The All-Seeing Eye of the Mole

“It took me more than ten years to give shape to this work of fiction ….. The nearest form to this narration (which is somewhat new to Tamil letters) is the novel. It has a hero, a scene of action (United States), a period (1973-74)” says Ashokamitran (AM from now on) in his brief introduction to the Tamil original of this work. Ostensibly a travelogue of his some seven months stay at the University of Iowa as a writer in residence that the US government had sponsored as part of its strategy to win Third World intellectual support for itself in the Cold War days, it defies classification as a genre. How much of the book is factual and how much fictional is left tantalizingly in doubt. Actually, this kind of indeterminate genre is becoming increasingly common these days and there is even a name for it: “Faction”. AM is in good company.

Far Reaches of the Ocean

Aazhi Soozh Ulagu, the title of the novel under review, is an exquisite phrase from Kamban’s Ramyanam (circa 12th century CE), which occurs in Kaikeyi’s exhortation to Lord Ram before he is sent away into exile for fourteen years. ‘All of this ocean-ringed earth is Bharathan’s to rule,’ declares Kaikeyi, while Ram must travel into the jungle to undertake ‘intolerably arduous’ penance, live austerely and bathe in the waters off hallowed pilgrimage centres, before returning home in two times seven years. In a contemporary reworking of this metaphor, playing on the multifarious meanings of ‘Ulagu’, the title of this debut novel by Joe D’Cruz, first published in 2004, refers to the Ocean-Ringed World of a community of fishermen in a coastal village south of Tuticorin in southern Tamilnadu.

New Trends in Tamil Reading

In the recent past there is an appreciable rise in the number of books published in Tamil on national and global issues. That such books have a good market augurs well for the future of Tamil. And who are the readers for these books? The last few decades of the last century found a new class of readership, that was recently empowered by education but still, that lacked an adequate knowledge of English, the language of intellectual dialogue internationally. And yet, these new readers were thirsting for knowledge and wanted to know all that was happening around them near and far. Their expectations were not belied and books dealing with a variety of issues started appearing.

Ghost Stories is a book which tells stories with a touch of mystery and suspense. ‘The Lady of the House’ is about a young ayah, called Malina, who comes to work in the house of Ginnima. Ginnima is an old lady, who has been trapped in her bed for 55 years, because she is overweight. When she first meets the old lady, something about Ginnima’s eyes scares Malina, because she feels like she is being trapped.This is a scary story. ‘The Blue Light’ is about a man, who searches for the perfect house to live in. He thinks he has found it and moves in. The postman tells him that the house is haunted by Bhargavi, a women who threw herself into a well because of unrequited love.Is he afraid?Read on to find out if the house is haunted.

Good Heavens is the name of the book, or the feelings of shock that came over me as I finished it? Do Indian authors really think that 10-12 year old read stories about elephants named ‘Elphie’ or wasn’t that meant for five year olds? Are Indian children really that juvenile? My advice, please write books that are really for the pre-teens and teens of our country and not for the ‘kids’.

What is it that sets apart a children’s book from a book for adults? Should there even be such distinctions? After all, the best children’s books also appeal to adults. But the converse, unfortunately, is not true. There are many books which adults like, that a child would not enjoy reading. And anyway, how does one decide what makes a good children’s book? The ones that teach children valuable lessons? The ones that entertain them? It could be argued that it is the book that the child reads again and again, sometimes right into adulthood, finding new things to wonder at with each reading, that can be called a truly good children’s book.These questions become rather more than merely academic ones, when one reads the beautiful, aesthetically appealing books published by Katha.

It’s easy to review a field guide: does it cover all of the 1200-or-so species in India? Does it have good illustrations? Are the differences between Blyth’s and Richard’s Pipits accurately represented? What are the descriptions like? Are the latest taxonomic changes incorporated? That there are fewer than half a dozen comprehensive field guides to the region doesn’t hurt either. They’re familiar territory.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, children grew up on books about fairies, and smiling mushrooms, detective dogs and five children, faraway lands and enchanted forests. Today’s children are privy to battles larger than themselves, larger than life. Between prophesied heroes and worlds torn apart by evil—children learn the larger binary of life early in life. The reluctant heroes of these two novels, Joshua Mowll’s Operation Red Jericho and Jan Mark’s Voyager follow the footsteps of iconic heroes like Harry and Frodo facing demons and death albeit without the classic burden of being prophesied chosen ones.

Mark’s book, a sequel to the hugely successful Riding Tycho is the story about young Demetria’s escape from the oppressive life on High Island, a journey that leads to adventure, discovery and a life with the Underground. Mark is an excellent storyteller and no one can argue that her story lacks originality. The one glaring drawback of the narrative is that its takes a long time to take off. Add that to the fact that Mark works with the assumption that everyone is reading the book as a sequel, and hence come armed with the knowledge of Book One; it would take an exceptionally patient young child to sit through the non events in the initial half of Voyager.

The word “childhood’ brings many delight- ful memories to our minds. We were carefree and happy…We were not overburdened in any way….Yes, those were the days of innocence. Yet Anees Jung shatters the myth in Lost Spring Stories of Stolen Childhood. Child labour stares in the face as Jung ruthlessly describes the experiences of the young ones. She touches on the familiar issues of children begging, working in tea stalls or by the roadside. Yet these are issues, which she adds, are ignored by us. We turn the other way when we see it happening before our eyes. Her descriptions of the appalling conditions in which they live affect the reader deeply. She forces us to think and squirm uncomfortably while relating the real life stories of these children. She also attempts to understand why it happens, the fate of these children and what measures can be taken to improve it. Her concern for their future affects us as well, and Chotu, Raju, Munni are immortalized through this book.

After reading Vandana Singh’s Younguncle Comes to Town, I remember talking to a friend, and our saying that the book was almost as funny and whimsical as Lila Majumdar’s children’s writing—and there is no greater compliment that we could bestow. That is an index of Majumdar’s secure place in the Top of the Pops of Indian children’s writing. Majumdar, born in 1908, and a cousin of that other incomparable humorist, Sukumar Ray, has written successfully in Bengali in a whole gamut of genres, such as ghost stories, science fiction, adventure novels, plays, and humorous short stories.

We are forever surrounded by masks. The kathakali dancer in performance; the goalkeeper in hockey; the rescue worker at a collapsed building site; the traffic policeman at a busy, polluted intersection; the football fan with painted face; the robber at a bank heist; the surgeon at work; and even a heavily made-up Page 3 socialite—they all use masks of one kind or another. Some of these masks are functional and are meant to protect the wearer from hazards.