The hidden culture of a red-light area
by Fouzia Saeed
OUP (Pakistan), 2011
It is clear that Fouzia Saeed has devoted considerable time to exploring the labyrinth lanes of Shahi Mohalla, Lahore’s red-light district. She slips easily into the many moods of the area and of its inhabitants: the humming bazaar of the daytime, the powdered and polished marketplace of the evenings, and the eerie tension of the wee hours of the morning, as customers filter out and police emerge to enforce closing time. Saeed has also peered away from the area’s main bazaar, into smaller streets and rundown shacks, the darker side of the city’s underbelly.
The dynamics of the Mohalla are complex, whether among the women themselves or the larger web of managers, musicians, agents and pimps, who together keep the area bustling. Taboo!, originally published a decade ago but now reprinted as a classic, ventures into each of these strands; the many threads are pieced together almost entirely through stories – both in the voice of the Mohalla’s residents and that of the writer. In fact, Saeed is actively, and consciously, present throughout the book, saying in the preface, ‘A critical aspect of feminist research is to make the researcher visible.’
Saeed is also rightly preoccupied with the double standard between the censure heaped on the women of the Mohalla while their customers are, typically, given a free pass. The book repeatedly makes this point, going even further to speak of the intersections between the Mohalla and Pakistani politicians. And yet, this latter point is only hinted at – the only glaring gap in an otherwise thoroughly engaging book. (Surabhi Pudasaini)
The Life of Food in Nepal
World Food Programme, 2010
With global food insecurity reaching dangerous levels as the 2008 economic crisis ground on into 2009, a book celebrating the food of Nepal seems timely, though perhaps a little futile. For a country that remains so thoroughly agrarian, Nepal is an especially vulnerable state in terms of food security, remaining dependent both on the vagaries of the weather and certain fluctuating imports, particularly from India. Nepal’s food prices are currently at record highs; World Food Programme (WFP) researchers estimate that three million Nepalis live in constant fear of hunger.
In 2009, WFP was harshly criticised in Nepal, even outright blamed for an outbreak of cholera and dysentery in the country’s west. According to the rumours, vehemently denied by the agency, the outbreak was due to some contaminated WFP food supplies. After the experience, WFP might have thought it was time to brush up its image in Nepal. Last year, this coffee-table book was accompanied by a large-scale photography exhibit and other events around the country.
The Life of Food in Nepal certainly gives off a delicious vibe: lush photography show off the high Himal, women picking weeds from cauliflower patches near Pokhara, in the centre of the country. There are few things more personal than one’s experience with food, of course, and the book is replete with anecdotes from local writers telling of childhood rituals – the history and significance of various staples are recounted alongside folk stories and even recipes.
Ultimately, this publication undoubtedly serves its purpose: to tell international donors and other conference-goers that WFP is serious about food. And that they’re serious about food in Nepal. (Ida Roland Birkvad)
Chouboli and Other Stories, Volume II
by Vijaydan Detha
translated by Christi A Merrill & Kailash Kabir
In this second volume of Detha’s rich, colourful short stories, readers are introduced to talking herons and dictator dogs, marauding ghosts and modest farmers, raja-ji and rani-sa, and honest thieves and thieving sons. The author’s oral storytelling style is captivating. Although Princess Chouboli herself makes no guest appearance, Detha’s wit and wisdom weaves together to form fine tales. It is not only the stories that give the reader a sense of being in touch with tradition, but the physical book. Katha’s presentation is thoughtful, tasteful even; Volume II has been endowed with a red-and-golden hardcover, parchment-like paper and bold drawings. The book itself ends up feeling like a piece of tradition. Katha says it has even planted a tree to replace the wood used in the making of the book. (Amrisha Vaidya)
by Abhishek Majumdar et al
The three plays included here are the recent winners of an annual theatre award given out, since 2008, by The Hindu, the MetroPlus Playwright Award. Indeed, The Hindu editor-in-chief N Ram introduces the volume, recalling his newspaper’s ‘close involvement with theatre’. The 2008 winner, Majumdar’s ‘Harlesden High Street’, is set on a street in immigrant-heavy West London, capturing aspirations amidst powerful feelings of dislocation and mundane frustration. Through the interlinked lives of three of its protagonists, the play shows the subtle differences in the concept of home and identity between first- and second-generation immigrants.
Prashant Prakash and Kalki Koechlin’s ‘The Skeleton Woman’, the winner for 2009, combines an Inuit folktale and a modern-day love story to portray the life of a fisherman-turned-writer and his wife who, despite being vicious at times, remains steady support as he struggles with unfinished writings. The play fluctuates between imagination and reality, while a startling twist at the end left this reader captivated.
Finally, ‘Taramandal’, by Neel Chaudhuri, the 2010 winner, extends Satyajit Ray’s short story ‘Patol Babu, Film Star’ while digging deep into the lives of actors whose ambition of stardom has been cut short. Parallel stories are woven around the story of the protagonist, whose excitement is blunted when he finds out that his only role in his first feature film is to crash with the lead character and utter an ‘Oh!’ Chaudhuri uses a host of characters to illustrate multiple tales of aspiration, creativity and heartbreak. (Prarthana Bhattarai)
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).