Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review — Too Afraid to Cry by Ali Cobby Eckermann

Too Afraid to Cry CoverThe Book…

Title: Too Afraid to Cry
Author: Ali Cobby Eckermann
Publisher: Navayana
Year: 2015 (Originally pubished by Ilura Press in 2012)
Price: INR 295/-

Too Afraid to Cry is a memoir by Yankunytjatjara poet and writer Ali Cobby Eckermann. The writing is sparse and the language is stark but don’t let the former mislead you or the latter deceive you.

Much can be said — and has been said — about literary critics either being too stubbornly difficult to please or, on the other extreme, being too quick to find, and in many cases supply, merit when there is none. My own opinion is that we are all entitled to our opinions!

Thoughts…

That out of the way, I now profess my absolute adoration for Too Afraid to Cry. Is it profound? No. Is it elegant? No. Not really. Is it joyful? God, No. These are all the wrong questions. And if you are asking them, you’d better get another book. The hard reality is that very few lives, if any, are filled with profundity, elegance and happiness. These are, to modernise Hardy, only occasional episodes in the twelve season series of a painful drama called life. And as we run through the book’s pages, we realise that for Eckermann, an aboriginal in Australia ‘stolen‘ from her mother, happiness was but actually only a few fleeting scenes spread across multiple seasons.

Ali Cobby Eckermann

The prose is jarringly honest. It neither embellishes nor exaggerates. Her own rather unwise decisions, the failings of society and the racism of government policy are there for us to see in their naked form. (“‘Aboriginal families don’t care for their children.’ Where did those words come from? Who put that shit in my head?” Eckermann asks after seeing a happy Aboriginal family camping in a creek.) The poetry that intersperses the prose sections is equally unabashed. “I am white. I am grey. I am black.” She declares at one instance resolutely lashing out against the racial prejudices.

It is a brave and powerful memoir that can be completed in a single sitting. But the experience is more rewarding with breaks taken for reflection — a lot of details are left, I can only assume, for the reader to imagine and perhaps fill in — and for placing yourself in her context. I teared up a few times.


I am appending a poem from the book. I hope copyright would not be an issue.

I Tell You True

I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
Since I watched my daughter perish
She burned to death inside a car
I lost what I most cherish
I saw the angels hold her
As I screamed with useless hope
I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
It’s the only way I cope!

I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
Since I found my sister dead
She hung herself to stop the rapes
I found her in the shed
The rapist bastard still lives here
Unpunished in this town
I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
Since I cut her down.

I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
Since my mother passed away.
They found her battered down the creek
I miss her more each day
My family blamed me for her death
Their words have made me wild
I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
‘Cos I was just a child.

So, if you see someone like me
Who’s drunk and loud and cursing
Don’t judge too hard, you never know
What sorrows we are nursing.


Annie Zaidi Known Turf

Book Review — Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales by Annie Zaidi

Known Turf CoverThe Book…

Title: Known Turf: Bantering With Bandits and Other True Tales
Author: Annie Zaidi
Publisher: Tranquebar Press
Year: 2010

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.

Annie ZaidiWhat 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.

Book Review — Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths by Devdutt Pattanaik

Cover of Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek MythsThe Book…

Title: Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year: 2016
Price: INR 499/-

The book is a fairly comprehensive if highly simplified ‘retelling’, as its title implies, of Greek myths including Roman narrations (sources include Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid). The key selling point is that these stories are interspersed with qualifications and comparisons to Indian myths Ved Vyas’ Mahabharata, Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Puranas). The problem, however, is that Indian myths are fundamentally different from Greek myths. There are, as Devdutt himself acknowledges, more points of divergence than convergence and any similarity is only superficial.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the highly abridged nature of the stories, the book does not adequately engage the reader. Add to that the highly populated and maddeningly confusing family trees which are the very nature of these stories! Uninitiated and dispassionate readers — if there are any — will find the experience rather bland. Also, the notes remarking on Hindu myths require a fair amount of prior knowledge to actually be of use.

Devdutt PattanaikAs such, the book will not impress the seasoned student nor engage the uninvolved newcomer. But for the engrossed newbie and also for people — like me — who are about chest-deep in the irresistible currents of these tales, it is a must-read. The emphasis is on relevant structure rather than the minutest detail. But this is not at the expense of clarity — which means there are a lot of names and bloodlines to keep track of. It is a book I will frequently return to for quick patches to cracks in my mythological armour.

If I may…

If I have one person to thank for my love of mythology, it is Devdutt Pattanaik who is ‘a medical doctor by education, a leadership consultant by profession and a mythologist by passion’. Sometime in 2012 — or was it 2013? — I stumbled upon this TED Talk which cast me headlong into mythology. The story of Alexander and the gymnosophist offered a tantalising peek into what could only be a fascinating world. How could I resist? How could anyone resist?

Whether it is Manmohan Singh calling out the ‘drawing room Cassandras’ after the success of liberalization or John Milton invoking the ‘sisters of the sacred well’ in Lycidas or Rumbemo Kithan  talking about what seemed like a ‘Sisyphean task’ when he was grappling with the civil services exams or the IT guy discovering a ‘Trojan’ on your hard drive or the local church organising an ‘Orpheus Hunt’ or perhaps the local police officer declaring that the police would ‘leave no stone unturned’ to find the missing child,  they are all drawing upon Greek mythology. All of these references have stories that are guaranteed to fascinate you.

Interested? Get the book!

The Quaint Little Village

Book Review — The Quaint Little Village by Rovi Chasie

 

 

The Quaint Little Village CoverThe Book…

Title: The Quaint Little Village
Author: Rovi Chasie
Publisher: PenThrill Publishing House
Year: 2016
Price: INR 250/-
Available at: Ilandlo

 

I loved it…

The Quaint Little Village is a lovely book. It provided a much needed breeze of freshness to a mind grappling with the harsh realities of higher academic education (just what is the deal with the post-structuralist fascination with deconstruction, for example).

Set in Khonoma and following the innocent if naïve perspective of young Tono, its protagonist, the book is unassuming in its presentation and remains true to the simple and linear form of traditional storytelling  which we all know and love. And its material is, unsurprisingly, instantly recognizable. Despite being from a different community, I had been exposed to many similar or even the same stories. (Of Spirits and Ghosts)

When a Princess Came Calling is definitely inspired by Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the Thai Princess, who visited Nagaland and came to Khonoma in 2014. Through the baffled but non-judgemental eyes of little Tono, it describes the astonishing speed with which the villagers manage to resurrect a ‘dilapidated’ and ‘drab-looking shed’ for Her Royal Highness only to condemn it, after the visit, to its ‘original state, dusty, broken down and full of cinders’.

Windows to Tono’s World is heartfelt and amusing as only the boundless imagination of a child (‘A volcano of ideas erupting from your tiny head again?’ Tono’s mother exclaims at one point) can make it. The Family Picnic speaks about the clash of the old and the new and contains one of the most emphatic passages I have read.

Tono, sitting by the window, watched in fascination as the village folks pounded and cleaned their staple rice. She too would recollect and mull over the age-old beliefs and begin to winnow them, to retain the seeds and discard the chaff.

Rovi Chasie
Rovi Chasie

The book is, to quote Nini Lungalung, “impressive simply because it does not seek to impress.” Having been brought up in more or less the same setting as the protagonist, there are unmistakable parallels to how you and I grew up. The book is beautiful in its simplicity and deserves your readership as much as you need its message.

I am glad I got the book. Thanks to the good folks at Ilandlo from where you can order the book. The modern world seems insensitive to and incapable of accommodating our roots. This is where stories like these help us stay grounded. They aren’t items of nostalgia but the current foundations of our identity which we can scarce afford to lose.


An angry note on the typography…

Despite my love for the writing, however, the book has issues. A little more polish in terms of the flow of the stories would have greatly elevated the quality of the book. There are a quite few errors — misuse, twice, of the word ‘literally’; improper application of the binomial system; typos — which the average reader might not notice but reflect poorly on the author/editor to perceptive readers.

However, the major problems are technical. The first is a personal complaint. I could not gloss over, pun absolutely intended, the use of glossy paper instead of bookpaper. It makes the book heavy and reflects too much light for comfortable reading. I suspect the use of glossy paper was due to the pictures printed on to some of the pages as bookpaper would be useless for graphics. Another minor nitpick is the size of the book which is extremely odd. Whatever the reasons for the decisions, the result was a less than ideal reading experience, at least for me.

Secondly, a rant at the typography. There are 7 orphans in the 58 pages of text which is alarming in itself but especially so considering the extra wide pages filled with text having large font size. Also the use of both first line indent and paragraph spacing (and a large one at that) is poor typography as it generates (especially with the number of widows that are there), a lot of distracting white space. The magazine-like marginless spread of the pictures in conjunction with text that do leave margins appear out of place. Speaking of margins, the headers and footers consume much of the top and bottom margins and given the large line spacing, the left and right margins seem like pillarboxes seen on videos. There is also no gutter space to offset the space taken up by the binding process.

And lastly, the editing leaves much to be desired. The use of parentheses, quotation marks and footnotes are inconsistent. Proper punctuation is a nightmare for many writers and I have my own share of embarrassments but a published book ought to do better. There are smaller issues that I will not go into but whose absence would have redeemed some of the obvious problems.

I loved Raconteurs From The Hills which was an awesome read and it did not have the technical problems that this book did. I hope that the typographic creases will be ironed out in subsequent editions.

 

Raconteurs From The Hills

Book Review — Raconteurs from the Hills

Raconteurs From The Hills
Cover

Title: Raconteurs from the Hills
Authors: Talilula, Vishü Rita Krocha, Agnes Tepa, Emisen Jamir, Imti Longchar, Lhütü Keyho
Publisher: PenThrill Publishing House
Year: 2014
Price: INR 199/-

In a time when truth struggles to see the light of day and when so many stories go untold for lack of brave people to tell them, it is heartening to come across ventures like PenThrill. Founded by Vishü Rita Krocha in late 2013, it aims to ‘promote gifted writers of our place’ or give, as its snappy tagline declares, ‘ink to your story’.

Stories can be simple or fantastical; they can be serious or frivolous; they can also be sanguine or fatalistic. Yet, however they are presented, stories are unfailingly sincere and we can always count on them — especially works of fiction! — to tell the truth.

The Book…

My companion for the past two days — a book I have had in possession for more than a year — Raconteurs from the Hills is a collection of thirteen short stories by half a dozen local writers published by PenThrill. The stories are honest and instantly relatable. And as they are written by authors of diverse backgrounds across two generations, there is a lot of variety. That said, there is an unmistakable undercurrent that runs through all of them — with the exception of the remarkable and thrilling Deliberate Delirium — and that is their inspiration from and concern for Naga society.

If A Porcine Tale, The Revival and The Wait are strong indictments of a myopic and irresponsible society plagued by small-minded egomania, Sangyuba and his Bespoke Rubber Shoe and Diary of Two Dog Meat Fanatics are humourous tales served with strong helpings of satire. The latter with its macabre twist at the end reminds one of Saki’s immortal style. Buried Dreams, The Laughing Weed and Cough Syrup deal with the widespread social distress regarding drug abuse.

Vishü Rita Krocha
Vishü Rita Krocha (A Glimmer of Hope) Credit: Pebble In The Still Waters

A Glimmer of Hope narrates the disturbing experiences of civilians caught in the middle of hell unleashed by the struggle between the Underground Groups. Specifically, it is set in Tuensang where I grew up. The accounts of armed guerrillas occupying homes, tenants being forced to relocate and women and children being stuck in homes with faces and bellies to the mopped mud floor as the sound of rifles pierce the air in the distance — okay, I got a little carried away there — resonate with my own experiences as a child.

Thoughts…

In terms of style and polish — even though I am no authority on the matter —  I enjoyed Final Orientation and the challenge of the five–page one–paragraph Deliberate Delirium. Some might find fault with the lack of consistency in the stories. And to be honest, it feels weird jumping from a candid and almost childish style story with very accessible language to a brooding and claustrophobic thriller of sorts woven in a tight vocabulary. The book would have been more coherent if the stories were clubbed based on topics. But it is not a deal breaker by any means.

We need to celebrate artists whether it is painters, writers or singers. Despite the hardwork, many fail to secure even basic necessities forcing them to abandon their work in favour of more money friendly ventures. We need artists and they need recognition and support in order to survive and continue doing what they do. The best way we can do that is by consuming their output. So, if you happen to visit Crossword, please get a copy of this or the other titles published since. You won’t be disappointed.

Surely the skies would clear off, at least for that promising day…
         …and the fresh dew drops would no longer be stained by the anguish of unheard cries.

Vishü Rita Krocha