Reviews of the latest books from and on Southasia

Lunatic in My Head
by Anjum Hasan
Zubaan/Penguin, 2007
Anjum Hasan's Shillong is a poetic portrayal of the quintessential outsiderness that characterises most small towns in the Indian Northeast. Complete with "nuns mysterious in their sexlessness" at a girls college, perverted professors and staffroom intrigues, Hasan's vignettes also allow a glimpse into Pink Floyd-obsessed youths desperately trying to escape their mundane destinies; the aged slowly disintegrating into oblivion; and, not least, stultifying family dynamics. And, if some of the passages inch ahead a bit too slowly, in the end they only serve to reflect the tedious monotony of small-town existence. (Laxmi Murthy)

The Tall Tales of Vishnu Sharma:
Panchantantra, Issue 1

by Samit Basu (script) and Ashish Padlekar (art)
Virgin Comics, 2008
The latest release from the partnership between Virgin Comics and Deepak Chopra showcases the characters from the Panchantantra, in battle with Harry Potter and what appears to be a further-mutated form of the Teenage Mutant Ninjas Turtles. Chopra's vision for these works was to transcend bigotry, to create myths that defeat national boundaries. The series seems to be off to a shaky start, however, with the characters of the ancient Hindu epics joining forces with the descendent of their author, to take on the mythical characters of Hollywood. Harry Potter even swears in the name of Shabana Azmi. Cool Hindutva, anyone? (Vijay Prashad)

In the Shadow of the Taj:
A portrait of Agra

by Royina Grewal
Penguin Books, 2007
In Royina Grewal's latest work, a young man is unaware of the history behind Aram Bagh in Agra, in which he seeks refuge: "he doesn't know who built the garden; he doesn't really care. It is enough that it is there." Like any old city, Agra has myriad remnants of past grandeur haunting the dilapidated monuments and aged masterpieces, the real stories of which are hidden. But Grewal manages, informatively at that, to convey the Agra of both yesterday and today. She takes the reader on a historical, religious, economic, political and social tour of a cosmopolitan Agra that has attracted Armenian Christians, soldiers of fortune, refugees and foreign merchants; all the while, she interweaves conversations with journalists, religious figures and residents, among others. But Grewal also resorts to unfounded stereotypes and simplistic explanations as to why Agra has been left to degenerate, ultimately lapsing into romantic fantasies about Agra's past far too often for this reader's taste. Nonetheless, the message remains clear: unlike the uninformed man at Aram Bagh, we should care enough about Agra to retrieve it from the rubble of history. (Neha Inamdar)

Whose Media?
A woman's space

edited by Manjula Lal
Concept Publishers, 2007
This comparative study by Delhi-based Manju Kak examines the press – mostly Hindi – in Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh. Though the conclusions are unsurprising, they are backed by interesting snippets from the research: the media marginalises reportage on women in general, and issues of women's development in particular; there remains a near absence of Adivasi women journalists, even in the Adivasi-dominated states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Whose Media also highlights the standard targeting of women readers by commercial newspapers, due to their potential as consumers. What is baffling, though, is why a four-month-long media-monitoring exercise, which concluded in April 2003, should take four years to be published as book. The findings have a short shelf life, given the fast-moving landscape of the Indian media. (LM)

Beyond the Illusions
by Sheeba Shivangini Shah
Pilgrims Publishing, 2007
Nepal missed out on two things by never having been a part of the British Empire: the facility of railways and felicity in the Queen's English. Sheeba Shivangini Shah is therefore something of an anomaly, as one of the few Nepali writers who writes exclusively in English. Beyond the Illusions opens with the ennui of a well-to-do couple and their daily routine of papaya salad, tom yam soup, Shahab Durazi dresses and yoga classes. Twists and turns subsequently begin when boredom drives one character to seek solace in an ashram in Uttarakhand. From here onwards, there is no full stop, as the story proceeds at breakneck speed to explore the dark underbelly of various mysterious rituals. In some spots, the narrative borders on soft pornography, a bold move by a female author in conservative Kathmandu. The cover is rather scary, but the tantalising themes of the sacred, secretive, seductive and sexy world of tantra found in the book will undoubtedly appeal to the conservative middle classes of Southasia. (C K Lal)

Book of Humour
by Ruskin Bond
Penguin Books, 2008
Here is a work that is at once imaginative, engaging and witty. Bond's enigmatic characters include Uncle Bill, who carries around bags of arsenic; Mr McClintock, who sets his fake nose on his bedside table every night; and an assortment of clever animals, including two crows who stalk a malicious "junior sahib" (an owlet who snuggles and snores), and an impish red monkey named Toto, who loves feasting on chicken soup and Irish stew. Together this odd melange makes for a rollicking read. Storylines range from a somewhat fantastic tale of mistaken identity, leading to a tiger dangerously licking Bond's grandfather's arms with relish; to a touching journal entry about Bhabiji, a domineering Punjabi grandmother, and the family dynamics of the large brood over which she rules. In this anthology, which contains both reprints of old stories and previously unpublished tales, Bond embraces the eccentricities and quirks of all of his subjects – himself included – with great gusto.

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