Title: Known Turf: Bantering With Bandits and Other True Tales
Author: Annie Zaidi
Publisher: Tranquebar Press
What do you do when you see a ‘Get 3 at INR 100/-‘ sign? I set to work seeking out the books with the most exciting covers. This one with the embossed shoes — made more attractive by my love of Converse canvases — and blurry newspaper snippets stood out dramatically. I purchased it. That happened at the Delhi Book Fair 2016.
I knew neither the author nor had come across her blog where she still writes. (Turns out much, if not all, of the material was already published on, or ‘inspired by’, her blog. VI. 1. What do you fear? for example can be found in this 2007 blogpost.) That mattered not to me anyway.
What is it about…
Apart from II. 1. Mornings, Evenings, Headaches, Preferences which is a genuinely fun if asinine banter about ‘chai’, the book is a series of short essays about otherwise serious issues ranging from pressing gender concerns to hunger among tribals to problems of casteist oppression and even a significant portion on Sufism. It is heady stuff written in a reportage/memoir/travelogue/commentary style.
The exciting and respectful I. 1. Please Do Not Carry Loaded Guns in the Bus which covers the notorious dacoits of Chambal is followed by a discourse on ‘chai’ (see above). III. 5. Losing the Milk is heart-wrenching as it lays bare the depressing realities of government enforced ‘displacement’ — which really is a euphemism for devastation — among the Sahariyas of Madhya Pradesh. IV. 3. Prone to Bondage shocks you with the dirty politics of caste oppression in a place many people least expect; Punjab. Section V dabbles in the mysticism of Sufism and in VI. 1. What Do You Fear? the author tries to make sense of the drama around religion from a considered Muslim perspective. VII. 3. The Top One Per Cent, in a section centered on gender issues, reveals the shocking inadequacy of education in dismantling entrenched societal structures that perpetuate gender biases.
What I thought…
I usually look at back blurbs with great suspicion but the book really did ‘engage, surprise and shock’ me. Mainly because of my less than passable knowledge of the topics covered. But also because of the measured telling of stories — pointed where critique is due but sympathetic where necessary. The commentary even if lacking in places — this is no dissertation anyway — is interesting and earnest especially on issues that the author identifies with — gender and religion. A flurry of emotions runs through as you read the book.
However, as much I enjoyed the banter on ‘chai’, I found it and the section on Sufism awkwardly placed alongside issues of immense gravity. (FWIW I would have thoroughly enjoyed a whole book on ‘chai’.) Knowing where the book is coming from and what it seeks to achieve, this is the only gripe I have. The book is a refreshing and stimulating read.