Bhaswati Ghosh is the author of the novel, Victory Colony, 1950. She blogs at bhaswatighosh.com
1. Zahara and the Lost Books of Light by Joyce Yarrow; Adelaide Books
Zahara and the Lost Books of Light by Joyce Yarrow is that rare book that is at once topical and timeless. Yarrow teleports her readers across centuries to help them relive La Convivencia, a unique period in Spanish history when the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam coexisted in relative peace. Alienor Crespo, the present-day narrator of the novel is the descendant of a Jewish family, which, along with other members of its faith, was expelled from Spain in the 15th century.
To tell this story set across time and space, Yarrow seamlessly traverses between history, fantasy, journalism and the thriller-genre. Through Crespo’s gift of vijitas, a Ladino word meaning visits, the reader is able to smoothly slide back and forth in time, while confronting some hard truths about ultra-right politics and the astonishing power of the written word.
2. Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller; St. Martin’s Press
If Delhi ever needed a geometric metaphor, it would have to be the circle. From the different dynasties and political parties that rose and descended along its Ferris wheel of power to the ‘ring’ roads that serve as the arteries for navigating the city, Delhi’s circularity is both ancient and modern. In ‘Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity’, Sam Miller redefines this circle in an entirely refreshing way. A modern-day flâneur, he sets out to explore Delhi in spirals and with no fixed agenda. His resultant experiences range anywhere between the hilarious and the blood curdling.
Written in a voice that’s at once empathetic and snarky, the book is a delightful mix of travelogue, memoir, reportage and social commentary. Miller’s discoveries are unique, foreign not only to transient tourists but even to many old-time residents. His insider-outsider worldview lends his vignettes a special lens.
3. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim; Penguin Books
A million stories sprout over the graveyard. Each narrator is a Scheherazade (of One Thousand and One Nights), except none of them is compelled to tell a tale for fear of being killed. Some of them have already crossed over to the other shore and even the ones living know death to be staring them in the face. Yet the emotive force — mind-bending and magnetic — of the voices echoing through Hassan Blasim’s short stories forces the listener/reader to be pulled into their universes — macabre and enigmatic as they are.
Blasim primes the reader for the explosive brilliance that would erupt with the very first story. With scathing candour, he takes the reader through the lives of a people whose entire world is war — not only the external conflict raging around them, but a series of battles — against international sanctions that leaves them without electricity for 20 hours a day, avenging the killings of loved ones, and against one’s own fate and even conscience.
4. How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy; Aleph Book Company
I was in primary school when I first heard trees talk. On my way to school every day as I sat by the window of our school bus, leaf-laden branches of trees sashayed as the bus zipped past them. I was convinced this was the trees’ way of sending me off to school with a bunch of good wishes. On still, humid days, when my green friends didn’t seem as enthusiastic, I feared about the mood of the day facing me. Though brief, this moment of intimacy with the trees lining the one-way separators on South Delhi roads, was crucial for the emotional subsistence of a lonely child like me. For Sumana Roy, the necessity of this bonding – with plant life, with trees, swaying or still – is so acute that she wishes to morph into one. And sort of does. How I Became a Tree is the story of that astonishing transformation.
But why this overwhelming desire to become a tree? Roy’s discontent with her human form is not so much biological as it is psychogenic. The two corollaries of modern life that disturb her most – excessive noise and speed – are the very things trees counterpoise with defiant ease.
Roy finds more soul sharers – as a plant parent in the polymath scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose – who conducted numerous experiments to prove plants can feel and communicate; in the Buddha whose persona is essentially inseparable from the Bodhi tree under which he’s believed to have found enlightenment; and in poets, philosophers, and photographers who saw embedded in the barks and branches of trees reflections of their own self. And that is how Roy eventually turns into a tree. She imagines herself to be the Ashoka tree – A-shoka, sorrow less, as she segments the tree name.
5. This Side, That Side, Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh; Yoda Press and Goethe Institute
Perhaps because it is easy to divide land and difficult to partition rivers – real and the ones that flow as thought-streams, the motif of a river emerges recurrently in This Side That Side: Restoring Partition, an anthology of graphic narratives. Given the ongoing nature of personal histories forged by the Partition of India, re-storying seems not only a worthwhile but even a necessary exercise, if one is to make sense of the histories that stitch the lacerated subconscious of the populace scattered over India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
The pages of This Side That Side brim with such a diversity of graphic art styles that despite the dominance of themes such as loss, despair, and nostalgia running through the stories, each narrative is a fresh experience for the reader.
This Side That Side is a compendium of histories – remembered, imagined, re-imagined, and retold through the river-like stream of intergenerational kinship. Even more importantly, it is an undivided territory – one that brings stories from the other side – to help one process fractured memories and misconceived realities.