A Dalliance with Destiny – Aman Singh Maharaj

Review originally published in The Hindu Businessline

A Dalliance with Destiny is an ambitious book that goes wide, but unfortunately, not deep enough. It meanders aimlessly, much like the protagonist, making it a slow and laborious read.

Milan Gansham is a fourth-generation South African of Indian origin who is ‘angst-ridden about his roots’. Having experienced racism, bigotry and heartbreak in his home country and disillusioned with life there, he embarks on a trip to India to find answers. Answers to questions that he does not have yet.

The book “spans a century across South Africa and India” as per the blurb and it starts in 1910 with a poverty-stricken Jagat Thakur being forced to leave his village and immigrate to South Africa as an enlisted labourer. However, his story ends quite abruptly, and not much is said about the following two generations, leaving the reader with some unanswered questions.

Later in the novel, when Milan searches for his ancestral villages in India, one would have expected a poignant moment connecting his past and present. Instead, all you get is a highly implausible sequence of events that only serves to reinforce Milan’s saviour complex.

The three sections of the book, though part of the same story seem disconnected from each other. He explores Bombay’s red-light district, travels to the Osho ashram in Pune expecting unrestricted sex there, and attends drug-fueled parties on Goa’s beaches before starting his journey to the Ganga’s source. This is as though he wants to be done with his vices before embarking on the spiritual part of the trip which takes him to Varanasi and later to Kashmir and Rishikesh, but his vices continue to follow him.

In Calcutta, he finds himself in the unlikely company of academics where he meets Dr Aparna John. He immediately moves in with her for a whirlwind affair because she ‘satisfies his intellect’. Later he meets the ‘chaste’ Maya, who hesitates to even kiss him. She, being the opposite of the sexually available Aparna and the other ‘goris’ and the ‘desperate desi girls who were afraid after hitting thirty’ that he was used to so long, he finally falls in love.

While Milan himself is a victim of racism and bigotry in his country, he exhibits the same tendencies himself with a huge dose of misogyny to boot. He has major insecurities about his caste and despite how self-deprecating they may appear to be, his casteist comments range from repulsive to shockingly offensive.

Milan’s trip to India is set in 2010, but even for that period, the narration seems to be dated and full of stereotypes and cliches. There are taxi drivers with ‘ghetto moustaches’ who play Dum maaro dum in their taxis and a tiresome running joke throughout the book about how all taxi drivers are named Raju.

Even the movie references seem to be from another era. Milan visits Jalsa, the house of ‘the angry young man’ hoping to meet him, but is informed that the star ‘has gone to Madras for a shoot’.

He also is extremely patronising about ‘Indian English’ and there is an incident where he uses a crude Hindi euphemism assuming that the pharmacist will not understand the word ‘condom’. There is an overdose of crass sexual references that pepper the entire book which could have been toned down.

Even the supposedly intelligent discussions where he talks about Pythagoras stealing his theorem from Baudhanya or the Taj Mahal being built on top of a temple seem to be inspired by old Internet forwards that have done several rounds over the years. He even mentions how he does not want India to be controlled by “an ex-barmaid” or that it will be “taken over by Italians.” Such done-to-death political comebacks that flooded social media during the period of the story seem quite out of place when reading the book in the present.

There is a bit too much detail when it comes to describing anything Indian since the book appears to have been written keeping non-Indian readers in mind. A reader familiar with such events tends to skip or skim through those portions. However, several incidents also give you the impression that the author is unfamiliar with life in India. For example, while travelling in a second-class AC train compartment, Milan and his friend share a berth in order to save money. Or when he pays a driver for a tour company a bribe of one lakh rupees and assumes that this is the driver’s monthly salary. There are also several incidents where people immediately identify and treat Milan as a firang which seems quite far-fetched, given that he is of ‘pure’ Indian descent.

The book is neither an easy read nor a page-turner. It is a work that may be read over several weeks or months because there is no overarching plot or even characters that you become invested in. There are certain passages that will interest those with a spiritual or philosophical bent, particularly Milan’s interactions with the Swami in Varanasi. The vocabulary is rich and does not seem pretentious, but the book could have done with more editing to make it crisper and more relatable.

About the Book

Title: A Dalliance with Destiny

Author: Aman Singh Maharaj

Publisher: Austin Macauley Publishers

Price: ₹663 (398 pages)

Adam – S Hareesh, Jayasree Kalathil (Translator)

Originally published here

An everyday bus rider finds himself alone for the first time in his life when he gets off at an unknown stop. Wandering in the darkness, he encounters an old, probably abandoned reading room in the middle of nowhere. He peers inside, curious to see if anyone seems to be there, reading a pile of books with a ‘great sense of urgency because he is worried about his advancing age and depleting eyesight.’ It is this same sense of urgency, the fear of missing out, that suddenly drives him to catch up on everything that he had missed out on in life so far because he was never truly alone.  ‘Alone’, with its Murakamiesqe touch, might be the only story in this collection that does not have a dark or morbid twist to it. Or maybe it does. 

The blurb of S Hareesh’s Adam describes the stories as those ‘that explore the more difficult of human emotions- lust, anger, jealousy, vengeance, and greed’. But the constant in almost all the stories is the emotion that surfaces as a result of lust, anger, jealousy, vengeance, and greed: human pettiness.

The title story  Adam is the tale of Candy, Jordan, Arthur, and Victor, four offspring from the same mother. Arthur becomes the innocent victim of someone else’s past sins and is condemned to lead a wretched life, Victor becomes a national hero who meets a gory end and Jordan breaks free. But it is Candy whose story is the most heartbreaking. How easily humans discard their objects of affection, or are forced to, when replaced by what they perceive as a better version.

Death Notice is perhaps the darkest and most mind-blowing story of the lot. It begins on a disturbing note with a mongrel wailing for her newborn litter that has just been buried alive and the cries of a pregnant cow in the throes of death. But the story moves further to take on a more morbid turn as Peter sir, Joppan, and the narrator gamble using death notices cut out from newspapers while waiting for the turtle meat to cook. 

Lord of the Hunt is a story of an assistant bank manager’s obsession with wild game that makes him take on a dual personality. He transforms into a man possessed when his supplier gets him wild game meat and he walks around in bloodstained clothes, dodging the law and distributing it to his secret customers.  ‘Eating wild game is like the doctor having an affair with one of the nurses. It is forbidden, so you don’t want anyone knowing about it, but really you want the whole world to find out.’ He takes it as a personal insult when the authenticity of his deer meat is questioned and refuses to acknowledge the fact that he was once an animal lover who cried when a rabbit was killed. As he gets drawn deeper and deeper into this strange obsession, he finds himself alienated from his normal life. The raw base instinct of the hunter in him is awakened each time he is near a forest. But while he imagines himself to be Jim Corbett, he actually transforms himself into a caricature, a Shikari Shambu.

Kavyamela is a disturbing story that showcases the ugliest side of men. Not humans, but men; men who play a dirty trick on their blind friend and his lover. It leaves the reader angry and disgusted.

Political and social messages

Magic Tail is perhaps the most poignant story of the lot. A single woman requests her childhood friend to help her transport her dead father in a Maruti Omni from Bangalore to Kerala. ‘I did kill Papa. I forced him to move here’ she says while they prepare the body for transport. The practical and matter-of-fact way in which every step of the journey plays out, where basic human needs of hunger, thirst, and other requirements are addressed with the dead body in the backseat makes the story the most hard-hitting of the lot. 

Night Watch is the perfect story to end the collection with; it leaves you laughing. This is a story of death and an age-old enmity between the two men, but there are entire paragraphs dedicated to describing the various obscenities that the two men throw at each other during a fight including what was considered the perfect response that ‘was so imaginative that it put epic poets to shame’ leaving the reader’s imagination go wild.

The subtle and not-so-subtle political and social messages that are neatly packaged into all the stories do not go unnoticed, especially in  Maoist. ‘This is a land that worships the buffalo-slayer as God’, says the man as he prepares to go in search of the buffaloes that had escaped from the butcher. The movie Jallikattu was based on this story, but for those who haven’t watched the movie, this story is a refreshing treat in itself.

Jayasree Kalathil’s translation is brilliant and it has maintained the richness of the original with all the local references and context, while at the same time not alienating a reader who is unfamiliar with the environment.

Some of the stories have such a dark twist that it makes you almost feel guilty for enjoying them. The setting of the stories ranges from everyday relatable to borderline bizarre, but every character leaves the reader wanting more. Each character, whether human, animal, or beyond, has multiple layers that unravel with each reading. These nine stories deserve more than one read to truly experience the nuances in the narration and the many shades and layers of the characters.

About the Book


S. Hareesh

Translated by Jayasree Kalathil

Vintage Books (Penguin)

Rs 388 ; 192 pages (Hardcover)

Resolve- Perumal Murugan

Originally published

Marimuthu is thirty-five years old and unmarried. His only aim in life now is to find a bride. His farmworker Kuppan’s not-yet-20-year-old son is about to marry and Marimuthu resents it deeply. When his grandmother reminisces about how she got married at eleven, he gets so triggered that he lashes out, forcing her to leave the house she lived in for decades.

His contemporaries all have children of almost marriageable age, and he must deal with the pity they show him every time they meet. He has now become a laughing stock among his friends and even his family. Feeling all alone, he lies in bed, frustrated and depressed. At times, he is almost suicidal.

When the gossip about his drinking spreads and spoils one alliance, he quits drinking. Upon hearing that girls these days will need a TV, he buys a TV and gets a cable connection to his house in the middle of nowhere. After a potential alliance slips away when the family sees him working the fields in a loincloth, he begins dressing better. He ensures that there is always a stock of buttermilk at home after a match didn’t work out just because they did not have buttermilk. But there are simply no women left for Marimuthu to marry.

Marriage brokers armed with betelnut boxes offer him hope and take advantage of his desperation by selling him horoscopes of married women. Another broker mocks him by suggesting he marry someone of a different caste, something that he even begins to consider. A farmer like him cannot compete with lorry drivers or mill workers whom the girls and their families prefer these days. Vows made to various Gods are meaningless and sink like stones thrown into infinity wells.

Only the old matchmaker thaatha , the marriage broker who genuinely cares for Marimuthu continues to remain his well-wisher. Having failed in all his attempts to find Marimuthu a wife, he brings him another proposal: He offers to help mediate and settle an age-old family dispute. Several acres of red-soil land that belong to the family have been lying unused for decades because of a family feud and it is now time to resolve this.

‘The land seems to have shut all its entrances tight and was huddled inside quietly’

As Marimuthu walks through the vast stretch of disputed land, now overgrown with trees high enough to block out the sun, and thorny bushes that cover perfectly fertile, soft, red soil that could have borne good harvests all these years, he feels a sense of bonding with the land. Both he and the red-soil land have shut themselves to the world after years of being left behind, quietly wasting away. And both long for the day when their existence will have meaning once again. Marimuthu begins to believe that his wedding will happen once the land dispute is settled.

Resolve is a typical Perumal Murugan story that takes us into rural Tamilnadu, where, in

urban parlance, there are no girls for Marimuthu to swipe. In a community where class and caste rule, female foeticide, and sex-selective abortions are rampant and this has resulted in a dire situation where there are only four girls left in a village of twenty eligible boys; the bald, leftover thirty-something men excluded.

When matchmaker thaatha blames society for this situation, at first Marimuthu doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if people abort girl babies or feed them paddy grains and choke them to death. All he wants is a bride. But as his futile quest continues, he begins to think. He remembers one of the unwanted baby girls who was killed many years ago and wonders if she could have been his wife today had they let her live. He resolves to have as many daughters as he can so that no boy ever has to experience what he feels.

While there is a lack of women for Marimuthu to marry, there is no dearth of other women in his life who wield their influence and power over him. His mother with her unreasonable demands of dowry has sent away potential brides over the years and her drama makes Marimuthu give up plans of marrying a widow. His sister subtly blackmails him during a critical ritual to make him promise more gold for her daughter. The marriage broker Veeduthi sits on their doorstep, spitting her betel juice, taunting him. And most importantly his paternal grandmother, his biggest influence continues to weave her way into his life throughout his journey to find a bride.

Most of the men are small and insignificant and shrink into the background. Marimuthu’s father is a mere prop and even his cousin Selvarasu who initiates the land dispute resolution shrinks into the background later for reasons closer to his heart. One feels sorry for Marimuthu when he visits a girl’s house and sits patiently under a tree, waiting for her father, not even being offered a glass of water. He is just one of the many options for the girl and he can’t afford to have the ego that a bridegroom is usually expected to have. It is the lower caste men throughout the book who have more clout, and take charge. Yet do not get their due.

Translated from the original Kanganam , Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation works beautifully, and just like One Part Woman , the book does not read like a translation. It is not a page-turner and meanders slowly with a word here or a scene there that touches many serious problems that continue to plague rural society, still without a solution in sight.

About the Book

  • Resolve
  • Perumal Murugan (Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)
  • Hamish Hamilton
  • Rs 499; 400 pages

The Thinnai- Ari Gautier

Originally published here

The  Thinnai  is a disappearing element of architecture that used to be an integral part of most traditional Tamil Nadu homes. It is an open space with a raised platform and pillars at the entrance where weary travelers could rest overnight or lay down their heavy loads and sit for a while. It was where a salesman would display his wares to the women of the house, or where someone could take a lazy afternoon nap. It was the space where old women sat all day, spending the last years of their lives, stopping random passers-by for a dose of gossip as they watched the world go by.

It is from such a  Thinnai , in a fishing village somewhere beyond the yellow walls of Pondicherry’s White Town with its quaint gates with bougainvillea arches, that Ari Gautier weaves a fascinating tale that takes you on a journey across the world.

In just two hundred pages, starting from a small village in the north of France, the reader gets to cross the seas, make a stopover in The Maldives, travel the length and breadth of coastal India, venture into the diamond mines of Golconda, and cross the seas again to the sugarcane plantations in The Caribbean.

The Kurusukuppam hamlet is a melting pot of confused cultures, nationalities, and ideologies. No one even knows whether the place got its name from a fish or the Cross. Yet the village provides a window into the larger demographic and mindset of the former French colony.

Paulin, a French national, grew up idolizing Periyar and his principles before his inevitable disillusionment, but his brother who lives in the same house is Indian and a communist who considered Periyar as a ‘self-important fool’. Paulin’s childhood friend and fellow Periyarist, Kaatannan, holds a vengeful hatred for North Indians, the ashramites who took over Pondicherry by sidelining the locals and corrupting its youth with drugs and debauchery.  However, Monsieur Michel welcomes the ashramites because they have made him rich enough to call himself an engineer rather than simply a maistri. And then there is Manickam Annan, the hardcore communist who sells the last of his wife’s jewelry to further the ideals of the bushy-bearded, the goateed, and the mustachioed men who adorn his office board.

Paulin, the lapsed Periyarist, dreams of a casteless society, but his biases show through in subtle and not so subtle ways. Lourdes, their maid from the ‘Low Creole’ community, is not allowed to speak her corrupted version of French for fear of her perverting theirs. But when it comes to Gilbert  Thaata , the filthy vagabond who has blue eyes and fair skin, he fraternizes with him by sharing his whisky and French food just because he is white and speaks ‘real’ French. It is Lourdes who sees the old man as the useless freeloader he is and asks her master not to treat him like ‘The king of Vattalagundu’.

This is a community that celebrates Bastille Day without fully understanding why. But it is a day of celebration when rickshaw drivers get drunk and paint themselves in the colors of a country they have never known. The people here still honour and respect the white man, regardless of how filthy and poor he is because he is still the Durai, their overlord. The homes of some soldiers who fought in France’s wars display the French flag proudly, while the same flag is shunned in other homes as something to ‘wrap corpses in’.   We were just colonial soldiers. France was never our country. What we had with it was just a quirk with history’

It is on one such Bastille day that the bedraggled old Gilbert  Thaata , desperately in search of liquor, finds his way into Kurusukuppam. Settling himself on the  Thinnai  and freeloading on the endless supply of Bagpiper whisky, cigars, and French food he is provided, he does nothing all day. The only thing he does is to keep everyone enthralled with his incredible tale of Sita’s curse and how it struck his family in the seventeenth century and followed him to his fate that finally brought him to Pondicherry.

With the narrator returning to his village and wistfully looking at how it has changed over the years, the book seems to start out like yet another story that runs on childhood nostalgia. The villagers’ eccentricities and small back stories seem to come from an established template for such books: The village drunkard, an unapologetic polygamist, an idealistic communist, a greedy capitalist as his antithesis, a movie-crazy wastrel and a woman with loose morals — the works.

However, as the stories unfold, the personalities and their quirky names begin to stand out. For those who do not understand Tamil, unfortunately, the nicknames may not strike a chord as intended. The story behind Emile Kozhukattai Head’s name is part of the narrative but a non-native may not be able to picture what exactly a  kozhukattai  is. Similarly, Three-Balls Six-Faces might sound ridiculous enough to make one chuckle when it is read in English, but when translated into Tamil, the name takes on an altogether different level of hilarity. And then there is Asamandi Baiyacaca Sonal, a name that one may never figure out fully even after reading the incredulous story behind it.

The Thinnai  has been translated by Blake Smith from the French original,  Le Thinnai . For someone reading only the English version, it makes little difference since the setting of the book is neither French nor English. But with some terms, like calling it a Dalda box rather than a Dalda tin when insulting the woman from a certain community, or referring to the vessels used to carry water from the communal tap as jugs rather than pots, it did feel like there was a cultural disconnect between the translator and the subject. And the lack of the letter ‘h’ in most Tamil words like  Thaata  instead of  Thaatha  or  Kaatannan  instead of  Kaathannan  which alters the very meaning of some words when read in English is something only a Tamil speaker will understand

Though not a direct comparison,  The Thinnai  evokes a sense of comfortable familiarity with the works of M Mukundan whose stories are usually set in Mahe, Pondicherry’s counterpart on the west coast of India, with most characters having their nicknames prefixed to their given names and some of them going off to seek their fortunes in France and ending up fighting the Frenchman’s wars on African soil.

The Thinnai  also opens up a whole new world of further reading and learning. Since the British have been our biggest foreign influence, the influence of other countries that invaded and ruled India over the centuries has mostly been overshadowed by them. It is enlightening to learn about how smaller communities that had origins with the French, Portuguese and Dutch, assimilated into Indian society, and who are now limited to a few isolated pockets across India.

The Thinnai

Ari Gautier. Translated from the French original by Blake Smith

Hachette India

200 pages; Rs 340 (paperback)

The Grand Anicut- Veena Muthuraman

Originally published here

When one talks about historical fiction set in Tamil Nadu, the average reader cannot think beyond Ponniyin Selvan . Though several English translations are available, none of them do justice to the magnificence of the original. Veena Muthuraman’s The Grand Anicut , which she mentions in the Author’s Note has been inspired by this epic, is like a breath of fresh air — a much welcome addition to the list of books that this genre of South Asian historical fiction so badly needed.

While King Karikala Cholan is camped inland in Ariyalur, overseeing the building of his ambitious project, The Grand Anicut, a Roman trading ship docks at the Chola capital, the port town of Puhar. On the ship, along with a cargo of silver, topaz, frankincense, and wine is the seasick Roman trader Marcellus, who has been sent to Camara on a mission by his father and Vallavan, the Chola merchant prince who has finally found his way back home after being lost in far-off lands.

Right from the moment he sets foot on land, Marcellus’ adventures begin – dangerous adventures ranging from jail encounters with Pandya spies, and escaping bandit attacks to awkward adventures of trying to sit cross-legged at a feast in a Tamil household, wearing just a short toga. Marcellus has secrets of his own, which he has to keep from his fellow Yavanas, the disapproving Hippalus and suspicious Silvius, and secrets that his father has entrusted him, which requires him to travel to enemy territory in Pandya ruled Korkai.

Zhang, the mysterious Buddhist monk is everywhere, the shadow who sees all, knows all. He gathers information while eating his appams and fish fry at Rajamma’s shop and triggers people with his views on their Gods and religion. He tells them unbelievable facts like silk coming from worms and shocks people with ideas of the possibility of a casteless society. But obviously, he is not just a mere monk who travels to spread the word of Buddha. Is he a friend or an enemy?

There are shades of Ponniyin Selvan’s Poonkuzhali in the free-spirited bandit leader Angavai and bits of Kundavai in Vallavan’s influential widowed elder sister, Kuzhali. Both of them are strong, passionate, ambitious women who form the backbone of the story. Kuzhali breaks all conventional images of a young widow in the Sangam period. Rather than waste away in the corner of her house, she has ambitions of marrying the king, climbs trees, and eavesdrops on conversations of the Merchant’s Guild.

Angavai, the hill woman is determined and focused and does not let so-called womanly emotions such as an impossible love divert her from her goal. ‘The wealth of the people is mined and stolen away from us by the merchants and priests and sold off to you for a profit. The king gives this racket protection because he needs their gold to conquer other lands. He gives away the land and hills of my peoples as gifts to these daylight robbers’ . Her angry outpouring to the young Roman can be a scene set in contemporary fiction and be relevant even today.

The book is well researched with historical facts and literary references. For a reader who has a basic knowledge of the history, culture, and language, making connections between the characters in the book and well-known historical and literary characters is exciting. A few chapters into the book when the name of Kovalan comes up, it feels like a piece of a puzzle has fallen in place and the association with the literary classic Silapathikaram fits into the story. A piece of the puzzle that does not have much relevance to the plot but is nevertheless exciting. However, with no glossary for the local words nor any of them being italicized, some passages may be difficult for a reader with no knowledge of Tamil to relate to.

The story is full of intriguing incidents and characters which makes the reader want to add a sticky note reminder to delve deeper into the history and culture of that era beyond the obvious. For example, the members of the Merchant’s Guilds are Jainas, who follow Mahavira, but they are also rooted in their ancient traditions that they serve crab and tortoise at their feasts and hesitate to give up meat. Another piece of history (or myth, depending on how one looks at it) referred to in the book, to read up more on is the story behind the founding of the island of Srirangam and the temple. And, of course, the book leaves the reader wanting to learn more about the Early Cholas and the building of the Grand Anicut. Though the book is called The Grand Anicut and it loomed over the entire narrative, threatening to shift the capital of the kingdom and the king’s priorities away from the rich merchants of Puhar, the story had little to do with the building of the actual dam.

With short chapters that seem unrelated and disconnected at first, the book may seem to be a slow starter. But five or six chapters into the book, it pulls the reader right in and becomes an addictive page-turner that keeps one up all night and leaves the reader craving for more. And since it ends with the scope for a sequel, one can hope that this is not the last of the adventures of the young Roman trader or the mysterious Buddhist monk.


About the Book

The Grand Anicut

Veena Muthuraman

Hachette India

Rs 499/ 320 pages

Funeral Nights- Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih

Originally published here

At 1000+ pages and packed to the seams with legends, folk tales, myth, parables, fairytales, history, culture, and even politics, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s Funeral Nights is an epic in its own right.

It opens with the narrator Ap Jutang introducing himself, and his birthplace — Sohra, and giving the reader a glimpse of Khasi life. The chapter — My Name is Ap Jutang — narrates the story of the origin of Sohra, and describes its terrorising tempests, and the rains — the lap-bam-briew or the human-devouring rain, and the lap-boi-ksi or the louse swarming rain, as well as the white fog that engulfs the gorges after the rains. But just when the reader settles in, travelling through the jungles with its lakes and birds, reading Khasi stories that were told to children on stormy nights, and planning to armchair travel through the beautiful Khasi hills, Nongkynrih’s narrative takes a different turn.

A group of acquaintances meet at a death house and start talking about, well, death. While discussing the Torajans of Indonesia and their death ceremonies, someone tells them about a similar Khasi tradition being followed by the Lyngngams, a Khasi sub-tribe, that preserves the body for months, sometimes even years, before the cremation. Coincidentally, the Ka Phor Sorat or the Feast of the Dead was set to happen in the coming weeks; the body of an old woman that had been preserved for nine months was soon to be cremated. Intrigued, the strangers make impromptu plans and decide to attend the ceremony. An eclectic group of historians, college teachers, taxi drivers, a film-maker, a journalist, and a preacher start their long journey to the village of Nongshyrkon in the west Khasi hills. Halfway through their adventurous journey in a rickety Maruti Gypsy through remote mountain roads they realise that they got the dates wrong and are seven days too early for the ceremony, but with rescheduling not an option, they carry on and spend the rest of the days in the village, housed in a bamboo hut that was built exclusively for them. Every night they sit around the fire, sipping locally brewed beer and sharing stories.

The sheer range and the number of stories that are covered during the 10 nights does tend to overwhelm the reader. There is a morbid story about the origin of why betel nut or kwai is integral to Khasi hospitality and a slightly off-putting story about why the pork in Sohra is more delicious than anywhere else. There are stories about tribes who fought against the imposition of Hinduism, another about families that fell under the spell of a Christian fundamentalist Doomsday Cult, and the story of why the buffalo and rooster are sacred to the Khasis. And then there are also long discussions on deforestation, how coal mining has continued illegally even after the NGT ban, the pros and cons of nuclear energy and opening up the mountains of Meghalaya for the uranium deposits. It is impossible to bound the stories to a genre.

Though the book is divided into chapters with the theme of the night such as Root Stories , Little Stories, Name Stories and others, the reader sometimes ends up confused and loses track of the narration since the stories merge into more stories. It could start with the members of the group talking to each other, discussing Khasi culture and the influx of outsiders, and the narration moves on to history where it is the reader who is now being addressed in long passages. A conversation that starts with someone narrating a Khasi folk tale could end in political commentary or even in a rant about corrupt politicians. Also, sitting in a remote village with erratic electricity and no mobile signals, it did seem a bit contrived when many a time, someone in the group, usually the tad boring but very knowledgeable Ap Jutang, pulls out his tablet or mobile phone on which a relevant article or poem has been very conveniently saved and goes on to read it aloud to the group.

The actual funeral ceremony, Ka Phor Sorat or the Feast of the Dead, for which the group has come to the village forms a relatively minor part of the book. The description of the ceremony gives the reader goosebumps. The body of the dead woman, Ka We Shyrkon, ‘as light as popcorn’, is brought down from the tree house after nine months for the villagers to pay their respects and begin the customary wailing. Two days later, the cremation rituals begin in the village now overflowing with mourners who have arrived from across the hills. There is celebratory gunfire, never-ending music and dance, shamans chanting and performing egg-breaking ceremonies, and the slaughtering of 50 bulls for the feast. It is a celebration of death. Though Raji, a film-maker, records the ceremonies and the group ask a few questions about the rituals, throughout their stay, they seem largely detached from the proceedings and rather more interested in continuing their story-sharing sessions. This makes the reader wonder if the whole set-up of the journey to the remote village and nights around the fire, and the death ceremony were really required to be the foundation of the plot since the same stories could have been shared in any urban setting.

Halolihilm, an outsider, does not contribute much to the stories but provides the much-needed comic relief, as unintended as it might have been. Having come to the village with the sole intention of converting the tribe to Christianity it comes as a huge disappointment to learn that everyone is already a Christian. He spends the remaining days trying to get the villagers to join his specific church, getting into fist-fights with the rest of the group with his holier-than-thou attitude, and is at the receiving end of the choicest Khasi abuses from everyone. But the best unintentional comic moment is towards the end when he gets into a pickle with a village girl.

Magdalene, the only woman in the group fails to deliver. In spite of being a history teacher in a college, she does not contribute much to the stories and is ignorant about much of the Khasi culture. Though her character could be a true reflection of the urban Khasi’s knowledge of their own history, what disappoints more is that she does not provide any insight or contribute to any of the stories from a woman’s perspective. She does make obligatory angry noises when the men talk about the way Khasi women should dress, but even when the men discuss a 1987 Femina article where Khasi men were described as ‘good for nothing’ and then go off on a tangent about how the matrilineal system is stacked against men, she does little to debate it from a woman’s point of view. And having been introduced as a strong independent woman ‘who has gone on hunting expeditions with men’, she is still portrayed as delicate and genteel in subtle ways. She is the only person in the group who does not carry food baskets and is queasy when stories of gory deaths are shared.

The rest of the characters are not very memorable. Though they contribute to the stories, and coming from different backgrounds and religions, showcase the diversity among the Khasis, they fail to make an impression.

Funeral Nights is not a book to be read at one go and put away, but one that needs to be taken out from the bookshelf often, opened to a random chapter, and read and re-read. Each new reading will throw up the unexpected. One day you might be travelling across the mountains with the rooster, and on another you may be at a check gate on a mountain road watching a rogue official brandish his khukri to steal the day’s cash collection.

A Death in Shonagachhi – Rijula Das

Originally published here

“Fingerprints and clues and body lines only worked in American television serials or when someone high profile gets murdered and the Central Bureau of Investigation led probes. It wasn’t going to happen for some whore in Shonagachhi.”

Of course, it did not happen.


A crowded brothel in the red light district of Shonagachhi in Kolkata. A sex worker who is brutally murdered. Police personnel who don’t care. An oily pimp named Rambo. Paan-chewing fat madams. Blonde Russian women. Sleazy babus who wear fake designer sunglasses. Social workers who wear expensive cotton clothes bought from art deco bungalows. A wannabe poet who dreams of history but writes erotica and is hopelessly in love with a prostitute.

The story has all the stereotypes possible, but surprisingly none of them seem in-your-face obvious. They effortlessly weave themselves into the crowded alleys of Shonagachhi that has been hit hard by demonetisation and into the shiny hotels on Park Street before they take you into the sleazy underbelly of one of the biggest moneymaking industries of today.

The book is not an edge-of-the-seat murder mystery, and it is only halfway into it that the reader even begins to find a semblance of motive for the murder. The isn’t even proper closure or answers to all the questions, but somehow it does not matter. A Death in Shonagachhi is a slow-burn that gives you a peek into the lives and minds of each character, none of them black or white or grey. Rather, all the characters are a nondescript shade of a muddy brown puddle. Throw a stone and you get a splash of their life as an insight.

However, it is not the gory murder or the predictable lives of the sex workers nor the slightly filmy climax that lingers on in the back of your mind after you have finished the book. The essence lies in the smaller details.

Lalee, (you can’t exactly call her the protagonist, she is just one of the main characters in the book) was sold by her father and entered the sex trade as a 10-year-old. While this is the kind of backstory that has been part of innumerable books and the reader may be numb to it, there is the scene where Lalee, as a child sex worker who has already been sent to several men, still doesn’t understand what attaining puberty means and rushes to her madam, terrified at the sight of her bloodstained underwear. The madam laughs, teaches her to fold a cloth, and sends her to that very night to “someone who likes blood”. It is an account that punches the reader hard in the gut.

Trilokeshwar Shau — ‘Tilu’, the writer of the bestselling Sister-in-Law series of erotic novels, is so deeply and hopelessly in love with Lalee that he wants to rescue her with marriage. However, he makes the judgmental observation about Victoria Memorial being full of pimps and prostitutes after dark. It doesn’t surprise the reader, for even a regular brothel customer is conditioned to think a certain way. Das, however, holds up a mirror to the face of middle-class morality.

And then the book raises questions that hardly have answers. Is the ‘raid, rescue and rehabilitate’ method where sex workers are given sewing machines and pickle making classes in small windowless buildings, the answer? Or is it the ‘unionise and educate’ route where they are allowed to work, armed with condoms and awareness? Or perhaps the answer is to ‘leave them alone, they don’t need you and your savior complex’, the way to be.

Author Das says she wrote and rewrote the book over six years. These years of painstaking effort and research are reflected in the sensitive manner in which each character has been fleshed out in this impressive debut novel.

Dream Journal: The Train

It is still dark when the train stops. I stretch my hands as far as I can in the upper berth and yawn

I hate it when I have to disembark at a station that is not the last stop. So much hurrying.

I gather my belongings and dump them into my handbag. I realise that my bag had remained open throughout the night. I zip it up and scramble down. I have two suitcases, one big and one small. Both blue. I hate blue but always end up with blue suitcases. Maybe because they are the cheapest.

I can’t find anything to tie my hair with, so I put my hair up in a bun. How do women look so effortlessly chic in messy buns when I always end up looking like I just lost a fight at the water lorry.

I pull out the suitcases from under the seat. The big blue one needs an angry yank to come out. Most of the passengers have already disembarked, so I am able to roll both my suitcases without bumping into impatient people. I roll them down the platform and go towards the exit. There is a ticket checker at the exit gate. Strange.

I stand in the line waiting for him to check the tickets and a wave of horror sweeps over me. I don’t have the ticket with me. It was a physical ticket, the one printed on the small piece of cardboard. Do they even make those these days? A family in front of me say that the TTR already checked theirs on the train and this checker lets them pass. It is now my turn. I tell him the same, but he is not convinced. He tells me to show it anyway. I open my handbag and fumble with the stuff inside. There is so. much. junk. Something tells me to slip a finger into the tiniest compartment of the bag and miraculously the ticket appears. First Class. Rupees 30. The ticket checker nods and lets me go. I pass the gates and place my bags on a bench to organise myself. A wave of panic sweeps over me! I do not have my phone or Kindle! Damn. I must have left them on the berth!

I grab my stuff and run back into the platform. The train has slowly started to move. I don’t remember my coach, so I leave my suitcases on the platform and rush into the one nearest to me. The upper berths have been folded down. This is the train where the berths are allowed to be folded out only after 9pm. I hate this new Railway Ministry’s rules. Someone would have found my things and stolen them. There is no way it is going to end up in the lost and found.

I hop off the train as it picks up speed. I see some guards standing at the door of a compartment. As a last ditch attempt, I run along with the train and tell them that I have lost my phone and Kindle on the train and ask them if they can do anything about it. They look at each other and say something. Suddenly my phone rings. Damn! I reach into my pocket and there it is! I breathe a huge sigh of relief. I must have put it in my pocket when I was fumbling for the ticket in my handbag.

The guards laugh too. Then one of them shouts to me, ‘ You said Kindle. What is that?’

‘It is a book’, I shout back.


‘For ebooks’


‘Yes. It has a brown cover and looks like a big cellphone’

The train is picking up speed and I run faster to keep talking to the guards.

I lift my left hand and show them what I am holding. ‘Kindle’, I shout louder and wave it at them. ‘It looks like this.’

The train thunders off on its tracks.

How do I interpret this dream? Something as obvious as ‘what you so desperately search for has been with you all the time’?

Twenty Twenty

New year, old resolutions.

I’ve decided to cut down time on that hellsite because the toxicity and more so, the wokeness is getting to me. So I’m back here trying to recreate the 2015 magic.

Read more books – Two done, on the third. Not bad

Read one longread piece a day- Not one a day, but read some pretty good ones. Send To Kindle app is so useful.

Finish that damn Russian course – Ummm.

No shopping – Nothing for myself. Saved a million bucks this month by not shopping

Do not Swiggy – Twice. Was tired ya. Allow this

Cook – Nothing fancy yet, but no Swiggy means I’m cooking. So ya.

Exercise for 30 minutes a day – Yogaing every day

Start running like it is 2017 – Haven’t started. Feb. Yes.

Track expenses –

Get all the fabric lying in the drawer converted into actual garments.

Set a doable list of things to do. So stop right now.