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India Was One May 30, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — srirekha @ 7:47 pm
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Almost a decade ago, as a newly-minted Community Reporter in New York City, I was on my first assignment to cover an event organized by a reputed community organization. Of the 200-odd members of the audience – mostly middle-aged and older men – many had been settled in the US for over 25 years and were naturalized Americans.

Whatever the event, I was shocked and strangely embarrassed when at the end of the program, they arose in unison to shout: ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. Privately, many of them were severely critical and even condescending of everything about India, but standing collectively, they almost by default were proud persons of Indian origin.

Thinking about it even today, I think the oft-repeated cliché is the most apt to describe this tendency of Indians, that you can take an Indian out of India but not India out of an Indian.

Reading through this new book ‘India Was One (Ek Tha Bharat)’, sent to me by the author who chooses to remain anonymous – preferring to call himself “an Indian” – that’s what I was reminded of, for here is a writer, no literary genius by any measure, but one that oozes sentiment and emotion for a country that he left a long time ago, but still calls home.

For most part, the book reads like a guide book for non-Indian beginners in India and fresh-off-the-boat Indians in America. Although well intentioned, you do wonder who the author’s targeted audience is.

Nevertheless, ‘India Was One’ seems to come from an immense yearning for the relatively simpler society of his youth and frustration over the deep politically-driven fissures in today’s India that the author fears might one day result in yet another Partition.

 

So, it would seem that the writer found a simple story based loosely on personal experiences – down to his obsession for cricket – to weave around the idea of a possible north-south division of India.

The story begins in a college canteen in Mumbai where boy meets girl, they fall in love, friends support, parents approve, they marry, move to the US and – with impossibly uncomplicated ease – are settling in towards a ‘happily ever after’ life, when they hear (on CNN) to their shock and dismay that India is divided.

Fearing for the safety of their respective families back home, they decide to go back, only, they can’t go back together to the same city, because now the hero who is a “South Indian” has to go to one India and his wife who is a “North Indian” has to go to the other India.

The writer here lets his imagination run loose as to the possible scenarios of a horizontally divided India where in the absence of any “government” the army takes over.

While one wouldn’t bother with self-published books such as this one, I must admit I was touched by the utterly simplistic narrative – both in style and content. It comes straight from the heart and the message is not camouflaged in a verbal cloak

The book reflects the innate emotions of every Indian who has left India to settle abroad – that sense of longing for their families, friends and all things mundane that was part of the everyday life in India; a sense of distance which keeps them from reaching out in time in times of trouble; and a sense of fear in the knowledge of the socio-political and geographical threats the country faces from within and in its immediate neighborhood spurred perhaps by a guilt that they may have abandoned their country when it needed them the most.

Suffice it to say that the book ends with a quintessential Bollywood-style twist while I leave you to spare a thought on the potential havoc that parochial and narrow self-serving agendas can wreak on the fragile multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-caste and multi-regional India

{India Was One, available on Amazon.com $16.95 and in other e-book formats}
SRIREKHA CHAKRAVARTY

 

 

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An Afghan Winter May 1, 2013

Another book from Afghanistan. Well, creative interpretation of reality happens when reality becomes more dramatic than fiction. And Afghanistan has been offering plenty of creative release to a lot of people, with the starkness of its realities.

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An Afghan Winter

It’s one thing to spin off a fictional story set against a historical backdrop but quite another to fictionalize life in a contemporary war zone. You see, it leaves little scope for imagination to run wild. But author Rajesh Talwar makes it harder on himself by donning a reporter’s cap to give a unique if not a factual perspective on war ravaged Afghanistan in his latest book “An Afghan Winter” unraveling as he does, a murder mystery that keeps one turning the pages.

For an American in Afghanistan there is no dearth of enemies, the potentials ranging from the Al Qaeda, Taliban, the army, vested interests and mercenaries, to the scores of innocent civilians who are dismissed off as collateral damage by both the ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ marauders.

So, here’s the plot: Anzan Safri is an Indo-Tibetan journalist based in Dubai who lands up in Kabul, Afghanistan to train local journalists. Unwittingly, however, he finds himself embroiled in a surreal murder of an American army officer and sets about to find the killer(s).

Anzan’s friend and US Army officer, Michael, has been murdered in a bomb attack. There are three potential suspects – the Englishman Greg West who worked with Micahel in the ammunitions depot; the German Kurt Kainzer, a pedophile who ran a charity as a front; and the Iranian head of a media organization, Mansour Hashimi. The heterogeneity of these gentlemen itself should be an indication of the kind of people that populate current day Kabul.

The protagonist’s keen deductive instincts and easy-going nature bring him into contact with many mundane yet interesting characters. There are characters that give the feel of the connectedness of the sub-continent and there are the perfunctory love-interests, who, if it were a movie, would be considered eye-candy.

As he investigates, Anzan travels north and south of the country, risking his own life through undulating and unapologetic terrain where if bombs or landmines laid out by terrorists do not kill you, then you could get killed by so much as just sneezing as you pass by the automatic weapons of moving American convoys.

But then, it’s not the quaint whodunit that keeps you riveted – it’s the stories of ordinary Afghans, their frailties, strengths and complexities as they struggle to lead a life of quiet dignity in the face of foreign occupying forces, fundamentalists, mercenaries, and unscrupulous westerners, that tug at your heart.

What you don’t get is hyperbole and overstatement that fiction writers may sometimes fall victim to. With brevity as his essential style, Talwar manages an almost objective reportage of scenes as if coming straight from a reporter’s notes. What you get is – although not highly sophisticated – a fast-paced narrative with contemporary relevance and a political dimension.

Although fictional, Talwar’s characters seem as real as the actual locations and situations described. Much as you sense the third world squalor in a surviving city like Kabul, you get a feel of the made-for-foreigners-only opulence in its hotels and restaurants, the sights, sounds and smells of local bazaars as also the warm hospitality of the tradition-bound Afghans.

But then, the author has had the advantage of getting a ringside view of the country as a war zone veteran and United Nations staff member who spent years working in Afghanistan.

Having studied at Delhi University and Nottingham, he practiced law for many years and has worked for the United Nations in Somalia, Liberia, Kosovo, Timor-Leste and Afghanistan.

If you have ever watched images of Afghanistan on television and wondered who those faceless people are that live through all that death and destruction, and their dynamics with the people who cause that destruction, and those who bring those images to you, read An Afghan Winter. It tells you the stories behind at least some of those faces.

[An Afghan Winter is available for sale online at Amazon.com and other channels.]

SRIREKHA CHAKRAVARTY