The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Backwards into the future

Red poppies (Penguin, Rs 295) by Alai is the translation, by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin, of a Chinese historical novel which, after some trouble with publishers because of its political content, got one of China’s most distinguished literary awards. Alai is an ethnic Tibetan born in what was then the northeastern part of the Tibetan autonomous region and is now western Sichuan. The novel starts in the Thirties and ends in 1950 with the arrival of the Red Army. It is narrated by the idiot son of the powerful chieftain Maichi, who embodies “Tibetan aspirations” and “raw and uncultured folk wisdom”. The historical transition depicted in the novel runs alongside Maichi’s ruinous enslavement to opium cultivation, all framed by the narrator’s “wisdom masked by stupidity”. “Sticky whiteness oozed from poppy berries and gathered in a jiggly mass before falling to the ground. The poppies squeezed out their white sap as if the earth were crying. On the verge of falling, the teardrops hung on small, shiny green berries that seemed to be choking on sobs, unable to speak.”

The weretiger: stories of the supernatural (Penguin, Rs 250) by Shaiontoni Bose and others provides a fascinating glimpse into the varied and interconnected world of the Indian supernatural. This is primarily a world of stories — folktales, fairytales, superstitions and customs — peopled with monsters, princes, sages, peasants gods and demons. Apart from being a series of compelling yarns, what emerges in this collection is a social history of wishes, fears and fantasies, set in all kinds of living conditions and historical moments. The book is well researched, but the academic framework never obtrudes, emerging tactfully and readably in the introduction and afterword. Primitive and modern, urban and rural, native and colonial are some of the oppositions shaping these tales.

the dividing line (Indialog, Rs 195) by Jean Arasanayagam is a collection of short stories by a “Dutch Burgher” Sri Lankan married to a Tamil. The thread running through these stories is the long civil strife in Sri Lanka, and the displaced, fractured worlds it creates. “We have all become spinners of endless sagas which we read in the silence of our utter loneliness. Surrounded by partings, longing to see each other’s faces. hear each other’s voices, we inhabit the world of the exile which lies within the Babylon of ourselves.” This is pretty much the tone of most of these stories.

india (Rupa, Rs 195) by Pierre Loti was written in 1901 on the sole premise (attributed to the Indian “sages”) that “you can only desire that which is different from yourself, that which you have not”. The inevitable end of such desiring could only be the discovery “that the things you seek are within you”, as a result of which “desire would melt away” — in the words of the same “sages”. This is a dreadful book, full of soft-pornographic stereotypes, vapid Indian women with pearly teeth, undulating curves and dusky skin glimmering from underneath muslin veils. There is also a great deal of soft mysticism and soft adventure. French orientalism at its most insufferable.


Tthe truth (almost) about bharat (Penguin, Rs 150) by Kavery Nambisan is a restless and nervous little novel, set in the neurotic medley of contemporary India. It is not too badly bitten by the cleverness bug. The protagonist is Bharat, a heart-broken teenage philosopher. “Speeding backwards into the future. Trees, houses, slums, shacks and writing-on-the-walls sped past with reckless glee, mocking my fears. I wanted to grab those moving objects and tell them I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid. But they sped past before I could even look at them.”

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