From My Bookshelf
This weekly column will cover two to three books received by the VoW Literature festival on a range of subjects – and your columnist will try to keep the column as eclectic as can be. This is also the way I have been reading books from as long as I can remember. I have two to three books of different genres/languages on reading list, in addition to newspaper, magazine and academic articles that I peruse. I normally find that its good to read a book for about an hour and a half, then move on the next book, and maybe return to the earlier book/s. This is the style I will follow in this column – for there are several columns which are devoted to one book at a time! This is hopefully a new way of looking at books
Typically, the attempt would be to cover one book of fiction, one on contemporary history and one translation. The choice for the first week’ column includes Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad’s magisterial study on Jinnah: His successes, failures and Role in History, Namita Gokhale’s Jaipur Journals which is set in the precincts of the greatest literary show on earth, and Hijab, an absolutely phenomenal translation from Kananda about the lives, times and existential dilemmas of Kannadiga doctors Dr Guru and Dr Radhika practicing in the mofussil of Amoka in Minnesota. Jaipur Journals is dedicated to the Jaipur Literature Festival and to all the untold stories in the world. But can stories ever be told in language? and more so in translation. this is the question asked by Joseph Conrad when he says ‘words, as is well known, are the greatest foes of reality’. Jinnah’s book places great reliance – conceptually, theoretically and methodically on Jinnah’s spoken and written words, for one must always bear in mind that Jinnah was first and foremost a lawyer, one who looked at the pros and cons of each statement.
Dr Ahmad’s scholarly tome of eight hundred pages covers the distinct phases of Jinnah’s political trajectory: from loyal Congressman and ardent nationalist to his transition as a Muslim communitarian, the two-nation theory and its advocacy, the politics of polarization, his leveraging the Quit India movement to his advantage. Dr Ahmad has questioned the popular argument of Ayesha Jalal that all Jinnah wanted was a greater ‘political space’ for the Muslims of India, or with Hamza Ali’s formulation that the demand for Pakistan was the demand for Muslims of India, rather than for an Islamic state. Dr Ahmad argues that Jinnah was able to leverage the growing rift between the Congress and the Raj on account of the World War, and later on account of the Quit India Movement to his advantage. As Dr Ahmad says: ‘British encouragement and support to Jinnah allowed him to broach populist rhetoric promising a Muslim paradise on earth to Indian Muslims. (Finally) Jinnah’s demand was granted by the British, but on their own terms’. However, when Pakistan had been established, and his ambition realized, he had no clear or consistent vision to offer, but all his actions were now based on the fear of a perceived ‘congress – Hindu-India’ conspiracy against him, for he could never accept the fact that the Congress leadership had accepted the two- nation theory, albeit with the highest reluctance. His (controversial) acquisition of extraordinary powers as the head of the state and the government greatly weekend Pakistan’s chances of stabilizing as a liberal, Parliamentary democracy. Another very important contribution of Dr Ahmad is theorizing the role of the individual in history. This book also draws heavily on his earlier work on Pakistan: The Garrison state which was discussed at the VoW festival last year. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vigOd8AMKhQ)
Jaipur Journals is a story of Rudrani Rana, a writer who is published, albeit posthumously, one who carries her grief, ambition, and venom close to her heart, who trusts implicitly, but cannot stand ‘pretenshuns’. It was only in her seventies that she really ‘liberated’ herself, literally and metaphorically, giving herself a new look and searching the history of her illustrious Rana lineage that held sway over Nepal. She had given her UNSUBMITTED manuscript to Anirban M, an intrepid sketch artist, who in turn gives it to his Juan Torres who writes love poems, works as a literary agent, and they fall in love with each other. What a coincidence that they met in the Men’s room and ended up in each other’s arms after a round of publisher parties. Then there are the old lovers Sumedh and Gayatri Smyth Gandhy who meet each other after many a failed marriage, and when Sumedh tries to be protective of her she says, my blouse …my boobs as she gyrates to the music in the Writers bar, there is Zoya Mankoita with her feminist angst, and the Quentin Cripps and Anna Wilde who walk together in the ancient city of Benares, trying to discover the eternal truths about life, death and beyond!
The best part of the Jaipur journals is the way in which all these different stories and events connect. Rudrani’s with Anirban M , as well as with Aruna, her twelve-year-old travelling companion, demonetization and the burglar poet Raju Srivastava urf Razi Singh Betaab, whose book, Waqt Chor : The Thief of Time sold forty thousand copies at a hefty discount of ninety percent, thereby also converting the colour of the currency besides of course his interaction with Jawed Akhtar , his instant fame , and his impromptu recital recital of Faiz ‘ Bol ki lab azad hain tere- bol zaban ab tak teri hai
This brings us to Hijab in upper middle caste aspirational Indian doctors from Bengaluru are biding their time waiting for their Green cards in the Amoka hospital – which has seen a sudden disruption in their demographic pattern with the migration of Sanghaali refugees – all of whom are practicing Muslims anxious to keep up their traditional faith especially with regard to reproductive practices , and vehement rejection of C -Section procedures, even when the life of the baby and/or the mother is in danger. However, on the other end of the spectrum, we also have educated and devout Christians who insist on giving a proper burial to a dead fetus, for they believe that life begins at the time of conception, and that every human being that is conceived must get a proper burial. However, the main story is about the hospital’s efforts to bring a C- section procedure alive on reality TV with willing participants from the Sanghaali community. It is also the story of deep rooted racial and ethnic prejudice, abut racial profiling and the insular world of the different communities , and how social media spirals the ‘local’ into the ‘universal’ And finally , it is about failed homelands and the aspiration to succeed – but there is no longer a universal norm for right and wrong – as religion, belief, prejudice and law in theory and practice pans out , and how most stories in America are about aspirations, frustrations, lamentations and less than fulfilling adjustments !
Readers are entitled to ask that my reviews are not overly critical of the authors. There are two reasons for this. The first is that a book which does not make convincing reading finds its own waterloo – there is no need for a public castigation – for every book, even when its sis shoddily edited or produced is a precious baby to the author. The books which do make it for nomination to a festival, or are received for the VoW café also pass through a tough litmus test – they must hold your reviewer’s attention for at least one hour – during which time, I certainly flip through the first and the last chapter, the acknowledgements and the already published reviews, if any! Only those which have held my attention for longer than that are worthy of your attention, and given the limited time and unlimited choice for readers, the balancing act requires all the skills of a diplomat, trapeze artist and of course a bureaucrat who has to balance so many conflicting interests at the same time!
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