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The Book of the People-A book by Joshua Newton


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“It was dark. .A cold wind blew over the hill and the trees swayed and the sleepless cicadas shrilled. By the hillside, through the deep green expanse of the trees and shrubs wild and sprawling , two frail figures ambled on. One tiny and the other frail, both women. One held a small hurricane lamp that allowed an orange gleam just enough for them to walk about. Two women in a pale orange light in the pre-dawn stillness. The path was wet from the night’s dew. Their footsteps seemed to intrude into the silent night that awaited a quiet dawn. The flame in the glass chimney flickered on, shedding barely enough light for the two to take tiny, careful steps. They had to do this before the dawn, before the sun came. The dictum said so. The older one was looking for herbs. ”

This lyrical passage introduces the reader to Biji Rajan, the masseuse , one of the ten people whose lives we become familiar with after reading Joshua Newton’s ,”The Book of the People”.
This passage is an example of the empathy with which the author has approached the small and big details , the twists and turns , the prose and poetry of the lives he unfolds for us.

They are not celebrities whose achievements would clamour out for their lives being recorded to inspire others to walk their way. There is no real drama..nothing that would make the book a nail-biting read and yet the way the extroadinariness of those ten ordinary lives is so surely , but subtly spelt out that they keep bothering you after you’ve put down the book.

Admittedly, some stories leave more of an impression than others. But yes, admittedly again, which of the ten stories gets under your skin may be different for different readers.

I think I was touched most by Biji, who healed innumerable people who approached her, with the love and empathy in her palms. May be the way she was introduced pre-dispositioned me into liking her. The little girl who grew up imbibing all the native wisdom and ethics of healing from her grandmother. Biji who emphasised that “most importantly we needed to love. If our hearts lacked love, nothing would work”.

Manu, who could never tire of elaborating on the “virtues of the wilderness”, and the intricacies of the lives of butterflies and who according to the author “had sprouted into a spirit that imbibed elements naturally belonging to a butterfly-lightness,swiftness,harmony, agility, silence and a love for the woods” , does not fail to impress either. What a charmed life, away from the hustle and bustle of the rat-race.

Koyamon, the native of one of the islands in the Lakshwadeep cluster ,whose life went through its crests and troughs, even as the waves in the surrounding ocean, went through the same routine endlessly and Peter Tomy, whose sense of right and wrong had been submerged way below the surface of his erratic and unruly youth and whose redemption came through an act of forgiveness of his mother-in-law , whom he had attempted to kill also stuck with me. So did Ravuthar, who trudged miles and miles into the forest to gather grass to thatch roofs, something that he had been doing all his life and which he continued to do with the utmost grace and submission to God’s designs.

Then there is Anand, the naturalist, who had eventually found serenity and harmony amongst the trees and plants of “spice Village” in Thekkady, where he lived and breathed in the luxriousness of Nature allowed to thrive with the very minimum of intervention . The boatmen whom one may accost on a vacation trip along the backwaters of Kerala and would as quickly forget once out of those environs, wouldn’t ordinarily invite a second look into their lives. Not anymore perhaps,,not after coming to know Radhakrishan , who had perhaps spent the major part of his life chugging along the vastness of those waters .Time had in the meanwhile changed the teenaged boy who accompanied his father on his cargo boat to a grey-haired man.

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The author has obviously spent a lot of time getting to know these “ordinary” people. At places, one felt, the inclusion of all the tiny details became a deterrant to the smoothness of the narrative. But then again, those details were necessary, I guess to bring out the extroadinariness in their existences which would otherwise escape our notice, swamped as it were with the monotony of their everyday routines. One thing that they all shared in common was perhaps the peace with which they had accepted the place where they had found themselves eventually in life. There is immense wisdom perhaps in the realization that no life is ordinary .

Many times, one did feel that the narrative was by someone who was unfamiliar with the Kerala landscape and were witnessing things for the first time…but then the author has explained why that is so in his Note at the beginning of the book, “ This is what I belive:Our daily lives do hold moments of poetry. I’m not sure which part has won in this book though- the poetry or the rawness. Everything narrated is factual or based on facts. Persoanl life-stories are woven through their day jobs. Obviously, I stand the risk of being called a “faux naïf” examiner , somebody examining his own people as a foreigner and getting away with it. That’s okay. My interest was in drawing material from my own people to create something non-local, a kind of work that will resonate with readers anywhere.”

Notwithstanding that anticipatory bail, I would’ve personally vouched for the poetry winning if it had not been for the sometimes lengthy detailing, such as the one on vermiculture in Anand’s story , which almost seemed to come as an interruption. I think the story of Suresh the “kalaripayattu practioner failed to hold my attention for the same reason.

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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in Books

 

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Vanity Bagh- A book by Anees Salim


” In black humor, topics and events that are usually regarded as taboo, specifically those related to death, are treated in an unusually humorous or satirical manner while retaining their seriousness; the intent of black comedy, therefore, is often for the audience to experience both laughter and discomfort, sometimes simultaneously. ”

So goes the description of black humour in the Wikipedia. If a literature student wanted to lay hands on a book in this genre, contextual to our times, Vanity Bagh” by Anees Salim would be a most appropriate one .

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Six muslim youth, aspiring to attain the hieghts of notoriety of the local don, Abu Hathim, form an allegiance and wait for their moments of specious glory, meeting daily on the stairway of the mosque in their mohallah, Vanity Bagh, of which Bushra Jabbari, the mother of the narrator of this story had said,”The moment the rikshaw stopped, your abba had said, This is Vanity bagh, where we will build our home and make it heaven-like”. She would later speak of the row of dusty green colonaded structures with balconies made of wood and railings of wrought iron, “In my memory these buildings haven’t changed a bit in thirty years”.

Bushra Jabbari and her husband, the Imam of the local mosque , would never have foreseen that their son, Imraan Jabbari, would be incacerated for fourteen years , having been judged guilty of having triggered off the deaths in the 11/11 scooter bomb blasts. Neither had Imraan Jabbari and his five other friends expected the twists in the tales of their macho manhood that they were scripting for themselves. Yes , they had names of famous Pakistani personalities …Imran, Zia, Zulfikar, Jinnah, Yahya and Nawaz Sharif. Yes, their Mohallah had earned the nickname “little Pakistan” after a riot had broken out outside the hair-dressing salon of Sharif Khan, when he and some others had started to celebrate Pakistan’s victory in the world cup by bursting crackers. But all that these youngsters had wanted, was to do what Abu Hathim had done when he was their age,”guarding their mohallah, being saluted by the mohallah-wallahs, collecting haftah, being salaamed by the mohalla-wallahs, making a fortune, being salaamed by the mohallah-wallahs , beating up the mohalla-wallahs , being salaamed still more by them ” and so on. Jihad was not on their minds.

It is indeed a feat to handle a subject ,so sensitive in these times, in a way that even the grimmest of situations is presented thus, that makes you smile.The narrative is interspersed with quotes from members of the mohallah and from the English films that the youngsters watched, mostly on the VCD, after Nawaz Sharif’s Abba pulled down the shutters of the salon for the day, which chips away at the darkness of the situation and lends a lightness , even as it evokes discomfiture in the reader.

And then there is Shair Shoukath , who deliciously steals lines from others and makes it his own , with a flourish , much to the grief of Professor Suleiman Ilahi and Rustom Sahib, the other members of the local Poetry club..

“Cowards die many times before their death. The valiant never taste of death, but once”-Shair Shoukath
“Now you are stealing from Shakespeare.That’s improvement.”-Professor Suleiman
“That’s Shakespeare? Sure? I thought Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote that” -RustomSahib.

I had watched the film “Shahid” , last night , produced by Anurag Kahsyap and directed by Hansal Mehta. It is based on the real life story of Shahid Azmi, who had enrolled himself in a jihadi training camp after witnessing a riot in which many of his community had been butchered and burnt alive , but had fled from there , unable to assimilate the violence the jihadis professed and practiced. He was imprisoned for his suspected terrorist links and spent many years inside. He picks up his life however, goes on to become a lawyer and decides to take up cases of innocents who are jailed on the flimsiest of reasons under the TADA. Shahid himself was murdered. In the short time that he had practised as an activist lawyer, he had acquired eleven acquittals.

The film had many undertones as does this novel, both pointing to a situation that has loads to despair about. But while the film never for a moment lets go of the seriousness of its tone, albeit very well executed, ” Vanity Bagh ” grips your attention with a kind of seeming flippancy which in fact adds to its poignancy.

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The figure that remains starkly etched in my mind is that of the Imam , Imran Jabbaris’ father.

“The only time he wanted to be a human bomb was when Ammi came back from Haja stores on the eve of Eid with too many shopping bags and a Chiese umbrella. He frowned at the bags and announced it was time he took Khomeini sahib’s fatwa seriously and blew himself up when Rushdie was around so that Ammi and the rest of us could wallow in the same degree of luxury Mr. Mir sahib’s wife and children were spoilt with “, narrates Imran Jabbari.

He, who rendered the azan in his own inimitable style “that made the mohallwalahs wonder whether to laugh or complain to the Muslim Welfare Board” , had later on started to dread it. ” He dreaded the azan, something he used to love so dearly and with his own sense of rhythm that Wasim and I used to blush when the muezzin’s call drifted across the mohallah. He now feared his voice would be met with boos from the street. He had five three minute ordeals to live through everyday”.

That kind of summed up the tragedy of religion gone awry, of ghettoisation, of politics that fanned hatred , of our loss of empathy and inclusiveness , of the mistrust on both sides, of the resultant belligerance.

It is not a story of hope, Anees Salim had warned us. It isn’t .

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in Books

 

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