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Paperback Pickings

Medicines for the soul

Silverfish (HarperCollins, Rs 295) by Saikat Majumdar is yet another “Calcutta” novel from a once-upon-a-time Calcuttan. This need not be taken as a disparaging comment. Majumdar spins his yarn with a fair amount of expertise, and his narrative flows easily. The quintessential details of the city — its literary magazines, the furniture-makers of Bowbazar, the Shantiniketan jholas — are all woven into the tale, as are the markers of the long, unbroken communist rule. A word or two must be reserved for the names of characters. They conjure up whole personalities with distinct characteristics: Milan, Joydeb-babu, Utpal-da, Ghosh-da, Amlan Nandy (he can never be called Amlan or Mr Nandy), Rini, Atin are all stock characters of sorts. The weak link of the novel is perhaps the sub-plot about the changing fortunes of a bonedi family though the thread can very well be pursued for its period-piece charm. Perhaps the Calcutta-ness of Calcutta will soon be left only in the pages of novels like Silverfish.

First Proof (Penguin, Rs 295) is the third of the Penguin books of new writing from India. This one is dedicated to the memory of Shakti Bhatt, the author of one of the short stories included in the book, who did not live to see her story in print. Bhatt’s story, “The Thief”, is a well-told tale of a domestic help in an affluent urban household. Uma Girish’s “The Lipstick” also revolves around a young household help, Amudha. (Are domestic helps the flavour of the season?) Surprisingly, the non-fiction half of the book is more interesting than the fiction half. Ashok Malik’s “One Day in DC” is a lovely little account of discovering an Ethiopian-American cab-driver’s love for the Nargis-starrer, Mother India. Palden Gyaltsen, ex-IAS though not yet anywhere near his sixties, takes the reader on a motorbike ride through the rough and smooth of Indian bureaucracy. Sankar Sridhar’s love of the mountains produces an almost lyrical piece on the Changpas of the Ladakh valley. Jahnavi Barua’s short story, “Next Door”, cries out to be made into a short film.

The Penguin Dictionary of Alternative medicine (Rs 395) by T.V. Sairam augments the lay reader’s knowledge about methods of treatment such as ho’oponopono (“an ancient Hawaiian approach to healing ...[which] recognizes the fact that people are the sum total of their experiences, often burdened by their pasts and that the emotions tied to their memories cause stress and trauma”). Then there is baguazhan, a holistic Chinese healing practice which involves walking in circles in a variety of postures. Each part of every recognizable plant, it seems, has some medicinal property or other, and is recommended by alternative medicine practices of some community in some corner of the globe.

Militarizing Sri Lanka: Popular Culture, Memory and Narrative in the Armed Conflict (Sage, Rs 475) by Neloufer de Mel deals with the “cultural consequences” of the violence between ethnic Tamils and the Sinhalese that has become a constant in the island country’s socio-political life now. De Mel analyses “checkpoint advertisements” campaigning for peace, state-run television’s representations of the conflict, soldiers’ interviews, films, children’s narratives — in short, almost all aspects of a Sri Lankan citizen’s life. She uses the works and ideas of Western social thinkers, literary critics and cultural commentators to cull some sense out of a state of being which is essentially governed by the turns in the war. What emerges is an informed and sensitive study of the ethnic conflict as it has shaped the lives and minds of the people of Sri Lanka.

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