Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Hindu Refugee Camp, Lahore by Sachin Garg

Genre: Historical/Contemporary Love Story
Rating: 5/5

Once in a while you read a story that tugs at your heartstrings. Hindu Refugee Camp, Lahore is such a story.

Ghulam Ali is a limb fitter – the best from ‘Burma to Britannia’. He belongs to Lucknow, serves in the Indian army, and by a quirk of fate finds himself serving in Lahore at the time of India’s partition. He wants to stay in India. But for that he needs valid Indian documents – which he does not have, and hence permit from Indian government. He starts making rounds of government offices in Lucknow for the permit.

He meets Zahira, the lady in the government office, who will process his application, but who finds it difficult in the absence of any documents. She has lost one leg. He makes a perfect wooden limb for her, so that she can dance – her passion. They fall in love, and plan to get married. They consummate their relationship on the night before their planned marriage next day.

The Indian government looks at him with suspicion, is arrested on the same night, and sent back to Lahore with police escort, where he is released after a few days in the lock-up. He is unwanted in Pakistan as well. He ends up in a Hindu refugee camp, writing to everybody to let him return to India. A daughter is born while he is still in Lahore.

Ghulam Ali and Zahira Raza communicate with each other between 1958 and 1960 only through letters. It is these letters from Lucknow that keep him motivated even when facing adversities in Lahore. Then Zahira stops replying to Ali’s letters in 1960.

Ali gets permission to return back to India. Zahira is no longer in Lucknow, and no-one knows where she has gone with their daughter. He writes the last letter of the story to his daughter, now 19 years old in 1977, on the day that she is getting married.

Is Ali able to reunite with his family?

The story contains only these letters that Ali and Zahira share with each other, or his last letter to his daughter. There is never a moment when you want to skip a letter – in fact if you skip one, you might miss the sentiments conveyed in the letter. All the hardships that Ali faces in Lahore – everyone is using religion as a leverage to control others , or the difficulties of Zahira as an unwed single mother living alone in Lucknow – are beautifully brought out in these letters. These issues are contemporary, though written in the context of events in 1958.

Even his last letter to his daughter, beautifully brings out the loneliness of his life without Zahira and Zubeida, but with a hope for future. Ghulam Ali writes that if he were to die in that moment, his epitaph would have read, ‘He died out of happiness on being with the love of his life.’

History records that the partition happened on 15th August 1947. But for people like Ghulam Ali, it’s an event that stretched on for years and years.

The author has written in his notes, ‘I wish the subjects discussed in this book weren’t as relevant today as they are.’

This is what makes this love story as much contemporary as historical.

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Food Diaries of a Pioneer: Marwadi Khana

Diwali is a time for festivities and bonding over good food with family and friends. This year we were to host the Diwali lunch, and my wife wanted to order food to give us all time to sit with the guests instead of being busy in the kitchen. Her preferred cuisine for the event was Rajasthani.

We found that the limited outfits serving Rajasthani cuisine earlier had either closed or were not delivering due to the pandemic. I persevered and came across home chef Abhilasha Jain (+91-9958983606), a Marwadi lady, settled in Gurgaon, and running her outlet Marwadi Khana (www.marwadikhana.in). We were apprehensive trying out a new outlet, but I am happy that we ordered from Abhilasha.

We ordered Dal Bati Churma, and Gatte ki Subzi. The accompaniments were Lehsun ki Chutney, and Mirchi ke Tipore. Gatte (cooked gram flour dumplings), cooked in spicy curd gravy, were hot with the right proportion of spices. The batis (hard unleavened bread) soaked in ghee (clarified butter) went well with the panchmel dal (five kinds of lentils cooked together). The dal had the perfect consistency. The batis had a hard exterior but crumbled inside the mouth. The Churma (coarsely ground wheat cooked in ghee and sugar) left everyone wanting more. The two accompaniments – lehsun (garlic) ki chutney was tangy and mildly spicy; mirchi ke tipore (instant green chilli pickle) were sufficiently hot, spicy, and tangy, as they are meant to be.

Our lunch was a hit. The portion sizes were big – we packed every dish for the guests to take home for the next meal; there was enough left for us to continue our party the next day as well. We are now hooked to try their other dishes the next time that we order Rajasthani cuisine.

Abhilasha belongs to a traditional Marwadi family. She spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother while she was growing up, ‘learning the art of cooking.’ Having lived most of her life in Rajasthan, she has imbibed the rich and royal flavours in each dish’ on her menu. She has claimed on her website, ‘the authentic recipes handed down to me over generations, have been perfected by me’.

This is not an empty boast. Marwadi Khana accepts orders on its website and delivers across Delhi NCR.

#homechef #homecooking #rajasthanicuisine #delhincr #homedeliveryfood

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: That Pain in the Womb by Asha Iyer Kumar

Genre: Short Stories
Rating: 5/5

Not all pain is caused by physical injury; there is also a pain in the heart, mostly caused by those whom we love, or those that we are close to. It is this unseen pain which can make you lonely, it can make you cry, it can make you take revenge, and sometimes it can even make you smile.

This collection of 12 short stories by Asha explores this pain and angst of her characters. A mother spends a restless night when her married daughter, looking for happiness in her second marriage after her first husband’s death, calls her that she is returning, maybe for a few months – a mother’s heart goes into an overdrive fearing for her daughter’s marital life. An old saint, still living a few centuries after our time, in a land turned desert due to the degradation of environment by earlier generations, where people move around with oxygen cylinders to breathe clean air, motivates people to plant trees. The driver of a mafia don avenges the death of his murdered father. The pain that a 12 year old girl feels when she sees the truth behind the mask that her father wears for those around him. The 17 year old young woman, topper in her board examinations, is tired of her parents’ dreams that they want to fulfil through their genius daughter. The pain that a mother feels when she realises that her juvenile son has turned into a beast. A young woman comes to India looking for her identity and her father, out of many men who had ravished her mother one night. A 60 something mother is berated by her daughter for posting her pictures on the social media wearing distressed jeans – her husband is her support. A middle-aged man runs away from home, but remains a vagabond, till something snaps decades later as he sees his parents making an appeal on television for him to return. A couple of illegal migrant women, working as house helps in another country, find love, and a meaning in life, when one of them has a child with Down’s Syndrome. Old people living in an old-age home, abandoned by their children, become support system to each other. The pain of a father as he sees his daughter going through divorce from a marriage which was forced by him to break her affair with a man from another religion.

Each story leaves you feeling the pain of the protagonist. I also liked the way that the stories were ended by the author – reader could interpret the ending in own way; and each story has the potential to be developed in a novel. If Asha does not write those novels, I may.

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Book Reviews by a Pioneer: High on Kasol by Aditya Kant

Genre: Crime Thriller

Rating: 3/5

Kasol is a village in the beautiful Parvati valley on the banks of river Parvati in Himachal Pradesh in India. It is the base for treks to Malana and Kheerganga. It is also known as mini Israel due to heavy influx of Israeli tourists. It also has the disreputable reputation for the cannabis grown here, and one of the best hashish produced in the world – Malana Cream.

Abeer, an upcoming writer from Delhi, comes to Kasol for a six weeks stay to write his next story for a production house. One night he hears a woman’s voice asking for help. He is spooked as there is no one around. He starts questioning and finds that the room opposite his in High on Kasol, the guest house where he is staying, was occupied by an Israeli woman, who went missing, apparently having fallen in the river under the influence of drugs, was swept away, her body never found.

As he starts looking for leads in the mysterious disappearance, an attempt is made on his life. There are more murders. Where are the missing women? Why someone wants to kill Abeer?

The book is a fast read written in simple language. Chapters are short, and each chapter leaves you with suspense, wanting to know what happens next. Even the last few lines in the book are a mystery – you want the author to narrate what comes next.  But a few of the events appear clichéd and sometimes contrived. This leaves one with a sense of wanting a little more from the story.

An entertaining read, making you wait expectantly for the prequel that the writer is working on.

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Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Genre: Supernatural Dark Humour
Rating: 3/5

It is February 1862 – America is going through a terrible civil war. President Lincoln’s son, Willie dies, and is kept in the crypt. Lincoln is grief-stricken, and visits the crypt several times to hold his child’s body. This is recorded history.

Many religions talk about a transitory realm between life and death in which ghosts of dead persons with unfulfilled desires roam, unwilling to return to the unknown beyond. Bardo is this intermediate realm in Tibetan tradition.
The author has spun a story out of a historical fact and a mystical concept.

Lincoln sits in the crypt holding the dead body. Ghosts in this bardo urge Willie’s spirit to get inside his father’s body so that he can communicate with the latter. They themselves do not want to exit this realm, still chasing what they have left behind – racial discriminations, attachment to children, attachment to land, and attachment to their sexual desires – gay, other person’s or even own wife. Lincoln, on the other hand, is torn between memories of his son, and the price in terms of lives lost in the civil war.

The book is hilarious, and also touching. But it is an unusual book in its writing style. Many pages comprise of only excerpts from letters of the time to move the story forward. Many paragraphs are almost poetical.

It was a difficult read for me because of the writing style and the genre. I could not understand the story for the first 50 pages. I had almost given up, but as I got a hang, I could complete the book. In the final analysis, I would not have picked this book on my own – I purchased it as it was the Book of the Month in one of my book clubs. The book may appeal to followers of supernatural dark humour.

Incidentally, the book is winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017.

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Pioneer Book Lovers Club Write Contest 2021: Prompt for November and Rules for Submission

#shortstorychallenge #writecontest #EventsContestsDeals #writingcompetition #writingprompts

Write a short story of 1500-3000 words (excluding the prompt) using the below prompt.

I went up to the loft in my apartment with a broom in hand for annual spring-cleaning. I dusted a little before sitting down. It was then that I noticed the old album. I opened it… There was magic around me! Mystical creatures from past came prancing on the screen created by the dust raised by me.

1. The prompt can be used anywhere in your story, but it should not be split.
2. The story can be of any genre of your choice.
3. The storytelling is important, but please also take care of grammatical or spelling errors.
4. Your story should be submitted in both pdf and word formats by 30th November 2021 at pblcwritecontest@gmail.com. Please caption the subject line as Write Contest.
5. Two winners will be declared in case found suitable by the judges. The decision of the judges will be final. No queries will be entertained on the results.
6. All future announcements and results can be seen on the Facebook group of Pioneer Book Lovers Club (https://www.facebook.com/groups/880032822610818/).
7. The contest will run for one year till May 2022, with two winners declared every month if found suitable.
8. Winning entries at the end of the year will be compiled and have a chance to be published in a book of short stories.

Put on your writing cap and send us your short stories using the above prompt.

We have also started interactive sessions with authors. Our next author is Lata Gwalani, author of Prisoners of Secrets, and Incognito. She will be in conversation with Sanjay Chandra, author of The Life and Times of a Common Man, and the forthcoming The Gymnast, on Sunday, 21st November 2021 at 5 PM IST. Please send message for registration and link for the session at pblcwritecontest@gmail.com. Please caption the subject line as Author Session.

#writecontest #writingcompetition #writingprompts #shortstorychallenge #EventsContestsDeals

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Grand Anicut by Veena Muthuraman

Genre: Historical Thriller
Rating: 4/5

It is first century CE in south India. King Karikalan, the Chola ruler of Tamilakam has defeated his neighbouring kings. It is peacetime for now. The king is working on an ambitious dam project on river Kaveri for his farmers – The Grand Anicut. But is everything as it appears?

The Chola trader community is unhappy, as the king has granted rights to other communities; the foreign merchants from Rome are dissatisfied as they cannot trade with other countries due to restrictions imposed by the king – sea harbours are controlled by the Cholas; the vanquished tribes want to avenge the killings of their close ones by the king. Spies and counter spies move across the land for their masters. There are murders and allegations. One does not know whom to trust.

It is a fast paced historical fiction, which draws from few actual events of that time. The country of the period is described vividly. As each chapter ends, you are left wondering about the events to follow. The distraction for me was to understand many south Indian words used throughout the book for which I had to go back to google search. This interrupted my reading – it would have helped if the English equivalents were put in footnotes.

An entertaining read.

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Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Oracle of Karuthupuzha by Manu Bhattathiri

Genre: Contemporary Fiction/Satire/Humour/Social Drama
Rating: 5/5

Karuthupuzha is a fictional town somewhere in South India – the location is immaterial. The town could have been anywhere across the globe – the story would have remained relevant anywhere.

Sarasu, the teenage daughter of Naresha, the local milkman, has a fit one day, when she is unable to get her way with her parents about her studies. The ambitious father sees in this fit the fulfilment of his own ambitions to rise up the class ladder. The daughter is possessed by Chathan, the demon God, and he Naresha, is the only one who can interpret the predictions of the god for the good people, speaking through the garbled sounds of the goddess, his daughter. She is the Oracle to help people.

Nanu, the son of the rich widow, Ponamma, is not quite right, as per the perceptions of his widowed mother and the town people – because his behaviour does not fit with what is expected of a growing up child, an adolescent, and a young adult. He remains immersed in his own dreams, wondering about the meaning of life, and seemingly in love with the naked centrespread of an American woman in an adult magazine.

The inevitable happens – the widow brings her son to the interpreter for Chathan consultations with Goddess Sarasu. The town is in ruptures for the scandalous rumour mongering opportunities that this presents – markets, toddy shop, wedding events – anyplace is fair game.

The book is a commentary on society across the globe – class, caste, fake god men, gullible and the non-gullible common people or even rich people, legends. The author is almost irreverent, yet funny and scathing at the same time, in talking about the practices in society and our gullibility to fall for them. There is a 4–5-page passage around page 200, when Nanu is talking to himself about what goes on in his mind, and his questions about what is life. There is a self effacing humour even in these deep queries. These are questions that most of us have asked in our journey of life at some point or the other.

You chuckle or smile or even laugh as you read, only to realise with a shock that the author may actually have been describing you, or someone that you know. And, you do not take offence – that is the beauty of this novel. It is a mirror where you look at yourself, but for once you like the mirror and your image.

This is a brilliant novel.

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Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Life in the Clock Tower Valley by Shakoor Rather

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5

Love is known to strike in late teens, when one is still in college. It is also known to fall by the wayside in the face of parental or societal objections. Is this true love?

This is a love story set in the backdrop of Kashmir. Samar, a college going student is in love with Rabiya, his batch mate. Their love blossoms on their daily ride to the university in the same Matador. But the two fathers follow two opposing stalwart politicians of the state. Each staunchly opposes the ideology of the other. Their love is fated to wither, with the two protagonists also not having enough courage to brave the opposition.

Two other important characters are a 5-year-old Sana, and an older Pintoji, who is differently abled. They look at the world from their innocent eyes, not understanding the reasons for so much hatred and violence. Their dreams are for a peaceful and loving community.

The book does bring out the beauty of Kashmir in short passages. Though, I was a little disappointed, as I was expecting more detailed description of the beauty of the valley, and the reasons behind the political turmoil or terrorism. I was also wanting the love to succeed, which it did not. The passages about the innocent vision of Sana or Pintoji for a life which does not have differences touch your heart, with a hope for future.

This is a short novel. The story is well written. A decent one time read.

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