Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Idris Keeper of the Light

I wanted to like Anita Nair's Idris: Keeper of the Light but I didn't.


Though the category of genre fiction in India continues to grow apace, there are few authors whose names are synonymous with historical fiction in the way Alexandre Dumas, Walter Scott or Rafael Sabatini are. This is surprising, because nothing gives a nation a sense of the rightness of its own nationhood than an exploration of its past via fiction. In India we have traditionally chosen the mythological over the historical. There are notable exceptions: Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy (the first two books of it), Kunal Basu’s The Opium Clerk or The Miniaturist; Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold; even Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is an account of the near-historical, all bring their chosen periods alive for the reader. 

It was with a sense of anticipation, therefore, that I began to read Anita Nair’s Idris: Keeper of the Light. The story is set in the years 1659-61, and begins in Thirunavaya on the Malabar coast. Idris is a Somali traveller who discovers that a chance-met boy is his son. He finds out that his son Kandavar wants to join the Chaver, a band of warriors who have sworn to assassinate the Zamorin. To save him from certain death, Idris promises Kandavar’s uncle first to keep an eye on the boy, then later to take him on a long journey to broaden his horizons and distract him from his suicidal ambitions. They travel along the coast of southern India, via Ceylon, Thoothukudi and Paliacatta, finally to end in the diamond mines of the Golconda kingdom.

Sadly, the book fails to deliver on its promise of “adventure and passion and...fascinating insights into life in the seventeenth century.” Early on, when Idris and Kandavar visit the head of a kalari (martial arts school), the Muslim Baapa Gurukkal, we get a flashback where Baapa Gurukkal’s grandfather loses caste by learning new techniques of fighting from an untouchable and converts to Islam. The episode is curiously mythic—even derivatively cinematic in the manner of a Hong Kong martial arts film—in its descriptions. ”Who knows which year it happened?” asks Baapa Gurukkal, rhetorically. 

There are other details that are carefully timeless, that could even be current: descriptions of the setting up of a kalari, or of food, clothes and the weather. When the travels begin and Idris and his entourage go to places under the control of the Dutch East India Company, we are given only the sketchiest details of what the encounter must have been like. The slave trade is mentioned in passing. We are told that Idris draws the line at trading in humans and then we never hear anything of this again. Instead, we have a ship’s doctor dreaming of returning home to Delft to his wife and home—of which we are given a short memory-tour.

Early on, Idris says, “I travel because I don’t know what else to do.” It’s something writers often say about themselves and why they write. It might help if writers—and travellers—were a little clearer not only about why they do what they do, but why they have chosen a particular journey. It’s especially hard to figure out, reading this book, what precisely attracted Nair to the period in the first place, since we know very little more than we did at the end of the book.

Idris’ travels skim the surface of 17th century southern India that we are eager to hear more about. In this, he’s like the host of a Fox Traveller show touching down upon a new place, picking one or two locations of colour to consume and then heading off somewhere else. So we get pearl fishing in Thoothukudi and diamond mining in the Krishna Basin but painted in the broadest possible strokes. 

Worse, we rarely come to care for any other character because once they have played their part in the narrative, they vanish from it. Everybody thinks the same few things about Idris: how distinguished and tall he is, how reserved and how compassionate; how well he assumes any role that is required of him to fill at any given time—healer, storyteller, leader in a crisis, or shrewd businessman. Any character with a grudge is dealt with swiftly, mostly by writing them out of the narrative.

The women, Kuttimalu—Kandavar’s mother—and Thilothamma are strong and independent; but these qualities mean little when, like other characters, they exist to explicate something about Idris or Kandavar and then fade into the background once they have finished being strong women for that particular moment.
The book ends with a comfortable opening for a sequel. Historical fiction needs proper world-building, with enough fact to buttress the imagination. I can only hope that Nair delves more deeply into the period to bring it truly alive. Until then, it’s back to Ghosh.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Long Wait

I have a piece up on an image from Amruta Patil's Parva here.

That image, that story, they've all been a part of my life for some time now. So I can't write about it; I can only confess.

Go read. And while you're there, check out the other pieces in the Illustration Series - there are some fantastic writers and some lovely choices there.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Brigit Peegan Kelly: 'Pipistrelles'

I bought Brigit Peegan Kelly's Song at The Haunted Bookstore in Iowa City. I'd read the title poem and one other by her and wanted to read more. Naturally, having returned home, I put all the books away and had nothing but good intentions while doing so.

On the flight to Bombay, this was the one book I took with me. I read and stuck a finger between the pages while wanting to weep or make some extravagant gesture of appreciation even while being strapped in to my seat and trapped by the food cart.

I read 'Pipistrelles' and wrote frantically in my notebook. Then, as we prepared to land, I put the book away and didn't read another word from it until I - once again - returned home. In the interval, Ranjit Hoskote read a poem (At Hope St. Poets on the 5th) about skin. It felt like a word read and constantly making its presence felt soon after, because there was 'Pipistrelles'.

But you need to read the whole poem. Here it is.



In the damp dusk
The bats playing spies and counterspies by the river’s
Bankrupt water station

Look like the flung hands of deaf boys, restlessly
Signing the dark. Deaf boys
Who all night and into the half-lit hours

When the trees step from their shadows
And the shadows go to grass
Whistle those high-pitched tunes that, though unheard, hurt

Our thoughts. Pipistrelles, little pipes, little
Night pipes, the peculiar
Lost fluting of the outcast heart. Poor heart.

The river’s slate waters slide
Silt and grief, the whole destroyed mountain of winter
Over the weir. Never stopping,

Sometimes slowing, but never stopping. And
Along the banks the skinflint trees
Clasp their weak heat. Well, they are a touchy choir,

A confused congregation, breathing
The thin air of our unteneted world. The sun pales
The leafy dogma goes, and we are left

To our freedom. But do we see now
The world as it actually is? Or merely another world?
A world within a world? Perhaps

In spring when the dogwood
Slowly discloses its hoard of pale mothlike blossoms
It is the mind that mulls

The sap – perhaps it is the mind
That makes its worlds
And the miracles therein.


the bats resemble the deaf.
But they are not deaf. They live by echoes as we do.
Negotiate by echoes. Send signals out

And field the reflections on the wing. And only
Great fear will hang them
On the piano wires we string to test them,

Dead certain of our right to know
At any cost the mechanism of another’s flight.
Even blindfolded, even painted

All over with nail polish, the bats will manage
Those wires pulled free
From their instrument, from their sound, will play

Around them a makeshift music
So lovely the pianist’s fingers will falter with envy,
And only great fear will hang them.

But it is different with us. Fear in us
Is central. Of the bone. It is our inheritance.
Our error. What flies back at us

From rocks and trees from the emptiness
We cannot resist casting into,
Is coloured by the distortions of our hearts,

And what we hear almost always blinds us.
We stumble against phantoms, throw
Ourselves from imaginary cliffs, and at dusk, like children, we

Run the long shadows down. Because the heart, friend,
Is a shadow, a domed dark
Hung with remembered doings. A night feeder – moths,

Fur over the tongue and the wet jewel of blood,
The cracked shells of insects
Split on the wing. And elsewhere, by connection,

Blood draining from the perfect cut
That brings the rabbit down, a slow singing out,
As in a dream, the blood sliding,

As the water of the overflowing creek does, sideways
In its brief bid for freedom,
While above, something wings away.


we are not birds. Despite our walls covered
with winged men, we are not birds.
And all that is birdlike in the bats

Is also deception. They have
No feathers, no beak, no high-pitched heart.
Their wings are skin. Skin! Stretched

From shoulder to foot like the cloth
We nailed to wood to build
Our doomed medieval contraptions for flight,

Or like our taut sheets, the high-strung skin,
The great single wing of sex we lean on
But we are not birds. All that is birdlike

In us, in the bats, is illusion.
There is nothing at all of the bird in us....
Except for flight. Except for flight.


Banana Stem Meditations

Bombay usually energises me but this time I was just exhausted. I left as I arrived - with a headache. In between there were more people than I thought I'd meet though there was less conversation than I imagined.

I have been sleeping. I have been postponing the yoga with an odd kind of guilt I have not felt in years. Like I have a duty to the time and to the pose - whichever one it is that has caught my fancy.

I cut banana stem for my mother who says it's hard on her fingers. This replaces for me, for today, the meditation of holding a pose. I slice one circle off, pull the fiber around a finger and then slip it off like a ring. Knife, slice, wind, ring, pick up knife again. The bowl of buttermilk is clear on the top. I swirl a finger in it, drown the slices so they don't get brown.

Peace in repetition, in knowing this is a pose - yes, pose - with a clear end in sight. When these four lengths of stem are cut. Steadily beating heart, no particular thought that needs handholding. I must insist on being the one to cut the banana stem. Like I have claimed for myself the task of grating coconut. These domesticities are where I feel at home.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

At Kala Ghoda 5th and 6th Feb

I'll be at Kala Ghoda for the annual Arts and Literature Festival. The full programme is up at the KGAF site. My sessions as follows:

On the 5th, from 5-9.15pm, 18 poets (The Hope Street Poets!) will read at The refurbished David Sassoon Library. There will be three sessions of 75 minutes each, with six poets reading in each session. A 15 minute break after sessions 1 & 2.

In order:

Panel 1 | 5 - 6:15 pm

Adil Jussawalla
Sridala Swami
Gerson da Cunha
Jane Bhandari
Priya Sarukkai Chabria
K Srilata

Panel 2 | 6:30 - 7:45 pm

Arundhathi Subramaniam
Gieve Patel
Ranjit Hoskote
Anupama Raju
Menka Shivdasani
Sampurna Chattarji

Panel 3 | 8 - 9:15 pm

Mustansir Dalvi
Meena Kandasamy
Anju Makhija
Anand Thakore
Dominic Alapat
Mani Rao

On the 6th, Thursday, The Tarq Salon: Translation from 6.15-7.15pm. Participants are Arunava Sinha, K. Srilata, R. Sivapriya. I will moderate.

Hope to see some of you!