Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Devourers by Indra Das

The Devourers
Indra Das
2015, Penguin India
344 pages, speculative, fantasy, historical fiction, LGBTQA+

Many thanks to Penguin India for providing a review copy of this book. 

In present-day Kolkata, Alok Mukherjee, a lonely history professor, meets a man who claims to be a werewolf. Well, a half-werewolf. Intrigued by this man and his stories, Alok agrees to do some work for the stranger: he will type a transcription of the stranger's handwritten translation of some old texts. What Alok finds in those pages continues to lead him into a world that he did not know existed - a world filled with supernatural beings, shapeshifters who live in tribes in every part of the world. According to his new acquaintance and the texts he transcribes, Alok comes to know that all the myths and legends that humanity has created are descriptions of these fantastic beings who are so different from us. Through this work and his friendship with the stranger, Alok discovers the complexity and simplicity of his own needs, leading him to let go of his lonely past and move toward a happier future.

What is in the texts? There are two, written by separate authors. The first is written by a Northern European shapeshifter known as Fenrir, one of three who have arrived in India during the Mughal Era, probably in the late 1630s. In a caravanserai in Mumtazabad, the city of the builders of the Taj Mahal, he meets a lone woman, Cyrah, a wanderer of Persian origin who is currently working as a prostitute. Instead of buying her time and body, he asks only for a lock of her hair. But then he returns that night and rapes her, intending to impregnate her with his child so that he can reproduce. Having sex with a human is taboo amongst the shapeshifters, and the resulting argument ends with the three-person pack breaking up.

The second text is written by Cyrah, lovingly addressed to her child, the product of this supernatural rape. In an attempt to track down her rapist, Cyrah joins forces with Gévaudan, one of his former packmates. Gévaudan is much younger than Fenrir, and has his own reasons for wanting to find his old friend. Cyrah wants to punish her rapist for what he did, and, perhaps, get him to take away the child that he gave to her. If, of course, he is a djinni like he claimed to be.

In the visceral telling of these stories, we uncover a tale of blood and love and sex and violence, one that will stay with me for years to come. Without hesitation, I can say that this novel is one of the best works of fantasy that I have ever read. It deals with difficult discussions of violence, gender, and love with a confidence that few writers can muster, especially in a debut novel.

As of this writing, it seems that Penguin has not released this novel outside of the Indian subcontinent. I hope to see it available in the US and UK soon. It would be very disappointing to see this wonderful novel confined only to South Asian readers, when the rest of the world needs to have access to it as well.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Castaway on the Moon directed by Lee Hae-jun

Castaway on the Moon
South Korea (Korean), 2009
116 min, drama, comedy, psychological exploration
Directed by Lee Hae-jun
Starring Jung Jae-young and Jung Ryeo-won

After trying and failing to commit suicide, a man finds himself washed up on a desert island in the middle of the river, in the middle of Seoul. Despite his proximity to the people on the boats and the bridges near him (a major bridge passes over the island itself), he is unable to escape or get anyone's attention. Freed of all normal social constraints, he builds a solitary life on his island.

Meanwhile, he is discovered by an agoraphobic girl, who hasn't left her room in three years and spends most of her time online, pretending to be someone else. Her hobby is taking pictures of the moon through a long telescoping lens, through which she accidentally spots the castaway. She begins taking pictures of him, documenting his life from her bedroom window.

They begin to communicate through short English phrases, scraped in the sand and dropped from the bridge in bottles. But how long can this situation last?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Tales in Colour and other stories by Kunzang Choden

Tales in Colour and other stories
Kunzang Choden
Originally 2009, I read 2012
145 pages, short stories, rural life, women's stories
Found: Kolkata Book Fair 2015

This collection of short stories by a female Bhutanese writer gives the reader access to a culture they would never otherwise be able to see: village life in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. The small kingdom perched in the mountains between India and China is famous for being one of the happiest countries in the world, but because of government rules restricting tourists and mandating a $200 USD/day minimum fee for all foreign tourists, it is notoriously difficult to travel in. Kunzang Choden's stories provide a much less expensive way to explore the Kingdom of Bhutan.

"The Woman who Lost her Senses"

In the village, traditional healers practice the Bon religion, a pre-Buddhist tradition that is frowned upon by the Buddhist monks. The healers channel the energy of a deity that is specific to each person, and they need to be taught how to do this properly (by someone with the same deity) or else they go mad. This story tells of a woman who was never taught and displays symptoms of this god-created madness.

"I Won't Ask Mother"

Yeshimo quit school at a very early age to take care of her ill mother and her three brothers. She envies them for being able to get an education and to have prospects in life, and wishes that she could learn more.

"The Advisor"

A woman rejected by her husband becomes the village busybody, giving everyone unsolicited advice- and continues to stick around even after she has died.

"These Things Happen"

Tensions arise between neighboring families when one of the girls is impregnated by a visiting official and blames her boyfriend, who lives next door.

"Look At Her Belly Button"

Tsewang Doma has been spending time in Thimphu with her brother and sister-in-law, escaping from the dull village life to go shopping and watch Hindi movies. She notices that the Hindi movie heroines have their belly buttons pierced, and she decides to stop at nothing before she gets one too.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Dangerlok by Eunice de Souza

Eunice de Souza
2001, I read 2008
125 pages, satire, comedy
Found: secondhand at the Kolkata Book Fair 2015

This novella features the reflections of Rina Ferreira, a middle-aged denizen of Bombay (Mumbai) whose sardonic humor allows her to make the most of her relatively lonely life. A lecturer in English literature, Rina is single, compassionate, and devoted to her two parrots - even when they make a mess of her small flat. Or convince people that Rina is crazy by sitting on her head when she answers the door.

Rina has two primary outlets for her humorous reflections on life in Bombay: David, an old lover living abroad, to whom she writes frequent letters; and her household help, or bai, who enjoys gossiping about the city's "dangerlok" with her employer over cigarettes and cups of "jungly tea" (recipe: throw water, tea leaves, and milk into pot, boil, add sugar to taste). The result is a complex portrait of the amusing situations that arise in a major metropolitan city, through the observations of one middle-aged college professor.

When I first started reading this book, I was put off by the tone, which struck me as very similar to the narrator of The Giraffe's Neck (an IFFP book that I really disliked). But unlike in The Giraffe's Neck, in which the main character is a really a despicable person who judges people according to her interpretation of social Darwinism, Rina is the sort of person I would like to meet - someone who notices the amusing misspellings on the signs, or sees how the bus driver reacts to driverless rickshaws clogging the street in front of him. Rina actually notices things, and the things that she notices are important parts of the everyday life of the people around her. The term "dangerlok," instead of referring to people who are actually dangerous, refers to people who are annoying or are busybodies, traits that are extremely common in Rina's urban world.

Rina is a Goan Catholic, but she was born in Poona (Pune) and decorates her house with images of Hindu deities. Although as a middle aged woman, society says that she should be married, Rina is single and lives alone. She speaks her mind at conferences or academic discussions without hesitation, even if what she just wants to be the devil's advocate. (Example: during a meeting she responds to a proposal to make Postcolonialism a required course, Rina "said that hardly anyone seemed to be reading any more, just using texts to ride a hobby horse." Har har.) Based on her name and appearance, some people can't believe that she is an Indian citizen; she just shrugs and goes home to tell the stories to her bai. She purposefully subverts the categories that people want to place her in. Rina really just wants to have the freedom to be herself, which she does by not paying attention to others' opinions.

I very much enjoyed the letters to David which were interspersed with the rest of the text. Hearing only one side of the conversation gives the reader an insight into Rina's thoughts and feelings toward (possibly?) her former student and lover. The other sections, which are written in 3rd person without quotation marks to indicate who is speaking, sometimes become confusing. After you get used to the style, it really suits the story's sarcasm.

Dangerlok is a very short book; it only took me about 1.5 hours to read. It's a clever, funny novella about life in the big city, in modern India, and as someone who doesn't fit into anyone's preconceptions - and doesn't want to. I want to be like Rina when I grow up.

Dangerlok is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and flipkart. 

Further Reading: 

Read articles from Eunice de Souza's column in the Mumbai Mirror

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Man Facing Southeast directed by Eliseo Subiela

Man Facing Southeast (Hombre Mirando al Sudeste) 
Argentina (Spanish), 1986
105 min, drama, science fiction, suspense
Directed by Eliseo Subiela

An unhappy, disillusioned psychiatrist finds a real challenge when a strange man appears in the mental institution without warning, declaring that he is from another planet and has come here to study humanity. The psychiatrist can find nothing wrong with him, apart from the fact that he says he's an alien. But what if this is actually true? What then?

He decides not to give him any medicines or otherwise give him psychiatric treatment, since this delusion (if it is one) is harmless. When the man's female friend appears, the psychiatrist is confused and wants to get to the bottom of who this apparent alien is. But she says that she doesn't know either. Then, after the psychiatrist falls in love with the woman, she informs him that she is also an alien, but that she has gone astray by focusing too much on the pleasures of the flesh.

This is considered by many to be a classic of South American science fiction. But how does it hold up?

Answer: not very well.

This film demonstrates some of the worst qualities of 1980s movies. The pacing is excruciatingly slow, the voiceovers are unnecessary, the minimal amount of dialogue and long shots of the psychiatrist playing his saxophone (?) do not add anything to the film. Yes, the theory behind this film is interesting - but its execution is not good.

The plot becomes even more confusing when it tries to make a connection between this purported alien and Jesus. So, is he an alien or is he Jesus? Was Jesus an alien? I did not find this question compelling, especially because it was rather clumsily added into the story. It would have been better if the director had stuck to the question of whether he is an alien and what that signifies for the story, rather than bringing in a forced religious angle.

From another angle, the film is an awkward critique of mental health methods in the 1980s. This part makes a bit more sense: since this man isn't hurting anyone, was it really necessary to give him medicines and shock therapy? No! Of course not. But the additional Christ imagery just serves to distract the audience from what could have been an effective critique of mental health care at the time.

All in all, I was disappointed by this classic of Argentinian film. If you want to watch a better movie that raises similar questions, I suggest the classic Man From Earth, in which a college professor may or may not be a caveman who has been alive for thousands of years. And Jesus. And if you want to watch a better Argentinian film, please do watch Nine Queens, a brilliant con film with a crazy twist ending. Just don't waste your time watching this one.

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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Laburnum For My Head by Temsula Ao

Laburnum For My Head
Temsula Ao
2009, Penguin Books India
107 pages, short stories
Found: Starmark, Mani Square Mall, Kolkata

This is a book of short stories by the Padma Shri winner Temsula Ao, a retired English professor at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. In 2013, she was awarded the Sahitya Academy Award based on this collection of stories.

Because this is a diverse collection, encompassing many themes and writing styles, I will give a brief introduction to each.

"Laburnum for my head"

A woman loves the Laburnum flower, but has no success at cultivating them in her garden. She decides that it would be better to have a Laburnum plant on her gravestone rather than an ugly tombstone.

"Death of a Hunter"

The best hunter in the area finds himself, once again, being forced to hunt a wild animal that he does not really want to hurt. He is worried about the creature's intelligence and what it will mean if he kills it.

"The Boy Who Sold an Airfield"

Set at the end of WWII, a young boy makes his way into the confidence of some American soldiers, ending up with some property that he needs to sell.

"The Letter"

The normally peaceful people of a village are tired of threats and extortions by the insurgents hidden in the nearby hills. Finally an attack by a group of freedom fighters proves to be the last straw, and the villagers retaliate.

"Three Women"

In a series of connected stories, a grandmother, mother, and daughter find their pasts intertwining with the concepts of motherhood and family.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, translated by Kim Chi-Young

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
Sun-Mi Hwang
Translated by Kim Chi-Young (from Korean)
Illustrated by Nomoco
2000, I read 2013 translation
144 pages, animal fable, motherhood
Found: Starmark, Mani Square Mall, Kolkata

Sprout has always imagined life outside of the confining walls of the egg-laying hut, raising chicks all her own. Depressed, she stops eating, and her eggs stop coming, leading the farmer to take her out to be slaughtered. But she escapes! In time, she becomes friends with an injured wild duck, Straggler, whose partner has been killed by the local weasel. With Straggler's help, Sprout incubates an abandoned egg, which turns out to be the duck couple's baby. When Straggler dies and the egg hatches, Sprout decides to care for this baby as her own - despite the challenges and the ridicule from others caused by their obvious mismatch.

The simply told story narrates Sprout's struggles to raise her baby duck - Greentop, as she calls him - in the inhospitable land outside of the farm's society. Despite the cold winter, deadly weasel, family arguments and other problems, Sprout's competent attitude and motherly perseverance give her the strength to raise Greentop and assert her own identity at the same time.

This is a beautifully told fable about independence, identity, and motherhood. Despite the similarities with children's literature (which have been emphasized by the English-language promotion of the book), Sprout's journey has more to offer people with more life experience. In Korea, it is considered to be an adult novel, and I want to emphasize that aspect.