Stone Mattress: The queen of dark yarn shows her best yet again

Stone MattressTitle: Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: September
Pages: 288
ISBN: 9780385539128
Rating: 5/5

Good short stories are rare to come by. Not all novelists are adept at writing short stories, for such works do not have the luxury of a whole book to capture the reader’s interest. In my mind, very few have achieved this feat. I love Alice Munro for her captivating short takes, or Tanith Lee, who, some say, writes better short stories than novels or James Joyce, for his wonderful book, Dubliners. And then there’s Margaret Atwood, who is an accomplished novelist as she is a short story writer.

Stone Mattress, her latest book is one such masterpieces she has produced in her 50 years in the publishing industry. A missive with nine stories, some written or narrated by her in the course of her career, these stories are nothing short of exquisite. Her characters are old but feisty, callow but bold, self-aware but bohemian, lonely but free-spirited and her stories question the rules of gender, genre and age.

One may say, the collection has a theme, the theme of the transcending power of the story itself, as Atwood alludes in the afterword. It is no surprise, that those of who have devoured Atwood in the past, will find the stories imaginative and compelling, where her writing makes something magical out of the mundane.

The first story, Alphinland forms part of a (loosely put) trilogy. The subsequent stories are Revenant and Dark Lady which delve into the lives of a fantasy fiction writer, a dying poet and a muse/ex-lover.

This is followed by Lusus Naturae or ‘freak of nature’, which is one of the works which was previously published.  The other stories in the book The Dead Hand Loves You, The Freeze-Dried Groom, Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth and Torching the Dusties are equally laden with affliction. But the best, perhaps, is the ‘Stone Mattress’ which lends the book its title. Originally published in the New Yorker, the story about Verna who is raped at 14 and who now tries to avenge the brutality caused to her, is sharp and gritty and hits you with brute humour.

In her book Negotiating With the Dead, Atwood pondered: “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.” This book, which is her 55th, illuminates themes that are dark and heavy, where the characters are plagued by inner demons and a desire to avenge the deeds done to them when they were young; the book satisfies you in a way that only Atwood can.

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Tracing the roots of Urdu in India and Pakistan

Rakhshanda JalilAuthor Rakhshanda Jalil, best known for her book ‘Invisible City: The hidden Monuments of India’, has been one of the frontrunners in the movement to create awareness for Hindi-Urdu literature in India. Having come to the field of writing as a translator in 1992, she had published a series of translated works before moving to the fray of critical writing and then increasingly veering towards academic pieces, biographies, historiographies and even English fiction.

Given this large oeuvre of works, what really interests Jalil are biographies and books that require rigorous amounts of research. She recently completed her book on Rashid Jahan, an Indian writer, a member of the Communist party and the Progressive Writers’ Association. “It was then I realised that this is what I enjoy doing. I like to locate writers in a certain context,” she says. At the moment, she is working on a biography on an Urdu poet, Sardar Jafri to be published by Oxford University Press.

At the recently concluded Bangalore Literature Festival, Jalil took part in a panel discussion that traced the roots of Urdu in India and Pakistan and also mapped its future. About the state of the language, she notes, “This whole business of script , going on for the past 60 or 80 years, where people are saying it has be written in Devanagari is contributing to its downfall. When we learn Japanese or Russian or Chinese, we take the trouble to learn their script. With Urdu, why do we want to take the easy way out? This is just doing more harm than good.”

Being a proponent of translating works from Urdu to English and making it available for the masses, she does feel that the essence of the language is most often lost in the process. “There is no way you can say that what you are translating is 100% right,” she says. In a language as disparate as Urdu and English or Hindi for that matter, not only the resonances or speech patterns differ but also the way of constructing sentences. Hence as a translator you have to work within these limitations and put out a work that is sincere and sensible, she says.

Childhood, they say, has a very strong impact on a writer’s psyche and it is true in Jalil’s case. Having grown up in a house filled with books, taught by a mother who retired as a librarian and having people who talked about books and gave books as birthday gifts, she was blessed. She adds,  “When I was in the eighth grade, I got a book called ‘The Exile’ by a French existentialist writer as a birthday gift. When most children got Enid Blyton books, I was encouraged to read books from different genres. That, in a way, drew me to writing and if I hadn’t been a writer I would have done something else in writing.”

Incidentally, Jalil started her career, first as a teacher and then as an editor in the publishing industry. She agrees, “I have felt words. I write them now. But I have known them all throughout.”


First published in The New Indian Express on September 30, 2014

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Axwell /\ Ingrosso enthral audience with high-octane sounds

Axwell IngrossoAfter calling it quits, cohorts of the erstwhile trio Swedish House Mafia have come back as a team, Axwell /\ Ingrosso. Having debuted at the Governors Ball Music Festival at Randall’s Island in June, they recently wrapped up their gig in Bangalore at Sunburn Arena. At the concert, which was the first for the duo in India, they debuted new songs from an album due later this year like This time we can’t go home, Can’t hold us down, Sun is shining and so are you and On my Way. Their set also had a sprinkling of songs from Swedish House Mafia and from Alesso and Ghecko.

This album, for Universal Music Group’s Def Jam Recordings, is one of the firsts for the duo, as SHM never released an LP of their songs. Says Sebastian Ingrosso, “We’ve been working for almost a year on this album. But we are almost done. We are going to start releasing the singles soon and we are really excited for what’s coming.”

Despite riding a wave that popularised electronic dance music across the world, the brand of music they love to listen to is very different from what they produce and doesn’t always include progressive/house elements. “When it comes to listening to music, electronic music is very low on the list. Both of us listen to a lot of rock, hip-hop and folk. I listen to classical music sometimes,” Ingrosso confesses, to which Axwell adds, “We love listening to stuff we don’t normally get to hear in our line. Sometimes I go on to Spotify and just discover new music.”

A year since their last show in Bangalore for ‘One Last Tour’, this show rounded off their debut in style, as they enthralled the audience with high-octane sounds and a cacophony of pyrotechnics and SFX. How did it feel to be back in Bangalore? Ingrosso responds, “It was really really exciting. The weather is nice and here there’s a certain energy in the air. Last time, it was phenomenal but we didn’t know we would ever come back to India. But the feedback we got on social media for this tour is equally overwhelming; the excitement that we have come back to the city is great.”

Their gig at the Ultra Music Festival 2013 marked an end of an era in electronic dance music, as they parted ways to pursue their solo careers. Will they ever come back again as Swedish House Mafia? “No, that’s not we are thinking about right now,” informs Axwell.

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‘The word difficult doesn’t exist to me’

Shobhaa De

Writer and columnist Shobhaa De has nothing but praise for the literary environment in Bangalore. Having been part of Bangalore Literature Festival, the city’s uber event to celebrate the written word, De maintains that Bangalore has a very vibrant core, far removed from the IT tag it enjoys. “One thing that we cannot and should not lose sight of is the rich literary tradition that the state has always enjoyed over several hundred years. And Bangalore, in particular, being the hub of Karnataka, is a city which is way way beyond just a IT hub,” she states.

She notes that a literary festival here was overdue and she is glad that it is run by people who have genuine level of commitment and passion to provide a platform for diverse opinions, diverse points of view, debate, dissent and more. 

On freedom of expression

De has been quite vocal about issues plaguing the country, especially those concerning women. Yes, she admits that her writing has, time and again, drawn criticism from various quarters, but that doesn’t deter her. “The word difficult doesn’t exist to me. To tell the truth and to tell it fearlessly is every human being’s right. And we should take full advantage of being a part of a democracy, where our freedom, the constitution guarantees, will not be curtailed if there’s something worth fighting for.” Of course there will be people in the world who have more clout, who are more powerful, who want to harm you, she observes. But then again, that’s the test of your own character, of who you are, what you believe in. “Isn’t that the price worth paying?,” she asks emphatically.

On UR Ananthamurthy

This year, the festival commemorated UR Ananthamurthy, one of the exemplars of Kannada literature. De has her own experience to recount about the great storyteller. “We were on the panel at the last edition of Bangalore Lit Fest. And I like how fiery, feisty, articulate and unafraid he was in voicing his opinions. Not all of them were accepted, even by a very informed audience and crowd. Despite that, he was a giant as a thinker, as an iconic litterateur, who broke so many shackles, so many rules, freed so many people from their limited thinking and limited imagination.”

On writing

“I write every day of my life,” she declares, “I write for weekly columns, blogs, Twitter — writing on every level defines me and consumes me and that’s the way I want it to be always.” She is looking to start a new book soon. But she’s not sure what it will be about. “It’s only when an idea is about to explode inside my head and makes life unbearable for me, that I actually start the book. Because the idea has to be powerful enough for me to want to write it with that sense of passion and intensity.”

On the recent brouhaha on ‘ethical journalism’

Shobhaa De has gone on record, on her blog and on Twitter, about the recent spat between Deepika Padukone and a leading newspaper. Most of her comments stress that there is nothing wrong with sensational stories and the issue has been blown out of proportion by the actress who she once termed is “overrated and average-looking”. But when we asked her about it, she refused to comment, saying, “I write for the newspaper and I don’t have anything to say against them.”


An abridged version published in The New Indian Express on September 29, 2014

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‘Congress driven more by dynasty now’

A scion of the Nehru family, Nayantara Sahgal, is known to not mince words. Driven by her belief in non-violence, she published fierce essays condemning her cousin Indira Gandhi when she declared Emergency.

Over the years, Sahgal has illustrated through her acerbic writing how Congress, once a beacon of democratic integrity, has departed from Nehru’s ideologies. Once again, she voiced her opinion of the Gandhi family at the second day of the Bangalore Literature Festival on Saturday. “Congress, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are different entities for me. Congress is nothing like what Gandhi had envisaged. It is now driven by dynastic succession,” she said.

But Sahgal believes Congress can revive itself under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership but Rahul Gandhi should not be associated with her.

In Modi, she sees a better time for India. “Modi has risen from humble origins. That is a great tribute to the foundation of democracy laid at Independence and the social mobility that rose out of it,” Sahgal said.

Talking about her political personage, author Ritu Menon, whose book Out of Line dwells on Sahgal’s life and works, said, “She is a writer who has continued to be politically engaged with the kind of integrity that is rare in writers”.

On how she put together the biography, Menon said though Sahgal’s oeuvre is fiction, the political thread that runs through her writing forms the spine of the book. “Sahgal’s life, whether it is personal or familial, cannot be understood without understanding the political. Likewise, the literary cannot be read without a reference to the political and personal,” Menon concluded


First published in The New Indian Express on September 28, 2014

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Soak in the cultural extravaganza that’s the Bangalore Lit Fest

At the third edition of the Bangalore Literature Festival, the city’s literary excellence came into its own. Bringing together exemplars of the written word and also book lovers from the city, the festival went on to reiterate that Bangalore is undoubtedly a haven for literature enthusiasts, at the same time underscoring the literary diversity the city has to offer.

Talking about the fete, writer and columnist Shobhaa De averred, “I have been to festivals across India, lit fests across the world. But I have to say, there’s something about Bangalore Lit Fest that makes it exceptional.” Why? “The fact that the fest is noncommercial, that it is truly democratic in spirit, that we hear voices that we don’t hear at other lit fests, that we hear voices that speak their minds in a public space fearlessly, that we have a very receptive audience, that the city supports it the way it does, that the number grow and grow  with each passing year, everything is exceptional,” she responds.

Like Shobhaa De, who has been part of BLF since the first edition, bestselling author and screenwriter, Chetan Bhagat, who is considered a ‘youth icon,’ also has an interesting experience to recount. “When Shinie Antony (one of the founders) told me about the idea of starting a lit fest here, I thought to myself, ‘The city favours IT. Maybe an Android Developers Conference or a Java Coding Weekend would be more apt. Or at most, a traffic festival.’ But when I attended the first edition, I saw how well it was received. And now, in just three years it has become the most sought after events in the city.”

This year, the festival was dedicated to the memory of UR Ananthamurthy, a contemporary writer, master storyteller and legend. In three corners of the lawns at Crowne Plaza, panel discussions on diverse themes were held at makeshift tents named after three of Ananthamurthy’s greatest books. Departing from the previous editions, this year the fest has focused on literature by marginalised sections of the society and aboriginal writers.

Highlights of the panel discussions

Of books, cinema and women characters

The ever controversial Chetan Bhagat was in conversation with Shinie Antony about the predominance of strong women characters in his books and screenplays. He affirms, “I like women who are smart, intellectual, passionate. That is why no woman in my stories are props. Every single one is opinionated.”

His sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes self-deprecating humour left everyone in splits. Among other things he also discussed why he has become the most spoken about author today. His take? Not because he is the best author, but because he is the bestselling author. “There are different types of writers and I write about real people, ordinary middle class life, I have to out there living that life, not running away from people. That makes me a little more visible. And I do have good marketing skills. So maybe that’s the reason why you hear about me than everyone else.”

On the plight of marginalised communities

Dhruba Hazarika, Pradyot Manikya Deb Burman and Binalakshmi Nepram spoke on the all-pervasive issue, ‘Does India neglect its eight sisters?’ Striking at the heart of the issue, Binalakshmi rues that myriad perceptions wrought by misconceived notions is why the north eastern frontier stands ostracised.

“How do you define the North east of India? It is a jungle land where you can exploit, a place where people eat everything that moves. If it is a man, he must be a drug addict and if it is a woman, she must be morally loose — these are the perceptions that are spiralling in today’s India.” It is not a place where half naked tribals live, she says. On the contrary, there’s so much that ‘India’ doesn’t know or want to know. “It constitutes of eight beautiful states, home to 45 million citizens, belonging to different ethnic groups, a place where India’s first oil was found, it a place of amazing potential.” And yet, it remains unbeknownst to most of us.

On a similar vein, a session on ‘Minority Report’ delved into the notion of secularism in the country today. One of the questions raised during this one hour debate was ‘Do we need a minority commission at all?’ Answering in the affirmative, Keki Daruwala justified, “We may have excellent laws but if the implementation is not satisfactory, it does not hold good. Implementers in our country are very often corrupt and partial. And I also feel the police in this country — and I have been to riots in Assam, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand where I  have witnessed this first hand — is biased and hence cannot be reiled on.”

On Kannada Literature

There was a session on Kannada literature where stalwarts like Vasudhendra, KS Pavitra and HN Arathi addressed concerns surrounding the pertinency of the language in the present day and age. Titled ‘Hosa Chiguru- New voices in Kannada’ the panelists shared ideas on how to promote the language not only by teaching it as a subject in schools and colleges but by enhancing its relevance through art, dance, poetry and music.

Things to look out for on Saturday

  • Writers Anjum Hasan, Susan Visvanathan, Palash Krishna Mehrotra, Usha K.R. and Saniya take a session on the art of writing short stories at at 10 am
  • We, the Children of India: Revisiting the Constitution of India with Leila Seth at 10.30 am
  • Around the Story Tree: Folk Tales withVikram Sridhar at 11.15 am
  • For children, a Ghostly Detective Workshop by Shweta Taneja at 4 pm
  • A session on contemporary Urdu literature in India anand Pakistan at 12 noon

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Portraying The ‘Real’ Story of Dance

p3pic2Almost all of Roy Campbell-Moore’s photographs can be categorised as avant-garde. Sweaty dancers populate the images, in movement against a low-light background, resting after a strenuous dance practice or during the frenzy before the performances. Most are gritty and not what you would call ‘picture perfect.’ But that’s his aim — to showcase the alternative world of dance, not just the beautiful side, and illuminate the relationship the dancers have with the art form. He says, “I try to photograph from the inside of the art form and that’s why not all photographs are necessarily beautiful.”

Giving this idea a further boost, Roy embarked on a project The Beauty And The Grit over a year ago, identifying dance companies across Wales and India, along the way aiming to cultivate a more personal examination of the art form among photographers and dancers. After completing a residency at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi and working with dance company, The Danceworx there, he is now in Bangalore, for his show that will run till Friday at Vismaya Art Gallery, Rangoli Metro Art Center.

He has also completed a four-day workshop with the Stem Dance Kampni, engaging with 15 different photographers. “We created a new short piece of dance for the company. The photographers had to capture everything part of the making process, from day one to the final performance. After that we had a showing of the different works at the studio. To me, the photographs came across as very passionate, very aggressive. It was fantastic. Even the dance performance was very unusual for the dancers because they had to learn a new way of western dance. But they were very enthusiastic,” he says.

Roy’s tryst with Bangalore started when he collaborated with Madhu Nataraj of Stem Dance Kampni about five years ago and since then he has been travelling back and forth teaching residencies and conducting workshops. He recalls, “One particular experience is very close to my heart. Six months ago, we created a series of 18 monumental installations, about 5 foot 1 inch in size showing how dancers engage with different spaces, be it dance studios, stray buildings, office buildings, even a Banana field. These were very unusual settings, and it was incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever done something like that in my life before.”

Roy has been photographing dance as a specialist for about 15 years after he stopped dancing. In fact, he was a ballet dancer for over 40 years and even founded the National Dance Company to promote arts back in Wales. But when he realised his love for photography, he stepped down from the role of an artistic director and even gave up dancing. He explains, “I happened to get into photography out of necessity. Back then, good photographers used to charge exorbitant fees. It was also expensive because we had to get them all the way down from London. So I thought I will try to do it myself, see how I can get on. After all, I knew the dancers better and I had a better understanding of the subject. So I bought the best camera I could get my hands on and started work. I studied hard for over three years and taught myself using tutorials. And then, it paid off.” And what does he consider the most rewarding aspect? He says it is the privilege of working with talented dancers and learning about them as people as well as subjects for his photography. But the main driving force is that it enables him to delve deeper into the art form.


First published in The New Indian Express on September 25, 2014

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Barracuda: Coming of age tale of a young athlete

barracuda-usTitle: Barracuda
Author: Christos Tsiolkas
Publisher: Hogarth
Published: September 9, 2014 (First published October 26th 2013)
Pages: 448
ISBN: 9780804138420
Rating: 3/5

It seems like the idea of Australia in the 21st century, with its cultures and subcultures, politics, middle class families, love and angst are themes you have come to expect from author Christos Tsiolkas. The same sardonic undertone present in The Slap (Remember “Welcome to Australia in the early 21st century”?) can be witnessed in Tsiolkas’ new book, ‘Barracuda,’ with similarities in the manner in which he dissects feelings of belonging and isolation.

We follow the life of Daniel Kelly who battles his inner turbulences, his relationship with his family and his mates at his new school, all through swimming. As a swimming prodigy, he is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious Melbourne private school, referred to in the novel as ‘Cunts College.’ Here, understandably, Kelly feels out of place. The only way he is able to insulate himself from all the slights directed at him is by swimming and winning. He assures himself, that he is the ‘strongest, fastest, best.’

But even as you, as a reader, start picturising laurels at Olympics for him, you are thrown off-kilter. In what is the central piece of the book, we watch passively as Kelly is almost a mute spectator of Sydney Olympics, battling again with his inner demons who keep nudging that he is a failure and also the country’s politics at play.

One of the key aspects of the book is the author’s handling of the narrative. We know from the start about Kelly’s phobia towards swimming pools, his time in prison, his relationship with his partner Clyde, but everything is mingled together so the crucial details are tantalisingly out of reach to the reader. The story, you can say, all over the place. This non-chronological approach, in effect, is Tsiolkas’ way of portraying the different dilemmas of his protagonist which in a way evokes some sympathy and pathos. Kelly’s dreams and aspirations, narcissism, violence and brutality and then gradual isolation is grudgingly very moving.

But even then, you can’t help but feel something is amiss. For Tsiolkas employs a manner of spelling out every single feeling experienced by Kelly rather than letting us see it for ourselves. This irritates the reader to the point where you stop sympathizing with Kelly. You find him way self-indulgent too.

Coming back to the style of the narrative, another grouse you may have is the author’s constant switching between third-person to first-person narrator: it can be awfully distracting when you are in the throes of reading an antagonizing story.

But you can easily forgive these imbalances as the underlying plot is bigger than the manner of portrayal. You inherently feel for Danny, weep as you grasp his rise as a swimmer and merciless decline and the sub plots, one of which is a gay couple pondering of parenting a baby.

His language, with visceral references and slangs reek of originality adds to the overall quality of the book. If you can stomach this and the poignancy and shame that occupies the book, Barracuda deserves a read.

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Follett tweaks beststeller formula

Ken FollettIn the world of books, Ken Follett is the stuff of legends. His writing is rooted in real events, be it the 1978 novel Eye of the Needle, a taut thriller about World War II espionage or Pillars of the Earth about the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. He weaves stories that imitate life. His latest project in the Century Trilogy, a collection of historical novels chronicling life around the world wars, is another set piece in his literary game.

Edge of Eternity

On September 16, the book Edge of Eternity was released in India by Pan Macmillan and Amazon India. Continuing the story in Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, the book traces lives of five families through the Cold war and civil-rights movements. In an email interaction, Ken Follett remarks about the premise of the book, “The terrible thing about the Cold War was that it could have been the end of the human race. If there was a nuclear holocaust, with the Americans bombing all the communist countries and the Russians bombing all the capitalist countries, we would all be dead. So although it never came to that, there was the constant fear during this period that nuclear war would break out and the human race would end.”

Moving from thrillers to historical fiction

‘Pillars of the Earth’ emerged from his profound interest and fascination with medieval cathedrals and the people who built them. To his surprise and everybody else’s, the book became even more popular than his thrillers. “It seemed that readers would enjoy historical novels from me as well as enjoy thrillers from me. So that’s how the switch came about and eventually I decided that historical novels were more fun to write and more pleasing to the readers too,” he tells us.

Then, after completing World Without End, Follett admits that he thought to himself, ‘I must do something like this again because people like it so much.’ He thought he should write another long historical novel but he didn’t want to write another medieval story; he wanted to write about a historical period that was dramatic. “That’s when I thought, why not write about the 20th century because it’s the most violent era in human history. We had two world wars and we had the threat of nuclear war. And also, it is the century that tells us where we come from.” And soon, as he was thinking about it, he realized it would be much better to write three books instead of one, a book for each of the great wars of the century.

His predilection for strong female characters

Ken Follett was one of the first writers to use strong women characters in his novels like Lucy Rose, the hero of Eye of the needle who kills the German spy at the end of the story. Ken notes, “That was very unusual in the 1970s when I wrote that book. It was unheard of. But nowadays it isn’t so unusual.”

He attributes this change to the difference in attitudes to women and the evolving role that women play in society. He opines, “Fifty years ago women were considered subordinate. So in the novels the men were more important. But during my lifetime, I have seen women question, ‘Wait a minute. Why should women be secondary to men?” This change was reflected in literature too.

The television world came knocking

His book, On Wings of Eagles, a true story about two employees who were rescued from Iran during the revolution of 1979, was turned into a miniseries and The Pillars of the Earth became an eight hour television show. And the Century Trilogy will also soon be made into a television series. But as an author, he finds the process of adapting books into television shows “thrilling but also a little nerve–wrecking.” He adds, “It makes me very nervous because I have been very careful writing the book to make sure that it all makes sense. There are no boring bits, the plot is logical and the characters are interesting. And then I give this book to somebody else, a television producer and he takes it apart. He has a script written which is different from my book. Well, he has to because he has to tell a story in pictures not words. I worry that when they change it they won’t be as careful as I was and they won’t do it very well. But, to be honest, in the end if the television series is well made, I get to look at the screen and see the characters I invented played by very good actors.”

Evolving as a writer

The bestselling author has been writing for over four decades now, having taken to writing when he realised he didn’t love newspapers. He recalls, “I wasn’t a terrible journalist but I wasn’t a great journalist either. Fiction was what I really liked. And it took me a few years to realize that my destiny was not in newspapers, it was in books.”

He went to work with a publisher soon after. And although his first books were not very successful — in fact he wrote ten books before he had a bestseller — he managed to carve out success for himself in the literary world.

Recently on a Reddit AMA (Ask me anything), he remarked, “What does writing represent? It’s my life! It’s what I do all day, every day.” And his wonderfully crafted, genre bending and ambitious stories, that emerge from his knowledge of the world and life, has delighted many a fan around the world.

Affiliate Links

The book is available for purchase on Amazon


A version of this was published in The New Indian Express on September 18, 2014

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Revisiting War Through Letters

Great War

Title: Indian Voices of the Great War
Edited by: David Omissi
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Published: July 15, 2014
Pages: 382
ISBN: 9780670087112
Genre: Non-fiction, History, Letters
Rating: 5/5

There were about one million Indian soldiers who served in the First World War as a part of the British army. Of them, about 60,000 died and 9,000 were decorated for their valour. Yet, they remain unsung heroes, their sacrifices are not acknowledged in the post-colonial world. Their struggles and stories don’t find a place in history. The book Indian Voices of the Great War (Penguin India) aims to recount the stories of these forgotten heroes by opening a window onto the tremendous role that India played in Britain’s win in the Great War.

The 300-odd page book, edited by eminent historian David Omissi, is a collection of correspondence between Indian soldiers in Europe and their families and friends in the subcontinent, between the years 1914 and 1919. The letters, written in various Indian languages but translated for the purposes of the book, are powerful reminders of the different battles, raids and large-scale attacks upon the German lines and the weather conditions in various theatres of war.

Through the various letters we find out how some soldiers detested the war, likening the scale of it to the Mahabharata and the battle of Karbala. On the other hand, the manner in which some of the Indians resigned themselves to the inevitability of death, how stoically they reported stories of horror and carnage not wishing to cause distress to their families and friends, is moving. These letters also reveal the soldiers’ unflinching loyalty to the King and how the Rajputs, Pathans and others fought not for mercenary motives but to preserve their izzat. Importance was also placed on receiving decorations — especially of the Victoria Cross.

But their letters also prominently dwell on things other than the war. Several interesting stories about their day-to-day life in the faraway land stand out in this aspect: a soldier recalling his encounter with a friendly child who didn’t shy away from talking to him, another narrating to his father how ‘pleasant and beautiful’ the country of France was, how the fruits there were tastier than what you got in India, are wonderful reminders of ordinary things in face of the looming war. One soldier, towards the fag end of the war, expressed the benefits of educating a girl child, saying, “The advancement of India lies in the hands of the women; until they act, India can never awake from her hare’s dream.”

Talking about the book, a friend recently remarked, “This book will teach us more about the First World War than our textbooks did.” And this is not an exaggerated claim. The book is a unique and compelling account of the Great War by those who experienced it first hand.

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First published in The New Indian Express on September 23, 2014

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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