Reviews of the latest books from and on Southasia

Gardens of Lanka
photography by Luxshmanan Nadaraja
edited by Sarala Fernando
Wildlight Private Limited, 2009

Gardens have embellished Sri Lanka's landscape for more than two millennia, the ancient knowledge of their aesthetic creation supplementing a host of other better-documented accomplishments such as monastic architecture and irrigation hydraulics. Existing gardens are usually encapsulations of Sri Lanka's extraordinary biodiversity of flora, with an inevitable accent on colour and lushness, and so provide a matchless photographic experience. The photography of Gardens of Lanka is by the country's leading exponent in the ecological field, Luxshmanan Nadaraja, whose The Nature of Sri Lanka (2008) set new standards.

In the beginning was the royal garden, exemplified today by the one at the rock of Sigiriya, the oldest surviving large-scale garden form in Asia. From the third century BC, after the encounter between the monarchy and the Buddhist mission of Emperor Asoka, royal gardens were mostly transformed into Buddhist sites. The island's botanic gardens began in 1371 when the king declared Peradeniya a royal garden. In 1861 it became the first permanent British-established botanic garden, and is today Sri Lanka's prime garden destination. Another botanic garden, at Henaratgoda, has the distinction of growing Asia's first rubber trees.

Sri Lanka is also known for its home gardens, an ancient system of agroforestry that consists of small-scale planting, within an individual family's land, of economically important plants. The home garden provides a habitat for supplementary plants, is a storehouse of genetic diversity and, if clustered with others, has a regulatory effect on rainfall patterns and absorbs pollution. There are plentiful coffee-table books that expound the wonders of Sri Lanka's environment; Gardens of Lanka brings a new dimension to the genre. (Richard Boyle)


by Yashpal
translated by Anand
Penguin, 2010

Set in the first century BC, when Hinduism and Buddhism were fighting for dominance in the region, Divya, first published in Hindi in 1945, deals with the 'women's question' in a way that can only be described as exquisite. Yashpal's protagonist is born into a politically and socially influential family of 'twice-born' Brahmins. Divya's search for her identity as an 'equal' citizen of her caste-ridden society begins when she is abandoned by her lover – Prithusen, the daas putra (son of a slave), whose father, freed by a Greek ruler, tries to break the shackles of caste by amassing wealth and ingratiating himself and his son with the president of the republic.

Thrown out of the lap of luxury on account of her status as a soon-to-be single mother, Divya transforms into Dara when she is kidnapped and sold into slavery; Anshumala when she is inducted into the palace of a courtesan; and her story comes full circle when she is eventually ousted from the throne of the Court Dancer because of her Brahmin birth. The issues that the story grapples with are as much a reality today as they were in the age in which the tale is set, and Yashpal successfully lays bare the hypocrisy of the caste system, the patriarchy inherent in organised religion and the institution of marriage, as well as limitations in the freedom of female sex workers. Despite (or perhaps because of) throwing off the yokes of oppressive traditional family structures, they are still 'commodities' in a market economy. (Urooj Zia)


Tomorrow Is One More Day
by G Nagarajan
translated by Abbie Ziffren with A Julie
Penguin, 2010

First published in Tamil in 1974, this work was translated by a scholar of Tamil prose (Ziffren) along with another (Julie) who worked for several years in Madurai, where the author was born and lived most of his life until his death in 1981. Nagarajan is said to have thought of himself as an existentialist, and this novel captures his interpretation of this tradition. The story revolves around a day in the life of Kandan, an ordinary man, who is mostly an observer, a 'mute spectator' to the day's happenings, until the realisation hits him that while others are progressing and moving ahead in life, 'steeped in the belief that the future would be far better than the present,' his life remains the same.

The Tamil version of the book was published a year before the Emergency, when 'Garibi hatao' was the government's slogan. Tamil Nadu was charged with nationalism, demands were being made about social reform, and Brahmin hegemony was being challenged not just in the streets but through political institutions as well. Kandan remains indifferent, however, and through him we see Nagarajan's cynicism. 'What party did he say, the Payoff Party?' Kandan asks, to which his friend, Muttusamy replies, 'No, no, the People's Progressive Party.'

For Kandan, individual exploitation is disconnected from that which takes place on a mass scale. This disconnect manifests itself in his defeatist attitude, culminating in his dismal realisation towards the end. But Nagarajan, rather than make a facile critique of Kandan, portrays a man obsessed with money, his future, his problems, his life. In so doing, he captures the real, everyday concerns of people whose lives remain the same, stuck in time, despite epic political changes around them. (Meher Ali)


Hostel Room 131
by R Raj Rao
Penguin, 2010

Rao displays a commendable capacity for the low-brow in this fun, raunchy and unconventional love story. Young Bombay-ite Siddharth, with an MA in literature that is only good for a lowly job as a college lecturer, stumbles into (and falls madly into love with) Sudhir, a Kannada boy with a provincial background, when he pays a friend a visit at his engineering campus in 1979 Pune. In quick order, the two are in flagrante, and so begins a heady star-crossed romance. Think Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone but with less electrocution and more sodomy (so, more accurate, really), before twisting in a boldly Chuck Palahniuk-like direction by bucking expectations.

Infatuated but self-centred Siddharth makes for an entertaining narrator. But stealing the spotlight are a cast of memorable side characters, such as Vivek and Gaurav, the resident militant gay activists on campus, schooled in revolution and who also host orgies in the room they share in their housing block. The plotting is smart, the depictions of Bombay and Pune mesmerising and convincing; best of all are the asides in which Siddharth explains to a more wary Sudhir his homosexual readings of male-pairing bonds in 1980s Bollywood movies. An easy-enough project, but uproariously funny on the page and wise on the imaginative sources of affirmation to which people on the sexual margins take recourse. Indeed, funny and wise is a fair description of much of Hostel Room 131. (Alston D'Silva)


by Ashokamitran
translated by N Kalyan Raman
Penguin, 2010

Here we meet Gopalan, an inconsequential script writer in Chennai, a moment before his life crumbles: his son dies (possibly murdered), his wife loses her mind and his daughter fades in an unhappy marriage. Painful as these realities are, Gopalan plods along with his characteristic composure and passivity, allowing circumstances to nudge him forward. In contrast is Satyan Kumar, the ruling superstar of the Hindi film industry, who has formed a deep connection with Gopalan after a few short meetings. Determined to make sense of his place in these events, and deriving an inexplicable comfort in the company of the writer, Kumar sets out to find Gopalan, who has vanished.

At this level, the novel is a straightforward tale of a mystifying friendship, with a series of characters, incidents and histories unfolding to eventually bring the two men together. At another look, Mansarovar – as the title suggests, with its reference to the Tibetan lake whose waters, it is said in Hinduism, cleanse all sins – is about the two men's individual yet intertwined quest for self-discovery and renewal. In exploring these themes, the novel neither does not answer any of the many questions it raises (whether the son died a natural death, for instance), nor do the protagonists attempt to clarify these issues. No event is resolved and no emotion is clearly revealed; everything is hinted at, only to be quickly brushed away and skirted around. This can be frustrating to a reader eager for some clarity, and even more so for some closure. But though one puts down the book not entirely satisfied, the urge to delve back into it remains. (Surabhi Pudasaini)


Ruttie Jinnah
by Kwaja Razi Haider
OUP Karachi, 2010

In history books, the proverbial woman behind every successful man barely gets a mention. Kasturba Gandhi and Kamala Nehru were pillars of strength for Mohandas K Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, respectively, apart from being notable freedom fighters in their own right. Their roles are seldom adequately covered, even in exhaustive biographies of their more famous life partners. The lot of Ruttie Jinnah has been even worse, as she died young, on her 29th birthday, estranged from her husband and living in a hotel rather than at home. When Mohammed Ali Jinnah's dreams of having a separate homeland for Indian Muslims were realised with the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Ruttie was not alive to witness the glory that she had always believed her husband was destined to achieve.

Haider attempts to do justice to the memory of the beautiful and intelligent Ruttie and her ambitious husband twice her age. The marriage of convenience – between a fiercely independent daughter of a cosmopolitan Parsi industrialist in search of fame, and a Muslim professional with unbridled ambitions of success at all costs, and pursuing fortune with grim determination – was fated to fail. But it had begun with each getting what they wanted: the lady acquiring a trophy husband to prove her rebelliousness, and the gentleman getting a sound financial base and social status with which to launch his political career.

The author is a Jinnah scholar, and it is but natural that he tries to brush away all critical rumours about his idol. But he does so with such finesse that the book emerges as an impartial account of a lady simultaneously wronged by her husband as well as a victim of choices she herself made. The balance between facts, testimonies and interpretations that Haider manages to present in his book, originally written in Urdu and translated by author himself, makes for an engrossing read. Most importantly, being a scholar, Haider leaves it to readers to draw their own conclusions. (C K Lal)

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