The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

I want my razor back

Black Borders (Rupa, Rs 95) by Saadat Hasan Manto is a collection of 32 cameos on the theme of Partition. The horrors of this extremely bloody period in Indian history — the rapes, the wanton destruction and murder, as also the mindless hatred, the greed and depravity — come to life in a series of short, sharp, perfectly-chiselled word pictures, characterized by the deliberate provocativeness that made Manto the enfant terrible of Urdu literature. “Never, never, never shall I agree to become a Sikh. I want my razor back” (“Firm resolve”) will find a resonance in the experience of the Sikhs in the riots that followed Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. But then, don’t the Partition riots have the seeds of all the communal riots that have taken place in independent India, right upto Gujarat in 2002' What gives the pieces a timelessness as well as a sense of continued relevance is the fact that their subject is always nameless —“man”, “friend”, or even, “the body”. Rakhshanda Jalil’s translation retains the stark unsentimentality of the original.

The Swing Around (Viking, £ 3.95) by Barbara Anderson aspires to being a comic novel. Set in New Zealand 20 years ago, it is an account of a jaunt through Asia by Hamish Carew, ex-dairy farmer and now minister of cultural links and trade; Molly, his rather moony wife; and two young officials, Freddy Manders and Violet Redpath — one rather disillusioned with romance, and the other quite ready for it. There is also a gang named Lightning Storm to enliven matters.

All the World’s a Spittoon (Penguin, Rs 260) by Samit Sawhny is the rather pretentious title of an account of a journey from London to India — over land, with long detours through Norway, Siberia, Mongolia and Russia. Along the way, Sawhny, a young finance executive, takes in Life by the roadside, teaches Europeans how to play kabaddi, watches Russians sunbathe standing up in St Petersburg, marvels at the quaint courtship rituals of Yakutian women and fishes for cormorants in China. What relieves the rather self-absorbed prose are the flashes of humour. “Have I mentioned how breathtakingly beautiful the Mongolian countryside is...In the absence of either variety of pit toilet, you get to crap all over it.”

All Quiet on the Western Front (Viking, £ 1.95) by Erich Maria Remarque is a reprint of this classic on the World War I. It might be almost a century since the first Great War, we may have developed far more refined killing machines, but the horror of war has clearly lost none of its impact.

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