and Param Patel are back with their new book on diversity and gratitude I Am Grateful. Pinky, who works as an I.T. professional, loves working with children, teaching them Gujarati, and engaging them with stories, arts, and crafts related to festivals celebrated by different cultures. Her curious nine-year-old son, Param, is interested in arts, computer games, music, reading, and sports.

A simple tale told through bright and colorful illustrations by Devika Oza, the book is a journey into the daily lives of children and what they feel grateful for. The story trails a day in the life of a child, examining all the things he has around him to be grateful for—his parents, grandparents, school, lessons, teachers, art, music, playtime, bath time, books, stars, trees, and flowers—in other words, the little things that we often take for granted.

The book was conceptualized when Param was six years old and is based on a conversation with him about what he feels thankful for. When Param was eight, he along with his mother, added further to the story by imagining what children in different nations may appreciate. They then decided to include in the story some of the countries Param had visited and the continents he had studied about.

For this reason, the book is sprinkled with some charming illustrations of various well-known landmarks in different countries–such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Stonehenge in the UK, the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, the Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, the Bamboo Forest in China, the Cappadocia in Turkey, Mount Fuji in Japan, and the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens in the Netherlands. 

The book ends with these powerful lines, accompanied by pictures of children belonging to different cultures, with their palms folded in prayer:

“I am grateful for love.

I am grateful for friends.

I am grateful for Mother Nature.

I am grateful for sunshine and moonlight.

I am grateful for food.

I am grateful for home.

I am grateful for learning and stories.

I am grateful for toys.

I am grateful. I have everything I need!”

After a month of Thanksgiving and Diwali, the book which is sure to resonate with children between the ages of four and nine, serves as a much-needed reminder of optimism and gratitude, especially during these challenging Covid times. 


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’. You can access all her published work under different categories in various publications here: www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com

Each of Us Killers: Vignettes of Immigrant and Indian Lives

Jenny Bhatt’s debut collection of stories, Each of Us Killers brings us a sampling of experiences of a writer who has lived and worked in India, the United Kingdom, Germany, and now resides in a suburb of Dallas. Bhatt has worked as a writer, literary critic, and translator. Her translation of the Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s fiction is forthcoming from Harper Collins in India.  She is also the host of the podcast Desi Books. Each of Us Killers is Bhatt’s debut collection of short stories but several of these stories have been published in reputed journals; two of the stories were nominated for the Pushcart award, and the title story “ Each of Us Killers” was nominated for the Best American Short Stories, 2018. These biographical facts help to contextualize the experience of reading Bhatt’s collection of stories. Even though it is a debut collection, it brings a range of lived experience, experimentation, and stylistic variety, which announces a seasoned practitioner rather than a newcomer to fiction. Another important fact to note is that Bhatt’s publisher, 7.13 Books is an independent publisher, one that is likely to promote authors whose subjects and aesthetics are different from the mainstream presses, increasingly dominated by five major corporations in the publishing industry.

Bhatt’s collection portrays the complexity of immigrants’ lives but is equally at ease in offering vignettes from life in Indian cities. Unlike many diasporic writers whose representations of India seem dated because they draw on memories of India left behind several decades ago, Bhatt’s stories seem to resonate deeply with contemporary realities in India, particularly its uptick in religious and caste-based violence. The last two stories in the collection “The Waiting” and “Each of Us Killers” depicts the continuing everyday oppression faced by Dalits in India.

“The Waiting” is narrated through the voice of the ghost of a dead Dalit wife witnessing the continuing sufferings of her distraught and mentally unhinged husband. By the end of the story, the voice changes to that of the ghost of her husband in limbo after his brutal murder by the henchmen of the village sarpanch. While this story adopts the conventions of vernacular folk ghost narratives, the title story “Each of Us Killers” takes the form of investigative journalism exploring the reasons for the death of a Dalit man by consuming a bottle of acid. The investigation uncovers the brutal burning alive of a Dalit girl which is the catalyst for the brother’s suicide and the traumatic memory that ravages the community. This story is particularly poignant in the wake of continuing Dalit violence in India today, the most recent example of which is the rape, murder, and hurried cremation of Manisha Valmiki in Haathras. 

The violence unleashed on vulnerable groups is a trope that emerges even in stories set in the United States. The first story of the collection “Return to India” also takes the form of interviews that a police officer conducts in the process of investigating the death of a South Asian American man. The quotidian details of his life emerge from the testimonies of his office acquaintances, his unfurnished bare apartment, his occasional drinking binges, the loneliness following his divorce leading to the final testimony by the guy who shot him in what appears to be a drunken altercation fueled by casual xenophobia and easy access to firearms. Bhatt is gesturing at the precarious nature of immigrant lives in the xenophobic climate of Trump’s America.

Not all the stories in the collection evoke the tragic sensibility of the first and last stories in the volume. Some like “Disappointment,” and “Life Spring” turn disappointment in love into paths for liberation and growth.  In others, like “Separation Notice.”  Bhatt playfully rewrites Hindu mythology by crafting a letter terminating the services of Lord Vishnu for his inability to serve as protector of mankind. Bhatt is attentive to the multi-religious diversity of Indian citizens and offers a glimpse into the life and troubles of an aging Muslim food vendor in “Time and Opportunity,” whose young employee from his own community is stealing his profits. In “Neeru’s New World,” Bhatt seems to be depicting the tragic fate of a young maid in a rich household about to be blackmailed or sexually exploited when the story reverses course and the young girl is able to secure an ally to help her break free from the power of her oppressor.

The collection is rich in its exploration of socio-economic issues.  It also effortlessly experiments with a variety of forms like the ghost story, investigative journalism, retelling of myths, among others. As is inevitable in a collection like this some stories are more powerful than others, but overall this is a thought-provoking collection that successfully evokes diverse milieux and prompts readers towards an empathetic understanding of topics beyond the immediate familiarity of urban bourgeois life.


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.

Each of Us Killers: Stories by Jenny Bhatt.  7.13 Books Brooklyn, September 2020.

Fresh Insight Into the Making of the Mahatma

Uma Majmudar’s Gandhi and Rajchandra shine a light on the seminal yet often overlooked influence of Shrimad Rajchandra— a Jain mystic, poet, and businessman—on Mohandas Gandhi.

Neither his critics nor his admirers would dispute that Mahatma Gandhi’s status as a historical figure is virtually godlike. As Lord Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, said in his tribute, “Mahatma Gandhi will go down in history on par with Buddha and Jesus Christ.”

Given such standing, it is hardly surprising that the human side of Gandhi has largely been downplayed in discussions about his life and message. It is easy to get the impression, after all, that Gandhi came into the world already as a Great Soul. Clearly, there is a tendency for us to presume that he was free of the internal struggles and challenges which so commonly characterize the lives of us “everyday people.” These kinds of impressions are unfortunate; they ultimately keep us from seeing that Gandhi’s life story includes much that we all can relate to as well as successfully apply to our own life situations. In Gandhi and Rajchandra: The Making of the Mahatma (Lexington Books) Uma Majmudar does much to fill this dearth of insight.

In Gandhi and Rajchandra, Majmudar explores the distinctive, indeed unparalleled, influence of the great Jain businessman, mystic, poet, and scholar, Shrimad Rajchandra, on Gandhi. She, in fact, compellingly makes the case that without Rajchandra, the man who the world would eventually revere as the Mahatma could never have come to be.

In discussing Rajchandra’s influence, Gandhi wrote, “I have met many a religious leader or teacher . . . and I must say that no one else ever made on me the impression that Rajchandbhai did.” While many scholars have emphasized the significance of Western intellectual giants, such as Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin, have had on Gandhi, the impact of Rajchandra on his life is not as well known. Though it is indisputable that Gandhi’s influences were eclectic, this work shows that he was, above all, groomed and fermented by cultural currents that were distinctly Indian.

Author, Uma Majmudar

Majmudar comparatively discusses the role that various “heavyweight spiritual champions” played in the Mahatma’s development and concludes, “Rajchandra alone would have the distinct honor of winning Gandhi’s heart and soul.”

She states: “The distinct contribution of Rajchandra as a teacher was to be the first faith figure to recognize Gandhi’s yet unarticulated spiritual aspirations and to help them grow… By his own example, Rajchandra taught Gandhi how to conduct one’s business with truthfulness. Also, from the poet, Gandhi first learned the art of integrating the spiritual, ethical, and worldly spheres of life with equilibrium and without sacrificing the main goal of Self-realization.”

Majmudar nicely provides a comprehensive historical narrative of the evolution of Gandhi’s relationship with his beloved teacher and mentor. Along the way, she illuminates particular struggles Gandhi coped with while he was on his way to becoming one of the greatest, most influential spiritual and social leaders in human history.

Members of the Indian diaspora can find, in these pages, a genuinely relatable Gandhi who (particularly when in South Africa) encounters serious difficulties in maintaining his own cultural identity, while at the same time seeking to incorporate the best aspects of the dominant colonial culture that was aiming to change him.

Majumdar cogently shows the indispensable place Rajchandra had for Gandhi in resolving such challenges. In the first of the two Appendixes provided, she reproduces 27 questions, along with the responses they evoked, which a religiously conflicted Gandhi posed to Rajchandra. These exchanges occurred after Mohandas had arrived in South Africa and encountered relentless pressure from non-Hindu friends to change his religion. Majmudar shows the vital significance this dialogue had for the formation of Gandhi’s identity by citing his own assessment of it:

“(Rajchandra’s) replies were so logical, appealing, and convincing that I regained my faith in Hinduism and I was saved from the conversion of religion. From that moment onwards, my respect and admiration for Rajchandra increased by leaps and bounds and I considered him to be my religious guide till he died and even after.”

In addition to underscoring points related to inter-religious dialogue, this Appendix provides a helpful context by which the reader can better understand those aspects of Gandhi’s life (most notably his attitudes toward human sexuality) that have long struck others as eccentric.

While the area of Gandhi studies has been saturated by many great works that are worthy of our attention, Majmudar gives us a genuinely unique and valuable addition to this always relevant field.


Sanjay Lal, author of Gandhi’s Thought and Liberal Democracy (Lexington Books, 2019), is a senior lecturer of philosophy at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia.

This article was originally published in Khabar Magazine.

Murder in Old Bombay: A True Story

Murder in Old Bombay, a debut mystery novel written by Nev March and published by Minotaur Books is based on a true story.

In 1892, parts of India are under direct British direct rule and Bombay is the center of British India. Captain James Agnihotri, an Anglo-Indian, is recuperating in a Poona military hospital after a skirmish in Karachi, the still unvanquished North-West Frontier. Agnihotri is granted an honorable discharge from the army because of his injuries.  For one year he is reinventing his life as an investigative journalist by browsing daily newspapers and committing Sherlock Holmes detective methods to memory.  

Meanwhile, a sordid crime grabs his attention: Two Parsi women fall from the busy Bombay University’s Rajabai Clock Tower in broad daylight! Certain that this mishap was not a suicide and touched by the understandable grief of the young widower Adi Framji, Captain Jim approaches the family to investigate this heinous crime and bring the culprits to justice. Being ex-Army, Captain Jim is well equipped to deal with treachery, roadblocks, dead ends, and deceit but there is more subterfuge to this plot than meets the eye! The warmth of the Parsi family is endearing to Jim and he approaches the task at hand with selfless sincerity. But there are no apparent clues and danger lurks in shadows of the guise of tall men with sloping shoulders, and possible monkeys on the roof. After interviewing local witnesses Jim travels to Lahore and to the state of Ranjpoot in search of the murderer. Armed with motley disguises this “Sherlockian” detective unmasks several miscreants and has close encounters with death himself much to the perturbation of Adi Framji and Jim’s self-appointed “Watson”.   

This award-winning lyrical narrative is a delightful multilayered treat that lays bare the lonely childhood and yearning for a family of several young children of that tumultuous time. Jim Agnihotri was fortunate because he was brought up in a convent by a priest with “kind” eyes but what was the fate of the brave little girl “Chutki” who calls Jim “Bao-di”? Jim’s gentle nature and his loyalty to the task at hand has “ Sir Galahad” strokes!  The reader empathizes with his post-traumatic stress disorder, boxing induced head injuries, and subsequent memory lapse.  We also root for the success of the romance that brews between Captain James and the Framji debutante, lady Diana! But will the extremely exclusive Parsi elders accept this unlikely alliance between a  Parsi princess and a “half-bred” man. Will Jim uncover the real motive behind the “fatal fall” or will this inquisition unravel another unimaginably evil plot to amass money for priceless merchandise?  

Author, Nev March

I particularly enjoyed Nev March’s lyrical style with a vibrant depiction of the glittering  Gatsby-like colorful lifestyle of aristocratic Bombay. Although the splendor of sprawling mansions, refined customs, luxurious soirees ignore the dismal fate of the Indian men and women impoverished by British tyranny, the wealthy sensibility is intoxicating! Formal sit down dinner times with delicious Parsi entrees, (eggs on a bed of Spinach, lamb curry) followed by frothy desserts leave me pining for my mother’s simpler but equally wholesome spread. March effortlessly transports me on a summer breeze to my childhood days spent walking the lanes of old Bombay fringed with Gul-Mohar, Jacaranda, and Pink Trumpet trees.  Lady Diana’s inquiring mind and the amorous physicality developing ever so softly between the two lovebirds is pleasing.  It recreates a delicate Victorian air of tension: pining eyes, a tilt of the head, delicate fingers, a sharp elbow, a curved clavicle, a soft embrace. I miss that magic and admire the ease with which the author transcends present-day to a mysterious past and solves the mystery to boot. Three cheers not by drib or drab but sheer grit! I absolutely love the cover design and We would be honored to invite Nev March to India Currents for a one on one interview.


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.