Book Review: Our Moon has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita

Rahul Pandita was fourteen years old in 1990 when he was forced to leave his home in Srinagar along with his family, who were Kashmiri Pandits: the Hindu minority within a Muslim-majority Kashmir that was becoming increasingly agitated with the cries of ‘Azadi’ from India. The heartbreaking story of Kashmir has so far been told through the prism of the brutality of the Indian state, and the pro-independence demands of separatists. But there is another part of the story that has remained unrecorded and buried. Our Moon Has Blood Clots is the unspoken chapter in the story of Kashmir, in which it was purged of the Kashmiri Pandit community in a violent ethnic cleansing backed by Islamist militants. Hundreds of people were tortured and killed, and about 3,50,000 Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes and spend the rest of their lives in exile in their own country. Rahul Pandita has written a deeply personal, powerful and unforgettable story of history, home and loss.

our-moon-has-blood-clotsI was around 9 or 10 years old in the 1990s when I overheard my parents talking about Kashmir, about people leaving their orchards and homes and fleeing from the valley. There was nostalgia in their tones as they spoke about the idyllic beauty of the Kashmiri countryside, mixed with something I now recognize as horror and sorrow over the events unfolding in that beautiful valley. I didn’t quite understand then why anyone would want to get up and leave their beautiful orchards, what was the meaning of curfew, or why the Kashmiris would be asking for azaadi (freedom).

Fast forward to the present day. I now have a slightly better understanding of the Kashmir situation. And I say slightly because it is a complex web of politics and border incursions, with varying points of views and a lot of things that are still left unsaid and unrecorded. Which is why I was keen to read this first person account of an exiled Kashmiri Pandit.

The book, however, disappointed on many levels.

Pandita starts by explaining the history and culture of his people, which is interesting, and then moves to detailing the atrocities that have been committed against the Pandits down the ages. He focuses the bulk of his ire on the Mughal rulers, squeezing the more than hundred years of genocide perpetrated by the Sikh and Hindu-Dogra regimes in the pre-1947 era into a few measly sentences. And that skewed perspective is just a taste of things to come. Because in Pandita’s story, every Muslim in the valley was baying for Pandit blood, including Pandita’s own young, school-going Muslim friends.

One of them looked at me and then all of them ran away suddenly, throwing a bunch of papers onto the floor…I picked one up, and recoiled in disgust – the paper was covered with snot. I threw it away. It was then that my eyes fell on another, particularly crumpled paper. A shiver ran through my body. It was a page torn from the school magazine – it was a portrait of the Goddess Saraswati. It was covered with snot too.

According to Pandita, neighbors turned on one another and Muslims pointed out Pandit families to the mujahideen just to settle petty scores or take over Pandit farms. In the entire saga, not one Muslim came forth to help Pandits – or if they did, it was just to warn them to escape or they would be killed. This I find impossible to believe. When you can find examples of Germans who helped Jews in the midst of the Holocaust it defies logic to believe that not a single Muslim came forward to help the Pandits. More so when I have heard first hand stories of Kashmiri Muslim families who tried to help their Pandit neighbors for as long as they could.

The next part of his rant is against Jammu, where a refugee camp was set up for Kashmiri Pandit families. Everyone knows that it isn’t pleasant to live at a refugee camp – the shelter is inadequate, there is a total lack of comfort, food is often scarce, and when there is a large influx of refugees, employment is almost non-existent. By presenting this as yet another instance of injustice against Pandits in particular, rather than as a problem faced by refugees the world over, Pandita shows just how deluded and misguided he is.

He then goes into a statistician mode – detailing the Pandita families that were killed and chronicling the supposed abject fear in which the few Pandit families in the valley live today. I would take these claims with a pinch of salt considering how biased the book is – perhaps it’s 100% true, perhaps just 50% of it is true, I can’t say with any certainty. But if there is even the slightest truth in these stories of continued fear, Pandita has done grave injustice to his community by creating skepticism in the minds of rational readers.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is the story of his feelings as an exile – the longing for home, for news of friends and family, and his mother’s constant refrain of “Our home in Kashmir had 21 rooms”. If only he could have been less biased and more objective, his book would have been a landmark achievement in explaining the Kashmir situation to youngsters and people who are not too familiar with the happenings in the valley.

Overall, I would give this book a big thumbs down. If you want to read an unbiased book on Kashmir, I would highly recommend Curfewed Nights by Basharat Peer – beautifully written, poignant, and rather unbiased.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from Random House India, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.
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Book Review: Final Cut by Uday Gupt

I tend to read chick-lit and short stories as “fillers” between two heavy books. Chick-lit because they’re light and generally feel-good stories. They rarely linger with you too long. Short stories, on the other hand, are always a joy to read. A few pages and the story is done. Perfect for times when you’re  feeling kinda restless and not in the frame of mind to read an entire novel. (That happens very rarely around here, but it does happen!) Final Cut by Uday Gupt is a collection of longer than usual short stories.

final-cutEach story is entirely Indian, with settings and social structures that are unique to India. The other thing that’s wonderful about the book is that most of the stories, though modern, are firmly rooted in the past.

Hodson’s Gold, for example, is set in modern times, but draws its roots from the Indian Mutiny of 1857; The Last Supper has its roots in the time when the British East India Company was trying to get a foothold into India; and Friends is rooted in the naxalite movement. Buddha Purnima is the only story that’s set entirely in the past, sometime after the fall of the Maurya dynasty.

I loved Will Reena?, the novella included in this collection. It’s a beautiful story of a childhood romance and a young boy’s rise from poverty to success on the basis of his own hard work. The way the story is structured, it’s hard to tell what the question being posed to Reena really is right until the very end – and when you do realize what is being asked of her, you have to go back to re-read pieces of it to see if you can maybe find a clue hidden somewhere in the story now that you know the end. Brilliant!

The writing is very good and there’s quite a variety in the stories being told. What I really enjoyed was the twists in the stories – most often, you never see them coming. Some of the stories have a bit of flab, but that’s a very minor flaw in an otherwise lovely collection. My favourites? Friends, Final Cut, It Happens Only in India, and Will Reena?

All told, it’s a book I’d recommend to lovers of short stories and Indian authors, and to those who are looking to read something different.

 Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: The Sea of Innocence by Kishwar Desai

Goa, south India. A beautiful holiday hideaway where hippies and backpackers while away the hours. But beneath the clear blue skies lies a dirty secret…

The Sea of Innocence by Kishwar DesaiSimran Singh, a 40-something social worker-come-crime investigator is holidaying in Goa with her teenage daughter Durga. All she wants is the sun, sand, and an idyllic, relaxed holiday. But all of that is spoilt when she gets a disturbing video clip featuring a young girl being attacked by a group of men. And then comes Amarjit, her on-again-off-again flame, to spoil her holiday.

He begs her to send Durga back home to Delhi and help him to find out what happened to the Liza, the girl in the video. Enter Marianne, her sister, who fills in some of the details of the crime but is deliberately vague about the exact timeline.

As Simran gets pulled into the case, she finds out more than she bargained for about Goa’s dark underbelly:

the web of lies and dark connections that flourish on these beaches. Everyone, it seems, knows what has happened to the girl but no one is prepared to say. And when more videos appear, and Simran herself is targeted in order to keep her quiet, the paradise soon becomes a living nightmare.

This is the third Simran Singh novel by Kishwar Desai – I haven’t read the first two. But that didn’t detract from the reading experience at all.

The novel is well crafted, and Desai brings up a lot of hot-button topics, weaving the brutal Delhi gang rape and protests from last year with some details on the Scarlett Keeling case as well – a young British girl who was found raped and murdered on a beautiful Goan beach.

The novel raises a lot of questions too – about how our perceptions of “the foreigners” colors our judgement of their fate. For example, Simran questions how Liza and Marianne could have accepted drinks (which Marianne later found were spiked with drugs) from strangers, but when she does the exact same thing – and is drugged – she realizes the fallacy of her judgement

I loved Simran’s character. I mean, how can’t you fall in love with a 40-something year old single woman who says:

Luckily other pursuits – drinking, smoking and flirtatious relationship – have added quality to my life.

While the pace isn’t exactly break-neck, it is quite fast, and at no point does it flag. And the twist at the end is a real kicker – I don’t think I  would ever have guessed it!

The book stays with your for a while after you finish reading – forcing you to find some of your own answers to the questions and topics that Desai raises in the novel.

Overall, it’s a hard-hitting book, and I would definitely recommend it.

Disclaimer: I received the book from the publisher, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.

Delhi Lens: Monuments: Nawaab ka Masjid, Chawdi Bazaar, Old Delhi

Tiny matchbox shops line both sides of a congested road. A mêlée of pedestrians, cycle rickshaws, two-wheelers and a few tempos are a cause for constant traffic jams. A lot of the buildings are crumbling and dilapidated. There’s a mess of electrical wires overhead. Everywhere you look there is chaos.

 Chawdi Bazaar, Old Delhi, India

And then suddenly, while looking up at that jumble of old buildings, you spot a delightful color combination – terracotta and blue. You pause, raise your camera to your eyes, zoom in, and see a beautiful carved wall. You click a picture, but keep staring at that building as a sea of humanity passes you by, gazing upwards, awestruck, spellbound.

View of masjid from the road, Chawdi Bazaar, Old Delhi

Until the shopkeeper – where your husband, oblivious to your delightful find, is busy buying wood working tools to fuel his hobby – moved by your stillness and your interest in photography, tells you that the building you’re staring at is a masjid. So while he pulls out the tools and makes the bill for your husband, both of you cross the road and climb up a flight of stairs to reach the mosque.

Your husband, who is ahead of you, suddenly turns towards you at the head of the stairs and says “Namaaz is going on, let’s go.” But before you can even process this disappointing news, another man sticks his head out and says “Oh no problem, please come in. Feel free to take pictures. And take off your shoes before you step into the courtyard.”

So you walk on up, give your husband a cheeky grin, and freeze.

Stone Carving, Old Delhi, India
Close up of a carved block of stone at the masjid

The masjid is far more beautiful than you had imagined. And, as the shopkeeper said, it’s unique. Because unlike any stone façade you have seen anywhere in the world, this mosque isn’t made of carved stone. It’s made of embossed stone. Yes, it means that the flowers and vines are not cut into the stone; instead, the stone around the shapes has been cut and smoothed away.

The entire mosque is made of red sandstone. Well preserved. Neat and clean. There’s no air of religious fervor here – instead, there’s a quiet spirituality. You can forget about the crowd just one flight of stairs down. The seething humanity, the chaos, the pollution, all of it just melts away. It’s a place where you feel connected with the divine…the universe…yourself…

Nawab ka Masjid, Chawdi Bazaar, Old Delhi

The masjid itself is 200 years old. Or 500. It depends on who you ask. No one seems to know exactly when it was built. All they know is that it definitely dates from British times. There’s an “English flower” carved on the entryway to prove it. They say the flower isn’t to be found anywhere in India, though they cannot tell you its name. When you ask a gentleman who has just finished his prayers what the name of the masjid is, he shrugs and tells you he is not a regular here.

English Flower, Mosque, Old_Delhi
The “English flower” carved at the entry to the mosque

You finally meet the caretaker, who tells you that the masjid is called Nawab ka Masjid – and you think that is a fitting name. He shows you around the place, showing you entire pillars and walls constructed of one piece of stone. He invites you inside and shows you around. Like all mosques, there are no figures or idols here, just a blank wall with a marble chair pointing towards Mecca. But the pillars are beautifully carved. The atmosphere within is serene. And you come away knowing that you have seen something unique…a structure that will live on in your heart for years to come.

Book review: The Other Side of the Table by Madhumita Mukherjee

Circa 1990.
A world drawn and woven with words.
A bond punctuated by absence and distance…
Two continents. Two cities. Two people.
And letters. Hundreds of them.
Over years. Across oceans. Between hearts.

The other side of the table by madhumita mukherjeeI was delighted, and a little apprehensive, when I read the back cover. Delighted because three of my favorite books are epistolary works – May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude; Helene Hanff’s 84, Charring Cross Road; and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Apprehensive because I am generally wary of Indian authors, even though there are some excellent novels out there – Indu Suderasan’s brilliant Taj trilogy comes immediately to mind. But then, there are also disasters, like I, Rama or How About A Sin Tonight. And telling a story through letters isn’t the easiest thing to do.

The Other Side of the Table tells the story of Abhi, who is training to become a neurosurgeon in London, and Uma, who has just entered medical college in Calcutta. They write to one another about medicine and life, love and friends, about travels and family, and things that are close to their hearts and about nothing at all. Each letter reveals a tantalizing glimpse into their lives.

We learn that Abhi lost his parents in a car accident when he was very young; that he’s known Uma since he was a child living in Calcutta; that since he’s gone to London, he feels that there’s nothing to tie him to India, except his friendship with Uma.

…I have not gone back to India ever since I came here. What do I go back to? Whom do I come home to? Dadu and Didu are gone. Come to think of it, there is no one there for me but you. You are my only link to India, a continuum from my youth.

We learn that Uma has dreams and ambitions, which she isn’t willing to sacrifice just because they aren’t conventional; that she’s spirited and fiery and unafraid of speaking her mind no matter what the consequences.

“Don’t be ridiculous Uma,” Dr. Bose said without preamble. “Girls don’t do surgery. What is this all about?”
…I heard myself say, “With or without interruptions, I hope to become a very good kind of surgeon, sir.”
“You think it is easy.” His lips curled with sarcasm.
“No, sir. I think it can be done, and I think I can do it.”

Mukherjee scoffed at my apprehensions with the first letter itself. She uses beautiful language without falling into the trap that most Indian authors find themselves in – that of convoluted sentences and big words. Just read this wonderful description of Abhi’s impression of the human gut:

…the glistening, frilly, vulgar and voluptuous beauty of the gut.

This is a beautiful story of dreams and love and loss. Each letter peels back the layers of Abhi’s and Uma’s lives, laying bare their innermost thoughts and desires. Each letter gives us a glimpse of their personalities, their little quirks, finely breathing life into the two protagonists, until you feel like you’ve known them all your life. She crafts a story that will make you laugh with them and cry with them. One in which your heart contracts with sorrow and then, a few letters on, surges with joy.

Part of me wanted to devour the book in one sitting, the other part wanted to stretch out the experience. I took the middle ground – I read the book in two days, and then, once it was over, I started it all over again, so I could savor it one letter at a time.

Highly recommended if you enjoy epistolary novels. If, like me, you are generally wary of Indian authors, pick this book up – I promise you won’t regret it!